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Mr. Tom Harris: The right hon. Gentleman is being somewhat selective in his choice of statistics. Is it not the case that rail freight has increased by 28 per cent. since 1997?

Mr. Knight: The figures that I quoted are correct. If the hon. Gentleman checks, he will find that rail freight has dropped for the past two years.

Mr. Harris: I am talking about the past seven years.
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Mr. Knight: That does not invalidate my point that there is currently a dip, which my hon. Friends and I find very worrying.

The clear leadership and direction that Labour promised that the SRA would provide has never remotely looked like happening. Therefore, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk said, we welcome its proposed abolition. The Secretary of State asked why we did not put that in our reasoned amendment. I should tell the Minister—perhaps he can pass it on to the Secretary of State—that when one tables a reasoned amendment, one has to set out reasons why a Bill should not receive a Second Reading; one cannot list parts of it with which one is content. That is why our amendment is silent on that particular issue.

Our view is that giving more power to politicians is not the way to improve our railways. Likewise, allowing the currently unaccountable Network Rail to have even more control will not improve services. Although we are delighted to see the demise of the SRA, giving more powers to the Department will not help operators to get on with the job of providing a decent and improved rail service. More powers should be given to the train operating companies, which provide the passenger interface, so that they can provide a greater range of services that better meet the needs of travellers. After the political interference that the railways have endured for the past seven years, private industry needs to be given the confidence to invest without further Government meddling.

I want to comment briefly on rail freight, about which the Bill is strangely silent. With the disappearance of the SRA, no organisation appears to have a statutory obligation to promote or facilitate the growth of rail freight. I ask the Minister whether that is correct. People outside have expressed concerns that, by excluding rail freight from much of the measure, the Government risk leaving freight strategy in a vacuum, with nobody taking responsibility for it.

The people who contacted me say that if the Bill is enacted in its current form, no official voice will represent freight and fight its corner when network capacity is allocated. Does the Minister accept that the allocation of available capacity to freight and passengers must be assessed fairly and according to value for money and national best interests? The incentive to maximise capacity must surely be equal for freight and passenger services. Their performance should be measured on the amount of freight and passengers they can manage efficiently on the network. No provision attempts to deal with that and I would welcome hearing the reason from the Minister.

Like the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, I want to comment on rail stock. As hon. Members know, the National Audit Office published a report in February that suggested that new rail rolling stock was being delivered late. It warned that new carriages being introduced into service were less reliable than the old slam-door vehicles that they replaced. Trains not only arrive late at the stations but cannot even arrive from the factory on time. Why should passengers have to put up with old, uncomfortable and sometimes dirty rolling stock while manufacturers take up to two and a half years to deliver new trains? Clearly, people will not use the railways if they are uncomfortable while travelling and feel dirty on arrival at their destination.
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I want briefly to mention access to rail services by disabled people. That point has not been raised in the debate. Although I accept that other legislation is primarily responsible for delivering results on that matter, I would like the Minister to comment on the proposed end date by which all rail vehicles have to be accessible to disabled people. Do the Government have anything new to say about the requirement for improving disability access when rail vehicles are refurbished? Does that happen in every case? The issue is important for many disabled people who would like to travel by rail but currently cannot do so in safety.

I want to ask the Minister several questions. Clauses 22 to 44—22 provisions—deal with closures. They do not refer to the relevant lines but to the passenger services on them. The Bill includes nothing about what happens to the lines after a service is terminated. If a line currently carries freight or might do so in future, surely it should be kept open, at least for a time, to ascertain whether others want to increase the services or other companies wish to take up and run passenger services. Does the Minister agree?

Schedule 4 covers the Secretary of State's power to determine the scope and size of the network. There is some concern about its wording, especially proposed new paragraph 1G. It has been suggested that the provision might allow the Secretary of State, in determining the scope and scale of the network, to override private sector contracts, contrary to his undertakings. I do not believe that that is possible or in the Minister's mind but I would welcome an answer to that point.

In opening the debate, the Secretary of State said that he intended to consult about safety. Will the Minister tell us when he expects the consultations to be concluded? The Secretary of State also referred to the desirable aim of getting track and train companies to work ever closer together but went on to say that the Bill does not provide for that. Will the Minister regularly update the House on progress, perhaps through a periodic written statement?

On the provisions relating to London, and to giving powers to the current Mayor, I should like to reiterate something that my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk said earlier; we do not support these provisions. Two thirds of all train journeys arrive in or pass through London, leaving millions of passengers from outside the capital facing possible interference by the Mayor in their train services. For example, in an election year, it might suit the Mayor of London—whoever he is—to require a fast, non-stop train to halt at the edge of London to pick up mayoral voters. Passengers might also find their fares being increased to pay for increased expenditure on other services authorised by the Mayor. These are not fanciful concerns. The Bill says:

In our view, that drafting is far too vague. Will the Minister consent to look at it again in Committee, with a view to tightening it up?

We have heard about only part of the Government's transport policy in this debate. The Secretary of State likes to put himself forward as a benign, friendly, white-
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haired gentleman—[Hon. Members: "He's Santa!"] I would not call him Santa, although that is certainly a gentleman we think of at this time of year. The House should remember, however, what the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) said earlier this year. I notice that, following his remarks, that particular Minister has now been shunted off into the sidings in another Department. He said that the only way to end Britain's love affair with the car and to get people to use public transport was to

That is the real Labour transport policy. The Government want to use taxation as a weapon to make one form of transport unaffordable, so that people have no choice but to take the train. We believe that it is far better to improve rail services, so that those who can complete their journey by rail actually want to do so. Labour's high-tax transport policy is a kick in the teeth for poor rural families and pensioners, for whom there are no rail services for their essential journeys.

Overall, this is a bad Bill, but it is not completely without merit. We support the abolition of the SRA and the streamlining of health and safety issues. However, in supporting those proposals, we do not have to accept the vehicle of this Bill. That is why we commend the reasoned amendment to the House.

9.32 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty): This long and interesting debate on the future of rail is long overdue. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) summed up the Opposition's position when he condemned the Bill as being a bad Bill, but not completely without merit. That is roughly where the Conservatives came in, with similar views being expressed by the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo).

I thought that the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire was going to pre-empt me when he said that the Secretary of State had revealed only part of our strategy. That much he got right, but he then went on to give his little rhetorical political rant, which did him no service at all. He was right to say that the Bill does not, and cannot, incorporate all the elements in the White Paper published in July. Many of those elements do not need legislation, and the Bill needs to be considered in that broader context. So I half accept the point that he half made.

Of course we should more readily apprise people of the fact that we are introducing the Bill in the context of a whole range of things happening in each area, many   of which are already in the public domain. Subsequently, as with so much legislation these days, a whole raft of guidance and regulations will flow from the Bill, and I am happy to undertake—as I did last year with the Traffic Management Bill—to ensure that, if we can, we will make available at least the headlines and drafts of those instruments that explain further what is in the Bill, albeit in the wider non-legislative context, to Committee members at the earliest opportunity.

It is important to understand—some Members may not have understood it entirely, not that I blame them—where the Bill and each part of it sit in a wider domain. Let me establish the policy backdrop. It is easy to
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characterise the rail network as all doom and gloom, and to suggest that everything is as terrible as it was 20 or 30 years ago because the system has been starved of investment. I do not deny that there are problems—if there were not, there would be no need for a Bill—but we are starting from a fairly robust position. I agree with those who have said that we can have a degree of confidence about the future of rail.

When I took over the rail portfolio barely a couple of weeks ago, I said that this was an exciting and interesting time at which to be a rail Minister, and I meant it. Had I said that five or 10 years ago, the white coats of the former right hon. Member for Huntingdon would have come flapping over the horizon, or I would have been quietly taken out of the back door and shot; but it is an interesting time, and it is incumbent on us all to recognise that that is our starting point. Over the past 10 years, our rail network has experienced more significant growth than any other European network, and I would venture to say that once the Bill is implemented, Britain's railways will be in a far better shape than any of their European counterparts.

I do not say that lightly. I know that Members may jump up and tell me how wonderful the French TGV network is, but let them try to travel from one French coast to the other without it. It may be the jewel in the crown, but we should look behind it at the rest of the network. Those who talk of the paucity of the rural network here should go to parts of Germany, France and Spain.

We have concluded that the SRA has had its day, but not on the basis that for four years it was a complete and utter waste of time and achieved nothing, and the sooner it goes the better. That would traduce the contribution of many who have worked in the SRA, and will continue to work in the rail industry in some capacity. It is nonsense to suggest that because 400 or 500 employees are part of a monster called the SRA they are not making a professional contribution in the same way as workers in the wider industry. It could be said, to an extent, that we are only able to improve our public policy contribution to the railways because of the SRA's good work. If that constituted a bridge from the immediate aftermath of the botched privatisation, what we are now building is a bridge to where the system is all the more efficient—a point at which we can drive costs down all the more readily.

Every key part of the Bill relates to non-legislative elements that should be understood and put in context. The early clauses relate to the SRA's demise, and at the time of First Reading we put in the public domain what we sought to do and what the DFT rail unit would look like. It is a travesty, and not terribly intelligent, to use the generic term "civil servants" as a term of abuse. Many people working in the DFT have been there for at least 30 years, and have served the rail industry in various ways for a long time. I do not think it very clever to reduce every civil servant to an interfering bureaucrat.

As we have made clear, the new DFT rail unit will consist of people from the current rail unit and people from the SRA. Whatever Members think of the relevant clause, they should understand that developments are taking place that are not included in the Bill.
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It is important, too, to understand that a range of working parties and transitional bodies are taking forward work on safety regulation and on economic regulation, necessarily taking account of the elements in the Bill. However, many other aspects are not in the Bill. For example, in terms of safety regulation, we are working through how all the staff involved in rail safety at the Health and Safety Executive will transfer to ORR. There are still some general concerns under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 that HSE will be obliged to continue. There will be a need for a memorandum of understanding between HSE and ORR in that regard. Where there are memorandums of understanding and other elements that link the non-legislative and the legislative processes, it is important that we try to put those in the public domain.

There has been extensive talk in Scotland, Wales, the PTEs and London about how to take all those aspects forward. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State suggested, in some areas, many of the elements are in place now. Transfer can take place far more readily in the Scottish example than in the Welsh, London or PTE examples.

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