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House of Lords

Wednesday, 5th May 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Exeter.

Transport: Local Authority Subsidies

Lord Islwyn asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What discussions they have had with local authorities concerning subsidies for rail and bus services, following the recent Audit Commission report.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, no specific discussions have taken place. The report's recommendations are largely for action by local authorities; but departmental officials have regular meetings with local government representatives on a range of policy issues and stand ready to discuss any specific concerns they may wish to raise.

Lord Islwyn: My Lords, has the Minister seen a recent Audit Commission report which points out that our local authorities are wasting hundreds of millions of pounds in subsidising bus and rail services, which are described as unreliable, inconvenient and a poor alternative to the motor car? Railtrack is making massive profits and receiving huge public subsidies yet it cannot properly maintain the Severn Tunnel, which is the main rail artery in and out of Wales. What are the Government doing about the situation? Surely it is time for action.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as to the general point about local authority subsidies, those concern mainly bus services; there is very little local authority direct subsidy of railways. We are encouraging local authorities to enter into closer partnerships with the operators. A number of local authorities have seen significant improvements to their bus services. There is still public resistance to using buses as often as would be useful to an integrated transport policy. Partnerships can deliver better bus services and, for the first time in some time, there has been a turnaround of late in the number of people using buses.

As far as concerns the Severn Tunnel, which I know is of concern to a number of your Lordships from the Principality and elsewhere, Railtrack is faced with the problem that maintenance has not been as effective as it should have been. Noble Lords will be aware that the Health and Safety Executive has insisted that the broken rails are maintained to a higher standard and that, as a result, the speed limit through the tunnel has been

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reduced. The responsibility lies clearly with Railtrack. We hope that it can meet the maintenance standards required by the Health and Safety Executive.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that the present travel pass system in London--like many other noble Lords, I must of course declare an interest--will continue under the Greater London Authority? Can he further assure the House that there will be sufficient powers in that Bill to ensure that a single borough withdrawing from the system will not cancel it? Does he agree that payment for the travel pass can never be valued accurately by the Audit Commission and that it provides a great social service and keeps people mobile in London?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I fully agree with the noble Baroness about the importance and benefits of the London scheme. The legislation currently passing through another place will provide for the continuation of the system within the new context. It is not just a question of pounds, shillings and pence; the travel pass makes an enormous difference to the mobility, well-being and quality of life of many millions of Londoners.

Lord Hooson: My Lords, perhaps I may return to the problem of the Severn Rail Tunnel. Trains are now restricted to speeds of 20 miles an hour. We were told in a debate earlier in the year that Railtrack was laying new track through the tunnel. Presumably those tracks were relaid in the five weekends that the tunnel was closed. Now we are told there is a danger of derailment if trains exceed speeds of 20 miles an hour. Is not that totally unsatisfactory? What do the Government intend to do about it?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Lord is correct; it is a totally unsatisfactory situation. During the past seven months there have been four broken rails in the tunnel, which may reflect the failure to replace the tracks every six years, which used to be the practice. The Health and Safety Executive has asked Railtrack to demonstrate that it is taking sufficient steps to manage the risk. That has required imposing a lower speed limit. Under the privatised railway system, it is the responsibility of Railtrack to put the matter right. It is the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive to ensure that it does so.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, what is the Government's response to the statement from the Transport Select Committee in another place, which is not exactly overwhelmed with Conservative Members, that the plans to implement the transport White Paper, which has a lot to do with local authority subsidies for the next three years, are totally inadequate? The committee commented that the gap between the £333 billion pounds a year that is taken in taxes from road users and the £6 billion that is spent on transport undermines the political acceptability of the taxes. What do the Government have to say about that?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am not sure that I follow the noble Lord's figures. It has been the case that

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successive governments over decades have not agreed to the hypothecation of road fuel duty or vehicle excise duty. Nevertheless, the Government have shifted substantial resources into the improvement of public transport; we have changed the priorities in terms of road maintenance and better use of the trunk road network; and we are giving greater powers and resources to local authorities so that they can tackle their transport problems themselves. In general, the Select Committee in another place supported that strategy and wanted to see it delivered as rapidly as possible, as indeed do the Government.

Lord Islwyn: My Lords, are not the Government tackling transport problems the wrong way round? Surely it would be better, first, to get together with local authorities and the private sector to concentrate on building an efficient public transport network. Then, with some justification, they could ask the motorist to leave his or her car at home.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as regards association with local authorities, we have established a whole new system of local transport planning which will, for the first time, provide local authorities and businesses within their areas with a five-year local transport plan. We have moved rapidly on that. As regards fuel duty, I remind the House that the policy on which we are building was introduced by the previous administration for very good reasons relating primarily to environmental considerations. It is very important that those environmental targets are met. The fuel duty is one of the measures that will ensure that they are met. The Government are putting other measures into place to ensure that we do our bit to restrict the pollution as well as the congestion caused by road traffic.

The Earl of Clanwilliam: My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me to intervene in respect of local transport, to which he has just referred? May I ask his assistance in regard to the working group that is starting the Tisbury community bus service? This kind of project is of great importance to the nation, and particularly to the area of Tisbury. I declare an interest as a member of the working party. We are intending to take advantage of many of the substantive forms of assistance that the Government will provide. Will the Minister pay particular attention, in the Salisbury district, to the Tisbury community bus service?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am gratified that Tisbury is taking advantage of the rural grants. My noble friend Lord Carter reminds me that Tisbury is in Wiltshire, only just down the road from Shaftesbury, in Dorset, where I live. Therefore, I am grateful that the rural services are improving. All power to the elbow of the noble Earl and his working group.

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Amnesty International Document EUR 45/23/98

2.45 p.m.

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will publish, or place in the Library, their response to the Amnesty International document EUR 45/23/98 UK Briefing for the UN Committee Against Torture.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Amnesty International document was not addressed to the Government. It was submitted direct to the UN Committee Against Torture for its oral examination regarding the United Kingdom's Third Periodic Report on the Convention. That examination took place on 16th November 1998, when the UK supplemented its written report with answers to the questions raised by the committee. Unfortunately, the UN has not yet published a record of the hearing. When it is available, the noble Lord will be able to see the detailed answers supplied to the committee. I understand that the committee complimented the UK on its Third Report and noted some positive developments since the previous report, including the introduction of the Human Rights Act and the Northern Ireland peace process.

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