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Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North): Does my hon. Friend agree that most of that growth has occurred in areas with bus regulation? Does he also agree that there is a growing feeling throughout the country that regulation could provide a far more effective and cost-effective bus service?

Mr. Darling: I do not agree entirely with my hon. Friend. As I have mentioned before in this House, I used to chair the transport committee in Edinburgh when we had a regulated bus service. It was, and still is, a very good bus service, but in fact the route is more extensive and imaginative now than when the local authority ran the service, because regulations prevented it, for example, from running services out of the city. So I would be wary of saying that we should go back to the pre-1986 situation.

It is true that much of the increase in bus patronage has occurred in London, but there has also been a very substantial increase in places such as Brighton, York, Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow and Edinburgh. In each

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case, a determined local authority has put in bus lanes and park-and-ride to encourage the use of buses, and the bus operator has shown a bit of imagination and flair. I have always said that we probably do need to see what more we can do to improve matters, but I do not subscribe to the view that we should go back to the old days. In fact, that would do nothing more than remove one set of problems and recreate another. We need to be a little more imaginative than that.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Darling: Yes, for the final time.

Mr. Hopkins: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. In the light of what my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Watts) has just said, is the Secretary of State not making a case for better regulation, rather than for returning to the old system? Would it not be easier for local authorities to provide an even better service if they owned and operated the public transport system themselves?

Mr. Darling: Not necessarily, but I agree with my hon. Friend that certain aspects of regulation do help. For example, one of the most irritating things is when bus timetables change regularly and without notice. If we want to encourage people to use a service, there has to be some predictability. We have been working with the industry and with local authorities to see what can be done about that.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Darling: No. I want to conclude my remarks, as the Front Benchers have spoken for long enough.

Until the Conservatives can tell us how much they would spend, everything that they say today will ring hollow. What transport needs more than anything else is sustained and adequate expenditure, which we have promised over a 10-year period. We are doubling the amount of money spent on the railways, and we have announced major improvements to the road network. We are planning for the future. But until the Conservatives tell us how much they would spend, and for as long as their leader sticks by his promise to cut spending by 20 per cent.—that is what he said—frankly, their transport policy completely lacks credibility.

I commend the amendment to the House.

1.39 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I am grateful for the flattery from the Conservative party. The Liberal Democrats hold an Opposition day on tuition fees, and a few days later the Conservatives follow us by debating that subject; and, as the Secretary of State said, the Liberal Democrats hold an Opposition day on transport, and the Conservatives then do the same. The big difference is that, in the debate a few days ago, the Conservatives found our motion attractive enough to support it, but I have to tell the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) that I cannot

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reciprocate on this occasion, as we are unable to support the Conservative motion. Although it recognises the crisis in our transport system, it fails to acknowledge that many problems existed before 1997 and does not even begin to acknowledge the Conservative party's involvement in the creation of that crisis.

Sadly, the hon. Gentleman was unwilling to acknowledge that the Conservatives were one of the parties responsible for the under-investment, which the Secretary of State rightly says has existed over many years. As I pointed out in my intervention, investment in road maintenance over the last four years of the Conservative Government declined by 8 per cent., leaving road conditions in the worst state since records began. We have already heard other hon. Members refer to the Conservative party's guilt for the botched privatisation of our railways. That led to huge fragmentation and, because of the many organisations involved, many people spend every day working out who is responsible for each and every one of the far too many delays that occur.

The hon. Gentleman's speech seemed to imply continued support for all that was done during privatisation, but he must be aware that several of his hon. Friends are increasingly having doubts about the way in which it was conducted. For example, the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), quoted in The Times on 20 October 2000, said:


Yet the motion implies that the Conservatives would have preferred to continue with the lamentable and failed Railtrack. I remind the House that the Conservatives sold that body off for a sum £6 billion below its proper valuation, and that it caused huge conflicts between passenger safety and shareholder profit in a monopoly. The body did not have its own asset register.

Some Conservatives have been willing to acknowledge that the setting up of Railtrack was incorrect. For example, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, said:


The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale is keen to criticise Network Rail in that regard, but its predecessor, Railtrack, introduced them.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): We have acknowledged that the system was too fragmented. The hon. Gentleman and I were involved in consideration of the Bill that became the Transport Act 2000, during which the Government had the opportunity, if they so wished, to change the structure of the rail industry. Apart from the creation of the Strategic Rail Authority, they left the system exactly as they had inherited it. It ill behoves them to criticise us now for the structure of the industry.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is being a little unfair on the Government. I could point to other changes that have taken place, and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale has just acknowledged

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from the Front Bench the benefits of, for example, the introduction of the rail accident investigation branch. We have also seen the establishment of the Rail Safety and Standards Board and, through the work of the Strategic Rail Authority, a significant reduction in the number of franchises has been achieved. I would like them reduced even further, but it is unfair to suggest that no significant changes have occurred since the Government came to power.

There is no doubt that Railtrack needed to be changed. If the hon. Gentleman is so keen on Railtrack, perhaps he should listen to its former chief executive, Mr. Gerald Corbett, who, in October 2000, said:


The Conservatives should certainly take some of the blame for the position of the railways.

The Conservatives also had disastrous planning policies, which led to a significant increase in the number of out-of-town shopping centres. They believed in the supremacy of the motor car, built on the famous quote of Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s, that


The entire policy of predict and provide in road building, to which we hear the Conservatives are returning, led to the huge interest in the motor car to the exclusion of all forms of public transport.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) said that the Conservatives had no policy on buses, but that is hardly surprising in view of the most famous quote of all time about the buses, delivered by Margaret Thatcher when the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale was working in Conservative central office as her speech writer. This is what she said in 1986:


Was the hon. Gentleman responsible for writing that?

The Conservatives not only have no policy on the buses, but continue to be the sole supporters of the car above everything else. Again, it is not surprising to hear that they have selected as their mayoral candidate someone who is going to rip out congestion charging—a move that many have accepted, if belatedly on the part of the Government, as a great success—and who said:


If someone like that were responsible for transport in London, we should be deeply concerned.

I was perhaps a little unfair to suggest that the Tories did not have a policy on buses. In fact, they did have one—deregulation. It is worth reflecting that even before the Tory Government introduced deregulation, bus ridership fell by one third during their term of office, while fares increased in real terms by one third. Deregulation was then introduced, and—outside some notable examples of great success in London and some other major metropolitan areas—bus ridership has, sadly, continued to fall.

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I agree, however, with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale that all is not well under the current Administration, and I raised several concerns during the recent Liberal Democrat Opposition day debate on transport. The Government cannot always simply hark back to what the Conservatives did. It is worth reminding ourselves that the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers) said:


We rightly have to examine what the Government have done and what responsibility they are prepared to take for it. In that regard, the House may like to know about a slip—a very interesting slip—made by the Secretary of State in a speech on rail fares on 19 June. The copy of the speech that was circulated to all hon. Members included a short sentence that the Secretary of State did not deliver at the Dispatch Box. It said:


It is odd that that sentence was left out, because it could be argued that he sought to distance himself from responsibility for some of those problems. As we have heard, cancellations on the railways have risen by 50 per cent. since the Government came to power, delays have doubled and we now have some of the slowest trains and highest fares in the world. Despite five years of the secure station initiative, only 140 out of 2,500 main line railway stations have signed up. Under the Labour Government, we have also seen for the first time in several years a decline in the amount of freight on rail. Especially worrying is the decision by the Royal Mail to remove packages and post from the railways.

Concerns also arise on all other aspects of the public transport system. Some parts of the country have problems with buses and congestion, which—as the Confederation of British Industry report says—costs British businesses £15 billion to £20 billion a year. However, the Secretary of State has acknowledged that the 10-year transport plan targets for reducing congestion will not be met. Indeed, the Government's motion shows a degree of optimism that is not always entirely warranted. For example, it refers to


Only last Thursday, the Government published a survey on passenger satisfaction that showed that customer satisfaction with bus reliability in non-London metropolitan areas has fallen two points in a year, and the overall rating across England has not improved, as the motion suggests, but remained static.

I have been critical of the Conservatives' record on roads, but the Transport Committee said last week that rural roads were in their worst shape for 25 years and that there was no chance of meeting the targets for overall road improvements by 2010. It is therefore no wonder that a recent survey showed 81 per cent. of the British public saying that the Government were failing on transport. That is why the CBI report accuses Ministers of inefficiency, indecision and an inability to deliver improvements.

The House will welcome the indication we received of the direction of Conservative transport policies. At last, they are beginning to develop—or are they? We heard much about the 80 mph speed limit proposal, which

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achieved much publicity for the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, but I checked the Conservative manifesto for the last general election and found that it contained that policy; so we are not, after all, hearing much new from the Conservatives. The hon. Gentleman did not mention his plan to scrap the bus lane on the M4 today. I do not know whether that is still his policy, but interestingly the Royal Automobile Club has said that he is barmy because all the research evidence shows that the bus lane has eased traffic flows on the M4.

The hon. Gentleman is desperately keen to be the motorist's friend, and I agree that we should not be anti-car, but he goes too far. In his speech to the Tory party conference in Bournemouth last year, he said:


He fails to remember that only 40 per cent. of journeys are made by motorists—they are not the majority. He also fails to recognise that the cost of motoring has steadily declined while the comparative true cost of public transport has rocketed. From 1974, the cost of travel by rail has increased by a staggering 85 per cent. and bus fares have increased by 66 per cent.

The situation is improving. In the past three years, the cost of fuel has fallen by 16 per cent. Before, we were at the top of the league table for the cost of fuel, but now we are mid-table. Even the price of cars has continued to fall and some studies show that we are now one of the cheapest places to buy cars.


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