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4.19 pm

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I beg to move, To leave out from "Europe" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I welcome—indeed, relish—the opportunity to debate the state of London and the south-east, to demonstrate the real and positive benefits that five years of Labour Government have brought and to contrast the quality of life in London and south-east today with the state of affairs 10 years ago, when the Conservative party was in full flood.

A decade ago, London and the south-east were trapped in recession—the second that the Tories had managed to inflict on our country—and 400,000 Londoners were out of work as a consequence. Now, thanks to sound economic management under Labour Governments, the picture is transformed. Since 1997, the number of adults in employment in London and the south-east has grown by nearly 500,000, and unemployment has fallen by 41 per cent. in London and by 46 per cent. in the south-east. Long-term unemployment in the south-east has fallen by nearly 75 per cent. since 1997.

It is curious, as one of my hon. Friends rightly pointed out, that we heard nothing about those achievements from the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), in his remorselessly negative speech. But what else would one expect from the party of unemployment, the party of recession, the party of repossessions?

Dr. Ladyman: My right hon. Friend mentioned two recessions. I believe that, if he counts, he will find that there were actually three during that period.

Not only did we not hear about the economic performance of London and the south-east from the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), but we did not hear about the south-east. All his remarks were on London. The south-east, and my constituency in Kent, does not exist to him.

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes an entirely apt point. I shall not get into a technical debate with him as to whether there were two or three recessions during the period of Conservative Government. All that

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Conservative Members know is that their party brought the economy of this country to a standstill on at least two separate occasions and there was a huge and terrible social consequence for the people of this country, the damage caused by which we are still repairing.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): Before we leave unemployment, would the Minister agree that there is no need for complacency? In Uxbridge, in December, unemployment increased by 10.7 per cent. on the previous year, and in January it increased by 15.9 per cent. on the previous year. In December, in my neighbouring constituency of Hayes and Harlington, it increased by a massive 29.5 per cent. There is no need for complacency.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman will well recognise the circumstances of west London and the area around Heathrow airport in the conditions that have applied since 11 September. I shall refer to that subject later in my speech, but it is certainly not a cause for party political comment. [Interruption.] We should all be aware of the circumstances caused by the terrible events of 11 September, the need to restore confidence, and the need to once again rebuild, not least the aviation industry. We are all working on a similar basis to achieve that. But the hon. Gentleman will of course remember—

Mr. Wilshire: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Raynsford: No; I am answering the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), who will be the first to recognise that the overall framework of the London economy is such at the moment that there are far more opportunities for people to find work than there were when his party were in government.

Mr. Wilshire: It simply is not good enough for the right hon. Gentleman to try to blame all the problems of Heathrow on 11 September. Does he accept that the incompetent delay on the terminal 5 inquiry, which his Government could have sorted out long since, is also playing its part in creating unemployment?

Mr. Raynsford: I was not implying that the problems were solely associated with 11 September, but I was pointing out that that event had very dramatic consequences, and that it was right to take those into account and not to try to make party political points out of them. I might add that the state of the London economy under the present Government compares extraordinarily well with the state of the London economy when the party that the hon. Gentleman supports was in power, and he would probably do as well to remember that.

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar made a lot of fuss about transport. Let me first remind him that the use of public transport has increased enormously, with over 0.5 billion more bus passenger km and 1.7 billion more tube passenger km in London than 10 years ago. New investment is already making an impact and will transform transport options and prospects over the next few years in London and the south-east.

Interestingly, the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar chose not to mention the largest civil engineering contract in Europe; the channel tunnel high-speed rail link. My hon. Friends who represent Kent constituencies

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would not make that mistake, because they know how important that project is, not just in linking Britain with Europe, but to the economy of Kent and the regeneration of east London.

We all know who is to blame for the fact that there is not yet a high-speed rail link from the channel tunnel to London; the Conservative party. Let me remind the Conservatives of the history. It is now eight years since the channel tunnel was completed, yet while the French and Belgian Governments had taken steps to ensure that high-speed links were in place to link their capitals with the tunnel, the British Government—a Conservative Government—chose deliberately not to put any investment into our railways.

The consequence is that passengers travel at 300 km an hour on the European side and 100 km an hour through the tunnel, and then dawdle in a meandering route through Kent; wonderful for enjoying the Kentish countryside, but a disastrous and shameful comment on the short- sightedness of the British Government of the day.

To be fair to the Conservative party, at the very end of its period in power, it realised that this had been a mistake and began plans to establish a high-speed rail link. But the Conservatives botched it in the usual way, so that when we came into office—within literally a matter of a few weeks—we were presented with the clear evidence that their scheme was not viable and was not going to proceed. That was their legacy. Now, five years later, we have stage one of the CTRL scheme very near completion; on course, on budget and on time. What a contrast with the record of the previous Government.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): The Minister is making great play of transit times into London by rail. Can he explain why, since Railtrack was taken into administration, by the Strategic Rail Authority's own figures delays on journeys into London have become much, much worse?

Mr. Raynsford: The consequence of the botched privatisation of British Rail and the mismanagement by Railtrack has caused a serious problem on all parts of the rail network. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that Hatfield did not occur after we took Railtrack into administration. He would do well to ponder that.

In transport, and so many other areas, we are ensuring that the investment is going in to put right the wrongs that were left by the previous Government.

Mr. Pickles: I am curious about the Minister's reference to Hatfield, and about his shroud-waving. Does he believe that the Deputy Prime Minister was wrong when he said that safety was in no way compromised by privatisation? Is he repudiating what the Deputy Prime Minister said? Perhaps he might take this opportunity of reflecting on his words on Hatfield.

Mr. Raynsford: Clearly, the hon. Gentleman was not listening. I was pointing out that in the aftermath of Hatfield—as he will know very well—the speed of rail services throughout the country, not just into London, was dramatically affected because of the need to take measures to improve safety provision. That is why I said that it would be unwise of the hon. Member for Rayleigh

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(Mr. Francois) to focus too much on recent events, rather than on the context of the result of his party's botched privatisation of the railways.

Mr. McLoughlin: We have so far heard the Minister blame 11 Sept for unemployment in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), and Hatfield for the problems on the railways. Is there anything for which this Government are responsible?

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