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1.16 pm

The Minister for Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle): It is traditional in the House to compliment the hon. Member who wins an Adjournment debate on drawing a matter to the attention of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said that this was her first Adjournment debate. Judging by the quality of her speech, which demonstrated what an Adjournment debate should be, I suspect that there will be a capacity crowd the next time she wins one.

I deeply regret that my hon. Friend has been forced to bring the matter before the House, but her diligence and tenacity in following the case through and--I do not know where she gets it from--the sense of humour with which she has presented her forceful case this afternoon is remarkable.

We are judged as Members of Parliament, Ministers and as a Government by the effects of our decisions--taken in this Chamber about laws and budgets--on our constituents' lives. It is when I get home to my constituency in Leeds and attend my advice surgery that I find out the effects of our decisions and learn what is really going on. My hon. Friend has listened to a constituency case, followed it through and highlighted what I deeply believe is a breakdown in the system. If elderly people cannot get basic justice in simply obtaining a supply of electricity, we need to sharpen up the act somewhere.

My hon. Friend mentioned that her constituent, Mrs. Elnaugh, had been taken into hospital. We wish her a speedy recovery. I hope that this carry-on has not contributed to her distress.

I understand that a series of determinations has been made in this episode. In October 1997, the housing trust asked Offer to reduce the cost of the upgrade. In December 1997, Offer ruled that it could not determine because the housing trust was not the customer. As my hon. Friend kindly acknowledged, I made the suggestion that Mrs. Elnaugh ask Offer to determine on her behalf and that of the other residents who exactly the customer was. On 26 November, Offer determined that Mrs. Elnaugh was indeed the customer.

Offer was asked to make three separate determinations. I emphasise that Offer has strong powers to make determinations once it has been formally asked to do so. That seems to be part of the problem. One has to package the request for determination and then Offer will take a decision. Offer's decisions are then subject only to a judicial review.

In this case, Offer was asked to make three separate determinations. In December 1997, it determined that the application for determination by the housing trust could not be accepted because the trust was not the customer requiring the supply. In November 1998, it determined that London Electricity had a duty to supply Mrs. Elnaugh and to ensure that its system was capable of supporting that demand. I can confirm that, no doubt as a result of my hon. Friend's pressure as a campaigning constituency Member of Parliament, Offer has today ruled that Mrs. Elnaugh should not have to pay anything for the

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upgrade of her electricity connection. I regret that it has taken so long for Offer to arrive at that decision. I hope that London Electricity will now heed the regulator's determination in respect of the other customers in Mitcham Garden Village who are in the same position as Mrs. Elnaugh.

This has been a long-running case and, in defence of Offer, I say only that Offer has guidelines for how long it should take to make a determination and each of those three determinations was made within the target time of six months. We may have to consider the process whereby determinations get to Offer in the first place and the ducks and drakes that companies may be able to play to avoid getting to a determination. In the light of my hon. Friend's comments, I shall examine that process in detail to find out if it can be sharpened up. I hope that this sorry business will now end and that the decisions satisfy the residents of Mitcham Garden Village.

Many complaints are resolved without the need to refer to the formal, statutory powers of determination of the Director General of Electricity Supply. Since 1990, only 181 determinations have been issued, and 25 of those concerned connection charges. The vast majority of complaints can be handled without getting as far as Offer, but I regret that, if it had not been for my hon. Friend's tenacity, this case might still have been unresolved. Once a determination has been made, action can be taken. I hope that the determination in this case will be noted by London Electricity and acted on.

My hon. Friend mentioned our White Paper, "A Fair Deal for Consumers". In opposition, we said that we would encourage competition where possible but would have regulation where it is necessary to ensure that market failure does not mean that people get left out of the system. Regulations were clearly stacked in shareholders' favour, and we want to set up a framework of regulation that has the consumer at its heart. We consulted widely and published our White Paper. We are now working to fulfil our commitment to put consumers first. We shall introduce a package of measures as soon as parliamentary time permits.

There will be a new primary duty on regulators to protect and promote customers' interests. There will be new independent statutory consumer councils with powers to deal with complaints that are not resolved by the utility companies. Those councils will have a strong role and people will know where to take their complaints. There will be financial penalties on companies for breaching overall and individual customer service standards.

The regulators' social duties and obligations will be extended to cover low-income and vulnerable consumers, including the chronically sick, the disabled, pensioners and rural customers. Ministers will have powers to issue statutory guidance to regulators on social and environmental matters that are absent from regulation at present.

In the meantime, until we can introduce our legislation, the new energy regulator, who has combined duties for gas and electricity and who took up his post just weeks ago, is reconsidering a social action plan, concentrating on providing solutions to the problems of those who suffer from fuel poverty. It is worth reminding ourselves that households on the lowest incomes spend, as a proportion of their total expenditure, three and half times more on fuel than other households do. The poorest pay the most.

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Expenditure on electricity alone, as a proportion of total expenditure, is five times as high for low-income customers as it is for wealthier ones.

Competition and regulation in energy policy should be measured against the test of whether they work for the poorest and most vulnerable. My hon. Friend has highlighted the fact that, sadly, the system has failed in the case of her constituents. Perhaps recalling that distressing saga will encourage us not only to introduce legislation but to ensure that practice changes in future. The regulator's determination has been made and I repeat that I hope that London Electricity will take heed of it in respect of other customers. The case should be closed and those customers should not have to pay for that upgrade.

We shall work towards introducing legislation for a system of regulation that puts the consumer at its heart, gives new powers to the regulators and extends the reach of regulation to ensure that the poor and vulnerable are not paying the highest price.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the matter. The way in which she has followed the case in all its detail and her hard work and diligence are a testimony to how Adjournment debates should take individual constituents' cases and highlight faults in the system's structures and processes. I learned a great deal from my hon. Friend's enjoyable speech. I listened to her carefully and I shall ask my officials to examine the background of the case in greater detail to find out what we can do between now and the introduction of legislation to ensure that no one else experiences the same problems. I would not mind my hon. Friend being my MP if she championed my cause so well.

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Train Operating Companies

1.27 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): I hope that I shall pass the Minister for Energy and Industry's test for the standard of Adjournment debates by raising an issue of genuine concern brought to my attention by my constituents.

I should start by declaring an interest. I am a daily commuter from Cheam station in my constituency. That experience and the many letters that I receive from constituents led me to seek this debate.

The Minister will know of my interest in rolling stock replacement and slam-door mark I trains. Under existing franchise agreements, the number of mark I trains is forecast to fall from 2,300 to about 1,300 by the end of 2000. However, I understand that 1,031 of those trains have been leased to Connex SouthCentral and South West Trains and will continue to operate because neither company has a franchise commitment to replace those vehicles. Both companies' franchise ends in 2003, and I want to ask a number of questions.

I was a member of the London fire and civil defence authority at the time of the Clapham rail disaster. I remember the trauma, not only of the people involved in the accident, but of the firefighters who went to the rescue. Thirty-five people lost their lives in the disaster and many more were seriously injured.

The Hidden report that was produced as a result of the accident pinpointed the fact that mark I coaches afforded passengers far less protection in a collision than modern carriages. No safeguards are built into the mark I trains to prevent the underframe of one vehicle riding over that of another in a collision. That was known in 1988 and it was known when the first round of franchises were let. I find it extraordinary that no effort was made to secure the replacement or modification of those unsafe coaches during the first round of franchising.

The Hidden report says:

I emphasise that date--1991. The report continued:

    "The future of safety and public confidence demand that such research is fully and expeditiously carried out."

So what happened?

In its evidence to an inquiry by the Transport Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs in July last year, the Health and Safety Executive said that the issue of mark I safety "fell between two stools" and that it had passed it by. It is hardly surprising that the franchising director did not address the safety issue--the way in which his office was established by the previous Government requires him to address service levels and value for money, not safety. In other words, the Health and Safety Executive dropped the ball on mark I safety in the mid-1990s.

It was not until May 1998, 10 years after Clapham, that the HSE finally began to consult the rail industry about modifying mark I trains by 2003. The result of that consultation and the HSE's recommendations are currently with the Minister, who told me in the House only two weeks ago that she hoped to make an

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announcement shortly. How long will we have to wait for that announcement? When will the necessary regulations to bring in the HSE's recommendations be laid before Parliament?

I hold no brief for Connex SouthCentral. Indeed, I hope to show that when it comes to performance, I am certainly no friend of the company and have a very low regard for its delivery of services to many of its customers.

In written answers to me and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker), Ministers have made it clear that the responsibility for mark I rolling stock rests with the train operators. There is a very real fear that the inaction on the part of the Government--or, perhaps to a greater extent, the franchising director--could result in the residual mark I fleet continuing to operate right up until the end of the franchises held by Connex SouthCentral and SouthWest Trains in 2003.

The mark I would then be grounded--on 2 January 2003--and the incoming operator would face a severe shortage of trains. Again, it will be the poor commuter who pays: four more years of uncomfortable and unsatisfactory journeys in coaches of questionable safety, and the prospect of chaos as the new operator--or Connex, if it survives the franchising round--seeks to deliver a timetable without sufficient trains to do so. I hope that the Minister will tell us how that is to be avoided, and what steps are being taken by the franchising director and the Government to ensure that it does not happen.

In answer to several questions, Ministers have told me that the rolling stock leasing companies have to comply with health and safety requirements, but will the Minister assure us today that the value-for-money obligations placed on the franchising director will not be allowed to get in the way of rail safety? Will she also explain why the franchising director has not sought proposals from the rolling stock companies to secure modification to avoid the grounding of mark I trains in 2003?

One question that I have not yet had the opportunity to ask, but to which I hope the Minister can reply today, is whether the franchising director might be requested to consider calling a meeting with the rolling stock companies to discuss mark I trains, because options and solutions are being developed by the leasing companies. It is worth bearing in mind, as did the Select Committee, the proposal that the Classic could effectively modernise mark I trains in such a way as to meet all the HSE's concerns.

I want to raise two other issues relating to the performance of the train operating companies, especially Connex SouthCentral. The first concerns the time it has taken to secure the much-needed and long-overdue upgrading of Sutton station in my constituency. The fragmentation of the rail industry as a result of privatisation has transformed what should have been a straightforward investment decision into a saga of delay and buck passing among different parts of the present rail industry.

I shall not rehearse the history of this sorry saga, but it is now five years since the project was conceived, and works have still not started. Indeed, my local authority--I checked this only today--has over the past two months rung, faxed and written to Connex SouthCentral, seeking information as to whether it intends to proceed with the project, but it has not even had the courtesy of sending an

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acknowledgement. That is unacceptable customer care, and it is unacceptable practice between potential partners who are meant to be working together to secure the investment.

The London borough of Sutton would have been putting a substantial sum of money into the project, but all it gets--and all that I have got--from the company is a vague undertaking that work might start this year. We need to know exactly when this year, because the same thing was said in 1998. I hope that, even if not today, the Minister might pursue the company and at least get from it a letter with a clear indication of a start date.

I recently called a meeting of business leaders in Sutton so that they could put their concerns about local rail services to Connex SouthCentral management. Connex failed to turn up. To be fair, I have at last received a fairly fulsome apology for its failure to attend, but it is still not moving on the issues of substance.

A wide range of issues was raised by the businesses represented at that meeting in connection with Connex's performance. High on the list of concerns, for town-centre retailers and for some of the larger employers in Sutton such as Reed Business Publishing, was the appalling condition of Sutton station. The business view is that the station is a real drag on the local economy. Reed Business Publishing told me that it does not invite guests to come to its premises by train because the appearance of the station is such that it conveys the wrong image of the company. It is appalling that a publisher of journals about the railway industry feels that the industry has let it down so badly.

I raised the matter with the Minister about a year ago when she visited the Roundshaw estate in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake). She was helpful and sympathetic, and I hope that she will be able to put a bomb under Connex to get it to start engaging with their partners so that the money can be unlocked and invested in the railway infrastructure to improve the services to my constituents.

Secondly, I urge the Minister to examine how the performance standards under which Connex and other train operating companies operate can be tightened. I know that this has been the subject of discussions with the train operating companies, but I hope that the Minister will say a little more about it today. Again, my meeting with local business leaders underlined my concerns about the inadequacy of those standards and the inadequacy of the services being provided.

Reed Business Publishing, Crown Agents and some of the larger retailers in the town carried out a survey among their staff as part of their preparation for the meeting. They found a consistent pattern of complaint and concerns, which can be summed up as follows: short trains resulting in chronic overcrowding, late-running services and filthy conditions.

During the peak periods, someone catching a train into Victoria or London Bridge from my constituency often ends up standing for more than half an hour, shoulder to shoulder with fellow passengers. The term "cattle truck" is one with which I am familiar, because I see the phenomenon every day. I am fortunate in that I get on the train at Cheam and there are still one or two seats left, but by the time the train gets to Sutton, that is not the case. Many people have to stand every day, but are paying

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well over £1,000 a year for a season ticket which they believe should entitle them to a little more comfort on their journey to work.

In answer to a question that I posed to the Minister in writing last year, she drew my attention to the franchising director's quality performance figures, which suggested that improvements had been made by Connex in that quarter. However, on closer examination, it becomes clear that the basis on which they are compiled is far from satisfactory. For example, in the case of commuter services like those from my constituency, a train is officially overcrowded only if people have to stand for journeys of more than 20 minutes. For a train to be officially running on time, it has to arrive at its destination within five minutes of its timetabled arrival for short journeys and within 10 minutes for long journeys. However, that measurement applies only to the final destination, not the intermediate stops. As a consequence, many of my constituents travelling to Clapham Junction to make connections to go elsewhere find themselves being let down by the service time and again.

Finally, the penalty regime for running short trains is not sufficient. It does not send a strong enough signal to the companies that the franchising director regards it as an important issue. As a result, evening after evening, trains run short and are thus overcrowded. That is partly because the fines are small, compared with the fines and penalties that apply to late-running trains and the cancellation of trains. I do not propose that those fines should be lessened, but we must find ways of sending clear signals to train operating companies that short trains are unacceptable.

The daily experience of commuters in my constituency--I am sure that this goes for the constituents of all hon. Members--tells them that services are not improving. That perception is an important measure of the way in which those companies are delivering.

The January issue of Which? confirms that a survey of rail users found that three quarters of commuters had been late at least once in the previous week, and that four out of 10 commuters had to stand at least once a week. Not all those failings can be attributed to external factors or lack of long-term investment. Many are the result of bad management or management in the interests of the company, rather than the customer.

I hope that the Minister can today give some reassurance to my constituents on rolling stock, not just for the immediate future, but into 2003. I hope, too, that she will give us some comfort that action will at last be taken with regard to Sutton station, and that the shadow strategic rail authority, which I welcome as a proposal, will have teeth and the ability to deliver where privatisation has so manifestly failed.

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