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MPs attack Network Rail on its transparency

Public Accounts Committee says is it "fiction" that Network Rail operates as private sector company.

Parliament's spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), has released a scathing report on Network Rail's financial operations and transparency. The Department for Transport is also held culpable for allowing the rail company to function as a seemingly part-private, part-public company.

Network Rail receives over £3bn annually in funding from the Department of Transport, which also underwrites its debts of over £25bn.

Despite these costs to the taxpayer -- as if it Network Rail were a public company -- it is not held accountable to Parliament and thus avoids the scrutiny it would be due. The report claims that the limited by guarantee company, which owns and operates most of the rail infrastructure in the UK, "maintains the fiction that [it] is a private-sector company." The Department of Transport spends two-thirds of its budget through Network Rail and Transport for London.

The chairwoman of PAC, Margaret Hodge, said:

It is unacceptable that Network Rail is still not fully transparent to Parliament or the taxpayer. The National Audit Office (NAO) must be allowed full audit access as quickly as possible to this organisation which is essentially kept afloat through public funds.

The Department of Transport could not offer any convincing evidence as to what characteristics Network Rail shares with a private company [and] international accounting conventions show that it should be considered as part of the public sector.

The report comes at a time when the Department for Transport is facing cuts of the degree in line with the rest of the public sector: its £12.8bn budget will be reduced by 15 per cent in real terms by 2014-15. Meanwhile, regulated rail fares will continue to be risen above inflation in 2013. The Campaign for Better Transport recently revealed the gross disparity between British rail costs and the travel of similar distances in other European countries: a comparable train season ticket, for example, can cost up to ten times more in the UK than on the continent.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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When will the government take action to tackle the plight of circus animals?

Britain is lagging behind the rest of the world - and innocent animals are paying the price. 

It has been more than a year since the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to passing legislation to impose a ban on the suffering of circus animals in England and Wales. How long does it take to get something done in Parliament?

I was an MP for more than two decades, so that’s a rhetorical question. I’m well aware that important issues like this one can drag on, but the continued lack of action to help stop the suffering of animals in circuses is indefensible.

Although the vast majority of the British public doesn’t want wild animals used in circuses (a public consultation on the issue found that more than 94 per cent of the public wanted to see a ban implemented and the Prime Minister promised to prohibit the practice by January 2015, no government bill on this issue was introduced during the last parliament.

A private member’s bill, introduced in 2013, was repeatedly blocked in the House of Commons by three MPs, so it needs a government bill to be laid if we are to have any hope of seeing this practice banned.

This colossal waste of time shames Britain, while all around the world, governments have been taking decisive action to stop the abuse of wild animals in circuses. Just last month, Catalonia’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban it. While our own lawmakers dragged their feet, the Netherlands approved a ban that comes into effect later this year, as did Malta and Mexico. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, North America’s longest-running circus, has pledged to retire all the elephants it uses by 2018. Even in Iran, a country with precious few animal-welfare laws, 14 states have banned this archaic form of entertainment. Are we really lagging behind Iran?

The writing has long been on the wall. Only two English circuses are still clinging to this antiquated tradition of using wild animals, so implementing a ban would have very little bearing on businesses operating in England and Wales. But it would have a very positive impact on the animals still being exploited.

Every day that this legislation is delayed is another one of misery for the large wild animals, including tigers, being hauled around the country in circus wagons. Existing in cramped cages and denied everything that gives their lives meaning, animals become lethargic and depressed. Their spirits broken, many develop neurotic and abnormal behaviour, such as biting the bars of their cages and constantly pacing. It’s little wonder that such tormented creatures die far short of their natural life spans.

Watching a tiger jump through a fiery hoop may be entertaining to some, but we should all be aware of what it entails for the animal. UK laws require that animals be provided with a good quality of life, but the cruelty inherent in confining big, wild animals, who would roam miles in the wild, to small, cramped spaces and forcing them to engage in unnatural and confusing spectacles makes that impossible in circuses.

Those who agree with me can join PETA’s campaign to urge government to listen to the public and give such animals a chance to live as nature intended.


The Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe was an MP for 23 years and served as Shadow Home Secretary. She is a novelist, documentary maker and newspaper columnist.