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Mr. Streeter: I am impressed by the Secretary of State's detailed knowledge of rail services in Wales, Scotland and all round the country, which is very much to his credit. However, will he turn his attention to the people living west of Exeter in the far south-west? Does he understand the dismay that there is literally nothing in the 10-year plan to encourage anyone living in Devon, Plymouth or Cornwall that unacceptable journey times will be speeded up during the next 10 years? Will he give hope to regular rail users and business people in the far south-west that during the course of the 10-year plan something will be done to speed up the time that it takes to travel west from Exeter so that we can have a three-hour journey from London to Plymouth and down into Cornwall? The situation is serious.

Mr. Byers: In an effort to join the hon. Gentleman on the front page of his local newspaper, I had the

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opportunity to speak with the editor of the Plymouth Evening Herald at a reception at No. 10 Downing street last week. He pointed out the importance of the rail link between Plymouth and Paddington, so I am acutely aware of the problem. Improved frequencies are mentioned in the strategic plan, but I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that journey times are important; I am sure that the SRA will want to consider that.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Byers: I want to make progress, but Cornwall is in the right direction.

Mr. Tyler: To enable the Evening Herald to represent the views of the three parties, I point out that the Secretary of State has just touched on one of the major issues that we face in the south-west. He referred to the journey time to Plymouth, but there is a world beyond Plymouth; people do not realise just how far Penzance is beyond Plymouth. It is extremely important to recognise that we have a national railway system, to which he referred in the context of Scotland. If he does not represent the public interests of the more peripheral parts of the United Kingdom, nobody else will. The private investor never will.

Mr. Byers: When I was appointed Secretary of State, there was criticism of the fact that a non-driver had been appointed. However, when we have a debate such as this, it is useful to have a non-driver at the Dispatch Box. I have taken the train on most of those routes and I am aware that there are many miles the other side of Plymouth. There is a great need to make sure that Cornwall and many other counties in the south-west are effectively served by rail. The point is well made. I re-emphasise the fact that we are talking about a railway network. Of course, 70 per cent. of passenger journeys are in London and the south-east and there needs to be a concentration of resources to solve problems there, but not at the expense of other parts of the United Kingdom. The important thing is that the additional money that we have secured means that there will be funds to make improvements in those areas and ensure that we can discharge our responsibilities in London and the south-east where the bulk of passenger journeys takes place.

I was explaining that there were two principal reasons why the railway system was failing; the first was underinvestment and the second related to the failure of Railtrack. The House has debated that on many occasions, so I shall not go into great detail now. I just want to say something about the money that we are committing, as that was raised by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). In the next 10 years, £33.5 billion of public money will go into the railways. I gave evidence to the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions and know that there is concern. I was told that it was good to have that money going in, but I was asked whether I could ensure that there was not large-scale underspending in the Department, which would prevent money from being spent on transport and railways.

As the Select Committee heard this morning, at the end of March 2001 there was an underspend on capital of £350 million for that financial year—an underspend

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which is unacceptably high. As Secretary of State, I have tried to make sure that our capital programme is forecast correctly and spent on schedule. We are taking significant steps to achieve that. It was to make sure that we do not have a large underspend at the end of the present financial year, that on 28 November I wrote to all budget holders of capital spending in the Department and in our agencies. I shall quote from the letter, as it shows how seriously I as Secretary of State take the issue of making sure that we spend the money that has been allocated.

The letter stated:

That is necessary to make sure that money that is allocated is spent when it is needed. The measures that we have introduced in the Department will make sure that we overcome a large degree of underspending, while still achieving value for money.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): One of the areas where the underspend was greatest was on the channel tunnel. Can the Secretary of State give me an assurance that the problems that freight trains have had getting through the tunnel because of asylum seekers will be ended, and that the underspend will not occur again?

Mr. Byers: The underspend on the channel tunnel did not arise for that reason, but because there was no slippage. Delivery came in below the amount of money that had been allocated. That was good management. The project is going extremely well. It is on budget and on time.

The entire House agrees that we cannot allow people to enter our country illegally through the channel tunnel. We take a robust position on that. We have a good relationship and we have reached a satisfactory conclusion with the French in respect of Eurostar. We have effectively closed that route. We are putting great pressure on the French to adopt robust physical measures, such as fencing and proper lighting, and to ensure a police presence to deal with the problems of freight. Those issues must be addressed in a way that does not disadvantage the British freight business. We are urging the French to move. The Government are aware of the seriousness of the problem, and we will do all that we can to overcome it.

The hon. Member for Bath mentioned the spend under the previous Labour Government from 1997 onwards. We must acknowledge that in the first two years of that period, public spending was restricted to the programme laid down by the Conservative Government. It was not an easy decision to take. I was Chief Secretary to the Treasury for part of that time, so I bear some of the responsibility. I shall explain to the House why we adopted that approach.

When we came into office in 1997, the national debt stood at £350 billion. That was 44 per cent. of our gross domestic product and was costing £25 billion a year in

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debt repayments. National debt was not falling, but going up. In 2001–02, because of the measures that we introduced and the tough spending round for those first two years, debt will fall to about 31 per cent. of GDP, costing £18 billion a year to service, so already we have £7 billion a year extra for essential services—money which is not being spent on servicing the debt because the national debt has been reduced.

That was not an easy decision to take in those first two years, but the tough regime that we introduced ensured that, at a time when we were getting the economy right and it was growing, we could use the money to start to repay the national debt. As I said, the regime ensured that £7 billion a year extra is now available for investment in transport, health, education and so on. In addition, we reduced not only the national debt, but unemployment. The number of people in work has increased by 1 million since April 1997. As a result, we are now spending £4 billion a year less on unemployment.

So, those tough decisions that were taken early on have provided us with about £11 billion a year extra that we can spend on essential services, and we obviously have the benefits of the growing economy as well. Those are the reasons why we took those decisions. The Liberal Democrats can criticise us for that and complain about the spending levels that resulted, but because of the steps that we have taken we can deliver through the 10-year plan long-term, sustained investment in the railway network. The railways, perhaps more than any other area, need not merely the odd one or two years of investment, but a long period, and 10 years will make a marked difference to the railway infrastructure.

Mr. Don Foster: I note with interest that the Secretary of State has not denied the proposition that I put to him on spending. I said that the Labour Government had spent less in real terms on the railways in their first five years in office than had been spent in the previous five years, during which a Conservative Government were in power. The right hon. Gentleman is now seeking to give the House the impression that there is to be a huge bonanza in additional Government money for the railways. Will he confirm whether my figures are correct, not least in view of the merriment about the additional £250 million a year proposed by the Liberal Democrats? Will he confirm the Library figures? On a 1999–2000 price base, they show that, in the last eight years under the Conservative Government, the total annual Government spend on the railways was £2.4 billion a year, while the figures in the 10-year plan suggest that that will rise to a staggering £2.5 billion—an increase of only £100 million a year.

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