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17 Dec 2002 : Column 712—continued

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): As ever, I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, and for the fact that he is making a statement to the House at all. Yesterday, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said not once but twice that this would be a written, not an oral, statement. All hon. Members will welcome the Secretary of State's recognition that a fiasco of this magnitude required him to come to the House to face the music. Does he realise that, so bad is his predicament, some people may almost feel sorry for him? Does he accept that many will understand why he may have been reluctant to come here for his third statement of failure in as many weeks? Two weeks ago he made a statement after the courts threw out his airports consultation. Last week he made a statement on the need to reverse the Government's entire approach to road building. Today he makes a statement on the collapse of his rail policies. Is he as grateful as the nation that because of Christmas he cannot come here to make a statement next week, otherwise who knows what disasters he would have to admit to then?

Does the Secretary of State accept that he came here today not to praise the 10-year transport plan, but to bury it? Now that he has abandoned the congestion targets, scrapped the rail passenger target, done a complete U-turn on road building and admitted that many proposed rail infrastructure improvements will not happen, will he admit that the 10-year transport plan is so much of a corpse that Amanda Burton has been spotted preparing a post mortem?

The Secretary of State clearly has a sense of humour. He has produced a document entitled XDelivering Better Transport". My favourite corker line in it is:

If this is the Secretary of State's interpretation of a good start, one shudders to think what a bad start would have been. Will he clarify what he said this morning on the XToday" programme, when he claimed that he was Xgetting a grip" on costs in the rail industry? Will he confirm that, as the Under-Secretary set out in a parliamentary answer, the SRA's budget for 2001–02 was set at #1.28 billion but had to be increased to #1.87 billion? Does he concede that in the current year it was set at #2.17 billion and has risen again to #2.37 billion? How is that Xgetting a grip" on costs? Given that record, is the SRA best placed to lecture the rest of the industry on the need for cost control?

On page 41 of the document, it says:

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, as Network Rail's press office told the House of Commons Library today, the maintenance budget for the rail network has

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risen from #1.9 billion in 1999–2000 to #3.8 billion this year? Will he also confirm that that includes a rise of #1 billion in the 12 months since the Government took control of Railtrack, and that it has been accompanied by an increase, not a cut, in the number of trains delayed by track work? Who is to blame for this explosion of costs in a company that, in his phrase, is now in the public sector? How does a doubling of those massive sums represent a driving down of costs?

Does the Secretary of State accept that, because of the complete collapse of cost control at Network Rail, the SRA is now telling the train operating companies that they may have to cope with 20 per cent. less subsidy, which will mean higher fares and fewer trains? Will he answer the question that he dodged on the XToday" programme this morning? Does he stick by the target in the 10-year transport plan to increase rail passenger numbers by 50 per cent.? If he sticks by that target, how does he propose to deliver it?

Will the Secretary of State clarify his excuses for all these failures? In his document, he says that we must avoid the years of

Last year, the Government did not add one inch of tarmac to the national road network, and this year they have announced a huge increase in road building. What is that if not stop-go funding? There is no long-term policy consistency.

It is hinted in The Guardian today that the Secretary of State has said that the increase in congestion is because local authorities have not yet introduced congestion charging. Is he for or against congestion charging in London? He has dodged that question eight times on the radio, and he has three times refused to answer it in the House, so will he answer it today?

Does the Secretary of State endorse the comments of an off-the-record source in his Department, who told the BBC on Sunday that the Secretary of State blames the legacy of the Deputy Prime Minister and the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers) for the mess that he is in? Does that not come closest to the truth? Is the Secretary of State not just the fall guy, the loser at pass the parcel, the last one left in the room when the integrated transport policy disintegrated in his hands?

After five and half years of wasting time and money, after a list of broken promises and abandoned targets that has grown as long as a queue on the M6, and after yet another admission of complete and total failure today, will not the British public conclude that Labour has not got a clue about transport and is hopelessly, undeniably and uselessly incompetent?

Mr. Darling: On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I can assure him that it is always a great pleasure to come to the House to debate with him. I look forward to it—indeed, at the weekend I was disappointed when at one point I thought that I might not be able to do so today. However, here we are, and as ever he has shown why it is such a pleasure for me to debate with him.

The first concession that the hon. Gentleman seemed to make was that, in his view, Mr. Jim Naughtie of Radio 4 is a better examiner of me than he is. That is evident, as he kept referring to all the things that I did or did not say to Mr. Naughtie. On the subject of the press,

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I noticed that the hon. Gentleman put out a press statement that makes one or two criticisms of what we are doing. It concludes by stating:

Does not that sum up his problem? He has promised us a new approach since the summer, but there are now less than seven days before Christmas and we have yet to get the Conservatives' new policies.

The other matters that he raised do perhaps merit a substantive reply. As I have said time and again, what the transport system needs—railways in particular, but roads as well—is a commitment by Governments to steady funding, year on year, decade by decade. The hon. Gentleman is critical of the current roads programme, but here I should give the previous Government some credit. Some of the roads that are being completed now were actually planned during the time of the previous Tory Government. However, it surely follows that one reason why fewer roads are being completed now is because of decisions that were taken 10 years ago, when, as a result of the economic crisis that the Tories ran into, they had a spot of bother with public spending. The point of the 10-year plan—[Interruption.] The Opposition cannot have it both ways. If they agree that some of the roads now being completed were planned under them, it follows that some of the roads not now being completed should have been authorised some years ago.

On the railways, again, we are dealing with something of a long-term problem. In complaining that we are spending too much on the railways, the hon. Gentleman expands on the Leader of the Opposition's firm promise that they are not going to match our spending on transport. So we must look forward to Tory cuts in their next manifesto. We have had to spend more on maintenance because after the Hatfield rail accident, it was manifestly obvious that the state of the railways was far worse than anybody in the industry—or, I suspect, in this House—ever realised.

That leads me to my second point. We do need to spend more on maintenance, and to spend money on making sure that we get a reliable train service, but as I said during Question Time, we must drive down costs. This is an industry that for many years did not have sufficient regard to the need for proper cost control. Many Members have rightly said, XWhy are you giving more money to people who ask for more funds to renew their franchises? Why aren't you just saying no?" I understand that point, but I am saying through the SRA to the industry, XYou need to get control of your costs and to drive up standards." I make no apology for the fact that we are spending more and telling the industry that it must get a proper grip on funding.

Finally, although the hon. Gentleman is entitled to make his criticisms if he can, he cannot get away from the fact that the fundamental problems—be it road congestion or train reliability and the need to maintain the track—require steady investment. For as long as the Tory policy is to spend less on the trains, they have limited credibility in this area.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I, too, thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of his statement, although hon. Members will rarely have heard one more unjustifiably complacent. Is not the 10-year transport

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plan in tatters? Does the Secretary of State accept that he has had as dismal a month as any experienced by rail commuters?

In the past month, we have learned that rail delays have doubled under Labour, and that cancellations are up by 50 per cent. Bus and rail fares have increased in real terms, while the cost of motoring has fallen. We have learned also that, under Labour, buses outside London are carrying fewer passengers, that the airport consultation paper was illegal and biased, that there has been improper accounting of Network Rail, and that the public-private partnership for London Underground no longer offers value for money. Moreover, we have learned that Labour's road congestion targets will not be met, that rail improvement projects are being shelved, that some rail services are being abandoned, and that passengers will be expected to pay even higher fares.

To cap it all, the Secretary of State has returned to the failed predict-and-provide approach to the road building programme. As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) asked, how can the Secretary of State claim in today's report that the Government have made a Xgood start" to delivering the improvements envisaged in the 10-year plan? Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the only way to tackle rising road congestion is to provide an integrated public transport system that is safe, reliable and affordable? How can that be achieved by cutting rail services, increasing fares and reducing by #312 million the money going to the SRA? How can it be achieved by initiating—against the advice of the Government's own advisory bodies—a massive road building programme that contains not even a hint of road pricing? How can it be achieved when the Department for Transport does not even monitor all the aspects of its own plan?

Why is it only now that the Secretary of State has woken up to the massively escalating costs of rail improvements and maintenance? Even his predecessor acknowledged the problems created when there are too many contractors on the line.

The 10-year plan is unravelling, so does the Secretary of State accept that it was flawed from the start and that claims of available funding and anticipated outcomes were massively exaggerated? If this is to be yet another of the lines in the sand for transport so often promised by his predecessor, will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that at least there will be no fiddled figures this time, that realistic targets will be set, and that he will work with others to find the imaginative and innovative solutions needed to produce the truly integrated transport system that this country needs and deserves?

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