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Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (Con): I am delighted to respond to the Secretary of State. Before I do so, may I apologise to you and to the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the fact that I will not be here at the end of the debate to hear the winding-up speeches? My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) will be here when my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) winds up for the Opposition. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire will pay particular attention to the comments of the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality, whom I am glad to welcome to the debate.
On Tuesday we heard the last Queen's Speech before the general election. It was given after seven and a half years of a Labour Government. So it is fair to say that this is a time to pass judgment first on the Government's record and secondly on their intentions. I am genuinely sorrybecause it matters very much to this countryto say that the Government's record is a bad one. Our transport system increasingly resembles that of a third-world country. The Government's failure to bring roads and railways into the 21st century is damaging business. The Confederation of British Industry has estimated
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that the cost of congestion is £15 billion per year. It damages the competitive position of British firms and makes Britain a less attractive country for new investment.
Congestion does not hurt just business; it hurts families. Although Ministers like to talk about the work/life balance, they seem to have their heads firmly in the sand when it comes to transport policy. One simply cannot put a price on the time that mums and dads lose because the train has let them down again or the road is too congested and they are not home in time to say good night to their children.
Mr. Yeo: Yes, I am delighted to do so. The price is £4 billion of new private investment in the railway system this year, not a penny of which had to come from the taxpayer, and far more of which can be unlocked if some policy changes are made and if we can block the disastrous Railways Bill. The private sector is ready to invest more in the railways if it does not have politicians and bureaucrats poking their noses into how the railways are run at every turn.
Let us look at the facts. We will start with roads. In Britain, the proportion of road links that are congested for more than an hour a day is three times greater than in Germany and five times greater than in France. Our motorway provision per head of population is less than half the European average. We have a lower motorway density than any of our European competitors. That is despite the fact that motorists pay £8 billion more in vehicle excise duty and fuel duty than in 1997. Indeed, the Treasury now takes more than £40 billion a year in tax from road users, but the Government spend only £1.6 billion on new trunk roads and motorways and only £10 billion a year on all road infrastructure. Some of the extra tax goes to subsidise bus services. Although subsidies to buses have doubled to more than £1.4 billion a year, outside London bus use is falling.
Mrs. Dunwoody: Before the hon. Gentleman leaves buses, has he noticed that outside London private bus companies are dealing with real problems of more and more elderly buses, and their services are unreliable? Buses frequently do not go to the places the general public want them to. As an example of private enterprise, bus companies are sadly lacking in imagination, efficiency or even, heaven help us, courtesy in some instances.
The truth is that the long-distance bus services, which are run entirely privately, have been a conspicuous success, largely as a result of the deregulation that was introduced by the previous Government. As for more local services, I regret that so little imagination is applied to how they are operated. I believe that some of the subsidy that goes into local bus services could be more imaginatively used. In my constituency and other rural areas one sees a bus
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running once or twice a day almost empty between two fixed points. Parish councils could be more involved in making decisions about how very local services are run. There could perhaps be minibuses with volunteer drivers. That might need a bit more deregulationnot something we are likely to get from this Government, but it could be achieved without any cost to the taxpayer. More locally determined services would produce better value for money for the increased subsidy.
New rail schemes have been kicked into the long grass, even though rail subsidies have soared from more than £1 billion a year in 1997 to more than £3.5 billion now. Fares have risen faster than inflation, despite the Government's promises to the contrary. Nothing that we have heard in the Queen's Speech addresses those failings. The Crossrail Bill will have our support, but as everyone knows, and the Secretary of State acknowledged, it does not advance the starting date for that important project by a single day, because the Government are still dithering over the funding.
I will deal with the Railways Bill in detail in a moment, but let me say initially that it is hard to see what the Bill contains that will improve the lot of passengers. Its central feature and the reason why it is being introduced is the abolition of the Strategic Rail Authority. The House will remember that two years ago the Department of Transport's own review of the 10-year transport plan said that the SRA would provide the
To be fair to the Secretary of State and the Government, we should judge them according to the performance criteria that they set out. The 10-year plan launched with such fanfare four years ago by the Deputy Prime Ministerand I am sorry that he is not here to enjoy the debatecontained a number of commitments.
According to the plan, congestion on Britain's roads was to be reduced by 2010. In practice, it has got worse. According to the plan, trains were to be made more punctual. In practice, they have become less punctual. According to the plan, rail passengers were to increase in number by 50 per cent. In practice, the increase has been 5 per cent. According to the plan, bus travel throughout England was to grow by 10 per cent. In practice, outside London, it is falling. According to the plan, the maintenance backlog on local roads was to be eliminated. In practice, that target has been dropped.
According to the plan, Thameslink and the East London line were to be built by 2010. In practice, those targets cannot be met. According to the plan, rail freight was to increase by four fifths. In practice, the amount of freight carried by rail in the past two years has fallen. According to the plan, passengers were to travel by train more quickly and comfortably. In practice, as those of us who use the railways regularly will know, overcrowding has reached chronic proportions and is
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likely to get worse, while reliability is worse than in 1997. According to the plan, the east coast main line was to be modernised and capacity increased. In practice, that scheme has been put on ice. According to the plan, local roads were to be improved. In practice, the Freight Transport Association reports that their condition is worse than a decade ago.
Not one of those 10 failures was mentioned by the Secretary of State today, but they are what concern road and rail users every day. Their consequence is an economy whose competitive position is being steadily worsened by this Government's refusal to address them. Absolutely nothing in the Queen's Speech suggests that the Government have any idea about how to tackle those problems, or even any intention of trying to do so. Let us look at what the Secretary of State is proposing.
When it comes to new roads, the most decisive step that he can muster is more talk about road pricing, along with yet another consultation exercise about a possible extension northwards of the M6 toll road. Yet the Secretary of State told the House on 20 July that
A carefully argued study by the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Automobile Association, the FTA and other organisations identified the need for improvements to key motorways and trunk roads, but it is simply being ignored. The only certain consequence of this Queen's Speech and of the actions of this Secretary of State is that road congestion will get worse.
When it comes to the railways, now that the SRA has been condemned to death, power is shifting decisively back to civil servants in the Department of Transport and Network Rail. None of that bodes well for passengers, but I suppose that we should not be surprised that this Government should want to give more power to a body such as Network Rail, which is not directly answerable to anyoneleast of all to its customers or the paying public.
There will be anxiety too among train operators about how decisions over the allocation of franchises will be taken under the new regime. Most alarming of all, however, is the Government's proposal to hand more power over the railways to Ken Livingstone.
Two out of three train journeys begin or end in London, so that proposal is worrying indeed, especially for passengers travelling to or from stations outside the area for which Ken Livingstone is responsible. Passengers may now find that it suits Ken to stop their fast trains on the edge of London to pick up a few of his voters. They may also find that their fares go up because Ken says so.
Just this week, Ken Livingstone's officials at Transport for London caved in to trade union demands for tube workers to be given longer holidays than anyone else in the country. That is a warning of what lies ahead. I wonder whether it was Ken's attitude to cost control that tipped the balance when Ministers in the Department of Transport were deciding about handing over to him a bit more say about how our railways are run. Giving Ken Livingstone power over how trains are run is a sure-fire way to discourage the extra private investment that railways need to attract.
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Where will it all end? Will the local councils in Birmingham, Rugby, Milton Keynes and Watford all be given a say over the trains that run from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden to London? Will all those councils be involved, too?
The Railways Bill has exposed the Government's complete disarray over the strategic direction of the rail industry. It will increase the extent to which politicians and bureaucrats interfere in the running of the railways. For that reason, the Conservative party will oppose it.
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