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Wednesday, September 29, 1999 Published at 12:23 GMT 13:23 UK

UK Politics

Prescott: I'll do what is right

John Prescott says improvements will take time

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has made a passionate defence of government transport policy in his speech at the Labour conference.

Shrugging off criticism of his performance, he insisted Labour remained committed to improving public transport and encouraging motorists to use their cars less.

Under Labour billions of pounds more were being spent to improve the transport infrastructure, he said.

But he warned it would take time to reverse the effects of under-investment under the Tories.

'Widen choice'

"What we need is a better balance," he said.

"In other European countries they own more cars but they use them less, because they have a better quality transport system which they have been investing in year after year

The BBC's Robin Oakley : "Mr. Prescott was on the defensive too"
"So above all we need to widen choice by steadily improving public transport.

"For too long politicians have dodged long-term responsibilities for short-term expediency driven along by newspaper headlines.

"I intend to do what is right."

But Mr Prescott denied that the government was "anti-car." He said it was really "pro-people."

And he announced the setting up of a motorists' forum to make it easier for drivers' opinions to be taken into account in the development of transport policy.

"How can I be anti-motorist when they call me two Jags," he said.

Rail companies 'on probation'

Mr Prescott also indicated that he was prepared to take tough action against rail companies who failed to improve their services.

There had been some improvements since he labelled the railways a national disgrace at last year's party conference, he said.

[ image: Mr Prescott says rail companies will be fined if they do not improve services]
Mr Prescott says rail companies will be fined if they do not improve services
But he said the rail companies were "still on probation" and would face fines if they continued to fail to meet performance targets.

Mr Prescott went on to defend the government's plans to use private finance to improve Britain's air traffic control service and London Underground.

"We could ask the chancellor to shell out ... from public funds, but that would mean less cash for hospitals and schools," he said.

But he added: "We value public service. We value public servants. And like them we want to deliver better public services together."

Mr Prescott also announced the creation of two new national parks in the South Downs, in West and East Sussex, and the New Forest, in Hampshire.

He also revealed plans for five new millennium villages where all the housing will have to be environmentally friendly.

Media 'poisoning debate'

Critics have accused Mr Prescott of failing to get to grips with a wide range of transport issues from poor rail services to cutting pollution by reducing the public's dependence on motor vehicles.

The government is also under growing pressure to publish its long-awaited transport bill.

The performance of Mr Prescott and his department was attacked recently in a scathing report by the Commons' Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee.

The MPs accused Mr Prescott of setting targets on a "whim" and then abandoning them when he could not meet them.

But in his speech Mr Prescott rejected attacks upon him by the media

He accused the press of "poisoning" the public debate on transport issues.

"Every week you get another alarmist headline rarely checked in case it gets in the way of a good story," he said.

'Labour failed to deliver'

However, Mr Prescott came under fresh attack by shadow environment, transport and the regions secretary John Redwood.

[ image: John Redwood accused Mr Prescott of 'two years of inaction']
John Redwood accused Mr Prescott of 'two years of inaction'
In a statement, Mr Redwood said: "Labour promised immediate benefits for the travelling public but have blatantly failed to deliver.

"John Prescott has only succeeded in inventing new ways of raising taxes.

"He said things could only get better, but things have just got worse - ever-rising petrol prices, more jams on the roads, record complaints on the railway."

He dismissed the national parks announcement as a "gimmick to make up for his two years of inaction".

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