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Column 321Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Twinn, Dr Ian
Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Wheeler, Sir John
Winterton, Mrs Ann
Young, Sir George (Acton)
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Nicholas Baker and
Mr. Irvine Patnick.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.
Madam Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House salutes Nelson Mandela on his release and welcomes the constructive actions taken by President de Klerk to create an atmosphere conducive to negotiations with all parties in South Africa towards a non- racial constitution enjoying the support of a majority of South Africans ; and believes these steps deserve a positive and practical response from the international community.
Mr. Nellist : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Given the total lack of regard in the previous debate for the real reason why the white Government in South Africa have retreated--namely, the heroic role of the black working class and the youth of that country--I give notice that I shall seek to prolong the debate by using the mechanism of the Adjournment debate.
Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East) : I beg to move, That this House condemns the Government's approach to British Rail and London Underground that has produced the poorest quality rail and tube services and the highest fares in Western Europe, and has left Britain's transport system unable to cope with the challenges posed by the Channel Tunnel and the Single European Market ; believes that Britain's transport crisis is now so severe that it is doing severe economic and environmental damage to the whole nation ; deplores the low pay and long hours which typify the average working period of railway workers ; recognises the need to set tougher quality of service standards to ensure that real passengers enjoy a safer, more reliable and efficient service at a fairer price and have greater powers to demand redress when those standards are not met ; believes that compared to the railway systems of other developed nations, British Rail deserves greater financial support from public funds ; and resolves that these problems can only be solved by adopting a co-ordinated approach to transport policy, increasing the level of public service obligation and other grants paid to British Rail and London Regional Transport, and adopting a new approach to investment to ensure that all plans are judged on a common basis, taking full account of environmental, economic and social benefits for both users and non-users.
This is the first proper transport debate since the new Secretary of State's appointment. Today, the Opposition will express the anger of millions of passengers who, after 10 years of cuts in subsidy and moves towards privatisation, are fed up with paying the highest fares in Europe for a dirty, unreliable and overcrowded railway service. The amendment paints a picture that is a million miles from the daily experience of millions of people who travel on our railway system today. The Government fail to understand that transport has become a major political issue, not only because the Opposition have chosen to make it so but because people feel helpless and frustrated at the scale of our transport crisis.
The facts of a poor quality service are well documented and are available for all hon. Members to see in the various reports. A dossier of shame has been compiled. It shows that one in six InterCity trains--that is, more than 300 trains per day--are at least 10 minutes late, that 112 trains on Network SouthEast are cancelled every day because of staff shortages, and that more than 800 trains on Network SouthEast are more than five minutes late every day. The position on provincial services is even worse.
Despite the fact that the number of passengers has increased by 10 per cent.--almost 70 million passengers--since 1983, there are 676 fewer carriages, which is about 50,000 seats, and 2,500 fewer locomotives in the railway system. With the increasing number of passengers on our rail system and with less seating capacity, it is hardly surprising that overcrowding has become so bad on Network SouthEast that on journeys lasting more than 20 minutes there must be at least one third of passengers standing before British Rail will put on an extra train--provided, of course, that there is one available and there are staff to man it.
On London Underground, one in three escalators are out of order on any given day. Also, 551 tube stations were closed for all or part of a day in the past six months
Column 323because there were not enough staff to keep them open. An increasing number of stations are being closed at certain times because of dangerous overcrowding on platforms.
The question for the House and for the country is why that has happened. Instead of having arguments about policy differences, it is fair to draw a comparison with the European experience. Other European countries have transport systems which move millions of people around, they have trains and buses, and it is fair to see how their Governments manage to provide a far better system. That is why many people in this country are increasingly angry. They go abroad and see the systems there, and they know that there is no need for the standard of service that they get in Britain to continue. Undoubtedly, one of the key differences is the financial framework. The level of Government grant in European countries is far higher and it maintains a better quality system. Almost uniquely in Europe, the present British Government have pursued a policy of reducing public subsidy. In 1983 it was more than £1 billion, but it has been reduced to £560 million this year and there is to be a further cut of £340 million by 1992. The Treasury has saved nearly £2 billion compared with the 1983 levels of support. British Rail now receives only one third to one half of average European financial support.
The only way in which British Rail could compensate for such a massive loss of income is to pursue a policy of massive redundancies with the loss of more than 40,000 jobs, which has affected the quality of service. British Rail has also had to sell off assets--some very cheaply, as we recently saw in the British Rail Engineering Ltd. case about the sale of land, which is quite usual in privatisation programmes. Fares have risen by 24 per cent. in real terms in the past 10 years. That makes our fares the most expensive in Europe. An average 10 km journey costs twice as much in London as in other capital cities in Europe. That problem can be solved only by a very different policy.
The Secretary of State inherited a major problem, and it was hoped by many that his different approach might produce an entirely different policy. Opposition Members believe that a different policy is needed. As I shadowed the right hon. Gentleman on energy matters, I am bound to say that I did not believe that there would be any change in policy. He is a great man for explaining why things ought to be working and giving out the message, "It's the way I tell them."
That is not good enough because the Government's policies are wrong. They are going in for presentation. That is always the Tory approach to problems. They regularly argue that there is nothing wrong with their policies, simply that the presentation is wrong. In this case, the Secretary of State, who has earned himself a name for presenting matters in a better way than his predecessor, has done his best to go in for better presentation.
When the right hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) was replaced by the present Secretary of State--known as the Prime Minister's trouble shooter--I thought that a fresh mind was being brought to the urgent problems of the railways and that, as the right hon. Gentleman is good at PR, he might recognise, on studying the problems, that presentation and PR are not enough on this occasion. I regret to say that the right hon. Gentleman was brought in not to solve Britain's transport crisis but to improve the presentation and interpretation of Tory policies.
Column 324When Sir Bob Reid said that his job was not to run a service that was desirable but to run one that was profitable--he was talking about the Channel tunnel services--the Secretary of State explained to the House that he had been misunderstood. When Sir Bob warned that Britain's future as the transport hub of Europe was threatened by a lack of investment, the Secretary of State claimed that his speech had been widely misinterpreted.
When I warned in a statement on rail fares that the downturn in the economy, with the slump in the property market, meant that British Rail would have to cut its investment programme by up to £500 million, the Secretary of State told "The World At One" that there had been a misunderstanding of the figures. His office asked for a copy of my press release, which highlighted the figures and he must have studied them in detail. The right hon. Gentleman with his background as an accountant presumably understands figures better than most, although that is not obvious from the presentation of his policies. Does the right hon. Gentleman deny, as I predicted a couple of weeks ago in regard to the corporate review and the Government's financial statement, that we shall be underfunded in the proposed £3.7 billion investment programme? I predicted cuts. Does the right hon. Gentleman deny the story in The Guardian this morning that trains are to be shortened and services scrapped? Is that another misunderstanding? I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will deal with that when he speaks in the debate.
Such cuts have been happening throughout the system for a long time. Does the right hon. Gentleman deny that the electrification of the King's Lynn and Uckfield lines has been delayed, that station modernisation schemes have been shelved and that park n' ride schemes have been scrapped? Does he appreciate that British Rail's investment programme assumes a rate of economic growth that is twice the Treasury's prediction?
The Secretary of State has assumed that the programme of investment will be protected and will not be cut. He said that in an interview that he gave to The Financial Times. If that is so, how is it to be financed? If the programme is to be maintained and not cut, who will pay for it? Can passengers expect a higher level of fares, or will more jobs on the railways be lost? Will the Government sell more railway assets? Or are the Government prepared to protect the railway system and provide more financial support?
If the Government genuinely wish to support the railways--not claim that there has been another misunderstanding or
misinterpretation--they will have to review the corporate plan that has just been announced by British Rail and the financial framework that has been announced to Parliament. I call on the Secretary of State to review that corporate plan. If he is to provide the investment that he and we wish to see in the British Rail system, that is vital.
The Secretary of State claimed in an article in the Financial Times that the problem with me--and, I assume, many others--was that I did not understand the figures.
"It's not my fault John's not an accountant",
he said. That is true, though I have met many creative accountants who have been paid to present different positions on the same figures. The Secretary of State is a past master at doing that. The right hon. Gentleman's knowledge of accountancy did not do him much good when it came to electricity
Column 325privatisation because he constantly said in the House that there would not be any price increases. That claim was blown apart with the statement in the House last week, and particularly with what has happened over electricity privatisation and nuclear plants. The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Cecil Parkinson) indicated dissent.
Mr. Prescott : I gather that the right hon. Gentleman disagrees with me. The record proves the correctness of what I say, including statements made by the right hon. Gentleman to the House and on television. I shall be only too pleased to provide him with the details of that record. His reputation on figures was not good in that respect, which is no doubt why he moved to the Department of Transport.
Mr. Prescott : I shall not enter into that issue. I would be prepared to discuss it with the hon. Lady, and I assure her that I felt as aggrieved as anybody else about that matter. Hon. Members will accept my reputation as one who has never entered into personal slights, and I regret that the hon. Lady has done so on this occasion. She will find that the House does not admire Members who get involved in that kind of slagging, on either side of the Chamber. Professional politicians are better occupied dealing with the substances of politics.
Mrs. Currie rose --
Mrs. Currie rose --
Mr. Prescott : The country has not gained in the past from interventions by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie). I cannot see that anything would be gained by my giving way to her now.
Mrs. Currie rose --
Mrs. Currie : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Surely it is not in order for an Opposition Front Bench spokesman to be so rude and personal about Members on the Government side when we simply wish to ask questions about the railway service and know the views of Opposition Members on that subject. Is it in order for the hon. Gentleman to refuse to give way on that basis? If so, it is thoroughly bad manners on his part.
Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. There are no Standing Orders to that effect. The hon. Gentleman made it clear that he was not giving way to the hon. Lady, so I cannot allow her at this stage to intervene.
Mr. Prescott : No doubt the hon. Lady feels that she has said her television piece. People in glasshouses should not throw eggs. When it comes to judging estimates relating to prices, the Secretary of State does not have a good reputation. The House may recall an exchange that took place about the London road assessment figures and the judgement that rail prices would increase by 40 per cent. in real terms. That was contested by the Secretary of State at the time, supported by other Conservative Members.
I have now seen the correspondence between the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) and it is clear that the right hon. Gentleman has had to concede that, judged in terms of GNP or price increases, our predictions are right. I have since checked my facts with the Library, and if the right hon. Gentleman wishes to deal with that in his speech, I shall be delighted.
The Secretary of State's judgment is so faulty that he is making fundamental mistakes in his transport policy. Not only is there a fundamental difference between the two sides of the House about how we should approach the whole issue of transport, but there is that difference between all parties in the Opposition vis-a-vis the views of the Secretary of State.
When discussing these issues with the Council of Ministers in Europe, the right hon. Gentleman must find himself isolated in the policy that he is pursuing. As we heard on Monday, the right hon. Gentleman is fond of talking about the situation in eastern Europe, especially on matters of intervention, integration and co-ordination. Every other country in Europe is pursuing policies different from his.
The only crumb of comfort he seemed to gather was that the subsidies being put into their transport system by the Germans did not meet with his approval. But whether or not the right hon. Gentleman is proud of what is happening in Germany, the Germans have a far superior system to ours. That is the crux of the matter, especially as in Germany they are not talking about reducing their subsidies.
The British Government are isolated in their transport policy. If it is a question of disagreement between the two sides of the House, I call in aid- -to show that it goes deeper than just disagreement--some of the editorials that are now appearing in the press about the Government's policy in general and the Secretary of State in particular. For example, readers of The Daily Telegraph were told to be "wary of misunderstandings" and that the Secretary of State was taking
"A pitifully myopic approach to our desperate transport problems." Presumably the writer meant to say that he was doing a wonderful job. The same newspaper claimed that the "luckless Transport Secretary" was in
"possibly his last Cabinet post."
The right hon. Gentleman no doubt interpreted that to mean that he was heading for the top-- [Interruption.] Conservative Back Benchers need have no fear because I am now coming to them, and in particular to the hon.
Column 327Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark). After all, Back Benchers travel on the trains. I extended to the hon. Member for Selly Oak the courtesy of informing him that I would be referring to him. He said :
"You get the feeling that Mr. Parkinson wants the Tories to lose the next election".
He said that to tell inter-city commuters that they are getting travel too cheap was bizarre nonsense and that the Secretary of State was living in cloud-cuckoo-land. I am sure that the Secretary of State will say that, on careful reading of his hon. Friend's remarks, he is sure that he was widely misunderstood. I do not take that view. It is a clear and categorical statement about the Conservative party's policy on transport, particularly with regard to fares. As I have been told to keep to transport, I shall say that as an influential Back Bencher-- [Hon. Members :-- "Senior."]-- yes, a senior Back Bencher or Front Back Bencher, whatever the hon. Gentleman's position is called, he made a trenchant criticism of the Government's transport policy.
The Secretary of State is finding out that all the clever messages and nice images are not the way to solve major problems. I shall tell him why his message will have no effect on the electorate. The daily experience of British people is so bad--they know what they are experiencing--that they will not listen to such blandishments and messages. We could all give many examples, but I shall give the Secretary of State my experience on the railway yesterday. I had to go to Manchester to address a CLES conference on the future of British Rail. I joined one of BR's flagships, the Manchester pullman, at 8 am. The toilets did not work, the brakes were faulty, a boiler had failed and there were staff shortages. The train stopped and I looked out of the window and saw that we had been connected to the other British Rail flagship, the 7.50 Liverpool pullman, and were pushing it into Nuneaton. We arrived 40 minutes late.
I returned on the 3 pm train, which had worn-out shabby coaches and brake problems and was an hour late arriving in London. I then joined the London Underground Victoria line system, but we were informed that it would not be stopping at Victoria. I bailed out at Green Park and got on to the Jubilee line, which the Secretary of State intends to abolish in one of his new proposals for cross-London links, but found that the escalators were not working. I managed to arrive at Charing Cross on the good old Northern line --as soon as the doors open, one always faces a wall of bodies through which one has to fight one's way on to the train--and took the Circle line to Westminster and was informed that there would be delays and cancellations because of shortages of staff.
That tragedy of a journey was by no means exceptional. It is the daily experience of many people in Britain. We know that the Secretary of State"s experiences are somewhat limited. He told the Daily Mail when he took the job :
"When all the fuss dies down I must get myself on a bus or train, I haven't been on either for years."
In another interview we were told that he intends to travel incognito on the trains and tubes. I do not blame him for that. If he is recognised while travelling on a train or Underground, he will be in trouble. If he had been on the InterCity trains yesterday to and from Manchester and
Column 328people had seen him, he would certainly have been in trouble. Actually, of course, they did see him--on the front of the InterCity propaganda magazine which stated :
"Parkinson's mission is to produce a balanced alternative." I wish that he had been on the train yesterday to explain the balanced alternative to interested commuters. I agreed that I would pass on their message. I would never use strong language, but I think that the Secretary of State gets my meaning.
If the policy is wrong, what needs to be done? If we are to learn anything from the European experience, it is that the transport system needs more money. Whatever the argument--politicians cannot buck this--the Government must find more resources for the British Rail system. They cannot sack more people, sell more assets or put the fares up any more. More money has to be found. That is the reality and none of us can duck it.
Whether it is expressed as a proportion of GDP or in the amounts of money involved, we give only a fraction of what other European countries give to their rail systems. The problems cannot be solved by real fare increases. The Secretary of State puts up the argument that long distance passengers are subsidised and should pay a great deal more. The answer to that argument came strongly from his hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak, as I said earlier.
The Confederation of British Industry estimates that road congestion costs us £20 billion. Not many years ago social costing justified putting more money into the railway system. What is so terrible in this country is that we do not judge rail and road investment in the same way. We make rail investment require an 8 per cent. return. For roads, we estimate how many accidents are likely to happen and the time that can be saved and justify millions of pounds of expenditure. A social cost approach for rail is essential. Mr. Parkinson indicated dissent .
Mr. Prescott : The Secretary of State shakes his head. In a letter to The Guardian his hon. Friend the Minister said that there was no difference between the assessment for road and rail investment. I was surprised to hear that remark. It has always been generally accepted that there is a difference. I heard a speech in Manchester. Major-General Lennox Napier, the chairman of TCCC, the passenger consultative body, has always made it clear that the cuts in the public service obligation have affected the quality of services. That is what the passengers say and what the body set up to make the judgment says. He went on to make another point on cost- benefit analysis. He said :
"I find myself an inspector of public enquiries on roads." He does both things :
"I find myself presented with a cost-benefit analysis for road building which measures all the costs and all the benefits which accrue to society at large as a result of public investment over a 30-year period."
I am surprised that until now no equivalent cost-benefit analysis has been applied to rail investment. The cost-benefit analysis system should be applied in determining investment and investments should be made in British Rail.
I should like the Secretary of State to tell us who is right in that argument. Are his hon. Friends right? Is there a difference? If there is a difference, as most of us believe and most of the authorities have always said, would he