HC Deb 03 July 2001 vol 371 cc136-9
7. Clive Efford (Eltham)

What steps he will take to increase public accountability of the management of Railtrack. [657]

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

The statement of principles agreed on 2 April between the Government and Railtrack set out a new agenda for the company and a new working relationship with the Government and the Strategic Rail Authority. Railtrack is now implementing the reforms and restructuring of its organisation agreed as part of that deal. In addition, the rail regulator has strengthened the accountability of Railtrack by rectifying weaknesses in the initial regime.

Clive Efford

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. However, does he accept that the House's inability to hold Railtrack's management directly responsible, especially for the decisions that led up to the Hatfield catastrophe and others, created some of the disaffection that voters felt at the general election? Does he also agree that public opinion is ahead of the House? People out there believe that the people who stand at the Dispatch Box are ultimately responsible for Railtrack's decisions. If we are to increase the House's standing in public opinion, we must make sure that Members of Parliament can hold companies such as Railtrack directly accountable for spending public money on public services.

Mr. Byers

The priority is a railway network that operates on time, is safe, clean and comfortable. That is currently not the case. Yes, as Secretary of State, I have a responsibility, but so do all parts of the industry, such as Railtrack, the Strategic Rail Authority, the regulator and the train operating companies. The time has come for them to stop passing the buck and to take responsibility for providing a world-class rail service. The Transport Act 2000 contains the requisite legal provisions and the 10-year plan provides for investment of more than £60 billion in rail. That should improve the railway network. The British public want that, and we need to deliver it.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

The Secretary of State claims that there is no need for any major structural change. Does not he accept that Railtrack has failed miserably to operate in the public interest? Operating as a private monopoly creates a conflict between passenger safety and profits for shareholders and former chief executives. Will he reconsider his decision to make no major structural changes and examine proposals for bringing the parts of Railtrack that directly run the railways into a not-for-profit public interest company? Secondly, will he consider giving train operating companies the opportunity to manage the maintenance of the track on which they operate?

Mr. Byers

We need a period of stability to enable all the parties in the railway network to concentrate on providing a safe and reliable system. That must be the priority.

Let us consider some of the hon. Gentleman's points. The market capitalisation of Railtrack amounts to some £2 billion and debt liabilities account for some £4 billion. That totals £6 billion, which could be spent on investment. His proposals would require legislation. They would simply introduce paralysis into the system, when we want genuine improvements. However, in the autumn, we expect Lord Cullen's second report on the rail crash at Ladbroke Grove, outside Paddington. It will deal with structural issues to do with the railway network. Clearly, the Government will need to reflect on its recommendations.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

That response is helpful, but is not it obvious that, since privatisation, Railtrack's priority has been its shareholders? That continues to be the case. Railtrack was kicked out of the second phase of the channel tunnel link, opted out of the east coast main line and refused to modernise the west coast main line unless the public purse paid for it. For the massive amounts of public money that have been poured into Railtrack, the Strategic Rail Authority should take a direct, majority interest in it to ensure genuine public accountability in future. That is long overdue.

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend will know that, last Friday, I issued new guidance and directions for the Strategic Rail Authority. They will change its relationship with Railtrack. One of the objectives of the guidance is ensuring that Railtrack concentrates on its day job, which must be to provide a safe and reliable network. To achieve that, it needs to work closely with the train operating companies. I met the new chairman of Railtrack, John Robinson, last week, and I am pleased that he is going to meet all its customers—the train operating companies—to identify a more positive way forward.

The House will agree that one of the great weaknesses in the railway network over the past few years has been the inability of the respective parties to work together. I hope that, in the light of the experience of the past couple of years, they will recognise that it is in everyone's interest—in theirs and that of the travelling public—to put their house in order and concentrate on providing a railway network that runs on time and is safe and comfortable to travel on.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Did I hear the new Secretary of State correctly a few seconds ago, when he said that he was worried that structural change might introduce paralysis into the rail network? What exactly does he think that the network has been suffering from over the past few years? Instead of arguing that other people are buck passing and not accepting responsibility, why does not he accept responsibility? Why does not he accept that it is impossible satisfactorily to control a private monopoly by regulation? Why does not he accept that, instead of having endless meetings with senior executives of Railtrack, he should engage in the structural change that could make a difference? Does he rule out the substantial public subsidy that flows each year into the railway network being used in the public interest to build up a majority share and ensure public accountability?

Mr. Byers

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of many examples in which regulation is effective as far as the private sector is concerned. That is the reality of the situation.

Mr. Salmond

They are not monopolies.

Mr. Byers

If we look at gas and electricity, we can see where regulation has been effective.

In this particular case, we need to ensure that the structures that exist, and the levers that we have, are used effectively. That is what I am committed to doing. The hon. Gentleman feels that things have been bad over the past two years—and I accept that they have; they have been grim—but they would be so much worse if we started the whole process again. We must use the powers that now exist under the Transport Act 2000, which was introduced last year, coupled with the 10-year plan and the £60 billion investment that is now in place. We must ensure that that money is delivered quickly so that we can have the kind of rail service that the people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland want.

Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the traffic chaos being caused in Bolton by the closure of Railtrack bridges? The footbridge across the railway line at Bromley Cross is so unsafe that two children have been injured. Will he ensure that Railtrack fulfils its public responsibility on bridge safety?

Mr. Byers

As my hon. Friend will know, Railtrack has established a new body to deal with rail safety, which is just being put in place now. I am sure that it will want to reflect on the specific point that he has just made.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment and welcome him to the Dispatch Box in his new role. After four wasted years on transport, the British public are hoping very much that he will improve on his predecessor's record. May I also welcome the refreshing tone that the right hon. Gentleman adopted in his comments about the railway and Railtrack, and his acknowledgment that the industry needs a period of stability and an end to the blame game that was practised by his predecessor?

I endorse entirely the right hon. Gentleman's statement on the structure of the railway, when he said that it would be imprudent to implement any changes to regulation, particularly of safety, before we have seen part 2 of Cullen. If he carries on in this vein, may I assure him that, if he delivers, he will have our support against his Back Benchers, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party, all of whom want to take him back to the bad old days of nationalisation?

Mr. Byers

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. If he continues in the same vein, he is going to cause me enormous difficulties in the months ahead.

Mr. Jenkin

I welcome specifically the right hon. Gentleman's statement ruling out renationalisation. May I question him about the constant threat of strikes? Does he support the right of trade unions to disrupt passenger services, when they are doing so simply to pursue the political agenda that they call "Take back the track"? Will he consider introducing legislation similar to that of other European countries that prevents strikes in essential public services such as the railways? He would have our support on that.

Mr. Byers

I am pleased to say that I am able to disagree, which will be of enormous benefit to me. As I know from my previous role as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry with responsibility for employment relations, the crucial point is that the structure does not allow any group of workers to strike for political reasons. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, in that we would not support such action as it would be unlawful. However, we recognise that people involved in an industrial dispute should be able to strike.