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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:16 pm on 15 July 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Wilcox of Newport Baroness Wilcox of Newport Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 1:16, 15 July 2022

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate but, before I begin, I beg leave from your Lordships to mention another aspect of heritage that I had the great pleasure of engaging in yesterday evening, back home in Newport—in Caerleon in fact. The organisation BCA’37, run entirely by volunteers, ensures that the history of the Basque child refugees who came to Britain in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War is recorded and preserved. Caerleon has strong links to the organisation, as 30 children were placed in Pendragon House.

We have a series of events this week, with people from the Basque country joining us in south Wales to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the people of the UK, with no British Government support, welcoming 4,000 children—just one boatload—into the country. They were subsequently supported by volunteers and voluntary funds, and I am proudly wearing the badge that all the children wore as they came into the country. This exemplifies how volunteers are so important to our society. I was privileged to be part of that event last night, with colleagues from the Welsh Government and our Westminster representatives.

I add my congratulations to those already expressed to my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester on bringing forward his Bill and on the instrumental role he has played in establishing the APPG on Heritage Rail, ensuring it becomes an active and meaningful parliamentary group on behalf of heritage railways, in line with his work as president of the Heritage Railway Association. The world movement began in Britain in 1951 when a group of enthusiasts, led by, among others, the author and co-founder of the Inland Waterways Association, Tom Rolt, saved the narrow-gauge Talyllyn Railway in mid-Wales from almost certain closure. The Talyllyn project was the first railway preservation scheme in the world; since then, the movement has gone from strength to strength in Britain. Clearly, I am proud that it began in Wales.

Today, the number of preserved or heritage railways in Britain runs well into three figures, thanks to the work of dedicated volunteers and paid staff. They provide a memorable attraction for around 13 million visitors per year, who take 18.6 million journeys covering 130 million miles, contributing about £400 million to the economy. Wales is lucky to be able to claim ownership of a very good number of these, including the Pontypool and Blaenavon Railway, just up the road from Newport on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. That has been a wonderful re-addition to our area and would not have been possible without an awful lot of hard work from volunteers, who have undertaken numerous projects to improve the visitor experience.

I have enjoyed many a trip from Furnace Sidings to Big Pit, where I take my own visitors to see this amazing Welsh coal mine that pays tribute to the heritage of our industrial past, where people such as my dear late stepfather toiled underground to build the wealth of our nations. I am sure this story of heritage railways is being replicated across the UK.

It is therefore concerning that the 2018 report on young persons’ involvement in heritage railways from the APPG on Heritage Rail, which my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester chairs, found that the number of young, under-18 volunteers is only around 5%, that the number of young female volunteers is extremely small at 1% and that the outdated legislation in the form of the Employment of Women, Young Persons, and Children Act 1920 has become a significant constraint on recruiting young volunteers under 16. It is an indirect consequence, as so many things can be. The Office of Rail and Road has been helpful in confirming that it had no intention of enforcing the Act and provided clear guidance on how to approach the management of young people engaged in railway activities. Either way, as the report says:

“This not only prevents them benefiting from the experiences their parents and grandparents had, but risks losing them altogether to railways, as they find another outlet for their interests”— as other noble Lords have mentioned—

“at a crucial stage in their lives and when exploring future employment.”

When the report was debated in 2019, my noble friend Lord Rosser said of my noble friend Lord Faulkner:

“When he becomes involved … he becomes involved big time, and he has a very impressive success rate in achieving and delivering the desired objectives.”—[Official Report, 5/6/19; col. 165.]

And here we are again, as my noble friend would have expected. I have little doubt that achieving and delivering the desired objectives will eventually be managed, whether it is through this Bill or by the Government’s hand. In this case, the objectives are twofold, with the ultimate goal being to encourage the engagement of young people with heritage railways, but a step in that direction would be to ensure that a law which predates heritage railways does not indirectly stop young people being able legally to volunteer on them. As we have heard during the debate, the Government committed to progressing this matter in a safe way, so I look forward to the Minister updating us on that. I can understand that there have been slightly more pressing issues at hand over the last three years—and over the last three weeks—but I hope the Government have given some thought to this. After all, they have made a commitment.

As keen as we all are to encourage youth volunteers, my caveat is that it is important that it is done safely. I am particularly keen to hear from the Minister what assessment has been made since that debate on any possible risks. I urge the Government to cease prevaricating any further and enable this barrier to be lifted.