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Topical Questions

Volume 517: debated on Thursday 28 October 2010

Since I last answered Transport questions, I have agreed the Department’s settlement with the Treasury. The settlement that we have achieved shows the Government’s commitment to investment in infrastructure and in transport infrastructure, in particular. The announcements that have been made, and that will be made over the next few weeks, will support economic growth and job creation.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the historical importance of the River Mersey as the lifeblood of the city of Liverpool, the wider sub-region and beyond. Therefore, following the Prime Minister’s call for sustainable economic growth, will the Minister meet Merseyside MPs and the leader of the city council to re-examine the economic evidence for a turnaround facility on the banks of our world famous, UNESCO-recognised and iconic waterfront?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is talking about a cruise liner terminal and turnaround facility. Cruise liner ports are operated primarily by private sector companies. Public money has been invested in the facility on the Mersey, and that public money was invested on the explicit understanding that it would not be used for turnaround. If it were, issues of state aid and unfair advantage would be raised. I am happy to discuss the matter with the hon. Gentleman, but I hope that he understands that there are European Union competition and legal issues around the matter.

T5. I recently met the Consular Corps of London, which made it clear to me, in no uncertain terms, that there is a problem at our ports and airports with human trafficking, with people being admitted to this country on clearly forged passports. I wonder what the Secretary of State can say about that, and whether he can talk to the Home Office about it. (19937)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As he will know, inward border controls are primarily a matter for the UK Border Agency, and I shall make sure that his comments are drawn to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends in that Department.

T2. Bus services are a vital part of Newcastle’s economic infrastructure, and, despite the huge cuts to bus subsidies and to local government grants, the Minister is “hopeful” that bus fares will not rise and that bus services will not be cut. Unfortunately, the people of Newcastle cannot get to work on the Minister’s hopes. If fares do rise or if services are cut, what will the Minister do?


I am afraid that the hon. Lady’s question contains a number of hypothetical assumptions that are not borne out by reality. It is not my hope, but the hope and the view expressed to me by the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK, which represents the main five bus operators, so I do not think that the terrible scenario she paints will come to fruition. People might also want to use the Tyne and Wear metro, in which the Government are investing £500 million over the next 11 years.

Although we are expecting rail fares to rise only by 10% over four years in real terms, will Ministers look into changing the basis for the cap calculation from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index—because, after all, what is fair for pensioners ought to be fair enough for profit-making rail companies?

The decision on rail fares has been difficult, but we have had to make it as part of the tough decisions needed to tackle the deficit. Of course we will keep under review the way that the system works, and I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the issue.

T3. Constituents of mine travel on the Ebbw Valley rail line from Cardiff to Islwyn, but they cannot travel to Newport because there are major engineering works at the Gaer junction. Has the Minister had any discussions with the First Minister about providing money for those engineering works so that my constituents can travel to work from Islwyn to Newport? (19935)

I have not discussed that specific issue with the Welsh Assembly Government, but I am happy to do so.

East Dunbartonshire cycle co-operative does excellent work and has enthused hundreds of people into taking up cycling through a local cycle festival, maps, cycle clubs and even a Guinness world record attempt at the number of cycle bells that can be rung simultaneously. This shows what can be done with a group of committed volunteers and a bit of grant funding, but how can we ensure that cycling promotion is not just left to volunteer champions but is done more systematically wherever people live in the country?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. She will know that we value cycling; it was set out in the coalition agreement that it is a priority for us in the Transport Department. It has a major role to play in tackling the reduction of carbon emissions in the short term through behavioural change. We have guaranteed that Bikeability will carry on and, as I said earlier, there is a pot of money—£560 million—in the local sustainable transport fund, much of which I am sure will be directed towards activities related to cycling.

T4. The Chancellor announced with a fanfare in the comprehensive spending review the modernisation and electrification of a number of lines up and down the country. Can the Secretary of State tell us when the electrification work on the Preston to Blackpool line will commence and when it will be completed? (19936)

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise date now, but I am happy to talk to Network Rail about where that particular project lies in its current programme and get back to him.

The Wharfedale and Airedale lines are two of the most congested railway lines in the country, and additional carriages are essential to alleviate that congestion. I am well aware that funds are limited, but will the Secretary of State prioritise additional carriages on those two lines, as that is essential for economic activity in the area, which I know is the Government’s priority?

I said when I made my statement on Tuesday that a further announcement would shortly be made about rail investment. That announcement will include the provision of additional rail cars to relieve overcrowding. I am afraid that my hon. Friend will have to wait for a few more days until that statement is made.

On the rail network and fare increases, is the Minister aware that the proposed formula increase outlined in the CSR—that is, RPI plus three—will mean a cumulative increase of approximately 33.5% by 2015? That means, on the Newcastle to London line, an increase up to £500 for first class and £350 for second class—

Order. May I remind Members, both Back Benchers and Front Benchers, because I think they have forgotten, that topical questions and answers are supposed to be shorter? I think the Minister has got the thrust of the question, although the hon. Gentleman is certainly not the only offender, by any means.

I can do no better than refer the hon. Gentleman to my earlier exchange with the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman.

May I ask the Minister for special consideration for communities in the south-east that had RPI plus three imposed on them by the previous Labour Government in 2006?

I am well aware of the concerns of users of the Southeastern franchise who have been asked to pay RPI plus three over the past few years. That was linked to investment in rolling stock, and the rest of the country will move on to RPI plus three to even out the perceived inequality from the year after next.

On Tuesday, the Secretary of State seemed to think me most ungrateful because I did not thank him for the tram extensions. I am sorry to disappoint him, but the people of Nottingham South sent me here to do things, not just to say thanks. Does he accept that the tram on its own will not solve the problems, particularly for freight traffic, caused by congestion on the A453? It really is vital that the widening scheme goes ahead.

I hear what the hon. Lady says. I repeat what I said on Tuesday: Nottingham has got a good deal out of the announcements that have been made over the past week or so. The A453 scheme remains in the development pool, which means that we will take it forward with further work. An announcement will be made during the course of 2011 on which of those schemes will be funded.

I welcome the reply of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) in connection with the delay to the A160 upgrade on the access road into Immingham docks. The Under-Secretary will be aware that the delay puts increasing pressure on the town of Immingham, and that the A18/A180 link road was given the amber light on Tuesday. Will he agree to meet me and the local authority to discuss how we can bring the work forward?

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s legitimate point about that connection, and I am happy to meet him—perhaps it might be helpful if that happened at the same time as the other meeting that I agreed to earlier.

In a letter to me, the Under-Secretary confirmed the good news about the Switch island to Thornton relief road, but he used the phrase “increased local contributions”. Can the Secretary of State tell me now what he expects those contributions to be?

I believe that the letter the hon. Gentleman refers to talks about the need for discussion to be held with local authorities on the cost of schemes and local contributions. As I said on Tuesday, when we are spending taxpayers’ money, we have an absolute duty to ensure that we have explored every opportunity to minimise the taxpayer contribution and the cost. That is what we will do, but he has approval for the scheme and it will go ahead. We will engage with his local authority to ensure that it is as efficient as possible.