HL Deb 05 March 1992 vol 536 cc980-2

3.13 p.m.

Lord Stallard asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they intend to publish the oft-promised White Paper on British Rail.

The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

My Lords, We will publish our proposals as soon as we are ready.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, does the Minister accept that that reply has been going around since last July? When the Government announced their intentions they said: We expect to set up our detailed plans in a White Paper this year". The Minister has just repeated that, and so has every other Government spokesman who has ever spoken on the matter. Can the Minister confirm that that White Paper will not be produced before the general election and that therefore a debate on the wider issues affecting British Rail will not now take place in this Parliament? We shall have a much narrower debate. That is now being initiated by the Government on a botched-up inadequate compensation scheme which will do nothing to cure the problems of under-investment and shortage of staff which are at the core of BR's problems.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, of course privatisation raises complex and important issues and we must get these right. That is why we shall not be rushed in this matter or risk getting things wrong simply in order to meet particular dates. As I said in my original Answer, we shall publish the White Paper as soon as we are ready. That may be before or after the election.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that railway nationalisation has proved most unfortunate and has produced a service quite inadequate to the needs of the country? Therefore, radical changes are urgently required, which many of us hope will soon be forthcoming.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, as we have said, we are firmly committed to privatising British Rail. We believe that privatisation will bring better services for rail users.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that his Answer was virtually the most garbled railway announcement that one could ever imagine? If I may borrow that elegant word from Mr. Christopher Patten, it is a real "whammy". Is it not clear, as nearly all sections of the press have agreed—Conservative, Liberal and Labour—that this much-heralded White Paper has not appeared and has become derailed because of the deep divisions within the Government as to the directions in which they want to go on privatisation? Would it not be infinitely preferable if the Government were to concentrate on two essential issues? First, providing investment funding for British Rail as an integral part of economic and environmental policy and, secondly, eliminating the growth distortions of competition between road and rail.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I do not know how the noble Lord can describe my announcement today as garbled considering that I did not even make an announcement. As I said, we believe that privatisation is the way forward for the railways. In the meantime, the noble Lord refers to investment in the railway system. That is at its highest level now than for 30 years. It is considerably higher than it was in the period of the last Labour Government.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that anything that opens up the railways to competition will greatly improve services to consumers compared with what consumers have come to expect from British Rail over many years? Does he further agree that anybody who has any doubts about the benefits of competition should look at what happened in the air services when the British Airways monopoly on internal routes in this country was broken and British Midland and other airlines had an opportunity to compete and improve services to customers?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right to draw the parallel with the opening up of the internal air services, particularly on the Scottish routes. Competition is the answer. It invariably produces a better service. That is one aspect on which we shall need to concentrate in these proposals.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, given the importance of the White Paper to the infrastructure of industry in this country and to the future of railways, can the Minister say what consultation is taking place before the White Paper is published? For example, are the local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland being consulted? Are the various trade unions which are affected being consulted? Is the CBI being consulted? Is the Minister aware that we believe that consultation is essential before the White Paper comes into the public domain?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, consultation can take place on the proposals which are put forward in the White Paper, after it comes into the public domain. Legislation will be required to carry most of those proposals forward. That is when consultation should take place.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that there are sound commercial reasons, which should have nothing to do with party politics, for privatising British Rail, the chief of which is probably to give British Rail access to the capital markets? Without that access I, for one, cannot see them getting the investment that is needed.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, my noble friend makes a good point. One of the advantages of privatisation is that the future company, or companies, would have the ability to raise capital from whatever source they chose.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, as I understand that the noble Lord cannot give full details of the White Paper, can he at least give the House an assurance that the track, the signalling and the policing of the railways will remain under a single authority?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am afraid that the noble Lord will just have to wait and see.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, does the Minister recognise the significance of the point made by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition? In the circumstances, would it not be far better if we were to have a Green Paper rather than a White Paper so that these issues may be properly discussed with all-important interests?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, there will be plenty of opportunity to discuss all these matters in due course.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is not the Government's principal problem in answering the original Question on the Order Paper that they have not yet decided whether or not to privatise all White Papers?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, that is a different Question from that on the Order Paper.