Railways Bill (Standing Committee A)

The Railways Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 25th November 2004. The main purpose of this Bill is to tackle the long-standing structural problems of the railways.

When a Bill has passed its second reading in the House of Commons, it is usually referred to a standing committee for detailed, clause - by - clause examination. This Standing Committee is examining the Railways Bill.

Mr Clelland is a member of this committee which currently has 21 members. His specific interest is in the implications for the future role of PTEs. This will come under scrutiny early in the New Year. Mr Clelland's interventions and questions during the Committee's sittings are reproduced below.

14 Dec 2004

Mr. David Clelland: I seek clarification and assurance from the Minister about the schedule, which abolishes some of the SRA's functions. When a passenger boards a train at a station and travels to another station, they are not simply travelling from one point to another, unless they happen to be fortunate enough, or unfortunate enough, to live next to the station and are travelling to a destination that is also next to a station. They may rely on other forms of transport.

According to section 205 of the Transport Act 2000, one of the purposes of the SRA was

"to contribute to the development of an integrated system of transport of passengers and goods."

The schedule before us abolishes that and replaces it with a duty on the Secretary of State to promote improvements in railway service performance and otherwise to protect the interests of users of railway services. There is no reference to any obligation on the part of the Secretary of State to involve himself in the development of an integrated transport system. Can the Minister assure us that that is not a deliberate deletion, and that the Secretary of State will still consider integration issues? If that is the case, can he also assure us that, either in Committee or on Report, the Government will table an amendment to reintroduce an integrated transport system?

11 Jan 2005

Mr. David Clelland: I support what my hon. Friend said and his intention to withdraw the amendment, but I would like to draw attention to some of the Minister's comments. I do not know how rigorously intellectual his response was, but he said that the Government were unlikely to do this and that the Secretary of State did not intend to do so. Yet he described our use of the word ''significant'' as overly ambiguous rather than unduly specific. That seems a little bit like the frying pan calling the kettle black. However, as my hon. Friend has said, we wait to see what further information the Government put forward.

Mr. David Clelland: The amendments rest on the belief that the proposals in the Bill are based on a misconception and an incorrect interpretation of the current law. The White Paper said that PTEs

''are not directly exposed to the consequences of their decisions on fares and service levels.''

We would argue that that is manifestly wrong. PTEs currently have no right - statutory or contractual - for increased franchise payments resulting from PTE requirements to be reimbursed through SRA grant or through any other funding channel. PTEs have no expectation of receiving a blank cheque for local rail services. There is also no basis for removing existing PTE specification rights on the grounds that

''the more services PTEs specify, the more funding they receive''

as ''The Future of Rail'' White Paper also incorrectly states.

Passenger transport executives have a continuing statutory duty to secure the public transport services necessary to meet the public transport requirement in their areas. We argue that PTEs are better placed than civil servants and, with respect, Ministers in London to judge rail services and needs in their own areas. We are asked to trust Ministers and the Secretary of State to do the right thing by our localities. We can trust that anything that the current Ministers and Secretary of State do will be in the interests of our areas. However, this Secretary of State and these Ministers will not necessarily be there for ever, although we hope that they will, and there could be a change. We are told that we are coming up to a general election and who knows what might happen. The Prime Minister tells us that we should not be complacent and we are not. We might even conceivably have a change of Government, although that is unlikely. Therefore, we should develop legislation that incorporates the values of the party in power - the Labour party - and obliges future Governments to introduce new legislation to make changes, rather than leaving the door open for relationships to be changed because the Secretary of State changes.

There is also the question of the Bill making it clear that the primary reason for the proposal is to avoid the additional costs and complexities, including bureaucratic complexities, that greater PTE involvement generates. Can the Minister give us the evidence of the additional costs and complexities that are referred to? As for bureaucratic complexities, we argue that the proposals would introduce more rather than less bureaucracy into the system, as each PTE would need to enter into separate arrangements with the Secretary of State. The Minister might also like to give us the evidence for the statement by the SRA that 30 to 40 per cent. of the time that train operating companies spend negotiating a franchise is with PTEs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) listed the additional important rights that PTEs have under the current arrangements. Will the Minister assure us that those rights cannot be diminished as a result of the measures before us today? In summary, our argument is that if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Mr. David Clelland: My hon. Friend has given one example and we are aware of that example. Perhaps he could give us one or two more to strengthen his case.

Mr. McNulty: I have not finished yet.

Mr. David Clelland: I was hoping that he would come to that. If, as we argue, the Bill does not go far enough in involving PTEs in the process and if, as he argued, our amendments go too far, why cannot we simply have a compromise and leave well alone?

Mr. David Clelland: do not oppose the question, but it is worth repeating an important point of principle here. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley reiterated the point in relation to devolution and local power. He is not a supporter of regional government, but is nevertheless a supporter of the concept of devolution. Notwithstanding the result of the referendum in the North-East, which I greatly regret, the old wisdom that devolution is a process, not an event, remains true. Some of us are concerned that these measures will be seen as centralising rather than decentralising, and as such contrary to the policies on which our party stood at the last election and will no doubt stand at the next election. I hope that Ministers will reflect on those issues between now and Report to see what can be done to overcome the concerns that those of us who want to continue the devolution process have about the clause.

Mr. David Clelland: I support my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley. He again draws attention to something of a constitutional dilemma, with the devolution process having been stalled to some extent. It is, as he pointed out and as the Bill makes clear, quite easy for the Government to decide on representatives from Scotland, the National Assembly for Wales and from London, because there are bodies to which the Secretary of State can refer. However, that is not the case for the rest of England. I know that my hon. Friend is reflecting on his position on regional government - perhaps he is having a rethink. Regional government would certainly have resolved some of the problems.

My hon. Friend has drawn attention to an extremely important point. Outside London, the PTAs represent the huge conurbations and big cities in the rest of the country, and therefore are extremely important players when it comes to transport. I entirely agree that the important role that they play ought to be recognised by appointing their representatives to the RPC.

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