Tories 'ignoring call to lift BR bids ban': Government gives detailed response to transport committee's criticisms of rail privatisation plans

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THE GOVERNMENT was yesterday accused of dodging the most critical issue of its rail privatisation plans - the right of the British Railways Board to bid for franchises.

Replying in detail to last month's highly-critical Commons Transport Committee report, the Department of Transport ignored a recommendation that the current legislative bar on BRB bids should be lifted.

That proposal has been tabled as Amendment 57 for next week's Commons committee stage of the Railways Bill - with the backing of seven Conservative MPs, just three short of the number of rebels required to overturn the Government's overall majority.

The threat posed by the Tory rebels, and the department's decision not to reply to the call for BR to be allowed to bid - singled out as one of the select committee's 'principal conclusions and recommendations' - could mean that ministers are leaving an escape route open.

Brian Wilson, Labour's spokesman, said: 'It is stunning that the crucial argument in favour of allowing British Rail to compete for franchises is not even addressed in the Government response.'

However, a senior government source said that if the board were allowed to bid, it would wreck the Bill.

Roger Freeman, Minister of State for Transport, told the select committee that the BR bid was in effect already 'on the table'. A departmental source said yesterday: 'BR have been bidding for 50 years; their existing service is their bid. If no other bid is better than the BR service, then the service will remain with BR.'

The rest of the Government's response contains no concessions to the committee's criticisms of its rail privatisation scheme. The Government accepts that 'direct on-rail competition between operators' presents some 'practical difficulties' but argues they are not 'insuperable'.

It rules out providing any increased subsidy to BR services and/or extra investment, saying it 'does not accept that in general the quality of the railway is declining'.

The committee had sought safeguards on price increases on all franchised services, covering full fares and season tickets but the response says: 'Where real competition exists from other modes of transport then the market will determine the level of fares an operator can charge.' Where operators have monopoly power, their increases will be restricted.

The National Consumer Council yesterday reiterated its opposition to the rail privatisation plans. In a briefing, it warned that 'many serious questions remain unanswered', adding that the current proposals 'will not be in the consumer interest'.