Previous Section Home Page

Column 1053

There is, however, something that we can do in this House. The Labour education spokesman--or perhaps today the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) on her behalf--can join me, as her predecessor did, in condemning this discrimination against young people. That is not to say that we cannot debate education policy in this House : that is only right and proper. We can debate CTCs, grant-maintained schools and so on, but the place to debate them is on the political field, not on the football field. The sooner that message is rammed home among the people blocking this sort of sporting activity in Cleveland, the better for everyone.

The strangest thing of all is that the chairman of Cleveland county local education authority committee, Councillor Legg, claims that he was not aware of the system of apartheid or that games could not be played by LEA schools against Macmillan CTC. He did say, however, that it was understandable that a team should not play another team, even though they both belonged to the same association, simply because of the colour of a school tie.

It is even more ironic that Cleveland county council's headed paper states that Cleveland county council is an equal opportunities employer. There are equal opportunities policies coming out of their ears, but what about equal opportunities for children who want to play football ? Those children are not at a private school, but at a state school. Their parents are not council tax payers in a distant part of the country ; they are council tax payers in Cleveland and they deserve equality. Cleveland county council should be ashamed of itself for daring to endorse that discrimination and prejudice against Macmillan city technology college.

We also need to bear in mind the legality of one school refusing to play football with another, not on the ground that it is not affiliated to a football association such as the Middlesborough Schools Football Association or the English Football Association but simply because it is a CTC. If one English FA-affiliated school refuses to play another, surely that casts doubt on the relevance of that association. If it cannot ensure free competition and fair play between its members, what is the point of having it ? What can the football associations do about it ?

There are some clear challenges here. The first is to Cleveland county council--the equal opportunities employer--to practise a bit of equal opportunity in relation to Macmillan city technology college. The second challenge is to the Labour party to confirm that it still condemns such discrimination on the sports field. Labour Members may, if they wish, continue to argue and debate the policy in this place, but they should condemn using children as political pawns. There is a challenge to the English Schools Football Association. What can it do if one member refuses to take part in sport with another ? Surely that raises a question which needs to be answered. Above all, our thoughts should go out not just to the pupils and teachers of Macmillan city technology college who want to play sport and who are not prejudiced against other schools ; they should also go out to the children at schools in my constituency and others in Cleveland county council who want to play football irrespective of people's background, the colour of their skin or the colour of their

Column 1054

tie. Those children want to play sport because sport is a good thing. It should not matter where people are from, what their background is or where they go to school. Democracy should be found on the sports fields of England.

5.52 pm

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie) : That was one of the least convincing speeches I have ever heard from a party synonymous with selection, protection and isolation. I wonder just how many private schools play football with local schools. I spent my youth travelling around the wilds of Lincolnshire looking for other grammar schools to play against because the local secondary modern schools, which were also local authority schools, were not deemed fit to play.

Mr. Bates : Will the hon. Gentleman give way ?

Mr. Worthington : No. It is traditional to mention the speech of the previous speaker.

I should like to use this valuable debate to ask the Leader of the House to find time before the Easter Adjournment to take notice of early-day motion 653, which has already attracted 187 signatures. It concerns the Government's closure after 1996 of the Commonwealth Institute. I ask the Leader of the House and the Government to reconsider.

This is exactly the wrong time to send out a message that the Commonwealth does not matter. In a world where there is too much racism and ethnic cleansing in many places, it is the wrong time for the Government to withdraw from an important Commonwealth institution--the Commonwealth Institute.

We should be building up the Commonwealth and its symbolism of multi- racialism. It is a largely democratic institution in 50 countries. One of the major divisive influences on the Commonwealth during the Thatcher years --South Africa--is changing. We hope that, after successful elections in South Africa on 27 April, the new South African Government will want to apply to join the Commonwealth, as Namibia did a few years ago.

I find it difficult to understand why so many of us who support the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association are not agitated by the Government's proposal to close the Commonwealth Institute in 1996. There has been a firm commitment and statement by the Government that they will withdraw the funding of £2.6 million--equivalent to expenditure on a secondary school--in 1996.

Closing down the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington will also close the Commonwealth Institute in Scotland and the regional centre in Bradford.

The Government expect that private funds will be forthcoming after the privatisation of the Commonwealth Institute, but Lord Armstrong, who they commissioned to carry out a review of the Commonwealth Institute, concluded :

"I can see no reason to suppose that a private sector body could be found to take on the work of the Institute as it now is and in its present building without a Government grant".

The Government are showing a lack of commitment to multiracial values. It is a pity that, after what was probably the most positive Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting for years in Cyprus last year, where the right words were said about the Commonwealth, the Government should be planning to withdraw.

Column 1055

I am not suggesting that the Commonwealth Institute is perfect. In recent years, there has been a lack of impact, but to some extent that is due to the Government, as the grant to the Commonwealth Institute has been inadequate and has been cut in real terms over the years.

The building itself is a major problem, the extent of which depends on what one reads--sometimes the Government say that it requires the expenditure of £8 million to £10 million, sometimes they say £3 million. However, there is a problem about the building, to which I shall return later.

There is also a problem about why solely the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has to fund the Commonwealth Institute. A huge amount of its work involves supporting education--in particular, the national curriculum.

There is a case for other countries to contribute to the work of the Commonwealth Institute. It is strange that there are no concrete links between the Commonwealth Institute and the Commonwealth Secretariat. Such links would seem logical, but the Government are in the driving seat. They should be looking at how the Commonwealth Institute has developed. Two of its trustees are the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Education. The Government are represented on the board of management of the Commonwealth Institute and should have made sure that such problems did not arise.

Simply to step in and point a gun at the head of the institute is wrong. It would be wrong, particularly in Africa, given the difficulties that that continent is experiencing, for the Government to send out a message of withdrawal from the ideals of the Commonwealth. Most people would agree that we need that symbol of hope, of multiracial working together, stimulating good governance, trying to achieve a peaceful world in which the 50 countries of the Commonwealth can demonstrate that they can positively work together. What is perhaps most difficult to understand about the Government's position is that the building in Kensington is a listed building. It is a building of some distinction but has been allowed to decay. It has to be restored and cannot be allowed simply to close down. Money will have to be spent by the Government to restore it ; but to what purpose ? What alternative use do the Government have in mind for the building ? In view of its location, it is difficult to see what planning permission Kensington and Chelsea council would approve. The area is probably the centre for museums in this country, and the local Conservative council would probably not allow it to be used for any purpose other than the present one. The local Conservative council recently condemned the Government for what they were doing. In his report, Lord Armstrong said :

"It seems that outright closure cannot be regarded as likely to generate any significant savings on public expenditure in the short term : perhaps even the reverse."

Instead of the Government working with the trustees and the board of management of the institute to make it a fully effective organisation, the proposal is to close it--the institute should be a beacon of light to the world--for no savings whatever.

Mr. Alfred Morris : Does my hon. Friend agree that the United Kingdom's bid to host the Commonwealth games in Manchester in 2002 makes the issue all the more sensitive ?

Column 1056

Mr. Worthington : I do. I know my right hon. Friend's interest in this matter. The Government are sending the wrong message on all kinds of dimensions, and this is one of them. It is difficult for Manchester to carry the conviction of the whole nation when the Government are pulling the plug on its bid. In effect, the Government are saying that they are not interested in the Commonwealth any more.

The Commonwealth Institute celebrated its centenary last year. It has gone through various changes during those 100 years. Every Government have said that they could afford first the Imperial Institute and then the Commonwealth Institute, but the present Government have said that it has no priority. I cannot see the financial savings, because the building has to be restored. I can see a major loss of the institute's functions occurring, but this seems an inept move politically by the Government, because primary legislation is needed to close it.

The institute cannot just be closed, because, under the terms of the trust deed from the Ilchester estate, the building and land are on a 999-year lease and can be used only for that purpose. Why are the Government seeking to do that, because I am sure that there will be significant rebellion in the House against it ? I cannot think that the legislation would have much chance of getting through the House of Lords, because there are prominent defenders of the Commonwealth and the institute there.

Before the Government get a bloody nose through attempting to close the Commonwealth Institute, they should see sense and withdraw their closure proposal and start working with the board of management of the institute in order to give an effective message of hope for the Commonwealth and this country.

6.5 pm

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham) : It will not surprise you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to know that, before we rise for the Easter recess, I believe that the House should think again about the high-speed rail link as it passes through Kent, but particularly as it passes through my constituency in the borough of Gravesham, which has been afflicted by a multiplicity of routes during the five and a half years in which the matter has been under consideration.

You will recall, Madam Deputy Speaker, the statement in January by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, when he said that he had decided to omit Pepper hill, in my constituency, and Ashford from the safeguarding of the route. At that time, he was treated with considerable derision, particularly from Opposition Members, for making those omissions to the route. He could easily have said, with great courage and strength, "I have decided. That is it. This is the route from St. Pancras to the channel tunnel." But he did not, and we may well ask why. My right hon. Friend had the courage to refuse the proposal of Union Railways to tunnel beneath the houses of residents at Pepper hill. He instructed Union Railways to engineer up alternatives, particularly the route under the A2, at my request.

The route that was announced to the House last year skirted the entire southern edge of the urban area of Gravesham--Gravesend and Northfleet--all along the A2, but suddenly and inexplicably crossed the A2 and passed beneath the houses of the Pepper hill housing estate, which is on the far corner of Northfleet. It was totally unnecessary to bring misery to the lives of the residents. It was quite

Column 1057

clear to those residents and to me that Union Railways' claim at that time--that people living above its tunnel would neither hear nor feel the trains passing beneath--was unbelievable. It does not seem credible that a tunnel with high-speed trains passing through it, at a depth at its most shallow point of only 17 ft, would not have an effect on the residents concerned. Union Railways was adamant. I called for a geological survey to be done immediately, which Union Railways would clearly need in due course with such a proposal. It took Union Railways three months to say yes. It took it a further two months to get started. That is five months gone in a six-month consultation period. That was why my right hon. Friends the Ministers quite rightly extended the consultation period in Gravesham to the end of 1993 so that the views of the residents of Gravesham, the borough council and myself could be given.

I am not a scientist. A geological survey could be produced with every manner of statistics, bar graphs and goodness knows what else, and I would not know what conclusions to draw. For that reason, I asked Gravesham borough council to retain specialists who could draw conclusions and state authoritatively, drawing on the data from the survey, to what extent, if any, the residents would feel vibration and to what extent there might be subsidence. Those consultants came up with proof that there would be vibration, subsidence and noise. We laymen might say, "Surprise, surprise," but here was scientific proof, which I conveyed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. I argued that it was entirely unreasonable to tunnel beneath those people's houses when an alternative should be investigated. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend's courage in saying, "No, I will not determine the route. Union Railways must go out and try to engineer an alternative."

Union Railways has now done that, and it has called the new route the 227. It involves the railway line continuing westward in its cutting, past Northfleet and beneath the A2, then passing into the Ebbsfleet valley slightly beyond the electricity substation. At last, Union Railways has done what seemed perfectly logical in the first place. It has presented my right hon. Friend with that option, which was revealed to my constituents only last week at an exhibition in Northfleet.

Since then, I have spoken to a number of Northfleet residents, particularly those living in Pepper hill. I was led to believe that they support the route, which would avoid tunnelling under their houses. My campaign for the route has the strong backing of the A2 rail action group--a voluntary group of local residents, led by Mrs. Celia Jones, who have put their case forcefully, democratically and steadily over many months.

I fully expect Gravesham borough council to give similar bipartisan support. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will draw the strong views of those involved to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. It is after the determination of the route that the preparations of our MEP, Ben Patterson, will come into force --that is, his efforts to establish the extent of the European Commission's support, in the form of funds for environmental protection in connection with the great transport infrastructure projects of Europe. I believe that,

Column 1058

even if the high-speed rail link is necessary for the transport infrastructure of this country and Europe, it should not be introduced at the expense of the environment of residents all along the route.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for paying close heed to the welfare of my constituents in Pepper hill. We look forward to a positive result from his decision to make an exception and hope that our MEP will succeed in harnessing the funds and the initiative of the European Commission for the support of my constituents' environmental protection.

6.12 pm

Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West) : I believe that the House should not adjourn for the Easter recess without discussing the serious abuses of human rights in the Punjab, and, in particular, the deplorable phenomenon of enforced and involuntary disappearances. The subject is especially relevant this week, because of the visit of the Indian Prime Minister.

I am sure that no hon. Member would argue for the encouragement or support of terrorism. The activities of groups around the world who try to advance their cause by means of intimidation, rape and murder are abhorrent and should be condemned. We should also acknowledge the importance of the relationship between this country and India. There is a long-standing political relationship and a developing trade relationship. We hope that those links were strengthened during the Indian Prime Minister's visit. It is also important to stress that India is a democracy--not the commonest constitutional form in that part of the world.

Even if we take all those factors into account, however, the activities of the Indian security forces in the Punjab cannot be excused. That is clearly of concern to many citizens of this country with families in the Punjab, but it goes much wider than that, especially as a result of a campaign by Amnesty International, which has drawn the problems to the attention of many other people here. The most recent Amnesty International report, published in December last year, put it very well :

"However provocative, the grave abuses committed by armed separatist groups can never justify the security forces resorting to arbitrary detentions, torture, extrajudicial executions or disappearances'."

I commend that report, and Amnesty International's continued interest in the area. Regrettably, its work has been frustrated considerably over the years by the Indian Government--who have refused access to the area--as have attempts to secure visits by other teams of independent observers, both from this country and from international sources.

Despite those frustrations, Amnesty International has managed to compile reports of torture and disappearances in the Punjab. Last year's report stresses that, each year, scores of people disappear in the Punjab from among the many thousands of political prisoners detained by the state. Some are detained under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act--TADA-- regulations. Official sources say that several thousand more are held without trial under preventative detention laws in force in the Punjab.

The report goes on to describe the manner of the arrests. Usually, no explanation of the reason for an arrest is given and arrests are often not registered at the local police station. One can imagine the concern that that causes to relatives. Victims are often abducted by police in plain

Column 1059

clothes travelling in cars without number plates. When attempts are made to follow them up, many are found to have disappeared. The report says :

"State complicity in such practices is evidenced from a clear pattern of official cover-up. This involves officials routinely ignoring numerous letters . . . Cables from relatives to government officials reporting a disappearance' . . . go unanswered. Officials even go to the extent of giving contradictory statements. In court, police persist in denying that disappeared' persons were ever arrested . . . or simply claim that the victim escaped'." The position was summed up by India Today on 15 October 1992 : "Many of the cases of killing of militants as reported to the police, and dutifully carried by the newspapers are plain disinformation . . . The police have acted beyond the pale of the law time and again, and often in the most blatantly callous fashion. The police have devised many ways of keeping the judiciary off their back. One of them is proclaiming that a militant has escaped. He can then be kept in custody, for an unlimited period to extract information by whatever means."

Let me make it clear that it is to the credit of Indian society that officials--judicial officers--will sometimes expose wrongdoing, and the press will report it. It should be stressed that India is not a totalitarian state, although it may be acting as a repressive state.

Mr. Jacques Arnold : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the residents of the Punjab require the proper maintenance of law and order, and the proper control of extortion rackets and the like ? It is even more necessary for the Indian Government to deal with their police force and army, so that corruption of this kind can be stamped out.

Mr. Spellar : I thank the hon. Gentleman. I thought that I had made clear the opposition of all hon. Members to terrorist activities, which he has just reaffirmed. I shall come to the Indian Government's failure to deal with abuses and excesses in the security forces. That, too, is an issue that unites hon. Members in all parties. It is all the more regrettable that, rather than following up abuses when they are revealed, the Indian Government threaten journalists, lawyers and others who expose those abuses. Furthermore--as the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) rightly pointed out--concern is expressed about the responsibility of the Punjab police not only for actions in Punjab but for actions elsewhere in India involving disappearances and even shootings. There is also widespread concern at the operation of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act. There is an absence of fundamental legal safeguards for detainees. Under the legislation, police can often claim that those who have disappeared have "escaped from custody." An even more worrying section refers to

"any action taken, whether by act or by speech or through any other media . . . which questions, disrupts or is intended to disrupt, whether directly or indirectly, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India ; or which is intended to bring about or supports any claim . . . for the cession of any part of India or the secession of any part of India".

That attacks not just terrorism but the right of free speech and political opinion. TADA has allowed detention for investigation for up to one year without charge.

We have seen the way in which that legislation has been used in repression of the press during the recent raid on the Aj Di Awaz newspaper and the arrest of its staff. That has been the subject of questions in the House and, I hope, of representations by Ministers to the Indian Ministers when they were here recently.

Column 1060

A case that has caused considerable concern in the House and has been raised by several hon. Members is that of Harjit Singh. He is featured prominently in Amnesty International advertisements and is related to one of my constituents. I also took an interest in his case because he worked for the electricity authority in India. In a previous incarnation, I was an official of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union.

In April 1992, Harjit Singh was standing at a bus stop waiting to go to work at the state electricity board. He was surrounded by police who began jostling him. He was then dragged away. He has "not been seen since". The police firmly denied his existence and then said that he was killed in an incident with armed militants. They refused to produce his body. His father and other relatives claim to have seen him in prison, but say that he has since been moved on. That has put enormous strain on the family and is creating enormous pressures. In many ways, he has become a symbol of many who have disappeared in the Punjab. It is fair to say that the authorities have been obstructive, to say the least.

There is a reluctance to investigate or take action against those responsible. The hon. Member for Gravesham mentioned that, and it has been of concern in not just this case but many others. It was suggested that those who had perpetrated human rights violations should have legal action taken against them, but the director general of police said that it would "demoralise" the police force. The Chief Minister said that the Punjab police would not be "screened and cleaned up", as it would hamper "anti- terrorist operations." That is not good enough. As I said at the outset, the entire Sikh community in this country is concerned, and we should be concerned, at that abuse. Whatever our views or whatever their views about the constitutional status of the Punjab, we cannot accept that breakdown of law and order. I hope that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have conveyed the concerns that have been expressed in the House to the Indian Prime Minister and his colleagues during their visit. We also hope that the pressure will continue to restore proper standards and bring peace to the troubled land of the Punjab. 6.23 pm

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : My hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) raised an important subject and I feel almost reluctant to move away from the problems of the Punjab and the weighty problems of national sovereignty to talk about a subject that is of no great moment in that respect. However, it is a subject that gets right up my nose and, I suspect, up the noses of many Londoners--the current state of London's roads.

An enormous amount of frustration is building up among Londoners as they see the chaos with which we are daily presented as we try to move painfully around the capital city. I am not necessarily a great devotee of a roads lobby, but the alternative of using public transport is not up to scratch, either. The buses are affected by all the other vehicles on the roads and, at times, the London underground system, rather like the roads, is approaching a state of near-chaos and collapse.

At times, it seems almost as if every road in London is being dug up, while every Thames bridge is being worked on. I know that that is an exaggeration, but it is the sort of

Column 1061

exaggeration from which I seem to suffer as I make my journeys on public transport or as I drive into the House each day. The impression one gets is that there is chaos all around us. There is no co-ordination and no one in charge. There is no one to get hold of and brutalise in order to expiate the enormous anger that builds up as one tries to go about one's lawful business.

It is not just the sheer frustration of sitting in a traffic jam surrounded by traffic cones, all of which seem to grin. I do not know why it is, but they seem to take on a life form of their own. In fact, we have become the world's largest exporter of traffic cones. We must be making an awful lot because I should have thought that we would be importing them, given the number that seem to infest our roads. What really gets one is that there is no warning about the traffic jam in which one suddenly finds oneself. It could perhaps have been avoided if one had been given an opportunity to re- route. One is not given that sort of chance. A road that one might have gone down in the morning has sometimes been dug up by the time one comes back in the evening. It is very frustrating.

There is little, if any, evidence of any common sense or planning being applied to those works. I accept that many of them are essential because they represent infrastructure investment. However, many seem to be, if not unnecessary, certainly carried out extremely tardily. Traffic lights are not rephased, and temporary traffic management schemes are not even considered or seem to have been devised by half-mad aliens from space. It seems that maximum inconvenience to Londoners is the objective.

I am assuming that it is not Martians who are responsible for what is going on in London.

Mr. Worthington : It is the Minister for Transport in London.

Mr. Banks : I should like to see that estimable gentleman spending a little more time concentrating on the problems of moving around London. I do not think that he is the only one responsible. I am ready to point the finger at any Tory because I blame the Tories for most things, including the state of the weather. However, I do not think that they are the only villains in this case.

Who are the villains ? Essentially it is the public

utilities--electricity, water, telecommunications companies and, at times, London Transport. The main villain seems to be the television cable companies. All those bodies have the legal right to break open the streets. Also, the work of private developers sometimes manages to spill over on to the public highway, inconveniencing those who are trying to use streets.

Those public utilities not only have a statutory right to break up the road but seem to take a perverse delight in doing it one at a time on the same stretch of road. The road is dug up, it is filled in and then someone else digs it up again. It does not make any sense and, as I have said, it causes great frustration.

The work on the roads seems to conform to the normal working pattern of the day. In other words, it starts at about 8.30 or 9 o'clock and continues until about 5.30, when everyone goes home. I do not believe that people should have to work unsocial hours, but many people are ready to work on a shift system. We should have more night-working on major road repairs and there should be

Column 1062

weekend work as well. Plenty of people are ready to do overtime, but none of the statutory undertakings seems ready to pay it. [Interruption.] I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) as he seems to be beside himself with enthusiasm to join in.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) : Has anybody asked my hon. Friend whether those road works were outside his own house at midnight ?

Mr. Banks : I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point, because obviously such works cannot be undertaken in residential areas. He will recall, however, that emergency repairs to a collapsed sewer in Parliament square were conducted at a time convenient to right hon. and hon. Members. The utilities know to get a move on when they will be inconveniencing Members of Parliament, but there is no concern for the poor perishers who live in my constituency. The utilities can dig up roads in the east end, walk away and leave them for a few weeks. When they come back, the holes will be full of litter, but that prevents it from blowing around. But if works affect Members of Parliament, they must get on with them straight away. That seems to smack of double standards.

We have all commented on the enormous profits that privatised companies are making, so there is no economic excuse for their not completing works on London's roads as quickly, efficiently and effectively as possible. They are not short of a bob or two when it comes to shelling out for extra overtime. They minimise their costs on street works and maximise the inconvenience to Londoners. I hoped that the Government would have included in legislation the recommendations of the Horne report, which was welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It was felt that the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 would have made some improvements. Far from it-- the situation in London seems to have gone from bad to worse. I know that I am getting a little aerated, but I have been waiting for this opportunity. I keep thinking, "I am going to write to my Member of Parliament about this," but then I realise that I am my Member of Parliament. So I am raising this matter not only on my behalf but on behalf of my constituents and many Londoners.

Anyone who uses a taxi only has to scratch slightly to hear the complaints of taxi drivers, who often seem to question the parentage of Ministers, especially Transport Ministers. Naturally, I always stoutly defend Conservative Ministers. Despite the welcome that it received from hon. Members, the 1991 Act has serious

defects--primarily, local authorities no longer have responsibility for carrying out street works on behalf of the utilities. The new Act gives utilities responsibility for works under the terms of a nationally agreed set of specifications.

I shall quote from the British Road Federation, which is unusual for me but it is in line with the advice that I have received from my borough council, the London Boroughs Association and the Association of London Authorities. Everyone seems to agree : only action is missing to deal with the problems. The British Road Federation says :

"The legislation has been broadly welcomed and few expected there to be an overnight transformation."

That is an understatement, but we certainly did not expect it to get worse overnight. The federation continues :

"Information about the daily activities of utilities is still very limited. This causes significant problems for local authorities if they are to achieve the inspection levels required in the regulations without incurring excessive abortive costs. The inspection fee is inadequate to fulfil the duties indicated by the

Column 1063

Act and highway authorities are experiencing a real increase in costs. There is also concern that the standards of reinstatement set may not be sufficient."

It can say that again. Good metalled roads are broken up by contractors on behalf of public utilities, only to be repaired in a slipshod fashion. Within a few days or weeks, they are reduced to potholed patchwork quilts. Such is the state of London's roads today.

The British Road Federation continues :

"The co-ordination of street works needs to be improved. The duty to co- ordinate rests with highway authorities"

local authorities. It says :

"utilities have to endeavour to co-operate but it is not a duty." I tell the Leader of the House that they do not endeavour much when it comes to informing local authorities, because it is not a duty. We have a permissive, lax system, and unless a requirement is imposed on the utilities, they will not take any notice but will laugh at us. The federation says :

"In many instances it is impractical to co-ordinate all the small scale works being undertaken. This is because the notice period for minor works is too short."

That may be so, but the delays caused by minor works certainly are not too short. The federation continues :

"Co-ordination, therefore, is only happening on major works, where there is a minimum of one month's notice. The major area of concern is the belief that the implementation of the Act is adding to local authorities expenditure."

That is what all the local authorities and associations in London and, I suspect, throughout the country, whatever their political complexion, are saying. The public utilities simply cannot be trusted. The Act is not working as we intended.

We must address the problem, which is giving rise to enormous frustration and anger not only in me but among Londoners. I ask the Leader of the House and his colleagues to initiate an urgent investigation into the impact of the legislation and to seek ways to deal with the problems that we are experiencing on London's roads. 6.35 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford) : I rise to ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House whether it would be possible to ensure that we do not break for the Easter recess until my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has made a statement on the important issue of the road building programme and on the problem facing my constituency--the proposed new motorway from the M25 to Chelmsford.

I remember sitting in the House soon after I was elected in 1987 and listening to a statement from the then Secretary of State for Transport on the White Paper "Roads for Prosperity". I thought that it did not affect my constituency or any of the surrounding constituencies in mid-Essex, but to my amazement I discovered that it recommended the construction of a new motorway from the M25 to Chelmsford.

Few people--commuters and those in industry and commerce--would dispute the need to have good road and rail communications throughout the country, especially in the southern and mid-Essex areas, offering access into the hinterland of East Anglia, to the ports at Harwich and Felixstowe and up into Norfolk and Suffolk. That is particularly true with the arrival of the single market and the opening later this year of the channel tunnel. Business, industry and commerce must be able to maximise their opportunities to flourish and to take advantage of improving economic conditions.

Column 1064

It seems to my constituents and me, however, and to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles)--and even, I suspect, to those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton)--quite criminal that a new motorway could be constructed from the M25 through the green belt and the small villages and rural areas of Essex, passing through Highwood in my constituency, on to Writtle in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree and back to the A12 south of Chelmsford at Margarreting. That is virgin, agricultural and rural green belt land.

What puzzles our constituents is that nobody ever asked for this road. We do not want it. It is unloved and unnecessary and there are other ways to improve the existing road network into East Anglia. I cannot find many people in south and mid-Essex who are in favour of the road. All the local authorities reject the need for a new motorway. Certainly, my right hon. and hon. Friends with constituencies in the area reject it.

The excellent work done by the "Stop the M12" association has highlighted the anger, disgust and antipathy of local residents towards a new road through that part of Essex. The campaign that has been waged almost ever since the proposal first became known has been successful in that it has been able to sustain itself for a long time and to continue lobbying without splitting into splinter groups and to bring it home to the Secretary of State for Transport and other Ministers at the Department that nobody wants this unloved road. Ultimately, we do not know whether the campaign has been successful because no decisions have been made or announced, but we shall continue to campaign and lobby until we hear from my right hon. Friend that the road is to be killed off and that the proposal will never see the light of day. I stress that the sooner that the announcement can be made the better, because it would remove the fears of our constituents and the potential blight of properties along the proposed route.

There is a problem as to what the route might be. Three suggestions have been pencilled or sketched in from the M25 to Chelmsford. For the past 18 months consultants have been trying to determine whether any of the three routes should be used or whether the existing A12 should be upgraded. We do not yet have the consultants' report or the results of the public inquiry to go on. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is anxious to save on public expenditure. Some months ago, I suggested to Ministers at the Department of Transport that one way of cutting public expenditure and saving waste would be to stop examining the routes and abandon the proposal altogether, but they have not done that, so we must now wait for the report and the decision of the Department of Transport. I urge my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to draw to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport the concern and desire to have an announcement, if at all humanly possible, before the Easter recess so that our constituents can have peace of mind and so that we can ensure that this hare-brained, unloved and unwanted scheme is killed off once and for all.

6.42 pm

Next Section

  Home Page