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Mr. Darling: In my defence, I have not said much about buses because no one has asked me much about them. You, Madam Deputy Speaker, would no doubt have something to say if I volunteered lots of information without being asked for it.
On my hon. Friend's point about the particular problem in Hemel Hempstead, he has no doubt had a word with his local authority. Last week, in the local government settlement, I announced that significant sums were available. There is a lot more money for transport, but we look to local authorities for the provision of bus services.
On the point about a strategic bus authority, I am bound to say that my instinct is not to set up another bureaucracy. That can sometimes be a distraction from the main point, which is to ensure that we have better bus services.
Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): What assurances can my right hon. Friend give that improvements in passenger and freight services will assist the ongoing economic regeneration of Liverpool? May I also thank him for his decision to approve the tram line in Liverpool? That will certainly help.
On passengers and freight, there is no doubt that the upgrading of the west coast main line, which is an essential part of the links to Liverpool, will mean that there is more capacity for both passengers and freight. My hon. Friend is the first to ask about freight. It is worth noting the 7 per cent. increase in the number of trains that carry freight, and that should be welcomed.
Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough): I am glad that my right hon. Friend mentioned the reduction in the number of road deaths. I am sure he would agree, however, that it is unacceptable that about 3,500 people are still killed on our roads every year. Will he ensure that part of the investment will be used to reduce the speed of motorists, especially in villages in my constituency? We also need increased investment to get a reliable bus service. People are transferring to their cars because bus services across the country are unreliable. Will he ensure that that and the investment in local transport plans lead to a greater reduction in the number of people killed on our roads every year?
Mr. Darling: I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. Although our roads are relatively safe compared with those in the rest of Europe, nine people will be killed on our roads today. When we discuss the safety of other modes of transport and when the measures taken by local authorities to discourage cars going at speed are criticised, it is worth bearing in mind the fact that nine families today will lose someone. No Government should sit back and tolerate that. It is why I will never apologise for measures taken either by us as a national Government or by local authorities to make our roads safer. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that.
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, of which I have given notice. The Ministry of Defence announced today that it has begun preparations for a possible war against Iraq. Letters are going out to reservists, contracts are being sought for cargo ships to move troops and equipment, and tanks are being prepared for use in the desert. Furthermore, the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, indicated that later this week the US will reject the dossier that the Iraqis submitted to the UN. That is hardly a surprise to anyone who recognises how much President Bush wants to go to war.
The House starts its Christmas recess on Thursday, so MPs could be left without any opportunity of expressing their views about going to war. The last debate on Iraq certainly did not give us that opportunity. Has the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State for Defence said whether a statement on Iraq and a possible war against it will be made before the Christmas recess?
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Hiring cargo ships does not come cheap. Can the House of Commons be told about the terms of compensation before any action is taken? If those terms have been worked out, one draws the inevitable conclusion that the decision to go to war has already been made because compensation is crucial in that matter. I have just returned from giving the Zayed lecture in Abu Dhabi. Arabs from all over the Gulf think that the war is an extraordinary folly that sets the Christian world against the Islamic world. Surely the House of Commons should have a statement before the recess.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I am unaware of the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State for Defence making such a request. However, the points raised by both hon. Members are on the record and the respective Ministers will be aware of them.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I ask whether, overnight, there has been a transformation of Room W1, which, to my knowledge, manages with some difficulty to hold only 15 people at most?
[Relevant documents: Thirteenth Report from the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee, Session 200102, on The Planning Green Paper, HC 476-I, and the Government Response thereto, Cm 5625; Planning, Competitiveness and Productivity: Memoranda submitted to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee, Session 200203, HC 114-II; and Memorandum on Planning, Competitiveness and Productivity: Research commissioned from Roger Tym and Partners by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee, Session 200203, HC 114-III.]
On 18 July, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced to the House the need for a step change in the Government's policies for building successful, thriving and inclusive communities in all regions. He will publish a communities plan in the new year setting out the way in which we will develop our policy. We will set our policy on improving housing in an overall context of creating and maintaining sustainable communities. Every action in the plan will be underpinned by that objective. To create and maintain sustainable communities successfully, we need to work together at all levels to improve local economies; promote safety and stability; provide good-quality public services; build a skills base; and engage with our communities.
Any plan needs to be set against our wider agenda of strengthening local and regional government, community engagement, community cohesion and social inclusion. The Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill currently being considered by the House gives regions, if their people so choose, a distinct political voice and a real say over decisions that matter to them. For the first time, regions will have responsibility for taking greater control over things that matter to peopleeconomic development, regeneration, planning, housing, transport, health, culture and the environment.