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House of Lords

Monday, 5th July 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Ely.

Railtrack: Performance

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are disappointed with Railtrack's performance, as highlighted by the rail regulator, in relation both to increasing capacity on the west coast main line and in meeting agreed targets for reductions in delays.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, better punctuality and more capacity are both fundamental to the high-quality, high-growth railway that we want to create. Railtrack clearly needs to do more to meet its obligations. We shall look to the new regulator, Tom Winsor, who takes up his post today, to ensure that it does so.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. It is a matter of satisfaction to many people that the new rail regulator has described himself as determined to ensure that things go better in the future than they have done in the past. Nevertheless, it must be a matter of grave concern to the Government that in this country we are renewing our track about half as quickly as other major European countries; that Alastair Morton, who is the chairman of the shadow rail authority, has described the investment plans of British Rail as a sham because so much of it is really maintenance money; and, finally, that there is now a wide assumption that the west coast main line upgrade will not make available the extra capacity for slower passenger and freight pathways which were originally promised.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, in so far as that was a question, Railtrack's position is clearly not up to scratch. It is certainly an issue which the new rail regulator must address. However, it is true that Railtrack has managed to double the level of investment. The jury is still out as to whether that has met the requirements of the operators and the Government, even in the short term. Clearly, we shall have to make a judgment on the totality of Railtrack's proposals in the medium term. We hope that the combination of a sharper rail regulator-- I have every confidence in him--and the way in which Railtrack is now involved in improving performance, along with the operators and the Government, will lead to a significant improvement in that performance over a relatively short period of years.

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The Countess of Mar: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the noble Baroness's Question is extremely appropriate? I travel regularly from Birmingham New Street to Euston. This morning, there was not a train out of Birmingham New Street until eight o'clock because Railtrack is undertaking engineering works at Coventry. By how much is Railtrack subsidised by the Government and how does that compare with pre-privatisation subsidies?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, Railtrack is not subsidised directly by the Government. Government subsidies are paid to the operators and the operators pay access charges to Railtrack. The question of whether a direct subsidy should be paid to Railtrack will be addressed by the strategic rail authority when it comes into being. As the House will know, the Deputy Prime Minister indicated that he intends very shortly to introduce a railways Bill in another place.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the regulator has the power to fine Railtrack up to 10 per cent of its annual turnover if it fails to deliver? Will he confirm also that, as that money goes to the Treasury, it does not help reinvestment in the railway network? Will he ensure that included in that new railways legislation is a provision that the money is reinvested in the railways?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the provision to be able to fine Railtrack up to 10 per cent relates to competition legislation, not all of which is in place. But those regulations will allow the regulator to do as my noble friend says. The question of hypothecation of that revenue will no doubt be a matter for interesting discussion among Ministers. I note the point which my noble friend makes.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, the railways were nationalised because under private ownership they could not be run at all satisfactorily in the national interest. Bearing that in mind, does my noble friend agree that the new railways legislation to be introduced should include the option of renationalisation if it is demonstrated again that the private sector cannot run the railways?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, it is our aim to make the current structure of the railways work, difficult though it has proved in view of the structure we inherited and the inadequate regulatory powers. We believe that the combination of an effective regulator and the new powers which we intend to introduce for the strategic rail authority, through the Bill, will give us the power to make that system work.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale: My Lords, in connection with delays, if a train is recorded as having arrived on time, does that mean it has arrived spot on or is it allowed a few minutes' delay? That seems to happen to my train most mornings.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I believe that a delay of a few minutes is allowed, but I should need to write to

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the noble Lord to give him a precise Answer. If the operator's performance has been 90-plus per cent, I can assure the noble Lord that the delay will not have been significant. We are looking for that level of performance; but it has yet to be met in all parts of the railway network. That is due in part to the railway operators and in part to the inadequate infrastructure.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, no man can have two masters. With its involvement in the Tube system, will Railtrack work under two regulatory regimes with conflicting interests? If Railtrack's performance leaves so much to be desired, why involve it in the Tube system?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, although in many respects Railtrack has poor management and poor project performance, it has much expertise. There are considerable advantages in integrating the overground network with the sub-surface London Tube network. If we succeed in reaching an agreement with Railtrack in relation to that which is not yet delivered, there will be considerable benefits to the travelling public. Railtrack would be operating under a contract to London Underground, whereas the rest of the rail network operates under regulations.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the line from London to Anglesey has improved a great deal? Is he also aware that when I travelled on the nine o'clock train the other day I had a splendid breakfast for nothing?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am so gratified that my noble friend had that experience and that there has been some improvement on that line. I am sure that the House will register its appreciation that he has brought that to our attention.

Women's Issues: Consultation

2.45 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why no women's organisations were consulted over the decision to legalise buggery with girls under 18, and whether this is consistent with the declared policy in the document Better for Women, Better for All--Listening to Women of consulting women on all matters of concern to them.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn wrote to the noble Baroness on 7th June explaining the context and scope of the Home Office consultation on the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill. A copy of that letter was placed in the Library. The Listening to Women forums, which have been taking place in the last few months, are not relevant to that consultation by the Home Office.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the vast majority of people in the country

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have no idea that the legislation proposed in the Bill presented to the House and rejected by your Lordships had any effect on young girls of the ages of 16 to 18? Since we last spoke about this subject, I have spoken to many people and I have been unable to find one person who knew that girls were implicated in any way in the provisions of the Bill. Does the Minister agree that it is an absolute duty of any government to alert major institutions--in this case women's organisations--as well as the general public of such a change of great importance? The Government pride themselves on communicative and consultative skills. Will the Minister ensure that there will be a wide-ranging and a country-wide debate before the Labour Government brings forward a similar Bill to promote a way of life that is unnatural, dangerous and physically harmful to girls of that age?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I disagree with about three of the premises of the noble Baroness in that extensive question. In answer to her point that all people in the country think one thing or another, the Government have clearly set out consultative arrangements for consulting women's organisations. We have the Women's National Commission. As I mentioned in answer to her first Question, we have been undertaking a series of forums around the country. Twelve regional meetings have been held on the subject. Subsequently, 25,000 postcards have been received by the Women's Unit. On no occasion has that particular issue been raised. I respectfully point out to the noble Baroness that it was made clear in the Explanatory Notes to the Bill that there was a distinction between homosexual acts and buggery and that the explicit nature of the distinction between the relationship of gender was made clear in that way.

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