The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind) : British Rail's investment expenditure this year will be the highest in real terms since 1962, and up to £4 billion is planned for the next three years-- a 60 per cent. increase on the previous three years in real terms.
Mr. Marshall : I thank the Secretary of State for that encouraging reply. Is he aware, however, of the astonishing contrast between the attitudes to public investment of British Rail's present chairman and his predecessor, both of whom were Government appointees? Is Sir Bob Reid's candour a direct result of the change of Prime Minister? Does the Secretary of State agree with Sir Bob that British Rail needs annual investment--not subsidies--of between £1 billion and £2 billion for several years? I welcome what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said about next year's expenditure, but will it be additional investment in real terms? Exactly how much of what Sir Bob is seeking is the Secretary of State prepared to provide?
Mr. Rifkind : I have already said that the amount--up to £4 billion--that is planned for the next three years is a 60 per cent. increase in real terms. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is right in saying that there is a difference of view between British Rail's present and previous chairmen, but there is certainly a difference between what the Labour party is saying today and what it did when in government, when rail investment was substantially less than it is now.
Mr. Jopling : Has my right hon. and learned Friend delivered an imperial rocket to the chairman of British Rail following the way in which BR managed the service during the week of hard weather ? It is no use BR's having a massive investment programme, as it has, if it can neither design nor operate its equipment. Many days after the snow had stopped falling, BR was still running a skeleton service, there appeared to be no ticket collectors and hundreds of people must have gone through without paying, and at one stage there did not even seem to be any drivers to provide a minimal service.
Mr. Rifkind : I sympathise very much with what my right hon. Friend has said. British Rail is conducting its own inquiry into the lessons to be learnt from that experience. I am also expecting to hear in the next few weeks the results of a review that I commissioned in December to see whether any lessons could be learnt from the experience of other countries with climates similar to ours, which might help to prevent a repetition.
Mr. Fearn : Is the Secretary of State aware that many of the bridges owned by British Rail and for which it is responsible are now in a very bad state of repair ? Will he put the point to the chairman of British Rail and perhaps provide resources to do the bridges up ?
Mr. Rifkind : I believe that British Rail has its own plans to improve and rehabilitate any bridges which may require such treatment. We shall draw the hon. Gentleman's question to the attention of British Rail.
Mr. Adley : As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, in past years the present Government and previous Governments have always exhorted British Rail to buy British. Following the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), may I ask whether the Government are putting any pressure on British Rail to buy British, or is it free to look to the manufacturing capacity of other countries in regard to rolling stock and locomotives? Some countries can and do build locomotives to withstand much worse weather conditions than ours.
Mr. Rifkind : Naturally, we want the travelling public to have the best available rolling stock for the price that is paid. It is for British Rail to judge how that can best be achieved when seeking to purchase new rolling stock.
Mr. Snape : Does the Secretary of State accept that what Bob Reid mark 2 is asking for is additional cash amounting to about £1.3 billion per year for some years to make up the investment shortfall, bearing in mind that the rolling stock and signalling equipment is 12 years older than it was when the Conservative Government were elected? Does he accept that Sir Bob is demanding cash, not an increase in the external financing limit, which would have to be paid for through even higher fares and even more overcrowding on our shockingly run railway system?
Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman's premise is incorrect. I have read the transcript of what Sir Bob Reid said. He acknowledged that the Government were providing facilities for £1.3 billion of investment this year, and expressed his desire for that to continue over the next few years. As I said earlier, the Government propose expenditure of £4 billion in the next three years--a figure very similar to the one mentioned by Sir Bob Reid.
Mr. Gregory : Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that among his plans for major reinvestment in British Rail he will consider ensuring that the operating companies obtain greater productivity from their employees? They have changed their definition of "on time" so that they can pay additional sums to their senior management, but a train that arrives 10 minutes late does not strike me, or the rest of the world, as being on time. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look at the strange definitions that the operating companies have incorporated in order to pay themselves more money? Will he
Column 653also look at the subsidiary operating companies, which may operate genuine share schemes for their employees, and ensure that they benefit from the investment?
Mr. Rifkind : I note with interest what my hon. Friend says. We are anxious to ensure that British Rail recognises the need for quality control and introduces realistic and acceptable incentives for its staff in order to obtain an improvement in the quality of service. I shall look into my hon. Friend's point.
2. Mr. Terry Davis : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what progress has been made on the implementation of a higher standard of residual stability to existing roll-on roll-off ferries as recommended in the report of the steering committee for the research programme recommended by the Sheen inquiry in July 1987.
The Minister for Shipping (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin) : The United Kingdom has taken the lead in bringing about the consideration at the International Maritime Organisation of a higher standard of residual stability for existing roll-on roll-off ferries. In February 1991 the specialist sub-committee of the IMO on stability matters considered the United Kingdom's proposal and agreed that a higher standard of survivability should be applied to all existing roll-on roll-off passenger ships.
Mr. Davis : It is now four years since the Herald of Free Enterprise tragedy, three and a half years since the Sheen inquiry recommended a programme of research into the problems with these vessels and more than a year since the steering committee for the research programme recommended that there should be an early international agreement to impose higher safety standards on existing roll-on roll-off ferries. When will something be done? The steering committee recommended that the Government should consider taking unilateral action if there was any delay at international level. When do the Government intend to do something, or are they waiting for another tragedy?
Mr. McLoughlin : A considerable amount has already been done. The Government have spent a huge amount of money on research. As I said in my original answer, we have already taken this to the International Maritime Organisation. We have always wanted to reach agreement through the IMO, as it is the most useful means of enforcing safety regulations, but we have made it clear that if we cannot obtain agreement at the IMO, we shall consider acting unilaterally in the case of all ships operating in and out of British ports.
Mr. Ernie Ross : The Minister must answer the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis) put to him. When do the Government intend to take action? How long shall we have to wait for the IMO to make up its mind? It is clearly seeking to delay matters even further, and it has not suffered the tragedy that the United Kingdom suffered. We need to take action now to ensure that there is no subsequent tragedy such as that which led to the Minister having to go to the IMO and argue Britain's case before it.
Mr. McLoughlin : It is universally accepted that the best way to act on safety matters is through the IMO. That is exactly what the Government are doing, but we have reserved the right, if necessary, to act unilaterally. That was applauded in two recent articles in Fairplay and Lloyd's List.
3. Ms. Gordon : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will ensure that whenever repair and maintenance work is required in Blackwall tunnel, one bore is kept open for two-way traffic of private vehicles and small vans.
The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman) : Two-way traffic is operated when necessary in the southbound tunnel. This is not possible for the north bound tunnel, constructed in 1897, which is too small for high-sided vehicles in both directions.
Ms. Gordon : Is the Minister aware that daytime closures at the weekend cause massive traffic jams through the east end, particularly on Sundays? Last Sunday, not one policeman was to be seen, except those caught in the traffic jams, and when my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) asked some of them whether they were from the traffic department they said, "Very definitely not, Sir." An irate constituent wrote to me telling me that he was caught for four hours trying to get home from Kent. [Interruption.] I remind the Minister that the old Blackwall tunnel--now the northbound bore--carried two-way traffic, including buses, until the late 1950s-- [Interruption.] --and could do so again. That is perfectly feasible.
Mr. Freeman : Despite the background noise, I appreciate the problems that the temporary closure of the tunnel has caused in docklands. Work will be completed after next weekend. I hope that the problem will be alleviated by the boring of a third Blackwall tunnel under the Thames, for which design contracts will be let shortly.
4. Mr. Steen : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will review the Government's policy concerning airline competition in the European Community with special reference to the access of new entrant carriers.
Mr. Rifkind : The Government will continue to press for a liberal single market in aviation in the European Community, in which competition can flourish and which possesses effective safeguards against behaviour that is anti-competitive or exploits the consumer.
Mr. Steen : I regret the collapse of Air Europe, for which the Secretary of State and the Civil Aviation Authority bear no responsibility, but does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that he should ensure some protection from the bigger airlines, which are increasingly trying to destroy the smaller ones? Will he ensure that slots out of Heathrow and Gatwick are not used for unviable and uneconomic routes which make no money for the big airlines but which marginalise the small airlines and drive them out of business?
Column 655Mr. Rifkind : I shall comment on Air Europe in response to a private notice question at 3.30 pm.
The allocation of slots is a matter for the scheduling committees of airports. It is desirable that those slots are used in a way that will best benefit the travelling public, which is how we would wish the scheduling committees to carry out their responsibilities.
Mrs. Dunwoody : Does the Secretary of State accept that any pressure on slots which made it impossible for regional airlines to use Heathrow would have a deleterious effect on the average member of the travelling public and would not be a helpful way of increasing the availability of slots at Heathrow?
Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Lady is correct, but she forgets that last Monday we announced that existing restrictions preventing new domestic services from applying to use Heathrow have been removed. The constraint on new domestic and international services applying to the scheduling committee for slots has also been removed.
The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Christopher Chope) : There are several major schemes in the national roads programme which will improve the main east-west routes to the channel tunnel and channel ports to meet expected demand into the next century.
Mr. Rathbone : I welcome that confirmation, but may I impress on the Minister, as a delegation of East Sussex Members of Parliament impressed on the Secretary of State the other day, the urgency of improving east-west road links to the channel tunnel before its opening? If that is not done, communications to Sussex and further west will be such that it will absolutely impossible to take advantage of the new link with the continent.
Mr. Chope : My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State reported on my hon. Friend's meeting with him. I cannot guarantee that all the schemes in the programme will be completed for the opening of the tunnel, but the main ones should be completed, particularly the one between Folkestone and Dover. There are about 10 schemes for the A259 in the programme, which I hope will be brought to fruition.
Mr. Aitken : At the risk of being called a southbound bore, may I press my hon. Friend for an answer on when the Government think that the channel tunnel will open? Is he aware of the need for an authoritative statement because of disturbing press reports about the likelihood of serious signalling and other technical equipment delays resulting in the tunnel being at least one year late? What is the true position?
Mr. Stern : I congratulate my hon. Friend on that comprehensive reply. That list shows the commitment of my hon. Friend and his colleagues in the Department to the necessary reduction in speed limits. May I add to it the current proposals for increasing the likelihood of traffic light offenders being caught under the legislation? People who speed across traffic lights are a problem in major cities, such as Bristol, and anything that can be done to reduce it would be welcome.
Mr. Chope : I agree that there are a large number of traffic light offences which are a danger to road users. The new powers being taken in the Road Traffic Bill will enhance road safety significantly in that respect.
Mr. Pike : Will the Minister consider the problem which arises when the third lane disappears because of motorway works but traffic hurtles along at 70 mph plus, makes no attempt to reduce speed and tries to force its way in at the last minute, causing tremendous danger to many other motorists?
Mr. Hannam : Is my hon. Friend aware of the increasing number of road accidents involving unlit bicycles? Will he consider making it a requirement that all new bicycles sold should have front and rear lamps fitted?
Mr. Chope : Some time ago we consulted on whether lights should be made an integral part of any bicycle before sale, but the overwhelming response was that the public did not wish that requirement to be introduced. Nevertheless, I share my hon. Friend's concern about the number of bicycles without lights on the road at night. Bicycles ridden at night are required to have proper lighting, but one of the difficulties is a lack of enforcement. In 1989, the last year for which I have figures, only 1,250 people were convicted of riding a bicycle without lights, although I am sure that it is within the experience of every hon. Member that many more people than that seem to ride bicycles without lights at night.
Column 657District line and look forward with eager anticipation to the construction of the Chelsea-Hackney underground line. What progress is being made in the plans for that line? Can my hon. Friend give an assurance that the plans will include the construction of a new station at Stamford Bridge which, as well as serving Chelsea football club, will serve the new Chelsea-Westminster hospital which will also need adequate transport facilities?
Mr. Freeman : My hon. Friend refers to the Chelsea-Hackney line. He will realise that we are talking about a new underground line between Chelsea and Hackney which will permit people living as far south as Wimbledon as well as those who live in Essex to come into central London. The service provided will therefore be much greater than is apparent at first blush from the description of the new construction works. Nothing is firmly resolved at this point about the new station or the possibility of extending the line south of the river into Wandsworth. The leader of Wandsworth council is coming to the Department of Transport shortly to make representations on that subject.
Miss Hoey : Does the Minister agree that one of the most worrying aspects of travelling on the London underground, particularly for women, is fear at night? Will he take up with London Underground its intention to withdraw the extra staff who have been on the southern part of the Northern line and ensure that they are not withdrawn? I have seen the improvements at Stockwell in terms of computers and television, but nothing makes people feel safer than knowing that uniformed staff are present at night.
Mr. Freeman : The hon. Lady is right that the presence of staff on the underground and on British Rail contributes to a feeling of security, but obviously both nationalised industries must live within their means. The proposed staff reductions on the underground, including the Northern line, relate mainly to ticketing staff, but I will look specifically at the southern part of the Northern line to see what consequences there will be for staff, particularly those who could be on the station platforms.
Sir William Shelton : My hon. Friend will be aware that a consultant last year recommended the continuation of the Northern line down to Streatham. Is he aware of the enormous importance that my constituents and I attach to that, and does he have any news of how it may be proceeding?
Mr. Freeman : My hon. Friend has raised that matter assiduously with the Department of Transport, pointing out the benefits of extending the Northern line further southwards. London Underground is looking initially at the need for refurbishment and improvement on the existing Northern line. That is badly needed and it will follow what is being done to the Central line.
I will certainly convey my hon. Friend's comments about extending the line to London Underground, which I am sure will take his representations into account in its planning.
Ms. Ruddock : Will the Minister accept that no promises of improvement for the future will offset the misery that Londoners feel when travelling on London Underground now? Does he accept that the projected loss of 950 jobs, with the consequent closure of some stations and booking
Column 658offices and reductions in service, will thoroughly undermine public confidence in the tube system and jeopardise future ridership?
Mr. Freeman : I am afraid that I do not follow the hon. Lady's line of argument. As I have said, reductions of up to 5 per cent. in the number of staff are related mainly to London Underground's greater efficiency and ability to issue and collect tickets automatically. I believe that the confidence of the travelling public in the underground is much more related to increases in capacity in the system, which derive from the building programme, and to the improvements that will be manifest on the Central line next September, when new rolling stock comes into service, and on the Circle line when new, clean, refurbished and reliable rolling stock comes into service next year.
Mr. Bowis : Will my hon. Friend seek immortality in south London by agreeing to the extension of the Chelsea-Hackney line south through Wandsworth--not only because many Wandsworth residents support Chelsea football club and want to go to its matches, but because there is not one inch of underground track between the Northern line and the Wimbledon branch of the District line ?
Mr. Freeman : As I have already said, we have merely safeguarded the Chelsea-Hackney line ; its construction will depend on satisfactory completion of the east-west crossrail. No final decision has yet been made on the Chelsea-Hackney line. I understand the arguments either for extending the line or for changing its line of route so that it will serve Wandsworth, which is relatively under-provided for in transport terms. My hon. Friend has diligently represented his constituents' views on this score, and I shall certainly take into account what he has said.
9. Mr. O'Hara : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he intends to publish his response to the report of the joint working party on British shipping entitled "British Shipping Challenges and Opportunities".
Mr. McLoughlin : The working party report represents a jointly agreed analysis of the state of British shipping and its recommendations were developed as much by the Government as by the industry. The question of a separate formal response by the Government does not therefore arise.
Mr. O'Hara : Is the Minister aware that in the past 15 years the number of ships owned and registered in the United Kingdom has fallen from 1,614 to 314, that in the same period the average age of British ships has increased from 6.5 to 13.7 years, and that the number of officers and ratings employed in our merchant fleet has declined from 81,000 to 20,000 ? The result has been that although 95 per cent. of our export and import trade is carried by sea, only one fifth is carried by British shipping. That not only has serious consequences for our balance of trade but represents the loss of an important resource which needs to be available in times of national emergency and defence. Does the Minister agree that Britannia no longer rules the waves and that it is high time the Government did something to reverse that savage decline ?
Mr. McLoughlin : As I said, the joint working party has submitted its report and its recommendations are being followed by the Government. In the past the Government have recognised the need to provide assistance for the training of ratings and officers and that was achieved under the Merchant Shipping Act 1988. There has been a large increase in the number of officers trained by the merchant fleet.
Ms. Walley : The Minister's comments are amazing. He does not seem to realise that his Government have presided over the biggest decline in shipping in any of the leading maritime nations. The Minister said that there is no need for a statement from the Government, but there must be a need for them to do something about this. The Government should do something to ensure that tax concessions are available. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if he carries on believing that there is no need for such a statement we shall see the end of the red ensign and we shall have no British merchant shipping fleet?
10. Mr. Simon Hughes : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what research his Department is undertaking to evaluate the environmental effects of the road traffic increases forecast by "Roads for Prosperity".
Mr. Hughes : Have the Minister and his colleagues been working hard with the Department of the Environment to put pressure on the Treasury to ensure that gas-guzzling vehicles are more heavily taxed at the next Budget. [ Hon. Members :-- "Certainly not."]--or do they accept that the electoral consideration of not offending the motoring and car lobby will, as always with the Tory Government, override environmental matters, particularly in the Department of Transport?
Mr. Chope : I cannot anticipate anything that might be in the Budget. It is worth pointing out, however, that even existing motor cars with 1300cc engines may vary by up to 40 per cent. on the miles per gallon achieved. It is open to the environmentally concerned motorist to purchase a motor car that is more fuel-efficient than another in the same range.
Mr. Rathbone : Will my hon. Friend, while helping in any way that he can to reduce emissions from motor cars, not fall for the blandishments of any lobby that is trying to persuade him to cut the road-building programme?
Mr. Chope : My hon. Friend makes a good point. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) shakes his head, but he may have forgotten that his colleagues, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and the hon. Members for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and for Truro (Mr. Taylor), have recently been lobbying me for more investment in the road-building programme.
Dr. Kim Howells : Does the Minister agree that his bland statements simply add to the list of things about which we have heard in the past 10 years, including lean-burn engines and all the rest of it? Does he agree that appropriate fiscal measures would do a great deal to clean up the environment? In Germany, 98 per cent. of cars have catalytic convertors fitted. Would not it be in the interests of the nation and its environment to introduce fiscal measures to reward those who purchase cars with lean- burn engines and catalytic convertors?
Mr. Chope : The Government recognise that there may be a role for the taxation system in the process of ensuring the best improvements possible in our environment by trying to reduce CO emissions. However, it would not be right to suggest that that would be a total panacea.
Mr. Rifkind : I last met the chairman of British Airways on 25 February. I meet Lord King on those occasions when there is a mutual interest in doing so and I should be happy to meet him in the near future.
Mr. Soames : I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply. When he next meets the chairman of British Airways will he confirm that it is the Government's intention to strengthen, not weaken, the hand of the biggest and most important carrier in the United Kingdom? Will he also explain to him why the Government have decided to substitute Virgin Atlantic on a route to Tokyo which was previously held by British Airways and which will have a materially adverse commercial effect on British Airway's prospects? Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, in all his airline policies, he seeks to bring stability to what is at the moment an extremely chaotic industry?
As for our decision on flights to Japan, my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that, notwithstanding the announcement, British Airways and Virgin will be able to offer improved services on that route this summer compared with last year. Both companies should be able to increase their revenues. It was a difficult decision to reach, but it was necessary. I do not believe that it in any way suggests a lack of confidence in British Airways --quite the opposite. It is a superb, strong airline and I believe that it, as well as the British public, will benefit from the competition from Virgin Atlantic.
Mr. Tom Clarke : Has the Secretary of State seen in some of today's newspapers reports that British Airways is proposing to withdraw some of its services in Scotland, some think on the highlands and islands routes? Is not that socially undesirable and will he make representations if that proves to be the case?
Column 661judge which services it wishes to provide. If there is a demand for services that are not provided by British Airways, other airlines may wish to take them over. That is a matter for the airline companies to determine.
Mr. Rifkind : The purpose of the Department of Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority is primarily to serve the interest of the travelling public in the United Kingdom. I believe that, on the vast majority of occasions, that coincides with the interests of British airlines, but if I ever have to make a choice between the two, my primary obligation will be to the travelling public.
Mr. Rifkind : The European Community Council of Ministers is now committed to a single market in aviation by the beginning of 1993. A second, interim package of measures was agreed last June. Discussion is in progress on safeguards against anti-competitive behaviour, and the Commission is required shortly to being forward proposals on issues that remain to be settled in detail.
Mr. Rifkind : All the evidence that we have shows that when restrictions are removed, bringing in freer competition, it results in downward pressure on fares. I hope that that will be the experience when the single European market is achieved.
14. Ms. Ruddock : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what service reductions have been implemented on the London underground during 1991 ; and what estimate he has of the effect of the reductions on road congestion in London.
Mr. Freeman : London Underground Ltd. has recently written to hon. Members about service changes that it wishes to implement later this year. I understand that the proposed reduced train services would be only some 1.5 per cent. below the the potential maximum and that any staff reductions are intended to increase efficiency by, for example, taking advantage of automatic ticket machines.
Ms. Ruddock : Does the Minister accept that when there was a low fares policy on the London underground, in 1981 and 1983, there were reductions of 6 per cent. and 17 per cent. in car commuting? Does he acknowledge that there is a link between the two and that there is already a fall in ridership on the underground system which the service reductions that he noted will only exacerbate? Does he know that the chair of London Transport has acknowledged that there is expected to be a further reduction on ridership on buses? Where does he think that commuters will go if not into their cars? Will not this lead to further road congestion in London?