Labour attack on sell-off derailed

t Labour silent on renationalisation pledge t Pet welfare Bill introduced locked to grid strap Book locked top grid; Inside Parliament
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Labour's ambivalence over whether and how it would retake control of a privatised rail network undermined the party's attack on the sell- off yesterday in a set-piece Commons debate. Three weeks ago trade unions were given what appeared to be a pledge of renationalisation as a sweetener at the start of the Labour Party conference.

But in subsequent interviews shadow cabinet members were unspecific about how ownership would be regained and yesterday the commitment was missing from Labour's motion for the rail privatisation debate.

Quick to exploit the omission, Sir George Young, Secretary of State for Transport, said the dilemma for Labour was not just that it was opposing a policy that was underway, but that its own policy was changing.

Tony Blair's "gift" to the trade unions of renationalisation was a "humiliating U-turn", Sir George said. "But no sooner had the Labour leader declared his new policy and had it repeated by Michael Meacher, transport spokesman, than he was backing off it.

"No sooner was the Opposition's timetable published than they had to rush out a supplement," he said, winning a trick with Railtrack's own pulped timetable.

Sir George announced that Britain had secured nearly pounds 7m of European funding towards a study of modernisation work for the West Coast mainline. The project has been designated a priority by the Trans-European Railway Network but money for construction work can only be given to private companies.

"I am confident of securing further funding for 1996 and beyond," Sir George said. By then, on the Government's timetable at least, Railtrack should be in the private sector.

Ministers said in August that plans to include the West Coast service in the first stage of rail privatisation had been dropped. Potential franchise bidders wanted pounds 1bn of modernisation work undertaken first.

Mr Meacher said Labour wanted "not merely a publicly-owned railway but a much better railway". But despite challenges, he gave no reason for why the renationalisation pledge was not in the motion or how it would be paid for.

Adding the Liberal Democrats' two penn'orth, Paul Tyler urged Labour to "get off the fence" and say clearly that in the event of the two parties controlling the next Parliament nobody would be allowed to make a profit out of Railtrack shares. Labour should join the Liberal Democrats in saying that 51 per cent of shares would be bought back. No sensible investor would buy shares if the opposition parties were absolutely united on the issue, Mr Tyler insisted.

Mr Meacher said that so far from meeting the timetable of selling off half the network by 1 April next year, the Government might actually fail to sell even a single passenger franchise by that date - "certainly no more than a tiny handful".

However, Sir George maintained that privatisation was happening. "Month by month businesses are being put into the private sector." The first three franchisees, to run South West Trains, Tilbury-Southend, and Great Western are expected to be announced in December.

Some British puppy breeders are exporting animals to the Far East knowing they will be eaten, Tony Banks, Labour MP for Newham NW, said yesterday as he introduced a Pet Animal Welfare Bill. Condemning the "vile practice" of puppy farming, he said it was estimated that across Britain 200,000 dogs were produced each year on farms, often in appalling conditions. "Some of the vile people now involved in the trade are now exporting to the Far East, I believe in the certain knowledge that some of the dogs will end up in a pot or on the plate."

His Bill would tighten up on the conduct and licensing of puppy farms and make it illegal to sell a pet to anyone under 16years old.

The measure has all-party support, but, as Mr Banks observed, at this stage in the parliamentary year has about as much change of becoming law as he has "of entering the Kingdom of Heaven or the shadow cabinet".