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Chris Grayling: I am delighted to confirm that I believe that the Government, as a major funder of the rail network, have the right to set minimum requirements for the money that they spend. The problem is the degree of micro-management that this Government pursue across the rail industry, with decisions being taken at a level well below what is appropriate. The Government should have a strategic
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approach, and not get involved with minute operational details in the way that they do at present.

Mr. Harris: I am still not clear whether that means that a future, hypothetical Conservative Government would set specific minimum service levels for rail lines. I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. It is perfectly legitimate to hold the view that the Government should not specify service levels, although I do not agree with it, but he must understand the real political consequences. Does he believe that Governments should take only a general strategic view? The Labour Government take a strategic view, but if he believes that the Government’s role should end there, and that Members of the House would not want Government intervention on such matters, his mythical and hypothetical tenure of office will be extremely short and panic-stricken.

Clive Efford: Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend. I pointed out in my speech that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) had indicated that he was against taking seats out of trains. Presumably if he was in power he would want to put them back. Is that micro-managing the industry or not?

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend pre-empts me. I was about to make that point. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell has been consistent in saying that he does not want the Government to micro-manage and to specify conditions, but I detect a note of criticism when he stands at the Dispatch Box talking about South West Trains removing seats from certain trains. I may be mistaken, but he seems to be criticising the Government for the removal of those seats. Is he saying that the Government should intervene to stop SWT removing seats? Does he believe that future Secretaries of State for Transport should intervene at that level and stop train-operating company managements reconfiguring the seating arrangements on their trains? I suspect not.

The hon. Gentleman referred to fare increases. He said that the amount of money paid by taxpayers was at an all-time high—those may not have been his exact words, I am paraphrasing. As he knows, some fares are regulated but others are not. If he is saying that more fares should be regulated, that is certainly an interesting policy proposal. If we regulated more fares, we would have to subsidise the private operating companies to an even greater extent. Does he believe that the Government should put more money than we do already into private train-operating companies to keep unregulated ticket prices down?

Chris Grayling: I shall be delighted to swap seats with the Secretary of State for Transport and explain my strategy in detail to the House—sooner rather than later, I hope. Furthermore, I will happily debate it with the Minister when I can do more than merely intervene, with only a small window to make my comments. In the meantime, does he accept my view that the way the Government have changed the franchising process is flawed and that the consequence will be more overcrowded trains and a less good deal for the passenger? I shall welcome the opportunity to debate the matter with him further in due course.

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Clive Efford: We have just had an opportunity.

Mr. Harris: As my hon. Friend says, we had the opportunity today to discuss precisely those matters. The British public will probably expect the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell to set out his proposals for the rail industry before the general election rather than after he claims his seat on the Treasury Bench.

I want to talk about the South West Trains franchise, which was announced in September and to which the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell and several Members referred. The hon. Gentleman’s constituency is served by South West Trains so it is perfectly legitimate for him to talk about the franchise. He cast aspersions, but much in the franchise is good news for the travelling public. He questioned whether there will really be increases in capacity and seats—there will. There will be new rolling stock. Smartcard ticketing will be rolled out. There will be more secure stations; 95 per cent. of all passengers using the South West Trains network will travel to and from secure stations. There will be gating at stations, including Waterloo, as a way of preserving revenue. If he is not aware of some of those important, positive developments in the franchise, I am more than happy to write to him with the details. If he wants, I will even phone him. I do not know whether he has a mobile phone, but if he wants to give me the number, I am more than happy to get the information to him.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the rolling stock companies and asked whether it was true that there was going to be a moratorium—he predicted a two-year moratorium—on the building of new train stock. Is he saying that, with the suggestion in the air that the rolling stock companies are making excess profits—massive profits that would account for something like 8 per cent. of the total cost of tickets—we should not have asked for a full inquiry into that business, simply because of the fear that those companies would stop producing new trucks? That is a dangerous attitude for someone in his position to take. The Government have a responsibility to be a good steward of the public purse and if the inquiry that we hope will take place reveals that we could be using some of that money for investment in the rail industry, I would have thought that he would welcome that.

What was missing from the hon. Gentleman’s contribution was a solution. He talked at length about the criticisms that he has of the Government’s policy. That is his job. I accept that. He is a member of the shadow Cabinet; he is in opposition; his job is to criticise the Government. However, a part of opposition is also to come up with alternative answers. His comments were noticeably lacking in any positive suggestion for finding a way to meet the challenges in the rail industry in the 21st century.

A similar comment could be made of the speech by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech). I accept that he is standing in for the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), but some of the comments that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington made just do not chime with reality. At the beginning of his speech, he said that the Government were letting the public down in terms of passenger safety. He is clearly not aware that passenger safety on the railways is at an all-time high
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Interruption. ] He is now claiming from a sedentary position that he did not say that. I am sure that Hansard will show that he made a criticism of passenger safety.

Mr. Leech: What I said was that there was still some way to go on safety when signals passed at danger have increased over the last 12 months.

Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman did talk about signals passed at danger, but I am talking about a separate part of his comments. He started his speech by making a comment about passenger safety, without reference to signals passed at danger. If that is what he meant, I accept that. It is something that the Government will continue to monitor. Just for the record, passenger safety on the railways has been going up historically and is now at an all-time high. It was going up during British Rail’s tenure and it continued to go up after privatisation. It has certainly been going up over the past 10 years under the stewardship of this Government.

Rather than accept the fact that passenger surveys have shown that eight out of 10 passengers are happy with the service, the hon. Gentleman chose instead to emphasise that one in five passengers are unhappy with the service. That is a typically Liberal Democrat analysis. He forgot to point out, as I pointed out in my original comments, that for eight out of 10 passengers to be satisfied with the service is, in itself, an all-time record high. I find it a bit churlish of him and his party not to accept that that is quite an achievement at a time when we face so many challenges in terms of capacity.

The hon. Gentleman said that there is still much to be done, but I come back to my criticism of the comments by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell. Just because the Liberal Democrats are not, and never will be, in a position to form a Government, or part of a Government, that is no excuse for not having proper policies. I recognise that he accepted some of the good things that are happening in the railways, but it is not acceptable simply to stand in the corner of the Chamber and make criticism after criticism of the Government, without offering at least some glimmer of what the Liberal Democrats might do in the alternate reality where they form a Government. He did not talk about increased spending, what new investment the Liberal Democrats might make, or what new tracks they might build. I am sure that very few of the dozens of people across the country watching this debate will conclude that the Liberal Democrats have anything positive to offer, in terms of policy on the network.

Mr. Ellwood: With reference to the millions of people who, I am sure, are glued to their television sets as they watch this debate, the Minister has been speaking for nigh on 13 minutes, and has focused very much on Liberal Democrat and Conservative views. A number of issues were put to him concerning his brief and the fact that he is currently in charge. He is at the helm, and things are not quite all right. Will he turn his attention to the issues raised by Members on both sides of the Chamber?

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Mr. Harris: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s guidance, and I will learn at his knee about his experience in the House, which is obviously significant, compared with mine.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) spoke with typically deep knowledge and feeling about the railways. As usual, the House listened carefully to her comments—I certainly did—and, as I said, her Committee’s substantial and thought-provoking report will receive a response from the Government in due course.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) started by acknowledging that the Government’s investment, of which they are rightly proud, has produced results. He talked about developments in in-cab signalling, and he is right to say that that technological innovation could have a major impact, helping us to improve track capacity in future. The Department certainly wants that to be developed. I pay tribute to him, because since I first came to the House—and long before—he has been well known as a doughty campaigner for the west coast main line, which is crucial to his constituency.

The hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) spoke of his commitment to Reading station, and I know that the subject is important to him and to the citizens of Reading—and, of course, to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter). The hon. Member for Reading, East, asked whether the Government would give the go-ahead to Network Rail’s master plan to renovate Reading station. All that I can tell him is that various plans are in the pipeline, and I am not yet in a position to say yes or no to any of them. However, there will be significant infrastructure improvements of one sort or another at Reading station in the years ahead.

Mr. Wilson: In my speech, I asked the Minister whether he was prepared to honour the pledge given to the stakeholders and to me by his predecessor, now the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg). Will he today confirm that he will honour that pledge?

Mr. Harris: My apologies to the hon. Gentleman; I had indeed registered that invitation. Of course I am more than happy to honour my predecessor’s commitment. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I cannot promise to do so before Christmas—I think that he mentioned December—but that decision is not for me, but for my diary secretary, who has complete control over me and my diary.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) talked in worrying terms about his experience of railways in the south-east. It is a truism that when someone gets a train that arrives on time and is clean and efficient in every respect, they are unlikely even to register the fact. If a person’s train is cancelled or severely late, of course that will register; they might even write to their MP about it, and he or she will inevitably pass the letter on to me. For the record, despite my hon. Friend’s unfortunate experience, in the last period for which I have a figure, the performance measure for the south-east was 87.8 per cent., which is 0.2 per cent. higher than the national average. Perhaps he is just unlucky in the trains that he chooses to catch.

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Mr. Martlew: It is churlish to challenge my hon. Friend when he said such nice things about me, but he said that as a result of the new cross-country franchise fewer people would have to change at Birmingham New Street. However, is it not correct that my constituents and his constituents travelling from Scotland to the south of England and the south-west must change there?

Mr. Harris: That is correct, as I made clear in an intervention on the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell. Through services such as services from Glasgow to Penzance will alter, so customers will have to change at Birmingham New Street. However, passengers on other services will no longer have to change there. According to our passenger figures, fewer passengers will have to change at Birmingham New Street. There are alternative changing points, too, including Wolverhampton, where some of the facilities are better than those at Birmingham New Street. In the invitation to tender, companies that have expressed an interest in the franchise are asked to provide evidence of robust processes to demonstrate that they will provide a proper service, including information and guidance, to people who have to change at Birmingham New Street.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I hope that my hon. Friend will look carefully at the physical constraints at Birmingham New Street and whether or not a completely new station would be a better alternative.

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and she will know that Birmingham city council and Network Rail have submitted a proposal, not for a brand new station, but for a major refurbishment and redesign of Birmingham New Street. That will involve substantial central Government funds if it goes ahead, and the Department hopes to make an announcement on the scheme in the new year.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) questioned the validity of the concept of being on time. I apologise for not being in the Chamber when he made his speech—I took a 10 minute break, but it was nothing personal. I understand the point that he made, but whether we use five minutes, 10 minutes or any other measure, it is important to be consistent. If we are not, we cannot measure an increase or decrease in efficiency or performance. For example, even if he disagrees with the 10-minute limit,
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it cannot be denied that as a consistent figure it allows us to measure in precise detail the improvement in service. That improvement would be exactly the same, regardless of whether the measure was five minutes, 10 minutes, or an absolute zero.

Mr. Ellwood: If the Minister went to Germany, Austria or Switzerland he could set his watch according to the time that the train arrives at the platform, as it is the time that it is due. That is not the case in the UK, so we need a robust system to measure the effectiveness of our timetabling. In my speech, I made the point that the 10-minute window—it is five minutes in some parts of the country, which is strange—provides too much leeway. I accept that we could use a 10-minute measurement, but we should record how many trains arrive dead on time, too.

Mr. Harris: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but I am not sure whether it is an urban myth. I doubt that it is technically correct that in any European country one can set one’s watch according to the arrival of any train. It is a nice idea, but I suspect that it is a utopian one. It is a delight, however, to hear Conservative Back Benchers espousing the joys of Europe for once. The hon. Gentleman said that the price of tickets was a disincentive, preventing people from travelling by train. That criticism has been levelled at the Government for a number of years, particularly since the regulations changed several years ago. However, customer numbers continue to rise, and they are predicted to do so in future.

I know the hon. Gentleman is interested in freight. In 2005-06 the Government committed £23 million from the Exchequer in support of the British freight business. My hon. Friend—

It being Six o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 145 (Liaison Committee),

Question agreed to.

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World AIDS Day

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Roy.]

6.1 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to hold this important debate on the day before world AIDS day. I have received apologies from the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty), who has done such great work on HIV/AIDS on the Council of Europe and wanted to be present for the debate, but has sadly had to return early to her constituency.

I intend to speak for no longer than eight minutes in order to give my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) and the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), the chairman of the all-party group on AIDS, an opportunity to contribute to the debate. I also speak in my capacity as chairman of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association virtual working group on HIV/AIDS, and I am grateful for all the support that I get from the group.

Sadly, the problem of HIV/AIDS is not declining. According to international AIDS charity Avert, there are 39.5 million people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS. That figure includes 37.2 million adults, 17.7 million women and almost 2.5 million children. Last year about 3 million people died of AIDS, but 4.3 million more were diagnosed with HIV this year alone. AIDS has now surpassed the Black Death on its course to become the worst pandemic in human history.

Reading the news over recent years, one might have been led to believe that AIDS was a problem only for Africa, but other countries, including the United Kingdom, also have problems. In 2004 there were 58,300 cases of HIV/AIDS, but that rose last year to 63,500. Some, such as the Terrence Higgins Trust, believe that the figure is closer to 70,000.

I praise the Government for allocating £315 million, via the White Paper “Choosing Health”, to improve sexual health services, but as the Minister knows, many trusts are operating under huge financial constraints. The money was not ring-fenced, and much of it that should have gone to sexual health services has been used for other purposes, such as paying off some of the debts. In his talks with the Secretary of State for Health, will he ensure that any future funding is ring-fenced so that the money goes where it ought to go?

The Government promised a £50 million advertising campaign to promote sexual health, but the money never materialised. Only £4 million has been provided for a health campaign, which recently started. Clearly, the Government need to reconsider what needs to be spent to ensure that people, particularly young people, get the information that they require to protect themselves.

On the international scene, with few exceptions the picture is grim, but at least an increasing number of services are being made available. Africa, as we all know, has been hit hardest. Almost two thirds of all those who are affected by HIV/AIDS live in Africa, although it contains only 10 per cent. of the world’s population. During 2005 alone it is estimated that 2 million people died of AIDS in Africa. Since the beginning of the epidemic more than 15 million Africans have died of AIDS.

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