HL Deb 18 February 1997 vol 578 cc550-2

2.54 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

What has been the additional cost to the public purse arising from obstruction by protesters to work on the route of the A.30 road improvement in Devon.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen)

My Lords, police costs to date amount to some £750,000. Under the terms of the privately financed contract, all other costs for the protester action are borne by the contractor, with the exception of guarding costs above an agreed threshold, which are shared with the Highways Agency. That threshold has not been reached.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his clarifying Answer. Is he aware that residents in the Exeter area have been looking forward to this significant road improvement, knowing that our system of planning and inquiries, created and supported by the political parties, is fully adequate to consider objections and can lead to cancellation or changes? Are such protesters in their tunnels and trees included in the national statistics of homeless and persons living rough?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that there is considerable support for this road improvement scheme. There is much congestion in that area. The road safety record for the existing road is not good.

My noble friend is right. A full statutory process was followed. The inspector recommended in favour of the published proposals but with modifications. That process is surely the forum for making objections to a road scheme.

My noble friend asked about the national statistics for the homeless and those sleeping rough. I understand that it is unlikely that those people are counted. Counts of the homeless are undertaken only in London and the major cities.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, can my noble friend give any assurance that similar costs and delays will not be incurred during the building of the extra runway at Manchester Airport?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I am not able to give that assurance. It is for the promoters of the application to build the second runway to manage their construction process. They will liaise carefully with the police. It is quite clear that the appropriate forum for making objections, whether it be to a runway or a road scheme, is through the public inquiry. The second runway at Manchester has been given the go-ahead from the application that was called in by the two Secretaries of State. Where illegal action is taken, I am confident that the police will deal thoroughly with it.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, does my noble friend have the figures for the costs involved in the obstruction to the building of the Newbury bypass?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I do not have those figures with me. However, I can tell my noble friend that, despite the high level of illegal action there, good progress is now being made on that important road scheme.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, as there is considerable concern about the roads programme, would it not be more desirable to invest greater amounts of money in the railways? Does the Minister agree that what has been experienced in this part of the world in the past few days does not justify the optimistic responses that we have had from time to time? On Thursday my train was two hours late; on Friday it was three-and-a-half hours late; and the following day it was an hour late. With the troubles experienced in London, does this really represent the triumph that the noble Viscount mentioned?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the noble Lord's ingenuity in going from those who tunnel under prospective road schemes to rail privatisation is to be commended. The House is probably familiar with the arguments on rail privatisation. We believe that it has been a tremendous success. We have seen huge levels of investment. As we have heard from previous Questions on unemployment, the party opposite cannot cope with good news.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I have a more relevant question on railways. Does my noble friend appreciate that had such protesters existed in the past century, the epic engineering and construction of the Great Western Railway by I.K. Brunel, which also greatly improved communications with the West Country, might have been seriously delayed or probably killed?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, in those days the robust official response to illegal action probably involved less consideration of the rights of the individual. It would probably have proceeded without the statutory safeguards that we now have. We have statutory safeguards. Where people are acting illegally, clearly it is for the police and relevant authorities to ensure that they do not obstruct the legal way.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is the Minister aware that moles do it, rabbits do it and now Ministers are doing it? They are burrowing for false impressions in a world of their own—the world of illusion.

Leaving that aside, does the Minister agree that the chief constable of the area affected, Chief Constable John Evans, has said that the police have spent £750,000 on these exercises? Is it right that the cost of the evictions has caused initiatives against drugs and car theft to be put on hold? Is that correct?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, it certainly shows that the money would have been much better spent on policing costs in pursuing exactly the considerations mentioned by the noble Lord. Money has been diverted to deal with illegal action which has very little support within the country. What is clear is that the road scheme has tremendous support locally. The police are obliged to keep the peace, and that is exactly what they have done.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, why will the Government not accept a degree of responsibility for the direct action—which we do not condone from these Benches? They have created the attitude that transport in this country is a competition between market forces. Is the Minister aware that even the RAC today acknowledged the need for a properly integrated transport system? Do the Government accept responsibility for the fact that people despair of their lack of acceptance of the need to plan?

Viscount Goschen

Absolutely not, my Lords. In election after election, voters have put this party in power with a stated manifesto and stated transport policies. That is the forum. If one wants to change transport policies, it should be done through the ballot box, not through direct action.