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Mrs. Laing: Following the hon. Gentleman's heartfelt remarks about what he would do for London transport, he received no support from his hon. Friends around him.

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It is only fair that I and my hon. Friends should give him a little support. We may not agree with what he wishes to do financially or politically, but we wish him luck in terms of being allowed the freedom of speech that everyone should be allowed in this country to put his views to Londoners.

Mr. Livingstone: I am deeply moved by that intervention. I would have liked to hear a bit more like that when the Conservatives were abolishing the GLC. There was no great desire on the part of the Tory party in 1983 that I should continue to be able to put my interesting views before the British people.

We may yet find that it is Londoners who determine what happens with the issue. I suspect that is why many of the companies involved in negotiations are expressing some doubt and uncertainty. The Labour party needs to work out in advance that if we cannot convince the public, we do not have the right to impose on them something that they specifically reject at the ballot box.

8.49 pm

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): I wish that the Minister of Transport was still here so that I could wish him well him on his appointment. He may have felt that the Ministry of Defence was an obstacle course, but it was as nothing compared with the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions. At this early stage of his career as a Transport Minister, his sense of humour seems not to have forsaken him, and his allegory of a circular firing squad will have caught the imagination of hon. Members.

What caught my imagination, however, was the fact that he, a Scottish Member of Parliament, delivered a committed speech about London Underground. I wonder whether, before very long, when the Scottish Parliament is up and running and able to increase the income tax by 3p in the pound, the voters of London may not feel, with good reason, that the subsidy for Scotland disbursed at present from London and elsewhere south of the border should cease in favour of better investment in public transport and other public services of great importance to Londoners.

At the general election, two issues predominated--health and public transport. Labour spokesmen told us that things could only get better for both, but for my constituents things have only got worse. I shall not stray out of order by talking about the woeful situation facing Harefield and Mount Vernon hospitals, two centres of excellence. However, my constituency has no fewer than eight underground stations: Northwood and Northwood Hills on the Metropolitan line; Ruislip, Ruislip Manor and Eastcote on the Metropolitan and Piccadilly lines; and West Ruislip, Ruislip Gardens and South Ruislip on the Central line.

If there is any problem with London Underground, as there so frequently is--particularly when there is what is euphemistically described as industrial action--my constituents face a real problem in getting to work. I imagine that more than half of them travel to work on the underground. The railways offer no effective alternative. There are only two railway stations to the south of my constituency, at South Ruislip and West Ruislip. Just outside the north of my constituency, at Moor Park, the Chiltern line trains no longer stop. If there is a dispute, or other problems, real difficulties arise.

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The roads are already hideously congested. One would have imagined that the Government--so committed in their election rhetoric to improving public transport--would have adopted the intelligent approach of improving public transport to encourage people to use it before they clobbered the motorist. In fact, the motorist has been hit by increases in fuel duty well above inflation. If, as Labour plans, the Greater London authority is able to impose charges on motorists going into London, or to impose levies on employers who provide parking spaces, the motorist will be subject to a double whammy.

None of that will clobber those who stay in bed and do not go to work. It will penalise those who make the effort to get to work, or who, as employers, provide opportunities for others to work. This is quite the wrong approach. The Government ought to have improved public transport first to encourage people to use it. They would have had an incentive to do so. Instead, year after year, London Underground fare increases are well above inflation. This year, 4.5 per cent. is the average increase, which is almost double the present rate of inflation.

Many right hon. and hon. Members may have a view of my constituency that derives from "Tropic of Ruislip", by Leslie Thomas, or from the late poet laureate, Sir John Betjeman's vision of "Metroland". It is, perhaps, a vision of genteel tea taken in china cups behind lace curtains and of long, lazy summer evenings playing tennis. The reality is very different. My constituents have a real struggle, financially because the cost of housing in outer London is so high, but above all to get into work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) graphically described the mole-like existence of the London commuter on the underground. Quite honestly, moles have a happier life than many commuters today. At least moles are not jostled and shoved and I think that they have a modicum of certainty about their existence. There is virtually none on London Underground. If the service runs on schedule and there is not some hideous glitch, the commuter regards himself as exceptionally fortunate. This is the exception rather than the rule.

My long-suffering constituents--commuters who are so typical of the many hard-working Londoners--are looking to the Government to find out whether their election rhetoric will bring them a better deal. First, they ask whether the system will be properly financed. There was a debate across the Dispatch Boxes between my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South and the Minister. The right hon. Gentleman took 39 minutes to put his case, which was a bit much in every sense, and the Government amendment ran to 15 lines on the Order Paper.

I thought that the party below the Gangway--the party from south London, which does not have much connection with the tube or anything else--might at least have some academic insight on this subject. However, having listened to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake), we were not much the wiser about the benefits that Liberal policy would bring.

The electors ought to know that, if the tender for the infrastructure of London Underground is not a success, the Government have some alternative in mind. There is no mention of that in their public expenditure provisions.

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The Government are against privatisation, so I asked the Minister whether their ideological commitment would be forgotten in the interests of providing funding by that means. I cited the example of the Heathrow link to Paddington. The Minister set his face against it. Our constituents and Londoners can only deduce that the issue will be a hot potato that will land in the lap of the mayor and the Greater London authority. How will it cope? It will have no mechanism to do so other than the imposition of road traffic charges and parking levies for workplaces.

The Government may think that the newly elected authority will take all the blame and face all the odium, but they should remember that they failed to face up to the funding realities, so they will have to carry the political can.

Mr. Brake: On funding realities, does the hon. Gentleman recall that the Conservatives were expecting to get £800 million for a privatised tube system? What would he expect the previous or present Government to achieve with that sum?

Mr. Wilkinson: Sadly, we never had the chance to float London Underground and find out what the market price would be. Londoners are looking not only for enhanced investment, but for the enhanced service that the privatised companies would have supplied. That was another aspect of our policy.

The system must be financed properly and be affordable to users. Although the mayor and the authority should not meddle politically with the management of London Underground, we hope that the body that the mayor will appoint to deal with transport for London will encourage London Transport to be more imaginative in its fares structure. I would not wish London Transport to return to the "fares fair" policy which was instituted by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone). Although it was well intentioned, it was a financial disaster. Nevertheless, there should be some encouragement for the hard-working Londoner who gets up early and is prepared to go to work before 8 am. Before the rush hour there should be an exceptional discount on fares--an early-bird system. I hope that the mayor will encourage London Underground to introduce just such a scheme.

Mr. Livingstone: In describing the Greater London council's fares policy as disastrous, the hon. Gentleman overlooked one simple fact. Although we cut the fares by roughly 30 per cent., so many more people used the system that we collected 10 per cent. more revenue in fares in real terms, enabling us to cut the rate after just 18 months of the operation of the policy. In my view that it was pretty successful.

Mr. Wilkinson: The difficulty is that the system is already bursting at the seams and there is no spare capacity to cope with the increased throughput which the hon. Gentleman suggests would ensue. That is why I propose a policy directed at the off-peak time before the rush hour with the introduction of early-bird fares.

The Government led Londoners and others to believe that there would be an increase in the network with new lines and the expansion of the system. All those ideas seem to have ground to a complete halt. Perhaps the Government feel too battered and bruised by the Jubilee line experience, so I shall cite three other examples.

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First, if the Government have decided that crossrail is dead and that there is no possibility of a high speed east-west link in London, they should say so. It is a matter for the Government to decide. They cannot just pass the buck to the mayor and his authority as the crossrail link would extend far beyond the boundaries of Greater London. The decision to keep the route sacrosanct from development is causing blight, so an early decision is necessary.

My second example is the Croxley link, which would be a modest improvement of potentially immense benefit to my constituents and others in north-west London. It would link the Metropolitan line from Croxley tube station, through Watford high street to Watford Junction railway station. It would represent a modest increase in the system as the track already exists and simply needs to be opened up. I hope that the money will be forthcoming. That is why I pressed the Government to stop the subventions to Scotland when the Scottish Parliament is established in Edinburgh and inject some money here, where it is needed. The Croxley link is just one such example of need. The third example is the Chelsea-Hackney line, which has been anticipated--indeed, eagerly awaited--for some time, but of which there is no sign.

Although the debate is thinly attended and although the Liberals decry it as an annual event and therefore somewhat boring, it is of intense interest to Londoners. They expect the interim period to be used well by Her Majesty's Government and they are not prepared to wait until late summer 2000, when the mayor and his authority enter office: instead, they expect hard decisions to be taken now. They expect the tendering process for the infrastructure to be accelerated and, if it is not to be successfully concluded, they expect the injection of private capital for privatisation.

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