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Topical Questions

Volume 468: debated on Tuesday 4 December 2007

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.