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Mr. Byers: It was not. The right hon. and learned Gentleman really should know better. He has said that the Conservatives' aim should be to reduce the proportion of national output taken for the state to 35 per cent. The leader of the Conservative party said in the Budget debate in autumn last year that their target should be a reduction towards 35 per cent. of GDP. [Interruption.] I can understand why the Conservatives do not like it, because they challenge our commitment to investment £33.5 billioneven though they know that they are committed to cut spending on public services.
On private sector involvement, the chairman of the SRA made himself very clear this morning when he said that he had discovered since he took office that many of the institutional and lending investors had been ringing him to say they want to be involved. He believes that that is clear indication of the investment that those involved want to see made.
We have made our position on the disputes absolutely clear, as did the Prime Minister last Wednesday. We are not prepared to get to a situation in which things that might be said work against a solution being found. Discussions are going on between the private employers and the trade unions, and the hope is that they will resolve the dispute. The Government's position is clear: arbitration is a far better route than strike action, which will affect the travelling public.
I said at the beginning of my statement that the Government accept that the current level of service is not good enough. The travelling public know that the responsibility does not lie with this Secretary of State or with this Government; they know that years of
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): The Secretary of State will know that the Strategic Rail Authority plan has been a long time coming, and will be warmly welcomed. One of the hazards of the rail industry is that, since the disastrous privatisation, it has suffered for too long from poor management, squabbling companies and the total inability of those responsible for the railways to invest in modern equipment or to deal with the day-to-day administration of a failing system.
Will my right hon. Friend give me one or two undertakings? Will he assure me that no long-term franchise will be given to a company that cannot show that it has fulfilled all the terms of its existing franchise? Failed companies should not merely be fined, but should be put at risk of losing their franchises if they do not deliver services at the standards that passengers demand. Will he also assure me that, in doing his very best to improve facilities for commuters in large urban areas, he will not forget that those who destroy the feeder branches of a railway system destroy its real strength? It would be stupid in fact, if not in theory, to forget that, because we have been round that track and got lost before.
Mr. Byers: As Chairman of the Transport Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend makes some important points. On the attitude within the industry, she is right that there has been a tendency for people to blame each other and never to take responsibility themselves for delivering the rail system that we need. The positive thing about the strategic plan published today is that it has been widely welcomed by all sections and all sectors of the rail industry. That is a good indication of the fact that the industry has recognised that it needs to move forward, and that companies will be in a stronger position to deliver if they work together instead of blaming each other, as they have all too often done in the past.
My hon. Friend raises the important issue of using the franchising system as a key lever to improve the quality of service. In the past, the franchise regime has not been used in a tough and disciplined way to ratchet up levels of performance. My hon. Friend hinted at the fact that, in the past, previous performance has not been used as one of the key tests in awarding franchises for the future, and I accept that. That must change, as is evident in the new franchising regime produced by the Strategic Rail Authority and reinforced in the strategic plan.
There is competition for these major franchises. In that competitive atmosphere, we must ensure that the passenger gets the benefit from the new franchising regime, which will take account of the quality of delivery by the previous franchise holder.
On the role of feeder branches, it is important that we acknowledge that 70 per cent. of all passenger travel is in London and the south-east. However, that is not a reason for underinvestment in other parts of the railway network. It is a railway network, and that includes London commuters, inner-city commuters, the regional network and the feeder lines.
I ask hon. Members to look at the detail of the proposals for each of the franchising areas, which show clearly the need to ensure that the feeder lines are retained and developed for the future. The announcement about the Vale of Glamorgan line between Barry and Bridgend is a good example of the improvements that we can expect over the coming years as a result of the new approach that is now being adopted and the funding that is now being made available.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Today's plans will undoubtedly provide a dim light at the end of the tunnel for rail users. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge, however, that more could and should have been done sooner by his Government? Will he also acknowledge that, despite what the Prime Minister told the House last Wednesday, figures from the Library demonstrate clearly that his Government will have spent less on the railways in their first five years than the Conservative Government spent in their last five? Given that 40 per cent. of trains are overcrowded, is it not bizarre that a Labour Government have introduced legislation to prevent overcrowding of chickens, but have introduced no such legislation to prevent overcrowding of humans?
Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that many of the proposals are simply reannouncements, for instance that about replacing slam-door carriages? Is it not the case that delivery is already behind schedule, and that when those carriages are delivered they will not actually work because of a failure to improve the power systems?
As for the repeat announcement about stations having to be safer, is it not the case that after four years of the Government's secure-station initiative, only 120 of 2,500 stations have yet received accreditation? How is that number to be boosted?
Given that we have the highest fares in Europe, and possibly in the world, is the very best that the Secretary of State can offer as a means to give us an affordable railway a "possible review"? Given that so much of the plan depends on investment from the private sector, will he acknowledge that continual uncertainty about the future of Railtrack, and about plans to reduce fragmentation in the railway, will make that private sector investment very much more difficult?
Mr. Byers: As the hon. Gentleman will know, I always treat figures from the Library with a certain amount of scepticism. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] I do so for the simple reason that we need to know the question that was asked. It is as simple as that. I have been in opposition, and I know how to do it as welldo not worry. It depends on the question, as the hon. Gentleman knows.
What I know is what really counts to the industry. I do not think that those travelling on the railways are too worried about where the investment comes fromwhether it comes from public sector borrowing or from the private sector. What they want is investment in the railways. Total investment is the key. The figures are clear. Over the period of the 10-year plan, the average per year is £4.3 billion.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that the private sector is not interested in being involved in the projects listed in the strategic plan. The chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, who daily speaks to investors, confirmed that in a radio interview this morning.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the replacement of the slam-door carriages. As the report makes clear, there is a problem with the power system, which was not addressed by Railtrack but will be addressed as a matter of urgency by the new regime in Railtrack and by the new Strategic Rail Authority. That will ensure that the commitment in the strategic plan will be met, and that mark 1 slam-door trains will not run after the end of 2004.
There can be talks about new beginnings and so on, but I was realistic in my statement. The strategic plan will make an important contribution, but it is not a start and an end; this is the beginning of a process. There will need to be further announcements in the period ahead so that people can see the improvements that are being made. Most importantI give this commitment to the Houseit is not a one-off exercise. Next year, I want to see a statement from the Strategic Rail Authority about progress that is being made on delivery of the guarantees and commitments in the plan. The travelling public have been shown today the detail of what it intends to deliver. We need to see that there will be effective delivery and implementation. The travelling public expect nothing less. We expect the Strategic Rail Authority to deliver. We expect the Government to play their part as well, and we will.