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Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): The Secretary of State has said twice that it is only the Government who can choose a strategic direction for our railway system. Why therefore does the Bill give such big powers to the Mayor and Transport for London? The White Paper says:
Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Bill will not involve council tax payers in London taking risky ventures on railways in London or inflation-busting fare increases on top of the one that we have just had?
The second key point of the White Paper was to give Network Rail clear responsibility for operating the network and for its performance, timetabling, route utilisation and so on. Thirdly, train and track companies must work more closely together, and they are doing that now. Fourthly, as I said, there will be an increased role for the Scottish Executive, the Welsh Assembly Government and the London Mayor, and more local decision making in London.
Fifthly, the Office of Rail Regulation will cover both safety performance as well as economic regulation. Finally, there is a better deal for freight, which will enable the industry and its customers to invest for the long term, which is an important point.
I want to talk about the proposals in the Bill that will help us to put in place some of those key changes. I will come on to the Scottish point, if that is what the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) wishes to raise, in a moment. First, clause 1 provides for the winding-up of the Strategic Rail Authority and will enable the Secretary of State, accountable to Parliament, to take charge of setting the railway strategy. That means that the SRA's strategic responsibilities and financial obligations will pass to the Secretary of State, although, in some cases, strategic responsibilities will also pass to the devolved Administrations. It also means that the Secretary of State and the devolved Administrations will take over some of the SRA's role, particularly that of awarding train company franchises. In order to put those changes into effect, it will be necessary for some staff to transfer from the SRA to the Department for Transport, or in some cases to Network Rail or the Office of Rail Regulation.
Again, I want to make an important point that has a bearing on the amendment that has been tabled by the Conservative party. This may be news to Conservative Members, but it wants, apparently, to keep the SRA because, it says, it does not want civil servants and/or politicians to take part in the award of contracts. Let us make one thing clear. Ministers will not be involved in evaluation and discussions in relation to the award of contracts. Of course they have to sign them off, as we did anyway with the SRA. When the SRA went through the
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contract process, of course it had to come back to the Secretary of State to sign off because there are huge financial implications.
As for the idea that people employed by the Department for Transport cannot do that work, they do it in the Highways Agency, which has long been recognised as an extremely good organisation in procurement. It is done on behalf of the Government, but the contract-awarding process is completely separated from Ministers, as it should be, so that will not happen. The idea that Ministers will be involved in negotiations or have any improper influence on awarding contracts is absolute rubbish, as the Opposition should know. The rail group within the Department is being reorganised to reflect that.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that there is no question of any franchise being awarded on the basis of the known personalities or political connections of particular persons? The suggestion is going round the industry that a particular company will not get a franchise simply because of its direct connections with the Conservative party. That is ignorant nonsense and I want it denied here and now.
Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right to raise this point. I have not heard the suggestion to which she refers, but it is absolute nonsense and she can have the categorical assurance that she asked for. Franchises will continue to be awarded on the basis of completely open and transparent published criteria. Frankly, I do not care about the political allegiance of anyone running the railways; all that I want is for them to work and for the trains to run on time. That might not be a very high ambition but it is all that I want, and I doubt whether the public will care whether it is the Tories, Labour or even the Liberal Democrats who manage to do that.
Secondly, safety is of course of paramount importance, but we believe that it should be integrated more closely with other issues, which is why we want to combine the Health and Safety Executive's functions with those of the Office of Rail Regulation. The ORR will shortly consult on how it will organise itself to ensure that both its primary functionseconomic regulation and safetycan be properly discharged.
I see such work as complementary. It has been agreed that, from next year, when the RAIB is established, it will take the lead in the event of an accident, go to work as quickly as possible, find out what has happened and report as soon as it can, thereby operating in much the same way as the air accidents investigation branch and the marine accident investigation branch, which have worked very well for a number of years. In order that the rail regulator can discharge its safety obligations, it may well want to
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examine some of the issues arising from such incidents. What we are putting in place is a complementary system. On too many past occasions, there have been a number of people with a legitimate interest in investigating such matters. This will be a far better way of working.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) will doubtless want to pursue this issue. If he is lucky enough to get a place on the Standing Committee, those of my hon. Friends who share that pleasure with him will be happy to go through the memorandum of understanding involving the RAIB and other organisations. However, I think that he will find that the system is complementary.
Mr. McLoughlin: The Secretary of State seems to be saying that he wants to set up an organisation similar to the AAIB and the MAIB, but I think that I am right in saying that there has been no public inquiry into an air accident in this country since 1967. When the Government took office, they launched a public inquiry into the incident on the River Thames involving the Marchioness, even though the MAIB had already been set up. Is the Secretary of State saying that he hopes that, if the RAIB secures the same reputation as the AAIB, he would see no need for public inquiries in future?
Mr. Darling: No. First, the RAIB was in fact set up in legislation passed last yearthis Bill is not setting it upand it is due to come into operation early next year. Secondly, of course, no Secretary of State will ever be in a position to say that there will never be a public inquiry. The principal way in which such matters are handled is through the prerogative powers that Secretaries of State can exercise, and it would be very foolish to rule out such a possibility. What I can say is that I hope that the RAIB will do as the other investigation branches have done and satisfy many of the requirements that have hitherto led to calls for a public inquiry. Certainly, the MAIB and the AAIBthankfully, major air accidents are comparatively rarehave proved very effective in getting to the bottom of such incidents, mainly because they begin on a no-blame basis, get on site and find out what happened. Certainly, of the three transport modes, air is probably the most mature in that everyone in an air accidents investigation branch is not bothered about whose fault it is; they just want to know what happened to ensure that it does not happen again. Ideally, that is precisely where we should be in respect of the railways.
I am not sure that the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) was in his place when I made my statement following the recent accident at the level crossing in Ufton. What was good about those proceedings was that, rather than adopting a mood of identifying who was to blame, people focused on what was necessary to find out exactly what happened.
Thirdly, to return to the Bill, the Government want further to devolve decision making for public transport, including rail, to the Scottish Executive, the Welsh Assembly and to passenger transport executives, and a substantial part of the Bill deals with that.
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