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Mr. Syms: I shall speak to our amendments Nos. 408, 409 and 410 and to one or two others. One concern that we raised in Committee about the Strategic Rail Authority, which we welcome, is the Secretary of State's ability to interfere in its operation. Clause 179 provides that the Secretary of State will appoint members of the authority. Subsection (4) states:
We believe that the authority should have the confidence of the Secretary of State if it has capable people on it, and the political boss--the Secretary of State--should not have the temptation to interfere in its strategies. Our amendments would allow the Secretary of State to give only guidance of a general nature, rather than interfering with strategic planning. We made that point in Committee and we still feel strongly about it.
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): I am pleased to take part in this short debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore). There is nothing twee about Tweeddale--it is full of tweed, not tweeness. That might help the Minister to pronounce the name right eventually.
The veterans of the Standing Committee all look very well, considering the struggles that they had there. The Minister should not allow civil servants and parliamentary draftsmen to tack four separate Bills together and put the resulting Bill through the legislative process. Committee members have done well and been very generous. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has played an active part in considering the Bill in Committee, but parliamentary consideration is very hard when so many different issues are bagged together. The Minister might bear that in mind for the future.
I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale said. The responsibilities and duties imposed on the Strategic Rail Authority are important. It should, as my hon. Friend said, be an active catalyst in promoting new railways and Railtrack initiatives. Its purpose should be, as much as anything else, to help communities realise their maximum economic potential, as well as considering the technical and commercial aspects of plans.
Our region has a population of 108,000, and there is no railway station anywhere in the region. It cannot be right, in this new century, that people in south-east Scotland are disadvantaged to that extent. There has been a great deal of public support for the idea that the Waverley route should be reopened, and that a rail corridor through the region connecting the city of Edinburgh to the top of the railway network at Carlisle should be reinstated as soon as possible.
A huge psychological blow was inflicted on communities such as Hawick in my constituency 30 years ago when the railway was removed. The Ministers here tonight were obviously not there at the time, except perhaps as tourists on trains going up and down the Waverley route. I remind them that their ministerial predecessors at the time gave assurances about guarantees of additional public transport being made available to make good the losses resulting from the withdrawal of the railway, but those promises were never made good. People feel bitter about that, and remember the ministerial undertakings that were never kept. If the Strategic Rail Authority is not flexible enough to revisit those questions, the ministerial assurances given 30 years ago may never be fulfilled.
There is clear evidence that economic stagnation in south-east Scotland resulted directly from the withdrawal of the Waverley line in 1969. Economic growth in the Scottish borders has suffered over the past 30 years. If anyone needs evidence of that, a comparison with what has happened to similar communities within striking distance of Edinburgh, such as Fife or other parts of the central belt, which have kept and maintained rail links with the capital, will show that their growth has been vastly different from that in the borders.
I am particularly concerned about communities such as Hawick, which is suffering real depopulation as a result of dramatic job losses in the knitwear industry. The heart of Hawick was ripped out when the Waverley line was closed.
Mr. Kirkwood: I hope that the Minister will take a lead from my hon. Friend's helpful intervention by saying what powers are available. If the amendment is not acceptable, the Minister must make clear what we can expect from the SRA.
We have suffered job losses in areas such as Hawick, and there has been an impact on growth industries such as tourism, which are vital to rural parts of the UK. Also important is the ability of sectors such as agriculture to use transport at reasonable cost; the costs of transport in areas such as the highlands and south-east Scotland are high, and rising. It is becoming near impossible to attract any significant inward investment to areas denied access by their poor infrastructure.
The borders of Scotland have suffered greatly--perhaps more so, recently, than other parts of the UK, in terms of development and capital for road and rail infrastructure. I concur entirely with all that was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale about social inclusion, sustainability and integrated transport, all of which are essential. Individuals who live in areas such as south-east Scotland should be offered some degree of choice about how they travel. If there is no railway station in the region, choice is impossible.
Finally, the SRA should consider the transport of volume materials, such as timber, by heavy goods vehicles. Timber is a good example, not exclusive to Scotland. I know that Ministers are genuinely trying to promote improvements, but there are real concerns about the volume of timber being extracted from the forests of Wales and Scotland in places where a railway could have a positive impact. A few days ago there was a terrible tragedy at Langholm, in which two people were killed when a lorry spilled its load on to a road. The combination of inadequate roads and bigger lorries causes concern.
The timber industry is under financial pressure, and there is a temptation to do the job in ways that may prejudice safety. The guidelines need to be reconsidered. The Kielder forest has huge timber resources, and the planned southern borders railway would be a positive contribution to dealing with the problems raised. It would also spare small village communities that would otherwise suffer from 44-tonne trucks thundering through day and night, causing both inconvenience and danger.
I appeal to Ministers to accept the amendment. This cannot be simply a technical or financial question. The SRA must have the flexibility to look into the wider issues. If it does, it will be able to promote the development of some of the communities that we represent in ways that will not be possible unless the Bill includes explicit ministerial powers. Our amendment seeks to add those powers, and I support it.
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): I, too, support amendment No. 420, which would improve the Bill by clarifying the purpose of the Strategic Rail Authority and including a requirement to identify unmet need. I can illustrate that need by the experience in my constituency of the services by Connex SouthCentral.
The Minister will be aware that the latest performance figures rate Connex in category C. In the first national survey of commuters recently, Connex scored poorly on customer satisfaction--just 71 per cent. were satisfied or very satisfied with its services. Only yesterday, the Evening Standard published an analysis of complaints: across the rest of the south of England, complaints fell for the first time since privatisation, but Connex bucked the trend--complaints were up by 31 per cent., which is an appalling record.
From letters from constituents, I know that people feel that the services that they receive are very poor and do not meet their need to travel comfortably in a train that is not like a cattle truck. The Under-Secretary was present at a recent Adjournment debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake), who, with me, highlighted serious defects in current services. Connex is providing a quite rotten service.
The amendment goes to the heart of turning the service round and meeting the needs of my constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore)--[Interruption.] I have not had as much coaching in the pronunciation of Tweeddale as have members of the Standing Committee. My hon. Friend discussed long-cherished hopes for the opening up of lines long closed. My hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) has told us of the economic, social and other benefits that would arise. My constituents have a far more modest and less ambitious aim: they simply want Cheam station to be brought up to scratch.
Connex has been promising for years to invest in improving the facilities of Cheam station. Instead, the company has allowed the station to be vandalised, run down and neglected. The station makes people wish not to use the railway. It makes them feel unsafe and insecure. I shall paint a brief picture of the station; it may not have the colour and flamboyance of the Waverley line, but my constituents are concerned about it. The canopies that protect the travelling public if it is raining as they go up to London in the morning are broken. They have been broken for as long as I and many other people can remember. I have written numerous times to Connex, and have extracted promises that work would begin. Promises were made the year before last, and last year, but the work has not started yet.
If the Government cannot accept the amendment, my constituents undoubtedly still have an unmet need--to be able to wait for trains without getting soaking wet at Cheam station. They are receiving a C class service. I hope that the Minister will use his good offices to ensure that Connex honours its long-given promises and to secure the investment that will improve that station. It may not involve the opening of a new line, but it will certainly make a big difference to many of my constituents.