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9.6 pm

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch): I represent a constituency containing thousands of people who, like me, travel in and out of London by tube every day. We have all seen the system gradually deteriorate: I remember one occasion when I had to walk from Ladbroke Grove to Euston because a single cable had failed in one part of the system, resulting in the whole system being out of action. That was a direct result of something that the Tories prefer to forget--the running down of investment in the system during the years when they were in office.

The speech made by the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) was a vacuous whine, which served no useful or constructive purpose either in the debate or generally. We know what the Tories' view of the tube is: their solution is privatisation. Privatisation has only ever served one purpose, which is to put taxpayers' and workers' money into the pockets of wealthy shareholders. That is how it has always worked and how it would always work if the Tories were back in government. They have proved that on various occasions, the most glaring example being the privatisation of the railways, not to mention the coal industry privatisation and every other privatisation that they undertook.

I must admit that I have my doubts about the public-private partnership planned by the Labour Government. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) pointed out, in its submission to

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the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union estimated that, from a 15-year contract and a £7 billion investment, a private contractor would look for a return of between 20 and 25 per cent., or about £1.5 billion. Those figures appear to have been accepted by the Committee.

Mr. Brake: For information, the return required on the Skye bridge was 18.4 per cent.

Mr. Cryer: London Underground could borrow money far more cheaply on the market through a bond issue and I can see no reason why it cannot do so, other than the fact that it might affect the public sector borrowing requirement, which might be a factor. However, the company could successfully borrow the money through an issue of debt on the bond market, which would produce a great influx of capital without the need to resort to hiring private contractors, who would demand a return of about £1.5 billion, which would effectively come out of taxpayers' pockets. What would happen if things went slightly wrong and the contracts overran or targets were not met? I should be interested to know what targets would be set and to what incentives and penalties the private contractors or contractor would be subject when the agreements had been finalised.

There is also the question of employees of London Underground and how they would be affected by the new contracts. New employees taken on by the underground after the PPP comes into effect will not be part of the pension scheme. They might join the pension schemes of some of the big contractors, but it is possible that they will end up working for subcontractors or even sub-subcontractors.

RMT representatives told me only a couple of days ago that some of union members who are former British Rail employees are now working for their sixth employer since 1995. When employees are passed on in that way, it is highly likely that they will end up working for some cowboy who will certainly not run a pension scheme and whose terms and conditions will be rock bottom because he undercut all the other cowboys to get the contract with the original contractor. The RMT also made the point that London Underground management has refused to negotiate on whether there will be compulsory redundancies or on terms and conditions.

The bottom line is that we can raise the investment without resorting to a PPP or any kind of privatisation. We can do it by borrowing on the bond market through an issue of debt. We can do it by increasing taxation. There are many options, but the important thing is that I know from my long experience of travelling through London and from the experiences of my constituents, of many people whom I know and of people in the unions that, if the Government are successful in sorting out transport in London, especially the tube, they will be praised to the rafters. The true path to a better transport system is to be found in the public sector through public investment.

9.11 pm

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): The hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) will recall that I was present when he made

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his maiden speech. I am delighted to follow him on this occasion and I congratulate him on the questioning nature of his speech.

When the Minister spoke in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), he said that this was the third debate that the official Opposition had asked for on this subject. When the Deputy Prime Minister made his statement on the London underground, I asked whether, given the complexities that we were being asked to absorb in the brief space of a statement, it would be possible shortly after to have a debate in Government time. I say willingly that the Deputy Prime Minister was not unsympathetic to that idea, although he produced the disclaimer that the matter was not wholly in his hands. It is the official Opposition who have called this third debate and I am delighted that they have done so.

Politicians are divided into healers and warriors. I do not think that even my worst enemy would put me in a category other than the healers. In our first debate on the London underground, to an extent that even my Front-Bench colleagues probably thought was eccentric and idiosyncratic, I offered London Labour Members an olive branch of common cause. It was on that occasion flatly rejected in speeches of assault on the previous Government's record. The same blame for their record has been evinced tonight. I misquote deliberately, in order to avoid personalising the issue, "Methinks they do protest too much."

Both the Government amendment, the length of which was worthy of the length of the tube network without the benefit of a Frank Pick map, and the aggressiveness of the response from Opposition Members, were coloured occasionally by recall of that vignette of a Latin American delegate at the United Nations, in the margin of whose speech were marked the words "Weak point--shout." Certainly between them they revealed a Government on the defensive, by which I was not surprised.

That said, I salute and give credit to the Minister for one statement in the early part of his speech. He said that Londoners were interested in seeing the problems of London underground faced up to. He had a good crack about there being no references to passengers in the five-line motion tabled by the official Opposition. However, the one reference to passengers in the Government's 15-line amendment did not exactly overdo passenger concern. The Minister discreetly omitted from his speech any reference to the criticisms by the Transport Sub-Committee of the Select Committee of what the Government were about.

As a Londoner, I agree that the Underground has been under siege under Governments of both colours and Greater London councils of both colours. My recollection of the relief of Lucknow is that the first sign of it was a skirl of bagpipes to the tune of "The Campbells are Coming." Londoners might be forgiven if on this occasion they thought that not all the Campbells would necessarily be welcome or of help if media presentation took precedence over solid improvement.

In such presentation as we received today, no reference was made to the Chelsea-Hackney line, phase 2 of the

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channel tunnel rail link or advanced construction of the new Thameslink station at St. Pancras, let alone crossrail. That silence is not what Londoners expected of new Labour, and on Thameslink 2000 that silence is steadily lengthening.

What do third parties--I refer to those in London, not to those in the House--think of the position? The London chamber of commerce and industry said that the Government have a "can't do mentality". That is very new Labour. It says that 70 per cent. of businesses would oppose road user charges and workplace parking levies if revenues were not fully invested in improving public transport.

London First, to which the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) referred, had a powerful influence on the previous election result in London through its canvassing on the London underground during the campaign, so it is no particular friend of the official Opposition. It has identified 20 transport actions that need to be taken before the setting up of the Greater London authority and 10 new powers that must be given to the authority. When the Minister for Transport in London winds up the debate, it will be interesting to hear how many of those proposals the Government are prepared to accept.

London First also reported that 51 per cent. of respondents in its business survey said that the underground was the most important transport issue for the Greater London authority, against 38 per cent. who said that road congestion was most important.

What about the Government's response, as demonstrated this evening? The reference to the £1.2 billion deficit on infrastructure, which I acknowledge--the figure is agreed throughout the Chamber--gave no credit to the fact that it is much less than half the deficit that the previous Government inherited from the Greater London council. The Minister of Transport claims that the Government have made a start, but he should also acknowledge the progress made by the previous Government, which has been recognised in my constructive conversations with London Transport management.

I am delighted to see the Minister return to the Chamber. I apologise for having referred to him in his absence. He did not refer to the fact that London underground fares are heading in the opposite direction to privatised rail fares. He made no reference to the article by Simon Jenkins, which my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) quoted, or the astronomical charges that the Treasury is thought to be insisting that bidders should pay for access to the network. We were not told how far the absence of a survey for the infrastructure of the underground may be adding to the risks with which bidders are having to cope. The Opposition and those bidders have no idea what uncompetitive work practices the RMT may insist on.

Campbells may be coming--I treat the Minister with good will--but the terrain over which they are advancing remains unpromising. Londoners using the system need, above all, long-term stable policies. It is the task of the official Opposition to continue to man the ramparts of Lucknow. If that means a fourth debate, a fifth debate and a sixth debate, so be it. We shall know that relief is on the way when at last we have a debate in Government time.

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