Parliament: Food and railways head new agenda

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The Independent Online
LEGISLATION TO create a Strategic Rail Authority and a Food Standards Agency is now likely to be introduced this parliamentary session, following the agreement on the handling of House of Lords reform, ministers said yesterday.

Both manifesto commitments were put on hold because of lack of parliamentary time. And, although the Government committed itself to introducing draft Bills during this session, both were regarded as "missing measures" of the Queen's Speech.

But John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, pledged that both proposals would be introduced as a priority, if legislative time was freed, up as a result of the deal to keep 91 hereditary peers in the Lords, during the interim period between stage one and stage two of the reform.

Mr Prescott said a Strategic Rail Authority would ensure that passengers and freight operators would benefit from the reforms the railways so badly needed.

"It will make sure that the system is run as a network and not just as a collection of different businesses. It will mean an integrated network with the interest of the passengers and freight industry properly safeguarded," he said.

The Deputy Prime Minister was taunted by William Hague at the time of the Queen's Speech when it became apparent that none of his proposals would become law in the next session. But Mr Prescott responded by saying that he had more Bills than any other minister and that many of his transport policies could be achieved without legislation.

In the Commons, the senior Labour backbencher Gwyneth Dunwoody, chairman of the influential Transport Select Committee, said the creation of the Strategic Rail Authority would be widely welcomed by "everyone's constituents" and would produce "some very positive results for the whole of Britain".

Margaret Beckett, the Leader of the Commons, said during questions on forthcoming parliamentary business "it may well be possible" that the Government would now be able to introduce the authority. "I know that will give you and many MPs considerable pleasure," she added.

Retailers and consumers are set to welcome the pledge to introduce the Food Standards Agency which was omitted from the Queen's Speech after a dispute between the Treasury and the Ministry of Agriculture over funding.

The Treasury was said to be pressing for the pounds 100 million annual running costs of the agency to be met by a pounds 100 levy on shops and restaurants, but the ministry has argued for it to be paid out of general taxation. At the time, the Consumers' Association said it was "bitterly disappointed".