Home Page

Column 1









Column 1

House of Commons

Monday 6 March 1995

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions

Mr. Meacher: On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: Order. Points of order come after Question Time; otherwise they take time away from hon. Members who have questions on the Order Paper.


European Rail Link

1. Mr. MacShane: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what measures he is taking to ensure that the United Kingdom north of London is connected by rail to Europe.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Dr. Brian Mawhinney): Channel tunnel freight services from north of London have been operating since last June. Last October I instructed Railtrack to ensure that the infrastructure needed for the passenger services is ready for the start of 1996.

Mr. MacShane: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that unilluminating reply. He will know that Yorkshire is to be provided with one single passenger train per day, compared with the several that flow from London. When will Yorkshire and the north of England get the same treatment as the regions of France and Germany, where a

Column 2

public service rail network is being created to plug the regions into the Euro-network? When will there be a Government policy to serve the regions, especially the north, by linking them to the rest of Europe?

Dr. Mawhinney: The hon. Gentleman will find that only in this country is there to be a non-stop service from north of the capital, or beyond the capital, through the tunnel.

Mr. Hendry: Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the announcement by Eurostar last week that it intends significantly to extend the number of British cities that will have through services directly to Paris? Will it not be magnificent to be able to go to sleep in Manchester and wake up in Paris--and, even better, to be able to go to sleep in Paris and wake up in Manchester?

Dr. Mawhinney: I am glad that my hon. Friend added that last comment. I certainly welcome the continued expansion of services through the tunnel; it is one of the great success stories. It will transform both passenger and freight services. I hope that that can be common ground across the House.

Mr. Tyler: Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to accept that confidence in the channel tunnel service is still fragile and that traffic from all parts of the United Kingdom is still dependent on that confidence being reinvigorated and assured? In the light of recent disclosures, is he prepared to add to his exchanges and correspondence with me on the issues of fire safety and evacuation procedures in the tunnel?

Dr. Mawhinney: The hon. Gentleman needs to make up his mind--either he wants to build confidence or he wants to raise scare stories, which have the effect of undermining confidence. He knows as well as I do that there are well-tested and well-developed policies for dealing with emergencies in the tunnel, and they work.

Mr. Nigel Evans: Further to the answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Hendry), will my right hon. Friend also welcome the announcement by

Column 3

Eurostar of the overnight service from Glasgow to Paris, which will stop in Preston and so serve my constituents well? Will he further welcome the announcement of the £150 million investment in rolling stock, which will be an added bonus for my constituents?

Dr. Mawhinney: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The development of the night services, the development of north of London services and the development of the freight services--in addition to the services from London--across the channel are all good news. They are good news for the constituents of a number of hon. Members, but most of all they are good news for passengers, for business and industry and for United Kingdom plc.

Mr. Meacher: Having been a decade behind the French in building a high-speed rail link to the channel tunnel and two decades behind them in building a TGV network, why are the Government now being so slow in preparing a specifically high-speed rail link from London through the heart of Britain to Scotland and Ireland? Why have not the Government yet even set out their plans for upgrading the rail freight routes from the regions to the continent to the larger continental freight gauge standards to provide the capability for lorry piggy-back services, which would cost as little as £70 million--one tenth of what the Government have already frittered away on the preparation for privatisation?

Dr. Mawhinney: First, on the hon. Gentleman's last point, he is precisely wrong. The Labour party continues to pluck figures out of the air and believes that, if it keeps repeating erroneous figures frequently enough--

Mr. Meacher: They are the Government's figures.

Dr. Mawhinney: They are not our figures, as the hon. Gentleman will shortly find out in an answer to a question by one of his hon. Friends. I am glad--no, I am not: I am sorry--that the general support for the tunnel, which has been evinced by hon. Members on both sides of the House, has not broken through the hon. Gentleman's normal doom and gloom. This is a success story. The private sector will develop it even further. Everyone bar the hon. Gentleman is supportive.

London Transport (Ticketing)

2. Mr. Corbyn: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what discussions he has had with London Transport on future ticketing arrangements.

The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris): Ticketing arrangements are generally an operational matter for London Transport, but I discuss developments with the chairman and others from time to time.

Mr. Corbyn: In response to that rather blank reply, will the Minister confirm or deny reports that the travelcard will be either made into a smart electronic card, or phased out in favour of a unit ticketing arrangement, whereby people will be able to travel only on a season ticket, with clipping-off for each journey that they

Column 4

undertake? That will vastly increase the cost of transport in London, which is already the most expensive public transport in Europe.

Mr. Norris: Deny.

Sir Michael Neubert: When my hon. Friend discusses ticketing arrangements with London Transport, will he press on it the principle of having through ticketing on a River Thames passenger service, because a travelcard facility will be essential to the success of such a service, which we hope will be established before not too long?

Mr. Norris: I welcome my hon. Friend's constructive intervention on the subject of the travelcard, which is an essential part of the framework of public transport services in London. There is no question about its continued survival. I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that the issue of integrating a river service into the travelcard raises a number of issues, and that I am not able to give him an outright assurance to that effect today. We are always willing, however, to consider propositions for the promotion of river services on the Thames. If such a proposition were put to me, I would be happy to discuss it.


3. Mr. French: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will take further steps to improve the safety of cyclists.

The Minister for Railways and Roads (Mr. John Watts): Fatalities to cyclists are at their lowest level since records began in 1927. We shall seek to continue the improvement by means of education, publicity, research and advice to local authorities on cycling matters.

Mr. French: Does my hon. Friend agree that, where accidents do take place, one of the most frequent causes is the failure to show a clearly visible light when cycling at night-time? Is he aware that a number of police authorities strongly recommend that bicycles should be fitted with integral lighting systems at the point of manufacture? That would overcome the problem of lights failing through faulty batteries. Will he seriously consider making that a mandatory requirement when cycles are manufactured?

Mr. Watts: I shall certainly consider my hon. Friend's suggestion, but I remind him that it is an obligation for cyclists to show lights when travelling at night, and that it is clearly in their interests to be responsible in the way that they use roads.

Mr. Skinner: Is the Minister aware that, in the 1930s when we had mass unemployment on the scale that we have today, it was decided that one of the ways to provide work was to build cycle routes in many parts of Britain? That was true in north Derbyshire, where many of the miners were not in work. To some extent, it helped to mop up unemployment. Why do not the Government start such a scheme throughout Britain today?

Mr. Watts: This year, £3 million has been made available for a 1, 000-mile cycle network in London which, it is estimated, will reduce casualties by 25 per cent. The Department is extremely supportive of the development of cycling. My right hon. Friend the

Column 5

Secretary of State visited Holland earlier this year to look at cycling policy and the lessons that can be learnt from there.

Traffic Improvements

4. Mr. Harry Greenway: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what further assistance he is giving local authorities to improve parking and traffic flow arrangements in their areas; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Watts: We encourage local authorities to include appropriate traffic management measures in their transport policies and programmes which form the basis for the allocation of transport supplementary grant.

Mr. Greenway: Is my hon. Friend aware that in Ealing, we greatly regret the devolution to Labour-controlled Ealing council of powers to control parking and other measures related to that, because we have continuing inadequate parking provision? People are parking where they should not park and the council does not deal with the matter to the satisfaction of the residents. Will my hon. Friend do something about Ealing council? Will he wake it up on this matter or will he bring back the police to control this important part of people's lives?

Mr. Watts: De-criminalising parking enforcement and the new powers available to local authorities enable them to match their enforcement priorities to local needs. My hon. Friend draws attention to the poor performance of a particular Labour-controlled authority. I have no doubt that he will continue to draw attention to its shortcomings and that he will encourage his constituents to seek their remedy the next time the council faces the electorate at the ballot box.

Mr. Fraser: Is not it a fact that in central London at any rate, increased parking simply increases traffic flow? We need more pedestrian areas, of which we are lamentably short in central London compared with the provision available in almost any other major city in Europe.

Mr. Watts: The powers available to local authorities enable them to make sensible and balanced judgments about the priorities between parking, parking enforcement and the important aspect of facilities for pedestrians- -the non-motorised form of transport.

Supplementary Grant

5. Mr. John Greenway: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received on the level of transport supplementary grant approved for North Yorkshire for 1995 96.

Mr. Watts: Three of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale, have made representations about the level of TSG approved for North Yorkshire county council for 1995 96.

Mr. Greenway: Is my hon. Friend aware of the concern at county hall and among the district councils about the need to strengthen and repair many of North Yorkshire's bridges? He will know that it is England's biggest and most rural county. It is all very well to concentrate on national priority routes for bridge strengthening, but if many of these bridges have to have

Column 6

weight restrictions or closure, there will be detours of many miles. In the moors and dales, there are some access-only roads where there are important bridges. Will my hon. Friend bear all that in mind and will he ensure that North Yorkshire gets a much better settlement in future years?

Mr. Watts: As always, my hon. Friend is assiduous in pressing the claims of his constituents and of his county. The bad news, to which he draws attention, is that in the allocation for 1995 96, the provision for bridge strengthening and assessment in North Yorkshire has been reduced by 15.5 per cent. compared with 14.5 per cent. nationally. The good news, which my hon. Friend and his county have overlooked, is that in the current year, the allocation for bridge strengthening has more than doubled--an increase of 102 per cent. We recognise that canny Yorkshiremen seek to get the best they can. However, an increase of 102 per cent. followed by a reduction of 15.5 per cent. should lead my hon. Friend to conclude that North Yorkshire has not been treated terribly unfairly.

Women Passengers (Safety)

6. Mr. Tony Banks: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what steps he is taking to improve the safety provisions for women on London Transport.

9. Mrs. Anne Campbell: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what plans he has to assess the specific needs of women with regard to public transport.

Mr. Norris: Identifying and meeting the specific needs of women passengers is a priority for my Department. Key issues are personal safety and physical access in terms of the design and planning of transport systems.

Mr. Banks: We all know that the Minister does not like travelling with weirdos on public transport in London, although he has no great problem about sitting with them on the Front Bench. Is he aware that many women in London find travelling on the underground and on buses physically threatening? The latest opinion poll has shown that 73 per cent. of women questioned felt that staffing and safety were big issues in terms of their travelling decisions. In view of the fact that it is International Women's Week, can we have a series of initiatives aimed positively at making travel for women much safer and more comfortable?

Mr. Norris: The hon. Gentleman is very good at sniping from the Back Benches, but remarkably short of any actual good ideas. The reality is that crime on London Underground has fallen for six years in succession. That extraordinarily good achievement has been brought about because London Transport takes the issue seriously and recognises that many passengers feel vulnerable, particularly if they have to travel on a relatively isolated part of the system. It has therefore recognised that special needs must be met. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the help points that have been installed throughout the system and the other safety measures that have been introduced. They are all designed to try to reassure passengers that they are significantly safer travelling on the underground--as indeed they are--than they are in any other normal environment.

Mrs. Anne Campbell: Although the Minister continues to promote the convenience of the private motor

Column 7

car, he must be aware that the needs of public transport users, particularly women, go largely unmet. I wonder whether he would like to ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to join me in a journey across either Peterborough or Cambridge with two children, a push chair and a heavy bag of shopping. He would then see how difficult it is for many women who use public transport.

Mr. Norris: The hon. Lady cannot have it both ways: either she agrees with me or she does not. She seemed to suggest that she did not agree with me, but promptly went on to demonstrate that she did agree with me. The points that the hon. Lady has made are perfectly straightforward; that is why we are looking, for example, at introducing low floor buses, to ensure that buses are accessible not just to disabled people, but people travelling with young children or heavy bags of shopping. The measures are designed to make the transport system more efficient, effective and accessible both to vulnerable passengers and passengers generally.

Mr. John Marshall: Can my hon. Friend confirm that there has been a reduction of no less than 40 per cent. in the number of violent crimes committed on London Underground in the past five years? Does he expect the safety and comfort of passengers to benefit from the investment in new trains on the Northern line and from the extension of the Jubilee line?

Mr. Norris: I guarantee to my hon. Friend that, tomorrow, none of his comments will appear in any report of our proceedings despite the fact that they represent the kernel of the matter: the system is significantly safer than it has been for years. My hon. Friend is right to say that the new train stock to be deployed on the Northern line will offer us further opportunities to make the system even more secure and reliable in the future.

Dr. Spink: Does my hon. Friend accept that the safety of women travelling on London Underground, particularly those of my constituents who must travel up the Fenchurch Street line to get on to London Underground, is an important issue? Will my hon. Friend ensure that the criteria considered to determine who will get the franchise for the London-Tilbury- Southend line will include the safety of women?

Mr. Norris: One of the most encouraging features of the forthcoming privatisation of train operators is the private sector's instant recognition that the security of potential passengers is absolutely paramount. It has recognised that passengers will not travel if they do not believe that they are safe. One of the most encouraging features of the discussions that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and others are having with train operators is those operators' recognition of the importance of the precise point that my hon. Friend has raised.

Ms Walley: Does the Minister agree with the Opposition that as we celebrate International Women's Week, he should do more with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to put women's transport issues at the top of the agenda? The Minister has said an awful lot about his view of travelling with other people, commuters, in the middle of London. Would he like to feel what it is like to be a woman, concerned because many private hire vehicles are not yet properly regulated? Will he particularly explain why he has refused to look at the

Column 8

proposal from the all-party Select Committee on Transport that people guilty of sex offences should be banned from driving either taxis or private hire vehicles?

Mr. Norris: I shall pass over the first part of the hon. Lady's invitation for reasons of which I hope that you, Madam Speaker, would thoroughly approve. On the second half of the hon. Lady's question, I hope that she will tell her friends in the Transport and General Workers Union-- who have incited taxi drivers to oppose the checking of minicab drivers for suitability on the ground that that somehow offers a spurious legitimacy to their activities--that they are wrong? I am grateful to her for her endorsement of our response to the Select Committee on Transport, when we recommended the very measures that she has outlined.

Newbury Bypass

7. Mr. Simon Coombs: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to announce his decision on the Newbury bypass.

Dr. Mawhinney: As soon as possible.

Mr. Coombs: Is my right hon. Friend aware that the people of Newbury are holding their breath, waiting for the right decision to be made on that important issue? Is he further aware that they need to hold their breath to avoid breathing in the pollution in Newbury that is caused by continuous traffic jams? Does he agree that a road as important as the A34, which links the port of Southampton with the midlands, needs to be dualled throughout its length to give relief to the people of Newbury?

Dr. Mawhinney: My hon. Friend is right to point to the problems that occur around Newbury and the difficulties that they cause to residents of the town and surrounding areas. I have recognised the problem and said that it needs to be addressed--it will be as soon as we are confident of the appropriate and proper way forward.

Red Routes

8. Mr. Roy Hughes: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what discussions he has had with motoring organisations concerning red routes or similar schemes in London and other conurbations.

Mr. Norris: We frequently discuss matters of common interest with representatives of motoring organisations. They were formally consulted on the proposals for red routes and the other measures contained in the Road Traffic Act 1991, and also subsequently on the composition of the red route network itself.

Mr. Hughes: Does the Minister agree that the power to stop vehicles should rest solely with the police? Does he further agree that the provisions in the London Local Authorities Bill, which give the same powers to private contractors for the purpose of emission testing, would set a dangerous precedent and impair the safety of motorists, passengers, and particularly lone women?

Mr. Norris: The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the dangers of allowing people who are not properly trained to stop vehicles. The police have made that point and it should be given proper attention. I know that the hon. Gentleman will agree that more enforcement activity

Column 9

is extremely desirable and we are, in future, likely to look to technology to help us in our enforcement efforts, as police resources are bound to be stretched.

Mr. Anthony Coombs: While I recognise the importance of good traffic management in reducing congestion and, thereby, pollution, what is my hon. Friend's Department doing to investigate oxygenated petrol? Since it was introduced in the United States in 1990, it has reduced by more than 95 per cent. the number of days on which clean air standards are subjugated. It is an important new innovation--will my hon. Friend look at it?

Mr. Norris: I can confirm that my Department is looking at oxygenated petrol. I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that some of the technical claims made for the fuel are still subject to confirmation by technical experts. I agree that it is, potentially, an important development.

State Airlines

10. Mr. Steen: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make it his policy to ensure that no further state subsidy is made available by member states to loss-making state airlines in the EEC.

Dr. Mawhinney: It is already the Government's policy to oppose state aid in air transport which distorts competition.

Mr. Steen: Since the losses in Air France last year were the equivalent of two thirds of the losses of all the airlines in the world and since France uses money to underscore and underpin its airline, but attacks British airlines by reducing fares and thus the profitability of English airlines, when the matter comes up in Europe will the Secretary of State tell the Europeans that enough is enough and that he will use his veto and say "Non" if the French want more subsidies?

Dr. Mawhinney: This subject has already come up since I assumed my responsibility, when the Commission recommended that Air France should be the recipient of £2.4 billion of state aid. I took the view that that was a distortion of competition and that it disadvantaged the passenger. As a consequence, we are taking the Commission to the European Court. My hon. Friend should understand that that is a strong policy of Her Majesty's Government, from which we are unlikely to depart.

Thames Riverboat Service

11. Mr. Simon Hughes: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received about reintroducing the riverboat service on the Thames.

Mr. Norris: I have received representations from a number of organisations who have expressed an interest in the operation of some type of commuter service on the Thames. Those proposals are at various stages of development.

Mr. Hughes: Will the Minister confirm that the most recent proposal is that from Transport on Water, suggested by the hon. Members for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) and for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and by others; that the core of the proposal is that there should

Column 10

be a partnership between private provision and public provision; and that London is crying out for the Government to give the idea of a decent riverboat service, which can be used for commuters and visitors, a fair wind and real encouragement? Can he confirm that he supports that, and that he will do everything to ensure that the Department of Transport delivers that public sector support that is needed to ensure that it succeeds this time--that it floats, instead of sinking, as the past two initiatives did?

Mr. Norris: I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are keen that a viable proposal for passenger services on the Thames be established. I can confirm that I am very happy to consider carefully any proposal that is made to me in that respect.

Naturally, there has been a limit to the amount of public subsidy that that type of service can attract, given that, at the height of its operations, River-Bus, for example, proposed to carry fewer people in a year than London Buses carries in any one day before about 9 o'clock in the morning, or London Underground carries in one day of its operations. With that important qualification, I am certainly very happy to do what I can to help.

Sir Anthony Durant: Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the problems that River-Bus ran into was the lack of piers and jetties? Will he talk to the Port of London authority and persuade it to allow more landing stages?

Mr. Norris: As my hon. Friend may know, that problem was discussed in the deliberations of the Thames working group, which laid its report before Parliament a few weeks ago. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and at the time my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that, if the Department of Transport could help by encouraging more pier provision, it would be only too happy to do so. My hon. Friend is quite right to say that that it is an important part of the provision of any transport service.

Mr. Spearing: Is the Minister aware that the Transport on Water study, to which the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) referred, has been drawn to the attention of four central London boroughs and the City of London, and that we are hoping that Transport on Water--the hon. Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) and I are members of the working party--will institute a consortium to investigate the practicalities of the type of proposal described, especially the matching of public provision of piers and private provision of craft?

Mr. Norris: I am delighted to hear of it. The hon. Gentleman has a great deal of experience of those matters. I know that he has spent many years researching several projects on the Thames, and for many years my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) has been an assiduous supporter and follower of many of those projects. I am delighted that two such eminent colleagues are prepared to unite in preparing that proposal. I shall certainly give it every consideration when it reaches me.

Mr. Dunn: If a scheme is finally proposed to re-introduce the River- Bus service on the River Thames, will my hon. Friend ensure that the community of Dartford is involved with such a scheme, given that there

Column 11

would be a significant possibility of increasing access to London, for leisure and by commuters, if the scheme were to stop at Dartford?

Mr. Norris: Again, I can say to my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already expressed to me his wish to ascertain whether there may be prospects of a viable commuter service from places throughout my hon. Friend's constituency. There appears to be a considerable logic in removing passengers from the crowded road networks in those areas, apart from the creation of an attractive journey pattern into the centre of the City. My hon. Friend will appreciate that we will look to the private sector to bring forward the proposals, but that we stand ready to be as constructive as we can in every case.

Rail Privatisation

12. Ms Glenda Jackson: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what costs were incurred by rail privatisation up to and including January 1995; and what are the projected costs to his Department until January 1996.

Mr. Watts: The total cost of rail privatisation from 1991-92 until the end of January 1995 was £209 million, including costs of new financial and information systems. Estimated costs of the Department from February this year to January 1996 are £26 million. Projected figures are current estimates and exclude the main sale costs for the flotation of Railtrack, which are yet to be determined.

Ms Jackson: I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he tell the House what percentage of that figure can be attributed to consultancy fees paid to firms which make financial contributions to the Conservative party?

Mr. Watts: I have no knowledge of which consultancy firms make contributions to my party or to any other political party. As the hon. Lady knows from answers to earlier questions that she has tabled, the total expenditure on consultancy is £22.5 million, which is included in the total that I gave in reply to her initial question.

Sir Donald Thompson: My hon. Friend will know that the Calder Valley line is a most important east-west line and that my constituents look forward to rail privatisation. Will my hon. Friend spend whatever money is necessary to ensure that they receive fair and honest information about every aspect of privatisation?

Mr. Watts: I agree that it is vital that people receive true, factual and honest information about rail privatisation. If they have that information, they will be as enthusiastic about it and about the benefits that it will bring to the travelling public and to freight users as my hon. Friend and I.

Next Section

  Home Page