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Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I rise to speak to amendment No. 64, which would add to the end of clause 5(2) the phrase

A duty would thereby be imposed on Scottish Ministers, in preparing or revising a strategy, to publish in full their reasons for so doing.

We live in an age of openness and—I like to think—fairness, and everything that we do should at least be within the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act. The public have a right to know why decisions are made using their money in their name, and the amendment would impose a duty on Scottish Ministers to ensure that whenever they publish or change a strategy, they explain why.

I hope that the Minister will tell me and the House that my amendment is not necessary because she expects the giving of such explanations to be best practice. If she does, I shall be delighted not to pursue the matter further.

John Thurso : Was the right hon. Gentleman referring to the Westminster Freedom of Information Act 2000 or to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002?
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Mr. Knight: My general point was that in the enlightened age in which we now live, one hopes, an increasing number of decisions made involving the use of public money are open to scrutiny.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) made the case for new clause 3 very well, but nothing that he said led me to conclude that we should support him if he decides to divide the House on it.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Anne McGuire): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) for explaining the point of his new clause, which is that this Bill should make the same provision for passenger transport executives in Scotland as for those in England.

I, too, remember fondly our days as members of Strathclyde regional council many years ago, on which we both served our political apprenticeship. If I remember correctly, he had to serve his slightly longer than I served mine, before moving on to other things.

2.45 pm

I accept what my hon. Friend said about the approach of Strathclyde PTE, and I should make it clear that I highlighted those points in responding to my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) and for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Rosemary McKenna), who have raised similar issues before. That PTE was forward-thinking and was at the forefront of providing integrated transport. As my hon. Friend alluded to, it underpinned a political agenda that recognised the need and desire in the west of Scotland for an integrated public transport system that served all the communities in the area. I should point, however, that I will be asking my hon. Friend to withdraw his new clause and amendment, for reasons that I hope he will understand.

It would be remiss of me not to put on the record the fact that yesterday, the Scottish Parliament gave its unanimous support—such unanimity is very unusual—for a Sewel motion transferring functions relating to railways from this House to Scottish Ministers. Having agreed that transfer of power to Scottish Ministers, it would not be right for this House then to second-guess what they want to do. As my hon. Friend said, they have outlined their approach to railway development in Scotland in the Transport (Scotland) Bill. They have made it clear that there will be a need for local input into the Scottish rail network, and have therefore stated categorically that the west of Scotland regional transport partnership, which will replace Strathclyde PTE, will have a role in the development, management and monitoring of the franchise in that part of Scotland. Indeed, the new regional transport partnerships will be established across Scotland.

I am aware that concern exists that there might be a gap between enactment of the Railways Bill and of the Transport (Scotland) Bill, but we anticipate no such gap. Under the terms of clause 14 of the Railways Bill, Strathclyde PTE will continue to be a party to the ScotRail franchise. That will allow it to maintain its current role in the management of that franchise, until Scottish Ministers make an order under the Transport (Scotland) Bill—once enacted—to transfer its powers.
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The Transport (Scotland) Bill also includes provisions that allow Scottish Ministers, if they so wish, to transfer or share their own transport functions with the new regional transport partnerships that will be established across Scotland. Therefore, if they wish, Scottish Ministers can share rail functions with any RTP. So clause 13 as drafted will not statutorily debar Scottish Ministers from involving other parties in rail franchises, and in the light of that assurance, I hope that my hon. Friend will see fit to withdraw his new clause. If he does so, it would be entirely logical for him to withdraw amendment No. 7 as well.

The amendment tabled in the name of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) is not necessary. We share the view that there needs to be maximum consultation, transparency and openness. Under freedom of information Acts north and south of the border, the opportunity now exists to underpin that transparency. I know that Scottish Ministers share the UK Government's concern that Scottish citizens should be properly informed about what is proposed for their railway network and why. As I said in Committee in response to a previous amendment to clause 5 that was based on a similar principle, the Scottish Executive have adopted the principles of the Cabinet Office's code of practice on policy development and public consultation. That being the case, the reasons behind policy and strategy proposals will be explained as part of observing those principles, and of good practice. There is every likelihood that before its actual publication, a strategy will have been widely available as a consultation document.

Those of us who represent Scottish constituencies know that the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament are well versed in the importance of consultation in respect of policies and initiatives.In that spirit, I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok to withdraw the new clause.

Mr. Davidson: As ever, my hon. Friend the Minister has been polite and considerate and has yielded no ground. Goodness me—some things have not changed since our days in Strathclyde! I had hoped that she might have mellowed, but apparently she has not.

I understand that I have a decision to make about pressing the new clause to a vote. It is maybes aye, and maybes no—but, on balance, I think that I will not do so.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 5

Rail Efficiency Report

   'The Secretary of State shall publish annually a Rail Efficiency Report containing his assessment of the performance and cost effectiveness of Network Rail during the twelve months previous and in particular he shall provide comparisons of such performance data with other comparable rail companies operating partly or wholly in the European Union.'

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Greg Knight: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
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Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): With this it will be convenient to discuss New clause 6—Redundant Assets Register—

   'The Secretary of State shall every three years lay before each House of Parliament a register of all assets including land and property owned by Network Rail which are redundant to railway use or which have not been used for railway purposes during the preceding eighteen months together with a statement of intent regarding their future use or disposal.'.

Mr. Knight: The Standing Committee debates on this Bill were very constructive, and genuine concerns were raised by hon. Members from all parties. It is in that spirit of constructive debate that I wish to speak to these new clauses.

The new clauses are reasonable, moderate and fair, and I hope that the Minister of State will respond positively to them. New clause 5 would require the Secretary of State to publish an annual rail efficiency report containing his assessment of the performance and cost effectiveness of Network Rail in the previous 12 months. In particular, it would encourage him to provide comparative data in respect of those rail companies operating wholly or in part in the EU.

The suggestion is not impractical. The Minister will know—as will many Conservative Members—that the EU position on railway service reform has three stages. Perhaps predictably, they are called the first railway package, the second railway package and the third railway package.

The second railway package aims to create a legally and technically integrated European railway, and was adopted by the EU in April 2004. The third railway package sets out proposals to open up international passenger services to competition inside the EU by the year 2010. It is therefore entirely appropriate that we should, wherever possible, compare the performance of the UK rail network with that of our European counterparts.

When hon. Members raise concerns about our railway system, they often say how wonderful the railways in France are. I have never had the delight of travelling on a French train, but I should be delighted to be able to scrutinise our performance in this country to see how it compares with what happens in France. In that way, I could determine whether the claims made about the French railway are accurate or apocryphal. An annual rail efficiency report would therefore do a service to us all, and I hope that the Minister can respond positively to the suggestion.

New clause 6 would require a review of assets to take place every three years, covering all land and other property owned by Network Rail that is redundant to railway use or which has not been used for railway purposes in the preceding 18 months. The review would also contain a statement of intent regarding the future use or disposal of such assets.

On 5 March 2002, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), responded to a question by stating that the Strategic Rail Authority had not carried out any evaluation of rail assets at that stage. In the past, there has been some criticism of the lack of information in respect of assets held by the rail network.
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I am not necessarily critical of the fact that Network Rail might have some assets that are not currently in use and which are in a temporary limbo. It is justifiable for businesses to have certain assets that they may not use at present but which they may want to use in the future. It would be very short-sighted to force a company such as Network Rail to dispose of assets when it may have tentative plans to bring those assets into use in the future. New clause 6 would not do that: instead, it would require the Secretary of State to produce a list of the relevant assets, and a statement of intent that would tell us what would become of them.

I know that many assets have been realised over recent years, but many redundant assets remaining in Network Rail's asset base could be brought back into use or disposed of. I shall give the Minister an example. The main rail line from St. Pancras to the north has quite a lengthy stretch through Leicestershire that used to have four tracks. As a former regular user of that line, I was aware that two of those tracks were used exclusively for freight and two for passenger services. The reason for having four lines in that stretch was to allow the faster passenger trains to overtake the slower-moving goods vehicles.

The collapse in rail freight a couple of decades ago caused someone in authority to decide that that stretch of line should not have four tracks. As a result, two of the tracks were taken up, but the track bed remains, and the people who manage these assets should be forced to decide whether they will be brought back into use in the future, or whether they should be realised and sold. The benefit of selling an asset that is for the moment dormant is that money is released for other railway purposes.

Both new clauses are reasonable, and the history of our railway network shows why there are surplus assets in many parts of the country that Network Rail could sell. The Stockton to Darlington railway opened in 1821, thus beginning 100 years in which the private sector raised capital for investment. It was a period of strong competition, which caused the original railway companies to lay tracks and purchase assets around the country. Some of those assets are still retained in railway ownership.

We are in a different ball game now. It is right that Network Rail should be forced to justify the assets that it still has, and to indicate whether they will be brought back into use or whether they could be made available for sale.

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