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Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield) : I am grateful for the opportunity to speak after the Secretary of State. I have never heard so much codswallop about transport policy. He said that everything in the transport industry on the rail side was hunky-dory. Has he forgotten the simple facts throughout 10 years of Conservative Government? We have had worsening services on all railway routes, lack of investment and one of the most major strikes ever to confront the industry ; and recently we heard that railway lines three times the length of the Channel tunnel were to be put underground in Kent because the work infringed on some of the constituents of Conservative Members. The Secretary of State said that the Government were spending more than any other Government. He had the audacity to accuse the Labour Government of not investing in the railways. The Labour Government invested in people--80,000 more rail workers were employed to serve the community which needed rail links, but they have been left languishing in the dole queues, at the cost of services.
A few Conservative Members are smiling. If they are in any doubt about what happens, they should have the courage of the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) and ask people whether they are happy about the fares increases forced upon them. Some have to pay more than some of our constituents in the east midlands, the north and Scotland earn in a week from their part- time jobs, the only ones that they can get.
It gives me great pleasure to follow the ridiculous speech by the Secretary of State and to commend the Opposition amendment, which refers to the excellent argument that is always used in transport debates. The amendment states :
"problems can only be solved by adopting a co-ordinated approach to transport policy".
The argument is not simply about rail services but about the co-ordinated approach that all our constituents are supposed to want.
The debate gives me an opportunity to raise an important local matter involving industrial relations. Yet
Column 352again, because of the Government's policy, services have been disrupted in my constituency and the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes), for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) and for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). Severe problems have arisen because of legislation to end the so-called monopoly of the bus companies that service the railway network, by selling the public services to the private sector. Amazing problems have been caused because of a new monopoly being created in the bus industry. In my area, the East Midlands Motor Services Co. supplies bus services to railway stations. In my case, the nearest railway station is 15 miles away. Eight hundred constituents are facing the most horrific circumstances because of the policy of selling off companies. That cannot be allowed to happen. It is not right for the Government to talk about freedom of expression in eastern Europe without acknowledging that people who adopt democratic practices in their workplaces-- [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) wishes to speak, he may do so when I conclude my speech, or he could do what he has done earlier in the debate, and pop up and down during other hon. Members' contributions.
The Government cannot argue about freedom and democracy in eastern Europe without recognising that, when transport workers follow legislative requirements to conduct ballots and so on, a new employer will often say, "If you carry out the results of ballots, you will be sacked on the spot." There have already been two such occasions. Already, in the East Midlands Motor Services Co. trade union representatives have been sacked simply because they wanted to maintain services.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : The case that my hon. Friend is discussing also involves rail and road transport connections. The trade union concerned is the National Union of Railwaymen. That demonstrates that the workers know something about the integrated nature of the services. Problems were initially created by the dismissal of Dave Edinbrough, who is one of my constituents and lives at Tupton, near the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). Dave Edinbrough was sacked merely for involving himself in trade union activities. He is a good trade unionist and a good worker. The company took action to get rid of him. That has exacerbated the situation and led to further problems and the dismissal of other trade unionists.
Mr. Meale : I agree with my hon. Friend. Among other things, Dave Edinbrough was accused of telling bus drivers to report safety faults that were a danger to the travelling public. It is a disgrace. He was required by law to do that. The amendment
"applauds the high priority that the Government gives to all matters of safety on transport".
Government legislation allowed private monopolies suddenly to take over from public monopolies. At least with public monopolies the public's health and safety were protected.
I regret that the Secretary of State is not in his place--I trust that he will return before the end of the debate--because I wish to pay tribute to him over what happened in that case. When the company was privatised, there was another company in the wings wishing to buy it, and the right hon. Gentleman stepped in and sorted the issue out.
Column 353But unfortunately the management buy-out team then sold the company to a new entrepreneur, a Mr. Suter, who is taking steps against the work force, who are anxious to maintain a high level of service. Guarantees were given in Tory legislation that workers in a public company that was privatised would receive shares in the firm and would then be able to purchase additional shares. Despite repeated attempts by the workers to buy into their firm, the present and previous owners have prevented them from doing so. I trust that the Minister will investigate the case, because it seems that the present and previous owners are in breach of the law.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : I have the impression that Tory Members feel that my hon. Friend should not be discussing the issue that he has raised and the way in which the company in general, and Mr. Suter in particular, are trying to destroy trade union participation in what used to be called the East Midlands Motor Services Co. but what is now known as Stagecoach.
My hon. Friend is drawing attention to the fact that, when there are no railways and we have only a bus monopoly--in this case, a bus monopoly 100 miles wide stretching from the east coast to the west coast--not only do fares go up but, in this case, the company sacked two leading directors and managers with 28 years' service. Now the bus drivers are being threatened into not reporting defects on buses. They are frightened to death of losing their jobs. That is what can happen when the railways shut, and Tory Members should understand it.
Mr. Meale : I agree with my hon. Friend. Tory Members who think that this issue should not be debated at this stage should reflect that the nearest railway network stations for many of our constituents are 10 or 15 miles away. The only way--
Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I rise simply to point out that, if the matter which the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) is raising is of such importance to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), perhaps the latter should have been in the Chamber for the whole of the debate.
Mr. Meale : Thank you for your protection, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In any event, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover has been present for most of the debate. When he has not been present, he has been flitting back and forth delivering messages to my hon. Friends and me regarding the sort of issues that should be raised.
We have every right to raise these issues because the communities of north Derbyshire, Bolsover, Mansfield and Ashfield rely on bus services to reach the rail network, and I congratulate the Secretary of State--who I regret is still not in his place--on intervening and trying to get a rail network in the area.
Mr. Harry Barnes : My hon. Friend need not apologise for raising this matter, because in addition to the motion standing in the name of the Leader of the Opposition and others, the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister and other leading Conservative Members
Column 354welcomes what is being done by the Government in terms of the rail-road network. We are dealing with that very point.
The Front Bench spokesmen and the Ministers are looking at the clock. They wish to put express views before the Division. I ask the Minister to take note of some of the points that I have raised tonight about events in the company to which I referred, which have been caused by legislation enacted by his Government and the guarantees that were given. I do not apologise for doing so. Conservative Members come to the House to represent the people who give them the greatest support. I come here to fight for my class, and I am pleased to do so.
Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch) : The speech that we have just heard was rather sad. Perhaps the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) would have done better if he had reminded the House that Barbara Castle closed the railway lines in his constituency. It was my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport who took the historic decision not to close the Settle to Carlisle line. That was a landmark in terms of railway closure policy. It is one of the few things on which I intend to congratulate my hon. Friend.
The Opposition motion is long on words and short on memory, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out. However, the Government amendment describes a public transport scenario which I do not recognise. The Government's policy on railways fails to recognise their proper role in a modern industrialised nation.
The Labour policy, as described in the motion, sounds good, but experience teaches us that Labour economic policies lead to a failing economy, reductions in public expenditure and, so often, the abandonment of many well-meant plans.
The question of investment and subsidy has been raised. In a press release sent out by his Department two days ago, my hon. Friend the Minister said that the revitalised economy had led to a dramatic increase in rail travel. There has been welcome economic growth as a result of the Government's policies. That has led to more cars on the road and, in turn, to more congestion. My conclusion is that we need more support for the railway system, particularly at its pressure points and in those areas where the railway is the only sane way of coping with the movement of large numbers of people in and out of cities in peak hours. Separation as between investment and subsidy may be a finely drawn argument for book-keepers but it does not seem to me the only way for politicians to grapple with the serious transport problems that we face.
We must give credit to the Government for enabling British Rail to invest its own money in the east coast main line, the electrification of East Anglian services, and the Windsor link in Manchester. I shall not weary the House by repeating all the examples. There has been a great deal of investment, not of the Government's money but mainly of British Rail's money, which it has earned from its customers, in the "new" railway, but as the Government have cut the public service obligation grant we have found
Column 355that much of the existing railway is seriously and sadly declining into the dirt, delays and other faults that Opposition Members have highlighted.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) referred to the recent visit to France by Conservative and Opposition Members. The French have a completely different attitude to their railways. A 30 per cent. grant is available to the SNCF from the French Government. To summarise the position succinctly, I can do no better than refer to an article in the Glasgow Herald today by the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), who was with us on the trip. Referring to the cancellation of the 6.15 am express service from Victoria to Gatwick, he said :
"It was a fitting start to a day devoted to comparing and contrasting British and French railways ; not just the quality of rolling-stock or services, but the whole national philosophy which underlies them. It is a short, sharp educational experience which I commend to anyone who is concerned about the future quality of life in our own country."
Perhaps when my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport replies, he will answer on behalf of himself and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the question that was posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks : "When did any Ministers last travel on any French, West German, Italian or Swiss trains and what were their impressions of that experience?"
Many of my hon. Friends do not like the frequent comparisons with France. My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) got quite irate and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State got very irate when I mentioned West Germany. Although my right hon. Friend has given up attacking my figures, in response to my question on Monday about the levels of investment in the German railways, he said :
"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."--[ Official Report, 12 February 1990 ; Vol. 167, c. 9.]
I do not know my right hon. Friend's source for that, but I have with me a press release that I received recently from the German embassy. It is headed :
"Railway system on the right lines for 1992".
It states :
"The railways need more public subsidy--and they will get it." I do not know whether the person who wrote that on behalf of the German Government ever talks to the person whom my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was quoting when he said that the Minister concerned objected to the subsidy that the West Germans have in their railway system. The press release also states :
"In 1989 alone, 3,000 new personnel are being taken on", and refers to the fact that
"Promoting competitiveness of the railway system by making sure that other means of transport do not acquire artificial advantage by back-door subsidies"
is also part of the West German transport policy. We are not talking about a Socialist Valhalla. We are talking about the West German Christian Democratic Government.
I must therefore ask my hon. Friends, some of whom blanch at the words "subsidies" and "public investment", which comes first--economic progress or infrastructure investment? One reason why the West Germans have such a successful economy is that they are investing millions and millions of pounds in their transport infrastructure. Deutsche Bundesbahn receives a subsidy to encourage
Column 356heavy lorries in transit across West Germany to move on to the "rolende landstrasse", which I have written in capitals in my notes for the benefit of Hansard. Like the SNCF, the Deutsche Bundesbahn has a "social tariff structure", which means a subsidy to keep fares down.
Mr. Adley : My hon. Friend says that we are stopping the subsidy, but we are also stopping the trains and overcrowding them. There is a direct equation. I recognise that with his road interests my hon. Friend likes to advocate such a policy, but it does not appeal to me.
I take up another point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford. In the information kindly provided by the Government in the Whips' Office for this debate, we are told that accurate comparisons are impossible, given the differences in networks, accounting methods and organisation. However, the next paragraph states that huge amounts of BR debt have been written off, amounting to more than £1.5 billion in cash terms since 1962.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford kindly gave way to me in his speech to allow me to ask him his view of the West German subsidy. I think that the record will show that he said that the West Germans have not written off their railway's debts. However, I must advise him that British Rail has written off £1.5 billion and that Deutsche Bundesbahn has written off £4.2 billion. I am sorry to confuse my hon. Friends with some of the facts and I apologise if those facts interfere with their political prejudices.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State has previously chided me on the question of Government investment in the railways. My hon. Friends rightly welcome all the investment that is going into our railways, but they should be aware that in 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986 and 1987 British Rail had absolutely no recourse to borrowing from the national loans fund and in 1984 and 1988 it had little recourse to the fund. The investment money has come from British Rail's own resources.
Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) rose --
In the United States, that great paradise of private enterprise, in 1987 Amtrak took 65 per cent. of its revenue from fares. In 1990, the figure is planned to be 70 per cent. British Rail's figures for the two years 1987 and 1990 are 75 per cent. and 82 per cent., and on InterCity 89 per cent. and more than 100 per cent. However, the passenger journeys completed by Amtrak in 1987 were 20 million, while the figure for British Rail was 727.2 million. By any stretch of the imagination, this country's record with its nationalised railway system is infinitely better than anything in the United States. Before some of my hon. Friends clamour for privatisation, I suggest that they ask themselves what the following railway systems, which include the best passenger railways in the world, have in common--I refer to the West German, French, Italian and Swiss railways. The answer is, of course, that they are all nationalised. Which country has the worst passenger railway system of the industrialised nations? The answer is probably the United States. If I were setting an A-level paper, I would ask what conclusions could be drawn from that.
Column 357The sad fact is that public transport and party politics make uneasy bedfellows. I am also sorry to say to some of my hon. Friends--
Mr. Adley : If I am going on too long, I will finish by commending to the House the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in her advocacy of Victorian values. Can any hon. Member imagine what public transport in any of our cities would be like if our Victorian and Edwardian forebears had not built the railway lines and underground systems that we enjoy in this country?
Mr. Adley : It was indeed. The construction that has taken place on new underground railway lines in London in the past 15 or 16 years, however, has been restricted to certain sections of the Jubilee line. London's congestion problems can be solved only by new underground railways. The first priority is the Paddington-Liverpool Street line, the second is the Chelsea-Hackney line and the third, which the Government have chosen, is the Jubilee line extension.
The internal combustion engine once threatened the railway systems of the industrialised world with extinction. That very internal combustion engine is now choking the nation to death. The railway is the last means of civilised transport open to man. Until all parties in the House swallow their political dogma, eradicate prejudices and follow the French and German example, misery will remain our lot. 9.37 pm
Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South) : In the last few minutes of this debate I shall quote the western region of the Transport Users Consultative Committee which is chaired by the Conservative leader of Bristol city council. That organisation is known for its support of the Government's policies. It describes the railways in the south-west as follows : the Cotswold line as the "railway of denial" ; the Falmouth line as the "railway of dilapidation" ; the Gloucester-Bristol line as the "railway of decimation" ; and the Swindon-Bristol line as the "railway of deprivation".
This evening's debate has been about the lack of investment. According to Hansard, since 1981 there has been a 60 per cent. reduction in investment in real terms by the Government. The debate has been about the way that our European counterparts consistently invest in the railway. We have discussed overcrowding and its safety problems, and congested roads and the environmental difficulties that they bring. We have discussed the problems that transport users face. How much longer do we need to discuss them before the Government invest properly in our rail network?
Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East) : The debate, albeit truncated, has been interesting in some ways. Most Conservative Members appear to have swallowed the Department of Transport's propaganda that investment in our railway system has never been higher. It took the hon.
Column 358Members for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) and for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) to point out that that investment is paid for almost entirely by the passengers out of higher fares.
Mr. Parkinson indicated dissent.
Mr. Snape : I will come to the Secretary of State's speech, but he provokes me to comment now. I have for some time been seeking detailed information about who pays for investment in our railway network. So far, my questions having been shuffled between the Treasury and the Department of Transport, of the £3.7 billion of investment about which the right hon. Gentleman boasted tonight, we have been able to isolate only £100 million that has come from the Government. The right hon. Gentleman boasted about his accountancy prowess. He or the Minister for Public Transport will be able to tell us what percentage of that £3.7 billion came from the Government. Over and over again hon. Members on both sides of the House, but particularly Conservative Members, have asked the Secretary of State how many journeys he has made on railways in other parts of the world.
Mr. Snape : Some of us are more concerned that he should make one or two journeys in the United Kingdom to see the squalor that many passengers have to put up with daily. Conservative Members say "Come off it," but the amendment that the Government have had the temerity to table bears no resemblance to the reality of daily life for commuters or for long-distance passengers on our railway network. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) talked about his problems in getting to and from Manchester yesterday. I do not want to provide anecdotal evidence about how bad some of our railway journeys are. Hon. Members on both sides of the House must agree, at least privately, that the delays on InterCity, on other provincial services and on Network SouthEast have never been so great. Perhaps because some of my hon. Friends recall that I used to work in the railways industry, I receive many of their complaints. I have never received so many complaints about the railway system as I have under the Secretary of State's stewardship, and he has been there for only five minutes.
However, let us be fair. The Secretary of State, accountant to the last, has done something about punctuality on British Rail. He has moved the goalposts of a five-minute late arrival to a 10-minute late arrival.
Before the right hon. Gentleman shouts too loudly, let me say that we were all a little concerned about his display earlier. His red face looming over the Dispatch Box is a pretty terrifying sight. I was not sure at one stage whether it was indignation, claret or a faulty sun lamp that made the right hon. Gentleman look like that, but whatever it was, it was worrying.
The Government's amendment insults the intelligence of the House. It certainly insults the intelligence of the hon. Members for Sevenoaks and for Christchurch because
Column 359they do not believe it. Does the Secretary of State appreciate the contribution of those much scoffed-at people who operate British Rail's services? The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) made a contribution--I had better be kind about it--apparently based more on enthusiasm than on ignorance. He accused Opposition Members of supporting every railway dispute. Having spent some years working for the pretty rotten wages that British Rail traditionally pays, I had a lot of sympathy for the railway staff in their dispute last year. I remind the House that every opinion poll showed that the British public did so, too, as did those who eventually sat in arbitration on that claim.
I say to the hon. Member for Chelmsford and to others that if railway staff continue to be paid as inadequately as they are now, and if we insist on that staff working the kind of hours that they do now, the circumstances that surrounded the Clapham junction accident will recur.
Mr. Burns indicated dissent .
Mr. Snape : The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but if he reads the contributions to the inquiry of Mr. Stanley Hall, the British Rail board's director of safety, he will find that Mr. Hall commented that if staff are forced to work 12 hours a day, six months at a time, to pay their mortgages --anyone with the Abbey National will be even worse off from tomorrow--one must expect that their contribution to safety standards will inevitably slip.
The amendment does not recognise that problem, nor does it acknowledge that the railway network is being run into the ground. The days are past when engineers decided rolling stock standards and railway operations. It is the accountants who run the railways these days.
The Secretary of State talks about ideology. The ideology of privatisation for the sake of it ensured that the Sprinter multiple diesel units ordered as the flagship of British Rail's provincial services are running so late that the next timetable is being completely recast. The ideology of insistence on privatisation meant that the earliest Sprinters had their electronic door controls set outside the train, so they let in water. That meant that the whole fleet had to be returned to the makers for repair. The ideology of privatisation gave us Pacer trains that break down all over the network, and whose replacement gear boxes must be obtained from Germany. We did not get the gearboxes from a nationalised industry. The Secretary of State never knows what is going on.
Mr. Parkinson rose --
The fact that those trains exhibit all the quality and reliability of the average Skoda is a direct tribute to the Secretary of State and his system of operation.
Mr. Roger King rose --
"Britain's rail infrastructure is in place to service the Channel Tunnel".
Mr. Roger King : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Gentleman to mislead the House? He knows better than anyone else that when
Column 360the modernisation programme of the mid-1950s was brought forward by a nationalised system, none of the rolling stock worked.
The amendment mentions the infrastructure that will be needed for Channel tunnel services. Day after day, we hear Conservative Members ask what contribution will be made, where the infrastructure is, and what will happen to their constituents when the tunnel opens. Only the right hon. Gentleman knows where he drew up the amendment. The Secretary of State spoke earlier of safety. He sometimes accuses the Opposition of exploiting that subject, but arising directly from the Hidden report on the Clapham junction inquiry will be a great deal of expenditure, to say the least. The introduction of automatic train protection will be extremely expensive and will require additional staff to install and maintain it. The installation of black boxes in cabs, particularly on Network SouthEast, will be extremely expensive, but we are told that Network SouthEast must break even within the next two or three years. Is the right hon. Gentleman going to provide any public money for those much-needed safety measures? We are eagerly waiting for some replies, but they are not usually forthcoming and I do not suppose that they will be tonight.
For all the torrents of abuse that we got from the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box earlier, his speech was very thin on content, like most of his speeches. The Daily Telegraph sums up the right hon. Gentleman pretty well. Its editorial of 29 December sums up the right hon. Gentleman, the Government's approach to the railway system, and his future prospects, saying :
"Mr. Parkinson has taken a course that will damage the environment, increase costs to business and inconvenience the public. It is a pitifully myopic approach to our desperate transport problems, and ill becomes a Government that wants to help business expand." The article concludes :
"Ultimate blame, though, lies with Mr. Parkinson. He must start thinking realistically about transport needs, even if he has to spend"--
Mr. Parkinson : The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) read it earlier.
"even if he has to spend taxpayers' money to satisfy them." That is from The Daily Telegraph --from Max Hastings. It continues :
"Failure will lead to chaos, and chaos cannot be an option." That is what our motion is about tonight.
I hope that Conservative Members who spoke so bravely about the railway system and its needs will vote in the Opposition Lobby tonight. Tomorrow's opinion polls, the voters in the
Mid-Staffordshire by-election and the electorate, including commuters who are temporarily represented by Conservative Members, will decide that they are fed up with public squalor and fed up with the right hon. Gentleman.