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23 Jun 2003 : Column 777


Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. We now come to the next motion, which is on transport. I must inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.34 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I beg to move,

If there were no crisis in transport, I would be the first to argue the need for the role of the Secretary of State for Transport to be merged with another task: heading the Government's environmental policies. Transport and the environment should be inextricably linked, but linking transport with Scotland makes no sense. Given the current crisis in transport, however, we believe that we need a Secretary of State who is single-minded in seeking solutions to that crisis.

The Government's amendment simply tries to imply that there is no crisis—how wrong they are. It is no wonder that the latest opinion poll shows that 81 per cent. of the British public believe that the Government have failed to deliver on transport.

I would be the first to admit that there have been several improvements under this Government: the change of Railtrack to Network Rail, a not-for-profit public interest company; the reduction of the number of train operating franchises; and the introduction of congestion charging in London. Interestingly, the first two measures were Liberal Democrat policies and the third was a proposal from Ken Livingstone that the Government were prepared to support in any way only after it had been demonstrated to work. Despite those improvements, however, there is a real crisis in transport.

I looked today at the transport section of the BBC website. At 5.15 pm, it showed that there were 44 cancellations, delays and disruptions to services run by the 18 major train operating companies, 20 of which were to South West Trains services alone. Half the listed train operating companies reported incidents on their lines. Surely it is a bizarre irony that I criticised the Secretary of State in the Chamber last Thursday for his proposals to increase rail fares above the rate of inflation on the grounds that rail passengers were not getting the quality service that they deserved yet, that very afternoon, all trains out of Paddington had to be cancelled due to line-side disruption. When I rang national rail inquiries at 4 pm, I was given the times of trains that would supposedly run although they had been cancelled two hours earlier.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): How can the hon. Gentleman say that Network Rail—or "Notwork Rail", as it should be known—is an improvement on what went before given that it costs the taxpayer much more money and is the cause of many of the increased delays about which he talks?

Mr. Foster: The right hon. Gentleman fails to take account of the fact that at the time of transfer the new body put forward its detailed business plan contained

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costings of intended expenditure to improve our railway lines. It is keeping more or less to that budget, so it is not overspending. It is certainly true that it proposes to spend more on our railways than the incompetent Railtrack did before. I shall argue later that the right hon. Gentleman would have made a fair point if he had said that Network Rail must do more to reduce its costs to ensure that we get better value for money from the increased expenditure. I shall return to that point in a moment.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and recall spending many happy hours considering the Bill that became the Transport Act 2000. Is it not the case that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) forgets that Railtrack was sold on a false prospectus and that we did not recognise the 18 years or more—some would argue 38 years—of underinvestment in such a key part of our transport infrastructure?

Mr. Foster: I would be the first to acknowledge that the two key reasons why we have the current problem are underinvestment for many decades, which is recognised by the Government's investment, and the botched privatisation of our railways under the previous Conservative Administration. The key issue relating to the need to change Railtrack into a not-for-profit public interest company was the fact that there was a huge conflict of interest under Railtrack between shareholder profits and passenger safety, which explains why I welcomed the move.

Lawrie Quinn: Given that the hon. Gentleman argues that the alleged crisis—as he puts it—goes back many decades, will he pinpoint when it started? My old dad, who is sadly no longer a train driver, would have pointed back to the time immediately after the second world war.

Mr. Foster: If I were to be absolutely honest, I would admit that I have studied the history books and can demonstrate that a previous Liberal Government at the turn of the previous century failed to invest properly in our railways. I am more than happy to acknowledge that the underinvestment is the fault of all political parties. However, the problem is that we have a crisis, whatever the cause, that this Government have failed to tackle. Having a Secretary of State who is distracted by other duties will not help to bring that crisis to an end.

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

Mr. Foster: In a moment.

I mentioned the crisis at Paddington last Thursday and want to pay tribute to the managing director of First Great Western, Chris Kinchin-Smith, and his staff for the excellent way in which they helped to defuse the situation caused by the incompetence of the national rail inquiries service. I also want to thank Denni Bernard, the manager of the train that I eventually caught from Reading. With her understanding and her humorous comments over the loudspeaker system she managed to defuse much of the tension.

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There is a significant crisis, notwithstanding some of the improvements I mentioned. It would appear that the Secretary of State has tried to keep his head below the parapet and keep transport out of the news, but he has failed to do so. As he admitted in the House only a few weeks ago,

It certainly has. The Secretary of State cannot afford to hide below the parapet. Were he to glimpse over the top of it he would see a transport system that is creaking at the seams. Congestion on our roads continues its remorseless rise. The Government have admitted that their 10-year transport plan targets for reducing congestion will not be met despite the fact that congestion is costing British businesses £20 billion a year and that there is a huge increase in the number of deaths brought forward because of the pollution from that congestion. So much for the Deputy Prime Minister's promise to cut the number of journeys travelled by car.

On the buses outside London, passenger numbers have fallen by 10 per cent. since the Labour Government came to power. In the same time, rail passengers have had to suffer train delays that have doubled and cancellations that are up by 50 per cent. No doubt the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) will give us the correct figures on that.

Geraint Davies: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can correct me, but I do not recall him calling for an individual Secretary of State for Transport when we had a Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. At a time when transport has been devolved in London and Scotland and we are moving towards regional responsibilities, his position seems strange. Is it his policy, as he said, that we should have a new Secretary of State with responsibility for transport and the environment, or is he just confused?

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is incorrect. At the time of the last general election, we made it clear that we would split up the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions into two Departments, one of which would predominantly have responsibility for transport and the environment. I still believe that that is the correct thing to do. Nevertheless, as I made clear in my introductory remarks, in light of the current devastating crisis, that is not the appropriate way forward in the short term. We need a Secretary of State who concentrates on that transport crisis and on putting matters right.

The transport crisis is real. As I said, train delays have increased by 100 per cent., cancellations are up by 50 per cent. and bus ridership outside London has decreased. Rail freight was increasing for a number of years, but last year it experienced the first decline since 1994. The guts of the multi-modal studies have been ripped out as the Government accepted most of the road building programme but refused to acknowledge the many sensible rail improvement measures contained within them and would not do anything about them.

As for aviation, the Government are basing their consultation on its future by using a deeply flawed document. They appear to have returned to the old

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failed "predict and provide" approach, using predictions that are extremely bizarre. For example, their predictions assume that after 2030 we will need to build a new Heathrow every three years, which is clearly nonsensical.

Even at that quick glance, the Secretary of State can see that there is a real crisis. If he looks in more detail, he will see that it is even worse than that.

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