HL Deb 03 February 2003 vol 644 cc4-6

2.43 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the functions of the Government Office for London within the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister; what are its relations with the Mayor of London; and what involvement it has in Transport for London's Underground operation.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, the Government Office for London—one of nine regional government offices—delivers programmes for nine government departments and promotes London within government. It acts as a contact between government departments and the Mayor and the Greater London Authority. London Underground is directly sponsored by the Department for Transport.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, how very interesting. Does the noble Lord agree that the time has come for action on the London Underground, and that the parties concerned—or an awful lot of them— should stop arguing with, and blaming, each other, and start worrying about the misery and torture endured by passengers under this system? I do not wish to leave out any member of the infamous team: the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Transport, the Mayor of London, Mr Kiley and his team, from whom we had hoped for so much, and London Transport. The problem has gone on for so long as to be absolutely disgraceful. One is tempted to think that the Government have grown so much as to become like a very fat man who is unable to see his own feet anymore and, therefore, has no idea where he is going.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, the criticism of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, is a little on the extravagant side. In spending £15 billion on transport in London, this Government are making up for years of neglect of the London Underground. With the plans for PPP almost in place, we are now at the beginning of the end in improving the London Underground.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, the travelling public in London are dismayed that, following the accident at Chancery Lane, the Central line is to remain closed for several more weeks for track inspections. Does the noble Lord agree that that suggests that, like Railtrack before, London Underground's knowledge of its own tracks is less than we should expect? Given that background, is he still confident that the financial arrangements for the PPP are valid?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, to answer the second question first, we are absolutely confident that the arrangements for PPP are secure and valid. Everybody regrets the accident at Chancery Lane.

London Underground has announced that it will be two weeks before the service returns to normal. The problem is that new bolts must be put on 2,800 motors on the 700 trains involved, which will take 5,600 hours. The Health and Safety Executive is insistent that nothing should return to normal until all that work has been carried out and it is confident that the Tube its safe and secure for its customers.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, in view of the delays now experienced on the London Underground, and the Minister's response, which suggests that there will be further delays on the Tube, do the Government intend to put pressure on the Mayor of London to delay the implementation of his notorious congestion charge?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, my announcement was contained in a London Underground press notice issued last Thursday, so there is nothing new in what I say. Congestion charging starts on 17th February. It is entirely for the Mayor and his staff to decide whether there should be any delay in implementing it. But we see no reason why there should be, because it is essential that the congestion charge, which we hope will be a success, is seen as a way of reducing the appalling congestion in London.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, the noble Lord says that the Tube is safe and secure for travellers to use. But, is it not a fact that the Mayor of London last week warned Londoners that the Underground was unsafe? Did the noble Lord see that report? Clearly, he does not agree with it; but does he think that it was wise of the Mayor of London to issue the statement only three weeks before introducing the congestion charge?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, I was not aware of any such article in the Daily Mail. A picture on the front page of the Evening Standard purported to be of a rail, but it was not. I do not think that I said that the Tube was absolutely safe. I said that, only when work is completed and the Health and Safety Executive says that the Tube is safe, will the Central line reopen and run as efficiently as we hope it always will.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, in response to my noble friend's question on whether the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister or the Government Office for London has made any approach to the Mayor, the Minister said that it was entirely a matter for the Mayor. But my noble friend asked whether the Deputy Prime Minister or the Office for London made any approach. Is the Minister not aware of the desperate difficulty that people are having in getting home at the moment? Surely, that must be aggravated by the congestion charge.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, people are having appalling difficulty getting home at the moment, first, because of the accident on the Central line and, secondly, because of the weather. Congestion charging does not start for two weeks. Therefore, it is difficult to blame it for the present conditions.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the safety record of London Underground, far from being poor, is exemplary? In terms of safety, it is the envy of many capitals around the world. Will the Minister also confirm that safety remains paramount in any new financing arrangements for the Underground?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, I confirm that both those statements are accurate.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, when the Minister says that the congestion charge is entirely a matter for the Mayor of London, is he correct? Is he aware that, under the Greater London Authority Act, powers are available to the Secretary of State to vary and to exempt certain groups and persons from the charges and penalties under the congestion charge? Will the Minister reconsider whether penalties and charges could be varied and groups protected? People are being badly hurt, not merely due to the Central line fiasco and tragedy. They are unable to contact the central administration of the congestion charge authorities to determine how to pay.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, the detail of congestion charging is a matter for the Mayor and his staff. As regards the first point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, yes, it is right that in certain circumstances there can be intervention from central government. However, within the context of the questions I was being asked, I did not consider that central government would so intervene.