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11 Mar 2008 : Column 50WH—continued

The Bill introduces a number of reforms regarding the governance of regulatory bodies and the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence. As part of the new governance arrangements that we will shortly put before Parliament in a section 60 order, under the Health Act 1999, greater transparency will be introduced to the process of disciplining members. Each council will have a constitution order, made by the Privy Council, that will set out the grounds for removing council members from office. Under the proposals, which the Department of Health is in the process of sharing informally with the regulators, council members and employees will be given a statutory right to notify the
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Privy Council if they consider that a council member should be removed from office. Responsibility for considering the matter will then be delegated by the Privy Council to the independent Appointments Commission.

Together, the Bill and the section 60 order will meet the commitment that we made in the White Paper to reform completely the governance of regulatory bodies by introducing smaller, more board-like councils which are fully appointed by the independent appointments commissioner, and which operate in a more strategic manner. Those changes will allow councils to set the strategic direction of the regulator and to hold the executive properly to account for the day-to-day running of the organisation. That should help to avoid some of the long-standing problems on the board of the NMC.

The Bill amends the governance of the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence, giving it a new primary objective and enhancing its powers to look at regulators’ functions and processes. The Government are also taking new powers to direct the CHRE to investigate particular concerns or issues that arise. Those powers would have been useful in preventing the breakdown of the NMC’s functionality. The changes will ensure that the CHRE acts as a strong, independent voice for patients and the public. Its board members will no longer consist of the presidents of the regulatory bodies, but of independent people approved by the Appointments Commission.

As a result of the concerns raised today, I shall ask the CHRE to advise on what further steps could be taken, under secondary legislation relating to the regulators, to enhance confidence in this area. I thank my hon. Friend again for raising his concerns, and I hope he accepts that within the limits of our powers of intervention, the Government are doing what we can to help the NMC to address serious, long-standing problems. The changes that we are making through the Bill should help to ensure that such problems cannot arise in future.

John Bercow (in the Chair): I am grateful to the Minister of State for his contribution.

As both the right hon. Member whose debate it is and the Minister who is to respond are present, we can proceed to the next debate.

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East Midlands Trains

12.52 pm

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): I am grateful to you for that, Mr. Bercow, and to the Minister for his early attendance. I shall start by giving some details about East Midlands Trains and train services in my constituency. On Saturday, I had the great privilege of attending the reopening of Idridgehay station. It has been reopened by the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway company, which plans to reopen the railway line down the Ecclesbourne valley to Duffield. The new train service will give people an important link from Wirksworth to Duffield, and will enable them to take advantage of East Midlands Trains services into Derby, from where they can connect to London.

I was pleased that the station reopened on Saturday. The opening was the culmination of a huge amount of work by a private company to restore the railway line, and was the first time that a passenger train had run on that line since 1947, although I do not blame any Governments for that. I compliment people at the company, and volunteers, for their dedication and for providing a good service. When the line is fully open in 2010, it will be very useful to the people who live in the area.

There have been some remarkable achievements with trains and train services in the midlands. Ten years ago, St. Pancras station was the worst station in London to come into. It was dark and desolate, and had few services. Today, it is without doubt the best station in London. It reopened recently and is now the hub for trains going to the continent, as it is the home base for Eurostar. That is a tremendous achievement, and anyone who has not visited it should go to see its tremendous refurbishment and the reawakening of the railway age at St. Pancras. Those are some of the positive aspects of what is happening with the rail industry.

When the Government took the franchise away from Midland Mainline and awarded it to East Midlands Trains, I was encouraged by what East Midlands Trains said it was going to do. It set out its programme and options in a booklet for passengers, which included:

and an hourly service between Nottingham and Matlock. I hope that the hourly service will coincide with connections, because the service from Matlock, which is a bit of distant cousin, currently arrives in Derby at times that are inconvenient for connections to London. That would make a huge difference to my constituency and to my constituents.

I want to talk specifically about an issue that I have raised in the House before: the poor deal that passengers get with Sunday services. Those services seem to have been almost forgotten, not necessarily by the train companies, but by Network Rail, which operates and makes decisions about repairs. I am concerned about its accountability, as it is not accountable to anyone but the Government, who therefore have total responsibility for its management and ownership. A few weeks ago, we had the ridiculous situation in which Network Rail was
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fined for over-running works around Rugby, only to find that the fine would go back to the Treasury and would then have to be lent or given back to Network Rail.

There are constantly poorer services for Sunday travellers. This morning, I asked the managing director of East Midlands Trains whether he had the occupancy rates for Sunday services. He replied that it has only been running the service for four months, so it does not have those rates; the records that Midland Mainline held were not passed on. Anyone who travels on a Sunday will see that there is huge usage by the travelling public at weekends. That is one pattern of rail travel that might be changing. Perhaps, 20 years ago, trains were not used so often on Sundays, but that has changed. I am sorry that the records on customers and predicted customer bases, which were obviously there when Midland Mainline was operating services, have not been passed on to the new operator. Will the Minister address that point?

East Midlands Trains took over services just four months ago. When it was announced as the preferred operator, I thought that some of its plans were encouraging and exciting, and I was looking forward to seeing it operate. I accept that it has to operate according to Network Rail’s decisions on track maintenance and negotiations, over a considerable period, about repairs. There is a planned investment programme, over the period of East Midlands Trains’ franchise, of £90 million, which should lead to better services. At the moment, however, for more than three months, Sunday trains are to be diverted around Manton, after they leave Leicester, which will add an hour to the journey.

On Saturdays and Sundays, trains are operated with fewer members of staff on board, so that when something goes wrong, extra pressure is put on them. As far as they are concerned, that affects their communication with the travelling public. I want to be absolutely clear that I have nothing but praise for how the members of staff behaved and responded to passengers’ concerns on the Sunday—I have to declare an interest—when I was on a train for almost six hours.

Leaflets have been published which say that I can go from Derby to Paris in six hours. Therefore, when on 2 March it took almost six hours to go from Derby to London, I was, shall we say, a little less than impressed with the service that I received. Of course, I am a Member of Parliament and can raise the matter here. I investigated the situation further and found that on that day there were 100 alterations to service, 13 train cancellations and 11 partial train cancellations. Many members of the travelling public were involved in the huge delays. It is how the problem came about that I now wish to discuss briefly.

As I said, due to essential track and ballast renewal work, there is at present a diversion between Market Harborough and Kettering. Trains are diverted around Manton. Delays were worsened because, apparently, there was a theft of some 60 m of cable on the line. I find this rather odd: this bit of line is not used very much in the week, but, on the day when all the trains were being diverted, there was a theft of cable.

Some cable was stolen, and that basically brought that part of the network to a standstill for quite some time, during which communications to the passengers as to what was happening were totally unsatisfactory. It may well have been that the people controlling were not
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in a position to know fully what was going on. The first time the train came to a standstill, we were told that there was a freight train in front of us. After 30 minutes, we were told that that there was a passenger train and a freight train in front of us. Then, after an hour, we were told that there were two passenger trains and a freight train in front of us. After about two hours, we started to move again after being literally completely stationary on a very crowded train on a Sunday afternoon.

There was a problem for the members of staff on that train, because they were not being informed as to what was happening. They could tell the travelling public only what they were being told. As I said earlier, I have nothing but praise for the way in which they tried to tell us what was going on, but the information was appalling.

When we finally arrived in London, I was told that the theft of the cable had occurred some time during the late morning. Surely, if that was the case, the delays were known about before people boarded the trains. I do not know whether there has been a full investigation into what exactly happened on that day, or whether a report is available about the incident, but there certainly should be.

It is in the Government’s and everybody’s interest that more use be made of trains. Passenger miles have been going up over a very long period. I could almost say that they have dramatically increased since privatisation. I see that the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—I still regard the Department as Trade and Industry, but I realise that its name has changed—will be making an interesting speech today about the benefits of many more millionaires and entrepreneurs, and I welcome that sort of change, but I also say that the travelling public require a service that is satisfactory. The service that was given on that day by East Midlands Trains primarily, because it is the rail operator, but also by Network Rail, which stands back from this a little, was woefully inadequate.

I was asked by some of the passengers whether they would be entitled to a refund. The last time I was delayed on a train for more than an hour, I was able to get a refund. I was therefore surprised when I inquired whether passengers using the service would be entitled to a refund to be told that, because the delay was due to vandalism, it was outside what is laid out in the “National Rail Conditions of Carriage”. I have obtained a copy of the rules and regulations. You will not be surprised to learn, Mr. Bercow, that they run to 27 pages. There are more get-out clauses in those 27 pages than could be written by anybody I have yet to come across in the legal profession. The number of get-out clauses is quite amazing, but one of them is vandalism, along with the weather, acts of God, fire, police, terrorism—in fact, I am starting to wonder what actually does come into the area where compensation can be given.

I was therefore encouraged to receive a letter from the managing director of EMT, Tim Shoveller, in which he stated:

I very much welcome that, but I do not quite understand why the scheme cannot be operated until 1
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April 2009. Can the Minister reassure me that it could be introduced far sooner than that? Such a scheme would have served me and some of the complainants on the day that I described. If Network Rail and EMT thought that they would actually lose money, there would be more pressure on them to get repairs done more quickly. More pressure would be put on Network Rail to respond more quickly to such cases. I accept that they are beyond their control, and I understand that the theft of cable is a growing problem as far as the rail network is concerned. It is disturbing to all of us who use the train service.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) has sought the Minister’s and my permission to make a short contribution, so I shall try to sum up. Positive changes have been made to the rail network. Days such as the one that I described are rare, but they still cause huge inconvenience to the travelling public. I would like to be reassured that lessons will be learned from the incident, which I understand was quite large as far as the overall operation of the network is concerned, so that if anything like that happens again, passengers will be notified as soon as possible, perhaps before boarding.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing a debate that is important to those of us who live along the main line. In his concluding remarks, would he welcome the moves that EMT is making to bring about joint control of the track with Network Rail? Perhaps when that has been achieved, the sort of communications difficulties that obviously occurred on that particular day might be avoided.

Mr. McLoughlin: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who I know is a regular user of the service, as are many others who have constituencies along the line. I hope that that will make an improvement, but I was not encouraged by what I saw on that day and have since learned about the incident. I know that there is a move towards a joint control room. It seems odd that that has taken so long, because the diversion around Manton has been used on many occasions in the past, and, much to my horror, I hear that it may be used in future years. It makes for a difficult, time-consuming service, irrespective of the fact that on the days when trains are diverted along that route, there is no reduction whatsoever in the price—passengers pay the same price for that service as they pay for a faster one.

I understand what the hon. Gentleman said. I accept that improvements had been made: anybody who comes into St. Pancras station can only marvel at what has been achieved there. However, we still need to, and must, learn lessons from incidents such as the one I have described so that people who rely on the trains for connections—I have heard many stories about people who have missed connections once they have arrived in London—are not put at a disadvantage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough asked if he could make a contribution, so I hope that he gets the chance to do so now.

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1.13 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Bercow. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) on securing from Mr. Speaker an extraordinarily important debate for people who have to use the railway line through the east midlands. I also welcome the Minister. I always find it difficult to criticise such an excellent, competent Minister, whom the Government always seem to put up to defend the indefensible. As always, I hope that Jim will fix it. I am grateful that we have a little more time than was originally expected, which enables me to make these few comments.

Midland Mainline, the previous franchise holder, was popular in my area. It was a good train operator that often won the train operator of the year award, the staff were friendly and I had no complaints from my constituents about the service. Lo and behold, it lost the franchise and along came East Midlands Trains. The managing director of that company, Mr. Tim Shoveller, kindly met me at the House of Commons. I am pleased to report that, despite what my constituents think, he does not carry a little fork and does not have two horns sticking out of his head. However, that is the feeling in the constituency.

We have had a downgraded service since East Midlands Trains took over the train service; there is no question about that. The frequency of the trains has been reduced and seat reservations for season ticket holders—the most important customers of the railway, who pay thousands of pounds out of their income each year to travel from Wellingborough to London—have been withdrawn. People are paying thousands of pounds a year, but they cannot get a seat and they cannot be guaranteed a seat from Wellingborough to London. That has caused the most enormous uproar. Of course, the trains were already overcrowded.

So the trains are overcrowded, the number of trains has been cut and people cannot get their seat reservation. My constituents, and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), are extremely annoyed about what has happened. I should like to blame East Midlands Trains and say that it had nothing to do with the Government, but unfortunately that is not so. The Government say that they will solve overcapacity and undercapacity by having lots more carriages—perhaps 1,300 or 1,500—but how many will East Midlands Trains get? It will get three more. So that will not solve the problem.

I talked to the managing director of East Midlands Trains and asked, “Why are you doing all these things? When you cut the service, why did you increase the cost of the fares by more than twice the rate of inflation? Did you do it to save money?” I then said, “What about the tea and coffee?” The nice thing about Midland Mainline was that it gave people a free cup of tea or coffee. East Midlands Trains took that away, saying, “Ah, that costs £1 million a year, Mr. Bone.” I said, “So what? You charge enough for your fares: you've just bumped them up enormously.” I was told, “It is all down to a problem that we have. It’s the Government.” I asked, “How can it be the Government? You run the service. The Government tell me that it is nothing to do
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with them and that you run it.” “Ah”, the managing director said, “it is because we have to pay the Government a premium for the service.”

I was told that my constituents who travel by rail are subsidising other people travelling by rail around the country. I thought that that was nonsense and could not possibly be true, so I asked the Secretary of State for Transport a parliamentary question. The reply I received says:

that is, East Midlands Trains—

which will be a great deal more in actual cash terms,

The cuts are deliberately the Government's fault. I hope that the Minister will be able to sort that out and improve the service from Wellingborough to London.

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