Transport Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:09 pm on 9th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions 7:09 pm, 9th November 2000

My Lords, I must apologise to the noble Earl that he has not received a letter from the department. I thought that we had written to him. Indeed, I have here a copy of what I had thought had been sent to the noble Earl. However, given that the noble Earl said that he was repeating the questions he had put to me, I am not entirely sure that the letter, as drafted, would answer all of them, although it would respond to some. However, I am not certain whether that is of any help as regards the amendment before the House, because the amendment confers a wider application. It would give a permissive power to the SRA to further its purposes by means of competitions and tenders. The noble Earl has specifically asked questions in relation to a past competition. I hope that, when the noble Earl eventually receives it, my letter will clarify the past position.

In relation to the amendment, I should point out that substantial powers are already on the face of the Bill. The SRA will, in effect, have a "tool box" of powers and duties which it will exercise. Clause 207(4) also contains a "value for money" duty. Furthermore, the Secretary of State can give directions and guidance to the SRA as to what it should do to achieve its purposes in a way best calculated to balance the various considerations contained in Clause 207. However, the SRA's duty to obtain value for money in the financial assistance it gives cannot be overridden by any directions and guidance.

Competitions and tenders may well prove to be the best way of securing value for money in a particular case. The authority certainly does not need a separate enabling power such as this amendment would provide. For that reason, there is no real need for Amendment No. 13.

With regard to franchising, the Bill already provides a detailed framework for a competitive process. The House debated this framework when we considered the amendments tabled to Section 26 of the Railways Act 1993. The Bill provides the assurance of a competitive process, either by a formal invitation to tender at the expiry of an existing franchise or by an equivalent process. However, this approach may not be appropriate in all circumstances, for example, in relation to awarding freight grants. There, the SRA will measure applications for grants against the appropriate criteria rather than testing the market.

As regards the wider issues raised by the amendment, the SRA will encourage innovation. It will work in partnership with the private sector. The shadow SRA's current approach to franchise replacement already demonstrates this. Our objective is to secure the earliest possible delivery of better rail services while providing value for money both to the passenger and to the taxpayer.

The amendment also suggests that the Secretary of State should lay down the precise procedures under which the competition process should operate. That is slightly at odds with the approach normally adopted by the Opposition in relation to the powers of the Secretary of State both in this Bill and elsewhere. I find that a little confusing. I hope that the noble Earl will feel that I have addressed the intention of his amendment and that he will agree that the Bill already provides for the SRA to act in the way he seeks. I hope, too, that my letter will address his concerns in relation to the past procurement process. With that explanation, I hope that the noble Earl will not seek to pursue his amendment.