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Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): Does the Secretary of State agree that particular care must be taken in rural Wales, and indeed in rural parts of the United Kingdom in general, where there are no alternative public transport facilities? It would not be possible to limit people's car use.
Mr. Hain: I fully agree. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point as the representative of a largely rural area. There is little congestion on rural roads, which is why in any road-pricing regime the charge per mile would be very low indeedperhaps only a penny or two, as one model suggested. The reduction in other charges for car use would put rural drivers in a much better position.
These are early days, however. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has launched a national debate. It is a serious debate; we are not trying to ram a policy down anybody's throat and we shall welcome contributions from all parties, including from the hon. Gentleman and other Welsh MPs. We have to get things right for Wales, not least in rural areas.
We have to do something. For example, the congestion going into Cardiff, and even into Swansea, during the rush hour is terrible. The M4 across the bridge and on the way to south-west Wales is getting more congested all the time. Something has to happen.
Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): The Secretary of State seemed to suggest that the charging regime would be based on the principle of reducing congestion. However, his following comments were far from clear on whether the empowerment that he sought in the White Paper would be passed to the Assembly and allow it to have a say over the fiscal element. Has he talked to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about what now appears to be a fund-raising, rather than a congesting-beating, exercise?
No, I would not be so uncharitable as to suggest that. These are early days, and the issues all have
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to be discussed. Although we will discuss this, I was making the point that I rather doubt that we could have a different road-pricing regime for Wales from that in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): My right hon. Friend mentioned congestion on bridges, and there is absolute chaos, particularly at bank holidays, on the Menai and Britannia bridges that connect Anglesey to the mainland. Will he meet me and a delegation to discuss the problem and raise it in bilateral meetings with the Assembly Government?
Mr. Hain: Very successfully to help my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) achieve his magnificent victory. Having visited the constituency, I know full well that the problem on the Menai bridge is becoming more acute. One of my earliest decisions as a Wales Office Minister was to deal with the road across Angleseythat is important and prosperity is developing in Holyhead and across the islandbut this additional issue needs confronting.
To give a few examples of what the Assembly has done in a relatively few years, I refer to the fact that the Wales and Borders rail franchise has been awarded, meaning that, for the first time since the rail network was broken up by the Conservative party, all local and regional train services in Wales are provided by a single operator. The franchise is now in operation and will deliver a phased programme of service improvements over a 15-year period.
Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend foresee more joined-up thinking between train operating companies within Wales? The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) has already made a point about Virgin Trains services, but, with the newly published summer timetable, we have the ridiculous situation in which a train from Blaenau Ffestiniog arrives at Llandudno junction at 10.03 and the Virgin Trains service leaves at 10.03. People cannot make that connection. We need more joined-up thinking by the train operating companies if we are to succeed.
Mr. Hain: I was not aware of that problem, but it is ridiculous. I hope that Virgin Trains can sort it out and bring about an improvement. As I have experienced, if connections are not made, it can cost hours of time. I will certainly make sure that my hon. Friend's representations on the matter reach Virgin Trains. However, the powers provided under the Bill will give the Assembly Transport Minister a much greater ability to crack down on such absurd anomalies.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD):
The Secretary of State is in the happy position of being able to survey at close hand an example of successful integrated transport links in Northern Ireland, where the buses and
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trains are integrated to a laudable degree. May I suggest therefore that it would be instructive and helpful to use the Northern Ireland success story as a model for what might be achieved in Wales along the lines that the hon. Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) suggested?
Mr. Hain: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's constructive advice. I shall certainly look at that model, but I am probably not yet as up to speed on the integrated transport system in Northern Ireland as he is.
There has been major investment in the valley lines, leading to the restoration of rail services in some areas for the first time since the Beeching cuts of 40 years ago. For example, the Vale of Glamorgan line has been reopened to passenger services and work is in hand to commence passenger services on the Ebbw Vale line in 200607.
Mr. Hain: That was a much better question than the hon. Gentleman asked me yesterday, so he is obviously on a steep learning curve. The truth is that the railways were allowed to run down under the dreadful Conservative Government of the 1950s and leading up to 1964. The whole programme was in train, if I can put it that way. The historical failure of all GovernmentsLabour and Conservativeright the way through the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s was not to invest sufficiently in transport. If the hon. Gentleman concedes that pointand the Conservatives were in power for the vast majority of that time; more than double the time Labour was in power if I remember correctlyI will concede his point.
David T.C. Davies: It strikes me that there is a paradox. While the Labour party takes full credit for the national health service, which was dreamed up in about 1942 by a civil servant called Beveridge, it wants to escape any responsibility for the cuts in the railways, which were again dreamed up by a civil servant prior to a Labour Government taking office in 1964. The reality is that the Beeching cuts were implemented from 1964 onwards and, if the Labour party had not wanted them to happen, it would have had the power to stop them.
Mr. Hain: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was born then. His reading of political history is as dodgy as the rest of his politics. The serious point is that we had serious under-investmentespecially in the 1980s and 1990s by the Conservative Governmentand everybody recognises that. We have tried to put that right, and one of the ways that we are putting it right is by reopening a whole series of services that were cut in the past. The Welsh Assembly Labour Government and the Labour Government in Westminster deserve credit for that. I would have thought that even he in his most uncharitable mood would be prepared to give us that credit.
The introduction of free bus travel for the over-60s is another fantastic achievement by the Welsh Assembly Labour Government. Free bus travel is now available
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for pensioners and disabled people, and it has been fantastically successful both in terms of the take-upmore than 530,000 bus passes have been issuedand the effect on overall bus usage. It has been so successful, in fact, that it inspired my colleagues to imitate it with a similar policy in England. It is a good example of Welsh Labour policies being exported across the border to England, as we have seen in other cases as well.
Ian Lucas: My right hon. Friend is right about the introduction of free bus passes for the disabled, but does he agree that one of the big challenges ahead is ensuring that the disabled people who currently cannot get access to buses have some form of support to enable them to access transport and benefit from this excellent scheme?
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