Schedule 1 - Office of rail regulation

Railways and Transport Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 6th February 2003.

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Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:00 pm, 6th February 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 27, in

schedule 1, page 49, line 12, at end insert—

'(2A) In appointing members, the Secretary of State will have regards to regional representation.'.

The amendment relates to the vexed question of reserved and devolved matters in relation to the Scottish jurisdiction. The schedule does not allow for any form of regional representation, and that is important, as there will be queries about the role and jurisdiction of the Office of Rail Regulation. I hope that someone will be responsible for securing a degree of representation in that regard by adding a new subsection to schedule 1.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour/Co-operative, Edinburgh North and Leith 3:15 pm, 6th February 2003

Will the hon. Lady explain how the Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive would be affected by the powers that she wants to confer on the Scottish Minister?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

I hope that the Under-Secretary or the Minister will explain the relationship with the Scottish Executive because the Bill is not entirely clear about it. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) has had a chance to read Hansard containing the Under-Secretary's answer to the question I referred to this morning.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour/Co-operative, Edinburgh North and Leith

I assure the hon. Lady that I have read the comments in Hansard to which she referred. As we are debating her proposal, however, will she tell the Committee how the Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive, which is responsible for most of the passenger services in Scotland, would be affected? It is important for hon. Members such as myself, who represent Scottish interests, to understand that.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

It is not for me to usurp the Government's position. The Under-Secretary will have heard the hon. Gentleman's question and will take the opportunity to respond to it. Both the Under-Secretary and the Minister have told me several times that I should not usurp the Government's position, today or any other day, in Committee. I have explained the purpose of this probing amendment, and I look forward to hearing the Under-Secretary's response.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

There is no disagreement on the importance of properly reflecting regional interests in railway policy, but the amendment is not the way to

achieve it. It would put the independence of economic regulation at risk and cause confusion between the respective roles of the Strategic Rail Authority and the Office of Rail Regulation.

Let me detain the Committee a few moments to provide more detail. Broadly, the Strategic Rail Authority's role is to set policy and the Office of Rail Regulation's role is to ensure the fair implementation of that policy. Regional representation is appropriate for a policy body such as the Strategic Rail Authority, which is catered for in section 202(3) of the Transport Act 2000. In contrast, representation by regional interest is inappropriate for the Office of Rail Regulation. All appointments should be made on the basis of expertise and merit alone to reinforce the independence of the economic regulatory function.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

I fully understand the Minister's concern that allowing some conditions would lead to others. He referred to selection on the basis of expertise, so will he give us an idea of the range of expertise likely to be sought by the Secretary of State in appointing people to serve on the board?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The hon. Gentleman has pre-empted what I was about to say in a few moments.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The hon. Gentleman always like to help, but on this occasion he has helped to detain the Committee from receiving an answer to the question that he put to me.

Having representative members of any interest, section or region in the country could call the independence of the body into question, but it is not only a matter of independence. An Office of Rail Regulation board member appointed to cover a sectional interest would start second-guessing railway policy in trying to serve that constituency. That would lead to confusion about who has the policy lead in the railway industry.

That is all set out in the consultation document sent out to interested parties in November. Responses came from across the industry, and there was a strong desire for members of the regulatory board to have appropriate expertise and to be independent. Only a handful of responses suggested regional or sectional representation, and although people from various parts of the United Kingdom may sit on the board, it will not be out of necessity. There is also a practical consideration. The Office of Rail Regulation covers Scotland, Wales and England. To have a representative from each country and English region would make the board unmanageably large, particularly as room has to be made for economists, industry experts, executive members and so on. That should answer the point of the hon. Member for Bath. However, to be selective could create concerns among the countries and regions not represented on the board.

Mr. Foster rose—

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

The Under-Secretary has tempted me. I am grateful that he has given us some examples, but I wonder whether other Committee members share my view that it is slightly odd that expertise on the railways was absent from the Under-Secretary's list.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

An economist may be an economist with an expertise on the railways; an industry expert could be a railway industry expert. None of the people whom I mentioned would be precluded from having railway industry expertise; indeed, one would expect them to have some interest and be able to contribute to the board. It would be strange if we appointed them and they did not have an interest in carrying out the job.

We cannot support the amendment. Regional interests are important, but only in the appropriate place. It is for the Strategic Rail Authority and the infrastructure manager in formulating their strategies to take into account the regulatory functions to ensure that they are implemented fairly, not to second-guess them through sectional representation on the board.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

It is clearly a source of disappointment to the Opposition that the Under-Secretary does not accept our amendment, but I have some sympathy with his point, which was well made, that the board should not be too big.

The hon. Member for Bath referred to conclusion T on page 39 of the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee report:

''While the need for an independent economic regulator with clearly defined responsibilities, duties and objectives will continue, the respective roles of the Regulator and the Strategic Rail Authority should be reviewed.''

I referred earlier to why it was so important to set out in the Bill, preferably in schedule 1, what those roles should be.

The hon. Member for Bath may not have had the benefit of reading the minority report, which was put together by my hon. Friends and me. It was the first time that I was—I hope the last time, too—put in the good offices of a Clerk, who is with us today, to put together a minority report, which obviously requires a lot of work. I draw to the Committee's attention conclusion B at paragraph 26 of that report:

''If the Strategic Rail Authority is to remain a viable force, the Government must allow the Authority to operate independently and free from Government interference. The Strategic Rail Authority must be held to its responsibility to publish an annual report and update its Strategic Plan.''

I note for the record that the SRA published its annual report this week, and the only parliamentary vehicle by which we could consider it was a written ministerial statement. It was three lines long and simply took note of the fact that two documents—the annual report and the annexe, which I obtained from the Vote Office—remain available. That progress report should be debated if Parliament is to have any hope of ensuring that the Strategic Rail Authority remains a viable force that operates independently.

The debate has been useful, and the amendment has served its purpose in probing the Government and

eliciting a sympathetic hearing. We will obviously return to the subject later. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Joan Ryan.]

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Three o'clock till Tuesday 11 February at five minutes to Nine o'clock.