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Column 112110.50 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Burt) : If I remember rightly, King Canute walked away fromthe beach at the end of the day, but we shall not worry too much about that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) on initiating the debate. I thank all hon. Members who have participated. I know the interest and close involvement shown in the subject by the hon. Members for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) and for Warrington, South (Mr. Hall). I noted what my hon. Friends the Members for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) and for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) had to say.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) introduced some philosophy into the debate by ranging slightly wider and considering the role of children generally, which I welcomed. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell), who was on the Front Bench earlier, has expressed his interest to me by way of letters. The hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. McMaster) made a brief intervention. I also welcome the comments of the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram), with whom I have debated the subject before. I am grateful for his kind personal remarks, but he skipped daintily away from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon about Third Reading. I take what the hon. Member for East Kilbride said about Second Reading, but he managed to avoid the point about Third Reading. He also avoided the fact that, when we debated regulations on the Child Support Agency last year, the Opposition did not vote against them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon was not trying to make a party political point--I heard the bluster of the hon. Member for East Kilbride as he tried to introduce that aspect--but was expressing an honest view. I also noticed that the hon. Member for Halifax nodded her head when he said that some of the consequences of legislation are not always anticipated on either side of the House. I shall comment on that later.
Amid all the complaints and criticisms levelled at the scheme, it is important not to lose sight of just how bad things were before, and why the legislation was necessary. Almost 1 million lone parents had become reliant on income support by 1992-93, with three quarters of them receiving no regular maintenance, which was wrong. Let us consider those figures. The vast majority of parents with care and their children were living at the basic level of income provided by income support. Meanwhile, many absent parents had been able to enjoy a higher standard of living--they were not on benefit. The new scheme was designed to go some way towards redressing the balance. The method chosen for achieving that--there was a measure of understanding of it in the House--was to move to a formula-based system that would produce a more equitable distribution of income in a reliable and consistent manner.
It is true that a formulaic system is less flexible than one based on discretion, but there were far more inequities under the old system and far more people were disadvantaged. It has been easy to forget about that during the past nine months.
The vast majority of parents had been reliant on income support. All absent parents, even the hardest cases, are protected from falling to that level of income under the new rules. Many absent parents are unhappy with the new
Column 1122demands. I recognise and understand that. Yes, it is difficult to adjust when maintenance bills are brought up to more realistic levels. That does not necessarily make it wrong or unfair. One of the problems of the old system was that its inequities had become accepted--even condoned. People who were disadvantaged by the system did not complain--or, if they did, no one listened. It is sometimes easy to forget that there were hard cases before. People walked out of divorce courts and ancillary proceedings, having been, and feeling, hard done by. When there are so many interests, it is not possible to create a situation in which everyone feels content and that all has been done.
I make those comments to put all the criticisms of the Child Support Act 1991 into context. I am still convinced that the scheme that we have put in place is an improvement on the one that we left behind. I believe that, in spite of some of the comments made by hon. Members tonight, the House would not favour a return to that system. I cannot allow the basic principles that we have all stood for and the gains that we have already made to be undermined. Our response must be measured and, above all, it must ensure that the interests of all parties are recognised and taken into account.
Mr. Burt : For two reasons. First, in many cases in the past, when maintenance had not even been thought of and was not being paid to the vast majority of women on income support, their situation would never improve. [Interruption.] Will the hon. Lady hold on ? Most lone parents, as we know, do not want to remain on benefit for ever. They want to get back into work. It is of considerable advantage to them to have maintenance available in the medium and longer term. A recent report by the Policy Studies Institute said that that was very clear, and that to achieve maintenance early was probably the most important factor on its own for improving the position of single parents and encouraging them back into work.
Even if maintenance does not mean a pound-for-pound increase, the fact that it will be available and will be there is an advantage. If people receive family credit, there is a maintenance disregard, and if they do a job where benefit is not involved they will notice an advantage. In those circumstances, they will be better off. The very fact of establishing maintenance is terribly important and in many cases in the past it was not there. That is a distinct advantage. Mr. Spellar rose
Mr. Burt : I will move on, because I have only until five minutes past eleven and I shall not cover the topics raised otherwise. Hon. Members are aware that we recently introduced a number of measures to ease the burdens of the absent parents who were most affected by the Child Support Act. Those measures were based on some of the Select Committee's recommendations. I feel that the Select Committee's report has been rather easily dismissed by colleagues on both sides of the Chamber.
Mr. Ingram indicated dissent .
Mr. Burt : It was. It was said that it did not go far enough and was not what people wanted. In fact, it was a considered report by a group of colleagues. We all have some time for most of them. The fact that the report did not necessarily come out with the answers that everyone wanted does not mean that it should be dismissed. It made some approaches to the questions and suggested some ideas for change that we accepted.
We have made changes to include a substantial increase in the minimum amount of income that an absent parent would keep after meeting maintenance liability ; a reduction in the additional element where there is a liability for only one or two children ; a reduction in the amount included for the care needs of the children as they grow older ; and an extension of the arrangements for phasing in the new amounts. Those are not minor tinkerings. They represent a substantial reduction in the amount that many absent parents will have to pay.
Let us consider some of the effects of those changes. About 55,000 cases were reassessed as a result of the 7 February changes. Of those, 41,000 had a decrease of liability and about 14,000 had no change in liability. The fact that those changes have been made has meant something to people in receipt of those reductions. Moreover, they have been designed to be of most benefit to absent parents at the lower end of the income scale and those with second families. Those changes are proof of our commitment to keep the policy under review, and to make adjustments as the need arises. The fact that we acted so swiftly and decisively shows that our commitment to keep the scheme under review is not just empty rhetoric or a formula of words : we mean what we say. We remain true to our pledge, and to our determination to build a fair and just system for child maintenance that will be a cornerstone of United Kingdom family policy well into the next century. We must now allow the changes to feed through into the system. Once that has happened and we have fully evaluated the impact, we shall be able to judge whether further changes are necessary. That is the responsible way to deal with the matter. The hon. Member for Halifax raised points about good cause and co-operation. She will remember that the House spent considerable time on that in the run-up to the introduction of the agency. It was assumed by many colleagues to be the major issue that we would face. That turned out not to be the case--partly, I hope, because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I, and the chief executive of the agency, put time and effort into ensuring that it would not be the case.
Good cause has been investigated in 49,000 cases. That sounds a lot, but it is only 6 per cent. of the applications issued. Good cause has been accepted in 50 per cent. of those cases--24,760. In 11,570 cases, the parent with care has named the father because we have been able to reassure those parents that it is the right thing to do and that we would protect them if they feared any difficulty. That system is working well and it is right to keep it in place.
If the hon. Lady persists in her view that we should not have that degree of incentive, I must tell her that I do not believe that the way in which the Act has worked has given her cause to feel that. It may be a philosophical objection on her part. I hope that she agrees that we have tried very genuinely to meet that worry and to provide that degree of care.
A number of colleagues raised again the issue of the soft
Column 1124target--the idea that it is wrong to try to increase maintenance payments from those who are already paying, because that makes the CSA the Treasury Support Agency. There is a real divergence of opinion here between what Labour Members say and what the Select Committee says. I am not sure whether it would have formed part of Labour's approach to the issue if it had been in office. Again, I direct colleagues to paragraph 18 and the following paragraphs of the Select Committee report, which deal not only with the soft targets argument, but with retrospection. The hon. Lady many not agree, but many people do. The arguments are fair and genuine, partly because hon. Members of her own party signed up to them and must, therefore, have believed them.
The Select Committee says straightforwardly :
"A large part of the public debate about the Child Support Agency has centred on the accusation that it was picking unfairly on soft targets', that is, those absent parents who were already making maintenance payments. Behind this accusation has been an allegation that the Agency's work is governed by the requirement to make substantial sayings in the social security budget. We believe this objective to be an important one. The Committee believes that taxpayers have for too long been asked, in effect, to pick up maintenance bills that should have been met by absent parents." The House either agrees or disagrees. If Labour Front-Bench Members disagree with that--if they do not believe that that is a legitimate aim and object of Government--I am happy for them to say so. I believe that it is a legitimate aim and that the way in which the Select Committee dealt with that point was important.
Mr. Simon Coombs : I hope that my hon. Friend will address himself to my point. The element of retrospection is driving many of my constituents deeper and deeper into debt and is destroying their happiness, their marriages and, perhaps, their lives. What message should I take to them when I meet them on Sunday morning ?
Mr. Burt : The first message is that the fact that previous settlements would be looked at was an implicit part of the Act, which my hon. Friend supported. Secondly, the changes we made on 7 February included some that were designed to ease that pressure because we had felt it necessary. The reason why previous settlements were looked at was to try to ensure that everyone would have the same base for maintenance in the future and to leave behind some settlements which, in the past, had left women with low levels of maintenance which they could not increase. The previous system gave some legitimacy to settlements in which taxpayers had borne the brunt of the burden because they were picking up housing costs and the like. That was the point specifically referred to by the Select Committee. To allow that position to have remained would have been unfair on everybody else. That is why those matters were considered.
A variety of issues have been raised tonight, many of which, alas, we shall not have time to deal with. The question of the Australian system was raised again. It is fundamentally different from ours. It is very broad brush. It has no equivalent of protected income. It does not take housing costs and similar matters into account. The number of appeals is beginning to increase. So far, it has had 11,537 applications for review out of a total caseload of some 150,000. Of the finalised cases, 2,647 were successful, while 2,127 were unsuccessful. Some 46 per cent. of absent parents' appeals were allowed, while 54 per cent. were refused ; 87 per cent. of parents with care were
Column 1125successful, with average increases of $36 a week. Obviously, an appeals system would have to work both ways.
There is a lot of material here and I could happily speak for three quarters of an hour. I take seriously all the comments that hon. Members have raised, as they probably know, but I am in no position to say other than what I have previously said about the future : that we intend to keep the matter under review. I pray in aid of that statement the fact that, when changes were suggested to the Government before and we thought them right, we made those changes. I am true to the pledge to keep the system under review, as we want to make it right. We all have a vested interest in doing so. In the meantime, we shall look carefully at what hon. Members say In accordance with Mr. Speaker's Ruling-- [ Official Report , 31 January 1983 ; Vol. 36, c. 19]-- the debate was concluded .
Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South) : Having raised the subject of the Northern line more often than any other hon. Member, I do not apologise to the House for raising it yet again. Earlier this evening, someone told me that the answer to the Northern line's problems would be to steal some of the trains from the Central line and put them on the Northern line. I asked how that would be done and he said, "Well, you'd stop running trains to Epping." I said that that would not necessarily win the support of my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London, as his constituency would be adversely affected.
First, I thank the media for the publicity that they have given to this campaign, particularly the Evening Standard for its constant support of all campaigns to improve the quality of life of Londoners, especially those who travel on the Northern line. Although I thank the media for their support, their tactics in trying to doorstep the Chief Secretary may be slightly counter-productive. He should not be treated in the same way as Lady Buck or someone else who is frequently doorstepped.
Everyone knows that the Northern line is characterised by a series of disasters. Many of the trains on the Northern line go back to 1959 and, therefore, are 35 years old. It is a sobering thought that the trains on the Northern line are older than certain Members of the House. That brings the problem home vividly. The track is literally crumbling ; the signalling belongs to the dark ages rather than state-of-the-art technology ; and the dot matrix system is certainly not infallible. The Northern line originates in the Victorian era and the quality of service today is inadequate for the last decade of the 20th century.
The result of all that is that the service is inadequate and irregular and the trains are often graffiti-ridden and rather dirty. Although there has been some improvement in service recently, it is as much due to the recession as to anything else. The dangers inherent in the current state of the Northern line have been underlined by two recent events. Only the other day, one of the 1959 variety of trains was derailed at Edgware station. Previously, there had been no service for some days between Edgware and Colindale because the embankment had collapsed and the trains could not get by. A bus service had to replace the train service. How many more disasters must we have before the Treasury recognises that seeking to run trains that date from 1959 is not terribly sensible in 1994 ? Port dating back to 1959 may be all right, but 1959 trains are not suitable.
The Northern line serves the City and the west end. The City was a victim of the recession but will clearly benefit from the continued upturn in the economy. A number of surveys have suggested that tens of thousands of jobs will be created in the City in the next few years. As the number of those jobs increases, so the pressure on the Northern line will become more severe. That serves to underline the need to improve the service.
The Northern line is also an important service for tourists seeking to go to the west end and the south bank complex. In a few months' time tourists will be disgorged at Waterloo international station, having come through the channel tunnel and then up through Kent. They may need to take the Northern line for the last bit of their journeys. What sort of impression will they be left with if they make their first tube journey in a 1959 train on the Northern line ?
Column 1127The issue facing the Government and London Transport is simple : the Northern line needs to be modernised, and quickly. Asea Broron Boveri has come up with a scheme that meets the needs of London Transport, and I believe that it is financially ingenious. Any business man would accept it. London Transport should not be allowed to founder on an unimaginative interpretation of Treasury rules. There is a rumour--perhaps the Minister will be able to comment on it--that the Treasury is saying that although the costs of the scheme will be spread over 20 years, and although the amount each year will not be large, the total cost must be charged against LT's external financing limit in the first year of the scheme.
That is quite barmy ; it is not how a business would operate. No private company going in for a long-term scheme would ask how the total cost compared with one year's depreciation charge. It would ask how the cost in any one year compared with the cash flow of the business in that year. At a time when we are trying to encourage private sector financial initiatives, I hope that the Government will look at the scheme in these more sensible terms, especially as it will be cash-positive within a short time. I hope that a Treasury ideology that seems designed to stop private sector involvement will not be pursued.
In 1993, the Government agreed that ABB could build and lease 41 Networker express trains for the north Kent routes. The justification was that British Rail would be privatised, whereupon the obligation would be transferred from the public to the private sector. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is not so lacking in initiative or ambition that he tells us that the Northern line and London Transport will not be privatised in the next 20 years. That would be a fairly unambitious and unimaginative approach for any Minister in the Government to adopt.
Surely the Minister will be able to say that the same rules as applied to Network SouthEast will apply to London Transport. I cannot understand a system that decrees that trains can be provided for the commuters of Kent but not for the commuters of London. There is no logic in that at all, and I hope that the Minister will confirm as much.
The Treasury is full of men who are much cleverer than hon. Members-- certainly cleverer than an hon. Member who wants to speak here at 11.15 in the evening. Those ingenious men, instead of saying non, nein or nyet, should set out to find a way of breaking the impasse and encouraging this proposal.
The Government have rightly encouraged private financial initiatives. Sir Alastair Morton, after his success with Eurotunnel, has been encouraged to persuade the private sector to invest in public sector projects. The Opposition have decided to support some private sector financing of public sector projects.
Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister can tell the House this evening whether Sir Alastair Morton approves of the ABB proposals. I suspect that he does, but my hon. Friend may be better able to inform the House about the position. ABB is willing to take part of the risk, but it is quite unrealistic for the Treasury to suggest that ABB should be asked to take a revenue risk.
One factor in any revenue risk is the level of fares. We would not expect ABB to have any influence over the fares charged on the Northern line. After all, a little word called politics can sometimes intervene in the fares charged on London Transport. We all remember what happened in 1981. The fares dropped dramatically when there was a
Column 1128change of control--until the law courts told the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) that his policy was illegal, and the fares went up again.
A private sector business providing trains could not be expected to run the risk created by future fare levels, over which it would have no influence or control and which might be determined by politics rather than business.
I accept that ABB has produced an ingenious scheme, but it is equally fair to say that when a large sum of public money is involved, it would be quite wrong for one company automatically to get the contract. If the Government were even to promise ABB the project because it had been ingenious enough to think of it, and because it has the spare capacity and therefore would give them a better deal, they would be open to challenge from GEC, as a British company, and from other suppliers within the European Community. The challenge would go on for months.
By far the quickest solution, as well as providing the best value for money for the taxpayer, would be to have an auction between ABB and GEC and whoever else seeks to bid for the contract. I believe that ABB would win that contractual auction, as it has delivered trains to the Central line and will run into a capacity problem later this year. GEC is in a different position. It still has to deliver the trains for the Jubilee line and does not have the
under-utilisation that ABB will have in a few months' time. A competitive deal would almost certainly end up with ABB getting the contract and it would be perceived as providing value for money for the taxpayer within the rules of the European Community.
There is an alternative--the "refurb" option. What does that do ? It gets rid of the guards and costs £60 million. It would not improve the quality of trains ; they would be increasingly unreliable and accident- prone, and breakdowns would become more frequent. Getting rid of the guards would simply ensure that there is one fewer person to whom customers can complain. That is not what the travellers on the Northern line want.
If we do not accept the ABB option, and take the "refurb" option, there will be no new trains for the Northern line until 2009, when the present trains will be 50 years old. That is far too long to wait. There will be no signalling until 2010, which again is far too long to wait.
The ABB proposal offers London the chance of new trains on the Northern line by Christmas. I promise my hon. Friend that, if we can have those new trains, I shall not call for another Christmas Adjournment debate. I can guarantee that he will then have an early night. My hon. Friend has been pestered ; he had to come here in July at 3 o'clock in the morning and he has to stay up late tonight. But if he can be Father Christmas to London and give us an early train, he can have the night off.
Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich) : The hon. Gentleman referred to Christmas Adjournment debates. Does he recall a debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill shortly before Christmas, when, at about 6.15 in the morning, just before a debate on London Transport was due to begin, he acted to stop it taking place ? Is he not somewhat hypocritical now to call for debates on this subject ?
Column 1129Adjournment debates on London Transport and have raised the subject frequently at Question Time. If the hon. Gentleman compares the number of times that I have raised the matter with that of other hon. Members, the comment that I made at the beginning-- [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman goes back to the events of last December, he will remember that the Labour party, or a number of Labour Members
The hon. Gentleman will remember that many unnecessary Divisions were called, which cut into private Members' time. He will remember also that, on the previous Friday, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) spied Strangers to stop my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson) from having his private Member's debate. Quite frankly, the delaying tactics prevented an important debate from taking place later that night on the prosecution of City fraud. Since last December, the House has come back to its senses to some extent. It is much better to carry on in that frame of mind. What we discovered last December was that if one side spied Strangers, the other side would do so equally as effectively. If we have taught the House that lesson, we did some good last December.
Our choice is simple. If we support the ABB scheme, the Northern line could have 75 per cent. of the new trains by the end of 1997--within three years. The Northern line could have new signalling by 2000, and what a great bonus that would be to celebrate the millennium. The quality of service would improve. Journeys would be quicker. Trains would be more frequent, cleaner and better ventilated. There would be less disruption and an increase in peak capacity of 30 per cent.
The Government have an opportunity to show that a private finance initiative can improve services in the public sector. They have an opportunity to show that they care about the infrastructure of London and that they listen to the concern of Londoners, who, I suspect, are more worried about public transport than about any other local issue. The ABB project is supported by London Transport, London First, the Financial Times and the Evening Standard .
I have spoken this evening on behalf of the 400,000 people who use the Northern line every day. I have spoken on behalf of the residents of Barnet, Islington, Haringey, Morden, Westminster, Camden, Lambeth, Southwark and Wandsworth who use the Northern line every day. That underlines its importance for Londoners. I believe that what is proposed could be of great benefit not only to the residents of those boroughs but to the City of London as a whole, the people of London as a whole and the millions of people who use the Northern line throughout the year. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) is not here, because I was going to end by saying that that project managed to unite her and me. That is quite a rare event, but it may even have united
Column 1130me and the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). If it has done that, it has achieved almost a miracle.
Mr. Keith Hill (Streatham) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) on securing this important debate. I agreed with almost everything that he said. I was relaxed about his promise that London Underground would be privatised over the next 20 years, because, palpably, we shall not have a Conservative Government during that time.
Notwithstanding that somewhat partisan shaft, let me declare at once that I speak as secretary to the all-party Northern line group, and also on behalf of thousands of my Balham and Clapham constituents who use the Northern line and endure its misery daily.
I do not propose to detain the House for long, as the arguments are obvious. If all the usual economists' tools are used, the proposal to renew rolling stock on the Northern line shows a positive result. It shows a 3 :1 benefit-to-cost ratio ; it maximises passenger benefits ; and it will start earning profits in the year 2000. The attraction of brand new rolling stock is equally obvious.
I understand that there is a cheaper alternative--to which the hon. Member for Hendon, South has already referred--involving the refurbishment of the 1959 rolling stock, which is apparently being touted by some elements in the Treasury. The argument for that scheme, compared with the benefits of an entirely new build, do not stand up to scrutiny. The refurbishment will prolong the life of trains for a mere 10 years and will mean that the introduction of new trains will be deferred until the year 2009. It will even mean a delay of 10 years in the introduction of new signalling, to the year 2010. Moreover, the refurbishment will still mean a longer journey time for the passenger, more waiting time, more overcrowding and a less regular and reliable service. By contrast, the new rolling stock will mean faster journeys, reduced waiting times, less crowding and a vastly more reliable service. It will give the commuter better security, better passenger information, better ventilation and a smoother and less noisy ride. There really is no choice--and there ought to be no hesitation either. ABB has come up with a welcome and highly innovative lease-back scheme.
I recognise the requirement for competitive tendering via the Official Journal of the European Communities, but the Government should get on with it now. It is preposterous that inappropriate Treasury rules should be invoked to stymie the scheme. Nowadays, there is consensus across all the parties on the virtues of such private-public initiatives. How will the Chancellor's own new and commendable commitment to projects of this kind ever get off the ground if such antiquated Treasury thinking is allowed to prevail ? Are the rules made for men and women, or are men and women made for the rules ?
An ABB-style scheme will cost London Underground some £35 million a year. London Underground's annual capital programme is running at £450 million-plus--it ought to be more--and its revenue amounts to £1 billion a year. An extra £35 million a year is clearly manageable, against the background of that capital spend and revenue base, the Government's own total spending programme and the variations that inevitably occur each year in that
Column 1131spending total ; indeed, it is hardly measurable. It would be ludicrous to allow short-term considerations about the control of public expenditure to undermine a project of such inestimable long-term value to the people and economy of London. With proper dispatch, the new trains could be on stream by December this year. The message to the Government is simple, urgent and clear. We want the tender in the Official Journal now ; we want the leasing deal now ; and we want the new trains now.
Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton) : I support my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) and, like the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), I wish to congratulate him on bringing this subject before the House. Unlike other hon Members in the Chamber, I do not have a constituency on the Northern line. I shall speak rather more generally. I am honoured to be the chairman of the London Conservative group of Members of Parliament.
The Northern line is a disgraceful sore thumb in the overall underground railway structure of the capital city. There is no doubt that the underground service is critical to the commercial and tourist life of London. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South pointed out, in the near future, tourists from Europe will come to Waterloo via the channel tunnel route. They will come off the trains and possibly continue their journeys to some other part of London by the Northern line. What an extraordinary and undesirable contrast that will be.
To be fair to London Underground, a great part of its service is now to be commended. Management has taken a greater grip on affairs since the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report of the early 1990s. I am told that in the past year 98 per cent. of scheduled trains were running in the peak period, and 92 per cent. of lifts were in service, as were 89 per cent. of escalators. I am not sure that 89 per cent. of escalators is quite the figure that I would wish to see, but things are improving greatly.
In its report last year, the Health and Safety Executive talked of a "transformed" safety culture on the underground. That is something which we all welcome, particularly those who travel on the underground regularly. In 1992-93, the generous funding of the 1991 autumn statement allowed 60 underground stations to be refurbished, with work taking place on 40 more. The first new Central line train entered service in April 1993, and the reconstructed Angel station opened in September 1992.
That is a fairly optimistic picture, and one which my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London will be building on in his reply to the debate. However, alongside all that progress, which we welcome, there is the disgrace of the Northern line, which has been described graphically by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South and has been described for several weeks in the Evening Standard as the misery line. I commend the newspaper for that.
Many of us are taking a message to our colleagues in the Government--my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London and, through him, to our colleagues in the Treasury. We are approaching the time when we will see tourists coming in through the channel tunnel link and we must get to grips with the problems on the Northern line. How do we do it ? There is no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary is doing his best for the benefit
Column 1132of this country and the taxpayers to reduce the horrendous £50 billion deficit that confronts us. That is an essential task. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South said, the ABB company from the north midlands has put a business proposition to the Government. It has proposed a lease arrangement, with full service back-up, for Northern line trains that would ensure a good service for users of the line and, indeed, for my constituents who travel by British Rail to Waterloo and take the Northern line to other parts of London, and about whom I, as a London constituency Member, am concerned.
My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary is worried about the public sector borrowing deficit constantly creeping up. I do not dispute that whatever solution is found must be consistent with the sound management of the economy, but I call on him to put the brains of the Treasury to work to find a solution to the problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South mentioned the involvement of the private sector in the funding of British Rail trains. Why cannot the same solution be adopted for the underground ? As we approach 11.40 pm, time is running out. The Treasury and my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary must get to grips with the problem for the benefit not only of Londoners but of the commercial life of our capital city and of this country as a whole.
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : I am here to complete the set. There are about 30 stations on the Northern line, which diverts into two branches at its northern end, loops around the middle of London and as one line almost goes off the edge of the planet
The line is represented by a number of hon. Members, three of whom have spoken and many of whom represent the Conservative or Labour parties. By definition, not many London Liberal Democrat Members represent the Northern line : I encapsulate the lot of them, which is a modest honour.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) for initiating the debate. He has raised the profile of the issue, backed by others who have signed on. He has had the support of the Evening Standard , which has adopted the line as its campaigning issue. It is all to the good if the only daily London newspaper can take on a key public sector infrastructure project and be willing to rehearse the argument.
I wish to make three brief points. Some work has been done in recent years not on stock or vehicles but on the structure as a result of pressure within tight confines. I represent three stations--London Bridge, Borough and Elephant and Castle. Elephant and Castle was dire and Borough, which was dire, has been refurbished. London Bridge is in the process of wholesale revamping as a result of the work done after the King's Cross fire to make it safe and because it will intersect with the Jubilee line.
Access and the entrance to London Bridge have been improved significantly, and they needed to be. It was bad enough having a grim set of rolling stock that might have appeared, full of people, or that might not have appeared at
Column 1133all, but it was even grimmer if one was on a terrible platform that was reached by a lift that often did not work or by stairs that were very deep.
In addition, the entrance to London Bridge looked like a building site--it still does to a certain extent. There is a great wall which is just awaiting a wonderful mural, an idea which I hope to persuade London Transport to accept. At the moment, however, the wall is raw, unfinished concrete. For a long time, one had the impression of passing through a building site and into a half-finished building. That is not inviting and it certainly is not good public relations ; nor does it encourage people to use the station or to feel comfortable and safe on it.
Progress has been made, but, irrespective of rolling stock, it would be good if there were an early programme to finish the small amount of remaining work, which would not be costly, but would make the difference between stations being nearly finished--nearly adequate--and adequate.
Secondly, I make the fairly obvious point that has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). The Jubilee line extension will be very welcome--I, for one, will be able to step out of this building and arrive home in four stops. It will clearly be a well- used line, and the Minister for Transport in London knows that we have battled long and hard, especially about getting two stations in Southwark that we were not necessarily going to get. The Jubilee line extension and crossrail will be very useful, but, while we are thinking about or proceeding with new lines, we should not forget that the Northern line is a strategic through line, and therefore needs a continuing commitment of public investment.
It is no good if, having inherited the Northern line as part of London Underground, we do not sustain regular investment to upgrade the line continuously. We need to upgrade the system of information to inform passengers when trains are due, how far away they are and so on to make it a line that people want to use. We do not have a straightforward underground system like that of some capital cities, but the Northern line is of central importance ; it carries huge numbers of people. We have already debated how much the Government, and London Regional Transport, invest in the underground compared with what the Greater London council invested. Whatever is or has been invested, we need to catch up, because it has not been enough to keep pace with demand or need.
My third point was reflected in the substantive part of the speech of the hon. Member for Hendon, South and in those of the hon. Members for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey) and for Streatham (Mr. Hill). What deal can be done this year, can it be achieved and is it desirable ? The Minister has been kind enough to listen to representations, so he knows that there is very little dogma or prejudice about this issue in any of the parties. No one is saying that there is a categorical reason why there cannot be some sort of leasing agreement. As we understand it, the reality is that the problem is fitting common sense into the process of government ; it is about making sure that what the Department of Transport and we who represent the users of the Northern line think could be a perfectly viable system can be processed quickly without running into any buffers, or Treasury rules.
Column 1134The Minister has heard this before, but it bears repeating : it is generally accepted that common sense dictates two things. We, of course, have to go through the process of ascertaining who might be the best tenderer for the deal. I accept that, but, if we bear in mind timetables and the date by which things need to be done, we must ensure that by the end of the year--comments were made about Christmas presents--the necessary commitment is made and, if necessary, Treasury rules can be modified to allow for flexibility of financial arrangements. The deadline must be the end of the year because it would allow the matter to be taken on board in the Government's public expenditure statement in the unified Budget in the autumn. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), on behalf of the Labour party, and others have long argued that we are prisoners of old accounting procedures in public and private sector financial partnerships. Such procedures are a barrier, not an advantage.
I hope that the Minister understands that he will have no opposition from any part of the House. He will have the support of professionals in the transport industry and of politicians on all sides for any necessary effort to get the Treasury to be much more flexible than, traditionally, it has been. We understand why public sector controls have been put in place, but, rather than constituting an advantage, they may be standing in the way of a partnership and preventing money from being brought into the system.
I hope that the Minister will be able to leave the debate having told us of his commitment--a commitment that I do not doubt--and with his hand strengthened so that, with our assistance, he can go to the Treasury and get a deal that moves quickly. I hope that, having grasped the nettle this year, we shall be able to come up with a solution. We believe that it is possible. It is a matter of political will. There would be no huge additional financial cost. We are not asking for billions of pounds ; we are asking that we be provided with a system which works, and that the Treasury be accommodating. 11.45 pm