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8.25 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I am delighted to make a brief contribution to the debate. My constituency is not as rural as that of my hon. Friends. Harrogate and Knaresborough is an urban constituency, but we rely heavily on rail transport for the economic regeneration of the town and to get people in and out of the former West Riding conurbations, where they travel to work each day.

Harrogate boasts one of the largest conference and exhibition businesses in the United Kingdom. The Liberal Democrats will be holding their conference there next year. The conference and exhibition facilities attract visitors from all over the world. They arrive at Leeds-Bradford airport, which is an excellent regional airport, and travel to the constituency by road. It can take them as long to get from the airport into the conference centre as it took them to fly up from London, because of traffic congestion on the roads.

If people come up by train from London to York, they will have one of the best rail services in Europe. Great North Eastern Railway undoubtedly runs a Rolls-Royce

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service between London and Scotland on the east coast main line. I have no difficulty in praising GNER for running such a first-class service. However, people get off the train at York and have to wait for what can only be described as a horse and cart. The service provided by Northern Spirit between York and Harrogate and on to Leeds is unacceptable as we move towards the next millennium. It is a service more fitting for the 1950s than for the 21st century.

Because of the poor quality of the service and of the rolling stock, it is difficult to sell the service to the public who would wish to use it. The part of the line from Harrogate to Leeds is well used, especially at peak commuter times. It is impossible to get on the train particularly at the Leeds border, the point at which it hits the former West Riding passenger transport executive area. From that point on, there are subsidised fares, and, it is possible to travel at significantly reduced rates at peak and off-peak times. As soon as the train crosses the border from Leeds and North Yorkshire into my constituency, there are no such benefits or subsidies, and the people who rely on the line must pay the full fares despite having all the inconveniences of the line.

The Minister's right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister claimed that passenger transport executives would be extended, and that all authorities in the United Kingdom would receive the same benefits. Then, groups of people in large conurbations would not be treated differently from others in more rural and isolated areas, who, it could be argued, are more dependent on public transport. The people of my constituency certainly rely on public transport, and I hope that the Minister will tell us her plans to extend the benefits of passenger transport executives across the UK, and particularly into Harrogate and Knaresborough.

Many people in my constituency are elderly. People traditionally retire to Harrogate and Knaresborough as the constituency is beautiful and has many advantages. However, if they want to use the rail transport network to get to Leeds or York at either end of the line, especially if they have an ambulant disablement, they face real difficulties. The two ends of the line boast two of the largest stations in the UK, but they have not one escalator between them. Huge improvements are happening at York station, but when I asked when escalators would be installed, I was told that there would be none. I asked about the multi-million pound investment in Leeds station, and was again told that there would be no escalators.

It is extremely difficult for people who have mobility problems to use our stations. If we want people to use the railways, we have to provide facilities not only on trains, but in stations. Only then will people of all classes be attracted to using the system.

8.32 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson): I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) not only on securing the debate, but on managing--though not single-handedly--to introduce it earlier than expected into the House's programme this evening. He has afforded an opportunity to several of his hon. Friends to make speeches.

The hon. Members for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), for Lewes (Mr. Baker) and for Bath (Mr. Foster)--I regret that the last-named hon. Member is not in his place--

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have each, in their individual and inimitable ways, raised the issue of rural transport, or, rather, the marked lack of it. Although the essential thrust of the debate raised by the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell had to do with the failure of the railways to provide a first-rate service to the millions of people who are willing to travel on them, other issues have been raised.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall spoke of access to the railways from his rural constituency. He will be aware of the sizeable rural bus grant--£50 million every year for the next three years--which is being specifically targeted at tackling the type of issues that he and his hon. Friends have raised. Additional sums were available for a rural bus competition that sought innovative schemes to deal with the most sparsely populated and most dispersed rural communities, and we shall soon announce the results.

The hon. Members for North Cornwall, for Lewes and for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) spoke of how pensioners feel themselves to be impacted against. There again, the Government have taken steps to redress that position. Although few local authorities provide concessionary fares for their pensioners, as the House will know the Government have said that there will be a national scheme and it is proposed that all pensioners will be able to have them for a down payment of £5.

In the first instance, we are obviously concentrating on our bus network. We want bus services to increase and to integrate with rail services. The hon. Member for Lewes mentioned the availability of senior citizens' railcards and I have noticed the downturn in applications for the railcard in the past few years. In common with the hon. Gentleman, I am delighted that the figures are now rising, but I am not convinced that the failure to apply is necessarily due to the cost; it is due to the fact that our railways have not provided the type of service that we need.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough mentioned the inaccessibility of many stations. Through the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, the Government are committed to ensure that all public transport is accessible to all our citizens. Indeed, from 1 January all new rolling stock must be accessible to everyone, but I would not attempt to convince hon. Members--nor would I be believed if I did--that all rolling stock will be accessible on that date; nor would I be believed if I attempted to convince them that all our stations will be accessible.

All hon. Members who spoke mentioned the need for a strategic rail authority. The lack of investment that marked the previous Administration for decades underlies all the specific and general problems that were raised tonight. The fact that investment in our railway network--

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): Will the Minister comment on the total absence of the official Opposition? Is that a boycott, a snub, or evidence of a could-not- care-less attitude on the part of the Administration who left us in this situation?

Ms Jackson: I would like to think that that absence is due to a sense of shame, but that is highly unlikely as the Opposition markedly failed to express any of that attribute in anything that they said before or after their crushing defeat.

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Essentially, the issue is the failure to invest adequately post-privatisation. As the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell said, the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties campaigned ferociously against what we still believe to have been a benighted policy. Post-privatisation there has been no strategic authority capable of directing, in the national interest, where investment should go. That would be one of the central responsibilities of the strategic rail authority and I was delighted that hon. Members welcomed the Government's proposal to create one.

I took on board the suggestion that the necessary legislation might be introduced sooner rather than later because of what I can only describe as some bizarre goings-on at the other end of the Corridor and the even more bizarre reactions to them by the Leader of the Opposition. As hon. Members will know, however, we have given a commitment that a shadow strategic rail authority will be in place by next April--we hope.

Mr. Tyler: I am glad to hear that, but will the Minister deal with the problem of co-ordination between the rail and bus networks? In the previous Parliament I was our party spokesman on transport during part of privatisation process and, as she rightly said, Labour and Liberal Democrat Members stood shoulder to shoulder to try to prevent the desecration of our rail system. One problem that resulted from the deregulation of the bus network in 1983 was the overall lack of co-ordination and integration between public transport services. In a constituency such as mine, if bus services do not link with train services, all the work that the strategic rail authority might do could be undermined.

Ms Jackson: I entirely agree and the train operating companies are beginning not only to talk to each other but to take on board the fact that--


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