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Topical Questions

Volume 522: debated on Thursday 27 January 2011

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%.