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House of Lords

Tuesday, 22nd June 1999.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol.

Lord Trotman

Sir Alexander James Trotman, Knight, having been created Baron Trotman, of Osmotherley in the County of North Yorkshire, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Renwick of Clifton and the Lord Butler of Brockwell, and made the solemn Affirmation.

Strategic Rail Authority

Lord Islwyn asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have any plans to reorganise the rail network.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, we are committed to legislating to set up the strategic rail authority and to establish more effective and accountable regulation. The authority will ensure that the railways are run as a coherent whole, not just a collection of different businesses. It will mean an integrated network with the interests of passengers and freight safeguarded.

Lord Islwyn: My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that Great Western Trains was once known as "God's wonderful railway"? Now, according to the rail regulator, it has the worst record of delays in the whole of Britain, yet annual subsidies to the industry are running at £2 billion--twice the pre-sell-off level. Has the Minister also noticed that Railtrack recently announced an annual profit of £428 million while failing to meet the regulator's targets for capital investment and reducing delays on the crumbling infrastructure? Does the Minister agree that this is an extremely serious situation? I shall be glad to know what the Government are doing about it.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as my noble friend will know, regulators are exerting their powers in this respect. It is true that not long ago Great Western was one of the worst performers in relation to reliability. It has improved its reliability over the past year and we hope that that improvement is sustained. Nevertheless, I recognise that in relation to both the operations and the track in the Great Western zone there remain serious problems. I am sure that the franchising director and subsequently the strategic rail authority will be looking at those.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Islwyn identified the bad reliability of the Great Western

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zone of Railtrack. According to Railtrack, other zones have a much higher reliability. Does my noble friend agree that it would be a good idea to suggest to the rail regulator that Railtrack should split up its zones into separate companies, as was done in the gas industry, so that there can be some benchmarking of best practices and a little bit of competition between them?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, this is primarily a matter for the regulator. As my noble friend will know, there will shortly be a new regulator who will look at the management performance of Railtrack and its reliability--and, indeed, its access charging. Therefore, all of these things could be subject to review. At this stage, I do not consider it sensible to make such a recommendation from government; the regulator will have to consider it.

Lord Renton: My Lords, as the Government are worried about congestion on the roads, will they do everything that they can to revive the motor rail service to enable cars to be carried for longer distances by rail?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the number of motor rail services has indeed been reduced over recent years. There are some services which are still running and which are both profitable and attractive. However, I have to say that the price involved must be quite a disincentive, unless one is taking one's car somewhere for a long period of time. As a contribution to reducing the very substantial amount of traffic on our roads, it would be a relatively minor one. Nevertheless, everything helps. It is important, therefore, that rail companies should, where appropriate, consider this means of transporting cars in a way which is off the road.

Lord Charteris of Amisfield: My Lords, I travel regularly to Kingham on the Hereford line. It is a very good line and punctual. However, is the Minister aware--and, if he is, I wonder whether he thinks it odd--that on the train which arrives at Hereford at 8.30 p.m., the bar is closed at 6.15 p.m.?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I deeply regret the inconvenience caused to the noble Lord of which I was, unfortunately, unaware. I assume that the bar closes because there is insufficient custom. I am sure that the noble Lord and his fellow passengers could see to it that perhaps a larger demand ensured that such catering facilities made a profit.

Earl Russell: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how the rate of subsidy to the rail network in the UK compares with that in other countries in the European Union?

Lord Whitty: No, my Lords; not instantaneously. The figures are complex because we have a very diffuse and privatised rail network, whereas in most European countries there is still a single operator which, in most cases, is either state owned or partially state owned. I shall look at the relative figures. I suspect that the

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noble Earl will discover what he believes to be behind his question. However, until I see the figures I shall not venture an opinion, but I shall write to him.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, as a business, Railtrack has wide experience of signalling. Will that experience be brought to bear on London Underground and, if not, why not?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as I believe we announced last week, Railtrack is in discussions with London Underground about the sub-surface lines. Clearly use will be made of expertise of all kinds. Experience of signalling systems that are appropriate to the Underground is not necessarily unique to Railtrack. As the noble Earl will know, major advances in technology are now available which could involve many companies and areas of expertise in improving the signalling system on the Underground network.

Lord Islwyn: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the privatisation of the rail network was one of the most grievous mistakes of the post-war era? Will not the Government consider some kind of committee of inquiry to look into the situation and to make recommendations on the future organisation of the rail network?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, in terms of examining history I am not sure that a committee of inquiry could throw up anything we do not already know; namely, that the privatisation was rushed, botched and too expensive, and was carried out under a political deadline which all of us--probably even the Opposition--regret. We are left with the results of that. As I said in response to the first Question from my noble friend, the strategic rail authority will be set up to consider a more strategic approach for the future of our railways, which the country richly deserves.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if you regret something the answer is to change it?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, that is precisely what we intend to do with the establishment of the strategic rail authority.

Sports Clubs: Rating Assessments

2.51 p.m.

Viscount Brentford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How many rating assessments on sports clubs have been reconsidered and reduced to reflect ability to pay since November 1996.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, assessments for rateable value are made by the Valuation Office Agency. In November 1996 it issued guidance notes on the assessment of sports clubs which identified the cases in

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which the ratepayer's ability to pay should be reflected in rateable values. I understand that several appeals were made to reduce assessments following this guidance, but we do not hold centrally information on the number of appeals made by sports clubs or the results of the appeals.

Viscount Brentford: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Will he join me in congratulating Camp Hill Old Edwardians Cricket Club in Solihull on obtaining a reduction in the club's rateable value from £3,800 to £1,500? Does the noble Lord know whether tribunals have been reminded that they must take account of the fact that a sports club may be the only possible occupant of a property, as the Court of Appeal has directed? Will the Government publicise the need for clubs which suffer from an excessive valuation at the present time to apply for refunds of rates immediately as the deadline for doing so is approaching?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as is the case with other organisations, sports clubs can at any time contact their local valuation office about their rating. As the noble Viscount will be aware, the guidance provides for the valuation office to take account of a ratepayer's position where there is no market for his property as a sports club is the only conceivable occupant of that property. In that situation the valuation office needs to take account of the rates that are paid for such a building, and thus, indirectly, the occupant's ability to pay. Valuation offices follow that procedure. I believe that sports clubs are aware of that procedure.

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