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Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Has the hon. Gentleman also noticed that as recently as this week the SRA—the creature of the Secretary of State—praised privatisation for the 34 per cent. increase in passenger numbers and the 40 per cent. increase in freight achieved since privatisation? Even the Secretary of State is muddled over whether it is a good or bad thing.

Mr. Foster: I think that many right hon. and hon. Members are confused about the Labour Government's view of privatisation. On Monday, the Secretary of State said that the third way is fraying at the edges and that the private sector was not necessarily the best way forward. The next day he supported the SRA, advocating the continuation of privatisation through the use of private sector money. We also heard the Secretary of State for Health talk about the privatisation of the national health service. I am as confused as the right hon. Gentleman about the Government's approach to privatisation.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: No, I want to make a bit more progress.

We have also seen the SRA's strategic rail plan, to which the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) referred. I welcome it, although I would argue strongly that it has come far too late. Unfortunately, it contains much that is not new. Plans to introduce train

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protection warning systems have already been announced, as was the decision to buy new rolling stock to replace slam-door carriages.

The plan has little detail on reducing fragmentation, excessive fares or overcrowding. Indeed, in the light of the earlier 10-year plan, the Government seem to be rowing back on some of their aspirations. On excessive fares, the 10-year plan says:

The SRA plan simply says:

I hope that affordability does not drop off the agenda and that a wider range of fares will be regulated.

Mr. Streeter: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the many defects in the 10-year plan released this week is that it has little to say about journey times and rail services in the far south-west? In particular, will he and his hon. Friends get behind the excellent campaign, now spearheaded by the Plymouth Evening Herald, to reduce the average journey times of trains to Plymouth to three hours? Does he agree that in the 21st century it is a disgrace that journey times from London to Plymouth are consistently around the four-hour mark? Will he back a three-hour campaign?

Mr. Foster: I am delighted to give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to guarantee him coverage in the next edition of his local newspaper. He has heard me say that rail transportation from Paddington to the south-west and to south Wales is totally inadequate. Unfortunately, it seems to be slipping further and further down the Government's list of aspirations with regard to the things they want improved.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: No—no more.

Under the Labour Government, we have had far too many false dawns. What are the successes of the national punctuality taskforce that was set up at the insistence of the Deputy Prime Minister in February 1999? What has happened to the train reliability action groups that the Government set up? How many different dates have we been given for getting back to normal? What happened to that fresh start for the railways promised by the Deputy Prime Minister in April last year?

Now the Secretary of State expects us to draw a line in the sand, but before doing so and moving forward to what we all hope will be a better and brighter future for our railways, let us not forget the five wasted years of Labour Government. The right hon. Gentleman wants to be held to account by the next election, but he must also be held to account for his and his Government's inaction to date. The Government are keen on performance-related pay, so with 22 per cent. of trains delayed, we should delay paying that proportion of the right hon. Gentleman's ministerial salary; with 1.8 per cent. of trains cancelled, we should cancel that proportion of his salary. Unless

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there are significant improvements on our railways before long, the Secretary of State's mother may defend him, but no one else will, and nor should they.

4.11 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on introducing this timely debate on the state of our railways. I agree with him—in part because he was quoting me—that we do not have a railway system fit for the 21st century. That is despite the fact that many dedicated, highly motivated people work in the railway system. They are frustrated that they are not working in an organisation that is delivering for the travelling public. It is important that we acknowledge the good work being done by many people in the industry.

As I said in Monday's statement on the strategic plan, there are two principal reasons why we do not have a railway system fit for the 21st century. First, for decades now there has been chronic underinvestment in the railway system. The grand schemes of the 1950s and 1960s of modernisation being achieved through British Rail led us to the 1970s and 1980s when, to be frank, there was political disinterest in the railways. No real priority was given to the subject by Governments, both Labour and Conservative, during that period. In the 1990s, the railways were used to push forward privatisation, first with the train operating companies and then, later in the 1990s, with the privatisation of Railtrack.

Geraint Davies: I have British Rail's 1980 annual report in which the then chairman, Sir Peter Parker, said:

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the current calls for long-term investment should have been considered in 1980, when the Tories had the opportunity to invest?

Mr. Byers: The record will show that I made it clear that both Labour and Conservative Governments did not invest during the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, many of us in the Labour party argued against the public expenditure cuts that were being made—that takes me back a few years. None the less, my hon. Friend makes an important point about the need to invest in public services.

The 10-year plan launched by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out for the first time a framework in which not only railways but transport overall could

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develop and expand in future. We now need to respond to the extra demand within the system. More passengers are being carried and freight has increased significantly in recent years, but the system has not been able to cope with that increased demand. We must now ensure that we can meet the demand that has been created, and that we can achieve the increase that we want to see, which is one of our key targets in the 10-year plan.

Mr. Redwood: We were meant to have a plan at the end of 1999. A plan was launched in the summer of 2000, and another was launched on Monday, which was thin gruel with a few spin doctors' scraps in it. That so-called plan says:

and achieving that

Even the plan is delayed. When will we get the real plan?

Mr. Byers: When the right hon. Gentleman has studied the plan, I hope that he will agree with me that it provides a comprehensive statement of exactly what benefits and improvements the travelling public can expect. Some people are critical because they do not think that the timetable is quick enough, and others ask questions about priorities. People may criticise, but for the first time the stall has been set out and people will be able to judge delivery.

The important point made in the plan is that this is not the end—it is not just the plan and that is it—it is a beginning, and there will be another plan next year, because it will need to be revised and reviewed in the light of experience. That is how it must be. It would be a terrible mistake if we thought that the plan was set in concrete and could not be changed in the future. The strategic plan was clear about what needs to be done.

The first reason for the under-performance in the railways is the chronic underinvestment over many years.

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