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Volume 547: debated on Thursday 28 June 2012

The Secretary of State was asked—

Concessionary Bus Travel

I believe that you, Mr Speaker, and the Opposition Front-Bench team will know that my ministerial colleague, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), is unable to be here today as he is abroad at a piracy conference—or, hopefully, an anti-piracy conference.

We have no plans to introduce means-testing to assess eligibility for concessionary bus travel for older people. The right to free bus travel for both older and disabled people is enshrined in primary legislation. In the 2010 spending review, the Government said they will protect the statutory entitlement to concessionary bus travel.

I am pleased the Minister has dropped the Deputy Prime Minister’s ridiculous idea—presumably because he can envisage situations in which a pensioner who qualifies for a pass, under a means test, gets on a bus and produces their pass, and everyone can see that they are poor enough to qualify. We would end up with better-off pensioners not getting a pass because they would be means-tested out, and the poorer pensioners not using a pass because they would be too embarrassed to do so.

I thought the hon. Gentleman might have wanted to congratulate the Government on giving £25 million to South Yorkshire yesterday, or on proceeding with the Rotherham to Sheffield tram-train trial, about which he has been so keen, and which his Government did nothing to advance over so many years.

The Deputy Prime Minister raised no such idea, and I made our position clear to the hon. Gentleman in a letter of 2 April. He is well aware of the Government’s position.

Before the election, the Prime Minister pledged to keep the free bus pass. We know the Deputy Prime Minister and his Lib Dem colleagues did not agree, and now we learn that the Work and Pensions Secretary wants it scrapped as well. Can pensioners be sure they will not face a means test in order to receive their bus pass, or is this going to be another U-turn the Chancellor has not told the Transport Secretary about?

The hon. Lady clearly does not want to take yes for an answer. I do not know how many times we have to say from the Dispatch Box that the concessionary fares arrangements will not change over the lifetime of this Parliament: end of story.

After the shambles of the last week, I am not sure that pensioners will be reassured by that commitment. After all, the Transport Secretary began the week by ruling out a U-turn on fuel duty. The fact is that pensioners are being hit now by cuts to bus services, which Age UK and the National Pensioners Convention warn are leading to concessionary bus pass holders having no buses to get on. The Government were right to respond to our call to do something for motorists, but as the Department for Transport has now admitted to under-spending its budget by £500,000—the amount needed to restore bus funding—is it not time to show a similar commitment to public transport and restore the bus cuts?

If I may say so, Mr Speaker, that question strays a long way from the tabled question about concessionary bus passes, and if I were the hon. Lady I would not have asked it, because the latest figures, out this week, show that bus passenger journeys in England increased by 0.6% between 2010-11 and 2011-12. They also show that bus fares outside London fell by 4% in real terms between March 2009 and March 2011. I think that, on this occasion, the Eagle has crash-landed.

Airport Capacity (South-East)

2. What recent assessment she has made of airport capacity in the south-east; and if she will make a statement. (114041)

It will be quite a job to follow the Minister’s last remark.

UK Aviation Forecasts 2011 provides an assessment of how demand for air travel in the UK is expected to change in the future. We will shortly launch a call for evidence to look at how we can tackle that challenge of emerging demand. Let us be clear, however: the coalition agreement stands. This Government cancelled the last Government’s plans for a third runway, and we will be sticking to that.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and I know my constituents will be grateful, too. Does she also agree that talk about expanding Heathrow so it becomes a competitive international hub is wildly misplaced? A third runway would fill up almost at once—and where would a fourth runway go, unless we were to look at possibly knocking down parts of Hounslow and Staines, which I am sure would be entirely unacceptable?

My hon. Friend raises some of the very difficult issues we have already run up against with Heathrow as a hub airport. She also points out that these discussions and decisions matter massively to residents on the ground, and she is right that the question is not just about a third runway at Heathrow—about which we have been very clear—because expanding that airport further would pose significant challenges to local communities, which should be taken extremely seriously.

Airport capacity in the south-east has been studied in great detail for the last 50 years, and there is no further information to be found. Is not the reason we are not getting a third runway the deal done between the Prime Minister and Boris Johnson to try to secure votes in west London, as a result of which the entire economy of the United Kingdom is suffering? I believe the Prime Minister wants to do a U-turn on this, and that he will do a U-turn.

I am not sure whether that was actually a question, Mr Speaker, but what I do know is that we need to approach this discussion with maturity and from a long-term perspective. Given how much this decision affects many people, not just in the industry, but on the ground, it is not good enough to have a headline-driven, pub-style debate. What I have called for now is a much longer-term debate to get some answers that are not just right in the next 10 to 15 years, but will be right for the next 50 or 60 years. I very much welcome the fact that companies such as BA and people such as Willie Walsh are now starting to step up to the plate and join that debate. I look forward to their response and those of many others to the call for evidence over the coming months.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government will stand by the whole of the coalition agreement in this area? Will she confirm that they will stand by the cancellation of the third runway at Heathrow, as she has said, will refuse additional runways at Gatwick and Stansted, and will rule out mixed mode at Heathrow?

I think I have been very clear: the coalition agreement, in its entirety, stands. That is the position.

I represent a constituency where the people on the ground are affected directly by Heathrow, and welcome the jobs and prosperity that the airport brings them. Will the Secretary of State improve access to Heathrow by investing in improved rail access to it from the west as soon as possible? It is a shovel-ready project—will she deliver it?

I know that the hon. Lady has been very passionate about that project. Indeed, a number of weeks ago I was at a reception on it organised by her and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson). We are looking at it very closely. I have to say that a Westminster Hall debate on rail-air transport links in the south-east took place earlier this week and not one Labour MP turned up to it.

Road Maintenance

The Department is providing £3 billion over four years to 2014-15 to local highway authorities in England for roads for which they are responsible. We also provided £200 million in March 2011 to repair damage caused by the 2010 winter. The Highways Agency is responsible for operating, maintaining and improving the strategic road network in England, and this financial year its maintenance budget is £755 million, excluding costs associated with private finance initiative projects.

We know that the coalition’s manoeuvre of choice is the U-turn, so can the Transport Secretary or the Minister continue in that vein by reversing the Department’s decision to cut investment in Britain’s road network by £3.5 billion?

Again, I thought that the hon. Gentleman might have welcomed the £20 million that the Department gave to Merseyside yesterday for investment in local transport projects. I thought he might also have welcomed the fact that in cash terms the Department is providing more for road maintenance over this four-year period than his Government did over the previous four years.

May I welcome my hon. Friend’s announcement? North Yorkshire has the second longest rural road network, after Lincolnshire, and the most extreme winter conditions. How can we ensure that we get a fair slice of the extra money that has been announced?

I am happy to say that North Yorkshire also qualified for funding from the Department yesterday to help the Harrogate and Knaresborough sustainable transport package. We continue to fund road maintenance through the standard arrangements from the Department, as I indicated a moment ago.

The requirement for large expenditure on road maintenance arises overwhelmingly from the heavy axle weights of lorries, so is it not sensible to look at schemes for transferring vast volumes of road freight on to rail? Will the Government look seriously at schemes for transporting lorry trailers and lorries on trains throughout Britain?

I entirely sympathise with that question. We are taking steps to improve the amount of freight that can be transported by rail. The rail Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), is busy activating that. We have improved the gauge from Southampton and the rail line from Felixstowe, and we hope to make further improvements. Of course our high-speed rail plans will free up space on the existing north-south routes.

Automotive Fuel

4. What representations she has received on plans to increase the level of ethanol in automotive fuel. (114043)

We have received representations on ethanol from a range of individuals and organisations. Ethanol can currently be blended in petrol up to 5%. I understand an industry standard for a blend of up to 10% is being developed. The Department has asked the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership to work with consumer groups, vehicle manufacturers and fuel suppliers to plan its introduction to ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place and consumers have clear information.

Is the Minister aware that the Government are absolutely right not to increase the level of ethanol above 5% until we have a better evidence base for its sustainability? Is he also aware—I declare an interest at this point—that there is evidence that ethanol levels above 5% play havoc with older vehicles’ fuel systems, including those of classic and historic vehicles? If we have to go above 5%, will he ensure that the pumps are properly labelled?

I entirely sympathise with my right hon. Friend, who makes an important point. I expect that there is a possibility that the European Commission will review the matter before January 2014, when the requirement for petrol stations to supply a 5% blend officially ends. The UK Government also have a power to require a 5% blend to be supplied beyond that point. In any case, I would expect industry to ensure that a protection grade of E5 will continue beyond that point and I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend’s point about labelling.

Transport Infrastructure Projects

5. What recent progress she has made on transport infrastructure projects announced in the autumn statement. (114044)

10. What recent progress she has made on transport infrastructure projects announced in the autumn statement. (114049)

The Government are not just fixing the disgraceful legacy of debt left to us by the Labour party but are also building for our country’s success in future—and that means investing in transport. At the autumn statement we announced £2.5 billion more in transport investment, building on the £30 billion set out in the spending review. An update on the progress made on the priority infrastructure investments identified in the 2011 national infrastructure plan was published alongside the Budget in March.

The debt plan is not going very well, because borrowing has gone up £3.9 billion this year above what it was at the equivalent stage last year. Construction output fell in April by 13% and long-term unemployment is soaring, yet many of the infrastructure plans set out by the Chancellor do not begin until later in this Parliament. Will the Secretary of State tell us what representations she has made to the Chancellor to bring forward infrastructure spending into this financial year and whether she has had any more success with that than she had with her representations on fuel duty?

I do not think this Government need to take any lectures about debt levels from the Labour party. The only problem Labour has with our debt levels is that they are not high enough. Labour Members want more debt to get us out of this debt problem, not less; no wonder they are sitting on the Opposition Benches rather than the Government Benches.

We are absolutely bringing forward transport projects. In fact, in the time that I have been in this role we have announced 42 major road schemes, many of which were sat on the stocks ready to go but had never been approved by Labour. We are getting on with them and bringing forward a number of projects, and we are cracking on with that right now.

In his autumn statement, the Chancellor announced that he would bring forward investment in the Tyne and Wear Metro—investment that was originally secured by the previous Labour Government. What he did not say was that that was an accounting sleight of hand that will not lead to one extra metre of track being refurbished or one extra job this year. Now that the Chancellor is for turning, will the Secretary of State listen to Opposition Members and bring forward real plans for infrastructure investment in the north-east to get the economy moving?

The hon. Lady raises an important point about the Metro. We are getting on with that project. As she knows, any transport project, once it gets agreement, needs to follow a number of steps before it is in a position to go ahead. We are pulling forward our investment in the Metro and I hope that the hon. Lady, as someone who represents Newcastle, will greatly welcome that.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the east-west rail consortium and the local authorities that have contributed funds that mean that the Bletchley to Oxford and Aylesbury line is in great shape?

I will. It is part of the unprecedented investment that is now going into our Victorian railway network. I believe that the scheme has the potential to make a huge difference, which is why we gave it the green light to go to the next step. I am delighted to see private investment going in alongside public investment and the involvement of local stakeholders and I think that the project will make a huge difference.

Among the projects announced in the autumn statement were the electrification of northern rail links. The Secretary of State will be aware that two of the UK’s most picturesque and economically important lines are the Lakes line to Windermere and the Furness line, which run through my constituency. Neither of them are electrified and both run the risk of losing their direct connection to Manchester airport. Will she meet a small, cross-party delegation to make sure we can fix these challenges?

I would be absolutely delighted to. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that we are getting on with electrification in a way the previous Government never did. We have already announced several hundred miles of electrification. That is one of the key things I am looking at as we finalise the high-level output specification package, which I will announce shortly. I would be very happy to meet him and his delegation to look at what that means locally and how we can make sure that we can improve his local transport system too.

It is very important that the electrification schemes go ahead according to plan, but does the Secretary of State agree that the northern hub must be funded in full to bring the £4 billion-plus investment and improvement in services across the whole of the north?

There is no doubt that the people supporting the northern hub have made a powerful case. In the past two weeks I have been in Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield and all of them have reiterated to me why this project matters so much. Like the rest of the Government I have to cut my cloth to be able to afford what we are announcing, but we have already taken some important steps on this project. I will be setting out the next steps across the railway network in the HLOS—high level output specification—statement and I have no doubt the hon. Lady will take an interest in what I have to say.

People throughout the west country have warmly welcomed the electrification of the Great Western railway line through Chippenham and Bath. They also look forward to the redoubling of the Kemble to Swindon line. Will the Secretary of State look at whether it would be useful to have interchange between that line and the historic Swindon to Cricklade line?

I would be delighted to look at that. I know my hon. Friend has raised this issue before. We are determined to improve connectivity. Looking far longer term, High Speed 2 will do that for many parts of the country and I am determined to make sure that his part of the country continues to get more investment in addition to the Great Western line investment that is already going in and the new intercity express programme trains that will also give him more capacity.

But the Secretary of State and the Chancellor need to recognise that announcing something is one thing, but actually doing something about it is completely different. The breakdown of the autumn statement total suggests that only 17% was due to be made in the last financial year. In this year, with the country back in recession, only a further 5% of the total is due to be spent. Regardless of the issues with the level of influence the right hon. Lady has with the Chancellor, can she really tell the House that she thinks this is having sufficient impact?

This Government and our decisions are having a major impact. I do not need to take any lectures or lessons from the Labour party, which had a failed aviation strategy, no rail strategy at all and made absolutely no investment on the roads compared with what we are putting in. Frankly, the brass neck of it is unbelievable. We are getting on with building our country for the future in a way that the previous Government never did. We are investing more and we will do more. I look forward to hearing him congratulate us when we do.

Cycling Safety

Last year I set up the cycling stakeholder forum, which comprises representatives from cycling groups, motoring organisations and local authorities. A sub-group has been established to look specifically at safety issues. Good progress is being made on coming up with ideas and actions to improve cycle safety. Earlier this week I announced a £15 million fund to improve safety for cyclists outside London by tackling dangerous junctions. This is in addition to the £15 million fund awarded to Transport for London in March for the same purpose.

Figures from his Department and independent analysis have shown that more cyclists are killed in collisions with heavy goods vehicles than any other kind of vehicle. Will the Secretary of State therefore stop the trial of longer HGVs that her Department has enacted and give serious consideration to the proposals from the cycling stakeholder forum for a proper plan to improve cyclist safety and to increase cycle use?

I have already referred to the cycling stakeholder forum, which met yesterday and which I attended. We are looking at safety issues very seriously, as the hon. Lady would expect. I do not think it is a question of how long lorries are. The particular issue with HGVs is about lorries turning left and catching cyclists on the inside. That is one reason why I have now given permission for all local authorities across the country to install Trixi mirrors to pick up those manoeuvres. It is also why the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), is looking at issues relating to the information available to the driver in the cab.

Road Infrastructure

The 2010 spending review committed investment of £2.3 billion for major road improvements over the next four years. We also committed to investment of £614 million towards local road projects. The 2011 autumn statement provided a further £1 billion investment for strategic roads.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Surrey pays more revenue to the Exchequer than any part of the country outside London, but it has the third-worst roads and, taking traffic volumes into account, gets the second-lowest funding of all counties for highways maintenance. What steps is she taking to repair and maintain Surrey’s roads so that the county can continue to generate high revenue for Britain?

I agree that is important. Actually, the latest statistics published by the Department suggest that Surrey road conditions are slightly higher than average. Of the 117 local authorities where we allocate highway maintenance funding, Surrey falls into the top 15 and we are providing £61 million. In addition, my hon. Friend will know that we are focused on important schemes; we are providing £24 million towards the Walton bridge scheme that is now under construction. We are willing to put in that investment, and it will make a big difference on the ground.

Roads are a very important part of any sustainable transport structure. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State turned down Halton’s bid for a sustainable transport fund, and I am in correspondence with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), on the issue. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether any other area has been asked to rework and resubmit its bid? If so, can she tell me why it has, but not Halton?

We had a rigorous process for looking at all the bids; they were considered by a panel of experts that we appointed. Some of the bids were modified in the light of the reaction of the independent panel, and we took our investment decisions on that basis.

Brown Tourist Signs

The review of brown tourist signs is making good progress and we expect to publish our findings later this year. We are currently reviewing stakeholder comments on the existing requirements so that a package of options and a recommendation can be presented to Ministers.

I am glad the Minister shares my passion for brown signs, but can he assure me that the Highways Agency will work much more closely with business before removing brown signs? The agency was reckless in removing the sign on the A1 upgrade in Masham. Would the Minister like to join me for a pint of Theakston’s or Black Sheep so that he can see the evidence for himself?

My colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), might take that pint rather than me, although I am always happy to have a pint of Theakston’s—or anything else for that matter.

I agree that early involvement with business is helpful and desirable, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon on the work he has done on the issue. I know that my colleague, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead, wrote to him about it last week, and has challenged the Highways Agency to minimise the cost of the signs, including by engaging with local contractors and interest groups such as those my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon refers to.

Motoring Costs

9. What steps she is taking to support motorists and the haulage industry; and if she will make a statement. (114048)

I have taken a number of steps to reduce motorists’ costs. We are working with the Ministry of Justice to tackle the cost of insurance fraud, including fraudulent whiplash claims. We are working with the fuel industry to ensure the transparency of fuel costs and that wholesale price reductions are passed on. We have halved the tolls on the Humber bridge. We are working with the Motorists Forum on improving garage experiences for consumers, and as well as freezing fees for MOTs, driving tests and licensing, in the logistics growth review we supported £1 billion of further investment to improve the capacity and resilience of the strategic roads network.

Thousands of hard-pressed motorists, and me, are so excited that the Government cut fuel duty this week that I lost my train of thought as another Labour tax rise was cancelled.

I thank the Secretary of State for her outspoken support and for the pressure she has put on oil companies to bear their share of responsibility for the high price of petrol and diesel at the pumps. Will she carry on putting that pressure on oil companies to ease the pressures on motorists?

I very much welcome those comments. The Government are working hard across the board, in both the Department for Transport and, of course, the Treasury, to make sure that we keep the cost of motoring as low as possible. In fact, the AA says that Tuesday’s delay to the fuel duty increase, today’s announcement, and my call for fuel price transparency have

“placed this government at the forefront of looking out for the interests of drivers, business and families.”

I really welcome that, and we will continue to work hard on behalf of motorists.

Road Congestion (Shipley)

11. If she will make an assessment of the level of congestion on roads in Shipley constituency. (114050)

The Department for Transport purchases journey time data from the Trafficmaster satellite navigation fleet tracking and traffic information service, and provides it, free, to west Yorkshire’s local authorities. The data can be used to make assessments of road congestion in their areas. It is for the local highway authority—in this case, the city of Bradford metropolitan district council—to make any such assessment.

Shipley constituency has some of the most congested roads not only in the Bradford district, but across west Yorkshire. Not least among those is the road between Baildon and Shipley. A Shipley eastern relief road would not only help local residents with that congestion but give a stimulus to economic growth across the Bradford district. What can the Minister do to ensure that that kind of scheme gets a share of the funding that his Department is giving out?

My hon. Friend is assiduous in making the case for his constituents, and I understand why he puts the case for the road he mentioned. As part of the localism agenda, we consulted earlier this year on proposals to devolve funding for major local authority schemes for the period after 2015, so it will be for the new local transport body covering west Yorkshire to decide the priorities for available funding, and of course to involve the local enterprise partnership—Leeds city region LEP. That is the direction of travel that I recommend to my hon. Friend.

The area north of Leeds and Bradford does indeed have some of the most congested roads in the country; that is a problem that is shared cross-constituency. When will we get a decision on the Leeds trolley bus scheme, which will help in that corridor?

The Secretary of State and I are actively considering that matter at the moment. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) will understand that we are talking about cutting-edge technology, as there is no such scheme already in this country, so we have to be very careful in our assessment of the proposal, but we hope to make a decision very shortly.

Rail Franchises

12. What steps her Department has taken to publicise the consultation on the combined Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise. (114051)

The Thameslink consultation was published on 24 May 2012 on the Department’s website. On the same day, I wrote to the relevant MPs and a press notice was issued. On 13 June, Department for Transport officials wrote to MPs and local councils, further publicising the consultation document and details of the upcoming consultation events.

I thank the Minister for her response. May I encourage her, the bidders, Network Rail, London TravelWatch and Passenger Focus to redouble their efforts to raise awareness of the franchise renewal process and, in particular, the implications for Sutton residents, who may find that the through-trains from which they have benefited for many years stop short of Blackfriars, cutting their access to north London and Crossrail?

My right hon. Friend will appreciate that extensive advertising budgets are a thing of the past in the age of austerity, but we will do our very best to make sure that people are aware of the consultation. We are aware of his concerns about the Wimbledon loop; my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) barely gives me a moment’s rest on the issue. Network Rail has concerns about operational issues at Blackfriars, but those are not impossible to surmount. No final decisions have been made. We will consider all the representations on the Wimbledon loop and on all relevant matters in response to the consultation.

Page 28 of the Minister’s consultation document states that future Thameslink services may serve Sevenoaks as well as Dartford and Orpington. Will the rail Minister confirm that, if those services go ahead, they will include a stop at Lewisham, and will be in addition to, and not a replacement for, existing services that run from that station?

As I have said, no final decisions have been made on what goes into the ultimate franchise; that is what the consultation is all about. I will make sure that the hon. Lady’s representations are properly considered when the consultation closes.

Now that the consultation on rail decentralisation is drawing to a close, will the Minister or the Secretary of State devolve responsibility for south-eastern suburban rail services to city hall as a matter of urgency, so that it can drive up standards on the south-eastern suburban networks in exactly the same way as it did with London Overground?

This is an important issue. We are interested in ways of devolving more decision making about our railways, so that it is closer to the local communities served, but we have to make sure that we take into account the interests of all users of relevant rail services, whether they are within or outside the London boundary. We will make an announcement in due course on the results of our consultation on the decentralisation of rail decisions.

Double-decker Trains

13. What consideration she is giving to the reintroduction of double-decker trains on the rail network. (114052)

A report prepared by Network Rail in 2007 concluded that the introduction of double-decker trains on the current UK rail network would require extensive modification to structures and stations and was not economically viable.

Although such trains operate in a number of European countries, the larger loading gauge used in continental Europe allows the use of taller, wider trains than is possible in the UK.

Other nations seem to make a success of having double-decker trains, and we used to have them on some suburban services in this country. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to ask Network Rail to think again, because lots of commuters on congested trains would want us to replicate the success of double-decker buses by having double-decker trains.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s interest in this issue, and I have looked at it. The reality, however, is that double-decker trains that were run in the past by British Rail were claustrophobic, it took a long time for passengers to get on and off, and they deployed the sort of slam-door stock that we have tried to phase out. The shape of the UK rail network, the size of the bridges, the distance between rail tracks and the distance between the tracks and the platform mean that we cannot run the large double-decker trains that work in Europe. I am afraid that there are much more cost-effective ways to expand capacity, with longer trains and more frequent services, which is what the Government are doing.

Driving Licence Renewals

If the photograph on a driver’s licence needs to be renewed, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency sends a renewal notice 56 days before the licence expires. If the licence needs to be renewed because the driver has reached the age of 70 or has a shorter-period licence due to a medical condition, the renewal notice goes out 90 days before the licence expires.

Someone close to my heart had a driving licence that expired, and did not receive such a notice. Mrs Bone is following Transport questions closely, so would it not be helpful—there must be tens of thousands of people who are driving with expired licences—to include on the licence, in clear, large print, the expiry date?

My hon. Friend makes a perfectly reasonable point. Holders of a photocard driving licence are required by law to renew the photograph on the licence every 10 years so that it remains a good likeness of the driver. I take his points on board—I absolutely do not want to see drivers caught out—and, as he is aware, we are looking more broadly at how we can make sure that our driving licence works well for motorists, not least investigating when we can begin to put the country’s flag on it for a change.

Topical Questions

T2. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. Is this topical question 2 or topical question 1, Mr Speaker? (114059)

It is still T2, but we are grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Mr Sheerman has withdrawn his question T1.

It has been a busy couple of months in the Department for Transport. We have announced our plans to work with petrol retailers to get a better deal for motorists at the pump. We have helped local authorities to unlock economic growth with our £266 million local sustainable transport fund announcement. We have set out the next steps for attracting greater investment in the strategic road network, issuing rail franchise consultations on the inter-city east coast and south-eastern franchises. With other Government Departments, we are working extremely hard to put in place the final planning and preparations to make sure that we host a fantastic Olympic and Paralympic games this summer.

I thank the Minister for the additional £20 million for Merseyside Transport. Without wishing to appear ungrateful, what is happening to the appalling rolling stock on the northern franchise, which is wholly unsuitable, particularly on the Southport-Manchester link?

There is a significant piece of work under way to look at what we can do to improve rolling stock across the network, including looking at what additional new rolling stock we need, and how the existing rolling stock can cascade to improve services for others on the line. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who is responsible for railways, is listening closely and will look into the issues that he has just raised.

I understand that the road casualty figures for 2011 were published this morning and, sadly, show the first increase since 2003 in deaths and serious injuries. Road casualty reduction targets commanded cross-party support for nearly three decades and played a big part in sending a strong message from Government about how committed they were to reducing deaths and serious injuries on our roads. Those targets were scrapped by the Secretary of State’s predecessor. Is she prepared to revisit that decision? Many in the road safety sector felt that that was a mistake, and the figures this morning tend to suggest that bringing back targets would help in the battle to reduce deaths and serious injuries.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that as far as I am concerned, one accident is too many. The figures are disappointing. We are concerned to make sure we improve our road safety record. Many of the things that we are doing, including managed motorways, can help with that. I think he is wrong to draw too many conclusions from the latest figures, because we know that we had some exceptional weather in that period. That is one of the reasons why there was such a change, but I am happy to look at what we can continue to do to work with all sorts of stakeholders to improve road safety. It is an issue that this Government take incredibly seriously.

T3. The latest figures from Sustrans show a 40 million increase in the number of cycling trips in 2011 compared with 2010—a very welcome 18% rise. I and many others, including British Cycling, welcome the funding that has been provided by the Government, particularly most recently the £15 million that has been provided towards dangerous junctions around the country, a key feature of the safer cycling campaign in The Times. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to make sure that local authorities match this money to do even more work on more junctions, rather than ducking their responsibilities when the Government step up? (114060)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for this support for our measures, which include large sums of money allocated yesterday through the local sustainable transport fund, which will also benefit cycling. The sum of £50 million will be available to local authorities on a match-funding basis. We are encouraging them to contribute, and the more they contribute, the more likely it is that they will be successful in securing money from the Government for their dangerous junctions.

T9. Following last week’s publication of the east coast franchise, does the Minister think passengers on the east coast should expect an eye-watering 8% above inflation fare increase, which my constituents travelling on the west coast main line will face in years ahead? (114066)

This Government are determined to get the cost of running the railways down. That is the way we deal with the concerns that passengers have about fares. If the Opposition think concerns about fares started in May 2010, they are living on another planet. We need reform to get the costs down so that we can respond to passengers, and it is time Labour started producing its own reform plans if it insists on rejecting ours.

T4. My right hon. Friend is aware that I have had constituents in tears in my advice surgeries who are blighted by the HS2 project and trapped in their homes, unable to sell them. Can she reassure my constituents that she is determined to make sure that no private home owner has to pay with the value of their home for the project? What update can she give us on the consultation to get a decent, fair compensation scheme in place? (114061)

I know that the High Speed 2 line is already causing uncertainty for many individuals, communities and businesses that will be affected along the route. We have introduced the exceptional hardship scheme. As my hon. Friend knows, I am about to have a meeting later today to talk to some of the key stakeholders, including herself, about their concerns. Having listened to many concerns and looked at the effectiveness of the exceptional hardship scheme, we are drawing up long-term proposals for compensation, and we will be consulting on those very shortly.

On that point, does the Secretary of State agree that one of the best ways of ending the uncertainty is to reach a quick decision? Will she confirm that the Government will introduce legislation on HS2 in the coming Parliament, and that she continues to have the full support of the Chancellor and the Prime Minister in taking forward HS2, which is so vital not just for England, but for Scotland?

The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is yes. We are planning to introduce the hybrid Bill. HS2 is vital for the long-term success of this country.

T5. Following on from that question, given the Government’s vision for a truly national high-speed rail network extending to Scotland, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s meeting with the Scottish Transport Minister. Will she continue to work very closely with the Scottish Government on the project, not least to ensure that any short-term rail improvements, such as the Edinburgh-Glasgow electrification, can be done in a way that is compatible with future high-speed rail? (114062)

I found my meeting with the Scottish Government extremely helpful, and I am keen to work with them on their plans for high-speed rail north of the border. Obviously, they will have to look at the rest of their investment plans in the meantime. That discussion is under way and we will pursue it over the coming months.

If we are to make real improvements in cycling, we must ensure that it is considered properly as part of all decisions and policies on road use, so will the Minister consider the Cycle Stakeholder Forum’s proposal to add a mandatory risk assessment and consultation on cycling to every policy review that affects road users? That would have no cost implications but would make a real difference to transport policy and would show that the Government consider cycling a key part of transport policy.

The Cycle Stakeholder Forum is producing some useful suggestions and doing some good work. The process that is under way means that all its suggestions will be properly assessed by the Department, and we will respond to those in detail later this year.

T6. Following the very welcome news that we have ended Labour’s fuel duty, may I ask the Secretary of State whether she will continue to promote the use of alternative fuels in heavy haulage lorries, as practised by Downton and Howard Tenens in my constituency? (114063)

We are very keen to do that. In fact, my hon. Friend might be aware that we have started the low-carbon truck demonstration trial, which now involves £10 million of funding for investigating how we can encourage haulage companies to operate in a lower carbon way. He mentioned the fuel duty impact. Actually, hauliers will be about £4,900 better off on average. The Labour party is interested in carping, but the reality is that we are delivering for people on the ground in a way that it never did.

The big society pervades every Government Department. What is the Secretary of State’s definition of the big society?

It is people stepping up to the plate and seeing what they can do to help their local community. We are very good at doing that in times of crisis, particularly in places such as London, but I think that we should be doing it every day of the week. That is what it is about.

T7. Helicopter flights cause significant noise disturbance for people living under flight paths and they also benefit from reduced fuel taxes. Will the Minister look at schemes such as those adopted in Paris and Los Angeles to tackle helicopter noise and also look at the unfair tax advantage that helicopter operators have? (114064)

My right hon. Friend will appreciate that fuel duty is a matter for the Chancellor. We do appreciate the irritation that helicopter noise can cause—anyone who works in this building gets irritated by them buzzing overhead so often—and will consider it as part of our consultation on a sustainable framework for UK aviation.

Like many Members, I eagerly await publication of the high-level output specification and the statement of funds next month. As matters stand, Wales would see electrification only of our rail network to Cardiff, compared with electrification of 40% of UK railways and the electrification of the Glasgow to London route in 1974. I invite the Department to make up for this historical injustice by including electrification of the valleys network, the north Wales coast line and the main line to Swansea?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are looking closely at what we can do to improve the railway system in Wales. He will have to wait for the HLOS statement itself, but I am absolutely determined to ensure that we see investment go to all parts of the country. It is a key part of what the Government want to do—rebalance the economy—and that absolutely includes Wales.

T8. The Dutch now have two thirds of their minor rural road network covered by speed restrictions of 40 mph approximately, as they found those even more effective than 20 mph approximately zones in urban areas. Will the Minister please confirm that he will take this evidence into account when drafting the forthcoming guidance on setting speed limits and set out what other measures should be taken to protect rural cyclists? (114065)

I am happy to confirm that the Department is giving local councils much more freedom in how they use the road network, including the classification of roads and the speed limits that are set. I hope that my hon. Friend will be aware of the extra freedom for 20 mph limits, in particular. Her point on 40 mph limits is well made and I will ensure that my fellow Transport Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), is made aware of her comments when he returns.