HC Deb 14 April 1999 vol 329 cc223-6
Q8. [79140] Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

Does the Deputy Prime Minister remember telling the Labour party conference last September that the performance of our privatised railway is by common consent a disgrace, with service reductions, failing performance and increased fares"? Can he explain why the Department of Trade and Industry has published a report recently called "Releasing the Power of Rail", which boasts that Britain's railways have experienced a revolution in thinking as well as massive new investment. There is new energy and enthusiasm in the industry. The customer is king"? What explains this miraculous transformation from base metal to gold? Was he right or has he now been shunted into the sidings by his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The reference in the Department of Trade and Industry report was to the engineering excellence available in the United Kingdom. The problem with privatisation in the United Kingdom is that we have not had or achieved that type of modern investment, and that, by common consent, privatisation has not improved the railway system. The appointment of the Strategic Rail Authority, a new franchising director and a new Rail Regulator will make a difference. It is a spring clean. I intend to make a change, and that change will come.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On the subject of withholding money, has my right hon. Friend seen this morning's newspapers? The Daily Express—no less—has informed us that, in the run-up to the general election, the Tory party took £18,000 from a firm that was close to Milosevic. None of them have denied it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that money should be handed over to the Secretary of State for International Development, so that she can take the money to the refugees?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am sure that that point has been heard. We shall see whether the Tories respond to it in the same spirit.

Q9. Q9. [79141] Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

A few moments ago, the Deputy Prime Minister failed to answer the question asked, very reasonably, by the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson). If I ask a more simple question, perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister will answer it. In view of the refusal of paramilitary organisations in Ireland to give up their weapons, will the Deputy Prime Minister now agree with what Opposition Members have been saying for many months—that there should be no more releases of terrorist prisoners until decommissioning starts and terrorism stops? Does he agree or not?

The Deputy Prime Minister

It is understood in the House that there is bipartisan agreement on support for the Good Friday agreement—which involved release of prisoners. The agreement has been endorsed by the House, and it has certainly been endorsed in Northern Ireland. All of us should use the type of language that encourages people to finalise the Good Friday agreement, rather than to ask such questions. If that is the type of advice that the hon. Lady is giving, it is only as good as the advice that she gave as the special adviser on railway privatisation.

Q10. [79142] Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)

Is it not time to put on record what my right hon. Friend will remember well—that, during our years in opposition, we gave support to the Conservative party in government, particularly on Northern Ireland, and particularly when the United Kingdom was at war? [Interruption.] We did not attempt to seek narrow party advantage, as we have heard today. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I will have a little silence on the Opposition Benches, particularly on the Front Bench.

Mr. Soley

On issues such as Northern Ireland and Kosovo, support should stay solid on both sides of the House.

The Deputy Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right—and I do believe that support is solid on both sides of the House. However, some individual voices express certain views. I appeal to them to bear it in mind that words spoken in the Chamber can have an effect that does not help the process of peace, whether it is in Kosovo or Northern Ireland. Good language, sane language and common sense are far better as the voice of this House.

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell my constituents in Bournemouth why their council tax remained substantially the same under the previous Conservative Government, but has risen by 20 per cent. under this Government?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The reality of the agreement on council tax increases, on average—[HON. MEMBERS: "In Bournemouth."] I shall deal with Bournemouth in a second. The average council tax increase was 6.8 per cent. On average, across the country, Tory councils had higher increases, at 7.6 per cent., and Labour councils had lower ones, at 6.1 per cent. We are producing a better-value service that has been recognised in the United Kingdom. In the elections in 1995, we returned a record number of councillors and councils. Now, Tory councils are responsible for and in control of only 5 per cent. of councils, including Bournemouth. The people gave their verdict on the Tory councils, and they rejected them.