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24 Jan 2007 : Column 475WH—continued

I am grateful for the opportunity to set the record straight. The Government have never and will never specify the number of carriages to be used in the First Great Western franchise or in any other franchise in the United Kingdom.

The responsibility for providing carriages for the services lies entirely with First Great Western and I have spoken on a number of occasions to Moir Lockhead, the chief executive of First Group, who has assured me that he will shortly issue a public apology that explicitly states that stories that have appeared in the press that suggest that the Government have anything to do with the number of carriages used in the First Great Western franchise are completely erroneous. Given the gullibility of some members of the media, it proves that a lie repeated often enough becomes received wisdom. I hope that that is clarification enough, because many Members raised that point and I wanted to put it clearly on the record—

Sandra Gidley: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Harris: I have seven minutes left to cover one and a half hours of intense debate. I hope that the hon. Lady, who has already made a speech, will forgive me but I do not want to give way. If I do that and do not get round everybody I could justifiably be criticised, and so I apologise.

The hon. Member for Wantage described it as “plainly silly” for the Department for Transport to try to micro-manage franchises. I totally agree with him, and that is why we do not. The hon. Member for Wimbledon asked how many civil servants are employed by the DFT to write timetables; he does not need to table a written question on that, because the answer is none.

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Stephen Hammond: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Harris: I am not going to give way.

Stephen Hammond: On a point of information, then?

Mr. Harris: There is no such thing as a point of information.

Stephen Hammond: On a point of order, Mr. Atkinson. I hear what the Minister has said, but he replied to a parliamentary question to confirm that there are 15 civil servants in his Department.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (in the Chair): Order. That is not a point of order.

Mr. Harris: There are far more than that number of civil servants in my Department, but none of them is tasked with writing timetables. That is a matter for train operating companies in partnership with Network Rail.

The hon. Member for Wantage referred to Labour criticisms of the “botched privatisation” of the Conservative Government. I do not know if I heard him correctly—perhaps he could confirm this from a sedentary position—but he described what happened under the Railways Act 2005 as a “botched nationalisation”.

Mr. Vaizey indicated assent.

Mr. Harris: The railways are not nationalised; they are in the private sector. The railways are provided by the private sector as specified by the Government, and that is exactly the structure that will work in the long term. In response to his request for a summit meeting, given that First Great Western has now gone on the record to accept culpability for the disastrous performance of the past few weeks, I do not at the moment see a need for any kind of summit that involves First Great Western, local MPs and the Department for Transport. Of course, I shall keep that under review but given what First Great Western has said and what I have repeated, I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman wants to sit in my office and listen to Moir Lockhead say exactly the same as he is about to say publicly.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) asked that the Department’s monitoring of the franchise should be made public. I reassure him that the public performance measure, which measures the performance of all the train operating companies in four-week sections over the year, is made public and published on the Network Rail website.

The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) talked about the timetable and the minimum specification. Once again, she will be glad to know that the invitation to tender will be published shortly by the Department. She said that First Great Western cannot afford the premium payments. Once again, a myth is starting to spread throughout the industry about premium payments and their knock-on effect on the service. A number of years ago, the railway industry was a basket case and individual franchises would never have considered paying a premium to the DFT for the privilege of running services. Now we have
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private companies paying money back into the public purse, and I would have thought that she would have welcomed that. The fact is that there has never been a question mark over First Great Western’s ability to pay the premium to which it is committed under the franchise. There is no question that that payment will not be made or that it cannot afford it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) talked about carriage shortages. She will be glad to know that First Great Western is about to issue an apology and explanation for what has happened on the railway. She asked about the additional units. I understand that First Great Western has provided additional units for the franchise from its TransPennine Express franchise. Although that was originally intended as a temporary measure, I am told that those units are there to stay, which will have a knock-on beneficial effect on the rest of the franchise.

The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) banged the drum of his party about prescribed timetables. He was disappointed, as was his hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon, that we do not write timetables. He talked—and was absolutely correct—about the wider social impact on families. I understand the frustration of passengers using the franchise and sympathise with any family that has to suffer the inconvenience and stress of family members returning home from their journey so late that they cannot interact properly with their family. That has to be addressed and I hope that it will be addressed by First Great Western.

The hon. Member for Newbury also talked about inflation-busting fares increases. The hon. Member for Wimbledon agreed that fare increases above inflation are unacceptable. In the minute that I have left, I want to plead with the hon. Gentleman as the spokesman for his party: is he saying that capacity can be increased by x amount and that we can reduce fares at the same time—

Stephen Hammond indicated dissent.

Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman agreed that the price of a season ticket was too high. The Conservative party has to be realistic. It is unrealistic to say that capacity can be increased, fares can be reduced and taxes can be reduced at the same time. It is simply not credible. If we are to have a serious debate, it will have to be on a higher level than simply scoring political points on such an important issue.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) said that the franchises—

Mr. Peter Atkinson (in the Chair): Order. We must move on.

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Arms Exports

11 am

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I am pleased to have secured this important debate on British arms exports.

I visited Angola in the autumn of 2006 with a team from Chatham house. We were reflecting on the 30 years of civil war in that country. It caused mayhem and suppressed development there, and hundreds of thousands of people died or were maimed as a result. I asked the leader of Unita and the MPLA during that tour and as many other people as I could what that war was all about. No one was able to give a proper explanation for the conflict, yet it blighted the country for more than 30 years. We know that it was a proxy for the cold war, but it was fuelled by arms exports from this country and other western countries, who kept that conflict going for many a year.

The issue is important because it centres on the fundamental integrity of this country. Our desire is to be perceived by the world as upholders of anti-corruption and anti-bribery practices. I want to concentrate on the question of arms exports. Debating time is necessarily limited today, so I have given the Minister notice of the sorts of questions that I would like to raise. I would have liked to have time to speak about export credit guarantees, the role of overseas subsidiaries, Britain’s welcome commitment and promotion of the arms trade treaty, the role of arms brokers, the impact of the millennium development goals on selling arms to developing countries, and the impact of the Export Control Act 2002 and the need to update, embellish and extend it.

Today we have an elephant in the room. It raises some serious questions about the Government’s integrity. The Department of Trade and Industry is one of a number of Departments that needs to address the issues that I have raised with the Minister and which I said were pre-eminent in the list that I presented to his office earlier this week. They were the al-Yamamah deal—the Serious Fraud Office bribery investigation that was discontinued in December—and the investigation into the air traffic control contract in Tanzania.

The hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) would like to contribute to the debate, and I want to give him some time; and my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) has indicated a wish to make a short contribution on the Tanzanian deal.

I heard from the Minister’s office last night that he cannot comment on the Tanzanian air traffic control contract because the SFO investigation is still under way. I believe that he could still comment on some of the background issues without prejudicing the investigation, especially on which Ministers supported that deal and which objected when the contract was agreed. However, the message from the Minister’s office went on to say that, for similar reasons, he could not comment on the Saudi Arabian al-Yamamah deal.

I beg to differ. After all, the investigation was discontinued on 14 December last year. The DTI must recognise, as the City clearly does, that upholding the United Kingdom’s desire to be recognised internationally for integrity and for our anti-corruption stance is paramount. Attempting
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to hide from the issue or to sweep it under the carpet is not acceptable. The Minister should relish the opportunity to demonstrate to Parliament and to the outside world the integrity of the Government’s approach.

My noble Friend Lord Garden received a letter from the Attorney-General about the al-Yamamah deal, giving the background to the case. The letter stated:

I would be grateful if the Minister were to make clear what national security was at stake.

What evidence is there to confirm that the head of the SIS and MI6, Sir John Scarlett, endorsed the proposal to discontinue that investigation? Will the Government publish the explanation that they gave the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in respect of the decision to halt the investigation? How do the Government square that decision with their anti-bribery laws and their commitment to the OECD anti-corruption convention? Does the Minister accept that, in respect of bribery and corruption, it is as important to be seen to uphold standards and pre-declared commitments as it is to uphold them? What damage would be done if the Government reversed their decision? On what grounds will the Government justify the discontinuation of the al-Yamamah bribery investigation in their report to the OECD in March?

Is it not the case that Britain’s involvement in the arms trade makes it a bigger target for terrorist attacks? Given that al-Qaeda’s stated objective is the elimination of the House of Saud, selling arms to Saudi Arabia is most likely to provoke the kind of terrorist attack that the Government claim they seek to avoid.

The Attorney-General’s letter to Lord Garden went on to say that

I question the plausibility of that claim.

It is incumbent on the Government to explain why Saudi Arabia would not wish to co-operate with the UK. Irrespective of arms or commercial dealings between the two countries, why on earth would they not want to co-operate? It is in our dual interests to ensure that that co-operation on intelligence continues. It is churlish and ridiculous to argue that, because an investigation might uncover fraud and bribery, Saudi Arabia would not wish to co-operate with the United Kingdom for its own national benefit. I seriously question that decision.

The Attorney-General’s letter continued:

On how many occasions have the Government discontinued such an investigation on the basis of what they consider to be the public interest—before the investigation has been completed? Some serious
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questions clearly need to be answered. The Government diminish themselves—and worse the country—and damage their reputation as an upholder of standards and a champion of anti-corruption. A parliamentary answer provided for me on 9 March by the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, who was the Minister for Trade at the time, states that export credit guarantees

I am told that the total amount of insurance given through the scheme is £1 billion for that deal. Will the Minister tell us what financial commitments were made by the taxpayer for that contract and what public funds have been invested in that project? In addition, how much money invested to provide guarantees to the project has been recovered by the Government and how much is outstanding? There are serious questions to be raised about this issue.

In conclusion, I remind the Minister that on 9 December the Minister for Trade in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office stated at a meeting in Jordan that

At the same time, the Secretary of State for International Development said in a Government press release:

I noted that yesterday the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald, said when speaking to the Criminal Bar Association:

I would be grateful if the Minister would address my questions and reflect on whether the circumstances in which the decision to discontinue the investigation of the al-Yamamah deal was made have, in fact, compromised the values of this country.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (in the Chair): I understand that both hon. Members who wish to intervene must have the permission of the mover of the motion and the Minister. I will rely on them to leave the Minister enough time to respond.

11.12 am

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing this debate and, like him, I will be interested in the answers to his questions; there will almost certainly not be time to answer them all, but I hope that the Government will respond in some manner.

I hope that the Government appreciate that the reason why Labour Members have been deeply disappointed
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by and critical of the senior fraud officer’s decision in relation to BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia is that time and time again we have acknowledged the Government’s record in strengthening arms export controls and in leading the introduction of measures to tackle bribery and corruption internationally. Therefore, I feel deep disappointment, sadness and concern about the decision made in December.

I have only three questions. First, does the Minister accept that the purpose of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development convention was to prevent any signatory from using national interests as a justification for tolerating corruption? If that was not the purpose of the convention, what on earth was the purpose, and why did we regard it as such a major step forward? Secondly, does my hon. Friend accept that the early termination of this particular investigation for reasons other than the legal merits of the case sends a clear message that companies trading with our strategic allies can bribe with impunity? That is entirely contrary to the message that British defence manufacturers have repeatedly given. They support the Government’s measures to tackle international bribery and corruption because they believe that it is in the interests of British industry and jobs. Thirdly, the Government argue that they must balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest—that is the basic justification for this decision. Does my hon. Friend agree that balance is impossible when investigations are terminated part way through? We cannot possibly know whether a prosecution would or would not have been in the public interest.

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