HC Deb 16 September 2003 vol 410 cc175-95WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Heppell]

9.30 am
Mr. Deputy Speaker

The first debate this morning will be initiated by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on the important subject of transport in London.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. What could be better than starting the morning by debating transport in London under your excellent chairmanship?

When making my way into London, I find that if things are going well it can be a pleasure. Driving along the Embankment and seeing the Thames in all its glory can be wonderful. London is my city, and I am proud of it. However, those are the good days. All too often, for many residents and commuters, the daily business of moving around London is not a pleasure. Indeed, it can sometimes be a trauma.

To a city such as London, transport is vital. I do not have to explain why; it is self-evident. The Government, in their usual brilliant way, have managed to hand over many responsibilities for London. However, I am feeling particularly magnanimous this morning, so I shall not harangue the Minister; he is a jolly fine chap. I feel particularly magnanimous today because, on Friday evening, Uxbridge football team managed to beat Wealdstone football club, a club that I believe he supports. Wealdstone's supporters were magnanimous in defeat, which is unusual, so I shall extend my courtesy to the Minister this morning by not attacking the Government—at least not virulently.

The Government have an important role to play—they hold a watching brief over those aspects of transport that they have handed over to Transport for London—because if things go wrong, the country goes wrong. One of the most obvious problems was the recent power failure on the underground. Interestingly enough, those of my colleagues who are on a pay scale above me have decided to use an Opposition day to debate that subject this afternoon, although it will be answered by the Department of Trade and Industry rather than the Department for Transport. That power failure was a serious matter, but as it will be debated at length this afternoon, we need not spend too much time on the subject now. Suffice it to say that the Government must keep a close eye on things and consider what back-up is necessary.

I know that London Underground is undertaking a full review, and that emergency lighting and other aspects will be considered, but bearing in mind the current situation in the City and elsewhere, with the threat of terrorism as well as having to put with ordinary cock-ups, the Government have a duty to ensure that things are being properly looked after. While we are on the subject of mistakes, the Central line comes to mind. Not only did we suffer the fiasco of the line being out of action, which inconvenienced tens of thousands of people, including my constituents, but more problems have been found since. I remember that, because I was a member of the Select Committee on Transport for a while; the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), whom I see in his place, was also a member. The people from the Central line came before us and gave some pretty poor excuses. To see it going wrong again underlines what we thought.

Next year will see the centenary of the arrival of the underground in Uxbridge. The steam locomotive that came into the station where Sainsbury's now stands is still in existence, and I am hoping to arrange for it to come down the line for a celebration. I am not convinced that much has improved in the 99 years since the Metropolitan line first came to Uxbridge. It might be of benefit to those living along the line that the service is no longer steam, but if we consider reliability and the time that it takes to get into London, we have not advanced from those Edwardian times. That is a great shame. The Metropolitan line and the underground are part of the culture in which I grew up. I am proud to be part of Metroland, as is the Minister. I do not know whether the Minister's constituency regards itself as the rolling Middlesex countryside beloved of John Betjeman—in Uxbridge, there are still vestiges of that—but the underground is an important lifeline for us and it must be improved.

I notice a rather striking absence of Government Members. That might be explained by the fact that they have taken the Jubilee line to Willesden Green and other places near Brent, East; it is not for me to cast aspersions. In our previous interesting discussions about London Underground, there has been a range of opinion about public-private partnership. It is now in place, and we have to make it work for the good of all Londoners, so it would be not only pointless but churlish to have an argument about alternatives.

To expand the underground system is expensive and difficult. Because of the built-up nature of the area that I represent, it would have to go overground rather than literally underground. However, in Uxbridge, we have a campaign that we take very seriously. I know that the Minister has no responsibility in the area but, working on the assumption that somebody might one day read what we say in this place, I urge again that serious consideration be given to the extension of the Central line to Uxbridge. That would not be difficult because a siding comes out of Ruislip Gardens station on the Central line, a few yards, or perhaps metres—in Uxbridge, we are probably into yards and chains—from the Metropolitan and Piccadilly lines. It would not only bring enormous benefit to Uxbridge—I declare an enormous interest in Uxbridge from the business side of things—but bring job opportunities to areas closer to London, such as Notting Hill, because it would open up an area that is short of applicants. That would be useful. It would also give us a link to the Chiltern line, which is generally reckoned to be a good thing that works well. That would leave an opening for lots of commuters from the Chilterns.

The overground is not at all bad. However, it does have very bad days. I have only one overground station in my constituency, which is West Drayton station. A little work has been done to improve it with the Hayes and West Drayton single regeneration budget. The back of the station is still a bit mucky, but we are working on that. Last year, I managed to commute quite happily from West Drayton to Bournemouth to the Conservative party conference. In fact, I arrived more fresh faced than many of the delegates who had stayed overnight; I cannot work out why that was. Sadly, that will not be so easy for Blackpool, but it is something that we should give more publicity to.

At Hayes, in the neighbouring constituency to mine, they have done a great deal to improve services. There is a line to Heathrow, and, of course, we are all waiting for the advent of Crossrail. We may have to wait some time, but I hope that the Government will get on with Crossrail; I have urged them again and again to do so. We have the added impetus of the Olympic bid. I am very much in favour of that, not just because the event itself would be greatly prestigious, but because it would provide us with a real incentive to sort out transport in London.

I understand that the recent athletics competition in Paris was marred by the fact that its transport could not be sorted out. Of course, the Francophobes in the British press might have been making out that Paris could not get it right, but I recently drove past the Stade de France and was surprised by how far out it was. If we are going to have successful sporting events, we have to get our act together on the matter of transport. We should be seriously considering that.

One thing that we all require from the rail system, whether overground or underground, is safety. I mean not just safety in terms of the running of the train, but safety at the stations and on the way home. Although many people might think that I am a big chap, I would use the underground more often to get to Uxbridge from this place were it not for the fact that on late-sitting nights I do not particularly fancy walking from Uxbridge station to my home, 20 minutes' walk away. It is probably unfounded, but I do not feel particularly safe. Although improvements have been made at Uxbridge station over the years, it is still not a very welcoming place. I think that a lot of people would use the public transport system more if they felt that public safety around those areas had increased. That is obviously not a matter for the Minister's Department, but generally speaking it is something that we must consider if we want to increase the use of public transport.

Reliability is another issue. Using my own example, the journey to Westminster in the mornings might be a bit crowded and unpleasant but it tends—unless one is unlucky and there is a leaf on the line or something like that—to be reasonably quick. Late at night, by which I mean after 8 or 9 o'clock, although I know that people have had other experiences at different times, I may get turfed off the train at Harrow-on-the-Hill; it may not be going as far as Uxbridge. Harrow-on-the-Hill is, as the Minister knows, a marvellous place. It is not quite as good as Uxbridge, but it is not bad. However, the platforms get a bit boring after an hour or so. That is the sort of thing that puts me off the journey, and makes me think about using the car to get in and out of London. That is a bit of a blow, of course, because I have to pay the £5 congestion charge.

Anecdotally, things improved a little for me when the congestion charge was introduced, but they seem to have worsened again. When I am already late for a Bill Committee, there is nothing more annoying than thinking that the first thing that I have to do when I get to my office is to log on and pay my £5 charge. I am starting to wonder whether the scheme is as successful as it is claimed, although I am prepared to review the figures.

As a lapsed retailer, I must say that the figures for central London appear to have worsened. John Lewis, among others, says that its sales figures have reduced dramatically. That worries me greatly. It is very easy to take such businesses for granted and assume that they are a milch cow that can provide rates endlessly, never mind what is imposed on them. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) may touch on that if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

On a more positive note, buses seem to have improved a little, although I am disappointed that bus fares have gone up. I use buses a lot in central London. We have problems in my constituency. Again, that is not a matter for the Minister, but the people running those bus services might take note if I raise it in this place. The 207 service is being re-tendered, and a jolly good thing too. I have heard of gaps in the peak evening service of an hour or more. Buses are even taking short cuts, which is an interesting concept for a bus route—"We are running a bit late. Let's not take the usual bus route. Let's take a quick turn down there. That'll get us back on time." That is a little tough for people waiting at a bus stop, but never mind: the bus company is trying to improve its reliability.

There have also been problems with the 222 bus service, but perhaps my remarks are becoming a little parochial. Westminster may not be the place to take up this matter. However, I have a great deal of sympathy for the bus drivers, who must put up with an awful lot: a lot of abuse, even violent attacks. They have many problems with schoolchildren. I recently asked a bus driver which time of day he found the most threatening. I expected him to say that it was late at night, but he surprised me when he said that it was when the children came out of school. I use the word "children" loosely, as they do unmentionable things and cause the vehicles to stop. There is also the sheer weight of them, which means that bus companies must lay on more buses.

I am certainly not a union man—the last union to which I belonged was the students' union: I was responsible for ordering the beer—but London has a problem with the recruitment and retention of drivers. I understand that the shortage of drivers may have an impact on services. The Transport and General Workers Union told me that, between 1992 and 2000, the number of train drivers increased on average by 51 per cent, while during the same period the number of bus drivers increased by only 23.9 per cent. I am not in a position to dispute that, but I know that there is a shortage of bus drivers.

A problem affecting my constituency is that drivers are trained but then go off to Heathrow where the job is more lucrative, leaving the bus companies, which have paid for the tuition, short of drivers. The turnover rate is very high. There are also problems in the engineering sections. This problem must be addressed. It is part of a larger problem of recruitment and retention that affects London's public services. Everything costs so much that many people move out of London because they cannot afford to live there.

I should like briefly to touch on taxis. They are a part of transport in London that we sometimes do not talk about too much. We all want taxis when we are in a hurry and they always seem to be about, although I think that taxi availability has gone down as London has expanded. I understand that taxi drivers are a little concerned about the Knowledge, which is the test that they take. They think that it should be modernised. I am not suggesting that the Government should consider treating the Knowledge in the same way that, it seems, educational qualifications have recently been treated, so that more and more people pass the Knowledge, because it is an important part of the job. However, the issue should be looked at.

One of the good things about taxis is that most of them—nearly all of them in London—are wheelchair accessible. That brings me on to almost my final point: the accessibility of public transport in London for the disabled, which is not looked at much. The disabled are obviously a wide group, and I understand some of the problems. In the case of the underground system, it is difficult suddenly to put in disabled-friendly access, but we must look at that. Buses now have some accessibility, but I understand that the policy is to allow only one wheelchair user on at a time, which could be a bit frustrating if one is waiting with a friend or somebody else comes along.

I also have concerns about the new pre-payment ticket machines for buses, which, I understand, might cause problems for people with learning disabilities. I would not speak for you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because that would be very unwise, but let us face it, although people try to make things easy with colour-coded knobs and so forth, when one is looking at a machine and trying to follow the instructions, one can sometimes get it wrong.

Therefore, I am a little worried that sometimes we forget about people with such disabilities. That applies even when they come in with their own vehicles. We know that there is abuse of disabled parking bays. There is also sometimes abuse of the disabled badges that enable people to park in those bays—I can never remember whether they are orange or blue these days, and must get colour blind on them.

Transport is one of the keys to success in London, but we must be careful not to add to the problem. In the light of that I finish with a note on airports, inevitably. Any expansion at Heathrow would increase the need for transport in London, never mind whether it would be disastrous for the environment and the quality of life of people living there—this is the place but not the time to discuss that. However, from an economic point of view, an expansion at Heathrow would throw the west and central London transport systems into even more chaos. That includes anything done at Northolt, so I hope that the Government will rule both of those out as soon as possible.

In that context, I have a question for the Minister. Can he say when he expects the aviation White Paper to be published? I have heard Ministers, including his boss, the Secretary of State for Transport, saying that it will be published at the end of the year, and of course I believe that, because I believe everything that the Government say—they are always right. However, I have heard whispers that the publication might be delayed. I wonder whether the Minister can assure me, so that I can rest easy today, knowing that I have done my bit to ensure that the Government are living up to their promises.

As I said at the outset, I do not want to have a go at the Government—well, I do really, but on this occasion I might get more if I am trying to be nice. Transport is very important. We must consider all its aspects and bear in mind the environmental consequences. I hope that the Government will adopt one of their famed joined-up approaches not just in the Department for Transport but in all other Departments.

9.54 am
Mr. John Horam (Orpington)

We are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) for introducing the debate in his usual felicitous way. He represents a north London constituency, so may I introduce a south London perspective? I shall make only two brief points because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) also wants to speak.

Connex's decisions affect the whole of south-east London and many of my constituents who use its commuter services through Bromley and south London. The Chamber will be aware that the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority decided a few months ago to terminate Connex's franchise at the end of this year. Connex will continue to run its services until then, after which some unspecified people—he more or less said friends of his whom he knew and could trust—will run it for a further 12 months, after which there will be a competition and the franchise will be re-let on different terms. I understand that those new terms will include a higher subsidy. I am pleased about that because it is necessary and one of Connex's problems has been financial difficulties arising from miscalculation of the subsidy required.

The transitional 18 months has been handled extremely badly and Connex now has no incentive to provide a decent service. It knows that its time will be up in six months, so why should it bother to do other than what its conscience dictates? That is quite high in Connex's case and I have regard for it in that respect, but there is no commercial or financial incentive for it to carry on providing a good service. The chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority will have had consultations with the Government, and the right approach to the matter would have been for him to say that the service is unsatisfactory, a new franchise would be set up in 18 months with new conditions and everyone could apply. That would have given Connex an incentive to improve its performance and to re-apply with other people.

Half a dozen train operating companies might apply for the new franchise and that would have led to a better result, because I fear for my constituents during the 18 months of uncertainty and while friends of Mr. Bowker are running the railway line from south-east London for a year. If the Minister allowed the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority to make that decision, it was the wrong decision and I would like his comments on how we can get through those 18 months.

The first decision as a result of the change—it is common to all parts of the rail service, not just in London—is that trains have been taken out of service because the chairman of the SRA hopes that greater attention can be paid to punctuality and reduced crowding. I do not know the experience of other Members in the Chamber, but the greatest complaint in my area is not lack of punctuality. People become concerned when, for example, at Charing Cross they struggle to get on an extremely crowded train in the evening, because they are aware that there are sometimes safety issues. If people are pressed into a train with their faces against the window, they worry about safety. That is not a happy situation for people going to and from work and there have been instances of commuter rage because people are really worried about crowded trains, trying to get to work, trying to get home and so on.

The idea of paying the same fare for fewer services and, therefore, for punctuality—I understand the reasoning behind that—seems to be evasion of train operating companies' responsibilities. They should pay attention to their own efficiency. The reason for overcrowding on trains, in my experience and that of my commuter constituents, is that a four-car train often rolls up when there should be an eight-car train. That is often because old rolling stock that has not been properly maintained breaks down at the depot and, therefore, does not arrive at the station. Alternatively, there has been a recruitment problem and there are not enough people to run the trains. Those are efficiency problems to which the operating companies should pay more attention, rather than penalising commuters by having fewer trains in order to get back on track with punctuality. I would be grateful for the Minister's comments on those two problems, which immediately affect my commuter constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge was characteristically generous in not particularly attacking the Government in this debate. His tactics might be right as he may get a more felicitous answer from the Minister, but he was over-generous. Transport has been a very bad area for the Government. Just before the last election, Jonathon Porritt, chairman of the Government-appointed Sustainable Development Commission, singled out transport as the worst area of Government performance in the whole sphere of their activity. We must lay the blame at the Deputy Prime Minister's door, as he was in charge of transport for the whole of the last Parliament. He set absurd goals, and the Government have had to perform a U-turn. His approach was completely misconceived. It is at its worst in London because he and the Chancellor of the Exchequer simply could not agree with the Mayor of London on how to finance the necessary investment in London Underground. That has been a disaster for London. For four or five years, nothing has happened except that piles of legal documents have mounted up to no avail. The result is that badly needed investment in London is barely under way.

Transport has been close to a fiasco from the Government's point of view. I feel sorry for the present team of Ministers. I am pleased that they now have a dedicated transport Department because that may mean that they can concentrate on this matter more effectively than the previous gargantuan Department, but they have major problems to sort out in London as a result of a period when they did absolutely nothing and London suffered as a consequence.

10.2 am

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), who is a colleague in the Whips Office, on introducing this important debate.

As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, and as, I am sure, the Minister will confirm, one of our problems as London Members of Parliament, whether they be the small crowd of 13 on the Conservative Benches or the rather larger, albeit today invisible, massed ranks on the Government Benches—the exception is the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen)—is that much of this issue has become devolved over recent months and years to the Mayor of London. It is therefore inevitable that in any debate in this place about transport issues in London we have to touch on his role during the past three and a half years in the post. Of course, the matter is now under the auspices of Transport for London, but there remains some parliamentary input.

I shall briefly touch on one or two issues as I examine the concerns of many of my constituents in central London. The main concern for many of us in London, and what transport in London means to many people outside the capital, is the tube network. There has been a catalogue of disgraceful delays and bureaucratic bungling. As my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) said, much of the blame must be laid firmly at the Government's door. It is difficult to go into great detail, but the last six and a half years have been a catalogue of wasted time and my hon. Friend was right to cast aspersions on the role of the Deputy Prime Minister. His tenure in looking after the transport system throughout the country, let alone in London, will be remembered only as a never-ending disaster.

Unfortunately, the wrangling between the Government and the Mayor of London over the tube, which finally ended with power being passed fully into the hands of Transport for London, has effectively meant that there have been three wasted years in which no improvements have been made, for all the best will in the world. Many Londoners now have a grave concern that there are going to be appalling blackmail tactics by Mr. Bob Crow and his friends at the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, who have Mr. Livingstone in their pocket—a situation which there is little doubt would continue if he won a second term as Mayor of London, because the RMT will be a major funder of his independent campaign in June.

We have grave concerns about what will happen to the underground system. A lot of money will be spent, but much of it will go into the pockets of union members

who will constantly complain about safety measures, despite having had no great concerns about safety in past decades. It is interesting that most railway accidents in recent years have been down to driver error or the incompetence of unionised staff, rather than Railtrack, to which blame has been attached. We are in for yet more difficult times, and the commuters who rely on the underground and the rail system to get from far-flung suburban areas to work in central London are the ones who will suffer.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge pointed out, the bus service is one of the success stories of recent years. It is only fair to say that, although perhaps the success has been slightly over-hyped by the Mayor of London in the past three years. In my constituency there have been marked improvements, including the addition of new hopper buses, but at a great cost. The Transport for London budget is now out of control. A shortfall of £500 million is estimated for future years and the Mayor will, I fear, throw himself on the mercy of central Government, who, I suspect, will have relatively little sympathy for his antics.

Above all, Londoners will suffer. Some advertisements in London buses are about the advantages of a congestion charge—notionally, the money raised will be put into buses, but we all know that that is far from the truth. I shall not go into detail about the congestion charge, because I have spoken about it in this Chamber several times and led a debate on it in February. It has not been quite the failure that we all feared, in the sense that there have not been riots in the street. However, many central London retailers and traders have suffered greatly, and my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge mentioned the comprehensive survey by Sir Stuart Hampton of John Lewis, outlining the many grave concerns of central London retailers. However, at least in the first few months of the congestion charge, there was less congestion. That was one reason for retailers suffering—passing trade was radically reduced, although there is evidence that that is beginning to change.

The real concern about the congestion charge is that so little money has been raised. It has been a bureaucratic nightmare; it now appears that the over-hyped assumption that £200 million a year would be raised is being downplayed, not just to the latest figure of £65 million a year given by the Mayor of London, but to a mere fraction of that, for the next two or three years.

The raison d'être of a congestion charge was to raise a pot of money that could be securitised for a range of other transport initiatives, such as Crossrail in particular, which people in London consider an important part of a long-term strategy. Crossrail is an issue that dates back to the post-war era as it was recommended as long ago as 1948. The Conservative Government in the early to mid-1990s first put the project on hold, and a repeat of that by this Government appears almost certain. I should be glad to hear the Minister's comments about Crossrail. The tragedy is that a decision must be made now to bring about improvements 10 or 12 years down the line. An Olympic bid would be almost unsustainable without a commitment to—and the reality of—Crossrail, at least for those areas in the near part of eastern London that would be affected.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge about taxis, although I appreciate that the subject is a little outside the Minister's area of authority. There is a grave concern that there has been an explosion in the number of unregistered cabs here in central London. My feeling is that we need to encourage the licensing of reputable black cabs, despite concerns about the dumbing down of the Knowledge. My real concern is safety for the elderly and for young women, many of whom come to socialise in my constituency in such places as Soho and Covent Garden on a Friday or Saturday night and want to know that they can return to the suburbs safely. There have been appalling statistics on rape and assault in recent months.

Mr. Randall

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that I am a member of the Sexual Offences Bill Committee. One of the presentations from the Metropolitan police was on rape resulting from taking a minicab. That obviously does not happen everywhere, but it is a serious problem.

Mr. Field

I thank my hon. Friend. There is little doubt that there has been an explosion in the number of unregistered cabs, and we all feel very strongly about that on behalf of our constituents.

I shall touch on airports, although that issue is closer to the heart of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and I appreciate that he has expressed grave constituency concerns. When walking in such places as West Drayton in his constituency and Harmondsworth and Sipson in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), one cannot fail to be impressed by the number of posters, which are all over the place: the campaign involving many local residents in that part of west London is massive. One of the benefits of our long parliamentary recess is that it gives us a chance to do some research, and on one of the warm summer days this year I spent some time walking through much of that area and looking at the beautiful 12th century foundation church of St. Mary's, Harmondsworth, which is likely to be entirely obliterated, or find itself a mere stone's throw from a third runway, if such a runway is built.

However, the business argument cannot be lightly dismissed, apart from the very questionable Department for Transport methodology on aircraft usage. I am a great believer that freedom to travel gives freedom to think, and one of the benefits of living in a cosmopolitan and open-minded globalised society is that if people are allowed to travel and experience other cultures, many of the problems highlighted by the global terrorist threat of the past two years will begin to be dissipated. The discussion on the third runway at Heathrow is ongoing, and I understand that the final decision on that and on runways at Stansted and Gatwick is likely to be delayed until the new year. I hope that the Minister can confirm the precise state of play.

There has been a savage attack on private car usage by central Government through fuel duties and by the Mayor of London's anti-car policies—not just the congestion charge—but car usage must be seen as an integral part of sensible transport planning.

I shall conclude soon, because the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead wants to say a few words. Our concerns about transport in London reveal a mess of the Government's making. The Secretary of State may well be seen as a safe pair of hands who was appointed to neutralise this as an issue, but the conclusion, first aired by the Evening Standard, that the Government really have it in for London and Londoners is inescapable. As a capital city, we make a vast contribution to the national coffers—some £20 billion net per year—yet we receive considerably less than our rightful share in terms of infrastructure projects. That applies not only to Crossrail, but to the general state of the railways and roads, and to hospitals and other matters outside the Minister's transport remit.

To me, that is an attack on the quality of life of all but the very richest Londoners, who can in effect opt out. It may well be that national pay bargaining suits the trade unions and a Labour Government dominated by Scots and northerners, but it is an absolute disaster for Londoners whose public services are thereby denuded of cash and staff. I appreciate that the Minister will want to address specific transport issues when he sums up. but I hope that he takes back to his boss the grave concerns— felt by many of us who represent Londoners—about the general quality of life. Much of that is, I fear, in the hands of central Government and I hope that they will act positively in the months and years ahead.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) is an assiduous Member of Parliament. He is also a London MP. I am sure that, if I call him, as I intend to do, he will provide some explanation of why he could not be present for the opening of the debate.

10.15 am
Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise for not being present at the beginning of the debate and missing the speech of the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), which I will read assiduously. I was across the road at St. Thomas's hospital getting my tetanus and diphtheria jab. I am in a bit of a sweat—I do not know whether that is to do with the jab, or running across the bridge.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that those injections are necessary for travelling on public transport?

Harry Cohen

They are necessary for travelling on public transport in Bangladesh, where I am going on a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association trip early next month.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Uxbridge for securing the debate. It is incredibly important for Londoners and commuters, and for business, that public transport flows smoothly in London. I know that the matter has been devolved to the Greater London Authority, but Parliament must keep its hand in, as public transport is important to the national economy.

Rail transport has never recovered from the appalling privatisation by the Conservative Government. The costs just keep going up, particularly in relation to safety. Trying to make the railways safe has eaten up a vast amount of money that the Government put aside for investment. The Government must consider that. They are right to make safety the top priority, but investment must be increased again. We need to make rail an efficient means of transport throughout the country, as well as in London. Crossrail is an important new investment that should get the go-ahead. I am not convinced that it will be relevant to any Olympics bid, but it should go ahead in any case to improve the efficiency of rail in London.

The Government should reconsider the urban rail network rather than throwing all their eggs into the M25 and road widening and road building on the outskirts. The Labour Government came in in 1997 saying that they would do much more for the urban rail network. That seems to have been a low priority for investment. It should come back up the order of priorities.

The Government must do something about fares. That issue does not relate only to rail transport, but it is relevant to it. Rail fares are too high. With all the different companies, there is great confusion about what fares people pay. Again, we were promised that that would be sorted out and that people would be able to see clearly which fares were the cheapest or the best, but that has not come about. We need to end the confusion that arises from private companies charging different fares for the same journey and enable easy comparisons to be made. The overall level of fares should also come down if we want to encourage people to use the railways and the tube as opposed to their cars.

I have had debates on the public-private partnership and I do not think that it was the best value for money. The Audit Commission is to carry out a major review in the coming months and I suspect that it will confirm that PPP is not the best value for money. However, the contracts are signed. I remain concerned that there are delays in getting the improvements that even those contracts say should happen. Pressure must be put on infrastructure companies to ensure that those improvements come about.

The Government must consider issues such as air conditioning that are way down at the end of the queue. People may be stuck in trains, as happened when the electricity was cut off. It is appalling that they should be stuck in tube trains for any length of time, whether it is due to a power cut or some other reason without proper air conditioning. Air conditioning should be higher up the order of priority.

The Central line has been experiencing more problems after all that happened earlier this year. The compensation payments were a bit mean and are only now being increased to a reasonable level for regular commuters. In recent times, it has become evident that the tracks are in disrepair, which has caused some problems. I hope that under the PPP scheme the responsibility for that will fall to the private companies and that they will not call on their letters of comfort or tell the Government, "You foot the bill." That would defeat the object of what the Government said that PPPs were about. I will be following that aspect with interest.

The congestion charge has been a success, but increasingly traffic is creeping back into central London. Unpleasant though that may be for many drivers, the Mayor may have to consider increasing the congestion charge. It is important to ensure that traffic that has to enter London can flow. I would like the congestion charge scheme to be extended into urban areas where local authorities want it. It is a tool that they could use to tackle congestion in their main high streets and shopping streets. Legislation and more flexibility may be required to allow that to come about.

On signage, traffic signs showing directions and destinations in London are very poor. Attention has been drawn to that, but no one has overall responsibility for it. It should be put into the camp of Transport for London, which should be given the power to do something about it to improve signs across London.

We should give Transport for London and local authorities more flexibility where they want to introduce a local tram scheme, such as the Croydon light rail scheme. That came in over budget, but it has been an effective transport project. Similar projects would be effective in many other parts of the country. Coming in over budget is a problem that goes beyond transport. The Government need to get a grip and ensure that estimates are realistic. That is a bigger problem, but it should not put us off trying to introduce such tram link schemes, which could be effective on a small scale in suburban areas. I ask that consideration be given to bring that back on to the agenda of Transport for London.

10.23 am
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing the debate. I know that he has a keen interest in transport issues, and I enjoy sitting on the Transport Committee with him.

The contributions this morning have all concerned transport issues, and I do not think that anyone has made political points. I hope that the points that I am going to make will not be deemed political either. The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) referred to overcrowding on the trains. I had hoped to do a little reading on the train this morning for this afternoon's debate on electricity supply and London Underground. Unfortunately, the slam-door train that arrived consisted of four carriages rather than eight, so I was packed in there with other commuters. That was good for being able to talk to people about the train services, but not very good for travelling in comfort.

Other Members have made good contributions. The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) made a very good point about the confusion over rail fares. The Liberal Democrat party conference is in Brighton next week, and we have been informed that the cheapest fare is two single tickets. I fail to understand why two singles are cheaper than a return, and such confusion must be sorted out if more people are to use train services.

I welcome the Minister's presence today, but, given the issues with which we are dealing, where is the Mayor? He is, no doubt, in Brent, East at the moment, along with others. My colleagues are doing mystery shopper exercises on the Westminster to Willesden Green section of the Jubilee line. Presumably, that is where several other Back Benchers are as well.

The Mayor and the Government must have as their objective a transport system in London that is safe, reliable, affordable and of a quality that the world's greatest city deserves. The transport system must improve the quality of life in London. In every survey, Helsinki and Stockholm are always at the top for quality of life while London is at No. 60, 64 or 70. Quality of life must be addressed so that people think of London not only as an exciting city but as a city in which it is enjoyable to live.

The Mayor in particular will be judged on his ability to meet that objective. He will be assisted by his Government supporters, as they are now working together to meet it. The Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate, my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), will also seek to meet that objective if elected. He would have liked to be here for this debate but is, presumably, in Brent, East.

What are the obstacles to meeting the objective? Clearly, the key obstacle is the lack of funding. It is unlikely that the fares box will be a great source of additional revenue, given that London already has the highest transport fares in the world. As well, there seems to be a downward trend in the Government's contribution to London's transport—it has fallen from £1.3 billion in the 2002 spending review to £1 billion in 2005. Finally, as several Members mentioned, the congestion charge is raising less money than expected.

That is the background against which additional funds must be found for transport and necessary transport infrastructure improvements in London. There is probably only one significant source of such funding—the businesses that will benefit from new transport infrastructure projects. Such arrangements are widely accepted in other parts of the world and should be considered in this country. For instance, if property prices for office premises increase significantly because a new Crossrail line has been built outside the front door, it is entirely right that the owners should be asked to contribute.

The evidence from surveys by London First is that the largest businesses—although, admittedly, not the smallest—have responded positively to past suggestions that, for instance, business rates be increased temporarily if funds are earmarked specifically for transport improvements. If anyone believes that that is not the way to fund infrastructure improvements, which are needed in London, they must come up with an alternative. Everyone accepts that Crossrail is needed. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how much private funding has been secured. The Government have said that private businesses will contribute significantly to the project, which will not happen without such contributions. That is the principal problem.

The tube is also a problem. In the Select Committee last week, it was interesting to hear the Secretary of State for Transport say that Metronet will be responsible for funding if new rolling stock is required on the Central line. If the current rolling stock is unreliable and the technical flaws, which appear to exist, cannot be remedied, he expects Metronet to pick up the £700 million to £800 million bill. I would be interested to know whether Metronet considers that an option. Would the public-private partnership deal involving Metronet fold if it were required to stump up such sums of money? One can imagine the effect that such expenditure would have on Metronet's profit margins. There is a problem with PPP, which many Members, including the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead, have identified: what happens when a major consortium or one of the major players in a consortium goes belly up? Who comes in and saves the day?

There are also problems relating to buses. I can only assume that journalists, Ministers and some Members of Parliament tend not to travel on them very often because, if they did, they would, like me, want to see the resolution of the problems with the Countdown information system. If we want people to travel on buses, they must know when the buses will arrive. A replacement for the Countdown system was supposed to have been identified, but I do not know whether that has happened. Currently, no one can rely on the information provided at bus stops. No one can rely on being told when the next bus will arrive, so there is complete confusion about whether it is worth trying to make alternative transport arrangements or whether it is better to wait for the next bus.

The congestion charge has a role to play. If it is going to be extended, it may be necessary to examine alternative ways to deliver it, which may involve a global positioning system. I hope that the Minister can confirm whether the satellite tracking system, which is being examined for lorries, will be specifically designed for use in cars. That point is extremely important.

It is not clear how far the retail industry has been hit by the congestion charge—it depends on which survey one reads. The London Chamber of Commerce and Industry asked businesses whether their productivity had increased because journeys were faster. Some 21 per cent. said yes and 74 per cent. said no. If that means that 74 per cent. of journeys take exactly the same time as before and that 21 per cent. are faster, I suggest that the congestion charge has been a success.

When businesses were asked whether they were considering moving to a site outside the congestion charging zone, 25 per cent. said yes, although they did not give a reason why. They were not necessarily saying that they were considering moving because of the congestion charge. An independent survey of 500 business found that only 2 per cent. said that they would consider relocating their premises outside the zone. The only conclusion that one can draw is that the congestion charge's impact on retail industry is unclear.

Mr. Randall

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether the figures concern businesses in general or exclusively retail businesses?

Tom Brake

The first figures are about retail businesses, and they come from the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The others are from an independent survey of businesses by an American research firm. The survey does not specify which lines the businesses are in.

Clearly, one solution is Crossrail, and we must hear from the Minister what progress is being made to identify the private funding that is key to its development. However, the Mayor's latest gimmick with the Oyster card is an unnecessary addition to the range of solutions. I do not know who has been given one of them, but they are being distributed free to, among others, London Assembly Members, the Association of London Government, chief executives, council leaders, London MPs, rail and other transport groups, bus companies, Government transport representatives and several reporters. They are exactly the people who probably already have free travel, or who are aware of the Oyster card. That freebie would have been better aimed at people who are less informed of the advantages of the card, rather than those who are already well informed. As the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) said, when the buses budget is out of control, the Mayor needs to consider the pennies and the pounds.

The Minister is responsible for ensuring that there is guaranteed, stable funding for transport in London. However, the spending review states that funding appears to be decreasing and we need an assurance that Crossrail is not going to drift year on year. If it does. the expansion that the Government want to see in east London—in the Thames gateway—will not happen.

I have not touched on airports, but will the Minister confirm whether the recent reports in The Sunday Times, suggesting that BAA has already been given the go-ahead for new runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, have any truth in them?

10.36 am
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing the debate and introducing such a broad range of subjects. He demonstrated his great sense of tolerance, which has more to do with his character than the feelings of the public and visitors in London, who possess a mood of great intolerance towards the dire state of the transport system in London.

I begin with a reminder of the verdict of the British people on the Government's transport and public transport record halfway through their second term. According to MORI, 53 per cent. of the public think that the Government have a poor record on transport and public transport, compared with 25 per cent. who think that their record is good. In answer to the question whether they think that transport and public transport will get better, get worse or stay the same over the next few years, 39 per cent. think it will get worse, compared with 23 per cent. who think it will get better. My hon. Friend has done us a great service by getting the Minister in the dock to answer the charges of people who are fed up to the back teeth with the poor quality of public services.

It is all very well to say, "Not me. guv, because it has all been passed off to Transport for London," but the Government initiated plans for transferring responsibility to Transport for London. They said that that meant that things would get better, but we now know that things are getting worse. To add insult to injury, we have not only a decline in the quality of service, but further, sharp fare increases for bus and rail passengers. That is a hallmark of the Government's approach to public services, which cost more and decline in quality. On Thursday, the people of Brent, East will express a strong indictment of the Government's public transport record and policies.

My hon. Friends the Members for Orpington (Mr. Horam) and for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) also added to the charges against the Government, and I hope that the Minister takes time to respond to the pertinent points that were made.

I shall start with the congestion charge. The Liberal Democrat spokesperson, who is in splendid isolation today, suggested that the charge is all right—indeed, it is his party's policy to extend congestion charging across the country—but he pooh-poohed an important survey conducted by the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry. That survey attracted a surprisingly high response, and although only an interim report has been produced, the concerns expressed should be taken seriously. If the retail sector inside the charge zone suffers a significant loss of custom as well as a possible loss of investment and threatens to move out of central London as a result of the congestion charge, people should take the threat seriously.

The rationale for the congestion charge was that it would be a double benefit—we were told that it would reduce congestion inside the zone and that the income generated would be used to improve public transport. We now know that the scheme is not generating anything like the income forecast. Originally, that figure was more than £200 million a year, but it was downgraded to £200 million. Based on the Mayor's latest figures, it will now be £65 million. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster said, a more realistic assessment is that we shall be lucky to achieve a surplus of £6 million in the first year. What a poor return on an enormous capital in vestment.

Our consistent charge against the Government is that they have wasted a heck of a lot of public money. If one looks at the detail of the congestion charge, one can see that it is another example of public money being wasted hand over fist. I do not know whether my hon. Friends or you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have had a chance to look at a document that has relatively recently come into the public domain—the rebaselined combined services agreement between Transport for London and Capita Business Services Ltd., which was published on 29 August and which includes a supplemental agreement dated 19 August. Those who are worried about where the money is going could do worse than look at the money being paid to Capita in respect of routine work in connection with the congestion charge.

You may be surprised to learn, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that an administrative assistant is charged at the rate of £250 per day. Those with a little more technical expertise are charged at the rate of between £800 and £1,000 a day. That is where the money is going—on the exorbitant charges being imposed by Capita under its agreement with Transport for London. No wonder the Mayor resisted publication of that document. He did not want people to see exactly where the money is going. If administrative assistants, who need only two A-levels to qualify, can be charged at £250 per day, that surely is overpricing, particularly as most of them are based not in a high-cost area such as central London, but in Coventry, which is where Capita's activities are centred.

That is where the money is going—it is being wasted in administration. That is why the Opposition say that it would be better to invest capital in London's transport, where it is really needed, and scrap the irrelevant and increasingly problematic congestion charge.

Tom Brake

If a Conservative mayor took such action, what would the hon. Gentleman do to address the resulting significant increase in congestion and how would he fund the shortfall in revenue?

Mr. Chope

The hon. Gentleman asks about funding the shortfall. It looks as though the revenue generated this year might be £6 million, which is not a proper return on the capital employed. So far as the other costs are concerned, he has just said that he believes that the shortfall in funding for Transport for London, estimated at £500 million for each of four successive years starting next year, can be made up only by increasing the business rate. That would place an additional burden on the business community, whereas we know from the reports that we already have that scrapping the congestion charge would relieve it of a significant burden.

While congestion in the centre of London has been suppressed by using market mechanisms, the evidence is that outside the inner London area congestion is as bad as, if not worse than, it was before. If the hon. Gentleman believes in adopting public policies that use the market mechanism to suppress demand, I can understand the logic of his position—if he applied that principle to the health service, the charges would increase enormously and demand would decline. We do not accept that. Almost everybody who uses our transport system does so out of necessity rather than because they want to go out on a frolic. People find it necessary to get between the place where they live and the place where they work and most of them have no alternative but to go by public transport. Those who have small businesses and need to deliver have no alternative but to take a van and park it close to where they work. We do not think that artificially increasing those people's costs is a way forward. We should improve the transport system overall.

My hon. Friends have covered many aspects of this policy, but I think that the most important is crime. That is highlighted by the appalling news that a seven-year-old child who was supposed to be in the care of social services has been brutally murdered in a case that was almost dismissed as one in a separate category that does not concern most people, as it is a so-called black-on-black crime. That is an appalling expression, which should be excluded from the language of politicians. Any victim of crime should be treated on a par with everybody else, and the colour of the perpetrators and the victims is irrelevant. The case illustrates the violence and the threats of violence that permeate much of London life and affect those who use public transport, whether they are on the buses or on the underground. Unless the Government and the mayor get to grips with that, we shall never have a public transport system in London of which we can be proud.

10.48 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on the characteristically generous way in which he opened the debate, on having secured it and on all his opening comments save the unnecessary dig over a very lucky goal that means that Uxbridge rather than Wealdstone will proceed in the early rounds of the FA cup. I declare a partial interest in that, when Wealdstone gets its glorious 3,000-seater stadium in my constituency, I shall become a non-executive director, having laboured in the vineyards for some 12 years, both as a councillor and an MP, to get the club into that position. In the words of football fans, "Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough," in terms of the new pitch.

Many of the points raised by Back Benchers of all parties were well put and well argued. Some were cogent, some I would disagree with. I shall try to comment on them in the short time available. If there is time at the end, I might indulge the boring and vacuous contributions of both Oppn Front Benchers, which were not terribly worth while. Although I am temporarily a Front Bencher, I always consider Westminster Hall and general Adjournment debates to be the purview of Back Benchers. If I am allowed a passing comment on parliamentary traditions as they grow and on being a Minister during the past year or so, the notion of Opposition Front Benchers winding up in a Back-Bench debate adds nothing whatever to such debates and I would rather that they desisted. However, that is not for me to say.

Turning to what the hon. Member for Uxbridge said, of course the Government still have a significant role concerning transport in London. Although some matters have been devolved, there is still a significant job to be done with scrutiny, oversight and ultimate decisions on the overall quantum of transport spend. I assure the Chamber that whether it is on Transport for London generally or what it is seeking to do in terms of traffic management, street work, the roads network, the tube and so on, we shall certainly continue to meet regularly for discussion and liaison. That is important because Transport for London is partnership focused. We are not saying, "It's all yours now, so get on with it—it's not my fault." Nor shall I indulge in saying, "That is a matter for them, so go and see them." If London Members are concerned about London's transport system, whether it is my responsibility or that of the Mayor or of TFL, I am more than happy to deal with them.

I appreciate what the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) said about the power supply debate, which will come later. It is a Department of Trade and Industry and Department for Transport debate, and it is better for the matter to be dealt with then.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) said that he will keep a watching brief on the Central line. I assure him that I shall do so as well, and with interest.

I wish the hon. Member for Uxbridge well in plans for next year's centenary of the tube going to Uxbridge. It does not hurt to go to the very end of the line and the far reaches of the Middlesex area of London every now and again, and if he wants me to come along in any capacity I am more than happy to do so. I might even have a cup of tea in Randall's or some other obscure little retail outlet in Uxbridge. Unhappily for me, I suspect that he has far more of the rolling hills and dales of Middlesex countryside a la Betjeman than I have in Harrow, East where the Metroland developers were perhaps otiose in covering much more of the green bits than in West Drayton, Harefield and other areas that he represents.

I agree that the underground must be improved. I also agree with the hon. Gentleman that when London's transport goes well, whether people are driving in or travelling by tube or train, it can be very pleasant, but I fully accept that there is much that we can and should do. Members have suggested that now that the PPP is in place, the message should be, "Get on with it." I could spend time apportioning blame for the delay, which is three years and not longer, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) and others have suggested. I could regale people with the history of mayoral interventions via his legal friends in and out of the courts and so on, but that is not worth dwelling on.

I suggest that we simply need to get on with not only the PPP but subsequent suggestions to develop the tube network, which, on the whole, is an extremely efficient way of transporting many millions of people around London every year. It is easy to dwell on the serious occasions when things go wrong, such as with the Central line. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead said, we never see headlines saying, "Another good day on the tube. Millions transported to and from work safely and securely." I appreciate that that is not news, but it is the reality more often than not.

I accept Members' exhortations on Crossrail. We have set out the framework and I shall try to give an update on that. The Government never suggested that the Olympic bid depended on Crossrail. The sponsors' business case states that it will be 2013 or 2014 before the rail link is finished, even if it has a fair wind between now and then. Those who link the fortunes of Crossrail and those of the Olympic bid do this city a grave disservice. The rail link will not be ready. It is unnecessary for those purposes, and the Olympic bid team are on record as saying that it is unnecessary, given possible improvements elsewhere. To talk down our bid before it has even started does not say much for London Members.

On the congestion charge, Mr. Kylie would say that there is a range of opinions. I agree. I partly accept some of the points made about retail, although, as someone said, the position is murky. We still do not know the complete picture. Mr. Kylie would say, "Give it a year and we will take full stock of what is going on." Figures have risen and fallen. My office was in Whitehall, which was a ghost town when the congestion charge was introduced. Admittedly, it was half term and there were road works, but it was a delight. One might have been at work in the middle of the day, but given the traffic it felt like Sunday at 5 o'clock in the morning. We must wait and see. The congestion charge was never meant to be a revenue-raising instrument, as is suggested by those Norrisites who would revise history. It is about relieving congestion. Revenue was very much a secondary issue.

I am sorry, but I do not have a great deal of time left to talk about other matters. I broadly accept what all Members said, especially about public sector workers and bus drivers in particular. We will work closely with British Transport police and/or other authorities to ensure that threats and violence against bus drivers are dealt with and that the full force of the law is brought to bear against the offenders. I worked in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister last year, so I know that much of its work relates to the broader issues of transport and affordable housing for public sector workers.

I can tell the hon. Member for Uxbridge, although I am sure he already knows, that there were major increases in the frequency of the bus service on the 222 route from August 2003. Sadly, I have no information to hand about the 207 service, but I wish the re-tendering process well.

Members talked about the importance of taxis, which I recognise. Much of the taxi industry's concern is twofold. First, the process—not the amount and the substance of the Knowledge—should be reduced. People very often fail one part of the test but pass another and have to wait for ever to reach the next level because all sorts of time slots are built into the process. That needs to be reconsidered. Secondly, I strongly accept the point about touting and the increase in the number of minicabs. The sooner that we can work with the Public Carriage Office to introduce the new licensing regime, the better. I do not yet have the date, but I know that I shall have the great pleasure of going out at midnight with the British Transport police and the Met on one of their purges.

I know that getting home at night is difficult, but if anyone outside ever listens to our proceedings I strongly advise people—male or female, but especially female— not to get into cars that pull up and say, "I am a cab. Where do you want to go?" Some 5 million more passengers now use night bus routes and services. People must use reputable taxi companies, or not use taxis at all. That is a matter of grave concern.

The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) talked about Connex. I shall write to him about some of the more detailed aspects, as I cannot do the matter justice now. I am bemused to see not one but two talking Opposition Whips. I spent a couple of years in the Whips Office. I talked, but not publicly, so this is a relatively novel concept for me. Again, I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster said, but I strongly disagree with the notion, which I am sure was merely a flippant, throwaway remark, that most accidents are the result of driver error or incompetence and that unionisation has something to do with the level of error.

The debate was wide-ranging, and I shall write to Members about any other matters that I have not addressed. I say simply to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), who seems so confident about Thursday's by-election in Brent, East, that he is deluded.

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