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Mr. Darling: As I said, the £300 million is not there indefinitely. It is there provided we get Railtrack out of administration quickly. An extraordinary general meeting is to be fixed for, I believe, July, and I very much hope that a majority of shareholders will vote to go ahead with the sale and purchase agreement.
I am pleased that the board of Railtrack Group is recommending that the offer be accepted; a large number of shareholders have already said that it is the right thing to do. I hope that all the shareholders will reflect on not only the benefits of the offer but the fact that the alternatives, which do not include the £300 million, would mean a long period of litigation with lots of expenses. Surely it would be far better to put all this behind us and ensure that we get Network Rail set up.
Above all, let us remember that the principal people whom we are here to serve are our constituents as a wholeshareholders and non-shareholders alikewho want the railway network to be operated by a competent body, backed by the necessary investment. That is the best way to get the railways going again. I very much hope that all the shareholders of Railtrack Group will reflect on that and vote in the way that I think is appropriate.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You will be aware that Mr. Speaker has, on a number of occasions, admonished Ministers and reminded them of the importance of making announcements first to the House and only then to the media. On Radio 4 at 12 noon today, the headlines and the attached story were that the Transport Secretary was going to make the announcement that we have just heard,
[Relevant documents: Second Report from the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee, Session 200102, on London Underground, HC 387-I, Seventh Report from the Committee, Session 200102, on London UndergroundThe Public-Private Partnership: Follow-up, HC 680, and the Government response thereto, Cm 5486; and Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Office of the Rail Regulator and Ordnance Survey: Annual Report, 2002, Cm 5405.]
One hazard of being a country that has produced large numbers of engineers is that sometimes we are so used to our traditional backgrounds that we forget that it is important to understand why, if a country is to remain not only economically successful but capable of contributing to a very high standard of living of its people, it must continue to employ the best skills of its people. The British have been very good at engineering over many centuries, and particularly since Victorian times, when they were in the vanguard not only of creating fantastically good transport systems but developing them in such a way that those skills were spread throughout the civilised world. It therefore is rather sad that in recent years, and certainly under previous Governments, there has been a lack of consistent investment in good transport systems. Those systems, many of which we had ourselves initiated, were allowed to run down, and one classic example has been the London underground.
London as a capital city not only provides a most vibrant and exciting place to live but attracts some of the best brains in the world, and it is the centre of financial, political and cultural events that mean that its people require a high standard of infrastructure. Unfortunately, London Underground no longer provides that very high level of care. This is not a criticism of people who operate what is an old system; it is simply an acknowledgment
Therefore, the incoming Government decided that they were going to look at a new way of financing the underground, and the Select Committee chose to look very closely, over a number of reports, at how that was going to be done, what its purpose was and what it was going to produce. On one occasion, the Leader of the House did reprimand me when I suggested that we had still not discussed that sufficiently on the Floor of the House, by saying that he was convinced that we had had a number of debates that had covered every aspect of the public-private partnership, but the truth is that there has not been a substantive vote, and although today might not be either the occasion or the manner that is necessary to decide such an important subject, it is perhaps instructive, on a day when we have just been discussing the debacle of Railtrack, to tell the Government that we are not convinced, as a Select Committee, that the public-private partnership is the way forward, will provide what we want or indeed is what the general public want.
As a Committee, we looked at the history of the public-private partnership. We took evidence not only from Ministers but from those working in the industryfrom those dealing with the financing and the structure, the maintenance and enhancement of the systemand we discovered that some aspects of the deal were exceedingly disquieting.
As a Committee, we were worried that most of the arrangements for the bids had been Treasury led, to the point where Treasury officials appeared to be taking precedence over the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions in the negotiating, and providing individuals who were themselves directly dealing with the applicants for the bids, and yet we were not able to persuade Treasury Ministers to appear before us to discuss the implications. We said very clearly that we thought that that decision undermined the work of Select Committees, simply because the House of Commons does have a responsibility not just to ask awkward questions but to obtain answers.
Helen Jackson: Does my hon. Friend agree, particularly as we are discussing the matter on an estimates day, and because the thrust of the Government's decision on London Underground was based on financial estimates and so-called value for money, that on criteria that varied according to advice from the Treasury, it was difficult, if not impossible, to get a balanced view from the entire Government without being able to take full evidence from the Treasury and Treasury Ministers?
However, the normal procedures that all Governments follow have always meant that the Department with the controlling interest went to the Treasury, discussed the figures at various points in the spending review, asked for the amounts of money that it needed, and negotiated on the basis of information about the sum that the scheme demanded. When the Department received a reply, it undertook the negotiations with the people concerned. That is the traditional way of proceeding, and I have not heard it argued that it did not work.
What concerned the Select Committee was that the more evidence we took, the more it became clear that the Treasury had somehow reversed its role, and was negotiating directly on a transport scheme that would determine the future of transport in our capital city and had been going on for over four years. Successive Governments have not found the money to keep such schemes going and to improve them, but we are discussing a scheme that is so complicated, and which creates and even replicates so many of the difficulties that we saw in Railtrack, that we felt that we were almost in danger of doing the same thing again.
We wanted the Treasury to come before us and explain why it did not take that view. We produced not just one report, but reports that stated time and again that we did not think that that was the answer, and we gave our reasons.