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Topical Questions

Volume 556: debated on Thursday 17 January 2013

May I take this opportunity to thank the emergency services who responded so professionally to yesterday’s helicopter crash in London, in which, sadly, two people lost their lives? The Air Accidents Investigation Branch is continuing its investigation, and I will keep the House updated on its findings.

Since I last addressed the House at Transport questions, I have published the Richard Brown independent review into franchising, which concluded that it remains a fundamentally sound model. I will make further statements on rail franchising in due course. Over the Christmas period I also announced details of a new £170 million local authority pinch point fund, targeting the most congested points on local roads, as well as the allocation of an extra £215 million to councils to maintain roads.

The cost of travelling by train and tube from the suburbs of London into central London—for example, from West Harrow in my constituency to Westminster—has increased by 25% in the last two years alone. What discussions do Ministers plan to have with the Mayor of London about ameliorating the impact of high fare rises on those whose budgets are already squeezed?

The current fare regime and price increases are exactly the same as those under the last Government, and I do not remember him complaining about them then.

T4. The new Mersey Gateway bridge will be tolled, with the risk of significant extra traffic through Warrington. The inspector at the planning inquiry stated the toll should be set no higher than that of the nearby Birkenhead tunnel. Will the Secretary of State confirm that in any evaluation of a change to the tunnel toll, he will also look at the situation of the bridge and of Warrington? (137516)

The Government have no plans to fund the reduction or abolition of tolls on the Mersey tunnels. Tolls on the new Mersey gateway bridge will be set by the Mersey gateway crossings board, an independent subsidiary of Halton borough council set up to manage the scheme. My hon. Friend knows that the indicative and maximum toll levels were agreed as part of the public inquiry, and were set out under the Transport and Works Act 1992.

T3. A couple of days ago, Carlos Tevez, the Manchester City striker, admitted to not having a valid UK driving licence. It was said that the theory test would be difficult for him as it is conducted in English. Given that many people who are legitimately and legally in the UK need to drive after the 12-month grace period, does the Department offer the theory test in other languages? If not, why not, given that in the interests of road safety it is more important that people are encouraged to take the test, rather than have them worry about whether their written English skills are up to scratch? (137515)

I can confirm that the test is offered in more languages in this country than it is in any other in Europe. I am, however, consulting on whether to reduce the number, because it is clear that a key aspect of road safety is involved: if people cannot understand the test in English, they might not be able to understand the road signs.

T5. Will my right hon. Friend continue to champion Essex commuters and ensure that the recommendations of “Once in a generation—A rail prospectus for East Anglia” are considered by his Department and implemented, so that our commuters can have outstanding rail infrastructure, bringing us into the 21st century? (137517)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and I pay tribute to the tremendous work that she, other hon. Members and local authorities in East Anglia have done in producing that excellent document, in which I was involved before becoming a Minister. She can have my assurance that we are completely committed to investing in infrastructure, not only in East Anglia and Essex but throughout the country. I look forward to meeting her, Government Members and other Members of the House to discuss that important report shortly.

T7. Bolsover district council, Chesterfield borough council, North East Derbyshire district council and Bassetlaw district council have all proposed that devolved major scheme funding should be allocated to a local transport body based on the Sheffield city region. Does the Minister agree that that is a sensible way to allocate resources in order to help regenerate the economy? (137521)

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point, although it is obviously equally important to listen to local views. My understanding is that both Derby and Derbyshire, and Nottingham and Nottinghamshire did not think it was right that they be linked with Sheffield because of different considerations in their geographical make-up and in their needs. We have decided that, in the interim, we will not link Sheffield with Derby/Derbyshire and Nottingham/Nottinghamshire, but we will leave it to the local communities to seek, in the short term, an agreement that will be mutually acceptable to all communities.

T6. My question is further to that asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) about services on London Midland trains. Staff shortages and other issues have led to an unbelievably poor service, with London Midland’s chief executive saying earlier this week that he was “embarrassed” by the service being offered. What will the Government do to ensure that London Midland improves the service it offers my constituents? (137518)

As I mentioned earlier, there have been discussions between the Department and London Midland, and they are ongoing. London Midland has taken steps to improve its rostering and to recruit more drivers to try to ensure that the very poor service that my hon. Friend’s constituents have had is not repeated this year. We continue to monitor the situation, and we will take further action if necessary.

If Britain is to see a substantial modal shift of freight from road to rail, it is vital to construct dedicated rail freight capacity capable of carrying full-sized lorry trailers on trains. Will the Government give serious consideration to practical schemes to provide such capacity?

I will always look at practical schemes that come forward. I am pleased to say that the amount of freight being carried on the railways has dramatically increased, and I very much hope that our plans in the near future will show that we want it to increase even further.

The Minister is aware of my concern about the apparent reinterpretation by the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland of the very welcome £50 million that the UK Government announced in their 2011 autumn statement for sleeper refurbishment. Will the Minister comment on his understanding of the position, and could we perhaps discuss it later in a meeting, not least in the context of the new Caledonian sleeper franchise?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question, and I know he has campaigned vigorously for improvements to that rail service. I understand that the Scottish Government decided to reroute funding allocated for improving sleeper services to capital investment in Scottish Water—a short-term measure taken, apparently, for accounting reasons. The future funding of Scottish Water will be fully adjusted to ensure the commitment to fund the sleeper improvement programme is met, although I think it is sad that there has been this delay. I would be more than happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman if he felt that would be useful.

My constituent, Mrs Hinet, suffered the tragedy of losing her daughter and grandchild. They were pedestrians who died when a car driven by an 89-year-old who had had a heart attack at the wheel mounted the pavement. There seems to be a lack of assessment of drivers such as that 89-year-old, compared with that of those who are 70. I know that regulations are in place for drivers who are over 70, but there seems to be a problem in that the deciles of the 70s and 80s are aggregated in the data. Will the Minister look at the data and how they are collected for those in their 70s and 80s and accidents on the roads?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. We have looked at that data and at some of the evidence from some incidents, particularly a number of tragic incidents such as the one he describes. The most important thing is that the current plans and regime are backed by the evidence, and I will review that. More importantly, it is a question of experience and not necessarily of the driver’s age.

To what extent does the Secretary of State plan to rely on private sector money to fund HS2? Have the Government approached or received any expressions of interest from potential funders, including any foreign sovereign wealth funds?

First and foremost, I want to get the Bill for HS2 through the House. We will make further announcements on HS2 in the near future.

Will the Secretary of State outline when the Caldervale line that runs through my constituency will get new rolling stock to replace the current Pacer units, which are unpopular, uncomfortable and outdated?

I promise the hon. Lady that I will write to her, bearing in mind the concerns she has just expressed.

Electrification of the Lakes line from Oxenholme to Windermere would probably be the least expensive and most straightforward electrification project in the network. It would also provide a massive boost for the £3 billion tourism economy in Cumbria. Will the Minister meet me, rail operators and rail users to take forward this project?

I am very happy for me or my colleague the Minister of State to meet my hon. Friend about this matter. We have a major programme of electrification, as he knows. It will not be finished when we have completed all these schemes, so we are looking forward to further schemes post the present programme.