HC Deb 22 April 1991 vol 189 cc763-5
11. Mr. Adley

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will seek an early meeting with his continental counterparts to discuss railway policy.

Mr. Rifkind

I regularly see my community counter-parts at meetings of the European council of transport Ministers. Railway policy was a major item on the agenda of our last meeting in Brussels on 27 March.

Mr. Adley

Has my right hon. and learned Friend noticed that while we discuss the privatisation of our railways, Community countries—with the possible exception of one small country—carry on improving their already excellent rail systems? Has he also noticed that in our party the main proponents of railway privatisation tend to be those who delivered the poll tax to a grateful nation? Will he please ensure that we do not have a poll tax on wheels; and will he not muck about with the rail system in such a way that he has to come to the House and tell my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Amos) that he cannot demand privatisation and a continuing level of subsidy at the same time? There is no sense in continuing heavily to subsidise the system if one's purpose is to privatise it. We need a transport policy that seeks deliberately to transfer traffic from road to rail.

Mr. Rifkind

I believe that my hon. Friend is out of touch with the mainstream of European opinion on this matter. Not only are the Dutch Government considering the privatisation of their railways, but the European Commission has expressly called for the introduction of competition to the railways. Therefore, on this—though on no other matter I disagree with my hon. Friend and prefer the views of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock), who was quoted in the South London Press on 12 April as saying that a privatised rail network may provide a "higher standard service".

Ms. Ruddock

The Secretary of State misquotes me, of course, as I made it very clear that even if privatisation could provide a higher standard of service it would also undoubtedly provide much higher fares. When the right hon. and learned Gentleman meets his continental counterparts, will he take advice from them on fares? He cites the Dutch Government, who intend to double the number of people travelling on public transport in the next 20 years. Surely in this capital city we should be doing the same. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman really want to get people off the tube and off the railway into their private cars, thereby causing further congestion? Has he seen and does he agree with the editorial in the Evening Standard today which says that when people begin to lose confidence in their Government's ability to run a railway they will question their ability to run anything else?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Lady has some explaining to do because the South London Press directly quotes her observations on this matter, to the effect that a privatised railway network may provide a higher standard of service. I note that the hon. Lady has not withdrawn that observation.

The hon. Lady should realise that if she wishes, as I wish, to encourage more people to use the railway service, it is manifestly clear that the best way to do that is to ensure that the railways face the same competition as other transport services. Experience with the airlines, buses and other forms of transport has invariably shown that the travelling public get a better quality of service when choice is available. That is why the Dutch and Japanese Governments and the European Commission are pointing in that direction. On past form, we shall have to wait only a few years before the Labour party comes along in the same direction.