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6.16 pm

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): It is always difficult to follow the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). He oozes decency to such a degree that it is almost impossible to disagree with him--but we must struggle to do so, in the name of the people.

I have to say that there are occasions on which I do disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Given that he has issued a wish list for tube and infrastructure improvements in London Transport, however, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will recall that I may have written to him about the absence of a down escalator at Greenford station.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge made an important point about access for people with disabilities. The footings for the Greenford station escalator were installed in 1943, but because--sadly--the steel was needed elsewhere at the time, we now have footings but no escalator. Since then the people of Greenford--men and women carrying babies, shopping, luggage and now, under the present Government, enormous pay packets--have struggled personfully down the stairs, without an escalator, but knowing each time that the footings exist beneath their very feet.

The point made by the hon. Member for Uxbridge should not, however, distract us from some of the more unpleasant and, I have to say, overly politically partisan points made by other speakers who have not considered the issue of transport provision for London except in the narrowest of party political terms. The hon. Member for Ruislip- Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) made an extraordinary speech, in which he was unkind--indeed, beastly--to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Davies). He simply did not behave like a gentleman. I would expect better from one with his record.

I wish I could have asked the hon. Gentleman of what towering achievements during the 18 years of Conservative Government he was most proud. What were the enormous infrastructure improvements? What were the new track, signalling and equipment financing arrangements? What new tube stations were built? What,

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apart from the Heathrow loop, was done to improve London's transport during those 18 dark, dank, dismal years?

Mr. Jenkin rose--

Mr. Pound: I recall them not, but I am sure I will be given a list now by the hon. Member for somewhere miles from London.

Mr. Jenkin: We completed the Victoria line, we ordered the Jubilee line extension, we built the docklands light railway, we ordered the Croydon Tramlink--would the hon. Gentleman like me to go on?

Mr. Pound: The hon. Gentleman is good at saying what he "ordered"; he is less good at saying what was actually delivered during that period. [Interruption.]

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) leads me to sympathise with the point made by the Leader of the Opposition in the popular press today that Scottish Members of Parliament should never be allowed to comment on matters relating to England. Perhaps bumptious bumpkins from Buckinghamshire should not be able to comment on issues relating to London. A prerequisite for participating in our debate tonight should be the possession of one, two or, in my case, three and a half tube stations.

Mr. Bercow: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pound: Yes, let us trade insults.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, I really am. I represent Buckingham, which is close to my heart. I have an agreeable residence there, to which I do not intend to invite the hon. Gentleman. However, he is woefully ignorant of the fact that I have had a home in London for 37 years. I probably know more tube stations than he has forgotten, and have forgotten more tube stations than he knows.

Mr. Pound: It is well known that the hon. Member for Buckingham arrived at his selection meeting in a borrowed helicopter. I would suggest that the sort of a chap who borrows a helicopter to go to a selection meeting is not overly familiar with London Transport.

Mr. Bercow: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not wish to delay proceedings unduly, and am greatly enjoying the hon. Gentleman's speech. However, is it in order for one hon. Member to accuse another of borrowing something for which he paid and which left a large hole in his pocket?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that that is not a matter for the Chair.

Mr. Pound: I did not imply that the hon. Member for Buckingham managed to nick a helicopter from helicopter parking in Buckinghamshire. I was merely saying that the helicopter was not the hon. Gentleman's own.

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Moving on to the substantive issue, I have a great deal of sympathy for the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) for an end to the arcane nonsense of angels dancing on the head of a pin, and an improvement in the service. I represent the western end of the District line where the position is intolerable--if it is not, I do not know the meaning of the word. We are pressure-cooked and steamed in the morning--if we are lucky enough to get on the damned train. When we get out of the train at the other end--assuming that we do, as I believe that many of my constituents do not emerge from that black hole--we are reamed, steamed and dry-cleaned.

That appalling and outrageous situation is matched in horror only by the sheer brass neck and utter effrontery of the Conservative party which, for 18 years, did virtually nothing to improve the situation, left us with a black hole of £1.2 million underfunding, cut all funding in the year before the election and required London Underground to break even at the end of every financial year, in one of the most ludicrous pieces of accounting practice ever seen in the world. Now, the Conservative party suddenly appears to be the champion of the tube passenger, which is amazing, considering that its former leader, Baroness Thatcher, memorably said that anyone over the age of 30 who travels on public transport is a failure. The Opposition motion on the Order Paper has, as we say round my way, more front than the Hoover building. It is outrageous for the Opposition to suggest that they are seeking to do anything other than score party political points and drive a wedge between the Labour party and our good friend the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone).

The hon. Member for Brent, East made a well-informed, cogent and important contribution in addressing the issue of safety. To be perfectly honest, I am agnoistic about funding, and do not care where the money comes from, as long as it comes. I would be quite happy if an Opposition Member chipped in and gave us a capital injection. The important things are the ownership of the underground system and its safety record.

I see no causative link between these two factors, but within six months of my being elected, there was an enormous train crash at Southall, which adjoins my constituency. When I went down there, I found that people were dealing with 21 different companies. Because of the fragmentation, it was impossible to try and identify any lines of control, command and communication. If the majority of Government Members wanted to privatise London Underground, fragment it and carve it up into a British Rail-type disaster, I could not bring myself to vote for that. Thankfully, that is not the case, and there is no suggestion that London Underground will be anything other than a single entity that is a publicly controlled and owned company.

The hon. Member for Brent, East made an important point, which must be addressed. He agreed that there will be one publicly owned, accountable, strategic company for the whole city. However, what about contractors and subcontractors? How can there be accountability, when contractors are subcontracting, as are the subcontractors themselves? Even the most monopolistic public body has contractors and subcontractors. To try to make the point that a public company is not a public company because it

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may occasionally employ a subcontracted sparks on the signalling system is, if not mendacious, certainly whipping up scares without any valid ground.

Ms Abbott: With the greatest respect, my hon. Friend does not seem to understand the Government's proposals. The Government are putting in place proposals whereby three infracos are bidding for three separate contracts. There will not be a unified company in the way that my hon. Friend described.

My hon. Friend was flippant about the use of subcontractors. However, all the comments on the Hatfield disaster that I have seen have suggested that it was precisely because Railtrack hollowed itself out and contracted and subcontracted responsibilities for maintenance, that repairs were not done as quickly as they should have been.

Mr. Pound: I thank my hon. Friend for that. One of the hardest things is to try to have a sensible, logical debate in the long shadow of British Rail privatisation, which is an example of how not to privatise. It is unfortunate when people try to extrapolate from the splintered privatisation involving British Rail and Railtrack and compare that to London Transport. However, the proposals for London Transport are not comparable to those for British Rail, as we are not talking about several companies running tubes on a system owned by a different company. With respect, there is no comparison.

We have a transport system for our capital that is creaking at the seams because of under-investment over many years. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central made the point that more people may be using the tube, and I agree that capacity is an issue. However, London Transport was privately funded in the middle of the 19th century, mostly by American money. It was built privately, was used and cherished by Londoners, and did not even come into the public domain until after the first world war. The system was one in which ownership was not as important as reliability, punctuality, efficiency and safety, and we must concentrate on those factors now.

Under the Government's proposals, the idea is that assets will return to the public sector after they have been upgraded. I appreciate that, in politics, one should always look a gift horse in the mouth. However, in this case, we have as good a financial deal as we are going to get, and the only realistic alternative is for the entire country to pay to upgrade London Transport through taxation. I do not think that hon. Members could reasonably propose to do that. Bonds are an attractive option, at which we should look. However, that is not a free option, and the idea that a bond issue could be wholly self-financing is theoretical rather than practical. No one will fund a bond issue with nil return, as risk and exposure are involved and interest payments have to be met. The idea that such an issue could be completely ring-fenced and self-financing is more hopeful than practical.

The key issue is the need to take action now in the names of Londoners and to make safety paramount. The scares about fragmentation leading to Hatfield-type disasters are not appropriate, as that is not what is being proposed.

The motion deserves to be voted down. Any Opposition Member who supports it in the Lobby should hang their head in shame and ask themselves: what did we do during

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our 18 years that made the situation better? From where I stand--not the man on the Clapham omnibus, but the man on the District line in the morning--I see an underfunded tube system that is just about on the edge of disaster. We must rescue it. Let us do it in the name not of ideology, but of practicality and, above all, urgency.

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