Don Foster MP*

“Put Byers on Performance-Related Pay,” Foster says.

Bath MP Don Foster has called for Stephen Buyers to have his salary reduced, or a sizeable payment ‘delayed’, depending on what state the railway system is in next March.

Main Image Don Foster comments:

“The average level of train cancellations is nearly 2% and the average level of delays is 22%. Why not ‘cancel’ 2% of Stephen Buyers’ salary and ‘delay’ 22% of it?

“On a daily basis, the Secretary of State should be the one to pay the price for this rail crisis, not the average passenger.”

Speaking in a House of Commons debate on railways, Don Foster, the Lib Dem Shadow DTLR Secretary, attacked the Government’s patchy attempts to create a safe, reliable and affordable railway network:

“The Government announced a secure station initiative in 1998 and nothing was done. Only 120 of our 2,500 stations have so far achieved accreditation. At that rate, it will take a staggering 76 years before all stations are deemed safe.

“39 % of rail journeys are overcrowded and I find it bizarre that the Government have introduced legislation to tackle the overcrowding of chickens but have taken no action on human overcrowding.

“And what about affordability? In this country, passengers can travel 55 miles for £10. That compares with 128 miles for £10 in France and 806 miles for £10 in the Czech Republic.


Hansard text follows…

Opposition Day - 16 Jan 2024


Mr. Speaker: I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I beg to move,

That this House notes the failure of the Government to tackle adequately the growing crisis on British railways; and believes that the salary of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions should be reduced by 1.8 per cent. and that payment of a further 22 per cent. be withheld until 31st March 2003.

I shall begin by agreeing with the Secretary of State that the state of British railways is, as he said, "unacceptable". With some justification, right hon. and hon. Members can point to the failure of past Governments to invest adequately in our railways as a possible cause. No doubt, that was even true of past Liberal Governments. Past investment has, at times, been lamentable. With justification, many right hon. and hon. Members will also point to the problems of fragmentation caused by aspects of rail privatisation. Criticism may also be levelled, as it was by the head of the Strategic Rail Authority on Tuesday, at some of the management of our railways system--notwithstanding the excellent work done by many railway staff.

The Liberal Democrats accept that past underinvestment, privatisation and some poor management have all undoubtedly played a part in the current rail crisis. However, we have had a Labour Government for nearly five years and it is reasonable to question what they have done in that time to seek to rectify the problems of our railways. Have the Labour Government improved the situation or has it got worse? Public opinion is clear. The YouGov poll in The Mail on Sunday last weekend showed that 70 per cent. of people believe that the situation on our railways has got worse since Labour were elected in 1997.

I acknowledge that not all is bad; for example, there has been an increase in passenger numbers and in private investment in the railways, and the Strategic Rail Authority has been established. However, we also note that between 2000 and 2001 train delays increased by 70 per cent., meaning that, collectively, passengers wasted at least 4,600 years last year waiting for delayed trains. Cancellations increased by 45 per cent. in the same period. There is massive overcrowding—39 per cent. of rail journeys are overcrowded; yet, as I pointed out yesterday, it is somewhat bizarre that the Government have introduced legislation to tackle the overcrowding of chickens but have taken no action to reduce the overcrowding of humans on trains.

The Government have said that they want our stations to be safer. They are right. Train use will not be encouraged if people have to wait in unlit, unstaffed stations at night, if information is inadequate, or if car parks are insecure. However, although the Government announced a secure station initiative in 1998, nothing was done. As a result, only about 120 of the 2,500 railway stations have so far achieved accreditation. At that rate, it will take a staggering 76 years before all stations are deemed safe.

What about affordability? Britain's railways are the most expensive in Europe--almost the most expensive in the world. In this country, passengers can travel, on average, 55 miles for £10. That compares with 128 miles in France and 806 miles in the Czech Republic for the same amount. Under the ridiculously complex fares structure through which passengers must wade, many of our fares are excessive; yet the Government have made no serious attempt to tackle that problem.

We need a safe, reliable and affordable railway system but we do not have one.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to get a grip because the problem affects our reputation abroad? It affects investment in this country and the perceptions of foreign business and our trading partners when they see a railway system that does not deliver. Does my hon. Friend agree that the sooner there is a safe and correct decision on the London underground and the sooner there is investment, commitment and action as regards the rail network, the sooner the City, the business community--the chambers of commerce and the CBI--will feel that they can go back to selling Britain abroad, as they want to do and as I hope the whole House wants them to do?

Mr. Foster: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Despite our criticisms of the current state of the railways, I hope that all hon. Members want our railways to succeed for the very reasons given by my hon. Friend. I certainly agree that not only must we have a quick decision from the Secretary of State on the London underground but it must be the right decision. I very much welcome the suggestion made today by the right hon. Gentleman that he may be more prepared than heretofore to consider alternative proposals--including the one first made by the Liberal Democrats--for a bond issue arrangement for the London underground.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I am sure all hon. Members in the Chamber want the railways to succeed, but would that be helped if passengers took the advice of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten)? On Meridian television, on Sunday at lunchtime, the hon. Gentleman advised people to break the law by refusing to show their tickets to railway staff. Is it right to incite passengers to break the law and to take out their frustration on the hard-working staff of the railways?

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the legal requirement is to have a valid ticket for travel. He will also be aware that many rail passengers are extremely fed up with the current state of our railways and the Government's failure to tackle it. I suspect that on 1 March many of them will find some way--whether through the suggestion of my hon. Friend or in some other way--to make known their concern about the current crisis and to put pressure on the Government. I note with interest and some pleasure that later today the Secretary of State is to meet some representatives of the passengers who are so deeply worried about the situation on the railways.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Foster: I will a little later, but I want to make some progress.

As the Secretary of State said just two days ago in the House, we do not have a railway system that is fit for the 21st century. I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's candour then, and the candour that he showed earlier today when he was asked why Lord Birt had been brought in to advise on the railways. The right hon. Gentleman's succinct reply--that it keeps him occupied--betrays a great deal.

Even more forthright than the Secretary of State was the Minister for Europe, who told The Spectator magazine that we had the worst railways in Europe. Rail passengers are only too well aware of the problems of delays, cancellations, overcrowding and excessive fares. No wonder they are lobbying the Secretary of State later today.

Sadly, however, some information about the state of our railways is being denied to passengers. The Government seem unwilling to provide some very important facts. Just before Christmas, I submitted some 200 parliamentary questions about the state of the railways. The House may be interested in some of the replies.

I asked, for example, about collisions involving mark 1 rolling stock--the slam-door carriages. The Department answered by suggesting that the information was not available, yet I assure the Secretary of State that it can be found on page 94 of the Health and Safety Executive's annual safety report. The data show that, of the 106 train collisions that occurred in 2000-01, 58 were due to trains colliding with the open door on a slam-door carriage.

I also asked for a regional breakdown of speed restrictions, but the Department again felt unable to oblige. However, discussions with the train operating companies, and the data that they have supplied, mean that we know that the information is available.

I asked also for details of the proportion of track that does not meet minimum required standards. I was told that the information was not available to that level of detail. That was an odd response, as the information can be found in Railtrack's network management statement.

Many of my questions referred to safety improvements. I am sure the Secretary of State would agree that restoring confidence in the safety of our railways is crucial. Safety recommendations must be implemented swiftly and the public must be kept informed of progress on implementation.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Does the hon. Gentleman share the concern of many people in south Wales about the reports that emerged over Christmas and the new year regarding the condition of the track bed on the line between London, Swansea and Cardiff, which is subsiding? Does he share my concern, with regard to safety, that the Strategic Rail Authority's plan, published this week, makes no mention of any work being done on the line in the next 10 years? We will have to wait half a century before that line is upgraded.

Mr. Foster: I agree, and the same applies in the south-west of England. Cornwall has been given objective 1 status by the Department, yet it does not enjoy a similar status when it comes to improvements in rail facilities.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): With regard to safety, last week I met Chris Gibb, chief executive of Wales and West Passenger Trains. The meeting had been planned before Christmas, and we discussed the line that runs from Manchester, through Shropshire and Herefordshire, and down to Cardiff. He told me that when he lays on extra trains for rugby international matches at the Millennium stadium in Cardiff, he has to borrow coaches from a museum, as he has so little in the way of resources or infrastructure. Does my hon. Friend think that that is a safe way for passengers to travel to a rugby match?

Mr. Foster: I suspect that my hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that I do not believe that that is the right way to go forward. I am sure the Secretary of State will have heard what my hon. Friend said, and I hope that he will respond later.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: No; I want to make progress because many other hon. Members wish to speak.

The point is that safety recommendations need to be implemented swiftly. Following the dreadful Paddington crash, Lord Cullen made very many safety recommendations, 41 of which were due to be implemented before Christmas, by 19 December. When Lord Cullen published his report on 19 June, he recommended that a review of compliance with his recommendations should be conducted on behalf of the Health and Safety Commission within six months of his report, and that those reports should be published.

On the same day, the Secretary of State said that he wanted a report on implementation by 19 December. Despite asking questions about those 41 Cullen recommendations, we still do not know whether they have been implemented, yet I have received a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), that states:

"The review of compliance has been completed."

It goes on to say that checks on "areas of uncertainty" are being made and that the report will be published next March. That is simply not good enough; any accurate information on this crucial issue should be published immediately.

Yesterday, I incorrectly stated that the information was on the Secretary of State's desk. He has assured me that it is not, so I unreservedly apologise to him, but that raises a fascinating question: given that he wanted that report by 19 December and that the review of compliance has been completed, why is it not on the Secretary of State's desk? Why does he not demand that it be put on his desk immediately? Why does he not agree to publish the accurate information that it contains straight away?

The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): For the simple reason that, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the Health and Safety Executive is an independent body. At the moment, it is clarifying some of the reports that it received from the industry with regard to compliance by 19 December. It will report to the Health and Safety Commission in February, and I will receive a report after that. That is the sequence of events, and I am afraid that it is the price we pay for having an independent HSE that is not dictated to by party politicians.

Mr. Foster: If the HSE is not dictated to by party politicians, it is slightly odd that the Secretary of State said in his press release on 19 June that he wanted that report by 19 December, and I hope that he will take that up with the HSE.

I hope that the Secretary of State will be prepared to intervene one more time. One of Lord Cullen's key
recommendations was that signal improvements in the Paddington area should take place by 19 December. Does the Secretary of State know whether those improvements have taken place? Clearly, he has nothing to say. The travelling public will note that he could have obtained that information and asked for an answer to that specific question, yet it appears that he has failed to do so. That is typical of so much of what has happened under this Labour Government. The Minister for Europe also said in that article in The Spectator:

"We started transport investment far too late . . . We should have been more radical earlier."

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that investment is key and that people judge politicians not on what they say, but on what they do. Will he remind the House of how much additional money, above and beyond the Government's public expenditure plans, was included in the Liberal Democrat's alternative budget last year?

Mr. Foster: Yes, I certainly can, and I shall come to that very point--[Interruption.] The answer is
£250,000--[Interruption.] A figure of £250 million was included in the Liberal Democrat's alternative budget, but given that the hon. Gentleman is interested--

Mr. Rammell: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: No, I will not give way; I am still answering the hon. Gentleman's first question. As the hon. Gentleman is interested in government investment in the railways, I hope that he will do me the courtesy of waiting a couple of minutes before I tell him precisely what the Labour Government have invested in the railways.

Mr. Rammell: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that an additional £250 million in the context of an additional £33 billion is technically called "peanuts"?

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is not comparing like with like. First, he has multiplied his Government's figure by 10 and compared it with a single year's figure. Secondly, in his comparison, he is referring not only to Government money but to expected and anticipated private sector money. If the chaos on the railways continues at its current level, there is fat chance that the Government will get the private sector investment that they expect.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) rose--

Caroline Flint (Don Valley) rose--

Mr. Foster: Although I wish to make progress, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

David Taylor: With an interesting statistic earlier, the hon. Gentleman spoke about the travelling public's aggregate waiting time for trains. With the aid of a ballpoint pen and the Order Paper, I have worked out that, since 1 May 1997, the electorate of the United Kingdom have waited an aggregate of 200 million years for a clear exposition of how the Liberal Democrats will finance their transport policies, and of where the taxes will fall.

Mr. Foster: If the hon. Gentleman wants clear exposition, I will be more than happy to provide him with a copy not only of the Liberal Democrat manifesto--which was the only manifesto to contain full costings--but of the very detailed alternative Budget that we set out. It contains all those details. He need wait no longer; they will shortly be coming his way.

Caroline Flint rose--

Mr. Foster: I shall not give way, as I wish to make progress.

The real question is whether the Labour Government have made progress in solving the problem on our railways. I suggest that one reason why they have not made progress is that they have schizophrenia about the whole issue of privatisation. The House will be well aware that, when the Labour party was in opposition, it opposed rail privatisation. However, within two years of coming into power, it published the fascinating document "Releasing the Power of Rail", which offered a rather different view of privatisation.

I have referred to the document before, but it certainly deserves a second outing because it contains what a Labour Government said about railway privatisation. It states:

"Railways are back . . . Trains are cleaner, safer and often a good deal faster . . . There is, as a result of privatisation, new energy and enthusiasm in the industry."

Despite what the Government now say about fragmentation, the document even boasted:

"There are now 25 operating companies, instead of just one."

It concluded with this wonderful sentence:

"The arrival of competition has produced a surge of talent and innovation."

With such confidence in the system, it is hardly surprising that so little action was taken to get to grips with the problem.

The hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell) raised the issue of money. On Monday, I asked the Secretary of State whether it was true that the Government will have spent less on the railways in their first five years than the Conservative Government spent in their last five years. He gave me a perfectly correct figure about total investment--public and private combined--over a 10-year period and, as I said earlier, I accept that there has been increased private sector finance. However, he failed to answer my question.

I will therefore answer the question for the Secretary of State from figures provided by the Library of the House of Commons. In the first five years of the Labour Government, total Government spending on the railways will have been £8.2 billion. In the last five years of the Conservative Government, total Government spending on railways was £13.3 billion. On the crucial issue of investment in the railways, the disparity is even more marked. In their first five years, the Labour Government will have spent £0.7 billion on investment whereas, in their last five years, the Conservatives spent not £0.7 billion but £5.7 billion. Little has been done. Despite the high-level meetings that the Deputy Prime Minister had when he was in charge of the railways, he did little and achieved little.

Then we had a new Secretary of State. Was he going to do anything? Initially, his departmental press release of 18 June, headed "Government Pledges Certainty to allow the Industry to tackle the tough job ahead on our railways", quotes him as saying:

"So I am not going to embark on big structural changes. What the industry needs now is a period of stability and certainty".

That was before his famous U-turn when he took action on Railtrack. We agree with the direction that the right hon. Gentleman wants to take on that. After all, it was a Liberal Democrat proposal of many months earlier. The point is, however, that the way he handled that process has led to further confusion in our railways and worsened the situation.


Mr. Don Foster: I note with interest that the Secretary of State has not denied the proposition that I put to him on spending. I said that the Labour Government had spent less in real terms on the railways in their first five years in office than had been spent in the previous five years, during which a Conservative Government were in power. He is now seeking to give the House the impression that there is to be a huge bonanza in additional Government money for the railways. Will he confirm whether my figures are correct, not least in view of the merriment about the additional £250 million a year proposed by the Liberal Democrats? Will he confirm the Library figures? On a 1999-2000 price base, they show that, in the last eight years under the Conservative Government, the total annual Government spend on the railways was £2.4 billion a year, while the figures in the 10-year plan suggest that that will rise to a staggering £2.5 billion—an increase of only £100 million a year.

Mr. Don Foster: Is the hon. Lady (Mrs. Theresa May) aware that if one takes the much-vaunted £180 billion of investment for the 10-year transport plan overall and, instead of adding accumulatively the various amounts, studies it on a constant price basis, it comes to only £157 billion? By the time one takes out all of the money that is regularly spent each year, the hon. Lady will
agree that it amounts--to use a phrase coined by a Labour Member--to not much more than a string of beans.

This article published: 18/09/2023

Published by Bath Liberal Democrats, 31 James St West, Bath, BA1 2BT. Printed and hosted by JPC Infonet, 2 St Georges Works, Trowbridge, Wiltshire, BA14 8AA. Your Privacy._blank

Join The Lib Dems

Contact Don
You can e-mail Don through this web site. Click here.

Local Lib Dems
Find out more about your local Liberal Democrats

Site Search
Search our database of news stories, by entering keywords in to the box below, and hitting the button!