Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Ottaway: I will not drag the debate down to the Minister's level.

This group of amendments relate to the transfer of London Underground to the authority. They are necessary only as a result of the shambles that the Government are in over their plans to transfer London Transport's undertakings to the new authority. They have no idea how they will get there, no idea where they are coming from, and no idea of the finished project. The Minister takes the biscuit when she says that the process is clear and easy for everybody to understand and that no one is as bright and intelligent as she is. I am sorry, but we are simply not as gullible as that.

In response to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), the Minister talked about whether the public-private partnership would be ready. The only reason why the amendments and new clauses have been tabled is that the PPP will not be ready. If she thought that it would be, there would be no need for the amendments because the transfer could be completed before the elections next year.

4.30 pm

The Minister said that the Government refuse to be tied to a deadline for the transfer because they want to achieve best value. I have to say that that is a pretty good line, but it does not fly. The Minister is not tied into a deadline because she has no idea when she will be able to reach her conclusions about setting up the PPP and when it will be transferred.

We have an awful lot to say about the PPP and its transfer, and about the nature of London Underground and its relationship with the new authority. I shall not waste the House's time by saying it all twice, so I shall save my remarks for the next group of amendments, which relate directly to the PPP rather than to the transitional arrangements.

Mr. Simon Hughes: We started considering a Bill whose original clause 144 is very simple and which states:

We assumed that that would happen when the Bill became law, or at least when the Bill was implemented as an Act. In other words, LRT would cease to exist on the day the Act took effect. That was always the proposition, and the presumption.

In Committee, Liberal Democrat Members, with the Conservatives, explored the issue. We discovered that Alice, from "Alice in Wonderland", had walked across the

5 May 1999 : Column 962

Bill, in that clause 144 now meant that London Regional Transport shall not cease to exist. The reason was that the Government had decided, in the period since the Bill was published, that they would have to keep it going. We asked how long LRT would exist before ceasing to exist, but answer came there none.

The Government new clauses that are to substitute for the original--and very simple--clause 144 are hugely longer. They propose a set of transitional provisions that do not say when that transition will begin or end. As the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) said, it became apparent that the plan had run into the sidings--or at least into a tunnel--and that the Government are not willing to reveal what is really going on.

We are willing to let the Government tell us that they are on target for the timetable set out on Second Reading by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. My questions relate to what he told us on Second Reading on 14 December, and to the Government's proposals in the amendments.

The timetable set out on Second Reading is the precondition to the public-private partnership. The Secretary of State said that London Regional Transport would be restructured in the first half of 1999 into an operating division and three infrastructure divisions. My understanding is that that has happened. He added that the aim would be to invite expressions of interest from infrastructure bidders early in 1999. It is understood that the invitation went out and that some people have responded. Will the Minister confirm that the date by which people were asked to express an interest has passed? Are all the expressions of interest that have been considered now with the Government? Even if she is not at liberty to say who has expressed an interest, will the Minister say how many such expressions were received?

I understand that the Government intend the Bill to be enacted by the summer. Will the Minister say when the Government propose to start the transfer referred to in new clause 16, which will allow the Secretary of State to set up programmes for transferring London Regional Transport's property, assets or functions? What is the first date for such a transfer?

Can the Minister say what is the last date by which the Government intend London Regional Transport's property, obligations, assets and so on to be transferred?

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): Bet she can't.

Mr. Hughes: I am not willing to take that bet because I do not believe anyone could win it. I understand, but I am willing to be proved wrong, that the Government do not yet know.

Government new clause 21 says that LRT will be dissolved by the Secretary of State when he or she is satisfied that all functions have been adequately transferred. Does that mean under the current Government? Would it be in the next Government's period in office, or the one after that? Does it require the Labour party to be in office for a generation, or two? May we have some idea?

To their credit, the Government faced the electorate on certain specific pledges. For example, taking 100,000 off the waiting lists was an early pledge. We are still waiting,

5 May 1999 : Column 963

as it has not yet been quite delivered, but other pledges were made, and all of them were given time frames. What is the time frame for this one?

Finally, I was not surprised to hear the Minister say that she was not minded to accept amendment No. 35. We took a simple view that anyone who believed in devolving power and responsibility for London transport to the new government for London should transfer responsibility to that new government once it had been set up. There is nothing complicated about that idea. It resembles tomorrow's Scottish elections, in that the plan is that once the people of Scotland have voted for their Parliament, power over a range of matters will be transferred to Scotland in a few weeks, which the Liberal Democrats welcome. The same applies in Wales.

We had understood, naively perhaps, that when the Government said that they would, from next July, set up a new Greater London assembly, then once elected,the new mayor and deputy mayor would assume responsibility. When London government returns next year it will be welcome because many of us believe that there should be democratic government. However, will it or will it not take on responsibility then for London transport?

If the answer to that question is no, a whole raft of proposals for the work that the London government will do will become theoretical. It will have work to do, but the proposition that it will take over transport clearly will not come to pass. If the Government cannot tell us by which date the new underground system will be handed over--whether or not the new mayor and assembly should have a say in its form--the election campaign will be interesting. Mayoral candidates will produce policies for running a transport system that they may not be able to run during their entire term of office.

That is Alice in Wonderland politics. People are invited to stand for election to run London transport, but may not be given that prize before leaving office four years later. That is nonsense. The Government would do us all a service by loosening the apron strings and not being the nanny state. They must allow the mayor and the assembly, whoever they are, to take responsibility and to be accountable. If they do a wonderful job, they will be applauded. If they do a bad job, they will be kicked out. But if we are to have devolution, let us have it, not never-neverland, say-one-thing-and-do-another politics that replaces the simple proposition that LRT will go with clauses saying that it might be with us for the rest of our lives.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Only rarely do I agree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). Rather more often, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway). Today, I may speak briefly because they have spoken exactly as I would have wished to. The amendments would transfer responsibility from "London Regional Transport" to "Transport for London". It is no great radical leap in terms of the words used.

I accept what the Government intend to do, but I do not agree with it. Of all the amendments that have ever been proposed to a Bill, these Government amendments represent the most radical changes to the Bill as originally

5 May 1999 : Column 964

published. Vast changes are to be made to the Bill that the Government presented to the House: almost every amendment begins, "Leave out", and proceeds to delete chunks of text, in addition to which there are seven new Government clauses in this group. Talk about politics on the hoof--the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey might have got lost in the tunnel, but the train appears to have gone off the rails.

The reason is simple: the Government realise that investment in London's transport is desperately needed, even though, goodness knows, investment increased dramatically under the previous Government. In the 1970s, the average level of investment in London transport was less than £50 million a year, whereas in the 1990s, the average was more than £500 million a year, and the figure is even higher today--but, whatever the sum, it is never enough. The reason for that is chronic underinvestment--especially in the underground system--during the 1950s and 1960s, when fewer people started to use the underground.

The only practical, realistic way in which to get investment for the London underground system--indeed, for London's transport as a whole--is privatisation. However, the Government do not like the word "privatisation" and, because their pre-election speeches were all about what an awful thing privatisation is, for the past two years they have been desperately searching for an alternative form of words that will enable them to get what they want without having to announce it to the country. Instead of "private finance initiative", they have come up with "public-private partnership". However, I have to tell them that, if the public-private partnership does not have control over assets, it will not put in the investment--it is as simple as that.

To return to the theme that I introduced yesterday, it is clear that what has been devolved to the people of London is a sham. The hon. Member for Southwark and North Bermondsey--sorry, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey; I suffer from dyslexia at this time of day--was absolutely right to say that there is to be no real devolution to the people of London. He mentioned that the Scots would be voting for their new Parliament tomorrow. The population of Scotland is 5 million, whereas there are 7 million people in London, but what the Government are not devolving to London is an insult when seen in comparison with what is to be devolved to the people of Scotland. London devolution is a sham--the Government's policy is all shadow and no substance. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South in resisting the amendments.

Next Section

IndexHome Page