HL Deb 20 March 2001 vol 623 cc1284-7

2.51 p.m.

Lord Ezra asked Her Majesty's Government:

What has been the outcome of recent talks with the Commissioner for Transport for London on future responsibility for the London Underground.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston)

My Lords, during recent talks on the implementation of the public/private partnership for London Underground, our negotiators made detailed proposals to address the concerns of Bob Kiley, the Transport Commissioner. Last week, Mr Kiley resolved these issues into a 55-point plan designed to give him unified management control over key areas of activity under PPP contracts, including maintenance of track and signalling. Those proposals are largely acceptable to the Government. It was agreed with Mr Kiley on 2nd February that modifications would be sought inside the structure of the PPP. If that agreement is respected, I believe that we could have a basis for agreement that would also be acceptable to prospective private sector partners.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reasonably positive statement. However, does he agree that this whole issue has dragged on for too long and that, in the meantime, journey times on the Underground have lengthened, delays have become more frequent, and overcrowding at peak periods— both on trains and stations—has increased thereby raising safety issues? Can the noble Lord therefore confirm what I believe is implied in his Answer; namely, that when the solution is finally announced it will include unified management for the whole of the Underground system, so that such issues can be dealt with vigorously and coherently?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, our priority is to stop the political wrangling and to get on with the serious business of doubling annual investment on the London Underground. I am sure that that is also the priority for Tube passengers and, indeed, for noble Lords. When Mr Kiley returns from America at the end of the week, we shall press on to try to ensure that the public/private partnership, suitably modified, is implemented as a matter of priority. Londoners deserve no less.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that the unions are threatening strike action over safety on the London Underground. Can he tell the House whether anything is being done to reassure the unions in that respect? Indeed, can be say whether there is any further information regarding this threatened strike about which we ought to be aware?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, on the question of the threatened dispute, I should point out to my noble friend that when the demand for safety was first made the request was for a joint safety forum. My understanding is that this body has now been established; that it has met; and that the suggestion is that it need not meet again for some months.

The other three demands from the trade unions are: jobs for life; no staff reductions in any circumstances; and that all staff should be kept on existing terms and conditions. Therefore, although safety is a priority for us, it is not an issue in respect of which the operation of the London Underground should be stopped for a day, or even two days, to the great inconvenience of Londoners. I hope that the unions will think again.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, bearing in mind that we seem to be getting contradictory daily press reports on the matter, can the Minister tell us exactly who is pulling the strings at present? For example, is it Mayor Livingstone, Mr Kiley, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer or, indeed—as we probably hope—is it the Minister in this House?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for that expression of misplaced confidence. However, the noble Lord is right. The Mayor did make an optimistic statement last Thursday when he said that a deal on the Tube is now very close. He said: I am optimistic that we will get a deal, even if it is not exactly the one that I want". As I said, we have responded very positively to Bob Kiley's 55-point plan. However, noble Lords should be aware that the Mayor is now making negative noises, and negotiations are currently suspended until later in the week. We should, perhaps, be anticipating a new set of demands. If so, I trust that they will fall within the framework of the PPP, as agreed in February, and that they will not form part of an attempt to open new issues at this late stage. Noble Lords should be assured that the Government stand firm on the issue.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, my noble friend said that a deal is very close. He also quoted the Mayor of London to that effect. However, when everyone is expecting a deal to be completed by the end of the week, is it not a little surprising that Mr Kiley has gone off to New York for a few days? Is that the normal way of getting both sides round the table, as it were, and completing the negotiations in the shortest possible time?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I should point out that we have been involved in a very arduous set of negotiations for both sides that has been going on for many weeks. As I said, those negotiations concluded in the 55-point plan that has now been offered to us by Mr Kiley. However, I hope that we can return to the issues by the end of this week. I also hope that we can deal with the issue of safety, which, I believe, has been raised rather irresponsibly in these discussions.

I should make it clear to the House that the safety case that is being operated at present is thoroughly approved by the Health and Safety Executive. The detailed assessment that is being made as regards the PPP has raised the 273 issues. However, the HSE has said: The number of issues should not be interpreted as evidence of concern about the deterioration of safety standards on London Underground". Indeed, London Underground has said: Some commentators seem confused about the Health and Safety Executive process, and their inaccurate comments are creating a completely false and irresponsible climate of fear and uncertainty for over 3 million passengers who travel safely by Tube every day". I hope that noble Lords will join both me and London Underground in condemning such irresponsible alarmism.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, when Mr Kiley came to speak to the all-party London group of this House, he said that there was quite a problem as regards the number of overland trains coming into the various terminals and the interchange between them and the Tube network? He pointed out that the surge of commuters at certain times of the day can almost be a safety hazard in itself. Can the Minister say whether that is one of the factors that is being taken into consideration in the negotiations?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, that will certainly be a factor for the Health and Safety Executive to consider. We shall have a separate set of discussions with Mr Kiley, in his new role as Transport Commissioner, and, indeed, with the Strategic Rail Authority, on planning the future integration of rail and Tube services in London. I look forward to moving on to that kind of positive agenda, as soon as possible.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, by the time that Mr Kiley returns home next week, will my noble friend the Minister ensure that an agreement has been reached on these issues? The people of London are sick and tired of the toing and froing that has occurred in the matter. They demand no less than that they should be able to travel both safely and well on the Underground.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, my noble friend can be assured that we shall use every endeavour in this respect; indeed, we shall take a very flexible and accommodating approach. I go forward optimistically in the hope that we shall achieve the kind of results that my noble friend requests, and which I am sure the whole House desires.