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Mr. Don Foster: I entirely agree with the remarks that the hon. Gentleman has just made. Will he go further and agree that we should be looking at other ways of breaking down barriers? I would love, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman would also love, to see traffic wardens taking on a wider role so that they, too, could keep their eyes and ears on what was happening in the area in which they were operating.

Mr. Salter: With due respect, I should like to give that idea further thought. The idea of backing traffic wardens at this stage does not have active appeal to me, primarily because in Reading we have just privatised our traffic warden service and the wardens are, as one would expect with a market-oriented service, approaching the job with tremendous gusto and even ticketing war veterans on Remembrance day. Although my seat is not as marginal as it once was, the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not join him in the love-in with traffic wardens. I suspect that he likes traffic wardens only because they wear yellow.

On health, I share all the instincts and prejudice of my tribe when it comes to the involvement of the private sector. However, I can live with the private finance initiative if it delivers better and quicker services to my constituents. I have no problem with using spare capacity in private hospitals to deliver badly needed operations that avoid the need for people to wait in pain and discomfort. Those in the private sector are trained by the public sector, so they certainly owe us something.

I warn the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), that the involvement of private sector managers in the delivery of a national health service needs to be proceeded with with extreme caution. Remember that the private sector has no magic wand. Look what happened at the privately run, privately owned and privately operated Portland hospital recently, with that dreadful dereliction of duty—something that the consultant said would never have happened in the

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worst-performing NHS trust. To quote the Prime Minister, which is always good at these times, the guiding principle must be:

The same principle surely needs to be applied to transport policy. While the Secretary of State for Transport has won himself many friends among Labour Members by having the courage to take on the vested interests of Railtrack and Railtrack shareholders, I wonder whether we are at a halfway house for the future of the rail infrastructure. The argument that the Prime Minister made in the Chamber that we gave rail privatisation a chance has some validity. It was not top of our list. It was given an opportunity to work and it failed.

I do not envisage that the City will run a mile if the track and infrastructure are taken back into public ownership with a guaranteed level of investment on which the private train operating companies can operate, with certain guarantees of safety and guarantees that certain standards will be met. After all, our private road haulage companies run on public roads and public motorways. I do not understand the Government's reluctance to go the final mile.

I have a hint for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions: he and his colleagues at the Department would be well advised to concentrate on and perhaps pick a few winners when it comes to transport policy.

The failure of successive Governments to address the school run is incomprehensible. I took the trouble of digging out from the website the report of STAG—the school travel advisory group. The period of its deliberation was 1998-99; there have been many other such studies. That is yet another report that is long on analysis but, unfortunately, short on conclusions. Twenty per cent. of all morning peak-time congestion is a result of the school run, but have we anything to say about it?

I am not necessarily saying that America is a wonderful model for the delivery of public services, but I am certainly in favour of the American-style school bus. It is easily identifiable. Parents feel secure about their children using it. It can penetrate the estates in a way that the ordinary public transport network cannot. I should like to see more radical, more comprehensive thinking at least to address the issue of school travel. In my town, which is one of the most congested in the country outside London and Birmingham, it is more than 20 per cent. easier to get around town during school half-term. I hope that other hon. Members with a similar experience will add their voices to mine on this issue. I am surprised that successive Governments have been slow to pick up on it.

After being frank and honest about my own Government, it is worth taking a look at the Conservative record. If four and a half years is long enough for us to have made a difference—or is it five years?—18 years was certainly long enough, so let us have a brief look at the Conservatives' performance over those four key areas.

In those 18 years, police numbers fell and crime doubled. The Government axed the police housing allowance, triggering one of the greatest recruitment and retention crises that we have witnessed in the Thames Valley police, which has been replicated in other parts of the country. You never had it so good under the Tories—if you were a criminal.

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In transport, we had the £6 billion rip-off that was Railtrack—£6 billion of public money stolen to fund a botched and barmy privatisation which even in the most optimistic circumstances was never going to succeed. Some people have been reluctant to blame privatisation for the causes of the Hatfield and Paddington rail crashes. Yes, it is not the whole story, but I refer hon. Members to Lord Cullen's report, in which he said in black and white that the fragmentation of the rail network caused by privatisation led to a diminution in safety standards.

Chris Grayling: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Cullen report says clearly that safety on the railways has improved since privatisation?

Mr. Salter: The Cullen report said perfectly clearly that the fragmentation of the rail network led to a diminution of safety standards as a direct result of privatisation; one cannot have it both ways.

Bus deregulation also took place under the Conservatives, following the passage of the Transport Act 1985. It had a bad effect on my town but a worse effect on many other communities where they were not able to keep the public transport network in public ownership. Bus journeys fell by 25 per cent. in that period; no wonder congestion has risen. There were cuts in spending on road maintenance in the order of some 13 per cent. We had 18 years of transport under the Conservatives. They were anti-car, anti-train and anti-bus. That just about gives them a full house.

In health, the hospital building programme ground to a halt. The failed internal market created a postcode lottery in health care and there was a 25 per cent. cut in training places for nurses. We had a national health service starved of buildings, equipment and nurses but, inevitably, awash with accountants.

In education, there were funding cuts per pupil of £60 per pupil over the last three years of Conservative Government; 500,000 five, six and seven-year-olds were being taught in classes of 30 or more; and higher education funding was cut at a rate of 36 per cent. per student between 1989 and 1997. We saw lower funding, larger classes, crumbling school buildings and LMS, which we all knew stood for not local management of schools but less money for schools. Even the most impartial observer would conclude that on the issue of public services the Conservatives have very little to say and have a pretty lamentable record.

I want to turn to the Conservative party's political ideology and the failure not just to make a fist of political tactics, but to persuade the British public to accept its ideology and philosophy. Yes, we all remember the Ridley and Thatcher quotes. Nicholas Ridley's idea of local government was that councillors should assemble once a year and award the contracts to private firms. He even joked—ha, ha—afterwards that he would be prepared to pay those councillors more generous expenses. At the height of Thatcher's power and influence, that was the driving ideology behind the delivery of a local government, and it failed. Of course, Thatcher said:

Well, I am pleased that certain changes are occurring in the Conservative party's mood music—I shall call it no more than that. Given the leader whom it has elected, I will need a lot more than mood music to convince me that there has been a change of heart.

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The last general election was notable not for the appallingly low turnout—although that should worry us all—but for the fact that, for once, we were able to make the argument for public services versus tax cuts, and the British people voted for public services. Ministers should remember that we have a mandate to deliver improvements in public services, and we should be bold about it.

I believe that we are starting to see a sea-change of the kind that we saw with the 1945 Government, whose influence considerably outlasted their six years in office and fed through into the body politic and the political consensus that led to the fact that Harold Macmillan built more council houses than any Labour Prime Minister. It may be ironic, bizarre and macabre to hear the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) say that tax cuts are now less important than improvements to public services, but that at least means that the Opposition are starting to dance to the Labour tune. They may not like that, but it is happening. They tried their policy of greed, tax cuts, "me, me, me" and individualism, and it has failed at two elections.

In conclusion, I should like to thank the official Opposition for giving us an opportunity to showcase our policies and expose the deficiencies in theirs. I should like to end with some advice to Opposition Members, not from me, but from Peter Kellner in the Evening Standard. I say this in the context of the last opinion poll, which, if the press coverage is to be believed, will have put the Prime Minister several points behind the Leader of the Opposition. In fact, the Prime Minister is on 61 per cent. approval, compared with 15 per cent.—hon. Members will pleased to know—for the leader of the Liberal Democrats and 14 per cent. for the leader of the Conservative party, who has yet to make any impact on his own party, never mind the public at large. Mr. Kellner writes:

disaster. He continues:

I am against the death penalty, but I would buy the video. He continues:

a tough job; most of them have been put on the Front Bench. The list continues:

Lastly, he says:

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hon. Members should listen to this carefully—

I welcome the Tories to the Damascus. I welcome their conversion to public services; I do not necessarily believe it—they may have convinced the Tory press that they are now the party of public services, but it will be a generation before they convince the British people.

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