Public Bodies Bill [HL] — Committee (7th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 28th February 2011.

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Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 3:30 pm, 28th February 2011

My Lords, I am very pleased to continue the mood of co-operation and friendliness between the various parts of the House in relation to my Amendment 46, which is supported by two of my noble friends and by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, on the Benches opposite.

I start by expressing my appreciation to the Minister for his willingness to engage with me from Second Reading when, having heard my speech, he realised that what was initially proposed by the Government did not make a lot of sense, was causing a great deal of anxiety and needed to be put right. The way in which he and indeed his noble friend, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, have engaged on this subject has been excellent, and I thank both of them very much.

I am not going to argue for the continuation of the Railway Heritage Committee as a non-departmental public body. It has had that role for only about five years. Previously it had been a committee first under the wing of the British Railways Board at the time of privatisation and subsequently under the Strategic Rail Authority.

When the SRA was abolished, it became an orphan. I declare a past interest as its unpaid chairman at the time. We thought that the Department for Transport would provide a secure, long-term home for it. That optimism was misplaced, as the department originally intended to use this Bill to get rid of it altogether on the grounds that railway heritage was not sufficiently special to justify statutory protection. The signs are now that Ministers do not take that view, and I shall outline in a few words today how I hope we will be able to establish a new arrangement which the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, will be able to accept on behalf of the Government.

What I shall propose achieves the Government's two objectives behind the Bill, which were a long time ago, as he said in his initial statement. The first objective is to reduce the number of non-departmental public bodies and the second is to save taxpayers money, while at the same time, with the Railway Heritage Committee, preserving something that is really important. The RHC came into being as a direct consequence of the privatisation of the railways. When the railways were state-owned, obligations were imposed on the British Railways Board and its predecessor, the British Transport Commission, to ensure that what was significant to the history of the railways was preserved. That was a statutory obligation that was imposed on them. However, given privatisation and the fragmentation of the industry, it was necessary to create a new statutory mechanism to ensure that the process was continued. Initially, provisions in the Railways Act 1993 covered heritage items and records owned by the British Railways Board, but it was quickly realised that these measures were not adequate for dealing with the new companies that had entered the industry.

The response to that was contained in a Private Member's Bill, introduced in the other place by a Conservative MP, Mr Mark Robinson, which achieved total cross-party support in both Houses. I read the Hansard reports of those debates, and the arguments for statutory powers of designation and for the principle that our nation's railway history is sufficiently special to justify its legal protection were, and still are, compelling. Thereby, the Railway Heritage Act 1996 was passed, with the RHC operating initially under the auspices of the BRB.

The way in which the system works is that the RHC identifies artefacts and archives that are sufficiently important to justify preservation and then, after careful consideration, issues a designation order. Often the artefacts will still be in use on the working railway, and the designation is simply to ensure that the artefacts are looked after and not destroyed. When they no longer have any operational use, the owner seeks permission from the RHC to dispose of them. This is granted on the basis that they go to a good home-perhaps the National Railway Museum, another accredited museum, a heritage railway or, in a few cases, a private collection, with due accord given to the requirements of the Scottish museums movement and the railways in Scotland.

As the railway industry has been fragmented, designation has provided a structured way of identifying important artefacts and records, and it avoids the political pressure that would otherwise come from enthusiasts who are passionate to preserve a much wider range of items, regardless of costs. With designation there is a good process and good governance. Without it the result would be confusion and frequent requests for government intervention.

It was originally thought that these arrangements could be made on the basis of voluntary agreements, but during the passage of the 1996 Act they were rightly rejected by Ministers as unworkable. I agree with them. It is interesting that as recently as 12 January, the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee of the Scottish Parliament, while considering the Public Records (Scotland) Bill, heard evidence on behalf of the Scottish Council on Archives. The keeper of the records said that,

"a voluntary scheme would be rather like new year's resolutions: we all start off with genuine enthusiasm and then gradually, as other things emerge, the enthusiasm wanes ... We need a statutory framework as a fall-back position. It is particularly important because we are not just talking about traditional paper records; myriad electronic records systems-if I can call them systems-are emerging".

The same applies to railway artefacts. The RHC has worked happily with the industry, whose members see it as a helpful partner that not only relieves them of much of the burden of worrying about preservation matters but complements their serious commitment to railway heritage. It is possible without statutory powers to foresee circumstances whereby one difficult company could effectively spoil the arrangements for everyone else.

Such is the degree of support within the railway industry for the continuation of the RHC-or for its statutory powers-that when an extensive consultation exercise was carried by the Department for Transport in 2008-09 to gauge the degree of support for extending the scope of the RHC to take account of the changes since 1996, there was virtually unanimous support for that proposition. Indeed, Transport for London specifically asked that London's underground railways should come within the committee's scope. Backing for the continuation of the RHC has come in the form of numerous letters to the Minister for Railways and, I suspect, to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach.

If the committee were to be abolished, there would be no statutory protection of records and artefacts from now on, and future historians would find a void where at present there is a complete and accessible record. There would have to be a process of de-designation covering more than 1,000 artefacts and countless records and drawings that have already been designated. This would have a totally disruptive effect on the modern railway industry and add significantly to the costs of the National Railway Museum, which would find itself bidding at auction for items that at present it receives free of charge from a co-operative and supportive railway company.

There is a way through these difficulties, which I have discussed with the Minister and his officials in the Bill team. My proposition is that the RHC ceases to be a non-departmental public body in the Department for Transport and that its functions and statutory powers are administered by the National Railway Museum on behalf of the National Museum of Science and Industry. I should advise the Committee that I was appointed a trustee of the NMSI by the Prime Minister in January. The chairman of the NMSI board of trustees issued a totally supportive statement on 13 January saying that they were willing to take on this responsibility, and the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave of North Hill, the previous chairman of the museum, sent me a message this morning to the effect that, although he cannot be here this afternoon, he fully supports the proposals, which I have discussed with him and the NMSI.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister that the Government accept the solution that we have been working on together and that they will start drawing up the necessary statutory instrument to implement a railway heritage scheme. When we first discussed this, the Minister told me that he thought this was in line with the Government's big society approach. That was his phrase, not mine. It would indeed reduce the number of NDPBs by one. It would save public money because the National Railway Museum would provide administration support, saving the employment costs of the one member of staff who is currently involved in running the RHC. It would also provide an opportunity for volunteers to continue to do what they already do very effectively. It is a sensible way forward and I commend it to the Committee. I beg to move.