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3.1 pm

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): I rise aware that no one else seems to be seeking to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Perhaps others will, but no one else has risen so far. Given that the two Front-Bench spokesmen will require about half an hour between them, I seem to have until around 6.30 pm to finish my speech. I shall do my best to come to a conclusion a little before then, just in case one or two other Members wish to join the debate.

I am pleased to be able to speak and honoured to follow the right hon. Members for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) and for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams). I have worked a great deal with both of them this year on the Government Resources and Accounts Bill and during the Sharman inquiry. I have enjoyed and been interested in my work with them, and one of the great strengths of the Public Accounts Committee is the way that we work across parties to produce unanimous reports. That process has shown its worth over many years, back into the century before last. It continues to do so today.

I was slightly concerned when the right hon. Member for Swansea, West described me near the start of his speech as his hon. Friend. The conventions of the House give that a special meaning, and as the Conservatives are my only serious opponents in my constituency, being called an hon. Friend by a member of the Labour party is a little worrying. I hope that it does not get back to my local press.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): It will.

Mr. Rendel: It might lose me quite a few votes.

I was amused to hear the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden say that he hoped that he would not chair the PAC for quite as long--14 years--as his predecessor did. I, too, hope so, but for a slightly different reason. The Chairman is by long tradition a member of the official Opposition, and I hope that the Conservatives will be the third party long before 14 years are up.

It has been an honour to serve for the past year on the PAC. I joined it comparatively recently, although several of its members joined more recently still. Some of the reports being noted by the House today are on hearings that took place before I joined last November. Like the right hon. Members for Haltemprice and Howden and for Swansea, West, I am grateful to the Clerk for all his help. I have probably been on the phone to him and his staff more than any other member of the Committee this year. I have also been on the phone a lot to the Comptroller and Auditor General and his staff, to whom I am also grateful for their help with particular points and with requests to investigate matters that I felt required it.

Membership of the PAC has provided a fascinating insight into Government operations in general. I wish briefly to mention three of the reports before us. First,

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the report on the Highways Agency and how it deals with surplus property was of particular interest because of the property purchased when the Newbury bypass was being built. Clearly, the agency had, in a number of cases, been unable to run, maintain or look after the property well. A certain amount of money had been lost as a result.

One important lesson lay in the reason for some of those losses. It is difficult for the agency to deal with property without knowing how long it will be in the agency's hands. We have seen a whole series of changes to the transport programme over the past few years. First it went up, then it was cut back, then it went up again and then it was cut again. Those changes in the programme, under which money is taken out and put back in, make the Highways Agency's job difficult, particularly when it comes to knowing how long it should hold on to property, and for what purpose, when it has bought it because a scheme has been proposed.

Secondly, the report on vehicle emission testing considers how effective testing is. Since the report's publication, there has been horrendous change to our weather and huge floods, which have brought home to people the dangers of global warming and extra rainfall. The importance of vehicle emissions testing has become clearer even than it was previously. A large part of the noxious fumes and carbon dioxide produced from the various vehicles on our roads comes from cars that run inefficiently and produce more emissions than they should, often because of poor maintenance. Improving our vehicle emissions testing and driving off the roads vehicles that produce huge emissions would benefit the environment, help to reduce the global warming that rightly worries us all, and benefit the whole country and the world.

Thirdly, the report on irregularities in the handling of visa fees in Calcutta displays a clear failure to interview the culprits appropriately, from which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office must learn lessons. In addition, the whole system of applying for and obtaining visas is coming more frequently to the attention of Members because there are such inefficiencies in the system and such a great backlog. We constantly hear of cases of people who have been kept out of this country wrongly, often because the system itself leads to the loss of important and valuable paperwork.

One of my constituents is going back abroad without the relevant documents for returning to this country because her paperwork has been lost by the office concerned. I am happy to say that I have been able to get for her a full confession of guilt by that office, and that should enable my constituent to return to the United Kingdom. The office has written a long letter indicating that it is entirely its fault that the papers have been lost and that no one should try to stop her. Nevertheless, that sort of problem happens often, and the whole visa system--in our consulates and embassies abroad and here at home--needs a great deal of improvement.

I shall discuss three reports at slightly greater length. The first is the 35th report, on the Office of the Rail Regulator, which was mentioned by the Chairman of the PAC. It was published on 23 August--before the recent east coast main line accident at Hatfield and all the problems that that has caused. The National Audit Office report pointed out that, believe it or not, Railtrack was

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getting generous bonuses for reducing delays. How ironic that now seems, given what has happened in the past few weeks.

Many rail passengers, including, no doubt, many hon. Members, have suffered intolerable delays. Many of my hon. Friends who represent constituencies in the south-west have found it almost impossible to travel to Westminster. One had to drive the entire way from the far south-west to fulfil his duties in the House. He could not travel by aeroplane because the winds were too strong; he could not travel by rail because the line was down and few trains were running. It took him six and a half hours to drive here and the same again to drive back. That is nonsensical, and it is clear that we must sort out the present problems on the railways as quickly as we can.

Our report, and the NAO report on which it and our hearing were based, pointed to a failure of the entire privatisation process and, as the Chairman noted, a failure of regulation of the railways. During that hearing, we had an interesting discussion on what constitutes a delay in the railway system. The answer may seem obvious to most people, but it is in fact far from obvious.

We discussed whether a passenger who has to get off a train half way through his journey and complete it by bus is in fact delayed. Apparently, if it is known well in advance that it will be necessary to do that, one has not necessarily been delayed, even though the bus must gently travel by road to each station in turn, thereby deviating from the normal direct route and taking much longer. In such circumstances, most passengers would believe that they had been delayed, but as long as advance information is given, such a journey does not count as a delay.

Even where one does not have to get on a bus, as long as advance notice has been published of engineering works on the line--of course, such information may not get through to the passengers concerned--any consequent delay does not count as such.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is not making a narrow point about distinctions between privatisation and nationalisation, so he will accept that, although issues of delay are important, so are those relating to the stated frequency of service. When speaking to the Gracious Speech yesterday evening, his near neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), pointed out that--post-privatisation--there used to be a service at 10-minute intervals between Reading and London, but that that promised service no longer exists. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of that point, which certainly requires attention, quite apart from the debate on privatisation.

Mr. Rendel: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, although I was unable to hear his right hon. Friend's comment. I also use that very line and I am aware that the service from Reading to London--indeed, all the way from Newbury to London--has deteriorated in the past few years. Of course, that is partly due to the work to create the new Heathrow link. Nevertheless, I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman supports an improvement in that rail service. I hope that his comments are duly noted by Thames Trains and First Great Western, because we would love a better service on that line.

The third reason why an apparent delay to a passenger may not in practice count as such is changes to the timetable. That is ironic indeed, in view of recent

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necessary changes. I have in my hand a special timetable that has been produced for week days in the period 11 to 15 December. In other words, a new timetable has been introduced that covers five days alone. As soon as such a timetable has been agreed with the Rail Regulator and introduced, the trains therein no longer count as delayed provided that they run to that new timetable.

Of course, that new temporary timetable--I hope that it will be temporary--shows all the trains taking much longer than they did a few weeks ago. Again, simply by changing the timetable and ensuring that it is agreed, the train operator--or Railtrack--can overcome the difficulty of being charged with delaying passengers.

The condition of the track is also a big problem. That was highlighted during our discussions at the hearing. At that time, 3 per cent. of the track was considered poor. That is also somewhat ironic given what people are now saying about the need to run trains slowly over many miles of track and to repair and replace several hundred miles of it--and to do so virtually immediately, before trains can be allowed to run rapidly over it again.

However, it was not merely the 3 per cent. of track that was known to be poor that was causing the problems. We were also told at the hearing that there were many breaks in the rest of the track. That shows that the regulator has failed to ensure adequate investment since privatisation and that the Government failed to ensure adequate investment before that time. To be fair, the regulator made it clear to us that his powers were extremely limited in that regard. The powers of the regulator, rather than the regulator himself, may well be at fault.

Another problem was highlighted in the report: that of train operating companies that use inadequately designed or maintained rolling stock that is liable to damage the track. Clearly, that is a failure of privatisation. During the hearing, the Rail Regulator said:

Clearly, there were great difficulties with the privatisation process and they were brought out at the hearing that we held. I hope that the Government will do what they can to put those problems right. As we have seen, the underinvestment is causing real problems for rail travellers.

The second report on which I shall spend time is the 34th, on the state earnings-related pension scheme, SERPS. It is right to concentrate on that report because it is perhaps the most important that the PAC has produced. I will never forget the moment when the Chairman said to me in the Corridor, "I hope you realise that you've just cost the Government £8.5 billion." That does not happen to many Members. He was not being entirely fair to other people in saying that I alone caused the Government to spend an extra £8.5 billion, but I am proud to have played a part in ensuring, first, that the fiasco came to light, and secondly, that something was done about it by asking the NAO to look into and report on the matter, which it duly did. By the time that it reported, I was happy to be a member of the PAC and to be able to take part in the hearing on the report.

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Of course, that report examined the Government's original scheme, which was more generous than we had expected--given remarks made at the time by social security spokesmen who have since moved on. The report found that the scheme appeared to be comparatively generous, but that it had certain severe problems, including how people affected by the SERPS fiasco were to be told about the new scheme.

How was that to be done? I and others had suggested that all those concerned should be written to; that seemed only logical, given the fact that the Government had insisted on that course for all those affected by the private pensions fiasco. When we put that suggestion to Ministers and others, they said that it was not possible because they did not have up-to-date addresses for many of the people in question. The matter was raised in the Committee and our report suggested that something should be done; it is not tolerable either that the Government should have large liabilities towards a large number of people of whose whereabouts they are unaware, or that they should rely on those people to get in touch with the Government when they are eligible to claim their pension.

I am delighted that, after the PAC report and the comments of the ombudsman--who was obviously also involved--the Government changed their first response to our complaints on that matter. The PAC and the ombudsman made it clear that they expected to take a long, hard look at the final details of the scheme so as to ensure that it met requirements. Perhaps because of that threat, the Government decided to introduce a more generous scheme; the total--for which some people seem to hold me responsible--rose from £8.5 billion to more than £12 billion. Those are very large sums indeed.

The £12.5 billion cost of the second scheme is almost the same as the original cost--if the Government had moved quickly--of deferring for 14 years the entire reduction in SERPS widows' pensions to 50 per cent. of the original amount, as had been suggested some years ago. That is even more than the Liberal Democrat proposal in an amendment that I was pleased to move to the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill in spring 1999; we called for deferral for a decade. If the Government had agreed with that proposal, they might have got away with a slightly cheaper scheme. However, I am happy that they found even more money than we proposed, and have chosen a scheme that is, in effect, equivalent to the cost of a 14-year deferral.

It is important to note that that money is not hanging off trees; it is taxpayers' money that is being transferred from one section of society to another--from people who will be in employment during the next 40 or 50 years to those who have already paid their SERPS contributions. The original intention of those contributions should be recognised; it was to store up the right to a pension for the pensioners themselves and for their widows or widowers in future. As those SERPS contributions have been paid, it is correct that the Government have acknowledged the right of the contributors to receive a fair return. The fact that the Government have been forced to implement a more generous scheme than they originally proposed demonstrates clearly the power of the PAC and the ombudsman.

The third PAC report on which I want to focus is the 45th report, although it was not included on the Order Paper. Unusually, the Secretary of State for Defence saw fit to reply in the media to that report--on the sad accident

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of the Chinook helicopter crash on the Mull of Kintyre--before the relevant Treasury minute had been issued. I was shocked and appalled that he should choose to broadcast it on the radio as soon as the report came out. That is not how such matters have been arranged in the past, and it has caused him great difficulty. It will be much harder for him to change his mind--as he is bound to do--and give a more considered opinion. I do not think he will be able to maintain that on-the-spot view.

The Secretary of State described the report as superficial. The NAO and the Comptroller and Auditor General put hours of work into that report--as did various members of the PAC. We probably studied the NAO report at greater length than any others; we held a second meeting on it. We were briefed on it on two occasions by NAO personnel involved in its production. For the Secretary of State to describe that report as superficial was a damning indictment of his failure to consider it fairly and objectively, not of the Committee itself.

For some months, the Secretary of State and other Defence Ministers based their objections to our findings on the line that there was "no new evidence". That has been their answer to everyone who objected to the original findings, which laid the blame on the pilots. Ministers say that, as there has been no new evidence since the original inquiry, there is no reason to change its outcome.

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