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John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the usual
The Secretary of State is also right to draw attention to the failure of rail privatisation, which was rushed through and botched. The effect should be neither underestimated nor forgotten. However, does he accept that the Government have had long enough in six years to diagnose the problems and begin to effect a cure?
The statement has been much trailed. Speculation about its contents has been all over the media throughout the weekend. However, it is a damp squib; a feast was promised but we have only the appetisers. I suspect that it changed somewhat over the weekend. Will the Secretary of State clarify that when he states that it must be for the Government to decide how much public money is spent and to determine the priorities, he has accepted that they have a duty to formulate a clear strategy for rail travel, in not only the short but the long term?
If the Government have begun to accept their responsibilities, when will the Secretary of State present genuine, concrete proposals? Is not it the case that too many bureaucrats regulate the railways and that there needs to be considerably fewer? What role is there for the SRA if the Government are to make strategic decisions? Is not it rather perverse to put the SRA in charge of collating the review when surely it is one of the review's major subjects?
The Secretary of State rightly highlights the high costs in the railways. Given that when I raised the matter on 6 January the Minister of State said that the number of consultants seemed extraordinarily high, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the review will specifically examine such costs?
Last year, on 1 July, the Secretary of State said that
The Secretary of State accepts the need for a strategy for 20 to 30 years. I agree with him. Will he publish a White Paper when the review is complete? When can we read and debate genuine proposals? Will he confirm that the review of structure will include not only the regulatory regime but the industry, especially the track-train interface?
The statement commends itself more for what it does not say than for what it says. If hard-pressed passengers are to get a safe, reliable and affordable network, the Government need clearly to sort out their strategy for the future. The statement is barely the first stop on the journey.
Mr. Darling: On the hon. Gentleman's last point, the Government could have said nothing and simply published proposals in the summer, but I believed that it was right to say that we are conducting a review. It is better to be open and up front, and it is difficult for the
In answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, we shall be publishing proposals in the summer and I would then like to get on with it. We do not want to spend ages debating the matter after that. His point about investment is quite right. Ever since I got this job, I have been making the point that under-investment has not been confined to one particular party, and if the Liberals wish to plead guilty as well, that is fine by me. I did not know they were guilty, but if the hon. Gentleman is entering a plea on their behalf, I shall not quarrel with him. The serious point is that one of the reasons why there are so many delays is that not enough money has been put into solving the problems involving track and train and some of the older rolling stock. During the time leading up to privatisation, investment almost dried up. The Tories hoped that the private sector would bring all the necessary investment in, but that simply did not happen. The investment is now coming into place, but it is taking some time.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need a structure to take the industry forward 20 or 30 years; we do not want to see successive changes in that regard. In the meantime, however, there is no reason whatever for anyone working in the industry to take their eye off the principal objective, which is to drive up reliability.
Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby) (Lab): May I welcome the Secretary of State's statement? I am sure many people in the industry will also do so, because it is part of the continuing journey towards delivering a realistic railway industry. I speak as one who has personal professional knowledge of that industry. The Secretary of State was right to mention the need for partnership and the need to devolve responsibility down to communities. He will know that the SRA has been very successful in working with many of the rural railways around the country, including the Esk Valley line in my constituency. Will he tell the House whether the review will include those rural railways, which represent a lifeline for many remote communities? Will he also work closely with the SRA officers who have done so well to achieve a degree of realism in terms of delivering an effective and efficient rural railway system?
Mr. Darling: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who knows a lot about the railways, having worked in the industry for many years. I should like to make two points. I said in my statement that we needed to determine whether we could devolve further decision making to local level, because bodies such as passenger transport executives and councils are often better placed to know how best to provide local transport such as rail, light rail and bus services. I certainly want to see more of that happening. I am also grateful for my hon. Friend's general welcome for the proposals. There is a recognition in just about every corner of all the areas
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): The Secretary of State has announced a review of the regulation of safety. Will that review consider the need for a quicker and clearer acceptance of responsibility in the case of serious incidents, such as those that took place at Hatfield and Potters Bar? Is he aware that the second anniversary of the Potters Bar incident is now approaching and that, in spite of repeated reports from the Health and Safety Executive, there has yet to be a formal acceptance of responsibility for that dreadful incident? Is he also aware that the position of the families involved, in respect of compensation, remains inadequate, although their main concern is that no one else should be put through the terrible experience that they have gone through?
Mr. Darling: In relation to compensation, my understanding is that discussions are taking place between Railtrack, which has accepted liability for the purpose of reaching a settlement, and those representing the families. It is true that there continues to be an argument between the solicitors acting for both sides, and we would all like to see that resolved as quickly as possible.
In relation to the hon. Gentleman's central point, one of our objectives must be to speed up the way in which these incidents are investigated, which is why we set up the rail accident investigation branch. That was widely welcomed in the House last year. We must also ensure that there is a clear point of responsibility for the running of the railways, not only in the event of an accident but on a day-to-day basis. The hon. Gentleman's point on that matter was extremely well made. Finally, the decisions to prosecute are taken independently of the Government, and while I would dearly like to see them speeded up, that is not a matter in which any Government can properly intervene. However, on health and safety, on speeding things up and on having a clearer point of identification of responsibility, the hon. Gentleman is right.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, but can he tell me what is going to happen to the Blyth and Tyne line? A lot of money has been spent over the last five or six years to reopen it, yet we have heard absolutely nothing from his Department. What is happening there? Will we get our line reopened?
Mr. Darling: I may be wrongif I am, I will say so to my hon. Friendbut I think he met my hon. Friend the Minister of State to discuss the matter. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Minister of State says from a sedentary position that he met some of our colleagues from that areaour hon. Friend was not presentand that they discussed the matter. Today's announcement is not about specific lines; it is about the organisation and the structure of the railways. However, the Department and the SRA are looking at that particular project. I am sorry that my hon. Friend was not able to be at that meeting, but I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister of State will be happy to meet him.