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28 Jan 2009 : Column 310

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The hon. Lady mentioned the high-speed rail links, which we in Scotland would be very keen to see, but I understand that at present Conservative policy is to go only as far as Leeds. Can she give us an idea of what the policy would be for extending these lines to Scotland? Given the cost estimate of £44 billion, what time scale can she give for these important links, which would cut out the need for much air travel from the central belt?

Mrs. Villiers: I recognise the advantages of taking a line all the way to Scotland, but we have to be realistic about what we can promise, and we have to build such systems in stages. The history of our transport system demonstrates that we cannot deliver the whole lot all in one go. It is clear that constructing, and committing to, the link that we have proposed will be a major step along the road to delivering that wider-scale network, one day including, I very much hope, a full link between Scotland and London.

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Lady has conceded that under a Conservative Government there could be some expansion in the south-east. Will she tell the House the level of carbon emission she would permit before taking any such decision on expansion?

Mrs. Villiers: Today’s debate is about Heathrow. It is about the Government’s reckless decision to proceed with a third runway, which would significantly undermine this country’s ability to meet its target of cutting carbon emissions by 80 per cent. by 2050. No matter what they say, the Government cannot get around that problem.

Whether it is Paris-Brussels, Paris-Marseille or Madrid-Malaga, the arrival of high-speed rail as an alternative to the plane has had a dramatic downward impact on flight numbers. BAA’s own figures confirm that there were about 63,200 flights between Heathrow and Manchester, Leeds, Brussels, Paris, Amsterdam and Rotterdam in 2007—all journeys where it is realistic for high-speed rail to replace flying. Freeing up that many slots would provide space at Heathrow equivalent to about a third of the full capacity of a third runway, and more than half the 125,000 uplift that the Government now say should be the maximum permitted usage of runway 3. With the last gap in the high-speed link between Brussels and Cologne about to be plugged, which opens up easier rail travel to German destinations, and with interconnections and through-ticketing improving every day on the European high-speed network, the potential for air-to-rail switching is clearly going to increase even further in the future.

It is clear that high-speed rail is a much less carbon-intensive way to travel than flying. The climate change differential between the two forms of transport will widen with the expected decarbonisation of electricity generation.

Hugh Bayley: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Villiers: Sorry, but no.

Furthermore, the Conservative party believes that as a nation we can no longer put off the decision to start building a high-speed rail network in this country. Our proposal on high-speed rail would bring major advantages for rail users suffering from chronic levels of overcrowding.
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The boost for jobs would be felt right across the country, but the impact would be particularly strong in the midlands and the north.

The Secretary of State’s apparent conversion to high-speed rail was welcome, but unlike in our proposals, there is no firm commitment, no timeline and no attempt to get a new line past Birmingham. The new rail hub that the Government are considering for Heathrow will apparently be located at Old Oak Common, but a station more than 9 miles away from the airport, at Wormwood Scrubs, simply will not yield the benefits of the innovative proposal we have backed to connect Heathrow terminals directly with the main rail network to the west and the European high-speed network. What the Secretary of State still just does not get is the fact that high-speed rail could be an alternative to a third runway, not a sweetener for it.

In conclusion, I make the following appeal to Members of all political parties. A third runway is not inevitable: there is a better way; there are credible alternatives. To all those who signed early-day motion 2344, I say that this is an important opportunity to ask the Government to listen to the millions of people who care about climate change and the dissenting voices on their own Back Benches, and to drop their plans for a third runway, which could cause such devastating damage to our environment and our quality of life in this country.

1.10 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

I set out clearly in my statement on 15 January the key decisions that the Government had reached on the future of Britain’s transport infrastructure, including Heathrow. I do not intend to go over that ground again, although I want to address the main points raised by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). The fact remains—the Conservative party needs to face up to this—that despite her refusal and perhaps inability to answer some very basic questions, she has put forward a policy that lacks coherence, is founded on no clear principles and will do serious damage to Britain’s jobs and economy.

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The hon. Lady simply cannot come here and tell Members that the Conservative party would not go ahead with a major project such as the expansion of Heathrow and fail to set out the basis on which that decision has been reached—without being able to set out the criteria for that decision, her argument has no credibility. As long ago as 2003, the Government set out in a White Paper clear criteria for such expansion. On each issue that she cited as one of the reasons for her decision—air pollution, road congestion, noise and climate change—I asked her, I invited her, I implored her to tell this House and the country the basis on which she has taken any decision, but she could not do it. She has not done any basic homework on the matter, and that leads to the clear conclusion—anybody witnessing the hon. Lady’s woeful performance would know that this is the case—that the Conservative party’s decision is dictated by political opportunism of the lowest kind. The Conservative party’s decision, on which she admitted that she has changed her mind, was determined by Conservative central office. It was not taken on the basis of any kind of principle; it represents the worst kind of expedient. Unless she can answer basic questions on the subject, she has no right to represent her party or the country.

Mrs. Villiers: I shall tell the right hon. Gentleman the basis of our decision—it was what I set out in my speech: that a third runway would inflict huge damage on the quality of life of millions of people who are already suffering because of aircraft noise and on the quality of life of many people who are already suffering direct health problems as a result of the expansion of Heathrow. We believe that it is deeply reckless and irresponsible to press ahead with a course of conduct that would be so incredibly damaging for our environment and for our quality of life. That is why we oppose a third runway at Heathrow.

Mr. Hoon: Those comments would have some credibility if the hon. Lady could set out the basis on which those assertions are made. She and her Front-Bench team are desperate to get into government, to sit on the Government Benches and to take decisions such as on the third runway, but unless they can set out the basis on which their decisions are taken, whatever they say on these issues simply does not carry any weight. She cannot argue that jobs and this country’s economy should be put at risk by failing to go ahead with the project without being able to give the reasons for that decision. Unless she can set them out—I am about to give her another opportunity to do so—she has no credibility.

Mrs. Villiers: If there is no credibility in opposing a third runway—if there is no basis or justification for opposing it—why did 57 of the right hon. Gentleman’s own colleagues sign early-day motion 2344 and why has he lost a member of the Government only this morning over this issue?

Mr. Hoon: If the hon. Lady is not worried about jobs and the economy —[Interruption.] Well, the position of the Conservative Front-Bench team—I heard some sedentary comments—appears to be that a list of environmental and other organisations will be cited as a reason for not taking a decision on the runway. If that is the policy of the Conservatives, they should articulate it, instead of blustering as the hon. Lady has done.

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Let us consider the impact of the go-ahead decision on jobs and the economy of this country, because hon. Members should not simply take my word for how important this decision is for the country’s economic well-being. They should listen to David Frost, of the British Chambers of Commerce, who has said:

Brendan Barber, of the TUC, has said:

Miles Templeman, of the Institute of Directors, has said:

I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) is not here, because I really wonder what he must think as he looks across his party—a party that was once capable of taking economically serious decisions. He is a man who sat in Conservative Cabinets with Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and who is supposed to speak up for business and jobs inside the Conservative party. He now apparently finds himself, as do the entire Conservative Front-Bench team, at odds with representatives of both employers and employees. It cannot often be said, so let me repeat that the CBI, the TUC, the Institute of Directors and Unite are all on exactly the same side of the argument—they are united in favour of the action necessary to support British jobs and the British economy. That is something that the Conservative party is giving up on.

No responsible Government can ignore the importance of Heathrow to our international connections, to the 100,000 jobs that it supports directly or indirectly and to the ability of London and the UK’s nations and regions to compete for business and commerce. Every great trading nation needs access to the growth markets of the future. Unlike any of the other UK airports, Heathrow serves destinations such as Mumbai and Beijing and it provides more frequent services to key international destinations. In these times of economic slowdown, those links become even more crucial in supporting British jobs and helping to revitalise our economy. What does it say about the Tories’ economic policy that they will today turn their backs on 100,000 jobs at Heathrow airport?

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): If the Secretary of State is so convinced on the rightness of his argument, why is it that when we invited him to come to our constituencies to meet the people most affected by this, the offer we received was that three people—that is all—to be nominated by an MP and from each of the affected constituencies, could come to this place to discuss the matter with Ministers and civil servants?

Mr. Hoon: I would have been delighted to make such visits, but unfortunately, and unusually for me, I found my presence in such demand in so many different places that it was necessary to find a means by which such discussions could take place. I would be delighted to
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meet the hon. Gentleman and representatives of his community, but as I say, I could not spend the next year touring west London, much as I would have been delighted to do so.

May I deal directly with the motion? I listened carefully to the comments that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet made, but I still do not understand how her party’s policy addresses the difficult questions that have been raised by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) and others on her own Conservative Benches. I simply do not know how she answers those questions about noise and the impact on local communities, and neither does the House nor the country. [Interruption.] It is no good Conservative Members saying that we do not know, because those answers have been set out in a detailed White Paper. I invite those hon. Members who clearly have not read it to have a look at the criteria, because if they were to do so, they would see that a process has been followed for taking the decision—a process that the hon. Lady has completely failed to set out.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I am not going to ask the right hon. Gentleman to come to meet my constituents, but will he give them comfort that the Government will not reconsider the Thames estuary airport option, which is being promoted by a number of senior Tories?

Mr. Hoon: I will be dealing with that in due course, but the hon. Gentleman can take it that we will not be reconsidering that particular option.

May I, again, tempt the hon. Lady to answer some basic questions about her proposals?

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Hoon: I shall give way in a moment.

First, does the hon. Lady recognise that our constituents and British businesses demand that they should be able to travel by air and that there is growing demand from our constituents and from British business for such services? Her own leader, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), made that point quite clearly in 2007, when he said:

Does she accept that argument? She says that she does.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): My right hon. Friend mentioned the decision-making process. My constituents are not particularly interested in party political knockabout; we want absolute clarity about the process that will be used to make the decision. I would welcome the opportunity to come back to the matter just to get the clarity. My understanding is that it will be dealt with by the new Infrastructure Planning Commission. If that is the case, it will require a new national policy statement. Will he explain the process of arriving at that new national policy statement given that the aviation White Paper is now six years out of date? If we could get clarity on that today, it would be incredibly helpful.

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Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. Of course, the process will be governed by the Planning Act 2008, which will set out the process that he has at least in part described. I anticipate that the Government would want to bring forward a new aviation White Paper that would set out the up-to-date position, given the history since 2003. It is important that we acknowledge something that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet and her colleagues on the Conservative Front Bench seem to have failed to realise—I am sorry that the shadow Chief Whip is not in his place, because he will have to deal with these problems in the unfortunate eventuality of his becoming the Government Chief Whip. The Opposition—I would be delighted to give way again on this point—appeared to suggest that every major planning infrastructure decision would be subject to a vote on the Floor of this House, but that specific provision was rejected in the course of the Planning Bill.

If every major planning decision were not to be subject to a vote on the Floor of the House, then, once again, I must accuse the Conservative party of political opportunism. It is simply picking out those particular policies on which it thinks it might have some success, rather than being consistent and acknowledging that it is necessary as a governing party to adopt a consistent process governing how decisions are taken.

Mrs. Villiers: In tabling the motion, we were simply responding to the passionate demands from both sides of the House that the people who represented constituencies that would be blighted by the Government’s plans should have the opportunity to speak and vote on the issue.

Mr. Hoon: I am sorry that I gave way to the hon. Lady, because she clearly did not listen to the question. The question is straightforward. If a Government take a decision, they have to take similar decisions according to a consistent process. They cannot pick and choose for political reasons the kinds of decisions that they would like to be subject to votes on the Floor of the House. Until she understands that, she will not be fit to be in government.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Hoon: I am going to make a little progress. What is important is that we should—

John McDonnell: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hoon: I have given way to my hon. Friend. I shall give way in a second.

As the Opposition have accepted that there is a requirement for some increase in capacity, where will that increased capacity be made available? The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet appears to have ruled out in the past any extra capacity at any of the airports in the south. Today, I was not quite so sure what her position would be. Let us consider the policy recommended to the Conservative party by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), whose economic competitiveness policy group was set up and reported in 2007. It was set up, as far as I recall, by the leader of the Conservative party. The report said:

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That was the policy outlined by senior figures in the Conservative party. The policy was articulated as recently as last year by the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) when he appeared on “Any Questions?” in Hounslow. He said:

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