HL Deb 21 May 1997 vol 580 cc386-8

3.17 p.m.

Lord Ezra asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their policy for the London Underground.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, our policy is that which was clearly set out in our manifesto. We plan to develop a new public/private partnership to improve London Underground, safeguard its commitment to the public interest and guarantee value for money to taxpayers and passengers.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging statement. However, in the light of the fact that London Underground has had to forgo £700 million worth of essential refurbishment due to recent cuts in its grant, can the noble Baroness say whether the Government intend to restore that money? Further, on the basis of the present network and without extending any new lines, is the Minister aware that the capacity of the Underground could he doubled by devising new trains, improving signalling and widening stations? Therefore, will the Government ask London Underground to prepare a plan to that effect, which would have a dramatic effect on reducing congestion on London streets, and consider ways in which the funds necessary could be raised without drawing on public resources?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, we are certainly most concerned that the past under-investment in the London Underground has led to a quality of service below what passengers can reasonably expect and a level of service that has affected the prosperity of London as a city. We take the problem particularly seriously. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, the Deputy Prime Minister, and my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport both met the chairman of London Transport on Sunday 4th May to begin discussions with him which will cover many of the areas to which the noble Lord referred.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, how long is the programme which is about to start likely to take and how will it be financed? Can we have more detail than is stated in the manifesto?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am tempted to say to the noble Lord, more than 18 days and less than 18 years.

These are long-term issues. As a matter of urgency, we are undertaking discussions with London Underground; and London Underground is having discussions about how it can bring forward schemes for public/private partnership to improve investment in the infrastructure within London Underground. As the House will be aware, at the same time my right honourable friend the Paymaster General is carrying out an urgent wider review to improve the private finance initiative.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, given the Government's somewhat last minute acceptance that the private sector offers the best prospects for the heavy rail network, is it not bizarre that they should deny the same benefits to the travelling public in London? Therefore, the key question is this. If privatisation is not to go forward, how quickly can the investment backlog be recovered under the noble Baroness's scheme?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, as regards how quickly investment would go forward, exactly the same question could apply to privatisation as to public/private partnership. But we shall be taking the issue forward as a matter of urgency. In looking back at some of the past exchanges on this issue in this House, I think that it ill behoves those opposite to suggest that we have been having last minute conversions on some of these matters.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister a specific question. Is the noble Baroness aware that the East London Line has now been closed for a period of over two years? It is now a matter of great urgency for this line to be reopened. I realise that the noble Baroness may be unable to answer the question today but I shall be grateful if she will write to me.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I undertake to write to the noble Lord as soon as I can.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is it possible that plans may include an extension of the Underground to parts of south London not served by the Underground at present? I refer to Camberwell where I live.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, with my new responsibilities for roads and other transport matters, I am learning that we all tend to have personal interests in many of these issues. I should not like to make any commitments in that area at present.