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Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: No.

However, if the Secretary of State had to rush into his decision, there is also some confusion as to precisely what that decision is. On 15 October, having said that he was going to try to make changes, he said:

It is clear from that that the proposal was one that the Secretary of State was putting to the administrator. However, on 5 November, in an answer to his hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), he said:

At that point, the Secretary of State is stating definitely what the structure will be. However, on 6 November, in his speech to the Confederation of British Industry, he said:

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There is considerable confusion, so I hope that the Minister who winds up the debate will provide a clear explanation. My understanding is that the administrator is entirely independent, and that it is for the independent administrator to decide whether or not to establish the model that both the Secretary of State and the Liberal Democrats want.

Chris Grayling: Will the hon. Gentleman make clear his party's policy on the not-for-profit company? He has said that he would not countenance compensation from the public purse being given to shareholders, but if he rolls back the clock to the summer, when his policy was to pursue that option, did he expect that the company's assets would be confiscated through an administration order, as the Government have done?

Mr. Foster: No. I am more than happy to share with the hon. Gentleman a copy of the document that has been publicly available since 14 November. It sets out three stages, the first and most sensible of which would have been to hold discussions with Railtrack. Given that that sector of its overall activities was making a huge loss, it is not unreasonable to suppose—as the company's advisers hinted during the August discussions with the Government—that the company might have wanted to pursue that option with the Government's support. The hon. Gentleman can read about the other stages.

There is one other area in which the Secretary of State is guilty of causing some confusion. Just a few minutes ago, he intervened to remind the House that there are two separate organisations: Railtrack Group and Railtrack plc. He is absolutely right to say that the distinction between the two is crucial to understanding what happened.

When I raised that specific issue during the discussion following the private notice question on 5 November, the Secretary of State replied:

That is clear. The implication is that it is everyone else, not the Secretary of State, who is confused about the distinction between the two bodies. Yet in his statement to the House on 15 October, he made specific reference to Railtrack on no fewer than 30 separate occasions, on 29 of which he referred only to "Railtrack" and made no distinction between Railtrack plc and Railtrack Group. On only one occasion did he refer to Railtrack plc. Perhaps most significant of all is that part of the statement in which the right hon. Gentleman spoke about what was being put into administration. He said, not Railtrack plc, but

I do not accept that it is worth spending much time debating issues of who said what to whom and when. I genuinely believe, however, that the way in which the Secretary of State has handled the issue has led to some of the confusion. My biggest fear is that, because of the confusion, the new vehicle that the right hon. Gentleman

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hopes will be agreed by the administrator—the not- for-profit public interest company—may have real difficulty in attracting private investment. That is the key concern.

The hon. Member for Cotswold asked me what the Liberal Democrats would do about this. We have always made it clear that we believe that a not-for-profit public interest company should be able to raise bonds, but those should be Government backed. The Government are creating huge problems for themselves because of their obsession with the public sector borrowing requirement. The only successful way to move forward is by the approach I have outlined.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). The hon. Gentleman has just said that the bonds would be Government backed. Presumably, that means a Government guarantee. How big a guarantee would he expect them to give? Would it be for the full £34 billion?

Mr. Foster: The hon. Lady must consider the sums of money that would be required. As she is well aware, there are normally three ways to borrow money. The first is for the Government to borrow directly, which is the cheapest way and that is why a number of people want the complete renationalisation of Railtrack. The most expensive way is to borrow on the open market. The middle way—if one dare use that phrase—is to do it with Government guarantees. That would seem to be the most likely way to ensure that the money is produced.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): How much?

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman referred to the 1 per cent. and 2 per cent. returns that would be required in an earlier debate, so I will not go into that now.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: No. I want to finish now as many other hon. Members want to speak.

I end where I began. A great deal needs to be done to put right the problems on our railways. We should be debating not who said what to whom and when, but how we are to move forward with this new model for Railtrack: how to reduce fragmentation in our railways and find ways to put the track and trains together; how to get rid of the perverse penalty system; how to tackle the real problem of ridiculously high fares, which are some of the highest in the world; how to make more of our stations safer; and how to integrate trains and other forms of travel. Those are the questions in which the travelling public are interested. They want a safe, reliable and affordable railway and they want it quickly. Today's debate has not moved that on one iota.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Before I call the next speaker I remind the House that a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches applies from now on. I call the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall).

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5.13 pm

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale): First, I offer my condolences to the families of those killed in the air crash in New York yesterday. It is right and proper for hon. Members to realise the gravity of that accident and to offer our condolences.

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in a debate that has, ostensibly, been called by the Opposition to scrutinise the role of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions in placing the administration order on Railtrack.

We could look at the debate in a completely different light and see that it is a smokescreen intended by the Opposition to block out why we are debating the issue in the first place. It was the Conservative Government's privatisation of Railtrack that has left us where we are this afternoon.

The start of the debate was interesting. The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) had the opportunity to explain Conservative party policy towards public transport in general and the railways in particular. She failed to do so and instead launched a personal attack on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. That attack was unwarranted. She did not make the case and, at the end of the debate, we will see clear support for his actions in the Lobby, which is right and proper.

Clearly, the Tory party does not want to debate the failure of Railtrack because it was the architect of that failure. In 1993, the Conservatives were responsible for the legislation that paved the way for Railtrack and they proceeded with the flotation of the company on 20 May 1996.

I am conscious of the fact that I have not spoken in the House for a while, but I have listened to an awful lot of debates. The Tories' contribution to this afternoon's debate qualifies them as a top candidate for the brass neck of the year award. The way in which they have broached the issue is breathtaking.

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