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Topical Questions

Volume 540: debated on Thursday 23 February 2012

It has been a busy time, and over the last period we have taken important steps to improve the experience of passengers and motorists, through measures to improve customer service in garages while keeping the annual MOT test; tackling with the industry the unacceptable hikes that people face in the cost of insuring their car; providing a fairer deal for British hauliers through a lorry road user charge; and boosting capacity on the west coast main line, with more than 100 extra carriages under the new franchise. Furthermore, through the Civil Aviation Bill, we are putting passengers at the heart of how our major airports are run and giving more protection to holidaymakers by extending the air travel organisers’ licence scheme.

How is it possible for a company to win a competitive tender to provide a bus service but to cease operating it within months, claiming that it is unviable, and causing great concern to those in villages dependent on the service and, presumably, extra expense to Dorset county council given that this service must be restored? What advice can the Secretary of State give?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that question. She will be aware that all local bus operators must have an operators’ licence, which indicates financial standing at the time that the operator was licensed by a traffic commissioner. Local transport authorities can check with the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency whether operators hold a current licence. I am not aware of any barrier to a local transport authority ensuring, through its procurement process, whether the current financial status of a bus operator is sound, but I shall ask my officials to explore the matter further with the county council.

T4. Will the Secretary of State explain why the latest proposals for a new high-speed rail service will see journey times to Liverpool increase compared with earlier plans, and will she accept that people in Liverpool will be rightly suspicious about why they are being left in the slow lane by this Tory-led Government? (95969)

I will be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss this issue because I can assure him and his constituents that people in Liverpool are absolutely not being left in the slow lane. They will benefit from the improvements in times on the west coast main line. I am happy to talk with him about phase 2 and how we can, I hope, ensure that Liverpool benefits, as one of the cities that will not be on the line but will be in the region served by it.

T2. In the light of research from the continent showing that high-speed rail has an adverse effect on the economy of towns and cities not on the networks, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of High Speed 2 on the north-east of England? (95967)

We looked closely at the wider economic impacts. In fact, looking at high-speed rail’s impact in other countries, such as France, one sees that there has been a broader regional benefit. I am determined to work not only with the cities where high-speed rail will stop but with the broader regions served to ensure that we make the most of the huge opportunity that I think high-speed rail presents.

T5. Lorries are involved in 19% of cyclist fatalities. Does the Minister support the call by The Times cycling campaign to require lorries entering city centres to have sensors and mirrors by law to reduce cycling fatalities? (95970)

This is an important piece of work that needs to be done. We are looking closely at how sensors and mirrors will work, and working with our European partners on mirrors in particular. Sensors are a big issue, and only the other day I met the family of someone who had been killed by a lorry driver turning left at a red light. The conclusion of that discussion was that sensors would not necessarily have helped in that case. In other cases, if the sensor is set off by bollards or traffic lights, and so on, drivers will ignore the beeping and not do what they should, which is to see whether there is a cyclist. However, we are looking closely at this issue, and we will work closely with everybody in this House and in the cycling fraternity to ensure that we make it as safe as possible for cyclists.

T3. The Department will soon receive a bid to the sustainable local transport fund from Wiltshire council to support services on the Wiltshire TransWilts community rail partnership. Will the Minister give the bid full consideration? Far from being the rural branch service that one might expect from current service levels, the line connects all the major economic centres of Wiltshire with Swindon, and indeed three mainline railways. (95968)

I am aware that my hon. Friend is a champion of the line, and we are certainly interested in proposals that integrate rail with other services. I cannot, of course, anticipate the assessment of the bid, but I look forward to receiving the bid, and I recognise and note his support for the scheme.

T6. I recently met the roads Minister, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), along with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), to discuss the much needed improvements on the A63 and Castle street in Hull. I wonder whether he can give the House, and me in particular, an assurance that pre-construction funding will be announced soon. (95971)

In the autumn statement we announced extra funding for road projects and for projects where we could literally press the button to allow growth to take place. In what I thought was a very amicable meeting with the hon. Gentleman and his colleague, we said that we were looking at new programmes. We are very aware of the effects of the road in question on local infrastructure, particularly the port, and as we go forward we will work with him and the local authority up there to see whether the project can go ahead.

T8. HS2 will shape the economic geography of the country for decades. Will my right hon. Friend meet colleagues and me to discuss the importance of a stop on HS2 in the north Staffordshire/south Cheshire area, which contains the 10th largest conurbation in the country? (95973)

I would be very happy to do so. My hon. Friend is quite right, on behalf of the community he represents, to want to look at how high-speed rail can benefit that community, and I am happy to have those discussions with him.

T7. First, let me thank the Secretary of State for the response from her Minister, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), to my letter about people pulling horse boxes over seven and a half tonnes, which we have found prevents people who go to gymkhanas with their children, for example, in a larger vehicle from being able to do so, because they cannot fit in a rest period. Can she give me any idea of how long it will take for the derogation that she is seeking from the EU to allow people to carry more than one or two horses to gymkhanas in the summer? (95972)

Although I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an exact timeline, I can assure him that we are working hard on this matter, and he was quite right to raise it in the first place.

T9. I am sure that Ministers all welcome The Times campaign for safer cycling. What steps does the Department think it can take to ensure that cyclists join motorists in taking responsibility for ensuring their own safety while cycling—for example, by ensuring that their bicycles have bells attached and that they are not listening to music while cycling? (95974)

It is the responsibility of everybody on the highway to ensure that they are aware of what their situation is, alert to what is going on around them—particularly if they are cyclists—and, at the same time, visible to other road users. At the same time, however, they need to be protected as well.

The Secretary of State will know that there is great interest in the city of Derby in the decision that she has to make about the procurement of eVoyager trains for Cross Country. Can she update the House on that?

I believe we are making good progress, and the right hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that I am meeting Bombardier later today.

In order to upgrade the service to half-hourly on the Fen line and the Norwich-Cambridge line, there needs to be an upgrade at the Ely North junction. Network Rail has conducted an economic study that suggests that this will have a positive benefit, and the Department for Transport wants to specify it in the next franchise. May I ask what progress has been made to move forward on this investment?

I know that my hon. Friend is a strong campaigner for improvements to the rail lines that serve her constituency. This is something that we are looking at carefully. We have asked Network Rail to do important work on deciding how we might improve the frequency of the services in the way that she wishes to see, and whether the infrastructure needed to deliver that is within the budgets that have already been allocated to Network Rail. We will also look at what we might be able to do in the next control period, as part of our high-level output specification—HLOS—statement, which we will publish in the summer.

Will the Minister update the House on the Department’s attitude the electrification of the midland main line? There is widespread concern that, because of HS2 and other pressures, the electrification will not go ahead for quite some time. It would, however, provide a huge boost to the east midlands economy and to cities such as Leicester.

Leicester and the communities around it have been running a very good campaign on this issue. The Government have made it clear that we see the progressive electrification of the rail network as an important part of our transport and environmental policy. The electrification of the midland main line has been prioritised by the industry in its initial industry plan, which will form an important part of the decisions that we have to make on what will be funded in the next railway control period. We will give further details in our HLOS statement in July.

Given the recent disappointing Christmas drink-drive statistics, is it now time to revisit the decision not to accept the North review’s recommendation to reduce the drink-drive limit?

I was not as disappointed by the Christmas drink-drive campaign as the hon. Gentleman was. Any drink-driving is wrong, and it should not happen, but we targeted specific areas—namely, those who drink excessively and younger drivers—and that campaign was successful. We will continue to push to ensure that people understand that they should not drink and drive, and that if they do they will be prosecuted.