Infrastructure Bill [Lords]

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 8:50 pm on 8th December 2014.

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Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 8:50 pm, 8th December 2014

I agree with every word that Sir Andrew Stunell has just said. His speech follows on from the constructive work that he did when he was in the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Having learned that we are burning fossil fuels and bringing about climate change on such a scale that it could destroy our planet, I find it almost insane that we should be bringing forward proposals that would mean our relying on another form of fossil fuel. I totally oppose the development of fracking in this country.

I shall concentrate on part 1, which deals with the Highways Agency and the road network. Sometimes I feel like shaking people in this building. There seems to be a loss of collective memory. Part 1 is the first stage towards the privatisation of our road network and it is on the same scale as the privatisations of rail, water and energy under the previous Conservative Government. I have the same dystopian vision of what will happen: once a GoCo has been set up, it will be broken up into regional franchises and sold off, almost inevitably to foreign-owned companies, most of them state run, exactly as 80% of the rail industry has been sold off. The story of the energy and water industries has been similar. There will then be the introduction of tolls, exactly as laid out in the Government’s response to the Transport Committee, and the tolls will fund exorbitant profiteering by those companies.

The House needs to wake up and recognise that the Bill represents the privatisation of our roads. We should be honest with the electorate and warn people that that is the consequence of the Bill. Why am I saying that? It is evidenced by what has gone on throughout this Government and previously. There is a loss of collective memory of what happened when the Conservatives were last in government. Throughout the 1992 to 1997 Administration, there were proposals to build on the privatisation of rail, water and energy by also privatising roads. In 1992 the Government published “Paying for Better Motorways”, in which they said that they would establish a single Government-owned company funded by road levies—that is, tolls—and possibly break it down into a number of privatised regional franchises, as has happened with rail and water. That was the

Conservatives’ plan when they were last in power; now it is being implemented under a coalition Government. I hope some of the coalition partners wake up to the consequences of the Bill.

What other evidence is there? The plan is evidenced by the appointments that the Government have made to the Highways Agency. They brought in Tom Smith. Who is Tom Smith? He has just been put on the Highways Agency board. He is the chief executive officer of the M6 toll road. The Government brought in Elaine Holt. What was she? She was headhunted by the Department for Transport to lead on the east coast railway line—first in public sector management, but then to prepare it for privatisation.

All the evidence is there of the Government preparing for the privatisation of our roads. We saw it with the A14. The more recent proposals for the improvement of the A14 included tolling on that road, but there was such public uproar that even the Government had to pull back. We saw the evidence in the Government’s response to the Transport Committee. Paragraph 79 states:

“The Government will consider tolling as a means of funding new road capacity on the strategic road network. New road capacity would include entirely new roads and existing roads where they are transformed by an improvement scheme”

—that is, the investment programme announced last week. The strategy, as far as I can see, is to invest as much public money as possible to bring the roads up to a certain standard in the current period so that they can be privatised under the new agency that will then be broken up into regional franchises.

I note that clause 1 refers not to “a highways company” but to “highways companies”, to enable the Secretary of State to amend the legislation, under the Henry VIII clause later in the Bill, to enable regional franchises to be set up. I warn all the travelling public—motorists, cyclists, pedestrians and others—that our road network is about to be sold off, they will soon be fleeced by tolls and the tolls will subsidise the private profits of foreign companies. If anything provides evidence of that, it is the example of what happened to rail, energy and water when the Conservative party was last in government.

Having said all that, I wish to raise a number of issues on which I would like a response during the debate. I am concerned about the 3,500 staff, who, until now, have been commended for their hard work, commitment and professionalism. What will happen to them? TUPE is not provided for in the Bill. We have argued for it time and again, and in the past four and a half years TUPE has been put into only one Bill. All we have been given, yet again, are assurances that the staff will be covered by COSOP, the Cabinet Office Statement Of Practice on staff transfers in the public sector—the protocol agreement similar to TUPE, but not as enforceable. I reiterate that to give the 3,500 staff greater security we should insert a TUPE commitment in the Bill.

There are arguments to be made about the financial savings and the claim that they will be £2.4 billion. I note the debate over whether VAT is to be charged. First, the Treasury denied that the VAT would be saved and therefore the cost could be, over six years, some £2.4 billion—almost the savings the Government are seeking to find. Then, in the other place, we were told that there was a guarantee that VAT would not be charged. I think that is open to legal challenge. We need greater certainty, otherwise this whole operation will be jeopardised from the beginning.

We also need more details about the monitoring exercise, as we have a monitoring body that is not a regulator, no complaints procedure, and no information about the costings or the investment in the operation of the body. One of the worst aspects of privatisations in the past has been the way remuneration at the top has gone through the roof while wages elsewhere in the organisations have not risen. We are told that remuneration will somehow be controlled through a central review. I do not think such constraints have worked elsewhere when these agencies have been set up—quite the reverse. I would like to see a ratio put in place between the highest paid and those who are on average earnings in the organisation. In that way we may be able to control the overall levels of remuneration in the future.

I am also concerned about clause 17, the Henry VIII clause, which puts such wide-ranging powers into the hands of the Secretary of State. We have now been assured that, through clause 46, the affirmative procedure will apply in respect of any changes in the legislation to be undertaken by the Secretary of State, but I am not convinced that that procedure gives those democratic protections of accountability to this House. I urge that the super-affirmative procedure be looked at.