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Volume 543: debated on Thursday 19 April 2012

The Secretary of State was asked—

Bus Fares

1. What assessment she has made of recent trends in the level of bus fares in England; and if she will make a statement. (103764)

As I set out in the recent paper “Green Light for Better Buses”, bus fares outside London fell by 4% in real terms between March 2009 and March 2011—the most recent figures available. Bus fares are set by local bus companies or in some cases by local councils, so they vary across the country.

In my constituency, bus fares have jumped by a minimum of 10p since the Government subsidy cut. A basic return journey from Saltburn to Guisborough is now £5.10 for an 8-mile journey. Will the Minister explain why on ConservativeHome this week, a Lib Dem special adviser argued for means-testing free bus passes, as well increasing the age at which a pensioner would receive that bus pass? Are we to take it that that is now Government policy?

I have no idea what the hon. Gentleman is referring to. That is not Government policy and it is not Lib Dem policy either. I am sorry that he seeks to make a political point about something as serious as bus fares. I hope he will take some comfort from the answer I gave, which was that bus fares have fallen in real terms by 4%—unlike under the previous Government, when between 1997 and 2009, bus fares increased by 24%.

Is my hon. Friend aware that in addition to the free off-peak bus pass, Milton Keynes council has introduced a discounted peak bus fare for pensioners?

I was not aware of that development, but I am interested to hear of it. It is becoming clear that under the new localism and devolution proposals advanced by the Government, different approaches are being adopted by local government. Some councils are responding sensibly and creatively to their new freedoms, while others are responding less well.

Inside London, bus fares have gone up under Boris Johnson. This is a tax on people’s jobs, as constituents like mine who have to travel long distances to work now have to face this additional daily cost. Ken Livingstone, the Labour candidate for the mayoral elections, has identified a recurring £330 million sum in Transport for London’s budget; should that not go back to those hard-working people through a reduction in their daily bus fares?

These matters are devolved in London. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not get involved in some sort of beauty contest between Boris and Ken.

Bus Services

Bus services are an important part of our plans to help create growth and cut carbon, and they provide a lifeline to essential services for many people. The recent paper, “Green Light for Better Buses” sets out a comprehensive and balanced set of measures to help local authorities play their part in providing better, greener and more innovative bus services—new funding, better regulations, revised guidance and reformed subsidy arrangements. These proposals have been carefully formulated to attract more people on to buses, to ensure better value for the taxpayer and to give local transport authorities more influence over their local bus networks.

South Staffordshire district council and Staffordshire county council are shortly to launch South Staffordshire Connect, which will provide local transport for people to get to bus routes in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is the type of initiative that we need to promote right across the country?

I do agree. That is the sort of initiative that I am pleased to see some councils adopting, given the freedom that the Government are providing. Buses are a lifeline for people who do not have access to a car. I would be delighted to help my hon. Friend launch this scheme on 13 June.

One of the biggest problems with the bus cuts is their impact on young people. This week, I received an e-mail from a young constituent saying that back in 2010, his bus fare to school was £7.50, but it has now become, in his words, “a huge £12”. Cuts to local authorities and bus grants are having a disproportionate effect on young people, so what are the Government doing to help young people by ensuring that they have access to affordable transport?

I accept that there is an issue for young people, which is why I have taken steps to ensure that young people came along to talk to the operators and local authorities at the bus forum I hold on a six-monthly basis. It is also why I discussed the matter with the Confederation of Passenger Transport, which is now taking steps to try to get a better deal for young people. I have had discussions with the confederation about that very matter.

The Minister will be aware of a recent report from scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which estimated that combustion exhausts cause 5,000 premature deaths in the UK each year. What steps is he taking to make sure that local bus provision is with more efficient buses, and that old buses are retrofitted to improve air quality standards?

I am happy to say that we have recently announced the winners of the third round of the green bus fund. Because of our prudent financial management as a Department, we were able to increase it from £20 million to £31 million. We have also provided money to retrofit buses in London to deal with the air pollution problem there. That is a demonstration of the fact that we are committed to bus travel—both to help create growth and to cut carbon.

The Minister’s new funding pots are like an attempt to use sticking plasters to cover a gaping wound—the wound inflicted by his decision to cut support for buses by half a billion pounds, which has resulted in not improved but disappearing services. “The picture is bleak.” Those are not my words, but the words of the boss of Arriva. Page after page reveals the effect of the Government’s cuts: “frequency reduced”, “evening and Sunday service withdrawn”, “cancelled owing to lack of funding”. Why does the Minister not admit that his policies have been a disaster for bus users?

I will not admit it because it is entirely untrue. In fact, those policies have been a success. Recent figures from local authorities show that the average bus mileage is relatively unchanged, which suggests that there have not been the cuts that the Opposition are so keen to talk up. The industry itself has congratulated the Government on their new bus policy, as, indeed, have local authorities. Perhaps the hon. Lady should pay more attention to what the industry and users say, which, by and large, is supportive of what the Government are doing.

According to the Department’s own figures, traffic volumes will increase by 40% by 2035. Is not the simple, plain fact of the matter that unless we ensure that more people travel on buses, the country will be gridlocked?

It is true that we must have a balanced transport policy, and part of that involves maximising the use of public transport. That is why we have invested more in rail travel than any Government since Victorian times, and why we are now investing massively in buses as well. For instance, £70 million has been invested in better bus areas, £41 million in the green bus fund, £560 million in the local sustainable transport fund, £20 million in community bus services, and £15 million in smart ticketing technology. If I go on much longer, Mr Speaker, you will tell me to curtail my remarks.

Bus Services (Competition Commission Report)

3. If she will ensure that her response to the Competition Commission's recommendations on the market for local buses is published by May 2012. (103766)

You wait ages for a question on buses, and then three come along at the same time.

The Government’s response to the recommendations from the Competition Commission’s report on the supply of local bus services in the UK—excluding Northern Ireland and London—was published on 26 March.

I must explain that I tabled my question three days before the Minister responded to the report.

I am mainly interested in rural bus services. As the Minister knows, there are bus wars on the lucrative routes between towns, and greatly reduced or no services in the more isolated rural communities where elderly and young people depend on buses. What is he doing to ensure that services are more balanced in rural constituencies such as mine—and, when he talks to the commission, will he refer it to the Plain English Campaign, which would help the average bus user to understand what is in its excellent report?

There were a lot of questions there.

I entirely accept that buses provide a lifeline for people in rural areas. That is why we intend to devolve funding for the bus service operators grant to local authorities for tendered services, which will give them more control over those services, and why we have taken steps to fund community transport with two tranches of £10 million to help rural areas. Following the commission’s recommendations, we are taking steps to deal with bus wars by ensuring that there is a code of conduct for operators, enforced by the traffic commissioner.

The commission’s report highlights various ways in which local bus markets are not working well enough throughout the United Kingdom and should be improved, but bus operators must be given enough time to prepare for the necessary changes. May I encourage my hon. Friend not to make the same mistake as the Scottish National party Government in Scotland, who have given operators just three months in which to prepare for major structural changes in funding and a 17.5% cut in the bus service operators grant? That is causing chaos in bus services in East Dunbartonshire and elsewhere.

The industry tells me that it is very concerned about what is happening in Scotland and Wales. It is concerned about the short notice given by the Scottish Government, and about the even shorter notice given by the Welsh Assembly Government. We, on the other hand, gave 18 months’ notice of changes in the bus service operators grant. Representatives of the industry said at the time that, in view of the notice given and the type of BSOG changes involved, they expected to be able to deal with those changes without affecting services markedly.

Statements made by the hon. Gentleman before he was a Minister suggest that he must have been constrained in his enthusiasm for quality contracts by his Conservative colleagues in Government. If he cannot help local authorities to pursue such contracts, will he consider introducing a new bus regulator to deal with market failure—an Ofbus?

The option for councils to pursue quality contracts remains on the statute book, although I think that any pragmatic council would choose to try to deal with bus companies in a collaborative way before reaching for the nuclear option. Some of the problems mentioned by the hon. Gentleman will be dealt with by our responses to the Competition Commission’s recommendations, which pick up some of the unsatisfactory behaviour of bus companies.


We are consulting on plans to make it easier for local authorities to introduce roadworks permit schemes allowing them to control and co-ordinate works better. We have made regulations to allow “pioneer” lane rental schemes, and we are increasing the charges that local authorities can impose where works overrun time limits.

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer, as roadworks can be extremely frustrating for all motorists. Will he therefore do all he can to ensure that utility companies take a co-ordinated approach and that, wherever possible, they avoid undertaking roadworks during rush-hour periods?

Utility companies have the powers to carry out roadworks, but it is very important that they work with local authorities and finish on time. We intend to increase the fine for not finishing on time to £5,000 a day for the first three days, and to £10,000 a day for every day thereafter. I fully understand my hon. Friend’s frustration about works being briefly started and then stopped before being resumed again a few days later. We need to address that.

Is not the best way to tackle congestion both at roadworks and everywhere else simply to get more people on their bikes? As a result of The Times campaign, we now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to boost cycling in Britain. There is now media support, cross-party support in this House and huge public support. Instead of just being given a list of all the measures on cycling that the Government are taking, we need fresh thinking and new ideas, and investment shifted to cycling from other areas of transport spending. We must take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to boost cycling in Britain.

Cycling is very popular in this country, and becoming even more so. The Government support The Times campaign. I have met many of those involved, and we support most of the things The Times has called for. The sort of roadworks my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) was talking about would not be affected by such cycling measures, however. We are trying to make sure that utility companies do not dig up the roads and then leave them open without having finished the works.

High Speed 2

The Government expect that phase 1 of HS2, linking London and Birmingham, will support about 40,000 jobs. That figure includes 9,000 jobs during construction, 1,500 permanent jobs in operating the railway, and opportunities for up to 30,000 jobs in the regeneration and development areas located around stations. Phase 2, connecting Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, will support a substantial number of jobs in those northern conurbations. A more detailed assessment is already under way as part of the sustainability appraisal for phase 2.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. In order to reinforce the true value of HS2, will the Government give serious consideration to the expansion of Birmingham airport into a UK hub airport? That would create jobs in the west midlands, while also offering a viable and realistic solution to airspace capacity problems.

I recognise that Birmingham airport has a crucial role to play and, as my hon. Friend will be aware, the Birmingham interchange station will enable it to be much better connected than it is at present. Birmingham airport already has planning approval for a runway extension, which should allow for the operation of airline services to more long-haul destinations. Even in the short term, there is a real opportunity for Birmingham airport to expand.

May I urge the Secretary of State to readjust her priorities? In terms of job creation—and, indeed, almost any other objective—the true priority should be to create a modern, fast and safe transport network in this country, and especially across the northern regions. Will she make that her top priority, above any prestige scheme?

I do not think there needs to be an either/or choice. We need to improve our transport system in the short and medium terms and plan for the longer term, which is what we are doing through HS2. I am committed to making sure our great northern cities are well connected. There is investment in the TransPennine Express, and there has been an announcement on the northern hub. A huge amount of investment is going in to ensure that those communities are better connected than they ever were in the past.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on her brave decision on HS2. May I remind her, however, that the west coast main line will, perhaps, reach full capacity by 2022, and therefore urge her to bring forward the start of HS2 in order to ensure an earlier completion date?

My hon. Friend is right to say that these huge infrastructure projects take time to come to fruition, and we are cracking on as fast as we can. We are also committed to making sure that we get this one right, which means taking a very structured approach to how we develop our proposals. In the meantime, I assure him that I take great care over his local services. He came to see me recently about Northampton station, and he made a compelling case.

When High Speed 2 eventually reaches Edinburgh, passengers getting off there will have a difficulty because under Network Rail’s current plans the taxi rank is to be moved outside the station. Will the Secretary of State ensure that passengers will still be able to switch to taxis with ease at Edinburgh Waverley station?

Obviously, security issues are also involved, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I have already met representatives of the Scottish Government to discuss the longer-term plans that we have for improving the journey times between Scotland and the rest of the country. There are some exciting proposals that we can bring forward. I am very much looking forward to continuing those discussions over the coming weeks and months, and I very much hope that he will be involved in those discussions and thoughts, as they develop.

Midland Main Line

6. What progress she has made on the electrification of the midland main line; and if she will make a statement. (103769)

The Government are reviewing the business case for electrification of the midland main line, and we will consider this very carefully when we make our decisions in the summer on rail investments in the next rail control period from 2014 to 2019.

I thank the Minister for her answer and for her response to Monday’s Adjournment debate, which again showed the wide support among hon. Members on both sides of the House for improvements to the midland main line. She knows that electrification alone will not deliver the improved journey times, and that the £150 million needed for the further track improvements, particularly at Market Harborough, Leicester and Derby, will make the difference, for a relatively modest investment. Does she therefore agree that we need to cut corners on the track and to do so on the budget would be a false economy?

I very much agree that Monday’s debate was excellent. Although the hour was late, the attendance was strong, with a huge number of hon. Members demonstrating their support for a project that does have a good business case; electrification will be expected to pay for itself over the appraisal period. We will consider the other upgrades that the hon. Gentleman would like to happen. We do not think that their business case is likely to be as strong, but those projects will be examined carefully, too, alongside all the other competing priorities, including projects such as the northern hub.

16. I thank the Minister for her constructive comments and response to the Adjournment debate that I led on Monday evening. Given the remarks she made just now, she is obviously aware of the cross-party support in the House for the upgrade and electrification works. I hope that she is also aware of the support outside, including from all the local enterprise partnerships and councils affected. Is there any further information that any of us campaigning for the electrification and upgrade of the midland main line could provide to her or her office before her decision is made? (103779)

My hon. Friend has been running a great campaign on this issue, alongside many other honourable colleagues. As she says, support has been demonstrated by a lot of the other stakeholders and, of course, by the Derby Telegraph, fine institution that it is. We are confident that we have the information we need, working with Network Rail, and we will be looking further at that in the run-up to these decisions. Of course we take this issue very seriously, because we are committed to electrification of the rail network; we are committed to about 800 miles of it, with about 130 miles of it on stream with TransPennine electrification, whereas the Labour Government only managed less than 10 miles of it.

May I tell the Minister that this project also has huge support from the fine institution that is the Leicester Mercury? She has referred to the strength of feeling expressed in Monday evening’s debate. This project has huge cross-party support and support in the business community, although there is concern in some quarters that, because of HS2, we will not get the money for it. Given that the population and the conurbations that this line serves are likely to expand greatly over the next few years, the sooner she can give us a firm commitment on this, the better.

I am delighted that the Leicester Mercury is also on side, too. As the Secretary of State has made clear, we believe that it is important to invest in and upgrade our current rail network, as well as prepare for the challenges of the future with HS2. But it is only because this Government have made a decision to prioritise investment in transport, despite the deficit that we inherited from our predecessors, that we are having this conversation at all and it is the only reason that electrification of the midland main line is a real possibility.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the project is tremendous value for money, because it will take pressure off the east and west coast main lines? With the prospect of a 60-minute journey from Leicester to London, there will be more demand on the line, so the cross-party support is genuine.

I agree that electrification has general benefits, many of which would materialise if electrification on the midland main line were to go ahead. It will depend on whether it is affordable and on the assessment of competing priorities, which are also supported by communities in other parts of the country. We will take all economic issues and environmental benefits into account.

Fuel Costs

I have regular meetings with ministerial colleagues on a range of economic issues. The Government are very aware of the impact that high fuel prices have on people who rely on their cars. In the Budget last year, the Chancellor cut fuel duty by 1p per litre and it is now 10p per litre lower than it would have been under the previous Government’s plans. Between 2011 and 2013, as a result of that change, the Government will put £4.5 billion back into the pockets of motorists.

I should say that I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but the problem is that the tax on fuel is not just the excise. There is also a thing called VAT which has not been taken into account in the equation. In her regular meetings with the Chancellor, will the Secretary of State suggest to him that they change the formula for the price of fuel, given that VAT plays a fairly significant part in that and the problem is now at a critical stage in my constituency? People are writing to me to say that they can no longer travel to work and that they are considering giving up their employment.

We want motoring to remain affordable and, in fact, this Government are working very hard to ensure that that remains the case. We must also ensure that we take the decisions that can get our public finances back into order. We must do that if we are to continue to be able to invest in infrastructure such as transport. One needs only to come to Transport questions to see how important the issue is to many constituencies and communities, so I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are trying to strike the right balance. We have taken action as a Government and will continue to review the situation.

Will my right hon. Friend put pressure on the big oil companies to reduce prices at the pump when the international oil price falls? Will she also do everything she can to increase competition and reduce the stranglehold of the four big oil companies on the smaller independent petrol retailers?

We want to see competition in this arena and we also want to ensure that when our Government puts through fuel duty cuts, as we did last year, they get passed on. The evidence shows that they do, but I believe that my hon. Friend is right to highlight the situation, which we should continue to monitor. I can only reiterate to him—I know that he has campaigned hard and successfully on this in the past—that we will do whatever we can to try to ensure that motoring remains affordable.

19. At a time when record petrol prices are hitting families and businesses very hard, does the Secretary of State at least agree that it would definitely help those struggling businesses and families if the Government reduced VAT on fuel to what it was before the Government increased it to 20%? (103782)

As I think the hon. Gentleman will know, it is not possible to reduce VAT on fuel without reducing it on standard rated items across the board. I hope that he will welcome the steps we have taken in his local area to make it more affordable for people to travel over the Humber bridge, but his proposition that we can reduce VAT on fuel without reducing it on everything else is wrong. If we did, we would have a huge hole in our public finances that would undermine our investment for public services.

Is the Transport Secretary aware that Ryedale has the highest fuel pump prices in the country and that filling up the car costs more than the weekly grocery bill? Will she support my campaign for a rural fuel duty discount for the specific parts of Ryedale and Hambleton that are affected by the high cost of tax on fuel?

I want to ensure that motoring is affordable for everybody. I think my hon. Friend’s question perhaps relates more to Treasury questions than to Transport questions and I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has introduced and put in place plans to pilot such a rural fuel duty discount. I am sure that she will make her case to him on whether it could, in time, be extended to her community, too.

Rail Fares

No specific assessment has been made of the effect on jobseekers by my Department. The Department for Work and Pensions has a scheme in place to assist jobseekers. Jobcentre Plus issues a discount card to eligible jobseekers to help them travel more cheaply on train services to job interviews and for vocational training. The card offers a 50% discount on a wide variety of fares including London travelcards.

A previous Conservative Secretary of State advised people to get on their bike to find work; it seems that the Department for Transport has taken that advice to heart given the rapid increases in rail fares, particularly over the next two years. Can the Minister confirm that the Government will now allow train companies to increase fares by as much as 8% above inflation over the next two years, and will she at least consider limiting the cost for those people in constituencies such as mine for whom this is very difficult?

This Government are determined to get the costs of running the railways down. We have a plan for delivering that—a plan that has been opposed by Labour Members, who have provided no ideas themselves on how we deal with this problem. We are determined to deliver better value for money for passengers. That is why we are going to get the cost of running the railways down.

Jobseekers and workers from my constituency travel regularly by train to London and elsewhere in the south-east and the wider introduction of smart ticketing should help to reduce their travel costs. Can the Minister update the House on plans to extend smart ticketing across the south-east, funding for which was announced in the Chancellor’s autumn statement?

We believe that introducing smart ticketing across more of our national network is a very important way to improve services for passengers to make ticket-buying easier and more convenient and also as a way to assist our efforts to get better value for money for passengers and in terms of reducing the costs of running the railways. That is why we have allocated funding to projects to deliver smart ticketing in the south-east and why we are funding the interaction of ITSO with Oyster in London. We are determined that the sort of benefits that people have enjoyed with Oyster in London for many years can start to be enjoyed across a wide range of services across the national network.

The Government’s plans for the future of the rail service include the statement that Ministers wish to withdraw or reduce rail subsidies. What impact would this have on rail fares?

What we want to do is get the cost of running the railways down so we take the pressure off fares and off the taxpayers’ subsidy. We need to be fair to both the groups that fund the railways and it is vital that we go forward with our programme to give better value for money and eliminate the inefficiency in the railways that arose under Labour’s term of office. In its term of office, fares rose and inefficiency increased dramatically in the railways.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Opposition said they would cap train fares this year by the retail prices index plus 1%, but where Labour is in control, in Wales, it has maintained the 5% flex element. Is this not just another case of the Opposition saying one thing but doing another?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We cannot believe a word Labour says on fares. The Leader of the Opposition stood at the Dispatch Box and said that the fares basket flexibility was an outrage, yet the Labour Administration in Cardiff are still using it. When it comes to Ken Livingstone, we cannot believe a word he says either on fares.

Does the Minister understand that many people who are out of work do not have easy access to the internet and rely on the help and advice of staff to ensure they get the cheapest fare, which is not always clearly advertised or available at ticket machines? Can the Minister confirm whether it is Ministers or train companies who are responsible for the decision to close many of these vital ticket offices?

The hon. Lady should give me an example of these closures, because I have to say they are not happening. No decisions have been made on possible changes to the way that ticket offices are regulated and we are going to be looking at this issue as part of our efforts to drive efficiency in the railways, but before any decisions are taken we will think very carefully about the impact on all rail users, including the disabled, those who are jobless and those with visual impairments. This is a very important issue to get right and part of the way we will deal with it is by expanding the smart ticketing and alternative ticket-buying opportunities we have discussed this morning.

That is an interesting answer. The Minister seems to be out of touch with what is happening in her own Department. I have here a leaked e-mail, dated just two weeks ago, from the civil servant responsible for the rail fares and ticketing review. It says that

“the Minister has already decided to approve some ticket office closures (it’s just not been announced yet…)…there will be more of those in future.”

What is worse, she then admits that Ministers plan to pin the blame for the closures on the train companies, saying,

“your way of slipping in there that the initiative comes from TOCs not us is very neat”.

Will the Minister now own up and admit that she has already given the green light to these closures, which passengers will find not “very neat” but very inconvenient and very expensive?

The shadow Secretary of State refers to the proposal from London Midland, which is being considered but on which no final decision has been made.

Local Transport Schemes (Funding)

9. What discussions her Department has had with local authorities on the devolution of funding for major local transport schemes. (103772)

My Department has held discussions with a number of local authorities before and during the consultation period on the devolution of funding for local major transport schemes. The formal consultation exercise closed on 2 April and we are now reviewing the responses. We will publish our firm proposals later in the year.

Does the Minister agree that devolving funding for major local transport schemes, such as improvements to the A47 in Norfolk, will give local communities more say on what they need, particularly by using local enterprise partnerships and bringing together businesses and local authorities with a clear understanding and focus on what is needed to achieve economic growth from infrastructure investment?

Yes, we agree that it is a good idea that local communities have more say in such matters, as my hon. Friend says. I am happy to say that my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), will shortly invite him, other local MPs and interested parties to discuss relative priorities for the A47.

Northumberland county council is again considering the reopening of the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne rail passenger link, which is essential for economic recovery and growth in south-east Northumberland. Will the Minister agree to meet me and other interested parties to discuss how we make sure that this necessity becomes a reality?

We have the biggest rail investment programme since Victorian times, but we are always looking for schemes that are sensible and help local economies. I or the Minister of State will be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues.

Topical Questions

Last month we published the rail Command Paper setting out how we will reduce the cost of running our railways so that we can end the era of above-inflation fare rises for passengers. We have also kicked off the consultations on how best to bring fares and ticketing on the railways into the 21st century and to give local communities more power over local services. We also, as we have already discussed, set out our bus strategy, including new funding for low carbon buses and smart ticketing. Users of the Humber bridge have finally begun to benefit from the lower tolls that this Government have introduced.

When my right hon. Friend announced HS2, she assured the House that a fair property and blight deal would address any blight caused by HS2 and reassure property owners. Many people in my constituency have been trying to sell their home for up to two years but are without access to a compensation scheme. What can I say to them to reassure them? Will she reconsider the prospects for a property bond, which would be the only way of ensuring that the property market works normally?

I assure my hon. Friend that I recognise the impact that plans for High Speed 2 are already having on individuals, communities and businesses along the line of route. That is why we will shortly consult on a package of measures that will help property owners. It is an important step for the Government and enables those affected or interested to respond to the consultation and help shape Government policy. She talked about a bond-based property purchase scheme. I assure her that I am committed to making sure that the package is fair.

The minutes of the Whitehall meeting between Addison Lee chairman John Griffin and the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), now the Secretary of State for Defence, on 13 October last year record that the then Transport Secretary said that

“he was interested to listen to the views of someone in the industry”

about opportunities to bid for plum Government chauffeur contracts. Given the cash for access scandal hanging over her Government, will the Secretary of State say whether she or her predecessor had any other private hire firms on the sofa pitching for business? Or do people get that chance only if they pay enough to become a premier league donor to the Tory party?

If the hon. Gentleman’s proposal is that one should not be able to speak to any organisation that gives money to one’s party, it will certainly free up a lot of time in the Labour party’s diary. Labour Members could cut out all those union meetings. The bottom line is that this Government and my predecessor and I have always approached all our meetings with absolute propriety, and that is the case on this matter, too.

T4. The Minister will be aware from her answers to my written parliamentary questions that the Labour party spent no money and completed no track work for the northern hub during its time in government. I am sure that the House welcomes the Ordsall Chord as the down payment on the northern hub, but can she assist those in the Chamber who might be frustrated by the lack of progress on how the new infrastructure projects, such as electrification, impact on the delivery of the northern hub? (103853)

It is right that the Government are making considerable progress on the northern hub, in contrast to our predecessors—not just the Ordsall Chord but north trans-Pennine electrification, improving the Hope Valley line and other improvements that will benefit Manchester, Sheffield, Bolton, Preston, Rochdale, Halifax and Bradford. I acknowledge that there is more to do, and the remaining elements of the northern hub will be carefully and seriously considered when we make our decisions on the next high-level output specification railway control period.

T2. I apologise for raising again the issue that I raised last month without getting an answer. Two years ago the Government inherited an in-principle agreement from the previous Government for the tram train pilot scheme in Sheffield. The scheme is not about rolling out multi-billion pound expansion across the country at this stage. A simple pilot could determine whether what works in other countries works here. When will we have a starting date? (103851)

We are very supportive of the concept of a tram train pilot, and I am in regular discussions with officials in the Department, Network Rail and colleagues elsewhere in Government such as the Treasury. We have to get this right because it is an important project. We have to get the specification right to ensure that it works. We inherited a position where not much work had been done, and we had to start from a very low base, but we are making progress and I hope to make a further statement shortly.

T6. Officials in the Department are considering the Greater Bristol metro rail campaign’s four-track bid for high-level operating strategy funds. Does the Minister agree that, if successful, the four-track system at Filton bank would unlock an essential local railway line for more regular local trains serving popular residential and business locations? (103855)

I am very aware of the project and I recognise its benefits, and officials at the Department for Transport are working with Network Rail and the local authorities concerned. It looks to have a fairly positive business case and we will consider this alongside all the others put forward this morning that could be funded in railway control period 5.

T3. Will the local transport Minister give us an assurance today that, despite Government Members’ statements, there will be no planned changes to the concessionary fares scheme? (103852)

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has kicked me upstairs to the House of Lords, but I will try to give him an answer. There are no planned changes to the concessionary fares regime. It is in place and will be in place for the rest of this Parliament, and we are determined to ensure that pensioners benefit entirely from the arrangement.

T7. Last summer, Network Rail closed the barrow crossing at Downham Market station and said it would consult local residents and councillors about the new crossing. A few weeks ago, I heard that a new crossing is to be built by July this year with no consultation with local councillors and residents. Will the Secretary of State look into this and secure a meeting with David Higgins for me and local councillors so that Network Rail can be held to account? (103856)

I will follow up the issues that my hon. Friend raises. I know that Network Rail has been keen to do what it can to improve level crossing safety, but I recognise the concerns that she raises today and we will have them followed up and make sure that a meeting happens.

T5. Is the Minister aware of the problems being caused to passengers travelling from Liverpool by rail to London on Saturday 10 May for the FA cup final at Wembley with no prospect of a return train until two days later? Will the Minister get the relevant authorities, Virgin, Network Rail and the Football Association, round the table and bang their heads together until common sense prevails? (103854)

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that I have already been on the case. The underlying problem that we are trying to solve is the fact that the FA cup was planned to start at 3 o’clock but will now start later at 5.15 pm. I have spoken with Sir David Higgins of Network Rail and Virgin, and with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport about the timing of the FA cup. It is difficult to change the Network Rail work, which is really important for maintenance and safety and has been planned for 18 months, but Virgin has said that it plans to put on longer trains on the Sunday to ensure that fans have a good opportunity to get back. We all recognise that when the FA cup starts at 5.15 pm and generally the last train back to Liverpool is at 8.10 pm it will always be a stretch for fans to get there.

T9. I am all for improvements in public transport, but the tram works in Broxtowe are causing widespread disruption to residents, and last weekend the Wilkinson store in Beeston closed, with no alternative premises. Does the Minister agree that when deciding routes, wherever they are in the country, it is imperative to work with local people and local businesses? (103858)

I agree with that general proposition and am aware of my hon. Friend’s concern about the extension to the Nottingham tram route. Ultimately, especially these days, when we are looking to devolve more decision making to local authorities, it is for them to decide the best way forward, and I am sorry that she feels that the local authority has not taken account of all shades of opinion.

T8. Do Ministers accept that when railway stations are left without staff, the travelling public, particularly women, feel insecure using them? Will they give an absolute guarantee that staff will not be taken out of stations when that would put the public at any kind of risk? (103857)

In deciding the rules on ticket offices, it will of course be important to consider carefully how best to deploy staff in a way that keeps passengers safe and secure, so the issues the hon. Gentleman raises will be an important part of our thinking before we decide whether any changes need to be made.

T10. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the staff of Virgin Atlantic, Gatwick Airport Ltd and the South East Coast ambulance service for their professionalism when assisting passengers following the emergency landing of flight VS27 earlier this week? (103859)

Yes, I will. I echo my hon. Friend’s thanks and praise for the staff of both companies and members of the emergency services who responded to the emergency landing at Gatwick on Monday. It is obviously too early to speculate on what exactly caused the incident, but it is now being investigated by the Department’s air accidents investigation branch.

Current electrification schemes for a better railway agreed under the previous Government will hopefully yield lessons on how to improve engineering processes and should make electrification of the midland main line and the important scheme for the Wrexham to Bidston line, which runs through my constituency, a better prospect. What early lessons has the Department learned on how to improve engineering for electrification?

Sir David Higgins has come up with some great ideas exactly along the lines the hon. Lady mentions, which could considerably reduce the cost of delivering electrification. However, it is still expensive and still has to be affordable, so we will have to look at priorities.

Has the Secretary of State now calculated the cost associated with increasing the motorway speed limit to 80 mph and the increased number of casualties expected as a result of such a measure?

We would quantify the pros and cons of any move to 80 mph as part of the consultation we would publish, and obviously an impact statement would also be needed. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we want to reach an informed conclusion on this policy area and will announce our next steps shortly.