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Topical Questions

Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 4 March 2008

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.