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House of Commons

Monday 4 December 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Birmingham City Council (

No. 2 ) Bill--

Bromley London Borough Council (Crystal Palace) Bill

Orders for consideration read.

To be considered on Thursday 7 December.

Cardiff Bay Barrage Bill


Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 7 December.

Seamount Ltd.

Resolved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give direction that there be laid before this House a Return of the report of Mr. Stewart Boyd QC into the affairs of Seamount Limited.-- [Mr. Hurd.]

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Oral Answers to Questions


Licensed Motor Vehicles

1. Mr. Ashton : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what is the number of licensed motor vehicles on the roads today ; and what was the number in 1979.

The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Robert Atkins) : A census taken at the end of September showed 24 million licensed vehicles of all classes on the roads in Great Britain. The comparable figure for 1979 was 18.6 million. This substantial increase can be attributed to the improvement in personal prosperity caused by the success of Government policies.

Mr. Ashton : If there is such prosperity, why are extra motorway miles not being built to accommodate the increased traffic? Is the Minister aware that it now takes an hour longer to drive here from Bassetlaw, or Yorkshire, than it did 10 years ago? Is he further aware that some of the horrendous accidents that took place in the fog recently, were caused by dangerous overcrowding on the motorways? When will we have the kind of motorway standards and systems that are operated in France and Germany?

Mr. Atkins : I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman supports our policy of improving and extending existing roads and building new ones. That is the policy which we intend to implement. As the hon. Gentleman will know from the Chancellor's Autumn Statement, there is to be a substantial increase in the moneys available to do the very things that he wishes. The present Government are doing that, but the Labour Government supported by the hon. Gentleman were unable to provide that sort of resource.

Mr. Higgins : Given the enormous increase in traffic levels, especially in central London, will my hon. Friend examine seriously the so- called traffic management

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schemes which in many places--for example, the Aldwych and south of Westminster bridge--are unnecessary, counter- productive and extremely expensive? Will my hon. Friend reconsider whether the Government should not reallocate responsibility for the overall control of London's traffic to the Department of Transport?

Mr. Atkins : My right hon. Friend is extremely knowledgeable in these matters and I am grateful to him for his constructive approach. I assure him that I will consider the matters that he has raised as quickly as possible.

Mr. Leadbitter : Despite the Minister's main answer, and despite his interest in the A19 problem, there are persistent problems which need urgently to be resolved. Will the Minister tell us, perhaps not today but later, the cost of the flyover on the A1 at Middlesbrough and the number of months of work already attributed to it? How long will that project take to complete?

Secondly, will the Minister--

Mr. Speaker : Order. One supplementary question is enough.

Mr. Atkins : I am delighted to tell the House that my Department is committed to improving a number of roads, one of which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. I will write to the hon. Gentleman in response to his detailed question.

Mr. David Howell : My right hon. and hon. Friends must be congratulated on the enormous amount of work being undertaken, but is it not true that most of the roads in the south-west and south-east of this island are jammed most of the time, especially during peak hours? Has not the time come for a comprehensive statement on strategy, perhaps in a White Paper, setting out exactly how we are to develop high-speed links, dedicated transport, inner city restrictions, a vast increase in tunnelling and sub-service provision, and new car designs to make life possible in the next 10 years?

Mr. Atkins : In a very short question, my right hon. Friend has raised enough matters of substance for a major debate. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I--indeed, all the Ministers in the Department--are spending a great deal of time and money trying to address the problems to which he refers. I hope that in due course he will be able to accord us the plaudits which his experience will allow us to receive with considerable gratitude.

Ms. Ruddock : Does the Minister accept that, whatever the size of the programme, his Department's projections of an increase in road traffic of between 83 and 142 per cent. in the next 25 years will result in a massive increase in emissions of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide? Will he tell us today whether he accepts the advice of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who said that

"such growth would wreck any attempt to control pollution"? Mr. Atkins : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and I are entirely in agreement with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that the problem of emissions must be addressed. We have already taken a number of steps, not

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least through our support for the Commission directive which aims to do something about catalytic converters by 1992.

I remind the hon. Lady that the figures to which she has referred are forecasts and not the Department's targets. I for one am not prepared to be a member of a Government who would not allow individuals to be free to buy the cars that they want, but apparently that does not apply to the hon. Lady.


2. Mr. Irvine : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what plans he has for increasing spending on the railways over the next three years.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Cecil Parkinson) : This Government are making possible investment in the future of our railways on a scale not seen for 25 years. Investment in British Rail is planned to rise to £3.7 billion over the next three years, a 75 per cent. real increase over the previous three.

Mr. Irvine : Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is great concern in Ipswich about the service on the railway to London--both the overcrowding and the bad timekeeping? Can he assure me that a reasonable proportion of the welcome increase in spending on railways that he has announced will be devoted to improving the standard of service on the Ipswich to Liverpool Street line?

Mr. Parkinson : I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. The programme includes £60 million to be spent on improving the signalling system on that very line.

Mr. Robert Hughes : Does the Secretary of State recognise that although improved investment in British Rail is welcome, his responsibility relates to the whole country? Will he give particular attention to the electrification of the east coast line between Aberdeen and Edinburgh, especially in view of the need to develop industry and commerce because of the Channel tunnel?

Mr. Parkinson : Yes, I want to see that fast east coast link electrified from London straight through to Aberdeen. The electrification to Leeds has already been a great success and we wish that to be carried further.

Mr. Adley : No one with the interests of the railways at heart could do other than warmly welcome the Government's investment in the new railway, and in railway modernisation. Will my hon. Friend confirm, however, that cleanliness, punctuality, safety, the length of trains and, indeed, the overcrowding to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Irvine) referred, must all be dealt with through the public service obligation grant, which the Government have cut in half--and boast about having cut in half--since 1983? Should we not look at PSO grant and investment in new railways simultaneously?

Mr. Parkinson : I am sorry if my hon. Friend is going to join the Opposition in measuring the Government's commitment to the railways by the amount spent on subsidy. We believe that our objective should be to have not the most subsidised but the most efficient and modernised railways, and that is what we are seeking.

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Mr. Snape : Is the Secretary of State aware that he does not know what he is talking about? He has no plans to increase spending on the railways ; indeed, as his hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) has just told him, he plans to reduce the public service obligation grant--already reduced by 50 per cent.--even further in the next three years. All that he is doing is allowing the railways to borrow more money, which will have to be repaid through higher fares, more overcrowding and even wider passenger dissatisfaction. The Secretary of State should stop trying to kid his hon. Friends that anything has changed.

Mr. Parkinson : It is a great disappointment to the hon. Gentleman that we are making sure that our railway system is modernised. Last year more money was invested in modernising the railways than for 25 years. In the next three years we shall spend 75 per cent. more in real terms. That is bad news for the hon. Gentleman, but good news for the railways.

British Rail

3. Mr. Madel : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport whether he expects to meet the chairman of British Rail before 31 December to discuss reopening of existing lines closed to passenger traffic ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Parkinson : The reopening of freight railway lines to passenger services is a matter for the British Railways Board. British Rail will generally look favourably on any opening where there is a commercial case or where others are willing to give support.

Mr. Madel : As motor traffic congestion is now so serious in the Dunstable-Luton area, with no sign of early relief, will my right hon. Friend join me in urging British Rail to reopen the Dunstable-Luton railway line to passenger traffic at the earliest opportunity?

Mr. Parkinson : As my hon. Friend knows, a number of proposals, ranging from a light railway system to the reopening of the line, are under consideration. I understand that a decision will be announced in January.

Dr. Marek : Will the Minister draw the attention of British Rail's chairman to the need to reopen the railway line in north Wales from Bangor to Caernarfon? Before he does that, however, will he make sure that after 11 years of Conservative rule there is enough rolling stock? In Wrexham we have buses instead of trains and more trains cancelled than ever before.

Mr. Parkinson : I know of no plans to reopen the line that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but if he cares to write to me I will put the matter to the chairman of British Rail. As for the hon. Gentleman's second point, at the end of the next two years more than 80 per cent. of all the rolling stock on provincial lines will be less than five years old. There is a massive programme under way to modernise all the rolling stock on the provincial lines. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that that is good news, as his hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) does not seem to agree.

Mr. Trotter : Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is essential for the prosperity of the northern half of the country that there should be through freight and passenger

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trains from the Channel tunnel at the earliest possible time? Does he also accept that British Rail management has assured us that it is essential that the international station at King's Cross should go ahead without any delay and that initially, whatever the route through Kent and the south-east, we should use the existing lines under London?

Mr. Parkinson : My hon. Friend knows that the King's Cross development is a matter for this House. There is a Bill before the House, on which the House will take a decision. There is a later question on the Order Paper about the link to the Channel tunnel. We believe that it is essential for all the regions to have good access to the Channel tunnel. British Rail will be coming forward with proposals before the end of the year.

River Severn Crossing

4. Mr. Gareth Wardell : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what date he has set for the invitation of tenders for the second crossing of the River Severn.

Mr. Atkins : Tenders for the second Severn bridge were invited on 27 April and were received on 2 October. The assessment process is well under way.

Mr. Wardell : I welcome the fact that at last there is to be a second crossing of the River Severn. It will get rid of the dreadful bottleneck that has strangled the Welsh economy. However, even at this late stage in the tendering process, is the Minister able to say whether the day has gone when a combination of energy generation and the road crossing would still be possible? The advantage of generating 7 per cent. of Britain's electricity combined with road crossing seems a sensible option which the Government should pursue.

Mr. Atkins : The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that questions about energy are for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. However, my Department is committed to going ahead as quickly as possible with the second crossing. My right hon. Friend and I assure him that we shall do our level best to ensure that it is brought into being as quickly as possible.

Mr. Stern : Is my hon. Friend aware of the success of the recent exhibitions in Pilning and Avonmouth in my constituency on the southern routes for the second Severn crossing? Will he do all in his power to reach a final decision on the route as quickly as possible?

Mr. Atkins : My hon. Friend frequently raises this matter to protect his constituents' interests and I know how deeply he feels it to be at the forefront of his political agenda. I assure the House that I shall do what I can to speed up the process.

British Rail

5. Mr. Rooker : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to announce the new chairman or chairwoman of British Rail.

Mr. Parkinson : I expect to announce the name of the new British Rail chairman shortly.

Mr. Rooker : Is not the Secretary of State at all worried about the long delay in making this announcement? The right hon. Gentleman must accept that that cannot be good for the management and future of British Rail, its

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workers and employees. Can he give an assurance to the House that the Department's advisers and the headhunters who are responsible for finding someone to carry out this top management task have had a trawl of the incredibly mature, experienced, good top management females in British industry and commerce, and that they are not to be excluded from consideration because it might be thought by some males that just because one woman cannot run the country a woman is not fit to run British Rail?

Mr. Parkinson : I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the person whose name I announce will be a man.

Miss Widdecombe : When my right hon. Friend has appointed the chairman, or preferably chairwoman, of British Rail, will he undertake to ask that person to exercise wide discretion about the restrictive compensation rules for those suffering due to the Channel tunnel rail link?

Mr. Parkinson : That is a matter not for the new chairman of British Rail but for the House.

Mrs. Dunwoody : Speaking as a mature woman, may I ask the Secretary of State whether in his talks with the present chairman he has been told that the constant cutting of the public service obligation grant is putting at risk the safety of the railways and that whoever is in that position must make that his or her first absolute priority?

Mr. Parkinson : I entirely agree with the hon. Lady about safety. There is absolutely no truth in the newspaper report yesterday that the Government were not prepared to contribute to the costs of meeting the recommendations in the Hidden report. I have not had any discussions of the kind suggested with the chairman of British Rail.

Mr. Gerald Bowden : When my right hon. Friend appoints the new chairman of British Rail, will he urge the chairman to look again at the Channel tunnel rail link proposals and consider the alternatives which centre on Stratford, which provides far more direct and better access for the whole United Kingdom than King's Cross does? The Ove Arup route, in particular, envisages King's Cross as one of the London destinations.

Mr. Parkinson : I am sure that my hon. Friend has noticed that a recent poll shows that a substantial majority of the Members polled prefer the BR Eurorail option.

Mr. Snape : Is the Secretary of State surprised that he has had to hawk the job of chairman of British Rail around the City when accepting the job means waiting years for his Department to allow British Rail to spend its own money and when the new chairman or chairwoman will suffer constant interference in terms of how that money is spent, whether on safety, cleanliness, modernisation or punctuality? When it comes to implementing the Government's impossible rail policies, one Bob Reid will be just like another.

Mr. Parkinson : I am sorry to have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman again. He is incredibly ill-informed. We have had no shortage of candidates. In fact, I am surprised at the number of people who have written to me commending themselves. [ Hon. Members :-- "Name one."] There are too many to name, and none is in the House. I believe that we have found an excellent chairman, and I look forward to informing the House shortly of his appointment.

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School Buses

6. Mr. Brazier : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what measures are being taken to make school buses more recognisable.

The Minister for Aviation and Shipping (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin) : We attach high priority to improving the safety of school children. Among other points, school buses should be easier to recognise. We are proposing that they should be marked with a distinctive sign and we shall shortly be consulting in the usual way. I will ensure that my hon. Friend receives a copy of that document.

Mr. Braizer : That will be welcome news to many of my constituents, whose children have to travel a considerable distance on busy roads to school. What is the Government's attitude to seat belts on school buses?

Mr. McLoughlin : We already require seat belts to be fitted to the front seats of coaches and minibuses, and we aim for that provision to be extended to all seats on minibuses and coaches. However, it is mainly a matter of education and in some ways, it is up to parents, too, to emphasise the importance of taking care when using public transport.

Mr. Madden : Will the Minister accept that it is not good enough for his Department to attempt to shuffle off safety considerations on to teachers or parents? Will he accept that there is mounting concern about the safety of children--who often pay fares on school buses--arising from the absence of supervision or seat belts? Will he announce at the earliest opportunity legislation requiring supervision and seat belts for children riding on such vehicles?

Mr. McLoughlin : The operation of supervision on those coaches is surely a matter for local authorities, as it falls wholly within their remit. The hon. Gentleman implied that we were trying to push the subject off on to parents. It is every parent's responsibility and duty to ensure that children understand safety procedures. The Department of Transport cannot do that, so parents need to do it.

Miss Emma Nicholson : A child in my constituency named Lee Kelly died while alighting from a school bus and crossing the road. As a result, I went to see my hon. Friend the Minister and I am grateful for his speedy understanding and sensitivity. I am delighted to say that on 1 January Devon county council is to initiate a pilot scheme with clear bus signs and flashing lights to see what the effect will be on traffic. My hon. Friend will know that I have put to him a 10-point school bus safety code, which I urge all hon. Members to back and the Department to adopt.

Mr. McLoughlin : I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way in which she led the campaign. I and the Department also congratulate Devon county council. There is nothing to stop county councils taking such imaginative intiatives as Devon has already taken and we shall watch that experiment with great interest.

Mr. Allen : Is the Minister aware that in the United States, most school buses are yellow and that there is a regulation that those buses should not be overtaken by drivers who come up behind, so that the kids can cross in

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safety? Having heard about the success of the experiment in Devon, will the Minister consider extending that experiment, or encouraging its extension, and will he look with an open mind at the similar scheme in the United States?

Mr. McLoughlin : The answer to all three questions is yes. To require traffic not to overtake when a school bus is stopping would mean a major change in driver understanding of roads, but we shall look at the possibility of introducing such a measure.

Stansted Rail Link

7. Mr. Haselhurst : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will investigate the adequacy of capacity on the Liverpool Street/Cambridge line before the commencement of the Stansted airport rail link.

Mr. McLoughlin : The efficient operation of the railways is a matter for British Rail, but my hon. Friend the Minister of State has agreed to meet my hon. Friend to discuss his concerns and those of his constituents.

Mr. Haselhurst : Will my hon. Friend in his own responsibility for aviation share the concern of our hon. Friend the Minister of State to ensure that the airport rail link gets off to a good start? Is there not some cause for worry when the resignalling of the Bethnal Green to Stansted section will not be in place by 1991 and there is no provision for any extra tracks? Is my hon. Friend aware that the service currently offered by British Rail within those constraints is not good? How can he expect it to be successful unless further action is taken?

Mr. McLoughlin : I agree with my hon. Friend about the need to provide an efficient service from Stansted. The development there is most impressive and I congratulate the British Airports Authority on that project. I hope that my hon. Friend's points can be covered in his meeting with the Minister of State.

Mr. Batiste : Before work on the Stansted rail link commences, will my hon. Friend ensure that British Rail is as receptive to proposals for rail links to regional airports?

Mr. McLoughlin : I am sure that every case that comes before British Rail will be judged on its merits.

London Regional Transport

8. Sir Rhodes Boyson : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport by how much spending on London Regional Transport will be increased over the next three years.

Mr. Parkinson : Investment by London Regional Transport is at a record level. It will rise to £2.2 billion over the next three years-- up no less than 93 per cent. on the three years to April 1990.

Sir Rhodes Boyson : I welcome that statement by the Secretary of State, but is he aware that it is generally felt in London that massive capital expenditure on the London Underground is required if London is not to come to a stop? Is he aware that people of all political opinions are weary of delays, breakdowns, inaudible announcements, the greatest concentration of broken-down escalators in discovered space, beggars, tramps and children selling lavender, all of which are a disgrace in a national capital?

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Mr. Parkinson : I am sure that my right hon. Friend will have noted that until four years ago London Transport was controlled by the Labour-run GLC. During that time, subsidies rose to a record level, investment plummeted and the net result was a declining system in which there was inadequate investment. We have been putting that right and in the next three years massive investment will take place. The Central line will be renewed, with new trains and modernised stations. There are also plans afoot to start work on the Northern line and that work should be completed towards the middle of the next decade.

Mr. Cartwright : Is the Secretary of State aware of the considerable concern among London pensioners that the extent of their concessionary travel arrangements may be reduced as a result of the current negotiations with London boroughs? In view of the obvious benefits of the present scheme, not only to pensioners but to London Regional Transport, will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that the scheme will be continued after next April, and without damaging cuts?

Mr. Parkinson : I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point because there has been quite a lot of scaremongering about it. Negotiations are indeed taking place, but there is no question of that scheme being threatened.

Mr. Squire : Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people who travel on the Underground find it overcrowded, unpleasant and at times unbearable? We welcome wholeheartedly his commitment to improve the Central line and the announcement about the Jubilee line, but those who come from my part of the world hope that, in time, improvements will also be made to the District line.

Mr. Parkinson : I think that the whole House agrees that the London Underground system is in need of massive investment. The difference between London Underground in the past and London Underground now is that it is now receiving that investment, and the travelling public can look forward to a better service in the years ahead.

Ms. Abbott : Is the Secretary of State aware that even if spending on the London Underground is at record levels, dissatisfaction with the London Underground is also at record levels? When will the Government put aside their doctrinaire aversion to investment in the public sector and spend the money that is required to give the people of London the public transport system that a capital city deserves? In particular, when will he introduce schemes for investment to make possible the Chelsea-Hackney line and the building of a tube station in my constituency--the only London constituency that lacks its own tube station?

Mr. Parkinson : I am sure that it will be a matter of pleasure to the hon. Lady that, in the eight years that end next April, £8 billion will have been invested in the transport infrastructure as a whole--that is to say, in rail, underground and roads. In the next three years, more than £6 billion will be invested in the public sector alone. The investment for which the hon. Lady calls will thus be made under this Government.

A Chelsea-Hackney line is one of two lines being considered with a view to relieving congestion in central

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