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House of Commons

Monday 13 March 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Railway Inspectors

1. Mr. Matthew Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what is the full establishment of railway inspectors ; and how many fully trained inspectors are currently in post.

The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Michael Portillo) : The full complement of railway inspectors is 24. At present, 22 are in post, of whom six with relevant experience have been recently recruited and are undergoing short-term induction courses. With the continuing recruitment campaign, I expect the railway inspectorate to be at full strength by the middle of the year.

Mr. Taylor : Does the Minister accept that there is concern that the railway inspectorate is not at full strength? Is he convinced that when it is it will be adequate, and what does he think about the observations made in The Observer at the weekend that, beginning in October, British Rail intends to abolish local health and safety representatives?

Mr. Portillo : That abolition does not relate to the statutory committees, which will continue in being. The

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chief inspecting officer of railways has been reviewing staff resources available to him, especially in the light of the Fennell report, which recommended the use of the Health of Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 to enforce measures for passenger safety. I am expecting his report to be presented to the Secretary of State shortly.

Mr. Prescott : For how long has the railway inspectorate been under establishment? Was the inspectorate consulted about the removal of the one- way leg from the diamond crossing involved in the Glasgow rail tragedy, which was a carbon copy of another collision two years previously? Were the Department and the inspectorate consulted as clearly economic reasons overrode safety priorities?

Mr. Portillo : The first reference that I found made to these crossing was in 1958 ; this sort of crossing has been installed since that time. The railway inspectorate believes that simpler crossings may be safer because less can go wrong and they are more reliable. It is content with that sort of installation. The railway inspectorate has been under strength for some time, but we have eight inspectors doing traditional railway inspectorate work--approving new works and accident inquiries--compared with five in 1979 ; and 14 dealing with matters relating to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act compared with five in 1975.

Channel Tunnel

3. Mr. McCartney : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he next plans to meet the north-west regional managers of British Rail to discuss the implications of the Channel tunnel for the north-west.

Mr. Portillo : I meet regional managers from time to time on regional visits. I look forward to the plans for freight and passenger services from the north-west to the Channel tunnel, which British Rail is obliged to publish by the end of the year.

Mr. McCartney : Is it not disgraceful that, in the run-up to 1993, the Minister cannot announce an overall plan for infrastructure in the north-west to take advantage of job

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opportunities and the improvement in transport infrastructure? Given his failure to make a statement, does he share Lancashire county council's commitment, which it expressed at its conference in January when it called for a bridge head between Europe and the United States via a free port at Liverpool and for the construction in the Liverpool-Manchester area of a freight terminal capable of improving links between the Channel and the north-west? If such a link is not introduced by 1993, does the Minister agree that there will be a reduction in jobs and job opportunities in the north-west and a train drain from the north-west to the south-east and Europe?

Mr. Portillo : British Rail has already invested £600 million to improve services between the Channel tunnel and every region of the country. I have made it clear that the Department is happy to co-operate with the Liverpool land bridge concept. It is appropriate to produce plans by the end of the year--the tunnel will not open until 1993--because otherwise there may be a danger of plans being made too early. British Rail has make it clear that the first international site will be at Leeds and that there is a clear need in Strathclyde, Birmingham and Teesside for other freight facilities. It is also considering south Wales and the north- west.

Mr. Tredinnick : Bearing in mind the £500 million that British Rail is spending on the Channel tunnel in Kent, does my hon. Friend agree that for only £23 million the line from St. Pancras as far as Leicester could be electrified?

Mr. Portillo : I do not know whether my hon. Friend's figure is correct, but if a sound investment case were put to Ministers for the electrification of that line, or any other, Ministers would be happy to approve it.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : Is the Minister aware of the traffic chaos on the M1, M6 and other roads leading from the north-west? Would it not be logical for the Government to put some money into establishing a major freight depot in the Greater Manchester area, possibly at Tameside, where the Secretary of State has seen a good site? Such investment would not only bring jobs to the north-west, but would relieve traffic congestion on the roads by ensuring that freight travelled by rail, which would be much more suitable for it.

Mr. Portillo : I am not at all sure that Government investment is needed to achieve those purposes. As the hon. Gentleman says, there are already pressures pointing in that direction. Section 8 grants are available for establishing freight facilities where they would take freight lorries off sensitive roads in unsuitable areas.

Mr. Favell : Of course, every north-west hon. Member will want to endorse the plea by the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) for a rail freight terminal in the north-west. However, is there not a danger of thinking that all the country's freight will disappear down the Channel tunnel? How much will be able to get down there? Is the lack of proper road links developing between the north-west and the Channel, the East Anglian ports and Immingham in East Yorkshire not an even greater danger? Clearly, all freight will not be able to get into the tunnel.

Mr. Portillo : I can assure my hon. Friend that Ministers are aware of the pressures on roads and he has made a perfectly valid point. It is true that the amount of freight

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passing through the Channel tunnel, although significant and an important psychological change for the country, will be only a tiny proportion of the total freight moved in this country.

Mr. Tony Lloyd : Is the Minister aware that British Rail's present plans allow for only four trains a day in and out of the north-west, which is equivalent of about 280 lorries a day? Does he realise that that would not effectively clear one large international container ship? Is he aware that that would displace almost no worthwhile traffic from the motorway system? What does the Minister intend to do to ensure that we have a system that will take goods and people from the north-west?

Mr. Portillo : I cannot confirm the hon. Gentleman's figures and the figure of four trains a day is not familiar to me. I am still waiting for the plans to be brought forward. However, from British Rail's document on the new proposed rail link published last week, I know that in 1993 there will be 35 train paths available daily each way through the Channel tunnel and that 75 per cent. of freight using the Channel tunnel is expected to come from beyond the south-east or to go beyond the south-east.

Dame Peggy Fenner : I appreciate that the proposals are still at an early stage and that they will not proceed until 1993. However, is my hon. Friend satisfied that the King's Cross connection and terminal is the right choice, as that is the choice that the House will be asked to make early?

Mr. Portillo : British Rail has made it clear that it believes that King's Cross is the right choice and a number of hon. Members from various parties have said that they believe that that is right because of the superior connections from King's Cross to the north of England. However, the investment proposal has not yet been put to the Government, so the Government have not taken a firm view on that yet.

Urban Areas (Rail Networks)

4. Mr. Michael : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what is his policy towards the provision of local rail networks in urban areas.

Mr. Portillo : Urban rail services are mainly the responsibility of British Rail and the passenger transport executives, where they exist. The Government are happy to approve investment in such services wherever it offers value for money. Our general policy is explained in our response to the report of the Select Committee on Transport on the financing of rail services.

Mr. Michael : Will the Minister join me in welcoming the success of the partnership in investment created by south and mid Glamorgan in extending the rail pattern in the Greater Cardiff area? Does he agree that for areas such as the Vale of Glamorgan and the south Wales valleys, increased investment and the development of those services is essential to the future communications network? Does he agree that the Government should take the lead in providing public investment to encourage that?

Mr. Portillo : One of the features of the area that the hon. Gentleman represents is that because there is no passenger transport authority covering it, the services on the provincial sector of British Rail qualify for public sector obligation grants, so the Government are involved

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in providing money for services in the hon. Gentleman's area. I am aware of the contribution that mid and south Glamorgan are making to those rail services and I have explained the Government's policy in my first reply.

Mr. Amos : Is my hon. Friend aware that the main concern is not about British Rail's published timetables but about the non-arrival of the trains that are due to arrive? Will he please do something about the 7.48 am from Hexham to Newcastle, which is cancelled more often than it turns up?

Mr. Portillo : I hope that my hon. Friend will pursue that matter with the chairman of British Rail with his normal vigour. The Government are concerned that the highest quality of service should be provided by British Rail, and I know that my hon. Friend will take the matter up.

Mr. Snape : May I press the Minister on recommendation No. 6 in the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report on other provincial services and ask him whether the Government have accepted the recommendation that the services should be transferred to existing or newly formed passenger transport authorities? If so, will the Government continue to make their current financial contribution to the maintenance of those services?

Mr. Portillo : The hon. Gentleman will understand that it would be premature for me to pick off a recommendation in the MMC report and respond to it. The Government will have to consider their position and reply in due course. It has been an interesting suggestion, and we shall formulate our response to it. I simply make the point--I know that the hon. Gentleman is familiar with it--that public sector sector obligation grant is not available for areas that have PTAs so there are both pros and cons in the MMC proposal.

Motorway Repairs

5. Mr. Knox : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what recent representations he has received about the speed with which motorway repairs are undertaken.

The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Peter Bottomley) : We receive various representations about the way in which motorway repairs are undertaken. We aim to programme works when traffic is lightest and complete the work as quickly as possible.

Mr. Knox : Does my hon. Friend think that the public is satisfied that motorway repairs are undertaken in the minimum possible time? I accept that there has been some improvement, but does my hon. Friend intend to take any steps further to improve the situation, which still leaves a great deal to be desired?

Mr. Bottomley : The simple answers are no and yes. Members of the public are dissatisfied. Things may appear to have been improved in the second half of last year, as we undertook fewer motorway repairs than we expected. We now manage to complete small repairs much faster. In addition, the development of the long-term programme and the fact that we are building roads to a higher standard will contribute to an easier journey for motorway users.

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Mrs. Dunwoody : Is the Minister aware that safety on motorways is related not only to repairs and to the speed at which roads are improved? Will he consider urgently the carriage of dangerous substances to see whether heavy goods vehicles are conforming to the safety standards necessary to protect other motorists?

Mr. Bottomley : Yes. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who launched the motorway safety package, and I are determined to have the safest possible motorways. At the moment the safety records of both Switzerland and the Netherlands appear to be slightly better than ours but we are determined to overtake those countries.

Mr. Higgins : Given the inevitable delays that motorway repairs cause, however quickly they may be carried out, will my hon. Friend consider carefully improving the system for notifying road users that delays are likely to be experienced? In particular, will he consider whether appropriate notices could be displayed and study the experience of Tokyo, which has a unified system for warning drivers when delays are likely?

Mr. Bottomley : I accept my right hon. Friend's point, and both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I want to do better. I am not sure that the system operated in Tokyo is that much better than ours, given that it takes up to four hours to travel 40 km to the airport, but we shall try to make the system better in this country.

Shipping (Freight Movements)

6. Mr. Barry Field : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what progress he is making in the European Council of Ministers to liberalise freight movements by ships within European countries.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Paul Channon) : I have continued to press strongly for the liberalisation of cabotage, and substantive discussions are now scheduled for the June Transport Council.

Mr. Field : Will my right hon. Friend list the EEC countries that continue to use cabotage to restrict trade, and tell us when he expects to take up the powers vested in him under the Merchant Shipping Act 1988, which will enable the red ensign to sail into all the ports of EEC member countries without let or hindrance?

Mr. Channon : My hon. Friend probably knows that the Federal Republic of Germany, Greece, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain restrict cabotage, but we have an agreement with the German Government allowing access to the German cabotage trades. My hon. Friend is right that I have powers under the Merchant Shipping Act, but my primary objective remains liberalisation through a binding Community regulation. That would be very much better than using the powers, although I should certainly do so in the last resort.

Mr. Benn : Will the Secretary of State comment on the judgment by the court last Friday--

Mr. Speaker : Order. The Secretary of State cannot comment on a judgment that is still before a court.

Mr. Benn : Has the right hon. Gentleman's attention been drawn to the judgment by the court last Friday overturning the Merchant Shipping Act to which he has just referred and issuing him, as Secretary of State, with an

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order not to proceed with regulations made under that Act? That means that for the first time in our history the courts of this country have actually ruled that a law passed by both Houses of Parliament is invalid.

Mr. Channon : The right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not deal with the point that he raised. The matter is in the Court of Appeal, where the Government have launched an appeal.

Mr. Cash : My right hon. Friend will recall that, when the legislation was being introduced, its legality was challenged. The Government put forward their case, and won it on a preliminary hearing, with costs awarded in their favour. Therefore, is it not extraordinary that, after the Act has been passed, we should now be faced with a similar situation which is causing considerable doubt and confusion about where our powers really lie?

Mr. Channon : I have great sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. As I told the House a moment ago, the entitlement of foreign beneficially- owned fishing vessels to remain United

Kingdom-registered is now before the Court of Appeal so, I am not in a position to comment today.

Mr. Salmond : If the liberalisation of freight were to increase maritime traffic, how confident is the Secretary of State that the coastguard service could cope, given that the coastguard union has already argued that existing rationalisation is compromising public safety at sea?

Mr. Channon : I am confident that the coastguard service could cope. It is receiving a great deal of support from the Government. I am determined to improve it to provide an even higher standard, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will see that in practice. An event today has proved the point.

Roads Expenditure

8. Dr. Michael Clark : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what has been the expenditure per capita on roads in (a) the south-east and (b) other regions for the last three years for which figures are available.

Mr. Channon : Over the last three years, my Department's average annual expenditure on national roads has been £18.14 per head in the south-east, and £17.68 per head across the country as a whole.

Dr. Clark : Does my right hon. Friend accept that, although those figures show that the south-east is marginally better off than the nation as a whole, many people in the south-east believe that our region does not get as much money as other regions? Bearing in mind the large level of commuting in the south-east, does he think that there should be better roads in the south-east? In particular, when does he expect the Rayleigh weir underpass and the Rochford-Southend relief road, the 1013, to be finished?

Mr. Channon : As my hon. Friend will know, more than £1 billion has been spent in the past three years on building, improving and maintaining roads in the south-east and East Anglia. That represents 40 per cent. of total expenditure on national roads in that period. We are planning to spend over £ billion next year alone on roads in that area.

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As to my hon. Friend's specific question about Rayleigh weir, a matter which is close to my heart, we expect to issue invitations to tender in May or June, to award the contract in August or September, and to start work in the autumn. Advanced works are expected to start in May, and I expect later this week to announce a decision on further facilities to protect pedestrians.

Mr. Tony Banks : We in the south-east are quite happy if the right hon. Gentleman wants to switch expenditure on roads away from this area and to the north. It seems strange that those who want to use public transport in the south-east are now being expected to pay for that investment, whereas those who want roads will find them being provided out of general taxpayers' expenditure levels.

Mr. Channon : The hon. Gentleman has overlooked the fact that the motorist pays in vehicle excise duty and petrol tax much more than the cost of the roads. He is on a false point. On the question which concerns him about roads expenditure in London, he should not confuse the different issues of Greater London with the general issue of the need for roads in the south-east. Expenditure in London, which is a different matter and which I should be delighted to debate on another occasion, is much lower.

Mr. Waller : Does my right hon. Friend agree that one problem which causes delays in the provision of an adequate road network in the south- east, which is crowded, and in other areas, is the slowness of the planning process? From the time that they are visualised, roads can take as long as 12 years to come to fruition. Will my right hon. Friend seek to find ways of speeding up the planning process, while still giving a right to be heard to those who are directly affected?

Mr. Channon : I certainly think that the process from start to finish is still too long. I am not sure whether much can be done in speeding up the planning process. I am determined to speed up the long procedures before roads get to the planning stage. We can probably manage to speed up that process by as much as three years. That will make a great difference to the roads programme.

Mr. Haynes : The Secretary of State is not doing very well in the east midlands region. Will he look seriously at the expenditure provided for the county councils which are responsible for the roads? The roads in the east midlands are shocking and it is high time that money was found for repairs to be done properly. The right hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic is supposed to be interested in safety on the roads and the east midlands' record is appalling. The Secretary of State should wake up and do something about it.

Mr. Channon : The hon. Gentleman has done his best to make me wake up in his typical way and with his kind and courteous understatement. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that in the east midlands, as indeed in other parts of the country, maintenance of a large proportion of the road network is the responsibility of the local authorities. He will also be interested to learn that the outturn on national roads expenditure in the east midlands in 1987-88 has now reached £83 million. No doubt, the hon. Gentleman would like to see it higher, but I believe that the figure speaks for itself.

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Passenger Air Transport

9. Mr. Squire : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he has any plans to seek further to deregulate passenger air transport in Europe.

Mr. Channon : Yes. The Community Ministers will be adopting further liberalising measures by June 1990. We have already given the Commission our views on what the measures should include, and copies of the paper have been placed in the Library.

Mr. Squire : I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware that, despite welcome advances, made in recent years, as of today the single fare for a flight from New York to Washington is £56? The single fare, however, for an identical distance in Europe--namely from London to Paris--is £88. Does that not show that we still have some way to go in deregulation?

Mr. Channon : Most certainly we do. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and I expect that it is common ground throughout the House that European air fares are far too high. Our priority is to bring them down. We need much more real competition among airlines. However, several lower fares are available as a result of strenuous activities over the years. For example, the fare that Air Europe can offer from London to Paris is 12 per cent. lower than was previously available. We have other liberal bilateral arrangements with Ireland and the Netherlands and we hope that more will proceed shortly.

Mr. Tony Lloyd : In encouraging deregulation and, obviously, an increase in air traffic, will the Secretary of State accept that safety must go hand in hand with that increase? In the light of the fire on the aircraft at Manchester airport, does he accept the need for smoke hoods on aircraft?

Mr. Channon : I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that safety must remain the top priority. As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is the responsibility of the Civil Aviation Authority and I understand that it is making a statement on all those matters this afternoon.

Mr. Hind : My right hon. Friend is currently engaged in discussions with the American Government about flights from Manchester to Boston and New York. Does he appreciate that north-west people want to fly direct from Manchester and not to have to come into Heathrow and Gatwick, and that they would prefer to do so via a privatised Manchester airport?

Mr. Channon : I think I agree with all that my hon. Friend has said. I hope that further negotiations can take place about that matter. However, I was asked about deregulation of passenger air transport in Europe.

Mr. Prescott : Is the Secretary of State aware that the studies of deregulation in the American air services have shown that fares have been reduced, but sometimes at the expense of the quality and safety of the service? Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that economic and commercial pressures from the operators and the plane producers have combined to weaken the Government's power of enforcing safety? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the same pressures are more than evident in today's much delayed report on the Manchester inquiry, which shows that economic pressures for more seats reduced the possibility

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of safe exit from the plane? The report of the inquiry has been delayed for far too long. The accident involved 55 deaths and that must justify our demands that the Secretary of State should now consider that his Department and the CAA are completely inadequate to deal with matters of safety and that they should be passed over to the Health and Safety Executive.

Mr. Channon : The hon. Gentleman may have overlooked the fact that we are not responsible for aviation safety, anyway. The Civil Aviation Authority is responsible for aviation safety which, if the hon. Gentleman had done one moment's homework, he would have realised before he asked his ridiculous question.

Mr. Prescott : The report is to the right hon. Gentleman, and the CAA is answerable to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Channon : It is from the air accident investigation branch. The hon. Gentleman has done no homework on the subject at all.

Mr. Prescott : It is the right hon. Gentleman's responsibility.

Mr. Channon : The hon. Gentleman has just read out his own brief of which he has not troubled to check the accuracy. He has not consulted his hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape). Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should resign-- [Interruption.] Beneath the bombast and rhetoric of the hon. Gentleman lies a serious point that has been answered by the CAA. I hope that when the hon. Gentleman has had time to read the Manchester air crash report, he will realise that as a result of what has been recommended the three and a half years spent on it will yield greater increases in safety.

London Road Assessment Studies

10. Mr. Corbyn : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received concerning the London road assessment studies.

Mr. Peter Bottomley : A number of representations have been received, including several from the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Corbyn : Is the Minister aware that his Department is spending about £4 million on road assessment studies in London and that thousands of people have made representations, the majority of whom strongly oppose any new road building in London and resent the idea of a great deal of public money being spent on road building which can result only in the destruction of a large number of homes in my constituency and about 20 others? Does he acknowledge that the Department's current policy is, essentially, to subsidise the private commuter motorist through tax relief and road building and to punish public transport passengers, who account for 82 per cent. of commuter journeys, by making the fare-paying passenger pay for the new investment in public transport? In the circumstances, would it not be better to abandon the assessment studies and concentrate solely on improving public transport in London, diverting freight vehicles around London and improving the environment for Londoners rather than appeasing the road builders and the freight transport lobby?

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Mr. Bottomley : No, Sir. The hon. Gentleman seems to have little idea about what is going on in London. London passenger transport is growing faster than in any capital city with the exception of the opening of the underground in Hong Kong. During the past five years Underground passenger journeys have increased by 70 per cent. and the number of British Rail season ticket holders has increased by 20 per cent. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman listened with his ears rather than his mouth he would learn that the number of people commuting by car into central London has dropped from 190,000 per day to 160,000 per day. The hon. Gentleman should therefore be applauding the Government.

Mr. Harry Greenway : Does my hon. Friend agree that any assessment of London roads must take into account the safety of children crossing those roads? Is my hon. Friend aware that it is virtually impossible to get lollipop ladies in my constituency and other parts of London because the pay is much too low? Will he see what he can do about increasing the pay levels for lollipop ladies and gentlemen?

Mr. Bottomley : Yes, Sir. It would also help to try to separate through traffic from residential areas and to have safe routes to schools which do not require children to cross busy roads. Although that cannot be achieved everywhere at once, it is a worthwhile aim, whether in Haringey, Ealing or anywhere else in London. The casualty rate in London is higher than it should be. If we can go on with through roads and through traffic, which the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) will not like, and try to go for a partial exclusion of traffic and an emphasis on residents in some areas, we shall achieve mobility, access, environmental improvements and a reduction in casualties.

Ms. Ruddock : Despite the Minister's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), will he acknowledge that the road assessment study proposals are meeting total opposition from local groups, from residents and even from a number of Conservative Members? Will he admit that the money being spent is an absolute waste because wherever the capacity of roads is increased in London it will simply mean an increase in car and lorry traffic? The Minister has said that he does not want that, so will he put an end to those foolish reports and get on with providing even more public transport in London and giving priority to buses on the roads rather than to private car users?

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