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10.53 am

The Minister for Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle): I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) most sincerely for raising this topic on the Floor of the House. My regret is that we cannot speak about textiles all morning. We should have debated the topic much more when I was in opposition. I regret that I shall be able to respond to only a few key points.

My own experience of the textile industry in my city of Leeds goes back some years. Between 1981 and 1996, when interest rates peaked at 15 per cent., 9,000 textile jobs were lost in my city alone. I speak with some passion and anger about the fact that Opposition Members have woken up late to the problem because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) explained, the devastation of the textile and clothing industry caused by Government policies over the past 20 years is incontrovertible.

I welcome all the speeches and interventions made today. Serious points have been made, and in the few minutes that I have I should at least touch on one or two of them, especially the threat to the cashmere and textile industry in the borders, Yorkshire and elsewhere. The industry is affected by the trade dispute between the United States of America and the European Union over bananas--arcane though that may seem to many of us. We are doing all that we can to resolve that dispute. I assure the House that intense negotiations have taken place.

I understand that the World Trade Organisation is meeting formally again tomorrow to pick up the threads of the conversation. In the meantime, the European Union, the US and the Director General of the WTO are in negotiation. I assure the House that the Government are raising these matters at the very highest ministerial and governmental levels, with letters and other exchanges being used to keep up the pressure. We will not resile from keeping up the challenge to ensure that our industry is not jeopardised.

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Of course we are supporting exports by the textile and clothing sectors. As for trade fair arrangements, in the new 1998 round, 45 clothing bids--or 62 per cent--were successful, not 19. That is higher than the average for other industries, so the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton might concede that we are making a considerable effort. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas) said, it is the number of firms that take part that is important, and more than 700 firms will benefit. If the sponsors' predictions are correct, more textile and clothing firms will be supported in 1999-2000 than were supported in 1988-89. We are keen to promote exports and are doing all we can--that is a fact, not a party political point.

Let me put the debate in context. Of course I am not complacent. I accept that the industry is under pressure--I see that in my own city--but I could have read a list of success stories to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton. The picture is patchy, but in contrast to what happened over the previous 20 years, the bottom is not falling out of the industry. We are stabilising the industry. Our macro-economic strategy is reducing interest rates and getting sterling down to a competitive level. Our general economic policy is stabilising the conditions for the textile and clothing industry, and there are successes.

The company that the hon. Lady mentioned is a success story that should be celebrated, and I welcome her efforts in that regard. Other successes include Desmonds and Brinton's which has made carpet tiles for the new Hong Kong airport. There are also examples of innovation--for example, knitwear companies are using new computer technology. Some companies are using new technology to refresh and regenerate old manufacturing processes. That is precisely the way they must go if they are to be able to compete in intensely competitive global markets.

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Textiles were mentioned in a positive light on the news at 6 pm the other day. Last September, a company called Autofil put money into the purchase of a £20 million factory near Nottingham. It makes yarn for car seats, and 70 per cent. of its sales are overseas. The directors said:

The BBC news bulletin stated that for a company like Autofil

    "official statistics are largely irrelevant . . . trading conditions are tough but well managed companies with good products can still prosper and that's a big difference between this economic down-turn and the last recession."

The Government are taking action, as shown by my Department's funding for 25 innovation projects in this sector, such as that at J. W. Whiteheads in Bradford, which is doing research into the development of new yarns and technologies. Reuben Gaunt in Yorkshire is improving the strength of yarns during weaving. Skills and training projects are backed by the centres of training and excellence, some of which were mentioned. Mention was also made of Kidderminster college, and work is being done at colleges in Leeds to ensure that the proper skills and training exist to take the industry into the next century.

On the supply chain, we are working with the apparel and textiles challenge to bring the retailers, buyers and designers together to integrate the various parts of the industry so that it works more efficiently.

That is some of the action that our Government are taking and will continue to take. We shall support regional selective assistance. In the past few years, £9.6 million has been allocated. Attempts have been made to call the industry together, not for a talking shop, but to draw up an action plan, which belongs to the industry and the trade unions working together to develop and deliver it--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We must move on to the next debate.

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Travel Links (North-West)

11 am

Mr. Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton): May I, through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, thank the Speaker for the opportunity to have this debate. It is good to see other hon. Members from the north-west present in the Chamber. That illustrates the importance of transport issues in our developing economic environment.

The north-west region includes the conurbations of Greater Manchester and Merseyside, the shire counties of Cheshire, Cumbria and Lancashire, and the unitary authorities of Warrington, Halton, Blackpool and Blackburn, and the High Peak of Derbyshire. The region is mainly urban in character, but has substantial rural aspects. Any transport policy must therefore take account of urban and rural concerns.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on bringing together planning, land use, transport, the environment and regional development. That will provide the opportunity for co-operation in those facets, which has been missing for decades.

I shall make some general points, but I shall tend to concentrate on Greater Manchester. I hope that colleagues will have time to cover the other, no less important areas in the region.

The Government's White Paper, "A New Deal for Transport--Better for Everyone", is the first comprehensive review of national transport policy for well over 20 years, and represents a welcome and much-needed move away from the policies of deregulation and privatisation, which have, sadly, characterised transport policy for the past two decades.

The policies of the previous Government brought considerable hardship to the people of Greater Manchester, with disruption to local bus services accelerating a decline in patronage, and the local rail network being starved of much-needed investment.

The White Paper is a radical attempt to develop a transport strategy that is fully integrated, by which I mean not only integrated between different transport modes to ensure that they are safe, reliable, convenient and easily accessible, but integrated with other Government policies. Only now can transport policy be allowed to play its full and rightful part in the successful regeneration of Greater Manchester, thus contributing to economic growth, providing a sustainable environment and allowing the population to participate fully in the on-going success of the region. Improved traffic links will help to attract industry to the north-west, thereby increasing employment.

Integrated transport cannot be achieved overnight. The previous Government dismantled most of that during their period in office, rather than smoothing the path to full integration. A fine example of the damage caused by the previous Government's transport policies was the 1986 fiasco of bus deregulation. The Transport Act 1985 took away the passenger transport executive's bus operating arm and swept away a mass of regulation.

Bus deregulation, it was said, would increase bus patronage, improve efficiency, reduce fares and cut subsidies. However, the reality in Greater Manchester was very different. Patronage declined by 26 per cent. and fares increased in real terms by about one third. Part of

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the problem was the chronic instability of the bus network in the free market environment. At one stage there were between 60 and 70 bus operators in the region, and the level of competition meant that there were hordes of buses aggressively vying for the available trade.

Levels of congestion and pollution in town centres and inner suburbs have increased. That has been particularly damaging to the health and quality of life of residents and visitors. The bus operators are not the ones who must bear the cost of the damage.

We hope that the White Paper will provide a framework that will enable the problems to be addressed. The launch in August last year of the Greater Manchester integration project, which is cited in the White Paper as model of best practice for others to follow, will set new standards for travel in the conurbation, and show how working in partnership can provide a public transport system with the qualities that people want.

Profitability in the bus industry depends critically on territorial control without too much competition. That is why, in the past few years, major private sector bus company conglomerates such as Stagecoach have developed. The logic is simple: there is no money in bus operations without a virtual monopoly. Such lack of competition is worrying and imposes increased costs on the passenger transport authority and executive. An economic regulator similar to the system that exists for rail is essential if bus transport is to play its proper role in an integrated transport system.

The dismantling of the UK rail system was another act of sheer vandalism. So far, we know that it has resulted in huge costs, phenomenal complexity, uncertainty and growing customer dissatisfaction. The establishment of the Strategic Rail Authority will provide a vision for the privatised railway, and through tough regulation--not deregulation--will make it more accountable to both passengers and freight customers.

On a more positive note, I shall highlight the considerable achievements of the region in transport terms. Greater Manchester has pioneered projects that are leading the way to the development of an integrated transport policy. As we all know, Greater Manchester is the home of Metrolink, the first modern street-running light rail system in Britain. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer), who led Manchester city council at the time that it was introduced.

The first line, from Bury to Altrincham, was opened in 1992 at a cost of £145 million, jointly funded by the public and private sectors. The system--the track, equipment, trams and so on--is wholly owned by the passenger transport executive, but it is operated under a 15-year franchise agreement with the private sector.

Phase 1 runs on former British Rail lines to Bury in the north of the county through to Altrincham in the south. In Manchester, the line runs on-street through the heart of the city centre, for the first time providing rail access to the retail and commercial core, an essential function of any good transport system.

In 1997, 13.7 million journeys were made by Metrolink. The number is continually increasing and studies are being undertaken to examine options for further increasing the capacity of the fleet. If that figure is compared with the 7 million passengers carried on the British Rail lines that Metrolink replaced, the success of the system speaks for itself.

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Metrolink appeals to car-owners as well. Studies show that it has replaced 2.6 million car trips on roads in Greater Manchester. The system has brought undoubted benefits to the local economy and has supported efforts to attract new business to the city centre and other town centres in Greater Manchester. It is crucial in the fight against traffic pollution and congestion.

The extension of the Metrolink system is the No. 1 priority. The county now has more developed plans for a full light rail network than any other conurbation and looks forward to its rapid development. Already the first extension to the scheme--the Salford Quays and Eccles extension--is under construction and should be completed by March 2000.

The next priority scheme, which affects my constituency, is the proposed extension to Oldham and Rochdale. I am pleased to see my hon. Friends the Members for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas) and for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons) in the Chamber. Conversion of the existing rail route to Metrolink operation will bring about a major transformation, vastly improving reliability and accessibility to the town centres. Predictions are that use of the existing rail line could be increased 10-fold.

Work is continuing on the development of other extensions for the future--for example, to east Manchester and Ashton-under-Lyme, which will provide a substantial boost to the economic and environmental regeneration of east Manchester and Tameside, and provide world-class public transport links for the Commonwealth games. In south Manchester, the Manchester airport link will enhance economic development potential and improve access opportunities to the airport and surrounding area. I shall return to the subject of the airport.

I should also like to take this opportunity to mention the East Lancs rail line in my constituency, which is voluntarily run and managed. It has made a magnificent contribution to tourism in Bury and Rossendale. There is soon to be a Heywood link, which local business is interested in using for freight. The rail line would provide a regular link with the channel tunnel.

The development of a comprehensive bus corridor strategy has been designed to improve the attractiveness and quality of bus travel across the conurbation. Bus priority is essential to improve the reliability of bus services. Until they can be insulated from the effects of traffic congestion, they will never be reliable or attractive enough to entice people out of cars.

I should like to mention another initiative in my constituency. The Middleton traffic initiative is a voluntary transport study group which has produced plans, of which I know the Minister has had sight, to take heavy goods vehicles of more than 17 tonnes out of the town centre. It is important that further transport links do not cause unnecessary harassment or pollution. Traffic congestion caused by HGVs trundling through residential areas is a focus of political and community concern, and must be tackled. That is why the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, headed by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, is crucial.

As part of plans to upgrade the north-west's rail network, a Greater Manchester rail development and investment strategy is to be developed to improve the quality of services and ensure that the passenger transport authority is best placed to exploit the potential of rail in the context of the county's transport strategy.

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We cannot debate transport without mentioning the North West Trains company's recent poor performance, which has prompted it to implement a programme of remedial action--known as the recovery plan--which will set a series of targets for rolling stock, driver availability and ticket office opening hours. I hope that it works. The message to Railtrack from this debate and from the House must be that we demand proper investment in the north-west line because it is important to improving the service in the area. The economy would benefit from early investment in north-west links with Eurorail and the channel tunnel. I noticed that a paper on the subject had been put in the Vote Office this morning, although I did not have the opportunity to read it before the debate. Such a link is essential.

Clearly, the task of developing Greater Manchester's public transport network is challenging and will involve securing essential integration of the range of services that passengers and the public generally want to be provided. In taking into account progress to date, including the development of initiatives, such as the integration project and the innovative quality partnership agreement, and proposals to extend Metrolink, which are important to Greater Manchester, I have every confidence that Greater Manchester is well placed to address the Government's objectives of a truly integrated transport network.

Manchester's municipal airport, which I believe is now the second busiest in the United Kingdom, was recently given leave to borrow in order to invest in further and improved transport links in and around the airport. It will be a major player in developing the economic heartland of the north-west and other regions. Such development would be supported by upgrading the west coast main line, rolling stock and subregional links. Further links to the east coast, better trans-Pennine links and links to Scotland and Wales are also desirable. Government support for those necessary transport links would benefit Manchester, Liverpool, Chester and Carlisle, as well as cities in the east, such as Sheffield, Leeds and Hull. Many surrounding towns and large rural areas could also benefit.

This is an important debate for the north-west. The region's economic prosperity depends on its complex transport links. There is no substitute for a properly planned, integrated transport strategy serving commuters, attracting tourists to the north-west's beauty spots--and taking them home again--and, of course, attracting and offering development opportunities to industry. We must plan to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the global economy, and at the same time, protect the environment and our communities. That is what we seek; that is what we hope the Government will support. I shall now end my remarks because I am aware that colleagues have important contributions to make to this debate.

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