BR sell-off plans under twin attack

RAIL privatisation plans will come under a two-pronged attack next week with Liberal and Conservative amendments in the Lords on the future of British Rail's pension scheme.

Labour also plans to ask the Speaker of the Commons, Betty Boothroyd, to rule whether the Railways Bill should be classified as a 'hybrid' measure, open to challenge from petitioners outside Parliament because private as well as public rights are in issue.

An amendment by Lord Tordoff, a Liberal Democrat, seeks to reverse a catch-all clause in a schedule providing that if later statutory orders relating to pensions are found to be 'hybrid', they will not be treated as such for the purposes of the Bill.

Lord Tordoff said he felt that 'a number of people around the House' were disturbed by the clause, which the Government had included despite a Lords select committee on procedure report which suggests the Government has failed to allow for parliamentary debate on what will happen to BR pensions after privatisation. An amendment from Lords Peyton and Marsh, former Conservative transport ministers, calls on the Government to guarantee that pensions retain their value. It follows the Government's decision not to take over the pension scheme, and to opt for a 'closed' fund that will attract no new money.

The peers say payments to pensioners, most of whom have not been high earners during their working lives, will be vulnerable to unlucky investments, inflation, longevity and tax changes. Lord Peyton said: 'If the Government wants to make this privatisation change it must give the fund a guarantee.'

Support for the amendment is such that the Government may have to offer its own amendment. It has already suffered a damaging defeat when Tory rebel peers last week secured approval for an amendment to allow BR to bid along with the private sector to provide services.