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West Coast Main Line

Volume 549: debated on Monday 3 September 2012

Application for emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)

I rise to propose that the House should debate the specific and important matter of the awarding of the west coast main line franchise to FirstGroup.

I propose that the House should debate this matter in order to seek full and proper scrutiny of the decision. I hold no brief to stand for Virgin Trains—indeed, I have had many occasion to stand on a Virgin train—and I hold no brief against FirstGroup, but over the past three weeks, as I have been doing my summer surgery tour across the towns and villages of my constituency, the west coast main line franchise has been comfortably the most common subject raised by residents. Local people are deeply concerned about not only the decision itself, but the process, the lack of debate and the timing.

There are now 165,000 signatures on the e-petition, Members from all parties are raising concerns, Select Committees are asking questions and there is a clear sense among the wider public that an extremely significant decision that affects them has been made without them having a say, and made during the summer recess when Members have no opportunity to express their views or interrogate the process and outcome. We might have expected a decision of this nature and scale, and one that will affect so many people across the UK, to be announced during parliamentary time to ensure that MPs and peers have the opportunity to debate the issue and scrutinise both the bidding process and the decision, but that did not happen. Instead, the announcement was made in the middle of the summer recess, allowing the House no opportunity to debate it. Today’s announcement that the awarding of the franchise has been suspended due to the judicial review gives us time to have that debate with greater possession of the facts on all sides.

It is especially important that we have this debate because the franchise is the first to be awarded under the new longer franchise system. Over the next three to four years almost every other franchise in the country will be re-let, so it is more important than ever that this decision, the biggest and first, is properly scrutinised and, in particular, that we take our time to get the risk evaluation right. It is the risk evaluation part of the process that understandably causes the greatest concern because the available evidence shows that the risk evaluation process has been flawed in the past. On two occasions the process has led to the collapse of the east coast main line franchise and to First Great Western terminating its franchise agreement early to avoid failing to meet the terms of its bid. A collapse in the west coast main line bid because it was undeliverable would be economically catastrophic, given current conditions in this country, and a huge blow to all of us in Cumbria and the rest of the north-west of England. For those reasons, Mr Speaker, I ask that you grant us a debate on this most topical and strategically important matter.

The hon. Gentleman asks leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration—namely, the award of the west coast main line franchise to FirstGroup.

I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s application. In this case, I have concluded that, although undoubtedly important, the matter raised does not meet the criteria for debate under Standing Order No. 24. I expect that the hon. Gentleman will pursue the issue by other means.