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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 28th February 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 3:45 pm, 28th February 2011

My Lords, I will be relatively brief, having seen a copy of the statement on the Government's intentions for the Railway Heritage Committee. As my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester has explained, the committee exercises statutory powers in designating railway artefacts and records so that they do not get damaged, destroyed or lost to ensure that what is important to our nation's railway history is preserved. The committee also has the function of agreeing which institution shall hold the records and artefacts so designated when they are no longer required by the railway business that owns them. It also deals with the terms under which they are to be offered to such institutions. To quote its mission statement:

"The Railway Heritage Committee is established by statute to secure the preservation of evidence which is significant to the railway's history".

As the Government's own briefing note recognises, most of the people involved with the committee act on a voluntary, unpaid basis and the cost of the Railway Heritage Committee is currently around £100,000 per year. Good value for money, one would have thought, and perhaps that is how the Government might have seen it from day one if their decisions last year on the future of public bodies had been taken with a little more thought and a little less speed. My noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester has worked tirelessly to try to ensure that the important statutory work of the committee continues, albeit not through a continuation of the Railway Heritage Committee as the Government have already announced their hasty decision in principle to abolish it. It would be interesting to know whether the Minister knew as much about the invaluable and cost-effective work of the committee at the time the decision was taken to abolish it as he does now. I suspect not. Decisions are usually better when they are based on facts following discussion rather than assumptions without discussion.

However, we recognise that the Government, subject to confirmation from the Minister, have apparently shifted their position in the light of the powerful case made by my noble friend. My noble friend's proposal is that the Railway Heritage Committee's power of designation should transfer to the board of trustees of the Science Museum, which also encompasses the National Railway Museum and thus has a very direct interest in railway history and the statutory work that is currently undertaken by the Railway Heritage Committee. I understand that the Minister is likely to be giving a positive response to my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester's proposal, which, from the Government's point of view, provides a face-saving formula. The Railway Heritage Committee would still cease to exist, as the Government have already announced, but the important and invaluable statutory functions of the committee would be retained. This would enable the Government to avoid what would have been fully justified criticism that, for the sake of £100,000 a year, they were prepared to see a vital part of our nation's history lost, damaged or destroyed and the enthusiasm and dedication of so many volunteers discarded and rejected.

The Government's briefing document says that their decision in principle in October to abolish the Railway Heritage Committee did not include plans for a successor organisation. That statement is less than frank. At that stage, the Government had no intention of there being a successor organisation. It will be thanks only to the efforts of my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester, and others who recognise the importance of preserving our railway heritage, if, as we hope he will, the Minister indicates when he responds that the Government are now involved in serious discussions to ensure that the statutory functions of the Railway Heritage Committee will continue, albeit through a different channel, and will not be abolished by this rushed, ill-thought out and high-handed Bill on which the Government are back-tracking with ever increasing rapidity.