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4.49 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): I refer the House to the declaration that I made on Monday 14 January, which can be found in Hansard at column 33.

There can be no doubt that the state of the transport system in this country, and of the railways in particular, is a matter of prime concern to everyone. Central to that is the performance of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. He has repeated this afternoon what he said to The Guardian on Monday 14 January:

So said the Secretary of State. Of course, his responsibility is at the heart of today's debate, because the motion is about whether we think that he is doing a good job on the railways.

It will surprise no Member of the House to hear that I think the Secretary of State is doing a pretty bad job. [Hon. Members: "Oh!] I realise that that is a revelation to every Labour Back Bencher, but nobody who has read the press or listened to commuters in recent weeks can be in any doubt that that view is widely held outside the House. Indeed, if the silence on the Labour Benches on Monday when the Secretary of State made his statement on the Strategic Rail Authority's 10-year plan is anything to go by, he can take little comfort in thinking that his colleagues have a better opinion of his performance.

It so happens that Newcastle's The Journal recently asked the Secretary of State about his performance:

He replied:

He is delivering in practice a 45 per cent. increase in train delays and what the Minister for Europe tells us is the worst railway in Europe.

We know that the Secretary of State has been undermined by the Prime Minister's appointment of Lord Birt to consider transport policy, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) for his reference to the fact that the Secretary of State thinks the Prime Minister has appointed Lord Birt in order to keep him occupied. The Secretary of State has been undermined elsewhere. He told readers of The Guardian that he might perform a U-turn on the London Underground public- private partnership, but the Prime Minister told us that the tube PPP is definitely going ahead.

The Secretary of State cannot now rely on the other blue-eyed boy of new Labour, the Secretary of State for Health. On Monday, the Secretary of State told us in his interview with The Guardian:

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However, the Prime Minister reminded us this afternoon that the Government's health service strategy is all about private sector partnerships for the future of the NHS.

In fact, the Secretary of State cannot even rely on himself. I wonder whether he remembers telling The Guardian:

On Monday, he told us that he is backtracking from the third way because it is becoming "flaky". All that would be an amusing farce were it not for the fact that underlying it is something that matters to the quality of life of everybody in this country—the state of the railways. Passengers' quality of life is not the only issue, because the impact on the economy of having a decent railway system, or one that is not working properly, is also involved. The problem is not just the state of the railways today, but their state in the future.

Geraint Davies: Dragging us back to the point, how much more would the hon. Lady like to be invested above and beyond the 10-year plan? Would she re-privatise the railways?

Mrs. May: I find the hon. Gentleman's second question a little surprising, because the train operating companies are still in the private sector. I apologise, because I cannot remember whether he was one of those who applauded the Secretary of State when he put Railtrack into administration.

Geraint Davies: I was.

Mrs. May: Excellent, but the hon. Gentleman may think twice about the Secretary of State's actions when he discovers that the company to replace Railtrack will be a private sector company. Far from changing the structure of the railways, which the Labour party has always said has so many problems, the Secretary of State is keeping the structure between Railtrack, the replacement Railtrack and the train operating companies exactly as it was under privatisation. The hon. Gentleman needs to find out more about his party's policy before intervening.

Mr. Redwood: My hon. Friend might refer to the Secretary of State's very own SRA plan, which says that

and not through capital support from public funds. He is hiding behind a private sector strategy in the document.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. Now that this has been pointed out to Labour Members, I hope that they will start to understand a little more about what the Secretary of State's promises actually mean.

I would like to refer to investment, and I shall do so briefly. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bath for placing on the record the Library figures that compared the investment record of the last five years of the last Conservative Government with that of the first five years of this Government. The facts are clear. Investment in the railways during the last five years of the Conservative Government was higher than in the first five years of this Labour Government. The figures quoted by the Secretary of State on Monday are repeated in the Government

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amendment today, namely the investment in rail of £4.3 billion for the 10-year plan, compared to £1.4 billion for the five years up to 1996–97.

I have discovered how the Department came across these figures. I understand that it took the £49 billion of total public and private investment from 2000 to 2010, divided it by 10 and adjusted it for cash-expected prices. The Department then looked at the SRA national rail trend statistics on the SRA website—there are two different sources for the statistics—referring to Government support only, and averaged only public sector investment over the last five years of the last Conservative Government. The Secretary of State says that actually what people care about is the total amount of investment and not where it comes from, but they also care about the Government giving the facts correctly and not trying to spin fantasy figures to tell a political story that is not true. I hope that the Secretary of State will in future quote the right figures when he talks about investment.

Mr. Don Foster: Is the hon. Lady aware that if one takes the much-vaunted £180 billion of investment for the 10-year transport plan overall and, instead of adding accumulatively the various amounts, studies it on a constant price basis, it comes to only £157 billion? By the time one takes out all of the money that is regularly spent each year, the hon. Lady will agree that it amounts—to use a phrase coined by a Labour Member—to not much more than a string of beans.

Mrs. May: That point about the Government's fantasy figures was taken up in the leader column of the Financial Times yesterday, which concluded:

We know that the Government double and triple count, and they have done that in terms of the railways and transport investment, but people know the reality because they know what they experience every day when their trains are not running on time or are cancelled.

Investment is a key issue in looking ahead to improving the railways for the future. There is a black hole at the heart of the Secretary of State's plans. He prays in aid the Financial Times in terms of looking at private sector investment for the future and says that the private sector will come forward with all of the investment, but yesterday the Financial Times posed a very important question to the Government:

Even if money comes forward, it will do so at an increased cost; the price to the taxpayer or to the passenger, through fares, will be higher. We have had estimates that it could be as much as an extra £1.5 billion over two years. Again, I am grateful to the Financial Times, which said:

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If the Secretary of State gets his money, it will be at a higher price to the taxpayer or the fare payer.

When the Minister for Transport sums up, perhaps he will tell the House what the Government estimate will be the extra cost of obtaining that £34 billion from the private sector, as a direct result of the Government's actions with regard to Railtrack, which have so damaged private sector confidence. [Interruption.] The Minister for Transport is laughing at that question so perhaps he would like to answer another one. How much of the private sector investment that is forecast in the 10-year plan from the SRA will he guarantee will have been put in to the railways by the time of the next general election?

The Government have created a problem for themselves through the way in which they handled Railtrack and put it into administration. That problem is accepted by the SRA which says in its plan that one of the milestones that needs to be passed on the way to delivering the strategic plan is the resolution of the Railtrack administration and the implementation of any financial and structural reforms that are needed as a result. [Interruption.] The Minister for Transport yawns when I mention the 10-year plan, but I thought it was the plan to end all plans and would give us all the answers on the railways. He is the same Minister for Transport who informed us that while the Secretary of State was on holiday in India he had not been in touch with the Department: it was not necessary, the Minister for Transport told us, because he was in charge so everything would be all right. He now seems to be bored by the issue.

Perhaps the Minister would explain to us when he thinks Railtrack will come out of administration and the costs will be closed down. The administrators have told me—it has been confirmed in written answers—that the cost up to March will be £2.9 billion. That is what they have asked the Government for. If Railtrack stays in administration for as long as is now predicted by commentators—until the middle of next year—an extra £7.5 billion will be needed to pay the costs of administration. The problem with that is the impact that it is having on the railways that the travelling public use. Delays have increased and people are suffering cancellations, but the 10-year plan gives no hope that they will see the increased capacity in the system that is needed if overcrowding is to be reduced and the quality of journeys improved.

The issue is not only about individual passengers, but about the impact on the economy. As the British Chambers of Commerce has pointed out to me:

The problem is that the Government have not put that new capacity in place.

Other aspects of the plan should worry rail passengers. It suggests a reduction in the number of train operating companies and the merger of some franchises, but the SRA has also stated its aim of giving priority to express services, and that could lead to a worrying situation. I shall give an example from my constituency. Maidenhead and Twyford stations are served by Thames Trains. First Great Western goes from Paddington through to Reading without stopping at Maidenhead or Twyford. The SRA proposes that First Great Western and Thames Trains

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should merge. When they do and if express services are given priority, how many services that currently stop at Maidenhead and Twyford will be cut as a result of the Government's plan? Will the names of Byers and Bowker go down in the annals of rail history alongside that of Beeching? How many local services and stations will be at risk?

The Secretary of State says that he is responsible for the state of the railways. He promised us a 10-year plan that would give us a railway fit for the 21st century, but the real problem for passengers is that the 10-year plan does not deliver the increase in capacity that is necessary to improve services. The real problem is that the right hon. Gentleman does not know whether he can deliver a 10-year plan because he has no guarantee of future private sector investment or even of the public sector investment that he proposes. He is not delivering capacity, he is not improving services, and he gives passengers no hope.

Recently, in an interview, the Secretary of State said that his decision on Railtrack was high politics. It is time that he stopped playing high politics and started delivering the railways that passengers want and the economy needs.

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