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Topical Questions

Volume 504: debated on Thursday 28 January 2010

Since our previous Question Time in December, my Department has announced a £200 million electrification programme for key railway lines in the north-west, responded swiftly and effectively to the recent severe weather and aviation security threats, and invested £20 million in bringing integrated smart ticketing to our cities in five years. We have now received the High Speed 2 report, and are working intensively on the Government’s response.

Given that since 1997, the real cost of travelling by motoring and air has gone down, while the real cost of travelling by rail has gone up, will Ministers make a commitment that, if re-elected, the formula for regulating rail fares will change so that the real cost of travelling by train will decrease, not increase?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue. Some train operating companies have used the regulations in which we prescribed regulated fares to introduce much more expensive fare regimes for the rest of the day. We are learning the lessons of that, and ensuring that when a new franchise is awarded, a basket of improvements benefits the commuter rather than any train operating company.

T7. Will the Minister give me an update for long-suffering Severn bridge users on progress on resolving issues, including using debit and credit cards and considering a freeze on the annual tolling increases? (313737)

I am pleased to inform my hon. Friend that, as a direct consequence of her campaign, lobbying and giving me a hard time outside as well as inside the Chamber, work is under way to make the necessary amendments to the secondary legislation to allow card payments to be accepted on the Severn crossing. The Department for Transport legal and policy people are currently making progress on the changes to the regulations and it is anticipated that the amendments will be made, and that the instrument will come into force in April.

T2. Given that we are having the second winter of excessive harsh weather, which is causing serious problems with potholes on our roads, does the Minister accept that local authorities and the Highways Agency must do more to ensure that the repairs are done as quickly as possible? Will he join me in welcoming Essex county council’s decision to double the budget for this year to deal with those problems? (313731)

I am grateful for that question and the way in which it was asked. We have tripled the amount we give to local authorities to maintain their roads. Last year, we announced an additional £32 million to allow local authorities to assess their roads. If local authorities maintain their roads regularly, there is less chance of potholes forming. Of course, we consider sympathetically applications for additional funding. We are talking to 10 local authorities from last year, and will consider applications made this year, too.

The Minister will be aware that a railway workers’ lobby was here yesterday. The thrust of one of their complaints was that accountants are instructing engineers on what to do. The workers fear that that will result in serious safety failures. What can he say to the House in response to that? Can he assure us that the de-manning of the maintenance service will not impede safety on the railways?

The Office of Rail Regulation, which is both the economic and safety regulator for the railways, has challenged Network Rail to reduce its costs, and improve its efficiency and effectiveness, by around a third over the next control period. The challenge to Network Rail is to ensure that it does that without impacting on either the performance or the safety of the railway. The ORR is inspecting and ensuring that safety is maintained, and any concerns that employees or others have should be referred directly to it.

T4. Government figures show that foreign left-hand drive heavy goods vehicles account for three times the number of accidents that our own right-hand drive HGVs account for. Given that I have raised this issue with the Government over the last few years, and suggested a solution—the mandatory issuance of Fresnel mirrors that would eliminate the blind spot—what progress have they made in reducing that accident rate? Will the Minister meet me to discuss the issue? (313733)

Let me at the outset say that I am more than happy to meet hon. Members to discuss road safety issues. The additional resources that we have given to the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency to undertake checks and issue Fresnel mirrors has had a significant effect on the number of accidents. As I said, I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the matter.

Will my right hon. Friend assure me of the Government’s commitment to high-speed rail electrification from London to south Wales?

I can confirm that we are committed to that. As I said, we believe in serving the entire country, which includes electrifying the Great Western line from London all the way to Swansea—that was a £1 billion announcement. My hon. Friend may be interested to know that currently in Europe, only two countries have less than one mile of electrified line—Albania and Wales. That needs to be sorted out.

Has the Minister made an assessment of the costs nationally to the damage to roads as a result of the cold weather? Will he conduct a review into the use of salt, as opposed to grit, which is used by some other countries, because of the damage that it does to road surfaces?

That is one of the things the UK Roads Liaison Group gives advice on. The hon. Gentleman will be aware, although he may have missed what I said earlier, that we have trebled the amount of funding we give to local authorities in relation to roads maintenance. We have also announced an additional package of £32 million to assess the roads, which will include dealing with the point he made. If he has problems with local authority funding, I am happy for him to approach both the Department for Transport and the Department for Communities and Local Government, which give additional money in exceptional circumstances.

Does my hon. Friend agree that a conflict of interest could be residing within the Office of Rail Regulation, because it is responsible for both safety and investment?

I am more than content that the ORR understands how it needs to discharge both those responsibilities at the same time without any conflict of interest.

T5. Rail passengers travel at peak times in overcrowded carriages in conditions in which it would be illegal to transport cattle and sheep. When is that lack of capacity to be tackled? When will adequate rolling stock be delivered for the safety and comfort of the travelling public? (313734)

The hon. Lady raises a point that has been raised before. We have announced plans to increase our rolling stock by 2014 and we are ahead of the curve in relation to delivery from 2008. It is a question of choices. Had we taken the advice to increase our spending this year by only 1 per cent., it would have led to a reduction of £840 million. If we take the advice to reduce our spending next year by 25 per cent., any idea of increased capacity is pie in the sky.

On several occasions before Christmas, the road network in south-east London and east London came to a complete gridlock because of incidents in the Blackwall tunnel or on adjacent roads. That unacceptable situation occurs too frequently. When my right hon. Friend next meets the Mayor of London, will he put that high on his agenda, because it cannot be allowed to continue?

I am not sure what the Mayor’s priorities are, but they are not the Croydon Tramlink or the Dartford crossing. In fact, he seems obsessed with interfering with Conservative leadership issues. I will ensure that we try to impress on the Mayor the priority of serving Londoners and addressing some of the challenges they face, rather than increasing fares on buses, tubes and trams.

T6. Is the Minister aware of the statement by the AA that the money to fix all Britain’s potholes could be raised within 100 days if increased profits from VAT on fuel were diverted to that problem? Will the Government act accordingly to fill in and repair the potholes? (313735)

I am always happy to tell local authorities what to do, but I actually believe in devolution and giving local authorities the power to do as they see fit. I am only disappointed that so many of them are Conservative and decide not to invest in maintaining our roads. They invest in various projects rather than serving the community that they were elected to serve.

In view of the fact that using our airports is becoming increasingly frustrating, uncomfortable and disagreeable because of necessary security measures, will the Minister convene a meeting of all airport operators to see what can be done to address the issue of passenger comfort?

Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that we have regular meetings with the airport operators to discuss exactly those issues. I wish to put on record our thanks to all those who have worked on the new measures that have come into force since 25 December, and to the travelling public for their patience when experiencing delays immediately after the new requirements were introduced. Most people recognise the proportionality of the security arrangements, but we keep them under review.

To be more cost-effective, Kettering borough council, of which I am a member, would like to employ one set of street wardens for parking enforcement and to tackle litter and dog-fouling offences. Two lines of guidance from the Department are preventing the council from doing that. Will the Minister look at that situation?

I thank the Minister for his answers to the hon. Members for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) about First Capital Connect. May I ask him a further question on that issue? How much longer will it take for the Secretary of State to reach a judgment on whether that company is up to the job of delivering its franchise agreement?

I do not apologise for being tough when it comes to those who run our trains, if there are financial concerns or the companies are in breach of the agreements, either through enforcing remedial action or financial penalties. Over the last three months, First Capital Connect’s performance has been unacceptable—I would go so far as to say it has been disgraceful. We are doing all that we can to ensure that the quality of service improves for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. Some people are advising us that we should not micro-manage train operating companies and should let them have more flexible and longer franchises. We have declined that advice, and we take a hands-on approach to ensure that commuters receive the best quality service.