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Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, my noble friend gave a rather encouraging response in the latter part of his Answer to my noble friend. But are the Government fully aware of the fact that, given the very substantial increase in the need for rails for the current replacement programme and because of safety considerations, the expectation is that there will be a requirement for a higher number of rails in the future? Is it not sad that men at Workington, who currently expect their jobs to disappear, should be asked to work longer hours at present? Does my noble friend accept that the people at Workington, and perhaps many others, may think that France would take a rather different view if the boot was on the other foot?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, those are matters for Railtrack and Corus. However, in July we announced a 10-year transport plan which foresaw the investment of £60 billion in the railways over the next 10 years. Recently, we have seen the rail regulator

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underpin £15 billion of investment by Railtrack over the next five years. So the Government are doing everything they can to increase investment in an under-invested railway and I believe that that will generate the kind of jobs which my noble friend obviously wishes to encourage.

Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord has tried to do any rail journeys in the past few years. If he had, he would have found it an absolute nightmare. Will he do something to improve the information provided--and not only that given by telephone, which is something of a joke most of the time? Some degree of punctuality needs to be achieved. I travel regularly to and from Carlisle and each trip has been four hours late over the past few weeks. One appreciates the problems of the staff, floods and rails, but at this moment I do not believe that the railway companies are living up to the standards which we expect of them.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, of course, we inherited an industry which had its defects. However, it is an industry in which we wish to invest. We wish to make it more coherent. And we wish to help to see it through its present difficulties by being as positive and supportive as possible. I share the noble Lord's concern over the disruption caused to passengers. Compensation for disrupted journeys is under very active consideration. Noble Lords will have seen that Railtrack has set aside a very considerable sum of money for that purpose. But I agree with the noble Lord that we must get back to having a more punctual and reliable railway network. I hope our investment will help that. I do not believe that running a railway efficiently may be in any fundamental conflict with running a safe railway.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe: My Lords, has the noble Lord seen in today's newspaper the severe criticism of Railtrack by the chief executive of GNER? Will he pay attention to that? Like the noble Lord, Lord Monro of Langholm, last week I limped home at 2 a.m. on GNER, the last 60 miles on a clapped-out bus. This week I was told by my local railway company that I could get as far as York and after that I would be on my own. Do the Government realise the effect that this situation is having on the reputation of GNER and on the reputation of the railways in general? It will be difficult to recover any lost business.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, it is regrettable that almost coincidentally we have had two calamities afflicting the railroads. Clearly, after the tragedy at Hatfield, there have been the problems with broken rails and gauge-corner cracking, but that has been exacerbated by the considerable difficulties of flooding on railway lines. I am glad to say that as of today only eight sections of the rail network are still blocked due to flooding.

On the line mentioned by my noble friend, there has been a serious collapse of an embankment caused by flooding on the East Coast main line between

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Doncaster and York. Earlier in the week, the forecast was that that may not reopen for six weeks, but I am delighted to say that that has been reduced to two weeks.

Universal Banking Services

2.51 p.m.

Lord Newby asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What progress has been made towards the establishment of a universal bank.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Post Office and the high street banks are working together to develop the concept of universal banking services.

Lord Newby: My Lords, we are extremely grateful to the noble Lord for that Answer. I am sure that many noble Lords will be concerned at what appears to be a lack of progress and a conspicuous muddle in relation to this matter. Has the Minister read the report published yesterday by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry in another place which, among other matters, concludes that the universal bank,

    "must not be allowed to fail because of ... a lack of Government funding"?

Given that this is of great concern to all involved in the negotiations, not least the Post Office, can any assurance be given by the Minister on behalf of the Government that the establishment of a universal bank will not be jeopardised by a lack of funding from the Government?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I was cautious in giving my first Answer for a good reason. Negotiations are taking place at the moment. As the Post Office is negotiating with the high street banks, I do not believe that it is appropriate for me to reveal our hand in public. Of course, government money will be available, but that money forms part of the negotiations. The Post Office would not thank us for speculating in advance on how much money is available. Certainly there is adequate provision in the public purse for the contribution that will be necessary. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that in the spending review 2000 we put aside £270 million for the proposals in the Performance and Innovation Unit report, Counter Revolution.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, my noble friend refers to universal banking services. Are they the same as the universal bank?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Yes, my Lords.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, without declaring the Government's position, can the Minister tell the House whether the report is correct in stating that at present only one bank has shown interest in this scheme? Is the Minister concerned that the delay in forming the universal bank is having dire effects on our

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post offices, particularly those in rural areas? Noble Lords who took the Postal Services Bill through this House in July expressed concern and were assured that there was no problem? Does the Minister also accept that for the survival of post offices this service must come into being? I understand that approval had to be sought from the European Commission before it could go ahead.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I shall answer the first two questions posed by the noble Baroness. It is not the case that only one bank has shown interest. We are in negotiations with all the banks, including, in particular, the main big high street banks. All of them are in active negotiation and all have shown interest. As to the accusation that there is delay, it was always intended that negotiations would go on now as they are.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that when the Postal Services Bill was passing through the House, the concept of the universal bank came like a rabbit out of the hat late in June? Does he also agree that the government statement made at the time, that they give full backing to the PIU's support for the concept of a universal bank, was based on information gained through consultation and discussion with the retail banks prior to that statement? If so, was any commitment given, or was it just a hope that was floated at the time to allay the fears of people who could foresee the loss of their post offices?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, knows, there had been discussions with the banks before the PIU report was produced, and they had not gone well. Therefore, it was necessary to look again at the provision of universal banking services following the PIU report. That is why new proposals are now being put to the banks. Constructive dialogue is taking place.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I know that the Minister probably will not answer this question, but perhaps he can give the House an idea. When will this matter come to fruition? Will it be next year or the year after? If it does not happen--there is a possibility that it may not--do the Government have contingency plans for dealing with the problem?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the negotiations are in place, as intended. To set deadlines for them would weaken our negotiating position and we have no intention of doing that.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, can the Minister say whether Giro Bank could fulfil the needs set out in the Question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Newby?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we had a universal bank, but it was sold off by the Conservative Government in 1985. Bearing in mind the state of

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technology and information technology at that time, it was a rather good bank which would have served our purpose well. It is sad that it is no longer available for that purpose.

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