HC Deb 08 November 1999 vol 337 cc752-7

Lords amendment: No. 275, in page 85, line 3, after ("give") insert ("instructions or")

7 pm

Mr. Hill

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 276 to 296, 554, 568, 573, 718 and 802.

Mr. Hill

The amendments, which concern railways and trams, deal with services on the national rail network and aspects of Transport for London rail services. They will achieve a number of things, such as giving effect to the undertaking given on Report by my predecessor to introduce measures that will more fully define the relationship between the mayor and the Strategic Rail Authority. That undertaking was generally welcomed by Conservative Members and, indeed, in the other place. The Bill will thus fully provide for the mayor to have a strong voice in rail, while ensuring that that will not detract from the Strategic Rail Authority's overall responsibility for services on the national network.

We have taken a balanced approach which is designed to encourage a constructive relationship. For example, Transport for London and the franchising director will be under a duty to co-operate in the provision of services, and the franchising director will be required to consult the mayor about his plans for London rail fares and services.

The amendments also set out the procedures to be followed for the consideration of proposals to discontinue rail services operated by Transport for London, primarily on the underground. They transfer to the mayor the current responsibility of the Secretary of State to take decisions on proposed discontinuance of services, but otherwise there is no significant alteration. They also provide that London Transport and Transport for London will not be constrained—for example, by the terms of London Transport's exemption from the national licensing and access regulatory regime—from entering into appropriate arrangements to integrate the tube and national rail networks.

The amendments place restrictions on the mayor's ability to franchise or contract out certain train and station-operating functions. The purpose is to ensure that underground trains and stations continue to be operated by a publicly owned, publicly accountable London Underground in line with the commitment given by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on 15 June. Finally, they transfer to the mayor certain responsibilities of the Secretary of State in respect of the docklands light railway and Croydon tramlink, and provide for the continuation of the arrangements for penalty fares on Croydon tramlink.

Mr. Brake

I support the amendments. It was clear at the beginning of the process that there was a major flaw in the Government's proposals: the mayor would have very little say over rail services in London and his ability to give guidance to the franchising director would hardly be likely to achieve integration of rail, tube and bus services in London. I therefore welcome this slight amendment, which will ensure that the mayor is also able to give instructions.

I hope that there will be co-operation between the mayor and the franchising director and that it will not be necessary to give instructions, but it is important that such a power exists. It will mean that the mayor should be able to have a greater say over the quality of train services in London. Those of us who commute regularly know that every passenger is affected every day by overcrowding, cancellations and dirty trains. I support the change and hope that, as a result of it, the mayor's ability to give instructions to the franchising director will help to achieve the leap to better-quality rail services in London.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

I listened to what the Minister said about the effects of the amendments. Those to clause 161 and amendment No. 288 refer to instructions, guidance and consultation in respect of the mayor, the authority and the franchising director, which is all very well. A few minutes ago, the Minister said that they refer in particular to instances in which there might be proposals for discontinuing services. Epping Forest is in Essex, not London. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that thousands of my constituents depend on London underground services? The Central line runs out to Chigwell, Loughton, Theydon Bois and even to Epping, but my constituents—

Mr. Raynsford

To Ongar.

Mrs. Laing

From a sedentary position, the Minister says that the Central line runs to Ongar. It no longer does so.

Mr. Woodward

The hon. Gentleman has not been a Minister for long.

Mrs. Laing

I know; he has forgotten about Ongar.

I was given assurances by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson)—who might become mayor of London herself—when she was a Minister that the track between Epping and Ongar would be protected as railway track. [HON. MEMBERS: "Early pledge."] It was an early pledge, indeed, and I am pleased to put that on the record.

At present, the service runs all the way to Epping, but my constituents in Epping Forest, who are not residents of London, do not have a vote for either the mayor or the authority. Therefore, one could hardly expect either the mayor or members of the Assembly to put the interests of my constituents high on their list of priorities when they consult, or issue instructions or guidance to, the franchising director or deal with any other issue concerning the future of London underground.

London underground is extremely important to my constituents. I consider it to be one of my first duties as Member of Parliament for Epping Forest to protect the future of London underground services to my constituency. Will the Minister guarantee that, in conjunction with all those other people who will be consulted about the interests of the people they represent in Greater London, I will be consulted and will continue to have the right to speak in the Chamber on behalf of my constituents, who depend utterly on London underground? They will have no voice in the Authority or with the mayor—only with their Member of Parliament. The House must not lose its right to discuss those matters.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

It is a great pleasure to take part in the debate. I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State on beginning to fly solo, although he seems to hit the odd bit of turbulence when he is forced away from his script. I have noticed that his instructor's hands occasionally twitch back towards the controls, but let us hope the hon. Gentleman gains confidence as time goes on.

Listening to the Minister's introductory comments, one might have thought that the amendments were fairly minor and would have relatively little effect. The reality, of course, is very different, which is a common theme throughout the Bill. According to my analysis, amendments Nos. 288, 289, 290, 291, 294, 295, 296 and 554 all incorporate new clauses to the Bill. That is worth thinking about, at least for a moment, in relation to the helter-skelter way in which we are considering the amendments.

Mr. Redwood

We are not allowed a minute.

Mr. Waterson

As my right hon. Friend says, we are not even allowed a minute. It is worth pointing out that substantial changes are being made by a group of amendments which we have again to debate at great speed.

Clause 161(8) refers to the functions of the authority that are

exercisable by the Mayor acting on behalf of the Authority. There is a lot of confusion in the provisions about the powers of the mayor, and where they finish and those of the Secretary of State or, in due course, the Strategic Rail Authority—start.

Some of the amendments are to include the "instructions", as well as guidance, which are to be given by the mayor to the franchising director. The amendments depend heavily on good will existing between the mayor and the Secretary of State. One could envisage those two being from different political parties, but that would be as nothing compared with the possibility of their being from the same party if the mayor has been elected in spite of his right hon. and hon. Friends in the Government—[Interruption.] The Minister for Local Government and the Regions is continuing her running commentary on all Opposition speeches. How paltry our debates would be without her contributions. Clearly, problems will arise because, if the new mayor has had difficulties in being approved as a candidate for the Labour party, or in being elected to the post of mayor, he or she may not be entirely well disposed towards the Secretary of State—whoever that might be.

The amendments seem to face in two directions. They appear—as the Minister would like them to—to beef up the mayor's powers. The Minister echoed the words of Lord Whitty in the other place when he said that the mayor would be a "voice for London". In reality, however, the amendments might bring the mayor into conflict with the Secretary of State. Although the mayor is supposed to stand up for Londoners—we have heard that theme more than once in this and previous debates—he or she must also deal with the Secretary of State and, in due course, the Strategic Rail Authority. The current Secretary of State has a penchant for rail summits and the like, and seeks to interfere more and more at all levels in the operation of the railways, both within and outside London.

Lord Whitty talked about defining

the relationship between the mayor and the franchising director"— and, in due course, between the mayor and the proposed Strategic Rail Authority. He said that the Government were

committed to giving the mayor a strong voice in rail, but that the mayor's powers should not detract from the wider strategic responsibilities of the franchising director and the strategic rail authority.

It is difficult to see, where there is also a duty to consult the mayor over proposed changes to service levels and fares, what will happen if the mayor takes a radically different view from that of those other bodies. As Lord Whitty pointed out,

the franchising director will have to implement the mayor's instructions and guidance unless to do so will 'prevent or seriously hinder him' complying with the Secretary of State's guidance. He then said, no doubt with a straight face: The amendment preserves that principle but gives the mayor more flexibility".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 July 1999; Vol. 603, c. 544-55.]

It seems to be left entirely to the franchising director to decide whether what the mayor wants would have an adverse impact on the remainder of the network. That was left in the air in an exchange between Lord Whitty and Baroness Hamwee. It would be interesting to hear whether the Government's thoughts on that point have changed in the interim.

7.15 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) made some excellent points on behalf of her constituents and expressed concern about the closure of services. One of the amendments proposes that the mayor, rather than the Secretary of State, should make decisions on closures, although there will still be a right of appeal to the Secretary of State. Although we hear a lot of rhetoric about giving the mayor a voice on subjects such as railways, ultimately, the Secretary of State will retain a lot of power to ensure that the mayor cannot kick over the traces and cause too many difficulties. Those comments apply also to the provisions for penalty fares.

As with other groups of amendments, we should have liked much more time to consider these matters in more detail. A look behind the Minister's introductory remarks, reveals that some of these amendments incorporate fairly complex new clauses into the Bill. Unless the Minister's explanation is superlatively good, I intend to press amendment No. 294 to a vote.

Mr. Hill

May I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) for his support on this matter? The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) made an interesting and useful intervention, which permits me to offer her some reassurances about the rights of her constituents who live outside the area covered by the GLA. Schedule 9 gives Transport for London powers similar to those currently enjoyed by London Transport, under which the latter runs services to destinations outside London. There is no reason why Transport for London should do differently. Moreover, it will be the mayor's duty, under clause 123, to promote services to, from and within London. Similarly, those aggrieved about closures outside London will be able to appeal to the Secretary of State, as at present.

On the representation of people outside London, Transport for London will inform local authorities outside London affected by the proposals of its plans for fares and services. The Assembly will also be required to have regard to the interests of rail users outside London when it makes appointments to the London Transport Users Committee. The mayor will also consult widely on his or her transport strategy.

Mrs. Laing

I sincerely thank the Minister for those straight answers to my questions. Could my constituents have a representative role by being appointed to the consultative committee?

Mr. Hill

My understanding is that they could, bearing in mind that the responsibilities of the LTUC, as it will be called, extend well outside the London area—from Bicester in the north to Gatwick in the south. Thus there will be opportunities for representation on that committee. The LTUC has statutory duties with regard to the representation of rail and other transport users outside as well as within London. It will have a close relationship with the mayor and the Assembly, and it will expect those wider responsibilities to be taken on board by the GLA. The hon. Lady can therefore rest reasonably assured about the future of railway services in her locality.

The hon. Lady also asked whether she would continue to have the right to speak about those matters in this Chamber. Of course she will. However, some 7 million Londoners currently have no right to govern their affairs. Under the GLA, they will have precisely that right, as they elect the mayor and the Assembly.

On the issues raised by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), I would expect tensions occasionally to arise between the mayor and the Secretary of State. That is the nature of politics, and it would be improper if it were otherwise. What one seeks to do in legislation of this nature is to create a framework for conflict resolution. That, I think, is a fruitful process.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne raised issues relating to the mayor's powers in regard to the franchising director. It is as well to remember that, in all that he or she does, the mayor will be operating with the mandate of many millions of Londoners. That is a powerful basis on which to relate to the railway authorities.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the Bill gives the mayor powers to issue instructions and guidance—terminology taken from the Railways Act 1993, introduced by his own Government. However, we also make it perfectly clear that the franchising director, the Secretary of State and the relevant railway bodies will need to have their primary responsibility, the national rail network, firmly before their eyes. If the issues and guidance offered by the mayor seemed to impinge on that, the national interest would—probably rightly—need to prevail.

What we envisage, however, is a positive, constructive and fruitful relationship between the mayor and the railway authorities. We are delighted to commend to the House amendments that meet a widespread demand for the mayor to be given more precise and more effective powers as a strong voice on behalf of railway users, in both London and the surrounding areas.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 276 to 293 agreed to.

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