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Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): Earlier, in answer to questions on the scrutiny of the Identity Cards Bill, the Leader of the House said that there was division in the Conservative party on the Bill, and I think he will recognise that there is also division in his own party. Is it not precisely the time when Parliament should give maximum time to scrutiny of legislation when those on the Back Benches and Front Benches are not speaking with one voice? That is when Parliament can fulfil its greatest function in ensuring maximum scrutiny of legislation. Was it not only yesterday that, in speaking to his own report to the House, the Leader of the House recognised that there are currently at least two hours less time for debate on Thursdays than on any other day of business? Why has he scheduled this measure, which is controversial and divisive in the House, for debate on a day when there is less time for scrutiny, and when the Bill itself has not had proper scrutiny in its Standing Committee?
Mr. Hain: I simply do not accept the charge as made. I have dealt with the point already, but let me look at the progress of the Identity Cards Bill a few days ago on 25 January. At column 228 of the Committee proceedings, the Chairman said:
"I am sure that the hon. Member for Cotswold will not be tempted to debate how many people live in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, because that is not relevant to the amendment".
I could go on and on for pages upon pages of the Official Report. The truth is that I can only assume that a deliberate attempt has been made by those who are opposed to the BillI do not really know whether the Conservatives are opposed to it, but the Liberal Democrats certainly are, and we will remind the electors of that at the next general electionto filibuster the Bill and then say that it has not been debated properly.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Leader of the House has shamefully described the proceedings in the Identity Cards Bill Committee as involving a filibuster. When the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) made that point to the Chairman of the Committee, however, he said:
Although it is correct that, from the time to time, the Chairmen, as they always do, have made particular points, there has been no single occasion in the whole of the passage of the Bill on which anybody has been successfully accused of filibustering. In fact, no Chairman would allow it. In those circumstances, should not the Leader of the House withdraw, as the Home Secretary had to do in November 2003, and apologise to the House and to the Chair for the way in which he has gone on?
Mr. Hain: Further to that point of order, when one looks at just one sitting of the Committee, the fifth sitting on Tuesday morning, and sees the string of interventions from the Chair calling the Committee to order, one sees that it is way beyond the normal practice of chairing a Committee. If what happened was not filibustering in the precise meaning of the term, it was pretty close to it.
Mr. Deputy Speaker:
Filibustering is a term that means different things to different people on different occasions. I am quite sure that the Chairman of the Committee would have called any Member to order if they were deliberately filibustering. I think that we ought now to leave the matter where it is.
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27 Jan 2005 : Column 473
Mr. Chope: The new clause would require proper consultation and discussion in respect of any proposal to withdraw first class passenger accommodation from an existing railway service. Discontinuing a first-class service would be put on a par with discontinuing any other service and trigger the consultation arrangements under part IV of the Bill.
Why is the new clause necessary? We believe that the Government have a covert agenda to ameliorate overcrowding on the railways by converting first-class accommodation to second class, instead of by expanding capacity.
Mr. Chope: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman thinks that the Heathrow Express is an example of a better form of practice. When faced with increasing demand it increased the number of carriages on each service from 8 am to 9 am. That, surely, is a better way of responding to increased demand than by eliminating first class.
If that is so, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that that should be the subject
27 Jan 2005 : Column 474
of consultation and discussion with people who use the airport and that service. If that is the proposal and it is coupled with the threat hanging over the Gatwick Express, it drives a coach and horses through the Government's lip service to integrated transport. We need to ensure that our main airport hubs are linked by good quality transport to the central conurbation. That includes ensuring that public transport is of sufficient quality to appeal to those who aspire to travelling first class, as I suspect most hon. Members do, certainly when they are on official parliamentary business.
Mr. Chope: Perhaps some of them are rich. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue his agenda for levelling down, let him join in the debate. Many people who use first-class accommodation are probably significantly less well off than he is, but choose to do so because they feel that if they were to travel standard class, as it is called, their health would be in jeopardy. A recent example was raised only yesterday in a debate in Westminster Hall of a pregnant lady who lost her child as a result of overcrowding on the train. We know that some of the more enlightened train operating companies, such as South West Trains, Thameslink and South Eastern Trains, offer complimentary first class upgrades to pregnant women holding season tickets when no seats are available in standard class. Obviously, they could not do that if there was no first-class accommodation.
Others using first-class accommodation have private or confidential work to do on the train, such as Government Ministers. Others choose to pay a premiuman unregulated fareto provide more space and comfort and a better chance of obtaining a seat. That is particularly true of people joining busy commuter lines at intermediate stations. On the line that I use between Christchurch and Waterloo, it is possible for people joining the train at Christchurch or Hinton Admiral to get a seat, but for those who join at Winchester, for example, it is almost impossible. Many people are prepared to pay a premium fare so that they can have a seat in first class. A similar situation arises on many commuter lines into Paddington, including the Chippenham and Didcot lines.
First-class accommodation is also used in connection with high value added tourism services, which are particularly important for rural economies. The Great Western mainline route utilisation strategy, published by the Strategic Rail Authority in January, contained the expression,
The Strategic Rail Authority said peak-time congestion on routes into London Paddington could be trimmed by converting premium accommodation to standard-class on turbo commuter trains and some high-speed services.
That is the sorry saga of this Bill and its background. It is a Bill to enable the Government to take control of a railway service which will be in decline in future because of a lack of investment. Because the Government have been embarrassed by the demand of the independent rail regulator, they have decided to circumvent the powers of that regulator and take more control of the service. That is why the Government are making themselves directly responsible for whether there will be first-class seats on mainline commuter services into London.
"The SRA strategy was criticised by consumer groups. Mike Greedy, of the Western England regional passenger committee, said, 'If we want major improvement in rail services, there has to be substantial investment. Otherwise we stand no chance at all of encouraging people to switch to rail from the car.'"
It is the Government's agenda and is explicit in the Bill that people like Mr. Greedy, who serve diligently on the regional passenger committee, will be out of a job because the Government are abolishing regional passenger committees and centralising them. It is much more convenient for the Government if there are no people like Mr. Greedy to comment on their actions.
I raised those issues in Committee. The Minister described my questions as "idle fantasies and speculation". He then went on to describe them as "patent nonsense". I sought an assurance that the Government would not allow train operators to withdraw first-class accommodation on long distance commuter services to London, but I received no reply. I have asked about this on other occasions and the Minister has ducked and weaved and refused to confront this important issue.
The new clause gives the Government a chance to clarify their intentions in relation to the future of first-class rail travel. It ensures that if there are to be changes involving perhaps the withdrawal of first class, those changes should first be subject to proper consultation with the travelling public, as is required under part IV of the Bill.
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