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Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): The speed at which my hon. Friend was moving caught me on the other side of the building. As he is a dear little pussy cat, rather like me, and one of the problems has been misunderstanding, could he make it absolutely clear that the Government have no intention of removing the link with local government and local decision making and that they just want the best solution for everyone concerned?

Mr. McNulty: I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend and endorse every word she said. This is not in any way, shape or form about impinging on PTEs' local decision-making process or a secret agenda—that was suggested at least once in the other place—ultimately to get rid of PTEs. It is about how in the commercial realm passenger transport authorities through PTEs relate to train operating companies and local rail services in their areas. Any decisions they make about much of what
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they already do are more readily contained in agreements with the ability to add to franchises. None of those abilities is taken away.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): This is one of those dangerous questions to which I do not know what the answer will be, so I hope that the Minister can help me, although that may not be helpful to my party. He may know that I am concerned about the impact that the specifications available to the West Midlands PTE can have on services in the peripheral area. The great power of the PTE sometimes means that local authorities such as Worcestershire and Herefordshire do not receive the services they would like to the conurbation because they are outgunned by the PTE. What impact, if any, would the amendment have on that?

Mr. McNulty: The short answer is none in any direct sense, but the wider position to which the hon. Gentleman referred of those parts of the west midlands region that are not part of the West Midlands PTE area would prevail. Nothing that we are doing in seeking to look at the co-signatory, co-specification status of PTEs vis-à-vis franchises would impact on that relationship which, I freely accept, may sometimes be not as satisfactory as those in Hereford, Worcester and areas peripheral to the PTE area would like. I am sorry, but the Bill does not solve that issue.

If we lose the Bill, we will lose the biggest devolution of Executive functions to Scotland since the Scotland Act 1998. We would have continued uncertainty and unnecessary expense in the rail industry for those who depend on it and uncertainty in the financial and commercial markets for investors. The substantial stakeholder involvement throughout the process, from the rail White Paper to the Railways Bill, has been marked by considerable agreement in the rail industry, not only about the direction those documents give us and the certainty it affords, but that there should be a degree of consolidation afterwards, without constant changes to relationships and structures. To have the Bill fall on that item, for it all to come a-crumbling down and start again, would be a matter of regret, not least—if I may return to my opening statement—because this place and the noble Lords have dealt with so much of the Bill in fine order.

I am sure that Members do not want that to happen, so I hope that they will join me in disagreeing with the Lords in this amendment and sending that message back, with thanks for all they have done so far but a gentle disagreement on this issue.

7.30 pm

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): First, may I associate the official Opposition with the Minister's opening remarks? We, too, thank the other place and congratulate the Lords on the way that they dealt with the Bill. The concordat between the Front Benches ends there. I do not agree with the conclusions that the Minister reached about passenger transport executives, as I shall make clear.

Passenger transport executives were created in 1968 by the late Barbara Castle and although they are children of a Labour Government I pay tribute to their
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work up and down the country over the years. The Lords amendment to which the Minister takes exception seeks only to keep the status quo. I cannot understand why he finds it so objectionable. It seems bizarre that a Government who have been urging us all to embrace regional government and devolved powers want to take away some of the powers and influence of PTEs.

In the past PTEs may, on occasion, have delayed the decision-making process. We accept that, as did Members of all parties in the other place who supported the amendment, because it contains a 60-day limit during which the concerns must be dealt with. Such a delay is not a long period, but it would allow PTEs to have their say and reflection to take place. PTEs should continue to be co-signatories.

The Minister referred to the history and I can confirm that it was the last Conservative Government who, in 1993, gave PTEs that power, even though I think that every PTE was Labour-controlled. That goes to show that the Conservative party, when in office, is willing to be fair and to give people a platform for dissenting views, even if they are members of a different political party. It is bizarre that a Labour Government are trying to take that power away from mainly Labour PTEs.

Members on both sides of the other place spoke in favour of the amendment to which the Minister is asking us to disagree. I hope that the vast army of Labour MPs who are no doubt watching our proceedings on their office monitors as they enjoy their last week as Members of this place will join us in the Lobby to speak up for, and vote for, local democracy.

Many local people give much of their time and energy in the interests of rail services in their region. That local democracy is worth supporting. Of course, we accept that some PTEs are better than others, but overall we believe that they have been a force for good and that the Minister is not being entirely straight with the House when he uses the threat that agreeing with the Lords would put the future of the Bill at risk. The Minister has got the decision wrong. He should think again, so I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote no to give him the extra thinking time that he so clearly needs.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): May I say at the outset and by way of very short preface that this is a good Bill? It contains a great many things with which I agree, not least the point that the Minister raised of devolution to Scotland. It is an important piece of devolution that will allow my colleague in the Scottish Executive to deliver good transport solutions on railways for the Scottish people. Therefore, I am with the Minister in the statement that he made that the Bill should not be lost.

I am pleased with some of the compromises. Indeed, I also associate myself with the remarks regarding the way in which the other place has worked on the Bill that have been made by the other two Front Benchers. I am pleased that the Government have seen fit to compromise, where sensible, both in the compromises that have already taken place and the one that may be promised later today. As the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) just said, that does not mean that we should roll over and agree to the Government's
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view on Lords amendment No. 1. The Government have got this wrong and it would be worth their while thinking again.

I am sorry that the Government have chosen to reject Lords amendment No. 1 and its consequential amendments because the proposal made by my noble Friends and supported by Lords on both sides of the House, not least by those on the Government's Back Benches, is reasonable and seeks to address a deficit in the Bill.

I listened with great care to the Minister's comments. He is always reasonable and he dealt with us very reasonably in Committee. I understand his argument, but he has not persuaded me. I do not understand why, when we are seeking to give people the right to consider decisions locally, it was not possible to find a way in which that expression could be put into the Bill.

The arguments have been well rehearsed in the House throughout all the debates on the Bill and pretty well rehearsed in the other place during most of its stages there. The issue is simple: PTEs in England have a responsibility—I would say, a right—to deliver sound transport solutions in their areas. Rail must be a key part of those solutions and, prior to the amendment made in their lordships' House, the Bill removed from PTEs their involvement in the rail process, taking that entirely to the Secretary of State for Transport—apart from an ability to consult—thus removing rail from the responsibility of PTEs.

Lords amendment No. 1 is reasonable, because it seeks to reintroduce into the Bill some way in which PTEs can fulfil that duty and recognises the Government's right desire to ensure that decisions are made timeously and expeditiously. The Lords put into the amendment a 60-day limit, thus permitting a reasonable compromise between no involvement whatsoever and a far too lengthy system, which is precisely what the Government wish to avoid.

The Minister talked of months of delay in the process. All the processes that I have seen for franchise letting tend to take many months and I really do not think that any franchise process would take less than three to five months to undertake. To give at the beginning of that process a notice that there are 60 days in which a PTE can become involved would not necessarily disrupt that process.

The Minister also said that the proposal would not fit in with the post-White Paper world. I do not accept that. As he knows, I support the provisions of the White Paper and am happy that they should be legislated for, but I do not see why the Lords amendment could not be accommodated in some way. I therefore have to say to my right hon. and hon. Friends that we should vote in favour of the Lords amendment or, at the very least, give the Lords an opportunity to make the Government think again.

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