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Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 4 March 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Train Operating Companies

1. Which train operating company has (a) the worst operational record and (b) the highest recorded level of passenger dissatisfaction in the latest period for which figures are available. (190972)

As hon. Members will be aware, First Great Western has been in breach of its franchise agreement. First Great Western also recorded the highest level of passenger dissatisfaction, as measured by the national passenger survey for autumn 2007.

It used to be called the Great Western Railway or even God’s Wonderful Railway, but now it is Worst Great Western. First Great Western has shortened trains, late trains, cancelled trains, terrible catering and terrible passenger information services, and it operates at the highest price per mile of any transport system in the western world. Surely it is time for the Government to re-examine why they gave it the franchise in the first place.

I agree that performance has been unacceptable for far too long. The package that I set out on 26 February was not just a technical statement about the franchise, because it will bring real benefits to passengers. It will double the compensation that passengers can claim when services are disrupted, allow the introduction of extra rolling stock and make available an extra 500,000 of the cheapest tickets—and I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes it.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the slap of firm government, but I ask her to go even further and deal with that company. First Great Western has caused all of us who travel by train in that part of the world countless delays and cancellations, in addition to its behaviour, which has been even worse. The yellow card is welcome, but how can we make sure that a red card is issued if it does not reform itself?

First Great Western has been put on notice, and its performance must improve. That is why we have agreed with it a remedial plan, which will bring more capacity, more carriages and more drivers to put right the failures in the franchise. As a matter of contract, if the company breaches that remedial plan, it will be open to me to withdraw its franchise.

My constituents can travel directly from Tunbridge Wells to Gatwick airport in an hour, but that service would be withdrawn under proposals introduced by Southern. Is it the Secretary of State’s view that our roads and car parks are insufficiently congested, and that we should be getting passengers off the trains and into their cars when they go on holiday?

The hon. Gentleman is discussing the Southern franchise rather than First Great Western, but I am happy to take his question. It is true that there is a shortage of rolling stock on that particular route, which we are seeking to address, but the ultimate answer is investment in capacity. We are committed to an extra £10 billion of investment up to 2014, which will deliver 1,300 extra carriages and allow people to get on the train and travel in comfort.

I welcome the deal with First Great Western, which will bring much-needed investment into the franchise. The Minister with responsibility for rail has met First Great Western on numerous occasions in the past eighteen months and read the riot act every time. When I meet people from First Great Western and Network Rail in my constituency on Friday, what message can I give them from the Secretary of State that will convince them that we are serious this time, and that if they do not pull their socks up very quickly the franchise will be taken away?

First Great Western must get a grip, and Moir Lockhead, the First chief executive, has assured me that he will do everything he can to improve services for passengers. The remedial plan will ensure that it meets the terms of its franchise agreement; otherwise I will consider whether to withdraw the franchise. In addition, First Great Western has offered a package of direct benefits for passengers worth £29 million, including the doubling of compensation if trains are delayed or cancelled. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s constituents will appreciate that.

My right hon. Friend has given us old promises in this connection, but is she not likely to be challenged by the company in the courts? What action can she take to ensure that that does not happen?

No; I assure my hon. Friend that First Great Western accepts the need to act. It has implemented a remedial plan, which was agreed with my Department, to correct the failures in the franchise, which will be set out in law under the terms of the contract. If it fails to fulfil the terms of that contract and moves into breach, we would call that an event of default, in which case we would have the option of withdrawing the franchise.

Rail Capacity

During the preparation of the rail White Paper, the Government carried out assessments of the adequacy of the capacity of the rail network. The assessments drew on work carried out by the rail industry, and the outcome is published in the 2007 rail White Paper “Delivering a Sustainable Railway”.

I thank the Minister for that reply. I associate myself with the concerns mentioned by many hon. Members in response to the last question about First Great Western. Assuming that First Great Western—or its successors—finally gets its act together and starts to deliver a decent rail service in areas such as my constituency, there will still be capacity constraints, particularly in respect of the problems addressed in the western package of Worle junction and Worle Parkway station. Will the Minister undertake to look at those proposals in a favourable light and, ideally, commit the Government to funding them as soon as possible?

The hon. Gentleman is right in that capacity remains the overwhelming challenge facing the railway industry today, unlike the situation under previous Governments, who faced the challenge of how to stop the decline in the number of people using the railways. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said a few moments ago, we have committed ourselves to arranging the procurement of 1,300 new carriages. Under the indicative proposals in the rolling stock plan, First Great Western is already going to receive more than 50 new carriages; that will be a major increase in the capacity available to passengers, including the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

The chief executive of Network Rail predicts that capacity on inter-city routes will run out by 2015, yet the Government have told us that they are not going to make any decision on new high-speed rail lines until 2012. Given that it takes a decade to plan high-speed trains, why are the Government being so leisurely?

I am rarely accused of being leisurely. I have to tell my hon. Friend that in terms of predictions for growth on the railways, the figures in the 2007 rail White Paper, to which I have just referred, are robust. Network Rail has signed up to them in the past. There may well be a case for new high-speed lines—certainly for increased physical capacity—on many of our major railway routes at the beginning of the next decade, starting in 2020. However, I do not believe that such decisions should, or have to, be taken earlier than 2012, which year will see the publication of the high level output specification phase 2.

The Secretary of State will no doubt be as pleased as the rest of us that figures show that more and more people are choosing to use trains. However, given the Government’s decision to block extra carriages on the west coast main line, does she have a message for the thousands of people who regularly have to stand on that route, simply because they cannot get a seat?

The hon. Gentleman is incorrect in saying that the Government have attempted to block increased capacity on the west coast main line. The Government have told Virgin Trains that it will not be given an opportunity to re-bid for the franchise without any competitive tendering; otherwise the situation would not be competitive, so I hope that that will be supported by the whole House. However, we have said that we remain committed to extending the Pendolinos by two carriages at some point at the very beginning of the next franchise.

It is refreshing that the Government are prepared to spend so much money on extending capacity, but the reality is that the numbers of extra rolling stock and carriages are not high enough to deal with the problems in connection with the extra numbers of people wanting to use the system. We will have to take decisions rapidly about high-speed lines. Will the Minister not just accept that the issue is not for the next Parliament, but for this one?

What I do not accept is that high-speed lines are some kind of panacea, or that in committing ourselves to building such lines we will suddenly eradicate all the capacity challenges that we face. My hon. Friend is right, of course, that 1,300 carriages will go some way towards alleviating capacity pressures in the next five or six years. The Government will always intend, where possible, to increase the capacity available to passengers. However, let me remind my hon. Friend and the House that the 1,300 carriages are the biggest step change in capacity that the rail industry has seen for decades. They represent a level of financial commitment that no other party has seen fit to equal.

Does the Minister agree that a major constraint on the capacity of the rail network is the capacity of station car parks? Will he have urgent discussions with Network Rail and South West Trains with a view to increasing capacity on the Waterloo to Salisbury line, so that more people who want to travel by train off-peak can do so?

I do accept that when car park capacity is enhanced, more people use the railways; clearly, that is a way of facilitating higher demand. However, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that car parking facilities are a matter not for the Government but for local authorities, Network Rail and, occasionally, the train operating companies. Nevertheless, his point is well made. I would like more car park capacity to be made available throughout the country, including in his constituency.

Will my hon. Friend consider using the £14 million taken in fines from Network Rail to bring forward the purchase of new rolling stock, as set out in the 30-year plan? In particular, we should ensure that capacity exists in the manufacturing industry to deliver on time the rolling stock on which we have made a commitment to spend money.

That is an innovative idea from my hon. Friend. I can reassure him that the money needed to buy the 1,300 new carriages has been banked, as it were, and has been committed. We are not facing any kind of shortfall in respect of the 1,300 new carriages that we are committed to buy. He might be aware that the Office of Rail Regulation has embarked on a consultation about how the £14 million fine levied on Network Rail will be imposed—whether it will be a fine coming back to central Government, or whether it can be quantified as passenger benefits for those who suffered the most during the new year overruns.

How will it help rail capacity to take £14 million out of Network Rail’s budget? That fine, imposed on a public sector body, can only hit rail users. Would it not have been better to stop the £75,000 bonus to the chief executive, or the 18 per cent. pay rise for the directors?

The hon. Gentleman will be disappointed to be reminded once again that the Department for Transport has no say over whether the Office of Rail Regulation imposes a fine on Network Rail. That should be a matter for the independent rail regulator. The hon. Gentleman’s party has accused this Government on a number of occasions of micro-managing the railways, but again one of them is at the Dispatch Box telling us that that is exactly what we should do. The railways are better run by railway people, not Ministers.

Channel Tunnel

There are currently a significant number of paths available through the channel tunnel. The allocation of paths, and the precise number that have been unused, are matters for Eurotunnel.

Even if existing signalling could be upgraded, less than a quarter of the tunnel’s train capacity is currently used, and only a massive increase in rail freight traffic could close that gap. Would my hon. Friend accept that heavy investment in rail freight lines between the major economic regions of Britain and the tunnel is vital if we are to make use of the tunnel properly?

My hon. Friend has campaigned for a long time on this issue, and I know that his expertise is impressive. He will know that the Government intervened at the end of 2006 in order to create an open-access regime in the channel tunnel that allowed EWS and other operators to continue to run freight through it. He will also be aware that £200 million has been committed under the high level output specifications to develop the strategic freight network.

My hon. Friend will be aware that at the end of last year I announced £150 million in productivity transport innovation funding for gauge enhancement in the freight network. The 50 per cent. increase in freight tonnage carried on the British rail network shows that this Government are solidly behind the freight industry, but it must remain a commercial venture. Given that, it is in the best interest of the industry to make its own commercial decisions—with the full support of the Government, of course.

In addition to the opening of the rail freight paths through the channel tunnel, when will the passenger paths that have now been freed up at Waterloo be opened, to ease congestion in the south-west?

The hon. Lady is correct; a number of passenger paths through the channel tunnel, and on High Speed 1, the channel tunnel rail link, remain unused. Having listened closely to the debates that took place recently on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (Supplementary Provisions) Bill, she will know that it is my hope that open-access operators from Britain and Europe will apply to run freight and passenger services on vacant routes in order to increase the capacity running on the channel tunnel rail link, or High Speed 1.

Concessionary Bus Fares

4. What assessment she has made of the budgetary implications of the national concessionary bus fare scheme for local authorities. (190975)

We have allocated an additional £212 million to travel concession authorities from 1 April, on top of the £350 million allocated in 2006-07—enough to fund around an extra 200 million bus journeys across England. Our assessment of the likely cost impact of the new concession is based on generous assumptions about pass take-up, fares and increased patronage.

Is not the reality that the scheme has been underfunded nationally by at least £60 million? In Chesterfield alone it will cost a minimum of £1.3 million, and the Government have provided only £1 million. That leaves a small council such as Chesterfield borough council to find £300,000, which is the equivalent of a 7.5 per cent. increase in council tax. When will the Government stop forcing councils throughout the country to cut services and raise council tax to make up for Government underfunding of Government schemes?

The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. In 2006-07 Chesterfield local authority was already spending £1.3 million on concessionary fares. We are providing a 32 per cent. increase: on top of that, we are giving £416,000 extra. In his authority, 23,000 people will be eligible for concessionary fares under the new scheme, and it will provide them with the freedom to use their bus pass wherever they are in the country. He should be encouraging them to take up the pass, not scaremongering about the effect on other services.

Can we just ensure that local authorities are not left with a funding gap that has to be covered by a reduction in non-statutory services? Some authorities, such as mine in Nottingham, are having to consider closing swimming pools, leisure centres and libraries to pay for a transport service—which, ironically, pensioners would end up using to go in search of pools that were not open, libraries that were closed and leisure centres that no longer existed.

I assure my hon. Friend that the settlement is generous. As I said, two years ago, we put £350 million extra through the revenue support grant to fund the current concession. On top of that, from April, a further £212 million will go to funding concessionary fares. That is the equivalent of 200 million extra journeys. The proportion of journeys made outside local county areas is about 4 per cent. whereas the average increase in funding is 30 per cent. I emphasise that the settlement is generous.

The Minister says that few journeys are made outside county boundaries, but the Government news network release issued today advocates, for example, Broadstairs in Kent as an ideal destination for visitors from London. I am sure that Broadstairs would welcome those visitors, but my correspondence with Kent county council, Thanet district council and Canterbury city council shows genuine concern. Will the Minister make certain that resort destinations do not bear an unfair proportion of the burden of cost?

Yes, I can assure the hon. Gentleman on that count. The formula that we drew up for the specific grant—it is a specific grant, at the request of local authorities—was based on the number of tourist visits as well as eligible population data. For example, Thanet council will receive a 45 per cent. increase this year on top of what it spent in 2006-07 on concessionary fares. Again, that increase in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is much greater than average. In Thanet, 35,000 people over 60 will be eligible for the scheme, and I encourage him to advertise its benefits to his constituents. In total, 11 million people around the country will benefit. Hon. Members should welcome that scheme for older and disabled people.

Is the Minister aware that the pleasure that pensioners and the disabled in Hove and Portslade take in their bus passes is tempered by being harried and bullied by accusations that the bus pass is responsible for the cuts in the local authority budget announced last week? What measures will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that local authority mismanagement will not stop the implementation of the free bus pass scheme?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. In her area the increase is some 33 per cent. It is quite wrong to scaremonger among older and disabled people about services being withdrawn, when the settlement is in fact incredibly generous. I hope that she will encourage her constituents to take up the pass and use the new freedoms that go with it.

“A budget disaster”, “Financial meltdown” and “Our local authority is receiving inadequate compensation” are but three of the reactions of Labour and Conservative councils up and down the country to the introduction of the national concessionary bus scheme. The Government’s reaction this afternoon has shown their complacency. They must accept that the funding that they are providing for their scheme is inadequate. That funding is leading to councils either cutting services or increasing council tax. The Government happily claim credit for the scheme, yet they are allowing the local council tax payer to pick up the bill. When are they going to stop being complacent and provide proper funding for the introduction of their scheme?

Again, the increase in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency will be 31 per cent. of what was being spent in 2006-07. Let me emphasise that we consulted widely with local authorities on the funding formula for the scheme. We agreed to make a specific grant and we gave four options for how that grant should be distributed. The way in which we are distributing the grant is the one that the local authorities asked for. The hon. Gentleman might want to ask the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) whether he is proposing to cut concessionary fare funding in order to put forward his policies.

Swansea Station

5. How much she has allocated for capital spending at Swansea railway station over the next five years; and if she will make a statement. (190976)

Swansea was included in the industry’s initial list of candidate stations for the national stations improvement programme. An updated list of candidate stations will be published as part of the April 2008 refresh of Network Rail’s strategic business plan.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He knows that I have been writing to him recently to make representations on the need for capital investment at Swansea railway station, which is, after all, the gateway to west Wales and an important mainline terminus. Can he assure me that he will do all he can to ensure that Swansea remains a candidate for those moneys, which, as the second city of Wales, it richly deserves?

My hon. Friend is right: she does indeed write to me frequently, on this issue and others—and correspondence from her is always welcome. She will be aware that one of the criteria for deciding which stations should be on the list of candidate stations is how successful Network Rail can expect to be in leveraging private sector money. I have no information about whether Swansea will remain on the list in April 2008, but she is doing exactly the right thing in making the case for Swansea, and I wish her every success in that.

I understand that the railway station concerned is some distance away from Wrexham—but perhaps the hon. Gentleman can try to ask his question.

Mr. Speaker, your knowledge of Wales is renowned across the land. I want to talk about capital investment in Welsh railway stations, if that is permissible. Capital investment in Welsh railway stations for disabled facilities has been made at Wrexham station, and I believe that Swansea railway station would also be eligible for such investment. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that sustaining such capital investment is essential to ensuring a functioning and improving railway service, and what position does he believe we would be in if we had a Government who no longer contributed to such investment?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his ingenious question. Although Wrexham station has been allocated money under the Access for All programme, which has had a budget of £370 million over 10 years for improving accessibility at stations, my understanding—although I am prepared to be proved wrong on this—is that Swansea has so far not benefited from Access for All investment. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that unless we continued with a high level of investment in infrastructure, not only on the railways but at our stations, the record increase in patronage that we have seen over the past 10 years would, I fear, begin to take a downward turn.

Short Car Journeys

The Government have taken several steps to encourage people to make fewer short car journeys. We are providing record spending on buses and other local transport, and bus patronage is increasing. I announced a sixfold increase in funding for Cycling England, and in our sustainable travel towns people are choosing to travel differently, reducing car trips by more than 10 per cent. and increasing bus use by 16 per cent.

I thank the Secretary of State for her response—but in the past 10 years, according to figures provided by her Department, the number of journeys made on foot has fallen by 15 per cent. and the number of bike journeys has fallen by 14 per cent. How much further does she expect the number of such trips to fall as a result of the programme of 2,500 post office closures? Has she been able to assess how many extra short car journeys will need to be made as a result of that closure programme?

The key here is to encourage the local leadership in local councils to think through how people get around their towns and cities. Places such as the London borough of Sutton are looking at our sustainable travel towns initiatives and seeing the dramatic effect that they can have on cycling and walking. They are introducing personalised travel and information for people, so that they can change the nature of their car journeys. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that where the critical local infrastructure—the post office, the school, the local shops—is located matters enormously. That is why it is important for us to work with the Department for Communities and Local Government to look at the planning system, to ensure that people can get about easily on foot or by bike.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Tyne and Wear Metro system saves some 15 million short car journeys every year? It is now more than 20 years old, however, and it is beginning to creak and groan a bit. The business plan for the improvement of the Metro system was submitted to her Department in June last year, and discussions have been ongoing. Can she confirm that she will soon be in a position to make a statement on the reinvigoration of the Metro system, so that it can continue to provide an alternative to short car journeys?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his tenacity in raising the issue of the Metro. He is absolutely right to say that it matters enormously to people in Tyne and Wear and the surrounding areas, and it is important that we take any investment case seriously. The business case is with the Department, and I hope to be able to make an announcement shortly.

Of course, where possible, people should be encouraged to take as few car journeys as possible. However, in many places, including my island constituency, that is almost impossible because of the rural nature of the area. Would the Minister consider supporting a proposal similar to one that this Government have supported for rural France involving the reduction of rural fuel duty by 3 per cent.? Last week the Scottish Government reduced ferry fares for the island constituencies. I wonder whether we might now have some good news from Westminster about taking positive steps to reduce fuel tax in rural areas, as the Government have agreed should happen in France.

To be honest, I found the hon. Gentleman’s argument slightly hard to follow, but if he is talking about taxation, that is clearly an issue for the Treasury. He is absolutely right, however, to say that access from rural communities to neighbouring towns and cities—and, indeed, to London and beyond this country—is hugely important. That is one of the reasons why it is not possible to say that all journeys will be able to be made by high-speed train or by road, for example; we need flights, too. I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports our proposal—which will, of course, be subject to strict local environmental conditions being met—to expand capacity at Heathrow, so that we will be able to serve rural communities.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways to discourage short car journeys is to improve the bus service? Will she join me in celebrating the achievements of the Mayor of London in recent years in improving London’s bus service, including through extensions to the freedom pass and discounts for low-income families? Does my right hon. Friend agree that a serious threat to that would be the 15 per cent. fare hike that would result from the Conservatives’ underfunded commitment to—[Interruption.]

I do; my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Every Londoner should know that the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) is pledging a minimum 15 per cent. increase in bus fares. I must say to my hon. Friend and her colleagues that this is a very important election, which will have a real impact on millions of Londoners. The Mayor of London has a role on the world stage, whereas the hon. Member for Henley is, I think, more suited to a role in the circus.

Order. We had best be careful about the language we use, as it is unfair to attack an hon. Member of the House in that way.

In her answer, the Secretary of State touched on a very important topic. Will she make a start on short journeys by requesting her right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to make the short journey between Downing street and this House each Wednesday on foot?

The hon. Gentleman makes a cheap political point. I am sure that he travels on foot to all his meetings and that he would encourage every Member to do the same.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that cutting short car journeys requires an effective bus service? Will she explain just what powers her Department has given local authorities to ensure that services delivered on paper are actual and that Arriva and Stagecoach cannot cut services at the drop of a hat, and deny them to my constituents?

My hon. Friend has been assiduous in pushing the case of her constituents. Indeed, I believe that a Department for Transport official recently visited Stockton council and members of neighbouring councils to talk about how they can ensure a good quality bus service in their local areas. The Local Transport Bill, which is currently proceeding through the House of Lords and will shortly come to this place, sets in place a framework that will allow councils either to negotiate a voluntary partnership with bus operators, to implement a statutory partnership or—if they think they will have greater control and be able better to deliver on fares, punctuality and the type of routes they want served—a quality contract, so that they can commission the bus services that they think their communities need.


A scheme to improve the A12 interchange with the M25 is under construction and is expected to be completed in spring 2008. Future improvements to the A12 are dependent on these being prioritised for funding by the east of England from its regional funding allocation for major transport schemes, or from other sources.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. Given that the Highways Agency has identified the need to widen the A12 to Chelmsford to a three-lane road in order to reduce congestion and accident rates, and given that the Minister for the East of England has said that the upgrading of this stretch of the A12 is “totally vital”, is it not incumbent on the Government, because this is a trunk road, to expedite this work by providing the funding?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct that this is a trunk road, but it is also a road of regional importance. Although the Minister for the East of England and the highways authority—and perhaps even myself, Mr. Speaker—are convinced of the need for a major upgrade, it is up to the hon. Gentleman to try to persuade the regional transport board for the east of England that it should prioritise that work. To date, unfortunately, it has not done so. Of course, during the refresh of the regional funding allocation throughout the country, including in the east of England, for the transport board to look again at its priorities and make its recommendations to the Government.

Is the Minister aware of the spate of serious accidents on the A12 and will he ensure that action is taken to reduce fatalities at some of the worst fatality blackspots?

Yes, I am aware of the less than satisfactory accident rate on the stretch of the A12 that the hon. Gentleman mentions. I have spoken to the Highways Agency about the issue and asked it to carry out a review of the mechanisms and plans for that stretch to see what it can do within its own budget to try to improve the road’s safety record. He is absolutely correct to draw this unsatisfactory situation to the attention of the House.

Cycling Safety

Since 2005-06, the Department for Transport has invested around £3.1 million on the development and delivery of cycle training. So far, funding has been provided to enable around 46,000 children to be trained to the Bikeability standard. In January, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced a sixfold increase in the cycling budget to £140 million for Cycling England to invest in initiatives to encourage cycling, including enabling an extra 500,000 children to have Bikeability training by 2012.

Is the Minister aware that the mayor of Doncaster, Mayor Martin Winter, is formulating a bid for cycling demonstration town status? What impact would that have on cycling safety in Doncaster? Does the Minister agree that if the Conservative party had its way, cycling safety would be one of the first things to be cut under a Conservative Administration?

I advise my hon. Friend that in February Cycling England commenced a bidding process for 10 new cycle demonstration towns and a new cycle city, and has published the assessment criteria and application form, which are available on its website. Cycling England’s local authority advisory team is available to give help to any local authority of whatever political persuasion. The contact details are also available on the Cycling England website. The deadline for applications is 31 March, and I wish my hon. Friend’s friends the best of luck in their bidding.

One way to make cycling safer is to provide new cycle routes away from traffic. I recently saw a great example at Yeadon, near Leeds, that utilises an old railway track. Can the Minister act to protect those old rail corridors from developers, so that they can be made available for cyclists and, for that matter, pedestrians?

I have just advised the House of the sixfold increase—I am sure hon. Members were aware of it—in funding for Cycling England, which I am sure will be considering imaginative schemes to promote cycling more effectively. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State has just advised me that there are other pots for which bids can be made. We will look to use all available routes to ensure that cycling is a safe activity, because it reduces congestion, is good for health and builds confidence. The Government want to ensure that we promote cycling as effectively as we can.

Vulnerable Passengers

9. If she will undertake a review of the extent to which public and community transport services meet the needs of vulnerable passengers. (190980)

Good public transport is key to reducing social exclusion. That is why £2.5 billion a year is invested by central Government and local government to support buses and community transport services.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Will she encourage local councils such as those in County Durham to use the measures in the Local Transport Bill to make greater use of community transport in their plans to improve bus services locally? Does she agree not only that that would improve access to public transport for isolated and vulnerable communities in my constituency, but that it could meet their needs more fully than standard commercial services?

My hon. Friend is a great advocate of public transport in her constituency and she is right to say that the Bill contains measures to help to improve community transport services. For example, it will allow community bus permits, which will enable payment for people who run community bus services. At the moment, there are certain restrictions on that, but the Bill will allow payment of community drivers in such circumstances. That is exactly the kind of service that could be a solution in rural areas and could be particularly applicable to vulnerable people who are perhaps isolated in such areas. It could be a good solution to some of the transport problems that they face.

Will the Minister give a commitment to the House today and perhaps even agree to meet with me and some representatives from Shropshire councils over the concessionary bus scheme? She will be aware that there is real concern among those on disability living allowance on the lower rate, carers who are travelling without those they are caring for and also those with mental health disorders who are socially excluded from the new scheme. Will she meet me to discuss those important issues?

I shall certainly agree to meet the hon. Gentleman. The criteria for qualification for the concessionary bus pass were laid down in the Transport Act 2000, and I am happy to send him the details of those. They cover a number of people with disabilities, and there is discretion for local authorities to extend the scheme if they wish to do so. I am more than happy to explain the details of that scheme to him.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

10. What estimate she has made of the effect of extending rail services on levels of greenhouse gas emissions from transport; and if she will make a statement. (190981)

The Department has estimated that the additional rail capacity required by the high-level output specification would result in a net increase in annual transport carbon dioxide emissions of around 102,000 tonnes by 2014. However, the crowding relief benefits of the investment are more than 70 times greater than the associated cost of additional carbon emissions.

Does my hon. Friend agree that later evening services allowing people to leave their cars at home can play a part in reducing carbon emissions? Does he understand my concern, and that of Staffordshire county council and the North Staffordshire community rail partnership, about the current and proposed times of last trains serving both Burton-on-Trent and Uttoxeter compared to the times of last trains serving towns of similar size? Currently the last train leaving Uttoxeter from Derby is the—

My hon. Friend’s point is valid, but as has been said from the Dispatch Box a number of times in the past, the Government are not in the business of carrying fresh air around the country. If only two or three people travel in a railway carriage late at night, that will result in a much bigger carbon footprint for each of them. There is a case for providing later services where there is a demand, but I hope my hon. Friend will accept that franchises are designed following extensive research and consultation with the prospective markets. If there is no market for late-night services, running extra services carrying very few people would do nothing to reduce the carbon imprint of the railway industry.

Electrified rail and light rail services produce lower carbon dioxide emissions than diesel services. What plans has the Minister to increase investment in electrification?

It is heartwarming to see the enthusiasm with which Liberal Democrats embrace new spending commitments, when they dismiss so easily the commitments that the Government have already made to investment in the railway infrastructure. We have made a deliberate and political decision that increasing capacity on the network must be our priority over the next six years. We will spend that £10 billion on, among other things, buying 1,300 new railway carriages. Although electrification will be considered on a case-by-case basis, we do not think it should be given the same priority as the purchasing of extra capacity.

Topical Questions

Today I set out my strategy for tackling congestion in our urban areas and on our motorways. I published a report exploring where hard-shoulder running and traffic management systems could bring most benefits, and set out proposals for preserving the benefits of new capacity.

The Heathrow consultation closed on 27 February, and the many thousands of responses are now being analysed. I expect to make a decision later this year. On 26 February, I laid a statement about the measures that we have secured from First Great Western to improve its service and deliver a package of direct benefits for passengers.

Given my right hon. Friend’s announcement today about motorway congestion, does she believe that the M4 in Wales would benefit from hard-shoulder running, and when does she expect to expand the programme?

I thank my hon. Friend for her interest. Today I published a map of the main motorway network across England, showing the most congested parts of the network and also the roads where it might be possible to open up the hard shoulder for extra capacity. I am sure that the M4 is one of those roads. Of course, the Welsh Assembly may wish to examine the proposals. Where trials have been held we have seen not only an improvement in journey times but, perhaps more important, much more predictable journey times and lower carbon emissions, and motorists using the M42 have welcomed having a managed motorway.

T2. In light of Bolton council’s unanimous decision to hold a referendum on the introduction of congestion charging in Manchester, will the Secretary of State now insist that the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities introduces a Greater Manchester-wide referendum before any decision is made on the introduction of congestion charging?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman refers to a bid that is currently before my Department for extra investment in public transport in Greater Manchester. As a consequence, an offer to introduce an element of congestion charging around Manchester city centre has been made. No bid has yet been agreed and it will be for the local authorities in Greater Manchester to decide how to consult on that package if and when it is agreed. One of the tests that the authorities have set themselves is a public acceptability test, so as well as delivering on combating congestion in urban areas, which is very important, they will also have to decide how they want to take the consultation forward. (190963)

T3. Last week I raised the problem of protesters climbing on top of a flight from Manchester at Heathrow airport as I was walking by the gantry. What have the Government done after my demand for an investigation? What will my right hon. Friend do to ensure that security at our airports is up to the highest quality and standards? (190964)

TranSec is responsible within the Department for security for all our transport modes. An investigation into the incident is going on and we will learn the lessons from it. We take the highest level of precautions to make sure that the travelling public are protected as best as possible. There are spot-checks at airports, ports and other transport areas. Every endeavour is made to make sure that stunts like those we saw last week both at Heathrow and here do not happen. However, we have to be extra vigilant against determined extremists; we can never be absolutely sure that we can defeat them.

Do the Government still support the statement of December 2006 by the then Transport Minister, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), that a national road pricing scheme would be introduced by the middle of the next decade?

My priority is to focus on the congestion experienced by today’s motorists. It is right that there will be a debate, and I am sure that the hon. Lady, who has already expressed her views on the issue, does not want to see any form of road pricing now or in future. We are committed to examining the technology to see whether we can address people’s real concerns about privacy, enforcement and how fair a national road pricing scheme would be. But I am clear that we need to focus on congestion now, opening up the hard shoulder for extra car traffic where we can, managing motorway speeds to encourage a smoother flow and locking in the benefits through car-sharing lanes or toll lanes where that makes sense.

Why will the right hon. Lady not just admit that Labour’s flagship national road pricing scheme is now dead in the water? Does her announcement today mean that the planned widening schemes for the M1, M6 and M62 are now being permanently shelved? Does the announcement also mean that the Government are highly unlikely to press ahead with any motorway widening in the future? Will the revenue from the new tolls that she wants to be introduced be spent on transport, or will it go back into the Treasury pot?

The hon. Lady asks me whether the policy is dead in the water; I would offer her a motoring analogy instead. I would describe it as a nifty overtaking manoeuvre to get past stationary traffic ahead. The debate about national road pricing has become increasingly sterile, with enthusiasts thinking that road pricing is the answer to all their problems and with people on the other side saying, “Over my dead body.” I am focusing on today’s problems faced by ordinary motorists. Virtually all the capacity that could be delivered by motorway widening could in theory be delivered by hard-shoulder running. That will not be possible in every part of the motorway network, partly for technical reasons and partly for engineering reasons. Today we published a map showing where it might make sense. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady asks about the M25 and the M6. The M25 is a quite long way down the procurement process on sections 1 and 3. We will go ahead with conventional widening, which will take place where it makes sense on the motorway. I am determined robustly to test the other sections of the M25 against the alternative proposition of hard-shoulder running.[Official Report, 18 March 2008, Vol. 473, c. 5MC.]

T5. I welcome the planned investment in our railways, which is essential if we are to encourage more people to use rail, rather than road, and thus cut our carbon emissions, but what guarantees can Ministers give that works planned for the next six years will actually be completed, particularly in light of the comments we have heard from the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman about robbing Peter to pay Paul? (190966)

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of that investment, and under this Government there has been record investment in the railways. As a consequence, there has been a 40 per cent. increase in the number of people using our railways and more than 1 billion passenger journeys made every year. That level of investment will continue under this Government. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to say what on earth would happen to it under any other Government.

What action will the Secretary of State take in light of the Civil Aviation Authority recommendation to the Competition Commission that there is insufficient airspace around London and the south-east to accommodate any further growth in traffic that would result from a third runway at Heathrow? Can she confirm that there will be no further runway at Heathrow without the expressed support of the CAA and National Air Traffic Services, or is she prepared to override those concerns and put passengers at risk?

The CAA has examined our White Paper proposals and believes that the necessary airspace capacity can be provided safely. Airspace change proposals will be subject to the rigorous requirements of the CAA’s change process in terms of development, consultation, approval and implementation. We do not recognise the description the hon. Gentleman has just given.

T4. Why have Wellingborough rail commuters seen the price of their tickets increase at more than twice the rate of inflation, when at the same time the frequency of trains has been cut, overcrowding has increased and seat reservations have been withdrawn? (190965)

The hon. Gentleman knows that this Government’s fares regulation policy is that, overall, regulated fares should not rise by more than the rate of inflation plus 1 per cent. For the most recent increases, that was equivalent to £4.8 per cent. per year over a basket of fares. If he is suggesting that the Government should extend regulation to cover all fares, perhaps he should speak to his Front-Bench colleagues and decide whether that incredibly large spending commitment would be supported by them. In the meantime, however, we will continue to regulate the most widely used fares, and we will continue to invest at historically high levels in the railway industry. The hon. Gentleman clearly does not support that; that is a matter for him and his constituents.

T8. I warmly welcome the 1,300 additional rail carriages to which the Minister referred earlier, but is he aware that only three of them are currently earmarked for East Midlands Trains? Will he revisit the data and the predictions that that decision was based on, and will he ensure that this very successful main line gets what is necessary to meet the demands of the franchise and the needs of the customers? (190969)

I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns, but as I said earlier, I do not believe that Ministers are best placed to make operational decisions about what railways need; those decisions should be made by railway professionals. In putting together the indicative rolling stock plan that was published a short time ago, we listened to the requests and the expert opinions of the railway industry itself. The 1,300 new carriages—they are all new carriages, which will be delivered and running on the rail network by March 2015—are not the end of the story. I fully expect—I am optimistic about this—that the train operating companies will procure a significantly higher amount than 1,300 in that period, and it might well be the case that the east Midlands receives extra carriages. However, that will be a matter for the train operating and rolling stock companies.

T6. Will the Secretary of State explain why we should ever again believe anything that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency says, following its having told the Public Accounts Committee that 38 per cent. of motorcyclists were evading paying their excise tax only to then revise that figure dramatically downwards to 6 per cent.? (190967)

The Department accepts the difficulties that the 2000 survey results caused, and an apology has been sent to the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee along with an explanation as to how the anomaly occurred. The straightforward explanation is that the DVLA moved, with the Department, from collecting data manually to using automatic number plate recognition cameras. The different methodology led to significantly lower revised figures, but they were more accurate. Because of the disparity, manual checks were made—this involved 1.6 million cases—and the offending number plates were checked again to ensure accuracy. In fact, the loss to the Exchequer was much smaller than reported, which ought to have been a good news story for law-abiding taxpayers, but because we had to spend time explaining an anomaly and making the apology, it was not the good story that it ought to have been for the Department.

T7. Does the Secretary of State accept that London’s congestion charge is not working, because the number of vehicles has increased, speeds have decreased and Londoners are paying more taxes? Will she review the Greater London Authority Act 1999 in order to impose a duty on the Mayor to speed up traffic? Such an approach would contrast with the anti-car posturing of the present incumbent, who will be leaving soon. (190968)

No, I do not agree. The congestion charge is groundbreaking and we are visited by delegations from across Europe. Indeed, only this past week a delegation from the United States paid me a visit to explore how the scheme has been implemented in London. Traffic levels have decreased, bus patronage has increased and fares have been frozen by the Mayor, who is doing a great job for this city.

T9. Has my right hon. Friend received any representations to take London’s bendy buses off the road, replace them with Routemaster buses and put 1,700 bus conductors on the buses? Has she had an opportunity to cost those proposals? Does she agree that before people make statements on the radio, they should cost their proposals carefully, otherwise they will not be making policy statements, but staging political stunts? When does she suspect the old Etonians opposite— (190970)

My hon. Friend has made his point with passion and extremely well. I have received a representation, as I believe have Londoners, that that policy would cost them only £8 million—I understand that the correct figure is closer to £108 million. The proposal would force up London bus fares by about 15 per cent.