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8.4 pm

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I am pleased that the Deputy Prime Minister has returned to his seat. I hope that he will enjoy what I have to say.

Mr. Prescott: I am just leaving.

Mr. Brake: I am insulted. Perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister will read my speech in Hansard tomorrow.

Over the past few years, the state of the tube in London has rarely been out of the news. Sadly, the Government's answer to this crisis has never looked so misplaced. We are now more than half way through the Parliament, but the Government have yet to make a start on deliveringthe investment that is needed to expand London's underground and give Londoners a real choice and a chance to leave their cars at home and travel by public transport.

Last week, answers I received from the Minister with responsibility for London showed that, since 1 January 1998, there have been 5,544 delays to passenger services of 15 minutes or more. The combined total for the two years prior to that was 3,554. In 1997, those figures were described by the Capital Transport campaign as a crisis. Delays over these two years have increased by 56 per cent. It is clear that the Government have not only failed to improve the underground service but have presided over a significant deterioration.

The reasons for some of the delays make interesting reading. The usual suspects are there, of course. Leaves on the track accounted for three delays in the past couple of years, so perhaps some progress has been made in this area. However, vomit caused 10 delays. This involuntary

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action was no doubt induced by reading the leader of the Conservative party's endorsement of the failed Tory mayoral candidate, Lord Archer, as a man of probity and integrity.

One delay was due to a surfer who was, no doubt, riding on the new wave of investment and improvement promised by the Tories in their latest policy document. They are apparently offering a "Londoners' tube". Let us give credit where it is due. The Conservatives have at least realised that there is a tube in London. A "Londoners' tube"--what on earth does that mean?

Mr. Green: It means a tube that will be owned by Londoners, in which free shares will be offered to people who live in London, those who work on the tube and those who have season tickets. It is a much better, more practical and more popular policy than the one with which the Government are saddling the tube.

Mr. Brake: I suppose I should thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but we contacted Conservative central office to ask what the policy amounted to. It was not able to tell us--perhaps the hon. Gentleman should speak to Conservative central office.

Other reasons for delay included "smell on the train". No doubt, the current Tory front-runner for the job of mayor of London thinks that that is the responsibility of those ghastly people who he believes travel on public transport. The show-stopper among the reasons given has nothing to do with any of the Tory mayoral candidates. Apparently, one of the incidents was "no forward movement" on the train. I can see that that would be a significant problem on a tube train.

The figures contain further delays. Some 500 delays were due to staff being absent or not in position. Another 500 were due to train defects, and another 500 due to track circuit failure. If more evidence of a failing transport system were needed, Members should consider the quality-of-life indicators that have been released. They show that the number of journeys made by car continues to rise--hence, no doubt, the Government's U-turn on their commitment to reduce road traffic.

The Deputy Prime Minister has urged us to hold him to his pledges, and I am happy to repeat his statement of 6 June 1997--although he has since denied that he said it:

If the right hon. Gentleman survives the next few years in office, I and my colleagues will be happy to remind him of that pledge--which he repeated on 20 October 1998. I questioned him on the matter and he said:

    "I agree to keep to that commitment: judge my performance in five years."--[Official Report, 20 October 1998; Vol. 317, c. 1071.]

The bad news is that we are judging him for his performance now, not in five years time.

Before I consider the Government's response to the problems, I shall briefly consider the Conservatives' policy on transport, and in particular on the tube. They have almost as many policies on the tube as they have mayoral candidates. Of course, that is less true as their candidates are disqualified, drop out or are not allowed to pass go. Official Conservative policy, as expressed in the motion that we are debating today, is to seek

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    That is not very specific. Labour has the third way and the Tories have another way.

Little more information is offered in the Tories' common-sense revolution document, which promises a

    "free share issue to Londoners".

The former Member for Epping Forest, Mr. Norris, was reported in the Evening Standard recently as favouring a plan to allow the Government to raise the money needed through the issuing of Treasury bonds. That sounds suspiciously like the proposals made by Susan Kramer, the Liberal Democrat's mayoral candidate.

The former candidate, Lord Archer, appeared to have a policy on everything except underground funding. However, it has been reported that the Conservatives expect him to pay for his mayoral election campaign--I wonder whether they also expect him to pay personally for improvements to London Underground. They certainly have not identified any other source of funding to provide the investment needed in the tube. Alas, we will never know what the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) would have done with the tube because she has already been blocked from standing, apparently because she is the only Tory mayoral candidate to support the official Tory policy on section 28.

The Conservatives are supposed to be an alternative government. They need to tell the House how they would raise the £7 billion needed to bring the tube up to scratch. How would they fund the long-term infrastructure development plan for the capital that the London chamber of commerce and industry has called for? We all know that the Tories would not recognise an integrated transport policy if they ran over it on one of their impediment- free roads.

It is time to move on to Labour. The public-private partnership is now two and a half years behind schedule, and it is unravelling. Labour's mayoral candidates are all off-message. Just three weeks ago, the Prime Minister claimed at Question Time that the bond issue in New York bankrupted the city and that a bond issue here would cost £150 per Londoner. On the same day, the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) was quoted in the Evening Standard as saying:

He also said:

    "Any PPP approach will need to be tested to see if it is value for money compared to other ways of financing the system."

The Government have never answered the question about what would happen if the public sector comparator test revealed that the PPP would not be the best value. How many more years would we have to wait then for a proper transport system in London?

The right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras also spoke about Railtrack's involvement, and said:

Within six days, a press release from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions announced that Railtrack was no longer able to deliver the integration that it had promised.

Unfortunately, the Prime Minister is also a cylinder short of a V6 engine. [Hon. Members: "What?"] It is a variation on an Australian saying, "a tinnie short of a six pack." Two weeks ago, at Question Time, the Prime Minister again rubbished the very proposals that the right

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hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras had said he was willing to consider. The Prime Minister also claimed that the Jubilee line extension was late because its construction was being carried out by the public sector. I have asked London Transport for a list of the contractors involved in construction of the Jubilee line extension and it makes interesting reading. I am sure that hon. Members will be familiar with some of the companies involved, which include Balfour Beatty, John Laing and Tarmac. Everyone knows that they are not public sector companies as the Prime Minister suggested: they are private sector companies. It is clear that the Prime Minister is as incoherent on this issue as his Deputy. The debate is about raising the finance for the underground, not who should be contracted to carry out the construction work.

We are consistently told by the Government that the PPP will be required to deliver best value for Londoners. That is a reasonable point to make and I am sure that all hon. Members would agree. However, every expert who has looked at that matter thinks that a bond issue is at least worthy of consideration. Last week, Maurice Fitzpatrick, head of economics at Chantrey Vellacott, said in a letter to the Evening Standard:

The fact is that the risks that have to be accounted for in the private sector are inherently more costly than they would be for the public sector or, indeed, for a bonds issue.

The clear consensus now emerging in London is that the way to bring investment in London's tube is to keep the tube in public hands, where safety is best guaranteed, but to allow money to be raised through bonds, outside the constraints of the public sector borrowing requirement. That is what the Liberal Democrats have been saying for years, and that is what Susan Kramer--the Liberal Democrat candidate and an expert in the financing of transport infrastructure schemes--is saying. When the other parties eventually manage to select candidates, it is a scheme that they will end up accepting as providing the simplest and best value method of investing in the tube.

I welcome the fact that the Government have made the PricewaterhouseCoopers report available in the Library. However, it is a pity that the Deputy Prime Minister has chosen to make that public today instead of a few days ago, because it has been impossible to scrutinise the report before today's debate. Detailed scrutiny would have allowed hon. Members to compare the report's figures with the proposals made by Chantrey Vellacott and the London school of economics. We could have challenged certain assumptions that PricewaterhouseCoopers has made, including the interest rate to be used for the public sector bond issue and the £3 billion that is glibly included as efficiency savings from the PPP, to be achieved through innovation and incentives.

The Government's welcome openness about the PricewaterhouseCoopers report is not matched by openness about the tube task force that the Government set up in July to consider the tube. I asked the Government a written question about the activities of the task force in the past six months, and the response was not

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very edifying. I was told that it had met once a month but had not produced any research. That was as much of a statement as the Government were prepared to make about the task force and its workings.

Taking part in a transport debate for the Liberal Democrats in this House is a great pleasure. The Tories' track record of under-investment in public transport confronts commuters every day in the form of cancelled trains, broken tracks, poor safety systems, a dilapidated tube network and congested roads.

The Labour Government, on the other hand, are full of good intentions and make all the right noises. However, I am sorry to say that the wheels keep falling off their transport policy. Railtrack's involvement in the London underground has jumped the tracks; the part-privatisation of NATS is hitting turbulence on the Back Benches; and U-turns have been performed on road traffic reduction commitments. The Government's transport policy would never pass its MOT.

To the Conservatives and to Labour, London's commuters say, "A plague o' both your houses!" It is time to make way for a party that understands the problems and has the solutions--the Liberal Democrats and Susan Kramer.

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