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House of Commons Hansard
18 March 2010
Volume 507

    The Minister of State was asked—

    High Speed Rail

  • 1. What his most recent assessment is of the likely effects on residents in the west midlands of the construction works associated with the establishment of high-speed rail links. [322748]

  • We would seek to minimise the effects of construction wherever possible. Initial decisions on whether to build a high-speed line and what route that line should take will be taken in the light of the autumn 2010 consultation. Thereafter, the full effects and any associated mitigation measures would be subject to an environmental impact assessment as part of the hybrid Bill process, which would itself be subject to further public scrutiny.

  • I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. While I would welcome a high-speed rail line through the midlands because of the benefits it would bring, there is a concern about the corridor between Coventry and Warwickshire, particularly in the Burton Green area. Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that there will be both adequate public consultation as soon as possible so that residents’ views are taken into consideration, and a realistic impact study undertaken of the possible effects in the area? Let me conclude, however, by repeating that I would welcome this scheme and the benefits it would bring, especially given that the west midlands unemployment rate is 10 per cent. and its manufacturing base has been eroded. That link would be a shot in the arm for the region.

  • My hon. Friend has been a keen advocate of High Speed 2, but he has also been keen to ensure that we are aware of some of the downsides of a high-speed line. Consultations with local residents have already begun in advance of the formal consultation in the autumn. In fact, there was a public meeting in the west midlands earlier this week. I will make sure that my hon. Friend is kept abreast of developments and that his views about the need to consult as many people as possible are taken on board before the autumn consultation begins.

  • As the Minister knows, the proposed line would run right through my constituency, including Burton Green, which the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) mentioned. In respect of the impact of the construction work, may I ask that information be made available on two specific matters? First, will there need to be any extra land-take in order to complete the construction work? As the Minister will appreciate, the proposed line passes very close to residential properties in Burton Green and elsewhere, and if people’s gardens are to be affected, it would be helpful to know about that. Secondly, can he inform residents about any particular implications that may arise from the building of access shafts?

  • The hon. Gentleman has raised very important issues, as he did the other day. On any potential extra land-take, he will be aware that the broadest width of the area for the high speed rail will be about 25 metres, which is a lot, and the narrowest width will be 15 metres. We have asked High Speed 2 to go away and do further work to minimise the disruption caused and to mitigate the effects on the constituents of the hon. Gentleman and other Members, and I will make sure he is kept abreast of the progress we make. It is important that we keep Members involved before the formal consultation begins, and that we minimise any blight caused to their constituents. I give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking to do just that.

  • We who live in the region welcome this development. Although we are, of course, concerned about the environmental impact, the Minister should give priority to highlighting the economic development opportunities that will arise from the line. Will he also ensure that we develop the line in such a way that all those towns and cities just north of Birmingham do not miss out on what is an once-in-a-lifetime economic opportunity?

  • My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the preferred route will lead to benefits not only for his neck of the woods, but for other parts of the country, as it will go to both Manchester and Leeds. In the construction phase, more than 10,000 jobs will be created, and there will be 2,000 permanent jobs. The economic benefits to our country will be enormous. That is, of course, why my hon. Friend has been one of the keenest advocates of High Speed 2.

  • Will the Minister bear it in mind that during my time in the House the residents of South Staffordshire have had their lives disrupted by the building of three motorways? Will he take that carefully into account and try to ensure that there is the minimum possible disruption from this welcome development?

  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We have been keen to try to learn the lessons from previous mass infrastructure projects—not only massive motorway projects, but High Speed 1. Fifty per cent. of the preferred route will be either along existing transport corridors next to motorways, or next to used or disused rail lines. That leaves 50 per cent. on virgin land. We need to make sure we learn the lessons and learn from previous mistakes, in order to minimise the disruption caused to the constituents of the hon. Gentleman and those of many more Members in other parts of the country.

  • My constituents will be affected by this track. They have just had to go through the four-tracking of the west coast line. That caused disruption with no benefit to the people in my part of the world. What can the Minister say to two of my constituents who have now found out via the media that their property will be knocked down as it is on the permanent way for the building of this new line, when they were, in fact, actively seeking to downsize for health reasons? What can the Minister offer them apart from a consultation for the next six months? Can we afford to buy these people out, who need get off the permanent way?

  • I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. First, I am happy to meet him and his constituents to discuss their concerns. Secondly, we have begun consultation on an exceptional hardship scheme, over and above the statutory blight provisions for constituents such as those he mentioned. Although I am confident that those two measures will deal with some of the concerns and they will mitigate the problems, I am afraid that they will not solve them altogether. I look forward to meeting him and his constituents to try to address the genuine problems that he has raised.

  • Light Pollution

  • 2. If he will review the guidance notes for the reduction of obtrusive light with a view to reducing light pollution from highway lighting. [322749]

  • This is not strictly a matter for the Department for Transport. The guidance notes for the reduction of obtrusive light are produced by the Institution of Lighting Engineers. The institution is responsible for any future review of its guidance.

  • Why does the Minister not take some responsibility for once, as this is an important issue? Is he aware that badly designed street and road lighting is the commonest form of reported light pollution, and it also wastes a lot of energy? The Government claim that they are interested in energy efficiency, so why does he not get a grip of this and do something for a change? This would be good for the environment and it would save money, so what is holding him back?

  • If the right hon. Gentleman looks at the role of the Highways Agency, for which the Department is directly responsible, he will find that it already has programmes designed to turn off unnecessary road lighting on the motorways. Local authorities will want to consider, in the light of their local circumstances, developing policies that can address light pollution and its impact on the night sky, as well as parallel policies, such as those aimed at carbon reduction, that might drive them to turn off or dim their highway lighting.

  • New Rolling Stock

  • 3. What plans he has for the procurement of new rolling stock in the next five years; and if he will make a statement. [322750]

  • The Department for Transport’s plans focus on the steps that need to be taken to deliver additional capacity specified in the high-level output specification for the period 2009 to 2014 and the requirements to achieve its longer-term aspirations.

  • The Association of Train Operating Companies has complained about the level of micro-management and of overregulation by the Department for Transport in relation to the rolling stock. How is the Minister taking those complaints into account? Will we see some scaling back of the Government’s role, for which we have long argued?

  • It is the Department’s responsibility to ensure that we get rolling stock that is usable on the long-term network. We develop proposals for additional rolling stock in full consultation with the train operating companies, which have, in the first instance, the immediate use for it.

  • I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that proposals to improve the Sheffield to Manchester line are very welcome for the future. Of immediate concern, however, is the East Midlands Trains service between Norwich and Liverpool, because at peak periods the service between Sheffield and Manchester regularly runs at double its proper capacity, with passengers crammed in like sardines. Can he offer any hope that we will get newer and larger trains on that service in the relatively near future?

  • I can assure my hon. Friend that we will be making an announcement on just that, if not today, very shortly.

  • Has the Department engaged in any discussions with either of the sleeper franchise operators? Has the Department, via the Scottish Government, discussed with ScotRail the pressing need for new investment in sleeper capacity, because the rolling stock is more than 30 years old? This is a good, green, environmentally friendly way to travel, but the disability access and internet connection are woeful, as are such basics as the heating.

  • The accessibility of the rolling stock will be covered by the rail vehicle accessibility regulations, which will require all vehicles to be compliant by 1 January 2020. In the short term, the right hon. Gentleman has reasonably raised wider questions that I shall look into for him.

  • I greatly welcome what my hon. Friend has just said about the Sheffield to Manchester line, most of which is in my constituency. On the procurement of rolling stock generally, will he bear in mind the importance of that industry to the east midlands, not just for the major producers, but for the supply chain, which includes the production of brake linings in my constituency? Will he talk to people such as representatives of the East Midlands Development Agency to ensure that we maximise the benefits to east midlands employment and industry arising from such procurement?

  • The rail industry is obviously an important one for manufacturing industry in key regions of the UK. The Government are keen to see that industry respond to our requirements for additional rolling stock by bidding, for example, to meet the Thameslink key output 2 train requirements, which are currently under consideration. Such opportunities allow the industry to come forward with good bids.

  • Will the Minister tell the House how many of the 1,300 high-level output specification carriages are in operation on the Northern Rail franchise?

  • We have made announcements for an additional, I think, 18 vehicles on the Northern franchise as part of the commitment to delivering the high-level output specification, which of course has a delivery end-date in 2014.

  • Why cannot the Minister just admit that, after four successive Secretaries of State have promised 1,300 extra carriages, only 10 are in use on a line that is pivotal to commuters across the north of England? Will he admit that the Government have effectively junked the intercity express programme contract, because they dithered for so long over electrification, and that Thameslink has slipped again? Will he further admit that Government policy is in disarray and that commuters are paying the price for Labour incompetence?

  • In the first year of a five-year control period, we have delivered a contract for more than 40 per cent. of the 1,300 target additional vehicles that we committed to. I have already launched some of the additional vehicles—120 vehicles—that will be used on the Greater Anglia franchise to relieve commuter congestion into Liverpool Street.

  • Since privatisation, there has been a 58 per cent. increase in passenger vehicle miles, but only a 4 per cent. increase in carriages. While the Government have many successes on railways that they can, allegedly, point to, the rolling stock policy has been a fiasco from start to finish, with stop-go policies. For example, Diesel Trains was set up and then abandoned without a single diesel train being ordered. Given that the network will be largely diesel driven for the foreseeable future, notwithstanding the Government’s electrification policies, what steps are they taking to ensure that new diesel trains will be ordered for the network, because none have been ordered so far?

  • We have record £15 billion investment in our railways over the coming years, and it is disingenuous to suggest that we are not investing in our railways. The hon. Gentleman must understand that the commitment to electrification has changed the nature of our commitment to rolling stock, going forward. Indeed, that will deliver an additional 300 to 400 carriages that can be used elsewhere on the network when we sign the contract with Thameslink. He would expect us to do that responsibly and in a way that gets best value for the taxpayer.

  • Vehicle Cloning

  • 4. If he will bring forward proposals to assist those whose vehicles have been illegally cloned. [322751]

  • We already assist victims of cloning and will give their vehicle a new registration, if appropriate. Number plate supply is tightly regulated to counter the availability of false number plates and prevent cloning. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has sponsored the development of a standard for theft-resistant number plates, which are now commercially available.

  • I thank the Minister for that response. An elderly couple in my constituency are among the estimated 20,000 innocent motorists who are victims of cloning—in this example, by a minicab driver who was regularly collecting parking tickets at Heathrow airport. That was extremely distressing for them and took a long time to resolve. Will he look more urgently at how the processing of such cases might be speeded up so that the distress to the victims of those crimes may be reduced?

  • First, I extend my sympathy to the elderly couple in the hon. Lady’s constituency who face this difficulty. We recognise the issue, which is why we put out clear guidance. Someone who is, for example, receiving parking tickets that they have not incurred should take the matter up, first and foremost, with those who have issued the tickets, and then with the DVLA. Extensive guidance is available through a number of sources—information is sent out directly to those of us who are road users, but is also on the directgov website. We have taken several other steps to ensure that the number of such cases is reduced still further.

  • The Government have failed miserably to tackle the problem of vehicle cloning. Many motorists face the misery and distress of receiving dozens of tickets for offences that have nothing to do with them. Why is it still so easy to buy so-called show plates over the internet? It is so easy that, rather embarrassingly for the Minister, I was recently able to purchase plates identical to those on the Prime Minister’s official Jaguar in that way.

  • The answer is very simple. The Opposition spokesperson will know that the DVLA has introduced a standard for anti-theft number plates. It has worked with the industry so that people can buy what I call “self-destruct” number plates, which break into many pieces if removed. Other developments include the use of clutch-head screws, which can be tightened but not unscrewed. We are taking those steps to deal with the issue rightly raised by the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson).

  • EU Legislation (Buses)

  • 5. When he next expects to meet representatives of bus operators to discuss the effect on them of the requirements of EU legislation. [322753]

  • Ministers and departmental officials meet regularly with representatives of bus operators to discuss issues affecting the bus industry, including those relating to the effect of EU legislation on bus operators.

  • When the Minister comes to consider the European passenger rights legislation, will he bear it in mind that small rural bus operators, which provide vital services in constituencies such as mine, are very different from long-distance, international operators? Does he agree that we already have very effective domestic disability legislation? Furthermore, a date has been set for scrapping buses that are non-wheelchair compliant.

  • The hon. Gentleman has written to me about this issue, and I am aware of his concerns. I have raised it with the bus company Norfolk Green in his patch, and I have written back to him. It is worth putting it on record that he is right to raise his concerns.

    We secured significant improvements to the text of the EU passenger proposal. They included the removal of the public service contract condition from the exemption for urban, suburban and rural buses, which would have rendered it largely unworkable in our deregulated market. The hon. Gentleman will also be pleased to know that we secured the removal of the provision introducing strict liability for bus and coach operators, which would have conflicted with our well-established fault-based system. He and I both used to be lawyers, so we both appreciate the importance of that system.

  • I wonder whether the Minister could please take a look at the application of European legislation by Lancashire county council? The very existence of much valued transport providers such as dial-a-ride, which we all have in our constituencies, is being threatened by a hurried tendering exercise. So far, that process has seen the contract being awarded in-house, back to the county council, thereby threatening the much valued voluntary organisations that provided the service valiantly over the years.

  • I thank my hon. Friend for raising once again the way that her council treats some of the most vulnerable people in her patch. I am happy to meet her and to write to the council leaders to make sure that they understand the requirements of the current legislation. We cannot allow people to use the EU as an excuse for punishing those who need help the most. We will not allow that to happen.

  • Traffic Congestion

  • 6. What recent estimate he has made of the level of traffic congestion. [322755]

  • Under the urban congestion programme, person journey times have improved by 5.5 per cent. over the last four years on key routes in the 10 participating urban areas.

    On the strategic road network, delays for the slowest 10 per cent. of journeys in the year to January 2010 have reduced by 7.7 per cent. since the March 2008 baseline. However, I recognise that congestion is still a major issue for the many people stuck on roads in buses, cars and other modes of transport. Reducing congestion remains a major priority.

  • Is the Minister aware of the recent report from the Road Users Alliance, which predicts that traffic jams will rise by 37 per cent. over 15 years? It goes on to claim that underinvestment has left Britain’s roads

    “uncompetitive, congested…and inadequate to meet the future needs of the economy”.

    What is the Government’s answer to that criticism?

  • I am unaware of that figure, but the hon. Lady is right to say that congestion incurs a cost for the UK. In his report a couple of years ago, Sir Rod Eddington quantified that cost at £22 billion by 2025 if steps were not taken to reduce congestion. That is why we announced last year that we were making £6 billion available to reduce congestion by widening motorways, making it possible for drivers to use the hard shoulders, and introducing active traffic management. This year, we have spent £2.5 billion on encouraging people to use buses, and made £1 billion available for older and disabled people. Over the next five years, we will invest £15 billion in our railways. More people are using rail today than at any time since the 1940s, and more people use buses than at any time since privatisation in the 1980s. Smarter choices need to be made.

  • Barking to Gospel Oak Line

  • 7. What recent discussions he has had with Transport for London on the electrification of the Barking to Gospel Oak line. [322757]

  • There have been no discussions since the first half of last year. This is a Transport for London proposal and I understand that it needs to commission further development work but is not currently funding this.

  • I wonder whether my hon. Friend could help in this matter and perhaps seek a meeting with the Mayor of London and Transport for London. As I understand it, his Department has offered £25 million towards this very important refurbishment by electrification of this line, which will help to take freight off the roads and increase the efficiency of the London overground network. Will he therefore press the Mayor once again to accept the Government’s money and find the small amount that is required from his budget in order to ensure that the project goes ahead?

  • No specific sum was committed by the Department for Transport, but the Mayor for London does have £3 billion non-ring-fenced investment in transport. His priorities seem to be with his friends in Kensington and Chelsea rather than with my hon. Friend’s constituents in Barking.

  • Car Journeys

  • 8. What estimate he has made of the number of miles travelled by cars on roads in England in (a) 1997 and (b) 2009. [322758]

  • In 1997, cars travelled an estimated 195.9 billion miles on roads in England. This rose to 214.2 billion miles in 2008. Figures for traffic on roads in England in 2009 will be published in July 2010.

  • May I take the Minister back to 6 June 1997 when the then Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Transport, in an interview with The Guardian, said:

    “I will have failed in this if in five years there are not…far fewer journeys by car. It is a tall order but I want you to hold me to it”?

    I know that the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) has moved on, but I wonder if I might hold the Government to it, and ask the Minister, first, what he will do about it, and, secondly, why would anybody believe anything that any Labour Minister says after this?

  • There is a very simple answer to that. The proof has been in the delivery in terms of investing in our infrastructure, across railways and roads. It is a result of having a substantially buoyant economy, with 2.5 million more people in jobs. The number of households with more than two cars today is 32 per cent., which is more than the households with no car, which is 25 per cent. The investment in our roads is a result of the buoyant economy that we have had. Our record in terms of increased use of buses, trains and road, which my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has just mentioned, recognises what a successful economy we have run.

  • Drink-Driving

  • 9. What progress has been made on his plans to reduce the blood alcohol limit for driving from 80 mg to 50 mg. [322759]

  • My noble Friend the Secretary of State announced in December that we had asked Sir Peter North to undertake an independent review of drink and drug-driving legislation. The review is examining options for changes to the legal alcohol limit for drivers. Sir Peter has been asked to report initial findings by the end of March. We will then consult on his findings before finalising and publishing the post-2010 road safety strategy.

  • Will the Minister assure the House that if the drink-drive limit is reduced from 80 mg to 50 mg, a mandatory driving ban will be in place for drivers found guilty of being over the limit between the new and the old limit?

  • I will not prejudge Sir Peter North’s report, but we will certainly take on board his recommendations on whether there should be a new lower limit in tandem with the current limit and whether penalties should be revised. I am determined to ensure that the 430 deaths recorded in the 2008 statistics as a result of drink-driving are reduced still further and that we continue the successes that there have been in improving our road safety.

  • Heathrow (Air Quality)

  • 10. What his most recent assessment is of the likely effects on air quality in the area of a third runway at Heathrow Airport. [322761]

  • The Department for Transport published its latest assessment of the likely effects of a third runway at Heathrow Airport on local air quality in the “Adding Capacity at Heathrow Airport—Impact Assessment” document in January 2009. A copy of the impact assessment and earlier technical reports on the air quality modelling have all been deposited in the Libraries of the House.

  • We are already in breach of European air quality directives. Does the Minister not accept that, as a result of the extension of the third runway, air and surface pollution will increase and it will be impossible for us to meet our air quality obligations?

  • No, I do not accept that. When in January 2009 we announced our decision to proceed with the third runway at Heathrow, we made it clear that we would have in place stringent requirements on air and noise pollution. We have worked with the Committee on Climate Change, which has indicated that, even at the most pessimistic level, we would be in a position to meet growth in passenger numbers of some 60 per cent., or a 54 per cent. increase in flights. However, we have made it clear that we will have in place a legally binding agreement that there will be no further expansion beyond 2020 without ensuring that we are on target to meet the stringent requirements that we set out.

  • Given that the EU has already—in December—thrown out the Government’s shameful application for an exemption on particulate matter, which is especially dangerous in relation to respiratory diseases, do the Government really propose to go ahead with an application on nitrogen oxides?

  • We certainly believe that we should continue, because what we cannot do is put at risk UK plc and the requirements of businesses in this country, or bury our heads in the sand about the requirements for aviation. At the same time, however, we have to make sure that we meet the stringent requirements on environmental pollution and noise levels for all concerned that we set out in our announcement in January. It is important that, instead of suggesting that we do not need to meet the requirements of those who require aviation services, we meet the challenge, show leadership and go forward.

  • Cycling and Motorcycling Accidents

  • 12. What steps his Department is taking to reduce the number of deaths of, and serious accidents involving, motorcyclists and cyclists. [322763]

  • Specific road safety initiatives aimed at motorcyclists and cyclists include a new Think! campaign on motorcycle safety, training for young cyclists via Bikeability, and the enhanced rider scheme for post-test training for motorcyclists. Last year, we published proposals to improve road safety in the consultation document, “A Safer Way”. That included proposals for new guidance on encouraging more 20 miles per hour zones.

  • Does my hon. Friend agree that we are perhaps becoming a little complacent about the number of deaths on two-wheeled vehicles? I checked the figures recently: in two years, deaths among motorcyclists equal the number lost in our armed services on active service in 40 years. The widow-makers and orphan-makers are the people who drive such vehicles and are killed. That is disgraceful in a civilised society.

  • My hon. Friend makes an important point about the number of people who die or are seriously injured on our roads, but I am pleased that all those involved in road safety have been able to achieve substantial reductions in the number of deaths and serious injuries among both cyclists and motorcyclists. However, we recognise that there is further work still to do, and we will continue to take that forward in the new road safety strategy.

  • Often, it is the drivers of four-wheeled vehicles who cause the harm. But, what steps is the Minister taking to try to stop ordinary pedal cyclists going through red lights, cycling the wrong way and endangering pedestrians—[Interruption.]

  • I will not mention the Mayor of London; that would not be right. I will say, however, that the hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Everyone who uses the road, whether they are cyclists, drivers of four-wheeled vehicles, lorry drivers, bus drivers or pedestrians, needs to respect the rules of the road and operate accordingly. I agree entirely.

  • Rail Ticket Information

  • 13. If he will take steps to ensure that members of the public have access to accurate information on rail fares to enable them to decide which tickets to purchase. [322764]

  • We require National Rail Enquiries and train operators running ticket offices to provide to the public accurate and impartial information on timetables, train running and fares. Both do so with a high degree of accuracy—98.4 per cent. and 99.3 per cent. respectively in the most recent tests to check the accuracy of responses.

  • I am surprised at the Minister’s figures. Will he not accept that the information available online is still inconsistent, confusing, inadequate and based on the interests of train operators? Do we not need, and will he take action that requires the industry to provide, a simple system based on the needs and interests of travellers?

  • My right hon. Friend is entirely right to draw attention to the fact that 86 per cent. of inquiries to NRE come from the internet. The ticketing and settling agreement requires train operators to retail accurately and impartially. The journey planning engine, the key mechanism behind the internet site, ensures that the customer can see the cheapest walk-up fare for the times in which they are interested; and the cheapest fare finder facility checks for all the best offers on any particular route. We are working with Passenger Focus and National Rail Enquiries to improve the quality of information so that it shows general explanations of ticket validities—in other words, when off-peak and super off-peak fares are valid.

  • Topical Questions

  • T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [322768]

  • Since our last Question Time in January, my Department has announced high-speed rail proposals to revolutionise travel between our major cities, with trains running up to 250 mph; announced planned investment of more than £800 million in a package of local major schemes throughout the UK; and outlined new proposals to improve bus travel and tackle antisocial behaviour, including a ban on alcohol consumption.

  • Chiltern Railways’ proposed new rail route from Oxford to London Marylebone via Bicester is welcome, but there are concerns among residents of north Oxford about frequent and, because of their speed, noisier trains passing their houses. First, does the Minister agree that mitigation is the key issue for those residents? Secondly, given that his noble Friend the Secretary of State was willing to meet me last year to discuss the issue, will the Minister ask him if he would be willing to meet us again to discuss mitigation?

  • The announcement of the £262 million Chiltern Railways Evergreen 3 project has some downsides, and on behalf of my right hon. and noble Friend I am happy to make a commitment for him to meet the hon. Gentleman in the next few weeks. If, for some reason, my noble Friend cannot meet him, I shall ensure that either I or one of our ministerial colleagues is able to do just that.

  • In answer to an earlier question, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole), spoke about the improved information for passengers about the best fares that are available to them. Does he not agree, however, that providing the best possible fare ought to be an absolute obligation on train operating companies and a condition of their franchise, in order to ensure that passengers always get the best and lowest fare available?

  • We continue to work seamlessly with Passenger Focus on that issue so that we can improve the information available to passengers, to ensure that they get the best possible fare. On the specific point about whether it is possible to include such provision as a franchise requirement, perhaps my hon. Friend would like to respond to our current consultation on future franchising.

  • T2. As a keen motorist and member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, I consider that to travel by car is a first-class experience—until one comes across an army of cones, marching for many motorway miles and restricting lanes, without contractors undertaking any work. What sanction does the Department have to ensure that heavily taxed motorists are given more consideration? [322769]

  • I hope that the hon. Lady is not suggesting that we bring back John Major’s cones hotline. I seem to recall reading recently that last time a journalist rang that number he was told that there was no one there any more. The hon. Lady should appreciate that there are a number of reasons why the perception might be that there are cones without works going on: for example, when materials are hardening—[Interruption.] I would have thought that the hon. Lady was capable of understanding some basic civil engineering principles. Materials such as concrete take some time to dry, and it is not a very good idea to drive cars on it while that is happening.

  • Order. It is good that the House is in a good mood, but we need to make rather better progress. In addition to asking for short questions, may I say very gently to those on the Treasury Bench that there is no rule against single-sentence answers?

  • The excellent news that Nissan in Sunderland is to produce the first generation of electric cars is further evidence that the north-east is a region with a future, which deserves to be an integral part of any high-speed rail network. Has the Minister seen the report from UK Ultraspeed, in response to the High Speed 2 report, which shows that Maglev could produce a faster, greener, quieter and more cost-effective answer to the high-speed rail question? Instead of taking small steps to catch up with—

  • Order. I hope that this is coming to an end. [Interruption.] I understand that it is Question Time, of course, but I had just made the point that we need short questions, and I think that we have got the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s question now.

  • I thank my hon. Friend for reminding the House that one of the benefits of a Government committed to investing in our country is that we invest in businesses in its regions as well. I am happy to look at that alternative proposal. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has looked at some of these issues, and there are concerns about energy usage, but I am happy to discuss them with my hon. Friend offline.

  • T4. A comparatively small number of properties will be immediately and totally blighted by the high-speed rail link. Will the Minister ensure that officials get in touch with those householders—because they must know where they are—to ensure that they understand the exceptional hardship scheme, and that there is some communication between them and those who are running this project? It was quite a shock for them last week suddenly to discover that their properties may well disappear. Can the Minister take action to ensure that they are properly informed? [322771]

  • The hon. Gentleman raises a really good point. Only about 600 properties along the line are affected, so why cannot we contact them and let them know, in case they have not heard the news by listening to the radio, watching TV or reading the papers? Let me go away and look into that, and get back to him if there is a reason why it cannot be done.

  • T8. Will the Minister take some time in the next few days to contact Network Rail to ask it why it is continuing to pursue the policy of making redundant a number of safety workers and maintenance workers, thus damaging the professional basis of the railway system in this country—and also, many people believe, compromising the safety of the existing system? [322775]

  • The Office of the Rail Regulator, as the economic and safety regulator for our railways, has challenged Network Rail to address, over the next control period, the disparity in the effectiveness and efficiency with which it delivers maintenance and network upgrades in comparison with similar infrastructure operators elsewhere in Europe. Network Rail is seeking to minimise the number of compulsory redundancies, but there are positive opportunities for some of those employees to find other jobs on big projects such as the upgrades to Reading station and Thameslink over the coming years.

  • T5. Will the roads Minister give a less dismissive reply to the legitimate point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) about the proliferation of road works, speed restrictions and cones on motorways, which causes intense frustration to the travelling public purely for the convenience of the operators? He is getting a reputation for avoiding responsibility for real problems. Can he now rise to the occasion and give a real answer to a real problem? [322772]

  • The Highways Agency takes significant steps to minimise the time that road works take, and has positive incentives in place for its contractors to ensure that their road works can be completed in advance of the necessary length of time, if possible.

  • I thank the Minister for the investment in level access at Slough railway station. Will he look closely at the detail of the proposed scheme, to ensure that giving access to disabled people does not add to the congestion problems at the station?

  • The access programme for three stations in London will enable people to have much better access to the Olympics in 2012, but I am happy to discuss with my hon. Friend any detailed concerns that she has.

  • T6. Can Ministers reassure people, not just in London but elsewhere, that they, as well as other Government Departments, are taking a direct interest in the British Airways dispute? Can they provide an assurance that they will put pressure on to secure a dispute reconciliation within hours, not days or weeks? [322773]

  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and for the way in which he asked it. He is clearly interested in finding a resolution to the dispute, rather than raising the stakes for the sake of party political gain. Ministers continue to have dialogues with all sides to try to reach a resolution. Thousands of passengers will clearly be inconvenienced if the strike goes ahead, and I am keen to ensure that we do all we can to resolve the dispute.

  • Why are Ministers happy for the German state railway, Deutsche Bahn, which is not subject to takeover, to make a bid for Arriva trains, which operates services up and down the country, but not for a British state-owned company, East Coast, to make a bid to continue to run services on the east coast main line?

  • My hon. Friend will know that it is not for me to comment on speculation in the financial pages of the newspapers, and it would be unwise for me to do so.

  • T7. I welcome the consensus across the House on the need for high-speed rail, but can the Minister assure me that his Department and Network Rail will both remain focused on vital local rail projects such as Worcestershire Parkway in my constituency? [322774]

  • The hon. Gentleman is right to remind us that we need to focus on the bread-and-butter issues, and there is more chance of that happening with the Labour party in government, because investment in public transport will continue.

  • What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the role that freight could play in the new high-speed rail network?

  • My hon. Friend raises a really important issue. One of the advantages of High Speed 2 is that it will release capacity on the conventional lines, which can be used to move local commuters and freight much more than they currently are. That will be good for the environment, businesses and UK plc.

  • Do the Government accept that in my constituency there are many rural areas where there is minimal public transport or none at all, so the car, or another vehicle, is essential to people’s ability to maintain an acceptable quality of life? Will Ministers make representations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to recognise the problems of motoring in rural areas?

  • For almost the first time in history, I agree with almost everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. He is right that it is really important for us to understand the challenges that face those who live in rural parts of the country. It is great for them to have a bus service that the Government have subsidised in record amounts, but if the bus comes once an hour, or once a day, the car is the only other form of transport, and we need to be sensitive to that.

  • Several hon. Members

    rose

  • Order. I am afraid that all good things come to an end.