Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 497: debated on Thursday 22 October 2009

Since our last questions in June, the Department has made a significant number of policy announcements. To keep in your good books, Mr. Speaker, I will keep it short. We have announced a £1.1 billion programme for electrification of the Great Western main line and of the line between Manchester and Liverpool, a £14 million package to transform facilities for cyclists at rail stations and green permit schemes for works in the street in London and Kent. We have published “Low Carbon Transport: A Greener Future”, and more details are available on the Department website.

Does the Minister support, as I do, the proposal from the Association of Train Operating Companies that the Crewe to Chester line should be electrified, not least because of its importance to the Cheshire economy and to Crewe as one of the country’s key railway junctions?

It is fascinating how support withers away when it comes to paying for things. There is a consequence of wanting investment in public infrastructure—it costs money. One party is committed to investing—

Two parties are committed to investment, and one is not. When I was in Liverpool announcing the electrification of the Liverpool to Manchester line, I saw no support from the Conservatives. It is slightly rich for a new boy to lecture us about investment.

T5. Will the Minister let me know what practical steps his Department is taking to protect rural bus services—by practical steps, I obviously mean money? (294817)

I thank my hon. Friend for her helpful question. In the last 13 years, we have introduced a rural bus subsidy scheme that gives more than £15 million each year to subsidise buses that otherwise would not be profitable to run. In addition, we have given more money to the revenue support grant scheme, which means that main buses can be funded. We also fund community transport buses, which leads to a number of buses being run that otherwise would not be run. She has raised the important point that social justice demands that rural communities have buses that run.

T2. Given that more than 50 per cent. of flights from airports such as my local one in Edinburgh head to other UK mainland cities, what environmental impact study has been done on the effect of high-speed rail, which would remove the necessity for many of those flights? (294814)

In the work that we undertook for what ultimately became the 2003 aviation White Paper, a substantial review was undertaken into the impact and requirements, for the foreseeable future, of the level of air travel within the UK and for long and short-haul flights. I was recently at Heathrow airport, and although we have obviously committed to investment in high-speed rail and to taking that forward, the proportion of flights to Heathrow is 8 per cent. internal and 7 per cent. short-haul—the vast majority of flights are, of course, long haul, which need to be made.

Again this week, there was an article in a national newspaper on the unacceptable behaviour of a senior manager working at Network Rail. I have been raising this matter, along with the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, for seven or eight months. I had a debate in Westminster Hall on the issue, where I asked 14 questions about it. Can I get an answer to those questions?

Industrial relations and staffing issues are between employers and their staff—in this case, Network Rail and its employees. Network Rail is a private company and the Department cannot involve itself in the staffing and operational aspects of the company’s activities.

T3. The Minister will know that my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), supported by his colleagues in Gloucestershire, has been an ardent campaigner for redoubling the Kemble to Swindon railway line. Now that, as I understand it, a significant amount of money—£30 million—has become available in the south-west, will the Minister take whatever steps he can to ensure that it is used to make that necessary improvement on our rail line? (294815)

I have had discussions this week with the Minister for the South West that indicated that the regional funding allocation for the south-west region has been reassessed, and that it is possible now that the majority of the funds for the redoubling of the Swindon to Kemble link can be found within the region. I will certainly be talking with departmental officials about closing the gap.

Will the Minister inform the House whether there has been any progress in allowing the concessionary bus pass to be used as a senior railcard?

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. We spend £1 billion on the concessionary bus fare scheme, which enables 11 million people who are either over 60 or disabled to use buses free of charge after 9.30 am and before 11 pm who would otherwise not be able to do so. He makes an important point about access to the railways, and I will write to him to give a substantive response, but suffice it to say that we have spent more money this year on such things than ever before in the history of this Government.

T4. May an old boy ask, given the performance of Ministers today, why on earth we have a Department for Transport? Ministers clearly have no influence over rail operators’ timetables. They do not know the number of speed cameras there are about. It is clear that the Highways Agency looks after the roads and that rail operators look after the railways. What on earth is the ministerial team doing? Would it not be a good start— (294816)

Order. I must remind the hon. Gentleman, who is an experienced Member of the House, that topical questions must be brief, and so must the answers.

As an old boy, the hon. Gentleman will remember the privatisation of the railway sector. As an old boy, he will remember the privatisation of the buses. As an old boy, he will remember the fragmentation of the public transport system. And he will remember the chronic under-investment in our public transport system for more than 20 years. Over the past 13 years, we have seen a 20 per cent. increase in the use of our buses, a 40 per cent. increase in the use of our railways and investment in the future as well. I am proud of that.

This week, two conservative think-tanks have proposed getting rid of the pensioners’ concessionary bus pass. Would a Labour Government guarantee the House that they would not do that?

Unlike Her Majesty’s official Opposition, we are committed to the concessionary bus scheme and to having 11 million people in England being able to use it—as I said, free for the first time in the history of Governments in this country.

T6. The Airedale and Wharfedale rail lines, which serve my constituency, are two of the most congested in the entire north of England. When will Yorkshire get its fair share—not extra—of the transport budget to deliver the much-needed extra capacity on those train lines? (294818)

All the regions of the UK get their fair share of rail investment and have done through the life of this Government. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman should recognise that, within his region, the Northern Rail franchise receives more subsidy than any other train operating company in the country.

The Minister will be aware that many of those who work on Britain’s ferries are still not covered by the national minimum wage regulations. Can he outline what steps are being taken to close that loophole?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. It is certainly true that there are issues about the national minimum wage legislation that we need to consider. At the same time, we should recognise the international nature of the shipping industry. One of the other achievements under this Government has been a substantial increase in the number of UK-flagged ships in terms of tonnage. I want to ensure that that continues. We are currently having further discussions with the industry and unions about the issue.

T7. My constituents in Southend, West would like to know whether the commitments originally given by the noble Baroness Chalker will be honoured when the Government sell off the Dartford river crossing toll bridge. (294820)

The pressures on the crossing are well known and the Government are committed to finding a solution to meeting the capacity needs of Dartford.

Will the Minister tell us when the promised public consultation on the shape of the new franchise for the east coast rail line will begin?

We speak all the time to key stakeholders. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that National Express East Coast continues to run the railway. The directly operated company, as a shadow, is ready to take over the running as and when required, and there will be a seamless transition. However, he can write to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State any time that he wishes to do so.

The Minister will be aware that Norfolk is the only county in England that does not have a dual carriageway linking it to a national road trunk network. Does he share my hope that the public inquiry into the dualling of the A11 from Thetford to the Five Ways roundabout will not push back the timetable for the project? Can he also give me an absolute assurance that—

The Government are committed to progressing the dualling of the A11, to ensure that people in Norfolk and Norwich have the best possible access to the rest of the country as soon as possible.

May I ask the shipping Minister to have an urgent look at pay in the Maritime and Coastguard Agency? Last year senior managers were given an average increase of 15 per cent., compared with front-line staff, who got 1 per cent. Surely that is not acceptable.

I have regular meetings with the MCA. There has been a reduction in the number of directors and a change in the provisions. However, we are obviously concerned to ensure that all public sector expenditure not only is in accordance with agreements, but is value for money and delivers the requirements that we need, in this case through the MCA.