Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for prior sight of his statement, such as it was.

19 Jan 2004 : Column 1079

This statement heralds the fifth change in the structure of the railways in nearly seven years of this Labour Government. They came in promising immediate benefits for the travelling public, but after seven years passengers are seeing no improvement on the railways, and for many services are getting worse. One in five trains run late, targets for increasing passenger numbers have been cut, and work on new lines has been scrapped. Little wonder that the Institute for Public Policy Research pronounced the 10-year transport plan dead and said that

The Government's treatment of Railtrack has undermined private investment; Network Rail has had its borrowings underwritten by the taxpayer; expansion plans have been abandoned or deferred; shorter franchises mean that train operators have less incentive to invest; and taking away the formula for controlled fares means that, for the first time, commuters are exposed to inflation-busting increases as performance continues to remain poor. What is the Government's answer? The Strategic Rail Authority wants to improve punctuality by making people's journeys longer and to make fewer trains run late by having fewer trains; and Network Rail wants to solve the problem of trains running late by changing the timetable. If it did not matter so much to passengers, it would be farcical.

The Government have done to transport what they did to health and education. Having obstructed those at the sharp end of the industry with regulation, targets and ministerial intervention, now, when they are failing to deliver, their answer is to set up a review, change the system and put decisions in the hands of the politicians. The statement makes one thing clear—this is not about finding the right structure for the railways, but about increasing centralisation and political control. The Government are tearing up the very structure that they created less than four years ago. Paragraph 16 of the statement says:

Who created the Strategic Rail Authority? It was the brainchild of the Deputy Prime Minister. Who created Network Rail? It was the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers). This Secretary of State is having to clear up the mess left by his predecessors.

As ever with this Government, when there is a problem to be solved they do not look for efficiency and new ideas, but reach straight for centralisation, interference and bureaucracy. The statement takes 57 paragraphs to tell us that the Secretary of State is setting up a review. Anybody who wants to know more about the review could have learned more from the newspapers over the past few days than from the statement. Only last September, the Secretary of State said in evidence to the Select Committee on Transport:

Little wonder that Mr. Bowker is worried about his job.

19 Jan 2004 : Column 1080

What made the Secretary of State change his mind about his structural review? Was it because the SRA's strategic plan, which was due to be published this month, set out a bleak picture of the railways, highlighting projects that the Government have failed to finance and saying that

Of course, passengers did not need a report to tell them that; and they did not get the report, because the Government blocked it.

At paragraph 48, the Secretary of State talked about the train operating companies. As well as saying that they have brought benefits to passengers, as indeed they have, he said that with the right franchising arrangements they should operate in the public interest. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he will maintain in their franchises the independence of the train operating companies in providing services to customers?

With the SRA standing between the Government and Network Rail in financial terms, the Chancellor has managed to keep Network Rail's debt off the Government's balance sheet. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the review will look into the financing of Network Rail, and if that leads to the Department for Transport taking over some of the SRA's powers, will that mean that the Chancellor can bring Network Rail's £21 billion debt on to the balance sheet?

In paragraph 42 of his statement, the Secretary of State says that "independent economic regulation" is "essential". Yet in paragraphs 38 and 45 he challenges the authority of the independent economic regulator. Will he confirm that his review will include a review of the role of the rail regulator, just over a year after he confirmed that he was happy with that role and with the powers of the regulator?

After nearly seven years of a Labour Government who promised improvements in 12 months, passengers see no improvement on the railways. For many, services are getting worse. We have heard 57 paragraphs of words from the Secretary of State that will do nothing to improve service to the passengers who travel on our railways. The statement might have been acceptable six months after the Government came to office; seven years on, it is an indictment of their transport policy. All that they offer passengers is months of uncertainty and yet more change and increased bureaucracy.

With the 10-year transport plan in shreds and the Government failing to deliver any improvement for passengers, their answer is centralisation and more political control. As in health and education, the Government are failing to deliver on transport. The statement is an indictment of their transport policy, proving what passengers know—that the Government have done nothing in seven years to improve the railways and will do nothing in the next 18 months to make the lives of passengers any better.

Mr. Darling: The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is fast gaining a reputation for travelling light when it comes to policy. She has no policy on roads, as we found out last December, she has no policy on airports, and she appears not even to have a policy

19 Jan 2004 : Column 1081

on railways. Some of her criticism about the review that we are about to conduct might have had more weight if not for the fact that her fellow shadow Cabinet member, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), who is, I understand, in charge of policy development—no wonder someone other than the hon. Lady is in charge of that—said in The Daily Telegraph in December:

It would appear that at least one part of the Conservative party recognises that the way in which the railways were privatised in the early 1990s was wrong. It has not worked, and the hon. Gentleman would not even seek to defend it. The hon. Lady's attack on us for facing up to those problems and putting in place a structure that will enable the railways to develop over the next 20 to 30 years is therefore somewhat undermined by her own colleague.

The hon. Lady asked me about investment. It would be interesting to know at some point, and before very long, whether the Conservatives are in favour of more or less money going into the railways. More money is going in, and people rightly want improvements. The west coast main line, for example, will see increased journey times when the first phase is completed this year.

Mrs. May: Taking longer.

Mr. Darling: Of course they are taking longer: work is being done on the railways for the first time in 30 years, and that is why there are some delays.

The hon. Lady asked about Railtrack, and I cannot help but get the impression that that is the one thing she cares passionately about. She speaks about it with a fondness that I find astonishing when I consider that company's record.

The hon. Lady asked about franchises. They were put in place by the Conservatives in 1995, and they were not the best deal for the travelling public. They did not specify the level of services that ought to be provided in terms of reliability, passenger comfort, cleanliness and so on. They have been changed and that has resulted in improvements.

The hon. Lady criticised the fact that fares increased, but what is her policy on fares? Is she promising that a future Conservative Government will not increase fares? I do not think so. She asked about regulation. I said in the statement that as long as the public and private sectors are working together, independent economic regulation is required. However, I later stated what is blindingly obvious—it is ultimately for the Government to determine the amount of money that they are willing to spend on transport. We are spending substantially more on that than the Conservatives did.

It is difficult to do anything other than conclude that the hon. Lady has no substantial criticisms of the fact that we are considering the structure. We have made changes since 1997; improvements are being made to the railways but the current structure clearly could not take them through the next 20 or 30 years. That is why it must be changed.

Next Section

IndexHome Page