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South-East Regional Chamber

9. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): What the annual running cost is of the south-east regional chamber. [5575]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): The south-east England regional assembly has been established voluntarily by bodies representing the interests of the region. Its running costs are a matter for the assembly and its members. The Government have, however, allocated £500,000 to the assembly this year, and to each of the other regional chambers, to help them establish a stronger strategic and scrutiny role within their regions.

Mr. Swayne: What thought has the Minister given to the costs of replacing the south-east regional chamber with a directly elected regional government? Is it his intention that that regional government should have income tax-raising powers?

Dr. Whitehead: As the hon. Gentleman will know, and as has been previously reported to this Chamber, it is the Government's intention to produce a White Paper on regional government that will set out the grounds on which regional government in the United Kingdom will be strengthened and, in particular, become democratically accountable. The cost of democracy clearly enters that equation and will be a factor in the White Paper.

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The hon. Gentleman's view about the costs of regional government and chambers does not appear to be shared by the 40 Conservative councillors who already serve on the south-east England regional chamber, by the chair of the regional assembly, who is a Conservative councillor, or by the assembly's four executive committee members, who appear to be in favour of it as it currently works.


11. Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): What plans he has to increase the public accountability of Railtrack. [5578]

The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): The Government have proposed that a company limited by guarantee succeed Railtrack. That would have the interests of the millions of rail passengers as its top priority.

Mrs. Ellman: I congratulate the Secretary of State on bringing an end to the misery of the failed, privatised Railtrack, but will he explain in some more detail how the arrangements will ensure a railway system that meets the needs of the travelling public and the economy, including regional economies? Will he give a clear commitment that the modernisation of the west coast main line will proceed rapidly?

Mr. Byers: It is important that the No. 1 priority of any successor body to Railtrack is the need to invest in the railway network so that the operations, renewals and maintenance of the network are given the priority that they deserve. That has not been possible with Railtrack for reasons that I think the House understands. There was a clear conflict between its requirement as a public company to enhance shareholder value and investing in the network. As a company, it had to put the shareholders' interests first, which was at the heart of its difficulties as a network provider.

On the specifics of the west coast main line, the fact that Railtrack has gone into administration has not stopped the work and negotiations on its upgrade. The Government, the Strategic Rail Authority and the administrators are discussing the way forward for the upgrade, to which we remain committed. It is a vital part of the United Kingdom rail network, and we are confident that its full details will be agreed in the not too distant future.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): The Secretary of State will be aware of press reports that West LB is interested in Railtrack. Given that private sector interest, will he open the process up to others and undertake to meet anyone with an active interest in putting together a bid for Railtrack or financing options for the future? If there are a number of bids, what criteria will he use to choose between them?

Mr. Byers: I welcome the hon. Lady to her new responsibilities. I shall issue a written parliamentary reply at 3.30 pm, which will give full details on the matter. However, I am pleased to be able to respond in oral questions. We would certainly welcome other expressions of interest. One has been registered and there has been a

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meeting with the administrator, who will initially deal with them. It is right and proper that they are given detailed consideration, as the administrator and the Government will.

In order to make our position clear, it is appropriate to indicate how we will judge those expressions of interest. We intend to publish guidelines within the next few days so that people who might be interested will know exactly what we shall look for when we approve proposals that the administrator may suggest.

Mrs. May: I am grateful for that reply and note that the Secretary of State's next statement on Railtrack will be issued as a written answer today rather than being made formally as an oral statement in the Chamber.

Surely the real issue is that the Secretary of State pulled the plug on Railtrack because the Government would not fund the extra £700 million, yet under his new proposals the Government will guarantee an initial £1 billion. We knew that he had trouble with his maths when he was an Education Minister, but that is ridiculous. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) should not hold her breath with regard to the west coast main line because the real story is that the Secretary of State's actions mean that railway improvements will be delayed and the cost of funding investment will increase. The Government will have to provide exactly the guarantees—the blank cheques—for the new structure that they claimed they had avoided offering for Railtrack. There will be no improvements for passengers and there will be higher costs for taxpayers. Is it any wonder that the press call him "bungling Byers"?

Mr. Byers: I will address that in today's debate. The Government amendment to the Opposition motion allows us to discuss Railtrack. I shall address such matters in my contribution so that we can discuss them fully.

If the hon. Lady reads the bundle of documents that we put before the High Court, and which we have placed in the Library, she will see, and the judge agreed, that Railtrack would have had a deficit of £1.7 billion by next March. By implication, she is saying that Conservative policy would be to put that £1.7 billion into Railtrack. That confirms that there is, as we know, a big black hole at the heart of Tory financial thinking. The reality is that the company could not control costs or pay its debts; we had to take action to put the travelling public first.

The hon. Lady raises the difficulties being experienced by the travelling public. It is interesting to note the view expressed by George Muir, the spokesman for the train operating companies. When asked on "Channel 4 News" what the consequences of Railtrack being taken into administration were, he said that since the accountants have

that money is being made available, and that essential safety work is now being undertaken. That is happening as a result of administration. We have ensured that, through the demise of Railtrack, we will be able to build a far more effective and better railway system for the travelling public.

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Key Worker Homes

12. Mr. David Lammy (Tottenham): If he will make a statement on the provision of homes for key workers. [5579]

The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): Our starter home initiative and the Housing Corporation's programme will help 11,000 key workers to buy homes in high-cost areas in the next three years. We are also reviewing planning guidance on affordable housing, including the scope for providing more key worker housing within new developments.

Mr. Lammy: I am grateful for that assurance. Will the Minister confirm that social workers are to be included in the understanding of key workers? In Tottenham, we await the decision of the Victoria Climbie inquiry, but many people throughout the country appreciate that social workers are as key as nurses and teachers in our communities.

Mr. Byers: I fully understand the concern of people in Tottenham and Haringey about the Climbie inquiry and its outcome. Clearly, the issue of social workers is important. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that they come within the definition of key workers. In the first allocation that we have made available to London, about 189 social workers, firefighters and transport workers will be covered, but I accept that that is only the beginning and that a lot more will need to be done. I assure my hon. Friend that social workers are included in our definition because of the vital role that they play.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Will the Secretary of State explain why in the past four years of Labour government 50,000 fewer social dwellings have been constructed than were constructed in the previous four years of Conservative government?

Mr. Byers: I should be interested to see how the hon. Gentleman's figures make that allegation stand up. We are moving quickly to ensure that key workers have the houses that they need, in particular in London and the south-east, where there is a pressing problem because of the increasing value of properties. We are providing support for about 11,000 key workers and we will do

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more, not only by providing the additional finance but by using the planning system far more positively than it has perhaps been used.

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