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Yeo: Labour are all talk on transport

Speech in response to Queen's Speech

"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.

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.

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 20 July that

"Doing nothing would be the worst possible option."

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.

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.

The M6 toll road was first approved when my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) was a Transport Minister, and it took more than a decade to complete. The need for immediate action is therefore obvious.

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. 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?

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.

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 the Member for Uxbridge (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. 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. 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."

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.

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.

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.

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