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House of Commons

Monday 10 July 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


British Rail

1. Mr. Nicholas Bennett : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he next expects to meet the chairman of British Rail ; and what matters he proposes to discuss.

6. Mrs. Dunwoody : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he next intends to meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss the current state of rail services.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Paul Channon) : I am meeting the chairman of British Rail tomorrow to discuss a variety of railway matters.

Mr. Bennett : When my right hon. Friend sees the chairman of British Rail tomorrow, will he point out that under this Government investment is at its highest level since the modernisation of the railways in the early 1960s and that the House will expect that if the Government are to provide the railways with large sums of public money from the taxpayers' pockets the least that the railways can do is to operate? Will he also tell the Leader of the Opposition to come off the fence and support the Government by calling for an end to the strike?

Mr. Channon : My hon. Friend knows from the answer to his written question on 7 June that investment in British Rail is running at about £781 million this year and it is due to rise by a further 50 per cent. in real terms. Since I became Secretary of State for Transport just over two years ago, I have approved 12 major British Rail investment schemes with a total value of £602 million. The figures that the Leader of the Opposition gave last Thursday are wholly wrong, and totally inaccurate. His claim that investment was 25 per cent. higher under the Labour Government is completely false.

Mrs. Dunwoody : Will the Secretary of State explain to the chairman of British Rail that the strike is not political and that when the Chancellor of the Exchequer threatens investment in British Rail, which has come not from the Government but from the traveller, he is merely exercising his usual form of bigotry?

Mr. Channon : No, I do not agree at all. The threat to increased investment comes not from the Chancellor of the Exchequer but from the strikes. That is the point that the House should understand. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer points out the facts of life. If the railways do not work reliably, people will try not to use

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them and will not want to invest in them. I want to see more investment in British Rail, particularly to take advantage of the new opportunities that will be provided by the Channel tunnel in 1992. I ask Members in all parts of the House to join me in urging the parties to the strike to get together this afternoon so that the matter can be resolved.

Mr. Higgins : Will my right hon. Friend convey to the chairman of British Rail the fact that the travelling public as a whole, not merely those who travel on the railways, regard it as intolerable that strikes are taking place when there is a perfectly reasonable negotiating machinery for settling the matter without strike action? Will he therefore urge the chairman of British Rail to get on with the negotiations and in turn urge the unions to settle the dispute as it should be settled--through the normal agreed negotiating machinery?

Mr. Channon : I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. Furthermore, I understand that at lunchtime today British Rail asked the three unions to come to talks this afternoon at 3 o'clock. I am sure that I can count on the support of the whole House when I say that all of us would like those talks to take place.

Mr. Dunn : When my right hon. Friend sees the chairman of British Rail tomorrow, will he inform him that the proposals for the high-speed link to Dartford constituency are totally unacceptable to the people living there and that the only way to make the link acceptable is to place it underground?

Mr. Channon : I shall, of course, bring my hon. Friend's remarks to the chairman's attention. I think that he is already well aware of my hon. Friend's views and he will, I am sure, treat them seriously.

Mr. Simon Hughes : While the invitation by the chairman of British Rail to the unions for talks this afternoon is very welcome, will the Secretary of State make it clear to the chairman of British Rail that it takes two to negotiate? Does he accept that both his attitude and that of his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer have been extremely unhelpful, suggesting that only one side had brought about the dispute when the management of British Rail is widely regarded as having been extremely unsatisfactory for several years?

Mr. Channon : What is important now is that we should concentrate on prospects for a settlement. [Interruption.] I am glad to have the support of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). I should have thought that all hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East, would want British Rail's invitation to the three unions to meet this afternoon to be taken up and talks to begin.

Mr. Gregory : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the present rail strike is undemocratic as only four out of 10 voted to go on strike? Will he confirm that if the strike is not over soon, rail users--passengers and freight--will move away to road and air on a long-term basis? Is he aware that people in great major cities such as York are looking forward to the denationalisation of the industry?

Mr. Channon : I know my hon. Friend's views on that long-term issue. There has been no decision yet and studies are still in progress. It will go ahead only if privatisation is

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feasible and offers benefits to railway users. My hon. Friend raised another exceedingly important point, as businesses throughout the country will have to decide quite soon how they plan to invest in the light of the Channel tunnel. There is an enormous opportunity for British Rail to get a far greater share of rail freight than ever before, but that will not happen if the railways are seen to be unreliable. The strikes are doing grave long-term damage to the prospects of those employed in British Rail.

Mr. David Marshall : The Secretary of State seems to fail to appreciate the reasons for the dispute. Nothing that he has said so far goes any way towards resolving it. Will he tell the House when he intends to take positive measures to end the strike? What does he plan to do to bring it to an end?

Mr. Channon : It is not for the Government to negotiate these matters--it is for British Rail and the trade unions involved, and they have the opportunity to do so. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has not joined me in urging the unions to attend the talks this afternoon. I hope that I have the unanimous support of the House, although I am not sure that I do. I ask all hon. Members to urge that all parties involved in the dispute begin talks at once and continue until they reach a settlement.

Mr. Norris : Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the most worrying features of the current dispute is the way in which the rail unions purport to represent British Rail as having hundreds of millions of pounds in profits? Does he agree that any detailed reading of British Rail's accounts shows that the railway network made an operating profit of less than £20 million this year and that it would be wholly irresponsible of British Rail to enter into negotiations for an award that it could not possibly finance in future?

Mr. Channon : I fear that my hon. Friend is right. As the House knows, there is a subsidy to British Rail of hundreds of millions of pounds, which also throws a new light on those interesting figures.

Mr. Spearing : Does the Secretary of State agree that it is not simply a matter of pay? Will he tell the House how long the machinery for national negotiation of wages has been in existence? Will he say whether he has given British Rail instructions to terminate that, and will he give instructions for British Rail to withdraw the notice of termination? Does he agree that such a notice was part of the problem and that if he did not take action to prevent it, the Government are partly responsible?

Mr. Channon : I have not given British Rail any instructions on the matter. As the hon. Gentleman points out, there are two major points of dispute between British Rail and some but not all the unions involved. One is pay and the other is the bargaining machinery. Both can and should be negotiated. Any changes to the bargaining machinery that British Rail proposes do not come into effect until November. There seems to be ample time for negotiation before entering into senseless strikes which do so much damage to the travelling public and to the long-term future of the railways.

Mr. Gerald Bowden : Can my right hon. Friend recall in his earlier meetings with the chairman of British Rail

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whether he was ever shown a business plan for the Channel tunnel rail link? If he has not been shown such a plan, does that not give credence to the belief that British Rail embarked upon this massive project without producing a proper business plan?

Mr. Channon : A proper business plan will have to be produced for any high-speed rail link proposal that is brought before the House if it is to have a chance of getting through the procedures of the House of Commons. If and when British Rail produces such proposals as my hon. Friend has in mind, it will have to show proper financial justification as well as cover all the other points on which it will have to satisfy the House.

Mr. Prescott : The House will welcome the Secretary of State's conversion to the need for talks, rather than describing one party to them as "cowardly" as he did at the beginning of the dispute. Has the Secretary of State read the statement made by the Railway Staff National Tribunal? Does he accept its finding that the 7 per cent. pay offer imposed by British Rail, which is one of the causes of the dispute, was inadequate and represented a cut in real wages? Does he agree with the tribunal that the exeptional productivity of railway workers over the past few years has fully funded wage increases and justifies a wage increase today? Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that if the tribunal's findings provide the basis for a settlement acceptable to the Government he will not put financial obstacles in the board's way which prevent the dispute being brought to an end?

Mr. Channon : I noticed, rather surprisingly, that the hon. Gentleman did not urge the unions to attend talks this afternoon.

Mr. Snape : Answer the question.

Mr. Channon : I shall certainly answer the question. I also noticed that the hon. Gentleman did not condemn the strikes which are causing major disruption and interference to the railways and passengers. Of course I have read the decision of the Railway Staff National Tribunal, but it is for the parties concerned to negotiate, not for the Government. The parties could be at the negotiating table within a quarter of an hour and the dispute could be settled. I am amazed that the Opposition did not join us in that request.

M3-M27 Link

2. Mr. Atkinson : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to make a statement on the completion of the M3-M27 motorway link.

The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Peter Bottomley) : We hope to award the main contract for the Compton to Bassett section of the M3 extension shortly.

Progress on the Bar End to Compton section depends on our consideration of the inspectors' reports on the recent inquiries. We hope to make an announcement later.

Mr. Atkinson : My hon. Friend's statement will be greeted with relief and encouragement by the millions of motorists who have had to endure more than a decade of misery and delay along the present A33 link road, but they will not believe in the completion of the motorway link

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until they see it. Will my hon. Friend be more precise about when he foresees the road actually being open for use by motorists?

Mr. Bottomley : The answer to the first part of my hon. Friend's question about completion is 1991. It would be beyond the abilities of my crystal ball to give an answer to the second part.

Mr. Ward : Is my hon. Friend aware that we have had five public inquiries about this stretch of road and that between 1978 and 1987 there were 217 accidents on it involving personal injury? Could not my hon. Friend go down in history as the Minister who made up his mind? The Department has procrastinated for donkey's years. No new information will be forthcoming from an inquiry, so will my hon. Friend make us his mind? I was told that the section would be opened last year, but there is still no sign of activity.

Mr. Bottomley : The excuse--and the reason--for the delay outlined in the second part of my hon. Friend's question was legal matters ; if I answered the first part of my hon. Friend's question, further legal problems would probably result. The fastest way of helping is to say nothing.

Road Congestion

3. Mr. Andrew Smith : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a further statement on his proposals to relieve road congestion in the south-east.

Mr. Channon : The proposals in the White Paper, "Roads for Prosperity", together with the many major schemes already in our programme, will greatly help to relieve road congestion in the south-east.

Mr. Smith : Given the abject complacency of that response, will not the Secretary of State take note of the deepening anger among people in the south-east at how chronically worsening congestion is poisoning the environment, damaging business and driving the public slowly--in many cases, stationarily--round the bend? Does he accept that the way to tackle the congestion is through measures to halt the relentless increase in car use, and that that will be achieved only through a proper plan for transport throughout the south-east which stresses the investment needs of railways, buses, cycling and proper traffic management and achieves the right balance between car use and public transport?

Mr. Channon : I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be the last hon. Member to ask such a supplementary question, as I understand that he represents Cowley. I should have thought that people would prefer to be in work rather than out of it, including the hon. Gentleman's constituents. His suggestions would probably have deleterious effect on his constituency. I am trying to provide a decent road infrastructure in the south-east, and we are doing a great deal in Oxfordshire.

Mr. Soames : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the extensive package of new road building that he recently announced will be of great benefit to the south-east? Will he acknowledge, however, that it is on minor roads in constituencies such as mine that great difficulties are experienced? Will he do what he can to work more closely

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with West Sussex county council--his hon. Friend the Minister has been doing so--and view favourably any further requests for transport supplementary grant?

Mr. Channon : I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of local roads and I will certainly look with sympathy at anything that West Sussex suggests. I know from meetings with my hon. Friend and other Sussex Members that they attach great importance to this issue and I shall certainly examine it.


4. Mr. Lord : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he will make a final decision on the dualling of the A140 between Scole and the A45 ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Peter Bottomley : We shall be considering the case for some limited further additions to the roads programme when we publish a full roads report later in the year.

Mr. Lord : My hon. Friend will be aware of the great increase in the volume of traffic on this road and of its appalling accident record. He will also be aware that we have had an Adjournment debate on this. He kindly visited the road early this year to see the problems that we have. He will also know that a little while ago there was a huge public outcry when it was announced that the road north of Scole would be dualled but that the road south in Suffolk would not. I appreciate that today is not the day for my hon. Friend to make an announcement but may we hope that when announcements are made later in the year, dualling of the A140 in Suffolk will be included in the programme?

Mr. Bottomley : Without making any commitment, I can say that I have stood by the side of that road with my hon. Friend and it is dangerous. I remember that there was a crash when drivers were distracted by a television crew. The problem is that it is an old Roman road and as it is straight further improvement will not produce the usual gains. We have said that we shall review it further and perhaps make an announcement later this year.

Automatic Ticket Barriers

5. Mr. Simon Hughes : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on arrangements for automatic ticket barriers in the event of an emergency.

The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Michael Portillo) : The barriers are supervised constantly by station staff, who have been instructed to open them immediately if any emergency or severe congestion occurs. The ticket gates will open automatically if power supply or air pressure failures occur. Other safety features have been incorporated or are being developed.

Mr. Hughes : Does the Minister realise that there are substantial demonstrations by pensioners today against automatic ticket barriers, which they regard as mechanical rottweilers? Is he aware that many pensioners cannot use the gates and need to be helped to the other side of the barriers? Given that there is far less fraud on the London Underground than in any other capital city in Europe, might it not be better to do away with the gates and restore the original system, which is far safer and commands greater public confidence?

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Mr. Portillo : The hon. Gentleman should suspend his judgment about the safety of the gates until we have the benefit of the report that London Regional Transport has commissioned at my request. [ Hon. Members : -- "Where is it?"] I am sorry that it is not available today, but I hope that it will be available in about a week's time. The hon. Gentleman can then judge what the consultants said on that important point.

For some pensioners it is a matter of getting used to the new gates. For the disabled, for people carrying shopping and those accompanied by children, there are manually operated gates, and staff will be on hand to let out people who find it difficult to use the automatic gates.

Mr. Carrington : In reviewing the automatic gates, will my hon. Friend bear in mind that one of the big problems, and one of the major anxieties of my constituents, is the inability of London Transport to keep change machines properly supplied with change, which leads to enormous queues at ticket offices?

Mr. Portillo : I shall make a special point of ensuring that my hon. Friend's observation is conveyed to London Regional Transport. I am sure that LRT will want to put that matter right.

Ms. Ruddock : Further to the Minister's reply about safety, does he acknowledge the deep anxiety of fire fighters about the automatic ticket gates? Is he aware of the incident at St. James's Park Underground station in which fire fighters attempted to evacuate the station because of a fire but the automatic ticket gates failed to open when they pushed the alarm button and no station staff were available? Can the Minister assure us that he receives reports of such incidents, and what action is he taking?

Mr. Portillo : I must question the premise on which the hon. Lady began her question. She talked about the concern of fire fighters, but the advice of the London fire brigade has been taken several times since the gates were proposed. The hon. Lady will know from the Fennell report that the London fire brigade and the railway inspectorate were satisfied with the installation of the gates. Since then, the London fire brigade has looked at the gates again and made a series of recommendations, which are being implemented. Over and above those two levels of approval--from the railway inspectorate and the London fire brigade--there is the report from the consultants, which will be available to the hon. Lady and the House shortly.


7. Mr. Butler : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects work to begin on providing fourth traffic lanes on the M6.

Mr. Peter Bottomley : In about three years across Thelwall viaduct and east of Preston. It is too soon to say when construction might start on sections of the 80 miles of M6 widening announced in "Roads for Prosperity".

Mr. Butler : Does my hon. Friend agree that there are sections of the M6 which even in 1986 exceeded the design flow capacity that would be associated with a four-lane motorway? Should we not go ahead as soon as possible with providing four lanes for the M6?

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Mr. Bottomley : Yes, Sir.

Mr. Hind : My hon. Friend will be aware of the heavy traffic on the M1 and M6 on Friday afternoons and Sundays as people go away for the weekend and return home? Will he ensure that when work begins to provide four lanes on the M6 consideration will be given to those periods when traffic is extremely heavy so as to minimise the chaos which occurs on our motorway network?

Mr. Bottomley : Yes, Sir. It is not just chaos, but congestion. Often the solution to congestion is spreading the load, finding other modes or getting more investment. We aim to make progress with all three.

Trunk Roads

8. Mr. Burns : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport how many miles of new or improved roads will be added to the trunk road network when his expanded road programme is completed.

Mr. Channon : Some 2,700 miles of new or improved roads will be added to the trunk road network when the expanded road programme is completed.

Mr. Burns : Is my hon. Friend aware that that answer will be warmly welcomed by many people throughout the country, especially in Chelmsford? Given the announcement of the new motorway from the M25 and the widening of the A12, can he reassure people that the maximum effort will be made to keep noise nuisance levels to a minimum? Will he also ensure that compensation for land taken in building works will be paid swiftly and remedial work undertaken as quickly as possible?

Mr. Channon : I think that I can give my hon. Friend both those assurances. I am grateful to him for what he says. Perhaps he will keep in touch with my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic or with me about any detailed points that may arise.

Mr. Roy Hughes : Will the Secretary of State pause to consider that his programme for a new era of toll roads will take Britain backwards to the 18th century rather than forwards to the 21st century?

Mr. Channon : I think that that point will arise specifically on a later question. If we have a few extra toll roads in addition to what is in the public sector, I think that many people will very much welcome that.

Mr. Neale : Will my right hon. Friend accept that there is no doubt among Conservative Members that he has engineered one of the largest ever increases in funding for the road sector programme? Does he accept that we have no doubt that he has created the best possible opportunity for further private investment? Does he accept that the greater the clarity that he and his Department can give as to the prospective schemes, and the greater the certainty as to time in terms of planning and construction, the more likely he is to get more private investment to come forward?

Mr. Channon : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There has been a considerable increase in the roads programme, and that is very much needed. As for clarity in the private sector, I accept what my hon. Friend says. Of course, we are still consulting on the Green Paper that we issued at the end of May--

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Mr. Dobson : The hon. Gentleman said "carroty."

Mr. Channon : Perhaps, in that case, I did not hear my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) clearly enough.

Mr. Snape : He said carrots, not claret.

Mr. Channon : Mr. Jenkins is no longer with us, but I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. We are still consulting on the Green Paper. I will bear my hon. Friend's points in mind.

Mr. Cox : As the question refers to new and improved roads, the Secretary of State will be aware of the "options", as one of his Ministers calls them, that are under discussion for London. When does the right hon. Gentleman expect those proposals to be presented to the people of London?

Mr. Channon : My hon. Friend and I are right to call them options. I hope to be able to make an announcement before too long to reduce the number of options available. I am aware of the concern of the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members of all parties that we should proceed as quickly as we can so that people know exactly what lies in the future.

Railway Unions

9. Mr. Adley : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he last met the railway unions ; and if he has any plans to meet them again soon to discuss Government investment in the railways.

Mr. Portillo : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met leaders of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, the National Union of Railwaymen and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen on 12 July 1988 to discuss a report on the quality of service on British Rail. No meeting is arranged at present.

Mr. Adley : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Can he confirm that for five years, British Rail has had no recourse to the national loans fund? That being so, what precisely did our right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer mean when he threatened to cut the level of investment? Will my hon. Friend assure the House that he and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are using their best endeavours with the unions and management to try to settle the current industrial dispute? Can he tell the House what those best endeavours are and, as according to his answer it is now a year since he met the unions, will he, when he meets them, tell them that the railway industry would be far better served by having one union rather than three and that that might be part of any package discussed when the strike is settled?

Mr. Portillo : I hasten to point out to my hon. Friend that the reason such meetings have not occurred is not that we have been refusing to meet people who wish to meet us. On the point about my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exhequer, I think that my hon. Friend would have made the same point if he had been there. When one listened to the unions urging that there should be more investment in the railways on the very day when the railways were shut down and when they were providing such a poor advertisement for themselves in attracting new customers, it was only reasonable that my right hon.

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Friend should point out the extraordinary irony of that position. My hon. Friend will appreciate that whatever the position vis-a-vis the national loans fund, this nationalised industry has been heavily indebted in the past and many of its debts have had to be written off by the Government. The industry is still heavily dependent on public sector obligation grant.

Mr. Dalyell : Does the Minister think that Rab Butler--the former chief of the Secretary of State--when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, would have had the unwisdom to make those public comments? The rail unions have given the Department a table of investment comparing the amount of state money available in Germany, Belgium and France. How do Ministers explain the fact that the level of state money being given to the railways here is so much less than that in every other European country?

Mr. Portillo : The hon. Gentleman glides swiftly from talking about state money to investment, as though the two were one and the same, which they are not. As the amount of subsidy in this country has fallen--that is, the money needed to make up for the losses that the railways make each year --so the amount of investment has risen by and large. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to talk about comparisons, he must compare the fact that investment in the railways today is higher than in any year of the last Labour Government and at levels rarely seen since the 1960s. Those are the relevant comparisons and that is the background against which the strikes are occurring.

Mr. Yeo : Does my hon. Friend share my concern at the total failure of Opposition Members to condemn the strike, the only certain consequence of which is great damage to the travelling public and, in the long run, to British Rail's own employees?

Mr. Portillo : I do, indeed, find it sad and extraordinary. Opposition Members have been given the opportunity today either to condemn the strike or simply to urge that the unions should come to the talks, yet they have refused to take those opportunities. The Opposition spokesman now talks about whether the Government accept the findings of the tribunal, yet I do not remember him urging the unions to go to the tribunal in the first place.

Mr. Alfred Morris : In regard to investment in the railways, will there be an announcement today, in the first place to this House, about the projected rail link to Manchester airport which, as the Minister will know, is of major importance to the north-west of England as a whole?

Mr. Portillo : Yes, it is intended that there should be an announcement on that subject. If question No. 12 is reached, there will be some news.

Mr. Madel : Can my hon. Friend confirm that if the railway unions wish to negotiate a new system of arbitration in the railway industry, he would expect British Rail management to respond positively, but that once a new system of arbitration came in he would also expect both unions and management to abide by its recommendations?

Mr. Portillo : There is an existing system of negotiating machinery and arbitration. One of the unions has been willing to go to arbitration-- so far, the other two have not.

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The question now is whether those other two unions will discuss the decision made by the arbitrator in the case of the TSSA. The railway management is clearly working with the negotiating machinery that is in place today. If decisions are taken to change that negotiating machinery, that will be a question for further consideration. However, that does not seem relevant to the point that arbitration machinery is in place today and that one union has used it. The railway management is now offering to talk to all the unions on the basis of that decision.

Mr. Prescott : We are pleased to hear that the Minister now believes that the Chancellor's statement was ironic, if not untruthful. That is a further example of the Government being economic with the truth, as they are with the investment figures, which fly in contradiction with the evidence that they gave to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Will the Minister give examples of the unions refusing to meet the Secretary of State? Will he also make it absolutely clear that I have spent much time and effort going around all the parties involved, asking them to come to the table and to negotiate and discuss these issues? Even today, does he not accept that the tribunal cannot deal with the bargaining issue which is equally important and determined by ballots, under the rules?

Mr. Portillo : Of course, the tribunal cannot deal with that, but we are beyond that stage. The management is saying that it is willing to talk about the arbitrator's decision on pay. Indeed, the management has always been willing to talk about the bargaining machinery. I do not understand how the point arises. We are now beyond the stage of the tribunal in the case of the TSSA. Referring to the hon. Gentleman's offer to mediate, the three qualities that I would look for in a mediator are fairmindedness, charm and tact--so I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is not on my short list.

Trunk Roads (Financing)

11. Mr. Carrington : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport how many trunk roads have been financed wholly or largely by the private sector since 1986 ; and how many cost-sharing agreements for trunk road schemes are under consideration.

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