HL Deb 25 February 1998 vol 586 cc679-82

2.50 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have for investment in the London Underground.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, we are in the final phase of developing proposals for a public private partnership to provide the Underground with the funding it needs to increase investment and modernise the network. We shall shortly be in a position to make an announcement.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer, but is it not the case that the need for investment in the Underground is urgent and was stated as such by the Labour Party, both before and after the last election, yet 10 months since the Government took office we have still not heard anything? Is it not also the case that everyone in Whitehall is running round and round trying to find a new word for "privatisation" which will not offend either the Deputy Prime Minister or Mr. Jimmy Knapp? Can the Minister give me an assurance that any proposals coming forward will not result in an alteration of the definition of what is "public expenditure" or "public sector borrowing"?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the issue is urgent—and it is the more urgent and deeper-rooted because of the number of years of under-investment in London Underground and the horrendous scale of backlog that we inherited. This is a complex issue because we ruled out the crude and wholesale privatisation suggested by the party opposite. That means that we have to consider very carefully the options by which we can maintain the public accountability of the Underground while harnessing private finance and skills, and build on the Underground's public service record. That is what we are seeking to do. As I said earlier, we hope to make an announcement very soon.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the history of public/private partnerships in organisations and undertakings as large and as complex as London Underground has not been totally happy, and that the weakness usually is that wherever the Government become involved in such an undertaking or joint venture, historically the continuity of the investment programme has been lost because all governments always change investment programmes? Is there any likelihood that the Government might rethink the possibility of privatisation?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the simple answer to the noble Lord's second question is "no". However, I take the noble Lord's point that some of the private finance deals that the House has discussed only recently have not been the happiest of examples. That is another reason why we are looking carefully, with our advisers, Price Waterhouse, at the different ways in which such a partnership for London Underground could ensure continuity of investment.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, can the Minister say why privatisation was ruled out, out of hand and without consideration, and why it could not be given equal consideration with other solutions?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, it was ruled out because we did not believe that it would give the guarantees about service and safety that we considered essential to run an Underground system safely and well in our capital city. We thought that it reflected more a dogmatic commitment to privatisation rather than a rational analysis of the problems of the Underground and a flexible and pragmatic approach to meeting them.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, on the question of continuity, does the Minister recall that the previous government at one stage agreed to meet the reasonable requirement of the Underground for increased investment, but that within months and in a subsequent Budget that was withdrawn? Can the Minister give us an absolute assurance that such a situation will not arise again? If there is likely to be any further delay in devising a public/private strategy for raising the additional investment, could the Government not provide at least a bridging loan so that the work can start?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, as I said earlier. I hope that we shall be able to make an announcement soon. I take the noble Lord's point both about the history of this matter and about the urgent need for investment. As part of our work to develop a PPP, we are considering ways of increasing investment in the Underground in the short term, as well as developing a solution which will quickly eliminate the Underground's investment backlog.

Lord Evans of Parkside

My Lords, if by any chance any members of Her Majesty's Government are still harbouring any thoughts of privatisation along the lines suggested by the Conservative Party, will my noble friend invite them to study what happened to British Rail and the absolute disaster that that privatisation has been for the nation?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I encourage all noble Lords to attend, and perhaps participate in, our debate later today on the state of the railways.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, has the noble Baroness any reason to say that there will be a decision "soon"? I understood that it would be "very soon". Which is it, "soon" or "very soon", and when is either of them?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have my Civil Service lexicon with me which explains the difference between "soon" and "very soon", but I hope that noble Lords will not feel disappointed at the length of time that it takes to make an announcement.

Earl Russell

My Lords, can the Minister say what advice the Government have received from London Underground about water penetration into underground tunnels; what plans the Government have for investment to meet that danger, and what estimates they have formed of the likely cost should they discover, to their great surprise, that they have left the investment too late?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I do not have the detailed information that the noble Earl requests, but I shall reply to him by letter and would be pleased to answer such a Question if he were to put one on the Order Paper.