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8.59 pm

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): This has been a truly extraordinary debate. We have had surveys in Mitcham, the Bassetlaw £1.20 pint and the sleaze surrounding Wellington. It really has been quite a journey, and thankfully we are getting quite close to the end of today's debate. I am one of those who believes that the public will be genuinely mystified about why Conservative Members want to spend the best part of a day debating Government special advisers when there are so many worrying issues that the public want the House to address. One of those issues is the state of the railways, to which I shall address the bulk of my comments.

No one can condone what Ms Moore did, and I think that she should have resigned or been sacked for her repugnant remarks. The apologists among Labour Members who have tried to excuse her continuing employment with the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions have been less than convincing on the matter. They were presented with an excellent opportunity to draw a line under the Government's spin. They had an opportunity to try to re-engage the public in our democratic processes and institutions, but that is now an opportunity lost.

Nevertheless, to fill a day's debate on the subject, as Conservative Members have attempted to do, is a complete and utter waste of time. Surely the public want us to consider issues that are more important than the short-term employment concerns of a Government spin doctor. Surely the public want us to consider the state of the railways and offer solutions for a way forward. Other than the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), we have heard very little from Conservative Members on the issue of Railtrack. So far we have heard that Railtrack is in receivership and that it will be taken over by an as yet undefined and unspecified not-for-profit consortium, but detail has been short on the ground. However, given the state of the railways in this country, it is detail that we now require.

Conservative Members' major contribution to the current state of the railways has been the privatisation of Railtrack, which has now been shown to be an utter and complete dismal failure. However, their failure even partly to acknowledge their culpability in the overall failure of Railtrack privatisation has been well noted by the public, who I think have been following the debate with great interest.

Railtrack's failure may be even more significant for the Government. The failure might even be an important watermark in successive Governments' continuation of privatisation drives. If failure on that scale can happen on the railways, it can happen in any proposed privatised public service.

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In fact, if the privatisation of public services was going to work, it should have worked on the railways, which are almost uniquely placed to be a success for the privatisation of public services. They rely and depend on a steady, loyal and—given the state of the railways—reasonably easily satisfied customer base. There is no competition; Railtrack effectively works as a private monopoly. Indeed, Railtrack will be shown to have been a complete and utter piece of cake when we start to consider the continued privatisation of schools and hospitals, which is part of the Government's programme. How many more times will we be back here to discuss another waste of taxpayers' money when yet another privatisation failure emerges?

The Railtrack privatisation has shown us that such privatisation is a relatively straightforward way of taking public money and transforming it into shares and inflated salaries for executives. Will the Government now take stock of their whole attitude towards the private financing of public services? Are they prepared to consider in full detail all the implications of this failed privatisation? I remember the restlessness and long faces among Labour Members towards the end of the previous Session, when the Prime Minister, in particular, was full of the privatisation zeal. In the light of the Railtrack debacle, I look forward to a much more cautious line on the privatisation of public services coming out of No. 10 Downing street.

Perhaps Conservative Members are reluctant properly to discuss the railways because it was Conservative Members who privatised the railways and created the failure that is Railtrack. It is they who are the most culpable in this whole affair. The problem with Railtrack is the very nature of privatisation. It was Conservative dogma that led to the privatisation of Railtrack, and it was the failure of that privatisation that took Railtrack into administration.

It is the contradiction at the heart of the privatisation of public services that was Railtrack's major downfall. One sign of Railtrack's conflicting priorities is the fact that while it faced a deficit of £700 million in November, it was still prepared to pay out £88 million to shareholders at the beginning of October. That is the reality of privatisation—shareholders must come first. However, those shareholders had a choice; they could choose to invest in those companies. Railtrack's customers do not have a choice, so they have to put up with a substandard, second-rate service. It should now be the industry and not individual companies or shareholders that come first.

I want to spend a little time specifically on the Scottish situation. The logical step now for Scotland would be to take full control over the rail network. Transport is already a devolved matter for the Scottish Parliament, but when it comes to the rail network it is a completely different story. The Scottish Parliament will finance and administer the next ScotRail franchise, but strategic control over the development of the rail network still rests with the Strategic Rail Authority in London. Most importantly, Ministers in the Scottish Parliament will not be able to direct the SRA to pursue specific investments in Scotland, which means that decisions, such as offering GNER a two-year extension to its current contract, are outwith their control, as is the forward planning required to improve the network, especially as it takes four years to improve and receive new rolling stock. Such decisions infuriate the Scottish rail travelling public and frustration

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and anger build up, especially among passengers on the disgraceful east coast line between Aberdeen and Edinburgh.

The Scottish Parliament is only able to advise, and that is not good enough. It needs the power to decide how best to improve the transport network in Scotland, including the rail network. Railtrack's collapse should be the catalyst for the Government to re-examine how the Scottish and Welsh railways should best be run.

The demise of Railtrack presents an opportunity to restructure Scotland's rail infrastructure. We need a distinctly Scottish approach and a Scottish solution to the problems of Scottish railways. A Scottish public rail investment trust—or, forgive me, Sprint—would seem to be the solution. Sprint could take control of the rail infrastructure and develop co-operation between the rail industry partners in Scotland. Operating outside the public sector on a not-for-profit basis—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I remind the hon. Member that the motions under discussion do not refer to Scottish railways.

Pete Wishart: The point I am trying to make is that the demise of Railtrack is an important issue in Scotland, and I am suggesting a way forward for my constituency. To be fair, Scotland has a relatively simple rail industry. We have one Railtrack zone and one engineering company. They could be brought together under the control of one organisation. If authority were given to the Scottish Parliament to make those decisions, we could improve the rail service in Scotland.

We all deserve a better rail service throughout the United Kingdom, especially in Scotland. I hope that lessons from the failed Railtrack exercise will inform the way forward. In Scotland, the demise of Railtrack gives us an opportunity to further this distinctly Scottish approach and make the railways work for the people and not for profit.

9.7 pm

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the liberty taken by the Government, even in the light of the cross-party support, to release unpalatable news to the media. The sad fact remains that while all this is going on, British soldiers, especially my constituents, are risking their lives. They are fighting to make people who work in offices safe. They are fighting for freedom, democracy and the democratic way in which we choose to live our lives, whether we be Christian or Muslim. Sadly, Jo Moore sees them as no more than a shield behind which to slip through councillors' allowances or, more suspiciously, the renationalisation of Railtrack.

I am amazed that the Government, who have chosen to raise Britain's profile in the world as America's leading ally, should allow such a sinister reason for doing that. This is the same Government who were poised to slaughter the entire sheep flock, before the investigation showed that the wrong brains were being tested. Surely the same standards should apply in the case we are debating. If political advisers are appointed for their brains, perhaps we are using the wrong ones.

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The lack of an apology, and the television performance that Jo Moore gave, showed enormous disrespect to our soldiers, our councillors and Railtrack's shareholders, and to the families of those who died.

Mr. John Smith: Does not the hon. Gentleman think that the greatest disrespect to our soldiers, who may well be going into Afghanistan, is the sickening spectacle of the Opposition wasting six and a half hours of parliamentary time discussing this nonsense, and not discussing the brave efforts of those soldiers?


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