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The motion gives effect to the appropriation to the House of Commons Members’ fund of the contribution that all Members make from their salaries every month and the sum of £215,000 from the Members’ estimate, to which the motion refers as “the Treasury contribution”. The fund is essentially a benevolent fund for former Members and their dependants who have fallen on hard times and need financial assistance, and payments are made with regard to individual circumstances.

The fund is governed by various Acts that stipulate the basis on which payments can be made and the amounts payable. Some payments are known as “as of right” payments; others are awarded at the trustees’ discretion. “As of right” beneficiaries are such because they are either not entitled to a parliamentary pension because they left the House before 1964, or because, as widows and widowers of former Members, they have their small PCPF—parliamentary contributory pension fund—pensions topped up. Some beneficiaries receive discretionary payments because of hardship and their personal circumstances. These are usually one-off grants to improve quality of life—perhaps to facilitate a minor home adaptation.

The fund currently has 100 beneficiaries. The average value of the recurring payments is a modest £2,000 per annum. A handful of one-off grants are made each year with an average value of only about £5,000. Relatively small sums can make a great difference in some circumstances.

I take the opportunity to pay tribute to my fellow trustees for all the work that they undertake on the fund’s behalf, which undoubtedly involves more of their time than they were led to believe when they became trustees.

3.21 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Nigel Griffiths): On behalf of the House, I express our gratitude to the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) and the other trustees for the work that they do. The right hon. Gentleman lucidly explained to the House the purpose of the fund and the work of the trustees. Their work on behalf of the House, and in particular on behalf of former Members who may be in more straitened circumstances and their widows and relatives, is extremely important. It is somewhat unsung, but we are grateful. If they did not realise that it would take up so much of their time, that demonstrates to other right hon. and hon. Members that they are paying detailed attention to some vexing cases and some worthy cases. I support the motion.

Question put and agreed to.

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Rail Performance

[Relevant documents: The Fourteenth Report of the Transport Committee, Session 2005-06, on Passenger Rail Franchising (HC1354).]

3.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.

Rail performance is a story of recovery. Five years ago only 75 per cent. of trains arrived on time. In the year to March 2006, more than 85 per cent. were on time, and the figure continues to rise. Many train operators now regularly achieve 90 per cent. or better, and this improvement has been secured against a background of strong growth through investment, getting the organisation right, and listening to passengers.

In 2001, after the Hatfield accident, punctuality had fallen to 75 per cent. The industry faced other problems which had dragged down performance, particularly in organisation and structure. Since Hatfield, however, punctuality has improved consistently. The latest provisional figures for the year to October show 88 per cent. of trains arriving punctually at their final destination. Punctuality and reliability are now at their highest level for six years, and this been achieved at a time of significant growth in traffic. That is best illustrated by the numbers involved.

Rail passenger journeys have grown by 35 per cent. since 1996-97. In 2003-04, for the first time since 1961, more than 1 billion rail journeys were made. In 2005-06, the rail industry delivered another record breaking year. Nearly 1.1 billion rail passenger journeys were completed—the most since 1959, making Britain’s one of the fastest growing railways in Europe. Rail passenger kilometres have also increased, by 34 per cent. since 1996-97. The amount of freight moved by rail has increased by 22 per cent. in the past five years. In the face of these welcome trends, performance has been lifted from its low point five years ago, and that improvement has been maintained.

The past few years have been a period of change and renewal, with unprecedented amounts of money being invested in the rail industry.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): One of the routes that has seen that increase is the east coast main line, on which I am a regular traveller. My hon. Friend will be aware of the speculation about the future of the franchise because of difficulties affecting the parent company. Will the Minister assure the House and my constituents that whatever happens on the east coast main line they will not have a worse service as a result of any changes and that the Government will ensure that the quality of service on that route does not deteriorate?

Mr. Harris: I agree with my hon. Friend that there has certainly been speculation about GNER. All the commitments of the franchise have been kept up to date and I do not foresee any diminution in service to passengers on the GNER line.

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Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): Before the Minister moves on, will he say whether he is satisfied with the levels of freight that are going through the channel tunnel?

Mr. Harris: Obviously the Government take a great interest in the amount of freight going through the channel tunnel. Presumably the hon. Gentleman is referring to the imminent removal of a certain level of grant—as from today—that has been payable over the last few years. He will appreciate that the Government must respect the terms of EU legislation. The current payments made to EWSI are deemed to be company specific and cannot be extended beyond today. However, negotiations within the industry are continuing. I am convinced that freight will continue to grow and to move through the channel tunnel. It is in everybody’s interest that freight be moved through the tunnel on a commercial basis. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and his party would agree.

Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to expand on this point. The channel tunnel was developed to cater for about 10 million tonnes of freight every year. We are averaging between 1 million and 3 million tonnes, so we are under capacity. What are the Government doing to improve on that?

Mr. Harris: The Government are absolutely committed to increasing the amount of freight that is moved by rail not only through the channel tunnel but throughout the UK. Moves are afoot to come to a proper agreement between EWSI and the channel tunnel—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I may be the only person in the Chamber who does not understand what the Minister is saying, but I am a bit anxious when initials are used. Could the Minister bear that in mind when he makes his remarks?

Mr. Harris: That is an excellent point. Since I was appointed to this position I have lambasted officials repeatedly and asked them to spell out acronyms which until recently I did not understand. That shows how quickly departmental-itis sets in to every new Minister and I apologise to the House. EWSI is the freight company England, Wales and Scotland International. I will avoid certain acronyms in future.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Without being pedantic, when the Minister has explained the acronym once we can all allow him to use the initials thereafter.

Mr. Harris: This is indeed a learning experience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I will bear your instructions in mind.

Freight is important to the UK economy and the Government are committed to encouraging freight movements through the tunnel and elsewhere. Once we can get freight movements through the tunnel on a commercial basis, it must be on a sustainable basis. From then on I expect volumes to increase in the years to come.

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Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I welcome the Government’s support for rail freight. Does my hon. Friend accept that the problem in getting the sort of rail freight that we want through the channel tunnel is the lack of a proper delivery system on the British side? The network must be improved and enhanced specifically to deliver freight to this island.

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend has long experience of this subject and I bow to his greater wisdom. There are other problems involved in freight movements through the channel tunnel, not least of which are the charges which Eurotunnel attempts to impose on commercial traffic. I am optimistic that in due course those problems can be sorted out, but I accept what my hon. Friend says.

The average age of rolling stock has come down dramatically. Railtrack has been replaced by Network Rail and we have restructured the industry, ensuring more effective management of the rail network as a whole.

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): On the management of the network, will my hon. Friend take a close interest in the proposal to reinstate the service from Wrexham, Shrewsbury and Telford down to London Marylebone? We lost that many years ago when it was an Intercity service. There is now a private proposal to bring it back to take passengers from Telford into London. The proposal has to go to the Office of Rail Regulation, but it would be helpful if my hon. Friend would take a close interest in it.

Mr. Harris: Thanks to my hon. Friend’s efforts, I have taken a close interest in the open access application to run direct services from Wrexham through Shrewsbury and down to Marylebone. As he knows, open access operators receive no subsidy from the Government, but they do not have to pay any track access charges. The decision about whether to admit an open access operator depends heavily on whether its revenue stream will have a significant impact on existing franchises. My hon. Friend understands that that decision has to be taken by the Office of Rail Regulation, and I cannot influence it in any way. If the proposal is successful, I am sure that the new service will provide an excellent addition to the railway services already provided to his constituents. He has campaigned extremely effectively on the issue.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I thank the Minister for his courtesy in replying further to the question that I asked in Transport questions the other day. He will know that the rolling stock on Island Line is former Northern line tube stock dating back at least to the 1950s and probably to the 1930s, and as such is in dire need of investment. The community rail partnership that is proposed for Island Line cuts across the new combined franchise that has just been awarded to Stagecoach, under which it promises to invest in rolling stock. Can the Minister assure me that the possibility of moving Island Line from the franchise into a community rail partnership will not prevent Stagecoach from investing in new rolling stock, as it promised?

30 Nov 2006 : Column 1284

Mr. Harris: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention on this matter, which was raised last week and is close to his heart. If he will forgive me, I cannot offer a specific answer on investment, but I will be happy to write to him.

Mark Lazarowicz: Turning from the east coast main line to the west coast main line, my hon. Friend will be aware of the concerns about the possible new franchise for the services that link Edinburgh to Manchester. One of the proposals would result in the service being operated as part of a trans-Pennine franchise. That would mean that journey times, which are not particularly fast anyway, would be liable to be extended further. Is it not ironic that that would make it quicker to get by train from Edinburgh to London than from Edinburgh to Manchester? Is not that against the direction that we want to take, in encouraging people to use rail services instead of travelling by air for short distances such as Edinburgh to Manchester?

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend is right to say that journey times are an essential part of encouraging people to move from road to rail. I am convinced that by the time the three new franchises that are out to tender—west midlands, east midlands and new cross-country—are implemented, the re-pathing of train routes in all those areas will result in increased capacity and increased passenger capacity. On timings, I do not have confirmation of those figures at my fingertips, but I am happy to look into it.

David Wright: Does the Minister agree that on new franchises such as the west midlands it will be important to focus on how services rotate around other transport hubs, particularly Birmingham international airport in the west midlands? We need a better service from Shropshire and mid-Wales into the international airport to ensure that passengers can be moved more effectively. Those connections are not in particularly good order at the moment—many trains stop at Wolverhampton and Birmingham New Street—and we need a better service through from Telford to the airport. Will my hon. Friend take that into consideration when he considers the franchises?

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend is right that there is a major problem affecting capacity—not on individual trains, but around the network surrounding Birmingham New Street. The new cross-country franchise is designed to adjust and improve that position. I am quite confident that, by the time the new cross-country timetable begins, significant changes to the way in which existing capacity can be maximised will have been made. I am sure that that will be recognised by passenger groups as well as passengers themselves.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): I am sorry to intervene again; the Minister is being very generous. The passenger watchdog has condemned the decision to cut trains coming from Scotland, via my Carlisle constituency, to the south coast and the south-west. Passengers will not thank us for sending them to Birmingham New Street—probably the worst station in Britain. I apologise to any Birmingham Members, but it is so bad that it will cost a fortune to upgrade it.
30 Nov 2006 : Column 1285
Changing the franchise at this time will, I am sorry to say, only stir up trouble for the Government in future.

Mr. Harris: I disagree. The passenger flow figures that I have seen show that fewer passengers will need to change at Birmingham New Street. In fact, very few passengers travelling from the south-west up to Birmingham New Street continue their journey beyond it. I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but I hope that in the near future we will be able to look again at the figures and see the results of the new cross-country franchise. We should be able to see whether the Department for Transport’s predictions proved correct as well as optimistic.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Will the Minister give way one more time?

Mr. Harris: Once more, but then I really must make some progress.

Mr. Betts: We have dealt with the west coast main line and the east coast main line, so there should be some time to deal with the Midland Mainline, which I am sure the Minister will recognise has achieved very good punctuality figures—probably the best of any inter-city train operator. The problem is that it achieves those punctuality figures with very slow journey speeds in comparison with the east and west coast main lines and very low levels of investment in the track. In considering the new franchise arrangements for the Midland Mainline, will the Minister look closely at journey times? Will he also consider providing support for Network Rail, which is now looking into a project of enhancement, costing only £85 million, to begin to start reducing the journey times to Sheffield and other cities along the route? That compares with hundreds of millions spent on the east coast main line and £1 billion on the west coast main line.

Mr. Harris: One of the more attractive features of this job is that one quickly gets to become very casual about figures such as £85 million, describing them as “only” such an amount. However, my hon. Friend makes a good point. Of course, reconfiguration of timetables has a part to play in improving train performance. He is absolutely right about that, but he should also be reminded that infrastructure improvements are not proposed as part of franchises, but left to Network Rail.

I was talking about investment being essential for providing reliable services into the future. A good example is the west coast main line project, the largest project that the railway has seen for many years. We are now seeing the benefits of the £8 billion being spent on modernising the route. Since the first major stage was delivered, we have seen faster and more frequent services, and there will be more to come in 2008-09.

Business on the route is growing quickly following the first phases of the upgrade in 2004 and 2005. The final phase is due in December 2008, and major schemes totalling £1.1 billion are now being implemented. Key outputs will include 50 per cent. more seats, faster journey times—which will include 30
30 Nov 2006 : Column 1286
minutes off the London to Glasgow route, I am happy to say—and much improved weekend services. With the introduction of new timetables, performance has already recovered, with the route now enjoying more than 86 per cent. punctuality.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Harris: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I would like to make some progress.

Elsewhere, the network south of the River Thames has benefited from the upgrading of the electrical power supply, enabling better timekeeping and facilitating the introduction of new rolling stock. From the passenger’s point of view, rolling stock is very tangible evidence of our record investment. The average age of rolling stock on the network has come down from 20 years in 2001-02 to only 13 years in 2005-06. In addition, 40 per cent. of rolling stock has been replaced in the last 10 years, and with 4,000 new trains and carriages we now have one of the youngest rolling stock fleets in Europe, as well as one of the fastest growing.

For performance, this often means better acceleration and faster point-to-point times. With increasing numbers of passengers, however, it can also mean longer station stops. It is therefore all the more important to get the timetables right, a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) earlier. With timetabling, the significant gains in punctuality made by some train operators and Network Rail in updating timetable structure and time allowances indicate further opportunity for performance improvement. Network Rail has a published programme progressively to review timetables on other routes. More realistic timetabling has contributed to the fact that, on many lines, up to 90 per cent. of passenger trains are now running on time.

While making timetables more resilient, however, it is important that the right balance is struck between the time a journey takes, and ensuring that trains run on time. The Department therefore continues to play an important part in specifying minimum levels of train service provision.

Bill Wiggin: The Minister has been talking about investment. One of the areas of investment that I would like him to consider is that of disabled access. It is no good having tremendously young carriages running on time if people, such as some of those who use Leominster station, cannot get out of the train if they are in a wheelchair. I would be most grateful if the Minister looked into that matter, through his Department.

Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is, and certainly should be, a priority for the Department. He will also be aware of the access for all programme that the Government announced recently, which has a £370 million budget for improving accessibility at stations throughout the network.

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