HC Deb 27 November 1995 vol 267 cc910-2
3. Mr. Janner

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what are his proposals for the privatisation of the rail industry. [645]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Sir George Young)

Our proposals are to improve the efficiency of the railways by transferring the British Rail businesses into the private sector. The rolling stock leasing companies—Roscos—and some of the other businesses have been sold, the first franchises are on course to be awarded next month and we are on course to privatise Railtrack in the spring of 1996.

Mr. Janner

Has the right hon. Gentleman read the decision of Mr. Justice Brooke in the case brought by the Save our Railways group against passenger rail franchising, in which the judge granted a judicial review? Does he propose to respect the decision of the High Court and to postpone franchising while the review takes place, or will he once again do what the Government do so often, which is simply attack the judge because he disagrees with the judge's decision?

Sir George Young

As the hon. and learned Gentleman may know, the Government were not a party to the decision—it was against the franchising director of the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising. As a barrister, he will understand that the court has done no more than decide that there is a case which should be considered in more detail. The decision does not affect the franchising process, which is going well, and the first franchises are due to be awarded before the end of the year. It is business as usual. We are confident that Opraf has a strong case and that the court will recognise that.

Mr. Waller

I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that the best basis on which to judge privatisation is the quality of service to customers. Does he also agree that the rolling stock companies are now thinking of developing innovative new trains that would make use of information technology to provide the very best service, comparable with that currently enjoyed by airline passengers?

Sir George Young

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The rolling stock companies, now in private sector hands, have an appetite for investment and access to the necessary funds. I am confident that, as with all previous privatisations, investment will increase after privatisation and be higher than it would have been had BR remained in the public sector.

Mr. Chidgey

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that not all the track access charges have been fully expended by Railtrack on the repair and renewal of the rail infrastructure? Will he call for a report from the Rail Regulator, setting out what actions should be taken to deal with the matter, before the proposals for the privatisation of Railtrack are completed?

Sir George Young

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, the Rail Regulator, John Swift, has all the powers that he needs to ensure that the provision made for track access charges under the Railtrack regime is spent on that purpose.

Mr. Robathan

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, before the war and before rail nationalisation in 1947, there were about 15 railway stations in my constituency, yet under a nationalised British Rail all those stations were closed, although one—but only one—has now been reopened? Does he agree that it is extraordinary that people should now try to defend British Rail, whose history has been one of decay, closure and inefficiency, and which has been the butt of endless jokes for the past 48 years?

Sir George Young

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am confident that under a privatised railway we will reverse the decline in the use of the railways over the past 40 to 50 years. My hon. Friend will be interested to know that, since 1979, 224 stations have been opened or reopened—a record that knocks into a cocked hat the record of the Labour party when it was in government.

Ms Short

The minimum conditions laid down for the initial franchises to run rail services do not meet the requirements of the Government's own legislation—which is that they be based on the timetable operated by British Rail immediately prior to franchising. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that on many inter-city services there have been cuts of a third or more and that, in the case of the Gatwick express, services are to be slashed from every 15 minutes to every 30 minutes, with no requirement that there be any trains after 8 o'clock?

The right hon. Gentleman should not wait for the courts to force him to comply with his own legislation; instead, he should halt the privatisation process and not restore it unless and until he can provide services under privatisation that are at least as good as current services.

Sir George Young

It is for the judge, not me, to decide the response to the hon. Lady's first question. However, I said in my earlier reply that Opraf was putting forward the case with vigour.

On the hon. Lady's substantive point, I wonder whether she has read the Transport Select Committee's report—which was unanimous—which says about the very issue that she raised: We agree that franchisees must be allowed some flexibility in the provision of services and in operational matters. We also have no objection in principle to the omission of profitable services from PSRs, since it will be in franchisees' interests to provide them.

Mr. Congdon

Given that British Rail is hardly an example of a well-run organisation that puts the interests of its customers first, does my right hon. Friend agree that much can and will be gained by its privatisation? Does he also agree that the Opposition Members who opposed the privatisation of British Airways are also among those who are opposed to the privatisation of British Rail? Is it not the case that they were wrong then and that they are wrong now?

Sir George Young

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He may have seen with some astonishment the statement by a shadow transport spokesman that a Labour Government would confiscate a franchise even if the franchisee were providing a better service to the passengers at a lower cost to the taxpayers. That is the absurd dogma presented by the Labour party. It is also the case that the Labour party opposes privatisation but, when an industry is successfully privatised, Labour-controlled local authorities then invest in the privatised industries and share in those industries' growth and success.