I beg to move,
That this House believes the rising cost of transport is adding to the financial pressures facing many households; notes that the Government failed to honour its pledge to cap this month’s rail fare rises at 1 per cent above inflation, resulting in some fares rising by as much as 9.2 per cent; recognises that this was a direct consequence of the Government’s decision to give back to the private train operators the right to increase fares by up to an additional 5 per cent beyond the increase set by Ministers; further notes that bus fares increased on average by more than twice the rate of inflation in 2012; calls on the Government to ban train operators from increasing fares beyond strict limits and to rule out the proposed introduction of a new category of super peak ticket which would increase the burden on hard-pressed commuters; and further calls on Ministers to support transport authorities pursuing Quality Contracts to bring accountability to bus fares, instead of using Better Bus Area funding to penalise authorities seeking to get better value for money for these taxpayer-funded services.
I begin by thanking and paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), who has decided, because of a head injury, to step down from his duties on the Front Bench. He has been an excellent, hard-working colleague, full of ideas, and I thank him very much for all the work he has done in my team. I know that he will be back.
The cost of transport is rising; it is rising by more than the rate of inflation—by much more in many cases. That increase is being fuelled by an out-of-touch Government and Transport Ministers who just do not seem to understand the pain they are imposing on hard-working people. Returning to work after the new year, those who commute by rail found that the price of their tickets had increased by an average of 4.2%, and by as much as 9.2% on some routes. Over the past year, bus fares have increased by more than twice the rate of inflation and motorists have found that VAT at 20% wipes out any relief they have had from the deferral of increases in fuel duty. Yet most people are not seeing their wages go up by anything like as much as those increases, and for many their wages or salaries are stagnant or falling.
The hon. Gentleman knows that his Government have cut the bus service operators grant by 20%. As for any policies that a re-elected Labour Government may have carried out on fuel duty, it is just speculation to say that they would or would not have been cut or kept; it is completely speculative to suggest that there may not have been any changes in the intervening two years—
No, I think once is enough.
Together with the rising costs of housing, fuel and food, the rising cost of transport is adding to the cost-of-living crisis now making life much tougher for households across Britain. Yet Transport Ministers and the Government are so out of touch with the pressures that families are under that they are making it easier for private train companies and bus companies to hike fares and increase their profits—
I will in a moment. These companies are doing that off the back of struggling commuters and passengers. The pain is not yet over. This year, we are set to see even greater pressure from the rising cost of transport as the Government unveil their rail fares and ticketing review, with proposals for even higher fares at the times when most people need to travel.
Is not the really sneaky thing the Government’s allowing train companies to regain the power of so-called flexibility, which enables them to increase rail fares by up to 5% on top of the regulated fare increase? The Labour Government removed that power from them in 2009.
My hon. Friend is entirely correct. Even now, this Government could put that right by simply removing that power from the train companies, as we did in office. I invite the Secretary of State, who is relatively new to his job, to consider that.
We have Transport Ministers and a Government who are so out of touch with the pressures that families are under that they are making it easier for the private train and bus companies to hike fares and increase their profits off the back of struggling commuters and passengers.
I am grateful that my persistence has paid off. Will the hon. Lady acknowledge the considerable investment in rail? For example, my constituency has a £26 million upgrade of Three Bridges station, a £53 million upgrade of Gatwick station and extra rolling stock from Thameslink and Southern. The travelling public are seeing real improvements.
I want to point out that the situation is not uniform. In my constituency, London Midland has sacked the people who work in the ticket office and installed machines and CCTV cameras that do not work. Despite a promise made by the Secretary of State to the House in a recent statement, there is no evidence that security has been improved at all.
I want to make a little progress, but I might allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene a little later.
The pain is not over yet. This year is set to see even greater pressures from the rising cost of transport as the Government unveil their rail fares and ticketing review, with proposals for even higher fares at the times when most people need to travel. Ministers are to reform bus funding in a way that, deliberately it would seem, will penalise transport authorities that seek to regulate bus fares in the way they are regulated in London.
In contrast, as we set out in our motion, Labour would be taking steps now to ease the pressure on those who rely on our public transport system, standing up to the train and bus companies on behalf of commuters. We would be on the side of passengers, not vested interests.
Last September this House debated rail fares, and to the frustration of commuters—and many on the Government Benches, judging from what they told their local papers—the Prime Minister marched his MPs through the Lobby to oppose Labour’s motion to cap fare rises at 1% above inflation. Of course, Liberal Democrat MPs were marching alongside them. Yet within a month of Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs voting down Labour’s attempt to help commuters, we had a U-turn. On the eve of his party conference, the Prime Minister finally said that he agreed with Labour, and pledged to cap the annual fare rise at 1% above inflation. As commuters found when they returned to work this month, however, that was yet another broken promise from this Prime Minister and this Government, because fares were capped not at 1% above inflation, but at 9.2%. The reason the Prime Minister could not honour his pledge to commuters is clear: he was simply unable or unwilling to stand up to the vested interests in the private train companies. They had lobbied hard before the last election to get an agreement that the Conservative party would give back to them a power that had been taken away by the Labour Government when times got tough—the right to turn the annual cap on fare rises into an average, turning a cap of 1% above inflation into fare rises of as much as 9.2%.
I am surprised by what the hon. Lady says. She said that the previous Labour Government took that power away from the train operators when times got tough. Will she confirm that times got tough in 2010, which coincided with a general election?
No. There was a rule change that would have applied each and every year after the decision was made. Lord Adonis, who was in post at the time as Transport Secretary, took that decision and had been absolutely clear about it. If anybody in the House doubts that, they can read the Select Committee on Transport report on rail fares and franchises, published in July 2009. Lord Adonis told the Committee:
“The Government's intention is, therefore, that in future the cap should apply to individual regulated fares, not just to the average of each fares basket.”
He did not say “for one year” but “in future.” As Lord Adonis reaffirmed last year, when the issue came up:
“It was my firm intention to continue the policy for subsequent years, and I was mystified when…my successor”—
that is, the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond)—
“reinstated the fares flexibility. The only people who supported this change were the train companies.”
I do not therefore accept that the cap was a one-off or that it would not have continued into the future under a Labour Government.
How have the Government reacted? The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), told passengers to stop complaining because fares are
“not nearly as expensive as is being presented”,
and then told peak-time commuters that they were paying for a premium service. I assure the Under-Secretary that many passengers do not feel that that describes their experience in getting to work in the morning on an overcrowded train. They do not agree with him that fares are not expensive.
Meanwhile, it was revealed that the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), was avoiding taking the train altogether, and had a chauffeur bill to and from his constituency—a commute that would take just half an hour by train on a season ticket that would cost taxpayers not £80,000 a year but £4,500 a year. Transport Ministers—
Will the hon. Lady withdraw the accusation that she has just made—that the service to Chelmsford cost £80,000? If she had done her homework or was being fair, she would know that pool cars cost the Department a flat rate of £80,000 for the year, regardless of how many journeys they make or how far they travel. Even if the car stopped coming to Chelmsford, the flat fee would still be paid at the same level.
I am rather disappointed that at the start of the hon. Lady’s speech she did not acknowledge that there had been significant increases in rail fares under the previous Labour Administration. Her argument would hold more water—we are all concerned about rising prices—if she had acknowledged that that had happened under her Administration as well.
I do acknowledge that there were rail fare rises of RPI plus 1 under the previous Labour Government, but when times got tough after the global banking crisis and financial crash, the last Government acted to protect commuters. As households struggled, we immediately changed the rules to force train companies to apply strictly the cap on train fares. That was 1% above inflation, not the up to 9.2% that we have seen this year. That rule change would have applied each and every year from then on—
If the hon. Gentleman allows me to answer the point put to me, I might consider giving way to him a little later.
Putting train companies before commuters is what this Government are doing; when times got tough, we acted to try to support commuters. In future, if we get the chance, we will restore the rule and put it into law so that passengers will always know that the cap on fare rises set by Ministers is the one they see at the ticket office.
As I have said before, I believe that the previous Labour Government should have been bolder in taking on the train companies and they should have done so sooner, but the important fact is that we acted when times got really tough. This Government are just clobbering commuters even more.
No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Buried in the innocuous-sounding Government paper “Rail Fares and Ticketing Review” is a plan to introduce a new category of ticket—the super-peak ticket. It proposes
“a ‘high-peak’ fare priced higher than the current Anytime day fare/a season ticket priced higher than the current season ticket.”
So a commuter who is already paying thousands of pounds for their season ticket faces this year being told that their very expensive purchase is not valid on every train, even if they have no choice about when they have to get to work, and most people do not have that choice. With a captive market, train companies will be allowed to hike fares even higher than they are now on services that suffer the most overcrowding and where there is already no guarantee of a seat. Only this Government would think that the answer to overcrowding on our trains is to price all but the richest off those services. The Defence Secretary gave away this Government’s view of the railways when he was Transport Secretary—“a rich man’s toy”, he called them.
When these tickets are introduced, an even nastier shock is awaiting commuters because the Government’s paper includes modelling on how much the cost of these new super-peak tickets could rise each year. Here is what the Government chose to include in their paper as apparently the favoured option:
“some fares (in the high peak) rising by an additional 7% annually (an additional 40% over the course of five years)”.
So there it is in black and white: new super-peak tickets introduced, with their cost then rising by 7% a year and 40% in just five years. We agree with the Transport Committee, which last week in its report, “Rail 2020”, urged the Government to
“rule out forms of demand management which would lead to even higher fares for commuters on peak time trains”.
The Secretary of State should take the opportunity of today’s debate to do just that, and I hope he will. If he does not, Labour will oppose any attempt to penalise commuters with new super-peak tickets.
The Government are not only hiking the cost of travelling by train but making it harder to buy the cheapest fare by supporting the campaign for the private train companies to close ticket offices or reduce their opening hours. The Government’s paper, “Rail Fares and Ticketing Review”, says:
“Ticket offices are the most expensive way of selling tickets…Train operators will be expected to reduce their costs and this is one important option they will want to consider…it may not be possible or appropriate for ticket office opening hours to continue at current levels.”
It may well be inconveniently expensive for the train companies to have to employ staff to sell tickets to their passengers, but it is one of the best ways for many customers to ensure that they purchase the cheapest ticket, not least when we have a ticketing system so complex that it can be very confusing. Surely decisions should be made on the basis of what is least expensive for passengers, not what is least expensive for train companies.
We know that Ministers do not plan on listening because we have seen leaked e-mails from the Department for Transport showing that plans to close ticket offices are already well advanced. This is what one official said in an e-mail to the Department’s press office advising it on what it could say on ticket office closures:
“We can’t say that the Government has no plans to close ticket offices because we have an application from London Midland where the minister has already decided to approve some ticket office closures (it’s just not been announced yet…and there will be more of those in the future.”
When I first read that out last year during Transport questions, the Minister, the hon. Member for Lewes, said that the official must have been mistaken as he had not approved any ticket office closures. Yet weeks later it was announced that the Minister had indeed approved London Midland’s plans to close some ticket offices and reduce the opening hours of others, despite the company’s abysmal performance in recent months which has caused such misery for passengers. What is even more revealing in the leaked e-mail is that it shows how the Government intend to pass the blame for those closures on to the train companies. This is what the official told the press office:
“your way of slipping in there that the initiative comes from the TOCs”—
the train operating companies—
“not us is very neat.”
So that is the Government’s plan for fares and ticketing: ticket prices rising by as much as 9% every year; more expensive new super-peak tickets which mean that season ticket holders will not even be able to get on every train without paying up to 40% more than other passengers over the next five years; and new freedoms for train companies to close ticket offices, making it harder for passengers to get the best deals. What a contrast with the ideas to make fares and ticketing fairer and simpler that we have heard as a result of listening to passengers during our policy review process.
Those ideas include a clear definition of peak and off-peak, to prevent passengers from facing massive extra charges on the train because it was not clear when peak time ended, and to prevent train operators stretching their peak time to stretch their profits at the expense of passengers. Another is a legal right to the cheapest ticket, so that passengers are offered the cheapest deal available, with rights to refunds if they find that they were mis-sold a more expensive ticket.
Another idea is a more flexible way for passengers to change travel plans so that if, through no fault of their own, they just miss a train and have an advance ticket, they can take the next train without incurring a massive new fare on board. Another is a right to a discount for a rail replacement bus service, because if your train, Mr Deputy Speaker, becomes a bus, which usually results in a longer journey, it should be treated in the same way as a service that is delayed for any other reason. Finally, it is suggested that there should be a cap on annual increases in station car parking charges, because it is increasingly clear that some train companies are squeezing yet more money out of hard-pressed commuters by whacking up parking charges when we should be making it easier for people to leave their car at the station and commute, because by doing so they are helping to cut congestion and helping the environment.
No. Those are the changes to fares and ticketing that passengers want, not the Government’s approach, which seems to be more about what is in the best interests of the train companies, not commuters.
If the Government are out of touch with the impact of fare rises on commuters, Ministers are even more woefully out of touch with the consequences for bus fares and services of their funding decisions since the election. When they set out plans to cut 28% of funding from local transport and axe a fifth of the direct support for bus services, Ministers claimed, incredibly, that that could be done without an impact on fares. The Minister, the hon. Member for Lewes, told the House:
“When I spoke to the industry following the spending review announcement, it indicated that the cut was so minimal that it hoped that it could absorb it without fares having to rise, which is what we hope will happen.”—[Official Report, 2 December 2010; Vol. 519, c. 953.]
What incredible naivety.
For the subsequent two years, those who rely on local bus services have had to listen to the Minister, with his fingers in his ears, denying all knowledge of the consequences of the cuts. At Transport questions last April, he said of bus services that
“there have not been the cuts that the Opposition are so keen to talk up.”—[Official Report, 19 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 485.]
At Transport questions in November, he again refused to accept the truth when my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) warned him of the higher fares and reduced services in communities up and down the country.
We now have the truth, because the Government have had to publish the annual bus statistics for 2011-12. They clearly show an average increase in bus fares of 6.5% in England and an even higher average increase of 7.6% in non-metropolitan areas. Those are increases of more than double the rate of inflation on services that are relied on by some of the poorest in our communities.
Will my hon. Friend consider whether the impact of those increases will be felt by young people in particular, who have to pay high fares to get to college and to work and who are suffering a great burden because of the increases being visited on them by the Government?
My hon. Friend is right. The Government’s own statistics also reveal the truth on lost services. Directly contradicting the Minister’s claims, they show that between 2010-11 and 2011-12, mileage on supported services dropped by 10% in non-metropolitan areas in England and by 7% in metropolitan areas.
My hon. Friend’s point about lost services is crucial to those who live in villages in my constituency, particularly older people who do not have another option for transport. They face higher transport costs because there is no bus service any more. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that that is a consequence of what she is saying.
My hon. Friend is correct in explaining the experience that his constituents are living through. These are not just statistics, but the loss of actual services. Research by the Campaign for Better Transport has found that 41% of local authorities have been forced to cut services that are socially necessary and the support that they give them. That is on top of the cuts from the previous year, when one in five local council-supported bus services were cut or cut back. A tenth of councils have had to cut more than £1 million from support for bus services.
The Government’s own watchdog, Passenger Focus, has warned that the reduction in those services will impact disproportionately on
“older people, less affluent households, those with health related issues, or households containing teenagers”.
I hope that Ministers will accept that they cannot remain in denial any longer about the impact of the cuts to bus services—cuts that could have been avoided in their entirety just by using the Department’s underspend from last year, which Ministers handed back to the Treasury. Ministers need to explain to parents why they are having to struggle with the extra costs of getting their teenagers to college. They should explain to pensioners why the Prime Minister’s election pledge to protect their bus pass did not extend to protecting their local bus services, leaving many with a bus pass but no bus on which to use it, thereby reducing their access to shops and vital services and increasing their isolation.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Clearly, bus services, train services and transport systems have always had to be paid for in some way or another. Does she feel that most of the burden should fall on the passenger or on the taxpayer?
The hon. Gentleman has missed out the profits of rail and bus companies. Perhaps those ought to be looked at as well. As he knows, all Governments have to strike a balance. This Government have to do so, as did the previous one, and that will no doubt be the case for the next one too.
Because bus services outside London were deregulated, local authorities have for far too long been unable to limit fare rises or properly plan the network of local bus services in the interests of passengers and economic growth in their area. That is why the last Labour Government changed the law to enable transport authorities to use quality contracts to move to a tendered model for bus services, thereby bringing accountability over fares.
That model means that decisions on fare rises are made by politicians, just as we have always accepted should happen for rail fares and as has happened for bus services in London. However, the integrated transport authorities that are rightly going down that route are finding that they are up against the vested interests in the private bus companies. Stagecoach is the worst culprit and has threatened to close depots, sack drivers and take buses off the road overnight. Sir Brian Souter claimed that he would rather “take poison” than enter a quality contract. His managing director accused the elected accountable transport authority of
“operating in the same camp as Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.”
Have the Government stood by transport authorities that are trying to secure a better deal in the use of taxpayers’ money? No. On the contrary, the Government are using their reform of bus funding to stack the odds even further against transport authorities. They are caving in to pressure from the bus companies and proposing to exclude from better bus area funding authorities that seek greater control over fares through quality contracts. Yet again, the Government are on the side of the wrong people and are putting the interests of the bus companies before bus passengers. The Government should think again and work with councils, not against them. Ministers should say to the bus companies, “You operate successfully in a regulated system right across Europe and you can do so here.” Instead, Ministers are cutting funding, oblivious to the impact on rising fares and reduced services, and standing in the way of local authorities that are seeking reform to deliver more for less and keep down fares.
On rail and bus services, the cost of transport is rising by well above the rate of inflation. The Government should listen to passengers, and the House should support the motion. Let this be the last year when the train companies are allowed to turn the so-called cap on fare rises into an average. The Government should restore the strict cap on fares that was introduced by Labour and that they scrapped. They should also listen to passengers about ticket offices and look at the ideas that we have set out to make fares and ticketing fairer and simpler. The Government have so far shown themselves to be completely out of touch on the rising cost of transport and the pressure that it is causing for families who are already feeling the squeeze on household budgets. Today is an opportunity for Ministers to start listening, recognise the consequences of the misguided decisions that their predecessors have taken over the past two years on rail and bus services, and act. I invite the Secretary of State for Transport to do so.
Before I call the Secretary of State, I should say that there will be a time limit on contributions. It is difficult to say what the limit will be until the Secretary of State sits down, but I should not think that it will be much more than six minutes.
I start on a bipartisan note by joining the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) in wishing her colleague the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), whom I see in his place, a speedy recovery and return to the Front Bench. We all wish him well and understand why he has taken the decision that he has in the short term.
I could not help but think that the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood and myself must have lived in different countries. From listening to her speech, it was almost as if there had been utopia until the general election, with everything fine and wonderful and the train companies bowing to the wishes of the Government and always doing what was right by consumers and the Government. Then I read a few Select Committee reports from the last Parliament to put me on the right track. I could not help but be struck by a report of the Transport Committee from 2006, when it had a Labour majority and a Labour Chairman. It stated:
“Both the Department for Transport and the train operating companies quoted growth and the fact that ‘the UK has the fastest-growing rail patronage in Europe’ as reasons not to be overly concerned about price levels. Indeed, the Government demonstrated breathtaking complacency”
about fares and ticketing. The hon. Lady should not imagine that the problem of fare rises is new. She said that there was no recession then, but we were about to go into one of the biggest recessions that this country has ever suffered. I will come to that a little later, but I am conscious of time—although you did not tell me to be brief, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am aware of the fact that you said there will be a time limit on speeches. I will try to be a lot briefer than the shadow Secretary of State was in her 30-minute opening speech.
I am afraid that a lot of what the hon. Lady said was a mixture of the ill informed and the inaccurate. The motion does nothing to help passengers or investment, and it says all that we need to know about the Labour party. Let us be plain about some of the facts, which might help the Opposition. The motion calls on the Government to cap regulated fares at 1% above inflation. We have. It was the last Government who planned for 70% of costs to be met by fare payers in 2013 and 2014, which would mean fares rising this year not by 1% above inflation but by double that. The fare rises are lower than they would have been under Labour’s plans. That would have been an additional tax on hard-working commuters that we have not been prepared to impose.
I do agree with the shadow Secretary of State on some things. She has said that
“we should reduce the public subsidy to the rail industry”.—[Official Report, 19 May 2011; Vol. 528, c. 522.]
I agree. She has also said that if she were running the Department’s budget now,
“we would have to make difficult and painful decisions in respect of cutting the deficit”.
Indeed, and Labour did make some of those difficult decisions. She talked about ticket office opening hours, and it is a fact that in the last five years of the Labour Government, Ministers approved cuts in opening hours at approximately 300 stations. Now the Opposition seem to think that that is wholly wrong, but they were only too aware of the need for it when they were in government.
I agree with the hon. Lady, too, that it is right that we have a record level of investment in our railways at the moment, and that railway passengers have to contribute to that as well as the taxpayer. We have more trains and better services and we are delivering new lines. We are also delivering for passengers by capping the average increase in regulated fares at RPI plus 1% not just this year but last year and next.
I note that my right hon. Friend and his fellow Ministers have a long-term aim of reducing the cost of railways to both passengers and taxpayers, and therefore ending the era of the above-inflation rail fare increase. Will he therefore reassure me that he will not look to the taxpayer and the fare-paying passenger to bear the £33 billion cost of his plans for the High Speed 2 railway?
I am grateful to reaffirm to my right hon. Friend the Government’s commitment to adopt what was Lord Adonis’s plan for HS2, and I pay tribute to the former Secretary of State. My right hon. Friend and I disagree on HS2. I believe that it is vital for future investment and opportunities for the whole country. I will say more about that in the House in a few weeks’ time.
If I am still Secretary of State in 2017, I will have been the longest serving Transport Secretary. If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I have enough problems on my plate without making commitments for 2017. I look forward, however, to a Conservative Government making that decision—that is as far as I will go towards meeting that commitment at the moment.
The fact that we have capped fares to RPI plus 1% will benefit more than a quarter of a million annual season ticket holders by around £45 a year, and some commuters will be more than £200 better off over the two years. The motion before the House is confused in another way. It attacks the flexibility that allows operators to increase some regulated fares by more than RPI plus 1% if they cut other fares by an equal amount—for example, on Virgin Trains the Rugby to Euston season ticket has increased by almost 1% less than inflation. Today, the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood tried to claim that it was not the last Government who introduced that flexibility, or that such flexibility existed for more than one year. The changes to the agreement, which I can read to her, make it clear. The deed of amendment states:
“With effect from 00.00 on 1 January 2010 Schedule 5.5 of the Franchise Agreement will be amended as set out in the Appendix to the Deed…From 00.00 on 1 January 2011”.
Therefore, the agreement was amended for just one year.
Is the Secretary of State saying that Lord Adonis, whom he just praised, misled the Transport Committee when he said that he intended the agreement to go into the future and that it was a permanent change? Does he realise—he will find it out in 2014—that the year before an election, the limits of how far into the future one can go in the time of one’s successors are set by Whitehall and are different from those for the beginning of a Parliament?
I am not accusing the noble Lord of misleading anybody; I am informing the House of what he did as Secretary of State. He may have wished his changes to last longer, but they did not and were solely for that one year. Indeed, when the 5% flexibility was introduced in 2004 it led to some increases of 11% under the previous Labour Government in 2009 alone. That flexibility was suspended for one year—an election year.
However, that is not Labour policy now. How do we know? Well, let us look at Wales where this year under the Labour devolved Administration fares went up by RPI plus 1%, with flexibility of 5%.
Indeed; I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I hope no Welsh Labour MPs support the motion tabled by the shadow Secretary of State. If they do, not only will they back up my argument that we are having a synthetic debate introduced by an Opposition who have synthetic policies on transport costs, but they will not mean what they say. When Labour is in a position to change the rules, it does not do so. In Wales, it has accepted the flexibility it believes it needs to provide a proper service; the Labour Government in Wales have acted in exactly the same way as the UK Government.
Indeed it is. The Secretary of State says that the debate is synthetic, but the anger of my constituents and many others at the performance of London Midland in the past year is not synthetic. He has recently dumped the deal with London Midland. The good news is that that provides some pre-concessions to passengers, but it is also said that he has not actioned a break clause in the contract. That could have happened at the end of this year, but it has been extended to 2015. It is also unclear what milestones and review mechanisms will be in place to hold London Midland to its word. Will he clarify whether his measures give London Midland more of a free rein or whether he will introduce a measure that forces it to do what it says it will do?
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), has made a statement on that, in which he also outlined some of the requirements we expect of London Midland. He and I will be watching the performance of that franchise very carefully. It is important that we give passengers the service they rightly expect and demand. We have put in place a number of measures that will cost London Midland considerable money to put into operation, and I expect it to do so.
I am conscious of the time—time moves on when I am continually trying to help colleagues to understand where their policies have gone wrong in the past. We are looking at ways to improve our railway services. As I have said, the Labour party, which is in control in Wales, has kept exactly the same flexibility on rail fares that the UK Government have retained.
In 10 years, the Labour Government electrified only 10 miles of railways; this Government will electrify 850 miles, including the midland main line, for which my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), the Whip, who is sitting on the Front Bench, has campaigned so hard.
The hon. Lady is a sadly missed member of the Transport Committee, and was there when I first appeared before it. She should be careful, however, because she was probably a member of the Committee during its inquiry on “Rail 2020”, which quite clearly shows that the worst year for subsidising the railways was 2000-01. I cannot remember what party was in government at that time, but it is true that investment went up afterwards—[Interruption.] She is looking for the page number. Page 9 simply and straightforwardly sets out the record.
I must press on. I am sorry I cannot give way to the hon. Lady. The facts I have pointed out are in the report. I will try to make progress and give other hon. Members the chance to contribute to the debate.
We are putting record investment into the railways. In the 19th century, our railway was a symbol of Britain’s innovation—including London’s underground, the first anywhere and 150 years old today. Now, the railway is experiencing an extraordinary renaissance. Last year, the number of passenger miles travelled was almost 50% higher than it was in 2000. More people are travelling by rail today than at any time since the 1920s, and rail freight has grown by more than 60% since privatisation. We have soaring demand, but limited space. Regular passengers on busy lines know only too well what that can mean—overcrowded carriages and uncomfortable journeys. That is not good enough and we are going to sort it out.
In July, we announced £16 billion of funding for the network between 2014 and 2019. Inter-city travellers will benefit from the completion of the northern hub in Manchester, a £240 million investment on the east coast main line and a further £300 million for high-value, small-scale schemes in other parts of the country. We approved a £4.5 billion contract to build a new generation of inter-city trains in County Durham, creating some 900 jobs, and we are procuring thousands of new carriages for Crossrail and Thameslink. We are also getting cracking with HS2, the biggest new transport scheme since the building of the motorways. Meeting demand, however, is only part of the problem.
While the previous Government blew the budget, the railway was allowed to grow wasteful—up to 40% more expensive to run than those of our European competitors. We have therefore had to take a hard look at the industry and have a rail reform programme to tackle the £3.5 billion annual efficiency gap identified by the McNulty report in his rail value-for-money study. Already, major savings are being found. Ultimately, this focus on efficiency will help us to deliver our goal and put an end to above-inflation fare increases at the earliest opportunity. A railway that is efficient and modern is a railway that is affordable to use.
I will look at the hon. Lady’s point, but I hope she will make representations to the Welsh Assembly following the motion that the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood has tabled. Perhaps the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) will consider not voting for the motion in light of it being in direct competition to what the Welsh Assembly, which I understand is Labour controlled, is doing.
I am conscious that the Secretary of State has not yet referred to bus services. My constituents rely entirely on bus services, as they do not have the luxury of a rail link. Does he agree that it is entirely wrong for operators such as Stagecoach to scaremonger about the introduction of quality contracts in Tyne and Wear and to threaten to sack staff and pull out of the region? Should the Government not back up integrated transport authorities, such as mine, which are making decisions that are in the best interests of local people?
I am coming on to say something about bus companies, but I will not comment on individual contracts that are being negotiated, as it would be wholly wrong of me to do so.
I want passengers to get the best deal from a ticket system that is easy to understand, and that is why we have set up the fare and ticketing review. This is not about higher fares; it is about simpler fares. It is not about catching out passengers who have to travel when trains are busiest, but getting good deals for people when there are seats to spare. Taxpayers, whether they use trains or not, all contribute to the cost of running the railway. I know that when people face big bills and tough times they really feel the pressure of higher fares. That is why we are looking at ideas such as smart ticketing and more flexible season tickets, so that they only have to pay when they actually need to travel. The way we work is changing and it is right that tickets change too.
This Government are on the side of passengers, whether they use trains or buses. That is why we have protected free bus travel for pensioners and are putting in place a level playing field so that operators can compete to bring fares down. The basic truth, however, is that the cost of bus travel has risen, including during the decade to 2010 under the Labour Government, and that is mainly due to higher operator costs, such as fuel.
I am sorry, but I must make some progress.
From the first day of the coalition Government, our priority has been to tackle the deficit that we inherited, to rebalance our economy, to get people back to work and to boost growth. Transport plays a key part in that process. This Government have capped fare rises. We are getting the investment in, tackling overcrowding, increasing seats and services, and delivering High Speed 2. It is the right deal for passengers and the right deal for Britain’s future.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in today’s debate, which is extremely timely, given the news in today’s newspapers that once again the north-east is to lose out on vital rail infrastructure investment. I want to draw some important links between fares paid, the turnover of rail operating companies, the profits they make and levels of investment.
This morning, The Journal in Newcastle announced that Network Rail’s £37 billion five-year improvement programme looked set to snub a wish list of north-east track upgrades. The Secretary of State just trumpeted that 850 miles of line were to be electrified—well, not in the north-east of England, I am afraid. He also mentioned that £240 million was to be invested in the east coast main line. On the basis of current profits and the amount of money going back to the Department for Transport from the east coast main line, that is about one and a quarter years’ operating profit—so not much to be thankful for there. Rail passenger groups have warned that, although some east coast main line work will speed up connections, almost none of Network Rail’s refurbishment money will go to north-east England. Incidentally, the east coast main line is operated by Directly Operated Railways, which is owned, in turn, by the Secretary of State and the Department, so he has significant influence over the company—or certainly should have.
Lines in the region calling out for electrification, new passenger services or full-scale reopening have had their case turned down, as money has gone instead to improving services via Manchester and Leeds, as well as improving links to London. Of the £37.5 billion budget, only a pittance is earmarked for track enhancements in the north-east—mainly for the easing of the so-called pinch points between Northallerton and Ferryhill. From a north-east perspective, projects would help to boost mobility and connectivity in our region and enhance our prospects for economic growth.
This snubbing, yet again, of the north-east is particularly galling given the range of fare deals being offered to north-east customers, compared with our Scottish counterparts, by the east coast main line. We sometimes have to pay £100 more for a journey that is an hour and a half and a 100 miles less. I have no quarrel with my Scottish colleagues and their constituents getting good deals from east coast main line, but on behalf of my constituents, I have a duty to demand the same kind of deals and discounts for the travelling public in the north-east as those from which colleagues north of the border benefit.
The east coast main line is working at a significant profit and contributing those profits to the national pot.
I had a look at the fares on the internet just before we came into the Chamber. A return fare from Newcastle to King’s Cross was £301. With the minimum wage at £6.19, that means that people have to pay 48.62 hours of work at the minimum wage for one journey from Newcastle to London return. Is that fair?
There is an awful lot about current fare structures that is desperately unfair, particularly for people on low wages and those trying to get jobs, and particularly in a region such as the north-east, where many have to travel to get work.
As the independent report stated in September, a railway company that was temporarily renationalised by the Government three years ago reported increased profits and an improvement in passenger satisfaction. DOR, which took over the running of the east coast line from National Express, said that its operating profit increased by 7% in the year to March to £7.1 million. Turnover for the year amounted to £665.8 million—an increase of £20 million—leaving a profit before tax and service payments to the Department of £195.7 million. That was an increase of £13 million. Putting that against the £240 million proposed investment in the east coast main line makes the amount look extremely modest indeed.
I have a great deal of respect for east coast main line as a franchise. I sympathise with its staff, who often work in difficult circumstances, dealing with the failures of creaking infrastructure and worn out rolling stock and equipment, yet an awful lot of what the travelling public have to put up with on the east coast main line could be avoided through some relatively modest investment, which would be entirely affordable given its profits.
My hon. Friend mentions the east coast main line staff, who do indeed provide a good service to passengers. I am sure that he, like me, frequently comes across people who are confused about whether they have the right ticket for a journey—a train might be late or they might get on the wrong train. The poor staff then have to deal with the problems that that creates. Is that not an example of the kind of complication that drives away passengers and often makes them go for higher fares rather than cheaper ones?
Indeed, and one criticism I would make of the last Government is that they did not sort out the complicated franchising system, which has left us with a complicated rail ownership programme across the country.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer proudly announced investment in infrastructure as a means to unlock growth. However, analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research shows a biased picture. The think-tank examined the data, detailing the projects to be brought forward as part of the national infrastructure pipeline. Of the projects that were identified as benefiting a particular region and where public funding was involved, it found that London and the south-east accounted for 84% of planned spending, compared with 6% in the north. That equates to some £2,700 a head for each Londoner, which is more than the total for all the other regions combined, which includes £201 a head for Yorkshire and Humberside, £134 a head for the north-west and just a fiver for the north-east of England. My constituents do not believe those figures, but they are absolutely right. Why, if we get a meagre £5 of investment per head, should we pay extortionate rises in rail fares, which have risen nearly three times faster than wages since the recession? In fact, between 2008 and 2012, average rail fares increased by 26.6%, with wages rising by just 9.6% over the same period. Recent research by the think-tank Transport for Quality of Life has shown that UK rail fares are the most expensive in Europe and that rail privatisation is costing taxpayers £1.2 billion a year, with train operating companies making large profits on the back of public subsidies.
Speaking of profits, I was appalled to learn recently of a dispute over pay involving east coast main line and a subsidiary company called ISS—International Service System—which centred on its cleaning staff. Cleaners were being paid £6.08 an hour—a figure that is below the national minimum wage and is, I believe, illegal. On top of that, they got no pension scheme, no enhancements for unsocial hours, bank holidays or weekends, no sick pay above the statutory minimum and no travel allowances. The east coast franchise, which likes to promote itself as a first-class service, was treating employees of its contract cleaning company in a third-class way. ISS is a huge multinational company, with more than 500,000 employees worldwide, 43,000 of whom work in the United Kingdom. It is disgusting that it was able to do that to its hard-working employees. Indeed, following on from yesterday’s debate, this has a knock-on effect, as the Government have to fork out in-work benefits to many of these people to subsidise the industry.
Pressure must be put on Network Rail by the Government to ensure that north-east services get a fair allocation of resources. Connectivity, particularly by rail, is essential to the economic prospects of regions such as the north-east. Despite their stated commitment to reduce the deficit, the Government still find themselves, month after month, deepening the crisis yet further. When will they recognise the essential link between investment in growth, particularly in regions such as the north-east, and their prime aim of deficit reduction? The two are absolutely connected.
The motion before us is very disappointing. It fails to recognise why there are costs in our transport system or what the Government are already doing about them.
I want to focus on the rail network, because it is the transport area undergoing the most significant change, as we are in the biggest period of rail investment since the Victorian era. We all know that there are inefficiencies in our rail system. The McNulty review, which was commissioned by the previous Government, reported inefficiencies of between £2.5 billion and £3.5 billion in the system, and found that our railways were up to 40% less efficient than the best of our European counterparts. Those are inconvenient facts that the motion ignores. It also ignores the success of the industry. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned, there are as many passengers on our rail network now as there were in the 1920s, yet the network is significantly smaller than it was then. That is one of the causes of overcrowding. It also shows, however, that passengers are choosing to use rail.
I am going to talk about an area in which the Government have introduced a radical change of policy that will cut costs for passengers and improve the service they receive. That policy is rail electrification. Let me remind the House of how the UK performs in this area. We have electrified 34% of our network. In 2010, the UK was 20th out of 29 European countries in the league table of electrification. We are ahead of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Latvia, Estonia, Greece and Lithuania. Wales and Albania were the only two countries without a single mile of electrified railway.
Why does this matter? It matters because electrified railways are cheaper to run. Electric trains are cheaper to buy. They weigh less, and so put less wear and tear on the network, which in turn costs less to maintain. They require less engine space, and so can accommodate more passengers, which contributes to the capacity issue. They can accelerate and decelerate more quickly than diesel trains. This means that passengers can enjoy faster journey times or that there can be more stops for the same journey time, or that there can be a combination of the two. They are also, of course, more environmentally friendly. Rail electrification is part of the long-term solution in taking cost out of running our railways.
I mentioned earlier that this area has seen a radical change of policy direction. Labour managed just 10 miles of rail electrification in 13 years. That is not even a snail’s pace. In contrast, this Government have announced 850 miles, and we are only halfway through this Parliament. That represents a huge change of scale and ambition, tackling cost and capacity for the longer term.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this Government have also led the way by announcing the electrification of the railway line from London all the way down to Swansea and, more importantly, the electrification of the valleys lines in south Wales, which will mean a great deal to a large number of people? I am pleased to say that those measures are supported by Members on both sides of the House, and I look forward to the projects being completed in due course.
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. This is not just an abstract policy; we are seeing real change on the ground, and there is good news right across the country. As she says, the Great Western main line is being electrified between London and Swansea, along with the valleys lines and the vale of Glamorgan line, which will bring electrification to Wales for the first time. The midland main line is being electrified between London and Sheffield, and that will obviously include Loughborough. A matter of great importance to my constituents in Harrogate and Knaresborough will be the electrification of the TransPennine Express services between Leeds and Manchester. That is just part of the massive rail investment that we are seeing in the north. There are many other projects, and I would like to highlight the complete funding of the northern hub, which will vastly increase capacity between our great northern cities.
Those projects involve major long-term funding decisions. Sometimes, we have been reluctant to take such decisions, but not under this Government. The ministerial team deserves praise for that. However, I cannot resist taking this opportunity to highlight a marvellous electrification opportunity. This is a bit of a local advert, and I thank the Ministers for listening. I am talking about the Leeds-Harrogate-York line. The line has up to 3 million passengers a year, its usage is growing rapidly and it serves an area of high economic activity. The area also has a significant visitor economy. The Harrogate international conference centre attracts more than 300,000 visitors a year, and 500,000 visitors attend the Great Yorkshire show each year. The area is so inadequately served by its rail facilities, however, that less than 20% of its visitors arrive by rail.
Electrification of the line is part of the solution. There is enormous support for the electrification of our line—from all the councils along the route, from the West Yorkshire passenger transport executive and, of course, from all the local chambers of trade and commerce. May I therefore ask the Minister, perhaps a little cheekily, to look at what can be done for the Leeds-Harrogate-York line and to meet me and colleagues to discuss it?
The questions we should be asking today about transport costs are not those in the motion before us. We should be looking at the underlying reasons why we have cost in the system. I think the Opposition know that, which is why they commissioned the McNulty report in the first place. Overall, I completely agree with the desire to cut the cost of travel in the UK, but I will not support the motion because it fails to take so many important issues into account.
I have been talking about rail solutions, but the Government have been taking action in other areas, as well. We should look at the different approach to fuel duty. The last Government increased fuel duty 12 times, and left office with six further rises planned. This Government have stopped them, and as a result motorists are seeing fuel duty 13p a litre lower.
I welcome the Opposition’s interest in delivering value for taxpayers and passengers, but it is a late conversion. As identified in the McNulty report, they left our rail network inefficient. Under the last Government, rail subsidy went up by 337% at a time when passengers saw real-terms fare rises. Bus subsidies went up by 127%, despite real-terms fare increases again. It is only by tackling the underlying drivers of cost that better value will be delivered for taxpayers. This motion does not even consider that, which is why I will not support it.
Transport is a vital issue. It is essential for people to get to work and to get to social amenities. That is why it is so important that we debate not just the provision of transport itself, but the cost—because transport has to be affordable if it is to be put to best use. I shall confine my comments to the rail service, and I shall refer to some of the findings of the Transport Committee’s report on rail, which was recently published. There will be an opportunity tomorrow to debate the Select Committee’s report on bus services, and I hope there will be the same number of Members in Westminster Hall tomorrow afternoon as there are in this Chamber today.
It is important to note that rail is, in fact, increasingly popular. The number of people travelling by rail has doubled in recent years, while the amount of freight carriage has increased by about 40%. There is rising concern, however, about fare levels. I assume that that explains why the Government’s proposal to increase regulated fares by an average of RPI plus 3% was reduced to RPI plus 1%—because of the public outcry and concern about increased fares. It is also true that the Government are implementing a policy—indeed, they inherited it—whereby passengers were expected to pay an increasingly higher percentage of the cost of rail than the taxpayer. Important issues remain about how this policy is applied, about the cost of running the railways, about how efficiencies can be achieved and about how costs and the allocation of subsidies can be assessed.
The hon. Lady made an important point in saying that both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in government and Labour decided to shift to some degree the cost of rail transport from the taxpayer to the passenger. The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) did not comment on the issue from the Front Bench, so I was wondering what level of subsidy and what proportion of the cost should be borne by the passenger?
At the moment, the overall distribution is about 60% for the passenger and 40% for the taxpayer. In the breakdown of how the funds are allocated on different types of services, however, there are very stark differences. It is in respect of the allocation of the cost and the resultant proportions of contributions made by taxpayers and passengers where further major questions need to be asked. That is why the Select Committee report highlighted the need for more transparency about the cost of different types of services and where the subsidy goes.
The Committee’s main conclusion was that the Government should rule out demand management that would lead to even higher fares at peak times. It made the important point that many people have to travel at peak times in order to get to work.
We must all acknowledge that at peak times the demand placed on the rail network can far outstrip supply. How does the hon. Lady think demand can be prevented from exceeding supply? Does she not agree that more should be done to encourage investment in local areas, outside the major cities, in order to remove the need for most of us to commute?
People often travel at peak times because those are the times when they have to get to work. They have no choice. However, there are other ways of addressing the question of demand, and I shall say something about them later.
The report also talks of the importance of achieving efficiencies, although we think that the aim of making efficiency savings of £3.5 billion by 2018, as McNulty recommends, is a challenging one. The bringing together of different parts of the rail industry in the Rail Development Group, and through other means, is welcome, but it is important for the industry then to work in the interests of passengers and the taxpayer, not just in its own interests. It is also important for it not to cut corners and put safety at risk in order to achieve efficiencies. We have high safety standards which should not be jeopardised, and strong regulation is particularly important for that reason. The regulator needs to be able to act firmly and decisively.
Members have mentioned other means of achieving efficiencies and reducing fares, or at least reducing the rate of increase in fares. We need to think about smart ticketing and innovation, and about introducing more flexibility in the way in which fares policy is drawn up and implemented, which has been sadly lacking. There should also be more transparency in the use of public funds. It is extremely important for the rail service to receive a public subsidy, because it is a public service, but it is equally important for the £4 billion public subsidy going into the system this year to be dealt with in a way that people understand, so that they can assess whether it is being used effectively. Not all the information that we have at present enables them to do that.
I am sorry, but my time is very limited.
Some information has been published about the subsidy for the London North Western route, which, we are told, amounted to £1.2 billion in 2010-11. That is a significant proportion of the £4 billion that is going into the overall system. The area covers wide expanses, including the west coast main line run by Virgin and Cumbrian rail services run by Northern Rail. We have been given an overall figure—a very major figure—but we do not know how the subsidy is allocated between different services, or indeed between different parts of the country. That is just one example of the need for more transparency so that we can assess whether subsidies are effective.
I welcome Network Rail’s recent announcement that more than £35 billion will be invested in the next control period, 2014-19. However, the Committee will look at the figures in detail and consider what they actually mean, and the rail regulator will look at them as well before anything is finally approved. It should be noted that although the announcement of more much-needed investment in the rail system has been welcomed, passengers have expressed the fear that they will have to pay for it through even higher fares, which renders the need to look again at a policy on regulated fares even more urgent. The Committee has asked Ministers to do that.
In due course there will be an opportunity to discuss the Committee’s complete findings, and we will do more work on rail franchising and rolling stock acquisitions, another important area in respect of savings. I hope my comments this afternoon have helped to inform the debate. Rail is increasingly popular and a good service is currently offered, but there is increasing concern about fare levels, and we must address that.
After many years of above-inflation rail fare increases, rail fares are now simply too high, so I am pleased that as a result of pressure from the Liberal Democrats and others, the coalition Government’s previous plan of introducing an increase of the retail prices index plus 3%—which would have made a bad situation even worse—has been dropped and that that increase has been reduced to RPI plus 1%, which means fares will be lower than they would have been under the previous Labour Government.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
RPI plus 1% was an SNP Government policy, so this is a case of stolen clothes. Unfortunately, ferry fares have risen for haulage, but there was no effort at all to reduce ferry fares under the Edinburgh Liberal-Labour Administration. Will the hon. Gentleman apologise for that?
I am certainly not going to apologise after the SNP has just increased ferry fares by 10%. The hon. Gentleman is right, however, that the SNP Government in Scotland copied the Government here, so the rail fare increase in Scotland is also RPI plus 1%.
Liberal Democrats believe it is important to end the era of above-inflation rail price increases as soon as possible. However, that important aim has to be balanced with the need to raise cash for the investment that our railways so badly need. Our railways have suffered from decades of chronic under-investment, leading to a system which was increasingly inefficient, overcrowded and highly expensive to run. I am therefore pleased that the coalition Government have committed to invest about £16 billion in our railways up to 2019. That will support over £9 billion-worth of improvements, which will help to provide more services and greater capacity, particularly for commuters to our nation’s biggest cities.
The coalition Government are currently overseeing the biggest investment in our railway infrastructure since the Victorian era, and at the same time we are working hard to reform our railways and reduce unnecessary costs. The coalition plans for further rail electrification will also ultimately result in over 800 miles of track being electrified. Many speakers have contrasted that with the record of the previous Government. Our future plans include the important High Speed 2 project. It will create a direct high-speed link between London and Birmingham, which will eventually extend to Manchester and Leeds, and, I hope, Edinburgh and Glasgow as well. That will help enhance rail connections throughout the country and reduce journey times, and boost future opportunities for jobs and growth.
I will not support the Opposition motion, as it has fallen into the typical Opposition party trap of calling for fare cuts while saying nothing about where the money will come from for the investment our railway system so badly needs. Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are working together in government to put our railways on a sustainable footing, and we hope it will soon be possible to keep fare increases below inflation.
Although the country needs to reduce the deficit, I am pleased that the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), has recently been able to announce more than £120 million of funding for buses, including £31 million for low-carbon buses. I also welcome his launch last year of the Government’s policy document, “Green Light for Better Buses”. It sets out a series of reforms that will attract more people on to the buses, ensure better value for the taxpayer and give local authorities more influence over their bus networks. Ultimately, it is for local authorities working in partnership with their communities to identify the right transport solutions for their areas.
Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that outside London there has been a continuing decline in the level of bus patronage and that the real answer to that is, as the shadow Secretary of State said, to have quality contracts or to re-regulate the buses? What are his Government going to do about that?
The important thing is that the Government work together with local authorities and that power is devolved to them to find the correct solution; this Government are providing money and are working with local authorities.
Cycling has another important transport role to play, and I was pleased with the announcement in the autumn statement of a further £42 million investment in the sustainable transport fund for cycling infrastructure, including cycling safety. No matter how much effort is put into providing public transport and encouraging people to use it, in rural areas, particularly sparsely populated ones such as mine, the car will always be part of the transport solution. So I am pleased that the Government abandoned Labour’s fuel duty escalator and have reduced fuel duty by 1p a litre on the mainland and by 6p a litre on the islands. I hope that the Government will soon get the EU approval required to extend this scheme to remote parts of the mainland.
I would certainly support any efforts to increase that discount. Such a move would need EU agreement, but I would certainly be happy to work with the hon. Gentleman to try to obtain it. It is important to point out that from April fuel duty in his constituency will be almost 20p a litre less than it would have been had the previous Government’s policies continued.
I hope the Government will introduce road pricing on motorways and major trunk roads, using that income to reduce fuel duty. Such a system would rightly tax people more for using their car on journeys where there is a public transport alternative. This coalition Government are tackling the problems of lack of investment in our public transport system, in contrast to the Labour motion, which offers no solutions whatsoever. I certainly will not be supporting the Labour motion, and I am sure it will be overwhelmingly defeated.
The starting point for this debate has to be the fact that Great Britain has some of the highest rail fares in Europe. I recognise, of course, that to pay for investment in the rail network the passenger—the fare box—will have to make an important contribution to the funds required. However, the passenger should not be asked to pay an unfair burden, and one way in which we can ensure that passengers are not forced to pay more than they need to is by ensuring that the revenue earned from the network is actually used for the benefit of the network—for the benefit of passengers—and is not siphoned off out of the system.
The evidence from the decades of the privatisation regime, instituted by a previous Conservative Government, is overwhelmingly clear. That approach has meant that billions of pounds has passed out of the system, away from passengers and away from possible benefits of infrastructure investment. Instead, the benefits have been in the form of big profits for many of the companies involved, not just train operating companies but those with ancillary roles in the system, including some of the providers of rolling stock, to mention just one example. This has not just been about money flowing out through large profits; it has also been about operating inefficiencies being brought into the system. Again, those have been to the detriment of passengers and, in their own way, have led to fare increases.
Let us leave aside the fact that there are not many operators in the field to bid. I am not saying that an individual operator is necessarily inefficient, but that the system as a whole leads to inefficiencies as well as to profits being paid out to private companies when they could be invested in the system.
I said that not all companies are inefficient. One example that showed the difficulties and negative effects of privatisation at their highest was the disaster of Railtrack, which was linked not just to private ownership and that company’s motivation in its operations but to the fragmentation of the operators and Railtrack’s distance from the train operating companies. That example also shows how some of the damage caused by privatisation began to be turned around. It is not a perfect organisation, but the publicly owned Network Rail has managed to repair some of the damage caused by fragmentation of the system and we have seen a safer railway network and better value for the taxpayer, for passengers and for other users of the rail network in the costs of maintaining the system.
One of the greatest burdens for people in employment is that 30% of their wages can go on travel. People are travelling further, too, to get jobs and employment. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that consideration has been given to those people who regularly use public transport, be it bus or rail, to get to work?
Absolutely. That is an example of how increased rail fares damage people daily and effectively worsen their standard of living.
The most recent example of the damage caused by the privatised regime on the railways has been the fiasco of the west coast main line franchise. That fiasco is likely to land the Department for Transport—and therefore the taxpayer—with a bill for hundreds of millions of pounds, which could have been spent on improvements to routes, stations and rolling stock. In contrast, we have the experience of the east coast main line, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) referred earlier. Bringing the franchise into the public sector has been good business for the taxpayer and the directly operated company has brought money back into the public sector. In the last year, it has brought a premium of almost £200 million into the Department, which has gone back into the public sector rather than being siphoned off into a privately owned company.
The problem is that there is an inherent difficulty in the tendering system that operates on the railways under the privatisation scheme introduced by a previous Conservative Government. In order to bring about long-term investment and security, a Government will want to see long-term tenders, but the longer the tender the less reliable any prediction of future traffic and income can be. That leads to a risk of the tender becoming either a loss-maker, with the operator seeking to hand it back to the Government and to make them pick up the tab, or one in which excessive profits are reaped by the private operator. The system itself is at the heart of the problems with the railways and of the fact that money that could be used to benefit our passengers has unnecessarily flowed out of the rail system.
I want to concentrate on the east coast main line, which is of particular relevance to my constituency and to communities further south along the line. I urge the Government to drop the ideology and to choose the option that works and that will keep prices down for the traveller. They should keep the east coast line, which is successfully operated by Directly Operated Railways, in the public sector. I would rather that that was done on a permanent basis, but if the Government, for ideological reasons, are not prepared to do that, they should at least give the operators a long-term contract rather than leaving a sword of Damocles hanging over the company, the staff who work for it and the passengers and communities that rely on it.
The Government could also take the opportunity to allow Directly Operated Railways’ east coast line to be a genuine public sector comparator for the rest of the network. If the Government will insist on reprivatisation for the west coast main line, they should at least ensure that a public sector bid can be put on the table as a comparator against which we can judge which provides best value for money for the taxpayer and the best services for the passenger. That is the way forward. Let us start putting passengers first and make sure that they get the benefit of investment rather than the companies, which have taken too much out of the railways for too long since privatisation was introduced by a previous Conservative Government.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate. This is an important issue; there is a serious debate to be had about how we finance investment in the rail industry in future and about the cost of transport today. Like hon. Friends who have spoken, I will have no problem in voting against the Opposition motion; with depressing predictability, it is rather opportunistic, denies their record and contains few concrete proposals for the future. I asked the House of Commons Library for figures on how much rail fares increased between 1997 and 2010. The answer was 56% for local and regional operators and 98% for long-distance trains. Rail fare increases did not begin in May 2010.
My first main point is that although the debate on rail fare increases is important, the reporting is not always helpful or accurate; the headline turn-up-and-go “Anytime” rail fares are often cited and from that it is extrapolated that Britain has the most expensive rail system in Europe. However, those tickets account for less than 20% of ticket sales. When we look at the whole series of available fares, the position is not as straightforward.
In preparing for this debate, I looked at the Virgin Trains website for a hypothetical journey from Manchester to London. Yes, if I wanted to travel in peak time, turn up and go, a single would cost £154—a large sum. However, a wide selection of other fares for the same journey, as low as £12.50, was available on a wide range of trains. The point is that we have to look at the whole mix of fares, not just the headline ones.
We do not have the same debate in the airline industry. The difference between the cheapest and most expensive air flights on the same route, say to New York, is enormous—from a couple of hundred pounds to £1,500 if someone wanted to turn up and go.
I am sure that it is possible to get a £12.50 fare from Manchester on Virgin Trains on some occasions. However, does the hon. Gentleman not accept that that £12.50 will be valid to London Euston, but if he wants to go to Brighton, Dover or the south-west of England with a different operator, he will not be able to get a through ticket at that rate? He will have to get two separate tickets, which might cost more than a single through ticket, because he will not be able to get a cheap through ticket.
I accept that there is an unnecessary complexity in the rail ticketing system. The Transport Committee has looked at that issue and will continue to do so. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not go too far down that path, as time is limited, but he has made a valid point.
The comparison with Europe is interesting. A very good website called “The Man in Seat Sixty-One” does an independent comparison of European rail fares. Yes, when you look at the “walk up and go any time” fares, the UK is substantially more expensive, but on other tickets, including buying the day before, Britain is either on a par with France, Germany or Italy or very often considerably cheaper.
I mention that because when we talk about rail fares, we need to differentiate between passengers compelled to travel at a particular time of day and the vast majority who have some flexibility over when they travel. The Opposition are right to highlight in the motion the issue of super-peak tickets, but they miss an important point. I completely accept that some passengers will not be able to change their time of travel, but others can. A super-peak ticket should not be designed to increase prices but to give rail operators the flexibility to discount other peak-time travel and encourage passengers to travel slightly later or earlier if possible.
I am not sure whether it is utopian. The increased cost of investing in our railways has to be met by a mix of passenger contributions and taxpayer contributions. At the moment, the balance is about right. The cost of travel by any means is going up, and that takes into account the extra costs of energy. Similar debates are happening in Switzerland, Germany and other countries about how they cope with paying for the extra investment in the rail industry.
I return to my point about whether we can incentivise passengers to travel outwith the super-peak period. That is a line of questioning that I followed during the Transport Committee’s investigation when those in the rail industry were asked about what percentage of the daily commuter market could move their journeys as opposed to having to travel at the times they do. They were very reluctant to give a figure on that, so it is an area of uncertainty, but my own view is that with improvements in technology and more flexible working patterns, that share of the market will grow. In the last job I had before I was elected here, I had some flexibility because I could plug into the company’s database system and do a fair chunk of my work from home before having to travel in for meetings. If more and more employers give that flexibility to staff, as is entirely possible, it is perfectly feasible that rail operators will have an incentive to discount tickets—the shoulder, as it were—instead of putting up the super-peak fare, which I accept would be very unwelcome.
Time prohibits me from going into some of the other issues in depth. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) said, I hope that we have a further opportunity to explore the issues raised in the Select Committee report. There is a need to get the costs of running our railways down, as has been highlighted in McNulty and many other studies. I am encouraged by some of the innovations that are happening. I think particularly of the alliance between Network Rail and South West Trains. It is too early to give a full evaluation of that, but it is already showing signs of making it more efficient and cost-effective to maintain and improve the railway. There is the possibility of increasing revenue from retail space at stations. These factors will all feed into generating revenue for the railways and maintaining the pressure on keeping fare increases down.
I look forward to the Government’s conclusions from its consultation on ticketing. There is a real opportunity to drive down the cost of rail tickets in this country. However, we must look at the whole picture and recognise that we are pretty competitive compared with a lot of European countries. There will be pressures in future—that is a problem with the success of the railways to date—but the picture is not all bleak, and I very much welcome the steps that the Government are taking to improve the situation further.
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), has claimed that rail passengers are getting a premium service and that rail fares are not nearly as expensive as is being presented. I wonder who he is trying to kid. My constituents who are crammed like sardines into nearly 30-year-old trains do not believe that they are getting a premium service, and even McNulty acknowledged that fares overall are high relative to other countries.
Research by Passenger Focus has shown that fares in Britain are the highest in Europe, more than four times higher than the cheapest country for medium-distance journeys and nearly twice as high as the next most expensive. Granted, if someone can purchase their ticket far in advance and specify which train they want, and advance-purchase tickets are available for that service, they may be able to find a fare that is cheaper or comparable with those of our European colleagues, but for most people travelling for business that option is rarely available. Of course, if things happen and they are unable to get on a specific train at a specific time, they cannot transfer their ticket to another train, so the only way they can get the best price is to book in advance and accept zero flexibility and no refunds, which is something that the vast majority of us are unable to do.
Witnesses to the Transport Committee suggested that the way to solve overcrowding on trains was to price most people off peak times. Indeed, the Government appear to be considering super-peak tickets that would be even more expensive than peak tickets. When the former Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), gave evidence to the Committee, he answered a question of mine by saying that the railways are already a rich man’s toy. This Government seem to want to save some services for the super rich and price ordinary people off trains altogether. As Passenger Focus says, people should be incentivised to avoid travelling in the high peak, but not penalised even more when they cannot avoid it.
Our highly complicated fares system does not help train passengers to find the cheapest means of travel. The proposal to close ticket offices just adds to the difficulty, particularly for those who are unable to book tickets via the internet. It now costs more than £300 for my constituents to travel to London during the peak. They could get a holiday in the sun for a week, with spending money to spare, for the cost of getting to our capital city. Rail prices for long-distance travel have become obscene and mean that we are putting cars back on to roads. That surely cannot be right.
The vast majority of public transport journeys are made on buses. Since 2005, bus fares in metropolitan areas have increased by an average of twice the rate of inflation. Deregulation has produced a system where operators have been given a licence to print money at no risk to themselves. If an operator deems a service to be unprofitable, it can simply stop it and remove it from residents, unless the local authority steps in to save it. At a time when local authority budgets are being cut to the core, there is no money to support those services, and we know that services are being cut, leaving people unable to get to work and the elderly and people of limited means stranded in their homes.
Deregulation of the plethora of bus operators has also made it incredibly difficult to introduce any sort of travel card. London has had Oyster cards for nine years, but my constituents are still waiting. Although Transport for Greater Manchester is working hard to get our version of Oyster, it is finding it extremely difficult because of the various vested interests.
I spoke yesterday about my constituent Leah, who is affected by the cuts to tax credits and other benefits. Leah works 16 hours a week to earn £101, but she has to pay £18 a week for her bus fares. If she lived in London, she would pay £11.20.
The increases in train and bus fares are hitting ordinary people very hard. Wages have not kept pace with inflation and we know that people are already having to choose between heating and eating. Public transport costs are forcing many who can to travel to work in their cars and those who cannot to give up their jobs. The Government need to help local authorities to introduce quality contracts and Oyster-like travel cards and to keep bus fares down.
It seems that running our buses or trains is a licence to print money. Even though the majority of rail franchises receive large subsidies, they still take operating profits out of the industry. It is very much a case of something for nothing, which is why it was so disappointing that, after the debacle of the west coast franchise, the Government, apparently on ideological grounds, would not even consider directly operating the railway, as is the case with the east coast franchise, and putting money back into the Treasury.
Finally, I want to challenge the notion that the previous Labour Government did nothing on rail. We inherited a railway that had been starved of investment for 18 years and we needed to do some fundamental repairs, including rebuilding the west coast main line, which was already electrified. In 2006-7, the Labour Government spent twice as much as the current Government are spending, and in each year since 2003 more money was spent on the railways under the Labour Government than this Government are spending this year.
Let us agree that public transport is also a public service. It needs subsidy and, more importantly, it needs to be affordable for all, so that it is not just a rich man’s toy.
The cost of rail and bus travel is extremely important to many of our constituents. The motion has great appeal, but having looked at the detail, it is quite empty and poses many questions but gives no solutions to the problems that it identifies.
We must acknowledge the squeeze on the incomes of railway passengers over the past five years or so. Incomes have been stable at best for many people and salary increases have been well below price inflation. We need to recognise that fares have increased above inflation for the past 10 years. We must consider whether we can keep going back to those hard-pressed taxpayers year after year with those increases. In the debate about how we structure our fares, we must balance that need against the cost to all taxpayers of subsidising our railways, looking at how we can improve the efficiency of our railways, and ensuring that we see proper investment in the rail network and substantive service improvements. Having read the motion, I am far from certain that it strikes that balance.
There is no acknowledgement of the £16 billion of investment that the Government are putting into our rail infrastructure. That includes projects such as the Nuneaton to Coventry rail upgrade and electrification, which will bring a huge benefit to my constituents, particularly to my many unemployed constituents who are seeking work and do not have their own transport. The motion does not take into account the huge rail electrification programme and the new train and rolling stock programme, which will reduce the running costs of our railways substantially in the long term, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) eloquently explained.
The motion makes no mention of the improvements that there have been for passengers, particularly on the west coast main line, which is now seeing an additional four Pendolino trains and 31 trains being lengthened. When I get on the train at Nuneaton on a Monday morning, although I have to walk further along the platform to get to standard class, I know that when I get there, there will at least be a seat for me because of the new carriages that have been inserted into the trains.
The motion also makes no mention of the £2.5 billion to £3.5 billion of efficiencies that were identified in the McNulty report. I hope that when the shadow Minister sums up, he will elaborate on whether his party supports making the savings identified by that report. After all, there is a cost to implementing the measures that his party is proposing.
I note that the Labour party again brings “flex” to the fore in the motion. Perhaps the Labour spokesman will explain why, as with so many other policies, his party pursued the “flex” policy until a few months before the general election and then changed the policy for only one year. He also needs to say why, if it is such an awful policy, his Labour colleagues in Wales are still using it. The motion calls on the Government to ban operators from increasing fares above a strict limit. That is a laudable aim, but the motion is silent on what that strict limit should be.
That brings me on to the cost of bus travel. We must again consider the cost of living and the squeeze on many people’s incomes. Many of the lowest-paid people in my constituency rely on buses to get to and from work. The Opposition have been rather opportunistic in the motion and seem to have added bus travel to it as an afterthought. The text about bus travel is even vaguer than the first part of the motion. Again, the motion does not acknowledge that fares increased by 35% between 1995 and 2010, which included 13 years of Labour Government. During that time, the average fare increases were well in excess of 2.5%—the same as over the past two years. However, over the past couple of years, the increases have been below the rate of inflation. I say to the Labour Front Benchers that, during the period of the Labour Government, the subsidy to bus operators increased by 127%, while fares also rose by a huge amount. That is not good value for money.
As I have pointed out, Labour’s record on bus travel was not good. We know that if it were in government, fuel would be 13p a litre more expensive and bus companies would be adding that cost to passengers’ fares, compounding the increases that we have seen over the past couple of years. I suspect that if that had been the case, we would not have seen the £4 million investment that Stagecoach has made in new buses in my constituency, which I welcomed several weeks ago.
We must take into account the pressures faced by all our constituents and limit fare increases, but we must also acknowledge the taxpayer contribution and ensure that our public transport is fit and efficient for the future.
This is an incredibly important issue for the people of Plymouth and the far south-west. We are well over three hours away from London by train, we have no air link, so a vital connection to a city of 300,000 people is missing, and we have only two major road links. Yet the new fare for an anytime single to or from London with First Great Western is £131.50, and a single between Liskeard and Exeter, which is within the travel-to-work time that the Department for Work and Pensions thinks acceptable, is now £24. That is just for a one-way journey, which is prohibitive in an area of low wages. South West Trains has announced an average fare rise of 5.8% on its network.
I accept that running what is a Victorian rail network is not cheap, and Network Rail has been carrying out work, much of which was started under the previous Government, and driving cost savings through the system. Work such as improving the signals at Reading will eventually lead to time and cost savings as well as improvements in reliability. Can the Minister say, though, whether there is any scope for Network Rail and the Office of Rail Regulation to work beyond the plans for the immediate control period and contemplate a degree of flexing in projects that are earmarked for control period 5 or 6? Since the publication of the initial industry plan, it seems to have been recognised that there can be instances in which forward planning to the end of control period 10 could be acceptable, and I would welcome his comments on that.
Travelling by rail is expensive, and I believe that most passengers are generally willing to accept an increase in their fares in return for a reliable, comfortable journey. What they cannot accept is an increase when the flexibility in fares potentially allows money to go into the pockets of the private train companies and their shareholders. Even the National Audit Office has commented that the Government have not been able to demonstrate that allowing companies the flexibility to charge an additional 5% will not lead to the profits going straight to the train companies.
We know that the increases are hitting low and middle-income families hardest, and we in the south-west simply cannot accept them, particularly as we lose out in identifiable rail expenditure, as the answer to my recent parliamentary question showed. We get just £40 a head, compared with £119 elsewhere.
We have a serious problem with the reliability and resilience of the rail network. On two recent occasions I was on the last train through the system before the line was closed, the first time due to the flooding at Cowley junction outside Exeter and the second time when the sleeper train that I was on was caught in a landslide on the Friday before Christmas. It got through, but with various diversions. There are serious issues to address, and I am concerned by the fact that Cowley junction was not on the recent Network Rail list of projects. What we urgently need, and what Plymouth city council and its leader Tudor Evans have been pushing for, is a rail resilience taskforce. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that proposal.
The problems were threefold during the recent flooding. First, when the lines went down, communications were poor, with websites not being updated. To be fair to First, it now has a pretty good system in place, but I know from personal experience just how much conflicting information came out. Secondly, contingency plans were not in place. Buses were not immediately available, despite the forewarnings of bad weather. The bus operators could not communicate with the train companies, so there is more to be done. However, I want to put on record my gratitude and that of others to the people who worked in horrendously difficult conditions, including the emergency services.
Thirdly, we could do better on infrastructure management. Some £25 million has been spent on Dawlish, yet the signalling cabinets at Cowley and Taunton are still not properly protected. I do not need to tell the Minister that there are often no drainage ditches in low-lying areas in the Somerset levels and no alternative routes that can be used if the main line to the far west goes down. With no air link, when the M5 is closed due to accidents we are effectively cut off.
Fare hikes at a time of low wage growth are hitting people hard. We understand fare increases if we see improvements and investment, but the Government have no strategic direction for rail in the south-west, and the likelihood of more heavy rain and more problems frankly worries the hell out of people and businesses in particular. If the strategic group is set up, as suggested by Councillor Evans, I hope that the Government will look at its proposals and at the cross-benefit analysis of putting such improvements in place, at the same time as improving our economy, as it will be able to run for 365 days a year.
What have we in the south-west got to do to gain recognition for our needs, particularly in Whitehall which —I venture to say—does not actually understand the south-west? When Ministers and officials liken a city the size of Plymouth to Hastings, we know we have a problem. We cannot escape the fact that we have a serious problem that will not be resolved by super peak tickets and more money going to rail company shareholders. My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) has set out a clear case for a different and fairer approach, and I ask the Secretary of State to respond to my specific proposals for the south-west.
Happy new year, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) for inviting me to deliver the winding-up speech for the Opposition. That was especially generous given yesterday’s front page on the “ConservativeHome” website and a lead article written by someone appropriately called Harry Phibbs—it was not spelled Fibs, although I am not sure what kind of future he thinks he has in politics. Mr Phibbs writes about a dozen politicians who he says should defect to the Conservatives, and he names me along with some other distinguished colleagues, including the former Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris). I am grateful that the shadow Secretary of State trusts me with this winding-up speech in the face of such provocation.
I understand Mr Phibbs’s confusion, because in the 21st century, party lines can blur on some issues, of which equal marriage and Europe are good examples. On transport, however, and the motion before the House, nothing could be clearer: as my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood laid out when opening the debate, bus fares are up twice the rate of inflation, services are disappearing and a prime ministerial promise of capping rail fares at 1% above inflation has been broken. Fares are increasing not by 4.3%—1% above inflation—but by 9.2%, and even worse, Government documents propose super-peak tickets that will cost even more. There are no problems with party lines on this issue. People are either with the vested interests—the train operating companies and the Government—or with hard-pressed commuters, the Transport Committee and the Opposition motion on the Order Paper. I will return to those issues shortly.
The Secretary of State generously joined the shadow Secretary of State’s tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), and—quite correctly—that was well greeted across the House. The Secretary of State has had difficult times during his short tenure. He is regarded as a honourable man but he has been picking up the pieces of the west coast main line franchise fiasco and the Davies commission signalled a Government U-turn—well, certainly a Conservative U-turn—on aviation policy in 2015. My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood is not the only Member critical of the delay in the announcement by the Davies commission, and she is joined by Mayor Boris Johnson and Lord Heseltine. In my view, however, the biggest mistake—
I hope the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me; he knows that time is very limited but I do not wish to be discourteous. I was about to pay him a compliment in saying that in my view, one of the biggest mistakes made by one of his predecessors, the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), was scrapping road safety targets that had bipartisan support across the House for 30 years and massively reduced deaths and serious injuries on our roads. Indeed, I commend the Secretary of State because at least he has had the decency to bring in forecasts that acknowledge we need to measure such things and set an ambition to reduce the numbers of people killed and seriously injured on the roads.
We have heard a number of thoughtful contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) made relevant points about the east coast main line and local connections, as well as sharing disturbing data on staffing conditions. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), a former Department for Transport Parliamentary Private Secretary, mounted a sterling defence of the coalition, which was a good way to sweeten his special local pleading, which I am sure went down well.
The distinguished Chair of the Transport Committee covered the recommendation from the new Committee report, to which I shall refer in a moment. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) reminded us how the Lib Dems are the honest brokers in the coalition. He even got the Scottish National party on side, albeit briefly. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) used his characteristic gentle aggressiveness and Transport Committee experience to criticise Labour’s record, and sought to use European comparisons to justify UK prices. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) raised the question of overcrowding on her local trains, as well as high ticketing costs and local buses, and the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) majored on the question of costs. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) raised a number of local issues as well as discussing major infrastructure items.
To return to the substance of the motion, according to the Department for Transport’s figures—the annual bus usage statistics for England—there was an increase in bus fares of 6.5%, which means fares have gone up by, on average, twice the rate of inflation. They have gone up by 5.4% in London. As we have heard, research has shown that one in five council-supported bus routes were cut or reduced last year, and that 41% of local authorities have had to axe services. That is not a good record on buses.
As we have heard, on rail fares, the Prime Minister promised to peg increases at 1% above inflation. That is another broken promise to add to the 70 missed targets headlined in The Daily Telegraph today—although perhaps it is one of the 70. The target was not only just missed; fare increases of up to 9.2% have been registered. And it gets worse: the Transport Committee states in its “Rail 2020” report:
“We recommend that the Government rule out forms of demand management which would lead to even higher fares for commuters on peak times”.
Why does it make that recommendation? It does so because of a quote from the Government’s rail fares and ticketing review from last year. The scriptwriters from “Yes, Minister” could not have improved on this language, and hon. Members will need to concentrate on the words:
“To provide a stronger incentive for behavioural change and more even usage of peak capacity among existing passengers, a wider ‘menu’ of fares could…also include a ‘high peak’ fare priced higher than the current Anytime day fare, a season ticket priced higher than the current season ticket”,
which means higher prices on routes. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that, because the Secretary of State did not refer to it, even though my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood raised the super-peak ticket on a number of occasions.
Labour’s position is a total contrast. The noble Lord Adonis set out his view last year of the policy he followed as Secretary of State in 2010. He said:
“Prior to 2010, train companies had the right to increase individual fares by up to five per cent above the…RPI+1 per cent level. This was a legacy of the privatisation settlement. I scrapped this flexibility because I believed it was deeply unfair”.
Of his successor as Transport Secretary, the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, Lord Adonis has said:
“It was my firm intention to continue the policy for subsequent years, and I was mystified when…my successor…reinstated the fares flexibility. The only people who supported this change were the train companies. It is the job of government to be on the side of the travelling public. Labour took this seriously, which is why we scrapped the fares flexibility. By contrast, the present government appears just to be on the side of the train companies.”
Government Members asked why the policy was introduced only in 2010. That is a legitimate question, but a better one would be: why has it not been repeated since 2010? We have had three years of coalition fares increases, but the policy has not been back.
The Prime Minister promised capped fares, but it has not happened, and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), held out the prospect of the end of the era of above-inflation fare increases, but when asked by the BBC when that would happen, he could not answer. The Government are out of touch on rail. My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood quoted the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, who said that rail is a “rich man’s toy”. The Under-Secretary of State—long-serving in the Government; long-suffering on the Opposition Benches—tried to claim over the new year that rail fares were
“not nearly as expensive as”
they were “being presented”, and that passengers were paying for a “premium service”. If by “premium service” he means paying more, getting less and standing for longer, I agree. Just this week, the rail Minister, the Minister of State, was bullied into using rail by the media, which was a sad passage.
Labour would put passengers first by banning train companies from increasing fares above a cap set by Ministers. Government Members have the opportunity to stand up for their rail and bus commuters by supporting our motion tonight in the Lobby. I strongly urge them to do so and I commend the motion to the House.
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the House on the crucial issue of public transport fares. I thank all those who contributed to today’s debate, and in the time remaining I will try to refer to as many of the issues raised as possible.
Let me say first that we fully understand and share concerns about the impact of public transport fares on the cost of living. That is why we have committed to retain free concessionary bus travel for older and disabled people. By the way, I applaud bus operators for offering free travel to jobseekers during this month to help them back into work. That is why we protected bus subsidy from the worst of the cuts and provided significant new funding streams to promote bus travel, and that is why we have chosen to keep the average cost of fare rises on the railway to 1% above inflation, scrapping the planned RPI plus 3% that would have otherwise come into effect this month.
Of course, we have inherited a position from the previous Labour Government who from 2004 onwards adopted a policy of relentless, real-terms year-on-year increases of 1% above inflation, a policy to which I understand the Labour party is still indefinitely committed. I note that from 1997 to 2010, rail fares rose by 66% under the previous Government. This Government, on the other hand, are determined to end the era of above-inflation rises as soon as we can, and I will come on to that in a moment.
Unlike the Labour party, which presided over a bloated and inefficient Network Rail and did nothing about it, we are taking forward steps with the industry, including a reinvigorated Network Rail, to reduce its costs by up to 30%. That is progressing well and we will release significant funds to return to the taxpayer and to the fare payer.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that in the south-west we have a very big problem with flooding? We need to have the A303 dualled and the A38 sorted out. We need more trains getting into Plymouth early, and we need to ensure that we have more three-hour train journeys.
I was in the south-west yesterday, in Exeter and Newton Abbott, and I saw fully the problems of the Somerset levels and Cowley bridge in particular. I am taking that specific matter up with Network Rail. As for the other matters, my hon. Friend has put his points firmly on the record, as I am sure he intended.
Detractors—I am afraid I include those on the Opposition Front Bench—have sought to find the biggest fare rise and portray it as representative of the whole story, which of course is simply misleading. Why they wish to frighten people off the railway, I am not entirely clear. Fares are not as expensive as some wish to present. Passengers who look beyond the headline quotes will see the bigger picture on train fares. Under the rules that permit flexibility within fares baskets—the Opposition apparently now dislike them, but they were very happy with them when they introduced them and carried them through for a number of years—for every fare that increases by more than the average, other fares must increase by less than the average, remain static or fall.
The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) has made a big play about the 5% available to train companies. I did not hear her condemn the fact that Labour introduced that. I did not hear her condemn that fact that it was introduced on the very eve of the 2010 general election, with a legal proviso saying that it should be reversed on 1 January 2011. I did not hear her condemn the Labour-run Welsh Government, where flex continues to operate—or is it all right in Wales and not in England? Nor did I hear her refer in her opening remarks to the fares that have risen below inflation, or even come down. For example, season tickets between Shenfield and London, and between Gatwick and Croydon, have come down. Why does she want the passengers buying those season tickets to pay more under her arrangements than they are paying under our arrangements? Why does she want commuters between Ormskirk and Blackpool, who have seen their fares come down by 9%, to pay more? This is opportunism with a capital O that we are hearing from the Opposition. Of course, they are not interested in the fares that have come down. They are not interested in helping passengers; they are interested in misrepresenting the position to make political points. [Interruption.] Passengers welcome the fact that there are many cheap deals available on the railway that they can take advantage of.
Let me say this. Of course, there are some higher fares and there are particular higher fares paid by commuters. Everyone on the Government Benches recognises that, which is why we are busy looking at the fares and ticketing review and why we have sought to ensure we get better value from the railways to enable money to be returned to the taxpayer and the fare payer. It is also the case, however, that those who are able to travel outside the busiest periods can benefit from some of the cheapest fares in Europe. For example, advance fares are available from London to Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds for £6, or from London to Glasgow in the middle of the day for less than £30. Cheap advance fares have been a major contributor to the massive growth in the number of people using our railways in recent years. It is a real success story, and one of the reasons why we have more people on the railway now than at any time since 1929. That is not the picture the Opposition wish to portray, but it is the truth nevertheless.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) rightly referred to the need for a balanced comparison between different fares. Independent analysis by the website he referred to, “The Man in Seat Sixty-One”, has shown that only 15%, or thereabouts, of the tickets available in the UK are among the highest-priced in Europe. The other 85% are equal to, if not cheaper than, their comparators in other European countries.
On the fares and ticketing review, we are determined to ensure that passenger interests are catered for. We know that the picture can be confusing, even to the initiated, so we are considering how to make fares and ticketing more modern, more transparent, more flexible and more user friendly. In response to the Chairman of the Transport Committee, I say that we are doing a great deal on smart ticketing, which is integral to the fares and ticketing review, and transparency is a key element of that review. By driving innovation and exploiting the opportunities from new technologies, we can make the railway easier to use, tackle crowding and make the best possible use of the existing network.
On buses, if we believed what the Opposition said, we would think we were approaching the end of civilisation, that there were no buses left on the roads, and that it had turned into “Mad Max 3”. Indeed, I get the impression that Labour would grimly welcome that, with an “I told you so” satisfaction, were it to materialise.
On 28 February, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) warned of a Beeching-style cull of our bus network. It is true that in some areas local authorities have cut services probably unnecessarily. Campaign for Better Transport refers to Nottingham city council, which is Labour-run, Stoke-on-Trent city council, Darlington borough council, Leicester city council and Halton borough council, so perhaps she should put her own house in order before she starts attacking the Government.
Here is the good news, which we would not get from the Opposition either: passenger journeys in 2012, measured on the third quarter, are up 0.6% from the same quarter the year before. [Interruption.] Members are shouting about London. Even with London taken out, passenger journeys are down just 0.8% on last year. Is that a Beeching-style cut? Total bus mileage is only down 0.8% as well.
We are seeing that good innovation can work wonders. In Sheffield, for example, a wonderful partnership has been established by the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, and the price of multi-operated tickets has been reduced by 14% to stimulate passenger growth further. In Sheffield, First has reduced its commercial fares by almost 40%. Weekly and daily tickets now cost £11 and £3.40 respectively, compared to the previous prices of £18.50 and £4.60. FirstGroup has seen passenger growth higher than 20% across the whole of Sheffield, which equates to more than 50,000 additional First Bus journeys. We want to see bus companies working with local authorities. It is driving up passenger numbers, where they make the effort, but where they are slashing and burning, as they are in some local authorities, of course the consequences are different.
The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) quite rightly referred to electrification taking costs out of the railway. That is a key purpose in what we are doing, as well reducing carbon emissions. I am very proud to be part of a Government which is electrifying 850 miles of track—one in nine miles of the network being electrified, compared with the nine miles electrified by the previous Government in 13 years. I have heard no apology for that failure to invest in the future.