On Tuesday the Prime Minister set out our strategy to continue the reform of public services and to improve safety and security, all of which is, of course, underpinned by the economic stability and continued growth that have allowed low interest rates and high levels of employment—a huge change from 10 years ago—and we will return to that theme next week in the Chancellor's pre-Budget report. Today's debate is on transport and the environment, and for obvious reasons I want to concentrate on transport.
It might be convenient to remind Members that I will bring before the House measures that will build on the objectives set out in the Gracious Speech. The Railways Bill, which was published this morning, will streamline the structure and organisation of the national rail system. The road safety Bill will help further to reduce the number of people killed on roads each year, and the Crossrail Bill will pave the way for enhanced rail capacity across London. I will return to those measures during my speech, but I should also mention some other Bills that are relevant to today's debate. Measures will be introduced to improve the quality of life in local neighbourhoods through the clean neighbourhoods and environment Bill, and the animal welfare Bill and the commons Bill will also be introduced. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality will say something further when he replies to the debate.
I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way so early in his speech. It is apparent from the Gracious Speech and from his opening remarks that there is no reference to aviation and air transport. It is imperative that the Government get a grip on the environmental problems that are caused by increases in night flights—noise nuisance—and the discharge of aviation fuel, which concern a great many people in this country. Will he undertake to look into the question of designation, for example, of East Midlands airport under the Civil Aviation Act 1982, so that his Department and he personally can take a greater grip on the increase of disturbance to my constituents that is caused by flights in and out of East Midlands airport, particularly at night?
If the hon. and learned Gentleman sticks around, he will hear me deal with one or two matters in relation to aviation. It is not mentioned specifically in the Gracious Speech, because the proposals in the White Paper that I published in December do not need primary legislation. He is right that noise control is of concern at a number of airports, and I am aware of the concern at East Midlands airport. As he will know, the Government do not have plans to designate that airport at the moment, but I and my ministerial colleagues are aware of the continuing discussions. If I can prevail on him to stay until the end of my speech, he is welcome to intervene again on that matter if he wants to do so.
Before I turn to the measures to which I have referred, it is important to remind the House of the context in which transport legislation must be seen. Obviously, an effective, reliable and safe transport system underpins a successful economy, because it allows people to travel and goods to be moved efficiently and cost-effectively. Our economy is growing and will continue to grow. Indeed, since 1997, the UK economy has been stronger and more stable than any other major economy, in contrast to much of what happened in the previous two decades, which saw two of the deepest recessions of the last century.
A strong economy means that people become better off and that they choose to travel more. As a country, we face two challenges on transport: decades of under-investment, coupled with pressures on the growing economy, means that the transport infrastructure—both road and rail—is coping with levels of use never anticipated when much of it was designed.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned two challenges. I did not hear him say that climate change was a major challenge. He knows that there has been a 47 per cent. increase in carbon emissions from the transport sector since 1990. What does he intend to do about that?
Again, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I intend to deal with the environmental impact of travel later in my speech.
The fundamental problems of congestion and the well documented difficulties on the railways both derive from the fact that our infrastructure suffered from a lack of investment under successive Governments. I am not making a party-political point. In the past, our Governments have not spent as much as they should have. On top of that, because our economy has been growing so strongly, which of course is a good thing—I think even the Liberal Democrats would concede that—it is putting pressure on the system. But the hon. Gentleman is right: the environmental impact of transport is important and I shall say something about it later.
The Secretary of State mentioned under-investment in the railways. Will he confirm that it will be his policy to ensure that trans-European network rail links, as agreed between our Government and the European Commission, are completed? I think especially of the Cork-Dublin-Belfast-Larne line, which is still awaiting major investment.
If the trans-European network is agreed, the UK will be part of it. Part of the railway line to which the hon. Gentleman refers is the responsibility of the Irish Government, and we would probably do well not to offer to take it off them. In relation to Northern Ireland, perhaps I should write and let the hon. Gentleman know what the position is. That is dealt with by the Northern Ireland Office, rather than by my Department.
Both the problems that I identified need to be addressed, and we are addressing them. We have doubled rail investment since 1997. Obviously, there are no quick fixes for transport problems, but the long-term solution lies first and foremost in increasing investment and sustaining it over a long period, which we are doing; secondly, in managing the system effectively; and, thirdly, in planning ahead to meet the transport needs of the future. We are doing all these things.
The transport White Paper published in July this year set out how the Government will provide sustained investment and plan for and manage transport in a way that is consistent with our environmental objectives. The White Paper also outlined expenditure plans to 2015. That did not happen in the past. We now have long-term transport spending against which people can plan. Transport spending is more than 60 per cent. higher this year than it was in the last year that the Conservative Government were in office. Spending by the Department will rise by an annual average of 4.5 per cent. in real terms between 2005–06 and 2007–08. The level of spending will grow thereafter in real terms by 2.25 per cent. each year through to 2015
This sustained investment is allowing us to spend on the railways some £73 million each week, matched by a similar amount coming in from the private sector. That investment is making a difference. I make no apology for emphasising investment. Whatever this debate discloses about what is needed in transport, I am clear that the one thing it does not need is a reduction in transport spending. No matter what Mr. Yeo, who speaks for the Conservatives, says in the rest of the debate, he has one pretty formidable problem—the strictures of the shadow Chancellor, as a result of which he would have to lose £1.8 billion of transport spending.
Let me give the House an idea of what that means. It is equivalent to all the investment in and maintenance of our strategic road network. So when I read, as I did a few days ago, that the hon. Member for South Suffolk was promising on behalf of the Conservatives better maintenance and quicker repairs, I am interested to hear how he squares that with a commitment to remove £1.8 billion. If he tells me that it is all right and that David James has fixed it for him, I have to say to him—I read the James report with great interest, it being a Conservative report on how to be more efficient—that it is extremely interesting that the first thing that David James does is to acknowledge that most of the savings that he identified are already being made by the Department for Transport. The only way he gets the figure slightly larger is by, first, accepting that the way in which rail privatisation was put in place in relation to the rolling stock companies was not terribly effective. We are ahead of the Conservatives on that, too, because we have said that we are sorting that out.
Secondly, the Conservatives are offering to outsource the DVLA, which has made the Conservatives extremely popular in Swansea. I have read some of the cuttings in the local newspapers and I feel deeply sorry for the Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate.
Nearly a third of what the DVLA and the vehicle services group have done has already been outsourced. The idea that Conservatives can save more than we are already saving is pretty improbable. I remind the hon. Gentleman what he said the day after he was appointed to his present position in June. He said that the Tory policy is
"at a fairly undeveloped stage."
No wonder it is undeveloped. The hon. Gentleman's first big problem is that he does not have any money to spend. I look forward to hearing what he has to say. If he says that he will get the money from the private sector, he should be aware that we are already getting money from it. I suspect that if he goes to the private sector and says, "By the way, we will cut our public spending by £1.8 billion", the private sector will say, "If you don't have confidence to invest in transport, why on earth do you expect us to come and fill the gap?".
The right hon. Gentleman may not be surprised that I am not going to explain in great detail. However, given the great success, apparently, of the economy and congestion, particularly the success in London, why is it that the Crossrail Bill that he is now proposing is not the green light that has been presented but a flickering amber light? It goes into no detail about the financing or funding of the project.
As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, we are currently in Opposition. We are looking to the Government to provide some answers. Given seven and a half years of a Labour Government, and given that the congestion problems in London are getting ever worse, Crossrail is an extremely important project. There should be a consensus among politicians, as there is among the business community. The business community has said that it would be willing to put up some money, but where will the Government's financing and funding stream come from?
That does not sound like an hon. Gentleman who imagines that he will be on the Government Benches in the foreseeable future. No wonder he does not want to try to explain away the £1.8 billion cut in spending that the Conservatives are promising. Whatever difficulties there may be in funding transport infrastructure or Crossrail, to which I shall come in a moment, it is pretty clear that cutting £1.8 billion from that spending is not the answer.
The Crossrail Bill will come before the House. It is an essential prerequisite before we can design the Bill that we need to work with the private sector because it has very much to be a joint venture. We will do that. Before the hon. Gentleman gets too excited about these matters, I should say that one of my earliest experiences in the House when I was elected in the late 1980s was a Crossrail Bill, which died a death, like so many other attempts to build the system. If I were the hon. Gentleman, I would be careful before going on too much about the failings of the Labour Government in this regard. There has been a long and tortuous process. I think that all of us know that. The difference is that I am more confident now than I have been for a long time that Crossrail will be built. Crossrail is needed by London because of the long-term pressures that it faces. The key is to get on with it. The hon. Gentleman should still reflect on the fact that cutting nearly £2 billion from transport does not help in that regard.
I can do that. I can assure my hon. Friend that rather more than 10 days' work has gone into the analysis. There are basically two problems. The voltage of the lines in north Kent is different from the voltage that will power the Crossrail trains. If the trains were to run beyond Abbey Wood, they would have to be capable of running on more than one voltage, which would make them more complicated and more prone to breakdown. If my hon. Friend wants an example of such problems, he should look at the Eurostar trains, which are designed to run on three different supply systems and spend rather more time in the garage, so to speak, than one would wish, and I want to avoid that.The second problem is that at the moment it is intended that 24 trains an hour will run through the Crossrail tunnel, but if the line goes down to Ebbsfleet, analysis of the congestion in north Kent suggests that we will have to reduce that frequency to 18 an hour.
For those two reasons, it was thought best that the line should go to Abbey Wood in the first instance, although we are not ruling out a future extension to Ebbsfleet. It is possible for passengers to cross the platform at Abbey Wood, so I do not think that it will be that much of an inconvenience. What I would say, certainly to all those hon. Members who want to support Crossrail, is that if Crossrail is to be built, it must be as simple as possible. The more complicated a railway project is at the start, the greater are the chances that it will run into difficulty. I, like so many others, want to see Crossrail built, but I want to ensure that it is as simple as possible. I am sympathetic to the point that my hon. Friend makes, but those, in a simplified form, are the two difficulties that led us to the conclusion that we reached.
I rise to draw a line under the matter at this stage. As chair of the all party group on Crossrail, I welcome the Bill, which my right hon. Friend will know is a hybrid Bill, showing the Government's commitment to it. He touched earlier on that in reply to Mr. Field. Will he confirm that the Bill shows the Government's commitment to finding the funding to realise the project, which will benefit not only people on my side of London but throughout London, and the UK economy?
My hon. Friend has done a great deal during her time in the House to advance Crossrail, and, as she says, she chairs the all party group, for which she deserves a great deal of credit. Yes, as I have said, the Government are committed to Crossrail. There will be much more discussion of financing, but I think that there is a determination all round to see the matter through, and from what I recall that certainly was not the case 18 years ago.
I have mentioned investment, which among other things allowed us to sort out the west coast main line, and despite one or two teething problems it is good to see the new trains running at 125 mph. We are renewing nearly a third of the rolling stock in this country, which has necessitated the renewal of the power supply south of the River Thames. I can also tell the House that in the last year, more than 850 miles of track have been renewed. That contrasts with the less than 200 miles a year that were renewed at the time of privatisation. Therefore, people can see that progress is being made.
There is one further aspect of change that was needed in the railways. The railways have paid a heavy price for privatisation and the subsequent drop in investment, so the other matter that needed to be addressed was the organisation and structure of the railways. In January last year, I said that I wanted to review that structure. In July I published a railways White Paper and today we are publishing the Railways Bill. Despite all those who spent many happy weeks over the summer saying that there would not be a Bill, that it was nowhere near ready and that we had got it wrong, the Railways Bill implementing the White Paper has now been published. It will allow the Government to take strategic direction of the railways and have clear agreements with each part of the industry, and it abolishes the Strategic Rail Authority. The office of the rail regulator will be responsible for safety, performance and cost, and there is greater devolution of power in Scotland, Wales, London and the passenger transport executives in England. Other changes that do not require legislative change will accompany the legislation, and they will give Network Rail greater powers to allow the track and train companies to operate more closely together. As I have said before in this House, we intend to reduce the number of franchises. We are also taking steps to make sure that freight has greater certainty about its rights on the national network, which the industry broadly welcomes.
On rail, I should bring two other matters to hon. Members' attention. First, the Rail Passengers Council is announcing its proposals today to restructure its organisation to be more focused and responsive to passengers. Secondly—for those who are anoraks—my Department is announcing a new structure to carry out its rail functions, taking account of the changes brought about by the abolition of the Strategic Rail Authority. Because poor Mr. James did not get this far, the Conservative spokesman may be interested to know that about 530 staff are currently employed by the SRA and the Department for Transport rail division. In the new structure announced today, that group will reduce to between 250 and 280 staff, which will be more efficient.
No, because the situation requires negotiation with those companies rather than legislative change, and the discussions will continue over the next few weeks and months—negotiations cannot be reduced to primary legislation. I welcome the general support of Norman Baker for the legislation. I presume that he speaks for all the Liberals, although one can never be sure.
The Secretary of State can be sure that I do not speak for the whole of the Labour party. Will he deal with one problem that concerns me before he leaves the subject of railways? The Government intend to have fewer franchises—frankly, there is currently no competition between the franchises—and for the railways, the bus industry and other forms of transport provision to work together. How will that be possible when the Office of Fair Trading holds reactionary and unhelpful views about how to plan transport services?
My hon. Friend knows that I sympathise with her remarks. I understand why it is necessary to make sure that two companies do not enter into a cartel, to the detriment of passengers. However, I have come across cases in different parts of the country in which better transport services have been provided through co-operation on timetables, sharing information and so on. I have raised that matter with the OFT in a meeting with its director general and in correspondence, and I know that my hon. Friend has raised it too. If it becomes problematic, we will need to return to it. If one is standing in Manchester or Leeds on a wet night waiting for a bus, it is of little comfort to know that one is protected against action by a cartel, when all one wants to see is a bus, and one does not care which bus it happens to be, so long as it turns up.
I expect to discuss the railways at great length on Second Reading, so I shall say a word or two about the road network.
Naturally, I welcome the proposals for devolution. The return of the direct route between Llandudno and Euston is welcome. It is running for the first time since 1964, when the Conservative party demolished that service. However, the connections between local services and, for instance, the direct Virgin Trains service need urgent attention.
We can always see what can be done to improve such situations. As my hon. Friend will know, legislation is being introduced to give the National Assembly for Wales more power in relation to services that run predominantly in Wales. She is right that we must try to ensure that services come together. That is not always possible, for obvious reasons, but I am sure that the SRA will examine any particular difficulties over the next few weeks and months.
I should like to make some progress, if only because I have been discussing the railways for a long time, but I give way.
I hope that the Secretary of State will forgive me for raising one last point on rail concerning the SRA's announcement on branch lines. Can he assure me that that was not merely a case of the Government giving branch lines a last-chance-saloon opportunity to save themselves, but a new dawn for branch lines, which are often an unrealised asset to which operators give the fag end of the available rolling stock and services; and that the proposed community rail partnerships will be properly supported?
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says. The White Paper made it clear that the Government want to support, where possible, branch lines that may have a future, through being run by community rail partnerships, that they would not otherwise have had. That is supported financially, but it is important to get local support as well.
Generally speaking, the railways have had their difficulties, although more people are using them. However, let us be realistic. If some branch lines can be run more effectively and efficiently, we should do so, but that requires people's support. People can be sentimental about them, but if they will not use them, there must come a time when it is suggested that we should do something else. As I said on Monday morning, no Government can be in the business of carting fresh air around the country, but if railway lines are able to grow through continued use, they should be given the chance to do so. No one need doubt our commitment to that.
Andrew George represents an area where there are several branch lines. People need to realise, though, that saving the railway is one thing, but using it is another. It is important to use it; otherwise, sooner or later, problems arise.
I turn to the roads. Managing the roads system—ensuring that we get the most out of it to tackle congestion—is absolutely essential. I am glad that the Traffic Management Act 2004 was passed in the previous Session and is now on the statute book. It will better control the digging up of roads by utilities and others; and the traffic management officers who were appointed to begin to manage the network better by clearing up after incidents and accidents are now operating in the west midlands, which is already making a big difference by freeing up police to do other things. Generally, over the next few years, as we manage the road network better, we will reduce much of the congestion that causes so much difficulty. It is worth reminding the House that nearly a quarter of all the congestion on major roads is caused by accidents. If we could deal with some of that, it would make a big difference to the capacity that we have.
It is equally important to continue to make good progress in reducing deaths and serious injuries on our roads. Last year, there was a 6 per cent. fall in the number of people killed and seriously injured, and we are on track to meet our targets in that respect. However, as we discussed when I spoke to the House two weeks ago following the derailment of the train at Ufton, it is always worth reminding ourselves that nearly 10 people are killed on our roads every day. Would that we, as a country, gave as much attention to that as we do, for understandable reasons, to railway accidents.
The Bill that we will bring before the House introduces several measures that will help. It will increase police powers to tackle the problem of drink-driving, which is still responsible for more than 500 deaths a year. For example, it will allow for road-side breath testing and for drivers who repeatedly offend to have to retake their driving test. As I promised, we will introduce legislation for a graduated structure of fixed penalty points to ensure that the punishment better fits the crime in relation to speeding. I repeat that I believe that the vast majority of safety cameras save lives and reduce the number of injuries. Where that does not happen, we will of course investigate those particular cameras, as I promised in the summer. I am sure that the graduated fines that I propose will be fairer than the present system.
No, we do not. We keep that under review all the time, but we have no such plans. Interestingly, some countries on the continent have lower limits but, as I understand it, in this country there is a greater probability that a driver will be stopped. Our rules are enforced quite effectively, although I am bound to say that in the last couple of years there have been worrying signs of an increase in the number of people who have been breathalysed positively. Obviously, we and the police need to attend to that.
I want to draw the attention of the House to the problem of the one in 20 drivers who drive without insurance. The new legislation that we are introducing in the road safety Bill will allow us to create a database which will enable us to merge the DVLA data with that held by insurance companies. It is a sorry fact that it takes legislation to make that possible, but without it, someone would no doubt do us under data protection legislation. The police will be able to check the new database. In addition, the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, which the Home Secretary introduced yesterday, will not only allow the police to check whether the vehicle is licensed and insured, but to seize the vehicle if it is not. That will make a big difference to road safety and revenue protection.
No, our proposals do not. Earlier this year, we asked Professor Greenway to look at that in his review. A lot of attention was given to it. His view was that it would not be particularly effective. People can have things on a windscreen that look like a disc that is up to date, but may not be. It was not felt to be reliable. Very shortly, with automatic number plate recognition equipment, it will be possible simply by checking a number plate to tell instantly whether they are licensed and insured. That is a more productive and better way, rather than having someone peer at a windscreen. In some parts of the country we have been trialling systems like this and the police have been able to use cameras and overhead gantries. They have picked up quite a number of people who are not licensed and not insured. Interestingly, people who are not licensed and not insured are also involved in other activities of interest to the police—there is a correlation. All hon. Members will welcome this. I am sure that we will return to that in greater detail when we discuss the road safety Bill.
I wish to take the Secretary of State back to his earlier points about drink-driving. Does he agree that it is an equally important challenge to make driving when tired as unacceptable as driving when under the influence of drink or drugs? A member of my family was seriously and permanently injured because somebody drove into him when they were asleep at the wheel. It is a common cause of accidents. All too often people do not realise the dangers in which they are putting other people's lives.
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. It would be much more difficult to enforce. It is easy to establish whether someone has too much alcohol in their blood, but tiredness is much more difficult to evaluate. It is clear from road casualty figures how many serious accidents involve cars where no other vehicle is involved—people just come off the road—or, again this is difficult to prove, the loss of control of a car or a lorry for no apparent reason. That is alarming and tiredness must be a factor. The road safety Bill will introduce places where a driver can draw up and rest, which are commonplace in France. That may help motorway driving. The hon. Lady is right and it is a reason why the Department for Transport road safety campaign looks at the question of tiredness regularly.
I have spoken rather longer than I intended to, but I want to say a couple of things about the environment and airports. Sadly, Mr. Leigh has pushed off despite the fact that I said that I would return to his airport.
I want to make some progress, but I may give way if hon. Gentlemen will hold on for a moment.
A Liberal Democrat Member rightly said that environmental concerns are important. It is important to note that progress has been made in that our vehicles are about 50 per cent. cleaner than they were 10 years ago. The Government have introduced measures to differentiate the amount paid in vehicle excise duty to encourage people to get cleaner cars. We are investing a lot of money in public transport as an alternative. As I have made clear on many occasions, in the longer term we need to develop road pricing as an alternative. I am glad that the Liberal Benches welcome that. I want to take John Thurso slightly to task, however, because in July in a BBC interview he said:
"I actually think that the Secretary of State is being rather cautious because he talked about a timeframe of 10 to 15 years."
Right enough, I had said that it would be 10 to 15 years before that could happen. I very much welcome Liberal support for the measures dealing with congestion, but perhaps today's Liberal spokesman will explain why the Liberals are campaigning against the one congestion charge scheme proposed in Britain, in Edinburgh. I find it hard to understand. They have even been condemned by the Young Liberals, students in Edinburgh, for this attitude. On the one occasion when the Liberals have a chance to demonstrate their credentials on congestion charging, they are against it. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will want to take advice on the point, but during the afternoon he will, I hope, refer to this in some detail.
I hope to catch your eye a bit later, Mr. Speaker, but in case the Secretary of State is not in the Chamber then, may I make a plea for the Bexhill link road? The Department is due to make a decision on this within the next two weeks. It is vital to the town and for the regeneration of neighbouring Hastings. It requires money from his budget—it will be money extremely well spent—not just to improve traffic flow, but also to allow building in Bexhill and save building in the High Weald area of outstanding natural beauty. Please will he consider our plea for the link road?
Yes, I am aware of that. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will try to square his plea with the Conservative commitment to cut £2 billion from transport spending. Schemes up and down the country, to which hon. Members attach great importance, are affected by such things. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can justify to the House why he will campaign for a £2 billion cut in transport.
The right hon. Gentleman is most generous in giving way. I am not going to make a claim on his budget now. He talked about road pricing and tolls. Is he aware that there is a surplus of £60 million from the operation of the Dartford crossing and that that money is to be spent on local roads? Can we use some of that money to help Canvey get its third road?
The hon. Gentleman needs to come to terms with the fact, whether he likes it or not and assuming that he will be wearing a blue rosette at the general election—
The hon. Gentleman says he will. In that case he will have to explain how on earth a Conservative Government could do anything on Canvey Island or anywhere else when they are committed to such drastic cuts. [Interruption.] Before the Liberals get too happy, I notice that it is their policy at the moment—I use those words advisedly because, rather like some railway timetables, they are subject to alteration at short notice—to stop the road building programme. That will come as some news to Liberal colleagues who frequently stand up and ask for a bypass or a relief road.
I want to speak briefly about the important subject of airports. The Government's policy was set out last December. At the International Civil Aviation Organisation assembly in September this country was successful in persuading the majority of countries not to introduce measures that would have prevented us from tackling aviation emissions. It was not widely reported at the time, but the United Kingdom took the lead on that and it would not have happened otherwise. It is important that we accept that while there will be an expansion in air travel because of well known pressures, we must be mindful of the pressures that that puts on the environment. That is why we set out a range of measures, including our determination to persuade the European Union to introduce an emissions charging scheme in the European Union from 2008. That is very important. I can also tell the House that the various measures on aviation that we set out in the White Paper are being pursued. As I said earlier, they do not require primary legislation, but it is important to note that we are making progress. I was interested to see that the Conservative spokesman on aviation included many caveats in his support for aviation expansion, all of which can be found in the White Paper. So I commend him for having read it and, if I can put it this way, supporting it.
The hon. Gentleman has sat here patiently and said absolutely nothing, since his party has nothing to say on the subject, so I will listen to him.
Today we are discussing, among other things, devolved government affairs and I am certain that the Secretary of State has plenty to say on that. While co-operation between law enforcement agencies is welcome, why on earth are the UK Government legislating for the Home Secretary to be able to order Scottish police forces around? Does the Secretary of State for Scotland agree that justice and policing are both devolved matters? Why is the proposal being made?
What the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, if any of them were here, cannot come to terms with is that we are all part of the United Kingdom. Yes, power has been devolved to the Scottish Executive on matters such as crime, but it is necessary for us to co-operate. I know that the hon. Gentleman would like us to live in a world in which there was a tartan curtain from coast to coast, trains stopped at the border and no policemen ever ventured north; criminals going from one side to another would not have to worry. That is not the world in which the rest of us live. I suggest in the nicest possible way that the hon. Gentleman face up at some stage to the fact that at successive general elections the vast majority of the Scottish electorate have come to the same view as I come to on these matters. So the hon. Gentleman should have saved himself the bother, but at least he got to his feet to stretch himself.
The measures that we have introduced will enable us to carry on improving the transport system. The measures that the Government are introducing overall will continue to build the country; they will build on the economic reforms that we have made and ensure that we live in a fairer and far better country than we had seven years ago. I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
I am delighted to respond to the Secretary of State. Before I do so, may I apologise to you and to the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the fact that I will not be here at the end of the debate to hear the winding-up speeches? My hon. Friend Mr. Lansley will be here when my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman winds up for the Opposition. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire will pay particular attention to the comments of the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality, whom I am glad to welcome to the debate.
On Tuesday we heard the last Queen's Speech before the general election. It was given after seven and a half years of a Labour Government. So it is fair to say that this is a time to pass judgment first on the Government's record and secondly on their intentions. I am genuinely sorry—because it matters very much to this country—to say that the Government's record is a bad one. Our transport system increasingly resembles that of a third-world country. The Government's failure to bring roads and railways into the 21st century is damaging business. The Confederation of British Industry has estimated that the cost of congestion is £15 billion per year. It damages the competitive position of British firms and makes Britain a less attractive country for new investment.
Congestion does not hurt just business; it hurts families. Although Ministers like to talk about the work/life balance, they seem to have their heads firmly in the sand when it comes to transport policy. One simply cannot put a price on the time that mums and dads lose because the train has let them down again or the road is too congested and they are not home in time to say good night to their children.
Yes, I am delighted to do so. The price is £4 billion of new private investment in the railway system this year, not a penny of which had to come from the taxpayer, and far more of which can be unlocked if some policy changes are made and if we can block the disastrous Railways Bill. The private sector is ready to invest more in the railways if it does not have politicians and bureaucrats poking their noses into how the railways are run at every turn.
Let us look at the facts. We will start with roads. In Britain, the proportion of road links that are congested for more than an hour a day is three times greater than in Germany and five times greater than in France. Our motorway provision per head of population is less than half the European average. We have a lower motorway density than any of our European competitors. That is despite the fact that motorists pay £8 billion more in vehicle excise duty and fuel duty than in 1997. Indeed, the Treasury now takes more than £40 billion a year in tax from road users, but the Government spend only £1.6 billion on new trunk roads and motorways and only £10 billion a year on all road infrastructure. Some of the extra tax goes to subsidise bus services. Although subsidies to buses have doubled to more than £1.4 billion a year, outside London bus use is falling.
The picture on railways is similarly depressing. Twice as many trains run late now as in 1997.
Before the hon. Gentleman leaves buses, has he noticed that outside London private bus companies are dealing with real problems of more and more elderly buses, and their services are unreliable? Buses frequently do not go to the places the general public want them to. As an example of private enterprise, bus companies are sadly lacking in imagination, efficiency or even, heaven help us, courtesy in some instances.
The truth is that the long-distance bus services, which are run entirely privately, have been a conspicuous success, largely as a result of the deregulation that was introduced by the previous Government. As for more local services, I regret that so little imagination is applied to how they are operated. I believe that some of the subsidy that goes into local bus services could be more imaginatively used. In my constituency and other rural areas one sees a bus running once or twice a day almost empty between two fixed points. Parish councils could be more involved in making decisions about how very local services are run. There could perhaps be minibuses with volunteer drivers. That might need a bit more deregulation—not something we are likely to get from this Government, but it could be achieved without any cost to the taxpayer. More locally determined services would produce better value for money for the increased subsidy.
New rail schemes have been kicked into the long grass, even though rail subsidies have soared from more than £1 billion a year in 1997 to more than £3.5 billion now. Fares have risen faster than inflation, despite the Government's promises to the contrary. Nothing that we have heard in the Queen's Speech addresses those failings. The Crossrail Bill will have our support, but as everyone knows, and the Secretary of State acknowledged, it does not advance the starting date for that important project by a single day, because the Government are still dithering over the funding.
I will deal with the Railways Bill in detail in a moment, but let me say initially that it is hard to see what the Bill contains that will improve the lot of passengers. Its central feature and the reason why it is being introduced is the abolition of the Strategic Rail Authority. The House will remember that two years ago the Department of Transport's own review of the 10-year transport plan said that the SRA would provide the
"firm leadership envisaged for it: that of providing strategic direction and funding for the rail industry."
The Labour general election manifesto said that the body would provide
"a clear, coherent and strategic programme for the development of the railways so that passenger expectations are met."
Now, having consumed £237 million of taxpayers' money, that very body is being abolished. The Secretary of State's only strategy for the railways is one of utter incoherence.
To be fair to the Secretary of State and the Government, we should judge them according to the performance criteria that they set out. The 10-year plan launched with such fanfare four years ago by the Deputy Prime Minister—and I am sorry that he is not here to enjoy the debate—contained a number of commitments.
According to the plan, congestion on Britain's roads was to be reduced by 2010. In practice, it has got worse. According to the plan, trains were to be made more punctual. In practice, they have become less punctual. According to the plan, rail passengers were to increase in number by 50 per cent. In practice, the increase has been 5 per cent. According to the plan, bus travel throughout England was to grow by 10 per cent. In practice, outside London, it is falling. According to the plan, the maintenance backlog on local roads was to be eliminated. In practice, that target has been dropped.
According to the plan, Thameslink and the East London line were to be built by 2010. In practice, those targets cannot be met. According to the plan, rail freight was to increase by four fifths. In practice, the amount of freight carried by rail in the past two years has fallen. According to the plan, passengers were to travel by train more quickly and comfortably. In practice, as those of us who use the railways regularly will know, overcrowding has reached chronic proportions and is likely to get worse, while reliability is worse than in 1997. According to the plan, the east coast main line was to be modernised and capacity increased. In practice, that scheme has been put on ice. According to the plan, local roads were to be improved. In practice, the Freight Transport Association reports that their condition is worse than a decade ago.
Not one of those 10 failures was mentioned by the Secretary of State today, but they are what concern road and rail users every day. Their consequence is an economy whose competitive position is being steadily worsened by this Government's refusal to address them. Absolutely nothing in the Queen's Speech suggests that the Government have any idea about how to tackle those problems, or even any intention of trying to do so. Let us look at what the Secretary of State is proposing.
When it comes to new roads, the most decisive step that he can muster is more talk about road pricing, along with yet another consultation exercise about a possible extension northwards of the M6 toll road. Yet the Secretary of State told the House on
"Doing nothing would be the worst possible option."—[Official Report,
Yet that is the very option that he is pursuing.
A carefully argued study by the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Automobile Association, the FTA and other organisations identified the need for improvements to key motorways and trunk roads, but it is simply being ignored. The only certain consequence of this Queen's Speech and of the actions of this Secretary of State is that road congestion will get worse.
When it comes to the railways, now that the SRA has been condemned to death, power is shifting decisively back to civil servants in the Department of Transport and Network Rail. None of that bodes well for passengers, but I suppose that we should not be surprised that this Government should want to give more power to a body such as Network Rail, which is not directly answerable to anyone—least of all to its customers or the paying public.
There will be anxiety too among train operators about how decisions over the allocation of franchises will be taken under the new regime. Most alarming of all, however, is the Government's proposal to hand more power over the railways to Ken Livingstone.
Two out of three train journeys begin or end in London, so that proposal is worrying indeed, especially for passengers travelling to or from stations outside the area for which Ken Livingstone is responsible. Passengers may now find that it suits Ken to stop their fast trains on the edge of London to pick up a few of his voters. They may also find that their fares go up because Ken says so.
Just this week, Ken Livingstone's officials at Transport for London caved in to trade union demands for tube workers to be given longer holidays than anyone else in the country. That is a warning of what lies ahead. I wonder whether it was Ken's attitude to cost control that tipped the balance when Ministers in the Department of Transport were deciding about handing over to him a bit more say about how our railways are run. Giving Ken Livingstone power over how trains are run is a sure-fire way to discourage the extra private investment that railways need to attract.
Where will it all end? Will the local councils in Birmingham, Rugby, Milton Keynes and Watford all be given a say over the trains that run from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden to London? Will all those councils be involved, too?
The Railways Bill has exposed the Government's complete disarray over the strategic direction of the rail industry. It will increase the extent to which politicians and bureaucrats interfere in the running of the railways. For that reason, the Conservative party will oppose it.
I am coming to that, but we are debating the Queen's Speech and I shall deal with that first.
We look forward to the imminent publication of the road safety Bill. I welcome the Government's acceptance of many of the measures for which the Conservative party has been calling for some time. They include measures such as a crackdown on uninsured drivers—long overdue—and action to tackle the disappointing upturn in drink driving. Other measures include the introduction of variable penalty points to reflect the relative seriousness of different traffic offences.
I was not entirely surprised that the Secretary of State got on to the subject of money in his speech, but he did not mention the cuts that he has made in transport spending. They must be something of an embarrassment to him. The spending plans that he inherited were set out in the 2002 spending review. That document said that, in the current year, 2004–05, the Government would spend £11.2 billion on transport. In the 2003 public expenditure statistical analysis, that figure was cut to £10.75 billion, and in the 2004 spending review, there is a further cut in transport spending for this year. The figure is now down to £10.4 billion—a reduction of 7 per cent. from the planned total for spending in 2004–05 that was announced before the Secretary of State took over.
Breaking a pledge so spectacularly is not unusual for this Government, of course, but it is a reason why we cannot rely on any promise about future spending increases from this Secretary of State. It makes a total mockery of the right hon. Gentleman's attempt to attack the Conservative party's transport plans when he has personally overseen a cut of nearly £1 billion in transport spending for the current year.
In any event, almost everyone—and I suspect that that includes the Secretary of State—recognises that taxpayers alone cannot fund the improvements needed in Britain's transport infrastructure. The key to a modern transport system is more private investment. Unfortunately, even if he realises that, the Secretary of State is not taking the necessary action to encourage it. Instead of getting on with extending the M6 toll road northwards, he is conducting yet another consultation process. That is another example of how this Government are all talk.
On railways, the Government's insistence on short-term contracts for train operators is an obstacle to increased investment. The bungled renationalisation of Railtrack is another deterrent to private investors. At the same time, the potential to bring vastly more private capital into the railways by unlocking the huge development potential in and around our stations, which are adjacent to some of the most valuable brownfield sites in the country, remains shamefully unexploited.
Unlike the present Government, the next Conservative Government will have a timetable for action. That will include longer contracts for the best train operators and a major programme—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Jamieson) appears to think that that is amusing, but he did not hear the earlier part of the debate. We will also have a major programme of investment in stations which will bring benefits to passengers without any contribution from the taxpayer or any increase in fares.
I turn now to the other subject for today's debate. It would have been too much to hope that the Queen's Speech would include a reference to farming. After all, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs could not bring herself to mention farming in her speech to this year's Labour party conference. Nevertheless, everyone involved in agriculture has plenty about which to be concerned.
We are at a potential turning point in the industry. The effect of the mid-term review is to break the mould of 40 years of supporting farming by linking payment to production. Now that link is broken. I am not against that change in principle, but the potential consequences for the industry are far reaching. We may not see the changes take effect until 2006, because the Government's incompetence in sorting out the rules under which the new arrangements will work mean that, for the time being, farmers have to operate in a climate of uncertainty.
The difficulty that the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality had last week in answering my question about whether the Government have assessed the likely impact of the changes in the method of farming support on British agricultural production was revealing. Clearly, the Government have not assessed that. I ask again today: does the Minister agree that it is now possible that over the next five years farm output will fall dramatically? Are the Government happy to see Britain become more and more dependent on imports for more and more of its food needs? Does the Government regard farming as a strategically important industry. What assessment have Ministers made of what all that will do for jobs in the countryside, the effect on the rural economy and how our rural landscape will look?
The many farmers in my constituency are increasingly concerned that the work permit restrictions are getting tighter and it is harder to get immigrant labour in to work on farms and maintain production. Does the hon. Gentleman perceive that as an increasing problem and, if so, how would further restrictions on immigration affect it?
If farm output falls sharply, it is unlikely that that would be a particular difficulty, However, if the hon. Gentleman is talking about seasonal workers who are needed temporarily for, for example, fruit picking, he is right that there will continue to be a short-term seasonal increase in the need for agricultural workers. That is why we have supported in the past increases in the numbers who can come in under the temporary agricultural workers scheme. That has been an important contribution to ensuring that certain seasonal peaks in demand for labour in the countryside can be met.
If we are to import more and more of our food, it is even more urgent that we require honesty in food labelling by law. British consumers are entitled to know where the food they buy comes from and how it was produced. British farmers are entitled to know that when food grown abroad—often to lower environmental and animal welfare standards—is sold in British shops, consumers will be informed of the differences between British methods of production and those overseas. Why are the Government so afraid of what Brussels might say that they continue to shirk their duty to consumers and producers alike on the vital question of labelling?
Will the Minister confirm that, because of the Government's failure in yet another computer project, farmers are likely to suffer severe cashflow problems? The Rural Payments Agency will be unable to make payments due to farmers when the single farm payment comes in, because of the Government's failure to complete the necessary preparations.
Why on earth have the Government not abolished the over-30-month scheme? Even the European authorities now accept without qualification that British beef is safe, but Ministers are unwilling to take the action that is needed to relieve our beef producers of a burden that could and should have been lifted a considerable time ago.
Will the Minister confirm the report in The Daily Telegraph today about the European Commission's refusal to allow two thirds of Britain's claim for help with the costs of foot and mouth disease? It appears that British taxpayers must pay an extra £600 million towards the £8 billion cost of foot and mouth disease because the Government refused to respond to the outbreak in a timely and prompt manner. The House will recall that in the last few days of February 2001 and the first three weeks of March 2001, my colleagues and I constantly urged the Government to take the steps, such as bringing in the Army, that were needed to bring foot and mouth disease under control. Because the Prime Minister did not want to admit the scale of the crisis in the run-up to the general election, he refused to act until forced to do so in the face of overwhelming evidence. That failure—those lost weeks during which I and others set out day after day exactly what needed to be done—cost our farmers, the countryside, the tourism industry and the country very dear. Today we learn that it will cost the taxpayer another £600 million on top of the billions of pounds already wasted. If the Minister says just one thing when he winds up, will he say sorry to all those people who suffered because of the way in which the Government bungled the handling of foot and mouth disease?
The Government now propose an integrated rural agency. That proposal will weaken both the important statutory functions carried out by English Nature and the rural advocacy role performed by the Countryside Agency. I do not believe that making greater use of regional development agencies to deliver rural services will help the countryside or the people who live and work there.
That is an interesting assertion. When I met senior officials from English Nature recently, they said exactly the opposite. They were very concerned that their statutory role—an important role that has been carried out from time to time in defiance of ministerial wishes—will be weaker after the changes that the Government propose. For the reasons that I have mentioned, we have reservations about the proposed Bill and we hope that the promised pre-legislative scrutiny will provide the Government with the chance of a rethink.
We support the principles behind the animal welfare Bill, although we have some concerns about the extent to which it will give Ministers powers to act through secondary legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden will refer in more detail to the clean neighbourhoods and environment Bill when she winds up later. Those measures are certainly necessary. Fly-tipping has increased by two fifths since 2001, littering increased by 12 per cent. last year, and the number of abandoned vehicles increased by 39 per cent. in two years. Unlike the present Government, we will take environmental crime seriously and we will start by making fly-tipping an arrestable offence.
I now turn to what was not in the Queen's Speech. There was a serious omission from the programme, which I hope the Minister will address: the absence of a marine conservation Bill. Will he explain the reason for that extraordinary omission? Is it, as many people fear, that his Department has simply been outgunned by the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry? If so, it is another worrying sign that on environmental matters the Government are all talk and lack real commitment. The Bill is urgently needed and, if introduced, would have our support.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Randall, who has worked tirelessly on that subject. His early-day motion 171 in the last Session attracted the support of about half the Members of the House. Both that early-day motion and his private Member's Bill in 2001 enjoyed all-party backing, as well as the endorsement of many outside organisations, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the World Wildlife Fund, the wildlife trusts and the Marine Conservation Society. It also enjoyed endorsement from the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. The absence of any marine equivalent to the sites of special scientific interest, despite the fact that more than half our biodiversity is in the marine environment, is scandalous. Furthermore, a marine spatial planning framework would enable rational decisions to be made about the priorities to be attached in different places to development, nature conservation, fisheries and so on. The Government's attitude to that Bill is a litmus test of whether they take environmental issues seriously. What the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality says this afternoon will show whether the Government have passed or failed that test.
I turn to a subject that did get a mention in the Queen's Speech: climate change. I am pleased that the Prime Minister intends that to be a theme of both Britain's chairmanship of the G8 and our presidency of the EU, but I should be much more pleased if he backed his fine words with a bit of action. On climate change, so far the Government have been all talk. Let us consider carbon dioxide emissions, on which Britain is committed to a reduction of 20 per cent. by 2010. Up to 1997, under the last Conservative Government, carbon dioxide emissions were falling; over the first six years of the Labour Government, they have risen. Unless there is an urgent policy change, Britain has no chance of meeting its targets for cutting carbon dioxide emissions.
To make matters worse, the Prime Minister has failed to show the international leadership that Baroness Thatcher provided—[Hon. Members: "You're joking!"] It is a very, very instructive response that Members on the Treasury Bench say that I am joking when I refer to Baroness Thatcher's contribution on the issue of climate change. The guffawing is a disgrace to the Minister and it will be an embarrassment to his right hon. Friend Mr. Meacher, who played a distinguished role in trying to get the Government to take the issue seriously. These proceedings will be watched and listened to carefully outside this place and a number of the distinguished non-governmental organisations working in the environmental field, some of which I am about to quote, will have noticed what the Minister said and did a few moments ago.
When my noble Friend Baroness Thatcher was Prime Minister, she was the first Head of Government of any substantial country to take the issue of climate change seriously. What a tragedy it is that, 15 years later, the Minister whom the Secretary of State has sent to address the debate—the monkey sent by the organ grinder who is absent this afternoon—on these important issues, fails to recognise that.
The Prime Minister has failed, too, to use his unique relationship with President Bush to persuade the United States Administration to address the issue of climate change constructively. As Stephen Tindale of Greenpeace said recently:
"The Prime Minister can no longer be given the benefit of the doubt. So far his record on climate change is almost entirely a record of fine words and no action. His repeated failure on this issue is undermining his diplomatic efforts . . . Fancy speeches are not enough."
Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth was equally forthright:
"The leadership position of the country is jeopardised by the position at home."
He went on to say that
"Britain's credibility is essentially derived from the policy choices taken by the Conservatives in the 1980s."
His predecessor at Friends of the Earth, Charles Secrett, summed it up when he said:
"Blair thinks he can get away with boosting his green credentials by making a big speech every year on climate change. When it comes to putting his own house in order it's always business as usual."
The hon. Gentleman appears to pray in aid the comments of Stephen Tindale of Greenpeace for the position of the Conservative party. Greenpeace has been strongly pursuing the issue of wind energy and the need for its increased supply both on and offshore. Does he accept that, as his party has been at the forefront in opposing any move forward on wind energy, off or onshore, his protestations about the Conservative position on global warming are rather hollow?
If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would have heard that I was praying Stephen Tindale in aid as a harsh critic of the Government's complete failure seriously to address the question of climate change. We are not opposed to wind power or wind farms in principle; what we are opposed to is the Government's attitude that wind farms are to be imposed on local communities regardless of the wishes of the people who live and work there. We are concerned that through planning policy statement 22, a situation will arise that is analogous to the way in which the Deputy Prime Minister sits in Whitehall saying to one county after another, "You have to build x thousand homes, no matter what the local needs are and no matter how the local environment will suffer". Just as he sits in London making orders about where development should take place, so the Government plan to use a similar method for the siting of onshore wind farms, simply ignoring the concerns of local people.
The truth is that wind farms can appropriately be sited in some parts of the country where they will have the full support of local communities, and we are happy for them to be in those areas. However, we shall continue to fight against two things: first, the imposition, against people's wishes, of wind farms where they may be environmentally damaging; and, secondly, the Government's absolute fixation that onshore wind is the only form of renewable energy that is worth supporting.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the tremendous record of Baroness Thatcher on climate change, which is in stark contrast to that of the Prime Minister. We could also contrast the Prime Minister's record with that of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition. He paid a significant personal role in persuading President Bush senior to sign up to the Rio convention, unlike the Prime Minister who has exacted absolutely zero—nothing—in return for his grovelling approach to the United States.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, yet all we hear from the Labour Benches is laughter. I want to place on record the fact that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Jamieson) is guffawing at my hon. Friend's comments.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition paid a key part in getting the United States to sign the Rio treaty, from which a great many environmental benefits have directly flowed. Had he not taken the trouble to go to Washington and to spend time trying to bring the US into that process, the US would never have signed the treaty. That is in absolutely stark contrast, as my hon. Friend Gregory Barker pointed out, to the Prime Minister, who, given his relationship with President Bush, has a unique opportunity to take steps to bring the US Administration into the process. He has utterly and completely failed to do so and it will be one of the biggest stains on a heavily stained record—when he eventually leaves office—that he did not take that opportunity.
In the transport sector, the Government's efforts to encourage greener practices are pitiful. The Conservative party is looking at how we can encourage a much faster switch to more environmentally friendly vehicles. We have already advocated colour-coded licence disks so that the public can instantly recognise which vehicles are environmentally friendly and which are not. We are now examining how the tax system can be used much more extensively to encourage the purchase and the use of greener cars. We want Britain to be in the forefront of the trend, which is already under way, for hybrid vehicles that do not run at all times on fossil fuels.
Aviation is the fastest growing single source of carbon-dioxide emissions in the transport sector. It is an area where international leadership is desperately required to move the world towards recognition of the need for an agreement on an aviation fuel tax—leadership which Britain could provide if we had a Government who took climate change seriously.
Progress in curbing emissions from aircraft depends on international agreement, and sadly the Government have neglected this subject entirely. One step forward would be the inclusion of aviation within the EU emissions trading scheme. Why on earth are the Government giving the go-ahead for further expansion of runway capacity in south-east England before agreement has even been reached on a robust European emissions trading regime for aviation? The Department for Transport's own survey in 2002 shows that only one person in eight is aware of the link between aviation and climate change. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has commented that
"rapid growth in air transport is in fundamental contradiction to the Government's . . . goal of sustainable development."
On this issue, the Government are not even all talk; they are no talk. Surely it would be a start if air travel documents contained information similar to that which now appears in car advertisements, disclosing the emissions that the relevant flights caused. [Laughter.] Once again, let us just place it on the record that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport thinks that the problem of carbon dioxide emissions from aviation is a hysterically funny matter—[Interruption.] I have to say these things because I cannot be sure that Hansard will pick them up, but I am absolutely certain that those people who are concerned about this issue outside will note, not just with interest but with dismay, the frivolous way in which the Minister is taking this whole subject.
Home energy efficiency is another crucial aspect of the solution to climate change, and it is another area where the Government's approach has been lacklustre. The domestic sector accounts for a quarter of all UK carbon dioxide emissions, largely from heating homes and generating electricity for appliances. Households could cut their bills by one third through energy efficiency measures.
Under pressure from the Conservative party and others, amendments to the recent Housing Bill, now the Housing Act 2004, have finally forced the present Government to accept a target for improving domestic energy efficiency equivalent to that set under the last Conservative Government. The next Conservative Government will make it easier for homes to be powered by clean, green, renewable energy and to save on energy consumption. Fiscal instruments can promote those aims, whether in the form of lower stamp duty for energy-efficient homes—an option that we are now examining—or through council tax concessions for tenants and owners who have invested to make their homes more energy efficient. The scheme pioneered by Centrica with Conservative-led Braintree district council, under which householders who install cavity wall insulation can claim a £100 council tax rebate, is a good model that could be replicated elsewhere. More could be done in the social housing sector too, where faster progress is needed to bring all social housing up to an energy-efficient rating of 65, to reduce fuel poverty and to comply with the law.
Another area of Government neglect is micro-generation. To realise the enormous potential that that could make, changes to the distribution network would be needed, and discussions with the industry and with Ofgem about how to promote those changes should be under way now. The role that combined heat and power schemes can play has been well demonstrated in Woking, and it is disappointing that that model has not been more widely followed.
That leads directly to the topic of renewable energy. The Government's fixation, which I mentioned, with covering our countryside with onshore wind farms at the expense of encouraging other renewable energy technologies is undermining both our ability to raise the proportion of Britain's energy derived from renewable sources and our chances of gaining a commercial advantage by leading the world in the development of offshore wind, wave and tidal power. Our island status gives us a big natural advantage, which Ministers are busy throwing away.
Biofuels and biomass could also make a bigger contribution than they currently do, and at a time when farm output is likely to fall, biofuels could take up some of the slack. If that is to happen, more encouragement, whether in the form of a further duty cut or through a renewables transport fuel obligation, is needed. As usual from a Government who are all talk, nothing is happening.
There are other matters in the Queen's Speech with which my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden will deal in her winding-up speech. In conclusion, let me just say that the issues for which the Department for Transport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are responsible affect every family and every business in the country. They affect Britain's reputation abroad and the influence we can exercise, as well as our ability to attract new investment and to compete internationally. Sadly, the failure of Ministers, from the Prime Minister downwards, to tackle these challenges with the urgency needed is damaging our economy, our environment and the quality of life of every man, woman and child in the country. Instead of action, we have consultation. Instead of decisions, we have delay. Instead of leadership, we have posturing. This is a Government who are all talk, and they must be replaced at the earliest opportunity.
This Government have always accepted that transport is not only essential, but one of the foundations of an efficient and a growing economy. Because of the amounts of money that have gone into transport in the last seven years, noticeable changes are now taking place. I am sad to note, however, that the Queen's Speech is lacking some of the practical measures that we had rather hoped to see. Before my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench get unaccountably used to my telling them how marvellous they are, perhaps I might remind them that there are a great many things left to do.
One of the hazards that the Government encounter stems from the fact that they have a lot of energetic desires and good intentions but have frequently, after starting on a policy, shied away from exercising the required strength of enforcement. Let us look at some of the difficulties. Transport is not only highly complex; it is fragmented, it is confronted with all sorts of contradictory laws and it frequently seems to absorb large amounts of money for many years before it produces any practical or positive result.
The railways Bill is a long overdue acknowledgment that the Strategic Rail Authority was set up in the wrong way, was not given enough powers, did not have enough clean lines of policy to enable it to take action and, I am sorry to say, in many instances seemed to regard a certain degree of empire building as a substitute for clear and effective policies. The fact that the Department is now acknowledging that it needs to take direct responsibility for railways into the Department is not only very welcome but a clear indication that if taxpayers are going to continue to invest large sums in railways, they expect to see positive results.
We should pay tribute to those people working in the industry who have managed to bring about distinct improvements, certainly over the last 18 months, in running times and in the general level of safety. It is sad that the publicity that attends any terrible rail accident frequently gives a distorted view of how safe the rail industry is, and it is very important to emphasise that it is still the safest means of transport, and that many hundreds of thousands of people use it every day precisely because they have that confidence in it.
I hope that when we discuss the railways Bill we shall look rather harder at franchises, because at the moment there is no competition governing their award. In future, we must insist on much tougher enforcement of the standards that the passengers want.
My Committee has just returned from Korea and Japan, and it is chastening to see the high standards of efficiency in the rail industries in both those countries. The people who work in those industries are proud and immaculately turned out, the stations are immaculate and the tickets cost about a 16th of what we pay. I pay about 10 times more to go from Euston to Crewe than the cost of an equivalent train ticket on the Korean railways. Although the rolling stock was the same in theory, as it had been built by and bought from the same French company, no one would recognise the trains as equal in any way.
The Korean trains were immaculate, efficient and comfortable. All of them worked and they did not have stinking loos or galleys that refused to work so that the staff eternally face the difficulty of not being able to carry out their tasks properly, yet they were exactly the same product as ours in theory. The difference was that the Korean rolling stock industry had realised that defects existed in those trains and had taken them virtually back to the bogies and started all over again. The result was so impressive that I frequently feel that we ought to return to the days when British engineers could produce all our own rolling stock with the high quality of care that we need.
The railways Bill will give us the opportunity to match up the promises of those in the private sector and the constant cry that they are eternally investing in the railway industry with what actually happens. That is not the way that things are currently perceived by passengers, and the need to explain to some of those companies that they require to offer a much higher standard of commitment to their passengers and a very much higher standard of management is long overdue. The general level of management is not acceptable.
I want to deal with some of the lacunae in the Queen's Speech. Why is there nothing about ports? We are an island nation, and there is a very urgent need for new deep-sea container capacity in the south and east of England. The Dibden rejection sent shockwaves through the maritime and logistics industry, and major shippers have been agitating for certainty to give them confidence that new capacity will be added. When will we get the decision on Shell Haven? We cannot conceivably continue without one. The west coast of America is already suffering from the fact that its ports are so congested that they are unable to deal with the amount of trade coming in every week across the Pacific, and we will rapidly reach exactly the same stage.
I had the honour of opening two deep-sea berths at Felixstowe last week, and one of the parliamentary occasions that I shall treasure for the rest of my life is standing under a swaying gantry with a very large metal TEU container gently balanced over my head, to be told by the managing director that, for health and safety purposes, only he and I would be allowed to walk down the dock. However, that was an interesting example of the fact that those at Felixstowe recognise that we need a new generation of deep-sea berths to deal with the increasing size of the new container ships. At the moment, there is an astonishing lack of indication of where such space will be found.
Our marine industry competes on a global scale. It must deal not just with the snail-like pace of development in Europe, but the £7 million-plus subsidy that UK port users pay to maintain the Irish Lights, which may sound like an interesting bit of meat; but, in fact, as Ministers will know, we have recently got ourselves into negotiation with the Irish Government over the payments that we make to them for controls over the Irish Lights that, frankly, could be much more usefully used elsewhere and make an enormous difference to the cost of running our own ports industry.
Let us look very carefully at why there is no obvious master plan in relation not only to the movement of goods back and forth from ports, but to the provision of roads and railways, including gauges. There are practical, logistical problems that, before long, will push us into the situation where we will be unable to move goods at the speed that we require into and out of our ports system. That will have a direct effect on our economy throughout the United Kingdom, and it is not safe to leave matters until we are suddenly confronted by congestion. We need to take those decisions now, and we need to improve the situation.
We should also look carefully at some of the suggestions in the Queen's Speech about the passenger transport executives. The past few years have shown very clearly not only that PTEs are one of the few bits of the transport industry in which people are thinking ahead and putting in place efficient passenger transport, but that they are using their own money in a more much more exciting and imaginative way to develop rail services and to co-ordinate the various different kinds of rail system—light rail, trams and other facilities.
Of course, the PTEs will sometimes run ahead of themselves and find that they demand many millions of pounds of the Government's money without being able to justify the costs that they suddenly face, but they are one of the few groups of people in the country who are thinking ahead. Before we take away from them the right to decide what happens to the rail franchises in their own industry, we should examine carefully whether that will improve the system or make it worse. We cannot talk about devolving power to the regions, while saying that we will take away a very basic planning power from the PTEs. That is not sensible, and we will definitely be sorry for it in the future.
The railways Bill will give us the opportunity to talk about many of those things and the way that they integrate. When the Government get to the point where they could give a clear indication of their view, however, they frequently step back for fear of upsetting the general public, but that notion is not necessarily justified by what people say to their elected representatives.
When people talk about road safety, for example, they accept that road safety laws are directly related to the safety of the individual. They know that 10 people a day are killed on the roads. The general public will therefore become bewildered by the suggestion that some road safety laws on speeding should be relaxed. The faster a car goes, the quicker and more efficiently it kills people. That is not a difficult recipe to understand—most people can get it—but it means that someone who drives over even quite a basic speed limit is more likely to have a lethal effect. We ought to be prepared not only to defend our views on that, but to keep shouting them from the roof tops, even if doing so makes us extraordinarily unpopular with the motoring lobbies and the manufacturing industry. That is basic and important.
My Committee has made a number of recommendations on road safety, one of which stems from the fact that the Home Office has removed traffic enforcement from the core responsibilities of chief constables. Every county force should have as one of its basic tenets the responsibility to enforce the law. That includes traffic law, speeding and the general policies of road safety. At the moment, that is not the case.
The Home Office expects us to accept many encroachments on our civil rights—I will have something to say about identity cards on another occasion—but it does not seem to think it necessary to consider basic issues such as providing enough traffic policemen to make sure that it is safe to use the roads in urban areas and the motorways. That is not a small thing; it is a major failure. We should have specially trained motor vehicle policemen, and responsibility for this issue cannot be delegated. I trust that the Government will think carefully about it and talk harshly to the Home Secretary about his inability to see that the policies that I have described will transform the position on road safety and deal with the problems that we face.
I also want to say a little about buses. The majority of complaints that I receive in my postbag are about buses, but we rarely talk about them here because, after all, nearly all the people who write to me are women. They tell me, "I have a part-time job in a hospital and I am incapable of getting there on time or home in a civilised manner, because my local bus service is never on time and never guaranteed to turn up. It is not only becoming more and more expensive, but more and more irregular." We should therefore consider why we allow such problems to occur on a day-to-day basis.
Mr. Yeo spoke about the success of the National Express system and about how deregulating it had produced such an efficient and high-quality service. Such a view can stem only from a party that never talks to people who use the service or never uses it itself. I shall cite one example. The National Express bus from Wakefield to London has, over the past five weeks on a Sunday night, been anything from two hours to five hours late. Its drivers change halfway along, but not in a service station but by standing in a lay-by. They do not allow any of their passengers to get off, although the drivers frequently leave the vehicle for a smoke. I am assured that, last Sunday, a 16-year-old who did not realise that she could not get off the bus and who went to buy a can of drink was refused entry back on to the bus by the driver even though she had no shoes on. He not only berated her in extraordinarily sharp terms but physically refused to let that child rejoin the bus until he was shouted at by the other passengers. That is the level of care that we are talking about for passengers. It is about time that we stopped talking in general terms about how efficient our transport industry is and recognised that we face real problems at every level.
I believe that the Secretary of State is not only strongly committed to a properly organised transport industry, but has been enormously successfully in obtaining the moneys to back that up. Frankly, however, unless that is equalled by an industry in which the staff are properly trained and there is research and development into improving safety and the way that the industry develops, we shall continue to look as though we are spending more and more money on a worse and worse service. That is not always the case, but that is the way that the general public perceive it. We should be worried by that.
Let us have a good railways Bill and a much more sensible discussion about transport, but let us also understand that, for the majority of the people in the United Kingdom, the provision of a decent, clean, prompt bus that meets an efficient, swift and reasonably cheap railway is not an indulgence. It is a basic fact of economic life. The sooner we get it right, the sooner the general public will thank us.
It is always a pleasure to follow Mrs. Dunwoody, who is an expert on transport matters and particularly the railways. As I listened to her experiences on the Korean railways, I reflected that my experience this morning was somewhat different. I benefited from what might be called heritage rolling stock on the way from Lewes to Victoria—slam-door speciality trains that are probably good for the environment in the sense that they were completely unheated and many of the lights were not working. To be fair to the rail industry and the Government, new rolling stock is coming along but some trains that are still running on our tracks should clearly have been phased out a long time ago.
This debate is one of the rarities in which we can talk on the Floor of the House about the environment. I am sorry to say that there are too few such debates because they are often shared with transport. Environment and transport are inextricably linked and that is one reason why I was disappointed that the Government broke up the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which was a useful innovation in bringing together interconnected parts of government. After the election, I hope that the Government will reflect on this issue and consider whether a department of energy, environment and transport would make more sense in tackling climate change in a co-ordinated and joined-up fashion. I have a lot of time for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but it is a minor Department. Although it has much expertise, if the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry decide that they do not want to go along with DEFRA, they will win. That is not always in the interests of the environment.
The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality looks quizzical but, if he wants a list of examples in which DEFRA has been outvoted by the DTI, I am happy to provide him with one. The European Union emissions trading scheme is the most recent example. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs put out a press release welcoming the fact, on behalf of the environment, that we would increase the carbon emissions covered by the scheme.
There have been only two substantive debates about the environment on the Floor of the Commons this Parliament, and both have taken place in the very few Liberal Democrat Opposition days. That is a very sad state of affairs. We were to have such a debate on one of the Tories' Opposition days but, at the last moment, they changed the subject from climate change to opposing wind farms, so we were not able to have a proper debate on that occasion.
As Sir David King has said, climate change is the most serious threat that we face. Indeed, the Prime Minister has endorsed that view. As Sir David pointed out, it is more serious than terrorism. However, the Queen's Speech contains many Bills that purport to deal with terrorism—I agree with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich that some of them, such as that on identity cards, do not deal with it—but it contains nothing at all to do with climate change unless one takes the view that the Bill on Crossrail will do that. The Government seem to be creating a climate of fear rather than dealing with climate change.
Carbon emissions are up since 1997. The Government are clearly going to miss their 20 per cent. reduction target by 2010, and I say that in sorrow rather than anything else. There is still time, if they were to adopt radical policies, for the target to be met, but it is looking less and less likely. Indeed, the indicators for carbon emissions are going in the wrong direction.
The Prime Minister has said that he wants to make tackling climate change a priority in the British presidencies of the European Union and the G8. I very much welcome that statement, but it is important that it is followed up by specific proposals. The presidencies are not simply an international platform to make positive-sounding speeches about climate change let alone to lecture the rest of the world. Action must be taken at home to underpin the Prime Minister's statements on the international stage and the Government must have specific proposals for the EU and G8.
The Government have not stated publicly what their specific aims for climate change will be in the EU and G8 presidencies. I understand that they will be subject to negotiation; it would not bode well for the Government to say that other countries must come up with these outcomes. Nevertheless, some indication as to where they are going would be helpful. Perhaps the Minister in his reply will say something about that broad picture.
It would be useful to know whether the Government feel that they have to go back to square one because they feel that they have to get the Americans on board and accept the science of climate change. God help us. Everyone else accepts it; the Bush Administration do not. Or do the Government work on the basis that the US Administration have accepted the science even if they have not articulated that fact and that we move to reach outcomes from that? What outcome on climate change do the Government want from the EU and G8 presidencies? That is my most important question. The Minister is scribbling furiously. I hope that he is writing that down so that he can respond to it.
The sad fact is that we have a problem with the US Administration in particular. It is not sufficient to rely on a bottom-up approach to solve that. A great deal is happening in the US. I do not want to diminish that. Nine north-eastern states are coming together to consider emissions trading. They have been in touch with DEFRA for advice on how that can be carried out. That is an encouraging sign. A great deal of innovation is going on in the US with the hydrogen economy and so on. It is not the resistance of the US per se, but the resistance of the US Administration. The Prime Minister should make more of his so-called special relationship to make progress on climate change. If he does not, we will conclude that the relationship is special because we give everything and get nothing in return from President Bush.
Either the Prime Minister has not been raising climate change with President Bush, which would be a gross dereliction of duty, or he has been raising it constantly and has been rebuffed every time. Which of those is true? I fear it is the latter, which does not say much for the Prime Minister's influence with the American Administration on this key issue.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is necessary to get the United States on board in meeting the Kyoto protocol if only because it has 5 per cent. of the world's population and is responsible for 25 per cent. of harmful emissions?
Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The US is key to any long-term international solution. Whether we like it or not, we cannot have a solution internationally unless the US is part of it. That is why the negotiations in the G8 and EU will be so important.
One of the ways forward is based on the principle of contraction and convergence—in other words, reducing overall greenhouse emissions while moving towards a situation in which there is parity per head of population across the world over a longer period of time. That is not only equitable but has the advantage of possibly bringing the US on board.
The US had two objections to Kyoto. One was that it might damage the US economy. The Government could make a fair case to the US that we can decouple emissions from gross domestic product. In fact, this Government over the past few years and, to be fair, the Tory Government in their last few years in power have demonstrated that it is not necessary to have an increase in energy or emissions to move forward economically. That link has been broken. The second objection was that some countries were left out. The principle of contraction and convergence has the benefit of getting around that as well. I hope that that will be part of the Government's negotiations in the months ahead in the G8 and directly with the US Administration.
The Government's record on the environment is patchy. I do not want to pretend that it is all bad; it is not. I might get into trouble for saying this, but if I were a fair and neutral observer I would judge that that record is preferable to the one that they inherited from the Conservative Government. However, there is one major way in which they are failing on the environment, as linked to climate change, and that is in the Department for Transport. Even more than the Treasury and the DTI, the Department for Transport has the capacity to deliver real progress on the environment and has singularly failed to do so.
Greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector are up 47 per cent. since 1990. That is simply unacceptable and intolerable if we are to tackle climate change. We need reductions, not an increase of 47 per cent. Emissions from road transport are up 13 per cent. since 1990. Emissions from aviation are up enormously. The Government predict that between 2002 and 2010, there will be a further 33 per cent. increase in carbon emissions from aviation and an 83 per cent. increase by 2020. We simply cannot go on with that or with the Department for Transport's predict-and-provide approach to aviation. That has been discredited in other forms of transport and in, for example, waste management. Why do the Government not have a policy to limit aviation expansion rather than simply provide for what the industry says it thinks it needs in the years ahead?
We need a modal shift in transport, for example from air to rail. Short-haul flights cause more damage per mile to the environment than long-haul flights because of the fuel and so on used in taking off and landing and the increasing need for planes to circle over London waiting for spaces to land. We also need a modal shift from road to rail. We do not get that by unlimited expansions of the road network, to pick up a point made by, I think, the Secretary of State.
I take issue with the Conservative party and Mr. Yeo in particular, who at the Conservative party conference said:
"To tackle congestion, I'll expand the road network."
Under his Government, the report in the early 1990s of the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment demonstrated conclusively that expanding the road network encourages more vehicles to go more miles and therefore consume more resources and emit more pollution. During the Opposition day debate on wind farms, I challenged the hon. Gentleman on what he said at the conference. He replied:
"Technology opens the door for us to allow people to use their cars as they wish."—[Hansard, 25 October 2004; Vol. 425, c. 1210.]
To some extent, I agree that technology has a major role to play in reducing emissions. That is right, but there is no point making gains from technology on the one hand while on the other making matters worse by encouraging more vehicle movements by what seems to be an unlimited expansion of the road network.
On the increase in traffic, does the hon. Gentleman accept that some evidence now suggests—I do not dispute the conclusions of the report to which he referred—that the growth in traffic was the result of more people getting driving licences? We have almost reached saturation point on that. A much larger proportion of women have driving licences today than 20 years ago, which means that some of that growth in traffic was the result of more people being qualified to drive.
That is undoubtedly an element, and I am happy to accept that, but the more roads we provide and the more road capacity we produce, the more we encourage people to switch from rail to road or to make longer journeys. People now commute from Sussex to places like Watford because of the M25. They would not have dreamt of doing so before. It is possible to argue that that brings a freedom which was not available previously, but it has an environmental cost as well.
People in my constituency are clamouring for the dualling of the A27 between Lewes and Polegate—it is not a Government proposal—at a cost to the taxpayer of more than £100 million. A parallel railway service is underused. It could take up some of the slack. A parking scheme, which is not quite a congestion charge, has been introduced in Lewes. As a consequence of my negotiations with the rail company, season ticket fares between Eastbourne, Polegate and Lewes have reduced by a third. The second measure has resulted in a 35 per cent. increase in season ticket sales on that line. It is perfectly possible, using economic measures, to shift from road to rail when the conditions are right. The idea that we can simply build our way out of problems is discredited. We tried that for 100 years. It does not work. Traffic jams are worst in, for example, Birmingham, which probably has more roads per head of population than anywhere else. We need a different approach to roads.
Someone asked about Liberal Democrat policy on that. We are not in favour of a massive expansion in the road network. We are in favour of the budget that the Government have and accept that cases for expansion may be made, perhaps for bypasses when there is a particular environmental problem. We are not in favour of a big expansion of inter-urban roads. The days of that need to be brought to an end.
My hon. Friend John Thurso has rightly championed the issue of road user pricing. There is a debate about how quickly that can be introduced. The Secretary of State intervened when that matter was raised earlier. There is no doubt that in the longer term or even the medium term, charging motorists based on the environmental performance of their vehicle, where they are driving and when they are driving, which relates to the amount of congestion on the road, has to be fairer, more equitable and environmentally preferable. It means that we could eliminate the problems that we have at the moment; for example, people in the north of Scotland, who are dependent on their cars because they have no alternative, pay far more for petrol than people in Edinburgh or London, where there is competition. It does not make sense environmentally to have cheaper petrol where there is a public transport alternative, and very expensive petrol where there is not.
A road user pricing scheme would be able to factor in such information and come up with a more equitable system. Of course, that could—and, in my view, should—end up in the abolition not only of road tax but of fuel tax. My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross would not forgive me if I did not use his soundbite: fair tax, not fuel tax. I will now be able to tell him that I have got that on the record.
In the short term we will need to look at the road tax bands. I pay tribute to the Government for basing road tax increasingly on emissions, but the bands at either end need to be widened. The top band does not reflect the damage done to the environment by, say, 4x4 vehicles, and there should be a greater economic incentive to drive cleaner, greener vehicles than there is at present.
One of the problems with transport over 30 years has been the signals sent out, on cost, to the public about the mode of transport that they should choose. Too many people see rail and bus services as the alternative for those who do not have a car, rather than their first choice. Part of the reason for that—I make no apology for raising this matter again—is that, according to the answer that I received from the Department for Transport on
Train fares are still going up. This year, a 1 per cent. above inflation increase will be allowed. We have to face up to the problem and link it with the development of infrastructure for the railways. At the moment, the railways are becoming congested. In a sense, that is a success story because it means that more and more people are using the railways, and I welcome that. The rail utilisation strategies being developed will give some extra space and make better use of the network, so we will get increased capacity out of that, but it is a short-term solution. I want to know from the Government what their strategy is for the next 10 to 15 years on the railways. They have so far failed to set that out. Is it to have further infrastructure investment, or are they going to price people off the railways, as British Rail sought to do in the late '80s and early '90s?
My party broadly welcomes the Railways Bill in the Queen's Speech. Many of its provisions have been advocated by my colleagues over the last two or three years. The Strategic Rail Authority spent a gigantic amount on consultancy fees over that period—one reason for its abolition, which we support—but if the Minister had simply read Liberal Democrat policy he could have saved all that money, because we made the suggestions, free of charge, which he has in any case taken up. He would have got better value from us than he got from the SRA.
We support the restructuring of the industry set out by the Government. That will deliver some benefits. I am not in favour of the mark 2 privatisation that the Conservatives appear to be advocating today for the railways: once bitten, twice bitten seems to be their way of approaching these matters. I do not think that that will commend itself to the public, but in the months ahead I am happy to argue with Tory politicians on political platforms—not railway platforms—the benefits or otherwise of reprivatisation, which seems now to be their policy for the railways.
I mentioned rail operating companies in an intervention on the Secretary of State, but he did not respond to that point except, obliquely, to say that discussions are taking place. Will the Minister of State say in his response exactly what discussions are taking place, with whom and about what? We all recognise that ROSCOs were the biggest rip-off in the Tory privatisation of the railways. They took a gigantic amount of money and have given very little in return. Talk about milch-cows—ROSCOs are the epitome of a milch-cow. If we are to get some value from the railway, we have to tackle that issue. At the very least, we ought to end that arrangement and let train operating companies buy their own rolling stock from now on. I would like the Government to come up with an innovative solution to the problem that we already have with ROSCOs creaming off lots of public money and giving very little in return.
On refranchising, it is right to move to longer franchises, a point that was touched on earlier. However, I draw to the attention of the Minister and Labour Back Benchers the example of South Eastern Trains, which, of course, is currently being run in the public sector and, it has to be said, is doing quite well. There is a value in keeping that franchise in the public sector, not least as a not-for-profit comparator, to allow some judgment to be made about how private sector franchises are doing. I do not know why the Government do not endorse that idea, particularly as South Eastern Trains is doing quite well and, I understand, about £100 million has already been spent on that refranchising exercise.
In principle, the Government's community rail strategy is sensible. It has to be right to try to encourage greater use of branch lines and it is right to involve the communities that those lines serve to try to increase patronage. The famous example is the Carlisle to Settle railway. There had, over many years, been an attempt to cut that line by closing stations and winding down the operation, but it was successfully turned around. Perhaps that is the model that the Government have in mind. I say to them, however, that I hope that this is not Beeching by the back door, a last chance for communities to demonstrate that their lines can make a fist of it economically. If it is Beeching by the back door, the Minister will face a mountain of resistance from local communities. This country wants an expansion of the rail network, not a contraction, and I hope that that message will be heard.
The community rail strategy should not simply be defensive, identifying existing lines and stations that might be boosted by being given greater patronage. A strategy worth its salt would also seek to reopen stations and lines. The Government ought to be identifying, say, 100 cheap schemes—cheap in railway terms—which could be implemented, bringing significant benefits to local communities. I can give the Minister a couple of examples from my constituency, with which, obviously, I am more familiar than elsewhere. There are three stations at Newhaven, all of which are run down, untidy and unwelcoming. They are an embarrassment for people who come from France on the Dieppe ferry. They have no car parking; they have no proper public transport interchange. It would be possible to have one brand new station, realised, to a large extent, from the disposal of assets from the other stations, so it need not even cost a great deal. However, our atomised rail industry seems incapable of delivering that. That is the sort of small scheme, which would benefit not many people but a lot of my constituency, that the Government should be promoting up and down the country.
There are many such schemes. There is a head of steam—no pun intended—building up for the reopening of the Lewes-Uckfield railway line, which is supported by the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) and for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on the Labour Benches, by Charles Hendry on the Conservative Benches—he has been very active—by myself, for the Liberal Democrats, and by all local councillors, irrespective of political party. The scheme makes absolute sense.
An independent study commissioned by the county council recently established that the track bed has been largely maintained, so it would be very easy, comparatively speaking, to reopen that line. Yet it seems impossible to achieve anything with the rail industry that would make progress towards that end. Why is it so difficult to secure the reopening of a railway line which is supported by everybody in the local community, which is relatively low cost and which would bring tremendous economic, social and environmental benefits?
The advice that I give to Members is not to ask questions unless they know the answers to them, because the answer to that particular question is that I use the railway a great deal. I always travel by train to London; in seven years I have travelled by car once to this place. I use the local rail service to get to my surgeries in Newhaven and Seaford, so I am very familiar with Newhaven town station. I use the railway to get to my surgery in Polegate.
I would be happy to read out the train timetable if the hon. Gentleman wants me to do so, but that might be an imposition on the House. I very strongly support my rail services.
The hon. Gentleman suggests that one should not ask questions to which one does not know the answers, but I am sure that the House is keen to know the answers. How often in a year, then, does the hon. Gentleman go in and out of one of the three Newhaven stations?
If the hon. Gentleman wishes me to go through my diary and give him a specific answer to that question, I will try to do so. I make it a policy always to use the train where possible. Nine times out of 10 I take the train to my surgeries in Newhaven, which are once a month. I use the train a great deal more than many. As I said, I managed to secure reductions in fares along that line, and there has been a big increase in patronage as a consequence. I do not know why the hon. Gentleman raises the point. I am sure that he could find something on which to attack me more effectively; I do use the railways in my constituency.
I want the Government to reintroduce the rail passenger partnership fund in order that they can consider some of the schemes that I have mentioned. That little pot of money for the Department for Transport was welcome, but it is now gone. The schemes to which I have referred could have been funded out of it, with match funding from local councils and, dare I mention it, from regional government.
I want the Minister to consider the environmental impact of rail. I raise that seriously. The Civil Aviation Authority has a duty to look at economic, safety and environmental matters in relation to aircraft. The Office of the Rail Regulator, which was set up by this Government, looks at economic and safety issues but not environmental matters. That is a big omission that needs to be corrected. Will the Minister give an assurance that, as the Railways Bill progresses through the House, the Office of the Rail Regulator will be given a clear environmental duty?
I am happy to say that my policies and those of my hon. Friends are not muddled. I was not holding up the CAA as some shibboleth, but there is a need, as with Ofwat, Ofgem or whatever, to impose on an independent regulator an environmental duty. The Office of the Rail Regulator does not have that; there is a need for it.
Rolling stock on the railways is far more energy intensive than it was. That is one reason for the need for a big upgrade of electricity supply for the southern region. There is now a much greater use of energy, which is bad. Air conditioning on trains—information on trains uses more energy, too—is responsible for a gigantic use of energy. One might say that air conditioning and information on trains are welcome, but there has been no attempt by the rail industry seriously to reduce energy use as well as provide improvements for passengers. The rail industry needs to grasp that nettle.
I strongly agree with the Transport Secretary and the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich—I shall be nice to the hon. Lady if she is nice to me—that our railways are very safe. It is highly disappointing, therefore, that the media portray rail accidents, however horrific and tragic for the individuals involved, in such a way as to imply to the public that railways are not safe. They are safe. It is almost certain that, on the day of the last terrible accident near Newbury, in which seven or eight people died, more people died on the roads. Yet, we hear nothing about that in the newspapers. I ask the media to report such matters in a more rounded context. The consequence of such reporting over the past 20 or 30 years has been to push politicians of all parties into driving up rail safety to a degree that, in objective terms, is possibly beyond what is necessary. Meanwhile, road safety has largely been ignored, and that needs to be corrected.
I mentioned aviation; I hope that the Government will take that seriously. Their predictions on emission levels are unacceptably high. We need to bring aviation within the European emissions trading scheme as soon as possible. I do not know whether the Minister has a deadline for that, but he ought to have. We ought to be considering taxing freight on planes, too.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich mentioned buses. I prefer the London model—under which there is a central public body that determines which routes are appropriate and then allocates franchises from there—to the higgledy-piggledy mess elsewhere in the country. It is instructive that bus use in London is going up while, Brighton and Hove excepted, it is going down in much of the rest of the country.
On the environment generally, we welcome the principles behind the safer, cleaner, greener neighbourhoods set out in the DEFRA Bill, but providing penalties is one thing. It is important, but it is also important to ensure that environmental crimes are properly dealt with in the courts. It is crucial to have viable solutions to dissuade people from erring in the first place. We are rather short of such solutions. We still have fridge mountains. The Guardian and the Metro carried pictures yesterday of a huge fridge mountain near Manchester. We have an abandoned car mountain. There has been a 37 per cent. increase over the past two years in the number of abandoned cars, which is mainly because the Government chose to interpret the relevant directive in an unhelpful way. That made the end-user responsible, rather than the industry. We have a hazardous waste problem and a large battery hill is in the making. An EU directive requires 44 per cent. of batteries to be recycled, but we recycle less than 1 per cent. and have no recycling facilities in the country. That is a big problem for the Government. DEFRA has a habit of being behind EU directives—finding out at the last possible moment that it has to do something and coming up with a panicky solution that does not meet the requirements.
I hope that the Minister will be able to answer some of my points. I welcome the fact that we are debating the environment and transport. We must make a lot of progress on transport, for social and economic reasons but most of all for environmental reasons. Climate change is the biggest issue facing us; the transport sector is the biggest problem in the UK's meeting its targets. I want to hear some strategy from the Government to stop that 47 per cent. increase in transport emissions to which I referred. I have not yet heard it from the Secretary of State; perhaps the Minister will oblige when he replies.
I want first to respond to a point made by Mr. Yeo, who rather surprisingly claimed that Baroness Thatcher when Prime Minister was a great advocate of good environmental policies and a campaigner against global pollution. In one sense and in one sense only was that right. When she was Prime Minister, she closed down most of the mining industry and destroyed much of the manufacturing industry in this country. That was one reason why Mr. Gummer was able to proclaim that this country had met its carbon dioxide targets and that, indeed, it would improve on them: so much of the basis of British industry had been destroyed.
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously saying that the manufacturing industry has grown under this Government? All the jobs that have been created are in the service sector, not in our former manufacturing base.
I was not saying that at all; I was pointing out that when Baroness Thatcher was Prime Minister it was the start of the end for the mining industry and it took until 1992 for capacity in the industrial sector to reach what it had been in 1979. That was the simple point that I was making. If the hon. Gentleman wants to praise this Government for creating a record number of jobs throughout all sectors, I am sure that hon. Members would be willing to listen to him.
I shall discuss four important strategic aspects of transport where the Government have not quite got the balance right, although I agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport when he says that transport solutions are long term. They certainly are. Many of the decisions that are currently being made will be felt by people in this country and by the economy in 10, 15, 20, 25 or 30 years. It is important that we get them right. Politicians are not always used to thinking or acting over such long-term time horizons.
The first item that concerns me is aviation policy. For the benefit of the regions and the country, it is urgent and important that a third runway be built at Heathrow. The aviation White Paper neither rules it out nor rules it in, but explains that the problems of air pollution around Heathrow need to be investigated. A better approach would be to deal with the air pollution and build a third runway. As Norman Baker pointed out, there can be no benefit in getting people from this country to take short-haul flights to Schiphol, Paris and other European hubs. That causes more pollution than if they used Heathrow.
It is bad for the regional economies of the UK not to have access to the capital city via Heathrow, and it is bad for London, as a major world city, that Heathrow is losing a number of destinations. Even with the fifth terminal at Heathrow, there will be fewer destinations in 2005 than there were in 1995. That is not the case with Frankfurt, Charles de Gaulle, Schiphol, Copenhagen or the other major European airports. It is bad economically and environmentally, and I hope the Government will look at the capacity issue and, with real determination, speed up the building of a third runway.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody said what I had intended to say about capacity in the ports. Again, it is bad environmentally not to ensure that there is capacity in our deep-sea ports for the largest ships that go around the world. Ships are probably the most environmentally friendly form of transport. What sense does it make to restrict the capacity in this country so that ships have to offload in Rotterdam, Antwerp or elsewhere, transfer their cargo to containers and continue on ferries or through the channel tunnel? That is environmentally bad. The decision on Dibden was wrong and the Government need to make a quick decision to ensure that we have deep-water capacity elsewhere in the country.
We also need to make sure that the railway lines for freight and cargo from the ports are good, because people transporting goods in this country want speed. If the railway lines are in a poor state of repair, as those to some of our major ports are, and the trains go very slowly and cannot get to where they should go, or there is not the required capacity, those goods will be moved on to the roads. That would be a mistake. I hope the Government will speed up sorting out our future port capacity.
Road capacity is more controversial, I expect. I apologise for knowing this—I would have thought that the hon. Member for Lewes was the only anorak in the Chamber—but when the hon. Member for South Suffolk said that we had the worst record in Europe for motorway density, he was wrong. According to the EUROSTAT definition, we come 12th. The three countries in the European Union before it was expanded where motorway density is worse are Sweden, because most people do not want to go to the north of Sweden, Ireland and Greece. Our position cannot be good when we are competing with Germany, France and other countries that have more motorways.
One can deal with the problems of congestion by means of extra taxation on fuel or on road usage, but will that deal with the capacity in the system to transfer people and goods? I do not believe so. If we are only 12th in the EU in terms of capacity, we must have a much better balance between new road building—only £1.5 billion is currently spent on new roads, out of about £42 billion raised from the motorist—and extra taxes, which is essentially what congestion charging, road user charging or fuel duty escalators are. We have not got that balance right. We need to increase the capacity, and there must be a better balance of those measures.
Rather than use arcane and difficult measures such as motorway density, one can simply look at interurban congestion. The UK's transport problems are markedly different from those elsewhere in Europe. Every major city that is successful has congestion problems. This is the only country, by and large, with interurban congestion problems. We need to deal with it through capacity measures and possibly taxation.
Incidentally, I think the hon. Member for Lewes was quoting the Rocasta report from 1992. It is often used, and it is used by Governments who are in economic trouble. The economy is not doing well so they look for a report and they become green as a way of not investing in the transport infrastructure. The Rocasta report did not say that roads create traffic; it said that where new roads are built over estuaries or where there has previously been heavy congestion, more traffic will be generated. If new roads are built elsewhere, they do not necessarily generate traffic. I recommend that the hon. Gentleman reread the report.
Finally, the problem of the railways is related to a capacity issue but is a major strategic issue. The Transport Committee, on which I serve, produced a report not long ago entitled "The Future of the Railway", in which we considered the costs and structure of the railway and came up with some direct recommendations. The Railways Bill is not exactly what the Committee recommended, but it is probably halfway towards the integrated control that we wanted applied to the railways. In that report, we considered the costs of the railways, which a number of hon. Members have mentioned. Those costs have been increasing dramatically. I am not referring to straightforward investment such as the investment in the west coast main line, which I support.
We could not establish why costs had risen by two and a half or three times over the past three or four years. We established that there had probably been gold-plating on the part of the Health and Safety Executive to the tune of £750 million to £1 billion, which would not have protected as many people as could have been protected with the same sum. I say to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, who lectures those of us who represent Manchester on getting value for money out of the system, that I am not impressed that nobody can tell us where the £7 billion that will not go into investment over the next three or four years is going in extra costs on the railways. Other parts of the transport system are damaged by that money being taken away.
If one works it out quickly on the back of an envelope, probably a quarter of the growth in the economy is going into a black hole in the railway system. That is not satisfactory. I hope that during the discussions that we have on the Railways Bill, we will be able to talk not only about structures, but about getting value for that money and getting the railways back quickly to the level of efficiency that they were at in 1999–2000. Not only is that huge amount of extra money going into the railway system, but we are getting probably 10 to 12 per cent. less out of the system when it comes to punctuality and reliability. That is completely unacceptable. It is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to explain to us where the money is going and how we can return to standards that we were not satisfied with in 1999, before 2009 or 2008, which seem to be the latest estimates.
I support the Governments proposals to transfer powers over rail expenditure to passenger transport executives. I think that PTEs are a good thing. Hundreds of millions of pounds are spent each year on the northern railway system and on commuter services in large northern cities, and it would be better if the PTEs could control that money. They could make rational choices between rail, light rail or buses. That is good local democracy in action, rather than supporting a system merely because it has always been in place and is in a national pot.
I have some concerns about the detail that applies to Greater Manchester, which I know best. One concern is that when money is transferred to the PTEs, they will lose their right to sign franchises and to be cosignatories with the franchisees when they take up new railways. If we want a good integrated system that is quickly responsive to what people need in the greater urban conurbations in the north of England and elsewhere, that is much less likely to happen if we exclude the PTEs. The Secretary of State has given us one example that did not stop anything. A PTE was being slow in signing a franchise, which really did not affect its area. I hope that my right hon. Friend will have another look at that.
The Government set out their proposals in the White Paper as a response to problems in the greater urban areas. That does not apply to London. Basically, the Government are saying that if a congestion charge is introduced, they will give some control over buses and they will allow there to be a quality contract with the bus companies. It is not quite re-regulation, but they will allow more local control than at present. Passenger transport authorities and PTEs spend money supporting bus services over which they have no real control in terms of influencing services, and that is wrong.
My initial response is to welcome the Government's approach. The Transport Select Committee recently asked the Secretary of State whether section 124 of the Transport Act 2000 would be withdrawn. He said that it would not, although he might look again at the matter following further questions. Section 124 provides that before a PTA can introduce quality control—something approaching regulation of the buses—that has to be the only alternative. There has to be no other way. In effect, that leaves the real power in the hands of the private bus companies, which can say, "Yes, we will do this" and for a short period they can operate many more services in an area. That is not the only practical way of delivering services. It undermines the idea of having an integrated transport system.
Will the hon. Gentleman share with the House his views of the Manchester metrolink? Does he share my despair at the way in which it has been handled and is not going ahead?
I was about to mention the tram system in Manchester. I have said in Westminster Hall and in the Chamber that I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made the wrong decision in stopping the tram system in Manchester. Of course, it is reasonable to have concerns about costs. Any Secretary of State would be so concerned. Given that the costs had increased in November and December last year and that the detail of those costs was known in February of this year, it was not reasonable that no work was done in the Department for Transport. On
It is not the case—I respect my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for bringing this up—that more work should have been done before we set up a working party, on which my right hon. Friend Mr. Bradley sits. I hope that the working party will arrive at a positive conclusion. I cannot say strongly enough that if we want a decent transport system in Greater Manchester, buses in a deregulated system will not provide the answer. They are moving more and more on to densely populated corridors and away from peak times. It is not possible for shift workers to use them on Saturdays and Sundays or early in the morning and late in the evening.
Even in a regulated bus system—right hon. and hon. Members cannot be expected to know this—there is not sufficient capacity within bus corridors in Manchester to provide the capacity that could be made available by a tram system. The tram system will provide more capacity than the buses could ever provide. The Government proposals do not allow regulation of the buses. If we want to improve the environment and support the economy, we need a tram system. Nothing else will provide that support to Manchester.
This debate is also about local and devolved government affairs. Great cities like Manchester and Leeds should not have to go to a Secretary of State to ask, "Can we have a tram system?". When Manchester and Leeds last had tram systems—they were put on the streets 100 years ago—those cities took the decision themselves and paid for the systems out of local taxation. There is something fundamentally wrong with the balance between local decision making and taxation raised locally and central Government. This is not a criticism of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. A constitutional issue is raised when it is the Secretary of State for Scotland not approving a tram system in Manchester, when he cannot take the same decision over tram systems in Scotland. That is not a criticism of him, but something deep down in the constitution has gone wrong when that happens.
The rejection of the regional assembly by the people of the north-east gives the Government an opportunity to consider devolution. Devolution was not on offer to the people of the north-east; what was on offer was centralisation of local government, for which council tax payers in the north-east would have had to pay more. Therefore, devolution was not rejected. Now that the Conservatives are saying things that they would have described as loony and extreme in the 1980s about the future of local government and the powers and resources that it should have—I welcome them back into the fold of supporting local democracy—we should try to build an all-party consensus to deal with the structural problems of local government, because the present situation is not sustainable.
Power should be given back to local government, but there is a bigger problem because that will still not deal with the problems of regional inequalities and regional diversity. It cannot be right, and it is not sustainable, to carry on with the Barnett formula, when the reasons for it, beyond the politically expedient—reasons of poverty—when it was introduced by Lord Barnett in the 1970s have gone. There is no reason to carry on paying more to Scotland when it is in a better economic position than the north-east. That is not a sensible solution. The problems of regional inequality in the north-east, the north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside will not be dealt with until the unfair spatial expenditure in this country is dealt with, as well as the governance arrangements in local government.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in today's debate on the Gracious Speech, and it is a great pleasure to follow Mr. Stringer. He obviously speaks with great experience and authority about transport matters, as does Mrs. Dunwoody, but I shall not follow him down that path. He has made me realise, rather depressingly, that it is now 40 years since I first fought a parliamentary seat not many miles from his constituency. I also remember using trams quite regularly in Manchester, so that dates me quite well.
I want to speak about two important issues—first, one of the greatest international challenges that we face, and, secondly, one of the most difficult national challenges that we face. The first is climate change and how we must reduce harmful emissions, and the latter is the provision of housing in our country and the environmental implications of that.
I want to begin, perhaps unexpectedly for the Minister, by congratulating the Government on one achievement. We may have to look around to find the one achievement, but as I understand it the Government have already met the Kyoto protocol commitment to reduce greenhouse emissions. They were asked to reduce them on 1990 levels by 12.5 per cent., and I understand that since 1990 we have achieved a 14 per cent. reduction. If I was a cynic, I would be tempted to ask the Minister by how much those harmful emissions were reduced between 1990 and 1997 when the Kyoto commitment was made.
Before the hon. Gentleman is too complimentary about the Government, I point out that the Kyoto target relates to where the Government are between 2008 and 2012, and it is possible that they may go backwards before then.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I intended to add that caveat, and I will do so, but before I do, it is also fair to remind the House that the Government went further than the Kyoto commitment and pledged to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent. by 2010, and last year went even further and pledged themselves to a 60 per cent. reduction by 2050, although I suspect that not many of us will be around to see if that latter pledge is realised.
Of course, as the hon. Gentleman, whose speech I listened to carefully, said, in the last year for which I have figures, 2002–03, carbon dioxide emissions in Britain increased by 1.5 per cent. I do not know whether the Minister has the figure for last year, but I would be interested to know it. I have to say—we must all try to make a political point if we can—that the levels of carbon emissions are greater today than they were in 1997.
I want to make one point on aviation emissions. There has been a significant increase, and it is very worrying, but in fairness to the Government there must be not only EU agreement on reducing aircraft emissions, but international agreement. If we acted unilaterally, all that would happen is that Heathrow would get into economic trouble, and most planes, particularly from across the Atlantic, would merely fly to Schiphol airport. Rather like the Kyoto proposals on harmful emissions, there must be international agreement, and I hope that the Government will work for that. I am sure that they will.
On renewable energy and the Government commitment to ensure that 10 per cent. of electricity comes from renewables by 2010, I do not want to be depressing or pessimistic, but it is unlikely that that will be achieved. I hope that even at this late stage they will try to do so. Basically, they must increase the renewable input into the total electricity output by 1 per cent. per annum if they are to achieve that. I share the view of my hon. Friend Mr. Yeo that there seems to be too much reliance on wind farms and wind power. I am for wind power, but we must consider its environmental consequences, and there are clearly many parts of the country where it would be quite wrong to erect large-scale wind farms. We must develop solar, wave, tidal and geothermal energy, and biomass and biofuels. My criticism of the Government, which I echoed when the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs presented her White Paper, is that they should have targets for the different forms of renewable energy, rather than just relying on the global reduction.
Clearly, my next point is not the Government's responsibility, but what helps to deal with harmful carbon dioxide emissions is a plentiful supply and area of rainforests. The sad fact is that in the past 20 years the world has chopped down no fewer than 4.6 million sq km of rainforest, and we are really cutting off our nose to spite our environmental and ecological face. I know that this is not our problem, but the developed world has to help the developing world if we are to save our rainforests. I do not want to go further down that route, except to say that when I talk about having lost 4.6 million sq km of rainforest—and I am not metrically adjusted—I am talking about an area the equivalent of 11 times the size of our country.
On housing, I accept that whichever Government are in power, it is an intractable problem, which verges on the impossible, to provide the right land for housing needs. The nimby syndrome appears when Governments of whatever hue suggest that extra housing should be provided on site A rather than site B or site C.
The sad fact is—I do not want to exaggerate—that the housing market has almost collapsed in parts of the north of our country, while prices have rocketed in the south in general, and in the south-east in particular. The average price of a new home today in the northern regions of the country has broken into six figures—£100,000—whereas in London it is more than £250,000. Indeed, Barnet is not the most expensive borough—I think that that is the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea—but the average price of a new house in my constituency is almost £300,000, and the average for the borough as a whole is more than £280,000.
The problem must be grasped. The extent of the problem is borne out by one of the most remarkable statistics that I have ever come across: I knew that the population of our kingdom had increased by 4 million over the past 25 years, but I did not realise that the number of households had also increased by 4 million, owing to the demographic changes that are occurring all about us. Sadly, more and more families separate and break up. When I first entered politics, the typical British family could be described as a man and a wife with 2.4 children—incidentally, the 2.4 children have decreased to 1.6 children. With all the separations, divorces and remarrying that is taking place, it is probably better to describe the typical British family today as a child with 2.4 parents—I wish that I had thought of that description, but I did not.
I am greatly enjoying my hon. Friend's speech. Does he share my hope and enthusiasm that it is possible to do something positive to prevent family breakdown, which the Government loosely refer to as "household formation" in the context of the need for more housing, particularly by using the voluntary and community sectors? We do not have to be fatalistic and accept that the situation will get ever worse.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. I admire the interest that he takes in that area, in which I prefer not to trespass—particularly in this speech. Family break-ups are not the only reason why the number of households—or, to use an awful statistical term, dwelling units—has increased. People are living longer, so there are more widows and widowers, and—I do not want to exaggerate this point—some people can afford home ownership at an earlier age than of yesteryear, but certainly not in my constituency, because of the huge cost of new housing.
I want to say a few words about the alternatives. I cannot speak with authority about the Government's plans to increase housing provision in particular areas of the south-east—I do not know enough about Milton Keynes and would not presume to discuss the merits of Ashford in Kent. I hazard the opinion that the Thames gateway is one of the right places in which to provide extra housing. In the past, it badly needed economic regeneration, and that regeneration is now taking place.
I part company with the Government on their proposal to increase the supply of housing in what they call "the M11 corridor", from Cambridge down to London. If that comes about, it will be a devastating blow to the green belt policy, which protects our great conurbations. I must declare an interest: I was president of the London Green Belt Council for many years—when I became a Minister, it kindly made me an honorary member, because I could no longer remain as president. For the past 60 years, the green belt policy has been one of the most dramatically successful post-war planning policies. If the rules on establishing green belts are altered, the system will break down irretrievably. Although I understand the problems, I hope that this Government's policy is like that of all previous Governments in my lifetime. Until a few weeks ago, the Government stated that green belts are inviolable and should be protected.
The green belt is not the same as greenfield sites, because many greenfield sites are not part of the green belt. Given the choice, most people would, if they could afford it, like to have a house with a nice green field behind it and live in a semi-rural, rather than suburban, prospect. However, it would be naive for anybody to state that we can provide all the housing that we need by using brownfield sites. That is clearly not the case and some building must take place on greenfield sites.
I want to talk about an issue that is not peculiar to my constituency—it causes great consternation in outer London boroughs and, doubtless, in the suburban areas of other great cities and towns. The character of some pleasant suburban areas is being changed for the worse by developers, who buy up rather nice Victorian or Edwardian family homes, knock them down and obtain planning permission to turn the quarter-acre gardens into off-street tarmacadam parking and blocks of flats. In fairness, developers do that because of the demand for extra households due to the British nation's changing demography, but, in my view, that practice has destroyed many areas. When such homes must be pulled down, we should employ more imaginative designs—incidentally, demand for such homes still exists, so it is not as if they will be left empty unless they are redeveloped.
It is sterile to argue across the Floor of the House about whether 60 per cent. or 65 per cent. of new housing should be built on brownfield sites. We must use brownfield sites where we can, but they will succeed only if two things are done. First, since brownfield sites are almost universally expensive to redevelop, financial help must be provided. I would like to see the Government use section 106 agreements for planning permission—I do not wholly agree with that concept, because it verges on the corrupt—to pay for the extra costs of developing brownfield sites. However, it is no use building on such sites unless people want to live there. Joined-up government is required to provide the right infrastructure, including not only roads and sewers, but schools. We must deal with crime, give people defensible spaces and make people feel safe in urban areas.
No simple, one-stop solution exists to the provision of sites for housing. We have to be imaginative and to use a range of solutions that very much depend on the site. The mistake that we made after the war, when there was a desperate housing shortage, was to think that we could have only high-density development with high-rise blocks of flats—Coronation streets turned on end. Generally speaking, that has been a social failure. We need to use architects and exciting and innovative methods to create comfortable high-density, but relatively low-level, development.
I want to make one further point that is intended to be a constructive suggestion. I cannot claim to speak with the authority that I might once have done about other great cities such as Manchester or Birmingham, but I can say that London is unique in this sense: it is the only city where more than 50 per cent. of people who come in to work use public transport. There is less need for someone to have a private vehicle in London than in any other city in the world. I am not campaigning for the next election—indeed, I am not standing—by saying, "You shouldn't have a car if you live in London", but I believe that sufficient numbers of people would welcome living in specially designed areas of our capital city where no cars are permitted, making it not only cleaner, but more environmentally friendly. Of course there must be provision for emergency services to come in. I am not only suggesting that all parking should be banned, but an area designed to have no cars and no through traffic—I am not talking about conventional pedestrianised high streets—could be a success. I ask the Government to consider that. It could be immensely popular, and if it took off, it could make living in our cities a much more pleasant experience.
The challenge is to meet people's needs in a cleaner, friendly environment. Parts of our cities are a disgrace to any nation that calls itself civilised. We must do something to bring people back into our cities instead of spreading ever further into suburbia.
I am delighted to participate in this Queen's Speech debate and to follow Sir Sydney Chapman. The hon. Gentleman said that he first fought a parliamentary election 40 years ago, but he spoke with all the passion of someone participating in his first Gracious Speech debate. I am sorry to hear that he will be retiring at the next election; I am sure that he will be greatly missed by his constituents and by Members on both sides of the House, because he has always shown us great courtesy. He spoke today with great knowledge and passion. I am sure that when he retires, and no longer has to declare an interest, he will be transferred from being honorary president of the London Green Belt Council to being once again its proper president.
The comments made by the Secretary of State for Transport are most welcome. I am glad to hear about the Government's proposals, which will surely make our transport better, if not solve the problems completely. I want to raise a couple of parochial issues that I hope that the Government will seek to address this year, if not as part of the proposed legislation, in other measures. I shall then turn to other aspects of the Gracious Speech.
I spend at least 10 hours of my week on the M1—in fact, I have worked out that I spend more time on the M1 than playing with my children. That may be a reflection of my sad life, but I think that it is more a reflection of the problems with our motorway system. I hope that the Government will ensure that more action is taken to ensure that traffic flows on our major roads are worked out much more efficiently. I still cannot understand why we are held in traffic jams on the M1 for several hours, get to the point where we think that the problem is, then find that there is nothing there. That is one of the great mysteries, and I hope that measures will be introduced to deal with it.
In Leicester, we have, only this week, gone some way towards reducing our transport and traffic problems. Leicester City football club—the Foxes—agreed to merge its ownership of the Walker's stadium with the Leicester Tigers. It is not quite Cardiff Arms park, but I hope that it means that on a Saturday we will no longer experience the congestion caused by two major matches taking place at the same time.
I welcome the Government's proposal to establish the commission for equality and human rights, which will bring together a host of organisations under one commission. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality has listened to the views of hon. Members and of the black and Asian community outside this House and altered her proposals accordingly. I remind the House that the Government had proposed to abolish the Commission for Racial Equality and to merge it with other bodies such as the Equal Opportunities Commission into one single equality commission. I opposed that, as did my hon. Friend Ms Abbott, many organisations, including the 1990 Trust, which is led by Karen Chauhan, and the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips.
There was a consultation period, at the end of which the Government produced a new set of proposals that are enshrined in the Gracious Speech. That means that we will have a single equality commission bringing together all the other groups, but the CRE will be left outside its ambit and is free to join, if it wishes to do so, by 2009. I have often heard hon. Members say that they have put forward proposals to the Government but they have not listened. This is a classic example of Minister—who has a great deal of interest in the affairs of the Asian community because she represents, as I do, the city of Leicester—having listened to the concerns of the community and of right hon. and hon. Members and put forward a new proposal. It will be welcomed by the CRE, as it has by other groups. Given that there is so much support for the new Commission I hope that the Opposition will support the Government's proposals, thus ensuring that they get through as quickly as possible. It is also part of the Government's commitment to a multicultural society.
That is why I also welcome the legislation to outlaw religious discrimination. It is long overdue. The Prime Minister made the announcement a few weeks ago and it is to be enshrined in legislation. That reminds us how precious our multicultural society is. I know that these days it is not fashionable to talk about multicultural Britain. Some people have suggested that the history of Britain over the past 30 years with its multiculturalism has been a mistake. I disagree.
Yesterday, I was in The Hague, Rotterdam and Amsterdam meeting with members of the black and Asian community, particularly the Somali community, and looking at what has happened in the Netherlands over the past couple of weeks. A particular individual made some awful statements about the Muslim community. His fate was to be stabbed to death on the streets of Amsterdam. His fate was then transferred to the fate of the Muslim community. Since that awful stabbing 11 mosques have been the subject of arson attacks.
It is strange in a mainstream European country like the Netherlands to have a problem like this. It has focused the attention of the people there and reminded the pro-Europeans among us of the importance of celebrating the different cultures in Europe. We take our multicultural system for granted here in the United Kingdom. It is extremely important that we are vigilant in protecting the rights of the minority communities. We have a leadership role in providing the rest of Europe with the knowledge, capacity and capability to show how it is possible to integrate communities.
In Rotterdam I asked why more than 20,000 Somalians with Dutch passports chose to come and live in Leicester and Birmingham rather than stay in Rotterdam. The Somali community answered that they felt much safer in the United Kingdom than in mainland Europe, particularly in a place like Rotterdam. That upsets the Dutch and they want to know what they can do about it. The Government's proposed legislation represents the right approach for the black and Asian community and for multicultural Britain.
These proposals need to be supported, but we have to be careful on issues, such as identity cards and the security measures that we are introducing, to ensure that we carry those communities with us. It is right that those who are a threat to national security should be the subject of intense inquiry. The police need to have powers to deal with people who behave in such a way. However, there is a perception among sections of the Muslim community and, indeed, immediately after 9/11, among members of the Sikh community, that they are being targeted. It is important, therefore, that the police in exercising the new powers that Parliament will give them, should we pass the legislation, are able to work with the communities. Good police officers, like Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Commissioner designate, understand the need to work with communities. In pushing forward legislation for identity cards and legislation that will increase police powers, we need to make sure that we bring the communities with us.
I turn now briefly to two other aspects of the Gracious Speech, one of which concerns the constitutional reforms that we introduced last Session. The Government are right to proceed with these and to ensure that legislation which did not pass last year is carried forward. We all accept that the way in which the office of Lord Chancellor was purported to be abolished in the reshuffle was done with haste. Even Lord Falconer agrees with that. He certainly said so when he came to the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee. Over the last year, by debating this subject, people have accepted the need for a modern, dynamic legal system. The senior judiciary—people like Lord Woolf and Lord Bingham—have accepted the need for a supreme court, the fact that we need a modernised system for the appointment of judges, that it is wrong for one person to appoint judges, and that we should have a judicial appointments commission. There remains a question over whether the title of Lord Chancellor remains. Lord Falconer has won everyone over to the argument for preventing the Lord Chancellor sitting as Speaker of the House of Lords, as a judge and in the Cabinet. He has fought a persuasive campaign. However, there is an attachment to the title of Lord Chancellor. I for one should like to see it retained, even though it does not have the powers that the old Lord Chancellor's Office had. So I hope that Opposition Members will understand what the Government propose to do on constitutional reform. We cannot have a constitution that looks back 500 years; we must have a modern constitution that is able to react to modern circumstances.
Another proposal in the Gracious Speech is to have a referendum on the European constitution. Obviously, before we have a referendum, a Bill has to go through Parliament and we will have to debate this important issue. Since the Prime Minister announced the need for a referendum, which we understand will take place in early 2006—no date or timetable has been set—there has been a lack of debate in the House and by Ministers on the role of Britain in Europe.
I welcome the fact that we shall have a referendum because it will be a unique opportunity for the House, for Ministers and for the people of this country to engage fully in a debate about what Britain is doing in the European Union. These are times of huge change in the EU. A new Commission has just been appointed. We have a European Parliament that is prepared to acknowledge and use its powers. We have a new initiative on the Lisbon agenda. The recent European Council has agreed to take the Tampere agenda forward. So great things are happening in the EU.
The Prime Minister's wish when he was elected in 1997 was to move Britain into the heart of Europe, and that is exactly what he has done in the past eight years or so. It is now essential that we tell the people of Britain what we are doing in Europe. If we do not, those who do not support our membership of the EU will use the referendum debate to call for our withdrawal.
When I was coming back from listening to the Gracious Speech delivered by Her Majesty, I walked with a Member of the House who can only be described as Eurosceptic. He is very principled; he has stuck to that position for all the 17 years that I have been in the House and the 20 or so that he has been here. I have not asked him whether I could mention his name, so I shall not because it would be wrong to do so, but he said that he welcomed the constitutional debate and the Bill because for the first time it gave countries the opportunity to withdraw from the EU if they chose to do so.
So the House never knows, it may be that Opposition Members who are against Britain even being part of the EU will support the Bill because for the first time it will give them a constitutional right to come out of the EU. Our Government have done great things in the EU. I want them to go out and campaign. I have gone through all the speeches of Cabinet Ministers since April this year on their websites and they have not mentioned Europe or the euro more than 12 times. We cannot win a referendum on the European constitution unless we are prepared to go out and fight for the principle of being in the EU. I hope that the debate on the Bill will give the House and the Government the opportunity to follow the lead that has been given by the Prime Minister in the past seven years and ensure that we have a strong and unequivocal commitment to being part of the EU.
I have spoken in a number of debates on the Gracious Speech. I am convinced that the package of proposals that have been put forward by the Prime Minister in the past few days and in the debate today are the right proposals for Britain. They are certainly the right ones for my constituents, who will welcome every piece of legislation that has been proposed. I hope that we shall have the parliamentary time to get all the Bills through the House and onto the statute book. I know that some people think that there may well be an election next year. Only the Prime Minister knows. I hope that we will have the time to debate these measures, all of which will help our country. All of them will ensure that the quality of life of our constituents and the citizens of Britain will be made much better.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate, following the valuable and informed contributions made by other hon. Members from all parties. I do not necessarily agree with all the points that have been made, but I think that they have been made with passion and wisdom.
Today's debate covers several topics—environment, transport and local government and devolved government affairs. I intend to cover all three, starting with the environment.
The question of climate change has been mentioned by a number of previous speakers, notably my hon. Friend Mr. Yeo. My hon. Friend Sir Sydney Chapman referred to the Kyoto protocol and said that Britain had committed itself to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 12.5 per cent. below 1990 levels. He said that the latest figures show that we are already 14 per cent. below 1990 levels. In the subsequent exchanges, it transpired that the progress to that level had been made under the previous Conservative Government, and that there has been some slippage under this Government. Perhaps we should be worried about that.However, we are also conscious that the Government have gone slightly further by setting themselves a target of achieving a 20 per cent. cut by 2010. I admit that I have a degree of scepticism about that.
I want to speak specifically about the role of renewable energy in achieving those targets. The renewables obligation demands that 10 per cent. of our electricity must be generated by renewables by 2010. The Government's energy White Paper contains an aspiration to achieve 20 per cent. electricity generation by renewables by 2020, with an interim target of 15 per cent. by 2015.
I have spoken in the House before about wind energy, which is a burning topic in my constituency. The Government are very keen on wind power as a source of the biggest growth in the use of renewables in the relevant period. The present Financial Secretary to the Treasury said, when he was a Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry, that it was clear that perhaps as much as 80 per cent. of the 10 per cent. renewables target would come from wind farms. He also stated that we would need 6,000 to 7,000 two-MW turbines to meet the 10 per cent. target by 2010. At present, there are about 1,125 such turbines in operation in this country.
I believe that wind has a role in achieving that target, but we will be deluding ourselves if we get fixated on wind as the only solution. Onshore wind turbines achieve only some 24 per cent. to 28 per cent. efficiency: in other words, they are not producing electricity for more than 80 per cent. of the time. Offshore wind turbines are about twice as efficient. However, on cold, frosty mornings—or cold and foggy ones like this morning—people want to put their kettles on, warm their houses up and cook their breakfasts. How can they do so if the wind turbines not going round because there is no wind?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that for the House to be clear about the debate it is necessary to talk about efficiency not in terms of traditional power efficiency—a measure of what goes in and what comes out—but the amount of time the wind turbine is actually going round? With distributed generation and the presence of a large number of wind farms, both onshore and offshore, around the UK, the ability to develop a stable source of supply most of the time could be achieved. Putting the debate in that context advances the argument further than his measure of efficiency.
The hon. Gentleman tries to point me in that direction, but my real concern is that the turbines simply do not produce electricity at times of peak demand. The electricity generated may be distributed around the country and efficiencies may be thus achieved, but there are some consequent inefficiencies, such as the grid network that would need to be developed to support turbines that produce only limited amounts of electricity.
I spoke in the debate on this subject on
The Winterbourne valley in the southern part of my constituency is a beautiful part of Dorset. It is sandwiched between two areas of outstanding natural beauty, but is not itself designated as such. Two schemes were proposed for the area that would have created 35 wind turbines more than 100 m high. The first scheme was withdrawn after the landowner decided that he could no longer put up with all the aggro that he was getting from his neighbours about allowing the turbines to be erected on his land. The second scheme, which was for nine turbines, by a company called Your Energy Ltd, eventually went before the development control committee of my local authority on
I am sorry that Norman Baker is no longer in his place, because I intervened on him in the debate in October. He was very enthusiastic about onshore wind energy—I accept the merit of his argument—but I do not know whether he was expressing his personal view or the official view of the Liberal Democrats. As he is the party's spokesman, I suspect that he was expressing the official view of the Liberal Democrats in favour of the significant development of onshore wind energy. I asked the hon. Gentleman whether he could name constituencies represented by Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament where the MP had supported wind energy development. He did not reply immediately, but later in his speech, at column 1230, he told the House about not a wind farm development, but a wind turbine—a community scheme—in a remote part of Scotland in the Argyll and Bute constituency, of which the local Member had been in favour. That was the only scheme the hon. Gentleman could come up with.
That was significant, because on the following day, at the development control committee of the North Dorset district council, the leader of the Liberal Democrats on that council, who is a member of the committee, and three of his fellow Liberal Democrat councillors were mysteriously absent. It was the most important planning application in the district for many a year; 500 people were in the hall to observe the committee's proceedings, but the four Liberal Democrats were absent. I can but surmise that the Liberal Democrats' prospective parliamentary candidate had suggested to them that her share of the vote might fall even further than it had at the last election if they were seen to be supporting that particularly unpopular scheme, although I would not want to suggest that they would operate in that way.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be continuing in that vein for quite a while, but as MPs from every party, on both sides of the House, have disagreed with local councillors about wind farms, it seems rather cheap to make such comments. Apart from anything else, wind farms are subject to planning laws and we must recognise the great difficulties involved when people want to put wind farms in places that planning committees would clearly not accept.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but I hope that I was not making a specific point about disagreement between Members of Parliament and local councils. When I referred to the hon. Member for Lewes, I was making the point that only one Liberal Democrat Member had actually supported an onshore wind farm scheme in his constituency. I then drew a contrast with the experience in my constituency in respect of the Liberal Democrat councillors.
Luckily for the local residents, the development control committee voted to reject the application and we are left with only one possible wind farm, again in the constituency of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, although it is so close to my constituency that I almost needed to point out the site to him. I hope that he will join me in opposing the scheme, as it is for nine turbines in the middle of the Blackmoor vale on the Henstridge airfield.
I now move on to transport, the second subject on our agenda. The Railways Bill contains nothing of any benefit to my constituents. My constituency has only one railway station, but it is well served by a direct link to London, Waterloo, operated by South West Trains on the Waterloo to Exeter line. Unfortunately, the line reduces to a single track at Salisbury, despite the fact that it provides a service between some quite important cities, so there is a capacity problem. It is not that people do not use the trains or that the trains are not consistently full. I give South West Trains its due; the company operates as many trains as possible on the track and the largest trains possible, but it simply cannot put any more trains on the track at times when people want to travel.
There are proposals, which have been in existence for some time, to increase the service to a dual-track operation, particularly on the busier stretches between Salisbury and Yeovil and between Yeovil and Honiton, just to the east of Exeter. When I last raised the subject in the House with a Minister, the then Minister of State, Department for Transport, Dr. Howells, suggested that perhaps we should be looking at longer trains, but unfortunately that is not the answer. We already have trains that are as long as possible, and passengers who want to alight at Tisbury, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Key, which can only take a three-car train on its platform, have to be told to sit in the correct coaches of the train; otherwise, they will fail to get off the train or fall on the track.
Longer trains are not the answer; the real answer is dual track. When the current franchise round started, the assumption was that dual-track operation in the foreseeable future would be built into the plan, and that was very much the basis of South West Trains' bid to get its franchise renewed. Unfortunately, that has now slipped out of the Government's—or the Strategic Rail Authority's—programme, and it looks unlikely that we shall get that dual-track operation. I find that sad and I wish that the Government would again look at the situation and try to see whether we can address it.
I shall end by looking at local and devolved Government affairs, particularly devolved affairs. As a number of hon. Members know, for a couple of years I spoke from the Conservative Front Bench on the subject of Wales, and although the devolution to Wales was not exactly popular at the time, with the Government only just winning the referendum by a bare 6,000 votes, there was a basic raison d'être for having a devolved Assembly in Wales, and it is now accepted that that Assembly is working.
Over the past couple of days, there have been extensive negotiations and talks on the Northern Ireland Assembly. I hope that we shall find a resolution to the problems. It is interesting and intriguing that Rev. Ian Paisley and the gentleman elected to represent the electors of Belfast, West are in discussion. I think it was yesterday on the BBC that I heard a commentator say, after the hon. Member for North Antrim appeared on the steps of the Irish embassy having just had breakfast with the Irish Prime Minister, that maybe at the age of 78 the hon. Gentleman had mellowed a little. We need to make progress, not only because of the raison d'être for a Northern Ireland Assembly but because of the urgent necessity to close the democratic deficit in the Province.
There was however clearly no democratic deficit in the north-east of England and certainly no raison d'être for a north east regional assembly, because in the recent referendum 78 per cent. of the people voting decided that they did not want that unnecessary and bureaucratic waste of taxpayers' money; and in the Queen's Speech we had no mention of referendums elsewhere.
I would like to go a little further and look at the South West regional assembly, which covers my constituency; it is a very expensive talking shop which serves no useful purpose. Some people in the south-west ask, "Where is the south-west?" Because, as my constituents are always asking, what community of interest is there between them, in north and east Dorset, and the people who live in Tewkesbury and in Truro? In fact the people who live in Tewkesbury and Truro probably ask what community of interest they have themselves, let alone with the people of Dorset. One has to scratch around to find some common interest that these people have. The people in Tewkesbury and Truro do have one thing in common, which I am sure is very important in Whitehall, which is that it is necessary to go to Paddington station to get to both places. Other than that, civil servants have drawn those lines on the map and people cannot take a train from Paddington station to Dorset, so even that does not work.
I should like to go further: the Leader of the House announced today that, next week, we will get a statement on the local government finance settlement for next year, so there will be yet further pressure on council tax and the finances of our local authorities. If our local councils are looking for savings—some of the local authorities in my area will be looking for some savings to limit the rise in council tax next year—they might now consider, given the result of the referendum in the north-east, pulling out of their funding for and participation in the South West regional assembly. If there is one agenda that the Government ought to address if they really believe in devolution, it is that of devolving decision-taking and financing powers directly to local government, not to those unnecessary regional quangos, which look at the affairs of arbitrarily drawn areas of the country.
The Queen's Speech does nothing to address my constituents' concerns. If it is, as I suspect, a pre-election agenda, I suggest that it will be again rewarded with a pretty derisory Labour vote in the North Dorset constituency at that election.
The history of Queen's Speeches over the past six or seven years in transport terms has been one of the Government trying to unpick the inheritance of the privatisation of British Rail. The two problems that the Government have sought to address are the lack of strategic co-ordination and the chronic underfunding of the system. I pay tribute the Government for the spectacular way in which they have addressed the underfunding. There is no doubt that additional funds have been found and that investment has increased significantly—most hon. Members have seen that—but the success in identifying the resources has not been replicated in the strategic co-ordination of the railway system.
The reforms proposed in the Railways Bill will continue to avoid the central problem of fragmentation and the resulting cash leakage, which we have heard about in the debate. In my view and that of many others, the Government need to take courage and adopt the option of bringing the railways back into public ownership, which is supported by more than two thirds of the electorate, the Labour party conference and many hon. Members.
We need to move away from the inane economic debate that has taken place about public ownership of the railways. It has been argued that it will cost—figures have been suggested in recent months—anything between £2 billion and £20 billion to bring the railways back into public ownership, but that can be done cost free: as the franchises of the train operating companies run out, we simply bring them back into public ownership, as we have done with South Eastern Trains.
We must stop using spurious arguments about the damage that public ownership would do, given the loss of the mythical £70 million a week investment that is claimed to be delivered by the private sector. Recent independent analysis by Modern Railways shows that almost all that amount is effectively Network Rail's borrowing, underwritten by the Government, and ROSCO investment, indirectly subsidised by the Government.
My view, which is shared by many hon. Members—certainly by many members of the public and now by the Labour party—is that direct public ownership under a unified agency would offer clear accountability and better value for money for the taxpayer. I and many others accept that that cannot happen overnight, but there are clear stepping stones to public ownership, and we have taken one of them only recently. The evidence of the success, for example, of bringing rail maintenance back in-house tells us that doing the same with track renewal could have a huge impact on the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the railways and be a major step in reversing the fragmentation wreaked by Conservative privatisation.
As we heard earlier today, and as we have heard in several transport debates in recent months, there is no justification for the franchising of train operators to private providers that are now operating successfully within the public sector. South Eastern Trains has shown us that the service can be provided just as well by the public sector without the extra costs and without disruption. It is beyond reason to expend money now on franchising and privatising South Eastern Trains when it is operating so effectively in the public sector.
Devolution of planning and control is important, and many of us have welcomed it to ensure that local transport systems meet social and economic need, but it should not be used as a device for letting private companies off the hook for the financial mayhem that they have caused. Nor should it be used to allow wrong choices to be made locally that will lead to cuts in rail services. We need an integrated transport network that complements rather than competes with itself.
Independent safety regulation should be maintained. The public will fail to understand why the Government are ignoring the recommendations that Lord Cullen made after the disasters on the railways. If fragmentation means that safety standards are expensive to meet, the response to fragmentation should not be to subordinate safety concerns to economic regulation, as many now suspect of the Railways Bill. In addressing the issue, the Government will be aware that, this year alone, eight track workers have been killed—a 13-year high. Incidentally, all those tragedies have occurred under the eye of private railway contractors.
In the context of rail safety, the Government will be aware of the huge disappointment of transport workers and the families killed in the tragic accidents on the railways that, years after corporate manslaughter legislation was first mooted following the Southall tragedy, it still appears a long way off in terms of being effectively legislated for and the culprits of corporate negligence being brought to book. We look forward to early implementation of legislation and to debate on the time scaling of that.
Public ownership is working, and it is working in our industry now. South Eastern Trains has operated successfully in the public sector for just over a year. Trains arrive punctually and passenger complaints are down by 1,000. The company has employed and trained hundreds of additional staff to improve the environment of its stations. Why cannot the Government simply accept that passenger services are now being run more efficiently and punctually than when the private operator Connex operated the service? In fact, for every quarter that it has been in the public sector, South Eastern Trains' punctuality figures have improved.
There is almost universal support for keeping South Eastern Trains in the public sector—not only from the TUC, the rail unions, the Labour party conference and the overwhelming majority of the public, but from the Transport Select Committee. More than 100 of my colleagues on the Labour Benches have signed early-day motion 254 tabled by my hon. Friend Clive Efford, which called for South Eastern Trains to be maintained in the public sector.
The Government have said to us time and again that the issue is not whether a service is public or privately owned but whether it works. In the case of South Eastern Trains, the service clearly is working and, given the support for retaining passenger services in the public sector and the growing support for a wider role for the public sector in the rail network, I hope that the Government will accept, even at this late stage, that there are compelling reasons for maintaining this service, in particular, within the public sector. As has been said, it could be used in the future as a public service comparator by which one could test in the short term the operations of some of the train operating companies.
It is important that we recognise the role of our hard-working and dedicated railwaymen and women who keep the industry working seven days a week, 365 days a year. Little has been said about the work force in this debate so far, and we need to pay them the compliment that they deserve for their commitment and dedication to their industry. We must recognise that their employment conditions were undermined by privatisation, and that they continue to be undermined by privatisation.
The open, transparent and accountable industry-wide collective bargaining of the public railways was shattered by privatisation, and industrial relations were worsened as a patchwork of competing interests among the railway companies opened up pay differentials between employees of the same grade working for different companies. In many cases, there was a difference of thousands of pounds between different grades of employees doing the same job. The Government should be aware that that has created disputes within the industry which could have been avoided.
The differentials have been compounded by the travel facilities offered to a two-tier work force. Those who were employed prior to privatisation receive full travel concessions, yet those who joined later do not. There are also widespread differences in annual leave entitlement, pension contributions, London weighting and associated allowances. It is understandable that grievances within the industry give rise to disputes if men and women who work alongside one another are on such different rates of pay and work in different conditions, receiving different travel facilities and other concessions, while doing exactly the same job. Having given a commitment to address the two-tier work force within local government, health and public services generally, the Government should consider tackling the two-tier work force that arose as a result of the privatisation in this public service—the railways themselves.
There is also a concern that the failures of rail privatisation are being experienced on the London underground. Network Rail stated that the decision to bring maintenance in-house on the mainline railway would ensure greater consistency of maintenance and improvement in standards, which would help to deliver efficiency savings far more quickly than would otherwise have been possible. The company explained that the move would mean that
"in future there will be a single management structure with clear lines of accountability and a simplified relationship between operations and maintenance", with work carried out
"by a permanent workforce of well-trained individuals committed to a strong safety culture".
In the light of those statements about maintenance arrangements, it is untenable that we have a fragmented privatised maintenance on the underground. We even allow the same companies that have been removed from maintenance contracts on the national railways to continue to make profits on the tube. The Government should reconsider the rationale of the public-private partnership on the London underground, with a view to introducing legislation that will allow the Mayor to create a flexible, unified, streamlined, publicly owned and accountable underground network. I look forward to amending legislation to enable that to happen.
The bus industry has been discussed. The warning signs were there for us all to see when the Conservative Government privatised our bus industry. Yet the radical action that is needed to bring the buses back into regulation has not been taken by this Government. Recent Government statistics reveal that the decline in use of deregulated bus services outside London has accelerated. Bus usage outside London declined by 2.5 per cent. in 2003–04, while usage of the regulated London buses increased by 10.4 per cent. overall. The decline is clearly caused by the fact that the passenger transport executives and local authorities outside London have fewer controls over fares, networks and service quality, and are unable to offer the integrated quality bus service that would stem the decline.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we should also press for something else? The Government have done much to ensure that concessionary fares are available in parts of the country. He represents a London constituency. Should we not have a similar generous scheme throughout the country for people who live in constituencies such as mine?
I welcome that intervention. Just eight months ago we presented to Parliament a petition calling for a national system of concessionary fares. One of the most popular things that the Greater London council did—I say this as a former Greater London council member and chair of its finance committee, which paid for the scheme—was to introduce the concessionary fares scheme for retired people in London, which had cross-party support. That popular policy endeared the GLC to people and has been maintained by the London Mayor. Not only would that be a wonderful investment in terms of improving the quality of life of many older people, but it would also help to maintain the bus service overall because the increased usage would attract other members of the family on to the buses as well. I would hope that that would have cross-party support, and I wholeheartedly support the proposal.
It is disappointing that there is no primary legislation to cover the maritime industry. Some references have been made to ports today, but no overall direction was given in the Queen's Speech on future legislation on the industry. As an island nation dependent on shipping for over 90 per cent. of our trade, the UK needs to maintain its maritime skills, but over the past 20 years the number of seafarer ratings in the UK has declined from 30,000 to 10,000. That decline represents a significant threat to our future prosperity, our trade and, given the role played by the merchant navy in any military action in the past, our security. The experience and expertise of British seafarers is respected worldwide, and we must not allow the skills base to be further eroded or the decline in that traditional native industry to continue.
The tonnage tax, part of the programme of assistance to the shipping industry which we all welcomed in the House, was a significant concession to the industry. Shipping companies that enter the tonnage tax regime pay a notional tax levy according to the size of the company fleet, as opposed to the normal form of taxation based on company profits. So far, the concession has been worth at least £70 million to the industry and, as I said, has been broadly welcomed by us all. At the time of its introduction, it was the Government's hope that the granting of such favourable concessions would improve the economic climate for UK shipping so that increased numbers of UK ships would enter the register, which would in turn generate increased employment opportunities for UK seafaring officers and ratings.
Unfortunately—this matter was raised in an Adjournment debate earlier this month—despite those measures the increase in employment for UK seafarers has not materialised. The companies have received the tax concession and it has been at least double the amount originally predicted by all sides, including the Government, yet the jobs have not been forthcoming. UK seafarers continue to be dismissed and replaced by low-cost foreign nationals on what can only be described as exploitative pay and conditions. I welcome the fact that in recent months the Government have given a commitment to consider whether a firm employment link for seafaring officers and ratings should be introduced as a condition for qualifying for the tonnage tax concession. I firmly believe that the shipping companies should play their part in ensuring that the UK can retain the skills that will help to protect our future security and prosperity and our seafaring and maritime industry.
The maritime unions strongly support a firmer link between the tonnage tax and employment and training for UK seafarers. As a substantial taxpayer concession, that tax must now be used to help to achieve the increase in UK seafarers' employment originally spelled out in the "Charting a New Course" White Paper.
A sense of urgency has been created by the actions of P&O, which has just launched a major cost-cutting exercise, with 1,200 seafarers facing redundancy and many of those who will be left threatened with cuts in pay and conditions or adverse changes to their working practices. Cross-party representations have been made to the company, and I am grateful for the work that has been done by all political parties to impress on P&O the importance of engaging in proper consultation and negotiation with the trade unions. However, the devastating job cuts are being threatened in what is already a very precarious situation for UK seafarers, especially ratings.
Despite receiving substantial concessions from the taxpayer in the form of the tonnage tax, P&O has made a decision that means that it will withdraw from virtually all its existing western channel routes, leaving a monopoly position for Brittany Ferries. It will also significantly cut its operations at two other ports. The dismissals are accompanied by cuts in pay and conditions for many existing seafarers and a crude attempt by P&O to force some employees out of the industry on redundancy terms lower than their current contractual entitlement. We need to join forces across the House to condemn the company's actions. The Government must intervene and raise the matter directly with the company and the employers' organisation, the Chamber of Shipping Ltd. We desperately need a long-term strategy for the future of the UK ferry industry—particular account should be taken of the fact that the French Government provide support to secure their interests in the cross-channel trades.
I should like to raise one further matter with regard to shipping, which I regret was not addressed in the Queen's Speech, although there was opportunity to do so. The Government must address the fact that they still permit discrimination on the ground of nationality in the shipping workplace. UK seafarers working on UK ships are still excluded from the full provisions of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. Astonishingly, the Government's explanation is that the only aspect of a person's employment on which there may be discrimination is pay, and the only ground on which there may be discrimination is that of nationality. Ship owners can therefore continue to discriminate on the basis of race and colour, for example. An ethnic Indian worker recruited abroad to work on a UK ship will not be able to claim discrimination on the basis of race or colour, because the employer is legally able to argue that discrimination is on the basis of nationality. For that reason alone the moral argument for outlawing discrimination on the ground of nationality is clear.
Ministers will be aware that the European Commission is examining that practice. It recently stated that it believes that European Community law may not allow for the payment of lower wages to fellow European citizens on EU-flagged vessels, and the Government should adopt a similar view. There is a moral obligation to end such exploitation and discrimination against seafarers, and we call on the Government to include all seafarers in all employment and equal rights legislation. It cannot be appropriate in this century that people can be discriminated against in such a way—doing the same job for different rates of pay and under different conditions just because they come from a different country.
There are real opportunities in this Queen's Speech to look forward to an integrated, fully funded transport strategy, but I do not believe that it can be undertaken on the basis of the railways in private hands, by giving concessions to ship owners to which they do not respond by ensuring the employment of seafarers, or given the exploitation of workers on grounds of discrimination and nationality. I hope that the Government will consider amending the proposed legislation and introducing new Bills that will put our transport system on not only a well-funded basis, but a fair basis that serves the general public and the interests of the country.
There can be little doubt that, of the three subjects for debate this afternoon, the environmental problems facing this country—indeed our planet—are by far the most serious. It is on that subject that I wish to begin.
We must note with great concern that carbon dioxide emissions have increased over the past six or seven years, in contrast to the last six years of the Conservative Government, when emissions fell. It is sad that this country has not managed to exert the influence that we might have expected over the United States of America on the subject. I hope that the Government may yet be able to do so. I am proud to serve under a Leader of the Opposition who was influential in getting the United States to sign the Rio treaty. More recently, those of us on the Conservative Benches can be proud of the pressure that we, among other groups, brought to bear on the Government on the Housing Bill, to ensure that homes become more energy efficient. That is a very important part of a proper, integrated environmental strategy.
There has been some debate this afternoon about wind farms. My party is certainly not opposed to them, but it is worth noting that offshore wind farms are twice as efficient as onshore wind farms. We must allow local decision making on the siting of wind farms on land. Local communities should have the final say on matters of great significance that will affect them. I am pleased that the electricity in my London home is supplied from offshore wind capacity. I was able to arrange that through my electricity supplier, npower. I commend the company's initiative in offering consumers wind power-generated electricity through the national grid. I hope such initiatives will expand.
Like other hon. Members, I reacted with great concern to the pictures of fridge mountains that we saw in our papers over the past few days. I gather there are pictures of car mountains as well. It is extraordinary that we have yet more European Union regulations coming into force in the United Kingdom. We in all parts of the House can agree with the purpose of those regulations, but we do not have the capacity in place to cope with them. We must make sure that the recycling plants are available in this country before we introduce the regulations, or we will see more fridge mountains, more car mountains, more battery mountains and so on, across the country.
Aviation emissions are a subject of close interest to my constituents, as my constituency is situated close to Luton airport. It is clearly right that we seek international agreement to ensure common practice among the world's airlines and to make sure that a country that takes a lead in the matter does not end up losing out. I hope the Government will undertake to ensure that there is broad international agreement.
On the international front, I was astounded to learn from my hon. Friend Sir Sydney Chapman that we have lost some 4.6 million sq km of rainforest in the past 20 years. We know that the rainforest is essential to deal with the carbon dioxide emissions that we continue to pour out. Such an area of rainforest may be hard to visualise but I understand that it is 11 times the size of the United Kingdom.
On environmental matters more directly related to my constituency, fly-tipping continues to be a subject of enormous concern to my constituents in both the rural and the urban areas of my constituency. We often think of fly-tipping as happening only in the countryside, but it happens in towns as well and is a great blight and eyesore which brings down the communities affected by it. I am delighted that my party has said that it will make fly-tipping an arrestable offence. I should like to see the police working alongside local authorities and the Environment Agency to tackle the problem. The odds are so heavily stacked in favour of the fly-tipper that we need all available agencies to do something about the problem. I cannot help reflecting on the fact that the Government see fit to give the police the duty of policing the Hunting Bill, which we have just brought in, yet they do not ask the police to deal with fly-tipping, which is an extremely serious everyday problem faced by many of our constituents throughout the country.
Transport matters are of great concern to my constituency. After some 80 years we have at last had an assurance that the extension of the A505 to the M1 or the Dunstable and Houghton Regis northern bypass will be built. That is a committed project for which I am grateful. I presented a petition on the Floor of the House signed by some 25,000 of my constituents, which gives hon. Members some idea of the strength of feeling on the subject in my constituency.
I am concerned to note that the Government's proposals to build about 43,000 extra houses in my constituency mean that there will be about 10,000 extra houses built in the constituency before this essential bypass is built. I worry that that will turn an extremely serious problem of transport congestion into one of total gridlock. When the bypass is built, I hope that the Government will agree through the Highways Agency to ensure that there is a lorry ban on the A5 as it passes through Dunstable. One of our respected local GPs, Dr. O'Toole. of the Kirby road surgery in Dunstable, recently drew attention to the fact that children in Dunstable suffer considerably higher levels of asthma than do the children whom he sees from the surrounding villages and other areas.
We should not forget that traffic congestion and diesel pollution especially have an adverse effect on people's health, particularly children's health, in built-up urban areas. It is a transport and health priority that we should try to get freight moving along roads that are properly designed for it and not moving through built-up urban areas where it does not need to do so.
In south Bedfordshire we face a threat to the structure of our local democracy in that the Government are intent on building a guided bus system at a cost of about £85 million between Luton, Dunstable and Houghton Regis, even though the scheme is bitterly opposed by my constituents. We understand from the Government's projections that the scheme will cost about £85 million, as I have said, and other projections suggest that it could go as high as £106 million.
I am sad that the alternative proposals put forward by Chiltern Rail, that would have led to a light railway with feeder bus services, which could have been produced far more cheaply at a cost of about £35 million, I think, has been withdrawn. It seems to me that Chiltern Rail has been, at the very least, leaned on by the Government to withdraw the scheme.
Even more worrying for my constituents is that we have been told that Luton borough council will have the ability compulsorily to purchase large amounts of land within south Bedfordshire, the area that I represent, to establish a transport scheme that is bitterly opposed by many of my constituents. That is extremely worrying from the point of view of local democracy. I will certainly be opposing it when the public inquiry sits early next year.
The last transport issue that I shall mention relates to the proposed flight path change that Luton airport is requesting. There are understandable reasons for the airport wanting to do this, given that the current flight path is not an easy one to fly—it is a slightly complicated S-bend. No doubt the proposed flight path would be slightly safer for the pilots and passengers when using the airport. However, the flight path is scheduled to pass directly over the largest town in my constituency, Leighton Buzzard, where about 38,000 people live. It would be quite easy, however, for the flight path to pass round the town on a slightly larger loop.
I am aware that with any flight path that there will be winners and losers, but surely it is the role of the Department for Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority to minimise the environmental impact in terms of flight path noise. That is clearly not possible on the proposed option 3a flight path. I have already raised the matter with the Department; I have had a meeting with the Minister; and I have been to the CAA. Before Christmas, I will be presenting yet a further petition signed by many thousands of my constituents. I want the Government to realise the seriousness of the issue, which they may well need to call in, depending on the CAA's decision.
On local and devolved government affairs, in my constituency the Government propose to double the number of houses, primarily on green belt. We welcome some of those houses; my district council had plans to build 7,000 to 8,000 additional houses that are vitally needed and I yield to no one in my desire to see the housing needs of my constituents met. But the Government's decision to ram such massive amounts of housing into only four areas around London where there are simply not the jobs for the people that such housing will attract is bitterly opposed by my constituents. Some 17,000 of them, led by leading Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors, again signed a petition that I presented in the House under the banner headline "Local homes for local people".
I ask the Government to think again because everywhere that I travel in the wider south-east I find that local authorities, local councillors and local people say exactly the same thing. There is massive resentment about such Government imposition on matters that are essentially local. It is really quite outrageous that such local matters have to be debated here in the House of Commons, because the decisions have been taken out of the hands of the local authorities—the local housing and planning authorities—whose proper responsibility these functions are. Those authorities have a say only in the final stages when all the major decisions have been taken. That is a serious threat to local democracy.
We ask why the numbers of people voting in local elections go down and down, but if the real power and responsibility to decide such matters is taken out of the hands of local councillors, that will be the result. If local councillors do not make the right decisions and do not provide the local housing that is needed, local people will vote them out and will vote in councillors who will provide the housing that they need. I say to the Government, trust local people to make the right decisions for their area and do not take those powers away.
In that regard, I am delighted that my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman has said that we will scrap the wretched regional assemblies that again are siphoning powers upwards and away from the people. One ODPM Minister described the regional assemblies not quite as the plaything of the Deputy Prime Minister, but something to that effect. They were described as having to implement the plans of the Deputy Prime Minister.
It is a source of huge resentment in my area that councillors from outside the area are taking decisions that are massively significant to south Bedfordshire. It is no good for the Government to say, "Oh yes, but there are some Conservative councillors on the regional assembly." Conservatives will sit on any body that is set up by the Government to try to do the best that they can under the structures that have been created. But all Conservatives want to see real local government exercised at the truly local level, and that is what we are committed to. I say again that I am delighted that the East of England regional assembly will be no more under a future Conservative Government.
As I have already said, we would be faced with this tremendous number of extra homes and a severely worsening road system, but rail problems would also become more serious. We already have problems on the Silverlink line from Leighton Buzzard to Euston. I have received increasing numbers of complaints from my constituents about the service, and the greater strain that would be placed on that service with the projected housing for my area does not bear thinking of. The services that that number of people coming into my constituency would require are a cause for concern, and concerns also exist about sewerage, water, access to green space and pollution.
Leighton Buzzard is the largest town in my constituency, and it has been trying to obtain a community hospital for about 20 years. It is one of the largest towns in the UK to have no hospital facility and it is much larger than towns in Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire that have community hospitals. Last week, I tabled a written question asking whether Leighton Buzzard will get a community hospital as part of the sustainable communities plan. The answer is no; I was given general figures about increased spending on health in the so-called sub-region that the Government have devised, but I was not given a clear commitment. Even on infrastructure, my constituents have nothing to look forward to.
On planning law, my constituents face the difficulties caused by a large number of unauthorised or unofficial Traveller sites—we have between five and seven such sites. The sites are bought by the Travellers concerned, who actually own them. They subdivide the title to the land at a great rate and, before you know it, arable land intended for growing crops or for grazing livestock has become a mini-encampment. Some of those sites have street lights, tarmac roads and curbed pavements. They have sprung up without the knowledge and with the complete opposition of the local authorities concerned.
It is not good enough that the Government have tolerated that situation for so long, and I wonder why they have been so negligent for so long. The problem affects many Labour Members' constituencies, as it affects my constituency. It is impossible to describe the many planning difficulties that arise as a result of those unauthorised Traveller encampments. Large numbers of settled families are removing their children from schools in my constituency. I have visited the teachers at those schools, and it is incredibly difficult for the local education authority or a local village school to cope with a vast, unplanned influx of children. For that reason alone, the Government must ensure that planning law applies to everyone.
Frankly, the current situation discriminates against the settled community. Again, I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, who has worked hard on our policy. The next Conservative Government will have policies, which local authorities will be able to enforce straight away, to stop unauthorised encampments springing up in the first place, and I thank her for that.
My constituents are concerned about the environment, transport and local government, and I am pleased and encouraged by the way in which my Front Benchers are developing policy in those areas.
I was delighted to hear the acknowledgement in the Gracious Speech that the Government will, in holding the G8 presidency in 2005, include work on climate change as one of their priorities. This afternoon, we have heard a substantial debate on what climate change may mean for the legislation in the Queen's Speech. I remain bemused as to why our other opportunity to discuss global warming in this Chamber was removed and replaced with a debate bemoaning the presence of wind farms across the country, but I shall let that pass.
The Conservative party's late conversion to the idea that global warming is real and that all hon. Members need to take urgent measures to combat it is important. I say that in the context of what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently said at the Labour party conference—that
"the scientific evidence suggests that the world community has only until 2020 to begin to reverse" climate change. Unpacking that statement, it means that the measures that will get us to the target that we need to arrive at by 2050 need to be in place by 2020. That is a time scale that is probably not only in the lifetime of most hon. Members in this Chamber, but in our political lifetime. That means, in effect, that we need to think about, decide on and put into action the measures that will make any stabilisation or reversal of climate change possible by 2050, and we have to do it by 2020—in other words, after no more than three general elections.
I hope, and am confident, that we will have Labour Governments for that entire period—it will be a grave responsibility on the shoulders of those Ministers—but it is just possible that we will not. We therefore need to achieve a consensus in the House whereby the necessary measures on dealing with global warming and moving to a low-carbon economy are taken, agreed to and adhered to. The conversion of the majority of Conservative Members to achieving that consensus is genuinely welcome. If a Government were to come to power and to decide for populist reasons, or because they found it too hard, that they wished to reverse all that had been done to move towards a low-carbon economy, the damage that that would do to the trajectory that is necessary in order to move forward would be immense and immediate, and would undo the long and hard work that will be necessary over a long period.
Although I welcome the Conservative conversion, it has come with a number of loudly quacking canards, one of which—we heard it this afternoon—is that the reduction in CO 2 emissions proceeded faster under the previous Government than it has under the present Government. Mrs. Spelman nods. I was about to agree with that, but to point out that the reduction happened solely as a result of the dash for gas. Virtually no other measure made any significant difference to the amount of CO 2 emissions during that period. There is no second dash for gas in view—although, given the wobbling of the Conservatives in relation to nuclear power, we may have a dash for nuclear.
I am afraid that I must tell the hon. Gentleman that part of the reason why the last Conservative Administration was able to reduce carbon emissions was that we embraced cleaner technology. One of the main reasons why emissions have gone up under this Labour Government is that when they came into office they halted—purely for ideological reasons, because they were still in hock to old industries and trade unions—the conversion to cleaner gas and went back to coal, thereby embracing dirty, old-fashioned technology.
I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that the overall reduction in CO 2 emissions was almost solely the result of the dash for gas, and that several other measures that have come on stream since are beginning collectively to make an impact. Because we do not have the option of another dash for gas, the measures that now need to be put in place—I trust that they will be—are much more diverse and difficult to achieve immediate results from, and therefore need support and consensus beforehand. It is sad that in the last few years that consensus has not been there as I would have hoped.
We need to concentrate on actions, rather than action plans. We do not necessarily need immediately large amounts of new legislation to take action on climate change, energy and the environment. Many measures that could make a difference are in place. They may need to be amplified or taken much further, but they are in place. We have in place measures ahead of the EU on carbon trading in the UK, renewable obligations for energy supply, the carbon levy on carbon emissions in industry, and the implementation of the landfill directive and other such directives. I am sorry to say that the Conservative party opposed all of those measures when they were first raised in this House.
This afternoon we have heard of action plans, some of which I wholly agree with. I have raised some of them in the House myself, for example on the need to develop much greater use of biofuels, on the benefits that that would bring in terms of energy crops, and on the relationship that that has with sustainable agriculture. I am delighted to see that clothes have been stolen in that respect. At least stealing clothes reflects on the good taste of the person who bought them in the first place. I am saying, not that I thought of those matters first, but that a number of hon. Members from all parties have an honourable record on raising these issues about energy crops and the use of renewable fuel. It is good that that is now a live issue in the Chamber.
I spoke of canards earlier. It was mentioned that it might be a good idea to have a renewable fuel obligation. We have in energy legislation a renewable fuel obligation. That is on the statute book. The Secretary of State has powers to bring in a renewable fuel obligation. Yet it appears that certain Opposition Front Bench spokesmen have not noticed that. Those measures are already in place, but need to be amplified and taken further.
I want to mention two of the actions that need to be taken on global warming and the environment. Over the next 20 years it is not a question of thinking up wonderful Acts which may suddenly make a change in our CO 2 emissions; it is a case of mainstreaming our actions in Parliament in terms of including in all the legislation that we pass a sustainable and environmental context, which ensures that that legislation works. In that context we have heard this afternoon the canard that wind farms do not work and are not efficient, that it would be a good idea if we had something other than wind farms and that the Government have only wind energy as their weapon for achieving immediate goals on climate change. Any perusal of the Energy White Paper will show a timeline of a number of different forms of renewable energy and any perusal of recent investment figures in renewable energy technologies will show that a number of different technologies are funded and coming to market. For wind energy to work, it has to be possible to install it and make the necessary changes in the grid. It is not sufficient to will the ends but not the means. Wind energy is the key element for moving towards renewable targets. It is not sufficient merely to state that one is in favour of wind energy and to have a planning policy that favours wind energy, but does not favour it anywhere in particular. That seems an abdication of the real actions that we need to take.
I do not find anything to disagree with in my hon. Friend's exposition of the need for wind farms, but does he agree that if they are to go offshore it would be wise not to put them in heavily used shipping lanes?
I agree. It would be unwise were we to find that large tankers were mowing down wind farms as they traversed the sea. I am delighted that discussion has enabled that problem to be avoided in the case of the London Array and the Blackpool wind farm sites. Siting is an important element in the development of offshore wind farms. We are grateful for the work of the Transport Select Committee on the issue. It has looked into how sites might be signposted.
I want to pay a little attention to two Bills that will integrate the concept of sustainability into the everyday lives of our people and the work of the House. The first is the Railways Bill. It is important that we take measures to get passengers and freight on to rail and move our railways forward in an integrated manner. The Bill will substantially do that. The Transport Act 2000 gave overall authority to the Strategic Rail Authority when it said that the purposes of the authority were:
"(a) to promote the use of the railway network for the carriage of passengers and goods,
(b) to secure the development of the railway network, and
(c) to contribute to the development of an integrated system of transport of passengers and goods."
It further suggests that the SRA should contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. I hope that the Railways Bill will transfer those requirements to the new organisation for securing the strategic future of the railways. They sum up the way in which the long-term future of the railways should be secured.
I am delighted to hear from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport that there will be further securing of freight on the rail network. It is a more sustainable method for transporting goods around our country.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody mentioned the difficulties that may arise in the strategic development of ports and the efficiency of ports for the transit of goods. We may face difficulties if we do not ensure that our ports have the capacity that they need in the coming years. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the operation of the land side of ports is as important as the sea side. We must make sure that freight can get to and from ports and is not squeezed out by the requirements of the passenger network. Those issues are very important in terms of sustainability and the environment. In that context, it is important that containers can be carried on our trains without colliding with bridges. That is the land equivalent of ships colliding with wind farms. Prevention of such accidents reinforces the need to implement the rail upgrades necessary to ease the passage of freight, and that should be part of our sustainable planning.
I want to draw attention to the clean neighbourhoods and environment Bill. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality has worked very hard on the consultation process for that measure, and in the discussions that have led to the proposals in the Bill, which I hope will soon be debated in this House.
I am particularly interested in those elements of the Bill that deal with the disposal of contaminated waste, and fly tipping. Also, provisions in the Bill will serve to switch off part of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 so that local authorities will be able to develop partnerships to develop new methods of waste management, minimisation and disposal. That would represent a substantial step forward in the management of waste, and in the ability of local authorities to deal with it in a way that adds to the sustainability of the process.
I hope that the Bill will also switch off other elements of the 1990 Act. If it does not contain such provisions at the moment, I hope that Ministers will consider making the appropriate changes. I am thinking in particular of section 55, which requires local authorities to collect all domestic waste placed outside front doors, regardless of what it is. Section 55 of the 1990 Act prevents the development of variable charging systems for waste by local authorities. Such systems can incentivise waste reduction and render more efficient the transformation of non-biodegradable waste to biodegradable waste. Moreover, they can make waste collection more efficient, with the result that local authorities can deal more effectively with waste management problems.
Many local authorities would like to be able to do that, as would the people who live in their areas. Although no system need be imposed nationally, those authorities who would like to avail themselves of such powers should be able to do so. That can all be achieved through the simple expedient of switching off the relevant provisions of the 1990 Act. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will bear that in mind when the Bill comes to the House for Second Reading, and in the subsequent Committee stage.
I have listed some of the actions that I believe need to be taken in respect of achieving environmentally sustainable management for our economy and our communities, but I shall end by presenting the House with a puzzle.
The House has heard a number of proposals on environmental management today, especially from Opposition Front Bench Members. One of the Opposition proposals is to remove £4.2 million from local government expenditure over two years by means of freezing budgets at 2004–05 levels. That proposal was put forward in the middle of February by the shadow Chancellor. If it were to be implemented, it would lead to very high council tax levels in those local authorities that wished to maintain their budgets, and impact disproportionately on district councils' environmental protection and cultural services budgets. Those are the councils that are attempting to grapple with the issues of waste management and, in many instances, are trying to develop more imaginative and comprehensive methods of waste disposal. They would be grievously penalised by the removal of such funding. I am sure that Opposition Front Bench Members would agree that as the escalator for the landfill levy increases, so the money has to come out of the same budget for paying the landfill levy. If local authorities do not have the resources to divert waste, the consensus on the necessary measures to make progress will not lead to action. We need action, and the Queen's Speech contains several measures that will ensure that action is taken towards reaching our common goal of a low-carbon economy that is both efficient and effective.
The Gracious Speech contains several legislative proposals that relate to the subjects for debate today, and some that affect my constituents. I could not be here at the beginning of the debate because I was talking to the supporters of Spinal Research, and that subject leads directly to the road traffic Bill because many people suffer spinal injuries in road accidents. Spinal Research, a charity based in my constituency and which I strongly support, is undertaking some excellent research, with welcome and much appreciated Government support.
We are all deeply conscious of the damage done to people and their families by road traffic accidents. Another charity based in my constituency is Headway Surrey, which also assists the victims of road accidents. It continually struggles for money, but its existence is a poignant reminder of why we need stronger action on road safety. Some of us attended the RoadPeace service last week and I attend each time with an increasingly sinking heart, because life has been so tragic for each member of the congregation. Each of them has lost a family member who was killed on the roads, but they have not come to terms with their grief. The services are organised by RoadPeace, which works tremendously hard to address the scourge of death on the roads.
One in three people are directly affected by fatal road accidents. In 2003, 3,500 people were killed on the roads—no small number. Compared with the number killed in railway accidents, it is horrific carnage. The Government's proposals for improvements in legislation to put the responsibility on those who cause death is welcome for the families involved. We need to ask how we can change behaviour. At the moment, people may go to prison but they are released very quickly. What sort of message does that send? We must have sentences that reflect the great damage that any one of us can do to others if we misuse our cars.
Bad driving is not the only cause of road accidents. In many accidents, no other driver is involved. Many occur on badly designed roads, and I hope that the Government will be able to work with county councils, unitary authorities and the Highways Agency to identify those roads with severe accident blackspots. I live close to the A281, south of Guildford, which has a huge number of accidents. The county council has to rebuild its signs constantly—there are not enough of them—but there is no apparent reason for the accidents. We need to find out the reason, because there has been an accident every fortnight or so recently. Although the Government, through legislation, will rightly go for people who cause accidents through bad driving, that will do nothing to ensure that those who are responsible for roads design out accidents.
It is incredibly difficult for people who live next to an accident blackspot, because they know that whenever they hear a crash they will be first on the scene. In Clay lane in Burpham, people have been impaled on railings because of bad road design. On the A281, people have been thrown into trees. It is unacceptable not to put more responsibility for accidents on to those who design our roads. We need to do more about that.
By and large, we support a safer and cleaner communities Bill. No one could fail to support such a measure, as it would affect the quality of all our lives. Such matters account for much of our casework. People want to live in an area of which they can be proud. They want to know that if others are defacing the area, by fly posting, littering, dropping chewing gum, behaving badly or noisily, or being firework yobs, someone will deal with the problems, so of course we support the measure. That is not up for discussion.
We must consider how we should actually deal with the problems, however. We need to consider the penalties so that we do more than just give people a slap on the wrist. The Government should look into the things that spoil our quality of life; for example, for my constituents in Bellfields, where people have been throwing fireworks, setting light to trees, knocking on doors and dropping litter. There are all sorts of problems, some of which are due to a dispersal order imposed two estates away. The kids are not allowed there, so they move on to the next estate, causing mayhem, and then end up in Bellfields where they make everybody's life a misery.
We need to look not only at what is going wrong but at some of the remedies. If kids are making a nuisance of themselves, it is not enough simply to tell them off. As their parents say to me, "What else are they to do?" My local police have been doing some good work with youngsters, their parents and community members, so that the offenders have to meet their victims and cannot think of them only as anonymous people behind closed doors. However, much more needs to be done and we should consider how to deal with such problems in the legislation.
We have the problem of neighbours from hell. Sadly, some of them have children from hell, but that hell may start in their own home, so they go out and cause problems for other people. People may complain that they do not like living next door to a particular family, but sometimes the council cannot move the family because the children need to be settled in a school. We need to do much more, not only by telling such families that their behaviour is unacceptable but also by working with them and their children to get some stability into their lives so that they can change their behaviour. We have to invest in people, as well as criticising and punishing them.
Does the hon. Lady agree that we need to use the carrot as well as the stick? One way of improving the situation would be to re-engage with local youth services so that young people have an active outlet for some of their energies and do not get involved in the type of activity she described.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that useful intervention. Yes, I agree. Kids need different things nowadays. The days are gone when every child wanted to be a member of a youth club. We need to find different ways of engaging with youngsters; for example, investing in sport and football pitches and finding other things for them to do. Many people are trying to do such work, but in a county such as Surrey where there is next to no expenditure on youth services, it is difficult and lonely for those who are trying to make a difference, but that needs to happen.
I have some other concerns about how we are to deal with and punish offenders under the Bill. The newspapers report that there will be more powers for community support officers. On
As has been said, we are all faced with a large influx of housing, particularly in the south-east, including my area, and yet we do not seem to have clarity about whom we are trying to house. In Guildford one needs to earn £74,000 a year to buy a house at today's average price. People in all sorts of normal careers—including town planners, and the head teachers of some schools—find that housing is beyond their reach. So we are envisaging lots of housing but we have a lack of clarity about who it is needed for.
I have problems trying to get housing for people in my constituency who will never get enough points to live in one of the very few three-bedroomed houses available, and yet they cannot get housing on the open market because they are on benefits. The council sends them to the open market, but the open market says, "Our buy-to-let mortgages will not allow us to give you a mortgage if you are going to let the property to someone on housing benefit." So what do these people do? We need a lot more clarity on what we are going to do to provide Government support for key workers. The money that has come is most welcome, but it will not go far enough.
When we have denser housing, we shall have more stress. People living cheek-by-jowl have a lot more problems; noise is a key issue. But there are other areas where we also have noise, which will not be dealt with in the clean neighbourhoods and environment Bill. We really have not got to grips with the dreadful, noisy train horns that make people's life a misery, preventing them from sleeping at night, waking them up early in the morning and making them a nervous wreck. I have been trying to get something changed on this for months and nothing is happening.
As a result of changes in traffic flow, noise on roads is reaching a level that is unacceptable on health and safety grounds, yet we cannot get anything done if a road has been in place for a long time. Traffic movement has changed but the road has not. In that situation there is nothing in law to make people's life better, so we cannot make any headway in relation to the A3 in my constituency, which is much noisier than it has ever been.
On sustainability, the Government need to look at their own behaviour. How much are they doing at the Department of Health to increase sustainability? How are they moving forward on their sustainability agenda in all areas? Very little is done in hospitals to reduce heating and air conditioning bills. If more were done, it would save the national health service a lot of money, which I would like it to spend on lots of worthwhile activities. The Government, rightly, have concentrated on cancer and other areas and made great strides, but now it is time for them to start looking at large-spending Departments, such as the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Health, and draw up real sustainability agendas in the buildings that they own, in the buildings administered for the Government, in universities, in hospitals, in schools and in colleges, and require much more work to be done at board level to combat climate change, to deliver sustainability and to deliver better agendas. The Gracious Speech contained a lot of legislation, and it will be a challenge to get it through. However, I hope that we will have time to discuss some of those areas.
I should like to touch on one or two minor areas. All Members of Parliament spend an awful lot of time on casework dealing with solicitors who have let clients down. We know that self-regulation is not working but we still need some solution for ordinary people who throw good money after bad trying to get justice.
On mental health legislation, I welcome the consultations—we need to make progress—but I want to see legislation with funding, because it is one of the great scandals that there is so much more we can do with modern work, modern techniques and modern medication that is not happening because of changing requirements.
I return to one of the charities that I mentioned, Headway Surrey, which helps road traffic victims. I recognise that some voluntary sector funding is not delivering money any more, and with changes in mental health funding, in health funding and in local authority funding, some of these charities that do so much good work to get people back on the road cannot operate as they used to.
Today is very much about the environment. We are heading for the G8 presidency, and I am very supportive of the fact that the Government have climate change as No. 1 on their agenda. I hope that the House will have an opportunity for a full debate on the environment with a full team of Ministers. We want to see where we are going on this issue. My hon. Friend Norman Baker asked earlier what the Government expect to achieve as a result of their G8 presidency in respect of climate change. That is the right question to ask because we must set the targets high, and we need real outcomes from doing so.
I am delighted to be able to make a small contribution to the debate on the Gracious Speech today, when we are discussing the environment and transport, and particularly to follow Sue Doughty, with whom I serve on the Environmental Audit Committee. I associate myself with her remarks about road traffic accidents and the many, often silent, victims of death and injury on our roads.
Although I would normally choose to major on the environment in such debates because it is a cause that is very close to my heart, I particularly want to focus on transport today. Before doing so, I wish to say that I was disappointed that there was not more of substance in the Gracious Speech that we could get our teeth into and that would in real terms and with obvious action match the Government's rhetoric on the environment.
Sadly, when the Government came to office seven years ago, they pledged to make great progress in the environmental field. They began well—it would be churlish not to admit that they made some significant reforms—but they seem to have petered out as the years have gone by and the environment has consistently slipped down their list of priorities. It is welcome that the Prime Minister should talk about trying to make progress on climate change next year, but the Government's record to date on matching their rhetoric with deeds if very poor indeed, so I hope that the Gracious Speech is not an indicator of the relatively empty words that we have normally come to expect when the Prime Minister makes those great pronouncements.
We do not normally associate the Gracious Speech with jokes or humour, but whoever inserted the words
"Proposals will be published to protect the nation's rural heritage" into a Gracious Speech that comes just four days after the Government used the Parliament Acts to enact a Bill that will sound the death knell of fox hunting throughout England and Wales truly had a deep sense of irony.
I particularly want to turn my mind to transport in the next few minutes, especially to three key issues that very strongly affect my constituency: the SRA's proposed cuts in the rail service to London from Bexhill; the impending announcement of the Government's decision on whether or not to fund the Bexhill link road, which will link the A259 to the A21; and the Government's continuing vacillation and delay on the improvements to the A21 between Flimwell and Robertsbridge.
First, on the SRA's proposals, it was with great shock just a few weeks ago that my constituents learned, along with me, that the SRA—the Government's rail supremo—was planning to end a direct train service to London, as part of the Brighton main line reorganisation. The associated document contains several proposed benefits to Brighton and the close vicinity, but as a disbenefit in the executive summary, it proposes that the direct link to London should be axed, so that my constituents would have to change platforms at Eastbourne or Polegate in future—something that is of profound concern to the business community, local residents, tourists and visitors.
My constituency of Bexhill has one of the highest age profiles of any area in the country. I think that we have the highest number of over-80s in the country and the second oldest population in a constituency along the south coast. My constituents are dependent on the train service—I am sorry that nobody on the Government Front Bench is listening to this—to get to Gatwick or to London. The prospect of having to change platforms is profoundly worrying to them.
Bexhill is a major town of 45,000 people and it is 60 miles from London. Not to have a direct train service to the capital city seems preposterous in this day and age when we should be looking to increase the use of trains and to encourage people off the roads. To cut the service and to propose that it should become a local link along the south coast is absolutely ridiculous.
The proposal also flies totally in the face of all the regeneration proposals on which I have been working on a cross-party basis with Mr. Foster and with Labour-controlled Hastings borough council. I refer to the Hastings and Bexhill taskforce proposals to regenerate the area. Critical to that have been the proposals—[Interruption.] Through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I ask those on the Government Front Bench to keep their voices down? They are clearly not interested in a word that I have to say and are not listening. I would be grateful if I could at least make myself heard. I am afraid that it is only the usual discourtesy that we have come to expect from the so-called Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality.
As I was saying, it is a great travesty that the proposal from the SRA is even being considered. Some good work has been done on a cross-party basis to regenerate Hastings and Bexhill, an area that is in dire need of regeneration. The regeneration project was born out of the Government's decision just after this Parliament was convened not to go ahead with the Hastings bypass. I am a strong supporter of the regeneration proposals, but the proposition that we should now lose a direct rail link is absolutely bizarre. I hope very much that the Minister responsible for transport will use all his good offices to intervene with the SRA to argue against that.
May I suggest two alternative propositions that the hon. Gentleman might support? The first is the reinstatement of the link between Polegate and Pevensey, which would speed up journey times along the south coast and could be achieved at little cost. The second is direct train services on a regular basis from Ashford through to Brighton and beyond.
I certainly agree that opening up the link between Polegate and Pevensey would be extremely welcome. The Ashford proposal sounds interesting, although it is not one that I see heavily promoted locally. It certainly is an interesting and constructive idea, and we are in the market for them.
My area also awaits the decision from the Department for Transport on the proposal for the A259 link road. I am not instinctively a road builder; I do not believe that we need lots more roads. The new proposal is a much smaller lighter-touch proposition than the old Bexhill and Hastings bypass. It is a smaller road that avoids all the sites of special scientific interest and the areas of outstanding natural beauty that the previous road did not. It has been designed with much greater sensitivity to environmental concerns.
Of course, any road building involves an environmental price to pay, but there is also an environmental benefit from the building of the road, which all my constituents are aware of even if they do not agree with it. This road, if constructed to the north of Bexhill, will allow the release of land, which is in a strategically important place behind the town, for the construction of about 1,500 new homes that would otherwise be pushed into the rural areas of my constituency in the AONB in the high weald.
The proposal would also allow for the construction of a commercial business park that would provide valuable space to create new jobs for local people. That space is not simply available elsewhere in the greater Hastings area. Without that commercial space, the very good work of the regeneration partnership will be in vain. There simply will not be the physical possibility of creating new businesses to provide sufficient jobs to attack the social problems in the Hastings and Bexhill area.
We desperately need that road to improve transport facilities and air quality. People in Bexhill who live on the A259 have had substandard air quality, with high levels of pollution, for the past nine years, when it has been below the national minimum requirements. There are strong environmental benefits from building that small section of road and efficiently linking the A259 to the A21.
Finally, please can we have a decision on the Government's proposals for the A21 between Flimwell and Robertsbridge? The consultation began in 2003. The decision was supposed to be announced on four occasions, but it has always been deferred. The last time was in the summer, when we were promised an announcement in the autumn. We are now nearly into December.
The reality is that the Government's indecision and vacillation, which are important to the people who live along the road, means that dozens, if not hundreds, of families are living with severe planning blight. They cannot get on with their lives. They need to move, but they cannot make plans because whole villages are blighted by their lack of decision. Either way, there is huge impatience in that rural community for them to get on and make a decision. We need the A21 decision now. We need the A259 link road. We certainly do not need our direct rail link with London severed.
We have had a wide-ranging debate on the themes of environment, transport, and local and devolved government. I commend all hon. Members who participated in it—I think that the number of contributions made by hon. Members on either side of the House matched, which shows the interest in the subject.
I commend my colleagues for their commitment to raising environmental issues. Sue Doughty, who missed the opening speeches, will be pleased to hear that there was a consensus on welcoming the road safety Bill. Norman Baker asked the Government a good question about their expectations in terms of the environment at the forthcoming EU and G8 summits. We also want that answered.
My hon. Friend Gregory Barker commendably put in requests for his constituents. However, he made one observation from a sedentary position. He did not recognise the rose-tinted description given by John McDonnell of the excellence of the train services that serve his constituency. So we had a balanced view of that, with one Member expressing satisfaction and the other expressing his dissatisfaction with that service, which is good thing.
We always greatly respect what Mrs. Dunwoody says on transport. She has great experience and wisdom on the subject. We take seriously the candour with which she said that there are problems at every level of transport. No politician would dispute that those problems are not easy to solve. What I particularly liked about her contribution, which was echoed in the excellent contribution by Mr. Stringer, was that she stressed the importance of tackling some serious omissions.
Both hon. Members identified the lack of anything forthcoming on ports and the difficulty of deep-berthing facilities. The demise of manufacturing in the United States has led to a huge increase in the importation of manufactured goods, causing the balance of funding problems that it faces. There is the capacity for things to go the same way here and to aggravate things in this country, and they are right to raise the issue of ports.
I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend Sir Sydney Chapman. It is 40 years since he first fought a by-election, which is remarkable, yet the youthful spirit with which he engaged in a forward-looking view on our need to do something about climate change for the benefit of not only our generation, but most importantly, future generations, is commendable. He also talked about housing, and I pray in aid his name when I say that we had hoped for an affordable housing Bill, but unless it is under "other measures" it does not appear to be forthcoming. The Government are ducking their responsibility for tackling the affordability crisis in housing, and my hon. Friend was right to point out that omission.
Keith Vaz ranged more widely than the subjects for debate today, as hon. Members are entitled to do. I am not my party's official spokesman on Europe, the subject that he evoked, but he made an important point to which I want to respond. He commended the Prime Minister for moving this country closer to the heart of Europe, but I would love to be able to put this question back to him: has the Prime Minister moved Europe any closer to the heart of this nation? It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman is not here to answer that question.
My hon. Friend Mr. Walter did an important cost-benefit analysis of wind energy: on the one hand, the environmental impact of wind turbines and on the other, the energy gain that they could bring. It is important at this point to record the problem posed by wind energy. My hon. Friend also spoke about our democratic deficit, and I support his view that we would like to see a positive outcome from the present talks about an agreement in Northern Ireland. He pointed also to the problem posed by the outcome of the regional referendum in the north-east, about which I shall have more to say later. I can tell my hon. Friend that I received today a letter from the Deputy Prime Minister about future referendums, simply saying that there would be no more at this time. I think that the people of Tewkesbury and Truro, to whom my hon. Friend referred, need to look out.
My hon. Friend Alistair Burt spoke of a guided bus system that is strongly opposed by local people. I underline to the Government the extent to which they have so often dictated to local people plans and decisions that they do not want. I shall come on to say more about accountability.
We have had a wide-ranging discussion, but what links those themes is the whole architecture of decision making to which the Government are doing terrible damage, and this Gracious Speech is no exception. It does not contain a Bill that is specifically about local government, but its role comes up in several other Bills. Obviously those have not yet been published, so it is hard to be sure, but the School Transport Bill, the disability discrimination Bill, the animal welfare Bill, the new integrated crime agency and the drugs Bill, definitely the safer, cleaner neighbourhoods Bill and possibly the family law Bill will all clearly have an impact on local government.
I am increasingly coming to the view that this Government want to bypass local government because they do not trust it to do their bidding. I fear, for example, that the clean neighbourhoods and environment Bill will be another example of Labour heaping yet more burdens on local government without the commitment to fund them properly. That is why we would oppose any new stealth rubbish tax. Already the council tax has been loaded with so many unfunded burdens that people are taking to the streets to protest about the unfairness of it all.
We see the same pattern repeating itself whereby the Government embrace one new European environmental directive after another without thinking through the consequences for local government. That is one reason why they are having to introduce a Bill for cleaner neighbourhoods; it is because of the need to clear up the consequences of the other directives. No other European country is having a sweep-up operation. Thanks to forward thinking, they have the capacity to recycle as required under the directives.
The end-of-life vehicles directive puts the onus on the last user of an old vehicle to pay for it to be scrapped, with the result that the number of abandoned cars has risen by nearly 40 per cent. since the directive's introduction. The waste electrical and electronic equipment directive is likely to exacerbate the problem of old kitchen appliances littering the countryside. The impact of the directives has coincided with shrinkage in the number of landfill sites that are licensed to accept hazardous waste, and it can only be a matter of time before something very hazardous is dumped in the countryside as a result of the deterrence of the sheer distance to the nearest licensed tip. Who gets to clear all this up and who pays? The answer is the council and the council tax payer. It is no wonder that 78 per cent. of people polled by MORI blamed central Government for the rise in their council tax.
The electorate are savvy; voters understand when it is worth going to the polls and when it is not. The undermining of local government by a centralist, dictatorial Labour Government has resulted in much lower turnouts at local elections than at general elections, which has not been helped by other parties campaigning on national or international issues at what ought to be elections on who runs the council. The Government seem to have forgotten that what makes us electable is our willingness to be accountable. We have jobs from which we can be removed without recourse to tribunals and warnings if voters do not like what they are getting. That is what democracy is all about, but now the Government are actively undermining that democratic link.
A notable absence from the Gracious Speech is the regional assemblies Bill. The drubbing that the Government received from the region thought to be most in favour of regional government has stilled the infant in the cradle. We are left with an incoherent mess of unelected regional bodies, which have no prospect of ever receiving a democratic mandate. Accountability has been lost, or, as Sir Jeremy Beecham, Labour leader of the Local Government Association, put it:
"we have regional government conducted in piecemeal fashion by civil servants, quangos and next steps agencies with minimal accountability to the regions they serve."
The Deputy Prime Minister's refusal to give up on the regional agenda gives away the secret desire to bypass local government. The failure of this Government to trust local government gives the lie to the fake devolution that they were attempting to set up with the regional assembly in the north-east. The fact is that the Deputy Prime Minister tried and failed to prise powers away from his colleagues here in Westminster, with the result that the assembly could not put one more nurse, teacher or policeman into service. Instead, powers on planning and housing were stripped from local government in exactly the opposite of devolution. The truth is that this Government see local government only as mere "agents of central Government", as the Secretary of State for Education and Skills so unfortunately put it.
I hope that, as the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality sits here about to defend his Government's devolutionary record, he will have cause to reflect long and hard on whether his colleagues are centralists or decentralists at heart. If in doubt, perhaps he need look no further than the Secretary of State for Health stepping in to grab the reins when the chips were down over the actions of a hospital in Wales at the weekend.
For further evidence of the half-hearted approach to decentralisation, we have the Welsh transport Bill, which has been gutted by the White Paper proposal to abolish the Strategic Rail Authority. The Government are now using the White Paper as an excuse not to answer several questions on the Bill; they are saying that a memorandum of understanding between the Assembly and the Department for Transport will answer them. What a fudge! That means that Whitehall Departments still call the shots—there is a Welsh transport Bill only if Whitehall says so.
The Government have dismissed concerns about the power of the Assembly over English rail policies affecting Wales adversely as a point to be addressed in the memorandum. They also passed to the memorandum the governing relationship over franchise functions in Wales. The memo looks set to be longer than the Bill. Memo to Government: less talk, more action.
I begin to wonder whether the Government understand what accountability really means. They have got it wrong with many measures in the Gracious Speech. For example, the Railways Bill would give the Mayor of London and the London assembly more power over our railways. That is fine for the electors of London, who have the means to express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the service, but what about the commuters from the home counties and places such as Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds?
The cynic in me says that that suits the Government fine. We see that demonstrated in abuse of the council tax, the pursuit of regionalisation, the establishment of the quangocracy that is the Labour establishment, and summed up in that irritating little phrase with which hon. Members are so familiar—that no data are held centrally. When it all goes wrong and people are let down, their criticisms are met with a nonchalant shrug and the line, "Not me, guv."
We have covered an enormous amount of ground during the debate. I shall respond as fully as I can and write to hon. Members on any points that I do not have enough time to deal with. I could just go through the achievements of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the past three years, which are considerable, from the completion of the Kyoto negotiations to common agricultural policy reform and the strengthening of rural economies and communities, but let me first dwell on the topics raised in the debate.
I welcome Mrs. Spelman to her work. Hers was a straightforward and practical speech for most of the time. I particularly welcomed her remarks about the road safety Bill and I agree with her about the value of consensus on that issue. Where she went totally off the rails was when she went on to defend the Conservative record. Has the Conservative party forgotten the centralising influence of Mrs. Thatcher and her Government, and the actions that took place over the 18 years preceding the Labour Government? The hon. Lady had the unmitigated cheek to refer to devolution to Wales. For the Conservative party to take any interest in devolution is amazing. There is not a single Conservative Member of the Welsh Assembly.
Devolution of money and power to the regions of England is an initiative that the Government have taken. I work with local government in my role. I chair jointly with a representative of the Local Government Association the central local partnership meeting on rural local government. It is very productive. We have just completed work with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning on defining the terms of sustainable communities, because sustainable development is important to us in central Government and to people in local government. It would be nice if the Opposition started to take some interest in those issues.
During the debate we heard some well-informed speeches, starting with the seminal contribution from my hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody, who set out with clarity and passion her vision for high standard rail transport and looked forward to the contribution that the Railways Bill will make. I can tell her that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport looks forward to her contribution when that Bill is debated before the House.
My hon. Friend Mr. Stringer made a thoughtful speech about transport in his area, particularly in respect of bus transport and the strategic approach which, I know, is important to Manchester. He referred to the importance of devolution and equity, and I agree that regional government is a reality for the future, though I thought he was a brave man to go on to speak of abandoning the Barnett formula. My experience of changing any formula—I have been involved in several over the years—is to avoid doing it if possible, because the unintended and unexpected consequences of changes in formulae can often cause a severe headache.
My hon. Friend spoke about regional economic performance. The Government's approach is to ensure that in every part of the United Kingdom the institutions and resources are in place to allow regions to fulfil their economic potential. I particularly value the work of the regional development agencies, with which I am engaged, along with colleagues, particularly at the Department of Trade and Industry and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
My hon. Friend Keith Vaz made several points about a number of issues, including race equality and Britain's future in Europe, which I am sure will be read with interest by ministerial colleagues.
My hon. Friend John McDonnell, as well as speaking about rail services, welcomed the proposals on corporate manslaughter and underlined the hopes of many Members in referring to the need for early legislation.
Sir Sydney Chapman made a thoughtful and well-informed speech. He made the general and correct point that we need to meet our commitments in terms of energy and conservation, and that achieving change in terms of air travel requires international agreement and delivery rather than unilateral action.
The hon. Gentleman also spoke rightly of the responsibilities of the developed world to help the third world if disaster is not to befall our environment. On one of the specific points that he made from a position of considerable experience, I am happy to assure him that we are firmly committed to protecting the green belt and its functions, including preventing towns from joining up. We have added—[Interruption.] Hon. Members who grunt might like to take this point on board. We have added 19,000 hectares to the green belt since 1997. Any land taken out will be replaced. Our policies are delivering—
Would the hon. Gentleman do me the courtesy of listening to a few words before he gets over-excited?
Our policies are delivering more brownfield developments and greater conversion of existing buildings, up from 57 to 67 per cent. since 1997. The new proposals for the east of England, for example, will affect less than 1 per cent. of greenfield land in that region.
That is a false caricature. We have talked about replacement. It is important for the hon. Gentleman to realise that the development and health of his region, and especially the hopes of young people, make it important that we should achieve the balance between housing need and housing provision. That presents serious challenges, which my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has shown the willingness and determination to tackle.
Mr. Walter referred to devolved matters. That gives me the opportunity to celebrate the fact that this weekend we shall see the opening of the millennium centre in Cardiff bay, at the heart of my constituency, in Europe's youngest capital. I congratulate Sir David Rowe-Beddoe and his team on creating a world-class landmark building. Nearby that building we see another landmark building under construction, which is the new Welsh Assembly Chamber. I celebrate the developing work of the Assembly, in whose birth I am proud to have played a part.
I was surprised by the cavalier dismissal of the hon. Member for North Dorset of devolution to the regions of England. Ostrich-like, he wants to withdraw from the South West regional assembly. That gives me the opportunity to quote the following words:
"Despite the north-east vote, there will still be a requirement for effective regional planning functions, provision of democratic mandate for the regions and effective scrutiny of other regional bodies—a role in which the assembly and other voluntary chambers have shown themselves to be extremely competent."
Those are words with which I agree. They are the comments of Sue Sida-Lockett, the Conservative chair of the East of England regional assembly. Referring to Conservative criticism of regional assemblies, she said that it
"demonstrates a crass misunderstanding of the role of voluntary regional chambers."
In respect of the South West regional assembly, there are about 51 local authorities contributing £490,000 in total towards the cost of that assembly. Also involved are the regional and local government associations and the regional employment body that supports local authorities in skills and learning.
The hon. Gentleman failed to mention the Rural Pathfinder for the south-west— it may be to the benefit of those in the Chamber to know that it is Dorset. When we met the representatives of the Rural Pathfinder in the past 10 days, I was pleased at the enthusiasm of the county council and the other partners in Dorset to be engaged in improving health and delivery in rural areas. I am sure that it will be a suitable pathfinder for the south-west, and it might even persuade the hon. Gentleman to celebrate that in future.
My hon. Friend Dr. Whitehead reminded us of much of the history of environmental issues and dealt thoughtfully with the need for consensus and actions in that respect.
Sue Doughty rightly emphasised the personal and tragic consequences of road deaths, and I join her in paying tribute to the work of RoadPeace. She rightly connected, as we should in this Chamber, policy with the personal impact of policies. I was pleased that both she and the hon. Member for Meriden welcomed the road safety Bill. However, I say to the hon. Member for Guildford that it is unwise to mock the contribution of parish councils. They have a growing role, and I pay tribute to the National Association of Local Councils, with which I have been working closely. It has helped, along with the parish clerks, to promote the quality parish council scheme, which is lifting the quality and performance of parish and town councils throughout the country, and whose developing competence and leadership at the local level is recognised in the clean neighbourhoods and environment Bill, whose provisions hon. Members will see shortly, as well as by DEFRA, the ODPM and the Prime Minister himself.
Will my right hon. Friend listen in particular to the demands of those of us who say that we should go further and give parish councils an even greater say, not least in some of the planning processes, in terms of controlling their own community?
I am delighted at the way in which the Local Government Association is engaging with us and with the National Association of Local Councils, particularly in rural areas where we would otherwise be reinventing the wheel by creating additional local partnerships. NALC is represented on the central local partnership to which I referred earlier, and we are making real progress in this area, as is being recognised throughout the country. I encourage my right hon. and hon. Friends, and members of other parties too, to recognise and support the work that is being done at the most local level of our democracy.
The speech of Mr. Yeo was characterised by low-key absurdity. His policy on transport appeared to be to demand actions that have already been taken by the Government, and otherwise to list problems to which he failed to offer constructive solutions. On farming, he seemed to have read the Secretary of State's speech at the Labour party conference, but somehow missed the fact that the Labour party is the first political party in Britain to have a national conference devoted entirely to rural issues. This is the first Government to treat farming as a strategically important industry since the days of my predecessor, Lord Callaghan.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the article in The Daily Telegraph today, which was quite misleading. On the refunding of compensation by the European Commission, the most that the UK could have expected back was about £0.96 million under EU rules, which allow a 60 per cent. maximum reimbursement of any claims. It would have been best, before making his criticisms, if he had discovered the facts. The settlement is much higher than the 23 per cent. originally proposed by the European Commission, and that is a result of successful representations by DEFRA. The settlement is almost three times as much as other countries have received in the past.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the over-30-month scheme. The Government are considering the Food Standards Agency's advice on replacing the OTMS rule with BSE testing for cattle born after August 1996. We all want to see the rule ended, but we would not be thankful if that consideration were rushed, given the imperative or protecting public health.
Our policy towards farming is both positive and vigorous, removing production-related subsidy, reforming the common agricultural policy—actions not words, and a great success for the Secretary of State—and helping the industry to be modern, competitive and diversified, not least through the strategy for sustainable farming and food.
But the greatest absurdity was to say nothing of substance about the wider concerns of rural people. The Government are modernising rural delivery, focusing the work of regional development agencies, building on the strengths of modern quality parish and town councils, and supporting the voluntary and community sector.
On education, we have halted the slide of rural schools under the Conservatives and the rural services review, which I commend to members, cites a school in Cornwall that demonstrates the future—the extended school in a rural setting. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, who is an exemplar in building rural delivery into the policies and delivery of his Department and its agencies. Rural transport is now receiving not only increased investment but flexibility. Affordable housing is a difficult and challenging issue that we are tackling with a sense of importance reflected in the recent remarks of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The Government have put climate change and Africa at the top of the agenda for their presidency of the G8 next year. That reflects our priorities, on which this Government are delivering.
Debate adjourned.—[Mr. Heppell.]
Debate to be resumed on Monday next.