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Topical Questions

Volume 514: debated on Thursday 22 July 2010

Since I last answered departmental questions, we have announced a new framework for the economic regulation of airports; our south-east airports taskforce has commenced work; we have announced the sale of High Speed 1; and we have launched a £15 million fund to incentivise the purchase of low-carbon buses. I have also prepared and submitted a spending review bid to the Treasury.

I thank the Minister of State for her earlier answer in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) in respect of recognising the importance of the East Suffolk line to the future prosperity of central and eastern Suffolk. Part of improving the infrastructure is a vital stretch of track called the Beccles loop, which would enable a future franchisee to run a full London to Lowestoft service. May we count on the Secretary of State’s support in pursuing the funding for that vital stretch of track?

Any future proposals for rail enhancements will be considered in the usual way in setting the output requirements for control period 5, which will define Network Rail’s investment programme from 2014 onwards.

More than 1 million Londoners are entitled to Labour’s freedom pass and more than 11 million older and disabled people in England are entitled to Labour’s concessionary bus pass. Pass holders have been made anxious by reports in the media of the submission made to the Treasury by the Secretary of State in relation to the comprehensive spending review. The CSR is three months away, so can he reassure those anxious older and disabled citizens that he has not submitted, in his job application/CSR bid, any change in the eligibility requirements for those who receive the bus pass?

The hon. Gentleman refers to two separate things. The arrangements in London are of course the responsibility of the Conservative Mayor of London, and I cannot answer for the decisions that he will make on the operation of the scheme in London. With regard to the national scheme, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have both made clear their commitment to the scheme in its current form. It is enshrined in primary legislation and we have no plans to change it.

T2. The Chancellor promised that the vulnerable would be protected from budget cuts, but I know that Ministers will be well aware that there has been much speculation about the future viability of the bus service operators grant, which is clearly essential to many marginal rural services, the sustainability of which would be called into question if that were to be in any way cut. What reassurance can Ministers give me and my constituents that those rural services, which are essential— (10295)

I recognise the importance that many attach to the bus service operators grant. The Government intend to try to increase the number of people using the bus. However, we also want to get a fair deal for the taxpayer and the passenger, and that is the direction of travel that we wish to pursue. Ensuring that people can travel by bus in my hon. Friend’s constituency and elsewhere in rural areas is important to that objective.

T7. Has the ministerial team seen the comments by the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr Yeo) in which he called for the privatisation of motorways and a widespread increase in road tolling? Will Ministers rule out such proposals for the duration of this Parliament? (10300)

The coalition Government have indeed ruled out the tolling of the existing road network for the duration of this Parliament.

T3. What are the Government going to do to make it safer for motorcyclists by improving the tests for motorcyclists? In particular, the last Government so reduced the number of test sites that we had the slightly ludicrous situation of motorcyclists who had not passed the test having to travel considerable distances on their motorbikes to take the test. So can we see some improvement in the test regime for motorcyclists? (10296)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We have announced a review into both parts of the motorcycle test, not only because of the concerns he raises, but because of some of the accidents that have taken place on tests, especially on part 1, which is off-road. We have a ludicrous situation in which some people have to travel two and a half miles with their L plates on to take the test, go off-road, fail it and then have to ride all the way back. That situation is being reviewed, and we hope to have answers in the autumn.

Will the Minister let my constituents, and those of the hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle), know what progress he has made on the Todmorden Curve rail project?

I know that the local authorities are working hard on this project and have engaged Network Rail to do some important work on it. I very much appreciate the benefits that it could deliver, particularly when tied in with development proposals, if they go ahead. I am keeping a close eye on that. The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that I cannot give him guarantees on funding at the moment because of the state of the public finances. However, I know that the local authorities are taking this very seriously.

T4. Does my right hon. Friend agree that although high- speed rail services are important to our economy, many communities along the route, whichever may be chosen, will be adversely affected, including some communities in my own constituency? Will he therefore agree to mitigate, as far as he can, the impact on those communities, and will he also agree to— (10297)

I think I can gather the balance of the question, Mr Speaker. We well understand that the national strategic and economic benefits of the high- speed rail network have to be balanced against local environmental disbenefits. Of course, the project will be designed with maximum sensitivity in mind, and I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that I will be visiting the line of the proposed route in the summer recess.

Last week, I spoke to residents in Heswall in my constituency who are most concerned to get the train to Liverpool rather than their cars. The Wrexham to Bidston electrification project is vital for that. Will the Minister explain briefly what work her officials in the Department are doing to work with Network Rail, Merseytravel and others to take this vital project forward?

We are in touch with Network Rail and Merseytravel on this issue. Indeed, I discussed it with the director general of Merseytravel only recently. The hon. Lady will appreciate that this has been worked on by the Welsh Assembly Government, and I very much hope that progress can be made on it. However, she will appreciate that, as I said previously, the crisis in the public finances that we have inherited means that I cannot give guarantees on additional funding from central Government at the moment.

T5. I see that the shipping Minister has been to Harwich and Felixstowe in the past week. I invite him to come and see the port of Dover, so that he can see at first hand how our plans can be the jewel in the crown of the big society and make Dover the jewel in the crown of the nation once again. (10298)

Will the Secretary of State respond to a letter that I received from a constituent of mine, Mr Rod East? He is 61 and has a concessionary bus pass. Plymouth city council will have to renew it in 2011 under the system it is operating. Will he please confirm his earlier statement that no changes to the concessionary bus pass will apply to Plymouth city council?

I can only repeat what I said earlier: we have no plans to change the national concessionary scheme. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have both made very clear their commitment to the national scheme.

T6. I welcome the Government’s commitment to high speed rail, particularly to encourage people to use rail instead of domestic air travel. Given the rising cost of rail compared with flying, what will the Secretary of State do to get the price mechanism right in order to get this shift from air to rail? (10299)

The High Speed 2 project will introduce a massive increase in capacity. These will be huge trains, with 1,100 seats each, and they will run at a very high frequency. Simple demand-and-supply economics should help to keep travel affordable. At the same time, after 2012, aviation will come within the European emissions trading scheme, and the carbon costs of aviation will start to be reflected in the cost of flying.

Will the Minister rule out reclassifying Network Rail as a public company, which would be a Railtrack mark 2, and commit to a not-for-dividend organisation?

We are looking at the options for reform of Network Rail. We believe that the status quo is not acceptable, because Network Rail is not accountable enough to its customers or the passengers whom they serve. As for its balance sheet status, we believe that this is a matter for national statisticians. We will make decisions on the future of Network Rail based on what is best for passengers and the taxpayer, and not—as the previous Government did—on the basis of tortuous calculations about whether things are on or off the balance sheet.

T8. One of the projects currently under review in my area is the east-west link road in Camborne and Redruth, which is a crucial element of a broader regeneration project, led by the private sector, that would create 6,000 new jobs. Does the Secretary of State agree that when it comes to prioritising transport projects after the comprehensive spending review, one of the key criteria to apply will be the impact on enterprise and jobs? (10301)

I fully understand the importance attached to that scheme in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I can confirm to him that the impact on the economy and job creation will be a factor taken into account in deciding whether to proceed with the scheme, along with the public finances and the opportunity to reduce carbon emissions.