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Mr. Harris: There will be plenty of opportunities to explore the nature and structure of the franchise system. There is no accepted consensus within the British rail industry on the length of rail franchises.
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Different people in the industry will give different answers on that. If we were to increase the length of franchises and there was a particularly profitable franchise, we would be in a position to double its length but not to accept any premiums from the company that was chosen to run it. That is an absurd policy position.

Before I move to my main remarks, let me have one more go at the hon. Gentleman. He asked whether the new trains for the inter-city express programme will be built in Britain, and made it clear that he thinks that the Government should deliberately choose a British company to manufacture the new trains. I absolutely sympathise with that view because I share his concern for British manufacturing. However, his party is known in the House as being particularly pro-European—arguably more so than the other two parties. Is he saying, as his party’s Front-Bench spokesman on transport, that the Government should deliberately seek a prorogation from European procurement rules that oblige Britain to seek the cheapest possible tender from throughout the European Union? Is that the Liberal Democrat party policy? If so, it is quite courageous, but I suspect that he has not cleared his comments with the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell).

Paul Rowen rose—

Mr. Harris: I shall not take an intervention on that point, but will let the hon. Gentleman consider it. Time is moving on and I have only six minutes left to reply to my hon. Friends who spoke.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith raises an important subject. Our inter-city services are the backbone of Britain’s rail network and make an essential economic contribution by connecting our most important city centres quickly and efficiently. The record growth of Britain’s railways in the past decade is well-documented. Inter-city services have played a significant part in that growth. More than half of all rail travel is for distances of 50 miles and above. Indeed, it is in such longer-distance markets that rail is strongest. Although rail accounts for only 2 per cent. of journeys overall, it accounts for more than five times that percentage for longer distance journeys. It now completely overshadows the short-haul air market to as far north as Manchester and Yorkshire and competes effectively as a mode of travel to Newcastle.

Rail used to have 40 per cent. of the market share for travel from London to Manchester. That market share rose to 60 per cent. after the west coast main line upgrade was completed, and is expected to grow to 80 per cent. when the 2008 timetable is implemented. Interestingly, rail is used as much, if not more, by those who own or have access to a car as by those who do not. Sensibly, many drivers choose instead to let the inter-city train take the strain. Is that the phrase to which the hon. Member for Wimbledon referred earlier?

Stephen Hammond indicated assent.

Mr. Harris: In terms of origin and destination, London dominates the inter-city market, just as it does rail in general. However, in considering our important inter-city and inter-urban links, we must not forget
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cross-country services or the TransPennine Express. Those services provide valuable long-distance connections and have the secondary function of supporting key commuter markets. That happens on all the mainline radial routes into London, but cross-country services also pick up commuter traffic around Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds, making these routes some of the most crowded on the inter-city network at peak times. In the past 10 years, the average trip length on inter-city services has fallen by 10 per cent., which shows that increasing numbers of commuters are now using those services and mixing with long-distance business and leisure travellers.

The House will be aware that the Government are re-letting several inter-city franchises. Bids for the new cross-country and east midlands franchises have been received and the Department is undertaking a detailed and rigorous evaluation of them. The inter-city east coast invitation to tender went out last week.

The cross-country market has changed significantly in the past five years, as the number of journeys on those services has grown spectacularly from 12 million journeys a year in 1997 to 20 million last year. Most of that growth was in the core section between Bristol, Reading, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester. About 10 per cent. of cross-country journeys are more than 200 miles. In the past five years, the average journey length has decreased by 20 miles, which suggests that fewer very long-distance journeys are being taken, and that there are more short to medium-distance travellers.

By responding to those changes, the new franchise will bring several key benefits to passengers. I hope that these points address some of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith. There will be increased capacity on the core sections where trains are busiest, and services will run to a clock-face timetable to improve predictability and reliability. The frequency of services will be maintained on the core routes, and timetabling improvements will simplify train operations and should lead to improved timekeeping for all new cross-country services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith raised his specific concerns about cross-country services between Manchester and Scotland. They will cease in December 2007, but the TransPennine Express Manchester airport to Cumbria service will be extended to central Scotland. Service frequency between Manchester and central Scotland will remain as it is today and journey times will, at the very least, remain similar to those now, with the possibility of accelerations. Simply put, that service is not being downgraded.

Before I step up a gear and try to speak at 350 words a minute, I tell hon. Members that I am more than happy to address in writing later any points that I am unable to address today. As there are less than two minutes left, that it is highly likely to happen.

I want to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar), who asked about the uncertainty hovering over the heads of GNER employees. As I said in the House last Tuesday in transport questions, GNER employees will be protected by the TUPE regulations.

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The circumstances of the re-letting of the inter-city east coast franchise are such that the specifications for the new franchise will broadly continue the existing operation, including cross-border services and those north of Edinburgh, with the addition of the London to Leeds half-hourly service that will start in May 2007. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith that there is no need for an inquiry into why GNER lost its franchise. That fact that its franchise was taken away is evidence that the Department for Transport will continue to act robustly when any franchisee fails to meet its obligations under the franchise contract. That is an essential function of the Department, as we are responsible for ensuring that passengers get the best possible value for money.

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Cultural Diplomacy

11 am

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I am delighted to have secured this debate on the fundamental importance of cultural diplomacy in international relations. A large number of colleagues are interested in participating in the debate, so I shall try to keep my remarks relatively brief to allow them the opportunity to do so.

Although we are doing a great deal of good work in this area—work of which we should be immensely proud—we could and should be undertaking extra activities that could have lasting benefit. Anyone doubting the fundamental importance of culture in international relations should consider the international outrage sparked following the destruction of the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan or the appalling lack of protection of Iraq’s cultural heritage following the invasion in 2003. Both of those cultural events had a huge impact on international relations: one strengthened support for our approach in Afghanistan while the other added to doubts about our approach in Iraq.

There is nothing new in the link between culture and international relations, after all, the Romans expanded their empire through a mixture of military might, which might be termed “hard power”, and the spread of culture, which some have called “soft power”. There is a strong case for having a cultural aspect to our diplomacy, not as an add-on or as subordinate to hard power, but as a fundamental part of our diplomatic activity.

My personal journey in this area started more than a year ago when I interviewed Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, for an article in The House Magazine. I discovered through that conversation that under his leadership the British Museum, which was established by Parliament in 1753, has made great strides; among other things, there have been moves for it to become increasingly multilingual and to increase its collaboration overseas. The British Museum has been significantly involved in the opening of the new capital museum in Beijing and has provided the national museum of Kenya in Nairobi with materials illustrating that country’s culture in the context of surrounding nations. The British Museum took no lead in that project, allowing the Kenyan curators to make their decisions entirely independently.

Some have suggested that in taking a passive role in international collaborations the British Museum has missed the opportunity to let people around the world know about Britain and its history. Mr. MacGregor’s reply was particularly instructive:

The British Museum’s commitment to internationalism has placed it in the spotlight in recent years: it played a leading role in cataloguing both the looting of the national museum in Baghdad and the destruction of the archaeological sites following the allied invasion. Perhaps there can be no better example of the crucial role of culture in international relations than the fact that the British Museum maintained close curatorial connections even in the worst days of relations with Iraq—it also did
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so in the case of Iran—which meant that when the museum in Baghdad was looted, the natural place for colleagues there to turn was to the British Museum. That did not help with re-establishing order in Iraq, nor did it prevent the insurgency, but it will have brought much-needed prestige to Britain among Iraqi academics and others who appreciate how highly we value their culture.

We could be doing many more things along the lines of the examples that I have given. We could use cultural talent to build up our international influence and prestige. As I have said, the British Museum is not the only successful example; the British Council and the BBC World Service are two of the jewels in the crown. The BBC’s global brand is one of objectivity and independence from Government—exactly the sort of structure for cultural diplomacy for which I argue. We want to reflect Britain, rather than the British Government.

The British Council carries out excellent work in 109 countries. We should be undertaking far more activities such as its “Turning Points” exhibition, which was held in Tehran in 2004. It was the first western arts exhibition in that city for more than 30 years. Such arts events have no specific foreign policy objectives, but that exhibition was opened by the then Foreign Secretary and Iran’s culture Minister, bringing those two people together at what might be termed a relatively low-profile event. Had it not been for that platform, they might not have met and there might not have been the opportunity for the diplomatic dialogue that ensued to take place.

What more should we be doing? A few weeks ago, Demos produced the excellent report, “Cultural Diplomacy”. Its authors argue that

The report’s subtitle makes the challenge clear:

That is right.

In our world of increasing globalisation, where communications are instant and international boundaries are less and less meaningful, we can develop, through culture, a shared identity that will show commonality above national identity. That is exactly what the British Museum, the BBC World Service, the British Council and many others are doing, and we need to do more of it on an international scale.

I want to suggest a series of relatively small changes that could be made; these are extensions or additions to what we are doing. We should start by including, as a matter of course, leading cultural representatives on all foreign delegations. When such inclusion has happened it has been incredibly successful, but no invitation is systematically sent to the heads of our cultural institutions. Some might say that such a move would mean a relatively frivolous addition to already large foreign delegations, but that perception would be wrong.

I have mentioned the link between the British Museum and the national museum of China. It came about because the Prime Minister was accompanied on his trip to China in 2005 by the head of the British Museum. The attendance of the Museum’s head
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allowed the first ever cultural agreement between a British institution and China to occur, the signing of which was overseen by the Prime Minister and the Chinese Premier. As well as providing a useful platform for diplomatic dialogue, the agreement had the additional benefit of paving the way for us to have the terracotta warriors in London this autumn. Leaving aside the importance of relationship building and of improving our international image, surely we would all agree that giving ourselves the opportunity to view those fantastic Chinese artefacts means that that trip was well worth it.

Bringing our cultural representatives along on foreign trips does more than just facilitate agreements; it demonstrates the commitment of the UK Government to cultural heritage. Valuing the cultural heritage of another nation is a straightforward way of acquiring influence and prestige. That is why I was delighted to see a further recommendation in the Demos report, that

If we believe that valuing other countries’ cultures is important, we should demonstrate that by asking more foreign dignitaries who visit our country to see our sites of cultural importance—places such as the Victoria and Albert museum, Stonehenge or even my world heritage city of Bath—and to attend cultural events from the Notting Hill carnival to those in the Royal Opera House. That would make cultural links easier to build because it would be clear that our Government are proud of our cultural institutions and events, and that we are aware of our cultural strength. When that has happened, it has been incredibly successful. For example, when the Iranian Vice-President opened the Jameel gallery in London he met the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). That was an informal meeting, but the museum event provided the platform for diplomacy at a time of high international tension when an official meeting between those two men would probably not have taken place.

Our commitment to culture could be well demonstrated during the forthcoming London Olympic and Paralympic games with the planned cultural Olympiad. That is a huge opportunity for our cultural sector and one that we cannot afford to miss. The eyes of the world will be on Britain in 2012 and the time either side. We must ensure that we do all we can to facilitate cultural exchange.

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman expand his comments, because I, for one, am worried that the cultural Olympiad will be a massive missed opportunity? As I understand it—perhaps the hon. Gentleman will confirm this—most of the budget will go on the opening and closing ceremonies. There seems to be no programme for widening the cultural opportunities of the Olympics.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is right to express concern, but I am not sure that his view is entirely correct. We have spent a lot of time discussing issues relating to the sporting activities of the Olympics, and
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to date there has been relatively little public debate or planning for the cultural Olympiad. However, I am assured that work is now going on.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that if we think of the Olympic and Paralympic games as merely a sporting event for a brief few weeks, mainly in London, it will be a huge, wasted opportunity. I want a cultural Olympiad that starts now, continues to 2012 and beyond, and involves people in all parts of the country and from the huge range of cultures in this country, as well as the additional cultures that will visit us during the games. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we must do everything in our power to ensure that we do not miss that opportunity.

I was delighted that one example of where progress is beginning to be made is the first signed agreement for a training camp facility in the United Kingdom in advance of the 2012 games. That agreement is between Bristol and—

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): Bath.

Mr. Foster: Not Bath, but the Kenyan Olympic team. That deal includes a training camp, but also involves developing educational, economic and cultural links between Bristol and its surroundings, and Kenya. Progress is being made.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s thoughtful speech. Does he agree that the ultimate irony of the Olympics is that on one hand the sporting events could have a huge effect on cultural diplomacy, but on the other hand the lottery is being drained and many of the cultural organisations that could do what he suggested will be drained of funds between now and 2012?

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. We hope that in a couple of days the Government will announce their revised budget for the Olympics and explain how they will pay for some of the undoubted cost overruns. I have no doubt that there will have to be a serious debate on whether there will be yet more raiding from the lottery good causes. I want to put it on the record that, for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman gave, it would be a disaster if we took a further top slice from the lottery good causes to pay for any Olympic overspend. It would seriously damage the opportunities for that cultural development, and many other opportunities that are critical to the legacy that we all want from the 2012 games.

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