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9.2 pm

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Tonight's debate was called by the Opposition. We might have expected to hear a recognition of the problems that their sad and disastrous 18 years in office created for public transport, and we might have hoped for some apology. We might have expected to hear some solutions to the legacy of decline and destruction that they left. Instead, they seem to have short memories. They remember little of what they did.

The recent speeches from Opposition Members seem deliberately to ignore their record on public transport. By speaking about other issues, they try to divert our attention from what they did. Having initiated the debate, Opposition Members must listen to what we have to say about the result of their disastrous transport policies and what can now be done.

After all, the country cannot and will not forget that it was the previous Government, ideologically driven by distaste for, and dislike of, everything public, and in particular public influence over public transport, who increased congestion on our roads by increasing the number of cars from 70 per mile to 100 per mile. As a result, the CBI estimated that about £15 billion was being charged to our economy because of congestion costs.

The Conservative Government deregulated buses, notably outside London, which resulted in a passenger loss of at least one third and an increase in fares. It was local authorities--mainly Labour local authorities--that came to the rescue of people who needed buses to get to work and to go out at times of the day and night that did not make profits for the commercial concerns. Particularly in rural areas, local authorities--again, mainly Labour ones--ensured that bus services survived. While deregulation was under way, I had the privilege of leading Lancashire county council. That Labour-controlled county council kept rural bus services alive, encouraging diversity and experimentation with community-based, publicly subsidised rural services.

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Through their public transport policies, the previous Government did more and more environmental damage. For example, they presided over an increase to 66 per cent. of freight carried on our roads and a fall in freight journeys by rail to 5 per cent.

The previous Government's public transport policy virtually destroyed our rail service, cutting it into100 pieces, with disastrous results. Indeed, hon. Friends have referred to the loss of public funds through the virtual giveaway of public assets, such as rolling stock companies, which has been condemned by the Conservative-chaired Public Accounts Committee. Railtrack, as we know, was sold for £1.9 billion, but is now valued at £8 billion.

I must admit to being bemused every time that I hear a Conservative Member condemn Labour for taxes on motorists. It was the previous Government who increased duty on fuel from 7p a litre to 42p a litre, and it was under their rule that taxes on motorists rose from £4 billion to £21 billion.

Mr. Paterson: I remind the hon. Lady again that we introduced the escalator when oil prices were much lower and when only two other countries in Europe had cheaper fuel. Our fuel is now easily the most expensive in western Europe--twice as expensive as in Spain and three times as expensive as in Turkey.

Mrs. Ellman: I am very interested to note that the hon. Gentleman did not deny what I said. Indeed, he reaffirmed it. I hope that he remembers that this Government have stopped the automatic fuel escalator and will ensure that any funds raised from it will go to improving road transport. Not one penny of revenue from his Government's policies did so.

Mr. Geraint Davies: Is my hon. Friend interested to know that, under the Conservatives and their escalator, the tax per litre of petrol rose from 7p to 42p? Does not the intervention of the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) therefore seem a little odd?

Mrs. Ellman: I accept my hon. Friend's comments. I note that Opposition Members have nothing whatever to say about such an important subject, which is very strange. Instead, they condemn this Government, who have done far less in attacking any motorist than they did during their long and despicable period in office.

Public transport is of course of great importance to communities and societies; it is important for individuals to be able to move where they wish for work and leisure. Public transport is also important for economic development. I remind Opposition Members, who so foolishly instigated this debate, that they failed to deliver the channel tunnel rail link, and that this Government rescued it by a much more imaginative use of public and private funding, saving the taxpayer more than £1.2 billion in the process.

It is of great importance to note that the public transport policy pursued by the previous Government failed to secure investment in all our regions. I listened with interest to the important contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who played a large part in the campaign for investment in the west coast main line. It was an excellent campaign that was conducted on an all-party basis, and brought together local

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authority and private sector interests. Sadly, it was defeated by privatisation. The Government must move forward and try to ensure that investment is made in our regions, including in the west coast main line. If public transport is to play a proper part in developing our economy, it must be based on the interests of people and regions; it cannot be based on short-term financial interest alone.

In my constituency in Liverpool, we have great opportunities for economic development through the expanding trade at the port of Liverpool. Opportunities for trade with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are increasing. That trade can be developed properly to bring full benefit to people across the north-west and, indeed, the northern region only if there is more investment in our dock infrastructure. We also need more investment in our rail services so that transport can be linked with the development of new economic opportunities by moving goods in an environmentally friendly way to the east coast ports and across to northern Europe. We need to invest in that trans-European route so that we can improve the economy and the environment simultaneously. The previous Government ignored that sort of policy because they were concerned not with the public interest, but with short-term, private gain. Such an attitude failed our region as it failed our country.

As the Opposition initiated the debate, we are entitled to ask whether they have learned by their mistakes. They had little to say about what was wrong. Several Opposition Members spoke about the importance of linking transport and the environment; some referred to the importance of considering employment in relationto transport. The Government have, for the first time, introduced a structured process--in which everyone can participate--for achieving that through regional economic strategies that have been put forward by the regional development agencies set up throughout England.

The Opposition not only opposed devising regional economic strategies, but are pledged to abolish the regional development agencies, which have produced the means for creating those strategies. They have learned nothing. They understand the importance of linking transport with the environment and the economy, but oppose the way in which that is being addressed.

Mr. Davies: I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware of an article in today's edition of the Financial Times, which reported that the chair of a regional development agency said that, with an extra £250 million, those agencies could generate an extra £2.4 billion of tax through the extra economic growth that they could create. Will she join me in underlining the importance of regional development agencies for regional regeneration and to the north-south issues about which we all know?

Mrs. Ellman: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Regional development agencies are essential for bringing together the private, public and voluntary sectors to examine the economic, environmental and transport needs of regions. That is the way in which sustainable, new employment can be developed to fulfil the differing needs of the different regions.

I also note with regret that the Opposition are still against the creation of a Strategic Rail Authority, which they oppose in its shadow form. It is the Government's

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attempt to start to readdress the issue--indeed, the concept--of public transport working in the interests of the country and its regions.

Many of my hon. Friends have drawn attention to the Government's achievements in ensuring that there has been more investment over the past two years in rail, buses and the movement of freight from the roads on to rail. The Government should also be praised for their other transport policies and for being the first Administration for many years to address the decline in our Merchant Navy. The agreement on a tonnage tax is the first step in the attempt to revive British shipping and our Merchant Navy and we must ensure that, alongside the expansion in British shipping, there is an expansion in ratings' jobs, the development of which is being prevented by the international exploitation of labour. We must address that important issue.

The development of regional air services is another policy for which the Government should be praised. I welcome the additional investment in Liverpool airport, which is helping to boost the Merseyside economy, and look forward to it being linked with investment in Manchester as part of north-west economic development.

The Opposition initiated tonight's debate on transport, but it has failed to live up to the expectations that they tried to fuel. They promised us fireworks, but have produced a damp squib. I can only hope that they learn from the errors made tonight and in 18 years of running down public transport. I hope that they will join Labour Members in supporting our new Transport Bill and promoting and supporting public transport, in the interests of the public and the country.

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