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Topical Questions

Volume 530: debated on Thursday 23 June 2011

Since I last answered departmental questions, Sir Roy McNulty has published his report on improving value for money on our railways, which I have committed to responding to by publishing detailed proposals for the future of the railways before the end of the year. I have published a new strategic framework for road safety and announced the outcome of the competition to build carriages for the Thameslink programme. Today my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has launched a consultation on proposals to reform the air travel organiser’s licence holiday protection scheme. I have also dealt with the consequences of the Grimsvotn volcano eruption, which is a good deal easier to say than Eyjafjallajokull and, I am pleased to say, caused a good deal less disruption.

Trafford Park in my constituency is home to many international businesses and makes a crucial contribution to UK manufacturing and exports. Excellent rail links are essential to its success. In planning for High Speed 2, what is being done to ensure that it and the wider regional rail network are fully integrated?

I would make two points to the hon. Lady. First, High Speed 2 will release significant amounts of capacity on the west coast main line, which will be available for different types of service, including freight. Secondly, we are clear that high-speed rail is not an alternative to investment in our conventional railways. Once people arrive at the high-speed destinations they will still need to get to their local destinations across the region, so we have to reinforce the regional rail networks as part and parcel of the programme of rail investment.

T3. I recently had the pleasure of meeting the parish council in the village of South Kyme in my constituency, which brought to my attention the loss of the village’s only bus service. Many constituents have reported to me the loss of bus services, which are incredibly important for rural communities. What support can the Department lend to re-establish that service and ensure that those that exist remain? (61528)

As my hon. and learned Friend will recognise, the provision of bus services is primarily a matter for either commercial operators or local councils through tendered services, but we are cognisant of the importance of such services in rural areas and so have provided £10 million extra for community transport initiatives, and the local sustainable transport fund of £560 million allows investment in bus services in rural areas.

This morning the Transport Committee asked the Government to withdraw their modernisation proposals for the coastguard and consult on revised plans. Its report is very clear:

“The evidence we have received raises serious concerns that safety will be jeopardised if these proposals proceed.”

Despite failing to do so before now, will the Secretary of State finally listen to coastguards up and down the country and abandon his dangerous and reckless plan to close more than half of Britain’s coastguard stations?

We welcome the Committee’s report. If the hon. Lady looks at it carefully, she will see that it actually says that the status quo is not acceptable and that coastguard stations need to close. The process we inherited from the previous Administration had been sitting on their desks for years. We said right at the start of the process that we would listen and come up with proposals after consulting. It is a shame that they did not do the same.

T4. Will the Minister meet me to discuss performance issues on the Medway valley line, which runs through my constituency? (61529)

I would be entirely happy to do that. It is important that all rail passengers have access to reliable services. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and I are very focused on that issue and would be happy to meet my hon. Friend.

Is the Secretary of State aware that words such as “rebalancing our economy to promote private sector jobs and skilled manufacturing” ring very hollow in Derby, where 3,000 such jobs are now at risk as a result of a decision to build Thameslink trains in Germany? I understand that the Government reviewed and reconfirmed the contract after the election, but I understand also that the Secretary of State still has the power to call in the process and to invite the bidders to re-tender. Can he confirm that he will now do so?

I understand the disappointment felt by Bombardier and, indeed, the anxiety felt by the people of Derby about that decision, but before the right hon. Lady delivers me a finger-wagging lecture perhaps I can remind her of a couple of points. Her Government designed and initiated the procurement process, and some Members may remember that they used to call it Thameslink 2000. We inherited it 16 years late and £600 million over budget, and it fell to us effectively to open the envelope. The procurement was carried out under the terms of the EU directive, and the Siemens bid offered the best value for money on the criteria for appraisal set out in the original competition that the previous Government launched. We have to comply with EU law, and I do not have the power that she suggests I have.

I firmly believe that free trade and open markets are the best way for us to proceed, but I believe also in the concept of the level playing field, and there is a case for looking at the way in which some of our neighbours and competitors operate the EU procurement directive, because it seems quite astonishing that, complying with that directive as we do, they have managed to achieve very high percentage penetrations of French-built trains on the French railway and of German-built trains on the German railway.

T6. As my right hon. Friend has just said, the previous Government tied the hands of this Government on such decisions, including the Thameslink contract, which, as he is aware, affects my constituency. What can we do to ensure that British business does not lose out as a result of this false economy of going for cheap foreign contracts that leave us picking up the domestic dole bill? (61531)

I understand the concern of people in Crewe as well, of course, but we must not fall into a trap. The Siemens bid clearly offered the best value for money, and we must not lose sight of that fact. The wider issue of how we operate the procurement directive, and of how we work with the UK supply chain in industries such as rolling stock construction, is something that we need to review, and I am in discussions with my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary about how we do that.

T5. I recently met a group of my constituents from Hunter Lodge in Wigan, who told me that they are unable to travel together on train services throughout the country because most companies will carry only one wheelchair user at a time. Does the Minister agree that, 16 years after the landmark Disability Discrimination Act 1995, it is entirely unacceptable that that appalling situation should continue? What is he therefore doing to put pressure on train companies to ensure that the situation does not continue? (61530)

I entirely sympathise with the hon. Lady’s point about disabled people having difficulty accessing some trains. There is a long-standing arrangement by which trains are expected to become compliant by 2020, and we are sticking to that and putting pressure on the train companies to accelerate it wherever possible. In addition, we are spending a good deal of money on access for all at railway stations in order to ensure that stations themselves are properly accessible to all people who want to use them.

T7. Can the Minister provide an assurance that the granting of a short-term, two-and-a-half year contract for the Greater Anglia rail franchise will not delay planning for the reintroduction of a through service from Liverpool Street to Lowestoft? (61532)

The issue of a short franchise will not have an impact one way or another on those decisions, so I can give my hon. Friend an assurance on that. I cannot guarantee that future franchises will necessarily reintroduce through services, so it will be very important, with him, to work with bidders for the next franchise to find out what they consider viable and commercially viable. I can assure him, however, that the Government’s commitment to delivering the Beccles loop will provide more frequent services and, I hope, a significant economic benefit to his constituents.

Commuters in Lewisham repeatedly express to me their anger about having to pay ever increasing rail fares for ever more overcrowded train services. What discussions has the Minister had recently with the Mayor of London to impress on him that train services are as important, if not more so, than his beloved bikes?

I can assure the hon. Lady that this Government are placing a high priority on tackling overcrowding on our railways. In more or less every spending squeeze there has ever been, the first thing that gets axed is transport upgrade projects. We have committed significant funds to the Mayor of London to upgrade London’s transport systems, and we are committing significant funds across the rest of the country to support investment in our railways to relieve overcrowding. It is a high priority for us and for the Mayor.

T8. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to mitigate the effects of foreign hauliers who use their advantage of being able to buy fuel more cheaply on the continent to undercut British companies? (61533)

We have a commitment to bringing in lorry road user charging to level the playing field. It is important, however, that we do not penalise our own truckers with whatever scheme we bring in. We are in ongoing negotiations with the Treasury and we are committed to introducing a scheme in this Parliament.

The Secretary of State will no doubt have seen the reports in yesterday’s newspapers about Willie Walsh of British Airways having suggested that as a consequence of the fact that a third runway will not be built in the south-east at Heathrow, he will increase BA’s business in Madrid. Is that not rather ironic?

I am pleased to see that British Airways, along with BAA, now accepts the finality of the coalition Government’s decision that we will not allow the building of a third runway at Heathrow airport. However, that is not the end of the matter. We have to provide for aviation growth in the south-east of England, and in the UK as a whole, in order to meet the needs of a growing economy in future. That is why we have launched a scoping document and will bring forward a new sustainable aviation policy by the end of next year.

T9. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what progress has been made on the reopening of the Todmorden curve, which will provide a faster rail route between East Lancashire and Manchester? (61534)

I am very much aware of the potential benefits of that project in helping to regenerate an area that is heavily dependent on public sector jobs. For precisely those reasons, it would be an impressive candidate for funding from the regional growth fund. I understand that the local authorities are working on that at the moment. I pay tribute to the work done by those in Burnley and on Lancashire county council on getting the project moving. My officials stand ready, and are indeed working with the local authorities, to see how we might be able to help to take things forward. This is primarily a local matter, but there is the real prospect of a successful RGF bid.

Eddington identified congestion as a major and growing cost to the economy. Across Europe, towns and cities have light rail systems, which alleviate congestion. When are the Government going to put real political will and resource behind developing light rail systems across Britain?

I am happy to say that we have done a great deal for light rail in the time since the general election, including authorising extensions to the systems in Nottingham, Manchester and Birmingham. I have authorised a tram trial project in Sheffield and commissioned a report internally on value for money in light rail, and that report is now on my desk. We recognise the values of light rail and we are taking it forward in a real way.