HL Deb 27 April 1999 vol 600 cc148-50

2.59 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the brochure Releasing the Power of Rail, compiled by the Department of Trade and Industry and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and offering British expertise on privatisation of railways to prospective customers abroad, represents their most recent conclusions.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government recognise and value the experience and expertise of British companies in the rail sector, which long predate privatisation, and are keen to promote this overseas. Many of our companies are world class. However, that does not conflict with our desire to see improved performance in many key areas, such as punctuality and passenger service, by the private rail operators and Railtrack in the UK. That is why the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister called the industry to the national rail summit in February and it is why the Government are committed to creating a new strategic rail authority.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. However, are the Government presenting a picture for use abroad which is very different from the derogatory statements that have been made by Ministers here at home? While selling British expertise is to be encouraged in every way, do Ministers endorse the proposition in the brochure that this country's railways are now performing with energy and enthusiasm and that they are providing a market where the customer is king?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his support for our overseas trade activities. The brochure Releasing the Power of Rail was produced by the Railway Sector Group, an industry group of private companies which was assisted in the drafting by a media and publishing consultant. The brochure is an industry promotional tool for use on overseas trade missions and does not represent government policy.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is invaluable to be able to impart to our customers abroad information about all the mistakes that we have committed that need to be avoided by them in pursuing a sensible railway policy, which the previous government failed dismally to do?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, as we have always said, not everything is wrong. If one increases the taxpayer subsidy to the railways by over 50 per cent., as has been the case since privatisation, clearly there will be a substantial amount of new investment in the railways. We have some fine engineering and consultancy companies and others in the rail sector which have a good reputation which ought to be exploited in the rest of the world. That is exactly what the leaflet, to which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, referred, is doing.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, bearing in mind that this brochure, excellent as it sounds, must have the endorsement of both the Foreign Office and the DTI, will the noble Lord arrange for its wider dissemination in this country, in particular in the Library of your Lordships' House and perhaps even in the Government's weekly Whip because we on this side of the House accept what is in the brochure, but it appears to us that certain noble Lords on the opposite side of the House, including Ministers, seem to be "off message" with regard to the brochure? That should be put right.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord is entitled to amuse himself, but he was not listening. I said that the brochure does not represent government policy. When I read it, I was astonished by a number of the statements in it, some of which were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy. The UK Railway Sector Group is entitled to its opinion. As it is doing a good job we are entitled—I think we are obliged—to help it to sell its products overseas. As regards placing the report in the Library, we shall of course gladly do so if it is of interest to noble Lords.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it would be better to warn overseas countries to avoid the mistakes made by the previous government, such as the privatisation of rail?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the efforts of the Department of Trade and Industry and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are restricted to supporting the overseas promotional activities of those companies which have taken part in the compilation of this brochure. That does not imply any approval by them or by us of the performance since privatisation of the operating companies or Railtrack in this country. Everyone who travels on the rail network in this country is well aware of its defects.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, as the former chairman of the only railway company in Latin America quoted on the London stock market, I assure the noble Lord that there is no reason why private enterprise in overseas territories should not have a great role to play in helping to facilitate the development of rail.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am delighted to congratulate the noble Viscount on declaring the most interesting interest that has been declared today. He may well be right about the operation of private railway companies in other countries. However, this is not a matter on which the Government feel it necessary to comment.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I hope that the Minister will allow me, through him, to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, that he can obtain a copy of the pamphlet, as I did, in the Printed Paper Office. With regard to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, will the official members—that is to say, the DTI members and trade Secretaries serving overseas—be encouraged to inform and support the efforts of other countries' nationalised railways to avoid the mistakes that we have made; for example, in regard to selling off rail land unnecessarily and not setting up national services immediately upon denationalisation? We need to get that quite clear.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness agrees that it would be better if our overseas trade posts targeted their activities on the recommendations of the brochure, which seeks to promote the services of the companies which are members of the Railway Sector Group. If we start to give general advice about privatisation, we shall find it difficult to avoid interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. That would not be of particular benefit to our commerce.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of the great disparity between railway companies, some of which are extremely good? Why are some not so good?

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords—