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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 468: debated on Tuesday 4 December 2007


The Secretary of State was asked—

London Bridge Station

1. What assessment she has made of the likely effect of Thameslink construction works on the ability of London Bridge station to handle trains terminating from south London suburban lines. (170384)

The final phase of Thameslink construction will involve complete remodelling of the track and platform layout at London Bridge. We are working with Network Rail to ensure that inconvenience to passengers is kept to a minimum while the works proceed.

Does the Minister agree that the building of phase 2 of the East London line would be helpful in ensuring that passengers going to the City who currently have to go into London Bridge, with the associated disruption, could use the East London line as an alternative? Does he consider that project to be good value for money, and will his Government support it financially?

The hon. Gentleman will, of course, know that phase 2 of the East London line is a matter for Transport for London. He is right to say that the line might provide some assistance for passengers otherwise inconvenienced by the work going on at London Bridge. However, there are alternatives that might provide the same kind of relief for passengers using London Bridge during the construction period. He will have to be patient, because in April next year Network Rail’s route utilisation strategy for south London will be published. That will contain a list of all the options, and I am sure that the one that he mentions will be given due attention by Network Rail and by the Government.

My constituents welcome the commitment to rail demonstrated by the Minister and his colleagues, as delivered by First Capital Connect and advocated by Bedford commuters association, which welcomes the start of the Thameslink project, with developments such as the one at Luton Airport Parkway station. It welcomes the promised extra trains that will be delivered—

That is understandable, but a supplementary question must be brief, and this is a little speech. Perhaps the Minister will answer the hon. Gentleman.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. Thameslink is a vital part of the high-level output specification that we announced in July, with £5.5 billion going towards a project that some suggested might never happen. It is happening, it is being built, and by 2015 it will have been completed, under this Government.

As the Minister is considering construction works in south London, will he confirm that he knew that the five international platforms at Waterloo station were due to be released at least five years ago—

Order. I apologise—I should have stopped the hon. Gentleman sooner. That has nothing to do with the question before us.

Victoria overground station—[Interruption]is also likely to be subject to major overhaul in the years ahead. Will the Minister personally ensure that the essential maintenance programme is properly phased, because presumably a lot of London Bridge traffic—[Interruption]will otherwise have to go to Victoria and Charing Cross?

That was nicely done, Mr. Speaker.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that in planning the works Network Rail will make great efforts to avoid the inconvenience that he mentions. I cannot undertake that I will ensure personally that that happens; Ministers are not best placed to make such provision. However, he is right to say that lines to Victoria will be subject to some inconvenience and disruption during the Thameslink construction, and it is up to Network Rail to minimise that wherever possible.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the disruption caused to south London suburban services by the Thameslink construction programme will be avoided only if phase 2 of the East London line is built first, freeing up badly needed platform space at London Bridge? Will he meet me and other south London MPs to consider a proposition that would be in everybody’s interests?

As my hon. Friend knows, my door is always open—but I would correct him in at least one respect. The completion of phase 2B of the East London link is not the only way of relieving pressure on London Bridge during construction. As I said, the options for what Network Rail can do will be set out in the route utilisation strategy to be published next spring. The funding of the East London line, while a matter for Transport for London, will of course be considered as part of that strategy if it is seen that the construction of that phase would have a beneficial financial impact on works that would otherwise be funded by the Department for Transport.

Given that the route utilisation strategy consultation is due some time next year, one begins to wonder how many endless consultation processes we will have to go through. This process is called Thameslink 2000; it is now 2007. Will the Minister ensure that the consultation process does not lead to the programme being put into the sidings?

My first ministerial decision on taking office was to rename Thameslink 2000 as Thameslink. The hon. Gentleman is perhaps getting confused between consultation on two different issues. The consultation currently under way is the one on Network Rail’s route utilisation strategy. However, Thameslink is now being built. It is going ahead and will be fully funded in the next control period between 2009 and 2014.

The Thameslink development, the lengthening of platforms and the increasing of the electricity supply to increase capacity on the Southeastern network is very welcome in my constituency. When my hon. Friend is considering the route utilisation strategy, will he remember that south-east London is not served by the London underground? That means that there is a heavy reliance on overground rail services for commuters into central London. When he is considering the outcome of that process and the number of trains that might be serving central London, will he also consider that issue for people in south-east London?

My hon. Friend is correct, which is why the route utilisation strategy and the consultation process under way at the moment are so important to his constituents and those of many other hon. Members.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions

2. What contribution her Department is making to the Government’s strategy for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. (170385)

Transport has a vital role to play in supporting sustainable economic growth, but it is clear that it must also play its full part in the UK’s overall framework for reducing carbon emissions. That is why we are investing record amounts in public transport, providing people with better information about their travel choices, making fuels cleaner and vehicles more efficient, and leading the argument in Europe for including aviation in emissions trading.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for putting that on the record, as the Department is seldom given the credit it deserves for what it is doing to reduce carbon dioxide. Does she agree that measures that win public support are most likely to be effective? The measures that she is considering, such as introducing aviation into the emissions trading scheme, and the renewable transport fuel obligation, are far more likely to succeed than banning people from taking holiday flights and making them pay to park in supermarket car parks, which are the proposals coming from the Conservatives.

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. It sometimes seems to me that the Conservative party is torn irrevocably in two different directions, and cannot choose between the two. He is right to point to policies such as the renewable transport fuels obligation, which, I can inform the House, make up nearly a quarter of the CO2 savings in the Government’s climate change objectives. I am clear about the scope to go further, and that is why the Department recently published a response to Eddington and Stern, which sets out the progress that I hope we can make.

But will the Secretary of State get a bit radical? Does she realise that unnecessary emissions are caused when a vehicle has to stop unnecessarily? Why does she not trial some of the schemes in force in the United States of America, where vehicles are allowed to turn on a red signal—over here, we would allow a left turn—and consider other schemes whereby during non-rush hour periods, traffic lights do not go to red unnecessarily but flash amber in all directions?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is referring not to the report by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) on economic competitiveness, but that of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) on the environment, which illustrates how torn the Conservative party is. Of course, we are prepared to listen to constructive suggestions on all the issues, but to return to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), it is important that we are able to convince people that credible propositions are in place that are likely to succeed in reducing CO2 emissions.

We all want to reduce carbon emissions, and we have to balance that with the importance of air travel to regional economies. Would my right hon. Friend consider making the air route between Durham Tees Valley and Heathrow airports a public service obligation route to protect the prosperity of the north-east?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on championing the cause of his constituents. It is important that we maintain and revitalise regional air services in the UK economy, which is one of the reasons why, provided that the strict local environmental conditions are met, the Government support in principle the third runway at Heathrow airport. If we have more capacity at Heathrow to serve more regional destinations, it should become possible to re-energise local and regional economies.

In view of Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot’s recent announcement on tracking containers, why have the Government chosen to exclude imports from the Climate Change Bill? Does the Secretary of State realise that goods travelling much of their journey to the UK by lorry have a much higher carbon footprint than those that travel the whole way by sea?

Of course it is right that we take any action that reduces CO2 emissions in a way that is cost-effective and delivers the maximum CO2 reductions consistent with economic growth. The Climate Change Bill, which is the UK’s framework for delivering substantial reductions in CO2 emissions—at least 60 per cent.—considers domestically sourced CO2. Of course there is an argument about how we treat imports, international aviation emissions and emissions that are not domestically sourced, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we are leading the debate in Europe and beyond.

Bus Services

3. What plans she has to enable the public to have greater involvement in making decisions about local bus services. (170386)

Today I have published a consultation paper, “Options for strengthening bus passenger representation”, covering England. This follows our earlier commitment to consult on ways to ensure that bus users have their say when key decisions are being made, and to provide a more influential voice for bus passengers.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that, but will she ensure that when local authorities and local bus service providers such as Centro in Birmingham make rescheduling announcements, pensioners who rely on those services do not find them drastically cut at the stroke of a pen, and that clear consultation is put in place instead?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight some of the problems in his constituency. People feel strongly if a bus service is suddenly taken away, particularly if they have not been consulted. One of the options for our new bus champion body would be the ability to conduct research into what people want from their bus services and what they get from them. If necessary, the process can be about naming and shaming operators that do not meet the public’s expectations. That is what passengers want to see.

The Minister will be aware that one of the issues causing consternation to users of bus services in rural areas is the break-up of routes following the community drivers regulations. In a debate in the other place on 19 June, the Minister’s noble Friend Lord Bassam invited representatives of rural bus companies to meet officials to discuss the issue. Has that meeting taken place, and if not, when is it likely to do so?

I had a meeting with some of the coach operators and smaller bus companies in which we discussed that issue. One of the problems is that when the legislation was going through, representations were not made and evidence was not forthcoming about some of the potential problems down the road. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) has also taken an interest in the matter. We have to bear it in mind that there is a safety issue, too, which is about carrying passengers, sometimes on quite long routes. We have to achieve a balance between ensuring that safety is properly covered and the need of operators to run those routes.

Is not the best way to get the public involved through the local democratic process? In particular, would it not be better if decisions on quality contracts under the new Local Transport Bill were made by locally elected councillors, rather than a quango composed of transport commissioners?

Perhaps it would be helpful if I explained the process that we would expect any approvals board to go through. We would want local authorities to carry out a consultation and make a properly costed proposal on how they wanted to put together a quality contract. It would then be for the approvals board to ensure that those costings were correct, that the consultation had been carried out and that the scheme was going to work. That will provide local authorities with greater certainty that they will not be judicially reviewed, and operators with the knowledge that the scheme has been properly considered before it goes ahead.

My constituents have made clear their position on the concessionary fares scheme. We have a problem because of our geography, in that many of my constituents need to travel across the border into Wales. I have tried to make my constituents’ views clear to the Welsh Assembly Government, but having received a somewhat unenthusiastic letter from the Deputy First Minister, I would welcome the Minister’s support, working with colleagues in the devolved Administrations, for making the concessionary fares scheme work more smoothly across the UK’s internal borders.

I certainly hope that we can ensure that the concessionary fares scheme works smoothly. I have to say that it has been greatly welcomed among elderly people and people with disabilities. It will operate at a cost of about £1 billion a year. It is running now at the local level and it will be extended to the national level from April. Of course we want to see the scheme operating properly across the borders.

Does the Minister agree that such plans should be capable of being implemented as speedily as possible, should be meaningful and capable of delivering what local people want, and should be designed so that those local people cannot be unreasonably frustrated by appeals and recourse to judicial review by bus operators?

I assume that my hon. Friend is talking about the quality contracts scheme as opposed to the concessionary fares scheme. I absolutely agree, which is why we have tried to ensure that our approvals board is established to avoid difficulties and secure greater certainty—we can never reach complete certainty, but we can at least bring about greater certainty—for local authorities that proposals have been through an independent process and can proceed as quickly as possible. Local authorities need that certainty, and where bus operators may be withdrawing services from an entire area because they cannot meet a contract, we also need certainty that the proposals have been through an independent process.

Does the Minister realise the effect that the so-called 50 km rule is having on the provision of bus services, particularly in rural areas? In some cases, routes are being segmented, resulting in increased cost and inconvenience to passengers; and in other cases, routes may be axed altogether. Clearly, this is not a safety issue, because in order to comply, it is possible to change the passengers but not the driver. Will the Minister apply, as Finland has already, for a derogation to restore some sanity in this area?

As I said earlier, I have had discussions with operators about this issue. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town is having further discussions. Those issues were not raised when this was going through the directive process, and it is important to remember that this is about ensuring the safety of passengers as well as working conditions for drivers. Those should be put together, as the decision has been taken to make longer journeys safer for drivers and also for passengers. We should bear that in mind when we hear the hon. Gentleman saying that we should do away with it all.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that bus wars have broken out in Preston, with Stagecoach trying to muscle in on the town’s profitable routes. We are seeing races down the road and jostling for position at stops, which is putting passengers at risk. Would the Minister be willing to visit Preston to meet local authorities and representatives to discuss the situation? I am afraid that there will be injuries, and possibly even a death, if things carry on as they are.

I know that my hon. Friend has been extremely concerned about this matter. He raised it in an Adjournment debate last week, to which the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town, replied. I met the owner of Stagecoach recently and, having heard the representations of my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick), I made clear my concerns about the situation. I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware that the traffic commissioner has taken a strong interest in this issue and has taken the decision to convene a public inquiry into Stagecoach’s behaviour, which will start within the next two weeks. I will certainly keep in touch with my hon. Friend about this matter, and I would, of course, like to visit his constituency. It is also important to ensure that Lancashire county council, as the transport authority, is involved, in order to try to resolve what is clearly a very difficult situation.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that local authorities and members of the community have the right to scrutinise bus companies’ accounts? I ask that because, like all of us, I want to ensure that the routes being subsidised are the routes that people need most, even if they are less profitable, and it has been suggested that subsidy is being put into profitable routes so that shareholders get a dividend.

I suggest that my hon. Friend respond to our consultation document, which deals with what the new body that we are establishing may be able to do. I imagine that some of the companies’ accounts are in the public domain, although some may of course be commercially confidential. My hon. Friend may wish to suggest, in response to our document, a method of making it more obvious where money is being spent and where routes are not being run.

Lewes-Uckfield Line

4. If she will make it her policy to support the reopening of the Lewes-Uckfield railway line. (170387)

Reopening regional or rural lines will not normally be the most effective way of delivering the capacity increases that, as the rail White Paper explained, are our priority. I nevertheless remain willing to consider any reopening proposal that is supported by a proper business case and can be funded privately.

I am grateful for the Minister’s supportive comments here and elsewhere. He will know that a strong cross-party campaign, backed by a professional board including members of Network Rail, wants the line to be reopened. Can he guarantee that if a business case is produced—and I accept the need for that—he will look sympathetically at the possibility of providing funds? Sometimes it seems that it is easy to obtain funds for new roads, but not funds for new railways.

I can certainly guarantee that we will look at the business case. Capital costs would have to be met entirely by the private sector, but as well as the private investment that would be needed for the rebuilding of the route, extra finance might be required to enable trains to run along it, in which case the Department would have to step in and decide whether there was a value-for-money case for those services. If a robust business case is supplied, however, I shall be more than happy to consider it, and ensure that my officials give it a fair hearing.

A strong argument in favour of reopening the link is the increased popularity of the existing service to Uckfield, but one of the consequences of that increased popularity is that hundreds of cars are being parked every day, very inconsiderately, in residential areas because of the lack of parking at the local stations. Will the Minister work with councils and the appropriate rail authorities to see how the problem can be addressed?

There is indeed a growing problem with car parking at Uckfield, complicated by the fact that existing land owned by BRB (Residuary) has been tied up in a five-year development plan of which only one year has elapsed. However, if the council is willing to re-examine a policy that, I understand, restricts access by cars to any feasible car park on the site from the high street, it may be possible to find a way of making progress on this important issue.

Concessionary Bus Travel

5. What steps her Department is taking to raise awareness of the entitlement to concessionary bus travel. (170388)

The Department for Transport will deliver a national publicity campaign, which will start in the new year. We will also provide travel concession authorities with a comprehensive communications toolkit, containing resources that can be adapted for local needs and including advertising material.

I am grateful for that response, especially as a member of the Public Bill Committee that aimed to ensure that the concessionary bus fare scheme would operate nationwide. In Crawley a good Labour council has provided the constituency with a concessionary scheme for decades, but will now be able to offer something far beyond the boundary. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important for people to know that that will be happening very soon?

I entirely agree. We must ensure that the message reaches everyone who is entitled to use the new passes. I congratulate my hon. Friend’s local authority on the service that it has delivered until now, and I am sure that the whole House looks forward to the start of the nationwide scheme next year.

Is the Minister aware of the problem of who will pay for concessionary fares in tourist areas such as that governed by Harrogate borough council, part of which falls within Vale of York? The council will potentially be left with a shortfall of £1 million. Where is it supposed to find that money, which corresponds to a 10 per cent. increase in council tax?

We are aware that a number of local authorities are saying that they cannot afford the scheme. However, the Department’s calculations of the amounts that each local authority will receive have been generous, based on assumptions of take-up set against experience of the take-up of existing local schemes elsewhere. Additionally, the Department will supply £212 million next year, on top of the Government grants for the scheme locally, to make sure that all travel concession authorities will be able to ensure that the scheme is available to its residents.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that local newspapers, such as the Chorley Guardian, the Lancashire Evening Post and the Chorley Citizen, carry the adverts, because as older people read local newspapers, that will be a good way of clearly getting across the message that this Government have provided the concessionary travel?

I am sure that my hon. Friend’s local newspapers will carry his mention of their titles in their copy next week, and that will assist in getting the message across. We have built into the grants to local authorities an element of local communications funding, and it is to be hoped that the local travel authorities will be able to take advantage of that.

But as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) pointed out, the Government’s concessionary scheme does have some malign consequences. In Bromsgrove, for example, the local council has offered free parking to disabled and pensioner citizens, but that has now been put in jeopardy by the cost of the new national concessionary scheme. What do the Government think is better: local determination of transport priorities or their own national schemes?

Travel concession authorities can appeal in a number of ways if they are unhappy with the way in which the scheme is likely to be introduced in their area. There has always been discretion for travel concession authorities to offer a scheme different from the national one. What we are introducing next year, with hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, is a de minimis scheme that will apply right across the country for all pensioners and for most disabled people. This is a huge step forward for people right across the UK.

Railway Safety

6. What assessment her Department has made of the impact on railway safety of deforestation on chalk railway cuttings. (170389)

As my hon. Friend knows, this is a matter for Network Rail, which tells me that the company’s practice is to clear trees where they might endanger or delay trains.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the work of Professor Rory Mortimore of the university of Brighton, an international expert on geotechnical matters? In his report relating to my constituency he claims, with a lot of evidence, that because of the limestone structure of the cuttings, this could lead to dangerous slippages. Is the safety of passengers not a matter for my hon. Friend’s concern?

I am aware of the professor’s report; my hon. Friend supplied a copy of it to me during a meeting with her and her constituents, who have expressed concern about this issue. She should be aware—Network Rail has informed me about this—that the part of the cutting in question has been without vegetation for long periods in the past without the consequent slippages that she fears. However, although it is ultimately up to Network Rail, as a private company, to decide how to deal with this matter, I understand that it will have a meeting with her and her constituents later today to try to come to agreement on a way forward. It is incumbent on Network Rail to consult local residents where there is concern about such procedures. However, it is also incumbent on Network Rail to make sure that the railway is safeguarded and is free from the risk of such slippages. I would trust Network Rail to use its own scientific advice to come to the appropriate conclusions.

Concessionary Bus Travel

7. What estimate she has made of the costs of the national concessionary bus travel scheme for 2008-09. (170390)

I could refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago. However, in case he was unable to hear that, let me tell him that the Government are providing local authorities in England with an extra £212 million next year for the national bus concession in England. This extra funding is based on generous assumptions about the probable cost impact of the new concession, and we are confident that it will be sufficient in total.

But what the Minister calls generous funding is actually less than the rate of inflation, when the operating costs of bus companies are rising by more than that, so is this not just another example of a scheme whereby the Government get the local council tax payer to fund one of their announcements?

We know that some local authorities are claiming credit for the introduction of this scheme and not giving any credit to Government. We are proud of the amount of money that we are giving, which, as I mentioned, is £212 million this year—it will be £217 million next year and £223 million the year after. Bus operators have the opportunity to appeal if they are not satisfied. So many more people are using buses as a result of our transport policies, and we regard that as a success.

Would the Minister care to congratulate Conservative-controlled Kettering borough council—of which I am proud to be a member—which is going to build on the Government scheme and ensure concessionary travel for pensioners at peak times too? [Interruption.]

I am being encouraged by Labour Members not to congratulate the hon. Gentleman’s Conservative local authority, but that would be ungracious, so I congratulate him and his local authority. As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), who is not in her place, some travel concession authorities provide more than the minimum scheme that we are introducing; but that minimum scheme is a big step forward on what went before.

The Minister is big enough to deal with matters, and I am delighted that he congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone). Will he deal with the question of rural areas and remote villages, where sadly there is little, if any, public transport? How can people in those villages, who often live on their pension or on a very low income, take advantage of this scheme, which I applaud? [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) knows that I applaud anything good, even if it is introduced by the Labour Government. What will the Minister do for people in rural areas where there is little or no public transport?

The hon. Gentleman is being kind and generous enough to welcome what is being introduced in the Local Transport Bill. We have been doing what we can to support rural communities and rural bus services, and the Bill will deliver even more.

Order. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) is a newer Member of the House, but when a question is put he should remain within the Chamber at least until we get to the next one. He is not the only offender I have had to pull up a few over the years.

The Minister will, of course, remember that the principle of concessionary travel enjoyed support across the whole House. The key point was how it was to be funded. The trouble is that the Government’s sums simply do not add up. The level of increases in extra funding that he is proposing are less than inflation, and he will have received many representations from councils telling him that they will face deficits as a result of the scheme over the next two to three years. For example, Southampton city council estimates a deficit of £1.5 million—before a delayed appeal; the council is reimbursing at 67p in the pound and the operating company seeks 74p. All that will happen in a number of the scheme areas, because the Government have underfunded this, is that council tax will increase by more than 10 per cent.

That is the second time that that figure has been mentioned. Obviously it is a line that has been produced for these questions. As I have said, we are confident that our calculations on the amount of money needed to support the scheme will be more than adequate, and an announcement will be made shortly.

8. If she will ensure that the free bus fare scheme to be introduced in April 2008 will include scheduled community transport dial-a-bus and dial-a-ride schemes. (170391)

The national bus concession will be available on all eligible, registered local bus services, which can include some—but will include by no means all—community type transport services, for example, services that are provided under a section 22 permit, charge a fare and are open to the general public.

I think that I welcome that answer. The free local bus scheme has been wonderfully effective in our area, and we are looking forward to the national scheme. Will the Minister meet me and other colleagues to prevent the apparent anomaly that someone who is entitled to use the free national bus pass but who cannot do so because they physically cannot get on those buses may not be able to use it on a community transport bus service? Will she confirm that in an area such as Derbyshire, where the community bus services are scheduled, regular and responsive to demand, such people will be eligible to use the national concessionary bus fare?

I would certainly welcome a meeting with my hon. Friend and her constituents to explain the issue. If a community transport service is restricted to a particular group of people—perhaps people with disabilities or elderly people—it would not be eligible under the concessionary fares scheme. However, other community transport schemes are eligible, such as those in rural areas that are demand-responsive so that someone can be picked up at a particular time. Many dial-a-ride services operate in that way.

I think that I share the puzzlement of the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber): we are not sure that the Minister’s reply is the one that we want to hear. In my area, the Mendip community transport scheme will cease operation next year, apparently because of a lack of funding. That scheme is the only option for many people who have no access to other public transport because it is a very rural area. A concessionary fare scheme is useless without a bus to ride on, so it would be helpful if the scheme applied to community transport schemes of that kind. I ask the Minister to look into that.

I am, of course, prepared to look into that. However, I re-emphasise that the changes to be introduced in April will not change the eligibility, so I am not clear why the hon. Gentleman thinks that the bus service will stop because of the new scheme. If a community transport service is open to the wider public, it can participate in the concessionary fare scheme. The Local Transport Bill will make changes that will make it easier for community transport services to operate by, for example, allowing the payment of drivers, which has been widely welcomed by the Community Transport Association because it will make it easier to run the type of services that we are talking about.

Quality Contracts

The proposals in the Local Transport Bill aim to make quality contracts a more realistic option for local transport authorities by replacing the “only practicable way” test with a new set of public interest criteria.

I welcome that comment, because locally elected integrated transport authorities should be able to choose whether to introduce quality contracts in their area. I wish to press the Minister on the role of the approvals boards, which have been mentioned already. Can she confirm that it will be the job of the approvals board to ensure that transport authorities have gone through the proper process in reaching a decision to introduce quality contracts? Those unelected approvals boards should not have a right of veto simply because they happen to disagree with the decision reached by elected local representatives on the transport authorities that quality contracts are the right approach for bus services in their area.

I shall explain how we see the composition of an approvals board. It will include the traffic commissioner, a transport expert from the area and a transport economist. The idea is that the approvals board will ensure that the local authority has gone through the proper process of consultation, but in addition the approvals board process will ensure that the scheme will work in practice, that the economics add up and that it is a viable service for the local area. It is about providing more certainty for local authorities that their decisions will not be judicially reviewed—although that cannot always be guaranteed—and for operators that a new scheme has been subject to independent scrutiny and is likely to operate efficiently.

Railway Overcrowding

Existing and future demand for rail travel was assessed in preparing the rail White Paper that was published in July. It was that assessment, and the associated need to tackle existing and potential overcrowding, that led to the capacity enhancements specified in the White Paper.

Several times in recent weeks, I have been delayed, squashed, boiled or left standing on the train between Cheltenham and London—an experience that is both common and expensive for many of our rail users. Will the Minister report progress on practical steps, such as the redoubling of the line between Swindon and Kemble, that might improve the situation?

Of course I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s experience, which is shared by many people commuting into London and the larger conurbations around the country, but the Government have committed to invest £15 billion in our railways in the five years between 2009 and 2014. If he wants to hear about practical measures, I can tell him that a rolling stock plan will be published early next year, and that 1,300 new carriages will be rolled out over that five-year period. Depending on the industry’s response, I hope that his constituents and the line to which he referred will benefit from that investment.

Topical Questions

I am delighted to answer. My Department has recently begun a major consultation on the expansion of Heathrow airport, subject of course to strict environmental limits. It has also invited bids for a new fleet of inter-city express trains. Later this week, I shall meet the US Transportation Secretary to discuss a range of transport issues.

What account has been taken of massive Government-imposed house building in the planning of train capacity in towns such as Leighton Buzzard, where the trains are already full?

I hope that is a sign that the hon. Gentleman and his party now support the Government in our attempt to build the houses that first-time buyers so desperately need. Given my experience at the Department for Communities and Local Government and now at the Department for Transport, I can assure him that the two Departments are joined at the hip when it comes to planning for more houses for first-time buyers. It is essential that we build sufficient capacity so that people can travel by train, road, bus or however they want to move around. In that way, we can meet the needs of a growing population, and of those who will live in the houses yet to be built.

T2. Will the Secretary of State explain why there are five mothballed platforms on the redundant Eurostar lines out of Waterloo, at a time when my constituents who commute into London from Bracknell are finding conditions so bad and overcrowded? When is she going to do something about that? (170375)

I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman does not know that the property will become available to the Government only in March 2008, or that there will be a substantial infrastructure cost after that date as we remodel the railway to accommodate more domestic rail services. However, the ultimate answer to his question is that we have to invest in capacity. That is why the rail White Paper—which his party unfortunately did not welcome when it was published—proposes that an extra £10 billion be invested in additional capacity on our railways.

Has the Secretary of State been briefed by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), about the public commitment given on television last May to me and to my hon. Friends the Members for Basildon (Angela E. Smith) and for Dartford (Dr. Stoate)? We were told by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), who was then a Transport Minister, that following statutory consultation our constituents would be given a reduction of 90 per cent. on the Dartford toll. Not unreasonably, folk are beginning to ask when the Government will deliver on that commitment. Discuss.

As it happens, that is something that I have been discussing recently. I can assure my hon. Friend that I have been looking at a number of the options for the fulfilment of that commitment. We will issue a consultation paper very shortly.

Why has the Secretary of State not been prepared to defend in Parliament her plans for the expansion of Heathrow? That is the third time that she has made what she has claimed to be an important announcement away from the Dispatch Box. Is she simply running scared of answering to MPs who represent people under the flight path, and will she explain why she is proposing to disregard her Department’s own report on noise?

I am happy to come to the House at any time to talk about the importance of aviation expansion. Heathrow is subject to strict local environmental conditions. The hon. Lady must know as well as any other Member that our policy was set out in the 2003 air transport White Paper, which supported in principle a third runway at Heathrow, as well as a second runway at Stansted, subject to the strict local environmental conditions being met. Last week, or the week before, we published a rigorous scientific assessment of how those local environmental conditions might be met in certain circumstances. An oral statement is not normally made in such situations; however a written statement was laid in the House, and as the hon. Lady can see I am happy to discuss the issue on any occasion—unlike the hon. Lady, whose policy on it is not actually clear.

We believe that four key environmental tests must be met before any Government can take a responsible decision on the future of Heathrow. When the Secretary of State’s predecessor gave the go-ahead for T5 he stood at the Dispatch Box—at least he turned up here—and promised that flight numbers would be capped at 480,000. Will the Secretary of State admit that thousands who have to live with aircraft noise on a daily basis will feel wholly misled by that statement, which she is consigning to history before T5 is even open for business? Will she confirm that her consultation document contains no clear or credible guarantees on capping the number of flights at Heathrow? Is not the whole consultation a sham, because—

Order. Topical questions are for the benefit of Back Benchers, so I expect only one supplementary from Front Benchers, or two when there is an allocation, but the hon. Lady had about five in there somewhere. The Secretary of State should answer just one supplementary.

I am disappointed not to be given full rein, because I was trying to work out what the policy of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) was—to back or to oppose the third runway, in principle. If she wants to stand up and tell us whether she is backing her right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), or indeed—

T5. I just want to talk rubbish for a moment, if that is okay—[Laughter.]rubbish on the trains. Far too many commuter trains do not have enough capacity for collecting rubbish, so many people throw it out of the window and train companies never pick it up. On inter-city trains, rubbish is picked up at the end of the journey, but even though most of the rubbish is newspapers they are never recycled. Will the Minister write to the train companies to make sure that we have tidy railway lines across the whole country and that we recycle rubbish—even copies of The Times and the Evening Standard? (170378)

My hon. Friend knows that I have great respect for his tendency to be able to talk rubbish. He is right; litter can make train journeys far less enjoyable. I do not think it is necessarily the place of Transport Ministers to tell rail companies how to keep their trains tidy, but it is incumbent on the train operating companies to make sure that they do not lose their necessary lead as an environmentally friendly mode of transport. That applies not only to the energy and type of energy used to move the trains; it should also take account of the environment inside trains. My hon. Friend is absolutely correct.

T3. What can the Minister do to limit Network Rail’s unnecessary closures of rail lines for alleged engineering purposes? Does he agree that such closures can be excessive? For example, the line from Three Bridges to Lewes and Brighton was closed for an entire two-day period—a matter that I have been raising with Network Rail since last May although I have not yet received an answer. (170376)

The hon. Gentleman raises a valid concern. Network Rail’s intention is to move towards a seven-day railway, but that will not be possible while possession overruns continue. I was a victim only last month when I was forced to move from a Pendolino Virgin express at Wigan because of a Network Rail possession overrun. Having spoken in detail with Iain Coucher, the new chief executive of Network Rail, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there are plans to make sure that possession overruns do not occur or that, when they do occur, they are far less frequent, but he is right to raise that concern. We cannot move to a seven-day railway until possession overruns stop altogether.

T4. Midland Mainline, the excellent train operator that used to run through my constituency, recently lost the rail franchise and now we have East Midlands Trains. I presumed that we were going to get a better service, but what has happened? We have seen a 7 per cent. hike in fares—the highest in the country—a reduction in the number of trains from both Wellingborough and Kettering at peak times, and the abolition of seat reservations for season ticket holders. How will that encourage people to travel by rail? (170377)

All the patronage predictions for the service that the hon. Gentleman refers to show that over the next seven years there will be an increase in the number of people who want to use it. If he believes that the Government should be in a position to micro-manage the railways, to dictate fares to train operating companies—there is a price associated with that—and to dictate exactly where and when trains should stop, that is an interesting policy, but I suggest that he discuss it with his own Front-Bench team first, because they are absolutely opposed to it.

T6. To be topical, Christmas and New Year are supposed to be a season of joy and good will for all people, but the celebrations come to an abrupt halt for people who are the victims of drunk drivers, for the families of those people, and indeed for the drunk drivers themselves. What will the Government do this year to minimise the number of people who are killed and injured on the road by drunks who get behind the wheels of vehicles? (170380)

The Christmas drink-drive campaign was launched last week to continue to ram home the message that drinking and driving do not mix. The whole House will agree that, over the last 30 years, drinking and driving has become socially unacceptable. However, as my hon. Friend points out, there are still too many people dying as a result of alcohol-related crashes—some 540 last year. The police will breathalyse twice as many people this month compared with any other month. We are spending £1.6 million on the Christmas campaign. We had a special campaign in the summer, on which we spent £3 million, that focused on young male drivers in particular. We will do everything we can to get the message across that people ought not to drink and drive, particularly at Christmas. I am grateful to him for raising that question.

The consultation on Heathrow that started last week could result in nearly a doubling of the number of flights. The Department for Transport is setting up a number of public exhibitions, but both Ministers and civil servants have refused to attend a single public meeting. Will the Secretary of State please tell her Department that we live in a democracy, and that when 700 people are probably going to lose their homes and thousands of people their half day of peace, they deserve to have a face-to-face discussion and proper engagement with decision makers? Will she please instruct her Department to agree to come to the many public meetings that are offered?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on having a policy on Heathrow, unlike Conservative Members. At least we know where the Liberal Democrats stand: total and utter opposition to Heathrow—unfortunately with a devastating potential consequence for jobs and the UK economy. But she is right to say that we ought to have maximum public involvement, which is why we are writing to more than 200,000 local residents who might be affected by the changes. My hon. Friend the Aviation Minister has regularly been seeing many of the individuals and groups involved, to give them the opportunity to voice their opposition or put their concerns directly to him and have them addressed.

T7. Will the Secretary of State of confirm that she is aware that a third runway at Heathrow will require the biggest removal of people in this country in modern times, and that the community of Sipson will be wiped off the map? Whereabouts in her consultation paper does it suggest where those who are forcibly removed are going to live? (170381)

The Tories are so divided on Heathrow that they should call in ACAS. On the one hand, we hear total opposition, and on the other, the Front-Bench team talk about strict local environmental conditions—[Interruption.]

Order. I am not going to allow the Secretary of State to talk about what the Front-Bench team have in mind; this is about what the Secretary of State has in mind. These topical questions are for the benefit of Back Benchers.

T8. Is the Minister aware that Norfolk is a very isolated county, which relies on the key trunk roads to connect it to the motorway network? The A47, which connects King’s Lynn to Norwich in the east and to Peterborough in the west, is a very old road that is in bad need of upgrading. When are the Government going to give it the same priority as roads elsewhere in the country? (170382)

I understand that the project in question has been given priority for expenditure between 2011 and 2015 by the regional transport board in the hon. Gentleman’s area. Of course, if other projects drop out of the programme, it is possible that that will be brought forward. We set up the regional funding allocation because we want local politicians to make decisions for their area, and to advise the Department for Transport accordingly. It is better that local decisions be made locally, and it is not incumbent on Ministers to overturn those local decisions.

T9. . Does the Under-Secretary share my concerns about recent media reports that certain charter airlines are flying longer distances than is necessary on some routes to avoid more expensive airspace? Does that not have a bad effect on our need to cut carbon emissions? (170383)

My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of carbon emissions and aviation. We are leading the argument in Europe and internationally to try to include aviation emissions in trading schemes, so that we make sure that aviation pays the price for its contribution to damaging the environment. She mentions airlines that travel extraordinary distances to avoid paying some charges. That contributes to carbon emissions, and obviously it is not in line with what we would like.