HC Deb 08 March 1993 vol 220 cc651-3
9. Mr. Austin-Walker

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what recent representations he has received concerning the level of commuter fares in Greater London.

Mr. Norris

My right hon. Friend has received a number of representations on this issue from hon. Members and others.

Mr. Austin-Walker

Has the Minister seen the survey by the Association of London Authorities which shows that the highest commuter fares in Europe are in London? Does he accept that deregulation and the Government's privatisation proposals will threaten children's reduced fares and the London travelcard? Is he aware that London Transport has predicted a 20 per cent. increase in fares as a result of the proposed deregulation and privatisation? Will the Minister for Transport in London accept some responsibility for the chaotic state of London's transport and give the House a guarantee that, after deregulation and privatisation, children's reduced fares and the London travelcard will be protected and will remain at least as beneficial as they are at present?

Mr. Norris

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have made it plain that, after deregulation and privatisation, the concessionary fare arrangements funded by the boroughs will continue. Every operator wants the travelcard scheme, but it would be extraordinarily foolish to preserve the present system in aspic as though it were incapable of improvement. It is perfectly obvious that the operators want to keep the concept of intermodal travel and to develop it, which we shall help them to do.

I am grateful for the opportunity to say straight away that the scare stories that have circulated recently about price increases after privatisation and deregulation, on the buses and on the railways, are mere speculation and are being used cynically to frighten people unnecessarily about the prospects for travel in London.

Dame Angela Rumbold

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is high time that we heard the Labour party's ideas —constructive or otherwise—for London commuters? So far we have heard nothing except, as my hon. Friend said, scare stories and scaremongering, which merely serve to upset people trying to work in London and those seeking work in London and do nothing for the recovery of London and commuters generally.

Mr. Norris

I am tempted to agree with my right hon. Friend, but she is not quite right, as I have heard of a policy from the Labour party. I hear that there is a policy of charging virtually nothing for the system but somehow managing to magic the necessary resources out of thin air —as the Opposition resist the idea that either the user or the taxpayer pays. However, my right hon. Friend is right that no constructive opposition to the Government's proposals is emerging from the Oppositon parties.

Mr. Spearing

Does the Minister understand that his words, which are designed to be of assurance, are no such thing? He talked about speculation. Speculation can turn out to be correct. If the railcard, which is so useful to all citizens in London, is to continue as everyone wishes, and if it can be improved as the Minister says, can it be improved within the concept and operation of future privately franchised railways in Network SouthEast? Is the Minister aware that before the first world war the independent underground railways of London came together to form a group so that there could be reasonable operation and lower fares? How can that be compatible with the Minister's proposals for splitting them up again?

Mr. Norris

The hon. Gentleman says that speculation can occasionally turn out to be true, but in my experience over the past 10 years, speculation from the Opposition has more often than not turned out to be absolutely fatuous.

The hon. Gentleman, with his experience of the system, should know that the travelcard has no statutory basis at present. It is an agreement entered into by the operators because they all know that it is a vital way to attract addtional revenue. There is therefore not the slightest reason why private contractors should not want to be in the scheme, and they have told us that they do want to be in it. Indeed, they are developing yet more exciting additions to the basic travelcard concept to increase passenger use of London's transport rather than to reduce it.

Mr. Harry Greenway

Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the extension of the hopper services to many estates in my constituency and around London, to the delight of pensioners and others? Will my hon. Friend also consider the age of the rolling stock on south-eastern services and see whether it can be modernised more quickly? Can there be more rolling stock so that people coming to London every day from Ealing do not have to stand?

Mr. Norris

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making the point about hopper buses. He could have made the same point about midi buses. All these developments in more flexible bus operation have arisen as a result of privatisation. They are the result not of a planning-led system but of operators seeking to match the availability of transport to the needs of consumers. 1 take my hon. Friend's point about rolling stock. I will look into the matter and come back to him.

Mr. Tony Banks

I yield to no one in my admiration for the Minister's ability to sell second-hand Rollers, but I believe that his ability to sell a second-rate transport system is somewhat tested here. Will he tell Londoners how it can be fair and right that they should have the most expensive urban transport system in Europe while having to maintain it with the lowest level of subsidy in western europe? Why is that the case? Why does everyone else do it differently?

Mr. Norris

I am not sure that my ability or anyone else's in selling the advantages of London is ever helped by the carping from Opposition Members which is so often devoid of any positive criticism of the system. Such carping is not helpful in any way; it is in no one's interests. The Government are right to believe that either the taxpayer or the user pays. Operators certainly welcome the fact that they can recover 90 per cent. of their operating costs through the fare box. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, with his experience of the Greater London council, understands that these days when taxpayers invest in improving the system every pound that they spend goes into improvements rather than merely into subsidising operating costs.