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House of Lords

Tuesday, 24th October 1995.

The House met at half past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Birmingham.

Lord Phillimore—Sat first in Parliament after the death of his father.

Rail Privatisation

Lord Clinton-Davis asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether it is their intention to privatise Railtrack's safety and standards directorate.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen): My Lords, yes. The new safety regime recommended by the Health and Safety Commission took into account the Government's intention to privatise Railtrack. The Health and Safety Executive remains the independent body responsible for safety regulation.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there remains considerable disquiet about the whole process of rail privatisation among the public and, indeed, among his own supporters according to opinion polls and that one of the greatest causes of disquiet is safety? Why is there this ideological obsession to privatise everything to do with the railways?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, the clearly stated aim of the Government in privatising the railways is to get better value for money and to improve services. That is why we are undertaking the privatisation and that is what has happened with every other privatisation we have undertaken.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, did my noble friend happen to hear a programme on BBC Radio 4 last Saturday at about four o'clock?

Noble Lords: No!

Lord Campbell of Alloway: It was an objective programme which suggested that more time should be given to ensure that the safety of the public is safeguarded.

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I regret that I did not hear the programme to which my noble friend paid so much attention. We believe that we have the timetable right for railway privatisation. Safety is of paramount importance; that is why we have put such a robust safety regime in place.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, if the timetable is so accurate, why was it necessary yesterday to transfer on a very high salary a very senior civil servant at the Scottish Office, Mr. Hetherington, to the authority dealing with the privatisation because, on the admission of the authority and, indeed, the Scottish Office, the whole privatisation programme is in such an appalling mess?

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Viscount Goschen: My Lords, it is clear that the privatisation programme is not in an appalling mess but proceeding extremely well. We have made significant strides. On the noble Lord's specific question, I shall investigate and let him have an answer in writing.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, on the question of safety, can my noble friend give any example of a privatised transport undertaking which is operating less safely now than when it was in the public sector? In fact, are not most such undertakings now operating a great deal more safely?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, my noble friend makes an extremely important point. One need only bear in mind the example of the airline industry. British Airways is known as having nothing less than an extremely good safety record. The British Airports Authority, the ground infrastructure company, also has a very good safety record. It has been shown extremely clearly that privatised and privately owned companies take their safety obligations just as seriously, if not more seriously, than public sector operators.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, was it an accidental slip on the part of the Minister that in his catalogue of success stories he forgot to mention the bus industry where the safety record is far from good, as evidenced over and over again?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I believe that significant improvements in service have been made in the bus industry. We are discussing the railway industry where considerable work has been done to take privatisation forward. We believe that we have an extremely rigorous safety regime in place. In fact, it is the regime which the independent Health and Safety Commission advised the Government to put in place. We have taken up its independent report and fully implemented exactly what it asked us to do.

Lord Mottistone: My Lords, does it not seem strange that the Opposition constantly seek to denigrate privatisation which has been so incredibly successful not only in this country but throughout the world in places where it had not previously existed? Would it not be a very good thing if the Opposition ceased to try to pick on small points? There is no doubt that this particular aspect of the privatisation has been picked on in a rather strange way. Does my noble friend agree that it would be much wiser if the Opposition were to concentrate on making themselves more competent to understand what is going on in the world?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. It is regrettable that the Opposition seek to oppose all privatisations merely on principle. They display dogmatic opposition to the benefits that can flow from privatisation. Safety is an incredibly important factor. We put it at the top of our list of priorities. That is why we have adopted this extremely robust regime.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: My Lords, will the Minister give the House and the country a guarantee that if the privatisation of the railways takes place rural railways in Wales, which are essential to the people living there, will be kept going?

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Viscount Goschen: My Lords, the noble Lord will recognise that with the passage of the Railways Bill (now the Railways Act) considerable procedures have been put in place to safeguard rural services. That is a safeguard which did not exist before privatisation but which is now there. Services have a better safeguard than ever before.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, will my noble friend ask the party opposite whether its memory needs jogging in order to appreciate that so far as concerns the cost of services and safety the current situation is highly unpopular and highly unsatisfactory?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that there is clear pressure for improvements in services to be made. We feel that taking forward the privatisation initiative is the correct vehicle to ensure that that occurs. I regret that, however often we point out the advantages of privatisation, the dogmatic opposition expressed by the party opposite is extremely difficult to undo.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, has the Minister had any opportunity of making a comparison between the safety record of the privately owned road freight industry and the publicly owned rail freight industry? In particular, has he observed the large number of fatal casualties caused by the excessive hours worked by drivers in the private sector road industry? How does that compare with the record of fatalities for the transport of freight on the railways?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, that is an entirely spurious comparison. They are two entirely different modes. If the noble Lord wants to talk about the safety responsibility of airline pilots, for instance, I do not believe that he will tell me that just because they work in the private sector they do not take their responsibilities extremely seriously.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, bearing in mind that the Government have every right to privatise whatever they believe needs to be privatised, will British Rail please remain British and will foreign investors who might want to take it over be resisted to ensure that we will always have a British railway system?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I can guarantee that the network will always be in Britain. We do not intend to move it. It will be for the benefit of British passengers clearly. We feel that bringing in new investment is beneficial to the railways system and the passengers of this country.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, will the Minister now be honest and answer the question? Will foreign money be invested in British Rail to take away the British part of our railways?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, this party favours inward investment into this country. It would be extremely unwise to do otherwise.

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2.48 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What proposals they have to reduce the number of long-term unemployed.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley): My Lords, tackling long-term unemployment is a key priority for this Government. That is why this year, through Jobcentres and TECs, we are offering longer term unemployed people around 1.5 million opportunities to help them back to work.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, if that is the best that the Government can come up with after 16 years in power, heaven help the long-term unemployed. Does the Minister accept that there are now over 1 million long-term unemployed, and that a quarter of them have been unemployed now for four years? Is the Minister aware that the scale of long-term unemployment is one of the most reliable criteria for assessing the success or otherwise of an economy? How can the Government tell us about the so-called success story when so many thousands of families are being devastated by long-term unemployment?

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