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Strategic Rail Authority

Volume 405: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2003

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If he will make a statement on the (a) objectives and (b) management of the communications strategy of the Strategic Rail Authority. [112569]

The Strategic Rail Authority is set up to provide strategic direction for the railways. Its communications strategy is a matter for the SRA.

Will the Secretary of State explain why the Strategic Rail Authority and the train operating companies have adopted a communications strategy that relies on the Jo Moore school of spinning—burying bad news—similar to the one that his Department previously pursued? Does his Department share the SRA media director's view of the noble Lord Berkeley as "a dilettante"? I cannot supply the full quote because the adjective began with an "F".

That is very tasteful of the hon. Gentleman. The chairman of the SRA, Richard Bowker, has already made it clear that he disapproves of what the director of communications said about Lord Berkeley. The director has apologised to Lord Berkeley and I have spoken to Lord Berkeley, who now regards the matter as closed. Rest assured that what was said was wrong and should not have been said. I hope that we shall not hear any more of it.

On more general matters, if there has been a policy of attempting to bury bad news on the railways, it has been singularly unsuccessful. I am more aware than anyone else in the Chamber of how much still has to be done to improve the railways. I hear it in the House, I hear it when I am travelling on the train, and I hear it at parties. On Saturday night I attended a wedding at which people appeared to speak of little else. If my strategy had been to bury bad news, it would have failed—but it is not our strategy. I believe that the hon. Gentleman, as well as Labour Members, has the good of the railways at heart. Despite the undeniable difficulties on the railways, performance is beginning to improve and the £73 million a week now invested in the railways will make a difference. It will result in improved performance, which is long overdue. The key is to sustain the investment and then let the facts speak for themselves.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is precisely because of the large sums of money that the Government are investing in the railways that we need clear and plain speaking from the Strategic Rail Authority? We must know the SRA's position with respect to companies that are not only failing but taking home large amounts of taxpayers' money. Over the next two years, the last thing that we want is a railway system in which it is too expensive for the ordinary traveller to buy a ticket. We are clearly not producing high-quality services, and taxpayers are still funding a failing system.

I agree with my hon. Friend that continued investment in the railways must be justified by results. Frankly, not enough attention was paid in the past to the two essential ingredients for improving the railways—money, which is now going in, and management. The Strategic Rail Authority, the Department and I are all giving a clear message to train companies: they must look to their faults and weaknesses, ensure that their trains run on time and achieve far better performance. It can be done. The latest performance figures demonstrate about 80 per cent. reliability overall, with some services in the 90s, but others down in the 60s, which is quite unacceptable. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) is right that we are entitled to expect increased performance for the money that we are investing. There are some encouraging signs, but, frankly, some companies have a long way to go.

The Secretary of State has expressed delight at the failure to bury bad news about our railways, so does he agree that it would be right and proper for the media to attend the annual general meeting of Network Rail?

Yes, I do. Network Rail should ensure that its annual general meeting is open and I have made that clear to the chairman. Although I accept that, in the last analysis, it is up to the company to decide, I strongly hope that the meeting will be open because the company has nothing to hide and might have some positive things—perhaps some good news—to tell the world.

Without complicating my right hon. Friend's Saturday nights, may I draw his attention to a subject that he knows a great deal about—the ongoing problems of the Forth rail bridge? Will he give an assurance that his Department is inquisitive about the future funding of the bridge?

I would be happy to discuss that over a drink with my hon. Friend. The Forth rail bridge is having substantial sums spent on it, because it is an important part of the rail infrastructure. I see it regularly, for obvious reasons, so my hon. Friend may rest assured that it is never far from my thoughts.

Does the Secretary of State agree that safety should be the most important priority of any rail authority? As he is no doubt aware, last Saturday saw the first anniversary of the Potters Bar rail crash, but we are still waiting for a full report on how that accident came about. The families are still waiting for an acceptance of responsibility—on the same basis as in previous accidents—by any of the relevant bodies. Will he do all he can to ensure that the report is published as soon as possible?

There are two aspects to the report on the accident at Potters Bar. The first is in relation to the cause of the accident, and we are now clear that it was caused by the failure of the points. The Health and Safety Executive has published two reports and a final report is due at the end of May. The second aspect, about which the victims feel especially strongly, is who was responsible for the accident. That is the subject of a criminal investigation by the police and Ministers cannot properly interfere. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to have those matters concluded as quickly as possible—for the sake of those who died and their relatives, and for all of us. We will have the Health and Safety Executive's report, but I cannot properly influence the criminal investigation. I hope, for obvious reasons, that it is concluded as soon as possible.