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Mr. Stringer: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the regulated system that existed in London before it had a Mayor worked better than in the other metropolitan areas? It lost virtually no passengers between 1985 and 1999, when other cities lost 30 to 40 per cent. of their passengers; and before Mayor Livingstone, there was no subsidy. It was not a perfect system, but it worked better than elsewhere in the country, and we should have the benefit of that kind of system.

Mr. Field: I accept that. The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that I consider Manchester to be this country's second city, partly because my in-laws live in Wilmslow, about 12 miles away from it. That is probably also why I can pronounce the name of the hon. Gentleman's constituency better than most southerners. He makes an entirely fair point. London's bus system has been pretty sophisticated, and regulation has helped. Transport for London does a good job in that regard, but there is a cost to be paid.

In central London, in particular, we have the problem of an enormous number of services, particularly in places such as Oxford street and Trafalgar square,
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where one sees bus after bus. That reminds me of what happened after the much-criticised deregulation of the market. In the mid-1980s, Oxford, where I was an undergraduate, had a massively deregulated market, and it was well-known that in Cornmarket one would see eight or nine buses from different companies all heading out towards London within five minutes of one another.

Here in London, things are not quite so simple. I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to what was said by Labour Members and by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, who made a powerful case in relation not only to public safety but the broadening out of the use of our railways. That will be an important step forward if we are to get as much traffic off our roads as possible. The issue goes well beyond passenger traffic, as we also need to get as much freight as possible off our roads and on to rail.

Congestion is not only a problem for central London. Within the next few weeks, there will be a referendum on congestion charging zones in Edinburgh, and that may happen in other parts of the country. The railways must be part of the solution in the months, years and decades ahead.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): The hon. Member for Christchurch mentioned the case of Mrs. Janice Norman, the lady who lost her baby after being poked in the stomach while travelling a few weeks previously. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) has been pursuing the matter. When I raised it in Committee, I was reassured by what the Minister said and therefore withdrew my new clause on a campaign for considerate commuting. I do not necessarily accept that there is a link between that case and travelling first class.

I am attracted to the new clause not on health grounds but on the simple premise that where a service is introduced with certain criteria, and that service is to be withdrawn, it is right that the public should have an opportunity to be consulted.

Moreover, we know from the figures on traffic growth that it stems mostly from more affluent drivers, and if we are to persuade them to come off the road and get on to the train, it will often be necessary to provide a premium service.

I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response.

2 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) for explaining the point of new clause 1. However, I do not support his aim or the conspiratorial fantasies that lie behind it and I have grave reservations about the practical effect of the new clause.

The discontinuance provisions in part 4 are designed to deal with proposals to do away with a passenger service or close a station or part of the network. Those are specific matters. To protect passengers' interests, the procedures that have to be followed in those circumstances are set out in the Bill and are rightly rigorous. They rightly received a good deal of scrutiny in Committee. On the other hand, withdrawing first-class accommodation from a particular route or service might
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affect some passengers. However, there is a difference for a community between having a rail service that is more or less convenient than the existing one and having no service. The procedures in part 4 are designed to deal with only the latter.

I am also concerned about the practicalities. There is no incentive to take away first-class accommodation where it is well used and every incentive for the operator to get the balance right for the benefit of all customers. That makes sense if it is thought through. There is no sense in requiring operators to run trains with almost empty first-class seats when there is little demand and at times when standard-class passengers cannot get a seat. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's concern has been prompted by First Great Western's route utilisation strategy, which includes proposals to alter the mix of first and standard-class seating on some routes. If that is implemented, it would be a further factor for consideration in addition to the train operating companies' commercial judgment.

However, the essential principle still applies: imposing a statutory procedure will seriously inhibit operators' flexibility to respond to changing demand and others' ability to propose to them that they might do so. Although the new clause might appear to defend the interests of specific sets of passengers, it does nothing for passengers as a whole—first-class, standard-class, steerage or whatever else exists—because it would restrict operators' flexibility to respond to the passengers about whom the hon. Gentleman seems to be concerned.

The proposal also appears to raise some complicated issues of definition, because it refers simply to first class. There is no industry-wide definition of first class. At least one operator has no first class as such, but offers a choice of standard and club. The new clause would not cover that. Others have intermediate categories such as silver standard. Again, the new clause does not reflect that. Each offers the passenger a slightly different package, and even when first-class accommodation is advertised as such, the precise service varies from operator to operator.

Those who want to travel first class do not do so in the hope that there will be three first-class carriages on a train; they simply want a seat in first-class accommodation. It does not matter to the business community, or whoever the hon. Gentleman meant, whether three carriages or one carriage separate them from the riff-raff—the clear implication of his remarks—so long as they get the service for which they paid. That only reinforces my view that we should avoid statutory constraints on operators' commercial freedom to offer different services and that any attempt to impose them would throw up serious problems of definition and practicality.

In short, the new clause is impracticable as well as undesirable, and I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.

Let me deal with the other amendments briefly. Amendment No. 52 would impose a new duty on the Rail Passengers Council to provide a report on the economic, environmental and social costs and benefits of a closure proposal as part of the material accompanying a reference to the Office of Rail Regulation in clause 32.
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I take the points that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) made, but I believe that the amendment is unnecessary because the initiator of the proposal would already have carried out such an assessment. That body, either an operator or railway funding authority, is under a duty to assess the effects of a closure proposal according to the closures guidance that the Secretary of State, Scottish Ministers and the National Assembly for Wales, as the case may be, have a duty to provide under clause 42.

Earlier this week, I sent the Chairman of Standing Committee A, which deliberated on the Bill, a note setting out current thoughts on the contents of the closures guidance. A copy is in the Library. The note states that any assessment of a closure proposal should cover the costs and benefits of environmental, economic, safety, accessibility and integration effects. Those of course include the effects on passengers, freight users and operators, as well as on the environment. Assuming that the Bill obtains Royal Assent, we shall consult on the draft closures guidance before the main network modification provisions are brought into force. The Office of Rail Regulation's role is to ensure that the assessment is carried out in accordance with the guidance and that it meets any criteria in it. That provides important independent input into the procedures.

Requiring the Rail Passengers Council to do a similar assessment could put considerable strain on its resources only to replicate work that has already been done. I therefore accept the thrust and import of the amendment but believe that, although the hon. Gentleman's points were well made, the headlines of the closures guidance that we have already issued cover them. I hope that he accepts that.

Amendment No. 53 appears to intend to exclude freight services from the network modification procedures in the Bill. Again, I respectfully suggest that that is unnecessary as the provisions in the Bill for discontinuing services apply only to passenger services, as do the current procedures—which we seek to replicate in the new settlement for the industry—in the Railways Act 1993.

However, that is most definitely not to say that freight operators or customers have no input into the network modification procedures. The note on closures guidance clearly states our intention that the final guidance will make it clear that, if freight services are affected by a closure proposal, the impact on freight users and operators must be assessed and taken into account when developing the proposals. Furthermore, if freight operators are affected by the proposal, schedule 7(3)(2)(k) provides for a statutory duty to consult them. I would also expect freight customers to be consulted under those circumstances. Although the network modification elements of the measure refer specifically to passenger services, other components protect the role of freight on rail lines and parts of the network.

Let me deal with the amendments to clause 39. We have a sort of dichotomy, because one amendment would remove it altogether and the other would extend it to light rail and other guided systems. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester,
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Blackley (Mr. Stringer) that amendment No. 30 would make more sense had amendment No. 29 also been selected.

With regard to amendment No 5, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) tabled, I accept the concerns, which are rooted in history, about all the promises that were made at the time of Beeching for a host of bus services to replace many of the rail lines that were to close. The substitution of buses was either not forthcoming or happened for only a short time.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley said, there is a regulatory framework in statute in the Transport Act 2000, suitably adjusted with regard to timing. We made it clear in the July White Paper on the role of transport in the broader sense, not the rail White Paper, that we are trying to encourage authorities, especially in urban areas, to devise far-sighted, radical and integrated transport packages for all modes of transport. In that context, we would be happy to make the bus service operators grant and other elements available to the authorities so that they had far more control over the buses and could replicate something similar to the semi-regulated position that pertains in London.

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