HL Deb 23 January 1989 vol 503 cc454-60

2.45 p.m.

Lord Ezra asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether it is their intention to carry out an urgent review of the problems of London's transport as a whole.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

My Lords, we do not believe such a general review is required. However, a number of specific studies are under way or on the point of publication. Meanwhile, significant extra capacity is being provided, mainly by the public sector but with important contributions from the private sector.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, does the Minister agree that London's traffic is becoming increasingly congested and that public transport facilities in particular are proving unequal to the increased demands being put on them? Bearing in mind that all forms of urban transport are interdependent, are the Government right in pursuing this policy of reacting to particular situations as they arise? Has not the time come to look at London's transport as a whole?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I agree that traffic in London is becoming congested. That is why we are looking at a number of ways of tackling the problem. However, we do not believe that a strategic body needs to be set up. We want action, not bureaucracy. Past attempts at master plans have failed. They have taken too long to prepare and they have been too inflexible.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, will the studies that the department is undertaking include one about the long-distance coaches in London which at the moment have to be served by one coach station in Victoria? The number of coaches passing through the residential parts of that neighbourhood is becoming increasingly intolerable.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, London Regional Transport has been asked by the Government to examine the current and future terminal requirements for express coach services in London. It is considering alternative options to Paddington and possible short-term improvements to Victoria coach station. It is also talking about alternative arrangements to the Battersea wharf site.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, will my noble friend consider whether it is not also a question of doing what so many other nations with similar problems have done; namely, setting up a special traffic side to our police force which is solely concerned with the flow of traffic and the discouragement of transgressors who wilfully block traffic for their own convenience, to the great inconvenience of masses of users in London? Should not this matter be now reconsidered in the light of what every other nation has discovered on this issue?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I shall certainly take away my noble friend's suggestion on a specialist traffic police force. Illegal parking is one of the main problems in central London. We have made significant progress on that problem with the introduction of clamps, but it is a fact that illegally parked vehicles cause a disproportionate amount of delay.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, in addition to the proposals suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, is it not possible to have more special lanes for London's buses? Is is not also possible to put on more Underground trains at the rush hours? That is the main problem that people appear to face. I believe many more Underground trains should be running during the rush hours and that there should be full enforcement of the bus lanes as well as additional bus lanes. All those things, together with special assistance from the police, might ease the problem.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, bus lanes are kept under review. They are brought in when they can be justified. As regards investment on the Underground, I believe the largest ever programme of investment will take place over the next few years. That should bring relief for some of the congestion on that system.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that his original reply to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, was extremely disappointing? Is he not aware that to carry out separate London rail and road assessment studies without any correlation is sheer nonsense? Does he agree that there must be an all-inclusive discussion of London's traffic problems rather than such piecemeal inquiries? The Minister referred to bureaucracy. On 16th January his ministerial colleague referred to an invitation to London boroughs to send an elected member and an official to an annual advisory consultative meeting on London's traffic. Does the noble Lord realise that that is not the way to achieve an all-embracing discussion of the problems of London's traffic?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I should have hoped that that would be a helpful suggestion on the part of my noble friend. I said that we did not want too much bureaucracy and that we wanted action. I remind your Lordships that had the GLC—which has been gone for only three years—been able to solve the problems of London's traffic we should no doubt be enjoying the results now, and we are not.

Lord Bottomley

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the heads of London's transport have ever got together to discuss the problem and to consider whether collective action can overcome it? If they have not, will the Minister consider calling them together for that purpose?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, a central London rail study is currently being undertaken and the results will be reported shortly. The study group consists of representatives from London Regional Transport and the British Rail network, so that there is a body such as the noble Lord described.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the noble Lord said that congestion in London was getting worse. Is he aware that it is now appalling and will shortly be chaotic? Is he aware that there exists a major problem which he does not appear to be taking seriously? Will he say when a government statement will be made about steps to be taken to ameliorate the position in the interests of the metropolis and of the country generally?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

Shortly, my Lords.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I raised the question of travel problems, particularly on British Rail, in 1946 in another place? At that time people travelled not so much by car but by train; today more people travel by road and more people travel by train. Does the Minister agree that something has to be done about a chaotic situation which, for many of us who do not use road transport, is becoming unbearable?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, so far as concerns the rail system, both the Underground, about which I have already spoken, and British Rail Network SouthEast, there are plans to invest £1 billion over the next five years to improve the situation in the area.

Lord Blyth

My Lords, does the Minister have any plans to protect Battersea Bridge from attacks by water?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I recognise that the noble Lord asked me a question on that subject a short while ago when the bridge was closed as a result of being hit by a barge. I am deeply disappointed that that has happened again and that further repairs will be necessary.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, is it true that it was the same company which owned the first barge that attacked the bridge a second time?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I cannot give the answer to that question. I shall look into the matter.


Price Increases

2.54 p.m.

Lord Bethell asked Her Majesty's Government:

By how much the retail price in supermarkets of eggs has risen in the past compared with rises in the retail prices in supermarkets of sugar, butter, potatoes and olive oil, and whether they consider this increase to be justified in terms of fairness to the consumer.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Trumpington)

My Lords, information from the retail prices index, in which supermarket sales are not separately identified, shows that the price of eggs has risen by 6.9 per cent. between December 1986 and December 1988. Over the same period sugar prices have increased by 13 per cent., butter prices by 10.4 per cent. and vegetable oil prices (olive oil prices are not separately monitored) by 0.9 per cent. Potato prices have fallen by 1.5 per cent. The price of food in the United Kingdom has risen by less than the rate of inflation for each of the last four years, to the considerable benefit of British consumers.

Lord Bethell

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer, but is she aware that in my local supermarket a dozen eggs which cost about £1 a year ago now cost between £1.30 and £1.35, representing an increase of about one-third? Is she further aware that that compares with an increase in the price of butter of only one penny from 52 pence to 53 pence for 250 grammes? Does she not feel that egg producers should try not to increase the price of their product by so much in one calendar year, and that it would help to solve the economic problems which they have faced in recent weeks if they were to keep their prices down?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, care has to be taken in making comparisons regarding retail egg prices. Prices differ according to the grade of the egg. For example, size 4 eggs are currently between 10 pence and 15 pence a dozen cheaper than size 2 eggs. Prices also differ between outlets reflecting the type of eggs sold and the services offered—for example, by local corner shops. As with many foods, prices will reflect any promotional offers, which can result in enormous variations in shop prices at any point in time.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, is there not a free market in eggs and do the Government not believe that that is the way to achieve fairness to customers?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, support arrangements, trade barriers and many other factors influence food prices. The Government believe that the determination of prices by market forces results in the most efficient allocation of resources and brings the best deal for the consumer. In recent years significant progress has been made in that direction.

Lord Morris

My Lords, I share my noble friend's concern or indeed apparent affection for a good potato salad, but does the question compare like with like?

Baroness Trumpington

No, my Lords.

Lord Bethell

My Lords, surely my noble friend would agree that an egg is an egg and that an increase of one-third in the price over one year is quite extraordinary, bearing in mind the general level of inflation?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I presume that the noble Lord who spoke previously assumed that a potato was like an egg since potatoes were included on my noble friend's shopping list. This Government's policy of fostering free and fair competition in the High Street, and our policies in relation to the common agricultural policy, have made a significant contribution towards containing food price increases, bringing considerable benefits to the consumer who has a wider variety of food available than ever before.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, in view of recent events is the Minister not somewhat relieved and perhaps surprised that the price of eggs has gone up?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I am delighted to say that sales of eggs are rapidly returning to normal, thanks to the measures taken by my ministry.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, will the noble Baroness agree that three of the four commodities with which comparison is invited by the noble Lord are subject to commodity regimes under the European common agricultural policy? Will she further agree that the effect of that policy is to turn the laws of supply and demand on their heads? Does she agree that an enlightened revision of the common agricultural policy would be to the advantage of consumers and taxpayers alike, and that that ought to be the object of government policy at the present time?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the prices of many foods are very little higher than a year ago and some foods are cheaper. Prices of lamb are 2 per cent. lower than a year ago, processed fruit is cheaper and fresh vegetables are an average of 3.4 per cent. lower in price than a year ago. The list is long but on average food prices are over 15 per cent. lower in real terms than they were 10 years ago.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, would the noble Baroness not agree that the happiest state in relation to the price of eggs is when, as is now occurring where I live, two large supermarkets fight each other over prices?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, that is a matter for them.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the market is subject to supply and demand? Because the demand for eggs has fallen as a result of the recent scare would it not be better for egg producers to reduce the price in line with the suggestion of the noble Lord who put down the Question?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, in point of fact egg prices are now lower than they were before Christmas and, as we have just heard from the noble Lord, many retailers are actively promoting the sale of eggs. Retail egg prices did not fall immediately following the salmonella scare because retailers have to take account of lower turnover and the need to reduce the levels of stocks held. During this period it was not price that was restricting the sales of eggs but rather confusion in the public's mind owing to media reporting.

Building Societies

Investor Protection Limit

3 p.m.

Lord Constantine of Stanmore asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will consider raising the ceiling on guaranteed refunds on money deposited with approved building societies from £20,000 to a level nearer to the accumulated sums on deposit.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, the latest available figures show that over 93 per cent. of all share and deposit account balances held by individuals in building societies stand at £10,000 or less. The existing statutory limit of £20,000 therefore already provides generous protection for the vast majority of investors.

Lord Constantine of Stanmore

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but can he give some assurance to the many elderly people who have more than the amount that he has named in a building society and who are covered only by a ceiling of 90 per cent. of £20,000? Will they be more generously treated in view of the rise in inflation which is now foreseeable?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, the figure of £20,000 can be reviewed from time to time to take account of inflation. I do not know whether there are any plans at present to undertake such a review as that figure was, I think, only set when the Act was passed in 1986. However, as I said in my original Answer, the vast majority of people have less than £20,000 on deposit with a building society. If people have more they are able to spread their deposits around more than one building society.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, would the noble Lord indicate what arrangements would be made if building societies convert themselves into banks, and also say whether these are better or worse than those at the moment pertaining under the Building Societies Act? In order to obtain conversion, would the Government agree that the present arrangement proposed by the Abbey National, namely, to dish out fairly free shares to their depositors, is an arrangement of which the Government approve wholeheartedly?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, if a building society converts to a bank it comes under the banking level of protection for depositors, which is 75 per cent. of up to £20,000. I emphasise that when putting the idea of conversion to its members, a building society would have to point out that fact. As far as Abbey National's conversion is concerned, that is a matter between the building society and its members. The Government remain neutral as to whether building societies should or should not convert.

Lord Constantine of Stanmore

My Lords, is the Minister aware that any sum exceeding £20,000 is not guaranteed but is dependent upon the sums of residual money in the building society, the society's legal obligations and its present policy in the event of such loss exceeding £20,000?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

That is right, my Lords. The statutory deposit scheme is applicable only to sums of £20,000 and under.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, will the Minister say whether there have been any consultations between the Government and the Building Societies Association as to whether or not the Building Societies Association wishes to change that arrangement?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am not aware of any consultations that have taken place with the Building Societies Association. Obviously, if the Building Societies Association wishes to approach the Government with a view to changing that situation, we should be happy to hear from it.