Oiling wheels of debate at the despatch box chalet

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The Independent Online
Questions in the House, as readers probably know, get answered by whichever one of a team of ministers has the relevant portfolio. So, like those figures on Alpine barometers, a different minister will appear at the despatch box for each query, rotating back on to the bench when finished with - a colleague popping up to replace him or her. They give out statistics, get cross with critics and remind everyone of what life was like when the Opposition was in power.

Yesterday there were three of them in the little transport chalet - each one dealing with a different disaster area. When the oil off the Welsh coast was raised, out came Sir George Young, the Secretary of State for Transport - a man so hostile to public transport that he cycles in London (where only commuting by hang-glider carries a greater risk). The portly figure of John Watts squeezed out to deal with the Staffs train crash. And reference to the mess that is London transport (for some reason there doesn't seem to be any transport outside London), would see Steve Norris swing into action.

The first question to Mr Norris was a puzzling one. Did he realise, asked the veteran Tory, Sir Sydney Chapman, that deregulation had "led to buses reaching parts of Chipping Barnet undreamt of 10 years ago?" Which bits of Barnet, I wondered, could he mean? Duck's Island, Underhill, or Monken Hadley? No - they were all there in 1986. So were there previously unexplored and semi-barbaric crescents, lined with semi-detached, mock-Tudor houses and harbouring savage stockbrokers lost to civilisation - until courageous Shoppa drivers cut their way through? Presumably there were.

Barnet is also the end of the Northern line. This, of course, is not a line that goes to the North. In fact, all too often, it doesn't go anywhere at all. It is London's most rickety Underground route - the black one on the tube maps. My own local station, Kentish Town, its escalator permanently out of commission, can only be used by those capable of walking down 103 steps.

Conservative John Marshall (Hendon tube station, Edgware branch), had good news for the likes of me. One of Parliament's most assiduous congratulators, he praised the Government's investment in the Northern line, and excitedly predicted a 1997 with hundreds of new trains queuing up to take those happy (if exhausted) passengers who had made it as far as the platform.

Which was all very well, grumped Glenda Jackson, MP for two stops down, except that sections of the line were being closed for months on end. Hugh Dykes (two stops up) agreed with her.

What ingratitude, snarled Norris. Didn't members realise that the lines were out of commission precisely because of the huge investment going on? Massive delays, he implied, were a natural result of vast sums of money being poured into the system. Which is a relief. Most of us would far rather suffer as a result of lots of money, than from too little.

The barometer swung, and Sir George emerged, his task to drain all drama out of the Sea Empress, leaving it unable to pollute his party's coastal waters. This he did by listing in a flat monotone the statistics for marine damage caused by the oil. 2,500 birds had died, but (his voice lifted infinitesimally) 3,000 birds had not. As to seals, he intoned, 50 had been heavily oiled, 40 moderately oiled, 30 lightly oiled and incalculable numbers were swimming about completely unoiled. Any second, you thought, he would tell the House that under the last Labour government, only 20 seals got oiled - the rest simply couldn't afford it.

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