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The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): I have met passenger representatives several times since the High Court granted the order placing Railtrack plc into administration. They have reacted positively to the Government's decision not to provide additional funding to Railtrack plc. They agree that Railtrack plc's role as network operator should be transferred as soon as possible to a robust successor company capable of delivering the quality of service that rail passengers need and have wanted for years.
Mr. Cunningham: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the taxpayer is aware that from time to time Railtrack has come to the Government with a begging bowl? Does he also agree that rail passengers will be astounded to learn that in the first six months of this year, Railtrack made a larger profit than it did last year?
Mr. Byers: The information that has been disclosed today by Railtrack shows the difficulty that Railtrack plc had. Effectively, it was trying to serve two masters: it had the desire to meet the needs of shareholders as well as a responsibility to the travelling public. In the end, whenever there was a conflict between the demands of shareholders and the travelling public, Railtrack, as a publicly quoted company, always came down on the side of its shareholders. There is no surprise in thatthat was its legal obligation, and the directors had no alternative. However, that highlights the difficulties and contradiction at the heart of Railtrack plc.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Will the Secretary of State tell us his estimated budget in advisory fees and capital injection to get a company limited by guarantee, a not-for-profit company, off the ground? It is about time the House was told what the budget is; I think that a very large sum will be needed for such a proposal.
Mr. Byers: We have made the position clear in terms of the financial commitment that we will give to ensure that the needs of the rail passengers are put first. I welcome the fact that the SRA is acting as sponsor for the bid team which is headed by Ian McAllister. That is good news, because it will ensure that a robust proposition is put to the administrator. The Conservative party would of course have done nothing.
I was interested to note that, as a result of the current debate about the future of railways, an informative and thoughtful article was published in the Financial Times on 12 December. It made a clear statement:
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I was interested in my right hon. Friend's last answer. May I go on from that to suggest that we look at continental railway systems, which are much more successful than oursindeed, light years ahead? Those systems are generally state owned, coherent and integrated with other forms of transport.
Mr. Byers: As a result of the decisive action that we took on Railtrack, a number of opportunities and options that were not previously available are now accessible. The approach adopted in some continental railway systemswhere there is a far greater degree of integration than we see in the United Kingdomis something on which we shall need to reflect. Ultimately, it will be for the administrator to make a recommendation for my approval in relation to the transfer of the company. I hope that the Tories will come off the fence at some stage, and will saythe hon. Member for Maidenhead now has an opportunity to do sowhether they will privatise Railtrack and put it back into the private sector, as recommended by her right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham. Will she tell the House today?
Mr. Byers: As the hon. Lady will know, we petitioned the High Court based on the information available to us. The most important point was that the company came to the Government asking for more money. That was the situation.
Mr. Byers: Let us get some facts out into the open. Railtrack had a £1 billion credit facility on which the banks would not let it draw down. Why? Because they knew Railtrack's financial situation. A company that came to the Government with a begging bowl paid out £88 million in dividends to shareholders at the beginning of October. Our evidence to the High Courtof the £700 million deficit in December and a £1.7 billion deficit in March next yearwas not challenged or contradicted by Railtrack. Railtrack's representatives were in court. Railtrack had counsel in court, but they sat like Trappist monks and did not say a word. Even more important, the company waived its right to have two days' notice of the petition. It could have delayed the proceedings until Wednesday of that week, but failed to do so. The company knew the situation; it knew its financial situation. Let us be clear on this point: the Tory party and Railtrack directors say that because I refused to bail them out in Octoberbecause I am refusing to give £1 billion of taxpayers' moneyI am abusing my position. I have used my power as Secretary of State to put taxpayers and rail passengers first and will continue to do so.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson): We do not record the number of accidents involving cyclists without lights. However, it is an offence to use a pedal cycle on the road without lights between sunset and sunrise, or in conditions of reduced visibility.
Andrew Mackinlay: I hope that, from now on, we will keep statistics on the injuries and deaths that occur where the lack of lights was a contributory factor to the accident. Does the Minister understand that, although riding without lights is an offence, it is not enforced by the police or other agencies? Will he consider taking an early legislative opportunity to create a civil offence, whereby
Mr. Jamieson: I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), which he raises with his usual vigour. People who ride bicycles in the dark without lights put themselves and others, particularly pedestrians, at risk. He may be interested to know that, last year, there were 21,000 accidents involving cycles, although the trend is generally downwards. A fifth of those accidents occurred in the dark and 34 involved fatalities. I am sure that my hon. Friend's suggestion will be born in mind if a legislative opportunity arises. Information is not currently collected on whether cyclists involved in accidents have lights, but a review team is currently considering this issue, and I shall ensure that the important matter that he raises is drawn to the team's attention.
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): May I tell the Minister of a very sad case in my constituency, where a young man died this summer while delivering papers, when he was knocked over while cycling? Clearly, we send our condolences to his parents this Christmas, as they will feel the effects deeply. Will the Minister pay tribute to one of our local bobbies, PC Twentyman, who, since then, has tried to ensure that all young people have access to crash helmets while riding their bikes on their paper rounds? In the context of the review that the Minister has just announced, are the Government considering whether people should be required to wear helmets while riding bicycles on the public highway?
Mr. Jamieson: First, I ask the hon. Lady to convey my condolences to her constituentsI know how terrible such events are. She will be aware that schools run many programmes to give such advice to children, and I hope that such events will spur the local schools to refresh that advice. I hope also that the newsagents and others who employ childrenparticularly, those who work in the early mornings and in the evenings in the darkwill also be mindful as to whether those children wear helmets, carry reflective bags or have the appropriate lights on their bicycles. We have certainly considered making helmets compulsorythe issue has been mentioned to us a number of timesbut people, particularly parents, need to be mindful of the dangers to children and of the fact that helmets can assist considerably in lessening that risk. I am sure that the hon. Lady's suggestion will be borne in mind if a legislative opportunity arises.