HL Deb 19 November 1997 vol 583 cc566-9

3 P.M.

Lord Inglewood asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any plans to renationalise any parts of the railway system privatised by the previous government.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, the Government believe that rail privatisation damaged the interests of both passengers and taxpayers. However, wholesale renationalisation of the industry would be extremely costly. We have made clear that our main task is to improve the railway as we find it, not as we would wish it to be. We are committed to creating a new strategic rail authority and to introducing more effective and accountable regulation of the railway in the public interest.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. Is it inherent within it, although she says that she is opposed to wholesale renationalisation, that some renationalisation may take place?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I believe I made it quite clear that, at a cost of £4.5 billion, renationalisation simply cannot be a priority, considering the other pressures on public expenditure. There are major problems in the current system of regulation. Those are the problems we are addressing, both in the short term by the measures announced on 6th November by my right honourable friend the Minister for Transport, and in the longer term through an integrated transport policy.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware of the dramatic improvement in the train service on the Edinburgh line since privatisation? Is she further aware that the 15-year franchise awarded to the privatised companies is not long enough to enable them to re-equip with rolling-stock? Will the Minister consider whether the franchise should be increased in order to encourage investment in new and better rolling-stock?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, on the second point, we are certainly interested in encouraging proper investment in the rail network and improvements in service quality. 1 am sure that local authorities, for example, will welcome the new emphasis on the need for the franchising director to build a constructive partnership with them. When franchises come up for renewal, we shall be examining those questions very carefully.

I am interested in the noble Lord's anecdotal experiences of improvements in rail services since privatisation. I suspect that they are not echoed everywhere in the Chamber, nor everywhere in the country.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, if my noble friend agrees that the present system of privatised rail services is not so efficient and not delivering a proper service, and that British Rail delivered a much better service, would not £4.5 billion be a small price to pay to have efficient railways?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, even after six months in government, I cannot say that I think £4.5 billion is a small price to pay for anything. It is important to set the priorities that we said we would set when in government. Those priorities are expenditure on education—we have just heard how strongly the House feels in relation to many areas of education—and the health service. Our priority is not spending a vast sum of money on rail renationalisation; it is on using the mechanisms and levers that we have to improve the quality of service available to the public.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I join with the Minister in her implied comment that not everywhere in this kingdom is everyone 100 per cent. satisfied with their current rail services. Do I need to mention South West Trains, Connex South Central or trains serving East Anglia? Does the Minister agree that one of the problems with the new system is that it is very difficult to place the public interest in a sufficiently, dominant or powerful position in the complex of interests that currently rule the network? Can she give any further indication of how the Government propose, through the new regulatory system, to achieve that aim?

Baroness Hayman

Yes, my Lords. The Government's aim is to introduce a strategic rail authority which would allow some co-ordination of exactly the sorts of issues of investment and improving the quality of service to which the noble Baroness refers. As I said, on 6th November the Minister for Transport announced new objectives, instructions and guidance for the franchising director. He announced the publication of OPRAF planning criteria, and a concordat with the rail regulator containing a statement of the Government's objectives for the rail industry, the regulator's aims and objectives and a framework of communication between Ministers, the franchising director and the regulator. That is an attempt to introduce some integration into what is at present a very disintegrated system of regulation.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if the Welsh lines were renationalised, the service in Wales would be infinitely better than it is now?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I know of my noble friend's long-standing concerns about rail services in Wales. I understand that Virgin is committed to exploring with Railtrack the case for electrifying the line between Crewe and Chester. It remains to be seen whether that electrification project will represent good value for money. It is an area that I know they will explore.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords is the noble Baroness aware that on the East Anglian line we have a greatly improved service; and on Chelmsford station there is a helpdesk—

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

That is not the case in Norfolk.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

I am sorry that it is not true of Norfolk, but it is certainly the case in Essex. Those who run the service are extremely helpful. That was not the case previously.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am always glad to hear of improvements. However, it should be said that there really ought to be improvements, considering that subsidies to train operators have risen from £1 billion to £1.8 billion since privatisation.