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Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): Will my right hon. Friend accept that the majority of hon. Members and the public welcome his statement and his action to try to save Railtrack? The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) had difficulty justifying any statement that opposed my right hon. Friend because the privatisation of Railtrack has failed. There is no doubt about that, and it is difficult for Conservative Members to do anything but accept that failure. When the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar sat on the Transport Committee he joined all his Committee colleagues in criticising Railtrack.
I want my right hon. Friend to assure me that when the new company is established it will implement the improvements planned for Railtrack and for stations, including Wakefield in my neighbouring constituency, so that we have the railway system to which we are entitled in the 21st century.
As for the view of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar on Railtrack, I do not know whether it was recorded in 1993, but it is interesting to know that as a member of the Committee he signed up to all-party recommendations on the need to change Railtrack's nature. I regret that his elevation to shadow Transport Minister means that he has to deny his good work all those years ago. It just shows that, for the Conservatives, dogma and ambition will always triumph over reason.
Does the Secretary of State understand that he is being tested, at least for today, and that the House is concerned as to whether there are flaws in his conduct? Has his office denied the words quoted in the business news section of The Sunday Times yesterday, in which a journalist was told that he would look like anexpletive"idiot" if he said that the company was bankrupt? One of the final paragraphs of that article states:
When did the offices of the Chancellor and the Prime Minister know that the Secretary of State thought that Railtrack's most likely outcome would be administration? Will his way of funding capital investment be cheaper? Finally, how many workers in the rail industry either owned or potentially owned shares?
On the substance, I know that the conversations that did or did not take place will be of great interest. The important point is that no one briefed on our approach to railway administration before we moved in that direction.
As for the value of the private sector funding that we can achieve, I believe, as a result of assurances that we have given, that there will be continued interest from the private sector to support public-private partnerships.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am aware that many hon. Members understandably have an interest in this subject and, in many cases, a deep knowledge of it, but after two very long supplementary questions I appeal for questions to be much more concise. Otherwise, many hon. Members will be disappointed.
Mr. Byers: The recommendations in Lord Cullen's two reports into the tragic accident at Ladbroke Grove just over two years ago should be followed and implemented with all due speed. They are sensible and will improve the safety record of our railways. My right hon. Friend knows that Cullen did not recommend renationalisation. He gave careful consideration to the structure of the rail network and felt that that was not appropriate. We agree with Lord Cullen's recommendations.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): As co-chairman of the all-party railways group, may I tell the Secretary of State that a large number of shareholders, many of whom are Railtrack employees, will find his statement astonishingly complacent? Is he prepared to appear before any of the regulatory bodies of the City of London that may wish to commence formal inquiries into whether he has properly informed City regulatory bodies about his steps in this matter? When he talks about his planned company having future opportunities to raise credit, does he not recognise that, as a result not only of this fiasco but of his failure to sack Jo Moore, his political credit rating is now zero?
Mr. Byers: The important thing is that my actions were taken fully in line with all the legal advice and opinions that I received. I am confident that we have addressed all the issues with regard to the regulation of the City and to obligations that I might have had to declare information relevant to shareholders. I shall certainly appear before any relevant body to explain exactly what the circumstances were.
My right hon. Friend said that he was going to consider due compensation with regard to the cherry picking that is taking place among shareholders. Will he give a commitment to me and the House that the channel tunnel, which was funded almost exclusively by public money, will not be part of that process?
Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend is right to say that the channel tunnel has been a great success. There is an issue about the liabilities and financial interests that Railtrack might have in the channel tunnel, and that was raised with me by Railtrack directors on Friday. I want my response to be as positive as possible, but it must reflect my responsibilities as Secretary of State. If we can ensure that the channel tunnel rail link section 1 continues on time, on schedule and on budget, we will do so. There will need to be detailed negotiations about any value that the project might have, and there are differing views about that value.
I am prepared to discuss the matter with Railtrack without compromising the position that we have consistently adopted since last Sunday, which is that we will assist with Railtrack Group's assets but we will not provide any new Government funding to compensate shareholders.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): May I commend to the Secretary of State the leading article in yesterday's Sunday Business, which points out that far from being a catastrophe, railway privatisation has been, in parts, a stunning success, with 35 per cent. more passengers carried and 45 per cent. more freight transported?
Following the Secretary of State's statement and press release of 18 July, in which he stated that Railtrack and the Strategic Rail Authority would be joint providers overseeing the infrastructure improvements to the east coast main line, what reassurance can he give the House that the line will be improved before the postponed renewal of the franchise in 2005?
Mr. Byers: The hon. Lady will be pleased when she sees the exact details of our proposals, and I believe that GNER will be pleased. I have discussed with the company the way in which we can restructure the railway industry to provide a better service to the travelling public, which is what GNER is trying to do. The hon. Lady will be aware of the frustration felt by that franchise holder about the way in which Railtrack was dealing with the upgrade of the east coast main line. We are now in a far stronger position to implement those improvements in time and in a way that will benefit the holder of the east coast franchise.
Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): Will my right hon. Friend accept my congratulations and those of my constituents on his welcome, if long overdue, decision to put the interests of the travelling public ahead of those of Railtrack's shareholders and directors, one of whom used to be the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), and a member of the Opposition Front Bench?
My right hon. Friend will have heard the bleating from Opposition Members about the need for an inquiry into Railtrack. If he concedes the need for such an inquiry, will its terms of reference include investigating why a public asset was sold off, just before a general election, at a bargain basement price, and why the share value rose in a matter of months from £3.90 to £17?