New Clause 1 — Independent advocacy: report

Part of Prohibition of Unpaid Internships – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 13th May 2014.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Shadow Minister (Transport) 2:30 pm, 13th May 2014

I should like to speak in favour of new clause 2, which seeks to clarify how the Bill will be implemented and how consumers will be informed of their rights.

In particular, I want to ask some questions of the Minister about the implications for rail services. It was welcome news in Committee when, in responding to a question from my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty, the Minister confirmed that the National Rail conditions of carriage will be refreshed to provide stronger provision for consumers in order to make them consistent with the rights set out in this Bill. The operators’ trade body, the Rail Delivery Group, has said:

“The Conditions of Carriage are under review. They will be published by the end of the year and will be fully compliant with the Consumer Rights Bill.”

It also said:

“They’ll be more consumer-friendly in terms of the language used”.

That will be a huge improvement from the passenger’s point of view.

I have a number of questions about how this implementation will be carried out. Do the Government intend to conduct a wider review of the passenger protections in the National Rail conditions of carriage? They could use the Bill as an opportunity to strengthen passenger rights where, for example, the train operator fails to provide passenger assistance, which is so important for disabled passengers; where someone finds that the seat reservations on their train are not being honoured; where there are planned engineering works that the operator could have known about in advance but has not informed people about; or where someone finds on arriving at the station that part of the journey they expected to be by train will be on a replacement bus service.

If the intention is to carry out this wider review of the National Rail conditions of carriage, why has Passenger Focus so far been excluded? Can the Minister guarantee that there will be no watering down of passenger protections in the National Rail conditions of carriage that may be additional to the protections provided in the Bill? All the consumer protections in the Bill are subject to parliamentary scrutiny, and the public have had an opportunity to influence them and have a view on them. Changes to the National Rail conditions of carriage are not usually subject to such public consultation, but this is an unusual circumstance. Will the Minister clarify whether the proposed revisions to the National Rail conditions of carriage to make them consistent with the Bill should be subject to public consultation?

I have a few more questions about implementation and the consequent need for further guidance, as set out in the new clause. The National Rail conditions of carriage do not apply to light rail systems such as the Docklands light railway or the London underground, where separate conditions of carriage are set out by Transport for London. Have the Government made an assessment of the various light rail conditions of carriage? Do Ministers plan to exclude them from the rights in the Bill, as with the National Rail conditions of carriage, or, indeed, to do something different about them?

There are also a number of issues concerning equivalent protections and how they will be met. At present, under the national rail conditions of carriage, a passenger is entitled to a full refund only if they decide not to travel after the service is cancelled or delayed or when a reservation is not honoured and the ticket is unused. Passengers are entitled to partial refunds if they decide not to travel for other reasons, but they are subject to a £10 administration charge. Passengers who start their journey are entitled to compensation of only 20% of the price paid, and only if their service is more than an hour late. Although some rail operators offer a more generous delay/repay compensation scheme, that is not set out in the national rail conditions of carriage.

If passengers are entitled to a repeat performance, as set out in clause 54, on the grounds that the journey was not in accordance with the information given about the service, as outlined in clause 50, will they now be entitled to a full refund? Could that therefore be the stronger provision relating to compensation for consumers that the Minister mentioned when she responded in Committee in March?

I also want clarification on another issue. When passengers are affected by planned possession works by Network Rail, rather than the train operator, they will clearly be receiving a substandard service, but will they be entitled to compensation? I do not think they have such an entitlement at present.

Obviously, I am speaking in my capacity as a Back Bencher rather than from my position on the Front Bench. Many of our constituents are frustrated by their experiences on the railways, and they want to know that the rights set out in the Bill in relation to rail fares and services are being addressed by the Minister and that there is an opportunity to strengthen consumer protections in such an important area of policy.