The departure of Ruth Kelly has been delayed, owing to the wrong kind of political rows on the line. According to some newspapers her departure is bad news for Gordon Brown, more evidence that the Labour government is falling to bits. For once I am prepared to believe what Ruth Kelly tells us – she is finding the demands of the Transport job too much to combine with her family commitments.
Some staffer may have briefed that Number 10 wanted to get rid of a Blairite and she is going before she was pushed. That just shows you how much damage staffers can do, and how you need fewer of them of higher quality to run an orderly government. Prime Ministers should only share their inner thoughts on who they want in their government with a few people who can be completely trusted. Prime Ministers should never tell the media before they tell the Minister what is going to happen to them, but all too many have done just that and created more rancour as a result.
What is more interesting about the departure of Ruth Kelly is the state of British transport and her failure, like her predecessdsors, to make any of the big decisions the UK needs to have a twenty first century system. We are short of train capacity, airport capacity and road capacity. It is very difficult to undertake the simplest of journeys, or even to travel efficiently on the most popular of routes. There are very few trains from my constituency, 37 miles west of London, into the capital when you need them, owing to lack of track. There is also a shortage of good motorway capacity. Despite requiring a large number of new homes to be built to to the west of London, this government has made no additions to the track and road space going west out of London.
On Monday I had to attend a meeting in Paris. My heart sank at the thought of the travel, even though Paris is not that far from Southern England. It meant writing off the day for a single meeting.
I checked out the trains, the government’s preferred way for me to travel. I discovered I needed to be at St Pancras to catch a 5.25 train to get to Gare du Nord by 8.50, to leave me a sporting chance of making a meeting around 10 elsewhere in central Paris. I worked out that I would need to take two trains to get to London, two tube trains to get to St Pancras, one train to get across the Channel, and two metro trains in Paris. I began to worry. Was it likely that all seven trains would work and be on time, allowing me to make the meeting? I also had to allow twenty minutes to walk to the station.
I soon realised that all meant there was no train option for me. I needed a train from my local station before 4 am to be sure of getting to St Pancras on time. There is no such train. I turned to the government’s worst form of travel, going by air. I found I could catch a 6.35 flight which meant leaving home by car at 5 am. It meant cutting down on the risks of delays and cancellations if I did two car journeys and one flight. Despite a delay on landing at Charles de Gaulle which cost me half an hour thanks to the lack of proper terminal capacity for the home carrier Air France I just made the meeting on time. Coming home there was another delay taking off from Paris but the rest worked quite well. It was not a good experience, because the Western European transport system is at stretching point and cannot be trusted. The total journey took four and half hours, even though the flight itself was under an hour. I always knew that hoping to do the journey in four and half hours was leaving me at risk of not making it, but leaving home earlier could not solve that problem as there was no earlier flight.
No wonder people find it difficult doing more with the continent when such a crucial link as London-Paris is so poor. Unless you live on top of St Pancras or are prepared to go out the day before you cannot use the train to have a normal morning meeting in Paris. On both sides of the Channel it is difficult getting to main train stations to join trains and difficult getting from main airports to central city destinations, owing to a lack of capacity on main networks. Ruth Kelly, like her predecessors, has failed to take decisions to expand network capacity.
One of the problems with Ministers in this government is they do not allocate the time that should be given to doing the job of being a Minister. There is a lot of reading to do, to be up to speed on all the issues and laws Ministers are responsbile for in their own department. There are many cases to consider, letters to amend and sign, meetings to chair with officials as well as with outside interest groups and affected individuals. I do not think Ruth Kelly is unique in this government in finding the time pressures diffficult to handle, but she is one of the few honest ones who has concluded she cannot spend enough time on the job of being a Minister.
All too often in the Commons we hear Ministers who have not read or understood the brief they have been given, who clearly have not engaged in the details of the policy they are presenting and who do not have control of the regulation or law they are introducing. In many cases it is because they have not spent the time on preparatory reading and meetings to master the detail. No wonder things work so badly, and no wonder they find it impossible to get the things done that they say they want done.
If a government that rightly wants more railway travel cannot even find a way to allow many commuters to get to work in a civilised way by train or get to a morning meeting in Paris, it should be no surprise we need yet another transport Minister.