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6.47 pm

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman's comment was in the same league as a remark made by a departed colleague, Simon Mahon, a long-standing member of Bootle council who prefaced his peroration in the Chamber, "Finally, Mr. Mayor." I am sure that you will let the comment pass with your usual graciousness, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Fortunately for you, Madam Deputy Speaker, you did not have to sit through the debate. This was not a great parliamentary occasion. Indeed, the motion set the tone for the debate. No answers and no policies were given by Opposition Members. There was also considerable confusion. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) drew attention to the Liberal Democrats' policy of paying for the railways out of congestion charges and workplace parking charges. Their spokesman answered that it was their policy to let local communities make their own decisions on

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congestion charging. Perhaps they will not accept my suggestion that that is not exactly the firmest base for financing the national railway system, let alone that there might be some disparity between the two.

Tom Brake: Is the Minister really suggesting that the national railway system should be financed through local congestion charging schemes?

Mr. Spellar: Of course not; I was citing paragraph 317 of the Liberal Democrat document. If the Liberal Democrats have their way, it will be difficult to fund anything out of congestion charges. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme suggested that there were local differences, so I checked today. I asked whether any Liberal Democrat councils were progressing with proposals on congestion charging. For once, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) is right: the answer is none. I am willing to stand corrected, but as far as I know, no Liberal Democrat-controlled authorities are pushing for congestion or workplace charging in their areas. There is a slight hole not only in their policy but in their finances.

Mr. Don Foster: The Minister is right; I know of no Liberal Democrat-run council that currently proposes congestion charging. However, in London, where the first scheme is most likely to take place, the Liberal Democrats are backing it, unlike Labour members of the Greater London Authority, who refuse to support a proposal that was introduced by a national Labour Government.

Mr. Spellar: I understand that Liberal Democrats are happy to jump on someone else's bandwagon whenever possible, but taking responsibility is different; that is why the motion contains no details about their policy or any alternatives. We are considering a franchise party, which has a rag bag of policies. I note that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden) is not here today; he is continuing the habits that he had when he was a Labour Member. What other party that believes in increasing fuel prices would welcome into its ranks the only Labour Member who said that we should have given in to the fuel protesters and cut fuel prices? What a shower!

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) issued a rail users survey. He asked what we should do about it. I expected him to present a policy.

Mr. Edward Davey: I put forward Liberal Democrat policy.

Mr. Spellar: Let us consider Liberal Democrat policy. Liberal Democrat Members believe that the company that runs the trains should also be responsible for the tracks and signalling. However, their document states that their proposed form of Railtrack should take care of the tracks and signalling. Their policy is, "Tell us what you want, and we will propose it." However, they did not propose much tonight. There was therefore some confusion on the Liberal Democrat Benches.

Before I consider the rest of the Opposition, I want to refer to the positive and thoughtful speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew). He has long played a positive role with regard to the west coast main line and he drew attention to some of the genuine

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problems that have to be faced. I shall deal with their origin shortly. He mentioned potential conflict between express, local and freight trains.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made the same point, although her surprising conclusion was that proposals for one operator for each London terminal would exacerbate the problem. It is generally agreed in the industry that those proposals would improve matters. We are prepared to consider the problems that she believes might arise, because doing that, and examining the way in which we create extra capacity, can lead to their resolution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle rightly identified the skills shortage in the industry, much of which was created by management failures at the time of privatisation. For example, the train operators made approximately 1,000 drivers redundant. The results have been only too clear in recent weeks. The same applies to track engineers. Much expertise left Railtrack; in some cases, it went to the subcontractors, but in others it left the industry. According to the Railtrack mantra of the times, skill and expertise in the industry were perceived as a cost which had to be driven out. Instead of regarding the skills base and the experience as an asset, Railtrack viewed them as costs to be reduced.

I was slightly surprised and disappointed by the contributions of the right hon. Members for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who were joined at one stage by another old lag, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). They presided over doubling the national debt in five years, adding £175 billion to it. That constituted a huge burden on future generations and an enormous problem that the Government had to solve. We have done that. Conservative Members often talk about the confidence of financial institutions and the City. The financial community probably has more confidence in a party and a Government who have put the national finances on an even keel than a party that doubled the national debt in only five years.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire identified one of the difficulties. He said that Gerald Corbett had resigned and that Railtrack had lost the City's confidence. That was a charitable admission that Railtrack's problems had long and deep roots in its senior management. Contrary to the scare stories that some newspapers are publishing, the majority of the reduction in the value of the shares—from nearly £18 to £2.80—happened as a result of the judgment of the markets on Railtrack's management. Not once did Opposition Members give the slightest indication of what they would have done with a Railtrack that was failing organisationally and financially.

Railtrack management approached our predecessors in the Department in April and secured a commitment of some £1.5 billion. That was honoured. However, the company returned in July and claimed that without new and additional money, it would not be able to describe itself as a going concern.

Mr. Redwood: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Spellar: I shall give way if the right hon. Gentleman tells us what he would have said to Railtrack managers came back with a begging bowl, in the words of the regulator, in only a few months.

Mr. Redwood: Anyone sensible would have sat down with Railtrack's management, haggled, negotiated and

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worked out what the Government wanted to secure in terms of strengthening the board and in return for promises of money, and provided the money. The Government had already promised some money. A deal then would have been billions of pounds cheaper than their current actions.

Mr. Spellar: The right hon. Gentleman claims we should have done a deal with that company when we had sat down, negotiated, haggled and done a deal with its representatives in April, only for it to return in a few months—not influenced by Hatfield or any other event—to say that the money was not enough and that it had no idea about the amount of the final bill. Not only Ministers, but others in the industry judged that Railtrack had no control over its costs. That was apparent on the west coast main line. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) asked about that line, on which the costs rose by some £2.3 billion to more than £7 billion.

Mr. Pickles rose

Mr. Spellar: The Opposition did not mention John Armitt, the new chairman of Railtrack. He is a highly respected civil engineer, who is pulling things round. Although the right hon. Member for Wokingham sneered at the appointment of Richard Bowker to the SRA, I believe that the new team will provide a new vision for the industry.

I have said a number of times in previous debates that the Tories were not only unfit to be the Government but unfit to be the Opposition. I suppose that meant that there was a vacancy for an Opposition. Well, it was certainly not filled today by the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Don Foster rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The Minister is obviously not going to give way.

Mr. Spellar: The only party dealing seriously with transport is the Labour party, and that is why I have no hesitation in calling for the rejection of the Liberal Democrat motion and the carrying of the Government amendment.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 207, Noes 339.

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