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Topical Questions

Volume 481: debated on Tuesday 21 October 2008

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to set out to the House the new ministerial responsibilities in the Department for Transport. I shall, of course, maintain an overview of all transport policy. My noble Friend Lord Adonis will take responsibility for our national road and rail networks, the environment and climate change. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), will cover our international aviation and maritime networks, road safety and transport security. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), will take responsibility for all our local transport networks, including responsibility for buses, taxis, cycling, light rail, walking and general accessibility policy. That role is known otherwise in the Department as the Minister for Adjournment debates.

May I repeat a suggestion that I have made to every single one of the Secretary of State’s predecessors whom I have encountered, but without success? Why not set up in his Department a dedicated unit of civil servants to work with people outside to reopen disused and dismantled railway lines? That is crying out to be done. I have a railway in my constituency between Skipton and Colne, and I am sure that it would benefit if he had the best minds in his Department working on this issue to re-establish a railway that was closed in 1975.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s consistency on this question. I am sure that, with his commitment to local government and democracy, he will not mind me saying that if there is a strong local case for reopening railway lines, the case can be made and brought to the Department, where it will be looked at favourably. I am sure that he would not want me to interfere in these matters from the lofty heights of central London, as it would be better if he could persuade the local authorities along the line in question to make the case for reopening the line and to get on with it.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new role. Will he now focus his mind on what is scheduled to happen on Monday next week, when we are due to debate the remaining stages of the Local Transport Bill? Is he aware that already 68 pages of new clauses and amendments have been tabled, many of them by the Government? There is still time for more to be added. On reflection, does he agree that one day’s debate is woefully inadequate, and will he have a word with the Labour Chief Whip to point out that this situation verges on contempt of Parliament and that we need two days?

I am grateful for that welcome. Having served as Chief Whip and as Leader of the House, I am reluctant to interfere in the wise decisions made by the business managers. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham, is looking hard at the amendments and trying to find a sensible way to deal with all of them. It is a matter for the business managers to allocate time, and I am confident that there will be sufficient time for a full and proper debate of the remaining stages of the Bill.

T5. Can Ministers look into the situation whereby Chorley borough council was granted £4 million by Royal Ordnance to provide a new railway station at Buckshaw in Euxton? The cost was estimated at £4 million, but Network Rail now says that it needs £6 million to build that new railway station. It comes on the back of a wagon, so why will it cost £6 million? What can Ministers do through their good offices to bang heads together to get that railway station up and open? (228349)

My hon. Friend was a persistent questioner at Defence questions and I am delighted to see him in his usual place for Transport questions. On the particular issue that he raises, I may need a little more notice to answer his question in detail, but I assure him that he will get a full and complete answer.

T2. The Secretary of State will be only too aware of the magnificent work carried out by the brave men and women of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, who take part in nine out of 10 sea rescues around our shores. Will he comment on the impact on safety at sea if Ofcom gets its way and decides to introduce charges for VHF frequencies for rescue charities such as the RNLI? (228346)

I fully agree with the praise heaped on the RNLI by the hon. Gentleman, as I am sure does the whole House. I was lucky enough to visit its headquarters in Poole only a few months ago, and I saw for myself the excellent facilities and the plans to improve them even further. I am sure that he knows that the spectrum issue is the subject of consultation that is about to close. I can assure him that the issues that he raises have been brought to the attention of the appropriate authority. Issues remain to be resolved, but I can assure him that we are involved, and as a result of this exchange, his concerns will be fed back to the Department involved.

The Minister will be aware of the concern among offshore workers following recent guidance from the Treasury on the seafarers’ earnings deduction. Will he confirm that he has spoken with the Treasury about that and assure offshore workers that they will not be adversely affected by the guidance?

The Department has had informal discussions with Nautilus UK and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs following the special commissioner’s decision in the Pride of South America case. Although there have not been any discussions with the Treasury, I understand that my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is aware of the concerns raised by the decision. HMRC will work closely with stakeholders on the interpretation of the commissioner’s decision to ensure that it is implemented in a fair and practical way.

T3. Has the Minister had an opportunity to read the conclusions of the independent inquiry set up by Essex county council—his noble Friend Lord Whitty took part in it—to look into the problems of congestion and traffic accidents on the A12? Is the Minister aware that the A12 is probably the main road into the hinterland of the east of England, leading to the ports at Harwich and Felixstowe? What are the Government prepared to do to assist Essex county council in funding the improvements that are badly needed? (228347)

The A12 has been referred to by the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members before. As he knows, the matter has been under consideration for some time. In respect of road accidents and collisions, we are about to launch the consultation early next year on our post-2010 strategy. We are looking at the EuroRAP—European road assessment programme—assessment system for roads, whereby accident rates are fed into that which ought to be done to reduce casualties and instances of death and serious injury. The A12 may well be prioritised above its station, given the description that the hon. Gentleman has just provided, but it will form part of a strategy for 2010 onwards.

In welcoming the Secretary of State to his new position, may I urge him to review the drink-drive limits and to make proposals to bring us into line with most of the rest of Europe?

The Department is on record as saying that we will issue relatively soon our consultation on drink-drive limits as well as on compliance and enforcement on a range of other issues, such as driving with drugs, careless driving, speeding and so on. That consultation will come out shortly. We have said so far—we have been misreported in the press—that we will not recommend a reduction of the limit to 50 mg, in line with other European countries. We have said that it might not and probably will not be one of our recommendations, but having a drink-drive consultation obviously opens up the question. There are strong feelings on the issue, so we fully expect that a number of organisations will argue for such a change. The evidence will be tested against those submissions and we will look at the conclusions in due course. Although some other European countries have a 50 mg limit, they do not have the same penalties as us for drink driving. Some have a points penalty and a fine, and their record on road safety is not as good as the UK’s. The issue is complex and emotive, and I am sure that it will be fully examined as a result of the consultation.

T6. The Secretary of State referred to the Office of Rail Regulation’s consultation, part of which is a proposal to double the line between Swindon and Kemble—a proposal that many of us in Gloucestershire have been fighting for for many years, with good reason. The line between Gloucester and Cheltenham and London is totally inadequate for a city and town the size of Gloucester and Cheltenham. Will the Secretary of State have a word with the office and stress how important that proposal is? (228350)

Of course, the office is totally independent, and its remit is independent of the Department for Transport. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising yet another illustration of where the significant investment that the Government are making available to the network might produce benefits by reducing congestion and improving journey times. I hope that those on his Front Bench can emulate the commitment to railways that the Government have made.

T7. The Chancellor of the Exchequer says that he is bringing forward public building programmes. Will the Secretary of State be very kind and bring forward the upgrading and improvement of junction 9 on the M40? It is work that seriously needs to be done if we are to see the development of Bicester. The last group of Transport Ministers undertook to get the work done, and it would be really good news if the right hon. Gentleman would get on with it. (228351)

T8. May I ask the Secretary of State to have an early look at the actions of the Driving Standards Agency with regard to the introduction of the new motorcycle test? The agency believes that it is acceptable to require people from Orkney to travel to Wick on mainland Scotland to take their test. Will he join me in impressing on the DSA that that is not acceptable, and that provision needs to be made available within the island groups? (228352)

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the DSA keeps under close scrutiny the new arrangements that will be introduced in due course for the new multi-purpose test centres and the new motorcycle test. He will know about the criteria that have been laid down, and we are aware that they do not fit in certain parts of the country. We will look very closely at the arrangements that will be in place for his and other constituencies. We have deferred the introduction of the new test for six months because of the concerns expressed by the motorcycle training sector. That shows that we are listening, as we will continue to listen, to representations from hon. Members.