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Volume 476: debated on Tuesday 3 June 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Dartford River Crossing

1. What estimate she has made of the average delay caused by congestion to commuters and commercial vehicles using the Dartford river crossing. (207971)

The estimated delay affecting vehicles travelling the five miles between the A13 north of the river and the A2 to the south using the Dartford river crossing is about three minutes northbound and two minutes southbound. That is the average for the period between 6am and 8pm; delays at peak times are longer.

I think my constituents would agree with the Minister that delays at peak times are considerably longer. That marvellous, comfortable picture does not reflect what is a daily reality for thousands of them. I wonder when the Minister will do something to alleviate the daily misery and cost incurred by millions of people who spend, I would guess, hundreds of thousands of hours each year sitting in traffic jams because of the tolls.

Obviously, congestion at peak times is an issue, but all the evidence suggests that without the tolls it would be even worse. The Dartford crossing is a vital part of the national road network, and is used by about 150,000 vehicles every day. In the longer term the answer may be a new crossing, which is why we have commissioned a study.

My constituents, and those living opposite us in Dartford, look forward to the long-promised concessions for our communities to which the Government have committed themselves in respect of the toll, but may I urge my right hon. Friend to act on the second crossing? United Kingdom Ltd demands—needs—an opportunity to gain access to the channel ports and the north of our country, not just via the Dartford crossing but via a crossing on the Thames estuary east of Dartford. The sooner the Government address that need, the better it will be for the commerce of the United Kingdom as well as the minimisation of congestion and pollution in Dartford and Thurrock.

I am probably more aware than most of the strength of my hon. Friend’s feeling about discounts for local residents. He has certainly pressed his case very effectively. As for the options for a new crossing, as I have said, a study is being conducted, and we expect a report at about the end of the year.

I noted the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), but does she consider that the proposed local discount scheme is fair to my constituents and the other residents of east Bexley who are not to be included in it, given that they live closer to the Dartford crossing than some Dartford and Thurrock residents? Or is this just another example of Bexley being let down by Labour?

We set out the reasons for our proposals in our consultation document. As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, we propose to base the scheme on the boundaries of the two local authority areas on either side of the crossing, as they include the most affected locations. Our aim is to adopt an approach that is proportionate and provides clarity on eligibility. I shall announce our conclusions shortly, following the consultation.

Is it not a strange coincidence that both councils nearest to the bridge where residents will travel free happen to be in marginal Labour constituencies? Other commuters in Kent who live just as close to the bridge will now have to pay higher tolls.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman should want to make a party-political point out of a very serious issue. I should also point out that the two councils involved are Conservative controlled.

The Minister is referring to county councils, whereas my hon. Friend was referring to marginal parliamentary constituencies. There is an obvious distinction.

The study that the Minister has announced is welcome, but will it include the Thames Gateway expansion plans and, more specifically, the slightly confusingly named Thames Gateway port expansion plans? When the port is redeveloped—as I assume it will be—it will generate a large amount of HGV traffic.

As I said, the study that is looking at the options will report by the end of the year, at which point we will be able to give more details about the way forward.

Roads (North-West)

2. What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of the road infrastructure in the north-west of England, with particular reference to south Manchester and north-east Cheshire. (207972)

We are working closely with regional partners and local authorities to deliver improvements to the whole of the north-west transport network, including the road infrastructure.

Does the Minister, for whom I have a great deal of respect, accept that my constituency of Macclesfield in north-east Cheshire does not receive a fair allocation of resources for road infrastructure improvement? Does he agree that improved road infrastructure can lead to increased economic development and activity and can reduce carbon emissions in the community? Will he look at the situation in south Manchester and north-east Cheshire to see whether a fairer allocation of resources can be provided?

Obviously I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I agree that good road infrastructure is essential to the health of the economy and of the environment, but, as he will probably know, road spending in the north-west has more than doubled since 2000. The south-east Manchester multimodal study, commissioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), has come up with possible solutions for the south-east Manchester relief road. That is a very expensive project—costing possibly between £700 million and £1 billion—and it cannot go ahead as a single scheme. We are looking at progressing parts of that scheme in phases. He will know that a crucial part of that is the Poynton bypass in his constituency. We are working very hard with all representatives in the local area to come up with an affordable proposition. But to claim that the Government have not spent enough money on road infrastructure in his constituency, or anywhere else in the country, would be false.

The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) and I are the parliamentary shareholders in the road scheme to which the Minister refers, which would complete the road network in my constituency in particular. Is he now in a position to take up the offer that his predecessor made to visit the site and to see what is needed to relieve congestion and pollution in my constituency?

I am always happy to visit the constituency of any hon. Member. If he wishes to make a formal invitation to my private office, I shall be more than happy to consider it. I hope that, during such a visit, he will find that the resources invested in transport infrastructure in the north-west and other parts of the country have well exceeded those of all our predecessor Governments.

Does the Minister understand the very real frustration of residents in my constituency who are concerned about the apparent lack of progress on the completion of the A555 relief road? Does he further understand that the unique factor in the completion of the scheme is that the middle section was built many years ago and simply needs connecting at each end? Without that completion, it will be a permanent testimony to the folly of short-term transport planning.

Of course I understand the frustration felt by constituents and MPs on both sides of the House when a particularly important road scheme is not progressed according to the time scale that we originally expected. As the Government, we have to make sure that whenever a road scheme is progressed, it delivers best value for money. Regardless of the record amounts of money that the Government are investing in road infrastructure, we have to make sure that every pound is well spent. I notice that the transport plans issued by the hon. Gentleman’s party today do not offer much extra money on top of what we have already offered.

Integrated Transport Authorities

3. What assessment her Department has made of the effects on local government accountability of extending voting rights to all members of integrated transport authorities. (207973)

The Local Transport Bill allows local authorities to devise proposals on the membership of integrated transport authorities in their areas. However, a majority of each ITA’s members must be elected councillors. Authorities would also be able to propose whether non-elected ITA members have voting rights.

Does the Minister accept that the only way to ensure real democratic accountability and to avoid the possibility of the political gerrymandering of ITAs is to deprive non-elected members of any voting rights?

I do not think that that is the way forward. Under the Bill, ITAs determine locally whether they want to have people other than elected members on the authorities and, if so, whether they have voting rights. We believe that that is the right approach to enable, for example, passenger or other representation on ITAs. I have discussed that with passenger transport executives, and the hon. Gentleman should take a slightly broader approach.

Will my right hon. Friend press on strongly with her plans for integrated transport authorities? They are exciting real enthusiasm in Selby with the prospect of MetroCards, which could enable travel across the whole of west Yorkshire.

I thank my hon. Friend for that encouragement. I know that he, unlike the Opposition, has been a great supporter of what we are trying to do in the Local Transport Bill, particularly to enable greater improvements to our bus services. I thank him for his support.

Climate Change

We need to move from a fuel-intensive economy to one that is low carbon. That is why climate change is now one of the five overarching goals of transport policy. It is also why we take account of the cost of carbon when making policy decisions, and why we are looking at many further options for reducing transport emissions.

I welcome what the Secretary of State has to say, but is that commitment not somewhat undermined by the Government’s commitment to airport expansion? Given that their own Sustainable Development Commission has recently called for a fundamental review of the air transport White Paper and for decisions on Stansted and Heathrow to be put on hold until that happens, would it not make sense for them to rethink their position? After all, the current trend in fuel prices may well do more to restrain air travel than anything that we do in our legislation. Should we not have a rethink along the lines called for by the commission?

I know how committed my hon. Friend is to the idea that the UK should play a full role in combating climate change, and I agree. The question for the House is: is combating climate change and reducing carbon dioxide emissions overall, across all sectors of the economy, compatible with the growing aviation sector? I and the Government believe that it is, and we are championing in Europe a European emissions trading scheme whereby any increase in aviation emissions above the 2004-06 base level would have to be matched one for one by a reduction in carbon emissions elsewhere in the European economy, paid for by the aviation sector. In that way, not only do we help to push forward with our climate change objectives; we do so in a way that is compatible with future economic growth.

When the Secretary of State formulates transport policy, will she also take into account the report by Professor David Newbury of Cambridge university, which said that if motorists were obliged to pay the true cost of the effect that vehicles have on the environment, they would be paying taxes at less than half the rate they are currently paying? In the light of this information, will the Secretary of State therefore now abandon her unpopular and misguided plan to introduce local charging schemes in the interest not only of fairness, but—because we care about her—of saving her own seat?

I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman cares so much about my electoral prospects in Bolton, West. I have to think about how we combat climate change in a way that, yes, is compatible with economic growth but that also helps us to cut congestion. He points to the rate of fuel tax and puts that in the context of the carbon cost, but we also have to think about the impact of traffic on the roads, which undermines economic growth, too. All our growing cities across the country have grown very strongly in the past 10 years, and they have to ask themselves how they can continue to support that economic growth over the next 10. To do that, they will have to think of innovative ways of dealing with congestion. We have said to cities and towns across the country that if they come forward with innovative plans, we are prepared to back that with hard cash.

We should certainly take our share of the credit for the Kyoto treaty, but does my right hon. Friend not agree that we must address the fact that greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation remain unregulated? I note what she said about a European carbon emissions trading scheme. Can she indicate what other steps the Government are taking to change this state of affairs?

Yes, it is right that not only do we push ahead with the European trading scheme—it will set an absolute cap on aviation emissions across Europe, counting not only emissions created within the eurozone, but all planes leaving from Europe and arriving in Europe, and will make a substantive contribution to climate change—but, importantly, that, within that, we think about how to create efficiency in aviation. That means encouraging future investment in technology and creating incentives to use airspace better, which is why we are working towards a single European sky and working with traffic control services to ensure the most efficient air traffic control in each country.

Some 70 per cent. of the Scottish Government’s transport budget is spent on sustainable public transport, and the Welsh Assembly’s Sustainability Committee has urged the adoption of a similar target for Wales. How well is the Secretary of State’s Department doing on the breakdown of expenditure between public transport and roads?

Rail usage has increased by almost 50 per cent. since 1997, whereas traffic has increased by 12 per cent, and those figures speak for themselves. We are making unprecedented levels of investment in rail, and we intend to continue that with up to £15 billion of investment over the next five-year period. As a result, we have the fastest growing railway in Europe. Looking beyond that, we can see very exciting opportunities for reopening or making more use of lines and for encouraging more people to abandon their cars and think about alternative ways of moving around.

The Secretary of State will know that rail freight accounts for only 2 per cent. of all freight transport emissions and that every tonne of freight carried by rail is estimated to produce at least 80 per cent. less carbon dioxide emissions than if road were used. Why then was there no high-level output specification—HLOS—for rail freight? Why have the Government failed to announce any funding for their strategic freight network?

The hon. Gentleman has simply not read the rail White Paper, which allocated £200 million towards a strategic rail freight network across this country. He has also not noticed that I announced plans this morning to reject larger, so-called super-lorries on British roads. I did that—I know that his party has supported that policy in the past—not only because of the impact on the environment, but because such lorries might attract traffic from railways on to roads. We need to examine these things in the round and make sensible investment decisions, judging the impact on safety, but also considering the impact on carbon emissions and congestion.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the contribution that traffic congestion makes to emissions and climate change. May I draw her attention to the fact that we face a problem in south-east London at the Blackwall tunnel every day, and that a three-bridge scheme proposes to deal with it? I understand that the Mayor of London is not going to build the Thames Gateway bridge. Some of us have been saying that the Silvertown link should be prioritised, and this situation gives the opportunity for that to take place. Will she examine the matter and discuss it with the Mayor of London? Will she also take the opportunity to bring the Docklands Light Railway to North Greenwich, as it could then be moved on to Eltham, thus reducing the traffic congestion on this major arterial route?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point; we need to think about how we can encourage mobility from the south of the river to the north of the river and vice versa. We need to make it easier for people to be able to work on one side of the river and live on the other. I know that the Mayor of London has suggested innovative proposals, such as swinging cable cars across the river, and it is right that we examine all proposals on their merits. I shall take up my hon. Friend’s suggestion to discuss this matter in greater detail with the Mayor of London in due course.

Bus Companies

The Government are committed to cutting unnecessary regulatory burdens on business wherever possible, including on the bus industry. However, that must be balanced with the passenger’s right to a safe and reliable service.

But can the Minister do nothing about the daily occurrence of what can only be described as a sketch from a “Carry on” movie taking place across rural areas? Passengers are forced to get off buses and get back on buses and repurchase tickets every 30 miles because the Government failed to secure a common-sense derogation from EU regulation 561/2006, which sets maximum targets in respect of bus drivers. Does this not simply play into the hands of certifiable ranters in other political parties, who—rightly, on this occasion—decry the rather bizarre micro-management that such regulations present?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the new EU rules do not limit the length of a bus route, but introduce improved safety requirements to do with the length of a driver’s working week, to ensure proper weekly rest periods. We should support that, because of the huge safety implications. However, I know that concerns have been expressed about some of the ways in which that has been operated, and that is why the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), met representatives of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, the trade association for the bus and coach industry, to explore the industry’s concerns and consider possible solutions within the constraints of the EU drivers’ hours regulations. This is a safety issue, but we are considering the problems with interpreting the practical application of the regulations.

Is not there at least one respect in which the regulatory framework for bus companies should be tighter? I refer to the lack of an obligation to retrofit older buses to enable disabled access. In rural parts of Leicestershire, where traffic on buses is low, the economic pressure on the company to provide disabled access is much lower. Should we not aim for an earlier implementation date of these important regulations?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the accessibility of buses for disabled people. As he says, there is a programme of improvement. I am heartened when I see the many new buses that are being introduced with proper disabled access. The requirements will change, and another important factor will be the Local Transport Bill, which is making progress through Parliament at the moment. The Bill will enable local authorities to work with bus operators much more closely on such issues, and it is very disappointing that Conservative Front Benchers oppose it and all the improvements that it will bring.

Does the Minister agree that the driving times and rest periods directive, which sets out the so-called 50 km rule, is completely unsuitable for and irrelevant to rural areas? Is she aware that a young dynamic company in my constituency, Norfolk Green, has told me that if the directive is implemented as it stands, the company will have to axe various new rural services? Will she not stand up for rural bus routes and companies?

It was this Government who introduced the rural bus subsidy—now some £55 million a year—so we will not take any lectures from the Opposition about supporting rural bus services. As I have said, the EU rules are about safety and drivers’ rest periods, but my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has met representatives of the industry to discuss their concerns and will look at possible solutions.

Active Traffic Management

7. What progress has been made on the introduction of active traffic management on the motorway network; and if she will make a statement. (207977)

Last year, I announced the extension of hard shoulder running to parts of the M6 around Birmingham. This scheme is due to be open to traffic in summer 2011. The Department and the Highways Agency are examining in detail where hard shoulder running should be implemented more widely on the motorway network. This work is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

May I partially thank the Minister for that reply? Does she agree that the active traffic management on the M42 in the west midlands has brought lower congestion, lower carbon emissions, lower pollution and fewer accidents? Therefore, does she regret that the deadbeats in the Highways Agency and her Department should have ensured that those considerable benefits for motorists were delayed? Is not she appalled that those same useless officials are still delaying the roll-out to 2011 and beyond? When will Ministers get a grip on that lot?

I commend my right hon. Friend for his great advocacy of active traffic management, even though I cannot condone the expressions he used in relation to officials in the Highways Agency and the Department. When he was a Transport Minister, he was a great champion of active traffic management. Indeed, it was under his leadership that the first trial of active traffic management and hard shoulder running was initiated around the M6 in Birmingham. I commend him for that.

It is right that we should press on and try to secure as quickly as possible the huge benefits that can be secured, not necessarily by widening our motorways, although they might have to be widened in some cases—as with the recent announcement about the M25—but by using active traffic management and hard shoulder running wherever they can be used across the entire network. That is why I have asked officials to examine in detail where it might be applicable and where we might have the earliest openings. The Birmingham box will lead through to the next phases by the summer of 2011, and I hope to make further progress quickly thereafter.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the biggest traffic management problem on our motorways is the delay in clearing up after often quite minor shunts? That causes terrific frustration, and is much worse here than anywhere on the continent. She has promised in the past to do something about it, but frankly no one thinks that anything has been done to date. Can she give me some reassurance this afternoon?

I certainly can. The right hon. Gentleman must be aware that it was the Government who introduced traffic officers to our motorway network in recent years. Traffics officers have had measurable success in restoring moving traffic after accidents have occurred—

I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman shakes his head—they are extremely popular among those who come across them on their daily motorway journeys.

It is right, too, that we should make faster progress. Collision accident equipment, for instance, which is now being routinely used by the Highways Agency, will also have an impact, as will the information that is now routinely given to drivers on overhead gantries. We give them information about what routes are best to use and where congestion is likely to occur. The point is that the motorway system ought to be seen as a system. We ought to think about how to manage it and how to manage traffic flows as best we can. That is why active traffic management, which regulates speed as well as opening up the hard shoulder, is the right way forward.

The role of the DVLA is very important in traffic management. Is my right hon. Friend as concerned as I am about the fact that the DVLA is selling the addresses of my constituents to security companies—

Order. I must gently say to the hon. Gentleman that he keeps doing this and he will be stopped. He must keep confine his comments to the Question. He does this on a regular basis, and I am sorry to draw him up on it, but he will not do it again.

We welcome the extension of hard shoulder running following the successful M42 trial. It will be rolled out, we have been told, in conjunction with toll lanes or high occupancy vehicle lanes. In the case of the M1, the M6 and the M62, will that be introduced on new tarmac created by widening the motorways, or will it be done on the cheap, using the road freed up by the hard shoulder running?

I am glad that Opposition Front Benchers have come to see the merits of hard shoulder running and active traffic management. They have been dithering over it for quite a while, but at least, at last, they have seen sense. It is true, in many cases, that it is possible to deliver 95 per cent. of the benefits of widening at a fraction of the cost through hard shoulder running. However, when we are introducing new capacity—and only in those cases, such as when we are bringing the hard shoulder on stream and allowing motorists to use it for the first time—we might want to think about how to lock in that capacity so that it is not just taken up by more traffic. We should think about the most efficient way to use that extra capacity, perhaps by introducing a toll on the lane or car share lanes.

Rail Fares

8. What recent steps her Department has taken to simplify rail fares and make the rail system easier to use. (207978)

Fulfilling a commitment made in last year’s rail White Paper, a new system of simplified fares was announced in April this year. I have also asked Passenger Focus to carry out a study to see how well the current system meets passenger expectations and to make recommendations to me about further improvements.

I am sure that my constituents will welcome that answer, as the complex system of ticket pricing has been a source of some grievance to them and, they tell me, a disincentive to using rail services. Will my right hon. Friend also look again at a national railcard system for frequent users, which has been successful in mainland Europe in getting people on to the trains, and such a benefit should be given to our own people?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her remarks about rail fares. The simplified rail structure—the biggest shake-up in fares for a generation—will bring profound benefits to passengers. One of the benefits of the new system is not just that the same type of ticket will be available from each train operating company, but that railcards will be equally valid across the network. That is one of the real prizes that is secured by these reforms.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the quickest rail route from Ludlow to London is via Crewe, yet it is not possible legally to purchase a ticket from Ludlow to London via Crewe? Why is that?

The simplified rail fare structure that we have introduced is indeed the biggest shake-up in fares for a generation, but I am clear that it is only part of the solution. One of the things that we must do for the passenger is to ensure that it is possible to buy a through ticket from any point in the United Kingdom to any other at the cheapest price. I have asked Passenger Focus to consider these issues and to work out from the passenger’s point of view what would restore confidence in the railway fare structure, and I am sure that it will consider the point that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the current fragmented rail system can respond adequately to passengers’ concerns? That includes ensuring that the simpler fares do not price people out of being able to book and travel on the same day.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her elevation to Chairman of the Select Committee on Transport. I have worked with her over the past year, and her elevation is extremely well deserved. I look forward to hearing more from her not just in Transport questions but in Select Committee hearings. She is right to say that we always ought to keep the structure of the railways under review, but the last thing the rail industry needs now is huge upheaval. In fact, this is the first time for a generation we have a stable structure for the industry, based on a secure financial footing, in which we are investing in increased capacity. From the passengers’ point of view, that is what they want; they want more capacity, more seats on the railways, more reliable railways and, of course, a railway with fares that they can understand, and we are making progress on all fronts.

Was the Secretary of State aware that many rail companies used the introduction of simpler fares to increase fares for the second time this year? If she was aware, what is she doing about it?

The Oyster card has been an enormous success since its introduction on the London underground network, yet the train operating companies are dragging their feet on the extension of the scheme to parts of outer London. As a result, my constituents have to purchase a ticket and then get on the underground and use the Oyster card. Some companies have reached agreement on when the cards will be introduced, but we need to put more pressure on them to introduce them sooner. Can my right hon. Friend help?

I have raised this issue with the chair and chief executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies, which is in negotiations with Transport for London to find out how quickly Oyster cards can be introduced across the network. That is something that passengers would value. It would not only make a real difference to the network, but might mean that fares needed to be adjusted in response. There are clearly commercial issues to work through, and I will do whatever I can to help to broker an agreement.

Insurance Fraud

9. What estimate she has made of the number of traffic collisions staged for insurance fraud purposes in the last 12 months. (207979)

“Crash for cash” is a particularly nasty crime in which elderly, vulnerable and, in particular, female drivers are targeted by fraudsters who try to crash into their cars to get money. Apparently, £28 million has gone to the City of London police, but the majority of such crimes take place in the north of England. What will the Minister do at least to make sure that best practice is spread across the country, as 40 per cent. of people would not even know if they were a victim of this crime?

The hon. Gentleman raises a fair point. It is difficult to detect whether a crash has been staged for insurance and fraud purposes. The Association of British Insurers estimates that the number of road accidents caused by fraud gangs will rise to 2,500 by 2010, up from 1,000 in 2005. That is very much a matter for the insurance industry and its Insurance Fraud Bureau, and it is for the police to try to detect the crime, but obviously it is a matter of concern that has to be monitored closely.

Highway Charges

10. If she will bring forward a proposal for a scheme under which foreign registered lorries pay to use the highway network. (207980)

As announced in Budget 2008, following the freight data feasibility study the Government will not progress a vignette scheme at this stage. Our view is that enforcement is a better option to protect road users in the UK.

That is a disappointing response. The UK taxpayer will continue to have to pay for wear and tear on our infrastructure caused by foreign hauliers. Is it not a fact that a recent European Union regulation will allow unlimited access to UK markets by 2014? Whereas European hauliers have the benefit of cheaper fuel and unregulated, and therefore cheaper, labour, British hauliers will face yet further unfair competition. Many may go out of business. There is no enforcement to ensure that our good road safety standards can be maintained in future under those conditions.

As I said, the Government are determined to deal with the issue through enforcement. In the past two years, we have more than doubled enforcement targeted at heavy goods vehicles on international journeys. Alongside publication of the feasibility study conclusions, we announced a £24 million package that will fund two new enforcement sites at locations with a high volume of heavy goods vehicles traffic, a 50 per cent. increase in the number of checks carried out, a near doubling of prohibitions, 97 additional staff and a move to 24/7 enforcement checking. We believe that enforcement will protect the road haulage industry. The matter to which the hon. Lady refers will come under discussion in Europe in due course; it has not been decided so far.

I wonder whether the House is aware that 1.7 million heavy goods vehicles have come into Britain over the past 10 years. They were all full of dirty fuel—full of sulphur that they are belching out into our countryside. How does that square with the Government’s policy on CO2 emissions and green fuel, with which all our heavy goods vehicles have to fill up their tanks? It makes a nonsense of the Government’s policy.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point. We do not want UK hauliers disadvantaged by those coming from outside, whether the issue is dirty or cheaper fuel, hauliers not observing the regulations on tiredness or overloading their vehicles, or any other regulation being abused. We have reinforced the amount of money available to the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, the enforcement agency, to make sure that it can police vehicles far more effectively than they have ever been policed before. I assure him that it is determined to do that, and is doing that.

The Minister says that he does not want the UK haulage industry disadvantaged, but it is being disadvantaged. Faced with intense competition from foreign hauliers who pay no British taxes, the UK haulage industry is on its knees. Some 87 per cent. of lorries travelling through British ports to the continent are now foreign-owned. Family-run haulage businesses are going out of business every day because of rocketing fuel prices, and now they face more fuel tax hikes because the Prime Minister needs to fill a gap in his public finances. The Government’s complacency on the issue is astounding.

Order. The hon. Lady must not make a speech; she is asking a supplementary question. She should put the question, and she may also ask a second question, but she should not make a speech.

I am grateful. I apologise, Mr. Speaker. Does the Secretary of State really want her political legacy to comprise presiding over the death of the British haulage industry?

No, we certainly do not want to see the British road haulage industry damaged, which is why we have put in place measures that we believe will protect it. In respect of the accusation that rising fuel costs in Britain are harming our industry, rising fuel costs are affecting the whole of Europe. Every industry is being affected, as we have seen on our television screens over the past few weeks.

But more than seven years ago the Government promised to introduce measures to ensure that foreign hauliers pay towards the cost of the damage that they cause to Britain’s roads. When will they keep the promise that they made, or will they just continue to dither while hard-working UK haulage firms go to the wall?

As I explained to the hon. Lady only a moment ago, the Government carried out the freight data feasibility study to try to identify the best way of protecting the British road haulage industry. It was determined through that study, in which, as I understand it, the Road Haulage Association co-operated and participated, that a vignette scheme of the order that would be allowed would not be appropriate, and that the best way to protect the RHA and British industry was to beef up enforcement on our roads to make sure that foreign hauliers would not be able to take any further advantage. That is what we said we would do. That is what we have done with the extra £24 million that we have allocated to the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, and that extra enforcement will have an impact.

Topical Questions

On 7 May I announced new proposals to strengthen the way people learn to drive and are tested, to make newly qualified drivers safer and create a culture of extended learning. On 16 May I announced full approval and funding of £244 million for an extension to the Manchester Metrolink. These new routes are expected to attract an additional 10 million passengers a year. The new simpler structure for rail fares announced in the rail White Paper was introduced for advance fares in May, and on 22 May the Department began a public consultation on the terms of a new South Central franchise. A report commissioned by my Department on longer and heavier goods vehicles has been published today. I have decided not to allow super-lorries on UK roads for the foreseeable future.

Yesterday, the head of the International Air Transport Association commented that the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority is the “world’s worst regulator” and criticised the UK as BAA’s “Monopoly-land”. For years I have called for an end to the ludicrous situation whereby Scotland’s two major airports in Glasgow and Edinburgh, which are only 40 miles apart, are owned by the same people. It is time to solve the problem, much the same as in London—

Order. I am going to stop the hon. Gentleman. It seems that I am stopping many hon. Members. A supplementary question in a fast-paced session should be short and sharp.

The point that my hon. Friend was rightly making is that it is important to have good service from all British airports, including those in Edinburgh and Glasgow. He is right, too, to point to the Competition Commission report, which is examining ownership of British airports and argued that the issue was not only ownership but aviation capacity in the United Kingdom. Clearly, I cannot pre-empt the report’s final conclusions, but when the major hub airport in England is operating at virtually 99 per cent. capacity, it is perhaps not surprising that there are knock-on implications, first and foremost for other British airports. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s constituents who use Glasgow and Edinburgh airports will feel the result of that.

The Secretary of State talks about her commitment to climate change, but the Office for National Statistics report published today shows that emissions from air transport are up 9 per cent. in the past year alone and emissions from road transport are up as well. Does she think that building more and more roads and more and more airport capacity is the right way to reduce emissions? Is she committed to the 60 per cent. cut that the Government say they want to achieve in carbon dioxide emissions? What if they delivered 60 per cent. from the transport sector?

I am certainly committed to the overall position of the UK Government that we should aim for at least 60 per cent. domestic reductions in CO2 emissions, if not go further. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has asked the Committee on Climate Change to see whether 60 per cent. is the right number or whether it should perhaps be 80 per cent. However, I do not accept for a moment that every single sector of the UK or the European economy should contribute precisely the same amount. What matters is that overall we not only reach our climate change objectives but deal with the issues of international aviation and road transport, and all the other sectors of the economy. Within that, it is perfectly possible to have an aviation sector that meets passengers’ expectations for increased mobility and cheap holidays. However, we have to ensure that it is within a framework—

T2. On Thursday, the Office of Rail Regulation will announce its draft conclusions on which bits of track best meet the criteria set by Government on improved performance and capacity. Will the Minister look forward and see whether the piece of track between Kemble and Swindon deserves redoubling, as many people who use that line feel that it does? (208007)

I know that my hon. Friend would not expect me to pre-empt any announcement that the Office of Rail Regulation will make later this week, tempting though it is. I pay tribute to him for the resilient and dedicated campaign that he has run for the redoubling of that line, but I, like him, will have to wait for a further announcement from the ORR.

T3. Fourteen-year-old Alex Williams was in a collision with a car while riding his bike. He suffered bleeding to the brain and was in intensive care. Alex says:“you can not tell teenagers to wear something they don’t want because we just won’t listen. The only way to make teenagers wear a helmet is to make it law”.Does the Minister agree with Alex that it should be compulsory for children to wear cycle helmets? (208009)

I express my deepest sympathy for the hon. Gentleman’s constituent—the young man he spoke about. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that there have been occasional calls for making the wearing of cycle helmets compulsory. It is an option that we look at from time to time. There are no plans at the moment to make it compulsory, but I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman by saying that we are going to conduct research into the effectiveness of wearing cycle helmets. We hope to have an interim report in the summer, and I hope that that will be able to inform us particularly on the points that he raises.

T4. Present medium and long-term Government transport plans have been partly rooted in assumptions that 2020 oil prices would be around $70 per barrel. Given that they are currently double that, will the Department rework its road, rail and air strategies to make them fit for purpose in an era of no more cheap oil—especially in aviation, where unquestioned obeisance to “predict and provide” in a largely untaxed industry is a major environmental hazard? (208010)

The Government take into account a range of scenarios when considering future demand for different forms of transport, drawing up their long-term transport plans and appraising individual schemes. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, on behalf of the Government, keeps our assumptions under review in response to changing circumstances.

T5. Does the Minister agree that for the sake of all the people sitting in traffic jams around the Dartford tolls today, as well as having a consultation we should try to have, say, a week without tolls or something intelligent such as tolls going just one way? (208011)

I have to say that the hon. Gentleman’s proposal for a week without tolls is completely unintelligent. The idea that one could somehow, for one week, remove the barriers and have vehicles going through at speed is so dangerous that it is ridiculous. The other idea—that we should take the whole tolls compartment away—is just ridiculous. The hon. Gentleman needs to come up with slightly more sensible suggestions if he is to be taken seriously.

T7. I am sure the Minister is aware of the £100 million scheme proposed by Network Rail to cut 10 minutes off the journey time between Sheffield and London on the midland main line. Given that that scheme would cost only 1 per cent. of what was spent on the west coast main line but would yield 25 per cent. of its benefits in journey time savings, does he not agree that it is a very good deal? Given the benefits to Sheffield and other economies in the area, it ought to be given favourable consideration by the Government. (208013)

My hon. Friend has run an enthusiastic campaign on this scheme. It is not my job as rail Minister to interpret the engineering benefits of the scheme; it is up to Network Rail and the Office of Rail Regulation, as he knows. I am sure that in the next few days we will get an assessment from the ORR of whether the scheme is deliverable and represents best value for money.

T6. Given the inevitable disruption to two of the four lines between Reading and Paddington resulting from Crossrail, will the Minister look urgently at the reinstatement of a three-mile loop on the Exeter-Waterloo line, and can he say when the work will start on the agreed route at Axminster? (208012)

I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on his last point. On his substantive point about the conflict between the different tracks after Crossrail services begin, he will know that Crossrail is essentially a metro service and will not use the fast lines between Reading and Paddington. A great deal of work has gone into making sure that there is no conflict between Crossrail services and existing fast services between Reading and Paddington. I am not aware that anything has changed in that respect, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me with more details I will be more than happy to respond in detail.

T8. Plans have been published for the £5.5 billion upgrade of the Thameslink line, which is very welcome for our constituents. How will my hon. Friend make sure that it runs to time and to cost, and that its effect on the travelling public is minimised, including the upgrade to Gatwick airport? (208014)

I echo my hon. Friend’s welcome of the £5.5 billion the Government have committed to making progress with Thameslink. The work we have done in preparation for both phases of Thameslink, the first phase of which is due to be completed in 2011, gives me enough confidence to believe that work will be completed on time. Phase 2 will not be completed until 2015, after the Olympics have finished, but phase 1, which will provide a major step change in increased frequency on the north-south route, will be completed on time and to budget.

As the Minister will be aware, traffic along the A120 leading to Braintree gets worse and worse every day. An announcement on the extension of the A120 between Braintree and Marks Tey is long overdue. When can my constituents expect an announcement?

The hon. Gentleman and I have had a number of discussions on this scheme, I seem to remember, and of course he is keen to know what progress has been made since our last meeting. I will be able to make an announcement in due course. It will not be an early announcement, but I am happy to give the commitment that he will be kept up to date with any decisions taken. The major problem is the steep increase in the cost of the scheme, but working with my officials we will try to find some way forward, and I will keep him fully informed.

T9. It is 20 years since the electrification of the east coast main line, and the line is now used practically to capacity. Atkins has produced a study saying that a new high-speed east coast line would generate two and a half times its cost in economic benefits. Will the Government look seriously at the case for more and faster trains connecting Yorkshire and the north-east with London and the Eurostar services to the continent? (208015)

My hon. Friend rightly champions the cause of his constituents. It is important that we continue to invest in rail services. He talks about faster, more frequent trains. Yes, we must have faster and more frequent trains, but not at any price. I welcome proposals for high-speed lines and for conventional lines running at greater frequency, and proposals to upgrade the network. I have already invited Network Rail to consider all the options that we might look at for funding—not in the next period, but in the period beyond—so that if demand materialises for rail travel and more and more people continue to use rail services, we will be in a position to make the right long-term choices.

Further to the earlier question about BAA, and given that Britain needs an effective and efficient airport network, does the Secretary of State agree that Britain’s competitiveness is being negatively affected by the monopoly of BAA?

I certainly agree that Britain’s airports are not highly regarded across the world, and that is having a negative impact on perceptions of Britain abroad. That is a situation that we must sort out. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the Competition Commission is looking into the situation. I am not going to pre-empt its final conclusions, which will be published later this year, but I would say that the issue is not just about ownership of airports; it is about the regulatory system, too. I recently announced that we were setting up a review to look into the economic regulation of airports across the piece, so that we put passengers right at the centre of our proposal. The issues are the passenger experience, capacity in the aviation sector and, potentially, ownership, although the ownership questions are ones for the Competition Commission.

T10. Will the Minister look into an issue that was raised with me by the excellent Severn tunnel action group, which is campaigning for better services for its railway station, so that in future new or altered rail franchise documents include requirements to promote rail-to-rail connections, and greater use of rail is encouraged? (208016)

This is a subject on which my hon. Friend and I have corresponded. I have committed to meeting her and a delegation of her constituents to discuss the issues. She is right to say that connectivity of through railway journeys is vital if the growth in the railways that we have seen over the past 10 years is to continue.

This week, Mr. Bill Emery of the Office of Rail Regulation severely criticised Network Rail’s punctuality, delivery and overruns. Will the Secretary of State bear Network Rail’s poor performance in mind in the rail freight application process, given its blithe assurances in my constituency that it would not cause delays, and not take its evidence as seriously as it would like her to?

It is absolutely true that Network Rail has not performed as well as it should have over the past six months or so. However, it is also true that Network Rail has developed a world-class engineering organisation. I have absolute faith that whatever difficulties Network Rail has to overcome—and there are difficulties—it will manage to produce the excellent railway service that we all want. Network Rail has already committed to a 31 per cent. improvement in efficiencies over the current control period. We will find out exactly what the performance demand will be from the Office of Rail Regulation by the end of this week. However, I am confident that, in contrast with the awfulness of Railtrack, which was introduced by the previous Conservative Government, Network Rail will deliver for the passengers of this country.