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Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): With the leave of the House, we shall take motions 4, 5 and 6 together.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Capital Gains Tax

Question agreed to.

European Documents

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119(11)),

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Safety of Toys

Question agreed to.


Northern Rock

8.55 pm

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): I have a petition from the Northern Rock shareholders of my constituency— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. A petition is being presented. Will hon. Members who are leaving do so quickly and quietly so that we can proceed?

Mr. Campbell: I have a petition from the shareholders of my constituency. They are asking for a fair contribution from the Government and a fair share of the shares that they lost when Northern Rock was taken over and nationalised.

Following is the full text of the petition:

[ The Petition of small shareholders and supporters of Northern Rock of the Blyth Valley constituency in the North East of England,

Declares that it welcomes the acknowledgement by the Government that it must pay compensation for nationalising Northern Rock plc, but that the terms of reference for the valuation of the shares are wrongly based as the company was not in administration and was still a ‘going concern’ .

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Further declares that if these terms are unchanged there will not be a fair compensation payment which will lead to many in our region having their savings and pensions undermined which in turn will have a negative impact on the North East's economy.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons calls on the Government to reconsider the terms of reference given to the valuer so that he can fully reflect the true value of Northern Rock shares.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


8.56 pm

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): I have a similar petition, signed by nearly 200 of my constituents who are concerned that they may not receive a fair valuation for their shares in Northern Rock.

The petition states:


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Rail Fare Increases (South-East)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Mr. Watts.)

8.58 pm

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): I am extremely grateful for this debate on rail fare increases in the south-east, because it gives me the chance to put before the House an issue of real concern to my constituents, which is causing a great deal of anger among train passengers in my part of Sussex.

My constituents in Bexhill and Battle are particularly appalled at the astronomical train fare hikes being imposed by Southeastern Trains on the Hastings to Charing Cross lines. My constituents, who rely on stations such as Stonegate, Etchingham, Robertsbridge, Battle and Crowhurst, are rightly angry and up in arms about excessive and unjustified ticket price rises.

This January, as the Minister will know, regulated fares rose by an average of 6 per cent. nationally, more than 3 per cent. over inflation, despite repeated Government promises that they would rise by only 1 per cent. above inflation. The Government have chosen to use the July 2008 figure of 5 per cent. inflation rather than the year-end figure of 2.1 per cent. as the base rate, directly hitting passengers in the pocket at a time when Labour’s recession is squeezing hard-working families’ finances in Bexhill and Battle just as it is everywhere else in the country.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend recall that in the period immediately after privatisation regulated fares were controlled at RPI—the retail prices index—minus 1? Does he agree that that was part of a sustainable transport policy that gave a clear signal to rail passengers that their fares would go up by less than the rate of inflation? Does not moving to RPI plus make it more difficult to have a sustainable transport policy?

Gregory Barker: My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point about short-term rip-offs. Unfortunately, the combination that we have now is the worst of both worlds, as I shall explain a little later in my remarks. There is a total lack of long-term strategy and, as a result, short-term fare hikes are being made because of the failure to invest for the long term.

Why have these huge national price increases been made? The Government have obliged the train operating companies to pay huge franchise premium payments, which can be met only by increasing the fares. In effect, that is another way for the Government to claw money from the public: in effect, it is another stealth tax. Why are the Government making rail travel so much more expensive at a time when Ministers preach to us that we should all be switching to public transport to lower emissions and reduce traffic congestion?

Just this week, figures came out showing that, in terms of cost per mile, Britain’s rail passengers are the most hard squeezed in Europe. Now, I do not expect fares here to compare with fares in Serbia, where £10 will take one 512 miles, but it does seem ridiculous that, in Britain, for the same money one can travel just 26 miles. In reality, the Government’s mismanagement of our rail network over the past decade, and their
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failure to get costs under control, have meant that they have no long-term strategy to cope with the increasing demand for rail travel other than simply to price people off the railways by raising fares.

Consistent under-investment and a lack of strategic vision have led to unfair price rises and to the taxpayer, yet again, bearing the brunt of the Prime Minister’s sloppy financial management. Nowhere in the country is that more true than in my constituency and elsewhere along the East Sussex-Kent border, where commuters have borne price increases well into double figures. For example, my constituents who travel from Battle station into central London have suffered a 10.3 per cent. increase in the price of a weekly season ticket.

Etchingham is another town in my constituency, and people who commute from there have suffered an 8.3 per cent. rise in fares. That is clearly above the national limit of 6 per cent., but it is also higher than even the 8 per cent. that had to be permitted by the regulator as “an exception” to Southeastern trains.

So what is the justification for this extra cost? It is to subsidise the deployment of the Javelin train, on a line that will not even service any stations in my constituency. The pill becomes even more bitter for my constituents in Battle to swallow because they know that they are suffering fare increases greater than those being imposed at Ashford station, which at least will see the benefit of the new Javelin train.

Nor is the Javelin train on the Ashford line an easy alternative, as some people at head office seem to think, because in fact Ashford is 34 miles from Battle. This all smacks of a cursory knowledge of our area on the part of those making decisions in London. The rises imposed by the Department for Transport in Whitehall singularly fail to understand the geography of East Sussex: it is centralised, top-down decision making of the worst possible sort.

I understand and support entirely the need for new investment in our railways. Indeed, my party recently announced plans for a new national network of high-speed trains—British TGVs fit for the new century. In addition, I accept that our new carbon emissions targets, adopted in the Climate Change Act 2008, have give an even greater urgency and focus to the goal of modernising our transport networks.

After 10 years of neglect and under-investment, with severe capacity shortages on our networks and with the Treasury already at historic levels of debt, the costs of this investment are necessarily borne by those who will benefit from improved services. Indeed, the Government’s White Paper of 2007 enshrined the sensible concept that “the user pays”. But that, in essence, is the problem and the gripe on our line, because my constituents are not the users of this new service.

I do not object to the new Javelin trains—far from it. I welcome them, but why are my constituents being singled out to bear a disproportionate burden of the cost of that new investment? And to rub salt into the wound, rather than suffering fare increases to see an improved service on their own line at least, they are subsidising other areas. My constituents are paying over the odds and face the galling prospect of a deteriorating service on their own Hastings to Charing Cross line.

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My constituents are not alone. Amber Rudd, the hard-working Conservative candidate in Hastings, has made this point in her local campaign against the 10.39 per cent. price increases at Hastings and has written to tell me:

The figures bear out Amber Rudd’s concerns. More than a quarter of passengers using Southeastern’s services rate availability of seats as poor and complain about the company’s handling of delays, more than a third rate their value for money as poor, and more than 40 per cent. criticise the lack of parking space at stations, an issue that is particularly acute in my constituency at Battle, Crowhurst, Stonegate and over the border at Wadhurst in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry). A staggering 50 per cent. rate the toilet facilities and availability of staff as poor.

Can we expect any improvements? Hardly. In the past two weeks Southeastern has announced the axing of 300 jobs, so it seems unlikely that my constituents will suddenly find cleaner toilets or more helpful staff on station platforms. Even more seriously, my constituents frequently endure severe overcrowding on long journeys. Morning peak services average 14 per cent. of passengers standing, and capacities hitting 36 per cent. over the recommended load factor of the trains. The Government’s response to such overcrowding seems to be simply to price people off the trains.

My constituents have suffered declining quality of service and sustained price increases, despite the long-running campaigns to improve services led at a district level by hard-working local councillors to whom I pay tribute, such as Rother Councillor Ian Jenkins from Etchingham, and at county council level by the cabinet transport member Councillor Matthew Locke. Can the Minister explain to my constituents what the double-digit increases will be paying for on their line? Can the Minister explain why, when the Government claim to be trying to attract people on to the railways, it now costs less for two people to drive into London from my constituency than to take the train, even at the cheapest fares?

The Labour Government seem to have no long-term strategy to fix the problem. They have pressed ahead with a policy of short-term franchises that has given operators no incentive to make long-term investments in infrastructure or rolling stock. Many carriages have a lifespan of 30 years plus. To expect standards to be maintained when franchise holders have as little as five years’ interest in the business is naive and ridiculous, and it is the passengers who suffer. No wonder nearly a fifth of Southeastern’s passengers complain about the upkeep of station buildings and the repair of trains.

Parking provision has clearly had no strategic oversight. I frequently arrive at stations such as Battle and Crowhurst to find streets around the station choked with parked cars. Passengers often find stations unmanned, which,
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as well as being frustrating for those in need of information, means that some disabled rail users struggle to access the service at all.

Is it not clear that we must re-evaluate how rail franchises are operated? We cannot just blame the companies. Longer-term franchises will give companies a sound business reason to make the long-term investment that is needed. In addition, squeezing rail companies for vast sums over short periods leads them desperately to cash-crop the consumers for five or eight years without making a significant investment beyond re-branding the timetables, before handing on a crumbling service to someone else.

We must free franchise operators from constant Whitehall meddling. There is a pressing need to incentivise private sector investment in our railways. Given that Ministers now have more control over rail operations than was the case under British Rail, it is not surprising that operators are often hard-pressed to find reasons to stay in the sector for the long term. Longer-term vision, and more flexible franchises with a focus on customer satisfaction and quality of service, are essential.

If we are to hit our 2050 emissions targets and enjoy the rewards of decarbonising our economy, rail must play a crucial role as it provides reliable low-carbon transport that is good value for money and enhances, not detracts, from the quality of life of constituents such as mine in Bexhill and Battle. We must put rail at the heart of a sustainable transport system and make the right long-term investments now to ensure that we have the transport system that we will need in future decades. However, if in so doing the Government tread unfairly on parts of the country, such as my constituency, that already rely heavily on these transport links, and if in these challenging economic times, they expect those areas to be unfairly and disproportionately penalised and to subsidise projects elsewhere after years of squandered public spending, they will punish the very rail users whom they profess to be making these investments to help.

People in the south-east are no strangers to being ripped off by Labour. The Prime Minister is desperate to tell us about all the “real help” that he is giving hard-working British families. We have seen precious little of that in Bexhill and Battle. Will the Minister tell us what real help he will give in respect of rail fares on the Hastings line? How can he make them fairer and more proportionate? Can he assure my constituents that the past 10 years of strategic anarchy on our railways will come to an end? Can he explain why, despite claiming to have seen the light on high-speed rail, the Government have given no commitment that any new high-speed rail infrastructure will be built? Can he explain why, despite their pledge two years ago to introduce 1,300 new carriages—without which the National Audit Office has said overcrowding will continue to get worse—they have yet even to order that number, let alone bring them into service?

Against that backdrop of failure, under-investment and lack of foresight, can the Minister claim to have a sensible and coherent strategy to provide a transport system that delivers value for money, let alone helps us reach our emissions reduction targets?

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