HC Deb 18 December 2001 vol 377 cc133-5
4. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South)

What representations he has received from passengers and passenger organisations regarding his decision to put Railtrack into receivership. [21559]

The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers)

I have met passenger representatives several times since the High Court granted the order placing Railtrack plc into administration. They have reacted positively to the Government's decision not to provide additional funding to Railtrack plc. They agree that Railtrack plc's role as network operator should be transferred as soon as possible to a robust successor company capable of delivering the quality of service that rail passengers need and have wanted for years.

Mr. Cunningham

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the taxpayer is aware that from time to time Railtrack has come to the Government with a begging bowl? Does he also agree that rail passengers will be astounded to learn that in the first six months of this year, Railtrack made a larger profit than it did last year?

Mr. Byers

The information that has been disclosed today by Railtrack shows the difficulty that Railtrack plc had. Effectively, it was trying to serve two masters: it had the desire to meet the needs of shareholders as well as a responsibility to the travelling public. In the end, whenever there was a conflict between the demands of shareholders and the travelling public, Railtrack, as a publicly quoted company, always came down on the side of its shareholders. There is no surprise in that—that was its legal obligation, and the directors had no alternative. However, that highlights the difficulties and contradiction at the heart of Railtrack plc.

There should be no surprise at the profits announced today. That does not affect the view that we took, endorsed by the High Court on 7 October, that Railtrack Plc—the body in administration, not the separate company, Railtrack Group, which has declared profits today—should go into administration.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

Will the Secretary of State tell us his estimated budget in advisory fees and capital injection to get a company limited by guarantee, a not-for-profit company, off the ground? It is about time the House was told what the budget is; I think that a very large sum will be needed for such a proposal.

Mr. Byers

We have made the position clear in terms of the financial commitment that we will give to ensure that the needs of the rail passengers are put first. I welcome the fact that the SRA is acting as sponsor for the bid team which is headed by Ian McAllister. That is good news, because it will ensure that a robust proposition is put to the administrator. The Conservative party would of course have done nothing.

I was interested to note that, as a result of the current debate about the future of railways, an informative and thoughtful article was published in the Financial Times on 12 December. It made a clear statement: An early return to the private sector is the best option for the traveller as well as for the taxpayer. That was written by the real shadow transport Secretary, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). Does the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) support that approach?

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

I was interested in my right hon. Friend's last answer. May I go on from that to suggest that we look at continental railway systems, which are much more successful than ours—indeed, light years ahead? Those systems are generally state owned, coherent and integrated with other forms of transport.

Mr. Byers

As a result of the decisive action that we took on Railtrack, a number of opportunities and options that were not previously available are now accessible. The approach adopted in some continental railway systems—where there is a far greater degree of integration than we see in the United Kingdom—is something on which we shall need to reflect. Ultimately, it will be for the administrator to make a recommendation for my approval in relation to the transfer of the company. I hope that the Tories will come off the fence at some stage, and will say—the hon. Member for Maidenhead now has an opportunity to do so—whether they will privatise Railtrack and put it back into the private sector, as recommended by her right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham. Will she tell the House today?

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

Before the Secretary of State decided to put Railtrack into administration, did he ask the company for its expected interim results?

Mr. Byers

As the hon. Lady will know, we petitioned the High Court based on the information available to us. The most important point was that the company came to the Government asking for more money. That was the situation.

Mrs. May

It is quite obvious from that reply that the answer to my question is no. The Secretary of State was preparing to go to court to put Railtrack into administration and he could not even be bothered to find out whether it was making a profit. Does he still think that a company with increased profits is one facing "financial meltdown"? It is now clear that the £1.7 billion deficit that he claims that the company faced was in fact an increase in private sector lending. Did not he realise that, far from being a deficit, that was money for investment in projects such as the west coast main line? Will he tell the House how much of that investment now has to be paid by the taxpayer? Will he answer the question: how much capital will the Government be injecting to set up the not- for-profit company that he wants to see taking over from Railtrack? With train delays up 45 per cent. since administration, with shareholders threatening to sue the Government, with Railtrack threatening to sue the Government—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady has asked the questions. Now, she must have an answer.

Mr. Byers

Let us get some facts out into the open. Railtrack had a £1 billion credit facility on which the banks would not let it draw down. Why? Because they knew Railtrack's financial situation. A company that came to the Government with a begging bowl paid out £88 million in dividends to shareholders at the beginning of October. Our evidence to the High Court—of the £700 million deficit in December and a £1.7 billion deficit in March next year—was not challenged or contradicted by Railtrack. Railtrack's representatives were in court. Railtrack had counsel in court, but they sat like Trappist monks and did not say a word. Even more important, the company waived its right to have two days' notice of the petition. It could have delayed the proceedings until Wednesday of that week, but failed to do so. The company knew the situation; it knew its financial situation. Let us be clear on this point: the Tory party and Railtrack directors say that because I refused to bail them out in October—because I am refusing to give £1 billion of taxpayers' money—I am abusing my position. I have used my power as Secretary of State to put taxpayers and rail passengers first and will continue to do so.

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