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Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I am sure that the Secretary of State will acknowledge that although Liberal Democrats have been highly critical of the way in which he has handled the administration of Railtrack, we nevertheless gave full support to the principle of a not-for-profit public interest company to replace it. At the same time, we also fully supported the Secretary of State's earlier statement that no additional taxpayers' money should be used to bail out the shareholders of a company that has so badly let down the travelling public. He will be badly letting down taxpayers if he now uses more of their money to provide compensation for the shareholders—because however he seeks to wrap up the £300 million, that is exactly what it is.

Despite the confusion in the Secretary of State's statement, will he make it absolutely clear that only Railtrack plc is in administration, and that Network Rail

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seeks to purchase the assets of that part of Railtrack Group only? If so, can we be absolutely assured that Network Rail will focus solely on activities that are directly related to improving the running of our railways, and that it will not be bidding to obtain further of Railtrack Group's assets and turn itself into the multi-headed monster that was the Railtrack Group?

Will the Secretary of State explain the basis on which Network Rail has made its bid? On what basis has he apparently given it his full support? As he admits in his statement, it is not the case that the administrators have not yet made available their analysis of the assets or liabilities of Railtrack plc or their method of sale. Can we therefore be absolutely sure that Network Rail has had no access to information that has not been available to other potential bidders? Given the latest revelations to which the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) referred—that the Secretary of State has given written letters of comfort to potential London tube bidders to the effect that they will have to accept little or no liability for future problems—can we be absolutely assured that no such letter has been given to Network Rail by the Secretary of State?

Finally, given that the new chief executive of Railtrack plc has said that he is not yet in a position to judge the financial robustness of any replacement company, on what basis is the Secretary of State so confident, and on what basis can the public be confident? Given that the Secretary of State agrees that the Conservative party sold off Railtrack far too cheaply, is he not in danger of buying it back too expensively?

Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman has raised a number of points. He is right that Railtrack plc is the body in administration. Railtrack Group is not in administration; it is the parent company and is still functioning. Network Rail has put in a bid for Railtrack plc and wants to operate the licence. I welcome that for the same reasons as the hon. Gentleman—it can be focused on the maintenance renewal of the network, which is crucial if we are to improve punctuality and reliability. I am sure that the administrator has treated everybody who is interested equally, as he would be bound to do. I am sure that he has provided all the appropriate information to any interested party and that he will have discharged his legal responsibilities. Network Rail has brought forward a robust business plan and it is on that basis that the Government have today been able to indicate this level of support. As I said, we believe that a company limited by guarantee would be a good successor body as far as the railway network is concerned.

The letters of comfort can hardly be described as a revelation—I know that not many people read Hansard, but I replied to a parliamentary question last week to make that point. The £300 million will be made available only if there is an early exit from administration. If that does not happen, the money will not be made available, and will therefore not be available to Railtrack Group. We are making that grant available on the basis that we and the travelling public would receive benefits as a result of administration coming to an end earlier than would otherwise be the case.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Does my right hon. Friend agree that we on the Back Benches deserve a rather fuller explanation of this volte face in

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relation to the £300 million bail-out of shareholders than he has so far given? Is it not the case that it appears to many that the cosy relationship with the City seems to involve the development of a risk-free zone on transport projects? As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) suggested, such projects include the public-private partnership for the tube and the plans for National Air Traffic Services and Railtrack, but why should we cushion speculative investment on public projects from any form of risk whatever? Is that not a disgrace?

Mr. Byers: When my hon. Friend has had the opportunity of reading the detail of what I have said this afternoon, I think that he will recognise that that is simply not the case. The reality is that the shareholders wanted £3.60, and they will reflect on what now might be possible. They will look carefully at the basis on which we are prepared to make available the grant. It will be available only if there is an early exit, because we will receive savings as a result of that. No other transport project will be adversely affected

I ask my hon. Friend to think of where we are today as a result of the action that was taken. Six months ago, the railway network was operated by Railtrack, a company with private shareholders as the paramount concern. We are now talking about our railways being operated by a company limited by guarantee, a body which has one overriding priority—the interests of the travelling public and not private shareholders. I happen to believe that we have come a long way in six months. The Conservatives do not accept that, but we do because we know that we now have in place potentially a successor body for the railway network that will make a real difference, turning away from Railtrack and embracing the interests of the travelling public.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): Why is the £300 million not being made available as a grant to other bidders on an equal basis? Everything that the Secretary of State says increasingly suggests that the £300 million is effectively a bribe to a stooge company that is being organised by the Government and on which he will stand in judgment when the rival bids come in. If £300 million of taxpayers' money is available, should it not be made available to all the bidders?

Mr. Byers: The £300 million is being made available for the benefits of an early exit. If someone else or another proposal can deliver that early exit, that money will, of course, be available. We have been very clear that there is no favouritism. If another proposal offers an early exit, that sum of money could, of course, be made available provided that the benefits are achieved that we believe would be achieved from Network Rail.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): My right hon. Friend refers to Network Rail aspiring to engineering excellence. Given that there is the real problem of a shortage of engineers, with poaching from one company to another taking place, what will be done to increase the total pool of rail engineers? They are crucial to any advance.

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of skills in the industry. That is why I was

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particularly pleased that one of the first acts of John Armitt as the new chief executive of Railtrack was to double the number in Railtrack's graduate intake. It has also increased the number of engineers, and it has set a target of having 1,000 engineers in Railtrack. I believe that, as we move away from the short-term approach to the industry to a more long-term one, the skills deficit will need to be addressed. One of the ways in which that will be done—this was stated in the strategic plan—is through the development of a national rail academy. That offers the opportunity of developing skills in the industry so that we do not have the problem that we face at the moment of not having the skilled engineers, the drivers and the people to make the network operate well. That will change not through the short-term approach that has handicapped the industry in the past, but through a longer-term approach that will deliver the skills that the industry needs for the future.

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): On 15 October, the Secretary of State, in respect of paying taxpayers' money to shareholders in Railtrack, said:

Has not he completely shot any credibility that he had? Would it not be fair to the travelling public and taxpayers if he did the decent thing and resigned?

Mr. Byers: Once people have had an opportunity to see the context of what I said on 15 October—it was in relation to the £3.60 that was being claimed by the Railtrack group—they will see that we are not compensating shareholders. We are putting the interests of the travelling public first. When people have the opportunity of seeing the big change that we are making to the network, as a result of the prospect of a company limited by guarantee taking responsibility for the railways, they will be able to compare what happened with Railtrack with what will happen with the company limited by guarantee. When they can see that and compare the difference, they will know that today's developments are good news for the travelling public.

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