HL Deb 12 July 1995 vol 565 cc1678-80

2.55 p.m.

Lord Harris of High Cross asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider that rail users' consultative committees play an effective role in protecting the interests of passengers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen)

My Lords, the Government recognise the valuable role that the rail users' consultative committees play in protecting the interests of passengers. The role of the committees was strengthened by the Railways Act 1993 which widened their powers to comment on levels of service, closure and all aspects of fares.

Lord Harris of High Cross

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for that somewhat evasive reply. He is no doubt aware that smoking was banned on the Brighton line in January, 1993, after 150 years of such practices. That was done without any reference whatever to the consultative committee, which was very upset about it. However, is he aware that, within a few weeks of that ban, Sir Bob Reid, the then chairman of British Rail, wrote to Sir Patrick Mayhew saying: We liaise carefully with statutorily constituted representatives of transport users and the respective proportions of smoking and non-smoking accommodation provided in trains has been changed in response to regular consultations with them"? Does the Minister find that this misrepresentation of the consultative committee's procedures is satisfactory?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, Network SouthEast accepts that problems did occur in informing the TUCCs of the intention to extend the ban. The company tendered a formal apology to the CTCC, which was accepted. Nevertheless, the question of whether or not to ban smoking on trains is properly for the operator and the operator alone.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, is the Minister aware that reports in the press state that the bids for the privatisation of certain sectors of British Rail—notably ScotRail—are to be postponed further? Does he agree that that uncertainty as regards the dates for receiving bids for the privatisation process is causing a deterioration in the standard of service provided by British Rail? Therefore, does he not believe that the rail users' consultative committees have a vital role to play not only as regards the Brighton line but also in overlooking the entire situation of British Rail, which is rapidly deteriorating?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I do not accept that it is deteriorating. We believe firmly that with privatisation we shall see clear increases in the level of services being provided. The noble Lord is right to say that the consultative committees play a very strong role in the process. He referred to ScotRail. The consultation with the regional councils and the Scottish Rail Users Consultative Committee on ScotRail's passenger service requirement ends today. The views of the committee have been taken fully into account.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, in the past few weeks there have been two examples of a failure by British Rail to consult the relevant consultative committees: first, on the west coast of Scotland in relation to the sleeper service, and, secondly, the matter now referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Harris. What sanctions are there on British Rail or ScotRail when there is a failure to consult in the manner dictated to them under the various Acts of Parliament?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that it is important that the operators consult properly. As regards ScotRail, the sleeper arrangements are part of the negotiations which have gone forward. It is important to note that the sleeper service has not been included in the draft ScotRail passenger service requirement; that is, the Fort William service. Of course, other sleeper services have been included. As I said, the consultative committees have been consulted on the draft PSRs and that consultation ends today.

Lord Howell

My Lords, is the Minister aware that people who use mobile telephones in railway carriages are a much greater nuisance than smokers? Will he kindly make representations to the authorities that mobile telephone users and smokers should be confined to one carriage in our trains?

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the noble Lord's views certainly seem to have support within your Lordships' House. I shall ensure that his comments are passed on to British Rail.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that, although it might have been desirable to consult the railway users' body, the fact is that those like myself, whose presence in your Lordships' House is made possible in reasonable health by the banning of smoking on the Brighton line, are perfectly happy with the outcome of what has been done?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, of course we are all very pleased that my noble friend is able to attend your Lordships' House and make such interventions. It is clear that there is a wide body of opinion that supports the banning of smoking on those trains.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the use of mobile telephones in one carriage as suggested by my noble friend, together with a carriage reserved for smokers, would be an excellent idea because people would be totally suffused by the smoke and perhaps, therefore, debarred from using their mobile telephones? However, to return to the Question which was not really about smoking, does the Minister further agree that the record of the consultative committees has been commendable? It has been commendable in trying to save the Fort William Motorail and sleeper services; commendable in underlining the gross underinvestment in the railways that has taken place over the past few years; commendable in pointing out the shortcomings of government undertakings to consult, which have in fact drifted into the sand in too many instances; and commendable also in pointing out the overweening bureaucracy that privatisation has already meant.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that the rail users' consultative committees have done a valuable job in protecting the interests of passengers. However, I do not agree with anything else said by the noble Lord.

Lord Harris of High Cross

My Lords, perhaps I may return to the Question. The Minister said that it was for the rail operators alone to decide such matters. However, the rail regulator, Mr. John Swift, said that he was concerned at the failure of British Rail to consult the consultative committee, which he described as his "ears and eyes". Can the Minister say—apart from party political observations—how we are to get people of substance to serve on consultative committees if they are bypassed in such a way by these large organisations?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, it is important that good quality people are able to serve on such committees and that they should be consulted in the proper way. However, I know that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is especially concerned about the issue of smoking on that particular line. The arguments have been very thoroughly rehearsed and there does seem to be a large body of opinion from people who actually use that line and who support the banning of smoking on those services. As I said, it is ultimately a matter for the operator to decide.