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Column 761envisages the number of stations offering through ticketing to be about 400 or 500. The regulator might have gone further than that. The whole thing suggests a conspiracy. I shall use just one quote to show how the public have been conned. The report states: "There are potential weaknesses in presenting the difficulties in option 3" --
that is, the free-for-all that the regulator now has. It continues:
"It offers no definitive guarantees and might lead to criticism that through ticketing in some areas could simply wither on the vine."
Does not that underline our case? Stations throughout the country will be removed from the through-ticketing system. Whether we call that withering on the vine or the Tory axe makes little difference. I warn the Government that the report will be widely circulated to ensure that the regulator does not become the scapegoat for the Government's obsessive nature. Ministers may shake their heads, but they have not read the report. I can provide a copy for any Minister who wishes to read it. It is a "Policy-in-confidence" document sent to a "Mr. McCarthy", a "Mr. Freeman" and the Secretary of State. It is a long report.
The key issue is that the report shows that the public have been misled. For two years, behind closed doors, there has been a private agenda, while the public agenda has been, "Not me, guv, it's the regulator." We must speak up for the regulator tonight and say that he is being abused. The Government should come clean and say that it is not the regulator but they who initiated the proposal. The Secretary of State is in a real tizzy about another issue. He is caught between a rock and a hard place. He wants to be able to say that, because the regulator is independent, he cannot interfere with him, but the right hon. Gentleman also wants to sit idly by and watch the rail network be decimated. Why cannot some courage and leadership be shown by the motley crew on the Conservative Front Bench--
Mr. McLeish: The Secretary of State asks for our policy, but the real issue for the people of Britain is why a rail network that needs investment, encouragement and a way forward into the next century has to deal with the ravages of a privatisation which, in many people's eyes, is a fiasco. In fact, the media is running out of words to describe the mishmash of Government policy. The tragedy is that even if their objective could be accomplished, and it cannot, damage is being done to the morale of those who provide the service and to the very service itself.
Conservative Members keep asking us for our policy. Why do not the Government tell us why, for the first time since 1948, there will be no new orders for rolling stock from British Rail or from 25 operators? That is the question that the public want answered. They do not want the smokescreen of, "Where are your policies?" The Government are on a hook and it is high time that they dealt with some of the issues.
The Secretary of State waffled on about whether the regulator is so independent that the right hon. Gentleman can do nothing other than stand idly by. It was the
Column 762Government who introduced and pushed through the House that ruination of a Railways Act in 1993. However, under section 4 the regulator and the Secretary of State have dual responsibilities and both have a duty to passengers. The same section also says that through ticketing is one of the subjects that will be covered by that-- [Interruption.]
I want to conclude my remarks with two important points. First, the Government want us to believe that the problems are not their responsibility. They are trying to slide out of that key question of responsibility, but we have a document to support our claims. The issue is not the minimum or the maximum; it is not consultation--which is a sham anyway--it is whether, when the House divides, the Government are willing to support the proposal that 294 core stations should offer through ticketing while the remainder are abandoned to the vagaries of the market.
Secondly, will the Government now assume the responsibilities provided for in the Railways Act and inject some sanity into the debate about the future of the railways? I am a very moderate person; all I want is some common sense from the Government. The people of Britain share Labour's view; the passengers who use the network share our view. I hope that when the Minister for Railways and Roads responds to the debate he will be all sweetness and light, put the nonsense of the regulator's report behind him and begin to address the real issues that dominate the debate about the future of the rail network.
The Minister for Railways and Roads (Mr. John Watts): I hope that I shall be all sweetness and light and so not disappoint the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) in that respect. He suggested that the consultation exercise--he called it a sham--was designed to get my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State off the hook. However, as I understood the speech of the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), he argued that the consultation exercise had put my right hon. Friend on the hook. Perhaps the two hon. Gentlemen should agree on which it is.
The hon. Member for Fife, Central then quoted, as is typical of the Labour party, from what he claimed was a secret report--something of dreadful import, which suggested that there should be between 400 and 500 core stations. Had he listened to my right hon. Friend's opening speech, he would have known--as he should have known anyway--that currently only 440 of British Rail's 2,500 stations have the physical capability to offer a complete through-ticketing service. In contrast to the hon. Member for Oldham, West, the hon. Member for Fife, Central said that he would speak up for the regulator who was being abused. I am sure that the hon. Member for Fife, Central had in mind some of the opening
Column 763comments of the hon. Member for Oldham, West, who took considerable pains to rubbish the office and the person of the regulator. I am surprised that there remains some scepticism among Opposition Members about the extent of the Government's commitment to through ticketing. We all know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has a reputation for being a man who means what he says and says what he means. If Opposition Front-Bench Members had been listening to my right hon. Friend's excellent speech, they would have heard him reaffirm the Government's commitment to through ticketing.
My right hon. Friend went through the various occasions on which the Government's commitment has been reiterated. He dealt with the point on which the hon. Member for Fife, Central invited my right hon. Friend to comment, which is that section 4 of the Railways Act 1993 places a duty on the Secretary of State to promote measures to facilitate journeys involving more than one operator and states specifically that through ticketing is one such measure. My right hon. Friend went on to say that the same duty applies equally to the regulator, and that it was in the exercise of that duty that he published the consultation document on retailing tickets at stations. My right hon. Friend went on to explain that he also has the power to give guidance to the regulator under the Railways Act.
Mr. McLeish: Will the Minister answer two simple questions? If the consultation is a real exercise, when will the Government submit their response and what will be in it, especially in relation to the core station figure of 294?
Mr. Watts: Let us first allow the consultation process to get properly under way. Every interested party will be able to make representations, and I am sure that the regulator will look on today's debate as a part of that process. Certainly, my hon. Friends have made valuable points about the stations in their constituencies. Let us see what the regulator proposes should be the framework for imposing requirements on the operators. It would be premature, and almost churlish, of my right hon. Friend to start offering further guidance to the regulator before the consultation process has got properly under way.
Mr. Watts: No, I must make progress, or I feel that I shall not be able to reply to all the important points which have been made. Let us return to the widespread myth that all British Rail stations provide a full range of ticketing facilities. Those who ask for a guarantee that the status quo will be maintained ought to ask themselves what the status quo is. The availability of a full service at stations is restricted by limitations on staff resources, fares information about remote journeys and ticket-issuing equipment. More than 1,200 British Rail stations are totally unmanned and offer no staff ticketing facility. Only 440 stations have direct access to the seat reservation database which is critical to the issuing of some through tickets. British Rail itself has no central record of the precise range of ticketing services offered by every station in its network. The current position is that matters are left very much to local commercial judgment.
Column 764My hon. Friends and I, who represent some of the more marginal seats, have been threatened with dire consequences as a result of the regulator's consultation on through ticketing. Indeed, I was rather surprised that no Opposition Member made any mention of the impact of the proposals of the consultation on Slough. That may have been out of kindness, but, unlike my right hon. Friend, I am sometimes a slightly cynical man. The reason they did not mention it might have had something to do with the egg which the Labour party found on its face last week, when it announced that none of the three stations in my constituency would be a core station under the proposals set out in appendix A of the regulator's document. Of course, it was always the case that Slough, which is No. 56 in the hierarchy of stations selling a full range of through tickets and which has every facility--
Dr. Marek: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I apologise to the Minister. The hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) has just returned. Before you were in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, he said that many of my hon. Friends and I were sponsored and controlled by trade unions. [Interruption.] I took exception to that at the time, but I want your advice on the matter, Madam Deputy Speaker. If the hon. Member for Dartford is prepared to withdraw his remark, nothing further need be done. If he is not prepared to do that, may I ask you for permission to refer-- [Interruption.]
Dr. Marek: If the hon. Member for Dartford withdraws his remark, that will be the end of the matter. If not, may I have your advice as to how the matter can be raised in the Privileges Committee, Madam Deputy Speaker?
Madam Deputy Speaker: If the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise a matter of privilege, the course for him is clear. The matter may not be discussed across the Floor of the House, and he must write directly to Madam Speaker.
Mr. Dunn: Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Of course, I withdraw any imputation, if that is required, but the best way to clear up the matter up once and for all, and to avoid any misunderstanding in the future, would be for all Opposition Members to resign their sponsorships.
Mr. Bayley: Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) suggested that there should be no fear for through ticketing because one could purchase tickets from travel agents, yet, when making that observation, he did not announce to the House that he is a paid consultant for a firm of travel agents.
Column 765demanded that Opposition Members declare their interests when making interventions. The fact that many of my hon. Friends had not at that point made interventions may have escaped his notice. That seems to be the defence that the hon. Member for Gravesham is putting up.
Mr. Watts rose --
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The rules of the House state that a Member is required to declare an interest in any intervention, apart from during a question.
Mr. Watts: I was making the point that perhaps the egg which the Labour party found on its face last week when it made false claims about the impact of the proposals in the consultation document on my constituency led Labour Members to make no mention of the matter today. Indeed, the fact that they had to be corrected on that point shows clearly that they were indulging in their normal practice of commenting on a document which they had not bothered to read first. The Opposition then switched their attack to the two other stations in my constituency, Langley and Burnham. Although they are both extremely important in offering services to my constituents who commute to London or Reading, neither of them has APTIS, so they are not capable of issuing a full range of tickets or of making seat reservations and selling tickets for InterCity services. If that is all that I have to fear, I have few qualms about facing my electorate in two years' time.
I am conscious of the importance of the debate that follows this one. I am sorry that I have not had an opportunity to respond to all the important constituency points that have been raised by hon. Members. I shall endeavour to do so as fully as possible by correspondence.
I invite the House to support overwhelmingly the amendment in the names of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and to reject the Labour motion. Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question: --
The House divided: Ayes 282, Noes 317.
Division No. 39] [7.00 pm
Column 765Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Mrs Irene
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)
Column 765Battle, John
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Beith, Rt Hon A J
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, Andrew F
Blair, Rt Hon Tony
Column 766Blunkett, David
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Campbell-Savours, D N
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomery)
Clark, Dr David (South Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l)
Donohoe, Brian H
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Eagle, Ms Angela
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Foster, Don (Bath)