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Volume 463: debated on Tuesday 17 July 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Employment (Former Mining Communities)

1. What steps she proposes to take to improve transport services to enable better access to jobs for people in former mining communities. (149827)

Local transport authorities in former mining areas have made substantial investment to address local regeneration objectives, including enabling better access to jobs through new roads, improvements to public transport and facilities for walking and cycling.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to her new position in the Government. Is she aware of the issue of access to jobs in the Dearne valley project, which is part funded by the housing market renewal programme? It is creating greater opportunities for access to jobs and services in the Dearne and South Yorkshire area in general. Does she agree that future housing development and housing regeneration projects have to go hand in hand with greater accessibility planning at their core?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind welcome and I acknowledge his interest in the subject, which is extremely important for the South Yorkshire area. I read his speech at a conference in March, in which he set out the importance of transport to enable people to get to their jobs while also highlighting the importance of housing development. In preparing local transport plans, local authorities have to look, particularly now, at how disadvantaged people might get extra services and ensure that they plan public transport accordingly. That is exactly in line with what my hon. Friend said and it is particularly important for former mining areas like ours.

Corsham in my constituency is very much a mining community, having had 13 stone mines, most of which—bar one—have now been closed. Sadly, Dr. Beeching closed our railway station. That creates a problem for new development in the town, particularly by the Ministry of Defence, which is opening a £1 billion new centre in Corsham. We badly need a new station as so many people have to travel by car. Will the Minister join her predecessor in supporting our venture to have a new station in the town of Corsham?

I would be most interested to hear more about the plans for such a local station. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that, in planning well in advance, it is important to look at the integration of transport. Where we have railway stations, we need to ensure that they fit in with local bus transport plans and people’s driving habits, for example.

I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to her new role in the Government. I would like to raise the issue of interchangeability. We are lucky to have the Penistone line and the Denby Dale station, but unfortunately the trains tend to arrive and leave five minutes before and after the bus arrives, bringing people from Wakefield and Holmfirth. That is a critical issue for people trying to commute. We have had huge problems and the parish council has written to me about that and other bus services being taken away in my rural areas. Will my right hon. Friend look into this and try to get some sense and heads knocked together on the problem?

My hon. Friend is right. If we are to succeed in getting more people on to public transport, it is absolutely right to look at how we achieve proper integration. We want local authorities to look at all modes of travel, particularly through local transport plans, and to ensure that, if necessary, they sit down with the train companies and bus operators to put forward people’s travel patterns. Frankly, it is to everyone’s benefit if they can get that sort of planning right.

Coventry Airport

I welcome the Minister to his new role—I am quite certain that he will enjoy it—and thank him for that rather opaque statement. May I press him further? Many of my constituents are very concerned by a perceived increase in the number of aircraft; they appear particularly to be flying over the Lutterworth area much more. Many others believe that an expansion of Coventry airport in an area of high population would be unwise. Should any plans to expand the airport come before him, would he please ensure that they go out for the maximum possible consultation?

I am sure that I can give that assurance and I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind words. As he knows, Coventry airport serves a specialist role within the region with a mix of traffic. The 2003 air transport White Paper concluded that the airport could continue to perform that role “within existing constraints”. In the light of our conclusions on capacity elsewhere in the midlands and potential surface access and environmental and airspace constraints, the White Paper did not envisage that any significant further development beyond the current level of passenger throughput would be appropriate.

I agree with the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). The situation relating to Leicester and Leicestershire has become much worse, and any expansion of Coventry will have a serious effect on the environment in my constituency. The best place in which to expand services is Birmingham airport. Will the Minister bear that in mind if he makes any decisions on the matter?

I can only repeat the assurances that I gave the hon. Member for Blaby about the proposals for Coventry and our view of capacity elsewhere in the midlands. The White Paper “The Future of Air Transport”, published in 2003, sets out the strategic framework for the next 30 years. As my right hon. Friend knows, it aims to create a balance between the economic importance of aviation and environmental and other considerations.

The Secretary of State’s recent decision not to permit the development of an extended passenger terminal at Coventry airport has been welcomed by many of my constituents who live very near the airport, but one of the difficulties experienced during the lengthy planning inquiry was that Warwick district council had to bear the financial burden of dealing with the matter, in competition with an airline company with extremely deep pockets. Will the Minister consider—in general terms—ways in which in we can help local authorities to deal with substantial planning inquiries of this kind?

That is a fair point, but when planning issues such as that arise, expenditure by local authorities is always necessary so that they can make representations. I can only tell the hon. Gentleman that the Department for Communities and Local Government always listens to representations made by any local authority in respect of the annual settlement—which, as he knows, has been growing over the past 10 years, and will doubtless continue to grow—and reassure him that his local authority’s representations will be taken into account at the appropriate time.

Humber Bridge Board

Officials from my Department have had frequent and regular discussions with the Humber bridge board on a range of issues. The most recent discussions took place on 19 June, on the restructuring of the Humber bridge debt.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer, and welcome her to her new position. I appreciate that the debt has been restructured, but will she confirm that that means that the board will retain more money, which could potentially be invested in local transport initiatives such as concessions for people travelling to Hull hospitals for cancer treatment?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work that she has done in this area, not least with the rather splendid Bill that she promoted some time ago.

It is for the Humber bridge board to decide what to do with the £16.5 million or so that is available following the debt restructuring. If the board wanted to offer concessionary fares we would certainly consider its proposals, but we would have to be assured that it could meet its financial obligations. My hon. Friend might like to consider whether local health authorities would be interested in working with the board to enable people to be transported to hospital.

Local Bus Services

The draft Local Transport Bill proposes changes that will give local authorities stronger levers to improve bus services and work in partnership with bus operators. That includes making bus franchising a realistic option in areas where it is in the public interest for local authorities to take greater control of bus services.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role. Will the draft Bill allow local councillors to determine local routes for their constituents to provide the better service that is needed in local areas?

I can give my hon. Friend a firm assurance that that will be the case. It might be made possible in a number of ways, including a voluntary partnership between a local authority and a bus operator. If the authority so chose, the arrangement could be put on a statutory basis. Alternatively, quality contracts—a form of bus franchising—would enable local authorities to have much more control over bus services. Behind all that is the idea that passengers must come first, and that local authorities must seek the powers that they need in order to ensure that passengers receive the best possible service.

In investigating the furtherance of bus travel, will the Secretary of State revisit the effect on rural transport of limiting the length of bus journeys? Many rural passengers nowadays have to interrupt their journeys and change unnecessarily because of the new regulations on the length of a bus journey before drivers and buses must be changed.

I certainly will do that. The powers we propose under the draft Local Transport Bill will enable local authorities to do as they see fit by working with the bus operator companies to put in place not only routes but frequencies and to determine punctuality and potentially the fares charged. Those powers will go a long way towards making sure that passengers get the facilities that they need. Also, community transport in rural areas will become more viable as it is made easier for there to be buses of different sizes and for drivers to be hired to operate them.

I think that all Labour Members welcome the Bill’s inclusion in the draft legislative programme, but will my right hon. Friend address concerns that the process set out in the Bill for franchising bus services is too long, especially given the falling levels of bus patronage in metropolitan areas?

I understand that that is a concern, particularly in Sheffield. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will travel to Sheffield to meet people and discuss their concerns. However, I hope that my hon. Friend realises—as the local authority in Sheffield does—that our proposals will lead to the biggest shake-up in bus services for 20 years and that we are lowering the hurdle by making it much easier for local authorities to take the powers they need. I know that Sheffield is already working towards having a quality contract. We must make going down that route as easy as possible. Under the proposals, we envisage that there will be a timetable of about 14 to 20 months for a quality contract to be assured, which is similar to the length of time that a local authority would usually in any event want to spend making sure that it had got its proposals right. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will be delighted to discuss the proposals not only with my hon. Friend but with the local authority.

Will the draft Bill include a proposal for a separate traffic commissioner for Wales so that we can finally end the anomaly of the regulation of bus services in Wales being based in Birmingham? Although it is a splendid city in every respect, it is hardly an appropriate vantage point from which to make decisions on transport in Wales.

I hear the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for the return of powers to Wales, but the important point to make is that traffic commissioners must have the powers that they need to hold both bus operators and local authorities to account—and the Welsh Assembly thereto, where appropriate—in order to make sure that buses run on time and serve people well. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we will propose reforms to the traffic commissioner body. He will have to wait for the consultation exercise to be published, but I hear what he says on this matter.

The Confederation of Passenger Transport UK has boasted that it has more influence on bus policy than MPs or local government, and we know from today’s edition of The Times that it has influence in the other place. Will my right hon. Friend check the 4,000 passes to the Department for Transport and assure me that the CPT and its members do not have undue influence in that Department?

I would be delighted to speak to my hon. Friend and any other Member who has concerns about bus policy or its operation at local authority or city level. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State is travelling not only to Sheffield but around the country to meet people who have particular concerns, and I am sure that she would be happy to discuss such matters with my hon. Friend.

I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to her new Government post. If we are to accept the concept of road pricing, those areas making bids to the transport innovation fund must offer better co-ordination and planning of the bus network. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give that, if Manchester’s bid proceeds, the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive will have the powers it needs?

Of course, I will have to look at the bid from Greater Manchester when it comes to my Department for examination, but the principle is that if a local authority or a city wants to pursue road pricing, it is right that the public services, and public transport in particular, work well and in an integrated fashion. Local authorities must have the powers that they need, especially over buses, to make that possible and they must also have the funding to put in place transport that works to serve the needs of the local population.

Birmingham New Street

Network Rail and Birmingham city council have been developing a scheme for the redevelopment of the station. My Department is assessing whether it addresses future needs and represents value for money.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response. She will be aware that Arriva Trains Wales, which links mid and west Wales and Shropshire with Birmingham, has frequently had to terminate services at Wolverhampton because of lack of platform capacity at Birmingham New Street station. In view of what she has said about the discussions between Birmingham city council and Network Rail, can she confirm whether platform capacity, as opposed to the necessary improvement of surroundings, will be a part of the discussions? There is a great need for that, because many of my constituents think that they receive a lamentable service.

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. I know that there have been reliability problems with the Arriva Trains Wales service and I urge him to take up those concerns with the Welsh Assembly Government, because ultimately the Aberystwyth line is their responsibility. He mentions capacity at Birmingham New Street station, and that is an issue with which I am familiar. Clearly, capacity will be one of the major priorities of the forthcoming rail White Paper and, given the central importance of Birmingham New Street to the rail network, it will clearly be one of the issues in my mind as I go forward.

I also welcome my right hon. Friend to her new post. From the fact that this question comes from outside Birmingham, she will be aware of the importance of the regeneration of New Street station nationally and not simply to the city of Birmingham and the west midlands. She mentioned discussions: does she need any further information from any of the partners involved to convince her just how vital that project is to the country as well as to the region?

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. I know that he, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and others in the region have been championing the cause of New Street station, not just in terms of passenger capacity, which is clearly needed, but because of the regeneration potential of the plans. My Department has been liaising with Birmingham city council and challenging it to come up with plans that represent clear value for money.

We are currently in a process of iteration, and the local council still has significant work to do to prove its case. I can pledge to my hon. Friend that I will give the issue my close attention and focus especially on the value for money case, while understanding that value for money will include any potential regeneration benefits.

I welcome the right hon. Lady to her new role and wish her success in curing the nation’s transport problems. Seven years ago, in the 10-year plan, the Government promised to tackle the very bottlenecks that she has been talking about, but they persist. The real progress in reducing train congestion and increasing capacity at New Street will be secured by the £500 million station upgrade that we all expected to hear in the high level output statement, which was expected yesterday. Was the HLOS delayed because of the emerging crisis in the Underground public-private partnership or the embarrassment caused to the Government by First Great Western and TravelWatch’s performance review at the weekend? When will the Government announce something to help west midlands commuters—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is entitled only to one supplementary question, even if I get his name wrong.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post and I congratulate him on his creative efforts in his questioning. I am sorry that they were not more successful. He is right to say that we have to think about Birmingham New Street station and the capacity issues. I understand that the issues include pedestrian access as well as rail connections outside the station.

One thing that I have not mentioned to colleagues so far is that the recent award of the Cross Country franchise will, I hope, make a significant difference to reliability across the whole network, including at Birmingham New Street station. If trains on that franchise are able to run on time and carry more passengers, that will also help all other trains leaving and arriving at that station.

I should like to welcome my right hon. Friend to her new post, and I am glad that she is aware of the congestion problems in the west midlands, especially at New Street. The proposed redevelopment, whenever it takes place, will not help that problem, so will she speak to the rail operators with a view to taking some of the congestion away from the station? Tamworth is the crossroads between the main lines to the west coast and the north-east. Will she consider making it a hub station, as that would reduce people’s need to go into New Street during the reconstruction period?

I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that I plan to meet the train operating companies next week, when we will discuss their plans to tackle capacity problems at stations around the country. It has been made plain already that many passengers are forced to change at Birmingham New Street station, and that different options are needed. One of the merits of the recent award of the Cross Country franchise will be that fewer passengers will be forced to change at New Street station, but we keep such matters under constant review and they will inform the contents of the rail White Paper to be published shortly.

Rail Fare Regulation

6. What recent discussions she has had with South West Trains on the regulation of rail fares. (149832)

There have been no discussions about either the scope or the level of fares regulation. There has been some discussion about the forthcoming investment in modern smartcard ticketing, which may require fares regulation procedures to be changed.

In May this year, South West Trains hiked up prices by 20 per cent. for passengers from Winchester and Southampton who arrive in London between 10 am and 12. No such increases were introduced for people travelling from Basingstoke and Reading, where there is competition from First Great Western. What can the Minister do to prevent companies such as South West Trains from fleecing passengers on routes where there is a monopoly franchise?

I of course sympathise with those who find that their fares have gone up by a significant amount. I am sure that the hon. Lady will understand that the Government can intervene in such matters only by extending the scope of regulation. However, there would inevitably be a cost to the public purse, at a time when many more demands are being made on it, both in the rail industry and elsewhere.

I welcome the Minister to his post, not least because he provides an element of gender balance in a Department that is becoming very much a female province in this House. The hike in fares to which my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) referred is not unique to South West Trains, but it runs contrary to the original plan that the Association of Train Operating Companies would try to attract more passengers by providing a range of options for off-peak travel. Will he therefore consider looking at the model recently adopted by Transport for London? It has decided to take the revenue risk involved in running the north London line franchise, in order to get much more integrated travel and to achieve the goal of getting people to transfer from road to rail, rather than from rail to road.

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new post and point out that, having been there for 10 months, I am now the veteran Minister in the Department for Transport. The price of a regulated fare in Britain is now 2 per cent. lower in real terms than it was 10 years ago. As for innovative ways to get people on to trains, she will be aware that South West Trains has instituted the so-called Megatrain fares scheme that enables people to buy tickets at very low prices. I do not believe that we should change the current structure of the franchising system: there has been enough change in the industry over the past 10 or 15 years, and the system is delivering for passengers.

I welcome the whole ministerial team to their roles. Will the Minister tell us what representations he received from South West Trains about the impact on fares when the DFT set the franchise premium payments up to 2014? Has he made any estimation of how much fares will have to increase to fund the increased premium payments set by his Department?

In welcoming the hon. Lady to her new position as shadow Transport Secretary, I express the hope that she will not go down the cul-de-sac pursued by her predecessor in suggesting that as long as there is a public subsidy to train operating companies all is well and good but that we should never allow a premium to be paid by train operating companies back to the public purse. South West Trains made the Department aware that some off-peak, unregulated fares would have a higher than inflation increase, but even if the company had not told us that, the fact is that as the fares are unregulated we would not be in a position to change its mind. Unregulated fares do exactly what it says on the tin.

Is not the reality that the Minister and his Department are responsible for ratcheting up fares because of the ever-increasing premium payments they demand from train operating companies? South West Trains will be paying almost £250 million a year in premium payments by 2014. In total, the five highest value franchises will be paying well over £1 billion in premium payments by 2014—a more than tenfold increase. Is not the Secretary of State using the franchise system to price people off the railways to deal with the overcrowding problems that the Government have wholly failed to tackle?

The hon. Lady has clearly decided at an early stage to ignore my advice. However, as I told her predecessor, the Department for Transport at no point specifies any level of premium, or indeed any level of subsidy. If the hon. Lady is to stay in her post for any length of time, it may help her to become slightly more informed about the franchising process. I and my officials would be more than happy to meet her and talk her all the way through the process from the early points, so that she can understand exactly how a franchise is let.

Road Infrastructure (North-West)

The north-west will receive £345 million over the next three years for local authority road and public transport projects and Highways Agency major schemes. We will continue to take advice from the region on how investment should be prioritised.

Is the Minister aware that the letter from the previous Under-Secretary in her Department to me and others relating to the south-east Manchester multi-modal recommendation has created immense anger among all local authorities—Labour, Liberal and Conservative—in Cheshire, Macclesfield and Greater Manchester? It really is about time that areas such as Cheshire and Macclesfield, as well as Greater Manchester, had a fairer distribution of money for road improvements up to 2022. Will the Minister receive a delegation from me, including Members from all parties, to discuss the matter?

I have read the letter that the Under-Secretary sent to Members of Parliament in which the offer was made that a meeting would be arranged with local councils and Department for Transport officials. I believe that meeting will be on 23 July. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) has already approached me about meeting a delegation of MPs and I am more than happy to do so, but I suggest that we wait until after the meeting on Monday, in order to see what is resolved there.

I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to her new job, and I very much welcome the offer she has made to meet all Members of Parliament with an interest in the SEMMS relief road. Will she consider all the options for progressing the road, which is vital to relieving congestion on the A6 in my constituency, including building part or all of it as a toll road?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we are certainly committed to working in close collaboration with the local authorities to look at all the possible funding options. As I said, when the meeting on Monday has taken place, we should sit down and look at the various proposals. I understand her point about toll roads. I hope that we will be able to take this matter forward. As I am sure all right hon. and hon. Members are aware, the cost of the scheme has escalated—looking at some of the funding options—up to £1 billion. We have to recognise that we need to explore the different options very closely.

Is the Minister aware that the recommendations by the regional authorities have caused my constituents great anger? They mean that we have very little infrastructure investment in county roads such as the A34, which runs from Manchester and is a major commuter road south through Congleton to Stoke-on-Trent. When the long-overdue Alderley Edge bypass is completed, that will merely decant vast amounts of traffic into areas in and around the town of Congleton. When are we going to get a bypass, and when will some money be spent in rural areas, rather than just in the large metropolitan areas?

It is important to recognise that the north-west region has a 10-year regional funding allocation of £1.245 billion, and that local transport funding has doubled in the past seven years. However, it is also important to recognise that the Department takes advice from the region about the region’s priorities, which is the right approach. We will continue discussions, but it is important to remember that that is the principle on which we work.

The Minister will be aware that the north-west has enjoyed unprecedented growth over the past 10 years, yet still lags behind the national average. One of the reasons for that is our poor road infrastructure. May I invite the Minister to meet the Northwest Development Agency and see all the plans that we have in the north-west, and—I hope—put some more money into our infrastructure, so that we can have economic growth at the same level as the rest of the country?

My hon. Friend is right to say that transport infrastructure is an important part of economic growth, particularly at the regional level. I thank him for his kind invitation. I would be more than happy to meet him, and perhaps the regional development agency, to discuss some of the issues that are clearly of such great interest to Members.

Road Safety

8. What plans she has for measures to reduce the number and severity of injuries arising from collisions between vehicles and pedestrians. (149834)

The Government, local authorities and road safety organisations are working to reduce pedestrian casualties through education, engineering and enforcement. From October 2005, passenger cars and light vans are required to provide protection for pedestrians in their design. This is the first legislation of its kind. A second stage of requirements will apply from 2010.

The Government are to be congratulated on their part in the recent ban on the manufacture and sale of bull bars—what the Americans call killer grilles—the macho fashion accessories that concentrate and multiply the force of an accident at the level of a child’s head and vital organs. However, being a pedestrian is still twice as dangerous as travelling in a car. Have the Government any more plans to restrict the use of very heavy vehicles, particularly those with non-flexible fronts?

May I return the compliment and congratulate my hon. Friend on the campaigning he has done on this issue over a considerable time? The Government are serious about improving the safety of pedestrians and we made a significant contribution to the development of the European legislation that he mentioned, including the personal protection directive of 2003, the frontal protection systems directive of 2005, and the second phase of the personal protection directive of 2003, which will be introduced in 2010. My hon. Friend has contributed to ensuring that from 25 May 2007, new vehicles have had to be fitted with a frontal protection system approved under the directive, and that from the same date, any frontal protection system offered for sale as an accessory must be approved and carry an approval mark. We will continue to monitor these issues.

Does the Minister agree that one of the most effective ways of reducing the number and severity of injuries is to reduce the default speed limit on lit urban roads to 20 mph?

That is an issue for local authorities to decide. We have given them the power to introduce reduced speed limits in areas where that is appropriate. The hon. Gentleman is well aware that the Government set out their road safety strategy in 2000 and indicated their targets for reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured by 2010, so it is lower than the average figures for 1994 to 1998. We are well on our way to meeting those targets, but we should not be complacent, because there are some differences in scale. We need to make sure that we press for a reduction in that number, and the speed restrictions that the hon. Gentleman requests can certainly play a part in our campaign.

Port Security

My Department works with the ports industry in implementing the international ship and port facility security code, which came into force in 2004. The code introduced new requirements, under which port facilities and ships must work to security plans, which set out the response measures that are to be taken in normal, heightened and exceptional security situations.

I am very interested in the right hon. Lady’s response. Over the past few years, I have made it my business to visit a number of ports and consider their security. When I went to the extremely vulnerable port of Holyhead, I was particularly surprised to find that there were no Border and Immigration Agency or customs and excise officers present, and special branch officers were having to deputise for both. Why was that?

I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done on this subject. I know that he is interested not just in port security, but in the security of our borders more generally, and it is right for me to acknowledge that work in the House. I hope that he will acknowledge that since 2004 security at ports has improved significantly. We monitor security at ports, but they are also independently audited by the EU. Since its last audit, it has said that results have been positive. However, if the hon. Gentleman says that it was not evident what was being done at a particular port, I will take it upon myself to go and examine the situation, or to make sure that it is examined. I will report back to him in writing with my findings.

Is it not time that this country unified not only Customs and Excise, but the police forces responsible for aviation and those responsible for ports, and created a proper security system, capable of resisting the real threats posed to this country by terrorism?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. It is absolutely right that we work together across Government to protect our borders in the most effective way possible. She will have followed closely the latest reorganisation of the Home Office, which means that it can concentrate on counter-terrorism. My Department, which has responsibility for transport, co-operates extremely closely with Home Office officials. On the front line, under the border management programme, we are making sure that the police, the Border and Immigration Agency, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and UKvisas work together to share information appropriately, and take action in specific locations as required. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that that is a serious step forward in making sure that our borders are secure, because protecting our citizens must be one of the most fundamental duties of any Government.

The Government are in denial on that point, and the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) are absolutely correct. Is Project Cyclamen now working in all our container ports 24 hours a day? If not, why not?

I have already set out how the security of our ports is enforced and audited, and the results are broadly positive. Clearly, the extent of the security measures taken at any port will depend on the threat level, and it will be determined accordingly—

As my hon. Friend has particularly mentioned Project Cyclamen, I will establish what the state of play is on that.