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House of Commons

Monday 12 February 1990

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Death of a Member

Mr. Speaker : I regret to have to inform the House of the death of James Harold McCusker Esq, the hon. Member for Upper Bann. I desire on behalf of the House to express our sense of the loss that we have sustained and our sympathy with the relatives of the hon. Member.

Oral Answers to Questions


Channel Tunnel

1. Mr. Cyril D. Townsend : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a further statement on the progress of the Channel tunnel rail link.

The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Michael Portillo) : British Rail and its private sector partner, Eurorail, are working to specify a route for the Channel tunnel rail link from Swanley in Kent to King's Cross. The aim is to introduce a parliamentary Bill for the project in November.

Mr. Townsend : Is it the Government's view that the rail link represents a major national project that will benefit all regions of this country, encourage the use of the railways

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and protect the environment? If so, should not it be controlled and financed by a partnership of the Government, British Rail and the private sector?

Mr. Portillo : It is clear that Channel tunnel rail services represent such a partnership, because £1 billion of British Rail money is being spent on the first phase of improving rail links, even before the matter of a new line arises. It is right that the new line should be a commercial proposition, because it will be in competition with the airlines, ferries and other private modes of transport. I do not foresee any need for a public sector subsidy, but it is an appropriate project for British Rail and the private sector to operate as a joint venture.

Mr. Fearn : Does not the Minister agree that it would be sensible for British Rail to use the year that it now has to rethink its policy and use other methods, under which it could consider the comprehensive services that it offers? Does he agree that services to the north are not comprehensive and need further consideration?

Mr. Portillo : British Rail and its partner are using the year to consider some of the measures that the hon. Gentleman suggested, including the route from Swanley to King's Cross. British Rail brought forward a comprehensive plan on links to the other regions. It offers about 3 million seats from the regions to Paris and Brussels and a comprehensive series of freight services from every part of the country. That is a good plan, but if the hon. Gentleman has proposals on how it should be modified, I am sure that the last full stop has not been put to it.

Sir John Hunt : Is my hon. Friend aware that the prospect of Channel tunnel traffic hurtling along existing British Rail track in Bromley and elsewhere is horrific and totally unacceptable? Will he therefore look more closely and sympathetically than he has hitherto at the alternative proposals presented by Ove Arup and Partners, which provides for a national rail infrastructure with reduced environmental damage and disturbance?

Mr. Portillo : British Rail believes that until the turn of the century the new Channel tunnel services will be accommodated on the existing system without disrupting

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commuter services, and it is important that they should be preserved. Together with its private sector partner, British Rail is considering whether extra capacity will be needed at about the turn of the century. Its private sector partner was chosen after competition, which included firms such as Ove Arup. Ove Arup's proposal includes making four tracks through much of Kent, which might be more environmentally damaging than the two tracks proposed by British Rail and its private sector partner.

Mr. Prescott : Do the Minister and the Secretary of State accept that if we are to get the best economic advantage for Britain and the north, with the least environmental damage to London and the south, we should repeal section 42 of the Channel Tunnel Act 1987? That would allow him and the Secretary of State to reassess the alternatives, so that Britain's national interests are catered for rather than the private interests of the City.

Mr. Portillo : That is a controversial proposal. Section 42 was approved by Parliament and enjoyed all-party support. That section stated that there should not be any subsidy to the Channel tunnel. The reason why that section was introduced and approved by Parliament was sound. Parliament did not want the Channel tunnel to undermine other forms of transport that had to get by without subsidy. What stands in our way is not just section 42 but its underlying principle, which commended itself to Parliament at the time.

Mr. Jacques Arnold : I remind my hon. Friend that the fears for the Kent environment are very much alive. Will he, in his discussions with British Rail, ensure that British Rail does not backslide on the considerable measures that it has taken to protect the environment and which were built into its previously announced plans?

Mr. Portillo : British Rail and its private sector partner are well aware of the immense importance that the Government attach to environmental protection. The requirement that an environmental impact study should be published at the time will be part of the process of introducing a Bill on this subject. I hope that that is of some consolation to my hon. Friend, who has been a champion for his constituents in this matter.

Greater Manchester

2. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what is the level of funding for Greater Manchester passenger transport authority for 1990-91.

Mr. Portillo : The Government are making available to the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority £58 million in grant and credit approvals. We have given the go-ahead to the Manchester airport terminal 2, to the rail link to the airport and to the Manchester Metrolink light rail project.

Mr. Bennett : I thank the Minister for that information. Will he consider the possibility of increasing that funding, by instructing British Rail to make a refund to Greater Manchester passenger transport authority, because of British Rail's failure to provide the service that it was contracted to provide during the past 12 months? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that during that period--the Secretary of State has made this point-- trains have been late or cancelled and service in the Greater Manchester

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area has been totally inefficient? Does the hon. Gentleman further agree that a refund should be made to the authority and fares cut, not increased? British Rail should come up with the goods for paying passengers in Greater Manchester, instead of providing a poor- quality service.

Mr. Portillo : I have to be rather careful on this subject. As the hon. Gentleman may know, if the PTA decides to pursue a case against British Rail for non-performance because it feels that BR has let the passengers down, that case will ultimately go to Ministers who might have to arbitrate. I think, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will understand if I cannot comment much on this point. Fares are a matter for the PTA. The £58 million in grant and credit approvals that has been made available to Greater Manchester PTA is a substantial amount, which will enable a significant range of passenger projects to go ahead.

Mr. Favell : Of course, there is lots of jam tomorrow for the British Rail passenger in Greater Manchester, but what about now? As the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) said, many trains have been late or cancelled and there is sheer, unadulterated misery for many commuters from Stockport and elsewhere in Greater Manchester. Has that arisen, as suggested in the press, because of the late delivery of Sprinter trains? If so, who is to blame? How did that happen? What is to be done about it? When can something be done?

Mr. Portillo : My hon. Friend has done his constituents a great service in bringing their difficulties to my attention. I have great sympathy with those people in making difficult journeys. My hon. Friend identified one reason--late delivery of trains--but there have been unconnected reasons as well, such as delays in the work at Piccadilly station. It is not for me to attribute blame between the parties, but I am pleased to say that I understand that the class 158 Sprinters should be delivered in the spring and early summer, which should benefit my hon. Friend's constituents.

Electrification (Birmingham)

3. Mr. Snape : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to announce his decision on the electrification of the Birmingham cross-city railway line.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Cecil Parkinson) : I announced last week the Government's approval to the electrification and re -equipment of the Birmingham cross-city rail line.

Mr. Snape : Opposition Members are grateful to the Secretary of State for that announcement, hurried though it appeared to be. We accept, of course, that there is no connection between his decision and the Mid- Staffordshire by-election that is to be held shortly. Will the Secretary of State now consider the extension of the Walsall-Hendnesford railway line to Rugeley, preferably on or before 15 March?

Mr. Parkinson : I believe that the county council is strongly opposed to the proposal, and I understand that the hon. Gentleman's party is in charge of that council. I am sure that when he tabled his question two weeks ago he

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did not have the by-election in mind ; nor, I think, did he have it mind to help the Conservative candidate and neither did I.

Mr. Roger King : Did my right hon. Friend chance to see the evening paper last week? Blazoned across the front page was the headline, "Cross City Rail Joy". That, of course, was the result of the extensive £37 million modernisation programme announced by my right hon. Friend. Is not this a reflection of the hard work done by many Members of Parliament in Birmingham and the areas surrounding it--particularly that of our late colleague John Heddle, who was in the vanguard of the campaign to bring a modernised rail service to his constituents?

Mr. Parkinson : Birmingham Members, especially Conservatives, have certainly been very assiduous in pressing the case for inner-city improvement in Birmingham, and the rail link--along with the heartlands spine road--is evidence of the Government's commitment to inner-city regeneration.

Mr. Allen : Is the Secretary of State aware that the rail link from Nottingham to London would cost--

Mr. Speaker : Order. Does it go across Birmingham?

Mr. Allen : Yes. Is the Secretary of State aware that the link would cost a mere £95 million?

Mr. Speaker : Order. The question concerns the Birmingham cross-city railway line.

Mr. Allen : The link referred to in the question is, of course, entirely unrelated to the by-election. Will the right hon. Gentleman call on some of his colleagues in Nottinghamshire to resign their seat so that we, too, can benefit from an electrification similar to that which is now benefiting the people of Lichfield?

Mr. Parkinson : I thought that the question was a pretty feeble joke when the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) put it on the Order Paper. Conservative Members do not regard the Humber bridge as a desirable precedent, and therefore do not intend to follow it.

Civil Aviation

4. Mr. Steen : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the Government's competition policy with regard to civil aviation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin) : Our policy is to promote competition throughoucivil aviation, with, of course, proper safeguards against anti-competitive behaviour. We have played a leading role in the European Community's progress towards a freer market in aviation.

Mr. Steen : I thank the Minister for the robust way in which he personally is pursuing the Government's important competition policy. Is he aware, however, that unfortunately Italy, Spain and Germany are not prepared to recognise the EC directive on competition? As a result British Airways, with its block, and Air France, with its anti-competitive arrangements with Lufthansa, are freezing out the smaller, independent airlines and preventing them from competing with the big boys. If we

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are not to see a repeat of the Laker episode-- and we have already seen signs at Gatwick that that may be happening--what policy have the Government to help the smaller airlines to compete in Europe, especially with countries that will not support the EC directive?

Mr. McLoughlin : Many of the points that my hon. Friend has brought up are very important ; his remarks about competition policy must be addressed by the European Commissioner who has responsibility for competition. It is important that we put the user first. We must allow competition so that the passenger obtains the full benefit of what we hope will be a freer aviation market, which we hope will lead to cheaper fares in the long term.

Mr. Colvin : I welcome the package of liberalisation measures agreed in Brussels on 1 December, but what arrangements are being made for the introduction of transitional arrangements between now and 1993-- arrangements on which much of the growth in competition will depend?

Mr. McLoughlin : My hon. Friend has raised an important point, relating to the whole question of progress towards a freer aviation market. As I said, such matters as takeovers and mergers must be dealt with by competition policy, and primarily involve my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. A number of cases are under consideration at present. However, there is nothing to stop the industry preparing for 1992 and its consequences.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : Will the Minister give us an update about what he is doing to improve air transport from Greater Manchester, particularly from Manchester international airport, and tell us how the negotiations on getting routes across the north Atlantic are progressing?

Mr. McLoughlin : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently met the Secretary of Transportation in the United States and another meeting is planned in the near future. We are very hopeful and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are exceptionally keen to see links from Manchester to the United States. We have done a lot of work to that end and we shall continue to work vigorously on that policy. I hope that we shall see a successful conclusion, as the hon. Gentleman was right to say that this has been continuing for some time.

Humber Bridge

5. Mr. Cran : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what is the current estimated deficit being carried by the Humber bridge board ; and what plans he has to review the situation of the board.

The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Robert Atkins) : The debt on the Humber bridge is about £342 million. We are working with the bridge board on financial projections that it will use to support its detailed case for Government assistance.

Mr. Cran : Does not my hon. Friend agree that the saga of the Humber bridge debt has gone on far too long and that that is illustrated by the fact that a debt next year of about £400 million is projected, with interest charges being clocked up to the tune of £1 a second? Everyone believes

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that the matter should be resolved, including the Government. Will my hon. Friend tell us what impediments there are to an agreement?

Mr. Atkins : We are waiting for several things, and we hope to be able to make a decision in the not-too-distant future. However, my hon. Friend has been a champion of the need to resolve concern about the bridge, and he will be aware that we shall do what we can as quickly as we can, but he will have to wait a little longer yet.

Ms. Ruddock : Is not that an admission that tolls are not a success and that where they pay their way they cause great congestion, for example in Dartford, and where they do not pay their way, they force operators to raise tolls to such a level that they are a grave disincentive to local business, for example on Humberside and Merseyside? Is the Minister aware that the only alternative to raising tolls to such a level in Merseyside is an extra £10 per person on the poll tax? Surely it is time that the Government reviewed their policy on tolls and provided help for Humberside and Merseyside.

Mr. Atkins : As I think everyone is aware, the Humber bridge was build by Barbara Castle to ensure a by-election victory for a Labour candidate in Hull. Typically, therefore, it was not costed properly and it will never make money. Therefore, the taxpayer may have to foot some of the Bill. That is not the sort of argument to which I am prepared to be party.

Mr. Holt : My hon. Friend the Minister must bear the £342 million in mind, but I hope that he will not allow that to become an overriding factor when considering the link road between the south and north of England--

Mr. Speaker : Order. Will that link be via the Humber bridge?

Mr. Holt : Yes, via the Humber bridge. The last thing that we want is to subsidise the Humber bridge loss by having the link road run up the east coast of England when it should run parallel to the A1. I understand from the Secretary of State that it will take 14 years for the road to be opened after it has been agreed. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will not allow the waste of money with regard to the Humber bridge to stop us in the north-east of England from having our proper motorway.

Mr. Atkins : My hon. Friend, as always, champions the cause of greater and better infrastructure for his constituency and for his constituents, in a manner to which we have become accustomed. He will know that the east coast motorway is being considered by a private consortium at the moment and we shall be interested to learn the results of that investigation. My hon. Friend would do well to press his case, as he normally does, and we shall do what we can to meet his concern.

Traffic Area Office, Cardiff

6. Mr. Michael : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport whether he will make it his policy to retain his Department's present traffic area office in Cardiff to ensure that matters involving Wales are dealt with in the Principality.

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Mr. Atkins : The importance of the Principality is such that I can confirm that I am retaining the traffic area office in Cardiff.

Mr. Michael : I welcome that lifting of the threat to the Cardiff office. It is obviously good news to us in south Wales, where the threat of closure was causing considerable worry. Does the Minister agree that traffic examiners form an important part of the service, and complement the work of the transport office in Cardiff? In view of the use that is made of them, will the Minister assure the House that traffic examiners' work will be continued and that it will stay under the direction of the office in Cardiff?

Mr. Atkins : I am delighted that my decision has pleased the hon. Gentleman and all Welshmen. I cannot confirm all the details that he would wish, because we are still looking at the matter. We value the importance of the Cardiff office. When we finalise the plans for the whole Principality, I shall be in a better position to give him more details.

British Rail

7. Mr. Knox : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he next expects to meet the chairman of British Rail ; and what subjects he expects to discuss with him.

Mr. Parkinson : I regularly meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss a variety of railway issues. The last meeting took place on 17 January, and I next plan to meet the chairman tomorrow.

Mr. Knox : When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State meets the chairman tomorrow, will he draw his attention to the inconvenience that is caused to the rail-travelling public by the often marginal twice-yearly changes in InterCity train services? Will he draw his attention to the fact that printed information about alterations to the timetable is often not available beforehand?

Mr. Parkinson : I shall draw those points to the attention of the chairman of British Rail.

Mr. Rees : Will the Secretary of State congratulate the chairman on the excellent advertisement about InterCity trains? However, when I travelled from Leeds yesterday on Intercity trains, the advertisement bore no relationship to reality. It would be helpful if we knew that trains are not going to run on time, that we must change at Doncaster and that we shall arrive in London an hour and a half late. The same thing happens going the other way. It would be a good idea if somebody told us that we shall be late for appointments.

Mr. Parkinson : I shall draw those points to the attention of the chairman. Included in the objectives that we have set for the next three years are not only financial but performance objectives, including punctuality and cleanliness. The results will be announced at regular intervals. The right hon. Gentleman will be able to see the improvements for himself.

Mr. Adley : When my right hon. Friend sees the chairman tomorrow, will he explain that, since 1980, the public service obligation grant that the Government make

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available to British Rail has never reached £1 billion? Every year since 1980, the West German federal railways public service obligation grant has exceeded £3 billion. Will my right hon. Friend explain to the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) that one reason why trains are constantly late is insufficient money for staff and for on-going improvements, to keep the service up to scratch?

Mr. Parkinson : My hon. Friend knows that I totally disagree with his diagnosis. I have not met any German transport Minister who is proud of the subsidy. They think that it is an outrage that the German taxpayer is forking out £3 billion a year to subsidise the railways.

Mr. Snape : Will the Secretary of State discuss with the chairman of British Rail his recent disgraceful comments on a radio programme two weeks ago, to the effect that long-distance commuters must pay an extra 40 per cent. on what are already among the highest railway fares in Europe? Does the Secretary of State think that such stupid and ill-informed comments will endear the Conservative party to commuters in the south of England who, for years, have made the silly mistake of voting Conservative?

Mr. Parkinson : The stupid and ill-informed comments have just come from the hon. Gentleman. As the hon. Gentleman knows, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) had my job a year ago, he announced that long-distance commuters, who represent 18,000 of British Rail's customers--less than one half of 1 per cent.--were receiving a discount of over 60 per cent. on their season tickets. They were paying less per journey than the cheapest discounted off-peak ticket. He felt that that gap should be closed, but he never said that they should pay 100 per cent. This year, on an annual basis, the cost of season tickets has been increased by 13.5 per cent. The hon. Gentleman should get a grip of the facts, stop relying on his prejudices and start talking sense.

Mr. Prescott : See you on Wednesday.

Mr. Burns : When my right hon. Friend meets the chairman of British Rail, will he raise with him on behalf of my 12,000 commuting constituents the cleanliness of trains and their timekeeping? What will be the benefits to the Chelmsford to Liverpool street line as a result of the record investment that was announced by his Department into services on Network SouthEast?

Mr. Parkinson : I welcome the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who shouted, "See you on Wednesday", to his first televised Question Time--the rest of us have been here three times.

I have good news for my hon. Friend : the whole of the Liverpool street signalling system is being modernised and work on his line, costing £19 million, is due to begin in the early part of 1991.

Transport 2000

8. Dr. Thomas : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he last met representatives from the group Transport 2000 ; and what was discussed.

Mr. Parkinson : I had an informal and broad-ranging meeting with the chairman of Transport 2000 on 24

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January, and I shall be meeting shortly representatives of a number of transport and environmental groups, including Transport 2000.

Dr. Thomas : I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply and for his willingness to meet the group. At the meeting will he pay particular attention to the correspondence between the Minister for Roads and Traffic and Transport 2000 because the Minister has clearly not stated the real status and objectives of the road-building traffic forecasts? What does the Secretary of State regard as the objectives of traffic forecasting in relation to new road-building schemes?

Mr. Parkinson : It has never been the Government's policy that all traffic forecast demands must be met. In the White Paper "Roads for Prosperity", we spelt out clearly that it would be neither sensible nor economic to remove all congestion. Like all other programmes, the roads programme is governed by what the country can afford. That has always been the case and represents no change of policy.

Mr. Higgins : Does my right hon. Friend agree that many transport organisations, including Transport 2000, are increasingly concerned about the effect of road-building programmes on the environment and about the need for a better system of compensation for those affected? Following his most forthcoming answer last time he was top for questions and the answer from the Prime Minister the following day, which was surprising in some respects, will he consider publishing a Green Paper on compensation for those affected by road-building programmes?

Mr. Parkinson : I am sure that my right hon. Friend did not mean to imply that it was unusual for two Ministers in the same Government to say similar things on consecutive days. I should have thought that that was absolutely normal. We are aware of the problems caused by blight and compensation. I am in touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and I hope to have some news for my right hon. Friend in the not-too-distant future.

Mr. Prescott : Now that the Secretary of State accepts that it is impossible to have a road-building programme to meet his Department's estimate of the projected demand for the use of private vehicles, does that mean that he accepts that we shall have to restrict use of the private car, especially in our cities? Does he still believe that that is an eastern European solution, or has he now had his talk with the Secretary of State for the Environment?

Mr. Parkinson : The hon. Gentleman is as opaque about his transport policy as the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) was about his rates policy at the weekend. The hon. Gentleman is a great one for exploiting disasters. He is never happier than when he is miserable and trying to make the rest of us miserable as well. In the next three years, we have programmes for roads amounting to £5.7 billion and programmes for rail, underground and public transport amounting to £6 billion.

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Disabled People

9. Mr. Carrington : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what measures he is taking to improve mobility of the disabled.

Mr. Atkins : We want all concerned to recognise and cater for the needs of this important sector of the community. Our plans are set out comprehensively in the document "Transport and Disability : A Statement of Aims and Priorities".

Mr. Carrington : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. He will be aware that access for disabled people to London's buses and the Underground leaves a great deal to be desired. What has been the response to his Department's initiatives on the design of buses to enable access for the disabled? Will he undertake to ensure that in the massive rebuilding and refurbishment that is under way on London Underground, access for the disabled is kept as a top priority?

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