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Lord Whitty: My Lords, the reasons for what I have previously described in this House as a rushed and botched privatisation by the previous administration are not really matters for me. Certainly they claimed that privatisation would lead to greater efficiency. It is quite clear that while there is variable performance among rail operators efficiency as a whole has not significantly improved. My noble friend is probably referring specifically to the report which appeared in the media in the past few days related to Railtrack's performance in terms of the delay to trains and its policies on maintenance and renewal. That is primarily a matter for the regulator. But we have asked the regulator to look at the way in which Railtrack receives public subsidy. Once the regulator has reported we shall decide on the way ahead to deliver the rail system that passengers and operators deserve. Clearly we would prefer not to be starting from here. Nevertheless, we are determined to make this system work. The establishment of a strategic rail authority as foreseen by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister will lead to a more strategic approach to the railway system even under private ownership.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, does the Minister agree that whatever one may say about privatisation--it has its defenders and critics--the

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number of rail passenger users has risen, almost for the first time since privatisation, and fares have risen by statute by no more than the rate of inflation, whereas in the days of British Rail they went up remorselessly by more than inflation every year?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am interested to hear that privatisation has its supporters, although they are not very vocal at the moment, in commenting generally on the system. There has been some improvement in services. The aim of the Government's strategic approach to railways is to bring the whole of the railway network up to and beyond the performance of the best. That is why we need a strategic approach, which is so sadly lacking, even if one accepts privatisation as a principle for running a railway.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: My Lords, will my noble friend take steps to improve the rail services from North to South Wales; otherwise, there will be nobody in the new Assembly?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I believe that greater attention to the Welsh transport infrastructure as a result of the creation of the Assembly will benefit railway transport as well as the transport system in Wales in general.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, to return to the original Question, does the noble Lord agree that the development of cross-country services is a very good step in reducing the amount of unnecessary travel by car? Can the Minister say whether the advent of a strategic rail authority will enable the regulatory functions in relation to Railtrack's role in the development of the rail system to be performed more enthusiastically? If so, when can we expect the strategic rail authority to begin to carry out those functions?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I believe that the establishment of the strategic rail authority, even in its pre-legislative form, will increase the pressure on all operators within the industry to perform and will give greater strength to the regulator.

Putting the strategic rail authority on a statutory basis will depend to some extent on progress on other legislation. The Bill to do so will be produced by the department shortly and will indicate the direction in which our policy is going.

Cross-country services will not only benefit the rail network but they will also reduce pressures on the roads. That is also a serious strategic objective of our policy.

Lord Islwyn: My Lords, following the supplementary question from the official spokesman from the Opposition, is it possible for the Minister to give noble Lords some details of the subsidies that go to rail at present?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I shall write to the noble Lord in overall detail, adding up all forms of subsidy. Subsidies go to Railtrack via the rail operators, to freight rail and to particular services. It may be of benefit to

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my noble friend and the spokesperson for the Opposition if we spell out the degree to which the public finances still effectively support the railway system in this country.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I invite the Minister to answer the question posed by his noble friend Lord Stoddart of Swindon; namely, if the railways are now that bad, and were that good when they were nationalised, why do not the Government re-nationalise them?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, we inherited the state of the railways.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the railway franchises were given out for a period of seven or 14 years. It is the intention of this Government to make those franchises work if possible. If it is not possible to do so under the current franchising system, clearly other solutions have to be sought. However, our immediate intent is to make those franchises work to the benefit of passengers.

Meat Hygiene Service

2.52 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, given that functions under meat hygiene legislation are primarily those of law enforcement, such enforcement in the United Kingdom should be assigned to untrained officials from other European Union countries.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue): My Lords, enforcement of meat hygiene legislation in licensed fresh meat premises in Great Britain is carried out by the Meat Hygiene Service, an executive agency of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. All officers of the Meat Hygiene Service are fully trained to standards required by European Union directives which are enshrined in United Kingdom law.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the essential difference between an ordinary veterinary surgeon and an officer of the Official Veterinary Service is that he or she has law enforcement powers? On that basis, does he find it acceptable that young female Spanish vets with a poor understanding of our language, who have little understanding of British law and British law enforcement methods, should be placed in a position where they are enforcing the law for a group of British citizens after only one week's training? Would he find it comparatively acceptable if 300 young Spanish people were dressed in Metropolitan Police uniforms, given one week's training and put out on the streets to enforce the law in this country?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, all vets working for the Meat Hygiene Service have training in enforcement and other matters. The hierarchy of enforcement is set out in the manual of their training.

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I should point out that no junior vet, as described, would be able to pursue the law against an abattoir owner. Senior veterinary officers are involved at an early stage, and no reference to the law can be made other than by the director of operations in the Meat Hygiene Service and then the legal side of the service will consider it. It is not the case that a junior and inexperienced vet will bring down the full force of the law on a British meat operator.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, is it not true that the latest diktat from Brussels means that we shall require another 400 of these OVSs, that costs will have to rise by a further 128 per cent, and that many more small firms will therefore go out of business? Given the plenteous supply of foreign OVSs, can the Minister tell the House what other EU countries are doing about meat hygiene?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, from our investigations other countries are pursuing meat hygiene under the European Union directive broadly in the way that we are.

The costs are increased because of the need for increased supervision and inspection. That is following infraction procedures taken against us because the previous administration under-implemented the rules. We are suffering because of that. Costs are higher in this country. One reason is that the costs of British vets are significantly higher than the costs of vets trained in other European countries--sometimes 300 per cent higher.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, can the Minister inform the House as to the nature and reference number of the European legislation which amended ordinary British law prior to its coming into existence in this matter? If it is dependent upon European legislation, will the noble Lord inform the House of the exact nature of that, preferably by referring to the number by which it can become identified?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I have learned not to tangle with my noble friend on details of European legislation. However, I shall arrange for the noble Lord to be written to. I hope that there will be an appropriate number in it to satisfy him.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, is it true that no deaths have been traced through negligence in red meat abattoirs in this country over the past 30 years? If that is so--and I believe that it is--what is the purpose of this bureaucracy?

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