|Previous Section||Home Page|
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd) : I am not worried
Mr. Clarke : The Minister should wait for the various reports to be published.
In the absence of accountability, there is clear evidence of projects that are environmentally undesirable or even anti-social. As my hon. Friend so rightly said, there is evidence of the displacement of indigenous populations. If our development policy is about anything, it is about recognising the needs of individual communities wherever they live and their right to have a say in the kind of community in which they live. I am sure that the Minister will not disagree with that view.
My hon. Friend and the various reports available to the House show that structural adjustment programmes, far from improving poverty, actually deepen it.
Last week, I and the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) were privileged to visit Uganda, sponsored by Oxfam. Our visit was part of the all-party caucus on Africa. We saw that poverty is deepening in Uganda, but, in spite of its difficult recent history, it is seeking to respond to the demands of the World bank and the IMF. I admit that I would find it difficult to agree with some of the conditions being set, were I an elected Member of Parliament in Uganda and should such a Parliament exist. Uganda finds that the spirit of its approach is hardly being met by the World bank or the IMF.
The case for accountability has been well made. It has been said that there was a 150 per cent. increase in the failure rate of World bank projects since 1981. I do not know whether the figure is correct, but there have undoubtedly been some failures. I am not saying that all World bank projects have ended dismally, but such matters should be openly debated. Had there been an open debate on, for example, the Naramada project in India, I think my hon. Friend would agree that we should not have had to hear the well-informed comment that it was "flawed, that resettlement and rehabilitation of all those displaced . . . is not possible under prevailing circumstances and that environmental impacts . . . have not been properly considered or properly addressed".
Column 1208That is a profound comment and I hope that the bank will be modest enough to accept that it is not even in the bank's interests--although it is more important to consider those of the millions of people whom it seeks to serve--that such a situation should prevail where there is not the slightest attempt to justify pluralism or a democratic input into the discussion of projects that are crucial to specific communities.
As my hon. Friend said, local people are entitled to much more information than the World bank is willing to provide. He gave a most interesting account of how he, as an elected Member of Parliament, has tried to obtain information but finds it easier to telephone Washington than to place a question in the Table Office. That cannot be right, and he is 100 per cent. right to draw it to the House's attention and suggest that there should be a better way of providing information on such important matters. Without access to information, the participation that the World bank itself says is important becomes meaningless.
However inadequately, we recently discussed the World bank and the 10th International Development Association replenishment which led to much criticism from non-governmental organisations including, I think, Christian Aid, not least because £620 million, it must be conceded, is a sizeable amount. Again, we need more open, crisp and well-informed debate, based on all the information that is available to the bank and all that is in the public domain.
My hon. Friend acknowledged that the bank is undertaking poverty assessments, but they hardly go far enough. We need to be assured that the bank will act on the information provided, will genuinely consult and take on board the views of those who, like the people we met in Uganda, are involved daily in trying to solve some very serious problems.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition made a very important speech on these matters in Geneva just a few weeks ago, showing that although my hon. Friend the Member for Itchen has been able only to obtain a debate in the middle of the night, many people share his interest in this important subject. My right hon. and learned Friend said :
"It would be sensible to establish a clear line of accountability for the World bank and the IMF."
That is certainly the undiluted position of the Labour party. Surely after 50 years there is a case for such accountability and for a review.
It is becoming clear that the House does not have enough time for debates of this kind. I do not know whether the Minister agrees, but it seems to me evident that the other place gives much more time to these matters. My hon. Friend will probably agree that in view of the huge importance of the issues, this is a matter for very considerable regret. Perhaps, as my hon. Friend suggested, the only scrutiny of the World bank, the IMF, IDA, and similar bodies is undertaken on their own initiative through, say, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs or some Committee dealing with statutory instruments. That is hardly enough. My hon. Friend made the compelling point--I hope that the Minister will find time to address himself to the specific issue--that even the Government seem to have very little influence over the executive director and his role in all this. I realise that we have lots of debates about quangos--hon. Members on both sides of
Column 1209the House have views on these matters--but the role of such a person is crucial and the need for accountability well established. As my hon. Friend said, the World bank is very reluctant to reveal documents and information. That is a matter for very considerable regret. It would certainly be churlish not to welcome the appeals commission and the new information disclosure procedure, but it hardly goes far enough in terms of the matters that hon. Members, especially those as well informed as my hon. Friend, would like to debate. The expressions "commercial confidentiality" and "politically sensitive" can be abused. Indeed, there is evidence that they are being abused. We want to see more openness. The absence of openness has led to some of the problems that we face.
I join my hon. Friend in saying that the House of Commons is entitled to know what is going on in these international banking organisation to which, as shareholders, we have a contribution to make. We are entitled to know what pressure the ODA has exerted on the World bank genuinely to help the poorest people in the poorest countries. As my hon. Friend has said, we are entitled to know how Her Majesty's Government's representative on the board votes. We are entitled to know whether the Government consider that taxpayers' money is being spent really effectively and that we are securing value for money. We are entitled to ask what efforts are being made to involve the non-governmental organisations which, as I have said, are very interested in this debate. They told me so throughout yesterday and during the week. We are entitled to know whether communities at every level have an opportunity to be involved, not just at the design stage of projects but at every stage in their development right through to implementation. Those are reasonable questions, which would inevitably arise if such affairs were given the kind of scrutiny that rightly applies to other Departments of Government, national and international.
My hon. Friend concluded by asking for an annual report to Parliament. In that request, he was absolutely right. We are entitled to know about investment, development and the environmental and social consequences of World bank and IMF decisions. If my hon. Friend's debate, and his excellent initiative in drawing such matters to the attention of the House, means that at least the Government are invited to focus on those important, democratic and compelling issues, my hon. Friend can again congratulate himself on the excellent service that he has done in connection with those crucial issues. 4.49 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd) : I am sure that it is appropriate for me to congratulate the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) on his contribution. The subject of the debate is certainly one in which he has made himself a considerable expert. He may not appreciate the fact until I tell him, but he has in great measure been responsible for my understanding of the subject--I do not claim that it is as great as his-- not because he has been my tutor, but because he has tabled many parliamentary questions that I have had to answer, and the answers have briefing attached to them that I have to try to understand.
Column 1210On 8 February last year, the hon. Gentleman tabled a question, and I suggested in my answer that he initiate a debate on the subject in the House. That has taken him only a year ; perhaps in some measure the debate tonight is taking place because of that answer. This year is the 50th anniversary of the World bank, so it is appropriate that we should now review its affairs. Even if the whole of our nation is not listening to the debate at this moment, I know that what the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) have said will be carefully scrutinised, and I hope that it will have some effect in the direction of which they spoke. Before I start the main part of my speech, I must alert the hon. Member for Itchen that the main tenor of my remarks will be to pick up a theme that the hon. Member for Monklands, West emphasised. He welcomed a public confession that he had read on page 8 of a report that he had brought to the House. I shall tell the House that we should recognise that there has been an improvement in
self-examination by the World bank, and a considerable improvement in the conduct of its affairs.
The World bank is the largest single source of multilateral development assistance for developing countries. In recent years, it has begun to assist countries in transition in the former Soviet Union and in central and eastern Europe. As hon. Members have pointed out, a £620 million contribution is a great deal of money. That alone is certainly a good reason why we should debate the subject tonight. The World bank group consists of four main entities : the bank itself, the International Development Association or IDA, the International Finance Corporation or IFC and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency or MIGA. The bank is the institution which makes loans to member countries on terms related to its own cost of borrowing on international capital markets. The IDA provides the soft loans on highly concessional terms to the poorest countries, which are generally unable to service debts on the harder bank terms. The IFC promotes private sector development by investing in private sector entities in developing countries and economies in transition. The MIGA also aims to promote private sector growth by insuring foreign investors against losses that might arise from political risks.
Tonight, we are speaking principally of the development role. The World bank plays a key role in the development process. Its central objectives are poverty reduction, economic reform and sustainable development--aims which complement and are mutually supportive of the priority objectives of the British aid programme. The bank has, therefore, always received strong support from the United Kingdom. The bank has an important leadership role in policy dialogue with developing countries and in promoting economic reform measures. It has also responded swiftly to the major challenges of assisting the countries of central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in their transition to market-based economies. In the year ended June 1993, new lending reached a record of almost $24 billion and membership rose to a total of 176 countries.
I should like to say a word or two about how the structure of decision making in the World bank is organised. It operates under the authority of a board of governors and each member country is represented by a governor. My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is the governor for the United Kingdom,
Column 1211assisted by the alternate governor, my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for Overseas Development. The board of governors delegates authority on most matters to a board of executive directors which is based full time at the bank's headquarters in Washington. The board of directors is responsible for decisions on policies affecting the bank's operations and for approval of all lending proposals.
The hon. Member for Itchen has referred to the executive directors. As he said, the board consists of 22. The five members having the largest number of shares in the bank, of which the United Kingdom is one, have the right to appoint their own executive director. The rest are elected by the governors representing the other member countries. The World bank's president is chairman of the board and is responsible for the management and day-to-day operations of the bank.
I should also say something about our executive director. The United Kingdom is represented at the World bank and the International Monetary Fund by one executive director, who is a senior Treasury official appointed by the Government. He is supported by an alternate executive director for each institution and by a team of technical assistants. Something has been made by the hon. Member for Itchen of a conflict of loyalty under which this gentleman must operate--a conflict between his loyalty to the British Government and his loyalty to the institution where he works. The director and his team take instructions from, liaise closely with, and report fully to Whitehall Departments on bank policies and lending proposals. Our executive director is accountable to the Government for his actions. The Government likewise are accountable to Parliament for payments made to the bank as part of our aid programme. The hon. Member will know that my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for Overseas Development takes a close personal interest in the bank's activities and will certainly read and note the contributions that have been made tonight.
Mr. Denham : I thank the Minister for that statement. Does he agree that, in practice, one of the difficulties for those of us who want to follow our role in the bank is that it is very difficult to know when, in the consideration of a project or a structural adjustment loan, the executive director and the small staff--I believe that it is only six people in Washington--work independently, without reference to the United Kingdom Government, and when the executive director refers back here to Whitehall? Clearly, it happens in some cases and not in others. Whatever the constitutional position, I would argue that the role of the executive director is very different when he is simply acting with his Washington team and World bank staff and when he feels it necessary to seek guidance from here. Does the Minister agree that if we knew when the executive director was seeking the British Government's advice, and if we knew what advice the Government were giving him, it would be a helpful illumination of the process ?
Mr. Lennox-Boyd : When the executive director operates, he is answerable to, and under the control of, the Government, but there are occasions when he must act on his own initiative because matters are not of such moment that they must be reported to the Government. That would certainly be the case. However, the hon. Gentleman is
Column 1212entitled to table questions and we will answer them. I cannot do more than that. That is the only way in which I can give him the information that he wants.
I must say something about the instructions that we give to our director and our position on the board. I shall repeat, and perhaps clarify, what I have said before. As the hon. Gentleman would expect, under the rules of procedure, board proceedings are confidential. There is no consensus within the board to change those arrangements. Therefore, that places limits on what we can say about the position of our executive director in board discussions of individual project proposals and policies. We abide by the rules that have been set. We do not impose on ourselves a greater burden than has been agreed. If others bend the rules or do not follow them as closely as we do, we do not regard that as a reason for breaking the rules but as a reason for pressing to have the rules changed. I shall make some remarks later about the Government's policy on disclosure.
The bank's board aims to operate on the basis of consensus. Formal votes are rare. Our executive director works closely with fellow directors and management to achieve this. Decisions, once reached, are collective decisions of the board. Certain matters covered in board documents or discussions are, and must be, sensitive. The important point that all hon. Members must accept--it is a matter of reasonable logic--is that a balance has to be struck between openness and the need to preserve the integrity of the bank's decision-making processes. Within those constraints, however, we have encouraged the bank to be more open and transparent about its operations. I shall outline some of the measures that the bank has taken in that regard in a moment.
The hon. Member for Itchen referred specifically to scrutiny of bank spending. There are opportunities for scrutiny. Parliament approves our contributions to the International Development Association every three years and capital subscriptions to the bank and the International Finance Corporation. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee scrutinises the Overseas Development Administration's budget annually. There are general debates on aid. A plethora of parliamentary questions are tabled by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. In my experience, parliamentary questions are effective tools of scrutiny available to Members of Parliament. They lead civil servants and Ministers to come together and make decisions on matters of concern to hon. Members. That is my experience as a Minister. The hon. Member for Itchen raised the Oxfam criticisms of the report on the adjustment for Africa. Oxfam has criticised adjustment efforts in Africa, but it has not made clear what alternative approach it proposes. We are convinced that good economic policies are essential to lay the foundations for growth and poverty reduction. The operations evaluation department study on adjustment in Africa complements the recent bank report. The record is mixed, but strong adjustment pays off and the bank's latest report emphasises that there is a long way to go, even for good reformers. The full operations evaluation department report is confidential, but we made available to the hon. Gentleman a summary of the study that the bank published. It is wrong to suspect that summaries hide essential matters on which criticism could be made. Publishing summaries is not a business of whitewashing. It is a business of keeping confidential that which has to be kept confidential.
Mr. Tom Clarke : The Minister has been uncharacteristically unfair to Oxfam. If he reads the papers that it has made available on adjustment, and the views of the House all-party caucus on Africa, which is an effective body, he will see that positive suggestions to improve accountability have been made, not least by Oxfam, and those suggestions have been endorsed by hon. Members of all political parties, including the Minister's party.
Mr. Lennox-Boyd : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, but I must make some progress now as I have only 17 minutes left and quite a bit of ground to cover.
I want to say something about the measures that the bank has taken to be more open and transparent. Let us consider the bank's environmental performance. There has been much criticism today about the adverse impact of some of the bank's actions in that sphere. Some of those criticisms are well founded ; others are misplaced. The bank would be the first to admit that its performance on environmental issues has been mixed, but we believe that its approach has improved over time as lessons have been learnt. We are all still learning about the complex economic and social pressures and linkages that lead to environmental degradation. In many ways, the bank has been at the forefront in devising policies to take account of environmental concerns in its operations.
The bank has produced operational guidelines on environmental assessments, involuntary resettlement and protection of indigenous peoples. Those guidelines are currently being revised--not, as some critics allege, to dilute them, but to make clearer which provisions are mandatory and which elements reflect best practice. The aim is to make the operational guidelines a more effective management tool. Environmental screening of projects is routinely carried out, and environmental assessments are undertaken where necessary at an early stage in project design. The bank's guidelines require that affected groups and local non-governmental organisations be consulted. In 1992, the bank carried out a frank and self- critical review of why the success rate of bank-funded projects had been declining over the past decade. The hon. Member for Itchen referred to the Wapenhans report. It found that among the factors explaining the deterioration in performance were the difficult economic environment faced by many borrowers in the late 1980s--oil price rises, high interest rates and the debt crisis--and the worsening domestic conditions in many developing countries. But the team noted that aspects of bank performance also played a part. There was undue emphasis on new loan commitments and inadequate attention to supervision of continuing projects. That was part of the self-examination, for which we must give the bank credit.
The hon. Member for Itchen mentioned the investigation of bank projects by the Overseas Development Administration. He is right to say that the ODA should not double guess all activities undertaken by the bank.
Mr. Tom Clarke rose
Mr. Lennox-Boyd : I shall give way once more, and then I must make progress.
Mr. Tom Clarke : I am grateful to the Minister, but he will appreciate that we do not often have the opportunity to have exchanges on such matters. He was generous to the World bank, both about consultations and about taking on
Column 1214board the views expressed in them but last week, when the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale and I, together with others from Oxfam, were in Uganda we met the World bank representative. I am sorry to have to say this in his absence, and when he does not have the right of reply, but the representative clearly gave the impression--which all of us shared--that he regarded our meeting as a bit of a waste of time. What he did with his time for the rest of the day and the rest of the week, I do not know, but he hardly gave the impression that he regarded the views of the community--which has been devastated by AIDS and has a problem in protecting its water--as terribly important.
Mr. Lennox-Boyd : No doubt the representative will read the reports of the debate, but I cannot give way any more because in the last 12 minutes that I have left I must pursue some other matters. It is right that the ODA should not double guess all the activities undertaken by the bank. The emphasis must be on ensuring that systems and procedures are in place. Development always entails risks, so it is obvious that not all projects will succeed, but the Wapenhans report has made definite recommendations for improving project quality.
The hon. Gentleman asked me for a specific undertaking to disclose evaluations made by the ODA. I hope that I can give him some comfort because I thought that I had already given him that undertaking last November, when I said in reply to a question :
"The ODA has produced a number of evaluations which we have co-financed with the bank. Details of how reports or summaries can be obtained are set out in the ODA's catalogue of evaluation studies, a copy of which has been placed in the Library of the House."--[ Official Report , 29 November 1993 ; Vol. 233, c. 310 .] The answer to his question is yes, and I had already given him the undertaking that he sought. Now I must proceed.
After extensive discussions, the bank's board endorsed an action plan on the Wapenhans report last July to strengthen management of the bank's portfolio. That places greater emphasis on supervision and evaluation of loans, better project design, and changes in the bank staff's skills mix and incentives structure. We considered the action plan a comprehensive response to the report's finding--a positive reaction. We were impressed by the determination with which bank management followed up those issues. We also welcomed the fact that the bank publicised the findings of the task force as well as the measures being taken in response to its recommendations. We shall monitor the follow-up and implementation of that action plan closely.
We also welcome the further measures that the board adopted last year to make the bank's operations more open and transparent. In August, the bank's board of directors approved measures substantially to increase the amount of information publicly available about the bank's operations. The main features are a new project information document to provide factual information about all projects in the pipeline, the release of project appraisal reports after the board's approval of projects, the routine release of country economic reports and environmental assessments, and publication of sector policy papers and evaluation summaries. A public information centre has been set up at headquarters to process requests for information. The bank's London office is one of several regional offices
Column 1215which will distribute material and it has an on-line link to Washington for immediate access to information and to facilitate the processing of requests for information.
Those measures should help to improve understanding of the bank's role. The new policy should also encourage more dialogue and interaction between bank staff and interested outsiders, including NGOs and local groups, and thus help to strengthen the quality and effectiveness of projects that the bank finances. We certainly want that to happen and that is an undertaking which I can give. The board has already taken steps to set up an independent inspection panel, which will examine allegations of failure to adhere to bank policies under bank-funded projects. The results of all investigations will be made public and an annual report will be published detailing investigations undertaken. We hope that the panel will prove a useful addition to the existing systems of control provided through the board of directors and by management. Those measures should greatly increase the transparency of the bank's operation.
The measures that the bank management and its shareholders have introduced in the past two years are already having an impact on the way in which the bank operates. Two examples may serve to illustrate that--the bank's review of resettlement policy and the consideration currently being given to a proposed project for the construction of a dam in Nepal. I will say something about the first--the Narmada valley project, to which the hon. Member for Monklands, West referred. In response to criticisms in 1992, the management initiated a bank-wide review of all projects involving involuntary resettlement of population. We strongly supported the bank's decision to set up that review and we are pleased that it has invited contributions from informed
Column 1216NGOs and others outside the bank. We have also encouraged bank staff to share the review's findings and recommendations with the people who have contributed to the review, before the report goes to the board, which may be within the next couple of months or so. Management are considering our suggestion. In the meantime, the bank has published information outlining the purpose and scope of the review and some of its preliminary findings.
With regard to the Arun-3 dam in Nepal. The process that the bank is following in its appraisal of this project also illustrates a rather more interactive approach. The bank began appraising the project last May and has had meetings with local and international NGOs to hear their concerns about its potential environmental and social impact. It has undertaken to disseminate updated information to NGOs and other interested parties once the appraisal is completed so as to facilitate informed discussion of the options. We have encouraged the bank to ensure that there is a full dialogue on the issues before the project is submitted to the board for approval. I hope that that shows the hon. Members for Itchen and for Monklands, West that things are changing and improving in the World bank. It is as well to have comments about these matters at this stage because this is the 50th anniversary of the bank and the IMF. It is an important opportunity for shareholders to step back and to reflect on its current and future role, and how it should adapt to the challenges ahead. One of the bank's great strengths is its capacity to adapt. The action that it has taken in recent years shows that it listens and that it is prepared to be responsive to constructive criticism about its role. As a major shareholder, we will continue to support measures that will enhance the effectiveness of all its operations.
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) : I begin the debate which I have initiated on the impact on the commuters of the closure of Fenchurch Street station and Limehouse station for seven weeks this summer by apologising to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House, its servants and its officers for detaining them at this unearthly hour. I extend that apology to the Minister and to his colleague, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick), who, on a personal level, are always courteous. Nevertheless, I shall not hesitate to criticise the Government and their stewardship of our railway network as it affects east London and Essex, despite the fact that the Minister has always been courteous and helpful to me about constituency matters. The fact that Back-Benchers have to raise important issues at ridiculous hours of the day and night reflects the imbalance of the way in which we do things in this House. Before I depart from the House, my ambition is that the balance between Government business and Back-Benchers' debates will have been altered. Government business should be held in the middle of the night and Back-Benchers' initiatives should be held during the day. I have already been in the Palace for 21 hours, working on parliamentary business. It is absurd that we hold these debate so late when the Minister, like me, has a full diary for the day ahead.
Having got that point off my chest, I state clearly that I do not question the urgent need for the resignalling works on the line that goes from Fenchurch Street to Southend, via my constituency of Thurrock and the constituency of Basildon ; nor do I minimise the urgent need for Fenchurch Street station and other stations along that line to be refurbished and for the track to be renewed. Indeed, that work is long overdue, but I question whether, to complete those works, it is necessary to close Fenchurch Street and Limehouse stations for seven weeks from 22 July. Had the Government and managers of Network SouthEast been alive to the decay of the London-Tilbury -Southend and Great Eastern lines and their stations, those closures would not have been necessary. They are a direct consequence of years of neglect and indifference by the Secretary of State and his predecessors under this Administration.
My constituents will suffer enormous additional delay and inconvenience as a result of that neglect. The impact will be quite awful for the thousands of commuters who travel from East Tilbury, Tilbury, Grays and, to a lesser extent, South Ockendon stations. They would wish me to place on record their considerable irritation at the inconvenience that they face this summer. The problem is not exclusive to my constituency but will affect thousands of commuters from Essex and east London, Southend, Shoeburyness, Basildon, Pitsea, Upminster, Dagenham Dock and particularly Barking. Some 19,000 commuters a day use Barking station and there is already considerable congestion and problems for commuters interlining from that station on their way to work in London.
When Fenchurch Street and Limehouse stations close this summer, Network SouthEast intends that the bulk of commuters travelling from Essex will disembark at Barking and join the already heavily used, if not overloaded, District and Metropolitan underground lines from Barking. Commuters who normally interline with the
Column 1218docklands light railway at Limehouse station will have an additional problem to get to their place of work in the new docklands development area.
The closures will affect not only travellers to Barking but commuters living in Barking. Had my late colleague Jo Richardson still been with us, I am sure that she would have participated in this debate because of the enormous impact that the closure of Fenchurch Street station will have on the Barking and Dagenham constituents. I regret that no other hon. Members whose constituents will be affected by the closures are in the Chamber. In fairness, the right hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) is indisposed. He takes a keen interest in transport matters, having been a former Transport Secretary, and is also my chairman on the Transport Select Committee. I am sure that, had it been possible, he would have been here tonight. The inescapable fact remains, however, that there are Essex Conservative Members who should have been here tonight to speak up for their commuters, who will be greatly disadvantaged by the closures.
I have been a consistent and unashamed critic, not just of the Government and their transport policy, but of the managers of Network SouthEast, who do not respond as they should to the interests of commuters. They make cosmetic efforts to recognise those interests, but I am not satisfied that they properly champion consumers' interests in their dealings with the Government. Were they to fulfil the spirit of their duties as line managers they would join me in criticising the Government for their chronic underfunding of the lines, which in turn has led to the chaos of one of London's oldest mainline stations being closed for seven weeks in the summer. The managers make some attempt to acknowledge the interests of commuters. Just this morning, they issued commuters with a glossy brochure entitled, "LTS Newsline : Customer Newsletter". The banner headline reads :
"Station to shut for seven weeks".
The second page of the document is headed :
"LTS moves towards shadow franchise".
It goes on :
"The senior management team headed by Chris Kinchin-Smith, divisional director of LTS, has already expressed its initial willingness to mount a bid for the line, providing the terms of the franchise are acceptable."
I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that during the tortuous debates on rail privatisation, in the House and in the Select Committee, we were assured both by the Minister and by the chairman of British Rail that line managers who might be contemplating putting in a bid for a franchise should keep that interest separate from their operational role. Mr. Kinchin-Smith and his colleagues, in a document paid for by commuters through their fares, are flagging up an interest in bidding for a franchise--that clearly runs contrary to the spirit of those undertakings. I hope that the Minister will accept that, and that his Department will tick off people who are mixing up their responsibilities in this way.
Another sign that the legitimate interests of commuters are being ignored is the lack of facilities for the travelling public. The document also tells commuters that no toilets will be available for their use at Barking station, the main inter-line station, which is due to accommodate a great many more travellers this summer. That is symptomatic of the decay of the line and its understaffing by Network SouthEast and it is wholly unacceptable. It is not
Column 1219unreasonable to say that the line and its passengers must be properly looked after. It is a very bad state of affairs if they cannot provide WCs for commuters.
I move to the central issue of the debate--the closure of the Fenchurch Street main line station. Mr. Chris Kinchin-Smith says : "We know this work will cause severe disruption for many of our customers".
My word, he can say that again ; it is the understatement of the year. He then argues that the temporary closure of Fenchurch Street station is essential.
As I have said, I have no way of testing whether it is essential or unavoidable now, but it could have been avoided had there been proper funding and planning of the refurbishment and restoration of the line in previous years. The Government and the line management failed to acknowledge that, despite the fact that I and other Labour Members have been drawing attention to the problems of the misery line for a number of years.
The management's document says that the station will be closed when many passengers take their holiday. That is very kind of them, but the fact that the work will be carried out in July or August will not greatly reduce the irritation to customers. We are not a town that has a "holiday week". Thurrock does not close down and nor does Essex. In the south-east of England, in modern times, holidays straddle the summer months. It is of no great consolation to us that the work will be conducted in the summer and it is nonsense to suggest that that is any great concession to the fare- paying customers.
In their document, the managers of network SouthEast also say : "We are working closely with London Underground".
I am not sure that that is so. Dear old London Underground has been told there about the closure of Fenchurch Street and Limehouse station and has to live with it.
In the past 24 hours, I have corresponded with the senior public affairs executive of London Underground. She replied :
"The eastern section of the District Line is currently operating the optimum level of service possible and therefore additional trains can not be provided by the line"
-- that is the District line
"during the 7 week closure period.".
The management of London Underground are in no position significantly to abate the problems of commuters from Essex ; nor can they do anything to affect the impact on the existing underground customers who will also suffer through increased congestion on already overcrowded underground trains.
I also criticise the management because their glossy and expensive document does not give much time or attention to the problems that will be faced exclusively by my constituents on the Tilbury loop line. The section headed, "Your Questions Answered", contains hardly any reference to mitigating the problems for my constituents, apart from telling us that present proposals include the Tilbury line and that all stopping services will terminate at Barking with onward travel by tube. It then gives us the good news that LTS tickets will be valid on the underground.
I have been fighting a continuing battle with Network SouthEast about its penalty fares scheme and how it relates to the closure of Fenchurch Street. I support the principle of the penalty fare scheme, but the management of Network SouthEast on the
London-Tilbury-Southend line have been unable to maintain the ticket machines so that
Column 1220honest fare-paying passengers can purchase a ticket and avoid the embarrassment of having to defend their position when an inspector gets on the train. It is a wholly unsatisfactory state of affairs when, night after night on the main concourse of Fenchurch Street station, it is impossible, unless one has the exact fare, to purchase a ticket for use on that line. If Fenchurch Street station is to be refurbished, I hope that the management are able to get their act together. Apparently the machines there are supposed to be self-replenishing in change, but they do not self-replenish and the management seem incapable of arranging for people to empty them and fill them up with change.
The situation gets worse. If more people have to change at Barking on to London Underground, which is also introducing a penalty fares scheme from the beginning of this financial year, it makes it even more imperative that passengers are able to purchase a ticket or permit to travel at stations in Essex. I hope that the Minister will take that on board and ensure that the management of London Underground and Network SouthEast understand that that is a reasonable expectation and demand by the commuters in view of the penalty fares policy.
I want to ask the Minister some questions. First, what compensation will commuters who are disadvantaged by the lengthy closure of Fenchurch Street station receive ? They do not have a good service at the present time. Despite what the management say, the journeys are still erratic in terms of punctuality. Their problems will be compounded. I guess that the vast majority of commuters from Essex will have each day an additional three quarters of an hour travelling time, at least, to their place of work in London as a result of the closure. That is not fair when one bears in mind that commuters from Southend, if travelling only on the LTS line, pay £1,912 per annum for their season ticket. If they are travelling LTS and Great Eastern, the season ticket costs £2,056 per annum. In my constituency, commuters from Tilbury pay £1,564 per annum. At that price, bearing in mind the problems that they will experience this summer, they are entitled to a rebate. I hope that the Minister will consider that matter and make the appropriate recommendation to the management of Network SouthEast.
Secondly, is the Minister able to give me an assurance that when the work is complete following the closure of Fenchurch Street and Limehouse stations, there will be no further hiatus for commuters from Essex ? I ask that because I have no confidence about the frankness of the management of Network SouthEast. For example, they did not mention the possibility of this closure until it was almost unavoidable. They must have known about it a year or two ago, but they did not tell us. I have a deep suspicion that there will be further closures of stations along the LTS line in the coming months or perhaps the next two years. If I am wrong, I would welcome that correction and reassurance from the Minister.
Thirdly, after significant sums of public money have been spent on refurbishing the LTS line and Fenchurch Street station, will the station be fully used to the advantage of the Essex commuters ? Each evening, commuters wanting to get back to Essex are faced with the absurd irritation of having to look at the clock and decide whether to head for Fenchurch Street station or Liverpool Street station. About halfway through the evening, Fenchurch Street is closed and those travelling to Essex must use Liverpool Street.
Column 1221Fenchurch Street is a mainline station. It services my constituents on the Tilbury loop, and many others who want to get to towns between London and Southend. I do not think it unreasonable to expect those people to be able to board a train at Fenchurch Street throughout the evening. I hope that, following the expenditure on Fenchurch street, that problem will be remedied and a proper service will be restored.
Although I have tempered my remarks, I hope that the Minister will understand why I legitimately accuse the Government of neglecting the line. They are, to a large extent, to blame for the problems that will be experienced this summer by my constituents and by people living throughout Essex and in east London. Some of the blame must lie with the management of Network SouthEast but, putting that aside, I hope that the Minister will tell us that he will have a further meeting with the management to establish whether the work can be completed without closing the station.
I feel that, although it might be inconvenient and involve some additional cost to Network SouthEast, the work could be completed in the middle of the night and over a series of weekends. It might take a good deal longer, but the disadvantage to computers would be a good deal less. I suspect that a seven-week closure of Fenchurch Street station is the easy way out for the management, rather than being truly unavoidable. I hope that the Minister will investigate that. I also hope that the Minister will establish whether it will be possible to increase capacity on London Underground during the closure of Fenchurch Street--assuming that it goes ahead--and that he will ensure that passengers can purchase tickets from properly maintained machines, both on that line and throughout the Network SouthEast area. That is not happening now. Finally, I hope that commuters will be told about any other anticipated problems months, if not years, in advance, rather than those problems' being sprung on them with the minimum notice.
I expect the Minister to say that Network SouthEast has consulted local Members of Parliament, because that is what Network SouthEast told me today. It is true that Mr. Kinchin-Smith has invited me to meet him, and I look forward to arranging a mutually convenient date. What he has never done, however, is write to me, as a Member of Parliament, saying, "We have a problem : we are going to have to close Fenchurch Street station, which will affect your commuters." All I got was a press release, some weeks weeks ago--not even a letter. I do not protest about that discourtesy on my own behalf, but I am protesting on behalf of my constituents and other commuters from Essex. It shows the way in which the management of the line treat their customers.
I hope that we will receive some reassurance from the Minister and that, as a consequence, the enormous chaos will be avoided for commuters this summer.
The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman) : The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) was courteous in apologising for the hour of the debate. That was kind of him, but there was no need to apologise. Ministers are never inconvenienced at coming
Column 1222to the House to answer a debate at any time. The hon. Member was courteous to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the Officers of the House for keeping them up till this early hour. I should be happy to come at any hour because it is the responsibility of the Government and Ministers to answer legitimate concerns raised by Back Benchers. Those who listen to our debates on the radio must wonder why three or even four times a year we have an all-night debate. It is one of the rare opportunities for Back-Bench Members to debate for longer than the normal half-hour Adjournment debate issues of relevance to their constituencies. It is a good use of Parliament's time. It brings the Government properly to account and allows issues to be properly explored. I would rue the day that these proceedings were in any way curtailed or changed. They provide a valuable opportunity for Back-Bench Members such as the hon. Member for Thurrock to raise various issues.
The hon. Member referred to the late Jo Richardson. This is the first opportunity that I have had to pay my tribute to her. When I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of State for the Armed Forces in the Ministry of Defence, I had many occasions to talk to the late Jo Richardson because she was my Minister's pair. I always had courteous and friendly relations with her. We will long remember her contribution to the House.
The hon. Member for Thurrock referred to several of my colleagues. My right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) and my hon. Friends the Members for Basildon (Mr. Amess), for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) and for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) have all been consistent in raising concerns about the London-Tilbury and Southend line on behalf of their constituents. They have been very assiduous. The fact that they are not in the Chamber now is no reflection upon their zeal, which is shared by the hon. Member for Thurrock, in looking after the interests of their constituents.
As many hon. Members will know, the London, Tilbury and Southend line is one of the undoubted rail success stories of recent years. The hon. Member for Thurrock referred to its performance as erratic. I would have shared that view if he had been referring to two or three years ago. I do not believe that that is a fair description of the service now. I have travelled on the line on a number of occasions during the past four years and I have spent a great deal of time talking to commuters about the quality of service on the line. From those visits, one thing above all is clear--the London, Tilbury and Southend line is no longer the misery line of the late 1980s. The figures show that it is now one of the best performing commuter lines in the south-east. On average, over the past 12 months, 92 per cent. of LTS peak services have arrived at their destination within five minutes of the advertised time. Given the acknowledged poor punctuality and reliability of a just a few years ago, that represents a real turnaround.
It is important to remember that no new equipment has been available to the line over that period. The improvement is the result of the efforts of LTS management and staff and shows what can be achieved when there is a shared determination to provide a better service to passengers. I pay tribute to Mr. Kinchin-Smith, his predecessors and all British Rail staff, from the most senior to the most junior, for the tremendous improvement in the quality of service brought about over the past 12