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House of Commons

Tuesday 11 January 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]



Order for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Tuesday 18 January.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Buses (Yorkshire and Humberside)

1. Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central): What steps he is taking to improve the quality of bus services in Yorkshire and Humberside area. [103251]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): The Yorkshire and Humberside area will benefit from the measures in the Transport Bill. The Bill provides for a statutory form of bus quality partnership schemes and quality contracts in certain circumstances. That is in the interests of promoting high-quality public transport and a better environment.

Ms Winterton: I welcome the Bill, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that people in rural areas can feel physically isolated and socially excluded without access to good-quality bus services. The 1,800 new rural services have provided a lifeline to many of those people, but how many of those services are in the Yorkshire and Humberside area? What further action might be taken to improve rural bus services?

Mr. Prescott: The rural bus scheme is highly successful. Of the 1,800 services, about 134 are in the

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Yorkshire and Humberside area. Some authorities have not done so well, though. North Yorkshire, for example, has spent only about 25 per cent. of the money that was available, but I am pleased to announce 50 new projects in the rural bus challenge fund scheme, five of which will be in Yorkshire and Humberside. Many more people will have the choice of public transport in rural areas.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Government raise more from the fuel duty on community bus services than they pay every year in lottery grants. Will he therefore improve bus services in Humberside, Yorkshire and elsewhere by offering a fuel duty rebate to community bus services as well?

Mr. Prescott: We will take no lectures from Opposition Members on fuel duty. We are providing a rural bus service that is welcomed in rural areas, despite Opposition Members' protests. This morning, I received a letter from a pensioner in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). It says:

It is called integration. A better public transport system is being provided by the Government.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby): Does my right hon. Friend agree that when, next year, as a result of legislation that is going through the House, pensioners in Selby, Yorkshire become entitled for the first time to half-fare bus passes, it would be advantageous if a reciprocal agreement could be reached between West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Authority, the Selby district and all the other districts in Yorkshire, so that pensioners could use their half-fare bus passes throughout the county--as they can already be used between West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester?

Mr. Prescott: We seek to achieve that. Indeed, the legislation that is before the House will achieve it: a statutory minimum half-fare system for pensioners. Two million pensioners will benefit. It is another example of a good transport system.

Central Railway

2. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): If he will make a statement on the latest proposals from Central Railway plc. [103252]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): I am aware that Central Railway plc has been consulting about its proposal for a freight and passenger railway between Liverpool and Lille. I have received copies of the company's consultation documents, but have not taken a view on the scheme.

Mr. Robathan: I well recall that, before he was elevated to his current position, the Minister was concerned about the Central Railway scheme and its effect on his constituency. My constituents remain deeply concerned about several routes that are blighting houses not only in Leicestershire but throughout the rest of the

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country, from Kent all the way to Liverpool. Will he state categorically whether any public money will be devoted to that grandiose scheme, which, although superficially attractive, seems unviable to most people? Are the Government minded to give it their support, which will be critical in bringing the scheme to the House? The company wishes to have parliamentary approval by the end of the year.

Mr. Hill: I recognise the concerns that the hon. Gentleman expresses on behalf of his constituents. He is right to observe that I have a certain hinterland on the issue. I understand that the company intends to submit a new application for an order before the summer, after which it will be obliged to consult on any applications and affected parties will have the right to put forward their views. No public money will be entailed in the scheme. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate, however, that the Secretary of State will have a quasi-judicial role in considering the application.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I welcome my hon. Friend's reply--he will know of my interest in and support for the scheme. Does he agree that such a scheme could fit in very well with the Government's transport policy, by transferring large amounts of road freight to rail; that it would save public money by reducing roads expenditure; and that it could contribute significantly to the financial viability of the channel tunnel?

Mr. Hill: I am certainly aware of the outspoken support that my hon. Friend has offered to the scheme, and recognise the passenger and freight implications of the proposal. I should, however, remind him that the Government are already taking effective action to secure the transfer of freight from road to rail.

In conjunction with the British Railways Board, the shadow Strategic Rail Authority has recently announced a competition for a model project for transferring freight from road to rail. Moreover, the new Strategic Rail Authority, to be set up by the Transport Bill, will--unlike Opraf--have a new and specific duty to develop a rail freight strategy. Finally, Government grants for rail freight facilities are at record levels. Expenditure on grants, in the three years since 1997, will soon top £80 million. It is also estimated that, in that time, grants will have diverted close to 30 million tonnes of freight from Britain's roads.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): If the Minister is not to support large projects for transferring freight from road to rail, as the Central project would do, which projects will he support? Does he agree that that project is one of many to increase capacity on the rail network but demanding billions of pounds--more than the £27 billion that Railtrack has identified, and possibly even more than the £40 billion said in one survey to be necessary? Where will the money come from? Will the Minister confirm that the much vaunted so-called relaunch of the Government's 10-year plan and £80 billion investment programme is nothing more than the repackaging of money that has already been committed by the private sector and the Government?

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Mr. Hill: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that Railtrack itself has committed to a massive programme of new investment--amounting to £27 billion--in rail infrastructure across the country. Extra rail services are in place, 44 new rail freight terminals have been established since the Government came to power, and, in this period, rail freight movements are up by 15 per cent.

Best Value

3. Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth): If he will make a statement about the progress being made by local authorities in developing best value. [103253]

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): Good progress is being made to meet the target date of 1 April 2000. The statutory framework for best value, including guidance and the new national performance indicators, is almost complete, and we are working closely with the Audit Commission and the Local Government Association to ensure that all authorities are up to date in their preparations.

Mr. Jenkins: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. However, will she join me in congratulating many of the smaller local authorities--such as Tamworth borough council--which have for years delivered excellent and improving services while increasing council tax by less than the rate of inflation? Tamworth has been able to do that by stripping out layers of management. Will my hon. Friend not only give a guarantee that small authorities will not be encumbered by any more bureaucracy, but consider using a light touch in administering the policy? May I also have an assurance that small authorities--which, unlike large authorities, are not able to take advantage of economies of scale--will not be faced with a financial burden that they will have to pass on to local council tax payers?

Ms Armstrong: My hon. Friend is to be congratulated on the work that he did as leader of Tamworth council, to ensure that that council was efficient and worked effectively for local people--which, he will appreciate, is the main task of local authorities. Local authorities have not only to work effectively, but to meet local people's aspirations and demands, and the reality is that best value gives local authorities much more flexibility. As the pilots have demonstrated, the best value regime brings palpable improvements.

Several of the pilot authorities are small authorities. I assure my hon. Friend that they are not complaining about bureaucracy, but are saying that best value gives them new opportunities. However, they are also saying that best value requires the involvement of everyone--members and officers--in ensuring that the new approach delivers the very best value to citizens.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): The Minister will know that last March the Prime Minister indicated that too many Labour councils were failing to deliver good value services to their citizens. Why is it that, under the

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Government's proposals for the best value programme, councils do not have a general requirement to consider tendering?

Ms Armstrong: The hon. and learned Gentleman has perhaps been asleep during our discussions in the House. The legislation made it absolutely clear that the Government--and now the House--do not take an ideological approach. We say that councils have to find the best way forward, whether that involves using an in-house service, a partnership, the voluntary sector or a private sector company. We are looking for the best for the citizen and no single organisation necessarily produces that. So far from Whitehall saying, "We know best," we are saying, "You have a duty locally to deliver the best."

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): Why is best value better than compulsory competitive tendering?

Ms Armstrong: It is better precisely because, as has been demonstrated already by the pilot studies, it responds effectively to the aims and aspirations of local people and seeks to get the best quality at the most efficient price. It does not represent an ideological approach, which was all that CCT was about.

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