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House of Commons

Tuesday 11 July 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]


City of Newcastle upon Tyne Bill [LORDS] (BY ORDER)

Order for Third Reading read.

To be read the Third time on Tuesday 18 July.

Alliance & Leicester Group Treasury plc (Transfer) Bill [LORDS] (BY ORDER)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 18 July.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Rail Services (North-West)

1. Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): What recent discussions he has had with Virgin Trains on the rail service to Manchester and the north-west. [128400]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): It is the franchising director's responsibility to monitor the two franchises that Virgin Trains holds: west coast main line and cross country. He is in regular contact with Virgin Trains about all its services, including those to Manchester and the north-west.

Mr. Lloyd: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the travelling public in the north-west, served by Virgin Trains, hold the strong view that the standard of that service is appalling? It is not punctual often enough; it is shoddy and shabby; and, more importantly, is it very over-priced. Can he get the message across to Virgin Trains that we do not want to live for ever on promises from it? Can he scotch the rumours about delays in upgrading the west coast main line? As he is well aware, it is important to invest in that infrastructure so that we can have a world-class train service on the west coast and up to Scotland.

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Mr. Prescott: I am well aware of the complaints made about the services of Virgin Trains; I travel by train quite often and passengers come up to me and make that point very clearly. The company's target was that services should arrive within 10 minutes of the expected time and about 80.6 per cent. of services achieved it. The service has improved by 8 per cent., but that is a pretty miserable record. To be fair, the desperate need for investment in the west coast line has to be taken into account. We faced problems in that Railtrack and Virgin reached an agreement on the cost of modernisation, which they estimated to be about £2.3 billion; the figure is now £5.2 billion. That two private companies can produce such different estimates does not make it easy to modernise the west coast line. I assure my hon. Friend that we shall ensure that the modern standard of line that has been guaranteed is delivered. He knows that the Director General of Fair Trading and the regulator are questioning Virgin Trains about fares.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I fully endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd). Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that, unless more trains arrive in accordance with the timetable--thus reducing the lateness that is so typical of the north-west line--the transfer of people from road to rail will not be achieved? Does he also agree that a town such as Macclesfield deserves a modern railway station as it is one of the major profit centres for Virgin in the north-west? Will he press Virgin, Railtrack and all those involved to make the necessary investment in the station and the track as well?

Mr. Prescott: The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the reliability record is far worse than under public ownership, but I make it clear that investment is still the critical factor. I have already referred to the major miscalculation of the resources needed to modernise that line. The regulator is investigating, with Virgin and Railtrack, the cost of that operation. I hope that there will be a statement shortly, especially on Railtrack's contribution, and that we can get on with modernising the line. The Strategic Rail Authority is very much involved. There is an important difference between the previous Administration's approach under privatisation and ours; we are trying to bring back public interest in the management of our railways.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Although I do not condone the performance of Virgin or Railtrack, the upgrading has started--we have waited many years for it--and the new tilting trains have been ordered, for which my right hon. Friend should take some credit. I have received a briefing from Railtrack today, and it seems to be getting its act together, but does he not agree that it is a great shame that all the track-laying equipment--and other heavy equipment--used to modernise our railways has been built abroad? Will he consider ways in which to help British manufacturers to get involved in those contracts?

Mr. Prescott: My hon. Friend is right. We are already seeing an increase in the number of people travelling by rail, even on Virgin. There has been an increase of about 17 per cent. on average in rail passenger numbers since May 1997. The improvements that we are making and our

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commitment to the long term are important contributory factors in that. My concern about the manufacturing of rolling stock goes back to when we were in opposition. The problem is that no one was prepared to make a commitment to the long-term planning of the rail industry. We are now correcting that and, with our announcement on the 10-year transport plan, we will give a future to the long-term development of the railways and transport in this country.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): Will the Deputy Prime Minister at least acknowledge that the west coast main line upgrade has started and that the money is being provided by the privatised rail industry--money that he would never have been able to obtain from the Treasury? In comparison, as we approach the general election, why are we still waiting for Labour's so-called transport plan to be announced, let alone started? What have the Government been doing for the past three years? As they feed the press, day after day, with speculation about £50 billion, £80 billion, £140 billion or £160 billion, will he reflect on his own words about what people really think? Did not he say, "They think, 'Isn't this spinning and spinning is about lying'"?

Mr. Prescott: In 18 years of a Tory Administration, we had a decline in the use of the public transport service and disinvestment on a massive scale, but in three years, this Government have produced their first White Paper, the first piece of--[Hon. Members: "Oh!] If the Opposition had thought a bit more about what they were doing, they would not have ended up in a mess. We have a White Paper, legislation and a major announcement of long-term investment in transport. That is why people now have faith in the development of an integrated transport system.


2. Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): If he will make a statement on the progress of the South West of England regional development agency in letting the former HMS Osprey site on Portland. [128401]

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): The South West of England regional development agency is developing a framework plan for the former Royal Naval air station on Portland and a public consultation exhibition seeking local views was held at the end of June. I understand that the hon. Gentleman met the deputy chairman of the RDA yesterday to discuss development of the site.

Mr. Bruce: I thank the right hon. Lady for that answer, but she will know that three years ago, the South Dorset economic partnership was dealing with the former Ministry of Defence sites very effectively. However, there is no permanent tenant on the site as yet and I am told by the South West of England RDA that dealing with other Government agencies--namely the MOD and the Crown Estate--is the problem. It also tells me that it is being held up by a consultation over flooding with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Can she please make sure that Ministers take a personal interest in

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the matter to cut through the problem and get some of the so-called joined-up government that we hear so much about?

Ms Armstrong: I thank the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that the RDA is getting on with the job. It took responsibility for the site from 30 March and has already got a public consultation up and running. Although he was unable to attend the exhibition, he has seen the plans, which are working well, so he knows that there is a site of special scientific interest within the site. Obviously, we have to deal with that properly and undertake proper consultation, but I can assure him that the RDA, with our backing, is doing all that it can to make sure that proper and appropriate development takes place on the site.

Rural Economy

3. Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): What plans his Department has to encourage the economic development of rural economies. [128402]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): The regional development agencies, established in April 1999, have all drawn up regional economic strategies, which fully recognise the needs of rural as well as urban areas. In pursuing rural development, they have at their direct disposal the £29 million rural programme and round 5 single regeneration budget funds, which included some £70 million to be spent on rural areas.

Dr. Turner: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. He will know that the rural group of Labour MPs has recently published a manifesto. Although we acknowledge that the Government have done much and are doing much, there is a lot still to be done. Can he tell us today when my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will be able to publish the rural White Paper, for which we are waiting? Can he commit the Government to ensuring that the White Paper represents an action plan to address problems in rural areas? In particular, will he assure the House that changes will be made to the planning regime to ensure that it helps to achieve the diversification that so many of our farmers need if they are to secure a reasonable income?

Mr. Meacher: My hon. Friend is right to say that the manifesto produced by many of my hon. Friends on the Back Benches is an extremely good document by any standards. We expect to publish the rural White Paper in the autumn. It will take account of my hon. Friends' proposals, and it will be a wide-ranging, practical and ambitious paper covering the whole range of rural services: regeneration, access to services, new directions for agriculture, social exclusion, rural empowerment, conservation and recreation, and rural proofing.

My hon. Friend asked a particular question about diversification. We are well aware of that problem, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning recently held a seminar on the issue. We recognise the

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need for farmers to diversify their businesses beyond agricultural operations, and we have issued national guidance to assist farm-based diversification.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): If the Minister is so committed to the regeneration of rural economies, why are so many of the Government's initiatives on regeneration massively underspent? Is he aware that the single regeneration budget has been underspent by £45 million since 1997, that the European regional development fund has been underspent by £0.25 billion since 1994, and that the Minister's wonderful new scheme, the new deal for communities, spent only 2 per cent. of its budget in 1998-99 and less than half last year? Does he accept that, as a result of the massive mountain of bureaucracy and the Government's failure to co-ordinate these initiatives, rural economies have been offered a feast but are getting a famine? Will he at least publish details of those underspends and the reasons for them, and take action to stop them?

Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman is not quite right. We are aware of underspend, but we are working with local communities precisely to increase their capacity to utilise those funds. He has ignored the fact that the actual spend on countryside programmes will increase in the current three-year period from £128 million in 1998-99 to a projected £174 million by 2001-02, which is an increase of almost 40 per cent. In addition, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced the rural development plan, which includes a 60 per cent. increase to £1.6 billion and a degree of modulation for expenditure on the countryside. It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman, in making a fair point, did not acknowledge the huge increase in expenditure that is now going into the countryside.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): Given that a good, well-maintained water supply is vital to any regeneration in rural communities, has my right hon. Friend had time to study the Kelda proposals to sell Yorkshire Water back to its users? It seems blatantly to be trying to foist its debt on to my constituents and others in Yorkshire. Does he agree that there should be a public inquiry into this so-called sell-off, and that the managers, who have been incompetent and greedy over the years, should be held to account? They have put us all in danger by mismanaging a vital resource.

Mr. Meacher: My hon. Friend raises the important issue of the Kelda proposals for Yorkshire Water. This is primarily a matter for the Director General of Water Services, whose approval is required before such proposals can proceed. He issued a consultation paper, which has not quite run its course--I think that the process ends on 17 July. Ministers do not have a direct responsibility in this area, but I have overriding responsibilities to ensure public health and to meet environmental obligations. I am expecting to see the Director General of Water Services later this week to discuss this very issue.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): Given that agriculture, which is the major industry in rural areas, has experienced a 70 per cent. decline in income under the Government, that 400 post offices closed last year and

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many more expect to close in the coming weeks and months, and that the Royal Mail has decided to stop delivering post by private vehicle, which will detract from the service provided to countless rural businesses, how can the Government take any credit for any development in rural areas? [Interruption.] If the question is about--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has raised a question, but because of the noise, it has not been heard. Will the hon. Gentleman begin again at "How will the Government"? I at least heard him.

Mr. Paice: I will willingly repeat my question, Madam Speaker.

How, in responding to a question about encouraging the development of rural economies, can the Government take any credit for what has been going on in real rural areas over the last three years? If that is what happens when they encourage rural development, what would happen if they discouraged it?

Mr. Meacher: I must say that I cannot but admire the brass neck of representatives of the Tory party who talk of the state of the countryside and rural areas, after the rundown of virtually every kind of service throughout the last two decades. By 1997, buses did not go to many villages. There has been a decline in the number of doctors' surgeries, and schools have closed.

The hon. Gentleman may be thinking particularly of the decline in agricultural incomes, which is unquestionably very severe--probably the worst for half a century or more. However, it preceded the present Government, and it has gained pace under the present Government for much wider international reasons. We are trying to deal with it; the Prime Minister held an agriculture summit, which was extremely well received by the farming community.

I repeat that we are putting more money and more services into rural areas in an attempt to regenerate them after the collapse that occurred in so many villages. The hon. Gentleman ought to recognise that.

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