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2.19 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): If the recommitted Corporation Tax Bill was opaque, this is doubly so, and I say that as a veteran of several double taxation statutory instruments in my time. I want briefly to commend the Government and the Minister for the seriousness of their intent in this matter. I note the updating of tax avoidance legislation. When 82 per cent. of central London commercial properties are owned by companies registered outside the UK-that is the figure from the chief executive of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs-when companies exploiting the developed world's resources choose to base themselves largely in Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and the Isle of Man and pay little if any tax, and when our biggest retailer put its property portfolio in Liechtenstein, there is a problem, but it is one that the Government have endeavoured to square up to.

Tax avoidance and double taxation are two incompatible evils, and any Government who recognise the reality of international finance need to strike the right balance between them. The Government, and the Financial Secretary in particular, have been resourceful and persistent in their efforts in this regard, and have accelerated the work in this very complex field, using what coercive and persuasive powers they have. I know that the Financial Secretary has had discussions with Crown dependencies' many tax havens and we see now a panorama of treaties around the world, and statutory instruments in this place are multiplying similarly. It is an important point. In a depressed world, it is important that all pay their fair share of tax, and an aspect of this Bill, at any rate, is part of the long, painful, not unrewarding task of making that happen, in which the Financial Secretary has played a conspicuous part.

2.21 pm

Mr. Timms: Once again, I welcome the helpful remarks made by the hon. Members for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) and for Southport (Dr. Pugh). I was particularly interested in and grateful for what the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire said in passing about the discussion document that we have published recently on the reform of controlled foreign company rules. I agree with him about the importance of this key issue for the UK's tax competitiveness and I welcome further discussion with him and others in the House and with the large number of companies and organisations that will be taking a close interest as work on this goes forward with a view to legislating-I hope, in the finance Act next year.

I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Southport for his comments about the seriousness of the Government's intent in tackling tax evasion and avoidance. This is an area that he has taken a close and helpful interest in and I am grateful to him for what he said. Over the last year
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we have made more progress on tax information exchange than was made in the previous 10 years. The interest that he has shown is a helpful addition to making the progress that is needed.

Mr. Gauke: May I take this opportunity to reiterate the remarks that I have made in some of those double taxation treaty Statutory Instrument Committees? I know that there is potentially a backlog in getting through some of the treaties, such is the number that have been entered into in recent years, and the Opposition are willing to co-operate with the Government to ensure that we can get through as many of those as possible. We think that that adds to the attractiveness of the UK as an economic proposition, as well as addressing some of the concerns about tax avoidance.

Mr. Timms: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that.

Finally, once again I express thanks to the very large number of people who have contributed to the tax law rewrite, and my particular thanks go to Lord Newton and Robina Dyall. This is the final debate of its kind and once again I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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East Coast Main Line

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

2.24 pm

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the issue of rail services on the east coast main line from stations in Northumberland. I am particularly pleased to be doing so in the early afternoon rather than at the usual time of 6 o'clock, because the last train to Berwick is at 6 o'clock and that is my only opportunity to get there before my surgery tomorrow morning. That illustrates one of the weaknesses in the present service, but I will say by way of preface that over the 36 years that I have been a Member of Parliament we have seen significant improvement in the service-not massive improvement, but significant improvement-particularly from Berwick and Alnmouth, achieved by stopping some more of the fast through trains there. That has paid dividends in terms of the number of passengers using the trains, which I will come back to.

In a relatively short time we have had, or will soon have had, four operators running the east coast main line service, and that is not counting British Rail, which ran it previously. We had GNER, which was an adventurous and innovative company, determined to provide good passenger service, and its departure was lamented by many travellers on the line. Then we had National Express, and while at first people were fearful of what would happen with a new operator, it made some changes, but generally achieved other things to compensate for them, including greater punctuality, and people were sorry to see it go. Now we have East Coast, which the Government own, so the Minister runs the trains on our line, indirectly, and so far it seems to be doing a reasonably good job of it, so much so that many travellers on the line, myself included, would rather have some stability and see the East Coast, Government-owned company running it for some time rather than rushing into another operator quickly. To lose one operator seems careless, but to lose two seems downright incompetent, and were we to lose three, I do not know where we would be. It goes back to the problem of trying to exact too big a premium for the system in general from the operator of the profitable east coast main line. The closed auction process-the bidding war-led companies that really wanted to run the service to overbid, and when events came along, including recession, they were unable to continue, and it has been a messy story.

But now, as I say, we have a Government-owned company running the East Coast service. However, that is not the only involvement that the Minister has because the Government determine what services will be run under the franchise system, and both the East Coast and the CrossCountry franchises are set by Government in considerable detail. This is one of the occasions when Ministers cannot say that these are all matters for somebody else; there is close ministerial and departmental involvement.

My focus this afternoon is on the stations that lie in the county of Northumberland, particularly Berwick, Alnmouth and Morpeth, the first two being in my constituency, and Morpeth being one that serves a
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considerable area of my constituency. They all depend on east coast main line services and CrossCountry services. The local service to those stations is very limited, except in the case of Morpeth. The local service also serves Widdrington, Acklington and Chathill in my constituency, and we are working to improve it. We are also working to reinstate a station platform at Belford because of the absurdity that a train goes there twice a day and cannot collect any passengers. I will say something about that later. We are making real progress on that, and it may be the first station reopened in our part of the world since Dr. Beeching. If we achieve that, which I believe we can, we shall all be delighted.

I would like to see improvements to that local service, but for the moment I want to concentrate on the express mainline services. There would be no adequate train service at all from Berwick and Alnmouth were it not for stops for East Coast and CrossCountry trains-stops for fast trains. Berwick depends on those entirely, and Alnmouth very largely. Over the years, we have achieved some more stops for these trains.

We saw a particularly good improvement when Chris Green was running Virgin Trains. I was keen to demonstrate to him that there was considerable scope for getting more passengers at Alnmouth station, so I had him to tea here in the House of Commons and sent him up on a trip to look at Alnwick garden and the features of the town. He came back full of interest and excitement, and introduced several new stops on CrossCountry trains through Alnmouth on business grounds. At the same time, we made some improvements to the station. A real business dividend came out of that. Additional custom came on to the trains because the timetable was more viable. People would get a train in the morning because they knew there was a train in the afternoon that they could get back on. The timetable became viable-not as viable as I would like it to be, but much more so than it was. We need to maintain those improvements; they must be continued, not thrown away in careless timetable planning. That is a key point to which I shall return.

The background to rail use in my constituency, first and foremost, is that we have the A1, which is a very dangerous road, only parts of which are dualled. During my time in Parliament I have helped to achieve some additional dualling, but we are not there yet, and much more improvement is needed. People who live locally recognise the road to be very dangerous, and that is one of the many reasons, apart from the environmental ones, why it is better to travel by rail if possible. I have raised that subject in Adjournment debates on other occasions.

Berwick station is a railhead not only for north Northumberland but for the whole borders area. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) is keenly interested in what happens at Berwick, and he and I are going to see the Minister shortly to talk about that in more detail. The station serves a very large area of southern Scotland in which there are no railway stations at all. That is easily noticed on the station platform when we see so many people coming from Scotland. Whole school parties from Scottish schools catch trains from Berwick, as well as all the people from Berwick itself and from Northumberland. Because Berwick is 55 miles from
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Edinburgh and 65 miles from Newcastle, rail travel is very important. Things such as major hospitals, many people's work, shopping and major entertainment facilities are all a long way away, and therefore a train journey is the logical, and only really comfortable, way for many people to make such journeys. That makes the Berwick area quite different from many other parts of the country. A lot of people have settled there on the basis that they can work from home but travel occasionally to meetings in London or in other centres. That is an important developing pattern in our economy.

Alnmouth station serves much of mid-Northumberland and has close links with RAF Boulmer, whose service families are big users of the rail service there. It has nearby Alnwick garden, which is attracting vast numbers of tourists. Its management has just been taken over by somebody whose past experience has been in Disneyland, and he expects to increase tourism in the Alnwick area on a very large scale. Alnmouth has a lot of regular commuters and a very active rail users' group, which has contributed enormously to the pressure to maintain and improve services there.

Morpeth station, which serves the southern part of my constituency, has local services, many of which terminate there. However, it is also extremely advantageous for people who are travelling direct to London or on longer journeys to use Morpeth, because that saves them driving into Newcastle. That is an environmental benefit, as well as a benefit in terms of coping with the traffic congestion on the north side of the city. However, there are only a few direct trains from London to Morpeth in the current timetable, and they are popular and well used.

Against that background, let me take a look at what is going on with rail timetables. The first thing that hit us was the Network Rail draft timetable for 2011. It is called, curiously, the "Eureka" timetable, which is more or less what I exclaimed when, after a very long period, I at last found it on the computer. It was extremely difficult to locate; how the public are supposed to take part in the consultation that has been launched, I do not know. At the moment there is no weekend timetable. I looked again yesterday, and we still have only a Monday to Friday timetable accessible on the internet. The draft timetable apparently contains mistakes. I understand from operators that certain trains that they expected to be in it were not included, so we hope that they will be reinstated.

This ongoing process is very difficult to engage with. The only people who are doing so successfully are a very limited number who have a lot of specialised knowledge because of their past employment in the railway industry or because they take a close interest in railway matters. A few of those people have done sterling work in identifying changes that people might otherwise not have discovered until the day they went to get a train and found that it was no longer in the timetable.

At the same time as that consultation, the Secretary of State has launched the franchise consultation for a new operator to take over the east coast main line. That consultation does not contain a timetable, but it does contain commitments and proposals for the pattern of the service, both short and long term. It is quite difficult to understand how the one relates to the other. I have said to the Secretary of State that I hope he will take all the representations on Network Rail's draft timetable as
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indicating what people want to see in the franchise as well. Because the franchise contains some new ideas, people will want also to make comments on those. The process is complex.

What is wrong with the draft timetable? Let me start with Berwick. The first train to London from Berwick on the draft timetable, instead of getting in at 10.10 am, as under the present timetable, will not get to London until 10.40 am, half an hour later. That is a serious deterioration in one of the most important services that is provided. Given the pattern that I described earlier of people who work from home going to meetings in London, and given that a lot of people who are on national bodies of various kinds in our industries such as farming travel to London for meetings, that deterioration in service will lead to people taking the alternative of driving to Edinburgh or Newcastle airport and getting a plane from there. The later arrival in London is a serious failure. There is an easy to answer to that, which is that the 5.20 am train from Edinburgh in the new timetable should stop at Berwick, and the 6 o'clock train could stop at Alnmouth and Morpeth, to which I shall come in a moment.

Another gap in the timetable is that there are no southbound trains between 8.10 and 10 o'clock in the morning, which is a huge loss. The CrossCountry train to Penzance, which stops at Berwick at 8.52 am, will not stop there under the new timetable. That is a valuable train to long-distance customers travelling to places such as Birmingham and other stations along the way, and it is much used by students and shoppers travelling to Newcastle. I have a feeling that CrossCountry did not intend to drop that train from the timetable.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole): I hope to be able to reassure the right hon. Gentleman on the question of Penzance trains not stopping at Berwick. That was one of the omissions in Network Rail's early timetable work that have since been remedied, and Berwick will have a two-hourly CrossCountry service to the midlands and the south-west.

Sir Alan Beith: That is very helpful, and I am pleased to hear it. It is just that kind of thing that I hope to get out of today's debate, to clarify where it is already recognised that the service needs to be maintained and where work must continue to ensure that it is.

The next gap that I wish to mention is also a southbound service, and it is the main commuter train from Edinburgh. The most obvious time that people leave work is about 5.30 pm, and there is a 5.31 pm train. I use it myself sometimes and it is very well used, but under the new timetable it will not stop at Berwick, which will be a serious gap for regular commuters.

The East Coast service running through to Glasgow from Berwick is to be almost entirely withdrawn. In its place, a new CrossCountry service to Glasgow will be provided. Far more of the CrossCountry trains go there, but those new trains will not stop at Berwick under the draft timetable. A lot of people travel between Berwick and Glasgow, as many organisations that have branches in Berwick are headquartered in Glasgow, so a lot of people make trips to Glasgow as part of their work, and the removal of that service is a loss.

As I mentioned at the start of the debate, the last departure from King's Cross to Berwick is at 6 pm. The new timetable actually suggests that the 7 o'clock will
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run through beyond Newcastle every day, instead of just on Fridays as it does at the moment. I am so suspicious about the timetable exercise that I cannot believe that is for real-I suspect that "Fridays only" has been missed off the timetable rubric. I would love to be wrong, because I have argued for several years that the earlier removal of that daily 7 pm service to Edinburgh was a serious loss, and a potential loss of business because it was another reason for people to use the plane rather than the train.

On the draft timetable, Alnmouth gains four trains, but loses 13-a net loss of nine. The service at that station is not hourly, but broadly two-hourly. From London, there is now no train between 11.30 and 3.30, and the 3.30 is the last train, except on Fridays, instead of 5.30.

Chris Mole: I assure the right hon. Gentleman that that, too, is an omission from Network Rail's early work and it has subsequently been remedied. Subject to consultation, the 7.13 train from London will call at Alnmouth and on Fridays, there will be an extra service at 19.30.

Sir Alan Beith: I wish all my debates were as productive as this one has been so far. I want to consider that reassurance more carefully afterwards, but, again, it sounds hopeful.

Travelling to London, there is an enormous gap in the first draft of the Alnmouth service between 9 am and 3 pm. There are no direct trains from London to Morpeth at all in the draft timetable, whereas two evening trains currently stop there. I hope that that is covered by the reassurance that the Minister has just given. For the reasons I gave earlier, the direct service from Morpeth, although more limited, is extremely valuable and should be retained.

One of the timetable's oddities is that it is almost impossible to travel between the stations in Northumberland. That is partly a consequence of something that I consider helpful-the sharing of trains along the line. Some trains stop at Alnmouth and not Berwick, whereas others stop at Berwick and not Alnmouth. I recognise that some of that has to happen, but the timetable planners should pay some attention to improving the possibilities for people to travel between, for example, Berwick and Morpeth, or Alnmouth and Dunbar. That is currently not a feature of planning. Indeed, one of our problems is that all the timetable planning is dedicated to services between major centres, such as London, York, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the stations in between seem to be an afterthought, which is not governed by an examination of what sort of service each station needs and how it can be provided.

I should like another gap in the service to be filled in future. According to the new timetable, the last train from Edinburgh leaves at 8.30 pm. That is too early; there is almost nothing one can do in Edinburgh in an evening that will be over by 8.30 pm. I understand that CrossCountry is to run a late train from Edinburgh to Dunbar at around or after 11 pm. Perhaps that service could be extended to Newcastle or at least Berwick, instead of terminating at Dunbar. It is rather complicated to terminate a train there because of the track layout. Some years ago, a service ran through to Newcastle in the summer months. GNER ran it late at night and it was very popular among Edinburgh festival-goers and others visiting Edinburgh in the evening.

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