Major faces rebellion on rail sell-off

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT faces a backbench rebellion on rail privatisation that could force ministers into another policy retreat.

Draft amendments to the privatisation bill, circulating among Tory MPs, will put the Government under intense pressure to make significant concessions. One would allow British Rail to bid against the private sector to operate rail franchises. It could prevent the break-up of BR - one of the bill's key objectives - and further discourage private operators. Other amendments would restrict operators' powers to raise fares, cut services and close lines.

Because the Government's majority is only 18, it would require just 10 backbenchers to force a humiliating climbdown if ministers failed to accept the amendments. John Major told the Scottish Tory conference in Edinburgh on Friday that 'we may have to tack a little here, manoeuvre a little there' in deference to the 'Parliamentary arithmetic'.

Conservative unease over BR privatisation has already been intensified by the defeats in the Newbury by-election and shire- county elections. The issue could play a big part in the Christchurch by-election in Dorset, caused by the death of the Conservative arch-critic of the bill, Robert Adley. Mr Adley told an opposition transport spokesman before his death that he had backing from six senior backbench Tories for similar amendments.

The draft amendments have been circulated by Keith Speed, MP for Ashford and a former railways minister. Besides allowing BR to bid in open competition for franchises, they would build into the bill guarantees that Travelcards for London commuters and senior citizens' Railcards throughout the country would survive privatisation; that fare increases would not be excessive; and that line closures and service cuts would be prevented.

Another critical amendment would force ministers to reverse their decision to separate franchise operation from track signalling and maintenance. Under the Government's proposals, the latter would be controlled by Railtrack, a subsidy-free publicly owned body.

Other senior Tory backbenchers have told transport ministers that they want a pounds 500m boost to investment before privatisation.

Peter Bottomley, MP for Eltham, a former transport minister and a likely successor to Mr Adley as chairman of the Transport Select Committee, said yesterday: 'The Government will have to respond to the point of these amendments whether they accept them or bring forward their own.' He added that BR was now running its network with greater competence than any in Europe and it would in any case be obliged to operate any lines not going into the private sector. 'Why should the same people not be allowed to bid for franchises against the private sector?'

The backbench pressure, aimed at concessions before the bill has its report stage in the Commons starting tomorrow week, comes after two government U-turns last week. John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, announced greatly simplified school tests for next year and Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, abolished the much criticised unit fine system laid down in the 1991 Criminal Justice Act. The Department of Social Security is expected to bow to mounting backbench pressure this week to guarantee that the elderly can continue to collect their pension payments over the counter in post offices.

But ministers will be particularly reluctant to back down over the railway sell-off which, unlike poll tax, unit fines and school tests, did not become Tory policy until Mr Major became leader.

Brian Wilson, Labour's rail spokesman, said it would be intensifying its opposition to the bill by appealing to minor parties to turn up in full strength for next week's vote. He said that Tory MPs were getting the message that 'if they force the bill through in its present form it will haunt them up to the next election'.

Tory MPs insist they do not want to halt the bill, only to make it workable. Mr Speed said his object is not to wreck the Bill 'but to fill out its framework', adding that in his constituency 'privatisation is not top of the pops by any means'. David Nicholson, MP for Taunton, said: 'We have been told, whenever we have raised complaints about electricity and water privatisation, that it is too difficult to amend the legislation once it has been passed. What we want to do now is to lock the stable door before the horse bolts.'

The Government remained unscathed throughout the long Commons committee stage because, according to Mr Nicholson, Tories who were 'agnostic' about the bill were not on the standing committee. Dissidents will have their full say during the report stage, which opens debate to the floor of the house.

(Photograph omitted)

Sell-off attacked, page 2

Leading article, page 24