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Mr. Gray: I live just outside Bath, which is one of the most congested towns that I know of. Which of the people who currently travel to Bath in their cars would the hon. Gentleman like to see off the roads?

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Mr. Foster: A good many. As the hon. Gentleman says, many of my constituents are forced to suffer the real problems of congestion. Nowadays, some people will not even come into my city to use its shops because of the congestion. Many of those who come in to work could take advantage of car-sharing schemes that are already proving very successful, and are delighting many who use them. Congestion could also be reduced by the use of park and ride schemes. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have established such schemes in some parts of the outskirts of Bath, and we hope to establish more. There are schemes that are popular with people who want to work and shop in the beautiful city of Bath without having to suffer from congestion.

Along with many of his colleagues, the hon. Gentleman seems to be besotted with the idea that all we must do is allow for more and more car growth and use of cars. The long-term consequence of that would be a continuing escalation in congestion, leading to an almost solid traffic jam throughout the country. According to the CBI, congestion--apart from all the environmental and health problems that it creates--already costs business £15 billion a year. If we do not start to tackle congestion with a range of measures, that cost will continue to grow.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: Time is short, but I will allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene briefly.

Mr. Quinn: Thank you. I have listened carefully, and not once has anyone from your Benches mentioned--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene, his phraseology must be right.

Mr. Quinn: I am sorry. Let me say this through the Chair. I want to raise the issue of freight vis-a-vis congestion problems. What are your party's proposals in regard to the decisions that have been made?

Mr. Foster: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was, in fact, addressing his question about freight through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Let me therefore tell you that Liberal Democrats recognise the importance of moving as much freight as possible to the railway, while also recognising that it is an impossible dream to expect all freight to travel by that means. We must consider imaginative measures, such as the use of interchanges outside cities to enable larger lorries to employ our motorways and the main routes leading to the outskirts, and the use of smaller vehicles for the purpose of that distribution.

As I have intimated, we support parts of the Bill, but we are especially concerned about the Government's proposals for National Air Traffic Services. I recently received a detailed briefing from senior management at NATS. I pay enormous tribute to all who work for NATS: they deliver a fantastic service, and a fantastically safe service, and we should all be proud of what they do. Anyway, the management made it clear that four key things were required for the future of NATS:

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opportunities for real investment, clarity about where NATS is going, access to international markets and access to broader management skills.

The Government suggest that the only way of achieving those aims is the adoption of their proposals for a public-private partnership scheme. The House must answer this question: are there alternatives that will deliver what NATS senior management understandably wants, while also delivering what I suspect most hon. Members want--an absolute guarantee of the continuation of high-safety standards? My answer is yes. I believe that there are alternatives to be considered.

In powerful speeches, the hon. Members for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell), among others, suggested that there were alternative solutions. Liberal Democrats believe that an independent publicly owned company, or a form of trust, would facilitate the right kind of investment and access to the markets. As the hon. Member for Pendle pointed out, the Government recommend PPP only because there is, they say, a problem with Treasury rules; and, as the hon. Gentleman said, the Government of the day can change Treasury rules if they wish. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman's colleagues on the Front Bench that it may not even be necessary to change the rules, because, as I think the House knows, there are other ways round the system.

Interestingly, in the case of the channel tunnel rail link the Government were prepared to make money available outside the public sector borrowing requirement, on the ground that the risk on the loan was less than 15 per cent. The House will be well aware that the risk in respect of NATS is well below that figure. Even under the current Treasury rules, it would be possible to introduce a scheme whereby, under an IPOC--independent publicly owned company--or a trust, NATS would be able to raise the necessary sums.

We are extremely concerned about the Government's plans for a PPP. Because of that, and because of other aspects of the Bill, the Liberal Democrats support the amendment, and will oppose Second Reading.

7.57 pm

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): Along with many of my hon. Friends, I support the vast majority of the Bill. I will speak briefly, because I have already had ample opportunity to express my concerns, especially over PPP for NATS.

The Bill contains many welcome measures: the good far outweighs the not so good. Who, for example, could not welcome the long-awaited establishment of the Strategic Rail Authority? Surely not my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths), my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), or any other Member who suffered--as we did in Reading, and as other communities did on the Great Western Trains line--the consequences of the terrible disaster of the Ladbroke Grove train crash. Never again do I want to see a privatised company such as Railtrack put pressure on safety investigators in the aftermath of a disaster like the Southall crash, when there was a wish to open the lines rather than getting to the core of why the disaster had occurred.

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Which Member representing a constituency served--or not served--by Thames Trains would not long for the powers that the SRA will have to improve services and to require adherence to the franchise regime? Like the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), I support the introduction of measures to restrict unnecessary commuter access by cars to our overcrowded towns and cities; but, like him, I think that we should introduce the public transport infrastructure first. We cannot ask our motorists to leave their cars behind unless they have a viable alternative. The Bill paves the way for such an alternative, and I praise the Government for being brave enough to make unpopular suggestions. Ultimately, however unpopular congestion charging may prove to be, gridlock in places such as Reading, Bath and Bristol will be even more unpopular. As the Deputy Prime Minister has said time and again, doing nothing is simply not an option.

I represent a highly successful part of the Thames valley. The economy there is booming, but the price of that success is often congestion, which must be tackled--if only because asthma levels in parts of my constituency are double the national average. Young people's health is suffering as a result of congestion in major towns and cities.

One aspect of the Bill has not been referred to, but is worthy of praise and support: its provisions to ensure that some of the more lousy, mean and penny-pinching district authorities which do not have a concessionary bus fare scheme for pensioners and disabled people are forced to introduce at least a minimum service. It is a shame that that provision has not been trumpeted from the rafters--but then, if we tack air traffic privatisation to a lot of good, worthwhile measures, their impact will be lost.

I represent some 70,000 constituents, 24,000 of whom have the misfortune to come under one of those mean, penny-pinching Liberal Democrat councils. I refer to West Berkshire district council--some Members were smiling too easily then. The council offers pensioners in my constituency the princely sum of £23 in tokens. If a pensioner wants to go to the Royal Berkshire hospital to visit a loved one twice a week, his annual allocation of tokens expires after five weeks. For the other 47 weeks--whether he wants to visit someone in that hospital or elsewhere--he has to pay the full bus fare.

It is good that a Labour Government are forcing councils such as West Berkshire to deliver at least something in terms of a minimum concessionary fare. It is not as good as that provided by the Labour Reading council, but that is because Reading has the Rolls-Royce of concessionary bus fare schemes. It is more generous even than that in London. It operates not just at off peak, but at peak times. Pensioners can travel anywhere within the travel-to-work area free of charge. That is how it should be. How we treat pensioners is a mark of a civilised society.

I welcome the Bill's provisions to put local transport plans and bus service strategies on a statutory basis. Buses are crucial to the future of towns and cities and are central to any integrated transport strategy. I welcome, too--as I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House do--the introduction of quality partnerships. Those will lay down minimum standards for bus operations and for defined routes. However, there is a problem. The Bill as drafted--I hope that Ministers are listening carefully--excludes specifically from quality partnerships the inclusion of service frequencies, hours of operation,

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networks and fares. All those things are fundamental to the delivery of a bus strategy and local transport plan. It is ridiculous to have quality partnerships that allow us to discuss bus lanes, but not the buses that run along them. I urge Ministers to reconsider the scope of those partnerships.

In support of that point, and taking a fresh look at the scope of quality partnerships, I shall quote briefly from a letter from the director general of the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK to a colleague who chairs a highly successful municipal bus company. It states:

I implore Ministers to consider that point when the Bill is in Committee.

I come to NATS. Like my hon. Friends the Members for Ayr (Ms Osborne) and for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell), I have a specific constituency interest.Like them, before the general election I made clear commitments to my constituents and I intend to honour them. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, I believe that a more detailed examination of what is proposed within PPP is necessary. Those points have been well made by other Labour Members.

I do not think that there is any real problem in securing the Government's objectives. What are they? One is to lever in private sector investment. No one has argued against that; it is not a point of ideology. Another objective is to remove the investment requirements from the public sector borrowing requirement. No Member on the Labour or Opposition Benches has argued that NATS should compete with schools and hospitals for hard-pressed public finances. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) mentioned that at some length.

I do not think that any Members, particularly Labour Members, would object to levering in private sector management expertise for project management and finishing off important contracts such as Swanwick. Therefore, if the objectives are not the problem, what is? It is how we achieve those objectives and convince hon. Members that all available options have been tested. For example, there is a huge question mark over the future of the 5 per cent. golden share. Whether that can be ring-fenced and whether we can for ever stop that 5 per cent. from being sold are matters of some debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle said, if it is sold, 55 per cent. will be in the private sector and, effectively, there will be privatisation of NATS.

I welcome the fact that the Bill specifically does not lay down the detail of PPP. That gives us scope for negotiation. It gives Labour Members some room for hope. I welcome the fact that air traffic controllers and pilots are in detailed discussions with Ministers. Those discussions must continue. I hope that Ministers will at some point be in a position to tell us why they do not think that the trust options are viable and why an IPOC--an independent publicly owned company, which is good enough for the Post Office--is not good enough for NATS. I have heard no convincing arguments to knock down those two options.

I, too, am attracted--initially, I was not--to the proposal from the Airline Group, the not-for-profit company. People I talk to in the industry, in which I have

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worked, are attracted by the wish to keep air traffic services within the industry. They want the people who are to become the strategic partners to have a financial investment in the billions of pounds of aircraft that are flying above our constituencies and that depend on the professionalism of air traffic controllers.

Only the other month, I had the opportunity to look at another model, which I have put forward to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). That model is the Transport Research Laboratory at Wokingham. It is quite an interesting model. When the previous Administration privatised the TRL, they, too, wanted to lever in private sector management expertise and to free it from the PSBR, but they recognised the unique nature of the TRL. It is where much transport research takes place, both for civil and military purposes. So what did they do? They set up a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee, which achieved all those objectives. It produced a more dynamic private sector management and a stream of private sector investment. However, the company cannot be bought by the likes of Asil Nadir, the Hong Kong bank or anyone else who we would not want to run our air space and the planes that fly over the heads of our constituents.

The amendment has been signed by some 50 hon. Members. I know, the Government Whips know, and Ministers know that considerably more than 50 Labour Members are concerned about the proposals, but it is not the time to press the amendment to the vote. As I have said, we have ample opportunity for negotiation and to improve what is a very good Bill.

I conclude with a plea to Ministers. There is a deal out there waiting to be done. I cannot believe that any Minister worth his, or her, salt does not want to take with them in the reform of NATS the pilots and air traffic controllers, as well as the vast majority of Labour Members. The crucial issue is corporate governance. There are models that will achieve both the Government's objectives and unanimity among Labour Members.

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