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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I very much support what my noble friend says about the enjoyment of fairs and the ability to participate in them. The difficulty is that some of these very enjoyable occasions are now meted with some not so enjoyable fracas thereafter. People have to assess how such events will be policed, who will pay for the policing and how they are to be managed. I appreciate that such concerns are being considered. Indeed, the Government are undertaking a number of reviews in relation to how we deal with pubs and clubs as well.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the figures produced by the Merseyside Police Authority, showing that Liverpool and Everton football clubs contributed well short of the cost of policing those clubs, are representative of clubs up and down the country? I have in mind the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, about the poorer clubs. Will this disparity in costs be addressed in the review of the Police Act 1996?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I cannot comment on whether the situation of the Everton and Liverpool football clubs is replicated across the country. Some of the conference clubs would be a little anxious about any statement I made in that regard. However, the group that was set up by the Home Office and DCMS, together with the football and policing authorities, is looking at these issues. I cannot foresee what it will come up with, but I know these issues are at the forefront of its mind.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, how is it that a very poor authority such as the House of Lords is charged

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something like 8 million for police? Is that under review as well, and could it be eliminated from our costs?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I do not think that is something on which I could possibly comment. However, the day that our House gets a crowd of 60,000, I, for one, will celebrate.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, will my noble friend give some indication of when the committee to which she referred will complete its deliberations?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I am not able to say when the departmental working group will complete its deliberations; it is a matter for its members. However, if I receive further information, I will obviously be happy to communicate it to my noble friend.

Railway Franchises

11.12 a.m.

Lord Bradshaw asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What weight is given to past performance when new railway franchises are being awarded.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Strategic Rail Authority must ensure that bids for franchises are evaluated on an objective and fair basis, and that the market is open to new entrants. It therefore concentrates on evaluating bidders' proposals for delivering the SRA's specification, train service performance and service quality on a value-for-money basis rather than simply awarding franchises to operators who have done well in the past.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply, in so far as it goes. When railway franchises were first let, there was no track record. Many were let to companies which have failed, cost the taxpayer large sums of money and come back for more and more. Now that there is a track record, will the Minister please indicate to the House that at least the track record of a company, in delivering services, will be a significant feature in the award of franchises? Otherwise, much of the decision-making is made behind closed doors by the SRA against some very unclear criteria. One has a suspicion that the Treasury wants the lowest-cost franchise rather than the best value.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that last suspicion should be laid to rest—best value is the criterion. I reinforce the point that I made in my original Answer: the process seeks to be as objective and fair as possible. In evaluating a company's responses to the questions properly addressed to it regarding the franchise, of course the added valuation of what the company is promising may be affected by its performance in the past. However, the important

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point is that all those applying for a franchise should be evaluated on clear and specific criteria, objective to all.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, will the Minister explain why, as his Government wish to encourage long-term investment by the train operating companies in the railway network, they are limiting the franchises to seven years? That is far too short a period for a company to have long-term objectives. The Government could certainly extend the period of the franchise, subject to strict performance criteria.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, of the many representations that have been received on the general issue of how we manage the railways—there have been quite a few in the context of the railway review which is currently taking place—the particular point about the seven-year franchise does not come out with great sharpness. A balance has to be struck between the point the noble Viscount rightly makes about how long we should have a franchise in order to promote effective and efficient investment against the obvious point that it is necessary for the travelling public to have guarantees that service will be up to standard over that period of time or there will be the possibility of change.

Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, on the West Coast Main Line, which is under the Virgin franchise, will the Minister tell us in what year the track will be upgraded so that trains can be run at full speed from London to Glasgow?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the answer is: very soon.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Davies of Oldham: Well, my Lords, everyone is well aware that the delays on work to the West Coast Main Line have put timetables back over the past few years. But we are now at the latter stages of the completion of the West Coast Main Line modernisation. We look forward to the point which the noble Lord emphasised when the new rolling stock, which is of very high standard and high performance, will be running at maximum capacity.

Baroness Platt of Writtle: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is disappointment in the eastern region that First Great Eastern has not been awarded the franchise for a second time after a very good track record? It is not perfect—there is no perfect railway company—but it is very good. What are the reasons for that, given that the company has a good track record?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, as I have indicated, the issue was not whether the previous performance was satisfactory; the issue was which of

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the bidders looked to be able to guarantee the best performance in the future against the criteria. Another company was chosen because its bid was superior.

Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is great concern on the east coast, bearing in mind that the franchise is up for renewal soon? It is generally perceived that GNER has been giving a good service and people are very worried that they will get something inferior in its place.

Lord Davies of Oldham: Well, my Lords, they should not be. Loyalty to existing companies is much to be welcomed, although I would not say it is universal across the railway system. However, the only reason that that franchise would not be won by the existing franchisee is if a superior bid was in place to the benefit of all the travelling public.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, my noble friend seems very complacent about the West Coast Main Line. When will it be completed, and when will Virgin introduce completely new trains on that stretch, because what it is using at the moment is absolutely disgraceful?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, if I verge towards the positive and the optimistic, it is only because I am all too aware of the trials and tribulations of all passengers who have been using the north-west line over the past decade. I am struggling to avoid this metaphor, but I see light at the end of the tunnel. However, I am not able to give the exact length of that tunnel at the moment.

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, would the Government like Network Rail to take charge of the operations of more stations, as is reported in today's newspaper?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we have received many representations about the quality of station provision, so we are examining that matter. We know that a number of our most significant stations are not up to standard. As the noble Lord will recognise, we are currently involved in a major review of the whole system, which will report in June or July, and that factor will be taken into account.

Overseas Student Visas

11.20 a.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether any decisions have been made in relation to charges for visa renewal for overseas students.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we are exploring ways in which we might refine the charging system to ensure that it delivers a fair and efficient service for all our customers. Any proposals including differential charging will be included in the formal

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consultation later this year. At this stage, however, we cannot guarantee a reduction in the level of fee charged for particular application types, including students.


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