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House of Commons

Tuesday 15 June 1999

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

London Underground

1. Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): If he will assess the Chantrey Vellacott report into the financing costs of the public-private partnership for London Underground, a copy of which has been sent to him. [85779]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): We have assessed the note published by Chantrey Vellacott, but consider the analysis within it to be flawed.

Mr. Brake: I thank the Secretary of State for his response, even though, having given him advance notice of my question, I had hoped for a more considered reply. I repeat the question that I asked the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's Question Time: is the extra cost of the Government's public-private partnership proposals for London Underground going to be £8 billion--yes or no?

Mr. Prescott: The extra investment will be approximately £7 billion, but it will not be raised entirely through borrowing or through fares, so the analysis is flawed.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Given the very high commitment of public funds to private finance initiative schemes, has my right hon. Friend considered the risk that, by appraising schemes using the Treasury's discount rate of 6 per cent., a spurious impression of value for money will be created?

Mr. Prescott: In all those projects, we are required to demonstrate value for money; the House of Commons Select Committees and the Public Accounts Committee have all made that absolutely clear. Our proposals, whether on Treasury assessment, bond financing or anything else, all have to be subject to that judgment. In my judgment, the proposals that we shall announce later will meet that requirement.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): If the first mayor of London is elected on a pledge to reject the Secretary of State's public-private partnership, what happens?

Mr. Prescott: We have made it absolutely clear that we shall sign the deal. I am sure that the mayor of London

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wants a London Underground in which there is good investment, and our proposals will provide that. I cannot think of a Labour Member of Parliament who would not want a good underground system.

Railway Passengers

2. Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling): If he will make a statement on trends in the number of people using trains. [85780]

The Minister for Transport (Mrs. Helen Liddell): The Government welcome the marked upward trend in the number of people using trains.

Mr. Coaker: We all welcome the increase in the number of people using trains, but will my right hon. Friend do all she can to support the increased use of local trains? In particular, will she support the work of Nottinghamshire county council and Nottingham city council on the Greater Nottingham area rail development strategy, which is designed to get more local people to use local trains, rather than clogging up the city's roads as they go in and out of town?

Mrs. Liddell: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I applaud him for raising the issue. In his area, the Robin Hood line has been greatly welcomed, but we must see that line as the beginning of the story, not the end. The use of local rail links fits in well with the Government's integrated transport strategy, so I commend the Greater Nottingham rail development strategy and look forward to its implementation.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): I draw the Minister's attention to the figures published today by the rail franchising director on the punctuality and reliability of services. It is one thing to have increasing numbers of passengers, but those figures show that reliability and punctuality are declining among many rail providers. Is that the future of public transport and of trains under the Labour Government?

Mrs. Liddell: The hon. Gentleman makes a point that was made by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister during the rail summit: as the number of people travelling by train increases, it is important that overcrowding does not become a factor that inhibits the quality of service to passengers. When the rail franchising director considers the renegotiation of franchises that my right hon. Friend announced at the summit, such factors must be taken into account. Ultimately, it is the performance and efficiency of the rail network and the quality of the experience for passengers that are important and must be taken into account.

Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): May I take this opportunity to welcome my right hon. Friend to her new position? I am sure that she will do extraordinarily well. Does she agree that the increases in train patronage, constraints on road building and the escalator in taxation of polluting fuels provide a virtuous environment for private sector investment in rail infrastructure, rolling stock and track? Will she use her position to put pressure

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on the industry to put greater investment into capacity, so that people can make greater use of trains in an environmentally sustainable way?

Mrs. Liddell: Given such a gracious welcome to my position, it would be churlish of me not to agree with my hon. Friend. However, I do agree with him that it is important to improve the quality of the experience of those using public transport, so that public transport becomes a viable alternative that is both attractive and efficient. Road users and users of public transport want services to be improved, because if we ease congestion and improve public transport, everyone gains.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I join in congratulating the right hon. Lady on her appointment--although some of her colleagues could be forgiven for thinking, "No Labour Transport Ministers for 18 years and then three come along at once."

May I admonish the right hon. Lady for having been a little coy about the dramatic 25 per cent. increase in the number of passengers using the railways since privatisation? After two years in power, and no new money, no decisions taken and no legislation, exactly what role have the Government played in that dramatic increase in the number of rail passengers? Is it not about time that the Government started taking decisions that will enable Railtrack to allocate £27 billion to investment and renewals, instead of carping against Railtrack and undermining its share price and its ability to invest?

Mrs. Liddell: May I also take this opportunity to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities at the Dispatch Box? It is interesting to note that the Leader of the Opposition has split the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and that two shadow Secretaries of State are required to match up to my right hon. Friend. The hon. Gentleman talked about three Transport Ministers arriving at once. The Secretary of State for Scotland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), and I attended the same school, so that is perhaps a measure of the effectiveness of our education.

Since this Government were elected, the focus on public transport has been second to none, particularly in relation to rail transport. The fragmented system that we inherited, including some quite bizarre contracts that were signed when the Conservative party was in government, has left us with the challenge of ensuring that our rail transport system is the best in the world within 10 years. At the end of the day, the passengers will decide whether to use the railways. As a new member of the Department, conscious of the achievements that have been made, I commend its work to the House.

Concessionary Travel

3. Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): When he expects to bring forward legislation on concessionary travel for the elderly and the retired. [85781]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): Legislation to fulfil our commitment to minimum half-fare travel on buses for pensioners will be introduced

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as soon as parliamentary time permits. Individual local authorities are free to adopt the proposed minimum standard in advance of legislation.

Mr. Mackinlay: Does the Deputy Prime Minister appreciate that, while Back Benchers and our constituents understand that the Labour Government cannot achieve everything at once--it is a question of priorities and dealing with legislative bottlenecks--there is a growing impatience among some, particularly in the conurbations where boroughs such as mine interface with London boroughs, who believe that the measure should be implemented as quickly as possible? I urge my right hon. Friend to persuade business managers to provide early legislative time so that we may have the scheme up and running long before the next general election.

Mr. Prescott: I understand my hon. Friend's comments about the impatience in this area. We are committed to introducing the half-fare system for pensioners, which we think is right. However, there is nothing to stop any authority introducing that scheme now. I understand that the authority of Thurrock has introduced a half-rate scheme that it subjects to means testing. The difference with our scheme is that 17,000, rather than 7,000, pensioners in Thurrock would qualify for it. Some 3 million pensioners overall will benefit from the scheme.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given that approximately half of local authorities are currently unable to provide the concessionary fare schemes of which the Government are in favour--partly because of the substantial costs that they would entail--can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the statutory scheme that he proposes to introduce will involve no additional cost whatsoever for any local authority in this country and that, therefore, no local authority will be required to increase council tax to pay for the right hon. Gentleman's pledge?

Mr. Prescott: It is just not true to say that a substantial number of local authorities do not pay for some form of concessionary fares--in fact, only 10 do not and they are all Conservative or Independent councils. The total scheme will cost an extra £25 million nationally, which the Government are quite prepared to meet.

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that national concessionary travel is extremely good news for pensioners. Is there similar good news for those pensioners who are former employees of the National Bus Company and whose pension fund was raided by the previous Tory Government to the tune of millions of pounds?

Mr. Prescott: The House is well aware of the ability that my hon. Friend has demonstrated in pursuing the injustice that arose out of the privatisation of the National Bus Company, whereby many thousands of pensioners were denied hundreds of millions of pounds in pension rights. We have now concluded an agreement, and I can confirm that we have reached a settlement with the pension fund trustees which is worth £356 million to 50,000 pensioners, and the trustees will be recommending that offer to the court. That corrects an injustice that arose from the privatisation.

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