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Topical Questions

Volume 524: debated on Thursday 10 March 2011

Since the previous Transport questions, I have launched a consultation on our proposals for high-speed rail, given the go-ahead for the £4.5 billion inter-city express programme, announced further electrification of the Great Western main line as far as Cardiff, announced £100 million-plus of additional funding to local authorities for pothole repairs and confirmed funding for a further nine local major transport schemes.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the European Aviation Safety Agency is currently consulting on flight time hours. I have been contacted by pilots living in my area who are keen that we export our high safety standards to the rest of Europe, and conclude that they will catch us up on fatigue and airline safety.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have received, as I am sure other Members have, a great deal of correspondence on this issue. We are working with the Civil Aviation Authority to ensure that the European approach remains proportionate and appropriate. I assure her that we will not agree to anything that lessens safety levels in this country.

At our previous exchange, I asked the Secretary of State about rising fuel prices, and he said:

“I am pleased to say that it is not my business to do anything about this”.—[Official Report, 27 January 2011; Vol. 522, c. 435.]

Up and down the country, motorists will think that it is precisely the business of the Transport Secretary—the clue is in the job title. We are calling on the Government to reverse the VAT hike and consider deferring the next duty rise. What has he done?

Perhaps in due course the hon. Gentleman will learn that the occasional piece of humour does not go amiss in the Chamber. It is not the responsibility of the Transport Secretary to manage world oil markets, and it is not the responsibility of the Transport Secretary to deal with VAT or fuel duty. The latter are matters for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who will no doubt allude to them in his Budget speech on 23 March.

T3. I recognise the benefits that high-speed rail will bring to Birmingham and the northern cities it services, but will my right hon. Friend outline what benefits might be brought to the wider environs, such as the black country—a part of which I represent—and any towns along the route where it does not stop? (45296)

The benefits for my hon. Friend’s constituents of high-speed rail will be twofold. First, there are the benefits that will accrue to the west midlands region in general from the high-speed railway from London to Birmingham, and the benefits to the UK economy of enhanced productivity and competitiveness as a whole. Secondly, moving passengers on to the high-speed railway and creating large amounts of additional capacity will allow our existing railway to be used more innovatively, with new passenger and freight services for the future.

T2. As the Minister will be aware, passengers travelling from Northern Ireland to London will be hit by two increases—the air passenger duty increase and the passenger landing charges being proposed at Heathrow and Gatwick. What discussions will the Minister have with the Northern Ireland Executive and other colleagues in government to ensure that there is still good access between London and Northern Ireland for business commuters? (45295)

I refer to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State: taxation is a matter for the Chancellor. I am sure that he will bear in mind the impact of decisions on air passenger duty on regional connectivity. This Government fully recognise the importance of good regional connections between London and all parts of the United Kingdom.

T5. One way to help hard-pressed rural motorists in my constituency would be to reverse some of the short-sighted Beeching decisions taken decades ago that ripped the heart out of our rural railway services. Will the Secretary of State undertake to look closely at one proposal on the table—that of the TransWilts railway, which would link Swindon, Salisbury and stops in between, and bring enormous economic benefits to the county of Wiltshire? (45298)

I know that my hon. Friend has done great work on this issue, and that there is a lot of activity locally. She will appreciate that such projects, which have primarily local benefits, need to find funding locally. It is therefore important that she should engage with the local authorities, Network Rail and the train operators to see what might be logistically feasible in getting the project off the ground.

T4. The Secretary of State has today offered my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) sight of the business case for the decision in Swansea, but we were previously promised that the full facts and everything about the case would be placed in the Library. That has not happened yet. In view of the importance of what is a major European route, including its importance to the economy of west Wales, will the Secretary of State promise to put all the details in the Library without delay? (45297)

Yes, I am happy to do so, although I should tell the right hon. Gentleman that, despite what was said at the time, the previous Government did not conduct a business case analysis of the proposal for electrification from Cardiff to Swansea.

I warmly welcome the Government’s clear commitment to take high-speed rail to Leeds, but will the Secretary of State give proper consideration in the consultation to the high-speed north proposal by Harrogate engineer Colin Elliff? The route would not go through the Chilterns, hence avoiding some of the environmental concerns there.

There will be a consultation on the line of route between Birmingham and Manchester, and between Birmingham and Leeds respectively, once line options have been developed by HS2. That consultation will take place early next year, and I look forward to my hon. Friend’s participation in it.

T6. Does the Minister intend his direction of travel to lead towards the inevitable break-up and privatisation of Network Rail, in order to appease the probably insatiable appetite of the rail operating companies? (45299)

As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said earlier, Sir Roy McNulty is conducting a review of value for money in the rail industry. One of his preliminary findings is that we need better alignment of interests between train operators and the infrastructure operator. Network Rail has responded to those recommendations, unprompted, by announcing that it will give greater autonomy to its regional route managing directors. I think that is a step in the right direction.

On 23 March, the people of Dover will vote in a referendum on whether they want a people’s port big society change in Dover. If the people vote for the big society, will the Secretary of State help to implement it?

My hon. Friend is tenacious in his work for the people of Dover. As he knows, the Minister of State is still looking at the proposals for Dover, and at this time it would be improper for me to say any more.

A few minutes ago the Secretary of State was asked a perfectly reasonable question about whether he was speaking up for motorists on the VAT increase. He was not asked whether he would implement it; he was asked for his view. Has he said anything to the Chancellor? Why does he not open his mouth about the massive rise in petrol prices? Come on, let’s hear what his view is!

How can I resist a suggestion from the hon. Gentleman to open one’s mouth? I can tell him this: I speak regularly to the Chancellor on a range of matters, and the content of those discussions will remain private.

London has rightly invested in the necessary infrastructure to ensure that the Olympics are a success, so will the Secretary of State work with the Rugby Football Union, Network Rail and local authorities to ensure that the rugby world cup in 2015 is not overlooked, and that we can have a station that is fit for the home of rugby and can meet the demands?

We will certainly be working with all those stakeholders on the preparations for the rugby world cup, and plans are already under way to lengthen platforms at Twickenham station. We are also in negotiations to add new carriages into Waterloo. We have not yet taken a decision on where they will go, but Twickenham might benefit from that. I know that there is an interesting local scheme to redevelop the station, which could generate significant local benefits, and that the local authorities and other stakeholders are working hard to try to take that forward.

At great expense, a station has been built on High Speed 1 that says “Stratford International” on the outside, even though no international trains stop there. When will this rather embarrassing state of affairs be resolved?

Operational matters on High Speed 1 are a matter for the concessionaire and for the companies operating the services. I can tell the House that Deutsche Bahn intends to start running services from Frankfurt to London in 2012, and I hope that other operators will start to run similar services. That will be good news for passengers in general, and probably good news for the right hon. Gentleman’s campaign. The more operators there are on the route, the more chance there is of getting additional services.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, but this topical questions session is always a rather shorter one, and demand has exceeded supply. We must now move on to questions to the Minister for Women and Equalities.