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We reached the point when the Conservative Government decided to privatise the industry. Did they get it completely right? No. We have acknowledged that from the Opposition Benches. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) acknowledged on several occasions that we would do some things differently. The industry was probably too fragmented. Various local operating companies did not have long enough to undertake the work; seven years was too short for specific contracts. It is a matter of common concern that too many experienced people who had
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worked for British Rail took the opportunity to leave the industry. That meant that it was bereft of many experienced people.
I am a veteran of the Transport Act 2000. Apart from the aspects that affected National Air Traffic Services and quality contracts with buses, it also created the Strategic Rail Authority. On Second Reading, the Deputy Prime Minister said:
"The Strategic Rail Authority will be the new guardian of the public interest: it will plug the loopholes in the Government's rail legislation, and will provide tough enforcement to protect the passenger."[Official Report, 20 December 1999; Vol. 341, c. 540.]
When other hon. Members and I asked in Committee from where people would come to work for the SRA, it was said that some of the BR people had transferred to the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions on privatisation and that they would doubtless work for the SRA. There was already a shadow authority, but the staff would move. Four years later, we are now suggesting that those people will move back to the Department. We are shuffling people around and the magic solution of four years ago has turned out not to be magic. As my hon. Friends said, the Government have acknowledged it to be a failure but it would have been better if they had not pursued it four years ago.
The major change has occurred through Railtrack's financial difficulties, leading to the creation of Network Rail. Several hon. Members have said that there is unfinished business to do with Network Rail, not only on public debt but on accountability. Many of us who have had dealings with Network Rail do not find it the most responsive organisation in the world when it tackles constituents' problems. Perhaps the Bill would be more welcome to Opposition Members if we were tidying up some of the details or at least aiming to do that when some of the legal actions had been expended.
Although privatisation was not perfect, it has led to a vast expansion in rail travel. As the Secretary of State said, we have more than 1 billion passengers for the first time since the 1960s and 45 per cent. more freight on the railways than in 1995. There has been much success and the Conservative Government who provided for that should be congratulated more. If there were a free vote on the matter, the result would be interesting because I suspect that many Labour Back Benchers hark back to the old BR days.
There are several other concerns. I was pleased when the Secretary of State reiterated at the beginning of the debate the duty on Government to promote the use of the railways for the carriage of passengers and goods, for which the Railways Act 1993 provides. I am glad that that remains in place; several people were worried about it. People are generally happy about provisions to allow the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Executive to prepare strategies for those parts of the United Kingdom but there is no reference to a railways strategy for England. That should be considered when the Committee examines the Bill in more detail.
As several hon. Friends said, the number of clauses that deal with closures is interesting. Clauses 22 to 44 deal primarily with closures and there is anxiety
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about what will happen in future. Concerns have been expressed about the community strategy and several hon. Members have mentioned Beeching. I therefore look to the Minister to provide reassurances, and perhaps a much broader explanation of the extent of the focus on closures, in his winding-up speech.
Several explanations have been given about accident reports and investigation. I will not dwell on that, but the subject causes concern. There is also anxiety about schedule 4 and the ability to determine the scope and size of the network. Concern exists about its general wording and especially proposed new paragraph 1G. It has been suggested that the provision, in granting the Secretary of State the ability to determine the scope and scale of the network, allows him to override private sector contracts, contrary to his undertaking to Parliament earlier this year. The Bill is silent on compensation if that were to happen and I hope that the Minister will comment on that.
We have a private sector industry that has done pretty well. It was not in a perfect state and, in retrospect, things could have been done better. The SRA was the Government's big idea. Earlier, I cited the Deputy Prime Minister's words on that. They were similar to those of the Secretary of State, who said that the Government were tidying up the problem and that, when they get rid of the SRA, they can sort things out. Yet the structure remains essentially the same as that that they inherited. The Government ought to back the system that they have inherited and stop fiddling around with other tiers. People would have rather more respect for them if they did that. At the moment, civil servants, having been transferred out of the Department for Transport to the SRA, are now being transferred back to the Department. Seven and a half years on, the private sector has been running the railways for longer under this Government than it did under the previous Conservative Government, and I think that people would expect the Government to have achieved rather more than they have done through the structural changes that they have introduced.
Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart) (Lab): Madam Deputy Speaker, I must begin by apologising to you and to the House for being absent for a short period at the start of this debate. My presence was once again required at a delegated legislation Committee.
I broadly welcome this new legislation. For the three years immediately before my election to the House, I worked as chief public relations and marketing officer for Strathclyde passenger transport executive. I note that, since I left, the executive faces being wound up and merged with a new organisation. Perhaps it is a tribute to my work there that those who make these decisions waited until I had gone before deciding to abolish it. Or perhaps not.
We must accept that there is a high level of public cynicism whenever a Governmenthowever well meaningtry to reform the railway system in this country. Politicians tend to talk in the abstract on this subject, while voters tend to talk in the specific. One example of that occurred a few weeks ago, when the
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hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) was telling a delegated legislation Committee about how awful the railways in Scotland were, based on his own recent experience of a delayed train journey. I pointed out to him that the Scotrail franchise had in fact performed better than all other rail franchises on the mainland of Great Britain, excluding the Isle of Wight. I accept his point, however, that a swathe of statistics will not provide much consolation for someone stuck on a delayed, dirty or cold train.
The main debating point so far today has been the abolition of the Strategic Rail Authority, and the House has the right to ask whether the Government got this one wrong in the first place. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) asked why the Government had not apologised for creating the SRA, only to abolish it four years later. This Government could learn lessons from the Conservatives in regard to instituting legislation that turns out to be wrong but refusing to accept that it is wrong. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), who came as close as any Conservative Member has done to apologising for the way in which the rail industry was privatised. However, his commentsconciliatory as they werewere in marked contrast to the belligerent tones of some of the other Conservative Members who have spoken today.
The answer from the Conservatives seems to be, "We maintain that we were right in everything that we have done." They ought, however, to accept that the general public see the privatisation of the rail industry as an unmitigated disaster. They should also examine the part that that privatisation played in their eventual electoral demise in 1997. There were clearly a number of factors involved, and the privatisation of the railways was only one small part of the fabric, but they should be aware that their own focus groups and internal pollingif they can still afford to carry out internal pollingwill surely provide evidence that the general public view is that privatisation in 1993 was an unambiguously bad thing.
I am glad to see that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) has returned to his place. It is one thing not to apologise for rail privatisation, but it is quite another for him to stand in this Chamber and claim that the capital value of the rail industry was so low when it was privatised because of scare tactics on the part of the Labour party. It beggars belief to suggest that the Labour party was in any way responsible for the disaster that was the Conservative rail privatisation.
Let us examine the history behind the Conservative Government's decision to privatise the railways. Baroness Thatcher had refused to privatise the industry because she recognised that it would be far too difficult and electorally unpopular. However, when the new Conservative leader, John Major, took office, he knew that because most of his support came from the right wing of his party, he had to prove his privatisation credentials. The rail industry was the obvious target, and he went ahead without taking due cognisance of the dangers and pitfalls that his predecessor had recognised. We are paying the penalty for that action today.
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The SRA has not been a success. It has achieved very little over the past four years, and at very high cost. Another change that is being proposed, alongside the abolition of the SRA, is a fundamental change to the way in which the Office of Rail Regulation works. It is remarkable that some Conservative Members seemed to suggest that taking away the powers to invest and to set budgets from the ORR and giving them to the Secretary of State for Transport was somehow undemocratic. You say "tomayto"; I say "tomahto". You say "political intervention"; I say "democratic accountability".
It was remarkable that the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) spent so much time criticising the fact that locally elected politicians, including the Secretary of State, who are accountable to the House were to be given more responsibility. Yet the Conservatives also criticised the fact that Network Rail was not accountable to shareholders. Apparently, it is perfectly acceptable for a company as important as Network Rail to be accountable, but unacceptable for democratically elected politiciansMembers of this Houseto be accountable in this regard. There is a fundamental flaw in the Conservatives' thinking on this issue.
I wish that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) were present in the Chamber this evening. He has very sound views on unelected quangos and commissionsI regard the SRA as suchhaving some kind sovereignty over this Chamber, and having the final say on budgets, which Members of Parliament do not have. The very idea that the Office of Rail Regulation can set budgets for investment in the rail industry, while this House is powerless to do so, would be anathema to the right hon. Gentleman, and I wish that I could hear his views on the matter. I am sure that they would be more in accord with mine and those of my hon. Friends than with those of his Conservative colleagues.
I hope that Conservative Members will accepteven in their opposition to the Billthat certain achievements are real and can easily be measured. Is the 28 per cent. increase in passenger miles since 1997the highest figure since 1946something that the Government should be ashamed of? Would the Conservatives wish to denigrate that? The 27 per cent. increase in passenger numbers, which have reached 1 billion for the first time since 1961, is also something about which we have every right to be proud. Furthermore, there has been a 27 per cent. increase in the amount of freight carried on the railways, which is important when we consider the need to cut congestion on our roads. Those achievements are to the credit of this Government, and it is simply not enough for the Conservatives to say that our stewardship of the rail industry has not been successful.
I want to take this opportunity, however, to point out that neither I nor the vast majority of Labour Back Benchers share the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) on the renationalisation of the rail industry. The travelling public are entitled to something a bit more substantial than the sterile old 1980s view that everything in the private sector is bad and everything in the public sector is goodor vice versa, depending on which side of the political spectrum we come from. I actually think that there is a third way. I think that there is a possibility of the genuine public-private partnership that the Government are trying to achieve.
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It is too easy to look at the effects of privatisation with blinkers on. It is too easy to say that privatisation is all about private profit and lack of investment in the industry. The facts do not support that. The truth is that there is more investment in the privatised rail industry today than there was under British Rail, partly because, pound for pound, public money is being matched by private investment. We should not give that investment away lightly, and we would lose it if we opted for renationalisation.
One example of the benefits of the current arrangement is Chiltern Railways, nowhere near my constituency. A local train service has blossomed and increased capacity and reliability specifically because of a local franchise that was withering on the vine under nationalisation. We should try to duplicate that best practice throughout the railway network.
I want to concentrate on the threat that the Bill poses to passenger transport executives. As I said, I am a former employee of Strathclyde PTE, which has existed for more than 30 years and is the oldest part of Scotland's local government set-up. Unfortunately, as we speak legislation is winging its way through the Scottish Parliament that will eventually abolish the PTE, or at least merge it with a wider body covering the whole of Scotland. I think that regrettable, because Strathclyde PTE's achievements speak for themselves. During its time in charge, there has been an unprecedented expansion in the Greater Glasgow rail network and in other train and underground services, not to mention ferry services.
I fear that, not just in Scotland but throughout the country, PTEs will lose their right to sign rail franchises. In Scotland the justification is that we have a Parliament, and Ministers in the Executive who are responsible for transport. Although I have reservations about that, there is a clear democratic argument for saying that Ministers rather than the PTE should have signatory powers. I understand that argument, but I would prefer Strathclyde PTE to continue to exist and to be co-signatory to the franchise in the west of Scotland, along with the Scottish Transport Minister. In England there are a number of passenger transport executives with a similarly successful track record, and although local services have improved under their stewardship they are being told that they will no longer have signatory rights following the Bill's enactment.
I hope that the Minister will deal with this when he sums up the debate. If the reason for removing signatory powers in England was the same as the reason for removing them in Scotlandthe prospect of a devolved Administrationwe could ask whether, given the difficulties in the roll-out of regional assemblies in England, the argument had not been somewhat weakened. Might the Government consider changing those provisions in Committee? If I am lucky enough to be appointed to the Committee, I shall hope to table amendments to that effect.
Ironically, in Scotlandparticularly in the west, where my constituency isbecause of devolution we face an immense amount of centralisation. In the context of this Bill and the Transport (Scotland) Bill, the situation is bizarre: having started with devolution, we are ending up with the centralisation of services. At present, passenger transport decisions are made by democratically elected councillors in the westin
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Glasgow. Those decisions affect the daily travel of members of the public, including my constituents. Following the changes made by the two Bills, they will be made in Edinburgh by the Transport Minister, who is currently an MSP representing an Aberdeen constituency. I think my constituents have a right to be concerned about the fact that local knowledge developed over 30 years by Strathclyde PTE will be wasted, and they will no longer have any say over their own affairs.
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