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Transport Services (Expenditure Reductions)

Volume 511: debated on Thursday 17 June 2010

6. What assessment has been made of the effects on front-line transport services of the announced expenditure reductions for his Department in 2010-11. (2715)

I can reassure my hon. Friend that this Government take protecting front-line services very seriously. However, we also take very seriously the need to deal with the unsustainable structural deficit we inherited. The Department for Transport is focusing on making its contribution to deficit reduction while supporting economic recovery and protecting priority areas.

Notwithstanding that answer, is the Secretary of State aware that the suspension of major schemes has meant that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency may not provide the Isles of Scilly ferry service with the necessary authority to continue? As the service has been 10 years in preparation, is 99% ready to go and is a lifeline for the Isles of Scilly, will he reconsider this issue?

Perhaps I can clarify what I have done. This scheme has conditional approval, and we have said that schemes with conditional approval or programme entry will have to await the outcome of the spending review before we can confirm them. My understanding is that Cornwall county council is still awaiting listed building consent, without which the scheme could not proceed anyway, but we are aware of the vital nature of the link to the Isles of Scilly and we will review the scheme as soon as the spending review has been completed.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment.

Two days ago in the other place, Lord Attlee stated that rail electrification could not be afforded. Does that mean that the Government reject the notion that investment in transport is essential to support economic recovery?

The Government are committed to rail electrification because of its carbon impact. However, as the hon. Lady will be aware, we have inherited a massive black hole in the public finances—[Interruption.] Labour Members can laugh, but the previous Government announced a halving of the public capital investment programme without giving any indication of where that cut would come. After the spending review, we will have to look at all these programmes in the light of their affordability and the urgent need to reduce the fiscal deficit.

Will my right hon. Friend meet me and a delegation from Reading borough council to discuss the continued funding of proposed transport changes that his announcement last week suggested might be suspended?

The only announcement that I made last week that affects the Reading scheme was about a local authority scheme for highway improvements around Reading station. That scheme will be reviewed following the outcome of the spending review, and my hon. Friend will learn the outcome in due course.

May I genuinely welcome and congratulate the Secretary of State and the ministerial team on their new jobs? Good transport can be a driver of economic growth and I ask the Secretary of State to be a champion for transport, rather than treat his position as an application for his next job.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the rail network is carrying more passengers and more freight than at any time since the 1940s, and projections predict further growth. That is why we promised an additional 1,300 carriages by 2014 and we were well ahead of schedule in providing those. In fact, at the last Transport questions, both Liberal Democrats and Conservatives asked us to provide more carriages even more quickly. Now that they are in government together, can the Secretary of State tell us how many more carriages than 1,300 they will provide and how much sooner than 2014?

I am genuinely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his congratulations.

The Department’s principal task is to support economic growth and the Government’s 2020 carbon reduction targets, and we have to demonstrate that we can deliver them in tandem. Approximately half the HLOS––high-level output specification––rolling stock has already been contracted and will proceed, but no further contracts will be signed during this financial year owing to the disastrous public finances. When the spending review is completed, we will review where we are with the programme and make a further announcement in due course.

One would have thought that if the Secretary of State was serious about moving people from road to rail, he would encourage more carriages, so that people would be encouraged in turn to use the rail system. He will be aware that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) is a passionate advocate of reform of rail fares; in fact, in his last question at a Prime Minister’s questions, he challenged the then Prime Minister to change the rail fares formula to 1% below inflation. I am sure that he remains a passionate advocate and is not simply window dressing, so now that they are hon. Friends, will the Secretary of State confirm how soon he will announce a change in the rail fare regime and how much below inflation it will be?

It is amazing that the right hon. Gentleman, who was a member of the last Government, appears to come to the Dispatch Box with no recognition of the deficit we are facing and the financial challenges that the Government have to deal with in order to clear up the mess that he and his hon. Friends left behind. We are committed to fair rail fares, but we have to do everything within the context of the fiscal inheritance that we have received.

I urge my right hon. Friend, when considering how best to expand rail, to consider branch lines off high-speed rail links to service some of the commuter towns disfranchised under the Beeching review.

Although we want to continue to increase passenger usage of the railways, we have to operate within a tightly constrained public spending environment. Our first priority must be to maintain and improve the trunk railway network that we have already. I will consider any proposals for reopening branch lines, but I have grave doubts about whether it is likely to be affordable in the foreseeable future.

Order. I gently point out that we need to make better progress, so short questions and short answers would be appreciated.