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Volume 522: debated on Thursday 27 January 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—

Low-emission Vehicles

Eighty-four per cent. of journeys are undertaken by car. Tackling car-produced carbon by fostering and supporting the decarbonisation of motoring is therefore one of the Government’s key transport priorities. The spending review announced provision of more than £400 million for measures to promote the uptake of ultra-low carbon vehicle technologies. Those include support for consumer incentives, development of recharging infrastructure and a programme of research and development.

My local pub, the Battlesteads inn, which is award winning and excellent, has an electric car-charging point. It is one of the few in Northumberland. The problem is that the ability to recharge is dependent on the north-east’s sole recharging point. When will the system be made nationwide?

As my hon. Friend knows, the north-east is one of the areas that has been selected for support in the plugged-in places pilot, so there will be a roll-out of further charging infrastructure in the north-east. The Government are currently considering the options for a national roll-out of charging infrastructure and how we mandate that. We will publish our decisions in due course.

Is the Secretary of State aware of two interesting companies in my constituency? First, ITM Power produces and develops hydrogen-powered cars, with the ability to produce hydrogen in domestic units at home. Secondly, Magnatec attaches electric motors to diesel-powered vehicles, increasing efficiency by 30%. That system has been running on buses in Denver for more than 10 years, but British buses do not seem interested in taking it up. What steps is the Secretary of State taking with the Department to encourage those firms? Would he like to visit the constituency?

In fact, yesterday, I met a firm developing innovative battery technology in Aberdeen. We are always pleased to talk to companies that are developing low-emission vehicle technology in the UK. We have deliberately made the incentives technology-neutral so that people developing new and innovative systems can get the benefit of them.

One of the quickest and cheapest ways in which to reduce vehicle emissions is through more economical driving habits, but I understand that the take-up by businesses of smarter driving training courses has been disappointing. Will the Secretary of State explore the strategies that are open to the Department to increase take-up of those courses?

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) is looking precisely at how to increase take-up of the smarter driving training courses.

As the Secretary of State knows, the Department turned down a joint private and public consortium bid, including Cardiff and Bristol councils and the Energy Saving Trust, for a network of electric car-charging points between both cities on the M4. Will he explain to the people of south Wales why he turned down that bid?

The number of bids exceeded the available resources for the second wave of plugged-in places pilot schemes. All the bids were evaluated, and those that represented the greatest value for money were allowed to proceed. The promoters of the unsuccessful bids have been debriefed by the team in the Department, so they will have a detailed understanding of why their bid, on this occasion, failed. I hope that they will be encouraged to resubmit a bid in the next wave.

Rail Industry (Reform)

Sir Roy McNulty’s rail value for money study has identified areas where significant efficiencies can be achieved. It is clear that the most pressing need is to align incentives across the industry to ensure closer working between Network Rail and the train operating companies. Our franchise reform programme is a key strand in the strategy. Those reforms, together with Sir Roy’s final recommendations, will form the basis of a long-term strategy for the industry. We are committed to publishing those proposals by November 2011.

Peak-time and season-ticket commuters from Swindon to London on the main line have had to face significant fare increases this month. Will the Government’s new rail franchising reform programme put special emphasis on the need for greater capacity and fairer rail fares?

We are committed to fair rail fares. Unfortunately, to support the rail investment programme, we have had to project faster-than-inflation increases in fares for the next three years. However, let us be clear: we have to get the cost of our railway down so that the burden on taxpayers and fare payers can be alleviated in future.

It takes 45 minutes longer to travel from London to Worcestershire along the Cotswold line now than it did in 1908. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and other representatives of the Cotswold line organisations to see how reform of the rail industry could help improve the timing and frequency of that service?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. Of course, there are far more stops and services than there were in 1908, but I am always delighted to meet her and other colleagues and would be happy to do so on this occasion.

How will the Secretary of State secure better co-ordination, focusing on the interests of passengers rather than for ever dealing with the consequences of fragmentation?

The hon. Lady is hinting at the fact that, at the moment, far too much time and energy in the rail industry is spent on allocating blame for things that have happened rather than on working out how to prevent them from happening in future. We believe that aligning the financial interests of the train operators and the infrastructure operators, so that they both have a stake in positive outcomes for passengers, is the way forward. We will await Sir Roy McNulty’s final recommendations and set out our proposals for the reform of the industry on that basis.

In west Yorkshire, rail fares are set to go up by the retail prices index plus 5% from next year, which is the biggest increase in the country and 2% higher than in other areas. What will the Secretary of State do to avert those crippling hikes for people in Leeds and the rest of the region?

I cannot avoid the increases in prices to which the hon. Lady refers. They are partly driven by specific increases in rolling stock to alleviate overcrowding in the area. In the medium term, as I said in answer to the previous question, we must drive efficiency in the rail industry, and ensure that the cost base of our railway becomes comparable with those of other European countries, so that the upward pressure on fares can be alleviated.

I accept what the Secretary of State has said about the cost of the rail network, but does he nevertheless agree that the quality of passenger experience, which goes far beyond mere punctuality, should play a much greater part in the award of future railway franchises, and in their retention by train operating companies?

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State has published a consultation on franchising reform, in which she referred specifically to considering passenger satisfaction as one of the metrics. My hon. Friend will no doubt have been as delighted as I was to see the Passenger Focus survey this morning which shows that 84% of rail passengers are satisfied with the service that they receive on the railway.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s decision to continue the rail industry review that was started by the Labour Government. When Sir Roy McNulty publishes his final report in April, the Opposition will support any sensible proposals that take cost out of the industry without reducing the quality of service for passengers. However, does the Transport Secretary agree with me—and with some Conservative Back Benchers, from what I heard in earlier exchanges—that as the cost to the Government of running the railways comes down, the cost to the public of travelling by train should come down as well?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her expression of support for Sir Roy McNulty’s review and I am happy to acknowledge that that process was set in train by my predecessor. I look forward to taking the review forward on a consensual basis. Of course, the objective of driving efficiency in the railway is to reduce the burden on both the taxpayer and the fare payer. I am glad that she recognises that the only realistic way to do that is to reduce the cost base.

In view of that, does the Secretary of State understand the anger felt by hard-pressed commuters up and down the country who are facing big fare hikes—record fare rises of over 30%—over the next three years, and often worse overcrowding on services that will not really improve over that period? The initial findings of Sir Roy’s review suggested that savings of £1 billion could be found without cutting services, so will the Secretary of State now commit to sharing the benefits of those savings with passengers, and rethink his plan to impose record fare rises?

Sir Roy McNulty’s suggestion that £1 billion a year could be found refers to 2017-18. It will take some time before we get to that level of achievement, but it must remain our aspiration. In the meantime, the hon. Lady has answered her own question. Overcrowding is a key issue, and if we are to address it we must continue to invest in additional rolling stock and infrastructure on our railways, as we have committed to do. I am afraid that means that the relief that passengers seek will not come in the next couple of years, although it will come.

Traffic Lights

3. If he will consider the merits of authorising traffic signals to display only flashing amber aspects in the early hours of the morning to reduce journey times. (36295)

The Department is looking at various options for traffic signalling during quieter periods of the day and the flashing amber signal is just one of the techniques being considered among many others. However, in the interests of safety, it is important to ensure that any signalling technique provides a consistent and unambiguous message to all road users.

May I point out to the Minister that other countries operate such a system, but in a written response to me the Government stated, somewhat condescendingly:

“The British motorist would find this system confusing.”

Will the Minister consider a pilot scheme for such a system, perhaps in my constituency, which would speed journeys and reduce emissions?

As I mentioned, we are having a review of signs generally and that suggestion is being considered as part of that process. The difficulty is that the flashing amber signal already has a specific legal meaning in this country, where it is used to indicate legal precedence for pedestrians at pelican crossings. That means that we could not authorise a trial or the use of the flashing amber signal for any other application without first changing the meaning of the signal in regulations. A dual meaning might not be a very good idea.

Road Schemes (East Yorkshire)

4. What assessment he has made of the effect of the outcome of the comprehensive spending review on road improvement schemes in east Yorkshire. (36296)

There were three road improvement schemes in east Yorkshire under consideration at the time the spending review was announced. Of those schemes, the Beverley integrated transport scheme has been classified as in the development pool and the A164 Humber bridge to Beverley improvement scheme has been classified as in the pre-qualification pool. Both are currently subject to the prioritisation process set out in the document that was made available to Members in this House on 26 October.

The Highways Agency scheme to improve the A63 Castle street in Hull has been identified as a scheme with a positive business case for potential construction in future spending review periods.

As the Secretary of State has said, in the October announcement the upgrade of the A63 was put back until at least 2015. Since then, we have had the announcement from Siemens that it will develop the green energy industry along the Humber. In light of that announcement, will the Secretary of State think again? The A63 upgrade would have a positive impact on the economic regeneration of east Yorkshire and local businesses are really pushing for it.

I am aware of the relevance of the A63, having sat in a traffic queue on it not so long ago. The Highways Agency budget for the current spending review period has been allocated to schemes that have been approved to proceed, so there will be no more funding available during the funding review period. However, that scheme is value for money and I expect it to go forward in a future spending review period.

Congestion Charging (West London)

5. What assessment he has made of the effects of the ending of the west London extension of the congestion charge zone. (36298)

Does the Minister of State agree that one of the beneficial effects will be for those who live or try to run small businesses around the perimeter of the zone, for whom life was made very expensive? However, perhaps the biggest benefit will be for City Hall in the restoration of a reputation for proper democratic governance.

My hon. Friend has a strong record in her former capacity as a London Assembly Member for representing the views of residents on this issue, as she has in her current capacity as the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton. There are always pros and cons to be considered in relation to the impact on business of congestion charging schemes. No doubt when the Mayor made the decision on the western extension zone he will have taken on board her concerns about the impact on small businesses on the periphery and boundary of that zone.

Notwithstanding the fact that this is a devolved matter, the Department provides a great deal of resources to the Mayor of London for traffic issues. His removal of the western extension has cut £70 million annually from his revenue stream. Did the Department express any concerns at any time about the effect of that cut on funding for future transport schemes in London? The rest of us are paying higher charges and fares as a result of that hole in the Mayor’s budget.

This is a devolved matter. The settlement was established by the Labour Government, who made it clear that congestion charging matters were rightly for the Mayor of London to decide and not for Ministers in Whitehall.

Rail Franchising

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): On 19 January, the Government set out a new approach to franchising, taking account of the consultation that took place last summer. We expect the reforms to deliver a railway that is more responsive to passenger needs and provides better value for taxpayer investment.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Last week, the east coast main line announced a new direct service from London to Harrogate—the first for 20 years—after some excellent local work promoting the economic case for that service. As the new franchise requirements for the east coast main line are developed, will that economic case see Harrogate-London links built into those requirements?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I have been impressed with the work done by him, the Harrogate chamber of commerce and Harrogate business interests to make the case for improved rail services between Harrogate and London. I would encourage them to continue that input when the consultation takes place on re-letting the east coast franchise. We will, of course, take those representations into account in our decisions on Harrogate services.

Given the announcement last week that the west coast main line franchise will be up for renewal, how soon does the Minister think we will see the extra carriages and, perhaps, the extra trains that we need to relieve the severe overcrowding on the line, particularly for my constituents in Lancaster?

The Government will be funding 106 extra carriages on the west coast main line, which are due to come into operation with the new franchise. Some of those carriages will be available in a new train that will be available earlier, once its testing period has been completed. At that point, it will be available for Virgin to sub-lease, if ordinary commercial terms can be agreed.

Will the Minister give an assurance that under the new franchise services to north Wales, in particular, will not be reduced, especially given the news this week that services from Wrexham to Marylebone will cease as of Friday?

We are engaged in a consultation on the level of services and the configuration that will go into the west coast main line. We fully appreciate the importance of the services in Wales, including north Wales, and I would encourage the right hon. Gentleman to take part in the consultation. Of course, we are very much aware of passengers’ disappointment at the closure of the Wrexham and Shropshire service, and we will take that on board in the decisions that we make on the west coast line.

Could the Minister say how the reform of rail franchising will support infrastructure investment, especially the necessary electrification on the Wrexham to Bidston line, for example, which runs through my constituency?

I believe that longer franchises, which are a key part of our reform, will provide stronger incentives for private sector investment in improving stations, rolling stock and—potentially—infrastructure. The current short franchises, through which it was difficult to get a return on significant investments of that sort, made it difficult for the private sector to maximise its investment in the railways. The rail franchising reform will therefore help to deliver the sort of improvements that the hon. Lady talks about.

As part of the consultation on the inter-city west coast main line, will the Minister consider the negative impacts of the use of power boxes and mechanical signalling on the ability of franchise holders servicing the north Wales coast to provide an enhanced level of service to my constituents?

We do not seek to micro-manage Network Rail’s decisions on signalling—we take a technologically agnostic approach to that—but we encourage it to deliver its renewals and upgrades in the most cost-effective way possible, and I am happy to pass on my hon. Friend’s points to Network Rail, so that it can take them on board in its decisions.

The demise of the Wrexham-Shropshire service is particularly sad. Local people really valued it, not just because it provided the direct link to London, but because the staff provided a superb service. Would the Minister be willing to meet MPs from all parties with constituencies along the line to discuss how we can consider not just how open-access services operate generally, but how we can put the line through Shropshire and up to north Wales back into the west coast franchise?

I would be happy to have that meeting. I encourage the hon. Gentleman, as I did the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), to take part in the west coast main line consultation under way.

How will the Minister’s franchising reforms facilitate much-needed investment, both trackside and on train, in smarter signalling, such as in the world-class systems developed by Invensys in my constituency, which I would be delighted to show her, if she would be so kind as to visit Chippenham?

I shall certainly try to fit a visit to Chippenham into my diary. As I said to the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), I believe that longer franchises with more flexibility will encourage private sector investment in the railways. Longer franchises in the past for Chiltern Railways have enabled the train operator to become involved in signalling work. However, we have to acknowledge that major infrastructure works will need to continue to attract public funding, although there is no reason to believe that rail franchising reform could not assist private sector and train operator involvement in improving signalling.

Uninsured Drivers

I am pleased to confirm that a new offence of keeping a vehicle with no insurance is being introduced, and that supporting regulations were laid before Parliament on 11 January 2011. Enforcement of the offence is planned to commence in the spring. The scheme for continuous insurance enforcement identifies uninsured drivers by comparing the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency’s vehicles database with the motor insurance database.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. I am sure that he would agree that uninsured drivers are selfish in the extreme. Can he tell the House how much money will be saved for responsible drivers as a result of the changes, and will he also confirm that the police will retain the power to seize vehicles that are uninsured?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s welcome for the steps that the Government are taking. I can confirm that the police will continue to have the power to seize vehicles, and he may be interested to know that last year they seized 180,000 such vehicles. Around 1.4 million vehicles are uninsured, which costs responsible motorists around £30 extra in their premiums each year. We think that the measure will save about £6 for each motorist.

Does the Minister not recognise that insurance costs, particularly for young drivers, are reaching ridiculous levels? The AA premium index suggests that they could rise by 40% this year, which he is making worse with the rise in insurance premium tax. Given that fines are so low, will that not mean that people will sometimes be incentivised to avoid paying their insurance? What on earth will he be doing about that?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, and my Department is in discussions with the Ministry of Justice about that specific matter. However, I hope that he would also welcome the steps taken today to clamp down on uninsured drivers, who are costing motorists more money.

HGV Drivers (Diabetes)

9. When his Department plans to publish its consultation on changing the law to allow UK nationals with diabetes to drive heavy goods vehicles in the UK. (36302)

The Department for Transport plans to publish the consultation document very soon. We welcome views from anyone interested in the proposed changes and will consider all representations before making our final decisions.

I thank the Minister for that reply. She will be aware from correspondence that my question arises from a rather long-running constituency case, which is not untypical of those of other hon. Members across the Chamber. Given that the EU directive dates back to August 2009 and that we have an utterly inconsistent position in the UK—registered diabetic heavy goods vehicle drivers from elsewhere in the European Union can drive on our roads, whereas UK-registered diabetic HGV drivers cannot—can she give some consideration as to how quickly this glaring anomaly can be cleared up?

We will certainly be working hard to get the consultation document out as quickly as possible. However, given that what is being contemplated is a relaxation of current road safety rules, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that this is not something to be undertaken lightly. We must ensure that we take the time to consider all the relevant factors to ensure that it is safe to make the change.

Coastguard Services

The consultation on proposals to reconfigure coastguard maritime rescue co-ordination centres was launched on 16 December and will run until 24 March 2011. After that all responses received will be reviewed and analysed before we make a decision. At present there is no final timetable for the decision, as the time required for analysis will depend on the volume of responses received. In our view, it is more important to make the right decision than to make a quick decision.

I have been contacted by several constituents who are concerned about the proposal to close Clyde maritime rescue co-ordination centre. They are worried that the loss of local knowledge will risk coastal safety in and around the waters of the Clyde. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment to listen carefully to those concerns about the closure of coastguard stations and, in particular, rethink the proposal to close Clyde MRCC?

Of course we will give careful consideration to all the representations made in the consultation. I should emphasise to hon. Members that we are talking about search and rescue co-ordination centres. They are not front-line delivery points; they are the centres that manage and co-ordinate the calls coming in, and task the front-line rescuers. The driver for the change is managing the work load and interlinking the centres across the country, so that they can best manage fluctuations in work load and provide a 24-hour competent service.

Have not the regional fire centre proposals, which were based on pretty much the same principles, been abandoned? Was not consideration given, before the consultation paper was published, to where this could end?

Indeed; I looked at precisely that point. The difference is that fire and rescue services are localised—there are different fire and rescue services around the country. Her Majesty’s Coastguard is a national service, operating as such, and the reconfiguration will provide nationally networked co-ordination centres that will deliver across the whole country.

Today’s Liverpool Echo calls into question the genuineness of the consultation on the coastguard service. If we take into account the scrapping of Nimrod, the ending of the emergency towing vessel contracts, the selling off of air-sea rescue, the prospective closure of coastguard stations and the sacking of coastguards, what assurance can the Secretary of State give to shipping, where there is real concern about the future of safety? Can he assure us that there will be no compromising of maritime safety?

It is a bit rich for the hon. Gentleman to talk about the selling off of search and rescue, when the search and rescue private finance initiative project was initiated by the Government in which he served and had been running for at least three years before the general election. On the specific point about the Liverpool coastguard co-ordination centre, Ministers looked at the proposals made by officials in the Department and judged that the decisions to be made between Belfast and Liverpool and between Stornoway and Shetland were so close that the consultation should go forward while making it clear that there was a judgment call to be made within each of those two pairs of stations. There was not a clear and definitive business case, which I think is what has given rise to the story in the Liverpool Echo to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

Bus Services

My aim is to improve the entire bus journey for passengers. That means better integration between bus and rail services, better passenger information, smarter and more integrated ticketing, greener buses and better accessibility for people with reduced mobility. That will be achieved through incentives for commercial bus operators, funding local transport schemes through the local sustainable transport fund, but, above all, through operators and local transport authorities working together.

In my area, Stagecoach is blackmailing Hartlepool borough council once again by claiming that it cannot run an evening bus service without getting yet more public money. Stagecoach made £126 million profit from its bus operations last year, but seemingly cannot operate an evening service after 7 o’clock in Hartlepool. It is very clear that the current system is not working, so will the Minister bring forward proposals to re-regulate local bus services?

There is, in fact, a large range of powers available to local authorities, not least through the Local Transport Act 2008, which enables quality partnerships, and even quality contracts, to be established, so if his local authority feels that it has an unsatisfactory relationship with the bus company in question, it is open to it to look at the options available in legislation.

I hope the whole House will join me in extending condolences to the parents, family and friends of the 12-year-old boy tragically killed while crossing the A64 to catch the school bus.

On the wider question of rural buses, what assurance can my hon. Friend give to those living in rural areas that we will have a more extensive service—or at least as good a service as we have at the moment?

I echo the condolences expressed by my hon. Friend about that tragic accident.

We are conscious of the importance of rural areas, which is why the issue was flagged up in the local transport White Paper. I changed the guidance on concessionary fares to ensure that the special position of rural and long-distance routes was specifically recognised in that regard. We have been in touch with local authorities to look at innovative schemes, such as dial-a-ride and so forth, to ensure that local services, which are essential to rural areas, are maintained.

Roadside Inspection

13. How many commercial vehicles underwent Vehicle and Operator Services Agency roadside inspections in December 2010. (36306)

Approximately 7,000 vehicles underwent Vehicle and Operator Services Agency roadside inspections in December 2010. That was a combination of trucks and trailers, cars, buses and vans. That number comprised just over 17,000 checks of individual areas, such as checks for mechanical defects or drivers’ hours offences.

I thank the Minister for that answer. However, considering that the weather in much of December was so severe that it had a major impact on economic growth in this country and caused major disruption to the transport infrastructure, does he agree that VOSA should have a much more flexible and business-friendly attitude to conducting roadside checks, when hauliers and transport operators are struggling to supply the economy during severe weather conditions?

I sympathise with my hon. Friend’s point, and he may be happy to know that VOSA did take a pragmatic approach to enforcement during the recent unusually difficult weather. In fact, in December 2010 it carried out only 60% of the tests it carried out in 2009. It has also taken account of a number of relaxations that the Government have made to drivers’ hours regulations because of the weather, and it has had regard to the inevitable delays that such weather can cause to journeys. However, we must ensure that all journeys on our roads are safe.

The Minister will be aware that there is real concern among staff who work at VOSA that the testing transformation programme, with the move towards private sector test stations and the closure of the VOSA test station network, is privatisation by the back door. Will he tell the House why there is such a push towards private sector test stations, and will he confirm that privatisation is not on the agenda?

I assure the hon. Lady that the objective of the change is to make the arrangements more accessible. That, not her rather lurid explanation, is driving the changes.

Topical Questions

Since I last answered questions, I have published details of our proposed route for high-speed rail, launched the local transport White Paper, including the bidding guidance for the £560 million local sustainable transport fund, set out our proposals for reforms to the rail franchising system, which will deliver better value for money for taxpayers and better service to passengers, and announced tough new measures to tackle uninsured driving.

Investment in the west coast main line is most welcome but mainly benefits long-distance travellers, while short-distance travellers remain overcrowded. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel for Milton Keynes commuters?

There are two separate lights at the end of the tunnel—[Interruption.] Neither of them is a train coming the other way. First, as my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said earlier, 106 additional Pendolino carriages for the west coast main line have been ordered and will come into service in 2012. Secondly, as the proposed HS2 line, if approved, is built it will provide massive additional capacity on the London-west midlands route, and capacity will be freed up for new high-speed, longer-distance commuter services from places such as Milton Keynes to London.

Ministers have spent weeks creating confusion over fuel prices. Will the Secretary of State say what he plans to do to help hard-pressed motorists? If he is so concerned now, will he say whether he thought it was fair to impose a VAT hike on fuel just three weeks ago?

The hon. Gentleman is a spokesman for a Government who proposed the fuel price increases that are now coming into effect, and who were planning to put VAT up, as we discovered from leaked documents before the general election. I am pleased to say that it is not my business to do anything about this, as it is a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

T3. Some 84% of rail users are currently satisfied with their service. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is welcome news, and will she elaborate on that statement? (36315)

Obviously, we welcome the positive response from the Passenger Focus survey. We are aware that there is always a need to improve provision of services on the railways, and that is one of the main reasons why we are supporting the work of the McNulty review to get costs down, to make it easier to deliver the improvements that people want.

T2. Has the Department carried out a study of the likely effects of massive rail and bus fare increases on the number of people who are able to use such services in the future? (36314)

The Department did, of course, carry out the usual equalities impact study that is required, before making the proposals. There is a hidden premise behind the hon. Gentleman’s question. Nobody increased rail fares ahead of inflation happily or gladly. The decision whether to protect the planned investment in reducing overcrowding by delivering additional rolling stock, or to scrap that programme, was a difficult one. We decided to protect investment for the medium and long term, and unfortunately that means three years of further above-inflation rail fare increases.

T4. Many of my constituents and those of other Members were severely disrupted by the effects of the weather on airports in London and elsewhere. Does the Minister agree that the Civil Aviation Authority needs more powers to assess the situation and hold airport operators to account? (36316)

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. There was real concern about the way in which Heathrow dealt with the severe weather. That is one of the reasons for our plans to reform airport regulation, which include a new licensing system that will indeed give the CAA more powers to ensure that airports are properly prepared for winter.

The marine environment is dangerous, and we are fortunate to have Stornoway coastguard, which is based in my constituency. However, I have been told that the Government’s reorganisation proposals are not accompanied by any proper risk assessment. Is that true?

Of course the proposals have been risk-assessed. They have been around for more than two years, since before the general election, and there is a long slow-burning fuse behind them. They are now out for consultation, and the hon. Gentleman can and, I am sure, will make forcefully the case for retaining the station in Stornoway.

T5. Can the Minister give us a likely date for the decision on electrification of the Great Western line to Swindon and beyond? (36317)

My hon. Friend is a staunch campaigner for further electrification. We have already announced electrification of the lines to Oxford, Newbury and Didcot, and we will shortly announce what further electrification of the Great Western line can be achieved in co-ordination with the linked inter-city express programme.

You will recall, Mr Speaker, the procedural exchange that you and I had earlier this week about the failure of the Department for Transport to answer questions about river and port pilotage. The first question has now been answered inaccurately; as for the second, the Department refuses to publish the advice that it has received. This is a fundamental matter of safety. Will the Secretary of State examine it personally and review the decision to refuse to publish the information, in order to give us confidence that our pilots are properly trained?

I am not aware of the written answer to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I will look it up when I return to the Department, and I will write to him.

T6. In my constituency, an average of 27 people a year are killed or seriously injured in crashes involving young people. That includes a tragic accident over the Christmas period involving a friend of my son. Graduated driver licensing, enabling a new driver to proceed to a full licence over a period, has been shown in many countries to reduce the number of casualties in that vulnerable group. What discussions has the Secretary of State had about introducing such an approach to improving road safety in this country? (36318)

My hon. Friend will know that the United Kingdom actually has an enviable record on road safety. Many of the countries that operate graduated licensing suffer worse safety records than the UK. Our policy is to avoid additional regulation whenever possible, and we would be very concerned about imposing any regulation that reduced the mobility of young people who had acquired driving licences, because of the impact that it would have on their participation in the labour market and in further and higher education.

Apropos the disruption at Heathrow, the temperature has dropped again today. Ministers need not go abroad to find examples of the way in which airports can cope with snow. Aberdeen airport, which is also owned by BAA, managed to cope perfectly well with 2 feet of snow, while Heathrow was closed for nearly two weeks because of 2 inches of snow. What guarantee will the Government give passengers—not just those like me, but the many people who travel through Heathrow, which is one of the major hubs—that such disruption will not occur again?

We must be realistic. When the weather is as severe as that which we witnessed before Christmas, there is bound to be some disruption. I pay tribute to airports such as Aberdeen, which worked very hard to deal with it—as did Gatwick—but we must recognise that Heathrow airport faces special challenges that make it tougher to respond to such conditions. Heathrow is conducting a review, and the Department is carrying out an investigation through the South East Airports Taskforce. There may be lessons that we can learn from measures taken by other transport systems, such as the imposition of emergency timetables when severe weather seems likely to reduce capacity significantly.

T7. Some of the residential areas in Loughborough face considerable pressure on parking as a result of having houses occupied by students, each of whom brings a car to the town. Can the relevant Minister confirm that under this Government local councils, communities and universities will continue to be able to implement local solutions that suit the local needs of the town? (36319)

I am happy to give that assurance. The whole thrust of the Government is to free up councils, remove regulations and make it easier for councils to reach the correct arrangements in conjunction with their communities.

I heard what the Minister said about uninsured drivers, but what thought has he given to requiring drivers to put details of their insurance on the car windscreen, which works well in a number of other countries?

The hon. Gentleman may know that the Department has introduced a programme of rolling monitoring of insurance, where anyone whose vehicle is uninsured now has to make what is, in effect, a statutory off-road notice declaration. The police will have access to the database and will be able to monitor, in real time, whether vehicles are insured or uninsured. That will give rise to a much more effective level of enforcement.

T8. I know that the Minister is aware that Fleetwood has a railway line that has been redundant since the 1960s but which has most of its infrastructure intact. What hope can she offer my constituents that there may be a chance of reopening the line and providing much-needed regeneration to the town? (36320)

I know that my hon. Friend has championed this cause, and I enjoyed my visit to the disused rail line. Programmes such as he outlines can confer significant local benefits, but it is primarily for the local authorities to identify the funding to restore railway lines and, importantly, to identify the funding for any ongoing subsidy that is needed. Local authorities may well wish to consider those options in order to enhance economic growth in their areas.

What assessment has been made of increasing fuel prices and the rising costs of motoring in rural areas, particularly for lower-income households?

No specific assessment has been made by my Department, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that independent assessments suggest that between 1997 and 2010 the real cost of motoring has declined by 7%.