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BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW: STEPHEN BYERS MP TRANSPORT MINISTER JULY 1ST, 2001
Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used
DAVID FROST: Well some may say running Britain's transport network is the poisoned chalice of government. Stephen Byers is the latest brave minister to be handed that challenge. And how will he fare? Well he's here right now in his first major television interview since he got the job. Stephen, there are two views of this job. One is it's the poisoned chalice, as we just said. The other is, things have been going so badly that they can only get better and you're in the right place at the right time.
STEPHEN BYERS: Well I hope it's going to be the second one, David, but I think you're right to say that things have been grim as far as the railways are concerned and the travelling public know that and it's my responsibility to change that round and really give the industry a sense of focus and to do the simple things. Get trains running on time, safely, and comfortable. And that's what the travelling public want.
DAVID FROST: And you, and you've said, unacceptable is the current situation, you said...
STEPHEN BYERS: Yes DAVID FROST: ...to the Strategic Rail Authority, and so on. What if there were none of those improvements in two years, what are your, what are your powers, what are your sanctions to do something?
STEPHEN BYERS: Well there are powers which I've now got and they were introduced by John Prescott in the Transport Act and I used some of those powers on Friday, as you said, to give new directions and new guidance to the Strategic Rail Authority. And that was about saying to them they've got to focus on delivering the ten-year plan. We've got investment now, which is coming through and what I want to see is that investment making a real difference which will be noticed by the travelling public. And it's got to be done quickly because I think people have been tolerant but now they're pretty fed up with the industry blaming other people and not taking responsibility themselves. That's got to change.
DAVID FROST: And if it doesn't change, what do you do then? Can you just take away their franchises, for instance? STEPHEN BYERS: Well, I think we've got to use the powers that are there already, and as I say we are doing that. And they'll be more announcements in the next few weeks about the powers that we will be using. And part of that, you're right, will be this whole question of franchising. It's one of the very important levers that you have got to actually raise the standards of provision. And I want a new look at how franchising takes place so that we can drive up those improvements.
DAVID FROST: And what about the shape of Railtrack? I mean, is the idea of re-nationalisation, are you saying no to that because it's not a good idea, at the moment, or absolutely on principle it's ruled out for keeps?
STEPHEN BYERS: Well I think rule it out, for the simple reason that there wasn't a golden age of the nationalised railway industry. I mean I think we're, now we're looking back with rose-tinted spectacles if I can say that, and people, you know, weren't that happy about British Rail. It did need to improve. The number of people travelling was going down dramatically. What we now need to do I think is to look again at the role that Railtrack can play. I think they need a period of stability so that they can concentrate on doing their basic job which is to provide a railway network and they're not doing that at the moment. But they are putting in place measures to improve it. But what I would say to those who argue the nationalisation cause. It would probably cost a few billion to take it over. There's about £4 billion-worth of debt. That's money that could be used to invest in the railway network, it wouldn't be used. And it would also mean paralysis of the system because it would take a few years to put it in place and the railway network would simply get worse rather than better.
DAVID FROST: Did you approve, there was some controversy this week about Gerald Corbett's pay-out of £1.3 million. Did you approve of that?
STEPHEN BYERS: Well, now, it's not an issue for the Secretary of State but it is an issue for the shareholders of Railtrack. There's the Railtrack annual general meeting in a couple of weeks' time and no doubt the shareholders will express their view and that's right and proper.
DAVID FROST: But you don't want to express a view on it?
STEPHEN BYERS: Well, I don't think, I don't think it's appropriate. It think the best thing in these circumstances is for the shareholders in Railtrack to express their own particular view. They've got the power and it's right that they should use it.
DAVID FROST: Because a lot of people say that you should be one of the shareholders of Railtrack, of course.
STEPHEN BYERS: Well they do. This is part of the argument about the nature of the relationship with Railtrack. We are making significant investment in Railtrack, we want to see improvements for that money and I'm very clear that if Railtrack come to me wanting more resources...
DAVID FROST: They want 2 billion, or whatever...
STEPHEN BYERS: It's about 1½ million. It will need to be money which is driving up the quality of standards for the travelling public.
DAVID FROST: And they you would be sympathetic?
STEPHEN BYERS: Well, we'd look at it, that's all I'm saying.
DAVID FROST: And each company, each operating company, a lot of them say that they'd like to be responsible for their own rails, a change of structure of that kind. Would that work?
STEPHEN BYERS: Well, I think that's an interesting argument and I think when we, when we look at the role that Railtrack plays, I think there does need to be a closer working relationship between Railtrack and the operating companies. And it was interesting just this week gone I had a meeting with John Robinson, who's the new chairman of Railtrack, and he said one of the first things that he's going to do is to get all of those operating companies together with Railtrack to work out a new way forward, and I would call on John Robinson as chairman of Railtrack to do that sooner rather than later because as I said, the travelling public wants to see improvements and they want to see them quickly.
DAVID FROST: And do you have in mind the possibility of putting the two, the rail regulator and the SRA, the Strategic Rail Authority, putting them together, merging them in three years' time when the jobs come up again? Is that a possible, is that a runner?
STEPHEN BYERS: Well, we're going to appoint a new chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority and that will probably happen in a couple of months' time. Now it just so happens that that will be a three-year appointment and it comes to an end at about the same time as the period of the regulator, of Tom Windsor's position. Now that will provide an opportunity there and it will be for the government at the time to decide whether or not we should bring them together. But it is now a live option, which wasn't the case at the moment. And I think if we're looking at bringing a unified structure together, giving coherence to the industry then it may be one of the things that we'll need to look at. But that's, you know, two, three years away, what I want to do is to get the industry now to focus on a simple job which is to provide a railway network which is safe, which runs on time and which is comfortable for the travelling public.
DAVID FROST: In terms of the Tube, we hear that the talks with the preferred bidders are supposed to have broken down and so on, do you find Bob Kiley someone, well, to use a phrase that Margaret Thatcher used about Gorbachev, a man you can do business with?
STEPHEN BYERS: I've had a couple of meetings with Bob Kiley, we know his background, we know his expertise. And I've looked very carefully over the last few weeks at where we are with the London Underground and I'm very clear that we need to rule out privatisation of the London Underground. And I'm committed to that. This is not going to happen. I know people were worried that we were embarked on privatisation. It will not happen while I'm Secretary of State. I want London Underground to run and operate the Tube. Now that doesn't mean they can't bring in the private sector for investment, for modernisation, to improve project management, but that's got to be done under public control. So privatisation will not happen to the London Underground.
DAVID FROST: So that sounds as though the two positions, your's and Bob Kiley's, are coming together.
STEPHEN BYERS: Well, I'd like to think so and I'd like to think that I've been able to reassure Bob Kiley about the intentions of the government as far as the Underground is concerned, so no privatisation can involve the private sector, but it's got to be under public control.
DAVID FROST: What about roads, which are another problem, chronically overcrowded and all of that sort of thing, the highest petrol price in the western world and all of those things? Would you like to see the price of petrol ideally higher or lower?
STEPHEN BYERS: Well I think, two issues here. One is the level of fuel duty and the Chancellor has already taken steps in the last budget to reduce the level of fuel duty and that's been widely welcomed. In a sense it depends very much on OPEC, the oil producing countries and if the price of crude oil internationally goes up then that's going to be reflected in the amount that we pay here on the garage forecourt. But I think we need to acknowledge, and it was clear last September when we had the fuel protests, that the British public will not tolerate a price for fuel which is excessive. Now they'll be an argument about what is meant by excessive. But I said at the time, last September, that we needed to listen to what the public were telling us. I think we did. And I think the Chancellor has reflected that in his budget announcements.
DAVID FROST: And one last question while you're here. Have you formed a view yet on whether there should be a new terminal, terminal 5, at Heathrow, or a third runway?
STEPHEN BYERS: Well, the issue that I have to considers is terminal 5. Now that is being looked at the moment and I hope we'll be able to say something in the not too distant future. The issue about the third runway is quite separate and there will be an aviation white paper next year which will look at those wider issues.
DAVID FROST: Well, it's great to have you with us and as Transport Secretary are you going to learn to drive?
STEPHEN BYERS: Well, I'm now 48 David, and I haven't done so yet and perhaps when I've got a bit more time I might do so.
DAVID FROST: Thank you very much indeed.
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