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Mr. Clarke: I agree with the hon. Lady, whom I am pleased to call friend. She is probably in agreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown)—that PFI is fine, but only so long as there is a proper transfer of risk. Does she appreciate that PFI has gone wrong because of what happened when the Government first took office? They were suddenly in favour of PFI, but said that no schemes were advancing at an adequate speed. Negotiations on PFI tended to be held up because private contractors wanted to resist the transfer of risk. The Government were so anxious to get all sorts of capital investment flowing along and off balance sheet that they altered all the rules. Suddenly, the sort of contracts about which the hon. Lady rightly complains, were being entered into in many different sectors with the result that we now face mounting financial liabilities and no means of obtaining a higher quality of performance, which was the original object of the whole policy.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I have the greatest respect for the right hon. and learned Gentleman. However, for the past 30 years, I have disagreed with most of his views with great aplomb and I disagree with him again today. In all the PFIs, business writes the contract itself, no safeguards for the taxpayer are negotiated and we end up with inadequate schemes that have, in some instances, put passengers at risk. That is wholly unacceptable.

The Government already have the power to reorganise transport rapidly and with some efficiency—presumably that is why the matter was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech. However, that requires a greater degree of savagery from the Department for Transport than we have seen so far. In the rail industry, the Strategic Rail Authority is apparently renegotiating franchises, yet it still does not take into account the fact that about eight railway companies are operating under management buy-outs and that a large number of the other companies are not, apparently, producing suggestions for their franchise that will change the situation. Indeed, what is worse is that where the franchise has been taken back due to the inadequacy of the company, it is still seriously suggested that we look for another private supplier. When will Ministers get it into their heads that backers and investors will not put their money into such schemes? Nor will they support a railway system that is more than 100 years old; they are looking for quick, large returns and they will not get them from the railway industry.

We need a clear steer from the Government as to how they expect the SRA to proceed. We are putting more and more burdens on to the SRA. We expect it to fit in

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with regional planning initiatives. Quite right. It should take note of the important aspects required by the regions. We expect the SRA to provide links between vital economic developments—for example, between our ports and our major cities—yet it has stated clearly that it has neither the money nor the ability to undertake such work quickly. We expect the SRA to plan for forward development by providing infrastructure for connections with the aviation industry, yet there is no evidence that it has the personnel, the ability or the clarity of vision that would produce such changes.

We are also told that other bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive are dysfunctional. I do not know what a dysfunctional HSE is, but it frightens the hell out of me if it means that the people who should be planning and monitoring the efficient working of transport projects are incapable of delivering the degree of day-to-day care that is essential. We have a rail industry where the SRA, the railway executive, the rail regulator—whose role is still unclear to me—and old uncle Tom Cobley and all are arguing and squabbling in a happy little private world and they are not delivering the care that we need. When will we look into that?

I do not want to take too much of the House's time so I shall gallop rapidly on. Why is there nothing in the Queen's Speech about a new plan for buses? Of course, most people do not find bus services interesting; they are used mainly by women and people in the lowest quartile of the employed so they do not have a high profile in this place. However, that is all the more reason why we should state plainly what we intend to do about them. Bus companies are taking the ratepayers to the cleaners. In more and more local authorities, the provision of bus services depends on deals with bus companies, which roar with laughter when reminded of the responsibilities of the local planning authorities.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Does my hon. Friend agree with the Minister who wrote to me, when I suggested that we have a strategic bus authority, saying that there was no demand for such a thing?

Mrs. Dunwoody: Well, it is ridiculous. More and more, people run services that we know to be viable and then go back to the local authority and say, "Whoops, we have changed our minds. We are not going to run that service any more, unless you give us a big pot of gold to keep it going." Companies change services without proper notice and leave local authorities in intolerable situations. For example, my own county frequently has to provide substitute services, at considerable expense. It often cannot find a company to tender for certain routes. Unless the Government urgently face up to the problems of the bus industry and how it is failing the passenger, we will be in considerable difficulty.

The Queen's Speech mentions school transport and that will provide an opportunity to address the issues that I have mentioned. It is suggested that school buses will increase road safety and provide a much better service. Most people accept that the three-mile rule is no longer viable and, in fact, causes considerable difficulty. If we are seriously to consider using school buses in the middle of the day for social services or hospital work, we had better be clear that hospitals—like schools—like to have their patients delivered as they begin work. We

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cannot say to consultants, "Whoops, we are terribly sorry, but your bus is nipping around the back streets because it had to do two school runs and a college run before bringing your patients in." Let us have some clear thinking on that and face up to the responsibility. We should now plan a complete revolution in buses, because the system is failing and it is expensive.

My last point is also a negative one, but it is a wet Monday and it seems appropriate. All Secretaries of State, especially those with responsibility for transport, are allowed one mistake. The present Secretary of State for Transport is widely regarded as a responsible and hard-working Minister. He has produced some good results and is pulling together several disparate policies. I admire what he is trying to do and believe that he sincerely wants to make the system work. That is why it is sad that the suggestion has leaked that Stansted will get the new runway. That is nonsense. The local people do not want it, the airlines do not want it and the passengers do not want it at Stansted. I am not sure who does want a new runway at Stansted or where the money will come from.

On the whole, the Government have a good record of taking fairly sensible decisions and trying to make them work. However, if we fail to grasp the nettle of development at Heathrow, which is essential for our economic development, we shall do for aviation what we did for ports and what we may be doing now for railways. Because we have been prepared to allow the infrastructure to decline and have ignored opportunities for development, we have handed much economic—quite apart from social and political—development to our opposition on the continent, in this case, and to anyone who wants to pick up a market that we have apparently abandoned, in other cases. There is no case for the development at Stansted. It is a barmy idea. I know that and the Government know that. The Government are sensible, so why not—for once—risk saying something that is not popular? Giving the runway to Heathrow would not make the Government much loved by obsessive lobby groups, but it would be in the interests of the United Kingdom to develop extra capacity at Heathrow. If that is not acceptable to European institutions, perhaps we could break the habit of the past 20 years and tell them where they can go, along with some of their other colleagues.

3.59 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who makes her point with her usual grace and vigour. I hope that the Prime Minister will have one of his big conversations with her. She achieved the impossible by making me feel sorry for Richard Branson, which I never thought would happen. She is right about the need for the public sector and the Government to give a lead on big transport infrastructure projects. The desire to push everything on to the private sector without the Government taking responsibility is why transport infrastructure projects have been continually delayed. I think that she would agree that we need clear Government leadership on Crossrail—the prime example—particularly if the sustainable communities plan is to work, especially in the Thames gateway.

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There was a fascinating development in today's debate: a new Conservative policy. We now hear that the Conservatives favour regional parliaments rather than regional assemblies. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) told us that, if regional assemblies had the power of the Scottish Parliament, he would be more interested in considering the idea. That puts him on the extreme of British politics with respect to regionalism because even the Liberal Democrats, with our desire to have regional assemblies, would not wish to give them the power of the Scottish Parliament. We would not want them to have primary legislative capacity and competence or the many other abilities of the Scottish Parliament.

I welcome the fact that the Conservatives are now at the cutting edge of the pro-regional devolution debate, but I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman has had a chance to speak to any member of his own team about the issue. I debated the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill with the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), and the best that he could do was to admit that the people of the north-east had regional aspirations, but he was not prepared to say how the Tory party would meet those aspirations. I am pretty sure that the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) could not be described as a regionalist. I shall be interested in how that policy develops. It was the first case of an own goal in the first five minutes of a speech that I have seen for some time.

Although there may be confusion on the Conservative Benches about that important policy, I am concerned about the Government's approach and how it relates to their whole approach to the responsibilities of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. There was no vision in the package of measures proposed today. Ministers' rhetoric sometimes has vision and includes devolving power from Whitehall, as well as a new localism and strengthening local government. They talk about decentralisation, but when we consider the Queen's Speech, none of that rhetoric is included in the programme of the ODPM.

The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill clearly shows that such powers will not be passed down but will come up from elected bodies to unelected bodies, which is the complete opposite of the Deputy Prime Minister's rhetoric on such issues. Even with Bills such as the fire and rescue services Bill and the traffic management Bill, Government press releases and press comments show that the Government will keep or increase central powers and that they intend to have draconian reserve powers. That is not new localism, and it does not bear up to the rhetoric.

As the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon said, there was a major omission. We had been promised a draft regional powers Bill. We want to know what powers the regional assemblies will have, and he was right when he said that just publishing the White Paper is no use because we all know that huge things can change between the White Paper, the draft Bill and the Act.

The Deputy Prime Minister made a very important point. I should be interested to know whether Ministers could confirm whether this was a full announcement, but he said that we would have a draft regional powers Bill by July. If so, that is very welcome. If that is a pledge that the House will get that Bill by July, it is good news

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because the Government have not been definite about that until now, but we want to know what powers will be included. Have the Government changed their mind?

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon was right to say that a very weak form of devolution is on offer, and we can understand why people are hardly excited about it. Where are the powers on transport? There was a time when the Deputy Prime Minister was a real supporter of using regional transport policy to encourage economic development, but no transport powers will be devolved.

One would have thought that the learning and skills councils should come within the ambit at least of the regional development agencies, but they are being kept under the control of the Secretary of State. Linking the two would have made sense, but again, those powers are to be kept at Whitehall. It does not make sense. There is no vision, and the omission of the Bill from the Queen's Speech is much to be regretted, despite today's announcement about July.

We hear that the Government are going to have a big conversation. I wonder whether that explains why there was not more on devolution in the Bill—the Government seem to have lost their way and their courage. I looked at the website to find out what questions on local and regional government the Government intended to ask in their conversation with the British people. They want to know,

That is a fair enough question, but we look at their manifestos and we thought that we had had an answer. They say:

I thought that regional devolution was the next step, but, clearly, it is not in the Queen's Speech.

The questions also include,

As they are the Government's questions, one would have thought that the Queen's Speech would have had some answers.

We are concerned not only about the lack of vision and direction, but about the priorities that the Deputy Prime Minister has chosen for his package of Bills in the Gracious Speech. Some of the priorities for local government are not even mentioned in the Queen's Speech. Talking to councils and councillors up and down the country, it seems to me that the top issue is the unfair council tax. That did not get a single mention in the Queen's Speech—no plans to reform it, nothing. We have been told that the Government intend to ape the Conservatives' capping regime, but the proposal for capping legislation did not get into the Queen's Speech. I have done a little research on capping, because the Labour Opposition were not too happy about previous capping legislation. The Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary, in previous guises, all voted against capping legislation proposed by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon. How the tables have turned. No wonder people are so cynical about this place.

Let me refer Ministers to what the Foreign Secretary said back in 1993 about capping:

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We will remind Labour Members about breaches of promises on capping over the next few weeks and months.

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