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Mr. Hopkins: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems for the rolling stock manufacturers is that they do not have stable ordering programmes? Planning is required at a national level to guarantee stable orders for a long-term future.
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Mrs. Dunwoody: I agree. Indeed, the Government should accept that we must have a research unit—including manufacturers, universities with transport departments and the industry generally—that plans new rolling stock, freight services and new provision across the board. We are investing the cash, but we are losing jobs. People in the industry have the right to expect that their expertise be not ignored or forgotten. I am sad that the Bill contains no indication of any such development in the future.

The changes in the Bill are long overdue. The SRA, for reasons that are well known, was not working. It did not have the powers and it was not capable of translating imaginative leadership into practical results for the rail industry. We desperately need decisions to be taken now. There are worries about the removal of powers from the PTEs to sign rail franchises and the granting of franchises to those who run bus companies; those concerned regard rail and bus services as parallel and do not understand the differences between them. However, the Bill offers an opportunity to begin to bring the benighted rail industry into shape, so that passengers no longer have to demonstrate stoic resignation in the face of difficulties, but can say cheerfully that this is the first Government to commit large sums of money to the   issue, the first to show imagination about the rail industry's problems and the first to deliver the goods.

6.26 pm

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): The general thesis of this debate is that Britain's rail network is in a mess. That mess is of the Government's making. Even if Labour Members dispute that and claim that it owes something to privatisation, it is no justification for the Government to claim that it has nothing to do with them. The Government have had seven years to do something. To try to blame the mess on other people after all that time is total nonsense. The British railway system is in a mess and the Government have been the main architects of that.

The Bill will make matters worse rather than better. I am content to support some items in the Bill, but overall I oppose it. As the representative of the usual channels who will sit on the Committee, and unfettered by the rules that apply to my opposite numbers, I will be able to explain in some detail why I do so.

Mr. Tom Harris: The hon. Gentleman opposes this Bill and I understand that he also opposed the previous Act. Would he have been content for the 1997 situation to continue unchanged?

Mr. Wilshire: Of course I want to see the railways improved, but this Bill is the not the right way to go about it. If the hon. Gentleman is lucky enough to have to put up with me in Committee again, he will hear in some detail exactly why I think he is wrong and my party is right.

The Bill is an admission by the Government of their failures. In 2000, the Government told us that they had the answer to the railways' problems—the SRA. We did not think that the SRA was a good idea, and it gives me little satisfaction to say, "We told you so." We were told that the SRA was the solution, yet—without apology
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from the Secretary of State—we are now told that it is the cause of the trouble. The Government have failed, but either they cannot see that or they have the brass neck not to say sorry. That is a bit much.

The Bill also shows a failure to understand a basic truth that I like to think most people have now grasped. It is that politicians and bureaucrats are useless at running businesses. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) is no longer in his place, because I listened with amazement—and a little amusement—to his contribution. It appears that dinosaurs are not extinct yet. The thrust of his argument was that nationalised businesses are good and the private sector is evil.

I thought about that for a moment, while the hon. Gentleman began to talk a load of other nonsense, and I realised that what I had heard from the Labour Benches was an argument that vehicle makers—the makers of aircraft, cars, trams and trains—should be nationalised because they are in the private sector, that private sector road builders and road repairers should be nationalised, and that airport builders and operators should be nationalised because they apparently do not work, according to the hon. Member for Luton, North. Of course, using the same argument that only nationalised businesses are any good if they are involved in transport, he would presumably advocate the nationalisation of airlines, bus operators and taxi operators. It is nice to know that good old-fashioned, left-wing Labour flourishes.

Jeremy Corbyn rose—

Mr. Wilshire: Ah.

Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) is not in the Chamber, but one should give credit to his argument, which I support. The railways and the buses in particular in this country would not survive but for the massive public investment in them and public support for those services. Some £10 billion invested in rail subsidies has resulted in £1 billion of profit to the private sector. Is that a good return on public money?

Mr. Wilshire: I disagree with that argument. Just because someone puts up the money does not mean that they must own everything. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Luton, North has returned to the Chamber. I am sorry that he missed my comments, and I am sure that he will thoroughly enjoy reading them in Hansard in the morning.

Not only does the Bill fail to address past mistakes, but it will make at least another mistake that will make matters worse: it will give the Mayor of London more power. I take the strictures suggested by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) not to give names to those people, but the Bill will give the Mayor of London, whoever it may be—the hon. Lady might want to stand for that post one day, who knows?—more power, particularly over things outside London. I shall say why that is a huge mistake in a moment. I worry about another issue that I fear could be a mistake. Again, I shall explain it in a moment. I am worried that, rather than improving safety, the Bill might run the risk of making matters worse in some respects.
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As for the main part of the Bill—the abolition of the SRA—the Secretary of State said that things had gone wrong in the past, but he could not bring himself to say that the SRA was a disaster. It was a good thing—so good that he wants to abolish it. When I intervened on him about that, he accused me of not understanding the reasoned amendment tabled by the Conservative party. Despite the fact that the Secretary of State said that the reasoned amendment says that we want to keep the SRA, try as I might— reading and re-reading it—I have failed to find the words "We want to keep the SRA." The Secretary of State was wrong in attributing something to the reasoned amendment that simply is not there. All we say in respect of the SRA is that, in abolishing it, the Government are giving powers to politicians and bureaucrats. That is what we are against in relation to the SRA, as our reasoned amendment makes clear.

The SRA was not only ineffective, but a waste of money. Let us simply look at the facts of the matter. The Office of Passenger Rail Franchising cost the British taxpayer £13 million and employed 187 staff in 2000–01—its last year in existence before its replacement by the SRA. We are now asked to abolish its replacement, which costs the British taxpayer £102 million and employs 454 people. Not only was the SRA a failure, but it was a waste of time and money too.

I am only too pleased to support the abolition of the SRA in principle—to that extent, I support what the Government propose in the Bill—but I am not happy to pass the responsibility upwards to politicians and bureaucrats. I want the responsibilities and work passed downwards to where they can really make a difference—to the travelling public.

Mr. Hopkins: I am following what the hon. Gentleman says; but in effect, this noble House keeps being maligned. Ultimate accountability will be closer to the House, so we will have some say in the costs and the running of the railways. We do not have that say now.

Mr. Wilshire: One must distinguish the input of taxpayers' money from the operation of the service. I do not understand what is gained by passing responsibility and accountability for what the passengers must endure to the House. I accept that the hon. Gentleman is a regular passenger, but he has an input to make not in his capacity as the Member for Luton, North, but as a regular user of train services. The real accountability for the railways ought to lie with the people who depend on them and use them, not with politicians, because our record—I almost said track record, but I ask the House to forgive that sort of pun—in these matters is not something that we can be proud of.

The issue of the SRA, politicians and bureaucrats is not the only thing that concerns me; I am also concerned about giving more responsibilities to Network Rail—that wonderful, unaccountable organisation. We are not quite sure what it is, who is in it or how it is established, but the one thing that it is not is accountable to anyone. The White Paper made a fair point when it said that the franchise operators tended to try to pass the buck and that, somehow or other, they could wriggle around their responsibilities by pointing the finger at Network Rail.
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What is the wondrous solution that the Government come up with? They want to make it easier for the franchise operators to say, "Nothing to do with me, guv." As we go through the Bill, we discover that Network Rail will be responsible for the performance of the railways. The people who operate the trains should be responsible for that. The Government will make Network Rail responsible for planning. Again, the people who operate the railways should be responsible for that.

Worst of all, the Government will make Network Rail responsible for the timetables. I find that quite extraordinary. If a train does not arrive or something is changed, my constituents rightly complain to South West Trains, asking, "What do you think you're playing at?" In the future, South West Trains and the other companies will say, "Nothing to do with us. This is what we were told to do." That is the exact opposite of making the franchise operators more accountable. Network Rail's job is to hold the operators to account, not to take the responsibility itself. When responsibility is removed, those involved become irresponsible.

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