Previous Section Home Page

Column 236

happening to the railways and they attribute it not just to privatisation, but to the fragmentation of the rail system and the absurdities that have been created in the name of political dogma. The electorate will punish the Government accordingly.

I stood at the Dispatch Box once before and said the same thing about another piece of legislation: the poll tax. The late Robert Adley made that very good analogy. Ultimately, the Government will have to abandon their privatisation plans or pay the political price. That is the choice that they faced over the poll tax and they will face it with the railways as well.

There have been a number of cameos tonight. The hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) is not, I fear, a potential member of Mensa. He seemed to believe that a different ticket collector inspected his ticket each time and that ticket collectors leaped on to overstaffed trains at every station. The hon. Gentleman is not with us at this stage of the evening, but his hon. Friends who are present might suggest gently that it was the same ticket collector.

The hon. Member for South Hams was very concerned--as all Tories are in these Eurosceptical days--about the fact that French wine and French water are served on the trains which speed their way to South Hams. In contrast, he cares nothing about the fact that thousands of jobs will be sacrificed in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Bayley) or that another great British industry is being driven to the wall because, as a result of the Government's railway privatisation policy, we will soon lose the capacity to build trains in this country.

The Secretary of State for Transport has joined us and he shakes his head. Does he deny that 5,000 jobs were lost last year in the railway manufacturing industry as a result of the blight created by the Government's privatisation programme? He can argue with the captains of industry who manufacture trains and with ABB Transportation, which was brought into the country under false pretences. He can argue with the 5,000 workers who lost their jobs and with the 20,000 workers whose jobs are threatened. Despite all the warnings, the Government have not lifted a finger to ensure continuity of orders. That is why the railway manufacturing industry is on its knees.

The Tories care about French wine on British trains; we care about British jobs, British manufacturing and British potential to build trains. In future when the hon. Member for South Hams rides on trains which have been built in Korea or America instead of Britain I suppose that he will worry about the wine, but I hope that he will not be travelling on a Member of Parliament's rail warrant. The real victims of the privatisation process include the 5,000 people who have lost their jobs in the manufacturing industry. They also include the many workers in York--that great centre of British manufacturing--who fear for their jobs because of the Government's policies and their privatisation programme.

To a large extent, we have talked about hypotheticals tonight; we have talked about what might or might not happen. Let us now talk about what has happened already. Perhaps the Minister who will reply to the debate will tell us about the abolition of the Motorail service. Although they pay lip service to environmental considerations, in 1995 the Government propose to abolish the motorail service.

Column 237

Let us talk about the rail sleeper service-- only two trains will be left out of the six which operate currently. Let us talk about the total loss of overnight passenger services. While Members of Parliament may travel south from Scotland in sleepers, tens of thousands of people pay a modest fare to travel in the passenger carriages at the back of the train. That service will be abolished; there is nothing hypothetical about that.

Let us address the realities and the question of consultation. Throughout the process, the Minister has talked about consultation as a precursor to service cuts. He has confirmed that that is correct, so I will move on to discuss consultation. The consultation takes the form of a press release from Mr. Salmon, stating that the services are to be withdrawn. He states:

"I do not intend to include sleeper services from London to Carlisle and Fort William. I do not intend to include the Plymouth to Glasgow and Edinburgh sleeper services. It is not intended to include Motorail in the passenger service requirement."

Where is the consultation? The subsidy is being withdrawn from the services in May 1995.

In the Secretary of State's absence we found out a little more. As an exercise in duplicity, it rates pretty high, even by the Government's standards. The Minister's reply to the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) was that the services will be withdrawn in May because the subsidy has been taken away.

Dr. Mawhinney: No.

Mr. Wilson: Oh yes, that is what Mr. Salmon says. There is no subsidy. I wish that the Secretary of State would intervene and tell us they are not going to be withdrawn and, if so, why they are not going to be withdrawn in May. There is no point in sitting there smugly saying no if he cannot give us the information.

The intention is that the subsidies will be withdrawn in May, so the services will be withdrawn in May. However, the consultation process will be based on the minimum service specifications which will not be produced until after May. According to the correspondence quoted by the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye, because the services have already been withdrawn, they will not form part of the specifications on which consultation will take place.

The services will not exist, therefore there will be no consultation on them. If that trick is being used to get rid of these rural services, it can be used to get rid of every rural service in Britain.

The message will go out from tonight's debate that that is the trick and the form of duplicity being entered into, and that if it can be used to destroy those services, it can be used on every other service.

I now understand why, in answer to questions tabled for reply today in which I asked Secretary of State in a very precise form of words "if he will instruct the Director of Rail Franchising to consult with the rail users' consultative committees, prior to withdrawal of subsidy in respect of Motorail services.".

I asked the same question in respect of those sleeper services that are to be withdrawn. It was a straightforward question--will he or will he not do that? His reply was:

"I will answer these questions shortly."

Column 238

Will he answer them now? Will there or will there not be consultation before the services are withdrawn? If there will not, every word that has been spoken about consultation is worthless and that message will go out to every rural area of Britain where the same tricks can be played.

I want to turn to the interesting reply given yesterday to hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye by the Secretary of State for Transport in regard to the sleeper service to Fort William. It is a specific question, but the principle is universal. He stated: "I must tell the hon. Gentleman that the taxpayers' subsidy per person for a sleeper berth on the trip to Fort William, excluding the infrastructure cost, is £180."

I do not believe that for a moment. The figure is rigged and if I had time I could tell the House why. Then comes the really interesting bit:

"If one adds the cost of the infrastructure"--

that is the access charges to Railtrack--

"the subsidy becomes £540."--[ Official Report , 6 February 1995; Vol. 254, c. 12.]

According to even the Government's figures, everything else costs £180, but the access charges to Railtrack cost £360 per person. There is no point in the Secretary of State shaking his head. If he is right tonight he was wrong yesterday. Those are the figures he gave. It is an interesting figure because the marginal cost of operating the services for Railtrack is virtually nil, yet they are imposing such a scale of charges upon those services as to make them ludicrously uneconomic. Again the message goes out and anyone who remembers the Beeching era will understand the message, that if figures can be rigged in this way for sleeper services, they will be rigged in future for every other service that they want rid of. I challenge the Minister on another figure. If there are to be two sleeper services a night instead of six in each direction and at present the access charge for rail services is £17.5 million, one might imagine that the figure would be divided into three and that the access charges would be £5 million or £6 million. That is not so.

Can the Minister confirm that the access charges for two sleeper services as opposed to six will be £16.5 million? In other words, there is no saving to the operators. The access charges are to remain the same. The only difference is that those access charges will be spread over fewer trains and users so, as night follows day, in months or a couple of years from now, equally ludicrous figures will be produced in order to prove the impossibility of keeping such services going. Those are the tricks that are being played and the constituents of Conservative Members will know about it just as we do.

The ludicrous little booklet which contains a speech by the Secretary of State in which he tried to pre-empt public reaction on the passenger service requirement did not work because every journalist who looked at it saw through it and realised that nothing was being given but a great deal was being taken away.

How do we summarise the passenger service requirements? There will be 45 per cent. of the existing timetabled Gatwick express service but no early morning or late night services guaranteed. The current service of 46 trains from Swindon to London daily and 45 from London compares with a PSR of 36 trains to London and 30 from London. Who will speak for Swindon? The current

Column 239

service of 55 trains from Reading to London and 58 from London compares with a PSR of 17 trains each way. Who will speak for Reading? The current service of six trains daily from Penzance to London compares with a PSR of four trains daily. Who will speak for Cornwall?

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) rose --

Mr. Wilson: I am sorry, I cannot give way. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will speak for Cornwall. The Labour party will speak for Cornwall, but there is no Tory Member here tonight to speak for Cornwall or to defend its services against these cuts. The current service of five fast trains an hour in the peak period from Basingstoke to London and three fast trains an hour off peak compares with a PSR of two fast trains an hour to London. Who will speak for Basingstoke?

Basildon--where is the little man who usually jumps up when Basildon is mentioned? The current service of six trains an hour in the peak period from Basildon to London and four trains an hour off peak compares with a PSR of three trains an hour in the peak period and two trains off peak. Who will speak for Basildon? We will speak for Basildon and for every other community that is affected by these cuts.

Public opinion is against the policy. The natural majority in the House is against it. The more people understand it, the more they are opposed to it. It is a madcap scheme. According to the Government's own predictions, it allows from 1997-98 onwards a £600 million profit for the private sector. That goes to the question of what Labour would do. While support for the railway system drops consistently, £600 million is to be creamed off by private operators. The question is not whether we renationalise the railways but whether the country can afford a privatised railway service, and the answer is that it cannot.

9.47 pm

The Minister for Railways and Roads (Mr. John Watts): The House will have noted that the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) did not answer the question whether the Labour party, if it were ever in Government, would wish to renationalise the railway system.

I am surprised and disappointed that, despite the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my own, Opposition Members have neither learnt their lessons well nor done their homework properly. Faced with the simple question, "What is a passenger service requirement?" they resort to the schoolboy's answer, "Not taught yet." Let me try again.

A passenger service requirement is not a timetable. It is based on the existing timetable, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), the former Minister for Public Transport, explained at the end of the Second Reading debate on the Railways Bill two years and five days ago. A PSR is a guaranteed level of service for rail passengers and a contractual obligation on a train operator to provide at least that level of service.

A PSR ensures that every route and every destination is covered. The greater the commercial viability of a service, the more likely the obligation will be specified to maximise the scope to respond to passengers' needs. The greater the social need for a service and the more it is dependent on subsidy, the more closely the specification will follow the levels of service in the current timetable.

Column 240

The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) is simply wrong in his assertion that non-franchise services, those that are still waiting to be franchised at any time, will be starved of funds.

The principles that I have outlined are, of course, reflected in the first four PSRs announced by the franchising director last week. Opposition Members are transfixed by minima. The hon. Member for Streatham was a good example of that. They cannot believe that anyone in the private sector would choose to do more than the bare minimum that he or she is obliged to do. I understand their dilemma. It stems from their political philosophy. The Labour party is the party of the lowest common denominator. All that it understands is levelling down. The work-to-rule mentality of its trade union mentors permeates of its thinking.

My difficulty is that we do not yet have private sector operators of passenger train networks, although, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) was right to draw attention to the increasing role of charter operators. We do, of course, have evidence of the attitudes of the directors of the British Rail train operating units, who have adapted with great enthusiasm to the greater freedoms that restructuring has already provided. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) commented on that. As he said, railway nostalgia will not do. Those who are running the railways are looking forward, not backwards, and are developing services to meet the needs of their customers.

Mr. Home Robertson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Watts: I have very little time, and there are many points that I wish to cover, so I am afraid that I cannot give way.

Each of the train operating units has negotiated track access rights to operate more services than those that are included even in the current timetable. My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley was absolutely right: British Airways does not need to be forced to run services or offer inter- available tickets. It does those things because it makes commercial sense. It is a way in which it can make money. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) cited other instances of privatisation bringing improved services. Why should privatisation of the railways have any different outcome?

The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) referred to the position of Scottish sleeper services, as did the hon. Members for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) and for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe). They spoke as though there had been no consultation whatever. Yet if they have seen the letter from Mr. Salmon to the convener of Highland regional council, they will know--

[Interruption.] I have a copy of it here. The letter explains: "Following meetings in Scotland with local conveners, the rail users consultative committee for Scotland and the convention of Scottish local authorities, I decided that the best course of action was for OPRAF to be as open as possible about our policy intentions at the earliest opportunity. To delay an announcement until the consultation process for ScotRail was under way would have meant many months of further uncertainty."

Mr. Charles Kennedy: I thank the Minister for giving way and would like to give him an opportunity, which I gave earlier but which he did not take up, to clarify his thinking and that of the Secretary of State on the adverse

Column 241

comments by the chairman of the Central Rail Users Consultative Committee. Does the Minister back the plea made to Mr. Salmon by the chairman of the RUCC?

Mr. Watts: The chairman of the RUCC is making his views known. That is part of the consultation process. The House established those consultative committees to fulfil that role.

It will be perfectly clear that the allegation that there has been no consultation is false. As I explained earlier, in an intervention--

Mr. Wilson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Watts: No. I cannot now. I have seven minutes left. Mr. Wilson rose --

Mr. Watts: I am not giving way, Madam Speaker. [Interruption.] As I explained to the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye, the publication of the PSR for ScotRail will provide an opportunity for consultation in the formal sense between the local authorities and all those other bodies. The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North, in winding up--

Mr. Wilson: Will the Minister give way?

Hon. Members: Sit down.

Madam Speaker: Order. I shall deal with this matter. Is the Minister giving way?

Mr. Watts: No, Madam Speaker.

The hon. Gentleman, when winding up, referred to services to Reading. I appreciate the difficulty that Opposition Members--and, indeed, some journalists--have in understanding the PSR for services to Reading. It is couched in terms similar to those of an 11-plus verbal reasoning test question--the sort in which John is younger than Margaret but wiser than Tony; hon. Members will know the sort of question that I mean.

The PSR specifies an hourly service with at least 17 trains daily and 10 arrivals at Paddington between 7.30 am and 9.15 am. Elementary arithmetic leads us to the conclusion that at least 25 trains will be needed to meet that minimum requirement. In fact, Great Western Trains is likely to maintain a much more substantial service, not for reasons of altruism but to make money--yes, to make a profit. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) and others posed a question that has been posed many times before: why not make the current timetable the passenger service requirement? If he listened to what was said by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, he will now know the pattern of services and the way in which it is to be specified in the PSR.

PSRs for commuter services on London-Tilbury-Southend trains, and on south- west trains, do not allow services to be decimated, as has been alleged, but will oblige operators to run at least 90 per cent. of trains on the current timetable to meet the frequency requirements, as well as additional trains in peak periods to limit overcrowding. Those two elements provide a much better guarantee of a decent service than the fossilisation of the current timetable that "old Labour" wants.

Column 242

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) mentioned rumours of heavy cuts in services this May. They are rumours--just that--with no foundation in fact. Opposition Members should not believe everything they read in newspapers, especially stories that seek to gain credibility by claiming to be leaks of confidential documents. The directors of the four train operating units whose PSRs were announced last week have made it clear that they intend no reduction in services; on the contrary, they are looking for opportunities to expand services further.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) made an excellent speech, painting a graphic word picture of services in the west country. He does not want to preserve current services; his expectation, which I share, is that the private sector will improve services rather than impairing them. He was also able to claim some credit for scotching the evil rumour that the Penzance sleeper service was under attack.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) asked whether the benefits would come quickly enough. He will know that Network SouthCentral is likely to be included in the next tranche of franchises to be announced later this year, and I assure him that we shall try to ensure that the benefits of franchising are introduced as rapidly as possible.

I confessed earlier that I was unable to give an example of private operators running passenger train networks, but I can give another example of the benefits of transport privatisation. The National Express coach is a familiar sight on our motorways. National Express was a subsidiary of the National Bus Company created by a Labour Government in 1968; in March 1988 it was privatised by sale to its management. Since privatisation, it has expanded its network to 180 routes, serving 1,200 destinations and carrying 10.5 million passengers. It did not achieve that success by paring down its services or ignoring the needs of its passengers.

On 24 November last year I went to Liverpool to open a new purpose-built coach station. National Express had noticed that its business in Liverpool had declined since the closure of the old coach station. Some of its customers, including the Merseyside pensioners' association, had mounted a vigorous campaign for a new coach station. It was in response to customers' demands that the new coach station was planned and built, and I had the pleasure of opening it. I understand that passenger numbers increased, even in expectation that the station would be built.

Perhaps Opposition Members will now understand why I have confidence in the ability of the private sector to respond to passengers' needs, and why I believe that private rail operators will build their businesses by extending their services, not by cutting them.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question: --

The House divided: Ayes 265, Noes 302.

Division No. 66] [10.00 pm


Column 242

Abbott, Ms Diane

Ainger, Nick

Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)

Allen, Graham

Alton, David

Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)

Column 242

Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)

Armstrong, Hilary

Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy

Ashton, Joe

Austin-Walker, John

Banks, Tony (Newham NW)

Column 243

Barnes, Harry

Barron, Kevin

Battle, John

Bayley, Hugh

Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret

Beith, Rt Hon A J

Bell, Stuart

Benn, Rt Hon Tony

Bennett, Andrew F

Bermingham, Gerald

Berry, Roger

Betts, Clive

Blunkett, David

Boateng, Paul

Boyes, Roland

Bradley, Keith

Bray, Dr Jeremy

Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)

Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)

Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)

Burden, Richard

Byers, Stephen

Caborn, Richard

Callaghan, Jim

Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)

Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)

Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)

Campbell-Savours, D N

Canavan, Dennis

Cann, Jamie

Chidgey, David

Chisholm, Malcolm

Church, Judith

Clapham, Michael

Clark, Dr David (South Shields)

Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)

Clelland, David

Clwyd, Mrs Ann

Coffey, Ann

Cohen, Harry

Connarty, Michael

Corbett, Robin

Corbyn, Jeremy

Corston, Jean

Cousins, Jim

Cox, Tom

Cummings, John

Cunliffe, Lawrence

Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)

Dalyell, Tam

Darling, Alistair

Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)

Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)

Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)

Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l)

Denham, John

Dewar, Donald

Dixon, Don

Dobson, Frank

Donohoe, Brian H

Dowd, Jim

Dunnachie, Jimmy

Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth

Eagle, Ms Angela

Eastham, Ken

Enright, Derek

Etherington, Bill

Evans, John (St Helens N)

Ewing, Mrs Margaret

Fatchett, Derek

Field, Frank (Birkenhead)

Fisher, Mark

Flynn, Paul

Foster, Rt Hon Derek

Foster, Don (Bath)

Fraser, John

Next Section

  Home Page