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Topical Questions

Volume 474: debated on Tuesday 22 April 2008

Free off-peak concessionary bus travel throughout England was introduced on 1 April, enabling 11 million older and disabled people in England to use buses anywhere across the country. I also announced that Passenger Focus would be the first national bus passenger champion, speaking up on behalf of millions of bus users.

Today I laid a written ministerial statement announcing a review of the framework of economic regulation of the UK airport system. The review will be advised by a panel of independent experts led by Professor Martin Cave.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Highways Agency is refusing to increase the capacity of junction 21 of the M5 in my constituency until more local jobs have been created to reduce the number of people who commute into Bristol each day? The regional spatial strategy, which would have achieved exactly that, has just been amended by Government-appointed planners to allow even more houses to be built without the necessary local jobs. The result is deadlock and misery for my constituents, stuck in the resulting appalling jams. Will she therefore liaise urgently with her colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that the Government’s left hand knows what their right hand is doing?

It is important not only that we have the housing that future generations will desperately need, but that we have the appropriate transport infrastructure to support that housing growth. In fact, my Department has been working closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government to support, for example, new growth points, where we have invested £4 billion to support new housing developments. Of course I am happy to look into the specific case that the hon. Gentleman cites, but he can rest assured that the Government work to provide both the appropriate housing and the appropriate infrastructure.

T2. The production of some forms of biofuels is causing increases in global food prices and does not represent the cheapest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Can my right hon. Friend tell us when the Government intend to introduce the sustainability standards for biofuels? Does she accept that the use of recycled cooking oils to manufacture biodiesel is a 100 per cent. recyclable form of biofuel that is encouraging small businesses in different parts of the country? Will she ensure that that form of biofuel is supported in any future policy change? (199780)

I know how concerned my hon. Friend is about these issues and he is right to point to the global impact of rising food prices. I am sure that he will appreciate that biofuels account for only some 2 per cent. of total food production and that other international factors are involved, such as recent droughts and an increasing demand for meat in preference to crops. Our system for supporting biofuel production in the UK must be sustainable. That is why we have introduced a world class sustainability reporting mechanism and the renewable transport fuels obligation at the cautious level of 2.5 per cent. It is why we are determined not to go beyond the level of 5 per cent. in 2010 without making sure that there are mandatory sustainability standards in place. My hon. Friend will know, too, that I have commissioned an independent study led by Professor Gallagher of the Renewable Fuels Agency to consider all the indirect effects of biofuel production.

I start by joining the hundreds of people inside and outside the House who have paid tribute to Gwyneth Dunwoody. She was a great parliamentarian. We will not only miss her today; I am sure that the House will miss her for many years to come. She was hugely influential on all transport matters and her outspoken approach was a real asset not only to the House but to the wider transport community, for which she did so much hugely valuable work.

My question for the Secretary of State is: if the Competition Commission recommends the break-up of BAA’s monopoly over airports in the south-east, will she promise to implement that recommendation?

I think that the hon. Lady will realise that the Government have a history of respecting the conclusions of the independent Competition Commission. It is of course the expert in that matter and it is right that it should have the time and space to consider the issues carefully. It is right, too, that we should think in government about how to raise standards of service for passengers. That is why this morning I commissioned a review led by an independent professor, Professor Martin Cave, to advise the Government on what the appropriate economic regulatory regime ought to be for the future.

We still cannot get a straight answer from the Government on the future of the monopoly enjoyed by their friends at BAA. Anyone who has been through the notorious Heathrow hassle or experienced the T5 debacle knows that BAA too often gives a dismal standard of service to its customers, yet the regulator recently awarded it with double-digit price increases. Is it not time to call time on the BAA monopoly on airports in the south-east, toughen up a toothless regulatory regime and put the interests of passengers first?

I suggest that the hon. Lady actually reads the Competition Commission’s report. I spent several hours this morning going through the 160-odd pages of the report. Surely she will have noticed that it says clearly on page 12:

“Lack of capacity, particularly runway capacity, at the south-east airports…appears to be a main reason for the current poor standards of service at the airports and lack of resilience at times of disruption.”

Surely it is now time for the hon. Lady, rather than criticising the Government, to wake up to the facts of the situation and reconsider her opposition to expansion at Heathrow subject to the local environmental conditions—a policy that has everything to do with short-term political opportunism and nothing to do with Britain’s long-term prosperity.

T5. The Secretary of State is very aware of the problems around the western bypass in Gateshead. Can she give me an update on progress on that matter? (199783)

My hon. Friend has campaigned on that issue for a long time. I share his concern that we have to see some progress on that project. However, he knows that widening that section of the A1 is likely to be complex and costly and will take time to deliver. However, the Highways Agency is aware of my concern to make progress. I am happy to discuss the matter with my hon. Friend in the near future. He will also know that the Highways Agency is investigating the possibility in the meantime of low-cost measures to improve the operation of the A1, including options for improving accident and incident management and speeding up the clearance of accidents.

T3. The Secretary of State has required First Great Western to implement a remedial plan; otherwise its franchise will be taken away. Will she tell me, on behalf of the long-suffering passengers from Oxford and Abingdon and throughout the region, when that remedial plan will be evaluated? When can we expect to see significant improvements or a change of franchisee? (199781)

The remedial plan, which has now been contractualised in the First Great Western franchise, will be monitored on an ongoing basis. As far as the latter part of the hon. Gentleman’s question is concerned, I expect and hope that we will see significant improvements in First Great Western’s performance in the next few months.

T6. The boiler suits are lined up, the paintbrushes are ready, the paint pots are waiting. Will my hon. Friend join me at Longton railway bridge to do Network Rail’s job for it, or does he have some good news for me at last? It may well be that following the next reshuffle, I will have some spare time on my hands, in which case I would be more than happy to take up my hon. Friend’s offer. In the meantime, however, I am more than happy once again to write to Network Rail to ask it whether it will prioritise that job. I have to point out that as a Minister, I cannot instruct Network Rail to do so, but I can ask whether it has any plans to do so. (199785)

On behalf of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, may I, too, say how sad we were to learn of Gwyneth Dunwoody’s death? She was an independent spirit, and we on these Benches had a lot of time for her.

On aviation—I note in passing that the Tory Members of the Transport Committee voted against breaking up BAA—the Minister will be aware that the average carbon emissions from air travel per passenger mile are considerably higher than they are by rail. Yet a parliamentary answer that I received yesterday showed that the cost of travelling by air had decreased by 50 per cent. over the past 10 years, whereas the cost of travelling by rail had increased by 6 per cent. What will the Secretary of State do to try to ensure that the cost of travelling bears more relation to the carbon emissions?

I know how deeply the hon. Gentleman cares about carbon emissions and the difference in the amount of carbon emitted by different means of travel. I know, too, that he is in favour of high-speed rail, but the fact of the matter is that we cannot jump to conclusions on any of these issues. The speed of the railway service is intimately connected with the amount of carbon produced. A high-speed rail line, for example, emits approximately double the carbon of a lower-speed rail service. We are going to need in this country both aviation, which will serve the interests not just of London but of the wider UK economy, and a decent rail service, at prices that people can afford.

I looked at rail fares recently and discovered that 80 per cent. of journeys between London and Manchester could be taken at a price that I think was less than £35. There is clearly a huge difference between turning up and asking for a premium rate fare and booking in advance. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to keep these things in perspective and recognise the fact that it is this Government who are taking the tough decisions on aviation and who are determined to make the necessary investment in rail too.

T7. My right hon. Friend will know that the extension of the highly successful, reliable and climate-friendly Midland Metro from Birmingham to Brierly Hill in the black country is long overdue. I believe that we are due a ministerial visit next month to look at the route. My sons have gone from toddlers to teenagers waiting for this project. Will the Minister give the go-ahead before they make me a grandmother? (199786)

Naturally, I am beside myself with excitement about my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency, which I believe is in approximately six weeks. I am counting the days. She will know that the regional funding allocation process through which the extension would go has not at this point prioritised the extension of the Metro. Those involved are looking at these issues on each occasion that they examine the priorities, and I very much look forward to learning more about the extension when I come to visit her constituency.

T4. Bus services in rural areas are more expensive to run. Sometimes the buses are not necessarily full, but they are very important services. Do the Government take into account the fact that they are more expensive to run when calculating the grants that they give, for example for subsidised bus passes? The situation is important in my constituency in Tewkesbury, where some services are being cut because the councils claim that they are not getting enough money to run them. (199782)

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that this Government introduced the rural bus subsidy grant, which has played an important part in sustaining rural bus services. Again I must return to the Local Transport Bill, which will give local councils greater powers to work with operators to run services. It will also introduce improvements in community transport, and that is particularly relevant to rural areas. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to encourage his Front-Bench colleagues to support the Bill as, until now, they have failed to do so.

T8. The Department for Transport estimates that there are around 1.2 million vehicles without a valid MOT certificate. Is it not time to bring in a system of reminders for people, so that we can ensure that we improve the quality of vehicles on our roads? (199787)

My hon. Friend raises a very relevant point. On top of the 1 million vehicles without an MOT certificate, I understand that the certificates for some 4 million vehicles are renewed up to four weeks after they should be. A problem clearly exists, therefore, although owners can use a peel-off part of the certificate to remind themselves about when renewal falls due. Many garages and MOT testers send out renewal reminders, but we have asked the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to look at other methods that we can use. Obviously, as there are 31 million vehicles in this country, it would be very expensive to send out reminders to all owners, but we are looking for better ways to remind people about when their MOT is due.

A shop steward in the PCS union has sent me an e-mail to inform me that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s own figures show that coastguards saved 48,000 lives last year. That equates to many billions of pounds saved for the economy, so what are the Government doing to help resolve the current dispute with our coastguards?

The dispute with the coastguards is obviously regrettable. Safety is of paramount importance, and the Government are doing everything possible to make sure that emergency services are provided while MCA members take strike action. They believe that that is the best way to prosecute their pay claim, but we consider that the settlement that they received last year and this year was appropriate and in line with Government recommendations. We are offering talks on a multi-year pay deal for the future, but at present we are making sure that the contingency plans needed for the safety of mariners are in place.

The case for the reopening of the Woodhead line across the Pennines has been made many times in this Chamber, as it would enhance the north’s economic development. Will my hon. Friend the Minister of State update the House on the discussions between the Government and representatives of the National Grid and Network Rail about the preservation of the third Woodhead tunnel—called the “53 tunnel” because it was built in 1953—for future use?

As promised, I met representatives of both Network Rail and National Grid last Friday. We discussed the issues arising from the Adjournment debate to which my hon. Friend and many other hon. Members contributed. Both companies agreed to study the feasibility of ensuring, when the Woodhead tunnels are sealed, that access for the purposes of ongoing inspection is retained. In addition, I discussed Network Rail’s utilisation strategy for the future use of the rail network by both freight and passenger services. The company agreed to take into account any representations about the future use of the Woodhead tunnel for freight.