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Time to re-nationalise the railways

First published in the January 2018 edition of South Leeds Life, available online here  

Seeing the New Year in has its own special traditions, but one that is less than popular is the annual rise in rail fares.

This year they are going up by around 3.4% – the largest increase for five years. Comparing the rise in fares on over 80 routes between when the current Government came to power and this January, the average commuter will now be paying £2,888 for their annual season ticket – that’s £694 more than in 2010. At a time when real wages for many people are stagnant, this will hit family budgets hard.

But it’s not the only thing happening on our railways that is raising hackles. Take the extraordinary announcement back in November by Chris Grayling the Transport Secretary about the future of the East Coast mainline.

The franchise has had a somewhat chequered history. From the mid 1990s the line was run by GNER until financial difficulties, including in its parent company, meant that it could not pay the premium it had promised to the Government. National Express then took over, only to hand back the keys two years later because of losses. It had tried to renegotiate the contract but the Transport Secretary at the time refused, saying “I’m simply not prepared to bail out companies that are unable to meet their commitments.”

Having been faced with two private franchise failures, the then Labour Government decided to take the line into public ownership and run it directly as East Coast Trains. It was a great success which paid back over £1 billion to the Government over the course of five and a half years.

Now you might have thought the incoming Tory Government would have been happy to carry on with this arrangement – not least because it was making money at a time when the public finances were under pressure – but no. Ideological purity was apparently more important than common sense, so ministers announced that the franchise would be put out to tender once again. Anyone could bid to run the service – including state-owned railway companies from the rest of Europe – with just one exception. The British state-owned company, East Coast Trains, which had actually been running the line for the past five years, was told that it could not put in a bid. Extraordinary!

And so Virgin East Coast won the right to run the service, only for it too to run into difficulties. And so in November, ministers quietly announced that Virgin East Coast will be allowed to walk away from the deal three years early. It had been due to operate the line until 2023, paying sums to the Government for the privilege, but now they will be let off and the franchise will be replaced by a public-private partnership in 2020. Chris Grayling has done what his predecessor Andrew Adonis refused to do – in effect bail out a failing private sector bid.

There’s a bigger issue here. What the history of the east coast line shows is that the private franchising model is broken. Fares are too high and complicated, and the system should be fully integrated so we don’t have to worry about using an East Coast ticket on Hull Trains.

I think it’s time that all the franchises were brought back into public ownership to join the tracks which are already in public hands. We could call it British Railways. Now where have I heard that before?

You can watch a video I posted about this issue on my Facebook page here

Hilary's Article for South Leeds Life - January 2018

Time to re-nationalise the railways First published in the January 2018 edition of South Leeds Life, available online here   Seeing the New Year in has its own special...

First published in the December 2017 edition of South Leeds Life, available online here

It is said that Christmas is the season of goodwill. So it was timely to find myself recently discussing with a senior clergyman and some parliamentary colleagues the way politics is debated and MPs are sometimes treated. What got the discussion started was Brexit and the way it has polarised opinion within political parties and across the country. Those who voted leave can't understand why it's taking so long, and anyone who tries to point out that it is slightly complicated can be attacked for being a mutineer, a traitor or worse. And those who voted remain are really angry at all those who say that Brexit will be wonderful when they think it will be an utter disaster.

It's understandable that with strong feelings on both sides debate can be forthright, but there is a huge difference between that and the sort of social media abuse now regularly directed at people in public life about all sorts of issues.

I have looked back at some of the comments directed at me in the past couple of years and it is astonishing how personal and offensive some people can be. But when you compare my experience with what many women MPs have gone through - vicious, violent and sexualised abuse - it seems almost mild by comparison.

So why do some people think this in an acceptable way to behave?

I suspect that most of those who do this online feel - wrongly - that they can 'hide' behind their Twitter handle. I also reckon that almost all of them would never dream of saying in person what they say online. It's the modern day equivalent of shouting something rude through the letter box and running away.

I tested out my theory a few years ago when I got a particularly horrible letter from a man I didn't know.  For some reason he had put his telephone number on it so I rang him up. I told him who I was and referred to his letter. I could tell by his voice that he had never expected in a million years that this might happen. I didn't mention the abuse but addressed the substance of his complaint. He was as good as gold and even thanked me for calling him.

My father had another way of dealing with this problem. When he got an exceptionally offensive letter he would write back to the address and say "Dear Mr Smith,  I feel obliged to point out that someone has clearly stolen your headed letter paper and is sending grossly abusive letters pretending to be you." He said it usually worked to bring it to an end!

Don't get me wrong. This is not a plea for politicians, local or national, to be treated with kid gloves or to be afforded respect automatically. Not at all. Fair criticism is part of the job and it helps us to do it better. But that is not the same as vile abuse of those who serve the public.

When I was growing up my Mum used to read to us 'The Water Babies' by the Rev Charles Kingsley. It had a mysterious quality about it - something to do with the illustrations and it being set under water. The character who made the biggest impression on me was Mrs Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By. She was a rather stern person but she was trying to teach the characters an important lesson about how to behave in life.  Treat others as you would wish to be treated.  

So in that spirit, can I take this opportunity to wish you all and everyone at South Leeds Life a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Hilary's Article for South Leeds Life - December 2017

First published in the December 2017 edition of South Leeds Life, available online here It is said that Christmas is the season of goodwill. So it was timely to find...

I have been contacted by a number of constituents about the Government's EU Withdrawal Bill.

As you know, this Bill is not about whether we leave the EU - that was decided by the referendum and Parliament's vote to trigger Article 50 earlier this year. The Bill is instead about Parliament's role in the withdrawal process and how we ensure that our legal system is maintained and that vital rights and protections are safeguarded as we leave the EU. It is therefore crucial that the Government gets this important legislation right.

Unfortunately, I do not think the Government's Bill is fit for purpose as it currently stands. It would put huge and unaccountable power into the hands of Government ministers, weaken Parliament’s role in major decisions, and put crucial rights and protections at risk. It would also undermine and introduce restrictions on the devolved administrations rather than lead to the wider devolution of power we need to see. I am therefore supporting amendments aimed at removing the worst aspects of the Bill, and improving it, as it progresses through Parliament.

In the face of a potential defeat in the House of Commons, the Government announced just prior to the Bill's Committee stage that it will bring forward a separate Bill to allow Parliament to scrutinise and approve the final withdrawal deal with the EU. While this is certainly a change of heart by the Government – which I called for and welcome - it must go even further and confirm that Parliament will still get a meaningful vote if there is no deal to approve.

To date, I have voted for amendments to protect workers' rights, safeguard environmental and animal welfare standards, legislate for strong transitional arrangements and to bring the Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law.  Disappointingly, the Government rejected these amendments and they were defeated.  However, I will continue to press these issues as the Bill progresses.

I intend to support further amendments as the Bill continues its Committee stage that seek to restrict the use of ‘Henry VIII’ powers in the Bill and ensure that devolved governments are not sidelined.  I will also be trying to ensure that Parliament has the power to set the "exit day" in the Bill. This would give Parliament control over the length and basic terms of transitional arrangements – which are hugely important to business - and the ability to start the clock on the ‘sunset’ clauses of powers given to ministers in the Bill.

I hope the Government will listen carefully to the points that have been raised about its Bill, both inside and outside of Parliament, and will make the improvements that in my view are necessary.

Some people have also written to me about the analysis that the government has undertaken of different sectors of the economy and Brexit which was the subject of a resolution in the House of Commons on 1 November. Parliament voted to instruct ministers to hand over these assessments to the Brexit Select Committee, which I chair. However, when we received two volumes of material recently we learned that the Government had “sought not to include commercially, market and negotiation sensitive information.” I wrote to David Davis, the Brexit secretary, to say that giving us edited material was both contrary to the instruction given to the Government in the motion and to the clear expectations that I set out on behalf of the Committee. We have therefore called David Davis to appear before us on 6 December.

What lies behind this issue of upholding the decisions of the House of Commons is an absolutely fundamental question. The Government has made certain choices about the type Brexit it wishes to pursue – in particular leaving the customs union and single market – and therefore Parliament and the public are entitled to see the basis on which the Government made those choices, including its assessments of the economic impact of those decisions. This is all about transparency.


Hilary Benn MP for Leeds Central

EU Withdrawal Bill

I have been contacted by a number of constituents about the Government's EU Withdrawal Bill. As you know, this Bill is not about whether we leave the EU - that...

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