House of Commons
Tuesday 8 January 2008
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords]
Order for Second Reading read.
To be read a Second time on Tuesday 15 January.
Manchester City Council Bill [Lords]
Order for Second Reading read.
To be read a Second time on Tuesday 15 January.
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
Diplomatic Service (Closures)
No UK embassies closed in 2007. Two diplomatic missions were closed: the high commission office in Kingstown, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the British consulate in Nagoya, Japan.
We continue to manage the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s overseas network to reflect changing demands and challenges. We will ensure that our resources are aligned with our priorities and that the UK has a cost-effective and flexible network of overseas representation around the world.
Since 1997, when the Government came to power, more than 35 embassies, high commissions and sovereign posts have been closed. Given the Chinese scramble for Africa, is it right that out of 53 African countries, 23 do not have any British diplomatic representation at all?
It may help the House if I give it the actual facts, rather than the partial presentation given by the hon. Gentleman. In 1997, the UK Government had 242 overseas posts. In 2007, there were 261. In the past 10 years, the number of overseas posts has increased by 19 by any calculation.
In respect of the situation in Africa, I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that a measure of a country’s commitment to Africa or its engagement is not the number of posts but the effectiveness of its activities, including its funding. By no stretch of the imagination is it possible to argue that the UK’s influence in Africa is lower today than it was 10 years ago. In fact, it is massively enhanced. There has been cross-party agreement about the activities of the Government on this issue over the past 10 years.
The most important criterion is that the Foreign Office’s network is aligned to the shape of the modern world rather than the world as it was after 1945. There has already been a 20 or 25 per cent. reduction in the number of personnel deployed in Europe, which in part reflects the amount of extra business done in UKRep—the UK Permanent Representation to the European Union—in Brussels and the multilateral engagement that we have. I see that continuing, with the shifting of more of our diplomats—UK staff and locally engaged staff—towards the middle east and south Asia, where, by any stretch of the imagination, we need more representations to meet all the national interests that we have at the moment. That seems to me to be the alignment of people and priorities that we should be seeking.
What consideration has the Secretary of State given to accrediting Department for International Development staff in countries where there is no Foreign Office support, particularly in Africa, in countries such as Lesotho and Swaziland, where there are excellent DFID staff?
Of course, in most of Africa DFID and FCO staff work side by side. Many of the problems that DFID focuses on are complementary to the work on conflict prevention or good governance that is at the heart of the FCO’s work. On the accreditation of staff—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman means that technically—DFID staff, like Foreign Office staff, are there to represent the whole UK. They do that extremely effectively.
As my right hon. Friend knows, my particular concern is East Timor, and the closure of the embassy there in 2006 and the removal of our remaining staff in 2007. East Timor is a country that is emerging out of considerable conflict and it needs a lot of help. I know that there is an ambassador in Jakarta and that the intention is that the ambassador and his staff should visit East Timor. However, given the continuing concern in East Timor, can my right hon. Friend tell me how often the ambassador has been there since the closure of the embassy?
The Foreign Secretary has been somewhat creative with his figures in respect of embassies, high commissions and consulates. He says that their numbers reflect how the world is changing, so I presume that the closure of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office language school and the withdrawal of the FCO’s contribution to the cost of maintaining defence attachés are also connected with that. Do not the figures given by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) have more to do with financial cuts imposed by the Treasury than with any changes in the nature of the world? After all, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has said that the Foreign Office budget will see a reduction of 5.1 per cent. per annum across the board and that that will jeopardise its work. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us how many more embassies, high commissions and consulates have been identified for closure over the next two years to pay for those cuts?
It is very odd to define increased spending as cuts. The increased spending over the next period will be used in the areas of greatest need. Moreover, it is right that we do not use defence attachés for non-defence work, as they are specialists and should work on defence matters. The hon. Gentleman accuses me of creative accounting, or at least creative number work, but he may be interested to know that Germany has 226 posts, the US 262 and France 275. The UK holds a diplomatic network of outstandingly qualified individuals who work closely with DFID and British Council staffs. They provide a network that, in times of crisis, has shown itself to be more than adequate for the country’s needs. I am sure that he will seek to criticise the Government about many things, but I believe that we should all be proud of the nature of our global network and its deployment around the world.
Environmental Protection (Lisbon Treaty)
I thank my hon. Friend for that response. I very much welcome the fact that tackling climate change is now a specific EU policy objective and that we have the necessary legal framework for it, but does he agree that we also need greater international co-operation to meet EU-wide targets on climate change? What progress is being made on that front?
My hon. Friend is right. She takes a keen interest in these matters, and will know that article 2 of the Lisbon treaty states that the EU will
“contribute to…the sustainable development of the earth”.
That is a remarkable change in the EU’s posture. We are making real progress on reducing carbon emissions: we have set a target for reductions totalling 20 per cent. by 2020, and have also established a number of demonstration plants for carbon capture and storage. Progress must also be made through other organisations, such as the G8, the World Bank and the UN, but the EU is a crucial component in any international climate change strategy.
The UK is the first and so far the only country to have set binding targets for reducing carbon emissions. We are leading the way in Europe and throughout the world, but carbon emissions can be reduced only through international co-operation. We cannot set up a patriotic front against climate change, as such change does not recognise the national boundaries and borders that the right hon. Gentleman seems to believe in. In fact, I understand that he opposes the binding targets on carbon emissions.
We were talking about national borders, and now we have moved on to whales; I assume that we are now talking about the animals and not the Principality. We continue to raise the question of Japan’s whaling practices, and its capture and killing of whales. I shall bring my hon. Friend’s question to the attention of our colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That Department leads on the specific question of whaling, as Japan is not likely to be part of Europe in the foreseeable future.
How was it that the EU emissions trading system ended up issuing permissions to pollute at 6 per cent. higher than the current level of pollution? What is going to be done about a situation in which Britain set tough targets and ended up having to buy 22 million tonnes of carbon and other similar countries such as Germany and France issued so many permits that they were selling them? What will Lisbon do about that?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not mind my saying so, but the basic premise of his assertion is absolutely correct. The problem in the past was that there was not enough international co-operation and countries set their own targets in a way that did not fit international priorities or the scale of the problem. Over the next 30 years, if we continue at the current pace, international and world energy demand will increase by a remarkable 50 per cent. That is clearly unsustainable, which is why there is a real need for internationally agreed binding targets of the type that the United Kingdom was first in the world to agree to.
British Council (Russia)
On 12 December the Russian authorities announced that they planned to shut down the British Council offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg on 1 January 2008. I made it clear in my written ministerial statement of 13 December that the Russian Government’s threat against the British Council was illegal. It is therefore the intention of the British Council to remain open and operational in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.
While I applaud the Government’s decision and recognise of course that it is in times of political difficulty that the British Council’s independent and continuing role in bilateral education and cultural links becomes particularly important, is not the key question how we avoid the council’s work becoming a pawn in the foreign affairs game and ensure that people on all sides recognise the importance of its continuity?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The independence of the British Council is asserted on both sides of the House. Certainly it is not a political football from our point of view, and our message to the Russian Government is that they should not use the British Council as a political football. I hope that that can be a united message, because 1.25 million Russians benefited from the activities of the British Council last year, and that must be in both our countries’ interests.
Given that it is the British Government’s view that the British Council’s operations are legal in the Russian context and comply with tax laws, international conventions and the agreement reached with the Russians, and given that the actions of the Russian Government appear to be illegal, what practical help can the British Government give the staff at the offices of the British Council still based in Russia so that they can continue their operation?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. The first thing to say is that, while a threat was issued on 12 December, it has not yet been carried out. Our first priority is to send a clear message to the Russians that this is illegal and there is nothing to be gained by them—in fact, there is everything to be lost, in terms of services for Russian people and of the reputation of Russia around the world—in carrying out this threat. Certainly, my conversations with European and other G8 colleagues suggest that there is unanimous incomprehension at the proposal of the Russian Government to crack down on the British Council. Our duty of care to our staff is obviously something that we take seriously and the offices are in the first instance a matter for British Council management. I assure my hon. Friend that both at official level in Russia and at ministerial level, we take the duty of care to both sets of staff extremely seriously.
The Foreign Secretary may be aware that the news agency TASS, the newspaper Izvestia and The Moscow News, the English newspaper, have said that the British Council performs activities not in accordance with what it ought to be doing. They have suggested, for example, that it is an agent of the Secret Intelligence Service and that it interferes in the politics of Russia. The Foreign Secretary will know that that is nonsense. How can he reassure the House and, more important, President Putin, that it is not the case?
The best way, of course, is to agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that my agreement with him will have a profound resonance. We can at least both say that there is absolutely no foundation to those allegations. The legality of the British Council activity seems to me to be clear. It may be worth reading into the record that the British Council’s activities are fully compliant with not just international law, but Russian law. Its presence and its activities are specifically endorsed by a 1994 cultural centres agreement signed by Russia. I give him my absolute assurance on the independence and legality of the British Council’s work.
We share the Government’s view that Russia’s action is wholly unacceptable, so can the Foreign Secretary explain why, although the Prime Minister said at the last EU summit that its conclusions would “reflect” the “anger” that EU leaders felt about the matter, it was not even mentioned by the time that the summit concluded? Do we not now have the worst of all worlds: a Prime Minister who blatantly gave in to European leaders last month, but who managed to offend them into the bargain so that we do not get their help when we request it in turn?
It is frankly pathetic for the hon. Gentleman to try to turn the issue into an anti-European diatribe, when the European Union presidency has issued a statement denouncing any Russian action. I am sorry that he or his researchers have not been able to find—[Interruption.] No, I am sorry; he says that I am wrong, but I will do the research for him; I will send him the European presidency statement, which shows a united European view on the issue. I thought that he confined his Europhobia to issues to do with the European Union, but it seems not.
Is not the really worrying thing about the Russian ban on the British Council outside Moscow the fact that it is far from the first time that the Russians have tried to undermine the work of the British Council in Russia, and that it is not the only non-governmental organisation in Russia that has been systematically undermined by its Government in the past few years? Is it not important that we continue to be robust, not least now that Mr. Lugovoi has been elected a member of the Duma? The issue is part of a smokescreen to try to hide the fact that one of his colleagues in the Duma said the other day:
“The deserved punishment reached the traitor. I am sure his terrible death will be a warning…that in Russia…treason is not to be forgiven. I would recommend to citizen Berezovsky to avoid any food at the commemoration”—
I am sorry that hon. Members interrupted my hon. Friend—[Hon. Members: “It was Mr. Speaker.”] Mr. Speaker is always correct in his interruptions, but Opposition Members are not. My hon. Friend has spent a lot of time on the issue. He is, of course, absolutely right. The shocking quotation that he read out should indeed be denounced. I will just pick up two of the points that he made. First, let us not yet talk about Russian actions. There have been threats, but there have not yet been actions against the British Council outside Moscow, and we should continue to urge the Russian Government not to take any actions. Secondly, we need to continue to give the Russian Government the clear message that we will continue to take the Lugovoi issue seriously; the request for his extradition remains in force, and it remains a commitment of ours to see justice done in this country. At the same time, we are determined to work with Russia on a range of international and bilateral issues. We must continue to make that twin-track message clear.
Human Rights (China)
We encourage the Chinese Government to fulfil their human rights obligations across China, including in Tibet. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the issue of human rights with the Chinese Foreign Minister in December. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Olympics and for London raised the issue of media freedom in November. We will raise our concerns on Tibet at the next round of the UK-China human rights dialogue in Beijing later this month.
The Chinese have promised media freedom for foreign journalists in China, but have restricted it even more in occupied Tibet. They promised to give the Red Cross access to prisons in China, but exempted Tibet. They promised religious freedom, but effectively have martial law in monasteries. Is not the reality that the Chinese sign lots of bits of paper about Tibet, but do absolutely nothing about it?
We take seriously the range of human rights issues that the hon. Gentleman raised. I know that he has a long record in relation to Tibet and has rightly highlighted the matter on many occasions. We pursue human rights in three ways—through high-level lobbying, through UK-China and EU-China dialogues, and through project work on the ground, including on issues such as the judiciary, torture, the death penalty and minority rights.
It is heartening that China has made pledges to uphold human rights. However, it is difficult to equate such pledges with China’s continuing offer of no-strings aid, which has emboldened some unsavoury Governments and allowed them to ignore calls for reform. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government will continue to do all in their power to encourage China to conditionalise the aid that it gives to some of the most despotic regimes in the world, such as the regime in Sudan?
What is the difference between the Chinese Government’s respect for human rights in Tibet and the Serbian Government’s respect for human rights in Kosovo that justifies a very different policy by Her Majesty’s Government?
We take seriously the issues in Tibet and we raise these matters continually at the regular dialogues. This will be the 16th round of dialogues between the UK and China on Tibet, and on this occasion the delegations will make a visit to Tibet to study the situation on the ground.
Women's Rights (Basra)
The Government condemn all violence against women and are committed to supporting women’s rights in Iraq. We have heard accounts of extremist militias murdering women who allegedly have not conformed to the dress codes that their killers consider appropriate for females. We are supporting groups and individuals working to improve the situation of women in Basra. These include many committed and courageous female professionals and politicians. We support the Basra chief of police’s personal pledge to improve security for women in the city.
I thank the Minister for that thoughtful response. Can he assure us that the Government in Basra province are as committed as the House believes they should be to equal rights for all citizens and to protecting some of the most vulnerable from action by militias or by the police or state authorities? Does he share my concern that we may have left in Iraq a situation where dressing un-Islamically, or comitting apostasy or blasphemy, are punishable physically, and that in that respect the situation is worse than when we went to war there?
I raised the matter this morning with General Mohan, who is the head of the operations centre in Basra. He reminded me that Basra had once been the most cosmopolitan of cities in the Gulf, and he was confident that it could be returned to that position. He made it clear to me that he was worried about some of the activities of what he called Iranian agents in stirring up feeling there in favour of a much more rigorous application of the more austere aspects of some Islamist sects. The hon. Gentleman is right. We must keep a close eye on the situation and keep reminding the Government in Baghdad that they must do everything possible to protect women in that city and in every other city in Iraq.
Will my hon. Friend comment on the historic background to the sort of treatment that we are hearing about in Basra province? Does it go back to the period of Saddam Hussein or beyond that? Does he agree that the Koranic advice on Islamic dress is simply that men and women should dress modestly—that is, they should be careful and not expose too much of their body? However, it says nothing about the burqa or the niqab.
It is important that we remember that in the last years of Saddam Hussein’s rule, he had six women murdered in Basra. Their bodies lay in the main street for six days and no one was allowed to touch them because he wanted to teach Basrawis a lesson about the way that they behaved in public. It was a brutal regime and it has been a brutal history. My hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about the subject, is right about dress codes. One has only to visit the middle east to witness how differently dress codes are interpreted across the region. It is a mystery to those of us who go there and ask, “If the dress code is interpreted in that way in one country, why should it be so strictly interpreted in another?” I hope that our dialogue with countries in the middle east will help them understand the concern that we feel at the fact that human beings are treated in that way as a consequence of their mode of dress.
The Minister will have seen today’s comments by Sir Hilary Synnott, the former head of the British administration in southern Iraq. Sir Hilary said that the problems there are due, at least in large part, to the fact that the efforts of our troops were let down by a failure to co-ordinate and deliver effective civilian work on reconstruction. Can the Minister assure us now that the Government have learned and are acting on that lesson from Basra, before we repeat the experience that has occurred in Afghanistan?
I was surprised to read Sir Hilary’s statement, because in fact there have been some very substantial achievements in and around Basra; one has only to think, for example, of some of the projects run by the Army down there. There are huge new date plantations, employing 4,000 people. When our rebuilding of parts of the electricity and water infrastructure finishes very soon, there will be additional electricity and drinking water for the first time for 1 million people.
There have been achievements. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of the lack of preparedness after the invasion in respect of understanding what was required in rebuilding the country and offering people services that made their lives different from how they had been during the days of Saddam Hussein.
My hon. Friend will recall that immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the British Government took steps to ensure that Iraqi women from all the different communities in Iraq were able to come together and have a strong voice in the shaping of the new constitution and the election of the new Parliament. Can he assure me that the Government will continue to support a strong voice for Iraqi women—both directly, through the efforts of his Department, and indirectly, through the work of the Muslim Women’s Network, organised by the Women’s National Commission?
Yes, indeed; my right hon. Friend is right to remind us of that. It is difficult to see how Iraq can move forward if the rights of women are not enhanced and protected. However, I am confident that they will be. Besides anything else, there are now some powerful and vocal female members of the Iraqi Parliament—they will make a difference, if no one else will.
Through its Drugs and International Crime Department, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office contributed about £1.5 million in 2005 to 2007 for capacity building of law enforcement in the Balkans, including awareness-raising projects aimed at potential victims in Romania and Bulgaria. We have helped fund three projects in Serbia, three in Albania, two in Macedonia and one in Bosnia. I have met the Interior Ministers of Romania, Bulgaria and Albania to discuss how best to tackle crimes such as illegal immigration, drugs and human trafficking through those countries.
As one of the principal objectives of the Drugs and International Crime Department is the dismantling of trafficking groups, and as British taxpayers paid tens of millions of pounds for that department, will the Minister say how many trafficking groups have been dismantled in the western Balkans in each of the past five years? How much money has been taken from the traffickers and put into the British taxpayers’ purse and how much money has been given to the victims of trafficking in the western Balkans as a result of the dismantling of such groups? Has any of the money—
I will certainly try to supply the hon. Gentleman with the figures that he asks for. I commend the work that he has done and recognise that in forming an all-party group in this House he has drawn attention to an extremely serious crime. He understands, and I hope that he will keep telling people, that trying to break up those routes and those gangs is very difficult and becoming more difficult, because they are often financed by additional smuggling of drugs, whether Afghan-based heroin or the cocaine that is increasingly coming through that route into western Europe. It is a big job. There are people doing some very brave things in the western Balkans in trying to break up those gangs. I will try to get the figures that the hon. Gentleman asked for, because I do not know them offhand.
The Council of Europe convention on human trafficking comes into force next month, yet we are still to ratify it. The Government say that some legislative changes are required. Will they tell us what those changes are, and publish a timetable for them so that we can get on and help the victims of trafficking?
The hon. Gentleman is right to attract our attention to this. Implementing the convention is a key part of the comprehensive United Kingdom action plan on tackling human trafficking. Some of the other signatories to the convention have legal systems that allow or require ratification before implementation; ours does not. We intend to implement the measures, in effect, before formal ratification. As the hon. Gentleman hinted, the complexity of some of the issues to be resolved, including the likelihood of secondary and primary legislation and the need fully to consult stakeholders, means that ratification will take time. We want to ratify as soon as possible, but we believe that getting the arrangements right so that they work on the ground is much more important than political posturing.
Recent events in South Africa show that the country continues to develop and strengthen its democracy. South Africa is, and will remain, an important partner for the United Kingdom on a range of key bilateral, regional and wider international issues.
What assessment has my hon. Friend or her Department made of the impact of the change of leadership of the African National Congress on the Government in South Africa? Is she concerned that our strategic allies face political uncertainties, or pressures, not only in southern Africa but more spectacularly in east Africa?
My hon. Friend raises an issue concerning internal matters in the African National Congress. As far as the United Kingdom Government are concerned, South Africa is a key partner. President Mbeki is due to remain in office until the next South African elections, and we will continue to work closely with him and his team throughout this period.
Given the continuing catastrophe in Zimbabwe, what pressure are Her Majesty’s Government bringing to bear, through the South African Government, to bring to an end the totally unacceptable activity that continues in Zimbabwe?
The UK Government consider the role of South Africa to be very important in seeking to address issues in Zimbabwe, and we believe that regional action is likely to be the most effective. We continue to back President Mbeki’s mediation role through the South African Development Community initiative. Deadlines have been missed, which is unfortunate, but we are told that negotiations are entering their final stages, and we will continue to talk to South Africa about this.
Following up the question from my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), what recent political developments give the Minister confidence that Thabo Mbeki and the South African Government will put increased pressure on Mugabe to return Zimbabwe to democracy, and perhaps also suggest that the elections for the presidency a little later this year should be monitored and supervised internationally?
As I said, we have been told that the final stages of negotiations under the SADC initiative are under way, but I am afraid that there are no new signs of optimism in relation to the process. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of elections; we would want those elections to be moderated and supervised internationally.
The Colombian Government have stated many times their commitment to improving human rights, and progress is being made. However, as I discovered on my visit a few weeks ago, too many Colombians live in fear of violence, murder and kidnapping. Illegal armed groups are mainly responsible, but reports of soldiers and policemen committing abuses are a continuing concern. That is why we are helping the Government of Colombia, and civil society, to protect and promote the rights of all Colombians, which is a priority for this Government.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. According to Amnesty International, Colombia is one of the most dangerous places in the world for trade unionists to live and work. More than 2,200 were killed between 1991 and 2006, and security forces and Government-backed paramilitaries were thought to be behind many of those deaths. Will my hon. Friend consider withdrawing support for the Colombian security services until they give absolute guarantees that the rights of trade unionists will be protected and observed?
No, we will not withdraw our support, because we are trying to convince people in Colombia that human rights are an important consideration. We are working with the authorities and non-governmental organisations there, and we are certainly working with the Colombian TUC. In fact, I met the president of the Colombian TUC on my visit just before Christmas, and he was convinced that the work we are doing is very valuable. We will continue to take part in efforts to ensure that Colombian trade unionists are given the protection that they deserve. They have been kidnapped and killed by all manner of groups, including FARC, which sometimes considers them to be getting in the way of good drug business in the south of the country. FARC kills trade unionists, just as right-wing militias would.
In addition to suffering quite the most savage and egregious violence of the sort to which the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) referred, the Minister of State will also be aware that substantial numbers of Colombian trade unionists have been imprisoned—in some cases for very lengthy periods—without being charged with any offence, and therefore without the opportunity to defend themselves in a proper trial. I feel sure that the Minister of State has remonstrated in the strongest terms; perhaps he can give the House details of how he has done so.
Yes indeed. During my last visit, I raised that matter with Vice-President Santos and the Defence Minister. It is not a great advert for any democracy—and I believe that Colombia is a fast-developing democracy, and a good example to Latin America. Everyone must be given a fair trial there, especially trade unionists, who have been very brave in standing up for the rights of ordinary people in some of the most dangerous areas in the world.
Is my hon. Friend aware that some of us who visited Colombia a couple of years ago would very much endorse what he and other hon. Members have said about the role of the trade union movement? Those involved were some of the bravest people we met. Will he therefore continue the dialogue with the international trade union movement? Will he remember, too, that some of the Churches were hugely influential in carrying out marvellous work, and that they too should be encouraged?
Yes indeed; that is an important point. Such things will help Colombia to be part of a wider international dialogue. There is some very good work going on there, and my right hon. Friend mentioned some of the agencies involved. There are many others too, involved with small activities that people are undertaking. Let us also remember that five or six years ago the country was on the verge of being a failed state, run by gangsters. The biggest cartel of gangsters today is made up of those posing as revolutionaries—FARC. It is the biggest drug cartel in South America, and certainly in the western world. It will use any form of repression, such as torture or kidnapping, and it will hold people for a very long time in order to further its own commercial ends.
Council of Ministers
Slovenia took on the European Union presidency on 1 January, and we congratulate it on being the first of the 2004 new member states to do so. We welcome its strong focus on the Lisbon jobs and growth agenda, economic reform, climate change and further EU enlargement.
I, too, welcome the presidency of Slovenia, one of the EU’s smallest nations. What measures will we, as a sovereign Government, take to ensure that Slovenia does not fall under the undue influence of our friends across the channel, such as France? What will the Government do to protect our national interests during this important period?
It is difficult to answer such an unusual question, which is bizarre and absurd in equal measure. Slovenia is a proud and newly independent member state, which has an ambitious agenda for the rotating presidency. Let me stumble towards an answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question: we are providing logistical support and secondees to the Slovenian Government, and I visited Ljubljana recently. It is vital for the Slovenian presidency to be a success. Together, we have celebrated the independence of the nations that were freed from the tyranny of communism and are now proud members of an alliance of democracies.
When you called me, Mr. Speaker, I almost said, “Merci”.
May I confirm that the first thing that the Slovenian Parliament will do is ratify the Lisbon treaty, in accordance with the Slovenian presidency? Will not the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) be happy when our Parliament, too, ratifies the Lisbon treaty?
My hon. Friend is right. We will take a similar approach to the treaty to that which previous Governments took to other European treaties, including Amsterdam, Nice, Maastricht and the Single European Act. We have an established constitutional principle in the United Kingdom: the Palace of Westminster—the House of Commons and the House of Lords—gives its agreement to such European treaties.
I briefed the House yesterday on the situation in Pakistan and Kenya and the steps that the Government are taking to help those countries on the path to democracy and development. I can confirm that President Kufuor of Ghana is on his way to Nairobi, and we will do all that we can to assist him.
In 2008, the Foreign Office will focus its policy work on four matters: countering terrorism and weapons proliferation; promoting a low carbon, high growth global economy; preventing and resolving conflict; and developing effective international institutions—most critically, the United Nations and the European Union.
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should also like to mention two events in Lebanon earlier today. I am sure that the House will want to condemn strongly the rocket attacks overnight from southern Lebanon on Israel. Secondly, I can confirm reports of an explosion in Rmeileh, 30 km south of Beirut, in which two UN peacekeepers have been injured but, fortunately, not killed. We are seeking more details, but I am sure that the House will join me in deploring any attacks on UN peacekeepers.
In my right hon. Friend’s statement on Pakistan yesterday, he said that it was crucial that the delayed elections be seen to be free and fair. He also said that, if invited, the Commonwealth could play a positive role in monitoring such elections. Has such an invitation been extended at this stage? What actions are the Government taking to ensure that the Commonwealth is prepared if such an invitation comes along?
My right hon. Friend raises an important point. I have spoken to the Commonwealth secretary-general, who confirmed that approaches have been made to the Pakistan Government to make it clear that the Commonwealth would like to have monitors there. I spoke to Pakistan’s acting Foreign Minister last Friday to re-emphasise our belief that Commonwealth monitors could play a constructive role in not only Pakistan’s election but its eventual re-entry to the Commonwealth.
Across the House, we are united in deploring the rocket attacks against Israel and any attacks on UN peacekeepers, as the Foreign Secretary said, and also in intensifying the pressure on Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment programme and return to negotiations. The Foreign Secretary gave a welcome assurance in November that he had agreed with the other members of the Security Council that a new UN resolution, imposing sanctions on Iran, would quickly be introduced unless Javier Solana reported a positive outcome to his discussions. Mr. Solana reported no such positive outcome, yet no UN resolution has been agreed so far as we know. Will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that it is postponed rather than abandoned?
Yes, although I would not want to use the word “postponed”, or associate myself with it at all. The six members of the E3 plus 3 made it clear that if there were no positive outcome from the work of Javier Solana and the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is pursuing important issues relating to previous Iranian activities in respect of uranium enrichment, there would be a new Security Council resolution. I can confirm to the right hon. Gentleman that intensive work is going on among all six Governments, designed to take forward a resolution on a unanimous basis. I can also say that yesterday I met the secretary-general of the IAEA, Dr. el-Baradei, and emphasised the importance of his work and the urgency of taking it forward in respect of critical issues to do with contamination that remain to be answered by the Government of Iran.
The Foreign Secretary also assured us in November that the Government would press for further EU sanctions against Iran, to be agreed before the end of the year—that is, before the end of 2007. The Minister for the Middle East told the House in October that the Government were “very confident” that EU sanctions against Iran would be tightened. We welcomed that, but again, no such additional action has yet been taken. Is it not vital that it is taken, if Iran is not to conclude that the world does not have the will to uphold the non-proliferation treaty?
It is vital that that action is taken forward. The right hon. Gentleman will know that, in an unprecedented statement, European leaders at the European Council in December agreed the text of a very strong statement in respect of this issue, which made clear the readiness of the EU to move forward. Obviously the EU track and the UN track are complementary, but I assure him that there are intensive discussions taking place on an EU basis, as well as on the UN track.
My hon. Friend raises an important and timely point, given the visit to London today of General Mohan, the commander of Iraqi security forces in Basra. I met General Mohan this morning, as did my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, and the Secretary of State for Defence is meeting him this afternoon. General Mohan told me that although the security situation of course remains difficult—some of that was discussed earlier this afternoon—he is confident that Iraqi security forces have the capacity to take their work forward. I very much hope that the unity that he called for—on security issues, economic reconstruction and political reconciliation—can bring unity across the House on how we move forward on the issue of Iraq, even though I understand that there will never be unity on the original decision five years ago.
The right hon. Gentleman has long made important contributions on this issue, and he is right to highlight the discrepancy between the agreed intended size of the AU-UN force and its current size. I spoke to the UN Secretary-General over the Christmas and new year break, because of the difficulties in Pakistan, and was able to register the importance of the issue. The mission in New York is also taking it forward. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will also agree that, in parallel to the work to ensure that the force, with the right equipment, is on the ground in Darfur, we must pursue the work to bolster the comprehensive peace agreement, which has brought three years of peace between north and south, but needs to be taken forward further. I hope that the political track, as well as the military track, can be taken forward in 2008.
I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that these rocket attacks are very worrying. Two rockets came from Lebanon into Israel. We do not know who fired them: we suspect that elements of Fatah al-Islam, the group that caused the devastation in the refugee camp in the north of Tripoli, may be involved, but we have had no confirmation of that. My hon. Friend asks what difference the visit will make. I very much hope that it will continue to focus the attention of the world on the need for far more work to be put in on the middle east peace process, which has been a desultory process for far too long. The intensity that we witnessed in the run-up to Annapolis and since is to be welcomed. With luck, and particularly with the energy of the Americans, we hope to start to see some real achievements.
Further to his answer to the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), is the Foreign Secretary aware that the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned yesterday that UNAMID still does not have enough helicopters to carry out its peace-keeping mission in Darfur? While I recognise that our own armed forces are in need of more helicopters, particularly in Afghanistan, what is the British Government doing to ensure that UNAMID has the 24 helicopters that it was promised? The people of Darfur have waited long enough. When will the Government, with our EU and NATO allies, provide those life-saving helicopters?
I again welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post, and to his first Foreign Affairs questions. He rightly raises a detailed point about helicopters. Of course, the pressure on helicopter numbers is reflected not just in Afghanistan but in Chad, where an important French drive is taking place. The hon. Gentleman asked how we were taking discussions about this forward, and I can assure him that in NATO, in the EU and at the UN, strong diplomatic representations are being made at the political and official level. He referred to the calls already being made on British forces, and he will know that although it is easy to talk about deploying one or two helicopters, to do that requires significant numbers of staff in support. It is a complex matter, but I strongly share the hon. Gentleman’s sense of urgency about the situation, and I acknowledge the need to ensure that countries with forces at their disposal send them to the areas where they are most needed.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. This is the first time that the House has had a chance to discuss the matter since the very important Bali conference, where my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Minister for the Environment played a critical role in the last hours of the negotiations in securing an agreement. It is not a final global deal on climate change, but it includes for the first time commitments for all countries to be engaged in emissions reduction. Secondly, it specifies 25 per cent. to 40 per cent. cuts in emissions by the developed nations that were signatories to Kyoto by 2020. I think that that provides a basis for serious negotiations over the next two years. Perhaps the greatest thing achieved in Bali was the setting of a deadline for those negotiations, of December 2009—the last date by which we need an agreement if there is not to be a gap when the current Kyoto commitments lapse in 2012.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka. We have been trying for a long time to help the Norwegians, who have been attempting to broker peace and have done sterling work there. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, has been out to Sri Lanka to try to build bridges between the communities on the basis of his experience of what happened in Northern Ireland—but it is a very difficult process. I think that the most distressing feature is how the Government have won some military battles, but then become less enthusiastic about reconciliation and involving everyone who lives on that troubled island in a more inclusive way. We will continue to work with the Government, however, to emphasise that reconciliation must take place. There must be talks; otherwise the killing will continue. A Minister died yesterday, and we have seen—
There is a series of important reforms of the operation of the Commonwealth, which Her Majesty's Government strongly support—but it is largely for other countries to seek membership. It is not for the United Kingdom to extend invitations to other countries at our behest or suggestion. It would be for Ireland to initiate such an application, and it has not done so, nor does it appear to wish to submit such an application, now or at any point in the near future.
“We will put it to the British people in a referendum”.
Given that all other Foreign Ministers in the European Union consider the new EU treaty to be a constitution in all but name, how can they ever have any faith in anything that the Foreign Secretary says—or were he and the Prime Minister deliberately misleading the British people? (175849)
Despite what the hon. Gentleman says, only Ireland, which is required constitutionally to hold a referendum, is going to do so—and what the 27 have actually said is that the constitutional treaty has been abandoned. That is the truth of what they have said.
Last month the Secretary of State for International Development said that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza was
“getting worse by the day”.
Essential medicines have run out, fuel supplies have been cut, and supplies of clean water have been severely restricted. When will the United Kingdom Government remind the Israeli Government that that form of collective punishment is a clear breach of the Geneva convention, and insist that they live up to their duties with regard to humanitarian care?
My hon. Friend has raised an important point. I assure her that we cover the issue of Gaza in all conversations with the Israeli Government. Since the declaration of Gaza as a hostile territory on 30 October we have continued to raise the humanitarian situation there, most recently at the NATO Foreign Ministers’ joint meeting with middle eastern countries. As my hon. Friend will know, on 4 January there was a further tightening of the situation. It remains critical and deserves the attention of the Government, and I assure my hon. Friend that it is receiving it.
Umbilical Cord Blood (Donation)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to promote the donation of cord blood from women after giving birth; and for connected purposes.
Given that I have six children, I should be declaring an interest in the subject of the Bill. My constituency is adjacent to Barnet general hospital, one of only four NHS hospitals that collect umbilical cord blood. That would seem to be a good reason for developing an interest, but we have not donated umbilical cord blood despite six opportunities to do so at a nearby hospital. Like most parents throughout the United Kingdom, we were not informed of the value of cord blood or the possibility of collection. Until recently I did not consider the umbilical cord, once clamped after birth, as anything more than a waste product. The first purpose of the Bill, and of my speech, is to encourage parents and the wider public to be more informed about the value and benefits of umbilical cord blood.
Hon. Members may be ignorant, as I was, of the nature of cord blood. The baby’s blood in the cord contains different types of cell, including stem cells. Cord blood has been used for the last 20 years for blood transplantation. It has treated patients with leukaemia, sickle-cell diseases, immune deficiencies and other diseases: there have been 85 treatments to date.
There are possible treatments in the pipeline beyond blood therapy. Trials for the use of cord blood in brain injury in children are under way and cord blood is being developed for many other therapies, including diabetes and liver therapy. Treatment for leukaemia highlights the particular value of cord blood transplants, which can be used as an alternative to bone marrow transplants. Such cord blood transplants are less complicated, with fewer delays, and more readily available, as they can be stored and frozen for many years. Significantly, it is easier to find a match from stem cells than from bone marrow.
Umbilical cord blood collection leads to increased access to transplantation, particularly for patients from ethnic minorities. The reality is that umbilical cord blood, which is thrown away routinely after birth, has a life-saving value. Becki Josiah contacted me after her daughter Billie died from leukaemia in April 2006. She was ill for two years and awaiting a bone marrow transplant. A major difficulty for the Josiah family was their daughter’s mixed-race background. As Mrs. Josiah said to me,
“Mixed-race individuals have a much lower chance of receiving a match in bone marrow donations and cord blood donation gives them another vital chance at a cure.”
The Bill attempts to increase the chances of a cure for families such as the Josiah’s.
Mrs. Josiah has also highlighted the limitations on donation. She recently had another baby and wanted to donate her newborn baby’s cord blood to help cure a child with leukaemia, like her daughter. However, her family does not live near one of the four NHS hospitals with facilities to accept her donation. As she said, it was not possible for her blood to
“go to another family to help spare them the agony of losing someone they love.”
Successful treatment is possible for one’s own blood, a sibling’s or that of an unrelated patient. We must find a way of enabling more patients to access this source of treatment, and my Bill takes some steps in that direction.
My interest in umbilical cord blood arose when as a member of the Joint Committee I scrutinised the draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill. Our remit was focused on the Government’s approach, which is to ensure that the UK is at the forefront of scientific development in embryonic stem cell research. A majority of public money supports embryonic research compared with other stem cell sources. The House will no doubt have the opportunity soon, with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, to debate whether it is wise to move into the realms of interspecies research to deal with the limited number of embryonic stem cell lines.
As well as the political hurdles, there are ethical and biological hurdles in the way of the Government marching us up to the top of the hill of embryonic research. It is therefore timely to consider an alternative hill of stem cell research. The terrain is the same: wanting the UK to be at the forefront of bringing stem cell therapies and regenerative medicine to the clinic in order to relieve suffering and reduce health care costs. With the help of this Bill, the focus would be on core blood stem cell therapy, which already results in treatment of diseases. Research in the field holds out an exciting future; notably Professor Colin McGuckin has led a team in Newcastle to be the first in the world to characterise human embryonic stem cells from umbilical cord blood.
The question that the Bill raises is why only 150 cord blood transplants out of 8,000 worldwide have been carried out in the UK. Why are we routinely disregarding the proven life-saving value of umbilical cord blood but legislating and investing predominantly in the unproven and ethically challenging route of embryonic research? Given that we will in the foreseeable future depend on non-embryonic stem cell therapies, why are we putting literally most of our eggs in one basket?
There are supporters of the Bill who are not necessarily opposed to embryo research but recognise the value of umbilical cord blood and its availability. The Bill would make it a universal requirement for doctors to inform pregnant women of the benefits of collection and storage of cord blood. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists advises that if there is a known genetic condition in a family—already a child with leukaemia or a blood-related disorder—a clinician may recommend that parents bank their babies’ cord blood. My Bill would presume that collection takes place in such circumstances unless parents opt out or medical reasons prevent it. If nothing is done in this area, some private banks will simply exploit families’ fears.
The practical problem facing any future extension of donation of cord blood is the limited number of NHS maternity units equipped for collection and storage in a safe environment. The NHS cord blood bank at Edgware restricts its collections to Barnet general, Northwick Park, Luton and Dunstable and Watford hospitals, which are the only dedicated units in England. The collection sites do not form a planned approach to collection of cord blood and we are currently missing—or, more to the point, wasting—the opportunity presented by umbilical cord blood.
The Bill seeks to promote the collection of cord blood from specific shortage groups, particularly ethnic minority groups and mixed-race families. The UK Thalassaemia Society, which has its base in Southgate in my constituency, recognises that point in its support of my Bill, as does the Leukaemia Society in the United Kingdom. They have emphasised to me the difficulties for leukaemia patients of Cypriot origin in finding appropriate bone marrow matches and support the proposed extension of cord blood donation.
The purposes of the Bill are not wholly dependent on legislation. The Anthony Nolan Trust, which also supports the Bill’s aim to promote the benefits of cord blood collection, is setting up the first charitable cord blood bank in the UK and plans to promote opportunities for more cord donation. The hope is that six maternity units will facilitate collection. The aim is to harvest 12,500 cords within five years for clinical and research use.
The Bill seeks to raise our sights higher, given the value now of cord blood’s treating 85 different diseases. It also seeks to rebalance the debate on stem cell therapy, which can often be more led by media proxy and hype than the ability realistically to treat patients. The Bill supports an ethical and convenient alternative to embryonic sources of stem cells. It also supports parents who are waiting desperately for treatment for their children with diseases such as leukaemia.
I leave the last words to Becki Josiah. She says:
“I find it obscene that I could go into Selfridges tomorrow and buy a jar of face cream containing placenta but I cannot find anyone willing to collect and store the precious resource that is cord blood”,
and asks whether anything can be done to help her.
I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Burrowes, Geraldine Smith, Simon Hughes, Robert Key, Mr. Julian Brazier, Mr. Stephen Crabb, Mr. Andrew Dismore, Bob Spink, Michael Fabricant, Jim Dobbin, Andrew Selous and Mrs. Nadine Dorries.
Umbilical Cord Blood (Donation)
Mr. David Burrowes accordingly presented a Bill to promote the donation of cord blood from women after giving birth; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed [Bill 50].
[5th allotted day]
I beg to move,
That this House is deeply concerned by the track work over-runs by Network Rail on the West Coast Main Line and at Liverpool Street station over the Christmas and New Year period; believes that the disruption caused to passengers was unacceptable and that Network Rail failed to plan properly for the successful completion of works on time; further notes that Network Rail was created by the present Government and believes that these recent incidents illustrate that the organisation is insufficiently accountable to its customers; and calls on the Government to take steps to ensure that Network Rail is made more accountable to the travelling public so that efficiency is improved and a much better quality of service is provided to passengers in the future.
As if non-stop gloomy economic news and the return to work after the Christmas break were not enough to depress people last week, thousands of travellers had rail chaos to contend with as well: a truly miserable new year greeting from this Government and Network Rail, the organisation that Labour created to maintain and run the tracks on our railways—a creation process in which the Prime Minister and his closest Treasury advisers were heavily involved. A key national route—60,000 passengers a day use the extensive stretches of the west coast main line—was seriously disrupted when upgrade works around Rugby ran four days over time. Many people were forced on to lengthy bus journeys and were subject to hours of delay.
Liverpool Street station, which is used daily by 100,000 passengers, was completely closed on the first working day after the new year, when a bridge project overran, and services remained disrupted for another two days. That level of disruption damages our economic competitiveness, and causes misery for passengers and inconvenience for those who are running freight on our railways. It is simply not acceptable, it should not have happened and it need not have happened had there been sensible planning. The fact that it occurred on a day when fares increased by as much as 14.5 per cent. in some areas compounded the anger and dissatisfaction felt by so many passengers, who rightly believed that they were not getting value for money.
The hon. Lady may not have been in the House when Robert Adley, the ex-Member for Christchurch, commented that the privatisation of the railway network was like the “poll tax on wheels”. Many Transport Select Committee reports have made it clear that everything we are facing is down to fragmentation. In these circumstances, why are the Opposition suggesting that the answer to the problems over the Christmas period, which affected people north of the border who were travelling through Rugby as well as those south of the border, is further fragmentation? Why is the hon. Lady advocating that?
Where I agree with the hon. Gentleman is on his statement that the disruptions impacted negatively on people north of the border as well as on those south of it—the Opposition are deeply concerned about that. On the rest of his contribution, I must tell him that this Government have to start answering for their own record on the railway network.
It is certainly true that some progress in the rail industry has been made, a significant amount of which results from privatisation. It would not have been possible to achieve that progress without the enterprise introduced by the private sector train operating companies.
As a regular traveller on the west coast main line, I am particularly interested in the project to which the hon. Lady refers. Will she put this debate into perspective by telling us the scale of the project that was undertaken during this winter break? How many person hours were put in to the work that she is challenging?
It was clearly a huge project, but there is no excuse for the disruption that caused misery to so many people.
Labour created Network Rail and Labour must carry the can for its failure. To all intents and purposes, it is a nationalised industry—more or less everyone accepts that, except the Government and the management of Network Rail. No matter how many somersaults they do to try to keep Network Rail’s debts off the Government balance sheets, they are simply in denial if they think that Network Rail is not effectively an agency of government. May I draw the House’s attention to something said by the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw)? He explicitly referred to the fact that the Government
“brought Network Rail into public ownership”.—[Official Report, 1 February 2007; Vol. 456, c. 363.]
I am a regular user of the railway from Colchester to London Liverpool Street, and I have a lot of sympathy with the points that the hon. Lady is making because I have constituents who were similarly affected. Does she accept that the fragmentation of the railway industry has not helped the situation?
Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), is my hon. Friend aware that many of my constituents experienced huge disruption from the overrun of the engineering works at Liverpool Street? It is not acceptable for Network Rail consistently to blame contractors: it has to take responsibility for overruns that inconvenience the public.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if Labour really believed that any split in the old British Rail monopoly was wrong, it should have nationalised the whole thing years ago and proved that that was better? Of course, it is not better, which is why Labour has not done it. The railway moved from decline to growth when we privatised it.
The reality is that Ministers now have more control over our railways than they did in the days of British Rail. They take more detailed decisions on a range of issues, such as timetabling and rolling stock, than Ministers have ever considered in the past. In Network Rail, they took the decision to create an organisation that is not properly accountable to anyone—to shareholders, passengers, customers or the regulator—and they must take responsibility for the consequences of that decision.
My constituents in Wales were seriously affected by the overrun of engineering works in Rugby, but their main concern is that the lessons are learnt for the future. They welcome the upgrade of the line and the additional services that they are now getting, but what they want—sensibly—is for the regulator to look into the problems and the lessons to be learnt, so that we can have even faster and more frequent trains to north-west Wales.
Absolutely lessons must be learned for the future, and it is sad that Network Rail has not always learned lessons from similar incidents in the past. The simple fact is that Network Rail’s senior management was incompetent in failing to plan properly to get the work finished on time. I emphasise that it is senior management that has been found wanting, because the Opposition recognise the hard work and difficult job done by so many dedicated Network Rail staff, whose morale must have plummeted in recent weeks.
Ministers were invisible as the crisis on the rail network deepened. Network Rail’s failure to communicate effectively either with passengers or with the people responsible for running the trains was inexcusable. It is one thing to overrun on a possession, but the impact is far worse if one gives only short notice that that will happen. There seemed to be a blithe assumption that if a train company were given a few days’ notice, its passengers could switch their plans and travel on a different day. But we are talking about new year’s eve. If one is going to a new year’s eve party, there is not a lot of point in getting a train on 4 January.
At Liverpool Street, One Railway, the people responsible for running the trains in and out of the station and for getting passengers from A to B, first learned of the work overrun at about 1 am on 2 January, about four hours before the station was due to reopen and trains to start running. By then, it was simply too late to get any information to customers before they turned up at stations across East Anglia, not unreasonably expecting to be able to take a train into work. That is an extreme example of Network Rail’s damaging tendency not to co-operate closely enough with train operating companies, or even keep them informed of what is going on. That approach is hindering efficiency in the railways and increasing fragmentation.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the failure of Network Rail management to learn their lessons. I received a letter today from Iain Coucher in response to my correspondence. He says that, while there have been similar problems in the past,
“It is obvious now that we attempted to do too much work, in too short a period”.
The Government always make the argument that lessons will be learnt, changes will be made in the future and that things will be better at some stage. However, under the current Government, we have been constantly required to wait for that to happen. When does my hon. Friend think that the Government will learn the lessons?
I do not think that the Government will ever learn the lessons. Not only have they asked us to wait, they have asked the taxpayer to pay more and they have asked the fare payer to pay more for substandard services.
Passenger groups were not consulted by Network Rail in advance of the Liverpool Street fiasco either. Brian Cooke of London TravelWatch said:
“The situation at Liverpool Street is a thorough disgrace.”
Many passengers have voiced their frustration and some are even threatening strike action. Natalie Evans of the British Chambers of Commerce said:
“Today’s rail problems, coupled with an inflation busting increase in fares, are simply not good enough.”
Tony Collins of Virgin Trains said that
“our customers expect and deserve better.”
Passenger Focus said that the approach taken by Network Rail broke
“every golden rule on how to treat passengers”.
Anthony Smith of Passenger Focus said:
“This is unbelievable. Thousands of passengers have booked or planned New Year travel in good faith. We feel very let down and want re-assurances that the huge amount of engineering work planned”—
“will not run into similar problems.”
Is it not likely that the outcome of the whole sad saga will be that the regulator will fine Network Rail? Is that not nonsense, because Network Rail will merely pay with taxpayers’ money? Would it not be far better to say that Network Rail should not make any bonus payments to its management, who have shown gross incompetence?
My hon. Friend anticipates what I was about to say. We must remember that the problems were not caused by storms, snowfalls or sudden natural disasters, but simply by poor planning and project management at Network Rail and, indirectly, by the Government’s failure to put adequate systems in place to ensure that Network Rail is properly accountable for its performance.
No. I want to make some progress.
It is no answer for Network Rail to blame its contractors, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) remarked. The regulator recently concluded that Network Rail had breached its licence by failing
“adequately to evaluate and mitigate the risks associated with the project, and to manage its contractor in line with best practice.”
“failed to consider and plan for the possibility of an extended overrun of the commissioning works, and the consequential effect on passengers.”
The regulator was talking not about Rugby in January 2008 but about Portsmouth in early 2007 after signalling work overruns caused huge disruption to passengers over several months. At the time, the Office of Rail Regulation made it plain:
“Even though its contractor carrying out the work may be at fault for the delays in completing the work on time, ORR considers that Network Rail should have managed its contractor more effectively and is responsible.”
It seems that few lessons have been learnt from Portsmouth.
There is a word that the hon. Lady is studiously avoiding using: Railtrack. I agree that what Network Rail did over the new year was unacceptable and that lessons need to be learnt. However, is she seriously suggesting that that railway disruption compares in any way with the financial and personal tragedies that Railtrack, which was set up by a Conservative Government, visited on the railways?
I am saying that there was major disruption that should not have happened. We should be debating this Government’s performance in running our rail network.
Even if Network Rail can heap some of the blame for Rugby on Bechtel, what is its excuse for Liverpool Street? If Bechtel is at fault, will the Minister tell us what penalties the contract will impose? If the contract does not provide for penalties, why does it not? Is that not a basic element of good procurement practice, particularly when timely completion of the works is so crucial in getting the railway back up and running and allowing people to get to work in the morning?
I thank my hon. Friend for her courtesy in giving way again. What happened at Liverpool Street was clearly unacceptable, but unfortunately it was by no means a one-off. I have had meetings with Network Rail officials about the propensity that engineering works at weekends have to overrun so that when the track is handed back on Monday delays back up in the system. That is highly inconvenient for my constituents. Does my hon. Friend agree that maintaining the track is a core part of what Network Rail exists to do? It has to do better or the public will lose all confidence in its ability.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, as ever. Network Rail needs to get a grip and seriously raise its game. Its performance is not acceptable.
Another key error committed by Network Rail was its failure to tackle the situation effectively when things started to go wrong. The problems did not come out of the blue. Possessions are planned 18 months in advance. As early as 6 December there were clear warning signs that serious problems were occurring at Rugby when there was surely still time to remedy the situation. One question that the Secretary of State has to answer today has to do with when she was first warned about the potential overrun, and when she started to take action to sort the problem out.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) noted earlier, merely imposing fines on Network Rail would not be an adequate response, as the taxpayer would pick up the bill for them anyway. As former rail regulator Tom Winsor has pointed out, the Government have removed
“the most potent instrument of…accountability—the ability of the regulator to inflict financial pain if the company’s management commits serious sins”.
While taxpayers and passengers pay the price of failure at Network Rail, its managers still receive their high salaries and bonuses. It was confirmed in November that the £286,000 in bonuses suspended after the Grayrigg accident had been paid out to Network Rail’s four senior managers, despite the serious failures that the accident revealed. Network Rail’s annual report disclosed a further £362,000 of longer-term performance incentives. Last year, the pay of Network Rail’s non-executive directors rose by 18 per cent. It looks as though the pay restraint that the Prime Minister has been grandstanding about does not apply to some of Labour’s friends at Network Rail.
It was, of course, a matter of huge irony that, on the very day that Virgin took out advertisements in the national press to warn passengers about the expected disruption, those same national newspapers carried news of the knighthood that the Government had awarded to the chairman of Network Rail for his services to transport.
The fundamental problem that the House must address is that Network Rail’s management is not accountable to anyone. We believe that that must change. The people who in theory are supposed to hold Network Rail to account are its members, but the Network Rail board decides who most of them are. It is therefore no wonder that that check has been derided as toothless and ineffectual.
Reform is needed to put in place a more effective way to penalise failure by Network Rail’s management, and to ensure that they are forced to listen to the regulator and their customers. Getting that right is of critical importance if we are to have the high-quality rail network that our economy needs. There are many reasons for that, but I shall outline just three.
First, the Grayrigg accident shows that failures at Network Rail can have tragic consequences. The report into the crash revealed a catalogue of errors.
I have been listening to the hon. Lady carefully. The motion refers to the accountability of Network Rail, but I am struggling to understand what her party would do with the organisation. Would it abolish Network Rail? If not, what steps would it take to render Network Rail more accountable? She has said nothing about that so far.
The hon. Gentleman has a treat in store as, in due course, we will publish the results of our rail review. We will explain then how we intend to tackle the problem, but this debate is about what the Government are going to do about it. They are in office, and they must deal with it.
I am sure that the hon. Lady does not want to mislead the House, but she seemed to suggest that the Network Rail board chooses its members. She will know that anyone working in the rail industry is able to make nominations to the board, and that that includes the freight companies. The Network Rail board does not choose its members—far from it. A perfectly straightforward machinery exists for that, and she must know about it.
My understanding is that the board has the final say over the public members appointed, but not over the industry members. According to the latest information, industry members make up about 24 per cent. of the board’s membership, with public members accounting for 76 per cent. I certainly meant to say that the board has a veto over the majority of members, and it was an error on my part if I did not make that clear. However, I am willing to be corrected.
My understanding is that there is an independent element in proposing public members, but that the Network Rail board ultimately can say yes or no to any nomination. However, I shall be happy to check my facts to ensure that I have presented the situation correctly.
The second reason why it is vital to ensure that Network Rail is accountable is that it does not give high enough priority to passenger concerns. That must surely be a key reason why it has been so exasperatingly slow to deliver capacity enhancement—measures such as longer platforms or short rail extensions into ports and industrial estates. As Network Rail’s own business plan confirms, overcrowding is not confined any longer to busy London commuter routes. It is spread across Britain and is a serious problem, even on many off-peak trains. Passenger numbers on commuter services into Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Manchester and Glasgow far exceed capacity on many trains. Capacity expansion is vital to tackle growing overcrowding problems, but a recurring complaint from stakeholders is that Network Rail management are simply not concerned enough about growing the railway.
The third reason why we must tackle the problem of lack of accountability is that Network Rail’s management are insufficiently focused on keeping costs under control. This is a body that has directly received £10.3 billion of taxpayers’ money at today’s prices since 2002 and will get another £3.05 billion this financial year. That does not even include the further taxpayer subsidy that it receives indirectly via payments from the train operating companies. At present the reality is that neither the taxpayer nor the fare payer is getting value for money.
The hon. Lady is very successfully setting out a case against Network Rail. Where is the evidence that the separation of Network Rail from the operating companies is to the benefit of rail passengers? If we had an integrated rail service, surely the problems that she is outlining would not happen.
Things would certainly be more positive if there were more co-operation between the management of track and train. As I have stated, that is one of the weaknesses displayed by Network Rail senior management.
The disruption around Birmingham coincided with the day that the cost of an annual season ticket to Euston rose from £7,260 to £7,608. It is no wonder London TravelWatch described new year fare rises as a bitter pill. Passengers are being asked to pay more and more, often for grossly overcrowded trains and disrupted services. The reality is that fare payers are picking up the bill for Network Rail’s failure to get a grip on costs.
So this afternoon the Secretary of State has many questions to answer, not least of which is what is the total cost of this fiasco to the taxpayer. How much have the extra engineers who were needed for the overrun works cost? Will the money paid in fines—we surely expect some of those—be recycled and spent on rail or is it lost to the rail network? What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Office of Rail Regulation on how to improve the performance of Network Rail? What did she do to respond to the problems revealed at Portsmouth, so many of which were repeated on this latest occasion? What discussions has she had with passenger groups and train companies about getting better performance from Network Rail? Above all, what guarantees can she give us that lessons will be learnt from the current fiasco and that steps will be taken to prevent its being repeated?
With major projects planned for Reading, Birmingham New Street, Thameslink, and the east coast main line, not to mention the remaining stages of the west coast main line upgrade, and with work scheduled for more or less every bank holiday up to December, I am afraid that there could be a great deal more disruption in store for passengers. Some projects, such as signalling work at the Glasgow Shields junction, are still overrunning from the new year break. Is the Secretary of State confident that the upgrade of the west coast main line will be completed on schedule in December this year?
No. I shall conclude. The hon. Gentleman will get his chance in a minute.
The disruption over the new year was a monumental foul-up. What a contrast with the hope and excitement at the launch of High Speed 1 last month. The incident illustrates how vital the railways are for our economy, our quality of life and our country. The underlying problem is that when they created Network Rail the Government failed to put in place effective means to ensure that it was answerable for its actions. When it provides poor services, too often it gets away with it with impunity. The taxpayer deserves better from Network Rail; its staff deserve better; but, above all, passengers deserve better.
I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
“applauds the Government for taking decisive action to correct the flaws of rail privatisation; welcomes the fact that the railway is carrying 40 per cent. more passengers and 47 per cent. more freight than in 1997 with improving punctuality and safety standards and record investment in infrastructure; and looks forward to seeing the results of the investigation by the Office of Rail Regulation into Network Rail’s performance, following the unacceptable engineering overruns experienced by passengers during Christmas and the New Year.”.
I start by commending the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) for her bravery in raising the issue of the performance of our railways in the first Opposition day debate of the year. I say “bravery” because, first, although she spoke for just over 20 minutes, she failed to make a single concrete proposal on how to improve rail services. Also, there was yet another abject failure to commit to matching Labour’s investment plans for the next seven years. Secondly, it was bravery given her party’s track record on rail, which was defined by years of under-investment, declining passenger numbers, closure of lines, and of course a botched privatisation. I recognise the compliment that she paid the Government when she accepted that performance had improved on the railways in the past 10 years. However, people will be incredulous that she puts the improvement down to the privatisation that took place under the Tory Government. Sometimes I think that she lives on another planet.
Indeed not, and I beg the hon. Lady to wait for the rest of my speech. Before I tackle head-on the issues that she raised, I, too, welcome the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) to his place on the Front Bench. I look forward to his contribution, both to today’s debate and to other transport debates in the coming months. I know what a keen interest he has taken in rail, and in championing the concerns of his constituents.
Over Christmas and the new year period, there were serious, unacceptable delays on key sections of the rail network, including at Rugby and at Liverpool Street station. I regret the impact that they had on thousands of passengers. The chief executive of Network Rail has rightly apologised. He told me that he intends to learn all the lessons from the engineering works delays, to minimise the risk of unforeseen overruns in future.
I tried this question with the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), but she said that it was my right hon. Friend’s job to answer it. The project was huge, and there were unacceptable overruns, but will my right hon. Friend try to put the matter in perspective? I travelled down the west coast main line on Monday and saw the massive changes that have occurred. How many people-hours were put into the project over the weekend? If the scale of the work is made clear, it will help the debate.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I travelled on the west coast main line only a few days ago and I, too, experienced a comfortable, reliable journey, which took two and a quarter hours from London to Manchester. The performance of the rail network has improved so considerably that I am delighted to tell the House that I can now use that route regularly, whereas after the Hatfield incident, when it was clear how chaotic a state the railways were in, some of us, including me, had to switch to the air for a period. My hon. Friend rightly says that the scale of the works was enormous. I can tell the House that in any 24-hour period, the equivalent of 5,000 people were working full-time to upgrade and renew our railways.
The point I am making is that it is important that the full lessons are learned from the episode. The failures call into question whether the processes put in place by Network Rail to manage engineering works over the Christmas and new year period were adequate. I can tell the House today that the rail regulator has announced that he is extending his investigation in view of the concerns expressed by Network Rail’s customers and funders.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of problems north of the border? I am sure that her colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), who has responsibility for railways, is. I am thinking particularly of the problems on the line between Glasgow and Paisley. Although that section of the railway is not her responsibility, does the problem not show that the idea of further fragmentation in the railway network is nonsense and should not be supported?
I entirely agree. As I intend to amplify later in my speech, the idea that accountability or lack of accountability for the rail structure is a cause or potential cause of the engineering overruns is ludicrous. Those are separate questions that need to be addressed separately.
It is right that I set out to the House the scope of the investigation. The rail regulator’s investigation will focus on the engineering overrun at Rugby, the engineering overrun at Liverpool Street, the impact that those have had on passengers, train operators and freight operators, and the robustness of Network Rail’s plans for the remaining work to enhance the west coast main line. In particular, the regulator will examine whether there are any systemic failings underlying these events. The interim report, which will be published, should be produced by the end of February. I hope that all Members of the House will agree that we should not pre-empt its findings.
Will the right hon. Lady deal with the question that I put to the Opposition spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers)? It seems ridiculous that, by way of a fine for the incompetence of management, we should deprive Network Rail of money that would be spent on the infrastructure. Everyone admits that the problem is the incompetence of the management. Is it not better to penalise the top management by refusing them bonuses for the next three years to ensure that they produce the efficient management that is so necessary for Network Rail?
I understand the genuine concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman, and I, like him, sympathise with all the passengers who suffered disruption on the network over the Christmas and new year period. It is easy to say in the House that fines are no incentive for Network Rail. It is incumbent on any Member who suggests that fines do not provide the necessary incentive to say how any other model would provide an improved incentive for Network Rail.
Certainly, if the results of the investigation by the Office of Rail Regulation suggest that Network Rail is in breach of its licence, has been in breach of its licence or is likely to be in breach of its licence in future, that would need to be taken into account in setting bonus payments, as the contractual management incentive plan, as I understand it, sets out clearly.
Those matters are not for Ministers, however; they are for the remuneration committee of Network Rail. That management incentive plan is clearly in force and recognises those issues. It is not right for Ministers or for the hon. Lady to pre-empt the findings of the Office of Rail Regulation’s report, which will focus on determining whether there were genuinely unforeseeable reasons that led to the delays or whether there was a failure of management. We should await its conclusion.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State; she is generous in giving way. When her colleague the Secretary of State for Justice boasts about bringing Network Rail into public ownership, the right hon. Lady cannot evade responsibility for the way in which Network Rail is run.
I am astounded by the fact that the hon. Lady is claiming that we have a public ownership structure for Network Rail, when she is not aware, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) set out to the House, what the accountability of Network Rail is. She should know that it is a private not-for-profit company which is responsible to its board.
I welcome the investigation, particularly into what happened at Rugby. What angers the public is the arbitrary way that that was handled by Network Rail—for example, people being bussed from Coventry or Birmingham to Northampton. That caused a great deal of public anger and it is important that we find the causes of the problems. It is worth while remembering that the previous Government broke up the railways. There were 100 different companies and it was a total mess. The system was a mess in 2000—we remember some of the accidents and disasters. Something had to be done. We should bear that in mind when the Opposition criticise us.
Our problems stem from the fragmentation that happened during all the years of Tory privatisation—[Interruption.] I am glad to see that the Liberal Democrats agree.
The announcement that the Office of Rail Regulation will investigate the issue is important and welcome. Will my right hon. Friend give a little more detail of the extent to which the rail regulator will specifically consider what happened in respect of the west coast main line, and how much the remit of the regulator’s inquiry will cover the wider issues—
My hon. Friend is correct to raise those issues. This morning, I asked the rail regulator about his inquiry’s terms of reference. He made it clear that he would broaden his investigation to consider not only upgrading and engineering work on the west coast main line, but whether there was proven evidence of a systemic problem that needed to be addressed in the management of engineering works. It will also address the point, made by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, whether full lessons have been learned from previous episodes, including that at Portsmouth.
I think I might know what the right hon. Gentleman’s solution is: to revert to a situation in which, rather than being accountable to a membership board, Network Rail is more concerned with paying dividends to private shareholders, and [Official Report, 23 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 15MC.] in which Government investment, far from increasing—as it is, by £10 billion over the next five-year period—returns to a level of chronic under-investment. I would not agree with that solution, and nor would many members of the public.
It is important that we put the episodes of Christmas and the new year into context. Today, we have the fastest-growing railway in Europe.
While we are still on the issue of the investigations, I should say that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) has already raised the delays between Glasgow and Paisley at Shields Junction. I understand that the delays involve a number of private companies and raise issues, again, about the fragmentation of the railways. Can that matter also be looked into?
The Secretary of State is very generous. She rightly links the issue of management performance with bonuses. As I said earlier, Mr. Coucher, the chief executive, said:
“we attempted to do too much work, in too short a period”.
He accepts that he made a mistake. Given those circumstances, does the Secretary of State think that he should receive his bonus? Yes or no?
I have made two points absolutely clear. First, bonus setting is not for the Government; it is not my role as Secretary of State for Transport to set the bonuses of Network Rail’s management. However, I sympathise with those who, understandably, feel angry about the delays and overruns in the Christmas and new year period.
Secondly, bonuses are set by Network Rail’s remuneration committee, which is chaired by an independent non-executive director and acts according to a management incentive plan that takes into account whether a licence has been breached or is likely to be breached in future. The rail regulator is examining that issue and his interim findings will be published at the end of February. I hope that, at that point, everyone will be clear about whether there was a breach of the Network Rail licence.
As I was saying, today we have the fastest-growing railway in Europe. When the Conservatives were in power, the railways were faced with the problem of managing decline; now, for the first time since the war, we are planning for growth. Why? First, the stability of our economy has enabled this Government to double spending on our railways over the past 10 years; and secondly, we took the tough decisions required to clear up the mess left after privatisation, when the state of the track had deteriorated dramatically, confidence was shattered, and costs had spiralled out of control. The Railways Act 2005 put in place a new structure that has, for once, got a grip on costs and is delivering significant improvements in performance. For the first time in 50 years, we have a stable structure for our railways on a secure financial footing, with firm, costed plans that should enable us to double the size of the railways over the next 30 years.
I wonder whether the Secretary of State agrees with her colleague, the Minister with responsibility for railways, who said:
“‘Delivering a Sustainable Railway’…does not identify a need to re-open lines to deliver additional capacity.”—[Official Report, 18 December 2007; Vol. 469, c. 1444W.]
How does she square that with the massive growth that she is predicting?
I would be surprised if the hon. Gentleman were not aware that we have firm, costed plans that are delivering within the 2009 to 2014 period. In those costed plans, we have said that there will be no line closures and that we will monitor the growth in passenger numbers over that period; if passenger numbers grow faster than expected, we will, in the following period, think about whether additional railway capacity is needed, including whether to open new lines. When we come to the second control period, from 2014 onwards, I retain an open mind on whether we need, for example, to reopen a disused rail line between London and Birmingham, whether we should have a high-speed rail link that links London to Birmingham, or even beyond to Manchester and so forth, or indeed whether other modes of transport, such as roads, should be encouraged. It is right that we take a fundamental look at these issues in the light of what is happening with the growth in passenger numbers and of a proper diagnosis of the problems. We are going through that process at the moment to prepare ourselves early for decisions that will be taken in several years’ time.
Under Railtrack, the cost of the west coast main line modernisation programme had soared from £2.4 billion to £14 billion, with no end of the work in sight. Network Rail was able to get a grip on costs, no longer underwritten by blank cheques from the Government. Its work was endorsed not only by the Public Accounts Committee, with which the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet should be familiar, but by the National Audit Office. We are seeing steady improvements in overall performance, reliability and safety. We have delivered the channel tunnel rail link on time and on budget. It is precisely because we have regained control of spending that I was, in July, able to set out the resources that we intend to devote to the railways over the next seven years and the further improvements that we expect the industry to deliver.
The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet questioned whether Network Rail was indeed making efficiency gains. I can tell her that in this current five-year control period, Network Rail is on track to deliver efficiency gains of more than 30 per cent.—a record that Railtrack was never able to match. I would be interested to know whether she would commit to match the £10 billion investment that we intend to make between 2009 and 2014.
We have heard Opposition Members suggest that the fare payer should not have to put any more into the railways, whereas previously they have suggested that taxpayers should not pay more. Does my right hon. Friend, who is an economist of some renown, know where the third source of money that they propose to get is to be found?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Indeed, I am still not clear about the fares policy of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet. If she disagrees with what passengers are being asked to pay, would she and her party expect the taxpayer to pay more instead, or would they rather cut services and investment? If so, which of the projects that we have announced would they like to cut? I remind the hon. Lady that rather than people being priced off the railways, passenger numbers are at record levels, with 370 million more passenger journeys every year than in 1997—a figure that is increasing year by year.
That is one of the issues we need to consider. Indeed, the Office of Rail Regulation will examine the impact that that disruption had on passengers. There are clear arrangements in place under which compensation can be paid to train operating companies and, under the passenger’s charter, to passengers, if they have been incorrectly sold tickets or subjected to severe disruption. I would expect those measures to be enforced.
The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet quoted the price of a season ticket to Birmingham. I must say that I have not checked the price of such a season ticket, but the hon. Lady’s contribution on fares would have slightly more credibility if she were able to get some of her sums right. I had the opportunity to read an article that she wrote recently in the Yorkshire Post. In it she bemoaned the fact that a walk-on-and-go saver return from Leeds to London would go up from £149.60 to about £156.78, and that a walk-on-and-go open return for the same journey was going to rise from £370 to about £400. I am afraid that the hon. Lady may need some remedial maths lessons because she arbitrarily doubled the cost of the actual fare. It is no wonder she was removed from her job shadowing the Treasury, and no wonder that she is labouring under the false impression that people are being priced off the railways.
The Secretary of State may think fare rises are a laughing matter, but many families do not. Fare rises under this Government are putting real pressure on many family budgets. The Opposition are seriously concerned about that; I would hope that she is as well.
I, too, agree that it is important that we have correct and reasonable fare increases for individual journeys. That is why we have capped regulated fares at 1 per cent. above the rate of inflation for individual franchises over the period in question. If the hon. Lady took the trouble to investigate the average cost per kilometre, or per mile, which I know my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich prefers, she would find that the average cost per mile of travelling by rail is pretty much exactly the same now as it was in 1997.
The hon. Lady makes the reasonable point that we need to simplify the structure, and make it easier for people like her to understand what the appropriate rail fare is. I am committed to making sure that that happens in the future.
The right hon. Lady seems to make light of the fare increases. Constituents travelling from east Kent to London are paying infinitely more for a worse service with bad timekeeping. May I invite her to join me on an early morning train from Thanet to London? I will endeavour to guarantee her personal safety.
I have no need to join the hon. Gentleman on his commuter journey. However, I can tell the House that I am committed to more capacity on our railways, to ensuring that the necessary investment goes in and to protecting passengers from rail fare increases through a cap on regulated fares in order that they cannot rise, per franchise, by more than 1 per cent. above inflation. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that 80 per cent. of all fares are either regulated or on a discounted ticket?
Would my right hon. Friend repeat the question that she asked? If the money is not to come from the taxpayer or from the fare box, where will it come from? That is the point that the House has to address. Massive investment in rail can come only from the taxpayer and it is time that we all accepted that.
I certainly accept my hon. Friend’s point. It is right that the Opposition should wake up to the fact that there are only two real sources of funding for the railways: the taxpayer or the fare payer. If the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet is proposing that fares should be held down, and that the taxpayer subsidy should be reduced, only one interpretation can follow, which is that she and her party are committed to slashing investment in the railways.
I agree with the point about funding, and we have identified ways of raising funds from public money, which I will set out. However, I say to the Secretary of State that the truth of the matter on fares is that since her Government have been in power, rail fares have gone up by 6 per cent. in real terms, and bus fares by 8 per cent. in real terms—this information is from a parliamentary answer—while the cost of motoring has gone down by 10 per cent. That is a long-term trend that has actually slowed under this Government, but we have to recognise that rail and bus fares are going up while motoring costs are going down, which is contrary to what is necessary to tackle climate change.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I must make progress.
It is essential to invest the extra £10 billion to which we are committed in the period from 2009 to 2014, and to ensure that the 1,300 new carriages and the longer platforms are provided and that the major station and network upgrades at Reading and Birmingham New Street and the renovations at the 150 stations that are due to be renovated happen.
No, I must now finish my comments.
We are not complacent. Recent events clearly show that Network Rail has much more work to do. Once we are in possession of the rail regulator’s conclusions and the results of Network Rail’s investigations, we will be in a position to determine what, if any, steps need to be taken to prevent a recurrence. I greatly regret the difficulties that passengers experienced in the past couple of weeks, but I ask hon. Members not to lose sight of the enormous improvements that we have made to our railway.
Unlike the Conservative party, the Government have learned the lessons from Railtrack, as we were forced to pick up the tab for the Conservative party’s failure. The Government took the tough decisions and are making the sustained investment necessary to improve the railway. We can be trusted with its future.
I thank the Secretary of State for her courteous welcome to me in my position on the Front Bench.
I do not need to rehearse the impact on passengers of the fiasco over Christmas and the new year because both other Front Benchers adequately set that out. However, the late notice given to the train operating companies has not been mentioned. The companies that operate from Liverpool Street were made aware only at midnight that there would be no trains the following day. With the best will in the world, it is difficult for a train company to arrange for alternative transport on buses and coaches when it is given almost no notice of Network Rail’s failure to complete engineering works. The way in which Network Rail did not integrate with the train operating companies needs to be factored into the Office of Rail Regulation investigation.
No one has mentioned the impact on freight traffic of the overrun of engineering works. If we want to increase freight on the railways—the Government seek to do that—we must bear it in mind that predictability and guaranteed delivery times are as important for freight traffic as they are for passengers. Perhaps the Secretary of State knows that freight customers had to be told that depots at Daventry were effectively isolated by the west coast main line works and their overrun. That is especially bad for supermarkets, which rely on freight movement being on time 24/7. The impact on freight therefore also needs to be taken into account.
If Network Rail’s failures were to continue—I certainly hope that they do not—that would lead to freight going back on the roads and perhaps to the Secretary of State returning to the air to get from the Manchester area to London. That would be a retrograde step. It is important that the ORR investigation takes all those matters into account and ensures that a remedy is found. The public at large and the freight operators are entitled to a railway that is safe, clean, fairly priced, cost efficient and predictable. We are getting there in some respects, but not on overrunning engineering works.
The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) referred to an episode at Portsmouth. If she had wanted to do so, she could have gone back to Paddington in 2003 when the mainline station remained closed during the rush hour because of overruns. There are several instances of overruns in recent years. On each occasion, they have led to significant disruption for individuals and, indeed, the economy. Individuals who contacted me in the past few days include self-employed people who lost much money as a consequence of an overrun. Had they known a couple of days earlier, they could at least have planned an alternative way of getting from A to B, which they could not do, because of the late notice given by Network Rail.
We need to move towards a seven-day railway. The number of engineering works, whether they overrun or not, has been increasing in frequency over recent years. It used to be the case 15 years ago that engineering works were the exception rather than the rule. Now hardly a weekend goes by when there are not significant engineering works up and down the network.
It is certainly the case that Railtrack’s failure to deal with engineering properly has made a huge catch-up necessary. The Conservative spokesperson mentioned the words “rail” and “track” quite a lot, but seemed to avoid mentioning Railtrack at all, even though it is quite an easy word to say.
No, I do not agree with that. To be fair, some elements of privatisation worked better than others. As a matter of fact, train operating companies have been reasonably successful. However, the creation of Railtrack was a complete fiasco, with the setting up of a body that naturally wanted to prioritise money for shareholders in a monopoly situation. The way it did so was to spend as little as possible on maintaining the network. I welcomed the creation of Network Rail, which was a Lib-Dem proposal—one of the ones that the Government nicked, dare I say, along with many others, including independence for the Bank of England and so on. Nevertheless, Network Rail is a much better solution and we are happy that it was created.
Let us move towards a seven-day railway. Some of the engineering works, whether they overrun or not, are frankly unnecessary. I have been in dealings with Network Rail—I mentioned this in an oral question to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), in December—about the works that took place over one weekend last Easter between Lewes and Three Bridges and between Brighton and Three Bridges. The whole network, comprising two branches, was shut for two days. There is no way that Network Rail could have been working on that entire stretch for two days. There are places such as Haywards Heath where it is perfectly possible to turn trains round. What Network Rail does is purely an administrative convenience. It gets a possession order for as long as possible, in order to ensure that works do not overrun if at all possible, and in the meantime passengers are sent long distances by bus, when it is quite possible for works to be planned more adequately, making that alternative unnecessary.
It is also the case—I want the Office of Rail Regulation to look into this—that some of the rules that apply to possessions are archaic. It is time we examined whether there are excessive rules governing how works are carried out on the railway. I am conscious that safety must be the first priority for the rail network, but—
Norman Baker: I will just finish this point and then I will allow the hon. Gentleman to come in, particularly as he was not allowed to do so earlier.
Other countries in Europe allow single-line working where there are double tracks, whereas Network Rail rules insist that the whole track is taken out of service. Other countries allow temporary points to be installed, with a 20 mph cross-over, but Network Rail does not allow that. A great deal of traffic that is taken off the railways for engineering work could move if some of those archaic rules were abandoned.
I was trying to be helpful to the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) earlier, as I will now show. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one problem that has not been discussed, but should be, is the acute shortage of railway engineers in this country? A number of my friends are railway engineers and sometimes they despair. The problem obviously relates to the previous Government, but my Government have not really done enough to deal with it. Much of the reason for our problems, along with the acute contractualisation in the industry, which causes its own difficulties, is to do with the fact that, on occasion, there are insufficient railway engineers to conduct a proper safety case.
That is true. Network Rail told me that one of the problems was the number of people qualified to reinstate overhead electrification lines. There are simply not enough people able to do that. Network Rail should have identified the problem and perhaps allowed a longer period for that work; nevertheless, it is an issue. For a long period of time when Railtrack was in operation, the required investment was not being made and the maintenance was not being done, and sadly some of the skills were lost. They have to be rebuilt for the industry.
What should be done with Network Rail? Clearly there has been a failure. I accept the Secretary of State’s view that we should not prejudge what the ORR decides—I shall not make a comment about bonuses—but the enforcement powers available to it seem to be less than useful on occasion. They are not applied fully or are applied only rarely by the ORR because the public money provided by taxpayers simply gets circulated around. That does not achieve very much. A fine imposed on Network Rail may well make newspaper headlines, but it will make no practical difference to how it operates; in any case, the targets set by the ORR are out of date and need tightening.
Network Rail is receiving quite a bashing this afternoon—and quite rightly, so far as London Liverpool Street is concerned, a station which directly affects my constituents. However, is my hon. Friend surprised that the Government, in attempting to give a balanced response to the motion, have not pointed out that of the 35 major projects undertaken by Network Rail over Christmas and the new year, 33 were successful?
I am surprised that the Secretary of State did not make that point but, having said that, I think that my hon. Friend’s point provides little comfort to those who were caught up in the two episodes—at Rugby and at Liverpool Street—that were rather spectacular failures. However, if my hon. Friend wants to remind passengers caught at Liverpool Street that something went right in Glasgow, we will have to see how that works out.