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House of Commons

Monday 21 November 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Summer Time

The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household-- reported Her Majesty's Answer to the Address, as follows:

I have received your Address praying that the Summer Time Order 1994 be made in the form of the draft laid before your House. I will comply with your request.

Double Taxation Relief

The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household-- reported Her Majesty's Answers to the Addresses, as follows:

I have received your Address praying that the Double Taxation Relief (Taxes On Estates Of Deceased Persons and Inheritances) (Switzerland) Order 1994 be made in the form of the draft laid before your House.

I will comply with your request.

I have received your Address praying that the Double Taxation Relief (Taxes On Income) Orders 1994 for Estonia, Vietnam, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Jersey, Switzerland, Kazakhstan, Mexico and the Russian Federation be made in the form of the drafts laid before your House. I will comply with your request.

Oral Answers to Questions


Railways (Rolling Stock)

1. Mr. Gunnell: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when the companies set up to supply the railway industry with rolling stock will be ready to place their first orders; and what total capital is being made available to the companies at the outset.

The Minister for Railways and Roads (Mr. John Watts): British Rail, the present owner of the three passenger rolling stock leasing companies, is assessing the business requirements for new passenger trains. After the companies enter the private sector, they will base their investment and capital funding decisions on commercial judgment.

Mr. Gunnell: I believe that it would be in order to compliment the Minister on his new position. This is the third time that I have put the first question to a new Minister; each of the other two has been promoted. [Hon Members: "Third time unlucky."] Yes--he has certainly taken over the railways at a critical juncture.

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Will the Minister speed up the orders being placed, because the railway engineering industry is dying as a result of the uncertainty about rolling stock caused by the privatisation proposals and the lack of progress with the rolling stock companies? These companies- -there are four of them in Yorkshire--need help now. Will the Minister speed up the orders, so that capital is provided to get our industry going again?

Mr. Watts: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous welcome and for his predictions about my career.

British Rail is assessing the business case for further passenger rolling stock. I expect it to reach its conclusions early next month. I will certainly do anything that I can to assist with ensuring that packages which are suitable and which fit into the private finance initiative are brought forward.

Mr. John Greenway: I, too, welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box for his first Question Time, and I thank him for the reply that he has just given to the hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Gunnell).

Is my hon. Friend aware that, unless the ABB carriage works in York has a new order for rolling stock in place by early next year, the carriage works could close with the loss of a further 750 jobs? Will he continue to do all that he can to press British Rail, which is responsible for placing those orders--with the approval of the Treasury under the private finance initiative--to order the trains that Network SouthEast customers want?

Mr. Watts: I had a meeting last week with ABB. The firm explained to me the concerns that my hon. Friend has just described to the House again. I commend his consistent support for the industry. It is, of course, for British Rail to decide whether there is a business case; it is then for Ministers to see whether a proposal can be put together which fits the criteria of the private finance initiative.

Mr. Bayley: Is the Minister aware that 850 people at the York carriage works have already been made redundant since the blight on further orders that resulted from the uncertainty over privatisation? The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) is right. Unless there is an order within the next few weeks, the York carriage works will close and we in Britain will end up having to import trains rather than building them ourselves. On 1 December, the Minister and I will be at a meeting of the York Rail Forum. Will the Minister give a commitment to bring to that meeting confirmation that British Rail has made its business case and timetables for future orders for suburban trains and for the Government's decisions thereafter? If he does not do that, it is likely to be too late.

Mr. Watts: I do not accept that there is a connection between the privatisation process and orders for rolling stock. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the age profile of rolling stock he will see why, in any event, there would be some reduction in the flow of orders at this time. It is for British Rail to decide whether there is a business case. As I said earlier, I expect British Rail to reach those decisions early next month. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that that will not be by 1 December when he and I, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), will meet the York Rail Forum.

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Integrated Transport Programmes

2. Mr. Hendry: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will consider pilot schemes to establish the feasibility of integrated transport programmes.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Dr. Brian Mawhinney): The package approach already enables local authorities to put forward package bids covering all forms of transport.

Mr. Hendry: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his well-earned promotion and welcome him to the Dispatch Box. I also welcome the initiative already taken by his Department to take heavy freight off the roads and put it on the railways. Is he aware that there is considerable concern in my constituency about the volume of traffic on the A6? Would he consider using the A6 corridor as a pilot for an integrated programme for improvement of the road structure and for traffic calming measures, encouraging the use of public transport?

Dr. Mawhinney: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind and generous words. I am aware of the concern that he has expressed, not least because, as a conscientious constituency Member, he has brought it to our attention on a number of occasions. I should like to study his suggestion carefully, and if he would like to speak to the Minister for Railways and Roads, I am sure that he would be happy to have such discussions.

Mr. Wigley: I also congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment. Does he accept that if the Government are serious about reducing the environmental impact of traffic and wish to move passenger and freight traffic from road to rail, a prerequisite is an improvement in the infrastructure of the railways and co-ordination of transport methods, such as park and ride, traffic calming and the reopening of some lines? Are the Government committed to such a course of action?

Dr. Mawhinney: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous remarks. He mentions a number of matters, all of which we are pursuing. I think that he is premature in suggesting that the existing railway infrastructure could not take a good deal more traffic before serious additional investment in infrastructure would be required. All those issues are actively on the current agenda.

Sir Anthony Durant: I should like to add my congratulations to those that have been offered to my right hon. Friend on his appointment to his new post. Does he agree that integrated transport needs good consultation and good information, and that the proposal to close the M4 immediately after Christmas for four days has caused major concern throughout the affected area? I am delighted that the Under-Secretary and the Minister of State took action and that the closure has been postponed. Who authorised the closure of that road and were the local authorities consulted?

Dr. Mawhinney: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I could not agree with him more about the importance of good consultation. The matter that he mentions has only recently been brought to my attention.

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I have already asked that it be fully investigated and I assure my hon. Friend that no such proposal will be implemented after Christmas.

Mr. Meacher: Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that the structure proposed by the Government, which is based on privatisation, deregulation and fragmentation, makes it impossible to achieve a genuinely integrated transport policy? Does he appreciate that bus deregulation and rail privatisation destroyed interchange and network benefits, and that Britain is now the only country in the European Union without a rail development programme? When will he accept that slashing the road building programme in the coming Budget is no substitute for increased investment in new and better public transport systems, especially for the third of all households which do not own a car?

Dr. Mawhinney: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities. I look forward to debating transport matters with him across the Floor of the House, especially if he continues to pursue the sort of line that he took today. It was not so long ago that, during a transport debate, he called for a moratorium on road building. He is now trying to generate space so that he can change to being pro-road building if, as he suspects but cannot prove--I have no comment to make--the Budget turns out the way that some newspaper speculators think that it will.

When the hon. Gentleman defines his version of an integrated transport policy, I shall be happy to respond to him in detail. He needs to understand that sloganising from the Dispatch Box is no substitute for thought.

Mr. Garnier: Will my right hon. Friend take the time to travel a little further down the A6 corridor, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Hendry), and consider the case of Kibworth, a village in my constituency which lies on that road? It is sorely in need of a new railway station so that commuters can go into Leicester by train rather than clogging up the A6. Will he encourage the Liberal-Labour- dominated county council to reopen the station?

Dr. Mawhinney: I am not sure what judgment my predecessor made, but I am sure that the House will understand that I have no plans to memorise every road or rail project in the country, however large or small, simply so that I can respond instantaneously to any comment in the House. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend made a good point and I shall consider it in the spirit in which he raised it. I note again the ambivalence of opposition parties in power in local authorities towards doing what their spokesmen in the House keep talking about.

Channel Tunnel Rail Link

3. Mr. Mackinlay: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he decided to establish the channel tunnel rail link international station at Ebbsfleet; and what account was taken of its location's impact on the Dartford-Thurrock river crossing on the M25.

Dr. Mawhinney: I announced the Government's decision on 31 August. The assessment of each of the intermediate station options was based on studies

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undertaken by Union Railways and its consultants. They have advised that the impact of an Ebbsfleet station on the Dartford-Thurrock river crossing would be minimal.

Mr. Mackinlay: Is the right hon. Gentleman telling the House that the representations that his Department has received from Lord Moore of Lower Marsh and the right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) had no impact on the decision to locate the international station at Ebbsfleet? Will he explain how that perverse decision to site the station south of the river can be reconciled with the need to minimise traffic on the M25? Does not logic dictate that the station should be sited north of the River Thames?

Dr. Mawhinney: As I have just told the House, work on determining the viability of Ebbsfleet was carried out by Union Railways and its consultants. The Department of the Environment did the regeneration benefits study. The economics, the railways operation, the regeneration benefits and the substantial private finance on offer all made Ebbsfleet a clear choice.

Mr. Dunn: Will my right hon. Friend take it from me that the decision to site the intermediate international station at Ebbsfleet was not perverse, but entirely right and proper on economic, environmental, transport and job creation grounds? It is supported by the people of north- west Kent and the constituency that I represent.

Dr. Mawhinney: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As is so often the case, he has it precisely right.

Mr. Tyler: In deciding whether the infrastructure for the channel tunnel meets the highest possible standards for public safety, what steps has the right hon. Gentleman in mind to ensure that that involves the whole planning of the network? Is he aware that the recent emergency evacuation programme in the tunnel proved to be unsatisfactory? Can he assure the House that the highest possible standards of public safety will be secured in the infrastructure and in the tunnel itself?

Dr. Mawhinney: Of course I can give the House that assurance. I am surprised at the hon. Gentleman raising false worries and anxiety. Certificates for the use of the tunnel would not have been given if safety standards had been inadequate.

Mr. Jacques Arnold: My right hon. Friend knows that Ebbsfleet is an ideal location for the whole south-east, being adjacent to the M25, and that the new station will have a major impact on thousands of new jobs in the immediate area and on good commuting to London. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the kind of mudslinging that we heard today can only damage those prospects?

Dr. Mawhinney: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and he is right to stress the regeneration as well as the transport benefits that will flow from the decision. Labour must make up its mind whether it is in favour of an historic engineering feat, with all the benefits that it can bring to this country, or against it. It cannot behave like the Liberals and sit on the fence.

Mr. Tony Banks: May I welcome the Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box, and say what a thoughtful, wise and compassionate man I know him to be. Can he tell the House where is Ebbsfleet? Most people do not know, and it does not appear on many maps. Steve Bell described

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it in The Guardian as "Fartyswamp". Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to meet people from Stratford--which has an unarguable case, on regeneration, economic and social grounds, for an intermediate station--and tell them why he chose "Fartyswamp" instead of Stratford?

Dr. Mawhinney: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his first remarks, including those that came from the heart. He will be pleased to know that a day or two ago, I agreed to meet representatives of the Stratford promotional group, and a date will be fixed. In view of the comments that the hon. Gentleman persists in making to the Evening Standard , I remind him that

"As part of the tender process for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link as a whole the four consortia will be required to enter bids on the basis of no station at Stratford, a Stratford international and domestic station, and an international only station at Stratford." I hope that the hon. Gentleman, for the sake of his constituents, will stop creating the impression that Stratford is off the map. Incidentally, I was quoting from a press release that I issued on 31 August.

Colchester-London Line

4. Mr. Jenkin: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what recent investment there has been on the line between Colchester and London and on rolling stock for that line.

Mr. Watts: The line between Colchester and London is currently undergoing a programme of resignalling and of track and station improvements which is due for completion in 1997. New class 321 rolling stock was introduced on the line in 1990.

Mr. Jenkin: Let me tell my hon. Friend how much his announcement will be welcomed, given that again this morning commuters were subjected to completely unacceptable delays due to a train failure between Whitham and Hatfield Peverel. Can he give a reassurance that performance on the line is improving? Is it not the case that when Railtrack is privatised, private investment can be attracted to improve the line's infrastructure?

Mr. Watts: Investment in the line is designed in part to improve reliability. In 1992, the charter punctuality standard for Great Eastern was 86 per cent., and that was raised to 88 per cent. for the current year. The average for the past year was 89.7 per cent.

Heathrow (Night Flights)

6. Mr. Jessel: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he last discussed the number of night flights at Heathrow with the chairman of the British Airports Authority.

The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steven Norris): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State meets Sir John Egan, chief executive of BAA plc, from time to time to discuss matters of mutual interest. BAA plc and other interested parties were given the opportunity to comment formally on night restrictions during the public consultation undertaken between November 1993 and February 1994.

Mr. Jessel: As Heathrow Members today week are to meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to discuss aircraft noise at Heathrow, will he remember that we and our constituents want a total ban on all night flights, and

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that the British Airports Authority itself says that night flights are not of crucial importance to it, which is hardly surprising as only one flight in 80 is a night flight, and night flights create noise, disturbance and nuisance out of all proportion to their numbers?

Mr. Norris: I have never been in any doubt as to my hon. Friend's views on that matter, and he reiterated them today. We have always sought a sensible balance between the interests of the airline industry, which uses Heathrow--our premier airport and a vital link in commercial terms--and the interests of those who live around the airport and who, of course, want to have a decent night's sleep. That is a perfectly reasonable balance and we shall continue to press it and see that it is maintained.

Rail Freight

7. Mr. Hain: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what percentage of freight traffic goes on the railways in (a) the United Kingdom and (b) the European Union.

Dr. Mawhinney: The United Kingdom percentage figure of tonnage handled in 1992 was 7 per cent. as compared with a European Union average of 6 per cent.

Mr. Hain: The fact is, as the Secretary of State will surely agree, that the proportion of traffic carried on roads has increased persistently since the Government came to power in 1979. Does not that abysmal picture show that the Government have failed to invest sufficiently in our railway system, which has turned it from the envy of Europe to the joke of Europe and ensured that our roads increasingly resemble mobile car parks? What action will he take to reverse that trend and to invest in our public transport system?

Dr. Mawhinney: I would not have expected anything else from the hon. Gentleman. The fact is that we have made huge investments in the railways in the past 15 years. The decrease in the use of railways for freight started in the 1920s. We are going to privatise the arrangement precisely so as to make it more sensitive to the customer and thus to reverse that trend. The hon. Gentleman is against that process. He does not appear to be aware that, over the past 15 years or so, we have put some £100 million of grants into shifting 3 million lorry journeys a year from road to rail. The biggest single grant went to a company in his constituency. I am sorry that he did not bother to mention that.

Mr. Waterson: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the height of hypocrisy for Labour Members to raise that issue, when they supported a series of damaging strikes by the signal workers, which have been a major setback to the cause of switching freight from road to rail?

Dr. Mawhinney: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It will take British Rail, and perhaps the privatised companies that will succeed it, some time to reverse the damage that was done with the support of the Labour party.

Mr. Meacher: Is not it a serious criticism of the right hon. Gentleman's transport policy that, in this country, three times more freight per tonne kilometre, especially long-distance freight, goes by road, compared with either France or Germany? Is not that because there has been

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sustained investment in rail freight services in those countries, plus greater controls over lorry traffic, especially a ban on most big lorries using motorways at weekends? What action does the Secretary of State propose to take to double rail freight over long distances of more than 200 km, which would reduce the use of roads by heavy goods vehicles by nearly half?

Dr. Mawhinney: Both the hon. Gentleman and I have been going along a learning curve since we were appointed to our posts. He has further to go than me, because he does not appear to understand that the figures for France and Germany include through traffic. For example, a train now goes every day from this country to Italy. It travels through France and that counts in the French statistics. The hon. Gentleman should also be aware that a fundamental of railway freight finance relates to distance travelled, and that therefore, by definition, as an island we have more difficulties in meetings those judgments. The truth is that British Rail and the Government are determined to move in that direction with all speed.

Railways (Noise)

8. Mr. Sims: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to lay before the House the draft Noise Insulation (Railways and other Guided Transport Systems) Regulations, 1993; if these will apply to intensification of use of existing lines as well as newly constructed lines; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Watts: Many of those who responded to public consultation on the draft regulations suggested that they should apply to existing lines as well as to new lines. This is one of the issues that we are considering, and a decision will be announced as soon as possible.

Mr. Sims: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware of the genuine concern felt by many residents of the London borough of Bromley who live close to railway lines--which was demonstrated by two recent, well- attended public meetings--about the noise generated by the channel tunnel traffic which is now going through the borough and which is likely to increase and continue night and day throughout the next decade?

May I plead with my hon. Friend seriously to consider allowing the regulations that I mentioned to apply to intensification of use on existing routes? Alternatively, does he accept that opening the channel tunnel has turned what were, in effect, suburban railway lines into intercontinental routes--into what are, to all intents and purposes, new lines?

Mr. Watts: As I said, that is one of the questions that we are considering very carefully, and I am taking a close personal interest in it.

My hon. Friend will be aware that two miles of noise barriers have been erected in Kent--in the borough of Bromley, in fact--under joint arrangements between the borough and Railfreight Distribution. He will also be aware that, when electric locomotives for freight haulage are introduced early next year, there should be a signficant reduction in the level of noise generated by such traffic.

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Trust Ports

9. Mr. Booth: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport how many trust ports have been privatised; and what plans there are for further privatisation.

Mr. Norris: Five trust ports--Tees and Hartlepool, Medway, Clyde, Tilbury and Forth--have taken advantage of the Ports Act 1991 and privatised themselves. I am pleased that Dundee has recently announced its intention to privatise and I hope that other trust ports will also come forward, following the clear success of those which have already taken the step.

Mr. Booth: Does my hon. Friend agree that the removal of constraints on borrowing and the use of trust port land to which privatisation has led has enabled the trust ports--mercifully--to succeed in the private sector? Does he agree that that should continue, so that the ports can not only succeed but help the process of urban regeneration which is a crucial part of the work of the heart of a city that is so often associated with trust ports and with the position of ports?

Mr. Norris: My hon. Friend has summed up the position excellently. There is no doubt that the performance of ports that have privatised themselves--compared with their previous performance under national ownership--clearly demonstrates the advantages that are available. I hope that other ports that have the opportunity to consider privatisation will look carefully at those examples.

Ms Walley: How can we possibly have an integrated transport system when we have a transport policy that is based on fragmentation and privatisation? Why does the Minister not tell us that it is the policy of a bankrupt Government? He could easily change the Treasury rules; then there would be no need for trust ports even to adopt that course. Will he tell the House that he will now remove the compulsory privatisation clause that is causing so much concern to people in the towns of Lerwick and Dover, and elsewhere--

Mr. Mackinlay: And Belfast.

Ms Walley: Yes, indeed. People in those towns are afraid of the compulsory privatisation that is just a sign of the Government's bankruptcy.

In view of the current concern in the trust port of Lerwick, where it is rumoured that more than 200 people from Bulgaria are about to arrive as mercenaries to take over from existing crews, will the Minister now discuss with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office ways of ensuring that the Bulgarians on the ships are properly protected?

Mr. Norris: I hope that I can remember all that. The first part comprised the hon. Lady's definition of an integrated transport policy--in other words, any policy other than that being pursued by the Government of the day. It is a meaningless phrase that the hon. Lady trots out from time to time without the slightest indication that she has the vaguest idea what it means.

It is absolutely clear that huge advantages have been delivered by the ports that have privatised themselves--and, moreover, have done so voluntarily. They were

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delighted to do so, and it has been a hugely successful exercise. [Interruption.] I am glad that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) agrees.

If the hon. Lady wishes to bring the issue of Lerwick to the Department's attention, I am sure that my noble Friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping will be happy to consider whatever representations she wants to make.

Mr. John Marshall: Does my hon. Friend accept that, whenever a privatisation takes place, it is opposed by the then Opposition, that five years later it is accepted and that 10 years later they say that they will not reverse it? Will not the same happen in 10 years time with the official Opposition in relation to trust ports?

Mr. Norris: It is clear to me that what my hon. Friend says is right. All of this is just a knee-jerk, incredibly predictable reaction and, of course, a smokescreen for an absolute dearth of policy and for the huge gains that have been made by the privatised ports.

Severn Bridge

10. Mr. Jon Owen Jones: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Wales about the future of tolling on the Severn bridge; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Watts: My Department and the Welsh Office discuss a variety of issues, including the Severn bridge.

Mr. Jones: After that inadequate answer, may I ask the Minister what the Secretary of State for Wales has had to say about this issue? He represents his region. Business men in that region are incensed that the south Wales economy should be picked to pay the toll when other parts of the country do not pay a toll. If there is an argument for paying a toll on the Severn bridge, why is there not the same argument for paying tolls on, say, the M25?

Mr. Watts: The hon. Gentleman might find that there are tolls on the M25 at the Dartford crossings. The tolls are there for the same reasons: to finance the construction of the relevant bridges.

Mr. Nigel Evans: Does my hon. Friend agree that many of those businesses in Wales will welcome the introduction of a second Severn crossing that will give a greater boost to the Welsh economy?

Mr. Watts: My hon. Friend is right. What is important to the Welsh economy is that there should be free passage of traffic across the Severn. [Hon. Members:-- "Free?"] Free, but not toll free. I was speaking in terms of flowing freely.

Passenger Ferries

11. Dr. Godman: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what proposals he has to modify the regulations governing the safety of the passengers and crews of United Kingdom-registered passenger ferry vessels.

Mr. Norris: The regulations governing the safety of United Kingdom- registered ferries have been modified

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recently so that an increasing standard of survivability will apply. These regulations and others will, of course, be examined urgently if the need arises.

Dr. Godman: Speaking as a former shipwright, I am not so sure that those seemingly cumbersome rural vessels should be allowed to be put to sea in anything heavier than a force 6 wind. If the Government are so heavily committed to the safety of both crews and passengers, why will the Marine Safety Agency and the coastguard service suffer drastic cuts? Will the Minister give the House an assurance that the safety of crews and passengers will not be sacrificed for economic reasons?

Mr. Norris: The Government do not believe that ro-ro ferries are inherently unstable, provided that they are properly operated and maintained. The hon. Gentleman knows that no country in the world exercises more vigilant standards of inspection and supervision than the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman sought an assurance on the issue of safety standards and I am happy to give him that assurance and to underline our clear commitment, first, to seeking proper rationalisation and efficiency from all the agencies of Government, which is entirely proper, but, secondly, to do so with a clear commitment to maintaining safety standards.


12. Mr. Miller: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what action the Government intend to take to meet the concerns of the Royal Commission on environmental pollution over predicted levels of car dependency.

Dr. Mawhinney: The Government have welcomed the Royal Commission's report and are studying carefully all the recommendations, including their potential benefits and costs.

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