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Mr. Forth: That may be true. I do not want to digress unduly, and the matter may be for another occasion, but I suspect that that has everything to do with the Government's tendency to micro-manage, overreact and panic, and the relationships that they have developed and imposed on the regulator, Railtrack and the operating companies. Those are complex relationships, and I believe that the Government have got them completely wrong. I suspect that the blame--if we are going to get into this ghastly blame culture, in which we all wallow almost constantly these days--has to be shared among all those participants. That is why I am resisting the suggestion which Labour Members seem to want to make that privatisation per se is responsible for the current poor performance of the railways. On that, the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) and I will have simply to disagree.
I was talking about clause 1(2)(a), which explicitly mentions the public finances. I hope that the Minister, in his reply, will tell us whether the Government believe that the public finances could be used to bring back the railway infrastructure into public ownership. That is obviously what some Labour Members--perhaps many Labour Members, for all I know--want. We have to know right at the start whether the inquiry that the Bill would impose on the Government would have any chance of succeeding in relation to clause 1(2)(a) on the public finances. There is no point in our proceeding much further than that until we have some indication from the Government about whether that is case.
Clause 1(2)(b) refers to the levels of investment in railway services. Unless the hon. Member for Carlisle corrects me, I assume that the provision widens the scope of the Bill to include railway services. It could apply to rolling stock and so on, and rightly so because in making an assessment of management, ownership and control we
The levels of investment are a crucial consideration. Apart from the moral case for private ownership that I mentioned earlier, the primary purpose of privatisation was to attract investment. Without doubt, privatisation--whether it involves telecommunications, railway services or anything else--has demonstrated over the decades that if an industry is turned over to private ownership and control and properly managed, it can attract a higher level of investment and therefore provide a much better service. So, an interesting question to pose in respect of clause 1(2)(b) is what are or have been the levels of investment in railway services. The Minister's response will be helpful in assessing whether the Bill is necessary.
When we talk about public finances or levels of investment, we are on relatively firm ground, but clause 1(2)(c) refers to the efficiency and effectiveness of railway services and that is much more difficult territory. A common fault in government--and even here in the legislature--is to use such terms as efficiency and effectiveness as if we all knew exactly what they meant. However, I am not sure that that is entirely clear in the context of railway services. Recent events have illustrated that all too well--some may say all too tragically. For example, how does one balance considerations of frequency of service, timeliness, promptness of arrival and passenger security with passenger safety? Let me make a distinction. When I talk about passenger safety, I refer to the traditional approach to the number of deaths and injuries that are caused per passenger mile.
We do not often talk about passenger security, but I believe that one factor that deters many people from using the railway services on short-haul commuter journeys and long-haul intercity journeys is the risk that they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that they may be subject to abuse or attack. That particularly affects women and those travelling late at night. How does one factor all that into efficiency and effectiveness? They are very real considerations for passengers.
As a railway passenger, I am interested in a variety of different factors affecting the efficiency and effectiveness of the railway services. I certainly take into account the frequency of the services. The hon. Gentleman complained about the infrequency and unreliability of the service from Carlisle, but he did not complain about feeling threatened. It may be that the service runs so rarely and so few people use it that he is almost on his own and there is nobody to threaten him. I am much more familiar with the commuter services, on which such matters are a real consideration, particularly late at night.
Am I looking at the issues as a taxpayer or as a passenger? Inevitably, we are all both and we want the facility to take into account as taxpayers and as rail users what we would like in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, frequency, timeliness, security and safety and fares. They are all important considerations. Therefore, I am at a loss as to just how efficiency and effectiveness will be defined in the Bill without knowing a lot more about what is in the minds of the hon. Gentleman and, perhaps, the Minister.
Cost is a simple word, but it encompasses some complex notions and variables. The cost to whom--the taxpayer, the community at large, the environment, the passenger or all of those? Logically, it must be all of them. The scale of the inquiry is starting to burgeon, so one wonders how long it will take--we will have to consider further the time limit suggested in clause 2.
"Alternative systems of ownership" conjures up intriguing possibilities. Are we talking about variations on the theme of private ownership or about full-blown public ownership? The clause also refers to "control and management". Does that allow the inquiry to extend to the role of the regulator? Whether the regulator controls or manages is open to question. If the inquiry does not cover the regulator, we cannot have a comprehensive look at the system. There is an unfortunate element of doubt about what was intended.
All that pales into insignificance when one comes to the phrase "would provide greater benefits". That may seem easy enough to assess, but such a simple phrase usually conceals more than it reveals. Benefits to whom: the passenger; the taxpayer; people who do not use the railways; or someone else? How on earth does one provide a framework in which greater benefits can be assessed? Given the role that the railway network and infrastructure play in our daily lives, all or any of us can be affected in many different ways. We have to consider the cost of moving freight; the cost to passengers; our safety and well-being; and the claimed environmental advantages of rail. How much do we take such matters into account and what weight do we give them? People do not often rate them equally. For example, if I rarely used the railway system, as a taxpayer, I might want less of my taxes going to subsidise it, and passengers to pay more. However, a regular passenger would be entitled to take the opposite view. Someone who is concerned about the environment and pollution would have a different view of the railways from a person for whom those are not important. I might be indifferent to the railways.
I accept that it is the Government's role to make a judgment about such matters. I hope that the Minister will help us when he responds. We need to know how the Government interpret the simple phrase "would provide greater benefits". Where will their emphasis lie when they approach that difficult problem? We have our own preferences. I suspect that mine are different from those
It is taken as read that everyone would like a service that is fast, cheap, safe and arrives on time. However, to get underneath that, we would have to ask people how much they were prepared to pay, how crowded they were prepared to be and how they rated safety and security over price. There could be an armed guard in every carriage to make people feel really safe, but that would be expensive. Each lady passenger could be personally escorted by a railway employee, if that made her feel better, but that would also be expensive. Simply to say that we will take account of the views of users of railway passenger services does not take us as far down the track as the hon. Gentleman imagines.
The operators of railway assets will have different views altogether. No doubt they would see the matter, quite properly, in terms of their shareholders, their profitability, their ability to reinvest in the service and their ability to attract greater numbers of passengers and a greater volume of freight. Those would all be relevant considerations for the rail operators who would rightly and legitimately have a different perspective from that of the passengers and the freight users.
Once we had taken into account the views of all these different people, how would we put those views together and make sense of them, particularly if they were--as inevitably I think they would be--in conflict with one another? I know that it is trendy, modern and inclusive to use phrases such as
It has just occurred to me that the one group with probably more influence than any others would be the focus group. We know that focus groups largely determine what the Government do and think. We know that they decide, very substantially, the thinking in No. 10. Would focus groups be included in the list, I wonder? There must be somewhere to fit them in. Yes, it would be under clause 1(4)(d):
Then we come to clause 2. The good news is that when all this excellent work has been done, the Secretary of State will lay copies of the report before each House of Parliament. We should be grateful for that. He will also
The hon. Gentleman desperately wants the inquiry to be carried out as quickly as possible--presumably he wants to put the Government on the spot--magically to improve the service between Carlisle and London. He would argue that if we changed the ownership of the railway infrastructure he would have a better time travelling from Carlisle to London. The hon. Gentleman may not have to travel from Carlisle to London for much longer. I saw him on television last night, and an insensitive person from the television station referred to his majority and an upcoming election. I would not dream of doing that.