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27 Jun 2007 : Column 130WH—continued

I agreed with my hon. Friend when she spoke about social inclusion and the people to whom the issue is important. There has perhaps been a stereotype that Government service improvement enabled by IT principally benefits the cash-rich and time-poor—what might be called the BlackBerry man or woman. It certainly does benefit hard-pressed, busy tax-paying citizens—so it should, because public service should respond to their needs—but it is also critical to those further down the income scale, who often find themselves in more contact with different parts of Government than those who are a bit better off. If technology can enable service to work better and, as my hon. Friend rightly said, reduce the need for people to tell the same story over and over again to
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department A, department B and department C of their local authority, that is a significant gain.

The issue is relevant across the income scale. I believe that if we can reduce the time it takes for hard-pressed people to access the benefits and opportunities that they need, that in turn will empower them to take opportunities that they might not otherwise have been able to. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the aspect of social inclusion. I reject the view that Government and IT cannot go together, that they will always fail and, implicitly, that we would be better off not trying. It is in the public’s interest and the country’s to make progress.

Questions have been raised about the governance of some projects. We have a duty to ensure that we get the governance right—I shall say something about that in a moment—but we also have a duty to be wary of a default nostalgia for the status quo. Paper systems, boxes of files and so on are not always the best way to run things. Change is often difficult, but equally, the status quo is often not perfect.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments about a Select Committee-type approach. It is always good when she and other Members of this House show an interest in exploring such issues and contributing positively to a dialogue with Ministers. We have our official Select Committee structure, of course, and one or two Members might say that that is their turf, but maybe I should not comment too much on that.

My hon. Friend mentioned significant life events, an important issue that David Varney mentioned in his report. She may know that my colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions are working on a project called “Tell Us Once” to examine some of those life events. Considering it from that end of a telescope—from the point of view of a citizen’s experience—is exactly the right way to do so.

I shall blow the trumpet for a moment for my local authority. I recently visited a bereavement centre in Wolverhampton. It is in some ways a pioneering project. I believe that the DWP knows about it and is learning from it. When a family must go through the painful process of registering a relative’s death, the bereavement centre offers a range of services to notify the different departments and Government agencies that must be informed in the event of a death. One of the employees summed it up well when I visited. He said, “Our approach is to say, ‘We’ll do that for you.’” If we take that approach more during those significant moments when a family finds that it must contact government a great deal, that will be a step forward.

I endorse what my hon. Friend said about private and third sector involvement in the delivery of public services. It is one thing for the state to be responsible for ensuring a good outcome in public service; it is another for the state always to have to provide it directly. I do not believe that the two are the same. I chair the Public Services Forum. We have invited the Minister for the third sector, as well as representatives of the CBI and the Business Services Association, to recent meetings to discuss the third sector’s involvement in public service provision. That dialogue, not only with direct state and state-employed providers of public services but with other providers, is important.

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To enter a little into the political frame, what the Government will not do is retreat from responsibility for ensuring good outcomes. It is one thing to hold the view that different providers can provide public services; it is another to say that the state should retreat from areas of responsibility. This Government are not likely to do so.

Margaret Moran: I absolutely endorse the Minister’s last point. Ensuring good outcomes for our communities is fundamental to good government and good governance. Will he say something about how the social enterprise action plan, for example, integrates with the transformational government action plan? It is difficult to see how the two mesh together and how we can ensure that capacity is built into social enterprises for them to be part of the mixed economy and to deliver transformational government in the way that we are discussing. As secretary of the all-party group on social enterprises, I have a particular interest—

Mr. McFadden: Never let it be said that the Cabinet Office is not a seamless and coherent Department, or that one part does not work closely with another. I assure my hon. Friend that the Minister for the third sector is an active and loud voice on the third sector’s behalf, and that he is working with the sector to identify and deal with any barriers that might exist to its involvement in the field.

We are always trying to improve the governance of projects. We have published the transformational government agenda and established the Chief Information Officer Council. We are taking forward the recommendations of the Varney review and concentrating the number of Government websites to make them easier for the public to use, and we will keep trying to improve the governance and management of such projects. We are aware that the Public Accounts Committee recently examined the issue and made recommendations, to which we will respond in due course, but for today, I stress that the matter is crucial to the quality of public services. Our twin duties for the agenda are to be both ambitious about what we can achieve and rigorous about how we manage implementing it.

Margaret Moran: To reinforce the point, the Minister has not mentioned—I appreciate that he has limited time available—the democratisation of public service delivery. I commend to him a project with which I am involved, and of which I have been the architect for some time, called Kidspeak. It involves children’s charities talking to children online about their experiences of domestic violence and the services that they receive. Could he look at some of those examples and integrate them into the transformational governance programme?

Mr. McFadden: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I point her to the recent report “The Power of Information”, commissioned by the outgoing Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Even today, the Cabinet Office website is inviting comments from the public on the issue of time and public service. Online dialogue is extremely valuable.

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Rail Services (Devon)

5.9 pm

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): In the short time available, I hope to touch on a couple of issues relating to health and safety concerns about the rail service provided in my constituency. Time permitting, I shall then talk about some general issues and concerns about the future of rail services for those who commute to, travel to or holiday in what has always been known as glorious Devon. It is known as that because 1930s British Rail advertisements for services to the west country were emblazoned with words urging people to travel to “glorious Devon”.

My particular concerns relate to two stations in my constituency, Starcross and Dawlish Warren. It could fairly be said that the issues that I am raising with the Minister are for Network Rail to resolve, but they have been raised with the company for a number of years. We may be making progress on some of those issues—on others, we may not. I am hoping that, because of his influence with Network Rail, the Minister can say that health and safety concerns should be paramount and that disabled access and the ability to get on to trains are a concern to him as a Minister.

Starcross is a small station on the banks of the River Exe overlooking east Devon. It even has a connecting ferry service across the river. The station platform is straight until it bends in its latter half. The station had served its local community without problem for a number of years. In an effort to shorten travel times and improve the service, the rails were banked through the curved section of the platform to allow the trains to travel faster. The trains subsequently stopped on a banked curve.

The result was twofold. A gap was opened up between the platform and the train and because of the tipping motion and how they are banked, the trains sit higher above the platform than they used to. As a consequence, there is a large gap that makes it difficult for anybody with walking difficulties to get into or off trains. Anyone with a severe such handicap would probably avoid using Starcross as a station if they could. Constituents tell me that because of the difficulties on the platform, they prefer to use the bus service or their cars to travel into Exeter or down the line towards Dawlish or Teignmouth.

The resolution to the problem is straightforward. Most of the trains that stop—99 per cent. of them—are at most only four carriages long. The platform is designed for trains of eight or 10 carriages, so all Network Rail has to do is stop the trains halfway down the platform. Ian Coucher kindly visited my constituency and we considered a number of issues together. He accepted my point and said 18 months to two years ago that the company would consider the problem. However, it has still not come back to me, and that is why I bring it to the Minister’s attention today.

The platform does not need to be raised, as was originally proposed; the halt sign needs to be put halfway down, and a shelter and some lighting need to be moved—that is all that is required. I would have thought that, given the effect on those using the service, such changes would be small change. There would be a difficulty in respect of the occasional high-speed train
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that stops at Starcross, but that could probably be accepted by people with a disability; they could get used to using only one end of the platform.

I ask the Minister to ask Network Rail about that station and others with difficulties of access and safety which colleagues in the House have raised with me. The safety aspect is that small children, dogs or others could fall into the gap between the train and platform. Some pets already have.

The next station down the line is another small halt at Dawlish Warren, where, I am pleased to say, some changes have been made—trains stop closer to the shelter, making things slightly more convenient for passengers. However, there is a different safety issue at the station. The Dawlish Warren area includes a bird sanctuary, a popular bathing beach, an amusement arcade and other facilities that local tourists like to visit. All that is accessed via a small tunnel, through which ambulances and fire engines cannot go to service the other side. However, there is a crossing, to which Network Rail and its predecessor have refused emergency vehicles access. The company’s argument is that it is a health and safety issue and that it would be dangerous to allow such vehicles to use the gate. However, I argue strongly that if anyone is fit to judge health and safety risks and whether to use a crossing, it is the emergency services. I am fairly certain that a way could be found for that gate to be used by them; it could be pulled back to allow them to access the Dawlish Warren area.

The current situation is not without risk. I say that for two reasons, one of which is personal. Sadly, a good friend of mine, Councillor Bill Buckle, had a heart attack and died while walking on the warren. The ambulance had to stop on one side and its crew had to leg it nearly half a mile across the sand dunes to Bill, who was dying. Vital minutes could have been saved if the gate had been accessible. It is unlikely that the buildings destroyed by two fires on the warren would have been saved by the fire crews getting there that much quicker, because of the nature of the fires, how quickly they spread and the fact that the buildings were structured with timber. However, the fact that there have been two major fires there highlights the need to allow full appliances to gain access to the warren.

I have corresponded with Network Rail on the issue and it is totally intransigent about it. When the Minister has opportunities to discuss funding with Network Rail, will he ask about its health and safety record on such matters and what health and safety improvements it thinks need to be made? Is there any chance of the Minister asking the company, or even insisting, that it give greater priority to such health and safety concerns?

Not all the concerns are easily reconciled. There are concerns about the walk along the sea wall between Teignmouth and Dawlish. Sadly, there is not an easy solution to some concerns and some compromises have to be made. We have to accept that; I am not saying that the world should be wrapped in cotton wool in such instances. However, in the two cases that I have outlined, there are clear examples of how things could be done.

I mentioned the sea wall. The last time I was fortunate enough to secure an Adjournment debate in this Chamber, we discussed the sea wall at great length.
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For the record, I should say that there has been progress on the issue. Network Rail has indicated that it believes that maintaining the line along the sea wall—the one through Dawlish and through to Teignmouth—is the best option. The line featured spectacularly on the BBC’s “Coast” programme three weeks ago. Sadly, I did not get to see it and I have not been able to see a recording, but the waves crash over the line. Network Rail believes that the line can and should be maintained as the best link to the west of the county and Cornwall, and for those areas it is essential that the line remains open. I am glad of the company’s continued investment in and commitment to that service. However, there are risks from weather change, as we have seen from the horrendous storms that have affected some northern parts of the country this week. No matter what pre-planning is done, services will be always put out of action for a period by such storms.

On that point, it is always better to have two options to access a destination than just one. I am not seeking a firm commitment now, but I ask the Minister to consider representations that might be made to him by the regional development agency and by others to consider the cost of reopening the old line from Okehampton to Plymouth. That would provide relief in the event of problems with the other line, and the same would be true in reverse in the event that there were problems with the small commuter service, because the coastal alternative could substitute.

Let me say something else about relief. One of the Bills that has been making its way through the House is the Crossrail Bill, although, from the faces of the hon. Members who emerge from the Committee sittings, it appears that progress on it is slow. I make no comment on the benefits or otherwise of the Bill, because Crossrail is not a matter on which I have particularly strong views. However, my constituents are concerned about the impact of Crossrail on their ability to get in and out of London.

Again, I do not press for firm commitments one way or the other. However, will the Minister consider what could be done to alleviate the potential problems that might exist, in particular during the construction phase? Two thoughts come to mind, both of which revolve around the capacity of Waterloo and whether it can be improved. First, some alleviation could be achieved from improvements to the Exeter to Waterloo line, which are in any case much needed for the benefit of the service to the west country and Devon. Secondly, if First Great Western maintains its service to Reading, why cannot feasibility studies be undertaken to consider improving the line from Reading to Waterloo? There is already such a service, but it is one that could perhaps be made even better.

I hope that the Minister will respond positively to the matters that I have raised.

5.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on getting to the Chamber on time following his endeavours in the Westminster boat race. I am delighted that he did not fall in.

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The hon. Gentleman raised some important issues and I shall address some specific ones before moving on to some more general comments. I understand that there might shortly be a Division, so I shall try to keep my comments brief. He is understandably concerned about health and safety in stations in his constituency—particularly at Starcross. He prefaced his own comments by correctly pointing out that that matter is one more for Network Rail than for the Department for Transport. However, I shall be happy to make representations on his concerns to Network Rail at my next regular meeting with the chief executive designate, Ian Coucher.

As the hon. Gentleman said, health and safety matters are normally dealt with by Network Rail, by the train operating companies—in this case, First Great Western, or occasionally by the Office of Rail Regulation, which is the industry safety regulator. However, he has made his case extremely well, and I should be more than happy again to raise the matters that he has mentioned with Network Rail. I say that particularly in light of the fact that the hon. Gentleman invited Ian Coucher to his constituency 18 months to two years ago, yet still nothing seems to have materialised.

The hon. Gentleman takes a pragmatic and realistic view of what can and cannot be achieved on the budgets that are available to the railways. The Department for Transport subscribes to the so-called low-hanging fruit theory, which is the theory that it is often better value for money to spend fairly modest sums to achieve modest change to infrastructure, because that can result in disproportionate benefit to passengers. I know that he subscribes to that theory too, so I am more than happy to encourage Network Rail to pursue that course and find out whether the stop sign on the platform can be changed so that people can enter and leave trains more easily.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the lack of emergency access at Dawlish Warren. I extend my sympathy for the loss of his friend—I am unhappy to hear of any such incidents. Again, the matter is one for Network Rail and perhaps for the ORR.

5.25 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.30 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman also raised concerns about the Dawlish sea wall. I am aware of concerns that the main line between Exeter and Plymouth, which runs along the sea wall in the Dawlish area, is, as he said, vulnerable to storms and flooding. Some have been pressing for the reinstatement of an inland route to allow services to avoid the Dawlish area in the longer term, but that is a matter for Network Rail rather than for my Department. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman if that sounds like a recitation of buck-passing. Network Rail continues to monitor the likelihood of risks to the safety and operational integrity of the railway in the Dawlish area.

The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to the reopening of the Okehampton to Plymouth line. There
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is a well established process in the Department whereby, provided that the initiative for the opening of a line comes from local stakeholders such as local authorities or business interests, that they work with Network Rail and that they provide a robust business case including an explanation of where the finance will come from, the Department should and will look sympathetically upon it. He would not expect me to undertake today to reopen the line.

If the hon. Gentleman has raised any issues that I cannot respond to directly, I shall be more than happy to write to him. More generally, I can say that after a number of difficult years Britain’s railways are a success story. Performance has improved and Network Rail and the train operators have a renewed focus on punctuality. The franchise system is delivering; more than 1 billion passenger journeys were made last year, 40 per cent. more than 10 years ago, and we have the fastest-growing network in Europe, with that strong growth expected to continue.

The hon. Gentleman will have heard me say on a number of occasions that in the current control period we are spending £88 million a week on the network. Network Rail has embarked on a nationwide infrastructure renewal programme worth more than £2 billion a year. We are basically running to catch up on the decades of under-investment in our railways by previous Governments of both colours.

Increased investment in such initiatives as integrated control centres has improved punctuality to pre-Hatfield levels. In the past 12 months, more than 88 per cent. of trains have run on time, as measured by the industry-standard public performance measure. Further improvements are targeted for March 2008. The rail industry has committed to achieve 89.4 per cent. on the public performance measure by then and 90 per cent. a year later.

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