Confidence in the Secretary of State for Transport

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Bim Afolami: One thing that is often lost in debates like this is the practical impact of such issues on passengers. I urge the Minister, the Secretary of State and all Members to remember that, yes, this is about getting investment, improving stations and timetables and increasing capacity, but fundamentally the whole point of the system is to make life better for our constituents, particularly those who rely on trains to get to work. Many Members have talked about the difficulties of recent weeks, and the House does not need to hear any more from me about my disappointment in relation to my constituency or those of other right hon. and hon. Members.

Stephen McPartland: My hon. Friend, my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Oliver Heald and I have been working hard with Ministers and with Govia—we are in touch daily—because tens of thousands of our constituents have been massively affected every single day. We are trying to fix things so that our constituents can get to work. Although there are issues with the timetable in our area, things will be dramatically better when it works. The number of seats will be doubled, there will be 50% more trains from my constituency, and a whole variety of new destinations will be provided. When the new timetable is in place, there will be positives, but there are issues now, and they are what we are working daily to resolve.

Bim Afolami: I thank my hon. Friend. One point worth making—one that backs up his intervention—is that a real frustration as a Member of Parliament is knowing the intended improvements over the medium term, but constituents quite rightly not believing that the improvements will happen when the implementation does not work as hoped. It is therefore incumbent on GTR and Network Rail to do their best to get a grip not just on the medium and long terms, but on the emergency timetable.

I want to draw the attention of the House and the Minister to a private Member’s Bill that I will shortly introduce relating to enhanced compensation for passengers. I recognise that the Secretary of State has set out a compensation scheme specifically for the disturbances over past weeks, but the compensation in the Bill will be governed by the Government’s new rail ombudsman on an ongoing basis, providing automatic compensation for all passengers throughout the country. In addition, it will provide enhanced, more generous compensation for passengers throughout the country. Critically, it will ensure not just that passengers get a percentage of a single ticket for a train that is cancelled or delayed, but that we move towards a system with service levels and a contract between the operator and the passenger. Then, if that service level is not maintained, the passenger will receive compensation. I would like the Minister and the Secretary of State to consider that direction.

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for flagging up his Bill and welcome what he describes. Will he confirm whether the compensation for the current timetable problems should be based on the new timetable that was expected to be introduced, not the reduced timetable, and therefore be much larger? Does he agree that there is a strong case for making train companies and Network Rail liable for consequential losses associated with train delays, not just the ticket cost?

Bim Afolami: On the right hon. Gentleman’s first point, that would depend on when the Bill could make progress and whether it would take effect in time. It is difficult to understand how the proposed compensation regime would interact with the special compensation regime relating to the implementation of the new timetable. However, on the right hon. Gentleman’s broader point about consequential loss, he will appreciate that that is hard to prove. I remember from my days as a corporate lawyer that consequential loss in contracts is one of the toughest things to prove. I am not saying that he is incorrect, but it would merit further consultation and I am happy to sit down and discuss the matter with him. If we can come to an agreement, hopefully the Liberal Democrats will support my private Member’s Bill.

A point that is often made to me is that many commuters do not have a good enough choice. On some lines, the operator is the only game in town, and where that happens, it is incumbent on the operator to do a significantly better job at getting on top of problems when they arise. My right hon. Friend Sir Michael Fallon made the point that the Secretary of State may need additional powers at times of crisis to direct what needs to happen at certain stations, and the House should consider that. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has said to me, both privately and in this House, that he is committed to improving the situation at Hitchin and Harpenden stations once we have got past the current difficulties—[Interruption.] I can see the Rail Minister nodding in approval, which is always good. My constituents—I was nervous about this before I came to speak this afternoon—are not particularly interested in rhetoric; they are interested in making sure these changes are introduced in the right way to provide real practical improvements to them and their lives. That is what I, as the local Member of Parliament and with the Government, will hopefully be providing.

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