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Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (Con): I beg to move, To leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I shall start by helping the Secretary of State, who looked frightfully pleased because his researchers had dug out a quotation from some remarks that I made in September about the recommendations of the David James committee. Had he or his researchers done their homework properly, they would have discovered that those remarks of mine made in September referred specifically to the David James committee recommendations in respect of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and that the more recent recommendations of the David James committee were, when published last month, accompanied by a specific statement from me, which said that any savings that were achieved as a result of those recommendations—I believe that significant savings will be made—will of course be redeployed entirely in the transport field. So I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to that point, which has clearly been causing some confusion in his mind and that of this staff.

The Secretary of State said that the Bill was needed to put right aspects of privatisation. Even by his standards of accuracy, that is a pretty extraordinary claim, because everybody knows that there is one reason, and one reason only, why the Government have introduced the Railways Bill: it is because they need to put right one of their own blunders. The right hon. Gentleman lapsed into his slightly more patronising style, as he does from time to time, when he said that it was some years since I had been in government. That is absolutely true. It is also true that he has been in government for quite a long time. One of the hallmarks of people who have been in government for quite a long time is that they acquire a complete inability ever to admit any mistake by their Government.

The Secretary of State would have been a great deal more convincing this afternoon if he had recognised publicly even for an instant that the Strategic Rail Authority was an utter and total failure. It turned out to have no strategy, no railway and no authority. Five years ago the Deputy Prime Minister said:

I wonder how that ties in with the decision of the Strategic Rail Authority to end the dedicated Gatwick express. I thought the Gatwick express was quite a good example of integrated transport, so that an international traveller, coming off an overnight flight, is at least guaranteed a seat. But the SRA, the body which the Deputy Prime Minister himself said would put


 
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is proposing to put an end to the Gatwick express, so that international air travellers will come off an overnight flight and have to stand all the way to London because some commuter has got their seat, having got on the train at Hayward's Heath.

The quotation from the Deputy Prime Minister continued:

In 2001, Labour's election manifesto stated that the Strategic Rail Authority would provide a clear, coherent and strategic programme for the development of the railways so that passenger expectations are met. Just two years ago the Department for Transport's own review of the 10-year transport plan said that the SRA would provide

Today the Secretary of State is consigning the Strategic Rail Authority to the dustbin. Predictably, its failure has not led to a single ministerial resignation, even though £250 million of taxpayers' money has been wasted.

Jeremy Corbyn: As part of the public catharsis that he wants us all to go through, will the hon. Gentleman say a word about the fantastic costs of privatisation, the waste of resources that accompanied it, the sale of assets by Railtrack and the huge public subsidy to private rail operators that has often disappeared into profits? Does he not think that even a moment's apology for the privatisation strategy is worth giving at this time?

Mr. Yeo: Indeed, I intend to touch on some of those issues later in my speech. It is significant that none of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has just raised are among the areas of policy that the Government are proposing to change. They have accepted hook, line and sinker every one of the points about which the hon. Gentleman seems so upset. My concern was that the Secretary of State has not admitted to the House that the reason he has to introduce the Bill today is that the Government made a blunder of the hopes that they had for the Strategic Rail Authority. Those hopes turned out to be unfounded.

For the avoidance of doubt—the Secretary of State seemed rather confused on this point—the Conservative party does not oppose the abolition of the SRA, but we condemn the muddle and incompetence of a Government who have had to oversee such a massive U-turn in the centrepiece of their railway policy—a Government who, after almost eight years of responsibility for railways, find that the main change that they need to make is to reverse one of their own decisions.

There are some aspects of the Bill that we do accept, such as the transfer to the Office of Rail Regulation of the functions previously carried out by the Health and Safety Executive, but we have very strong objections to several parts of the Bill, as our amendment makes clear and as I shall explain. The fundamental problem is that the Bill gives politicians and bureaucrats far more say in running the railways. That is the precise opposite of what the Government should be doing. Indeed, the only
 
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hope for railways is leaving management to get on with providing the service that customers want without constant political interference. Unfortunately, nothing in the Bill—not a single clause—will make life better for passengers, make trains more reliable, encourage more investment in the railways or increase the amount of freight carried on the railways.

Mr. Darling: Purely as a matter of interest, where would the hon. Gentleman transfer the SRA functions on the awarding of franchises and so on?

Mr. Yeo: As I have implied, my view is that the companies that are closest to the customers should be given a bigger say, not a smaller one, in how the railways are run. I would discuss with the operating companies how the process of franchise allocation can best be made totally independent of political interference. The system that the Government have set up—I shall return to this point presently—increases the potential ministerial interference in franchise allocation. From a Government who have shown on more than one occasion that they are willing to bend policy in response to political supporters, donors to the Labour party and so on, the Bill introduces a highly dangerous situation.

Mr. Darling: If the hon. Gentleman wants to make franchise awarding independent of the Department and of Ministers, surely it means setting up another body or quango to do it?

Mr. Yeo: As I said, I propose that we will have discussions with the industry and with those who are most affected by this policy area about how to ensure that important decisions about the allocation of franchises are taken out of the hands of Ministers.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Yeo: In a moment.

It is not clear now what the Government think the railways are for. Are they there to carry commuters, run services between big cities, maintain rural and cross-country lines and to carry freight? Let us look at the record over the past seven and a half years, and in particular, compare it with what was said in the 10-year plan launched by the Deputy Prime Minister four years ago. According to that plan, trains were to be made more punctual. In practice, twice as many trains now run late as did so in 1997. According to the plan, the amount of freight carried on railways was to increase by 10 per cent. by 2010. In practice, in the past two years, the amount of freight carried has fallen. According to the plan, Thameslink 2000 and the East London line were both to be built by 2010. In practice, those targets cannot be met. Ministers promised that rail fares would not rise faster than inflation. In practice, they have done so, and the latest increase last week amounted to 4 per cent.—the second 4 per cent. rise in only two years. Last but not least, the British Transport police have just reported a worrying increase in violent crime on and near to the railways.

In summary, after seven and a half years of Labour government, train fares are up, trains are running later, freight is falling and new projects are either postponed or cancelled. Just last week, we learned that because
 
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Network Rail could not inform train operators of where it would be working on the lines over the Christmas holidays until extremely late in the day, the operators could not publish their Christmas timetables in a timely manner, thus making it hard for people both young and old, who particularly depend on the railways at this time of year to see their families, to make their plans.

I acknowledge that the situation on the railways is not bad in every respect. As the Secretary of State said, the number of passenger miles travelled is now at its highest for more than half a century. Investment in the railways has also risen sharply since the private sector became directly involved in their operation. Neither of those important achievements could possibly have occurred if the railways had remained entirely in the public sector, as the Secretary of State acknowledges.

I shall now set out some of our concerns about the Bill. First, as I said, it gives politicians more control over the railways. Let us start with London: more than two out of three of all train journeys begin or end in London, which is central to the success or failure of the railway system. If the Bill is passed, the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, will have a direct say in the running of all trains coming in and out of London, rather than trains that serve the Greater London area only. Clause 15 requires the Secretary of State to consult Ken Livingstone on how tenders for franchises are handled and allocated, on whom franchises are allocated to and on the terms on which franchises are allocated. It specifies that those powers, which Ken Livingstone will exercise, will apply to rail services anywhere in the country that begin or end in London.

I am glad that the Secretary of State is reading the Bill, because he may discover something that he did not acknowledge in his speech. Clause 15(7) defines a "London railway passenger service" as one which includes trains that travel to or from places outside Greater London. It is clear that the Secretary of State has not read the Bill, which he is examining with great interest. I know that he cannot wait for a Cabinet reshuffle—he has never shown great enthusiasm for his present brief—but he is deluding himself if he thinks that the Bill does not give Ken Livingstone the powers that I have described. If he thinks otherwise, he has obviously failed to read his own Bill.


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