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Dr. John Marek (Wrexham): We heard much invective from the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Banks), but little sound advice of which the House could take notice. I can advise the hon. Gentleman that the next Labour Government--yes, the Labour party will win the next general election and there will be a Labour Government--will take the railways back under public control and ownership. The quicker that that is done, the better. We shall do so for good reasons, one of them being that we want an integrated transport system.

In the area that I represent, rail connections with Chester have already been broken. Regional Railways prefers travellers from Wrexham who are making a journey to the capital or to the midlands to use sprinters, using Regional Railways stock. It discourages them from going to Chester--to go up the Trent valley using InterCity stock. The Government have no answer to that. There are no longer any decent connections at Chester for travellers from Wrexham to other places in the United Kingdom. That is something that privatisation cannot solve. I predict that the disintegration of the service will become greater.

Liberals are sometimes their own worst enemies. I thought that I would be helpful to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) about the contents of the consultation paper. I was on the Minister's side when it came to interventions. The hon. Gentleman did not even allow me to intervene in his speech. I wanted to tell him that Wrexham does not appear in the paper.

Why is Wrexham not in the document? It is a borough of 115,000 people. One criterion that appears in the consultation paper is to be found on page 29, where it is stated that all towns and cities with a population of more than 50,000 will have at least one core station. There are four stations within the borough of Wrexham. Two are in the centre, where there is a population of well over 50,000. As I said, Wrexham does not appear in the consultation document.

There are plenty of things wrong with the consultation paper, but let me take it a little further. One little secret has been kept from the public and from the House in the debate so far. It is simplified by reading page 1, the regulator's foreword. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) said, 21 pages deal with cutting the number of stations in the British Isles where one can buy through tickets. That cannot possibly be an

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improvement in services. I know that Conservative Members have been standing on their heads trying to pretend that such consultation papers are improvements in services, but they are not. The regulator says, in the first line:

"One of my duties under the Railways Act is to promote the use of the railway network."

The regulator talks about customers, about service, about better railways. That is one of his duties. Does he tell us another of his duties? It is in section 4 of the Railways Act--to promote economy in the British railway network. That has not been mentioned. The Secretary of State did not mention economy. Perish the thought that that word should cross his lips. What it is about is an economic sanction being applied, and, of course, the British railway traveller will pay for the Government's decision to privatise the railways, if it ever comes about.

I accept that the Minister said that through ticketing will be available, give or take a few stations, in more or less the same stations as we have at present. But the problem is a little deeper. I hope that the Minister is listening, because I would appreciate a reply if one can be given, although in some instances the absence of a reply is rather telling. Will through ticketing be available at the best prices for the day of travel? I can see grave difficulties and that, I suspect, is why we are debating the matter.

This is not infantile, as Conservative Members have sought to make out. I know all about Conservative briefings and I am willing to bet that the words "infantile" or "petty" have appeared in the briefing that is handed out in the Whips Office to all the hon. Members who are dragged in to make their speeches. By and large they never use the railways, or very rarely. They are dragged into the Chamber on pain of not getting any further promotion, or whatever.

If through ticketing is to remain--this is a serious question--will any person going to a station to get a through ticket be able to get one at the best possible price on the day of travel? It would be easier, perhaps, to promise that if one was buying the ticket two or three weeks in advance, but what if one wanted to travel that day or the next? It is possible that one might pay standard class fares when there may be offers from another station, and if one booked a ticket to that station and rebooked, one might pay a cheaper price. That is something that the Government will have to face up to if this mad scheme ever comes about. I do not think that it will, because there is another problem.

There are literally tens of thousands of ways in which to book tickets, and if there are to be different operating companies, they will have different offers at different times and on different days. Some companies might have cheaper tickets after 4 o'clock, some after 7 o'clock. I do not believe that British Rail or the Rail Regulator, at this stage, has the ability through the computer system to get everything right.

British Rail's system is called Tribute. As far as I understand it, British Rail says that everything is going smoothly at the moment, but I do not believe that it has the ability to cope at this stage. The comparison with airlines is wrong, because airline ticketing is much easier. It is true that there are different fares, but the destinations by and large are the same or grouped for the same fare.

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The rules are much easier. The rules for rail through ticketing will be very complicated, and I suspect that that is why the Government are in trouble.

Mr. Matthew Banks: The hon. Gentleman referred to airlines. Why should the system that may operate when franchising takes place, with a variety of different fares available at different times, from different locations and ticketed in a variety of ways, be any less a means of providing choice and value for money to the travelling public using the railways than the airline industry?

Dr. Marek: My contention is that the system on the railway is much more complicated and is liable to vary in a much more complicated way and with much greater frequency. I do not believe that the Government can do it.

I should be grateful if the Minister gave the assurance when he replies that through ticketing will continue at the best available price. Let us remember that many people go to ticket offices. I know that a business traveller with a credit card can go to a travel agent or whatever and get his ticket whenever he likes two or three days in advance, but most of my constituents turn up at the railway station. They have either a £10 or a £20 note. They do not quite know where or when they are going. They do not know the fare structure, but they want to buy a ticket there and then and be off. It would be a disgrace if passengers were inconvenienced by withdrawal of through-ticketing facilities.

Let me draw to the attention of the House a previous debate that we had. As a member of the Committee that considered the Railways Bill, I should perhaps repeat that I am sponsored by the RMT, although I have said it once before. I do not want anybody to be under any misapprehension. On 16 February 1993, I tabled an amendment to what was then clause 4 of the Bill, making it the priority of the Rail Regulator to promote the railway network and to give it precedence over economies and efficiencies in the railway network. That was not acceptable to the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman). He said:

"I recommend the Committee to reject the amendment. All the duties are important. I concede that the first two are extremely important."--

that is, promoting the railway system. He said that the third duty was to provide for economies on the railway system, and continued: "I recommend the hon. Member for Wrexham not to attempt to put the regulator in a straitjacket. We have set out his duties clearly in the Bill. They are comprehensive and sensible. Let us not attempt to prioritise them. We must let the regulator make his own decision."--[ Official Report , Standing Committee B, 16 February 1993; c. 136.]

If one wanted to make a right old mess of anything, the Government did just that. They did it in Committee and are now paying the penalty. One of the reasons why they do not like this debate is that the average passenger, the average citizen, who will vote in a general election in the next two years, understands very well what the debate is about. It is not about airy-fairy economics, monetary supply, or relations with Cambodia or anywhere else. It is about being able to travel on a train when one wants to, to understand the system and not have to pay too much for it and to have the convenience of getting a ticket when one wants it. The public understand that. Unfortunately, Conservative Members do not.

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6.9 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): I welcome this opportunity to make a brief contribution to the debate, which has already had some distinguished contributions by Conservative Members. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) on managing the keep within the time limit that he set himself. He dealt with matters in some detail and gave the House an idea of some of the pressures that Opposition Front-Bench Members will have to face from their Back Benchers in favour of nationalisation. That came out quite clearly in his speech.

I wish to raise an important matter that is of great interest to my constituents. Although I welcome the opportunity to raise it, my first reaction when I saw the Opposition motion was one of some surprise. Although railway through ticketing is an important subject, it is surprising that the Opposition chose it for debate when there are so many other important issues before the House at the moment, and when the Opposition have chosen this time to launch important debates on matters such as devolution, which, incidentally, may enter into this debate.

If the Opposition were to have their way and set in train a course of events that broke up the United Kingdom, we might be unable to procure through tickets to Scotland. We would arrive at the Scottish border, pay a border tax to go into Scotland and then be unable to purchase a ticket for the return journey because the trains would be full of Scots people trying to escape from the high taxation being imposed on them by an Edinburgh assembly.

That is not the only reason why this seems a strange debate. We are debating a consultation document. It is strange for the Opposition to use their time to debate a document that is about the best way of achieving certain ends on which the Government have given firm commitments and which, as my right hon. Friend has said, the Government have a statutory duty to procure.

The fact that we are considering a consultation document places certain limits on the debate. It makes it impossible to do as the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) did and call upon the Minister to give a cast- iron guarantee that the operation will be carried out in a particularly detailed way. It is impossible for the Minister to give such a guarantee when the consultation document is about the best way forward. I would not for a moment accuse the hon. Gentleman of deliberately asking the Minister for a guarantee on something on which it is impossible for the Minister to give a guarantee. It is probably an oversight on his part, if I may put it that way.

Mr. Tyler: It was precisely because Ministers gave those assurances, which Conservative and Opposition Members took to be guarantees, that this debate is taking place.

Mr. Clappison: The hon. Gentleman illustrates the distinction that I made between guarantees given by the Minister and matters of detail concerning the way in which those guarantees will be fulfilled. That is what the hon. Gentleman was referring to and that is what the consultation document is all about.

I rest upon the criterion by which the proposal will be judged, which is contained in the consultation document. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) said that there was nothing in the consultation document about

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having a better railway service at the end of the day. But if he had got as far as page 2, he would have found in paragraph 4 that the regulator had set himself the following criterion:

"I want to be satisfied that there will be a better rail network and better use of the network by reason of the decisions I take." One can dispose of the debate on through ticketing by urging my right hon. Friend the Minister to judge the consultation by that criterion. To be fair, my right hon. Friend gave every sign that that was just the criterion that he would apply.

That brings me to an important point that has been missed by some Opposition Members, which is the nature of privatisation itself. Like other Conservative Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks), who spoke so forcefully on the subject, I look forward to privatisation delivering benefits to railway users across a wide range of railway services. I see no reason to doubt that they will bring the same entrepreneurial spirit, the same innovation and the same skills as have been brought to so many other privatisations.

During the debate, we have heard all the scare stories that we have heard about privatisations in the past. But the important point, which Opposition Members must regard in a responsible way, is that it is vital for passengers that this privatisation is a success. The process is in train and its success is important if a good service is to be provided. We shall be letting down our constituents if, in our actions or words, we do anything to undermine the success of the venture.

We have heard much today about what has been said during the past week by Opposition Members on the subject. I do not want to go over the glaring differences that have already been amply exposed, but it is impossible to leave things as they stand. There is a glaring difference between Opposition Members as to whether they want the privatisation to succeed.

Yesterday we heard the news that the regulator was reducing by 8 per cent. the rents to be paid by privatised train companies. Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen could not make up their minds whether that was a good thing. In The Daily Telegraph today, the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) is quoted as saying that the rent cut would make Railtrack less attractive to the private sector. He was therefore criticising the Government for making the privatisation unattractive to potential operators.

At the same time, the hon. Member for Oldham, West is quoted in the same edition of The Daily Telegraph , somewhat ironically juxtaposed on the same page, as saying that pulling the privatised companies back into the public sector remained an option. The report went on to say:

"In a sparsely veiled warning, he said: `We are going to draw the attention of investors to the risk involved in that they will be dependent on continuing levels of high public subsidy.'"

Spelling out such a warning is damaging to the process of privatisation and getting good management on to the railway. It is also damaging to the interests of railway users.

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I hope that the hon. Member for Fife, Central will deal with the question of ownership when he replies. The present state of play came from the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) yesterday. He is quoted in The Guardian yesterday as saying:

"We will allow those contracts"--

which are to be allocated under the privatisation programme-- "to continue and when they are up we want a publicly owned and publicly accountable railway."

One must take into account the fact that those contracts will last for seven years. How does that leave railway users and franchise operators during that seven years? It is more serious than the Labour party simply having a seven-year itch for a bit of nationalisation. It affects the railway's future during those seven years. How can franchise operators operate a franchise for seven years knowing that at the end of that time their franchises will come to an end and the system will be taken into public ownership? That is a recipe for chaos and confusion in our railway system for the next seven years. No one would award a franchise under such circumstances. No one would take up a franchise with any confidence if there was a threat of renationalisation after seven years. The hon. Member for Fife, Central shakes his head. I should be grateful if he clarified what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East said and said whether that is Labour party policy. I shall willingly give way to him if he wishes to do so. He remains in his seat. I hope that he will specifically say whether the Labour party has a definite commitment to renationalise the railways after seven years. Such a policy would be a recipe for chaos and confusion over seven years for railway users--for my constituents who depend on the railway service. During the next seven years and beyond, I look forward to a railway service under private ownership having all the benefits of other privatised industries. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to proceed with that course.

6.18 pm

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East): The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) is worried about a seven-year backing for franchisers, but it is a pity that he has not been worried about backing for a railway system which has meant that the United Kingdom has the lowest level of investment in rail infrastructure in Europe. It would be more appropriate if he turned his attention to that.

This is a highly specific debate, but it affects all rail users and so is of great concern to the general public. Although the Government are trying to dismiss it as being trivial, it is anything but trivial to people who have to use rail transport and to people who wish to see a properly funded and operating rail transport system. The Government gave clear promises regarding through ticketing, but it is not clear whether they can or will deliver those promises. The public have had a comprehensive, country-wide integrated rail system, but they now see that that system is in danger of fragmentation as it goes through a Government experiment. No one can judge the outcome of that, but many of us are extremely worried by what we have seen in the early stages of the Government's plans. The rail

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system needs investment and modernisation, but the Government are delivering simply a strong dose of ideology.

The debate is about the practical consequences of the Government's policy and philosophy. Their privatisation scheme is creating a fragmentation of rail service provision and control whose consequences are just beginning to become apparent. From a unified, easily identifiable network is emerging a shattered, stuttering, incomplete system. The Government should not be surprised by the reaction to their plans, which could mean that only one railway station in eight will sell a complete range of tickets. Currently, 1, 580 stations sell through tickets.

The public watchdog, the Central Rail Users Consultative Committee, has observed:

"Making people travel 50 miles on a 2 hour round trip to buy a ticket and then clutch a pack of cards to go by train is quite bizarre."

The committee is entirely correct.

It is feared that only one in eight of Britain's 2,500 railway stations will sell a range of tickets enabling passengers to travel anywhere in the area controlled by what may soon be 25 franchisees in the new divided rail system. Of the three options given by the regulator, only that one is described in detail; no such space is accorded to the alternative--a considerable increase in the number of stations selling tickets.

Indeed, privatisation seems designed to make rail travel more difficult and expensive. The administrative costs of preparation, including legal and City fees, have been estimated at over £700 million. Surely it would be far better to invest such a large sum in services than to waste it by implementing an experiment intended to fulfil the Government's narrow- minded ideology, against the wishes of the general public.

Railtrack will be required to earn a much higher return on capital, and the higher fees to franchise holders will be passed on in higher passenger costs. I have heard nothing from the Government to dispel that worry. An estimated 90 per cent. of their income will have been pre-empted by access charges to Railtrack and fees to the rolling stock leasing companies. There is a real danger that services will have to be cut drastically so that they can generate the profits that shareholders have now come to expect. That must lead to fewer passengers and higher fares. The Government should heed that warning, because it came from the House's own Transport Select Committee, but so far I have seen no sign that they are listening to the views of a Committee that contained many of their own Back Benchers. The debate is, in itself, a warning of forthcoming unattractions: unmanned stations, fewer ticket outlets and fewer services at stations. That adds up to a fall in service standards that the Government are describing as an improvement, which strikes me as monumental cheek. Gaps are opening up between the Secretary of State for Transport and the regulator--as we have heard today--between the public and their rail service provision, between different sections of the rail industry and between different types of provision; all that is a consequence of Government policy.

Let me ask a question that the Secretary of State ducked earlier. How will he use his powers of guidance vis-a-vis the rail regulator? Will guidance on through ticketing become an instruction? That question is at the heart of the

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debate. I stand to be corrected, but I believe that, under his own legislation, the Secretary of State cannot interfere with the regulator's independence. What exactly is the relationship between the publicly elected Secretary of State and the unelected, unaccountable regulator? Who will make the final decision? The relationship between the Government and the regulator is at the heart of the debate. Under the Railways Act 1993, the regulator takes "direction" from the Secretary of State until the end of next year; but the regulator will determine the size of the network because he is the final decision maker on line closures--and for that he is paid £125,000 a year and is given 50 members of staff. No wonder the public are fed up, and worried about yet another growth in quangos--bodies that are unelected and unaccountable, and are making decisions that affect all our daily lives.

The Government cannot escape the fact that they made clear promises on through ticketing. We are entitled to ask why they did not include guarantees on present levels of through ticketing as part of any franchising deal. The Secretary of State said today, clearly and unequivocally, that through ticketing would be maintained; but how does he know, and who will decide? Ministerial bluster will not hide the threadbare nature of past promises and the present failure to deliver.

The Secretary of State was very good at asking questions of the Opposition Front Bench, but managed to avoid answering questions about through ticketing. Will he make the final decision? Will he, the elected Minister, decide whether through ticketing is to be maintained at present levels, or will that be decided by an unelected, unaccountable regulator? I regret to say that, in this age of quangos, the answer lies in the right hon. Gentleman's avoidance of that key question: it speaks volumes.

Power is being taken from the people, against whose wishes these privatisation measures are being imposed. Apparently, a direct Government promise is now in the hands of an unelected regulator acting through an unelected, unaccountable quango. That is what the Government have brought us to, and they will take the full blame at the next general election.

6.25 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. Opposition Members have said that Conservative Members are unhappy that the debate is taking place, but that is nothing to do with what they have said. The whole debate is facile: all the arguments have been rehearsed in the Chamber before, during debates on the original question of privatising the railways.

I am as confused now as I was before about the Opposition's policy on the railways, and I do not think that they know exactly what it is either. I will not take any lectures from Opposition Members who have now started to bleat about their concern for people who use the railways, given that theirs was the party that supported a signalmen's strike that brought misery and discomfort to many millions of passengers throughout a dreadful period; I do not think that they can give us any lectures about the care and service that we want customers of the railways to receive in future.

It is the same old story of scaremongering. Opposition Members are trying to scare passengers into thinking that they will be given a worse service after privatisation. We

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heard the same arguments in regard to all the earlier privatisations. In an excellent article, today's Daily Express talks of "Power to the people", referring to several of the privatisations that Opposition Members opposed. It mentions British Airways, for instance. I do not know whether any Opposition Members will stand up and say, "If we win the next general election, we will nationalise British Airways again", but I do not think that very likely. As a nationalised company, British Airways was losing taxpayers' money hand over fist, but profits for the last six months are expected to be around £450 million. It is the world's favourite airline. We want to ensure that ours is the world's favourite railway system--and we can do it, with the same efficiency savings that have been brought to bear on British Airways.

British Telecommunications is another example. Opposition Members put out their scaremongering stories about what would happen, saying that there would be fewer telephone boxes--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The debate is about railway privatisation and through ticketing; we do not want to hear a whole lot of questions about other privatisations.

Mr. Evans: I will move on, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was trying to draw a parallel, and to show the difference between what Opposition Members are saying now and the reality following privatisation, but I shall return to the subject of railways and through ticketing. I wonder whether any Opposition Members have bothered to read the regulator's report. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said that he was not sure whether the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) had got as far as page 2; I have grave concerns about whether he even reached page 1. Paragraph 3 states: "Privatisation and restructuring of the railways are intended to improve services to customers and stimulate innovation. In looking at any new proposals to replace British Rail's current arrangements I shall want to be satisfied that they are likely to achieve these objectives."

The first sentence of a press notice issued by the regulator on Wednesday 11 January, which I am sure Opposition Members have seen, states:

"The rail regulator, John Swift . . . today invited views on the future arrangements for the retailing of through and other tickets at stations in the restructured railway industry . . .

There are a number of options canvassed in this consultation paper. They range from enforcing the status quo to a radical change in concept, the core station and the core services."

It should be fairly clear to everyone that this is a consultation paper and that Opposition Members and the public have until 28 February to make their views known. That is why this debate is facile. No firm decisions have been taken and it is reprehensible for Opposition Members to try to scare passengers into thinking that they will get an inferior service after privatisation.

The public have a choice: they can use the railways or they can use their cars, or coaches, or various other forms of transport. Since 1953, there has been a decline in the number of people using the railways. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the numbers have gone down from 17 per cent. in 1953 to 5 per cent. today. The

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tale of freight is even more tragic. A poll in today's Evening Standard shows that more people would like to use the railways if the service were up to it.

We need to improve the whole range of services for passengers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) said, a service should be advertised as much as possible so that as many people as possible have access to it. Through ticketing will be preserved, but we must also look at innovative ways by which people will have access to train tickets.

Clitheroe railway station is in my constituency and a service from there to Blackburn opened last year. Ticket facilities, including through ticketing, are provided not by British Rail but by a Clitheroe travel agent. I congratulate that Clitheroe travel agency on providing that imaginative service.

I hope that privatisation will improve stations because in the main they are miserable places. People sometimes have to wait 20, 30 or 40 minutes when changing trains, and much more could be done through investing in stations the sort of sums that BAA has invested in our airports. That should be done to provide comfort for passengers. I congratulate Keith Taylor and Ribble Valley council on holding an art exhibition in Clitheroe station to provide some pleasure for people who are waiting for trains. I also congratulate the regulator on reducing access charges for train operators who wish to use the lines. I hope that that will result in lower prices for consumers because we want to attract to the railways as many people as we can. I had a letter last year from one of my constituents who had bought a ticket for his daughter at a cost of £8. When she could not use it her father sought a refund and was charged an administration fee of £5. That is outrageous, and I hope that that system will change. I have already brought the matter up with British Rail, which is not at all interested in the plight of one of its customers. It must do something about that.

I hope that after the changes more freight will be attracted to the railways because that would be good news. Castle Cement in my constituency has been forced off the railways by British Rail because of some of the high charges that have been introduced. I would be interested in hearing what Opposition Members propose to improve the service to rail customers and passengers--they have certainly not told us so far. We are not certain whether a future Labour Government would totally renationalise the railways, bringing the service back down to the level that people have experienced over the years. We want to improve the quality of service for the public, and that can be done only through more private money being invested to improve lines such as the north-west coast main line, which runs through my constituency. That needs to be improved, and the only way to do it is by allowing access to private money. There has already been a fantastic investment of £15 billion in the railways since 1979, but it is not enough. As I say, more private money must be invested. Such investment will attract more people to return to the railways, but that will certainly not happen if we follow what the Opposition have suggested. They do not have the slightest idea of policy on the railways. Perhaps the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) has the policy somewhere. Perhaps it is in the boot of his car and he cannot work out where he has put it. If he ever does and he is able to read that policy

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document, perhaps he will share Labour's rail policy with us. We are waiting to hear what it is but we do not want to wait for two years until the next general election to discover Labour's policy on rail nationalisation. Opposition Members now have an opportunity to tell us. The country is listening. Perhaps they will share their policy with us.

6.35 pm

Mr. Henry McLeish (Fife, Central): One has to retain a sense of humour when listening to Conservative Members. Their contributions ranged from a pathetic obsession with privatisation to sheer drivel. I shall not dignify them by responding to some of their points because this is a serious debate about through ticketing. They may not like it, but you will find out fairly soon in your constituencies as the station network is decimated and representations--

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes): Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman of the convention on the word "you".

Mr. McLeish: Conservative Members say that this debate is a waste of time and that they want to talk about our policies. We have heard about consultation. Does any hon. Member believe that the consultation smokescreen is anything other than a device to get the Secretary of State for Transport off the hook on which he is impaled?

Mr. Jacques Arnold: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. McLeish: I will not give way.

My hon. Friends repeatedly asked the Secretary of State for his view on the fiasco that the regulator has unleashed on passengers. He dug himself into a hole and he kept digging. He was rescued only when some of his hon. Friends started to speak about further aspects of privatisation. The key question for Conservative Members is whether there will be 300 or 500 stations.

Mr. Arnold: I will answer that.

Mr. McLeish: I am not giving way just now: I shall give way in a minute.

Is it to be 1,000 stations or, like us, do they want to make sure that there is no diminution of the existing network for through ticketing, which provides an excellent service to the travelling public?

Mr. Arnold: The hon. Gentleman asked whether there will be 300, 500 or 1,000 stations, but that is the wrong question. Why should people have to go many miles to a station to buy tickets? Why cannot they buy them at thousands of outlets in the same way as they can buy lottery tickets? That is the question that the hon. Gentleman should ask. They cannot buy tickets in that way because the nationalised British Rail insists that travel agents who sell rail tickets must use complicated,

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cumbersome and cost-driven paper systems. That is why the overwhelming majority of travel agents do not sell rail tickets.

Mr. McLeish: That was merely an abuse of an intervention.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the House and the hon. Gentleman that interventions should be short.

Mr. McLeish: Let us have a unique and non-controversial idea injected into the debate. Possibly when one arrives at a station one might be able to buy a ticket. That seems to be one of the hallmarks of railway development this century. There is an obsession with the market. People are told to go to a Tesco or Safeway store for tickets. The Government want to take an axe and decimate the station network. Conservative Members may not like the facts, but one of them is that the regulator wants 294 core stations and that will mean first-class and second-class stations.

Mr. Peter Bottomley: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. McLeish: No, I shall not give way again.

Conservative Members know that even if people get access to trains there will be a problem. Through ticketing will become a nightmare and fares will rise because of the marketing mechanism that the Government envisage. I thought that we had just one national lottery, but the Government want to turn British Rail into a second lottery. I do not believe that any passenger or member of the public could support the notion that to cut the number of stations from 1,580 to 294 could be called progress.

Another phrase for what is happening is sheer lunacy. Conservative Members are dismayed by the fact that the public simply do not want privatisation. The issue of through ticketing is their first opportunity to become involved in that complicated process. Conservative Members have lectured us on our policies, so it is with rich irony that I say that the Government want to smash British Rail into 100 private political pieces, sell them to the private sector and then claim that there will be a national rail network, that through ticketing will be an instant success and that passengers will enjoy more choice, greater accessibility, lower fares and a better service. It is an insult to the House to suggest that any of that could be taken seriously.

Mr. Clappison: Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. McLeish: No.

In the brief time available to me, I want to deal with two issues that the Government do not want to discuss. The first is why, between 7 and 10 January, the Secretary of State changed his mind so quickly on the question of through ticketing. When he was first approached about the leaked regulator's report, he was quick to say that the proposals were unacceptable. He acted on instinct or, possibly, out of ignorance. Two days later he acted on instructions from his Department, the basis of which was a little-known report prepared on 7 January 1993--the right hon. Gentleman may not even have seen it--that shows conclusively that the original decision to decimate the rail structure was not taken by the regulator, but was hatched in the report. The report states clearly that it

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