Speaking on transport in the House of Commons for the first time since 1997, Sir George defended his actions as Transport Secretary in the last Conservative Government.
"I am genuinely concerned that privatisation is simply being blamed for everything that is going wrong with the railways to-day; but if take that simplistic view, we won't get out of the current difficulties. That is why I spoke out in the House."
Today's problems on the railways cause considerable difficulties for North West Hampshire constituents - particularly the recent industrial action; they have not been helped in any way by the present Government's ill-consdiered action in bringing down Railtrack, with no clear plan as to what would happen next. When challenged about this, Ministers' stock reaction is to blame privatisation. Sir George pointed out that there was - and still is - no other way than private sector involvement to bring the massive investment needed by the railways. In a detailed refutation of many of the claims made by detractors of privatisation, he cited the immense progress made in increasing the number of passengers and the number of train services, introducing new rolling stock and improving stations. Sir George concluded by remarking that there is a lot of common ground about what needs to be done next to deliver fully effective train services, but that it has become increasingly clear that the present Secretary of State is not the man for the job:
"What happens next? Let us look to the areas of agreement across the Floor. I accept, as do the Government, that there should be unified ownership of the railway network--the bits that do not move--and that the company that owns it, the son of Railtrack, should look to the private sector for the capital that is needed to modernise it. That should be off the Government's balance sheet. I have no difficulty with special purpose vehicles, which are a new form of financial rolling stock.
We agree that the trains should be run by companies in the private sector on franchises that are competitively bid for. Those companies can be sacked if they under- perform. We could never sack British Rail, so we have created something that we never had before--a competitive train operating industry. We agree that the companies should lease their trains from others if they want to. We also agree that there should be transparent and independent regulation of the industry to ensure fair play. So there is a quite a lot of common ground.
What is fragmented is the Government's response, with the Secretary of State and his Department being second- guessed and shadowed by Lord Birt and others in a number of unaccountable bodies at No. 10. It must be up to the Transport Secretary, who is accountable to Cabinet and answerable to this House, to come up with the strategy.
We have to sort out Railtrack quickly because that lies at the heart of the system. Without Railtrack or its successor functioning properly--instead of being run by receivers--there is nothing on which to build. If there is a way through the litigation and the various bids, it must be pursued. New long-term franchises must be let before blight descends, and we must stem the exodus of skills from the industry.
Finally, it is vital to restore the confidence of the private investor, as the Treasury will never fill the funding gap. That can be done if the will is there and if trust can be rebuilt. However, I do not believe that the current Secretary of State--admirable qualities though he may have--is the right person for that task. Having drawn his line in the sand, he is on the wrong side of it. The Prime Minister should ask someone else to begin the processing of rebuilding."
The full text of Sir George's speech is online at this site, click here, and in Hansard - click on the url below.