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Mr. Forth: The hon. Gentleman mentions the Rail Regulator, but will the Bill affect the regulator's role in any way? I can see no explicit reference to that in the Bill. I should not have thought that the references to the

would necessarily encompass the regulator's role, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman could help me.

Mr. Martlew: I think that the right hon. Gentleman would accept that if the Rail Regulator were included, it would impinge on the final outcome of whatever decision the Government decide to take on the Bill. Obviously, if we decide to move forward, beyond the Bill, we will have to take a serious look at whether we need the Rail Regulator. I am sure that the provisions are correct in that context.

I do not know whether the Government will argue against the Bill, but they will argue against taking the railways back into the public sector, and I accept many of their arguments. For example, they say that it would cost £4 billion to take back Railtrack. The figure was £5 billion, but that was before the price of the stocks reduced considerably.

I met the previous chief executive of Railtrack before he resigned, probably last summer, and he suggested that he would be willing to accept a Government share in Railtrack. There is an argument that, without the Government, Railtrack is a bankrupt company; it depends totally on Government subsidy to keep going.

Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West): Does my hon. Friend accept that there is a feeling among the public that such a Government share in the present arrangements might improve not only the efficiency and management of the railways, but the social responsibility to those for whom the service is supposed to be provided?

Mr. Martlew: My hon. Friend puts that argument well. The Government's argument is that if they had, for example, a 25 per cent. share, they would be involved in Railtrack, but not in control. A while ago, when deciding who should become the chairman of Railtrack was an issue, the Government were told to keep out and that the company would decide. The suggestion is that if the Government owned 25 per cent. of the share, they would still not have the necessary influence, but I think that we might be better able to control Railtrack in those circumstances.

The major disaster that took place after the Hatfield crash was Railtrack's response to it, because a very junior official in Railtrack closed the west coast main line, which runs through my constituency and into Scotland, without telling anyone. That created chaos for more than 24 hours. If the Government had been involved, I suspect that the decision on speed restrictions would also have taken account of the consequence of people using cars instead of trains. Car use is likely to lead to many more deaths than people travelling by train.

Railtrack took no consideration of that point; it took a very narrow view. It was shell-shocked at the time. The Transport Committee has recommended that someone on

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the board of Railtrack should know something about railways. That case made it apparent that no one did. There is a case for Government involvement, but my Bill is not about that; it is about considering that possibility.

I know that other Members wish to speak about the other Bills on the Order Paper and I am sure that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) realises that it is very frustrating not to be able to speak on the Bill that one has introduced. Many years ago, I introduced a Bill dealing with the export of veal calves to the continent and some hon. Members read out the telephone directory in an attempt to stop me speaking on that Bill. I do not intend to do that.

A Minister has been prepared to come to the Dispatch Box to argue about this Bill. That is fine. We shall debate its provisions and come to a decision. However, the public demand that, once again, a Minister should come to the Dispatch Box and take responsibility for what is happening on the railways. Although we would not consider privatising the roads--the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst might--that is exactly what we did to the railways. That was a disaster and it must be very frustrating for my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister that he is not able to get to grips with Railtrack and instruct it on what to do. That problem might be overcome by the Strategic Rail Authority, but the public and, I think, the House would like the Government to be involved. My Bill would not do that in itself, but it is a paving measure.

I know that other hon. Members with to speak about other Bills and I suspect that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst wants to say something about this one. However, I make it clear that it is not my intention to divide the House, because I am sure that there are not enough Members in Parliament to get my Bill through. I think that this is a good Bill, but I do not want to waste time. Other Members should be able to speak about their Bills.

12.52 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): That was an interesting conclusion to the speech of the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew). Part of me hesitates to intrude on private grief among Labour Members, because, in a sense, this is an internal argument for them. However, it raises much wider issues and I take seriously the role that private Members' Bills play in our proceedings. Fridays such as this are parliamentary sitting days, the House is sitting and we are potentially making law. In fact, a short time ago, the House gave an unopposed Second Reading to a Bill on a completely different matter. The hon. Gentleman has brought his Bill to the House and it deserves the same attention as any other Bill.

Mr. Martlew: If my Bill is likely to receive an unopposed Second Reading, I shall not withdraw it.

Mr. Forth: Of course, it is for any hon. Member to promote a Bill and decide whether to seek to divide the House on it. The promoter of the Bill has certain privileges, but he does not have a monopoly of them. Therefore, the House is entitled to take its view as to whether a Bill should proceed. I want to consider the Bill to see what I make of it.

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The hon. Gentleman's Bill makes some interesting assumptions about the railways. Like a lot of Labour Members, he seems to look back to what he regards as the golden era of British Rail. That has always intrigued and fascinated me.

I am old enough to remember travelling on steam trains, which I used to do in my youth in Glasgow. It was an exciting experience for a young person. However, I have little memory of British Rail in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s being a paragon of efficiency and a model to which we would all aspire. Yet this has become the atmosphere in which Labour Members would like these debates to take place. They want us to have a fond memory of British Rail, as opposed to what they would say are the evils of privatisation.

Figures that I have suggest that in the 40 years from 1952, the share of passenger journeys made by rail fell from 17 per cent. to just 5 per cent., while the percentage of goods moved by rail dropped dramatically from 42 per cent. to 7 per cent. Even if one measures the success of the publicly-owned, state-run British Rail against the sort of criteria that Labour Members mention, British Rail failed dismally in almost every respect. It is common ground between us that there was a lack of investment in the railway system throughout those decades, when government oscillated between the Labour and Conservative parties. If there is shame or something to be admitted, we must all share in it. That, I suspect, is common ground. We must look at what the Bill proposes against that background.

As recently as 1995, the Labour party opposed rail privatisation, which is the Bill's target. In 1995, no less a figure than the present Prime Minister said that privatisation

There were some good Blairite soundbites there.

However, by the 1997 Labour election manifesto, the line had changed completely to say:

I do not sense that the spirit of the Bill is to improve the situation as the hon. Member for Carlisle finds it. I doubt whether that would be satisfactory to him. The whole thrust of the Bill suggests that he wants something more radical.

Mr. Martlew: During what will probably be a lengthy speech, will the right hon. Gentleman outline whether he is happy with the fact that he voted for privatisation and whether he thinks it is a success? If it is not a success, why not? What are the alternatives?

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me prompts, which are always useful. I am an avid supporter of private ownership and control as opposed to state ownership and control in all respects. I believe that private ownership is morally and operationally superior. I strongly supported the privatisation of the railways, as I supported the privatisation of so many other things undertaken by the Conservative Governments of Lady Thatcher and my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). However, I will concede, with

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hindsight, that the way in which rail privatisation was carried out was not ideal and could have been better. In that respect, there is scope for revisiting the issue to see whether a better regime could be devised. Funnily enough, if I thought that that was the object of the Bill, I might be prepared to give it some positive consideration. However, since I suspect that that is not its motivation, I cannot support it.

I can see that it is a difficulty for the hon. Gentleman and his Front Benchers, rather than for me, that the Labour party felt obliged--apparently--to change its hostility to rail privatisation in 1995, as articulated by no less a person than the Prime Minister, to an acceptance of reality in 1997. I welcome that. It provides the background to the Bill.

I would claim that, in many respects, the railway network has improved considerably since privatisation. For example, the number of passenger journeys has increased, which, ironically, is one cause of the present problems on the railways. The system is almost a victim of its own success.

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