Railways sell-off extended beyond BR

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The Independent Online
THE BILL privatising British Rail will have a much wider than expected remit, to include all railways in the country, among them London Underground and the metro systems in Newcastle and Glasgow.

Opposition MPs are angry at what they call a 'sleight of hand' by the Government because there was no reference in last July's White Paper, or in the stream of consultation documents issued by the Department of Transport, on the need to include the other railways in the legislation.

The Bill had previously been expected to cover only British Rail, but its drafters realised that unless they included all railway operators, including small privately- owned leisure lines, the Bill would become hybrid - a highly complex legal procedure relating to a mixture of public and private interests in a Bill. It would have become subject to a long parliamentary process. So, BR is mentioned only in one sub-clause and the rest of the Bill refers to 'railways' in an attempt to widen its scope.

Opposition MPs, however, argue that the Bill is still hybrid and question whether the paving legislation, which received the Royal Assent this week, was framed properly. Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrats' transport spokesman, said he is writing to the Speaker of the House of Commons to challenge the Bill's validity.

Under the terms of the Bill, all railways would become subject to control by the new regulator, responsible for ensuring there is competition, and the franchise authority, although they will be able to apply for exemption from these provisions.

The revelation immediately put the Government on the defensive over the Bill, one of the key pieces of legislation in this parliament. The Department of Transport tried to play down the importance of the Bill's wording by saying it 'was only a technicality'. The Government is arguing that other railways will be exempt from its provisions, but John Prescott, Labour's transport spokesman, said: 'There will be no need for further primary legislation when they decide to privatise London Underground or the other metro systems. They will just be able to do it by order without any parliamentary debate.'

Mr Harvey said: 'There was no mention of this in the manifesto, the White Paper, the select committee or debates in Parliament. It is utterly disgraceful that the Government did not warn Parliament and the public of the full scope of the Bill. Clearly, franchising will affect other railways and therefore the Bill is still hybrid. The Government must either accept that, or it must prepare another paving Bill, and defer the railways Bill until that is passed.'

A hybrid Bill is one that has a particular effect on a specific private group or organisation. Here, opponents of the Bill will argue that it affects some of the other railways in different ways and therefore should be treated as hybrid. For example, London Underground shares some track with British Rail, making it difficult for the legislators. One of the lines expected to be among the first offered for franchise, the Chiltern Line from Marylebone to Aylesbury and Amersham, goes over some London Transport track. Therefore LT and BR will need to agree on track charges before a franchise can be negotiated. One London Transport source said: 'I bet this question hasn't even entered their heads.'

Hybrid Bills, like the Channel tunnel Bill, are subject to long delays because any organisations affected can make a challenge at the Committee Stage.

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