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Lord Whitty: My Lords, I must apologise to the noble Earl that he has not received a letter from the department. I thought that we had written to him. Indeed, I have here a copy of what I had thought had been sent to the noble Earl. However, given that the noble Earl said that he was repeating the questions he had put to me, I am not entirely sure that the letter, as drafted, would answer all of them, although it would respond to some. However, I am not certain whether that is of any help as regards the amendment before the House, because the amendment confers a wider application. It would give a permissive power to the SRA to further its purposes by means of competitions and tenders. The noble Earl has specifically asked
In relation to the amendment, I should point out that substantial powers are already on the face of the Bill. The SRA will, in effect, have a "tool box" of powers and duties which it will exercise. Clause 207(4) also contains a "value for money" duty. Furthermore, the Secretary of State can give directions and guidance to the SRA as to what it should do to achieve its purposes in a way best calculated to balance the various considerations contained in Clause 207. However, the SRA's duty to obtain value for money in the financial assistance it gives cannot be overridden by any directions and guidance.
Competitions and tenders may well prove to be the best way of securing value for money in a particular case. The authority certainly does not need a separate enabling power such as this amendment would provide. For that reason, there is no real need for Amendment No. 13.
With regard to franchising, the Bill already provides a detailed framework for a competitive process. The House debated this framework when we considered the amendments tabled to Section 26 of the Railways Act 1993. The Bill provides the assurance of a competitive process, either by a formal invitation to tender at the expiry of an existing franchise or by an equivalent process. However, this approach may not be appropriate in all circumstances, for example, in relation to awarding freight grants. There, the SRA will measure applications for grants against the appropriate criteria rather than testing the market.
As regards the wider issues raised by the amendment, the SRA will encourage innovation. It will work in partnership with the private sector. The shadow SRA's current approach to franchise replacement already demonstrates this. Our objective is to secure the earliest possible delivery of better rail services while providing value for money both to the passenger and to the taxpayer.
The amendment also suggests that the Secretary of State should lay down the precise procedures under which the competition process should operate. That is slightly at odds with the approach normally adopted by the Opposition in relation to the powers of the Secretary of State both in this Bill and elsewhere. I find that a little confusing. I hope that the noble Earl will feel that I have addressed the intention of his amendment and that he will agree that the Bill already provides for the SRA to act in the way he seeks. I hope, too, that my letter will address his concerns in relation to the past procurement process. With that explanation, I hope that the noble Earl will not seek to pursue his amendment.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his interesting response. Of course, the Bill concerns the establishment of the SRA. This amendment relates to what has happened with the SRA in its shadow form.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, I am more worried about Civil Service procedures here rather than the issue of the Minister delivering letters by hand. However, I thank the Minister for his reply and for the way he has taken on board the intention of my amendment. We may return to the issue by other means. For the moment, however, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The clause is designed to give the Secretary of State the power to implement the EU directive on the inter-operability of high-speed railways. My difficulty here is that the clause is drafted far too widely. It gives power to the Secretary of State to make regulations for any standards, not merely technical standards, and far less technical interoperability standards. What is in place to stop a future Secretary of State from using the powers conferred in this clause to solve the railway problem of the day, which might not even be a technical problem?
I should have liked to restrict the clause to only technical interoperability standards rather than standards. In the end, however, I recognised that this would have been unduly restrictive, so I have merely inserted the word "technical" in the appropriate places. There may be other reasons why the Secretary of State might wish to introduce technical standards. On this point, I should like to make it clear that I have no difficulty as regards the Secretary of State setting standards, even if they emanate from Europe. That must make sense.
In his response to my amendment on Report, the Minister indicated that the 1996 directive goes wider than the existing directive and includes staffing and operational aspects. This realises our worst fears. It could allow the Secretary of State to say how the
Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group. I oppose these amendments. The clause is absolutely essential in the move towards encouraging more efficient, more frequent and generally more cross-Channel freight and, I suspect, passengers as well.
The big problem of the European rail freight industry and the rail passenger industry--I shall not give a long lecture at this time of night--is that each member state has done its own thing. I certainly commend the European Commission for the initiative it has taken. Technical standards are a major part of it, but not the only part. The amendments would constrain the clause to "technical" standards. It must cover everything--including some of the matters mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee--if it is to be at all effective.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, for the reasons given by my noble friend Lord Berkeley, interoperability is very much in the interests of the British rail industry and our whole approach to integrated transport. I understand the noble Earl's concerns, but it is necessary to go beyond the word "technical" because we cannot pick and choose which part of the legislation we implement. We have to transpose the directives in full and it is necessary for regulations to be made which allow all of the standards promulgated under these directives to be given effect in the UK.
The term "technical specification for inter- operability" used to describe the standards being produced under these directives--as it would be as a result of the noble Earl's amendment--is a bit of a misnomer. Although the scope of the high-speed rail interoperability directive is primarily concerned with what everyone would understand as technical matters, the standards thereunder will also include operational matters. The scope of the conventional rail directive is wider still and does include matters such as staffing, operational and telematic aspects, in addition to the technical standards for infrastructure and rolling stock.
As the noble Earl suggested, there are other safety regulations and powers, but they do not necessarily cover the whole spectrum of interoperability standards. It is essential therefore that we legislate for the wider powers. Many of these subjects are outside the scope of existing health and safety at work powers and, to ensure that the implementing regulations can cover all of them and that offences and penalties can be created for non-compliance, we must ensure that the regulation-making powers are not limited to technical matters in the narrow sense envisaged by these amendments.
An additional benefit of the clause as drafted is that it will give further powers to the Secretary of State to make regulations to cover areas of the railway industry where a need for standards has been identified. For example, it is possible that recommendations may arise from the Cullen inquiry that are not covered by existing health and safety at work powers, and we could use these powers to put those recommendations into effect.
The noble Earl is right to say that these are wide powers. They are wide because they are necessary to implement the directives. They also give the additional flexibility that is appropriate in this context. I hope that the noble Lord will not pursue his amendment.
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