HC Deb 10 February 2004 vol 417 cc1253-5
3. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)

When he last discussed the 10-year transport plan with the First Minister. [152889]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Alistair Darling)

I have regular meetings and discussions with the First Minister about a range of matters, including transport.

Gregory Barker

We are almost one third of the way through the 10-year transport plan. Is it on track? Are trains now one third more reliable? Are road journeys one third better? Can we take any comfort that the plan is going where it should go?

Mr. Darling

I will help the hon. Gentleman by giving examples that may assist him in relation to his own constituency—

Hon. Members

This is about Scotland.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members should not tell the Secretary of State for Scotland how to answer a question. I think that he knows how to conduct himself. [Interruption.] Order. I will decide whether or not the right hon. Gentleman is out of order.

Mr. Darling

Yes, the 10-year plan is on track. For example, we are spending more than £1 billion on upgrading the power supply to trains running south of the River Thames, and we have increased the amount of money going to local authorities. The hon. Gentleman's own local authority has seen a dramatic increase in money. As he is now interested in Scotland, which is a good thing, I can tell him that the Scottish Executive will be spending about £1 billion a year on transport—something they have never done before. The big difference between now and the past is that the Government are committed to sustained investment in the transport system. The problem has been that for decades, not enough money was put into transport. The hon. Gentleman may like to tell his constituents—and his party will no doubt tell this to people in Scotland— that Conservatives oppose every penny spent on transport. They have voted against such expenditure whenever they have had the opportunity.

Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will agree that shipping is vital to the transport sector in Scotland. Will he join me in congratulating the management and workers of the Wishaw firm that next week will charter a ship to transport 2,500 tonnes of steel that will be used in building the grandstand for a racing track in Dubai? Will he do all that he can to encourage exports by companies such as Bone Steel?

Mr. Darling

I agree with my hon. Friend that shipping is of great importance in exporting products such as the construction materials from Bone Steel that will be used in building the Formula 1 track in Dubai. I take this excellent opportunity to congratulate a Scottish firm on winning that contract and showing that Scottish engineering is respected throughout the world—and it is good, too, that our shipping is being used to transport it.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)

Does the Secretary of State agree, particularly in respect of rail, that the 10-year plan has been superseded by his statement of 19 January, when he said that the Government would consider devolving more responsibility to the Scottish Executive? Does he agree that effective devolution of responsibility is possible only if the money to implement the decision is also devolved? Can he assure the House that responsibility will not be devolved without the required financial means being devolved too?

Mr. Darling

The 10-year plan is an investment plan, and sets out sums of money, from both the public and the private sector, to be invested in the railways and other forms of transport, year by year in the whole of the United Kingdom. On 19 January, I said that we were looking at the organisation of the railways, and that one thing we wanted to consider was the devolution of decisions on rail spending. Obviously, we cannot have a railway if we do not spend the money, but at this stage I am not in a position to tell the House when our final decisions will be made. However, I fully understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North) (Lab)

Has my right hon. Friend had discussions on the economic and environmental importance of fast long-distance trains, particularly on the Aberdeen-London route, for both freight and passenger transport? In the latter case, would he impress on the First Minister the fact that improving the track through Fife deserves higher priority?

Mr. Darling

I agree that it is important that we have a fast and reliable train service from Aberdeen and Edinburgh down to London. I think that everyone in the House knows that the track through Fife has been a matter of concern ever since it was built. It is a difficult line, and it is something that the Scottish Executive and Network Rail, which owns the line, will want to consider. The priority for Virgin, GNER and ScotRail is to drive up reliability. If we get reliable train services, more people will use them.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP)

While the Secretary of State for Transport is seeking to devolve more responsibility to the Scottish Executive, is Network Rail not transferring control of route planning from Glasgow to Leeds? Is there not an inherent contradiction between those two developments, and will the Secretary of State for Scotland use his good offices with the Secretary of State for Transport to resolve it?

Mr. Darling

Only a nationalist could get steamed up about the fact that the four people involved in that planning are working out of a Leeds office instead of a Glasgow office. I know that the hon. Gentleman is a betting man, and I am willing to bet him that most people in Scotland did not know that four people in Glasgow were involved in route utilisation studies. For goodness' sake, the important thing is that we have a coherent network so that train services are reliable. That requires money and management, both of which the Government have continued to provide, instead of the petty squabbling that typifies much nationalist thinking.

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