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Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): We have had an interesting debate and heard some high-quality contributions from both sides of the House.

The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) said that he hoped the Bill was a step towards the sanity of public ownership. I say to him that this step will never be a staircase. As we and the Ministers know, the reason why is that, to quote the words of the Secretary of State,

I fear that the hon. Gentleman's aspirations for the old-style wholesale nationalisation of the railway network will not be fulfilled, whatever happens to the Bill.

The theme of the speech made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) was that railways should contribute more than they currently do. Most of us would agree. He accepted the case for developing the way in which franchises work. We welcome his support for Conservative policy on longer franchises. We feel that longer franchises should be given to train operating companies, but I was disappointed with his conclusion that he intends to support the Bill.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) made an interesting and, as we would expect, informed contribution. She lamented the idea that she was not demonised by Opposition Members, but she is far too sensible and down to earth to be so caricatured. She spoke against bus substitution and expressed fears about loss of expertise in the rolling stock industry. That point struck a chord with Opposition Members and with me in particular, as I formerly represented the seat of Derby, North. I hope that Ministers will heed her comments about expertise in the industry.

My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) wants an apology from the Secretary of State on the SRA. The best advice I can give to my hon. Friend is not to hold his breath. He made a powerful speech, and his main concern was that Transport for London and the Mayor have plans to take over rail routes in his constituency. I share his fear that, in the case of the current Mayor of London, consultation would not lead to dialogue, but would be a process of going through the motions before the Mayor continued on his own way in any event.

My hon. Friend expressed some concerns about safety. I hope and believe that his concerns were unfounded, as I broadly agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) on this subject. Subject to what the Minister has to say under cross-examination in the Standing Committee—if we get that far—I think that the Government are broadly right in seeking to streamline the proposals in that regard.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), who was courteous enough to say that he could not join us for the winding-up speeches, spoke movingly about the recent accidents. We all take the view that any loss of life is a tragedy that we should take all reasonable steps to prevent. I hope that the Minister will look into the point raised by the hon. Gentleman
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about the emergency hammers breaking before the windows of the carriages in the recent crash, because we clearly need to examine that matter.

I cannot say that the hon. Member for Teignbridge took me with him when he suggested that we should fit seat belts to trains. That idea is a non-starter in a mode of transport in which people expect to move around freely and use facilities such as the buffet car or the lavatory in other parts of train. He also mentioned other aspects of safety; those points need to be examined and, as I have said, I hope that the Minister will do so.

The hon. Members for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) and for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) supported the Government, which we expected. However, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East was unfair when he referred to the "sterile debates of the old days". I hope that I shall make it clear—I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) made it clear—that we support parts of the Bill, which we do not seek to oppose this evening just because it is from a Labour Government.

Mr. George Howarth: The right hon. Gentleman will find that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) said that, not me.

Mr. Knight: I stand corrected.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) said that he has always had reservations about the Strategic Rail Authority, and his misgivings have been proved to be right.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart was frank enough to praise the last Conservative Government on passenger transport executives, for which I thank him. He also candidly indicated that he has some reservations about how devolution is working, and I therefore hope that he is one of the hon. Members selected to go on the Standing Committee, so we can explore in further detail the extent of his concerns.

The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) said that he is worried about the future of our railways and mentioned one or two constituency points.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) expressed strong concern about the Government's policy. He showed an independence of mind and spirit, which, I fear, may keep him off the Standing Committee. I hope that I am wrong and that the Whips are brave enough to put a dissenting voice on the Labour Benches, because our deliberations would be enhanced by his presence, which some would say is the true voice of the Labour party.

In a knowledgeable and compelling speech, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) highlighted the hands-on role envisaged in the Bill and the problems that that policy will create. I agreed with every word and he underlined the reasons why we are right to urge the Government to embrace longer franchises. He made an interesting point about clause 6, and I hope that the Minister is prepared to respond to it. What will be the status of the guarantees and loans? Will Network Rail's liabilities end up as part of the public sector borrowing requirement, and if not, why not?
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The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) showed that he is, as Conservative Members would expect, firmly in the Luton, North and Hayes and Harlington camp.

Jeremy Corbyn: It is the red triangle.

Mr. Knight: As someone who is interested in classic cars, I have always associated the red triangle with Alvis, which used to make cars in Coventry. On the subject of old cars, I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to our former colleague, Bob Cryer, who campaigned tirelessly for the Settle to Carlisle railway to remain open. That is an epitaph of which he would have been proud.

The Bill has various objectives, and we certainly do not oppose everything in it, as we have made clear.

Only two years ago, in 2002, the current team of Ministers promised that the SRA would provide

However, in February this year the Select Committee on Transport reported a completely different story—that the SRA

It also made it clear that

Hon. Members may recall that the SRA took over responsibilities from the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising, which my party set up when we were last in Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne mentioned the statistics. In 2000–01, that office cost the taxpayer £13 million and employed 187 people. By 2003, the SRA's staffing costs had grown to £102 million, and by 2004 it employed no fewer than 454 people. In operating costs alone, the SRA has cost us all more than £25 million since it was established in 2000.

Despite costing so much, the SRA has manifestly failed to do its job. The Minister need not just take my word for it; the facts are there to prove it. Train reliability is worse than it was in 1997. Despite this Government's pledge to increase rail usage by 50 per cent. by 2010, only 5.8 per cent. growth has been achieved since 2000. The British Transport police's 2004 annual report showed a 4 per cent. increase in violent crime and a 12 per cent. increase in sexual assaults since 2003. Rail freight has dropped for the past two years, despite a promise by Ministers to increase by 10 per cent. the amount of freight carried. It is therefore hardly surprising that we say that the SRA has been a waste of time and money. It has failed to improve services for passengers and should never have been established in the first place.

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