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Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, the Government have been scrupulous in expressing their condolences, on each occasion, for the death of any serviceman engaged in this undertaking. Does not that run the risk that we sometimes forget the fact that, because of the skills of modern medicine, many people who might previously have been fatalities are now very seriously wounded? A considerable number of seriously wounded servicemen are now coming back. As well as expressing condolences for the deaths that unfortunately occur, can we be assured that the best possible treatment is being given to both servicemen and reservists who find themselves seriously wounded in these operations?
Lord Drayson: My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right: because of developments in modern medicine and the resources and procedures that we are now using on operations, the level of survival from quite horrific attacks is much greater than it would have been in the past. That, of course, increases the burden of care for our wounded and we are absolutely putting in the resources needed to provide that care.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, most new franchise agreements require the operator to increase capacity. We believe that these measures will stimulate further increases in rail use, continuing the very encouraging trend that has been established in the past 10 years.
Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, does the Minister accept that, while there has been some growth, for which I give the Government credit, the congested state of the roads is largely responsible for it? Will he, for once, try to think positively about the railway, to make friends with the motorist, to double station car parks, and to increase the capacity of trains significantly? We are very tired of the same old policies from successive Governments of regarding the railways as almost a second-class citizen.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I cannot accept what the noble Lord says. The Government have a very good record on the rail network. Since 1997, rail-passenger kilometres have grown by 34.5 per cent and the number of passenger journeys has grown by some 35 per cent. Each week of the year we invest a further £88 million. The Government are not
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Viscount Tenby: My Lords, according to recent newspaper reports, only 44 of 177 stations in the South West Trains franchise are open for 12 hours a day. At some of the smaller stations, the ticket offices are not open at all. There is now a real fear among passengers that, in order to claw back some of the money from having overpaid for the franchise, the ultimate objective is to close all ticket offices. Coupled with the meteoric rise in fares since the new year and the no-holds-barred attitude adopted by travelling staff on the railways, do the Government agree that this is an open invitation to travellers to get back into their cars? Will the Minister invite the regulatory rail authority to leave its comfort sidings to go and talk to the franchises about these important matters? I should declare an interest as a regular traveller on South West Trains.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I declare an interest as a regular traveller on Southern trains. The service that I enjoy has steadily improved over the last few years. In real terms the regulated fares are around 2 per cent lower than they were 10 years ago, the number of passengers travelling on the rail network is higher now than any time since the 1960s and, year on year, the number of passengers using the rail network continues to grow ever faster. The Government are investing increasingly in the rail network and will carry on with that work. As to the noble Viscounts point about ticket offices, it is true that some have closed. However, we are in the modern era and many people now pre-book using online or telephone options to secure the right ticket to travel at the right price.
Lord Snape: My Lords, how does it benefit the travelling public to relieve the National Express group of the Midland Mainline franchisethe group that transformed it from a complete shambles to the most punctual TOC in the United Kingdom? The replacement is Stagecoach, which has not exactly covered itself in glory on South West Trains. Does he accept from me that professional railwaymen are fed up with transient Ministers and civil servants faffing about with the railway industry and failing to bring any proper long-term stability?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I was hoping that the noble Lord would declare an interest. He always makes his points about the rail network very well indeed. I do not think that we have transient Ministers. The current Rail Minister, Tom Harris, is doing an excellent job and has been in it for some time. He is a great advocate for the rail network; I suffer in his shadow. We are investing more. I cannot comment on the individual comparison that the noble Lord madeto do that would be wrong of me as a Ministerbut we have a record to be proud of. We are increasing access to and use of the rail network. We have a long-term plan and later this summer will deliver the high-level rail strategy.
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is now more expensive to travel for 100 miles by South West Trains than by driving a car? The finance department of your Lordships House still presses us to use the trains. Is this the real plan, or have I missed something?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it is true that there have been some price increases on that rail franchise. There is no hiding from thatit has been in the newspapers, so I suppose it must be true. However, if one books intelligently, one can buy advance fares very cheaply. I do not accept for a moment the absolute comparison made by the noble Lord. It is cheaper to use the railways if you ensure that you book earlyonline, over the phone and in advanceas many people do, instead of just using walk-on fares. Yes, that franchise has had some increases, but generally you can get very good deals if you use the network well and you think ahead.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, will the Minister consider travelling by train in Germany or France this summer, looking at the fares and the service and then reviewing his answers in the light of that experience?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I have not travelled extensively on the French network for some years, but I am a great admirer of itit is very good. Some lines, particularly the journey from Paris to Nice, are a delight. However, in EU countries there are higher subsidies and direct taxation to pay for services. In this country the balance is something like 58 per cent funded by passengers and 42 per cent funded by the taxpayer. That has gone up and down over the years but has not changed much, and we accept that balance because we think it is right that we protect the taxpayer from excessive burdens from the rail network.
Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1. Like all the other
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Amendment No. 1 relates to Clause 22 and the councils voluntary activities in this part of the Bill. The clause allows the new council to acquire an interest in a company with a view to that body exercising certain functions on its behalf. Following a useful debate in Grand Committee we accepted that it was appropriate for the new council to be able to exercise that power, subject to the consent of the Secretary of State. Amendment No. 1 builds on that premise and places an obligation on the Secretary of State to publish the reasons for any such approval given to a request by the new council to acquire an interest in a body corporate.
The amendment is in line with the Governments commitment to transparency and openness in its dealings with the new council, and would ensure that any consent given by the Secretary of State to a proposal by the new council to acquire an interest in a company, and the reasons for the decision, are made publicly available, transparent and open to public scrutiny. I beg to move.
Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, I shall speak to only one amendment in the list. I am delighted to be across the Dispatch Box from the increasingly experienced noble Lord, Lord Evans of Temple Guiting. I sincerely hope that the noble Lord, Lord Jones of Birmingham, the new Minister, is not unwellor, worse, that he is not already bored with the necessary but at times, admittedly, time-consuming process of legislation. I look forward to the noble Lords presence on the other side of the House in debating Bills to come, and hope that he will come to embrace parliamentary duties with the same vigour and keenness as do his colleagues on the Bench today. I will have to trust that he will read the Ministers remarks on the amendments in the Official Report tomorrow.
Amendment No. 1 was made as an addition to the Bill by my colleague Mark Prisk in another place. It requires that the Secretary of State may publish the reasons for any approval given to a request by the new National Consumer Council to acquire an interest in a body corporate. It is an important amendment that goes right to the heart of the debates of a few months ago, which I am sure noble Lords will not have forgotten.
Overall, the Bill has seen marked improvement in both your Lordships House and another place. There are three main areas where, I am pleased to say, my party has made improvements: we have improved the accountability of the new National Consumer Council, including ensuring that in its acquisition of any corporate body it is subject to ministerial approval; we have helped consumers by ensuring that best practice in complaints handling is followed; and, thirdly, we have ensured that the new National
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On the question of estate agents and supporting consumers, however, the Government have not gone as far as they ought to have done. Her Majestys Government have brought forward improvements to the redress schemes following Conservative amendments in your Lordships House, but it is a shame that they have been unwilling to modernise the law, in particular the definition of estate agency, to reflect how the housing market works today. Nor, regrettably, has there been recognition by Her Majestys Government that redress for residential lettings should be the same as for house buyers. It is a missed opportunity.
Hot on the heels of the HIPs fiasco, it is clear that the Government will be wary of regulation in the housing market. But unlike Her Majestys Governments proposals for HIPs, our amendmentsto modernise the law, include residential lettings and increase fines for rogue agentsdid have the support of the vast majority of the industry and consumers. That amendment was presented in Committee in another place, and the Government accepted the principle in concession to the amendment tabled by my honourable friend there.
I hope that the Minister will, however, consider the terms of the amendment tabled in the Commons and will be able to convey it to the department of the noble Lord, Lord Jones, for deliberation. I would like to register my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, for his stewardship of the Bill in your Lordships House previously. It was constructive and thoughtful, and with his help many positive additions to the Bill were secured. I look forward to seeing the implementation of the Bill and will follow with interest the progress of the new National Consumer Council.
Lord Razzall: My Lords, I am slightly surprised at the tone the noble Baroness took regarding the noble Lord, Lord Jones, because I would have assumed that she would be delighted that he had been replaced as a potential Tory candidate for London by Boris Johnson. I hope that these attacks on the Ministerthe well known Liberal Democratwill now cease.
I welcome the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Evans, is dealing with these matters and I suspect that he will be dealing with them with his usual competence for some time to come. I am particularly surprised by the noble Baronesss remarks, as, having read Hansard from another place, I think that Amendment No. 1 seems exactly what her colleague proposed there. That was supported by the Liberal Democrats, and I support this amendment.
Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, for their support for the amendment. You havent got a Jones but youve got an Evans, is all I can say. We will read with care the points that the noble Baroness feels ought to be passed on to the department.
(5A) If a date is prescribed in relation to a regulator for the purposes of this subsection, from that date subsection (1) has effect in relation to that regulator as if, in that subsection, for must there were substituted may.
This group of amendments relates to the complaint-handling standards provisions in the Bill, an issue that was debated extensively during the passage of the Bill through this House previously. The debate that occurred centred quite rightly on how best to ensure that regulated providers in the electricity, gas and postal services sector have in place and operate appropriate and effective internal complaints-handling procedures.
This is particularly important because, under the new arrangements for consumer representation being introduced as a result of the provisions in the Bill, there will no longer be a sector-specific consumer body with a complaint-handling function for the energy and postal services sector; therefore, regulated providers in these sectors will be required to take full and proper responsibility for handling their own complaints. The measures in the Bill are about empowering and protecting the consumer, and we need to have the right incentives in place to achieve this objective.
The amendments would require regulators to make regulations prescribing standards for complaint-handling. This is the clearest and most certain way to ensure that consumer complaints will be dealt with to an approved standard by regulated providers in these sectors. Regulators have an important role to play here; they are best placed to determine what is appropriate and necessary for their sector; therefore, they must have a degree of flexibility in determining what standards are set, to which complaints they apply and how these standards should be enforced.
Amendment No. 3 is included in this group to allow for future changes to the energy and postal services markets. It provides for the Secretary of State to make an order prescribing a date on which the duty on regulators to prescribe complaint-handling standards will change to a power to prescribe such standards. Before making the order, the Secretary of State must consult the regulator, the new council and other persons as appropriate. The amendment is required to allow for future changes in the energy and postal services market which may make the requirement for regulators to prescribe complaint-handling standards obsolete. Any decision by the
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Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, although I was absent for a great deal of the Bills Committee stage, I have read the proceedings in great detail. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Wilcox on the way in which she handled matters and the benefits that she, with others, achieved in Committee, particularly that of best practice in handling consumer complaints, which is reinforced by these amendments.
I am a little cynical, although hopeful, that this will be effective, given that Ofcom took so very long to do anything about continual gambling on terrestrial television. Moreover, on the back of telephone bills, it says something like, If you have any complaints, you may write to us and expect a reply within 12 weeks. If you dont get a reply in 12 weeks, please write again. That is why I am cynical.
I share my noble friends concern that we have not progressed with protecting consumers in the ever-changing housing market. I hope that, if and when problems arise, we shall know where to point the finger when consumers are not adequately protected.
Finally, I, too, wish the new National Consumer Council every success. It has a very big job on its hands, which I am sure it will do very well. It will be very different from the NCC of which my noble friend and I were chairmen, but I have every confidence in its ability to meet the challenges of the future.
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