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House of Lords

Monday, 29th October 2001.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells.

London Underground

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What prospects they see of an early improvement in the state of London Underground.

The Minister of State, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, London Underground has vigorously addressed the underlying causes of poor performance, producing significant improvements already. The Government are pressing for further swift improvements, including early measures to enhance customer service. Modernising the Underground to achieve higher quality services with greater capacity and improved reliability is a long-term job. Our modernisation plans will deliver more than £13 billion over 15 years and we expect passengers to see real improvements in the next few years.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that I still cherish a hope that one of these days he will be the bearer of good news to the millions of people who day by day endure the torture of travelling on London Underground at the behest of an inept management? Does the Minister agree that, in circumstances where literally nothing is being done, to have got rid summarily of Mr Kiley, who knew how to run a railway, without any available alternative was plain foolish?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I agree that improvements are required to the Tube. Those improvements require long-term investment and good management. We have decided that the PPP is the right way to put in the investment. Mr Kiley is a good manager and everybody speaks highly of him. Surely the way to produce the improvements that everybody who uses the Tube regularly earnestly wishes is to work together. That is what we wish. At the end of last week we set out the benefits from the PPP over the coming years. Yes, it will take years to make a difference, but I believe that most sensible people recognise that.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, is it true that, as the press has indicated, the Government have engaged the consultants Ernst & Young to advise on value for money of the PPP proposal, in addition to the engagement of PricewaterhouseCooper by London Underground for that purpose? I shall forgo a supplementary question on whether it is value for

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money to engage a plethora of consultants. If that is the case, do the Government still have an open mind about whether or not to proceed with the PPP? If so, what is their alternative, or plan B?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, it is true that the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has engaged Ernst & Young to ensure that once the final bids are in from the Infraco companies a proper independent and objective assessment can be made of the value for money of those bids. The position that my right honourable friend in another place has always held, and continues to hold, is that value for money must be checked. We believe that it will be the right way to proceed, but it is absolutely vital that a proper and independent check is made. We believe that that is the right way forward for the Tube.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, can my noble and learned friend reassure me that the plans for the PPP for London Underground will not in any respect recreate the problems that have been found with the old Railtrack? Is the Minister also able to confirm that the trains, signals, track and stations will all remain in public control and ownership?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I can give that reassurance. Implicit in the question is: what is the difference between the Railtrack arrangements and the PPP with London Underground? The whole of the infrastructure, plant and operation of London Underground remains in public hands under the PPP. That is quite different from the arrangements made for Railtrack where the infrastructure went into private hands with the consequences that we know.

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord advise the House how long the PPP bidding process has taken to date and how that compares with the original timetable?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I cannot give the precise period of time, but it has taken a number of years. I shall write to the noble Viscount about the original timetable. But it is incredibly important that we get it right. The noble Viscount will be aware that some of the delays were brought about because there were court proceedings in the middle.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, is it possible to have some interim improvements while we wait for the modernisation to take place? The Jubilee Line would be marvellous if it always worked, but it is beset with signalling difficulties which means that often passengers are forced to get off at Baker Street.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, we are very keen to see improvements. Over the coming months we shall introduce better ticketing systems, in particular new queue-buster machines at nearly 50 stations which will make it easier to obtain tickets, and provide better information and more customer care staff. We want to

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help people to make changes at various crossings. The particular structural upgrades will take time and will come on stream as quickly as possible. I cannot pretend that that will not be other than a period of years.

Lord Vivian: My Lords, the Government wish to bring Railtrack into public ownership, while allowing the private sector to run the trains, whereas in the case of the Tube, they wish to give the train operators the responsibilities of a public body, but confer responsibility for the tracks to the private sector. Can the Minister explain how the Government can justify such totally contradictory approaches? Furthermore, why is Mr Kiley leaving?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, first, so far as concerns the difference between the arrangements for Railtrack and those for the London Underground, the present Railtrack arrangements mean that railway tracks and the associated infrastructure are in private hands, whereas in the case of London Underground, all the infrastructure will remain in public hands. What has been said by the Secretary of State as regards the future of Railtrack is that it will be a company limited by guarantee, with the stakeholders in that company being representatives of the industry. As regards the noble Lord's question about Mr Kiley, I understand that he is to stay.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, given the long period leading up to the PPP, can the noble and learned Lord give an assurance that the Government have made available to London Underground sufficient resources to carry out essential maintenance works and investment, in particular in the area of signalling? In that regard, is the noble and learned Lord aware that, over the past 12 months, there have been no fewer than 3,500 signal failures on the Underground system?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the purpose of the PPP is to ensure that the means of making sufficient investment in London Underground required to bring it up to the standard of a modern system are put in place. That is the reason why, in principle, the Government support the PPP. The PPP means that money will be identified to address exactly the kinds of problems outlined by the noble Lord. We believe that the process will bring in the required investment.

Foreign Language Learning

2.44 p.m.

Lord Quirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

    In the current European Year of Languages, whether they are developing new initiatives to promote the learning of foreign languages.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, the Government are supporting a wide range of initiatives to promote

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language learning. This year we announced further funding of £200,000 to support schools offering languages to primary pupils. Growing numbers of specialist languages colleges mean that more schools can benefit from languages expertise. Investment of £970,000 will fund regional language networks to support the growing need for languages in the business sector. Furthermore, the promotion of programmes such as Socrates ensures that schools and colleges take advantage of the opportunities offered.

Lord Quirk: My Lords, the Minister's response is encouraging. However, would she not agree that, by reason of their language deficiencies, our young people are missing attractive and career-enhancing opportunities? To take the European Erasmus programme alone, is the Minister aware that, over the past seven years, British participation in that programme has dropped steadily from 12,000 to a wretched 9,000 while, on the continent of Europe, figures from Germany, France, Spain and others have virtually doubled? What will the Government do to address this imbalance?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, noble Lords will know that the Erasmus programme is the higher education element of the European Union Socrates programme. It is true to say that there is an imbalance of approximately two to one of UK students studying overseas. We have looked at a range of ways to encourage students in this, not least that those students who decide to take up the full year option do not pay tuition fees. Furthermore, the Higher Education Funding Council gives an additional £1,000 per student to the universities in order further to support those students. Those are some of the ways in which we are trying to support this programme.

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