HL Deb 26 July 1983 vol 443 cc1444-51

4.17 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, with permission, I shall now repeat a Statement that has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The Statement is as follows:

"I am today publishing a White Paper on Public Transport in London. Copies are available in the Vote Office.

"The White Paper sets out our proposals for fundamental changes in the way in which public transport in London is organised and financed. The present system has served the travelling public and the transport operators badly. Since 1970 costs in London Transport have risen way beyond inflation; public subsidy has risen thirteenfold, and fares have doubled in real terms. Last year the all-party Transport Select Committee unanimously recommended that the improvement of transport facilities in London should be regarded as a matter of national priority, and that responsibility for transport should be moved from the Greater London Council.

"The Government have accepted this need. As the first step we intend to re-form the London Transport Executive into a new body on the pattern of a holding company with separate subsidiaries for bus and Underground services. This new body—London Regional Transport—in addition to control of these subsidiaries, will have a wider responsibility for securing efficient public transport for London. It will be required to encourage other private or publicly-owned operators to provide services where these can be offered more efficiently and cheaply. I shall myself establish new liaison arrangements between British Rail and London Regional Transport to secure the maximum benefits from closer co-operation between them. Our proposals also include a reserve provision for London Regional Transport to take over responsibility for grant allocations to British Rail's London commuter services at a later stage, if experience shows the need for it.

"I would emphasise three points. While the Government's proposals for the abolition of the Greater London Council would in any case have required new arrangements for transport, these proposals are right in transport terms. They will end the inefficient arrangements under which British Rail and London Transport serve two different masters. The key elements in our proposals are to get the different public transport operators working together and to encourage the provision of new, competitive services.

"London's ratepayers will be protected from seesawing rate demands for public transport. London Regional Transport will instead receive a grant direct from the Government and a compensating adjustment will be made in the financial support arrangements for London.

"Responsibility for granting concessionary fares will in future rest with the London boroughs. The Government will be consulting representatives of the boroughs to discuss how best to continue the operation of the scheme.

"These new arrangements are designed to improve efficiency and to get a better deal for the London traveller. I am publishing this White Paper at the earliest opportunity in this new Session as a basis for consultation with interested parties on the details of our proposals. I shall then be able to take such views into account in preparing the legislation which I hope to bring before the House in the autumn."

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Lord for repeating this Statement. Naturally, I have not seen the White Paper to which the Statement refers. There will be a general desire to have the best possible system of public transport for London, but I must remind the House that the transport systems of most capitals in Europe have far greater revenue support than does transport in Greater London. The 1983 Transport Bill, on which your Lordships spent a considerable time, made provision for financing transport in Greater London and the metropolitan counties, and provision for annual reports spread over periods of three years. It seems as if your Lordships wasted a considerable amount of time in the light of this Statement. Why do the Government not give their own Bill and their own proposals the opportunity to work out?

This Statement is a further sorry blow at local government. It seems that the Government's only answer to problems such as transport is that the Secretary of State knows best. Reference is made in the Statement to the recommendations of the Commons Select Committee on Transport. That Select Committee also recommended that a new regional transport body should comprise representatives from the local authorities concerned, the GLC, London boroughs and the shire district coucils. Why have the Government, in their Statement, made no reference to that? How will the new transport body be appointed? Will the members be appointed directly by the Secretary of State?

The Statement refer to separate subsidies for buses and Underground—and this at a time when London Transport and the GLC have only recently started to develop an integrated fares and tickets scheme between Tube and bus. The Statement refers to the introduction of private operators. With all due respect, when will the Government learn that private operators will only come in on profitable routes at the most profitable time, and that any intervention must have some repercussions on other services run by the authority? It is proposed that the Secretary of State should take over liaison arrangements between British Rail and London Transport. Presumably, again there will be no local authority input into such integration talks.

I would ask the Minister whether the Government are not aware that there is a British Rail/London Transport Liaison Group which, only in November 1982, published a statement, Working Together, in order to proceed with steps for integration. The Secretary of State, in his Statement, criticises present arrangements under which British Rail and London Transport serve different masters. I have not seen the White Paper, but I must ask what master the British Rail commuter services will now serve. Will it be British Rail or the Secretary of State, or the new authority? Then the Statement says that London regional transport will have a grant from the Government. We must look at this in the light of the provisions of the 1983 Transport Bill and of Government statements in the course of deliberations upon that Bill, when the Government rejected every consideration of social benefit in connection with public transport. If that is to be the Government's attitude, then a policy of grant from central Government must mean deterioration of transport services in London as a whole.

The Statement refers to concessionary fares becoming the responsibility of the London boroughs. Does this mean that there could be different schemes of concessionary fares in the different boroughs, or does it mean that the present, generally appreciated concessionary fares scheme could be weakened in order to meet the desires of the minority of the London boroughs? We regard this Statement as an unhappy one for local government, and we shall watch very carefully consultations upon it and any legislation arising.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, I thank the Minister for the Statement, but, also like Lord Underhill, I fear that I do not altogether welcome it. As he said, we spent a considerable amount of time last year on the Transport Bill, when I remember that the Government worked very hard to get it through without amendment. May I say that I hope that opportunity will be given not only for consultation (which is referred to in the Statement and in the White Paper itself) but for a debate on the White Paper before the Government move into hasty legislation on this; because it is going to be contentious. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has put his finger on a number of items that will be contentious, even if I do not necessarily agree with the direction in which all his points lead.

I also note the point of the recognition in the White Paper and within the Statement that transport in London extends outside Greater London as it is presently constituted. The references to British Rail Southern Region are encouraging, although the mechanisms by which British Rail activities are going to be integrated seem a little mysterious. I am worried that, as Lord Underhill said, this is another case where the Secretary of State is going to take everything unto himself; because the only way that I can see the thing working at the moment, having had a very brief look at the White Paper, is that the Secretary of State will dispose and there will be some sort of quango beneath that. Certainly, from these Benches, we had looked for a more direct democratic control of a Greater London passenger transport authority.

The item on concessionary fares seems to be confusing. We are going to have a hotch-potch of different types of concessionary fares, it seems, if the individual boroughs are going to be allowed to go their own way. It seems to me, on a brief reading of the Statement and the White Paper, that, on the one hand, we have centralisation and, on the other hand, we have a sort of fragmentation of the system. I hope that we can have some assurance that there will be plenty of time to consider these matters before we finally come to legislation.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Tordoff, for their remarks with regard to this Statement. If I could respond to a number of points which I see as particularly pertinent, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked about the waste of time during the passage of the 1983 Bill. Noble Lords will recall that that Act will still apply to the metropolitan counties. London is different. The Select Committee acknowledged that it was different. Some 1.3 million people come into the centre of London at peak hours every working day. They come from as far afield as Milton Keynes in the north, Brighton in the south, Reading in the west and Colchester in the east. This is a huge area. The Select Committee recognised that it was of a totally different nature; so I do not think the 1983 Act was a complete waste of time.

The Select Committee came up with certain proposals to which Lord Underhill referred. That was their mix. The Government gave careful consideration to the Select Committee's report and concluded that a different mix was desirable for this transport system in a unique capital city. That mix is reflected in the White Paper which is for discussion. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked who is going to appoint the London regional transport body. The Secretary of State will appoint the London regional transport body. As far as private operators are concerned, there are a number of ways in which private operators can be encouraged further to serve the needs of London transport users. It is not only in the operation of routes, although that will certainly be one of the spheres in which we shall be encouraging private operators.

So far as liaison with British Rail and London Transport is concerned, the arrangments will be chaired by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. It will undoubtedly help to get a much closer arrangement between these two bodies than there has been hitherto when there have been rather more informal arrangements. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, referred to "two masters". There will be one master: the Secretary of State. That is his term, not my term. The grant would come from the London Regional Transport making their bid, as do other pubic sector bodies. That bid would then be considered by the Secretary of State, discussions would take place and a grant would be made.

The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, spoke about the area of influence, and I think I have answered him on that point. So far as this being a quango is concerned, it will not be a quango. London Regional Transport have a firm remit, and, even were they to become more closely involved with British Rail, that would not constitute anything like a quango.

The noble Lord ask about democratic control. As regards that, I can think of no better democracy than Parliament itself, and since the Greater London Council's ward members' areas are covered almost precisely by London Members of Parliament, and since London Regional Transport will be responsible to the Secretary of State, who, in turn, is responsible to Parliament, I suggest that there is an even greater area of democracy.

On the question of democracy, the noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Tordoff, both asked about consessionary fares. These fares, as both noble Lords will know, are the responsibility of local authorities and the cost is met in part from the rate support grant. That will continue. Of course it is hoped that all boroughs will come together with a common scheme, but that is up to them. It is certainly an area of local democracy which local people and the local boroughs should be able to satisfy perhaps more adequately than central Government.

4.31 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am sure that we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for having repeated the Statement made in another place, but is he aware that, if informed discussion is going to take place on these proposals—and I have only had time for the most cursory glance at the White Paper—it will have to be on a good deal better basis from the Government than any information we have either from the White Paper or the Statement at the moment?

For example, is he aware that the essence of what is being proposed is to take back the funding to the Secretary of State, exactly as it was taken away 14 years ago? Will he recall—I am sure he will—that it was the Government who were so anxious to get rid of the financial control of London Transport because at that time it was obvious to everybody that public transport was no longer going to be able to run at a profit in our major cities? Again, will he recall that the evidence of that was that the noble Lord, Lord Plummer of St. Marylebone, (as he became) was then able to hold the Government to ransom by insisting that all the old London Transport's capital debts were written off before the Greater London Council would take control of the finances of London Transport? Is the noble Lord really saying that the Government want to get back into the position where central Government will have to foot the inevitable bill for public transport in London?

If his answer to these questions is in the affirmative, then will he please take us line by line through paragraph 19 of the White Paper, which seems to be the essence of the matter? It simply states baldly that there will have to he arrangements made for the financing of public transport: first of all there will have to be bridging arrangements and then: arrangements to maintain the relative position between London's ratepayers and those elsewhere who continue to contribute directly to their local public transport services". Will he tell the House what that means? Unless the Government can explain those arrangements to the people, there cannot be meaningful consultations and this will not be a true White Paper for discussion.

Finally, the noble Lord in his reply said that there would be local democracy through London Members of Parliament. Would he not agree that the White Paper refers to British Rail as the analogy? Would he not also agree that there is not the opportunity, other than possibly in the form of adjournment debates, for democratic control over British Rail under existing arrangements? The analogy therefore breaks down and London MPs will not have the opportunity to represent Londoners as regards the running of their public transport system as they have done in the past.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said at the outset that he had not had time really to study the White Paper—and of course I recognise that he has had a cursory view. I feel quite sure that when he has studied it very much more carefully he will find that many of the answers to his questions lie therein, and there will be adequate opportunity for consultation with everybody who has an interest between now and when my right honourable friend puts legislation before the House in the autumn, as is said in the Statement.

I do recall the situation some 14 years ago, although I must confess that I was not particularly interested at that time. The noble Lord will recall that, prior to 1969, London Transport worked under the Ministry of Transport. It then went to the GLC under the 1969 London Transport Act, and that was a Labour Act. It was at that time, so I was reminded earlier today, that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister—not then the Prime Minister, of course—said, "Oh, I shall want to see if it works." My Lords, it does not work; and that is exactly why these proposals contained in the White Paper have been put before us today.

So far as paragraph 19 is concerned, I do not feel it is perhaps right on these occasions to read out entire paragraphs to the House. The White Paper is available to your Lordships in the Printed Paper Office.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that those of us whose experience goes back to being at the Ministry of Transport under the old system, when London Transport was answerable equally with other transport undertakings to the Ministry of Transport, are delighted to hear the Statement he has just made? Is he aware that many of us think that the transfer of London Transport to the Greater London Council was a very great mistake and that there are very great practical and administrative advantages in London Transport being answerable to the same higher authority (the Department of Transport) as are the other transport undertakings in the country, such as the railway and coach services? Is he therefore aware that many of us are prima facie delighted that this change is now being made?

Would my noble friend clear up one question of fact which I did not wholly understand from his Statement? I apologise if that failure was mine. Do I understand that fares on London Transport will now be settled in the same way as those on British Rail, under the supervision of the Secretary of State for Transport? Also, is my noble friend aware that on general principles of administration, quite apart from the fact that the present GLC has demonstrated its incompetence to run a fried fish shop, there is an overwhelming case for what he proposes and that many of us hope to see this change in effect as soon as possible in order that the people of London may have an efficient transport system and a lower rate burden?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am very much obliged to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. All noble Lords will recognise that he has unique experience in this area, covering, indeed, a very long time. I am glad that both my noble friend and other noble Lords expressed delight that at long last we are going to take London's transport system away from the political arena and provide a national service for a national city. We looked at the transport systems in a number of continental countries—this point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill—and found that they did not fit the unique situation in London. I believe my noble friend will agree that it is a unique situation.

Fares will be a matter for London Regional Transport, but they will have to be related to the resources they receive. With both London Regional Transport and British Rail liaising directly with the Secretary of State, there will be very much greater opportunity for improving the through-ticket system: interchanges and things of that nature. There was no way in which that could happen when there were two authorities. There is no doubt in the mind of the Government that within a reasonably short period of time these arrangements will provide a very much more satisfactory London transport system.

Lord Diamond

My Lords—

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I wonder whether I may ask the noble Lord to answer my question about the possibility of a debate on the White Paper before legislation.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I personally cannot do so. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, recognises that the usual channels will have to be used.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, I rose at pecisely the same time as the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, to ask precisely the same question, knowing that the noble Lord the Minister would not be able to answer it, but I still propose to pursue it because it is quite impossible to deal with a matter so serious as this on the basis of question and answer on a Government Statement. We are most grateful to the Minister for making the Statement. It is highly appropriate that a Statement should be made at the time that a White Paper of this importance is being introduced. Clearly we have had no opportunity to read the White Paper. Clearly there can be more than two views.

If the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, had continued in one of the offices which he fulfilled with such distinction, namely, that of Chief Secretary, at the time that this transfer was made, when I happened to be Chief Secretary, his views would have been slightly less precise than they are this afternoon. In short, there is a series of very important issues. I realise that the Minister cannot give the assurance which I am seeking, but I very much hope that others will take the point that it is quite impossible for this House sensibly and seriously to consider these very important issues purely on the basis of question and answer now, and that there ought to be an opportunity in Government time for a full discussion before legislation is finalised.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I meant no discourtesy to the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, in answering the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, just as the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, rose. I am sure he will recognise that. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, that a matter so important as this can hardly be well satisfied by a question and answer session. We have now had some 27 minutes of that, and we have not got too far down that particular road. I can give no other answer than that which I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. However, the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, will recognise that my noble friend the Deputy Leader of the House is here. I have little doubt that he has taken on board the seriousness of the noble Lord's point.