Skip to main content

Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 405: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2003

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.


The Secretary of State was asked



If he will make a statement on plans for Crossrail. [112567]


If he will make a statement on the future of Crossrail. [112579]

The Government continue to support the development of Crossrail. We are now evaluating proposals from the Strategic Rail Authority and Transport for London to see whether they are financeable and deliverable.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but does he not recognise that that amounts to yet more delay and indecision? If the Government really cannot make a decision on this essential investment for London and the country, will the right hon. Gentleman use the intervening period profitably by asking the valuation office to assess the value of the property and land either side of the Crossrail corridor? Armed with that information, we could find new options for the future using American financing models, for example, and tax-incremental financing. Will the Secretary of State ask the valuation office to do that?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, sadly, Crossrail has a long history. Many hon. Members will recall that it was severely damaged when it could not get parliamentary approval in 1991, and that it was effectively killed off by rail privatisation a couple of years later. We need a proposition that is financeable and deliverable before we can consider how it should be funded. I have not the slightest doubt that it will need to be funded with a combination of support from the Government and the private sector, but the first thing is to get a proposition on which we can proceed. The time spent on getting that right now will be time well spent. Not nearly enough preparatory work was done in the early 1990s, with the result that the whole scheme was cut to bits under scrutiny in the House.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that there is increasing concern in a wide number of areas across London, including my constituency, that important regeneration and development plans such as "Progressive Ilford", which will involve a massive regeneration of our town centre, could be badly damaged by further delay to the Crossrail programme? Will he ensure that the economic benefits that will result from Crossrail will be taken into consideration, particularly the improvement in cross-London east-west journey times, which have been made worse for those driving into London by the impact of the congestion charge in the centre? Will he therefore improve the public transport links from east to west London—

I will stick to Crossrail, for the time being at least. As I have said on many occasions, I have not the slightest doubt that we need to improve capacity on the railways running between the east and west of London. Never mind any development that might happen in the future, the development that we know about now, and that is likely to take place over the next years, means that we must increase our rail capacity. That is why I believe that Crossrail is so important. What went wrong in the past was that not nearly enough attention was paid to the detail and specification of the project. One of the reasons why I asked the Strategic Rail Authority and Transport for London last autumn to come up with a workable proposition was that, until that time, Crossrail had been a very vague concept. As I have just said to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), we need to have a workable, deliverable, financeable proposition. We are working on that at the moment, and if we can get one, we shall have to see how we can finance it and press on with it. But let us be in no doubt that the east-west link is extremely important to the development not only of London but of the surrounding areas that will see substantial development in the years to come.

In Chesham and Amersham, two railway schemes affect us: Crossrail, which would be of great benefit to my constituents; and the Central Railway project, a poorly presented, poorly financed and ill-thought-through scheme that is causing great concern to my constituents who have houses near the railway. I urge the Secretary of State to support the former, which is urgently required, and to rule out the latter once and for all.

I have made my position, and that of the Government, clear in relation to Crossrail. In relation to Central Railway, there is a proposition there, and Central Railway has been speaking to my Department. Before we can do anything further, however, I would like to be sure that there is actually someone standing behind that proposition who has the money to develop it. Until I am satisfied about that, the question of any building of the Central Railway project remains theoretical.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the immense support in my constituency for Crossrail, which would link Whitechapel to Heathrow. Will he, however, tell the House a bit more about the cost of the project? If it is to be approximately £10 billion, £5 billion of which would come from fares or the usual channels, where would the other £5 billion come from? Are there any proposals that he can rule in or out regarding business rates?

The final costing will depend on the final shape of the proposal, but we should all realise that the cost of building Crossrail will be substantial, probably in excess of £10 billion. As I have said in reply to other Members, we are now ensuring that the project is financeable and deliverable. The question that follows from that is how it should be funded, which will be a matter for discussion not just within Government but with the private sector. I am encouraged by the number of people in that sector who have expressed interest in joining the project, but the test is whether we can persuade them to sign up rather than merely sending a general message of support. In my experience it is easy to secure such messages, but securing cash is sometimes more troublesome.

May I press the Secretary of State on two matters? The first is cost. The Mayor says he thinks the project will cost about £10 billion, the chief executive of Crossrail says it will cost between £7 billion and £11 billion depending on routes, and the Secretary of State has been quoted as saying that he thinks it might cost £15 billion. Can the Secretary of State explain why his estimate is so much higher than the others?

The second matter is timing. We expected an announcement in February, and were then told that it would be delayed by a fortnight and would be made in March. It is now the middle of May. May we at least have an assurance that a final decision will be made before the House rises in July?

I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman got his timetable. I do not recall our expecting an announcement in February. What I said last time, I think, was that I had asked Transport for London and the Strategic Rail Authority to come up with proposals for me to receive in spring. The Department has indeed received them, and we are looking at them now.

The cost depends largely on the nature of Crossrail. The London Regional Metro scheme, for instance, is also called Crossrail, but is very different from the SRATFL scheme. I am very cautious about costs. My experience over the past 12 months has been that costs relating to railways, in particular, usually turn out to be rather more than was originally anticipated.

As I have told the House, I think that Crossrail is very important to London's future development, but it is also important for us to get it right, and we should be realistic about the costs. It would be foolish and misleading to suggest that a scheme of such magnitude could be done on the cheap.

I am glad that the Secretary of State supports Crossrail, which has received support throughout London and in other areas. This is not just a question of people in London wanting investment in London; the project is important to the business community, and to London's status as an international centre. As for the costing, has the Secretary of State had any discussions recently with the London business forum and others about private finance?

I have had a number of meetings, and, as I said earlier, there is no shortage of expressions of support for Crossrail and its funding. Nevertheless, we should all be cautious about saying "That is fine, let's go ahead". We need people to sign up to the proposition before we can proceed.

As I have said on a number of occasions, Crossrail is important not just to London but to areas around the city, especially in the east. It is also important, however, that we learn from mistakes made over the past 10 to 15 years. Once we have a project that is workable and financeable, we will see how we can deliver it. No one should underestimate the task we face: the project has a long history, and has fallen at a number of hurdles in the past because not enough preparatory work has been done. I understand people's frustration, but it is important that we get this right.

Air Travel Security


If he will make a statement on plans to improve security (a) at airports and (b) on board aircraft. [112568]

The UK has a mature national aviation security programme. None the less, security measures both at airports and aboard aircraft are kept under review at all times, and are adjusted as necessary in the light of changing circumstances. Longer-term studies and research are also in hand. We do not, of course, discuss the specifics of security measures.

The Department is in regular contact with its overseas counterparts to share best practice in aviation security.

Does the Minister share the concern felt by a constituent of mine who, having arrived at Manchester airport on a late-night international flight the other week, discovered that no Customs or immigration officers were on duty? He was told by a member of the airport staff that they "did not bother after midnight." Does the Minister agree that it is a great shame when there is a difference between what is said at the Dispatch Box and the reality? Does this not constitute a major loophole in the security system operating on flights?

We will certainly look into the matter, but it would have been helpful if the hon. Gentleman had drawn it to my attention before, in which case I could have given a more detailed response. We undoubtedly have among the best aviation security policies and security practice in the world, but there are of course lapses. We follow them up to improve on that practice, and to ensure the safety of passengers and of those who work for the airlines.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that BAA has made a strong representation that the consultation report considerably overstates the cost of developing Glasgow airport, and has prejudiced the case re developing Edinburgh airport. Will he therefore give us an assurance that the cost of developing both Glasgow and Edinburgh will be fully reviewed in the light of the representations made, and that the findings will be published to enable a proper assessment of this matter to be made.

We are taking this consultation extremely seriously, and we welcome representations about general policy, and from those who believe that there are problems or difficulties with, or inaccuracies in, the underlying assumptions. So if such representations are being made by Glasgow—and by local authorities in, and parliamentary representatives from, the Glasgow area—we will certainly look into the matter. And of course, when we publish the aviation White Paper we will respond in detail to many of those issues.

Mindful of my interests in this field, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that what airline passengers want is not just a fair deal for everyone, but safe travel? Can he tell us about the progress that has been made since he made the following comment in the Standing Committee on the Railways and Transport Safety Bill? He said:

"We are considering proposals that would ensure that pass holders for restricted zones are required to have criminal records checks."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 11 March 2003; c. 567.]
Can he also clarify where responsibility for coordination and strategic direction lies outside of the Department for Transport—an issue identified by the Wheeler report?

The requirement for criminal records checks for working airside will come into effect in July. Obviously, the outcome of such checks should be proportionate and relevant to aviation safety, and such a requirement has existed for some time. As a result of discussions with work force representatives, the necessity for them has been agreed to in principle, and the details worked out to general satisfaction, although one or two final issues will need to be resolved. That indicates the seriousness with which we are taking this issue—a seriousness that is part of our incremental progress throughout aviation security. For unfortunate historical reasons, we have had to be well in advance of the rest of the world in this field, and we intend to maintain our position.

May I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that the safety of passengers at Heathrow airport is in great danger, given the length of time that they have to stand at security? I have made representations about that fact, and it is clear that many vacancies have yet to be filled; indeed, Heathrow security is more than 300 people short. This is a scandal of the first order and it requires the Minister's attention. What does he intend to do to improve the situation at BAA? I understand that it is a private company, but it is the public who are having the greatest difficulty in putting up with the current situation. I understand and appreciate that there are new security rules, but BAA is not addressing them as it should.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it is particularly frustrating for passengers waiting in queues to see many scanning machines not in operation because of staff shortages. As my hon. Friend may imagine, the Secretary of State has already vigorously drawn this issue to the attention of BAA. He is awaiting a report from BAA on how it intends to remedy this situation in the short term, and in respect of the longer-term deficiencies, in order to ensure that passengers get the service that they require. Of course, this situation is also detrimental to the airline industry and to punctuality. It is a matter of concern to us, and we are pursuing it with considerable vigour.

Strategic Rail Authority


If he will make a statement on the (a) objectives and (b) management of the communications strategy of the Strategic Rail Authority. [112569]

The Strategic Rail Authority is set up to provide strategic direction for the railways. Its communications strategy is a matter for the SRA.

Will the Secretary of State explain why the Strategic Rail Authority and the train operating companies have adopted a communications strategy that relies on the Jo Moore school of spinning—burying bad news—similar to the one that his Department previously pursued? Does his Department share the SRA media director's view of the noble Lord Berkeley as "a dilettante"? I cannot supply the full quote because the adjective began with an "F".

That is very tasteful of the hon. Gentleman. The chairman of the SRA, Richard Bowker, has already made it clear that he disapproves of what the director of communications said about Lord Berkeley. The director has apologised to Lord Berkeley and I have spoken to Lord Berkeley, who now regards the matter as closed. Rest assured that what was said was wrong and should not have been said. I hope that we shall not hear any more of it.

On more general matters, if there has been a policy of attempting to bury bad news on the railways, it has been singularly unsuccessful. I am more aware than anyone else in the Chamber of how much still has to be done to improve the railways. I hear it in the House, I hear it when I am travelling on the train, and I hear it at parties. On Saturday night I attended a wedding at which people appeared to speak of little else. If my strategy had been to bury bad news, it would have failed—but it is not our strategy. I believe that the hon. Gentleman, as well as Labour Members, has the good of the railways at heart. Despite the undeniable difficulties on the railways, performance is beginning to improve and the £73 million a week now invested in the railways will make a difference. It will result in improved performance, which is long overdue. The key is to sustain the investment and then let the facts speak for themselves.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is precisely because of the large sums of money that the Government are investing in the railways that we need clear and plain speaking from the Strategic Rail Authority? We must know the SRA's position with respect to companies that are not only failing but taking home large amounts of taxpayers' money. Over the next two years, the last thing that we want is a railway system in which it is too expensive for the ordinary traveller to buy a ticket. We are clearly not producing high-quality services, and taxpayers are still funding a failing system.

I agree with my hon. Friend that continued investment in the railways must be justified by results. Frankly, not enough attention was paid in the past to the two essential ingredients for improving the railways—money, which is now going in, and management. The Strategic Rail Authority, the Department and I are all giving a clear message to train companies: they must look to their faults and weaknesses, ensure that their trains run on time and achieve far better performance. It can be done. The latest performance figures demonstrate about 80 per cent. reliability overall, with some services in the 90s, but others down in the 60s, which is quite unacceptable. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) is right that we are entitled to expect increased performance for the money that we are investing. There are some encouraging signs, but, frankly, some companies have a long way to go.

The Secretary of State has expressed delight at the failure to bury bad news about our railways, so does he agree that it would be right and proper for the media to attend the annual general meeting of Network Rail?

Yes, I do. Network Rail should ensure that its annual general meeting is open and I have made that clear to the chairman. Although I accept that, in the last analysis, it is up to the company to decide, I strongly hope that the meeting will be open because the company has nothing to hide and might have some positive things—perhaps some good news—to tell the world.

Without complicating my right hon. Friend's Saturday nights, may I draw his attention to a subject that he knows a great deal about—the ongoing problems of the Forth rail bridge? Will he give an assurance that his Department is inquisitive about the future funding of the bridge?

I would be happy to discuss that over a drink with my hon. Friend. The Forth rail bridge is having substantial sums spent on it, because it is an important part of the rail infrastructure. I see it regularly, for obvious reasons, so my hon. Friend may rest assured that it is never far from my thoughts.

Does the Secretary of State agree that safety should be the most important priority of any rail authority? As he is no doubt aware, last Saturday saw the first anniversary of the Potters Bar rail crash, but we are still waiting for a full report on how that accident came about. The families are still waiting for an acceptance of responsibility—on the same basis as in previous accidents—by any of the relevant bodies. Will he do all he can to ensure that the report is published as soon as possible?

There are two aspects to the report on the accident at Potters Bar. The first is in relation to the cause of the accident, and we are now clear that it was caused by the failure of the points. The Health and Safety Executive has published two reports and a final report is due at the end of May. The second aspect, about which the victims feel especially strongly, is who was responsible for the accident. That is the subject of a criminal investigation by the police and Ministers cannot properly interfere. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to have those matters concluded as quickly as possible—for the sake of those who died and their relatives, and for all of us. We will have the Health and Safety Executive's report, but I cannot properly influence the criminal investigation. I hope, for obvious reasons, that it is concluded as soon as possible.

Mersey Tunnels


If he will make a statement on the policing of Mersey Tunnels. [112570]

Responsibility—including the funding—for the policing of the Mersey tunnels rests with the Merseyside Passenger Transport Authority, Merseytravel, under provisions in the County of Merseyside Act 1980.

As Merseytravel is primarily responsible for the safe operation of the Mersey tunnels, it falls on it to ensure that the law enforcement officers it appoints are trained to a standard that protects both the officers involved and users of the tunnels and to provide such facilities necessary for the officers to carry out their duties in a safe and proper manner.

My hon. Friend reflects the situation as it is, not as it should be. Does he recall that the Liverpool coroner recently said that Mersey Tunnels police were not operating in a way that the general public would recognise as the behaviour of a normal police force? While I welcome the review that the Department and the Home Office are undertaking in relation to the role of the Mersey Tunnels police, a review of the separate police fiefdoms more generally is long overdue. Many of them are in the transport sector and all of them are of dubious accountability. Will he consider the situation with a view to bringing those forces into mainstream policing arrangements, with all that that implies for accountability, funding, standards, benchmarks and practices?

Addressing the issue of the capability of the Mersey Tunnels police is, in the first instance, the responsibility of the Merseyside passenger transport authority and the democratically elected bodies that make up its constituent parts. My hon. Friend referred to the dreadful and tragic accident in March last year, and we all regret the circumstances in which two young teenagers lost their lives. I cannot comment on what the coroner said, because it is open to legal challenge. At the moment, the Police Complaints Authority has no remit for the Mersey Tunnels police, but under section 78 of the Police Act 1996 the Home Secretary can direct that such a relationship be affirmed. Perhaps my hon. Friend should take that point up with the Home Secretary. I appreciate the concerns that have arisen from that particular incident and we and the Home Office will consider carefully the reports of the investigations and decide what further action needs to be taken.



If he will make a statement on the progress of the consultation on airport provision for south-east England. [112571]

The national consultation ends on 30 June. We have already received tens of thousands of responses from across the UK, and we expect to receive many more. All responses will be considered carefully before decisions are set out in the White Paper, which we intend to publish later this year.

Does my hon. Friend sense that there is a growing irritation among hon. Members at BAA's disproportionate clout and influence on aviation policy and airport capacity? My hon. Friend was in the House when I said in prophetic terms, in relation to terminal 5, that BAA would perform its usual stunt and say, once it had got a runway, that it now needed a terminal. I was wrong in one sense, however: now that BAA has got terminal 5, it wants not one more runway, but three. Is it not time to blow the whistle on BAA, and say that enough is enough? We want all the regional airports that can serve London to be expanded, and there must be a more sensible policy to decide how we meet our aviation capacity shortfall—in the interests of the UK, not of BAA.

I thank my hon. Friend for those views, which were expressed, as ever, in an understated way. Of course, BAA is a big player in the provision of air services; that it should make a contribution to the consultation is totally to be expected, but its contribution to the consultation is no more than that. Other views will be expressed, in both agreement and disagreement, and it will be up to the Government to weigh those matters very carefully at the end of the consultation period. It is probably fortuitous that BAA should have published its views now, as it allows people the opportunity to form possibly contrary views during the consultation process.

I welcome the downgrading of the proposals for expansion of Luton airport from an assumption to an option, but will the Minister confirm that he is not now considering different options, such as the building of taxiways? Such options have not been included in the consultation document, and my constituents have not been asked to give their views on them.

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that no decisions have been made, and that none will be made until the end of the consultation period. He will appreciate that it is not only the options put forward by the Government in the consultation document that have been commented on, and that many contributors to the consultation produced ideas that did not appear in the consultation document. Those ideas will have to be considered very carefully, and weighed against each other. There are very wide-ranging views on all these matters, and we must consider them all very carefully after the end of June.

I want to say, in support of BAA, that its rejection of a proposed airport at Cliffe is absolutely correct. That proposal should be ruled out, on both commercial and environmental grounds. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to support BAA in this instance, and announce that Cliffe will not be an option in the White Paper?

Tempting though it may be to preempt the consultation, I am unfortunately unable to give my hon. Friend that undertaking today. The Cliffe option is still very much part of the consultation. Some very strong views have been expressed against it, not least by my hon. Friend's constituents, and by people in neighbouring constituencies. However, other views very much in favour of the Cliffe option have also been expressed. We have to weigh those up very carefully at the end of the month. I am sure that the comments that my hon. Friend has made, very robustly, on behalf of his constituents will be taken into consideration at that time.

Roads (North-West)


If he will make a statement on investment in the trunk road infrastructure in the north-west of England. [112572]

The Highways Agency is planning to spend around £135 million this year on maintaining the motorway and trunk road infrastructure in the north-west. A further £30 million will be spent on small schemes aimed at tackling safety and congestion. In addition to that, the Highways Agency's programme includes seven major capital schemes to the value of around £400 million, which will be delivered over the next 5 years.

I thank the Secretary of State for that detailed response. Does he accept that adequate roads are vital to a successful transport infrastructure? I am concerned that the proposals of the south-east Manchester multi-modal study are totally inadequate in respect of the roads going from Macclesfield to the north. We have a wonderful silk road that sweeps out of the centre of Macclesfield to the north, but it turns into a very inadequate single-carriageway road. Will the Secretary of State look at the provision of a dual carriageway road from the end of the silk road to connect with the Poynton bypass? We need a dual-carriageway road so that large companies such as Astra Zeneca, which employs more than 7,000 people, can adequately connect to the motorway network and Manchester international airport?

I agree that a transport policy must be balanced and that we need adequate road and rail infrastructure. I am aware of the problem that the hon. Gentleman raises, particularly as regards the connection with the A523, which was the subject of the multi-modal study on which my predecessor announced his conclusions in March 2002. As I understand it, the consultants recommended, and the study concluded, that there ought to be a single-carriageway road. That proposal is being worked up by Cheshire county council, in consultation with Macclesfield borough council.

I know the hon. Gentleman's views on the matter. I had a brief opportunity this morning to look into its history, and I can see that there are differences of opinion at various levels. It is for Cheshire county council to decide what is appropriate for the road, and its view at the moment, as I understand it, is that a single carriageway, perhaps realigned, would be the right thing. The hon. Gentleman's representations ought, in the first instance, to be made to Cheshire county council.

My right hon. Friend will recognise that investment in motorways and trunk roads is essential for securing jobs and investment in Burnley and east Lancashire. He will know that the M65 going east ends in Colne, in the Pendle constituency. I have always wanted it to go east into Yorkshire, but since that is not going to happen, will he ensure that the necessary bypasses are built on A and trunk roads from Pendle into Yorkshire to ensure that communications are better on that side of the country? The M62 is too far south and makes a long diversion for much of our industrial traffic.

I understand the problem. We shall spend something like £13 billion over 10 years on new construction that is necessary to improve access and help industry, as my hon. Friend said, in various parts of the country. Choices must be made, however, and it is not possible to do all the things that everybody wants. I am aware of the general problem because my honourable friend has talked to me about it before. I cannot give any particular undertaking, but if he wants to come to me with specific proposals, I shall be happy to speak to him.

Given that the Secretary of State has performed a welcome U-turn in dropping the Government's original presumption against new road building, will he review, and if necessary reverse, the decision to de-trunk many roads in the north-west, including the A595 in Cumbria, the A570 in Lancashire and the A500 in Cheshire?

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, the 10-yeas plan envisaged substantial new construction, where necessary, to tackle congestion, involving widening roads and so on. My announcement before Christmas simply implemented what the Government had said we would do. However, I am grateful for his welcome, such as it was.

De-trunking has taken place in the north-west and other areas with the agreement of local authorities. It makes sense for the Government to be responsible, through the Highways Agency, for the strategic road network, but where roads are an integral part of local transport, it makes sense for local authorities to be responsible for them. That policy is right, and I am not aware of any great clamour to reverse it.

National Rail Academy


What progress is being made towards the establishment of a National Rail Academy. [112573]

I am pleased to report that the National Rail Academy was formally established on 1 April. Its aim is to provide a cost-effective means of ensuring that the rail industry has the right people with the right skills at the right time.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the announcement, having pushed for the National Rail Academy for more than five years. My worry is that it will be a virtual academy and that virtually no training will take place. We need a chief executive, and we need a headquarters. What progress has been made?

As my hon. Friend probably expects, the Strategic Rail Authority has, since the announcement, been approached by a large number of organisations about where the academy should be located and what it should do. The SRA will consider those views to establish what the industry needs and is prepared to support before it chooses the route forward. The idea is that the academy will be not a single, bricks-and-mortar establishment, but a strategic co-ordinating facility that is able to develop new and existing training facilities around the country as it works with the industry. I take the point, which my hon. Friend has made to me personally, that when it is decided where to locate the core centre, we should seriously consider the claims of Carlisle, which he and others have advanced, given its long record of service to the railway industry.

Given that it is now 14 months since the then Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers), talked about the allocation of funds to the academy, can the Minister at least tell the House what he expects the public expenditure cost of the academy to be in this financial year?

That is a matter for the Strategic Rail Authority, which will be working with the industry—the train operating companies, Network Rail—and the contracting companies that work with the industry. As I said, the key role of the rail academy is to act as a coordinating organisation. That role may develop, especially in identifying skills shortages in the industry. The concept of the academy is to work with the industry, co-ordinating training that is already being undertaken, and also to look at the skills shortages. I remind the hon. Gentleman that, as a result of his party's privatisation programme and the way in which it was implemented by the train operators, we had substantial redundancies among a number of skills, not least in signalling and train driving, which led to the shortage that has created considerable problems for the industry. The rail academy will be addressing that.

Road Litter


If he will review the arrangements for the removal of litter from the side of trunk roads; and if he will make a statement. [112574]

Since the Environmental Protection Act 1990 code of practice came into force, responsibility for clearing litter on all-purpose trunk roads, with the exception of design, build, finance and operate managed roads, has rested with local authorities. Responsibility for clearing litter on motorways lies with the Highways Agency.

Has my hon. Friend noticed the shocking state of the verges along many of our motorways and trunk roads, and that the same plastic bags often appear to be hanging from the same shrubs week in and week out? Is it not obvious that the existing arrangements are not satisfactory? What can he do to help the Highways Agency and those to whom it subcontracts to take the issue more seriously?

I share my hon. Friend's concern about litter on some of our major roads. At best it is unsightly, and at worst it is dangerous to people and to wildlife, and of course it puts off visitors to areas where there might be a considerable number of tourists. The picture across the country is variable: some local authorities take their responsibilities seriously, but others do not. The Highways Agency inspects trunk roads on a basis of between seven and 28 days, and where appropriate will bring things to the attention of the local authority or, in the case of the A19, which leads to my hon. Friend's constituency and is operated by a contractor, to the attention of the contractor who is contractually obliged to keep the road clear. I can assure my hon. Friend that another Department, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is currently reviewing the code of practice and holding consultations to see how it can be tightened.

The Minister will be aware that land adjoining roads and railways can be an important refuge for wildlife. He will also be aware of the slash and burn clearances undertaken by transport authorities in many parts of the country. Does he share my concern about that approach, and what representations will he be making about it, especially to Network Rail?

The Highways Agency and Network Rail have to take appropriate action because, as the hon. Gentleman will know, trees blow on to railway lines or roads. However, I accept his general concern about the state of the verges although, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), it is variable. In extreme cases, if people have a complaint, they can go to the magistrates court and obtain a litter abatement order to oblige the authority to act.



What the estimated value was of the time lost due to congestion on the M6 in 2002. [112575]

The Highways Agency does not currently collect sufficient information on traffic speeds to answer that question. However, the installation of new technology and the opening of the traffic control centre next year should enable such data to be provided in the future.

If ever an answer illustrated complacency about the real need to get something moving on the M6 to convert it from its current car park status, that was it. The Minister knows that thousands of hours are wasted by businesses and individuals stuck in congestion on the M6. We welcome the publication of the multi-modal study and we look forward to the opening of the Birmingham relief road, but will he tell us when there will be some concerted action to speed up the labyrinthine processes that must be gone through to determine what is self-evident—that the M6 capacity needs expanding now? When will that happen?

In no way did I suggest that we were not aware of the considerable problems of congestion on the M6 and on a number of Britain's highways. That is precisely why we, like the right hon. Gentleman, welcome the opening shortly of the M6 toll road and why, fairly shortly, improvement work will be undertaken on the A500 south of Stoke. That is also why, as he drives up the M6, he will see the considerable number of message boards going up that will enable real-time running and management of the network. Those are real pluses. The point that he ought to address is why, during the Conservatives' considerable period in government, including two years during which he was Financial Secretary, no action was taken.

My right hon. Friend just mentioned the south of Stoke, which, of course, is consistent with the name of my constituency. Will he agree, however, that any consideration of measures to relieve congestion on the M6, particularly in relation to the MidMan study, would be conditional, in an important way, on the Strategic Rail Authority having the funds to ensure that any rail developments as a result of that study are undertaken? In relation to extending the M6 to four lanes, it is essential that road pricing is also considered because of its effect on traffic movements, as part of those important projects.

Probably the biggest expenditure in the railway sector is taking place in precisely that corridor in relation to the west coast main line. A huge amount of work is being undertaken, and a lot of work is being done by the Strategic Rail Authority to compress the time scales for improving the service on that line and to bring about the refurbishment of the line and substantial improvements in times and reliability.

If the Government are really so concerned about congestion, why did they sign up to the extension of the working time directive to heavy goods vehicle drivers and to the ludicrous restrictions in that directive, which will result in lorry drivers having to work during the day rather than at night, with lorries being transferred from travelling overnight to using the motorways during the day? Why have the Government not produced a regulatory impact assessment on this ludicrous measure? When that assessment is conducted, will it include the impact on congestion on the M6?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is speaking in favour of lorry drivers working excessive hours, given the impact that that can have on their safety and the safety of others. Beyond the rhetoric, if he looks at the details of both the working time directive, and of course the amending directive, what he must consider is the real impact on the road haulage industry, particularly with regard to times of availability or non-driving hours. He will find that that impact is much less than he claims, as a number of people in the industry are now saying. He must say whether he wants people working excessive hours driving heavy goods vehicles on our roads.

Railways (Skipton)


What recent assessment he has made of the viability and desirability of reopening the (a) Skipton to Colne and (b) Skipton to Grassington railways. [112576]

The Strategic Rail Authority has set out its current plans for the development of the rail network in its strategic plan, which was published in January. Those do not include reopening the Skipton to Colne line or opening the Skipton to Grassington line for passenger services.

That is very disappointing. Why does calling for the reopening of an old railway line appear eccentric, while calling for a new road, as my misguided hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) has done, is okay? Will the Minister accept that now that the Countryside Agency is calling for the reopening of those two lines we ought to press ahead and get trains running on them? The Yorkshire Dales national park is out of bounds to thousands of people without access to a car. If these railways were reopened, that would introduce the countryside to the thousands of my constituents who have never been there.

I recognise my hon. Friend's concern, and the Government recognise that there is great value in reopening railway lines when that is appropriate. However, he will appreciate that for both these lines—in particular, the Skipton to Colne line that is currently not in use—it is a matter for those locally, and for the local authority in particular, to formulate a plan and make it known to the SRA, so that we can implement it. As he knows, the SRA is currently holding discussions to gauge interest in reopening the line in the longer term, but it has no plans at present to do so. If local authorities come up with a plan for the Skipton to Grassington line, it can be looked at carefully to meet the ambitions of my hon. Friend and his constituents.

The House will note that I have only managed to get to question 10 on the Order Paper. That was because questions and answers were far too long. We have an obligation to get through the Order Paper, as that is only fair to those who have taken the bother to table questions. I look forward to shorter questions, and of course shorter answers, at the next Transport questions.

Cabinet Office

The Minister of State was asked

Online Services


If he will make a statement on progress made towards the Government's target of getting all services online by 2005. [112587]

We are committed to ensuring that central Government services are made available electronically by 2005 and that key services achieve high levels of use. The latest figures obtained during quarter four of 2002 show that 63 per cent. of services were e-enabled. Departments continue to work to meet the 2005 target.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but is he confident that the general public will have sufficient access to the internet by 2005 to ensure that online services are available to those who need them most?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the important challenge of the digital divide. We now have 6,000 UK Online centres that operate right across the country. They provide exactly the kind of internet access of which he spoke. We have identified one of the principal barriers as being skills and confidence among the population, and the campaign that the Government announced only yesterday is a significant initiative in helping to bridge that divide.

In a recent written answer, the Government were unable to tell me how much they had spent on websites in the past four years, yet the National Audit Office estimates the figure to be something like £1 billion. Does the Minister agree that the Government appear to be the last organisation still living in the dotcom boom?

I simply do not recognise that description. To take a single example, about 500,000 visits to NHS Direct Online took place last month. That is a perfect of example of how the Government are modernising public services and using new technology to find challenging new solutions to the needs of the British public. We are serious about investing in schools and hospitals, and one has only to look towards the initiatives for broadband to see how we are taking forward that work.

Does my hon. Friend agree that effective online services must be simple to use, uncluttered and written in plain language? Does he share my concern that, in our excellent haste to get services online, we are not taking advantage of the opportunity to simplify some of the services at the same time?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. One of the key challenges in getting services online is that we do not simply automate the past. That is why it is important both to develop new services and for the Government to enhance their 2005 target. That means not only demanding that services go online but driving up levels of use in the key services that serve the public.

Will the Minister confirm that, as part of the fallout from the loss of financial control and the budget overspends in the Cabinet Office, the office of e-envoy is being shrunk by a quarter? Can he tell the House how that will affect progress towards the target of getting all services online by 2005? If it does not affect those targets, what does a 25 per cent. cut with no impact on output tell us about the waste, inefficiency and bureaucracy in the Cabinet Office?

I am rather intrigued by the hon. Gentleman's line of questioning. If we manage public resources prudently, the Opposition criticise us by saying that the services were vital, but if we are not prudent, they suggest that there is waste and excess. We have undertaken an effective budgetary exercise in the Cabinet Office during recent months that has not only secured resources for new online work—a new campaign is being launched only this week—but allowed us to continue to pursue our target of ensuring that Government services are online by 2005. The e-envoy's office has a central role in that endeavour.

Does the Minister agree that online services are only of use to citizens if they can easily find them? In that context, will he tell us when we can expect a replacement for the poor UK Online Government portal that is currently available? Will he look at the excellent Canadian Government site,, to see an example of how we should do things?

I assure the House that I have already looked at the Canadian example and that I am undertaking such work here. I also commend to the House the Massachusetts government's site, which is similar to that of the Canadian Government. We can learn important lessons from those two transatlantic examples.

Will my hon. Friend congratulate UK Online and ITV companies, especially Granada, on their work to promote the "IT's for Life" campaign and surrounding work? The fact that the storyline of "Coronation Street" included the need to expand access to information technology is of great benefit to the public. Such programmes must be expanded and I seek a commitment that that will happen.

I am delighted that a national institution such as "Coronation Street" has carried a storyline that exemplifies the kind of outreach work that we want throughout the country to ensure that every community gets online. Perhaps in the future we will move from the Rover's Return to the Surfer's Return.

Civil Contingencies


What representations he has received on the proposed civil contingencies Bill. [112588]

I regularly receive representations on the proposed civil contingencies Bill. The Bill has been developed through a consultative process, beginning with the emergency planning review in 2001 during which we received many replies on proposed legislation. Since then, the Government have engaged closely with the emergency planning community and key external groups, which have made written and oral representations that have informed our work.

How do the Government intend that local councils should pay for their emergency planning provisions in the event that the Government proceed with their plans to stop the ring-fencing of that budget under the Bill?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. It will help the House if I make it clear that in addition to the Government's direct contribution of £90 million, local authorities contribute extra money from their general funds. The Local Government Association estimated in 2001 that the local authority contribution for England to that work amounted to an additional £9.9 million. Consultation on the specifics of the Bill will, of course, continue in the weeks and months to come.

Will the Minister give some reassurance to local authorities that are worried about the long-term imposition of any powers that might come from a civil contingencies Bill? If it becomes necessary to use such powers not only in the short term but for a prolonged period, what additional resources might be made available?

The Government spend hundreds of millions of pounds on emergency planning and civil protection in the UK. There is central Government funding for organisations that are involved in the provision of responses to emergencies, which of course include local authorities. Additionally, the Government have increased the direct grant aid paid to local authorities for such work. We shall continue to discuss with local authorities their responsibilities under the proposals that we aim to introduce this summer.

Central Office Of Information


What recent discussions his office has had with other Departments about statistics published by the Central Office of Information. [112589]

None. Part of the Central Office of Information's remit is to arrange for the publication of some departmental information and statistics, for which individual Departments are responsible.

May I can encourage the Minister to talk to his colleagues in the Office for National Statistics and, especially, the Home Office, so that when the COI or the Government Information and Communication Service produce publications, we have clear statistical information? The last crime statistics consisted of three sets of statistics, which left everyone confused, and the general view is that we must do much better if we are to have credible statistics that the public believe and that thus serve their intended purpose.

We are keen not only for crime levels to fall but for confidence in the police service and law enforcement agencies to continue to rise. In that regard, I am happy to pass on the hon. Gentleman's comments to Home Office Ministers.

Digital Services


What steps the Government have taken towards improving access to public digital services. [112590]

The Government are committed to providing internet access for all who want it by 2005. Yesterday we launched a national campaign called "Get Started" to increase awareness of the benefits of the internet. During the campaign, people will be encouraged to visit one of those 6,000 UK Online centres, which I mentioned earlier, offering 7 million hours of free internet access.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but why do the Government not just provide every household with a computer if they do not have access to one?

As I said, one of the principal challenges that we face in getting people online is a lack of confidence and skills. That is why we believe that the UK Online centres are uniquely equipped to meet that challenge. People in higher education institutions should have access to mentoring and support. We need to ensure that that is available at every income level and in every community across the country.

Ministerial Conduct


When the code of practice on ministerial conduct was last reviewed. [112591]

A revised ministerial code was published in July 2001. Since then, the Government have agreed to two amendments to the code.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but in view of what the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) said, is it not time for another review? She said that "errors" flow

"from the style and organisation of our Government";
that there is
"centralisation of power into the hands of the Prime Minister";
that there are "diktats" and
"policy initiatives being rammed through Parliament".—[Official Report, 12 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 38.]
If we do not need a change in the code of conduct, do we need a bigger change in the Ministers?

There is little that I can usefully add to the comments of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood yesterday. I fail to see that they have a direct bearing on the ministerial code, as the hon. Gentleman suggests.