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House of Commons

Monday 3 April 1995

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Cycle Paths

1. Dr. Goodson-Wickes: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what recent consultations he has had over the routing of cycle paths within London.     [15688]

The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris): My Department attends regular meetings with London borough councils and representatives of cycling groups to discuss development of the 1,200 mile London cycle network.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes: Admirable though it certainly is to provide and extend cycling facilities in London, is it not absolute nonsense in a Labour-controlled borough such as mine for more than £300,000 to be spent on a new track which has brought chaos to residents, car drivers and bus drivers, dismay to the police and, above all, danger to cyclists? Should not Merton council have ensured proper consultation and worked towards practical pedalling rather than posture politics?

Mr. Norris: My hon. Friend forwarded to me correspondence from Councillor Margaret Brierly, who expressed on behalf of residents in Raynes Park in my hon. Friend's constituency concern about the way in which that particular part of the cycle route had been implemented. The case underlines the fact that, however desirable cycling may be--I am grateful for my hon. Friend's endorsement of the principle--it is vital that local authorities proceed on the basis of proper consultation with residents so that we get sensible value for money out of the exercise.

Airline Subsidies

2. Mr. Duncan Smith: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the amount of subsidy from national Governments to their national airlines within the EC; and if he will list the latest available figures for each member state.     [15690]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Dr. Brian Mawhinney): Since 1991, the European Commission has approved £5.3 billion of state aid from member states to their national airlines. Almost half this aid was awarded to Air France. The UK Government have opposed all these subsidies.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Does my right hon. Friend agree that that figure is outrageous, not least because half of it goes to one airline? Will he undertake to publish the

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details of the subsidies to every other airline in Europe? Does he agree that, apart from being worried about the record of fraud and mismanagement that go on in the Community, many people in Britain will be dismayed to think that others whose livelihoods and jobs depend on the free market which we are supposed to have joined will seriously question the purpose of what they are in unless that free market is established?

Dr. Mawhinney: My hon. Friend will be interested to know that, since 1991, Sabena has received £450 million, Iberia almost £600 million, Aer Lingus £170 million, TAP of Portugal £710 million, Olympic Airways about £1 billion and Air France about £2.4 billion. All that distorts the single market, as my hon. Friend says. All of it is unfair to British Airways and other British carriers, which compete without the benefit of state aid and do so much more effectively than most of the airlines that receive state aid. It is also unfair to the passengers. For all those reasons, the Government have opposed all those state aids. I assure my hon. Friend that I will continue to be robust in the future, as we have been in the past.

Railways, London

3. Mr. Corbyn: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what plans he has to promote greater usage of London's surface railways.     [15691]

The Minister for Railways and Roads (Mr. John Watts): In London, as elsewhere, giving the private sector the opportunity to operate existing services and introduce new ones is the best way to bring about the further improvements to services which passengers clearly want to see and to attract more passengers.

Mr. Corbyn: Does the Minister not recognise that imaginative management of London's railways would provide far greater passenger opportunities on many underused freight lines or underused passenger lines, such as the Barking to Gospel Oak line? Is he aware that the principles of the internal market mean that, to save Railtrack from paying penalties, re- routed freight trains are sent down the Barking to Gospel Oak line, passenger trains are cancelled and passengers are taken off the trains and told to take a bus? Railtrack does not therefore lose any money from its freight income, but it inconveniences the passengers, who receive no compensation because that line is not included in the compensation package.

Mr. Watts: No doubt the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that £300,000 has been contributed towards refurbishment of stations on the Gospel Oak to Barking line. As for rail freight, he will be pleased to learn that the freight companies were vested successfully this weekend. I believe that in the private sector they will offer greater innovation and better marketing and secure an increasing share of traffic for rail freight at the expense of road freight.

Mr. Harry Greenway: I recently travelled from West Ealing to Greenford and back using British Rail. Many passengers travelling in both directions to whom I spoke said that the service was extremely good and comfortable. Will my hon. Friend make absolutely sure, however, that the service from Ealing to Paddington is maintained at all times?

Mr. Watts: The franchise for the Thames services is not in the first eight, but I am pleased to hear what my

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hon. Friend's constituents think. I am sure that he shares my confidence that, as franchises are offered in the private sector, we can expect improvements in the standard even of those services that people already find satisfactory.

Mr. Meacher: Is it not clear that, although the Government have a so -called national roads programme, they have no national rail programme whatever--unlike every other major European country? When will the Minister understand that the private sector will not stump up capital for either crossrail or Thameslink 2000 until the Government give a lead by being prepared to invest public money in them?

Is it not also clear that the Minister has been forced to cut the roads programme, but he is still not prepared to invest in alternative public transport systems because the Tory party retains a deep visceral hostility to investment in the public sector?

Mr. Watts: Railtrack has oversight of the entire rail network, rather as the Highways Agency has oversight of the trunk road and motorway network.

I note the hon. Gentleman's scepticism about Thameslink--a scepticism that I do not expect to be borne out by the results of the feasibility study conducted recently by Railtrack and British Rail. The hon. Gentleman is so welded--I mean wedded--[ Laughter. ] That was a slip of the tongue, but perhaps my tongue found a better word. The hon. Gentleman is welded to the idea that nothing is worth while unless it is subsidised by the taxpayer. He seems to ignore the great successes of the private finance initiative, which is delivering more important rail and other transport infrastructure than the public purse could ever deliver. He continually wishes to place further burdens on taxpayers, rather than using the skills and finance of the private sector.

Dr. Twinn: I thank the Government for their commitment to London's surface railways. Is my hon. Friend aware that in constituencies such as mine, in Enfield and Edmonton, surface rail is very important because we have no tube services? Does he agree that private investment in British Rail provides the best opportunity of guaranteeing an improved service for my constituents in the future?

Mr. Watts: I entirely agree that opening up rail services to investment and management by the private sector provides the best guarantee of improved services well into the future.

Railway Works Compensation

4. Mr. Simon Hughes: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what consideration his Department has given to proposing changes to the laws on compensation for people and businesses affected by (a) underground and (b) overground railway works; and if he will make a statement.     [15693]

Mr. Watts: The relevant legislative framework--which was most recently extended by the Planning and Compensation Act 1991--is kept under review.

Mr. Hughes: When the review is next considered--and the matter is urgent--will the Minister take account of two specific problems? They arise from the Jubilee line works, welcome though those are.

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First, a change of plan has meant that people who invested on the basis of an undertaking that they would not suffer disruption have suffered such disruption. Secondly, and more important, some small businesses--such as those in Borough high street, by London bridge--are on the verge of bankruptcy, not because of a reduction in the value of their premises but because the works surrounding them have caused trade almost to disappear. Will the Minister examine the problem as a matter of urgency? It is affecting many businesses and individuals.

Mr. Watts: As the hon. Gentleman will realise, compensation arrangements for particular schemes such as the Jubilee line extension are a matter for discussion between London Transport and those who consider that they have been adversely affected. I understand that some traders are negotiating with London Transport about compensation in connection with the construction works, and I am sure that that is the right way for them to proceed. My hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London is present, and has heard what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Brooke: Given that all the new underground routes planned pass through the constituency of City of London and Westminster, South and as those who are sited above them, either commercially or residentially, suffer blight in general and personal disruption in particular, will my hon. Friend bear constantly in mind the fact that the routes of those lines are more likely to be smooth if there is a sensible system of compensation that everyone recognises?

Mr. Watts: Yes, Madam Speaker.

Mr. Gerrard: Will the Minister consider the position of people who are faced with compulsory purchase and who have negative equity on their properties, particularly commercial properties? Such people are forced to sell their properties at a time when, given the opportunity, they would not have sold but would have waited so as to recover their investment. Will the hon. Gentleman look at that serious problem?

Mr. Watts: Yes. The hon. Gentleman raises a difficult point which we will look at sympathetically when there is a further review.

Mr. Dunn: Will my hon. Friend please consider extending compensation to farmers and market gardeners in Kent whose crops will be damaged and visually destroyed by chalk dust emanating from the construction of the channel tunnel rail link?

Mr. Watts: I am sure that my hon. Friend's constituents who feel that they may be so affected will make full use of the statutory provisions available to them.

Car Safety

6. Mr. Sutcliffe: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make it his policy to ensure that standards higher than the European Union crash standards for cars are promptly

introduced.     [15695]

Mr. Norris: No. It is vital that crash test standards are set within the context of the European Union.

Mr. Sutcliffe: Does the Minister not realise that more improved, stringent tests could save up to 90,000 lives

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across Europe and 9,000 lives in the United Kingdom and that the motoring organisations are concerned about the recommendations being too loose?

Mr. Norris: The hon. Gentleman is right. When we reach the stage 2 standards, they will offer the prospect of substantial life saving. Of course these test standards have to be introduced on a sensible time scale which allows the manufacturers to develop products that are set to the stringent standards. I underline that I think there is general agreement throughout the House that the construction standards must be properly set within the framework of the European Union. They offer British manufacturers the opportunity of knowing the standard to which they build so that they can sell their products throughout the Union.

Commuter Trains

7. Mrs. Angela Knight: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what proposals he has to increase the number of regional commuter train services.     [15696]

Dr. Mawhinney: Privatisation can be expected to bring improvements to regional commuter train services as well as to passenger services generally. The Government also welcome the support that local authorities have given to developing local services in their areas.

Mrs. Knight: My right hon. Friend will be aware that among the proposals of the Greater Nottingham rail strategy is one for a line that crosses the county boundary into Derbyshire and for additional small commuter stations at Ilkeston, Sandiacre and Long Eaton in my constituency. What action can his Department take to forward that proposal, as it utilises better the existing midland main railway line, to the benefit of commuters?

Dr. Mawhinney: Yes, I am aware of the proposal and of my hon. Friend's support for it. Any application to the Department for funding would need to be accompanied by a full appraisal that demonstrates that the scheme would provide value for money and better prospects for relieving traffic congestion, perhaps by encouraging transfer from private cars, rather than having, say, an express bus service. We are open to such a proposal and would look carefully at it should it emerge.

Mr. Dalyell: Will the Secretary of State reflect on what would happen to commuter services into Edinburgh from Dunfermline and Kirkcaldy if rust were to take hold on the Forth bridge? If that happened, one impregnated lattice structure would make it impossible to use that bridge, which is vital to the area north of the Forth. It is also the greatest monument to British engineering of the 19th century and is the picture postcard image of Britain. What are the Secretary of State's responsibilities in this matter?

Dr. Mawhinney: Certainly, the hon. Gentleman is right. I share his appreciation of the engineering feat that the bridge represents. It was part of the best of 19th century engineering in Britain. I have no reason to believe that any of the hon. Gentleman's concerns are well founded. As he will recall from evidence that I gave to the Select Committee on Transport, we are asking some experts to have another look at the bridge.

Mr. Rowe: My right hon. Friend will know that the chairman of one of the main banks has said that he

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expects there to be 50,000 redundancies in the banking world. There has been a host of similar developments during recent years. Will my right hon. Friend share with the House, either now or on a subsequent occasion, the Government's latest thinking on the effect that technological change will have on commuter patterns over the next few years?

Dr. Mawhinney: First, I have no responsibility for banks. Secondly, the technological change to which my hon. Friend referred will not happen just in the future; it is happening now and it is being reflected in our policies as we seek to develop the railway industry in the private sector and to make the best use of developing technology in this country's other transport infrastructure.

Rail Modernisation

8. Mr. Jim Cunningham: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport how long Railtrack's feasibility study team has been analysing whether to modernise the rail network.     [15697]

Mr. Watts: At any time, Railtrack will be assessing the merits of a range of investment projects.

Mr. Cunningham: Given the shambles since November on the Euston- Coventry-Birmingham line, and in view of what happened today, will the Minister give an undertaking that he will speed up the modernisation proposals, that he will investigate what has been happening on that line since November and that he will abandon the privatisation proposals? Although the staff give of their best, they are demoralised by the privatisation proposals and, consequently, the railway line between Euston and Birmingham is a shambles.

Mr. Watts: The hon. Gentleman's comments about the effects of privatisation are total rubbish. However, I shall reflect on what he has said about the problems on the line to which he referred.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Will my hon. Friend ensure that there is an urgent examination of the west coast main line? Is he aware that many of us would like to use it regularly but do not because it is so unreliable? I happened to use it this morning for the first time in months and I was delayed by two hours. There was total chaos. It is a wholly unacceptable position.

Mr. Watts: My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the upgrading of the west coast main line is probably the biggest of the upgrading projects being considered. The first phase project study was completed in December. A couple of weeks ago, I announced that the Government had given approval for the letting of the contract for the development of a new signalling system, which is at the heart of the upgrading proposals. The release of funds that will follow will provide funding for the core investment programme that the line most urgently requires.

Mr. Tyler: Is the Minister aware that whenever Members of Parliament raise questions about services at risk, especially services to the peripheral, more remote areas--for example, sleeper services--Railtrack or the franchising director says that their future is a political decision? Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the buck must eventually stop with the Department of Transport in respect of those services and the costings on which their future is to be based?

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Does the Minister agree with the announcement by the director of Railtrack Scotland that should the sleeper services be axed in any part of the country, that would reflect badly on and tarnish the privatisation exercise?

Mr. Watts: The hon. Gentleman should stop arousing unnecessary fears in the minds of his constituents and those of hon. Members who represent Scotland. He well knows that sleeper services to the west country and to Scotland will be safeguarded, for the very first time, by their inclusion in passenger service requirements.

Mr. John Marshall: Will my hon. Friend remind those scaremongers who complain about the potential consequences of privatisation that wherever industry has been privatised, that has resulted in much greater investment and much better quality of service? That will be as true with the railways as it is elsewhere.

Mr. Watts: Yes, indeed. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred earlier to the contrast between British Airways in the private sector and the nationalised airlines of some of our continental partners.

Mr. Meacher: Does it not show the Government's priorities that they still refuse to fund a penny of the £1 billion required for the desperately needed modernisation of the west coast main line, while at the same time they are quite prepared to shell out £5 billion sweeteners in debt write-offs and capital allowances to ease the privatisation of the railways? Is it not absolutely clear that the Government are far more interested in funding their dogma than in providing higher-quality services for passengers?

Mr. Watts: What it shows is that the hon. Gentleman does not think that any investment is worth while unless it is paid for by taxpayers. The first stage of the upgrading of the west coast main line can be funded in the private sector, so I find no reason why he continues to argue that taxpayers should pay for the upgrading. It can be funded without dipping into taxpayers' pockets.

Airspace Restrictions

9. Mr. Steen: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what assessment he has made of the use by EU countries of restricting airspace as a means of restricting competition.     [15698]

Dr. Mawhinney: It is the Government's policy to oppose any measure that unduly restricts competition in the air transport single market.

Mr. Steen: When British Midland was given enough slots to become the second British carrier to fly to Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels, fares dropped by about a third and the percentage share of passengers using those services went up from about 40 to 60 per cent. Will the Minister therefore consider using, if not public money, then money raised from the private sector, to invest in the necessary technology to provide new and additional slots out of London? In that way, additional British carriers could fly on the other trunk routes--which have only British Airways here and the state airline at the other end in Europe--and so provide increased competition and reduced fare prices to the consumer.

Dr. Mawhinney: If my hon. Friend is talking about flights in Europe, he will be pleased to remember that the

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1993 liberalisation package, behind which we were a major moving force, has provided opportunities precisely to enable greater competition and greater access for British carriers to the transfer of passengers in other European countries. If he is talking about services beyond Europe, I assure him that, as we pursue bilateral liberalisation arrangements with other countries, we always seek to enhance British carriers' prospects.

Mr. Stevenson: Does not the Secretary of State agree that one of the greatest restrictions on airspace is its reservation for military use both in this country and in the European Union? Does that not restrict commercial carriers in obtaining the additional slots that they require? Has he assessed that position recently? If he has, will he advise us on the outcome of that assessment? If he has not, is he about to assess the position?

Dr. Mawhinney: There we go again: anything to reduce the country's defence capabilities finds an echo on the Labour Benches. But perhaps that is not surprising from the party that has just brought forward a new rewording of clause IV, which inadvertently happened to omit NATO from its words.

Air Services

10. Mr. Spring: To ask Secretary of State for Transport what efforts are being made to liberalise air services to and from the United Kingdom.     [15699]

Dr. Mawhinney: The United Kingdom played a lead role in bringing about the liberalisation of air services in the European Community, which came into effect on 1 January 1993, and about which I have just spoken. Outside the Community, we shall continue to seek to liberalise air service agreements on a bilateral basis.

Mr. Spring: Although I welcome the discussions between the UK and the United States of America, does my right hon. Friend hope that new practical and liberalised arrangements will emerge that are of benefit to both countries?

Dr. Mawhinney: I appreciate my hon. Friend's question and I am encouraged by the progress that has been made in those discussions between the United States and the UK. I pay tribute to Secretary Pen a who, with me, agreed an agenda for those discussions. We have made good progress. They have been genuine negotiations. The talks will recommence in Washington on 10 April and continue until 12 April. I am hopeful that an arrangement will eventually emerge that will benefit the travelling public both in the United States and in the UK.

Channel Tunnel Rail Link

11. Mr. Timms: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what is his policy in respect of the objective for the channel tunnel rail link announced by the former Secretary of State in 1991, with special reference to economic regeneration in east London.     [15700]

Mr. Watts: In selecting the easterly route for the channel tunnel rail link, the Government recognised the potential that it offered to encourage regeneration in the

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east Thames corridor, now known as the Thames gateway. Such regeneration remains an important objective for the rail link project.

Mr. Timms: May I remind the Minister that when the former Secretary of State made the announcement in 1991, he was explicit that his commitment was to regeneration in east London, where it is most needed and where, as the Government's own figures confirm, the levels of urban deprivation are highest? Do the Government remain committed to regeneration specifically in east London, as announced in 1991, through the rail link project?

Mr. Watts: I am confident that the whole of the Thames gateway will benefit from the rail link project. I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for inviting me to view the proposed site of the Stratford station, which I did recently on a very wet day--it was probably the only time that anyone has described me as a wet. However, the enthusiasm of the promoter group was undiminished by the weather. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the question of the station at Stratford is still open and we shall reassess it in the light of the bids from the four consortiums, which are undergoing assessment.

Mr. Jacques Arnold: May I remind my hon. Friend that the reference was to the east Thames corridor and that we in north-west Kent are therefore grateful for the decision immediately to proceed with the Ebbsfleet station, which will bring considerable regeneration and also make more viable any opportunities that Opposition Members see in respect of east London?

Mr. Watts: It is gratifying that hon. Friends and hon. Members representing both sides of the Thames recognise the value of this project to regeneration prospects.

Cyclists and Pedestrians

12. Mrs. Anne Campbell: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what steps he will take to improve provision for cyclists and pedestrians.     [15701]

Mr. Norris: The responsibility for making safe provision for cyclists and pedestrians rests principally with local highway authorities. They are able to bid for appropriate funding in their annual transport policies and programmes submission to the Department of Transport.

Mrs. Campbell: Is the Minister aware that three quarters of all journeys are less than five miles long and that, at present, only 1 per cent. of them are made by bicycle? What is he doing to ensure safe networks on which parents are prepared to let their children travel and to encourage more people to cycle?

Mr. Norris: The hon. Lady is right, although it is about 2.5 per cent. of all journeys in this country that are made by cycle. That compares with an average throughout Europe of about 15 per cent. Although our road safety record generally is excellent, the prospects of being injured as a cyclist are substantially higher in this country than in some countries where cycling is more central to local transport provision. The hon. Lady is on to a very good point which I have strongly endorsed myself. The mechanisms for delivering what she seeks are the TPP submissions from local authorities which are being guided by the Department in its transport supplementary grant

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guidance to ensure that, when packages are put together by local authorities, they include a significant cycling element.

Mr. Robathan: I am delighted that my hon. Friend supports cycling, but will he hold discussions with his colleagues at the Department of Health and the Department for Education to encourage schoolchildren to bicycle or walk to school? We are told that children are getting fat and unfit because they sit on their backsides too much and do not take exercise; we are told that they are getting unhealthy and developing asthma because of air pollution; and we can all see the congestion for ourselves. This is a very serious issue, and I hope that my hon. Friend will respond accordingly.

Mr. Norris: My hon. Friend is right. Cycling is environmentally sound and healthy and it is a thoroughly desirable form of transport, but most people would not exactly relish the prospect of challenging a 40 ft articulated lorry for priority on the road. The reality is that we have to create conditions in which thoroughly un-lycra people such as me might be tempted to improve their health substantially by cycling. My hon. Friend's enthusiasm is legendary and much to be welcomed.

Manchester Airport

13. Mr. Thurnham: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received about the future ownership and funding of Manchester airport; and if he will make a

statement.     [15702]

Dr. Mawhinney: I have received a number of representations about the future ownership and funding of Manchester airport from hon. Friends and others. I believe that the airport's future would be better served in the private sector.

Mr. Thurnham: Does my right hon. Friend agree that local authorities should allow pension funds to pay for tarmacking the second runway at Manchester airport so that councils are free to spend more on schools and caring for the vulnerable?

Dr. Mawhinney: My hon. Friend will understand that I am not in a position to comment about the second runway for obvious reasons, but I strongly endorse his view that the flexibility and investment that Manchester airport needs and of which, on the basis of its past history, it could make good use, is much more likely to come effectively from the private sector, thereby freeing up resources for the council to use in other ways as my hon. Friend pointed out.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I think that the Secretary of State made a mistake because Manchester is a highly efficient airport, which is growing every year and is not only providing high-quality management but contributing to the very best in the region. I thought that the Secretary of State was in the business of trying to sell off those broken-down bits of British Rail that his friends want for other reasons.

Dr. Mawhinney: I am happy to confirm that Manchester is indeed a good airport, but I believe that it can be even better--and it is much more likely to be better and to provide the increasing range of international services that people want if it is given the opportunity to

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be in the private sector. I point the hon. Lady to the British Airports Authority. No doubt when the Airports Bill was going through the House she was against that as well.

Mr. Fabricant: While I agree with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) that Manchester airport is very efficient--I often fly there and enjoy the facilities--does my right hon. Friend agree with the comments made by Samuel Goldwyn junior when the Select Committee on National Heritage visited him in Los Angeles in a very unpublicised trip last year, when he said that public subsidies make for lazy film-makers? Is that not also the case with airports?

Dr. Mawhinney: I am pleased that we have agreement across the Floor of the House that Manchester is a good airport. I think that we also have agreement across the House that it can be an even better and more significant airport. Unquestionably, that will happen if it gets into the private sector. I hope that that decision will be taken locally because I am sure that that is the best place for it to be taken, but I would not rule out the possibility that that decision might have to be taken centrally at some time in the future, on the basis of legislation.

Mr. Bennett: Does the Secretary of State accept that Manchester airport's success is due to the fact that for 50 years it has been an example of municipal enterprise and that politicians of all political parties in Greater Manchester have nurtured it and built it up? Having achieved such a success, which even the Minister concedes, why spoil it now by taking it away from the local authorities?

Dr. Mawhinney: It is encouraging to know that the Labour party, despite all its warm words and cliche s, has not changed its instinct for the public sector over the private sector, irrespective of the benefits that the latter can provide. We have heard that view from the Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), and from the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) on the Back Bench. All we need now is for it to be confirmed by the Leader of the Opposition and we shall have a clean slate.

Roads (Environmental Impact)

14. Mr. William O'Brien: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on progress to reduce the environmental impact of road transport.     [15703]

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