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Mr. Martlew: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that those data are now out of date?

Mr. Forth: Because of the Government's recent cock-ups, the trend has been momentarily interrupted, but until their grotesque overreaction to some tragic accidents on the railway, which I submit is the cause of most of our current problems, there had been a steady and welcome increase in the number of passengers and rail mileage after privatisation. The trend was there for all to see. In addition, domestic rail freight has increased, more trains are being run, rolling stock is being dramatically modernised and there are new stations and freight terminals. I will not go all the way through the catalogue, but it is an early indication of the justification for private, as opposed to public, ownership.

The whole reason the Conservative Government considered private ownership, control and management of the railway system was systematic under-investment over several decades. Indeed, the Bill, to which I will come shortly, makes mention of

To that extent, the outcome of the investigation and analysis proposed would be interesting. My submission would be that it is already evident, even without the proposed inquiry, that investment in the railways has improved significantly since privatisation, and continues to do so. The difficulty for those who argue for a return to public ownership and Government control is that history shows that rarely do a Government consistently over a period of time set aside sufficient funds for investment.

The background to the Bill is muddled. I am clear about my position and that of my party. We believed in the 1990s--and believe now--in the merits of private ownership, management and control. The governing party's position is not at all clear, although the Minister will no doubt shortly help us. The hon. Member for Carlisle and I await with bated breath his comment on the Government's attitude to the Bill. I am disappointed for the hon. Member for Carlisle that either he could not

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extract the Government's view from the Minister, or the Minister is too coy to tell the House. One way or another, all will be revealed when the Minister gets to his feet. Knowing him as I do, I expect that we shall hear a blunt and forthright expression of the Government's views. But, he should not rise just yet, because I shall now analyse the Bill.

My first problem with the Bill is that I am not sure that it is a proper role for statute to do what the very first line of clause 1 seeks to do and use the law to require the Secretary of State to hold an inquiry. Interestingly, that is an echo of the statement made not two hours ago by the Deputy Prime Minister on a different matter altogether, in which the very subject of inquiries and their status and relationship to Government came up. The Deputy Prime Minister, no less, said in his excellent statement--and in the course of his excellent replies to the questions that followed it--that he believed that the relevance and appropriateness of inquiries must always be a matter for proper discretion and judgment on the part of the Government and Ministers of the day. I agree with his view.

If that is indeed the case, I suspect that the Government will have a problem with the very first line of the Bill, which is at odds with what the Deputy Prime Minister told the House. I can see immediately that there is a potential conflict between the thrust of the Bill and the view of the Government, as expressed by no less a figure than the Deputy Prime Minister.

The Bill proposes that the Secretary of State "shall hold an inquiry". That, I feel, is the wrong way in which to use statute. It goes on to say that the inquiry would be

in the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman explained why he considered that necessary, but I do not consider it necessary.

I have said that I support privatisation as a concept and a policy, and I certainly do; but I am not necessarily prepared to defend the way in which railway privatisation was carried out. We knew at the time that there was a spectrum of possible methods. One method was selected, and, with hindsight, we may not consider it to have been the best.

Mr. Martlew: The right hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the last Government. Did he make private representations about his reservations at that time? Will he give us more information about where the privatisation went wrong? Could it be that the Government pushed it through too fast because they wanted to get it through before the general election?

Mr. Forth: All those things are possible.

My role was not particularly glorious. At the time--around 1994-95--I was a relatively junior Minister working in the foothills of the Department for Education, which became the Department for Education and Employment, and doing my best for the country's schools, colleges and universities. The hon. Gentleman has been here long enough to know that a junior education Minister has a relatively minor input in matters such as privatisation of the railways. I am sure that if he consults the Minister later, he will learn that that is the case even now.

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If we were to quiz the Minister about the niceties and intricacies of, say, the hospitals system or overseas aid, we would probably be given a dusty answer. The Minister would tell us, quite rightly, that he spends all his time looking after such things as the railways. I have no difficulty with that, or even any embarrassment. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am unembarrassable anyway. However, the second part of his question is important and relevant.

I mentioned hindsight. We should probably look at the arrangements again, but not by means of an inquiry of the kind suggested by the hon. Gentleman. We should examine them in the normal way in which Government should examine how arrangements are working--perhaps even with the advice of the regulator. We should always be prepared to look again at the way in which matters as important as the railway network are structured, organised, managed and so on, but we should do so more through the regulatory regime than through--as the Bill suggests--a radical investigation of the

I have real difficulty with clause 1(1), which I believe is significantly misdirected.

The Bill goes on to set out in detail what would be, in effect, the terms of reference of the inquiry that the hon. Gentleman seeks by law to establish and impose on the Secretary of State of the day. He proposes that the inquiry

in other words, privatisation and Railtrack, very largely--on, first, public finances.

That is the crux of the matter. What the Government will have to grapple with, and what the hon. Gentleman rather slid over, are the implications of a radical change to, in particular, the ownership--let us leave aside control and management for a moment--of the railway infrastructure in terms of public finances.

The hon. Gentleman should come clean, and I shall give him the opportunity to do so if he wishes to take it. Is he suggesting in any way that the railway infrastructure should be taken back into public ownership? If so, there would be a very considerable implication for public finances. Does he want his inquiry to examine that issue? Some people would think that that is the hidden agenda behind the Bill.

Some of the people whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his speech are enthusiastic about that idea. I do not have much to do with trade unions in the usual course of events, although I suspect that he has much to do with them, and good luck to him if he does. However, I wonder whether they are urging him, through the Bill, to press the Government to bring back into public ownership the railway infrastructure.

Mr. Martlew: I thought that I made it clear at the beginning of my speech that I wanted to introduce a Bill to achieve what the right hon. Gentleman has described. However, my constituents, and not the trade union movement, are behind the Bill. I represent a city with a tremendous railway history, and the railway people in my city realise that we now have a mess that makes BR look very good in comparison. I suspect that his constituents also are behind the Bill. I imagine that his constituents

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who are delayed on commuter lines on their way to work are fed up with current arrangements, and that they are among those who want the railways taken back.

Mr. Forth: I would be astonished and profoundly shocked if the people of Bromley and Chislehurst wanted BR back. I also doubt that socialism has lingered sufficiently in Carlisle for the good burghers of that city to want BR back.

I am surprised at this, because I respect the hon. Gentleman's knowledge in these matters, but I think that he is confusing the effects of privatisation as such with recent events in which Government mismanagement--probably coupled with a combination of some mismanagement by Railtrack, pressure by Government and Railtrack, and the intervention of the regulator--has led to lamentable railway performance. That is not the result of privatisation as such. He and I will have simply to disagree on that.

Mr. Best: Can the right hon. Gentleman give a reason other than privatisation for the lamentable performance? Privatisation has created the difficulties and utter chaos that I have to face when travelling from Leeds. Privatisation is the reality that we have to manage. Railtrack would have difficulty organising--I do not know how best to say this--a short period of intoxication in a brewery, and it is certainly having difficulties in organising its railway services.

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