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8.39 pm

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): Two matters of significance have emerged from the past few hours of debate. The first is that although, as those of us with long memories recall, integrated transport policy has been mentioned many times over the years, we have never before had a Secretary of State--as we have now, inthe form of the Deputy Prime Minister--with the determination and courage to define "integrated transport policy". My right hon. Friend is therefore to be congratulated on having the courage and determination to introduce the Bill.

The other thing that is of significance, against the background of congestion costing the country some £20 billion a year, and of an anticipated increase in traffic over the next 10 years of some 30 per cent.--that is another 8 million vehicles on the road--is the mixed message that we have heard from Conservative Members. The do-nothing brigade have said, "Just let things continue as they are". Then we had that notable speech by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo), setting out what is best described as a blancmange policy of extra capacity--not thought out,

20 Dec 1999 : Column 610

and without costings or details. That is the sort of argument that the Conservative party has asked the House to take seriously tonight.

In the time available, I want to comment on the four parts of the Bill and make some suggestions that I hope that my hon. Friends the Ministers can act on.

I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) and others, who have implied that because there will be a duty on local authorities, local transport plans are, first, a Government abdication of responsibility and, secondly, bound to end in disaster. I see the passing of responsibility to local authorities as a strength, because it is ludicrous that there could be a national integrated transport policy, decided in Whitehall and passed on to local authorities to implement. The strength of the proposals in the Bill is the recognition that if an integrated transport policy is to work--and, my goodness, we now have the best chance in generations to make such a policy work--it must involve differing solutions in different parts of the country. It makes perfect sense for local transport plans to be the bedrock of such a policy, within a national framework.

However, I remain to be convinced on quality partnerships for buses. I am one of those who supports quality contracts. I like to see franchises. Quality contracts will give local authorities the teeth to ensure that bus operators live up to their contractual terms. They would also provide a golden opportunity to bring education transport--a massive area of transport need, which uses a massive amount of resources--within the ambit of quality contracts. Education transport is left out of quality partnerships.

The other aspect of quality partnerships that bothers me is that while there is an agreement between bus operators and a local authority, a local authority has no means to prevent a bus operator from withdrawing a service. The operator need give only 40 days' notice and withdraw it, and the quality partnership starts to be adversely affected.

Three very important points need to be made about road user charging and workplace parking charging. The first has already been mentioned. The idea has been advanced by the official Opposition that such charging is the only shot in the locker--the only measure that local authorities will have with which to affect positively the terrible congestion that we are facing now, which is likely to grow. That is nonsense. A whole range of options is available to local authorities and managing road space is one of them. To try to give the impression--I think that Conservative Members have failed--that the proposal declares war on the motorist is abject nonsense.

It is important, however, that the Government recognise the importance of three points. First, if we are to achieve public acceptance of what will be an unpopular and controversial measure, there must be broad consultation. Secondly, resources will have to be made available up front. The Government will have seriously to consider allowing local authorities to borrow on the basis of future income streams so that public transport alternatives are in place at least at the same time as, or preferably before, workplace and road charging are introduced. Thirdly, I endorse a point that has already been made. The 10-year hypothecation period seems to be too short. We should think in terms of at least 15 years and probably longer. The issues are long term. Changes will not happen overnight or even in the five-year period that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned.

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I enthusiastically welcome the proposal for a Strategic Rail Authority. I say to those who voted against the proposal for a Strategic Rail Authority on the Second Reading of the Railways Bill, who opposed its consideration in a Select Committee and who have expressed their opposition again tonight, that every private company in the railway industry supports the establishment of such an authority. Conservative Members believe that they know what is best, but they are against the united opinion of every company in the railway sector.

Mr. Jenkin: The hon. Gentleman is a member of the Transport Sub-Committee and he knows full well that I did not dismiss out of hand the principle of a Strategic Rail Authority. However, I wish to make a simple point. Every one of the companies that the hon. Gentleman mentioned thinks, "My goodness--anybody but the present Secretary of State running the railways." They are looking for someone with sense and who can bring parties together to help the railways to operate better. Instead, the Secretary of State just criticises and shouts at the railway companies.

Mr. Stevenson: I have only 15 minutes in which to speak, so I wish that I had not wasted the past 30 seconds with the hon. Gentleman's intervention. Indeed, one of the major transport operators in the country, Stagecoach, wanted the Government to go even further and to give the Strategic Rail Authority more power than it will have. We can give an enthusiastic welcome to the establishment of the authority.

Mr. Quinn: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Stevenson: I am trying to calculate how much longer I have left to speak; I think that I can give way.

Mr. Quinn: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. Is he aware of the statement by Railtrack, which welcomed the establishment of a Strategic Rail Authority? Railtrack is geared to working closely with the SRA and it looks forward to the authority gaining its full powers. It states:

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is trying to make a mini speech.

Mr. Stevenson: My hon. Friend simply endorses the point that I made earlier.

I draw attention to an important point. If we consider Railtrack's investment particularly in the first three years of its existence, the way that it is moving away at a rate of knots from its commitment to expanding freight facilities and the way that it is trying to develop a scare scenario by suggesting that improvements to the west coast main line will cost three times more than it originally envisaged, it appears that it is trying to make the case that it will not be able to invest in the way that we want to invest unless the Government are prepared to put in more money. If that happens, serious consideration must be given to how the public interest will be protected in that scenario.

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I turn now to the proposals for National Air Traffic Services. In a recent sitting of the Select Committee, the chief executive of NATS, Mr. Bill Semple, was asked whether he could name any country that has privatised its air traffic control system. His immediate answer was, "Yes." The next question was, "Which?" His reply was, "Fiji." The chief executive of NATS seriously stated that Fiji is an important factor in his support of the proposals. That is ludicrous.

The next question was why all other countries, including the United States, had not embraced privatisation of their air traffic control services. It was suggested that perhaps they did not have the courage--as presumably the Government are suggesting that they themselves have--to break the mould. That may be so, but the notion that those countries have not had the courage to break the mould seems worthy of consideration. However, it may be that all those countries had considered privatisation, and rejected it. I suspect that the latter possibility is the more likely. Those countries must therefore have come up with models that meet all the objectives that the Government desire, while retaining the public control that is necessary in the public interest.

I shall support the Government tonight, but they have a lot more arguing to do on the NATS proposals before they will convince many Labour Members that they have got it right. We shall be watching extremely carefully to see what consideration the Government will give to ensuring that the objectives that they have, rightly, set for the future of NATS are achieved without going down what many of us consider, for many reasons, to be a dangerous road.

8.53 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I am delighted to contribute to the Second Reading debate on this Bill, which has been long awaited and heralds the Government's much-promised policies. I declare an interest in that I am married to a British director of a prominent American airline company, and I sit on the Royal Automobile Club public policy committee, which carries certain privileges.

I regret that the Bill is too ambitious and that the Secretary of State will find it impossible to deliver. In summing up the Bill, we can liken it to the Secretary of State himself: it is good-natured but long-winded and incoherent. I am unable to support the Bill and regret that the Government have not introduced four separate Bills to which the House could have done full justice.

I regret also the way in which the Secretary of State has personally been undermined by the appointment of a powerful Minister for Transport in another place. The fact that the Minister is not accountable to the House is deeply regrettable. The man who is entrusted with the Government's 10-year transport programme is unable to be questioned by, and held to account in this Chamber.

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