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LABOUR PARTY CONFERENCE: SPEECH BY JOHN PRESCOTT (FULL TEXT)

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Text of speech by John Prescott, deputy prime minister and secretary of state for environment, transport and the re...
Text of speech by John Prescott, deputy prime minister and secretary of state for environment, transport and the regions, closing the 'one nation society' debate at the Labour party annual conference.

'Overall the motions show, we have made a cracking start in government.

Do you remember the great Tory big idea?: deregulation, privatisation and bogus competition.

What did it achieve in transport?

We saw buses leap-frogging each other in city centres, while rural services were cut. Fewer Passengers More cars. More pollution.

On our railways we have ticketing chaos and cancellations.

And the Tories left us, as an island nation, without a proper merchant fleet.

That's some of the legacy of 18 years of Tory misrule.

I am proud to have a Department which can improve the very quality of our daily lives.

The water we drink, the air we breathe, the homes we live in, our journeys to work.

In twenty weeks, we are developing integrated policies to tackle inter-related issues.

But we had to act quickly.

It was a disgrace that we suffered water shortages while water companies allowed 30 per cent of their water to leak away. More concerned with massive profits, boardroom pay than the conservation of our water resources.

At our water summit, we convinced the companies - diplomatically, of course - to cut leakage and repair customer supply pipes free of charge. That's customer service.

We are advancing decentralisation with Development Agencies coming in every English region, modelled on their successful Scottish and Welsh counterparts. And next May, Londoners will vote on a voice for London.

As Tony made clear yesterday the environment is crucial to the quality of our life and it will be at the centre of every government department's thinking. That's why we have set up a powerful cabinet committee and a house of commons watchdog to keep us on our toes.

The Tories left us with record homelessness and unemployed building workers and millions of unused capital receipts. Within weeks, Gordon Brown and I released nearly a billion pounds of capital receipts to let the building workers build a social housing programme. And we returned homeless families back on the priority housing lists.

To build is not enough. We must improve the standards, efficiencies, design and quality of training in the building industry.

I have launched the Millennium Village Project to be built at the Millennium Exhibition site a pioneering plan for an urban village, with the best of social and private housing, the latest in energy and water efficiencies, designed to cut out needless car journeys, showing what a neighbourhood of the future can be like.

Yes being in government makes a difference.

15 years ago I swam up the Thames to end the Tory dumping of nuclear waste at sea and delivered a letter of protest to No 10. On May 2, I walked into No 10. And within a matter of weeks, we sign up to say this country will never dump nuclear waste in our seas again.

That's the difference between opposition and government.

As Tony said yesterday, in government we have to make hard choices, to meet the targets we set ourselves.

The environment is at the centre of politics, not because it's the politicians' priority but because it's the people's priority.

As Michael Meacher has said, our target to reduce greenhouse gases is ambitious.

But remember the price paid by our coal communities. On Monday I will be visiting Bolsover and Mansfield, to unveil an initiative for our coalfield communities. Never again must one small section of our community pay the full price.

We know it won't be easy. But this time, we must all play our part.

In the 1960s the Buchanan report, titled 'Traffic in Towns'...warned us that meeting traffic growth by building ever more roads would end in expensive failure, and gridlock. His advice was ignored. And today we are fulfilling his nightmare prophesy.

Three decades ago Tony Crosland set up the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. They have recently stated in the starkest terms that the forecast growth in traffic is economically, environmentally and socially unacceptable. It is said that constraints on the use of motor vehicles are required. It is said we must continue to increase fuel duty. And develop environmentally friendly cleaner vehicles

Let me make clear that the Royal Commission report will be accepted as evidence to our forthcoming White Paper. We have already begun in our five months of government to implement some of their recommendations.

-- integrating the departments of environment and transport

-- reviewing our roads programmes

-- halting the Salisbury bypass - for the first time on environmental grounds.

-- accepting the first toll motorway

-- increasing fuel duty in the Budget

-- implementing tougher enforcements for dirty exhausts - developing a road and rail freight strategy

-- reviewing the whole range of public transport

Provision of a good, reliable, integrated, safe and affordable public transport is absolutely essential to get people to use their cars less.

Let me turn to the emergency motion.

The rail tragedy at Southall shocked the whole nation to the core. I visited the scene. And if anyone had any doubt about the value of our public services, they had only to watch with pride and heavy hearts those men and women - the emergency services, rail staff and local people - all working together, at a time of crisis.

We have insisted that all the questions about safety raised by the collision must be answered in the public inquiry. And its recommendations will be implemented. Nothing less will do.

Now let me turn to Composite 26.

There is so much in this motion we can all endorse.

But the NEC has a major disagreement with one small part - two lines of the resolution - of Composite 26. It effectively determines the priority in transport public expenditure. In particular, it calls for re-nationalisation of Railtrack early in the first term of a Labour government -in effect by 1999.

Let me be blunt.

I opposed the Tory rail sell off with every fibre of my being. And the record of privatisation confirms my judgement all the more.

But, as Tony Blair has said: we don't approach these questions from dogma.

The question is: Is it in the public interest? And does it work?

The Tory privatisation of the railways wasn't in the public interest. It is evident: it doesn't work.

Last year we made a promise: to report to conference, a year after we were elected, on how to implement a publicly accountable railway and the role of public ownership within it.

And I have charged the British Railways Board, with new directors (including a worker director), to produce a report to me on the best way to introduce a strategic railways authority. I will keep that promise.

After years of opposition we are on the verge of legislation.

I think it is worth getting that right.

In the meantime until we can get new laws, I have acted to improve our railway system, as called for in the resolution.

I will do everything in my power to see that the industry works in the public interest.

The franchise director is the official who oversees the passenger rail companies. These are the instructions the Tories gave him on how to do his job ....His mission was to privatise, privatise and privatise.

Today I am issuing brand new instructions: Forget about privatisation. Scrutinise the train companies, Get a good deal for the taxpayer, and the passenger.

The previous government's instructions forced the franchise director to exclude the public sector from running any passenger railway service. I have now removed that obstacle.

So this is what happens to the old orders. From now on, his job will be promote integration of transport. Not privatisation of transport. That is the biggest change of direction in railway policy since privatisation. But believe me it won't be the last.

To purchase Railtrack at current value would cost over£4bn as our first priority. Not a penny piece of this money would go into investment or indeed rail safety. No, it would all go into the pockets of Railtrack shareholders, including the directors. I've got a list of the directors of Railtrack here. Do you know how much you would be handing to them personally? Half a million pounds.

The chairman Robert Horton also own shares in the company. There's a director called John Edmonds - no relation I hope John, if so you'll have to declare an interest.

And you know who else is on the board ?

Tory MP Archie Norman - the ASDA whizz kid.

I don't believe you really want me to use public money next year, to make fat cats even fatter and to create new millionaires [and to line the pockets of the vice chairman of the Conservative party].

In 1999, after two hard years I cannot, as Secretary of State, say that paying o4bn to Railtrack shareholders is the top priority.

Make no mistake I am not at all squeamish about public ownership. In fact I'll let you into a secret. Last month I nationalised the Docklands Light Railway.

Public ownership is not by any means off the agenda, it will be a live part of our considerations as we shape the White Paper.

You know we have rejected wholesale privatisation of the London Underground. But I do want to bring in some private capital to modernise the tube to a world class level. Which is what they have done in every modern railway system in the world. And that includes the London Underground itself in modernising its power system. Private investment which eventually will be returned back to public ownership.

Of course public ownership remains the baseline option. And I have instructed Price Waterhouse Consultants to provide me with the full range of options for the Tube, including the public ownership option. o7bn of investment to modernise our London underground will involve some hard decisions.

And I have to say that we fully understand the concerns of conference and the rail and tube workers in particular.

You know this government's doors will be open to discuss the implications before final decisions are taken.

But I have to be clear to about this.

As many of those who have joined me in asking for remission have recognised: Four and a half billion pounds next year- is more than our entire Welfare to Work programme. Enough to build 45 hospitals Or to put investment into local public services. I can't in all honesty go to cabinet and ask them to treat this purchase as a priority next year over hospitals or even railway safety.

In the redistribution of wealth and power to ordinary people, local services, housing and public transport are vitally important.

During the next four and a half years, this government will be judged on its pledges.

Government can make a difference.

But please don't hang this albatross around our necks.

It is 100 years since Nye Bevan was born.

He said 'The language of priorities is the religion of socialism.'

That is all about hard decisions - government real decisions - not opposition rhetoric.

This debate is not just about the credibility of conference decisions or about Railtrack.

It's about the character of this party in government.

I ask for your trust and the ability to deal with the order priorities through proper discussion and deliberation, so that I can bring a report back to next year's conference on the way forward.

Let's show the world that this party is mature and fit for government.

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