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I have also asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science for a ballot. Ballots are very popular with Ministers. We seem to be having ballots about everything, yet I have not received a reply, after weeks of the Minister considering my proposals for a ballot, as to whether there should be a CTC in Bradford. The people of Bradford should be allowed to decide how £8 million of their money should be spent. Do they want a CTC or do they want the available funds spent on improving existing schools?
In Bradford, school meal charges were increased to 80p on 7 November. That was an increase of almost 100 per cent. for parents of the youngest children. The number paying for school meals has fallen very sharply. At its peak, 10,000 children who used to pay for school meals were no longer taking them. The latest figure remains very high, at 8,900. I urge Councillor Pickles and the Bradford Conservative council to scrap the school meal price increase, which has done great damage and has resulted in large numbers of children not getting what was their only daily hot meal.
In an open letter Professor Ruth Lister of the department of applied social studies at the university of Bradford, following a meeting with Councillor Pickles, wrote :
"Secondly, I raise the question of the impact of the increase in school meal prices. As you know, it is only children whose families claim income support who now qualify for free school meals. It is officially estimated that about 8,000 children lost the right to free school meals in Bradford this April. For them, in particular, the price increase has been a bitter blow. The family credit is supposed to provide compensation. However, there will be many families who are either not entitled to family credit (including many widows and invalidity pensioners) or not claiming their entitlement nationally, take-up is running at only 30 per cent. of those eligible. Even for those who are in receipt of family credit the compensation does not meet the cost of a school meal in Bradford for it is currently based on an average school meal price of about 65p. While you have dismissed the difference as
Column 104a few pence' in the local press, those few pence' can make a lot of difference to a mother struggling to make ends meet, especially if she has more than one child at school."
I know that from my own experience. One of my constituents is a widow who is 14p above income support entitlement and now has to pay £20 a week for school meals for her five children.
The benefit advice shops in Bradford, Shipley and Keighley are now to close on Friday. We had been warned originally that the closure was likely to take place in March or even as late as April, but it is now to take place on Friday. Even at this late stage, I urge Bradford city council to keep the shops open, so that people who desperately need advice and assistance can receive help on the range of benefits and the other issues that they have taken to the advice shops. Some 60,000 people have made inquiries at those shops in the past three years.
Professor Ruth Lister also writes :
"First, as you know, we are very unhappy about the likely consequences of the closure of the Benefit Shops. I argued tht the suggestion that the Council wished to avoid a duplication of services indicated a misunderstanding of the nature and significance of the kind of work done by the Benefit Shops. The Lord Chancellor himself, in a recent interview, acknowledged that welfare benefits call for a specialised type of information and advice and that they can raise important legal questions. Specialist agencies such as the Benefit Shops therefore play an important role for which the Department of Social Security and the general voluntary sector cannot provide an adequate substitute. The DSS cannot provide independent advice or help with appeals."
That is our experience in Bradford. There are only five Asian-speaking staff in the local DSS offices and there are no Asian-speaking claimant advisers in the unemployment offices. There is only a handful of interpreters and no literature is available from the DSS in any language but English. Therefore, the 28 benefit application forms and advice notes in English are not available in any of the Asian languages. That is important for Bradford. I urge the Government to persuade Bradford council to keep the shops open, at least until I and other Bradford Members, together with a delegation from Bradford, have attended a meeting to discuss the implications of the closure and to urge that, if the shops are to close, contingency plans be made to appoint extra trained and qualified staff.
There are many other matters to which I could refer. For example, I could have mentioned the closure of the Centrepoint teleshopping lifeline and the way in which millions of pounds have suddenly been found to build private homes on the Lower Grange estate, when only weeks ago we were told that it was impossible for the council to find £300,000 to build new council homes on that estate. Other matters include the refusal of Bradford council, under its new Conservative leadership, to contribute rate money to relieve disasters around the world, including Bangladesh.
The policies and actions of Bradford Conservative council, in the 14 short weeks in which it has been in power, have created outrage and anger, despair and desolation. The churches, the voluntary sector and those who care about children, the elderly and the poor know that the council's policies are making the problems of the poor much worse. The Tories have been able to secure their policies by the casting vote of the mayor. They intend to keep the mayoralty next year : the people of Bradford will have no opportunity to elect new councillors because there will be no elections. Decent Tories in Bradford and
Column 105elsewhere are worried and deeply disturbed by the impact of these policies, especially on the poor in Bradford. They know that what Councillor Pickles and his small group of political ideologues are doing is wrong. Ministers must know that it is wrong.
It is high time that Ministers intervened and, albeit privately and quietly, persuaded Bradford council to turn back. That is what I hope will happen as a result of the debate. If it is not forced to turn back, the misery that it is heaping on my constituents and others throughout the district will grow deeper, as will cynicism about the lack of democracy in Bradford.
Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East) : Time is short, but I ask the Minister to consider two urgent questions. First, will he consider the facilities for Iranian business men coming to the United Kingdom? That may seem a strange request, but the Minister will be aware of the huge new market which will provide jobs in Britain from purchases in Iran. Any Government official coming from Iran comes on a service passport. He has to go to a British embassy somewhere and has to wait for a long time. The information then has to go to the Home Office and come back. That can involve long, depressing and humiliating waits.
Almost every other country in Europe has adopted different arrangements. Countries outside the EEC have changed their arrangements because of the unique opportunity. In Germany, Switzerland and Italy no visas are required. In Spain and France no visas are required for service passports. There is an opportunity to make money and to create business. In four new towns Germany has had an opportunity to provide power and sewerage systems and Italy has been involved in four major petrochemical stations. Urgent consideration must be given to the opportunity that we offer people to come here from Iran.
Secondly, I ask the Minister to consider the possibility of a half-hour or hour debate on the egg industry to answer some simple questions. If the Government knew in August, as they said they did, that a serious problem was affecting the health of people and that it was not sensible for them to eat raw eggs, why were there not advertisements in the press and why was not attention drawn to the code of conduct? It would be a tragedy if the Government were regarded as having a two-sided policy for agriculture and the consumer.
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Wakeham) : This has been an interesting debate andperhaps has covered more subjects than usual. I shall do my best to reply to as many questions as I can.
We have had a busy start to the 1988-89 Session and already the House has given seven Bills a Second Reading. I have no doubt that in the new year we shall be equally busy with further good measures. In the meantime, the dates for the Christmas recess proposed in the motion are generally acceptable, and I commend them to the House. I wish you, Mr. Speaker, hon. Members, the Officers and staff of the House who serve us a pleasant Christmas and new year.
Column 106My hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) made some criticism of the fact that the timing of this debate has prevented the Consolidated Fund Bill from starting until 10 o'clock. I recognise his concern, but if we had not spent this afternoon debating the motion we would have had to sit on Friday. When arranging the business for this week, the Government tried to reach a solution acceptable to the House, which I believe we did. My hon. Friend was right to refer to the rights of the minority, which are important, but the majority have rights and it is my task to achieve the most acceptable balance. I shall try not to do the same next time--indeed, I will try not to do the same at any time --but I cannot give an absolute guarantee that it will not happen again in the future. I recognise that it is a shortcoming in the way in which we arrange our affairs if we reduce the amount of time available for Back Benchers.
Understandably, there has been some discussion about eggs and I appreciate the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton. I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the specific points made by my hon. Friend and the important concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), but it is important to put some of the views in their proper context.
The output of the egg industry is worth about £500 million per annum at the farm gate. It provides employment for at least 15,000 people and, in normal circumstances, costs the taxpayer little in support. Unfortunately, there is a problem at present, as the Government and industry accept. The number of outbreaks of food poisoning linked to eggs has increased this year, but the problem must be kept in perspective. The number of reported cases of food poisoning from salmonella linked to eggs is small compared with the huge number of eggs eaten each week--200 million, or about 30 million a day.
When it became clear in the summer that there was a problem, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, together with the Department of Health, immediately started talks with the industry to tackle the problem and to take action at every point in the food production chain. Among other things, that led to the publication of a code of practice. Codes of practice are only a start. The Government are continuing to work on several other matters, including the stringent monitoring of animal protein for animal feed. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food stopped funding research at Bristol because, after an extensive review, it was decided that the research had reached a successful conclusion and the project was ready for industrial support. I repeat that the Government have been taking several actions over a period to tackle the problem of salmonella.
Mr. Wakeham : If the hon. Gentleman heard me correctly, I did not necessarily say that the poultry industry was ready for industrial support, as such. That is the information that I have had, and I believe it to be correct.
Column 107However, there is an immediate short-term problem. Uncertainty has caused a sharp decline in egg sales. That has caused acute political and financial difficulties for the industry. In such wholly exceptional circumstances, the Government have decided to introduce two short-term measures, as announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food this afternoon. The reduction of the egg laying flock will enable short-term supply and demand to be brought back into better balance. Clearly, it is hoped that measures will be taken quickly to restore order to the egg market, in the interests of the consumer and everybody else in that important sector of the food industry.
Mr. Cryer : Will the right hon. Gentleman advise the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that a section of manufacturing industry has been affected? Twenty-eight jobs in a small firm in my constituency are at stake. That firm has not had an order for two weeks, whereas, in the normal course of events, it would have had seven. Because that firm is as affected as much as anybody else, it deserves consideration as part of the compensation scheme.
The right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) raised social security matters. The prime reason for the proposed changes in hostel arrangements is to achieve more sensible arrangements for hostel dwellers within the reformed income support scheme. It is anomalous to have a special scheme for only 25,000 claimants, many of whom live in ordinary houses in the community. However, the Government are anxious to ensure that the reform of payments to hostels should not jeopardise the future of hostels. That is why, on 21 October, we announced that the change should be deferred until after next April to allow more time to consider the effects on hostel finances.
On the right hon. Gentleman's second point, the Social Security Ministers made clear the need to wait until all the results of the OPCS investigations are available in July 1989 before deciding whether any changes in benefits are required for disabled people. From what the right hon. Gentleman had to say, one would not have thought that Government spending on the disabled had increased by about 90 per cent. since this Government have been in office. My right hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Sir B. Hayhoe) raised four questions, with which I shall deal quickly. First, he raised the matter of child benefit. He was wrong in what he said because child benefit is included in the order and will be relevant to the debate tomorrow. The arrangements for the debate were approved by a motion in the House on Friday. I recognise his concern about credit, but he also recognised that, although he may be concerned about other methods of credit, housing finance and mortgage commitments are the
Column 108major factor. The rise in interest rates has already had some effect because it has slowed down mortgage commitments and increased saving.
My right hon. Friend raised two other matters of constituency interest. I remember my days as a candidate in Putney--a long time ago--and the questions which my right hon. Friend raised about the road project are familiar to me. I can say only that there will be a public inquiry, at which his views and those of his constituents will be heard and taken into account. On the West Middlesex University hospital, an approval in principle submission is currently under consideration and a decision will be announced as soon as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) raised two matters. First, he was kind enough to speak about pensions for the Overseas Civil Service and I am grateful to him for what he said. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham) that my hon. Friend must take much of the credit for that because he persisted in the matter for a long time. In the end, justice was done.
My hon. Friend also raised the matter of access to this place for Members of the European Parliament. I recognise that matters are not as they should be but, on the general question, I can make progress only with the general agreement of the House that such proposals are the right way forward. I am afraid that a number of hon. Members--a few Conservative Members as well as Opposition Members--are unhappy with the proposals about access. I have done my best and I should like to see better arrangements. Like my hon. Friend, I deplore the low turnout in the election in Hampshire, Central. Of the 14 per cent. who voted, two of the voters were my wife and I. That did not make a substantial difference to the turnout.
I must tell my hon. Friend that I hear few complaints from Members of the European Parliament about access to the Government and to Ministers. I believe that they feel that they receive a fair hearing from Ministers and that they are able to put to them the points in which they are interested.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) raised the question of Crown post offices and sub-post offices, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton. The Post Office is currently considering the Monopolies and Mergers Commission's report into the activities of Post Office Counters Ltd. The Government will publish the Post Office's response to the report when consideration has been completed, and I understand that that will be soon. With my hon. Friend I regret that industrial action has been taken by counter staff, especially as it has been in advance of the Post Office's response to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission's report. My hon. Friend is right to say that good industrial relations in the Post Office are of vital importance.
I shall now deal with the matter of school visits. The restrictions on charges do not prevent a local education authority or a school from seeking voluntary contributions for the benefit of the school or in support of any school activity. If activities are worthwhile, surely parents are willing to contribute to the cost. Local education authorities and schools will have discretion, as before, to help in hardship cases.
I shall now deal with the matter of Barlow Clowes. The parliamentary ombudsman's inquiries are at an early
Column 109stage. It is a complicated case and, at present, the time scale for the inquiry is not known. The Department of Trade and Industry is, of course, co-operating fully.
I understand my hon. Friend's impatience about the queues outside the public entrance to the House of Commons. As he knows, this matter is being considered urgently by the Administration and Accommodation Sub-Committee, and I hope that we shall make progress on it early in the new year.
The hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) asked about the future of Harland and Wolff and of Shorts. The Government are aware of the concern about the future ownership of Harland and Wolff, but public ownership has not provided security of employment. The company will survive only if it is competitive, and that is best achieved by applying the disciplines of the private sector. Those are the main reasons why we have decided to privatise Harland and Wolff. Interest in acquiring the company continues to be shown by two private sector buyers and the possibility of a management-employee buy-out is also being discussed. We regret that we were unable to reach agreement with Mr. Tikkoo over his acquisition of the company and the building of the Ultimate Dream cruise liner. Details of the negotiations must of course remain confidential to the interested parties.
The Government believe that the early return of Shorts to the private sector offers the best prospect for its future. A substantial number of companies have expressed interest and any proposal which would establish the company on a sound financial basis in the private sector would be carefully considered by the Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. French) referred to the possible dangers of car telephones. I am pleased to be able to tell him that no further legislation is necessary to deal with the problem. Under the Road Traffic Act 1972, drivers are liable for prosecution for driving without undue care and attention. I understand that the use of hands-off equipment is recommended by the Department of Transport and that when the highway code is rewritten to take account of the North report next year that recommendation will be included.
The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) raised the important question of remand prisoners kept in police cells. I have a feeling that he raised that matter some months ago, but it is an important subject and he is right to come back to it. He cited the figure for 31 October.
Column 110Some time before that the problem was even worse. At one time, more than 2,000 prisoners were kept in police cells while on remand. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that there has been a substantial fall in the number, and the Government have been tackling the problem with great urgency. I had the figure checked while the hon. Gentleman was speaking and I am informed that today the figure is down to 440, which is a substantial improvement. It is expected to fall still further before Christmas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) raised three questions of love, as he put it, and they were all interesting in their way. The first concerned the imposition of VAT on hospital broadcasting equipment. I guess that most of us have taken part in hospital broadcasts, and I share my hon. Friend's admiration for the volunteers who spend much of their time providing entertainment and information for those in hospital. It is difficult, however, to pick out one worthy cause from a host of worthwhile causes. General relief would be very expensive and--although this argument may not appeal to my hon. Friend--contrary to the arrangements laid down by the European Community.
I agree with my hon. Friend about litter and the environment. He is absolutely right to stress the importance of all local initiatives. Preventing litter is one way in which individual citizens can actively improve their environment, and we should all seek to encourage that.
The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) asked questions which I cannot answer, but I shall refer his comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) raised important matters, but prosecutions are for the Attorney-General, not for me. I shall certainly refer his remarks to my right hon. and learned Friend. The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) gave his analysis of the position in Bradford. He sounded alarmist and seemed to ignore many of the relevant factors concerned with education.
It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. Speaker-- put the Question pursuant to Standing Order No. 22 (Periodic adjournments).
Question agreed to.
That this House at its rising on Thursday 22nd December, do adjourn until Tuesday 10th January.
Order for Second Reading read.
Question, That the Bill be now read a Second time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 54 (Consolidated Fund Bills), and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.
Motion made, and Question proposed, pursuant to Standing Order No. 54 (Consolidated Fund Bills), That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Heathcoat-Amory.]
Mr. John Bowis (Battersea) : I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise the subject of transport in London. I am particularly delighted that I have been lucky in the draw and that the debate has come at this time of the evening. Perhaps my colleagues will agree with that, not least my hon. Friend the Minister who is to reply. We have been mercifully treated in that, particularly as, had I been less lucky, we might have found ourselves trying to get home in the early hours of the rush hour tomorrow morning. That would have stressed the problems that we address in this debate.
When I first applied for this debate, road transport was uppermost in my mind, particularly the chaos caused by a variety of incidents and accidents and the standstill that affected our city centre on at least three occasions. Since then, sadly, the train crash in Battersea, outside Clapham junction station, has dominated our thoughts on transport in London. I hope that we can set on one side the details of that incident, because we want to avoid snap judgments on a terrible tragedy of that magnitude.
For example, soon after the crash, we had discussions on the design of the coaches of the train involved. At first it appeared that they were an old design which ran regularly on that line and we seemed to have an answer to the problem. It seemed that all we needed to do was to change the style of the coaches and all would be well. But subsequently we discovered that that coach was only on that line that day because of vandalism at Poole. Vandals had put a cement mixer on the line and prevented the more modern train from passing to Bournemouth, so the older train had come out of store so, let us not jump to conclusions tonight, but wait for the public inquiry. Certain thoughts must come from that incident and there have been many thoughts on the number of passengers travelling on trains into central London. In shorthand, it is called overcrowding, but that is a difficult term to define. Crowding seems bad enough, so I am not sure what overcrowding is. Thereby hangs another debate--on the numbers that should be standing in excess of the number of seats. What is clear is that, while there are rules on the number of passengers in excess of seats that can travel on long- distance journeys into London or elsewhere, for journeys of fewer than 20 miles such rules do not apply. Most of the trains that cover my and other inner-London
Column 112constituencies travel fewer than 20 miles and so are not covered. Those trains are jam-packed with people travelling over the same lines on which the accident took place and along the same network of signals.
We must look carefully at the number of people travelling on trains. I believe that the first lesson we must learn is that we need not so much more trains--I doubt whether the timetable could accommodate them--as longer ones. However, in many of our suburban stations longer trains will mean that longer platforms are needed, which I hope will be considered.
However, that accident has caused us to look at the safety record of the railways in London. That record is quite remarkable ; it is a tribute to the management of and those working for British Rail. We have the busiest junction in the country, perhaps in the world, through which 2,000 trains travel per day, carrying more than 350,000 passengers--at peak times, 1,000 passengers a minute travel into London--yet when I asked people in the Battersea area when an accident last caused loss of life, they could not remember. The last time they could remember casualties in that part of London was when bombs dropped out of the sky over London. Such a record is a tribute to the staff. There have been few severe rail accidents in London. I believe that there have been two others this decade, each with three dead, and then one goes back to Hither Green in the 1960s and Lewisham in the 1950s. One has to look way beyond the last war to find anything that has affected this busy area of London. It is a safe track, which must be reassuring.
The message that I hope to bring to this debate is that, in solving our transport difficulties in London, we must look much more seriously at public transport. We must encourage many more people to use it, which must mean more people using the railways. Of course we need safer railways, and that will come out of the inquiry, but we need a better service to attract people to them. We have a service which is good in parts and improving in parts. We know that in some cases there is a need for staffing, rolling stock and platforms, which I have already mentioned.
I believe that we need, too, new and reopened lines. Snow Hill is perhaps a good example of old railway being brought back into use, and I would like to see others reopened. I think in particular of the west London line. The old Battersea station was not reopened after the war and is still there in embryo over Battersea High street. That line could serve an area of London which is not served by rail or Underground. It could travel across the Thames to Chelsea harbour, another area deserted by public transport. Most important of all, it could go up through West Brompton to Earl's Court and provide, at long last, an underground link from the busiest junction on British Rail--Clapham junction--to Earl's Court. I hope that my hon. Friend will look carefully at that suggestion.
I hope that in studying the road plans in that area, especially the WEIR-- the western environmental improvement route--the Minister will ensure that any such plans do not cut off the options for that rail and tube link at West Brompton. I am sure, too, that there will be general agreement that the Chelsea-Hackney link, which has long been a priority of hon. Members and of transport managers in London, should be given the go-ahead.
I believe that British Rail has received more investment cash this decade than in any other in its history. That is
Column 113good news, but it is still not sufficient. We need still more resources if we are to continue the shift from road traffic to rail. There are three ways in which to encourage road users to abandon their vehicles and to use trains. The first, of course, is to allow roads to grind to a halt. Drivers would have no option but to leave their cars and walk or find public transport. The second is to price cars off the road. The third option is to make rail travel more attractive in terms of speed, comfort and price.
The first option, of allowing our roads to grind to a halt, is totally unacceptable. One has only to consider the impact on the emergency vehicles and remember the recent example of those vehicles trying to get to King's Cross and Clapham Junction. One can only price cars off the road if the third option is operative. That third option must take the lead in our policies to cure London's problems. We must have more funds, better used, to provide a better rail service.
Cash is required for all forms of transport--I do not just mean taxpayers' cash, but investment cash in the broadest sense. I do not believe that one should pluck figures out of the air and say that, within the next five years, £2 billion, £5 billion or £10 billion must be spent. That is the wrong way in which to consider the problem. We must accept that London is seizing up and that it needs investment cash.
In recent years we have had a good record of investment, but the current rate of investment is leading not to any improvements in London's transport, but to a standstill position ; all too often, that literally means that London's traffic comes to a standstill. That is not good enough. We must have a shopping list of major and minor projects so that people can live and work in London. Once we have that shopping list, we can decide those we must afford to fund, those to which we can ask the private sector to contribute and those that we can suggest that transport passengers fund, if they are prepared to pay the price. We should use all three avenues to achieve the necessary investment.
I believe that we need co-ordination to achieve the improvements we seek. Too often we consider road and rail transport separately. When reaching conclusions on schemes for either branch of our transport system, we often do not consider whether they will work in conjunction with the other branch.
The last thing we need is another example of the Greater London council approach : after 10 years, it produced the central plan, which it then took three years to abandon. We need greater co-ordination, which must come from the Department and its Ministers.
Does my hon. Friend believe that it is sensible to continue to have a Minister with responsibility for roads and a Minister with responsibility for railways? Is it sensible to continue to have that symbolic divide within the Department? That divide is often reflected outside. We need to find better ways in which to divide responsibilities within the Department. That is a tentative suggestion, because I know that it is my hon. Friend's boss, the Secretary of State, whose task it is to work on that.
One way in which we could improve things is to have a Minister for London or a Minister whose responsibilities included London. We should consider whether that means London as it is or whether the area within the M25 should be part of the London transport scene.
Mr. Bowis : That Minister would be able to bring together the planners for the roads, the railways and the Underground and those responsible for the river and air transport to consider the problems. Recently we had a problem in Battersea when a barge bashed into Battersea bridge. That had a great effect on traffic. When I asked in a parliamentary question the effect that that accident had on traffic flows, I was told that it was the responsibility of the boroughs. That is fine, but Wandsworth happens to be responsible for Battersea bridge, and Kensington and Chelsea is responsible for the Albert bridge. No one has the figures for the effect on various bridges down the river, or a co-ordinated policy to operate if, for example, we needed urgently to bring in the Royal Engineers to put across a temporary bridge.
This co-ordinating role is an important necessity. I hope that the river will receive greater prominence in future planning. There is enormous scope for more riverbus traffic. I hope that such planning will include building piers in suitable places, such as the heliport, to take some traffic off the roads.
I hope that my constituents will not be the only ones to suffer--or benefit --from a heliport. There used to be two of them in London--it is time there were two, or even three, again. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell the City of London that it is time it did its bit to provide a heliport service--
Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham) : Is my hon. Friend aware that if there is a heliport it is likely that helicopters will fly from it, and that many people find the noise of helicopters a severe irritant and want fewer, not more, helicopters and few and smaller heliports?
Mr. Bowis : I entirely understand my hon. Friend's worries. That is one reason why I want to spread the load a little, so that not so many flights fly over our end of London and flights can be spread down the river to the east of London. We have a City airport--why not allow helicopters to fly there, too?
Helicopters and riverbuses will provide only some answers to our problems. A great many more people travel on the Underground. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of passengers travelling on it in recent years. That increase, good as it was, will be reversed if we cannot improve the service.
On the eastern border of my constituency--there is no other Underground service in it--is a branch of the Northern line. Numbers of my constituents are served by the stations at Clapham Common, Clapham South and Balham. Those three stations give rise to more than a little of the volume of my mailbag. My constituents refer to a black hole down which trains rarely come. If they come, they tend to be full ; while people wait for them they tend to be mugged. If they manage to get on, they tend to get mugged again. While they are on the trains they may get tipped out halfway down the line, because the trains go no further.
I exaggerate a little, but for a purpose. I know that LRT is making enormous efforts to cure the crime and frequency problems of the Northern line, but it is always in the news and it has always been seen as a bad line--yet it is never at the top of the priority list. The line needs staff, rolling stock and station redevelopment, and it needs to be
Column 115split in two--and it should be put at the top of the priority list. If that requires private investment, let us pioneer that in the Underground system. Let us put the line out to tender and see whether private enterprise can do what so far public management has not been able to.
In public transport of all sorts, but particularly on the Underground, there is often a problem of staff shortages because of the difficulty of housing at the ends of the line, which tend to be in more expensive areas. We should encourage the railway authorities to provide some sort of housing for their staff. I do not mean the old tied cottage sort of housing. Railwaymen and Underground staff want to own their homes these days like everyone else. The railway authorities should, by themselves or together with housing associations, provide share purchase schemes to enable railway staff--particularly young couples--to start down the line in the housing market.
There need to be more car parks at the outer stations, which people should be encouraged to use.
Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting) : The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about housing, but how does he think the London borough of Wandsworth would react to his suggestion, bearing in mind the enormous housing problems there? More than 1,000 houses are empty, waiting to be sold not to local people but to anyone with money. Unfortunately, rail staff do not live in the area and have no commitment to it.
Mr. Bowis : The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a need for housing for such people. I am sure that Wandsworth council would welcome the scheme that I mentioned, just as it welcomed a similar scheme proposed by Wandsworth health authority to enable its staff to buy their own homes. Housing associations have been involved in such schemes. The public sector need not be involved.
I shall not dwell, because others may, on the options for further development of the Underground, especially the deep central figure of eight line, as it is described, and the private investment that could be waiting to assist in such a project.
From a recent answer by my hon. Friend the Minister, we know that there has been a marginal slowing down of traffic as it enters London in the rush hour. As he rightly said, the figure is not much different from that of 50 years ago, but there has been a move downwards in recent years. Of course, at times the slowdown becomes a full stop. We have heard interesting ideas about building deep tunnels--perhaps with private capital--to solve our road problems. I say firmly to my hon. Friend that we do not need inner link roads carving a way through the best of our housing and through the green spaces and commons of inner London. We should treasure and protect them. The Department should turn down some of the dottier consultants' schemes as soon as possible so that there is no planning blight, which such proposals have caused in the past.
My hon. Friend the Minister will no doubt say that we have traffic problems and that they must be solved. We cannot put all the traffic on to rail. We must have good routes so that buses, taxis and bicycles, as well as the cars and commercial vehicles that need to reach the centre of the city, can travel in inner and central London. Surveys show that, although there is much traffic moving round the