HC Deb 24 May 1993 vol 225 cc713-21

'.—(1) The Franchising Director or a Passenger Transport Authority or Passenger Transport Executive—

  1. (a) in exercising or deciding whether or not to exercise any of his, or (as the case may be) their, franchising functions, may take into account the desirability of encouraging railway investment; and
  2. (b) may exercise any such functions for the purpose of encouraging railway investment or for purposes which include that purpose.

(2) The Franchising Director may, for the purpose of encouraging railway investment, enter into agreements with any person under which the Franchising Director undertakes to exercise franchising functions of his or to exercise such functions in a particular manner.

(3) The Franchising Director and any Passenger Transport Executive may enter into agreements with each other as to the terms on which franchise agreements to which the Executive is to be a party are to be entered into.

(4) In this section— franchising functions", in relation to the Franchising Director, means—

  1. (a) any functions of his under sections 15, 17, 20 to 30, (Transfers of franchise assets and shares), (Failure to secure subsequent franchise agreement), (Contracts between the Franchising Director and the Board for the provision of non-franchised railway, passenger services) and (Powers of the Franchising Director to form and finance companies and to acquire and dispose of assets) (3);
  2. (b) any power conferred on him under or by virtue of Part II below with respect to the effecting by transfer scheme of any transfer contemplated by any provision of those sections; and
  3. (c) any other functions of his which relate to the provision of railway passenger services under franchise agreements;
franchising functions", in relation to a Passenger Transport Authority or Passenger Transport Executive, means any functions conferred or imposed on the Authority or, as the case may be, the Executive under or by virtue of section 29 above; railway investment" means investment in assets for use in the provision of railway services.'.—[Mr. Freeman.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Freeman

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I suggest to the hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Gunnell) that, because this is such an important subject, I send him a copy of the full statement that I intend to make next Thursday, in the recess, which brings together all the initiatives on leasing. Perhaps he and I can then have an Adjournment debate on the West Yorkshire PTE rolling stock issue because the way forward on that may be charted more clearly as a result of the statement that I shall make next Thursday, assuming that the new clause is accepted.

Mr. Prescott

I am all for doing things for the convenience of the House, but the statement on leasing is important. We are now being told that the statement cannot be made in the House because hon. Members want to go home. I understand the argument. Labour Members do not have to stay for the vote. We cannot win in the House. If we want to let those hon. Members go who do not want to vote, we can stay and talk. Then we are told that we cannot have a statement now because hon. Members want to go home, but we will have it next week when we are in recess. Frankly, that is not acceptable. We are supposed to subject the Minister's statements to examination. I am fed up with a Department that constantly gives statements outside and not in the House. Even the objectives for British Rail are no longer given in the House—they are announced outside.

I have been told that there is an important development on the issue of leasing. As hon. Members know, I have been an advocate of financed leasing for a long time. When this Government and the last Labour Government would not accept it, I thought that at least I would have had an opportunity in the House to see how this Government approach the issue of leasing. [Interruption.] This is important. I hope that the Government Whip does not keep making that sort of face. I am all for the organisation of business. I am not saying that we should have an hour's debate, but we should have at least five or 10 minutes because leasing is important. It gives us an opportunity to deal with the real problems of finance in British Rail. It cannot be achieved by simply getting finance from the Treasury—it must come some other way.

We will not have an opportunity to hear any statement. Does that mean that the Minister does not have a statement, or that he is thinking about it? If he has it, why does not he make it to us tonight so that we can go away and at least read it? Then I would not need to wait until the recess because I hate giving press statements on what Ministers have said. What does the Minister intend to do?

Mr. Freeman

If I catch your eye again, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will be happy to go into detail.

Mr. Prescott

I am not asking the Minister for the statement—I am trying to get a proper balance, as the Secretary of State did on the issue of freight. The Secretary of State wanted to make a full and proper statement about the important matter of freight, but, in five minutes, he managed to give the essential details.

I am not asking the Minister to give us the full statement on leasing. If he will give the details in a parliamentary reply, as he and the Department always do, I will put a question down tonight. He can reply to me or my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Gunnell), who is being pressed not to get into this debate. Can we find a happy compromise, because there is a fair point to be made? We must get a balance on this matter which is not being achieved at present.

The Minister could give us one or two points to show his position on leasing and then make his written statement later. If he did that, I could at least address some of my criticisms of his essential points because, while I agree with leasing, certain points need to be made in the debate. I do not know how to deal with the matter now because the Minister has sat down and I have said my bit. He must have the leave of the House and God knows what else if he wants to speak again. I am prepared to give way to him for a few minutes so that he can outline his principles for leasing.

Mr. Freeman

New clause 18 deals specifically with the issue of the franchising director fettering his discretion, essentially, by agreeing to the continued use of leased rolling stock on a particular railway line through the first franchise. That is all that the new clause does.

The problem in the past has been that franchises might be for five, seven or 10 years, but the economic life of new rolling stock might be 30 years. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the new clause will allow the franchising director to develop an operating lease by saying to the franchisee, the lessor and to the PTE—perhaps all of them joined by a legal agreement—that he will undertake to continue to designate the leased rolling stock as franchise assets on a specific line beyond the first franchise. The franchises are for seven years, and the period for two franchises, 14 years, is about the minimum rental length that lessors will require on rolling stock to reduce the residual value to an acceptable risk. That is all that the new clause does and it has been widely welcomed.

12.30 am

I told the hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Gunnell) that on Thursday I shall seek to bring together not new policy statements, but the various policy statements that we have made about the establishment of public sector rolling stock companies, the £150 million of lease finance for British Rail, and the time scale for decisions on that facility and one that may or may not replace it. I owe it to the House to set out clearly in one document all the statements that we have made so far.

There is a real possibility of developing a rolling stock leasing market, but we have to transfer the risk to the private sector to ensure that it is not caught by public expenditure constraints. I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman has been a great supporter of leasing. I have differed from him, largely because he thinks that it is possible for British Rail as a nationalised industry to lease rolling stock and not be caught by conventional public expenditure definitions. That is not possible. This is the way forward and I look forward to debating the matter at much greater length—perhaps for the full time of an Adjournment debate or on some other occasion. [Interruption.] I am happy to debate specific issues, but I sense that the mood of the House is to move to other matters. I am not afraid to stay here all night to answer every question that hon. Members put to me. I am trying to observe the niceties of debate and endeavouring to be courteous by being as concise as possible.

Mr. Prescott

The Minister says that he would stay here all night. I hope that that means more than it did on Stagecoach rail when he launched a service and then shot into the sleeping section.

The Minister has made an important statement. I look forward to his written comments and hope that we can have a longer debate in the future. I welcome the Government's return to leasing. Years ago there were leasing arrangements for British Rail and I served on the Committee that investigated British Rail's use of those arrangements. BR abused them, and that is why the Treasury took them away. British Rail sold to the private sector and used the money that was raised and other tax arrangements for the revenue and running requirements of the railways. The resources should have been used for capital replacement, but BR was starved of cash at that time.

British Rail was able to lease as a publicly owned company, which shows that the Treasury has different rules for different industries at different times. The publicly owned British Airways was able to lease aeroplanes and there was no problem in dealing with that. The Treasury has never been consistent on this matter and policy depends on what the Treasury thinks is important at the time. BR has been denied the possibility of any further leasing.

The Government's attitude now is a welcome change. I am not sure that the Minister is right when he says that the public sector cannot lease. Every other railway system in Europe leases and they are publicly owned. Treasury rules in Britain are different. It is not that public finance cannot be organised to allow the public sector to raise its capital requirements on lease. A silly British rule makes us feel superior to the French, whose railway system has got the better part of the deal, as President Mitterrand reminded us only last week.

Even if the Minister sets up separate leasing companies, presumably they will be subsidiaries of British Rail. If so, under the normal Treasury rules, they will still be subjected to the PSBR rules and the external financial limits. How will they be free from those constraints? From what the Minister has said, I cannot see that those new companies will be subject to anything different. Those companies are intended to be the subsidiaries of a publicly owned company and, by definition, they are wholly owned by British Rail. According to the Treasury's definition, and even subject to its latest rules on private finance, those companies will be considered a public sector liability. Given what the Minister has said, I cannot understand how it is possible for those companies to be free from the restraints of public financing and the Treasury rules interpreting that financing.

I should like to consider other technical matters relating to maintenance and operational stupidities that stem from that interpretation of the Treasury rules, but, given the lateness of the hour, I shall not do so.

The Government want competition in the private sector—I do not think that there is much available—but they cannot afford to allow an operator to have a franchise for more than seven years. If a franchise were to last as long as the life of the stock, the franchisee would be given private monopoly control for perhaps 20 years.

The Government are faced with a dilemma: who owns the stock? The operator will not be prepared to invest in something for which he might have an operational contract of seven years only, especially if the asset he has purchased will hold its value for 20 years. Should he lose the contract and have to pass it on, that will place him in a difficult position. The reality is that the public sector will own that stock. I am happy about that, because it will make it all the easier for me to bring that stock back into the sector where it belongs. If that is an ideological point, I happen to believe that 80 per cent. of the electorate agree with me.

Leaving that aside, what the Minister has said represents a welcome step forward, although I do not understand how that falls in with the supposed one great leap from the existing controls under the current interpretation of the Treasury rules.

Mr. Gunnell

I welcome new clause 18. I accept the Minister's offer of an Adjournment debate on this matter and I shall put in for one as soon as we return from the spring recess.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

It would be appropriate to say something about the Government's response to the report of the Select Committee on Transport on investment in the railways. We are discussing the investment new clause which does not limit itself to investment in rolling stock.

That report noted: if Ministers' expectations of increased private and public sector investment in the railways are not realised it will scarcely matter what structure of ownership or management is put in place. The Select Committee will be grateful that the Government have recognised that the provision of sufficient resources is important. In answer to the Select Committee's call for investment, however, the Government said: Investment in British Rail will show a temporary dip this year but it is still high in comparison with recent years. This dip is in part due to passing the peak of new rolling stock deliveries. The Select Committee has been most concerned about the investment famine that will become apparent in the next two to three years. From discussions that the Select Committee had with witnesses, it became clear that private sector operators are unlikely to place orders for the next two years and are unlikely to receive deliveries for a year or two after that. In effect, there is a four-year gap.

Without a steady stream of orders, we will not preserve our railway stock building at the desired level If we consider channel tunnel-linked investment and what is happening, we hope, with crossrail, Thameslink 2000, the Jubilee line extension and the fact that the 10 per cent. of British Rail stock, which is way past its sell-by date, must be replaced, we will end up with a boost in railway stock investment at a time when we have half destroyed our railway stock building industry. That is not good value for money or good for employment.

In the past nine months, we have had a great deal of discussion about how we should spend a lot of money subsidising extra jobs underground. If we spent anything like that amount of money in the next three years endowing capital investment in British Rail, we would do more for employment prospects throughout the country and make more of a contribution towards the economy than through investing underground. That would also help railways make their full economic contribution to the economic geography of the United Kingdom—Scotland, the north of England, Wales, the south-west as well as the rail links to the ports that link us to Northern Ireland.

I hope that the Government will find a way—I understand that it cannot be included in the Bill—in which to create capital investment in British Rail—I suppose that one should now say the railways—up to the level of above £1,000 million a year for the next five years.

That would be better than giving £1,000 million in the year before an election, and then cutting it to below £600 million in the years after the election. Those sudden boosts and drops are economically highly inefficient. The Government must find a way, with or without private sector help, to have a level of capital investment that ensures that the existing railway is kept at the present running speeds or, even better, increased speeds, rather than continuing the deterioration on the west coast mainline.

In their response to the investment section of the Select Committee report, the Government have said that they agree with four fifths of what the Committee said. The one fifth that is still in doubt, with the exception of British Rail bidding for franchises, is the most important part—the level of cash investment for this year, next year and the year after. If the Government could find a way to endow the railways with a high level of capital investment, they would find that their plans work, and that the bids for the franchise would be at a higher level, with very little net cost to the Government or the taxpayer. That level of capital investment—on which Ministers probably cannot give a full response tonight—will be the key to the success of their proposals.

Mr. Bayley

I agree with the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley). His view was shared by hon. Members of all parties serving on the Transport Select Committee. As he said, it is vital that the Bill allows the franchising director to take note of the investment needs of the railways when issuing the terms of the franchise. To provide the sort of railway that we want and to maintain the ability to manufacture rolling stock, we need investment.

The hon. Member for Eltham proposed an investment level that needs to be secured whether the investment comes from the private sector or the public sector over the next three or four years. If that does not happen, we shall not have a railway manufacturing capacity left to provide for rail rolling stock needs towards the end of the decade. I hope that the Minister will respond to the points that have been made.

Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

I hope that, even at this late hour, I will be forgiven if I say a few words about the new clause, which is, as my hon. Friend the Minister knows, of extreme importance to my constituency because it relates, perhaps more specifically than to any other project, to the electrification scheme for the Leeds, Bradford, Airedale and Wharfedale lines. Regrettably, I shall not be able to be here on Thursday, as I shall be away with a Select Committee, so it is important that I say something about it now.

The project has gained universal approval because not only will its result be of great benefit to people in the area but it more than met the 8 per cent. return on capital that was demanded by the Treasury. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, there was no problem in going ahead quickly with credit approval for the track electrification, but since that point, a cloud of uncertainty has hung over the provision of rolling stock. Already the scheme has made history because exceptional provision was made for leasing arrangements to be entered into and still, regrettably, problems continued to arise with the financial institutions because of the uncertainties that lay ahead.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for the time and energy that he has devoted to solving the problem. I know that he has made a number of visits to west Yorkshire and has worked extremely hard to try to blow away the difficulties that have arisen. I am grateful to him for introducing the new clause. I hope that it will enable new rolling stock to be running on the Airedale and Wharfedale lines sooner rather than later, because the local people deserve that.

Tribute should also be paid to the Wharfedale rail users group, which has played an important part in the process. It has access to a great deal of expertise. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister has already said that the franchising director will be committed to consult user groups such as this which have an important role. I welcome the new clause, which I believe will prove extremely helpful.

12.45 am
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

I shall take just one minute of the time of the House to support the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley). This is potentially the most important new clause that the House will debate throughout the Bill's entire Report stage. We all want an improved railway system, but we will not get that unless there is investment in new rolling stock. The real issue is whether the new clause provides the mechanism to overcome the difficulty that the public purse simply cannot afford that. We heard what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hill, East (Mr. Prescott) said about the constraints on the public sector borrowing requirement.

I hope that in the Adjournment debate on Thursday my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport will reassure the House that the mechanism will allow for investment in rolling stock. Many of my constituents work at the ABB factory, as do many of those of the hon. Member for York (Mr. Bayley). My hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the great concern in York that, unless orders for new rolling stock are placed with ABB over the next two or three years, we will lose the capacity of what is undoubtedly the most modern rail workshop in Europe. That would be a tragedy.

I hope that my hon. Friend will bear those points in mind when he responds not just to this debate but to the wider issue of ensuring that there is more investment in our railways.

Mr. Cryer

I want to add to the remarks about the new clause and encouragement for investment. I want to put my comments in the context of the idea that, for some reason, the Minister should be congratulated on—and, by reflection, the Government approved for—the way that he has dealt with franchising. As I have said, the Government's playing of ideological drakes and ducks with the railways has prevented leasehold investment in new rolling stock on the Leeds-Bradford and Airedale lines. The Minister shakes his head, but he well knows that that is the case. Had it not been for the uncertainty created by the Government's privatisation proposals, the leasing of new rolling stock for the electrified railways in west Yorkshire would have been decided long ago.

The hon. Gentleman must acknowledge that that uncertainty has led, for example, to a break in the ordering programme for Hunslet Engineering, which is building new rolling stock for the Birmingham area and was to build the new rolling stock for the Aire Valley and Leeds-Bradford area. As the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) said, it is important that there is a consistent ordering programme. Without that, skilled people will be pushed on to the dole to join the 3 million-long queue of misery created by the Government's economic policies. We will lose those vital skills. Britain has a longer history than any other nation in the building of railway engines, rolling stock and multiple units, electric and diesel. If there is not a consistent ordering programme, the necessary skills will be lost because the system of education and training will not be sustained. Indeed, that is already happening.

The new clause is by no means the panacea suggested by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller). There are real difficulties with the Aire valley and Leeds-Bradford electrification scheme. Bradford has lost a valuable trolley bus innovation scheme, which was to cost £6 million and run from the centre of Bradford to part of my constituency. It was sacrificed to produce money for the Leeds-Bradford electrification scheme. Sacrifices have been made, but not to the same extent by the Government, who should bring the matter to a certain conclusion by providing up-to-date rolling stock for what will be a modernised railway with high commuter use at peak times.

The Minister may be emollient and smooth over our discussions in his usual way, but under his smoothness beats a sturdy, right-wing heart. [Interruption.] His Parliamentary Private Secretary, who thinks that all BBC programmes are communist propaganda, may gurgle at that, but he is not alone this evening—he sits in a right-wing, ideological cesspit. He must take the blame.

The ideological absurdity of privatisation, as symbolised by the new clause, has brought uncertainty both to this scheme and to the railways.

Mr. Freeman

This debate has taught me a lesson: I end up answering both it and an Adjournment debate.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) asked me why leasing can develop successfully only with the private sector's involvement. If British Rail is the only possible operator, by definition it cannot write an operating lease. All leases are thus financing leases, so they are all capitalised and therefore count against public expenditure borrowing limits. Only when the new alternative of other public sector rolling stock operators opens up is it possible to write an operating lease.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) was right to underline the importance of investment in both infrastructure and rolling stock. The Government acknowledge that. For the first time, Railtrack, the infrastructure body, will have its own external financing limit and will be obliged to plan 10 years ahead. That represents an advance. At present, when there are problems, due to the recession and a fall in fare revenues, investment is postponed and BR has to live within the overdraft limit. But for the first time infrastructure investment will henceforth be dealt with separately and will be planned a long time ahead.

We look forward later this year to the announcement of Railtrack's initial EFL.

The hon. Member for York (Mr. Bayley) and I have had several exchanges before on the subject of rolling stock and my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), whose constituency I have visited, is, l know, concerned about the future of ABB and employment in the rolling stock industry. I agree that we cannot afford to lose our domestic rolling stock manufacturing capacity. If we do, in five or 10 years' time, we will end up having to place orders with the French and Germans to cope with the next genuine upswing in the investment cycle for rolling stock.

It is my responsibility to ensure that BR places the order for £150 million as quickly as possible, not in four years' time. Because BR has concentrated the orders on trains that have already been designed, they can be built quickly, either in York or by GEC, whichever it decides. They will not have to be redesigned from scratch. I have given the House an undertaking that once the order has been placed I will work on the next one. It will have to be a genuine operating lease.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) and I have had exchanges before about the West Yorkshire PTE. He does not do me justice in the matter. He knows that it was a choice between the £50 million for infrastructure and an operating lease, or no project at all. I chose—I stick by my choice—the £50 million resource cover for infrastructure and tried to work with the PTE for a lease. With this group of amendments we stand a good chance—the Government, the PTE, the franchisee and the lessor all bound together in legal contracts—of ensuring that the lease is written.

I commend the new clause to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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