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10 Mar 2010 : Column 119WH—continued

Hugh Robertson: I do not want to disrupt the Minister too much early on but, in a sense, he has put his finger on the problem. He just said that the great advantage is
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the connectivity that the service offers people who live in east Kent, in Faversham or in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet. If one thinks that through, the problem is that anyone who works in the west end or the City and decides to move out of London-they get to that stage in life and often end up in the areas that two of us represent-does not want connectivity to St. Pancras. Only a tiny proportion of rail traffic goes from Faversham or North Thanet up to St. Pancras, then uses the connections to the north. What such people want is a good service that takes them from their place of work, which is typically in the west end or the City, back home at night and up again the next morning. To predicate all of this on connectivity to the north of London is to grab the wrong issue.

Chris Mole: The hon. Gentleman has gone to the heart of the concern. Of course, if one focuses only on commuters, one will perhaps take only one set of solutions from the opportunities that arise from reviewing the timetable. I was a regular commuter from Northampton to Canterbury at one time, and my journey involved several train changes. People have described to me some of the journeys that they now make, and they take advantage of being able to change at St. Pancras. The point was made on a number of occasions about people transferring from St. Pancras to the City. That may not be the best journey choice for someone who has been travelling on the high-speed line; they have an opportunity to change at Stratford International, then take a seven-minute ride into the City, which may be a better choice.

The timetable was developed following extensive research and feedback from stakeholders and the public over several years. I remind the hon. Member for Wimbledon that, despite his protestations, timetables are not written by the Department. Specifications cover the number of station stops, the frequency of trains and the times of the first and last services. May I point out to him the processes that the east coast main line services are undergoing? The Office of the Rail Regulator has developed the outline, and industry interests and the Department have engaged in an iterative process in defining the final timetable. Saying that the Department writes the timetable is not strictly correct.

Stephen Hammond: I am delighted to hear about the new iterative process. Is that a new process or was the Minister's predecessor, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), mistaken in his view that the Department wrote timetables?

Chris Mole: At the end of the day, when the Department lets a franchise, it lets a franchise associated with a timetable, so I suppose one could say that that gives it a certain degree of definition, but the process has always been as described. The hon. Gentleman made frequent reference to 16 people writing timetables. People may be engaged in writing timetables as part of their role, but to suggest that there are 16 people sitting around doing nothing but writing timetables is perhaps disingenuous.

As I was saying, consultations took place as far back as 2003 and 2004 to determine the minimum service level required to meet current and future demand in the region. The Strategic Rail Authority published the findings from that consultation in January 2005 in the integrated Kent franchise stakeholder briefing document.
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The document's objectives require potential franchisees to develop and deliver a financially and operationally robust strategy; deliver a safe and reliable high-quality service for customers; deliver value-for-money services; support the development of the Government's communities plan in the south-east to meet the transport needs of defined areas and deliver accurate information on services and future demand to enable the development of the franchise during its term and for the next refranchising of the integrated Kent franchise.

The franchise was awarded to Southeastern in 2006. Since then, Southeastern has undertaken further extensive consultation with local stakeholders as it has developed the detailed timetable required to meet the specification. Southeastern has also undertaken extensive market research on travel patterns and preferences across its network. That study looked at demand for services now and in the future. It is important to set out exactly what services are available for customers travelling along the Kent coast. The December 2009 timetable specifies services along the Kent coast to London Cannon Street, London Victoria, London Bridge and London St. Pancras stations, so services operate to four London terminal stations, whereas most other train operators serve only one or, if they are lucky, two London terminal stations.

As a result of the new timetable, there are fewer services to London Bridge and Cannon Street in the early morning and late evening, and fewer services to London Victoria during peak times. However, with the introduction of high-speed services, the overall number of trains is broadly the same as it was before the new timetable was introduced. That means that Southeastern customers along the Kent coast now enjoy unparalleled access to and from London and have a fantastic number of journey options.

The introduction of high-speed services has required a restructuring of the service patterns on the Southeastern network to account for introducing services to London St. Pancras. The changes are founded on the premise of developing a better timetable based on meeting customer demand and providing greater choice in stations served. For example, commuters can, if they wish, choose to travel to St. Pancras, which offers, as I suggested, excellent connections to many parts of London.

Mr. Gale: The Minister reading a prepared script quickly will not make any difference to the people we have been talking about for the past hour. They do not want to go to St. Pancras. A journey is from the point at which someone leaves home to the point at which they arrive where they want to be, whether that is back home or their place of work. If he adds the time that it takes to get from St. Pancras to virtually anywhere that anybody wants to be, he will find that it is a longer journey at more expense. He cannot gainsay that. I have the details from the Department with me. It is not improved choice; it is nonsense.

Chris Mole: The hon. Gentleman has his views-others beg to differ.

It is important to recognise that introducing these services has significantly reduced journey times to several parts of Kent and, while the hon. Gentleman has made the argument that journey time-savings for his constituents
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are not significant, the Department feels that a typical high-speed journey time of 1 hour and 31 minutes from Margate to St. Pancras during the morning peak represents a significant time saving for travel to London. It represents an approximate time-saving of 15 to 25 minutes on main line services to London Cannon Street and London Victoria stations.

It is recognised that journeys on main line services along the Kent coast generally take longer than they did before the introduction of the new timetable. That is because they call at more stations, and that is based on the desire to improve choice for customers. In addition to stops at those new stations, all destinations scheduled before December continue to be served.

I heard the concerns of the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent about Selling, which I will certainly take on board and consider, as well as his concerns about the stabling of class 395 trains at Faversham. Although I am sure that he is engaging with his local authority over his concerns about noise, I will commit to talking to Southeastern because the concerns are obviously real and immediate for his constituents.

I am aware that there has been a performance problem on the Southeastern network since the end of December 2009. That has been caused principally by the adverse weather conditions and unreliable infrastructure. Having said that, on a number of days, over 93 per cent. of trains arrived on time. It is important to state that poor performance on the Southeastern network since the introduction of the December 2009 timetable is not a result of the introduction of the high-speed service.

Since the introduction of the Southeastern franchise in April 2006, performance on the Southeastern network has improved markedly. At the end of rail industry period 9, from 15 November to 12 December 2009, Southeastern achieved a public performance measure moving annual average score of 91.1 per cent. That figure has dropped since the new timetable was introduced but, as has been mentioned, that is due to adverse weather conditions and infrastructure reliability problems. The level of investment that Southeastern has implemented since the commencement of its franchise in April 2006, with almost £700 million invested in new rolling stock and infrastructural improvements, reflects the general improvement in performance on the Southeastern network.

It has been suggested that there is little demand for high-speed services and the requirement to call at St. Pancras. It has also been claimed that the majority of people who use Kent coastal services wish to travel to London Cannon Street and London Victoria stations. Since the commencement of its franchise in April 2006, Southeastern has undertaken extensive market research into travel patterns and preferences across its network. That research indicated that St. Pancras was an attractive destination for people in Kent, and that the improved journey times resulting from the introduction of high-speed services across Kent would lead to a dramatically different demand for rail services in Kent. Southeastern's research confirmed that the specification for the franchise was correct and that a number off-peak leisure markets could be developed as a result of the introduction of the high-speed service.

The standard forecast modelling tools used in the rail industry suggest that it generally takes some years for a new market to reach its full potential. The Department's view is that it is far too early to judge the merits of the
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recently introduced high-speed services to St. Pancras. That is not meant to imply that the service is not being monitored rigorously, but it does mean that snap judgments will not be made about the success of the new services.

The argument has also been made that customers from the constituency of the hon. Member for North Thanet are not using the high-speed service. Information provided by Southeastern indicates that in the four-week period between 11 January 2010 and 6 February 2010, one in three journeys from his constituency took place on high-speed services, which represents a good take-up rate during the short period for which the service has been operating. In conclusion, the Department, train operators and other stakeholders have worked hard to deliver high-speed trains to Kent successfully. Inevitably, there have been changes to the timetable affecting other services, but it is early days to judge the final pattern of usage and satisfaction in Kent.

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Repatriation of Historical Objects

4 pm

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I am grateful to have secured this debate, Mr. Benton, and I am pleased to see the Minister in attendance. A few weeks ago, when travelling from my constituency to London, I noticed something interesting at Paddington tube station, and other tube stations after that. It was a picture of a Lewis chessman on a poster. It was a welcome sight, but the caption said, "AD 1150-1200" and "Norway". I was stunned, because there was no mention of the Isle of Lewis. It was as if the connection with Lewis had been airbrushed from history.

The chessmen are expertly crafted examples from the Viking civilisation in my constituency. We know two historical facts about them. They were made from walrus ivory, and they were found in Lewis in 1831. The director of the British Museum informed me that most scholars believe that the chessmen were crafted in Norway, because a piece of a queen that was found in Trondheim resembled the Lewis chessmen. That does not change the fact that they were found in, and are important to my constituency, and they could have been manufactured in Lewis, Ireland or elsewhere in the area of Viking civilisation and then traded. The only geographical location linked to the chess pieces is the Isle of Lewis, where they were buried for hundreds of years.

I would love to know what incontrovertible evidence the British Museum has to assert in its poster campaign that Norway was the place of origin of the Lewis chess pieces. The museum's defence in The Timeswas that the Hebrides were then under the rule of a Norwegian king. However, when England was under French rule, it was not France. Is airbrushing the future of historical objects found in the United Kingdom and retained by the British Museum? There are other places where historical objects have been deleted from history. Is that what the people of the midlands should expect for its magnificent Staffordshire hoard? I certainly hope not.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. We talk about the Elgin marbles and so on, but an artefact from north Wales-a famous early Welsh gold cape-is in the British Museum and will not be released back to Wales. Such artefacts are part of our collective national memory. They are important, and should be returned.

Mr. MacNeil: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The matter affects not just the Outer Hebrides, Scotland or Wales, but England. Perhaps in time the museum will have a more enlightened understanding. Surely it is best if historical artefacts are retained in the area where they are found. Whether by Act of Parliament or an alteration in museum policy, something must change because what made sense in the 19th century may now be a dated approach. Why must everything be in London? It seems to be historical centralisation and imperialism.

Since their sale to the British Museum in 1831 for £30, the chessmen were lent to the islands in 1995, and are expected to return in 2011. When visitors arrive at Stornoway by ferry or plane, they are greeted at the airport and the ferry terminal by huge wooden figures
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modelled on the chessmen, such is our pride in them. Why the British Museum has a colonial attitude of keeping artefacts that belong to another place and another people is beyond me.

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He referred to people arriving at the airport, and it strikes me that some of them will be tourists. Does he think the boost to tourism of having the Lewis chessmen in Lewis would be greater than the loss to tourism in London from not having them? The effect would be much greater in Lewis, and London could probably cope without devastation if it lost such a high-profile item.

Mr. MacNeil: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and it is obvious that Lewis is bringing culture to London. London could live without the chessmen, but the effect on Lewis would be immeasurable. I am impressed that the Kelvingrove museum in Glasgow returned a ghost dance shirt belonging to the Oglala Sioux after their repeated attempts to have it repatriated.

The British Museum holds 82 of the 93 chess pieces in London, leaving only 11 for Scotland and none for the Isle of Lewis. Such is the museum's perceived intransigence that we have none locally, a minimal number in our national capital, Edinburgh, and the majority in the state capital, London. In Lewis, they would be in their own cultural and historic setting. In Lewis, they would be a year-round tourist attraction to add to the splendid scenery of the Hebrides, which is arguably a more weather-dependent asset.

The museum's high-handed attitude does not end with the chessmen. We have already heard about artefacts from Wales being held in London. The Fishpool hoard is not in Ravenshead; the 8,500 pieces of the Cuerdale hoard are not in Lancashire; and the Hoxne hoard is not in Suffolk. The arguments for the chessmen being held in Lewis have been stated time and again. Bonnie Greer, deputy chair of the board of trustees of the museum said:

the chessmen-

As a Hebridean defending our indigenous rights, I did not expect the stiletto of Bonnie Greer to trample all over our hopes. I am sure that she did not want to seem like a queen from a position of power, disregarding pawns in a game of machismo.

The Minister asserted in The Scotsman on the 30 January 2008 that the chessmen's home is in London "Today and forever". That was a bold statement, and disappointing from a Labour Government-[Interruption.] I hope that that telephone call is from the British Museum with news that it is listening to our debate, and that the chessmen will go to Lewis.

Under section 5(1) of the British Museum Act 1963, which was made in this place, the British Museum may not sell items that are believed to have been crafted before 1850, but under section 4 of the same act it is allowed to lend pieces of the collection. Perhaps it could do so permanently if there is no change in the law. Had the hand of fate turned up those pieces to daylight
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in 1931 or 2001 rather than 1831, I do not believe that our cultural heritage would have been sold for £30-a veritable 30 pieces of silver.

Today, in more enlightened times, the museum has been offered a good deal by the local council, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar. Its chief executive, Malcolm Burr, said that the chessmen could be housed in the museum nan Eilean Siar, and that finance for their security would not be a problem. He also suggested that the British Museum could open up an extension to its main campus in London in the museum nan Eilean Siar itself. This is just one idea to bring at least some of the chessmen back to their home.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): The hon. Gentleman is reasonable in his acceptance that there should be a British museum in Lewis, which I tend to think of as a third country, separate from both Scotland and England. Could there not be some reciprocity in the process? Richard II's remains are as yet undiscovered. Will the hon. Gentleman use his good offices to lobby the Scottish Government to make a contribution to analysing remains at the abbey to see whether they contain the DNA of Richard II, so that they can be returned to this country?

Mr. MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman is a fellow soul with an interest in his nation's history. I am aware of the burial in 1419 of what could be Richard II's remains, and it would be interesting to know whether that is so. We have the technology today to find out.

In 1685, a Northumbrian king was, sadly from the hon. Gentleman's point of view, defeated at 3 o'clock on Saturday 20 May-I do not know the exact minute-and his body was subsequently taken to Iona, so there may be more than one English monarch interred in Scotland. We may not want to go into the details of why they are interred in Scotland.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling argument. I came here on the other side, but I am listening carefully, and he is making his points extremely well. I like the idea of an extension to the British Museum in Lewis. Will he tell the House how many of the chess pieces he would expect to be there, and will he confirm that their conservation and its funding in future would be secured?

Mr. MacNeil: Ultimately, I am looking for any mechanism whatsoever to get the chess pieces back to Lewis. From correspondence that we have had, the chief executive of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the local council, seems confident that it could cope with that. We could call the exhibition the British Museum or any other name, just as long as we get the chess pieces back to their natural home. Ideally, we want all the pieces, but we are ready to compromise in the beginning. That is just one of many ideas, and as I have said, to start with we could have a third of the pieces in the Outer Hebrides, a third in Edinburgh and a third in London.

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