Minister signals railcard retreat: MacGregor seeks to pacify backbench rebels

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A SIGNAL that the Government might be prepared to back down and give statutory protection to railcards and travelcards was issued by John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, yesterday.

Faced with a strong backbench revolt on the Commons report stage of the Railways Bill tonight and tomorrow, Mr MacGregor told the BBC Television programme, Breakfast with Frost, he had no doubt that the existing 2 million concessionary passes would be maintained by successful franchise bidders.

'I'm absolutely convinced that these will continue,' he said. 'What I don't want to do is to put in statutory obligations and particular conditions which would then mean that if we wanted to change them, possibly to the benefit of the pensioners, we'd have to come back to Parliament again for new legislation.'

But, with the Government's 18-strong majority under threat from Tory backbench rebels, Mr MacGregor added: 'If we can find ways of overcoming the objections that I can see to having them statutory, then I'm prepared to look at different ways of achieving the objective that all of us want.

'I am quite clear about the advantages of railcards to pensioners and obviously I want to see that continue . . . There's a meeting of minds about objectives, the question is how best do we achieve them.'

But there was no such concession on the other backbench demand - that British Rail should be allowed to compete in the bidding for franchises.

Mr MacGregor said that British Rail was a 'huge monopoly, with the bureaucratic structure that actually leads to inefficiencies and doesn't give the managers the opportunity to do what they want to do now'.

While management and employees would be encouraged to make buy-out bids, the block on BR would be maintained - although it would be running the franchises before tenders went out for bidding.

'That means that we will actually know what the costs are for BR running them at the moment and clearly if the franchised bids are way above existing BR costs, I don't think the franchising director would be prepared to accept them.'

John Prescott, the Labour spokesman, told the same programme that the Bill was 'a kind of poll tax on wheels' - which would be reversed when Labour took office again.

Mr MacGregor rejected that threat, but Mr Prescott said: 'It's a good chance for Labour to show that a publicly accountable system can provide a public network and meet public need, not private greed, because that's what privatisation's about.'