Heritage Railways and Tramways (Voluntary Work) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:00 pm on 15 July 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour 1:00, 15 July 2022

My Lords, I support this Bill, which my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester so ably described. He has covered so much of the background and the need for the Bill. It is a really important small piece of legislation.

I declare an interest as patron of the Helston Railway in Cornwall, which is one of the shortest heritage railways. It is a very good example of the need to have volunteers of all ages. It runs without any paid staff whatever, like some other heritage railways do, as it is quite small. I was there a couple of months ago and my friends there were telling me about the difficulty of recruiting young people, which my noble friend’s Bill tries to change, before they get interested in things that older teenagers get interested in. As my noble friend says, this would give young people an interest in what we might call the industrial undertaking. It is really important that they learn the importance of such businesses—whether it is the business side, taking locomotives to bits or making sure the track is safe—in a safe environment before they have to make choices later in their school or college career.

My noble friend said that there had been some discussion with the Office of Rail and Road on this. I questioned my friends on the Helston Railway about what the Office of Rail and Road does. I have had meetings with it myself, on this and other lines. Its role is to make sure that the whole operation is safe—which it has to be, of course. It is so easy for people, particularly volunteers, to cut corners and think it will be all right, and then there is an accident—I hope not a serious one. The railways have to ensure that all their documentation and procedures are up to date and absolutely suitable for whatever they are operating on. I pay tribute to the people in the ORR who operate in this field. They certainly operate with a light touch, but they also can come down like a tonne of bricks if they need to. That gives confidence to the people, largely volunteers, who run a railway that they could safely welcome younger volunteers, as my noble friend proposes.

The problem is that some of the people who drive the trains or do the infrastructure are getting on a bit. Very few people now remember how to drive a steam train. I am told that some of the younger visitors to these tourist attractions are as interested in the first generation of diesel as they are in steam. We can all have different views on that, but that is what some of the current visitors want and that is fine. The key is to be able to start at a young age, with as many people as possible getting interested in this so that they can carry on, perhaps for all their working life—although they might have to go away and work somewhere else. It is very important that the option is there to start something that is really exciting for a 10 or 12 year-old before they go off and do other things.

It is very easy to say that there are many other things to do in a town or city, but many of these heritage lines are in the countryside, where there is not much alternative work. I live in Cornwall, and some of the young people in the villages would love to work on this railway. It would give them something to do and give them a great interest—one they could keep for ever.

The Office of Rail and Road has more or less said that it will turn a blind eye but that if something goes wrong, it could always fall back on legislation. That is not a position that any voluntary organisation would want to get into.

I follow my noble friend’s request to the Minister as to whether there is an answer to the statement made in June 2019 by the noble Lord, Lord Ashton of Hyde, who was the Minister for Civil Society, hoping that the Government would actually come up with a solution to this issue and that, whatever is done

“in a paid or voluntary capacity … that is not incompatible with young people volunteering on a heritage railway.”—[Official Report, 5/6/19; col. 169.]

He made that statement three years ago now. Perhaps the Minister will have had time to think about it and come back with a positive answer.