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Topical Questions

Volume 527: debated on Thursday 5 May 2011

Since the previous departmental questions, I have published a scoping document about our planned development of a sustainable aviation policy. I have allocated £200 million for pothole repairs to individual local authorities, and announced the allocation of 20 additional rail carriages for commuter routes serving the Leeds area. We have also announced the go-ahead for the long-awaited Swindon to Kemble track redoubling, and the Ordsall chord in Manchester, linking Victoria and Piccadilly stations.

Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning as obscene and irresponsible the proposed six days of tube strikes by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers next month over only two individual employees? Will he also condemn Labour’s candidate for London Mayor, who has signally failed to condemn the action, and, indeed, his deputy, who even appears at RMT protest meetings?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that the series of strikes is highly irresponsible. As I said last night, no one in the Government is spoiling for a fight with the unions, but the unions appear to be spoiling for a fight with London. I say to the RMT and other unions that that sort of irresponsible strike action, when an alternative, proper remedy—an ongoing employment tribunal—is available, only strengthens the hand of those, including the Mayor, who call for tougher industrial relations laws.

As the Secretary of State will know, today marks the closing of the consultation on his plans to axe more than half the UK’s coastguard stations, leaving just three offering 24-hour cover. Yet, in a letter to me this week, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency stated that the consultation,

“will be reopened in the Summer”.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the consultation closes today, as the letter says, “for the first time”? Given that it is increasingly clear that the policy is a shambles, why does he not just abandon the ill-thought-through proposals, which will leave our coastline a more dangerous place?

What a wonderful piece of opportunism. I can confirm that the consultation closes today. Of course, the previous Administration originally made the proposals to modernise the coastguard. We have listened carefully to the representations, and some very sensible representations have been made about how the reconfiguration might be managed to protect more of the local location of services. Once the consultation is closed, we will publish a summary of the findings and make our response to it.

T4. Will the Minister meet me as soon as possible to discuss the reinstatement of the Maidstone East to City of London service? (54176)

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter. I have given the issue careful consideration, but she will know that changes to the franchise, which require extra subsidy, would be difficult to approve in the current fiscal climate.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that there is strong cross-party support in the House, not only for British manufacturing in general, but in particular for the sole remaining British train maker, which eagerly awaits the award of the contract for the Thameslink line? What is the timing for that?

We expect to make some announcements on that contract imminently. Towards the end the year, we expect to draw towards contractual close. We will make further announcements in due course.

T5. In Rugby, a significant number of vehicles on our roads have been brought into the country by foreign workers, and they remain registered in their home countries. When I raised the matter with the Minister, he advised me that such vehicles can be used for six months in a 12-month period, or until the visitor takes up residence. However, there is currently no database for tracking such vehicles as they enter and leave the UK. That means that the owners of many vehicles use UK roads without contributing to the costs of maintaining them. Will the Minister consider a review to rectify that? (54178)

I am well aware of this issue, and I thank my hon. Friend for raising it. I corresponded with him recently on the matter. All vehicles on all roads in the UK should be safe, whether they are UK-registered or foreign-registered, and if they are not, they will be clamped and removed from the road. However, a database is an issue and something we are considering.

T3. Does the Secretary of State realise that his earlier answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) will have raised deep concerns in parts of the north-west, not least in Warrington, which is hugely dependent on its transport links to boost and develop its economy? Is he prepared to give an assurance to the House that any new franchise arrangements will not reduce the number of intercity trains stopping at Warrington Bank Quay? Yes or no? (54175)

I do not want to say, “Calm down”, but I would like to say that I am sorry if I have set a hare running. I was trying to say to the hon. Member for Halton that we are very much aware of the risk that making franchises less prescriptive could lead to reductions in train services, and we are not prepared to accept that, so I can assure the hon. Lady that under the new west coast franchise, the same number of station stops at Warrington Bank Quay will occur as under the present timetable.

I warmly welcome the creation of the sustainable local transport fund. I hope that the Minister is aware of the exciting trans-Wilts rail proposal, of which we heard earlier, developed by the community rail partnership, which has demonstrated the strong support of local businesses and MPs. Can he confirm that he would welcome a bid from Wiltshire council to that fund, and that it would be given serious consideration?

I am pleased with the number of bids we have received so far for the first tranche of the local sustainable transport fund. A number of imaginative bids have come in. There is a further bidding round, however, and I would welcome any suggestions that could improve the co-ordination of transport across modes.

Does the Minister agree that referral fees and the whole claims management industry drive up the cost of motor insurance? Will the Government be doing anything to regulate this industry?

The Government have no plans to increase the regulation on the industry, which is already severely regulated. The Transport Select Committee has considered the matter carefully. Ambulance chasers, as I referred to them in the Select Committee—some parts of the industry did not like that—are a fact and are driving up costs. Claims must be proportionate. Everybody injured on the roads should be able to claim, if it was not their fault, but there should not be an industry out there trying to make disproportionate claims against other insurers.

Wycombe air park will be subject to various security requirements in connection with the Olympics. I learned this week that those arrangements will threaten the survival of Booker gliding club. Will the Minister meet me to try to find a way forward for that valued resource?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this important issue. We are very much aware of concerns about the imposition of airspace restrictions in relation to the Olympics. We believe that restrictions are essential to maintain security for such an important event, but we are always prepared to consider refinements to see whether we can respond to concerns expressed.

Will the Secretary of State commit, as the previous Labour Government did, to legislate for a high-speed rail line all the way to the north, and in so doing convince the sceptics that the Government have a credible economic policy that would benefit all the regions?

As I have said many times at the Dispatch Box, the Government’s programme is for a Y-shaped network that will take the high-speed railway all the way to Manchester and Leeds. I am aware of the scepticism among some Members and others outside the House about our commitment to that programme. I have discussed this matter with Members of all parties interested in securing this programme, and I have given a commitment to find a way of getting into the first hybrid Bill a commitment to the Y-shaped network sufficient to reassure those Members. However, it simply is not practical from a parliamentary point of view to have a single hybrid Bill dealing with the whole line, so it will have to be done as two hybrid Bills. We will ensure that the first Bill contains a commitment sufficient to satisfy the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends.

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that a meaningful consultation will take place with rail user groups before any of the existing rail franchises are renewed? I am thinking in particular of Southeastern, which has just had its current franchise extended by two years, despite an appalling performance record on the north Kent coastal line and repeated customer complaints.

When we issue new franchises, we carry out a detailed consultation process. We will be doing that when the current Southeastern franchise finishes. No consultation was carried out in relation to the continuation review, because this was a contractual term of the franchise that was agreed by the previous Government, which meant that an automatic extension was granted if targets were met by Southeastern. Those targets were met; we had no choice—the extension had to go ahead. In those circumstances, a consultation was not appropriate.