Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 470: debated on Tuesday 22 January 2008

Yesterday I announced a £140 million investment to support cycling. Helping people to make low-carbon choices is an important element of my Department’s wider sustainable transport strategy. In addition, my Department has been working closely with the investigators of the incident at Heathrow. An initial report on the incident was released last week. In the same week, Network Rail announced the initial results of its investigation into the engineering overruns during the Christmas period. The chairman of Network Rail briefed me on the initial findings on their release, and I look forward to seeing the conclusions. Later this week, my Department will launch a consultation on a range of proposals for modernising the blue badge scheme.

The recent Government publication on noise contours around the busiest English airports showed vividly the impact of night flights at East Midlands airport on communities in North-West Leicestershire, South Derbyshire and Rushcliffe in south Nottinghamshire. When will the Government impose on regional airports with high noise levels the same limits on air traffic movements that they impose on London airports, requiring them all to deliver on the requirements of the stringent environmental framework promised by the 2003 aviation White Paper 1,500 long, sleep-interrupted nights ago?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the air transport White Paper imposed stringent local environmental conditions on the extension at Heathrow and on other places. He is right, too, to have concerns on behalf of local residents about the impact of any changes on the environment, particularly as regards noise. However, it is not right to suggest that there is a one-size-fits-all solution on airport expansion. For instance, the impact of noise will vary enormously depending on how close the airport is to local residents, and on the type and number of flights. That is why we think that a local response is the right way forward. I understand that East Midlands airport will publish its local plan to manage noise later this year. I urge my hon. Friend to get involved in that consultation on behalf of his local community, and to make his views known.

T2. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United Nations, the Royal Society, the chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Chancellor’s adviser—Professor King—and the Environmental Audit Committee are all urging caution about the environmental and social impacts of biofuels, so will the Government think again about whether a £500-million biofuels subsidy is the wisest, most cost-effective way to cut transport emissions? (180526)

As a result of the renewable transport fuel obligation, which we passed only a few months ago, biofuels are expected to save 2.6 million to 3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum. The UK pioneered a world-leading reporting strategy to determine the accuracy of carbon reductions and sustainability considerations. We are trying to press the European Commission to make sure that that is mirrored at European level. We recognise the concerns, but science is moving forward, and we are convinced that that is the right way to proceed.

An arcane rule prevents us from ascertaining how much Metronet owes in taxes. Likewise, Transport Ministers are secretive about deals done and the cost to taxpayers, council tax payers and fare payers. They are secretive, too, about the lack of maintenance that will result from Metronet going into administration. Will Ministers now come clean and provide that information?

I assure my hon. Friend that there is no intention to conceal any information. It is, however, difficult to know what the impact of Metronet’s failure will be on the taxpayer, although I do not doubt there will be such an impact, particularly in the short term. When Metronet leaves administration in, I hope, the not-too-distant future and its detailed financial accounts are published, that information will be put into the public domain. However, I will update the House if there are developments that I can report.

T3. Is the Secretary of State aware of the huge increase in the cost of the statutory bus concessionary travel scheme, which has far outstripped the additional grant given to local authorities and has caused serious difficulty for many councils, including Maldon district council? Will she meet a delegation from affected local authorities in Essex to see what can be done to help? (180527)

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present for our wide-ranging discussion on Question 1 about the national concessionary fares scheme. We spend about £1 billion a year on the scheme, and most regions received an increase of about 30 per cent. over the last financial year. His area is treated exactly the same. That is a generous settlement, and if local authorities wish to build on it with their own local concessions, that is up to them. However, the £212 million that has been allocated over and above the amount that local authorities already receive is adequate to cover the increased costs.

T5. In 1997, the former Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), said that he would “have failed” if there were not far fewer journeys by car after five years. After 10 years, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) revealed that traffic has increased across England by 12 per cent. and in Gloucestershire by 17 per cent., increasing public risk, congestion and carbon emissions. Will the Government now admit that they have failed? (180529)

Well, it is certainly true that as countries become wealthier and more people want to buy cars, congestion is an issue faced by all developed nations. The fact of the matter is that here in the United Kingdom we are leading the fight against congestion through sustained investment in public transport. Indeed, our investment in the railways, as I have just discussed with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), is the biggest investment in capacity for a generation. In addition, for the first time, we have broken the link between economic growth and increased traffic. I call that success, even though I recognise that there is a lot more to do.

T4. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), wrote to hon. Members on 31 October last year, acknowledging that “for some time” First Great Western services had been “unsatisfactory”. He said he would“continue to keep a close interest in performance…to ensure”that First Great Western lived up to its promises. Passengers have had to endure continued overcrowding, poor services and unreliability, only to be rewarded for their loyalty with an above-inflation price hike. Can the Under-Secretary not do anything to step in and hold back those ticket price rises until quality thresholds are met, and what will he do to put those matters right? (180528)

The hon. Gentleman is certainly correct, in that the performance of First Great Western has been a concern to me and to the Department for some time. There is little good news, although there is some. The December 2007 timetable has proved to be more robust and more workable than had been predicted. However, he is correct to say that performance is still a major cause of concern. I continue to meet representatives of First Great Western on a regular basis, but I would not try to mislead the House by pretending that it does not give me very serious cause for concern about its future performance.

Four-year-old Finlay Martin was tragically killed last July when he was hit by a trailer that broke free from a car while he was walking in the village of Heage with his mother. The deputy coroner at the inquest just held said that she would write to the Department for Transport to ensure that lessons were learned. Will my hon. Friend investigate seriously the introduction of an annual mandatory test of road worthiness and an MOT for trailers that are pulled by road vehicles, and for such vehicles to have mandatory brake systems, which did not happen in this case? That has been requested by Finlay’s grandparents and many of my constituents.

We are aware of this tragic accident, which occurred last summer. We extend our deepest sympathies to the parents and family of Finlay, who lost his life as a result of what happened. We want to make sure that when we introduce new regulations, they can be applied and they are appropriate. Introducing MOT-style tests for such trailers is a possibility that we have considered before, and it is a matter that we keep under review. There have been several such accidents in recent months, and I will certainly consider the matter with officials in the Department to see whether we need to move on that.

The UN believes that palm oil production could destroy 90 per cent. of Indonesia’s rain forest within the next 12 years. When will binding rules be introduced into the Government’s renewable transport fuel obligation to ensure that the biofuels that it promotes come from sustainable sources and not from ripping up the rain forest?

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) raised the matter a moment ago, and I could refer the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) to the answer that I gave a few moments ago. However, that would be wholly inappropriate as this is a serious subject. When we discussed the RTFO in Committee and the setting up of the Renewable Fuels Agency, that was keenly tested by hon. Friends as well as by Opposition Members. We are setting up, as I outlined, the most robust reporting mechanism we can, which starts in April 2008. We are trying to impress on the European Commission that we need to do the same thing Europe-wide, because sustainability and carbon reduction appear achievable through biofuels, and we are determined to make sure that that works.

We are pleased to hear that the Government are starting to take the issue much more seriously, but we are still worried that that date is not soon enough. Valuable habitats and carbon sinks are under threat right now. Friends of the Earth has said:

“The Government’s dash for biofuels is ill thought out . . . and could be creating more problems than it solves”.

As a matter of urgency, will the Government suspend the operation of the RTFO until guaranteed safeguards are in place to remove the very real risk that the unintended effect of their policy could be to encourage people to use biofuels that are produced in ways that are unsustainable and could actively damage the environment?

The hon. Gentleman is obviously a keen supporter of that line. We are clear that we recognise the genuine sustainability questions that are at stake, and we are determined to ensure that biofuels are not brought forward at the expense of the planet and at a cost of additional climate change. I refer the hon. Lady to a comment from the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who said:

“Five per cent. of all fuel sold in the UK to come from biofuels is a start, but it is a minimum step: we will need to go further in the future.”

There is clearly potential for carbon reduction, but it must not be at the price of sustainability and of exposing developing countries to further exploitation. We intend to get the balance right. We hope the Opposition parties will support us.

Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to the crew of BA flight 38 last Thursday who, along with the emergency services, ensured that, with the crash-landing of the aeroplane, a catastrophe was avoided? I call upon her to instigate an immediate risk assessment of the safety of the doubling the size of Heathrow airport, which would be the effect of building a third runway and a sixth terminal there.

I certainly join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the emergency services that dealt so well with the incident, and to the crew for the professional and calm way in which they dealt with it and their evident care and concern for the passengers. I am relieved that there were so few injuries.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of safety and the expansion proposals for Heathrow airport. I assure him that the Civil Aviation Authority has examined the White Paper proposals for additional airport capacity and believes that the necessary airspace capacity can be provided safely through the redesign of airspace and the introduction of enhanced air traffic techniques and systems. However, safety must always be our foremost priority.

T6. Is the Secretary of State aware that 40 per cent. of bikers are evading vehicle licensing duty? What is she going to do about it? (180530)

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency successfully collects £5 billion—or 95 per cent.—of vehicle excise duty annually. As the hon. Gentleman has highlighted, motorcycles are an enforcement challenge because of their size, the position of their number plates and their manoeuvrability. However, we have developed a dedicated enforcement strategy targeting motorcyclists. We have run focused, hard-hitting awareness campaigns and invested in improved automatic number plate recognition systems. We are coming forward with additional material and initiatives to make sure that motorcyclists, who have increasingly been evading, will no longer be able to do so.

T7. When will Network Rail, a publicly owned company, get to grips with problems such as a very tatty and run down station in Wokingham that could be rebuilt from the proceeds of planning gain on its very valuable site? (180531)

The right hon. Gentleman has been misinformed. Network Rail is a private company over whose operations I have no direct control. He takes a close interest in these matters, so he will know that in the White Paper published in July we announced £150 million to act as leverage money for the 150 medium-sized stations. We expect major improvements to be carried out by Network Rail and its partners during the next control period between 2009 and 2014.

T8. Will the Minister kindly agree to meet a delegation from the Kettering Rail Users group and Kettering borough council to discuss the severe train cuts to and from Kettering coming this December and how completely incompatible the proposals are with the Government-backed housing expansion plans? We are set to see an increase of one third in the number of homes in Kettering borough by 2021. (180532)

I am always happy to meet colleagues and delegations from rail user groups. No doubt the issue will be discussed at the relevant time. However, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s fundamental assertion that there have been major service cuts at Kettering.