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Lawrie Quinn: When the right hon. Gentleman talks about the architecture of and preparation for rail privatisation, were not the previous Government trying to manage a decline in expectation of the railways, especially for freight, rather than cater for the expansion that subsequently occurred as a result of an economy that has done well? The previous Government sought to establish a system to manage a decline rather than to provide for expansion.
Sir Brian Mawhinney: On the contrary. For once, I do not have to bore the hon. Gentleman with many facts and figures. Indeed, I condemn him to a worse fate: he should read all the speeches that I made when I was Secretary of State for Transport. He will then know precisely what we were doing.
On reflection, we made one mistake in the privatisation process. The train operators were all new business men, who were keen to run businesses that would benefit passengers and customers but also their shareholders. It is possible to do that simultaneously. Our mistake was to allow old British Rail management to become the management of Railtrack. The consequences were not good and change had to be introduced.
At that point, let us consider the contribution of the Secretary of State's other predecessor, the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers). In a statement to the House, he announced that he intended to put Railtrack into a special vehicle. In response to that, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and I got to our feet and warned the Government that it was one of the most damaging decisions that they had ever made in the context of the public sector. We said that it would seriously undermine confidence in the private finance initiative and make public-private partnerships much more expensive. All that happened.
I remind Labour Members that the private holders of Railtrack shares will take the Government to court later in the year. We will then see precisely the effect of the
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former Secretary of State's judgment. If there is evidence that Her Majesty's Treasury leaned on the Secretary of State about the decisionas a former Secretary of State, I would be amazed if the Treasury had not leaned on himthe consequences for the Government's transport policy will be catastrophic.
We gave operating companies 15-year leases because we understood that they needed certainty to invest. The Government give them two-year leases and the companies will not invest. In one sense, that is not a party political point but a reflection of the marketplace. If companies do not believe that they have time to recoup their investment, they will not invest. The Government must make up their mind quickly about whether they wish to sustain and develop the investment and the passenger attraction of the railways through the contracts that they are willing to give the operators.
It has become clear beyond peradventure that the Strategic Rail Authority and Network Rail do not have money to invest in stations. The operating companies are the only ones that have money to improve our stations. They will not invest if they are given only two-year contracts. They need long contracts if they are to have the confidence to invest not only in developing services but in stations.
Let me make a constituency point. I am greatly privileged to be in my 26th year of representing some part of the city of Peterborough. For years, we have been promised badly needed redevelopment of our railway station. Peterborough is the first stop on the east coast main line but the promise of redevelopment was made circa 1975 or 1980. Railtrack promised that we would have it and the SRA said that it would happen. Now the SRA will not even promise.
Indeed, in Peterborough, we do not know whether we shall have a new station and, if we do, whether it will face in the same direction as the current station or whether the plan will be reversed and the buildings constructed on the other side of the track. We have a plan to develop our station 25 years after the end of the development corporation and we do not even know the direction that it is likely to face and what will be built in its environs, despite its position at the heart of the master plan to redevelop the city. Ministers will understand that such long-standing constituency problems cause hon. Members from all parties to get agitated when we consider transport policy.
My last point concerns aviation. Again, I believe that I have the privilege of being the last Secretary of State to review airport policy. At that time, I made it possible to have a second parallel runway at Gatwick, although legal constraints meant that that could not happen before the middle of the next decade. My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk was right to say that, because aviation policy is so sensitive, decision making must be exceptionally sharp. Our difficulty is not in acknowledging the need for greater capacityI agree with the Government that greater capacity is required. However, decision making to reduce blight, uncertainty and unhappiness is not commensurate with that understanding.
The Government have a wonderful opportunity to site the third major hub in the United Kingdom not in the south-east but in the midlands or the north-east, where an increasing number of people go for their
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transport needs. I pay special tribute to those who run Manchester airport because, from my days as Transport Secretary, I was impressed with the service that they provided.
This Government made a decision that they will live to regret when they decided, after we had robustly resisted the proposal, to pass responsibility for landing rights from our control to Europe. We all know how difficult it is to put in place new treaties. I hope that I will not bore the House when I say that I was the last Secretary of State to conclude an agreement on this issue with the Americans. We have not had one for eight years, or even longer. Now the future of Heathrow, Gatwick and the third hub, wherever that is, will be determined in Brussels and not in this country. Hon. Members must ask themselves why Brussels should look after our interests when Charles de Gaulle, Schiphol and Frankfurt airports are there. I worry about the long-term health of our aviation industry. That issue would be a good one to repatriate to the competence of the British Government and I shall commend that proposal to my right hon. Friends when we return to power.
I started by saying that this Government had lost the plot, but we made some mistakes in our transport policy as well. I want to admit to one today, to try to head off the present Secretary of State from making things worse. He said that he was considering extending variable speed technology after the M25 experiment. I have to tell the House that, on one of the few occasions in my ministerial career when I was conned by civil servants, I agreed to that variable speed limit being put in place. It is a waste of public money. I drive down the M25, crawling at 10 mph while looking at a sign telling me that I am allowed to drive at 40. Or sometimes I crawl at 20 mph past a sign saying that I can actually go to 50. The reality of the road controls the speed, not a number on a gantry. I put my hands up in this regard. With hindsight, which is always 20:20, I realise that I wasted some taxpayers' money, and I urge the present Secretary of State to learn from my example and not do the same.
The Government's transport policy is a mess, but it is not primarily a mess of this Secretary of State's making. Like a duck, he is serene on the surface but paddling like crazy underneath to reposition the policy in an attempt to make it palatable to the public at next year's general election. The best indicator of the fact that the policy is a mess is that Labour Members insist on making speeches about things that happened pre-1997 rather than post-1997. At the next election, the public will want to talk about the future, and the future will not include a Labour Government.
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): I am pleased to be able to take part in this debate. I am going to focus not on things that happened pre-1997 but on the many things that have happened subsequently, and on policies for which the Government deserve praise. I have certain constituency concerns, however, that I also want to raise.
The Conservatives seem to suggest that nothing has been done since 1997, but that is a caricature of the Government's transport policy, particularly in regard to roads. The Opposition give the impression that virtually
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no road schemes have been completed since 1997, but that is simply not the case. Many major and minor road schemes and road safety schemes have been completed since then. In my area, the Newark to Lincoln dual carriageway was completed last year, which has added to the speeding up of traffic in that area and got rid of a notorious bottleneck on one of the major link roads to the A1 from places such as Grimsby and Cleethorpes.
The Conservatives have caricatured the Government's transport policy as a failed one, which is simply not the case. That is not to say, however, that everything is perfect, because it is not. The Secretary of State admitted that there were great difficulties involved in dealing with the major infrastructure projects. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is not present today. My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) alluded to her whistlestop tour of the Yorkshire and Humber region, during which she also visited Immingham in my constituency to drum up support for her party. The Conservatives topped the polls in Immingham a year ago, but the effect of her recent visit was that they came last in that electoral ward, with their vote collapsing by about a third. She is therefore more than welcome to visit my constituency any time she likes, if that is the effect that she is going to have on the Conservative vote there.
The words of the motion on the Order Paper, and the comments of Conservative Members today, are simply whinge, whinge, whinge. There does not seem to be any policy behind them for us to get our teeth into, so that we can see what the Conservatives are offering. It is not sufficient simply to criticise; they must offer credible alternatives. From what I have heard today, however, they did not seem to have any credible policies. The only certainty was that, according to the shadow Chancellor, there would be cuts in their transport budget. That would be particularly worrying to my constituents, because one of the major projects to be affected by such cuts would be the Government's commitment in the 10-year transport plan to resurface all concrete trunk roads with low-noise material.
The A180 in northern Lincolnshire is a concrete trunk road and a major link between the ports of Grimsby and Immingham. Immingham is a rapidly expanding port that deals with most of the freight coming into Britain from the Netherlands. That road is therefore heavily used; it also has many residents living alongside it. When the Government's resurfacing policy was announced in July 2000, my constituents were therefore very pleased. However, projects such as that would be put in jeopardy if the Conservatives' proposals for cutsor a freeze; let them call it what they willwent ahead. Such a freeze would mean that my constituents would have no chance of getting that low-noise material on a road that carries a lot of freight traffic.
That is not to say that freight does not also go by rail. I want to point out to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), that much of the freight that comes into Immingham goes on from there by railit is one of Britain's major rail freight depotsbut there are capacity issues in regard to the track leading from Immingham that feeds into the east coast main line. Much of that track is also in poor condition, and those issues need to be looked at.
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Today, when we have talked about rail, we have mainly referred to passenger transport. In my constituency, freight transport is the big issue. Most of the rail jobs are related to that, and it generates economic growth in the area. We must consider the freight infrastructure as much as we do other aspects of the transport infrastructure.
I referred to the A180 resurfacing programme, and my hon. Friend the Minister knows that subject well, as I have raised it in the Adjournment debate and with other Transport Ministers. I hope that Ministers can get to grips with the Highways Agency, because its timetabling of some of these projects seems at times to get a little woolly, to put it politely. It commits to one day, then to another. Last year, I received a letter from the agency telling me that the project was due to go ahead in 2001, and my constituents were certainly a little confused that a project that was going to go ahead two years earlier had not yet started. Let us get to grips with the Highways Agency, make sure that it spells towns' names correctlyevery time that I write to it about the Habrough to Stallingborough section, I get a response connected to Harborough. I have not yet taken over the Harborough constituency, but I am sure that that leads to some of the woolly thought in this area.
The other subject on which I wanted to touch brieflynot many other people have alluded to itis the place of bridges within our transport network. I will refer particularly to the Humber bridge connecting my constituency with Hull on the north bank of the river. Ever since the bridge was built, there has been concern about the level of debt, and the money that must be paid to the Treasury to finance it. I praise the Government, who in 1998 wrote off £62 million of that debt, and rescheduled the remaining debt to make the interest repayments more manageable. However, those tolls can still be a barrier. Because of the reorganisation of health care in the area, many more people must travel over to the north bank of the river for treatment, and must therefore incur tolls. Responsibility for giving concessions lies with the strategic health authority and other partners.
As I have also raised this issue in Adjournment debates, could the Government re-examine the remaining debt on the bridge? They have written off debt previously, rescheduled the remaining debt and reduced the interest rates, and for us to remove the barrier to further economic growth in what is one of Britain's major industrial manufacturing heartlands, we need to consider that. If my hon. Friend the Minister could assist the bridge board with removing that barrier to economic growth, we would appreciate it. If he will not do that, may I suggest that some of the £15 million that toll payers in my area pay into the Treasury each year could go towards finishing off the A180 resurfacing project?
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