16 Nov 2004 : Column 1141

House of Commons

Tuesday 16 November 2004

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]





Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Light Rail Schemes

1. Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle) (LD): What support his Department plans to give for light rail schemes; and if he will make a statement. [198100]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): All bids for light rail schemes will be considered on the basis of their value for money, wider benefits, and affordability.

Mrs. Calton: I agree that value for money should be a key part of any decision that the Secretary of State makes, but I remind him that the Metrolink in south-east Manchester was a key part of the multi-modal study proposals for that area approved by his Department. Does he plan to backtrack on any other proposal in that study?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Lady will understand that the Government must be satisfied that a scheme represents value for money before it can be agreed on. As she knows, the problem with the Metrolink scheme was that
16 Nov 2004 : Column 1142
the costs nearly doubled in two years. What was being offered was less than what was originally proposed; two and a half lines as opposed to three. No Government could have approved the scheme without asking why the costs had risen so much. As it happens, my Department and the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive have been working closely since July to try to get to the bottom of some of those cost increases. Another meeting is due tomorrow, and I hope that progress can be made.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know that the Tyne and Wear Metro system continues to enjoy huge public support. It deserves to be improved and modernised to meet the transport needs of the 21st century. However, is he aware that, like other transport systems, it continues to be abused by the minority of people who are fare dodgers? When will he be in a position to announce his review of the maximum penalty fare, which I understand has been stuck at £10 since 1989?

Mr. Darling: I am well aware of the Tyne and Wear Metro—I visited it earlier this year—which has been very successful. I agree that, at today's prices, £10 for a penalty fare is a very small sum, especially as a person who dodges fares can save rather more than that very quickly. The Department has looked at this matter and I am strongly of the view that we need to increase the penalty fares. I hope to have something to say on this in the not too distant future.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that, although the Deputy Prime Minister does not get many things right, he was right to support the Greater Manchester Metrolink? Is not the obstacle to further progress the present team of Transport Ministers? Is he aware that one of the first decisions to be made next year by a Conservative Secretary of State for Transport will be to give the go-ahead to the Greater Manchester Metrolink extensions? When the right hon. Gentleman is sitting on the Opposition Benches, I hope that he will welcome that.

Mr. Darling: Never mind what might happen in the future; one of the issues facing the shadow transport team is how they can square what the right hon. Gentleman has just said with the fact that they are committed to cutting £1.8 billion from transport spending. There are problems of cost increases in the Manchester Metrolink and other light rail schemes and there are other transport problems in this country, but one thing is certain: arbitrarily to cut £1.8 billion from transport would lead to fewer transport schemes, not more.

Mr. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): I am less interested in a fantasy about a Conservative Government than I am in discovering whether my right hon. Friend agrees with his permanent secretary's assessment to the Public Accounts Committee, which reported last Wednesday that there was a 65 or 70 per cent. chance of the Metrolink schemes going ahead. Does he agree that it is important that the working party takes a decision on this matter very quickly? Only two
16 Nov 2004 : Column 1143
bidders have been in the race for the Greater Manchester Metrolink scheme. If they walk away, no decision will have to be made.

Mr. Darling: I agree that we need to take a decision as soon as we can, but that decision must be the right one. I told the House in July that the Government could not accept a situation in which costs had increased very dramatically, yet we were being offered fewer light-rail facilities than had been the case before. No Government could accept that in Manchester or in any other part of the country. We have to understand why costs went up, and a lot of progress has been made in that respect. We must then decide what is the best solution for Manchester, and for those other places with tram schemes.

I want to be very clear about this. Very constructive discussions have taken place between the Greater Manchester PTE and my Department over the past few weeks. As I said a moment ago, another meeting is due tomorrow, but our approach must be based on the need to get the right solution. If we do not achieve that, the costs will have to be met by council tax payers in the Greater Manchester area as well as by central Government. All of us owe it to those people to make sure that we get the right solution. We should not rush into something that could unravel very quickly.

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend accept the thanks of my constituents for the role that the Minister of State, Department for Transport has played in the working party? Does he also accept, though, that as far as my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, the hon. Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), are concerned, the only right decision is to go ahead, which is hardly rushing things after 13 years? Does he also accept that "value for money" has to take into consideration investment from other Departments, which will be appreciably less if the answer is not yes?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend the Minister of State will be very pleased to hear what my hon. Friend had to say about him. He has done a great deal to make sure that the talks are constructive.

At the risk of repeating myself, may I say that the Manchester metro has been very successful and the Government are well disposed towards it? However, we are also concerned about the rising cost of the scheme, as my hon. Friend should be; if it goes wrong, the people who will pay for it are, among others, council tax payers in the Greater Manchester area. That is why it is so important that we ensure that the costings and forecasts on which the scheme is being constructed are right, while making sure that the scheme is viable and affordable in future. That work continues, and there will be another meeting tomorrow, which I hope all sides will approach constructively, because there is a solution.

The one thing I am clear about, having delved into the figures, is that if we had nodded things through in July without asking questions, things might have been all right for a few months but the trouble would then have become apparent. No responsible Secretary of State could agree to that.
16 Nov 2004 : Column 1144

South Eastern Trains

2. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): What representations he has received requesting that South Eastern trains be kept in the public sector. [198101]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): I have received a number of representations from the RMT campaign and a number of letters from hon. Members and their constituents.

John McDonnell: I wonder whether I can refresh the Secretary of State's memory. I believe that he has received representations urging him not to re-privatise the service from the TUC, the railway unions, the overwhelming majority of the public, the Select Committee on Transport, and 100 colleagues from the Labour Benches who signed the early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford). People are perplexed as to why the Government—in opposition to Labour party conference policy—are seeking to re-privatise the service. Will he receive a delegation of colleagues to discuss that as a matter of urgency?

Mr. Darling: It does not sound to me as if my hon. Friend would change his mind even if he came to see me, or any of my colleagues. The Government set out our proposals on the railways in the White Paper, published in July. Our view was that we needed to take greater strategic control of the railways and to make Network Rail responsible for day to day operations, while train operating companies should continue, albeit on a slightly different basis, to be responsible for running train services. When I look at relative performance and the costs of South Eastern Trains, which has been run by the Strategic Rail Authority over the past 18 months or so, I am bound to say, as I have told my hon. Friend before, that it is not immediately obvious to me that things are materially better under the SRA than in comparable franchises in the south-east. My hon. Friend will not be surprised that I am not particularly attracted to what he advocates. It is more important to make sure that we get the best solution for people who travel on South Eastern Trains, as well as the best solution for the railways overall.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his answer, but disappointed that he did not say that he is willing to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) to discuss the future of South Eastern Trains. If we are to get value for money for taxpayers' investment in our railways, it surely follows that we must have a public sector comparator, and not just the dogma of privatisation of our railways. If South Eastern Trains has shown an improvement in certain areas in the short time in which it has run rail services in the south-east, particularly on main line services, we must surely consider the future of the railways under that management. May I urge my right hon. Friend to consider a meeting to discuss that further?

Mr. Darling: The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), tells me that he has offered a meeting to my hon. Friend, if he
16 Nov 2004 : Column 1145
would like to take that up. The performance of South Eastern Trains is not as good as the average for the south-east as a whole. My hon. Friend is right that there has been an improvement, but that is largely due to what Network Rail has done in reducing track delays. South Eastern Trains, and some others, have had problems with new rolling stock. We have had the experience of that franchise for some 18 months, which, obviously, is one of the things that we would compare with any bid that might come in from another company. I am not interested in dogma; I am interested in ensuring that we have a decent service for people using trains, which is something that they have been denied for rather too long. That is why I want to get it right, and I assure my hon. Friend that dogma has nothing to do with it.

Next Section IndexHome Page