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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 565: debated on Thursday 27 June 2013

TRANSPORT

The Secretary of State was asked—

Coastal Safety

The Department works closely with many organisations to promote safety around our coast.

Last year we saw an increase in accidents around this time of year, and while I want to encourage everyone to enjoy our beautiful coast this summer, I want them to stay safe and to follow the advice of organisations such as the coastguard, the RNLI, the National Water Safety Forum and the Royal Yachting Association so that they enjoy their time around the coastline.

Over the summer months, millions of tourists will flock to tourist resorts such as Lytham St. Annes and the Fylde coast. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that all will be done to keep our inshore waters as safe as possible to encourage more people to holiday here in the UK?

My hon. Friend is right that many constituents will flock to the coast, including the coastline in his constituency and many others around the UK. Our coastline is fantastic, attractive and beautiful, but it is also dangerous and people should not take risks or underestimate it.

Amphibious vessels such as the Duckmarine that recently sank in Liverpool appear to have at least three regulators: VOSA and the traffic commissioners; the Maritime and Coastguard Agency; and the Driving Standards Agency. Will the Secretary of State ask the accident investigators to consider whether this split regulation and split responsibility is the best way to guarantee public safety?

Of course we are all very concerned about the incident that happened in Liverpool and I will talk to the inspectorate about it. A report is being prepared by the marine accident investigation branch. I will want to see what it says, and I shall take the point made by the hon. Lady as Chair of the Select Committee.

It has been revealed that the maritime rescue co-ordination centre in Belfast has been staffed below risk level on 191 shifts this year alone. Does the Minister find that acceptable, and, if he does not, what is he doing about it?

It is vital that we have cover, and that if there is low availability pairing arrangements ensure that others take over that cover. We will not demur from our responsibility.

Bus Services

The regulatory framework around quality contract schemes is the one we inherited from the previous Administration and there are no plans to change it. The decision to pursue a quality contract scheme remains for the local transport authority to take, if it can satisfy itself that the scheme is in the public interest.

The Minister will know that up until now most provincial passenger transport authorities have preferred the partnership route and, to my knowledge, at least two—Tyne and Wear and West Yorkshire—are exploring whether to go the quality contract route instead, not least because of all the financial pressures that are now upon them. What advice does he have for the two authorities?

My advice is to consider what is best in the public interest for their constituents, to examine the options available in legislation, to pursue partnership working with bus operators and to try to secure the best possible outcome for the bus passenger.

15. Some 45 per cent. of those travelling on the excellent bus services in North Yorkshire take advantage of concessionary fares. Will the Minister look kindly on allowing bus companies similar commercial freedom to that enjoyed by the railway companies that provide concessionary passes? (161779)

The arrangements for train and for bus are slightly different in the sense that the railway arrangements for the discount card were set in place at privatisation and are funded by the train operating companies, whereas the bus arrangements are of course funded from the public purse. If the hon. Lady has particular concerns about the operation of the travel concessionary scheme in her area, I will be very happy to meet her and talk about them.

When the Minister sat on the Bill Committee for the Local Transport Act 2008, he was not satisfied with what the Government were then proposing because he knew, as do other hon. Members, that the current deregulated system allows bus companies to game the public purse to the detriment of the travelling public. Can he not persuade his hard-hearted Tory colleagues to help authorities that want to re-regulate the system to the benefit of the travelling public?

As far as the landscape is concerned, following the recommendations of the Competition Commission, we have of course taken steps to improve it. The options available under the Local Transport Act—the hon. Gentleman and I sat on the Public Bill Committee—are still available. I encourage local authorities to explore the best possible options. What we are seeing across the country in places such as Brighton, for example, is a good arrangement between local authorities and bus companies, which is driving up passenger numbers.

The Minister will well remember the grilling that he and I got before the inaugural meeting of the Youth Select Committee about a year ago on the whole anomaly of young people often qualifying for full adult fares at the age of 16 and of a postcode lottery in certain parts of the country. A year on, with the Youth Select Committee moving on to a new study next week, will the Minister update us on what progress has been made on getting fairer fares for young people?

I do remember that particular Select Committee engagement, and I am sorry that my hon. Friend is no longer in his post to carry on the work he was doing. Since then, we have talked to the bus companies at the Department for Transport and they have produced this new website, which is useful for identifying offers and the availability of transport for young people. In addition, I have had discussions with the Minister for Schools about the situation for young people, and we are considering what further action, if any, we can take.

Lancashire county council is considering quality bus contracts. Will the Minister and his Department be as supportive as possible towards those authorities that wish to move towards quality bus contracts, providing support where necessary?

We are always happy to engage with local authorities and to give them advice in so far as they request it. Obviously, when local authorities request factual information from the Department, we will be happy to supply it.

The quality of bus travel between Newcastle, Hexham and Carlisle has suffered terribly due to the mismanagement of Arriva. Specifically, many of my constituents encounter great problems with the service being perpetually late or even buses running out of fuel. Will the Minister reassure my constituents that the next time he meets Arriva, he will urge it to improve the quality of this service?

I am always keen to improve the quality of bus services for passengers. The satisfaction level of bus travel as measured by the independent Passenger Focus is 84%, and in Tyne and Wear, for example, it is 87%. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about particular issues in his local area, I would be happy to pursue them with him and the relevant bus company.

In theory, quality contracts and quality partnerships should make integrated ticketing—and, therefore, smartcard ticketing—easier to manage. We are still not seeing enough smartcard use outside London—specifically in Merseyside, where the project is long overdue. Will the Minister say specifically what he and his Department have done to empower integrated transport authorities to get smartcards available for passengers?

As a matter of fact, we have provided significant sums of money to ITAs to take forward smart ticketing. We are also taking forward multi-operator ticketing guidance, in accordance with the Competition Commission’s recommendations, and I have made it plain to bus companies that we want to see progress on that matter. Only this week, I held a two-hour meeting with key operators in the bus and train world to talk about smart ticketing and to make sure we are making progress, which indeed we are, in both modes of transport.

Dangerous Driving

We are taking forward the measures set out in the strategic framework for road safety. In 2012, a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving came into force. We are also creating a new drug-driving offence and will consult on the limits shortly. We have also consulted on changes to make the enforcement of drink-driving laws more effective. Additionally, we intend to publish a Green Paper on young drivers later this year.

My hon. Friend will be aware that in certain areas of our country there are drivers who have never taken a driving test. Has his Department investigated the potential benefits of requiring drivers to take a test every five or 10 years in order to reduce such incidents and make our roads safer by removing those who drive illegally?

The Department has not investigated the potential benefits of that. We do not regard it as a priority, partly because if those people are driving illegally, they are unlikely to take the test. However, I can reassure my hon. Friend that we take illegal driving very seriously, and that the automatic number plate recognition system is helping us to crack down on illegal drivers.

Does the Minister now regret the axing of the targets on deaths and serious accidents on the roads, particularly in the light of the first increases in both categories for more than 10 years?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is out of touch. If he looks at the 2012 figures published this morning, he will see that deaths and serious injuries have reverted to the trend we had expected, and have fallen.

When will the Minister’s Department implement part 6 of the Traffic Management Act 2004 to prevent dangerous driving and to allow the prosecution of those who drive in cycle lanes and commit other moving traffic offences?

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that we are having cross-departmental discussions on the matter. No decision has been taken yet, but I hope we will come to a conclusion in the near future.

When the Government announced trials of 80 mph limits on our motorways, there was dismay at the prospect of higher emissions, higher costs for drivers and collisions at higher speeds. The Minister announced in a recent speech that the trials were still on track, whereas the Secretary of State suggested in a press interview last Sunday that they were off the table. If there is one thing we need in road safety, it is clarity. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government are still pressing ahead with such a dangerous policy?

The Government made an initial assessment of the possibility of introducing trials of 80 mph limits, but it is not a priority. What is a priority for this Government is the transformational investment that is delivering growth and road safety. Yesterday’s announcement by the Chancellor will give us the means to deliver that transformational change.

Railway Stations

In the past two years, more than £238 million has been spent on schemes benefiting more than 100 stations nationally, including major investment at Birmingham New Street, London King’s Cross and Reading stations. Work includes improved access, better parking, retail outlets and ticket offices.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Lowestoft station is Britain’s most easterly station, and while welcome work is currently taking place to improve bus interchange facilities the station itself remains shabby in appearance. Will the Minister confirm that as part of the negotiations for the extension of Greater Anglia’s franchise, the Government will do all they can to ensure that the station and its surrounds are smartened up and brought back into full use?

Although there will be no changes in the requirements for the direct award up until 2016, my hon. Friend will be reassured to know that Abellio will be required to undertake normal repair and maintenance activities and to invest in areas where there is a positive business case. I fully understand what my hon. Friend says about the condition of Lowestoft station and the overall impression it gives, and I will certainly draw both his comments and mine to the attention of Abellio.

Given that on a recent visit to Wolverhampton the Transport Secretary described our train station as “awful”, and given that the Department for Transport contributes to the regional growth fund, will the Minister commit himself to supporting the bid to the regional growth fund by Wolverhampton city council and a consortium to rebuild the station and regenerate the surrounding area?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary did visit the station, and he had a very jolly visit. I can also reassure her that a considerable amount of investment is being made in the area, but the specific bid proposals she mentions will be fully considered and decisions will flow from that in due course.

When the Minister discusses the refurbishment of stations, will he look closely at accessibility for passengers with poor mobility, especially wheelchair users? Will he also take that a step further and speak with some of the train operating companies about the dismal access for some wheelchair users when trying to get on trains?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. It is crucial that access for those with restricted mobility is improved. That is why, as he will be aware, there is the Access for All scheme, with investment of more than £300 million for the whole programme, and with an additional £100 million to be made available for the next control period. We are as anxious as he is to ensure that there are improvements for such people.

Motorists: Support

Roads are vital to people and to the economy, but they have suffered from a lack of investment, and we expect traffic to increase in the years to come. Yesterday, the Chancellor announced the largest programme of investment on our roads for half a century to tackle congestion and support growth. As my hon. Friend will know, since we came to power we have been working hard to minimise costs for hard-pressed families by keeping fuel duty down.

The best way of helping Harlow motorists would be to provide an extra junction on the M11, junction 7a, which would reduce traffic and help businesses in my constituency. May I urge the Minister to give it his strong support?

My hon. Friend will recall that I visited him in Harlow a few years ago and saw the scheme for myself. I know that there will be consultation on it over the summer, and that it is a priority for Essex county council. I do not think that I should prejudge the consultation, but, as he knows, I should be happy to meet him and his constituents to discuss the matter.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating Driver First Assist? It has provided great support for motorists, piloting work with the emergency services and the road haulage industry to promote crash-scene first aid and crash management skills among drivers. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State keep an eye out for an invitation to the national roll-out launch, which I believe is winging its way to their inboxes?

I am delighted to support that initiative, and I look forward to the invitation. Let me also congratulate the road haulage industry on the work it has been doing to make its drivers aware of the danger posed to cyclists by vehicles, and on its excellent work in upgrading the technology in a number of vehicles.

East Coast Main Line

6. What his policy is on the privatisation of east coast main line services; and if he will make a statement. (161769)

This Government’s programme for rail franchising was announced on 26 March. The comprehensive schedule included the intention to return the inter-city east coast franchise to the private sector by February 2015, and that remains our policy.

The east coast main line will have returned £800 million to the Exchequer by the end of this financial year. Are not the Government taking us from a position in which the line subsidises taxpayers to one in which taxpayers, through their fares, will subsidise shareholders?

I am guided by the words of the last Labour Transport Secretary, who said:

“I do not believe that it would be in the public interest for us to have a nationalised train operating company indefinitely…because of our recent experience of rail franchising”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 July 2009; Vol. 712, c. 232.]

He said that when he held the job that I hold now, and I think he was right.

The east coast main line has benefited from major improvements over the last 20 years. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government will not neglect the need for future investment in that important route, notwithstanding the huge amounts of money that are being sucked into the doomed HS2 project?

Huge investments are being made in the east coast and, indeed, a number of other railway lines. Our package of rail investments between 2014 and 2019 will lead to the largest-ever electrification on our railways. The Chancellor confirmed that and further investment in the railways yesterday.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I support the HS2 project, but because that network will not extend to the north-east of England, there will still be a need for investment in the east coast main line. One option, under the intercity express programme, is the building of a further 270 carriages at the Hitachi factory in Newton Aycliffe. Will the Secretary of State agree to that? It would constitute an investment in sustainable jobs, and an investment in the long and proud tradition of train building in the United Kingdom.

I welcome Hitachi’s investment at the Newton Aycliffe site, following a £4.9 billion contract that it has already won for refurbishment of IEP trains. The Department is currently considering other proposals. Huge investment is being made in all our railways, partly as a result of the huge increase in the number of people who use them.

Q12. During a debate in the House last Thursday, the Minister of State acknowledged that investment in infrastructure and rolling stock for East Coast would be financed by the taxpayer, but that there would also be some private investment. Perhaps— (161775)

Order. We do not need these constant sedentary interventions from the Minister of State. The message is clear and simple: be quiet, man.

I simply say to the hon. Lady: look at what has happened since privatisation—and, indeed, all the current franchises in operation were let by the last Government.

At the previous Transport questions the Minister of State said on East Coast that

“the involvement of the private sector means that we can increase, over and above the taxpayers’ money, the money that can be invested”.—[Official Report, 25 April 2013; Vol. 561, c. 995.]

Yet he has now admitted to me in a letter that the investment

“comes from an increase in the value of Network Rail’s regulatory asset base”,

and he says

“it is through private sector operation that we can best realise the benefits of the planned investment.”

Why does the Secretary of State not now just admit to the House that his Minister was wrong?

No, what my right hon. Friend said was absolutely correct. We are seeing huge investment in the railways and, as I said just a few moments ago, all the franchises currently in operation were let, and endorsed, by the last Government.

The fact is that the Secretary of State’s policy does not bring in any additional investment and is costing taxpayers, with millions of pounds paid to train companies to extend contracts so we can focus on East Coast. He claimed West Coast is paying more money back to the taxpayer than East Coast: it is not. He said Lord Adonis backs his plans: he does not. He says they are vital to bring in investment: they are not. Is it not the case that, one by one, his arguments for this costly and unnecessary privatisation have fallen away?

It is wrong to draw direct comparisons between one company and another. East Coast uses older rolling stock, which is cheaper to rent than the Pendolinos used by West Coast, so I do not acknowledge what the hon. Lady says. What I do acknowledge is that there has been huge growth in the railway industry since privatisation. That has been brought about in the main by competition between the different rail-operating companies—something that the last Government endorsed throughout the entire 13 years when they had the power to change any of these things.

Local Pinch Point Fund

From the local pinch point fund, I have announced 72 schemes across the country that will benefit from £190 million of Government funding. Together with third-party contributions, including from the private sector, over £300 million will be invested as a result of that fund.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, and for the welcome infrastructure investment, particularly in commuter routes. Despite the fact that in Bradford people are either travelling up a hill or are just about to do so, cycling is very popular. Every day tens of thousands of people travel from Bradford to Leeds and from Leeds to Bradford. Can the Secretary of State give me any information about the “highway to hell”, the proposed scheme for the cycling superhighway between Leeds and Bradford?

I am always keen to look at schemes that help cyclists, including by increasing their safety. A number of schemes are currently before the Department, and I hear what my hon. Friend says in support of that bid, but I have to say there are bids from a number of colleagues for these schemes.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the approval given for the improvements under the fund to the A421 in my constituency. May I ask what his hopes are for the future scope of that fund, so we may, perhaps, bid for further schemes on the A421, including at the western edge of my seat leading into your constituency, Mr Speaker?

Well, Mr Speaker, I do not think I want to prejudge any future schemes that may or may not be developed. What I would like to point out is that we announced the local pinch point fund last year, and it has been incredibly successful. We had more bids than we had money available for it. Although I am mindful of that, I will see what else can be done. However, as a result of the Chancellor’s announcements yesterday and the statement shortly to be made by the Chief Secretary, there will be huge investment in our roads, which is much needed.

Local Growth Fund

8. What assessment he has made of the potential role of the local growth fund in improving transport; and if he will make a statement. (161771)

The single local growth fund will incorporate devolved major transport scheme funding along with other funding streams from across Government. The contribution the fund can make to improving transport will ultimately be determined by local decision takers. The Chief Secretary will make a statement on the matter in 31 minutes.

I will try to get in before him. The Burscough curves, the Ormskirk bypass and a railway station for Skelmersdale are much-needed transport projects in West Lancashire that would benefit from local growth fund money. Following the Chancellor’s statement yesterday that local enterprise partnerships are to bid for single growth fund moneys, it is unclear to me who is responsible for making decisions on local transport priorities. Is it LEPs or the local transport authorities? Whose door do I knock on to get that much-needed money?

We have set up local transport bodies and I have recently been engaging with them on their assurance frameworks, so in the immediate future I would suggest that the hon. Lady contacts her local transport body. The LEP responsibility kicks in from 2015.

Does the Minister agree that the local growth fund should be used to boost cross-country connectivity and not just to join together the big cities, particularly in areas such as Lancashire?

I certainly agree that it is important to consider all aspects of the geography when considering bids. It is not simply a matter of building huge new roads from A to B. Often, the local pinch point investments referred to by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary a moment ago can be very effective indeed, so we should be prepared to be open-minded about the schemes that are appropriate for funding.

Get Britain Cycling Campaign

I welcome the work that my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) have undertaken through the all-party cycling group inquiry. We are looking at the recommendations carefully and will respond in the near future. The coalition Government takes cycling very seriously and is committed to leading the country into getting more people cycling, more safely and more often.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for that comment. We look forward eagerly to the response and hope that it will be very positive. One suggestion that came up repeatedly was that safety for both cyclists and pedestrians would be driven by 20 mph speed zones as the standard on most residential side streets, but one problem is that the police do not seem to be enforcing them properly. Will the Minister have words with the police to get them to enforce the law?

I entirely agree that 20 mph zones and limits can be useful in particular locations. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has already taken up the matter of police enforcement with the Association of Chief Police Officers. Of course, operational matters are for the police to decide, but in my view if a local democratically elected body decides that a 20 mph limit should apply, the police should enforce it.

The Minister says that he takes cycling seriously, so when will the Government implement the relevant part of the Traffic Management Act 2004 to enable local authorities to enforce measures against law-breaking motorists who drive in cycle lanes and sit in advanced stop boxes for cyclists?

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary responded to that exact question on part 6 of the Traffic Management Act a moment ago. We have had representations about that; I am considering the matter seriously; we are in discussions with other Government Departments; and I hope to make a statement shortly.

With roads congested, high petrol prices and obesity increasing, investing in cycling generates huge benefits and savings elsewhere. What confidence can the Minister give us that yesterday’s 9% cut in the Department for Transport’s budget will not see the paltry amount of money that Britain spends on cycling reduced still further?

I do not accept that we spend a paltry amount of money. The local sustainable transport fund is £600 million—more than £1 billion with match funding—94 out of the 96 schemes have cycling elements; we have spent £107 million more on a range of cycling schemes in recent months; and there will be a further announcement on cycling spending shortly. I can assure the hon. Gentleman absolutely that spending on cycling will continue.

London Transport Network

In his spending round statement yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced that the Government will give the Mayor almost £9 billion of capital spending and additional financing power to the end of this decade. We will also consider the case for Crossrail 2. In return, we expect the Mayor to bear down on the running costs of Transport for London. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury will make a statement in a moment about investment in infrastructure, including investment in transport for London.

The Piccadilly line is vital for thousands of my constituents travelling to work at the airport or to London and is a key route for Heathrow’s passengers. It is increasingly overcrowded and in need of upgrading. Will the Minister reassure me that where cuts are being made to Transport for London’s budget, made necessary by the Government’s failure to deliver growth, that will not put at risk this vital investment?

The hon. Lady seems to have missed my response to her question, in which I said that we announced yesterday that we were giving the Mayor almost an extra £9 billion of capital. It is for the Mayor to make decisions about how he deploys that capital.

Yesterday, when summing up the debate on HS2, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, failed to give comfort or even mention the Stratford solution to the congestion at Euston. Will the Government give a commitment to take seriously the cost-effective proposals for HS2 at Stratford to help the east of London, the City, Essex and Kent?

My right hon. Friend obviously did not have quite enough time to mention Stratford in his closing remarks, but I assure the hon. Lady that the Government look at all these things seriously and will continue to do so.

Topical Questions

Since I last addressed the House, I have been able to announce the full programme of local pinch point schemes, benefiting from £190 million of capital funding from the Government. Recognising the crucial role that such capital investment plays in unlocking growth, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday announced a 5.5% real-terms increase in the Department’s capital budget.

The Government have also this morning published the complete road casualty statistics for 2012. I can tell the House that in 2012 the number of reported deaths on our roads fell by 8% to their lowest level since records began in 1926. This is welcome news. However, we cannot afford to be complacent. The number of cyclist fatalities increased by 10% within the year, underlining the importance of our continued work in making cycling safer.

Norwich is one of the country’s leading cycling cities, with one in five adults cycling at least once a week. The city has ambitions to double this figure in the next 10 years, and Norwich’s bid for city cycling ambition funding would go a long way to achieving that aim. May I urge the Secretary of State to back the bid and inform me when he intends to make an announcement?

I welcome Norwich’s ambitious plan to double the number of adults cycling over the next 10 years. An announcement on the successful cycling ambition grant bidders will be made as soon as possible, but as I said in my opening statement we cannot be complacent about cycling safety. I look to the increasing interest in the House in this subject and I will consider what else the Department can do.

Will the Secretary of State introduce new legislation to improve the regulation of level crossings before the end of this Parliament?

I will certainly consider what the hon. Lady says about level crossings. I have had conversations with Network Rail about what we should do about them. I will look at whether legislation is the right way to go or whether we already have the powers to get things put right.

T5. My constituents face some of the highest car insurance premiums in the country. I am aware that many Departments have to be involved in this, but will the Minister reassure me that dealing with this terrible issue remains a top priority? (161787)

I can indeed reassure the hon. Gentleman about that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I hosted a follow-up summit on 25 March to discuss with the industry ways to bring down premiums. The Ministry of Justice has already banned referral fees and is consulting on steps to reduce the number of fraudulent whiplash claims. We are also taking steps to ensure that drivers are better prepared, the driving test is safer and there will be more responsible drivers on the road, which again will help to drive down premiums.

T2. In the past few years, rail fares have been rising almost three time as fast as wages, and are among the most expensive anywhere in Europe. What will the cap be on regulated rail fares by franchised rail operators in the 2015-16 financial year? (161784)

With the help of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, we have capped the overall increase in regulated fares to RPI plus 1. I am very aware of the pressure of rail fare increases that passengers face, and so are the Government.

T6. This week, a private developer announced plans to invest £400 million in private housing in Worcestershire; it is also going to help with the dualling of the southern link road. Will the Department commit to working with my county council to ensure that we use the opportunity to unlock further investment in Worcester Parkway station and a new bridge across the River Severn to the heart of cyber valley in Malvern? (161788)

I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that we will of course be pleased to work with the county council, as we already do. I was delighted that we were able to approve the Worcester integrated transport scheme last year, and my door is always open should she wish to make the case for her constituents.

T3. Last Friday, many hon. Members from across the north-east went to their local East Coast rail station to highlight the planned privatisation. At Newcastle Central station and elsewhere, the support for East Coast’s remaining in the public sector was overwhelming, and that has since been emphasised by many letters and e-mails. So why is the Secretary of State ignoring the views of those who use East Coast rail and pressing ahead with a costly, wasteful, unnecessary and ideological privatisation? (161785)

As I have said many times, if it is ideological, it must have been the ideology of the previous Government, because that is what the former Transport Secretary and the former Chancellor said should happen. It is not ideological; it is about getting the best service and making sure we get long-term planning on the east coast main line. I believe that we will get a better service because that planning for the future will take place.

T7. Forget high-speed rail; in south-west England and Cornwall, we welcome average-speed rail, reduced fares and wi-fi on long-distance services. What progress is being made? (161789)

I was down in the west country—the Cornwall and Devon area—just a few weeks ago. I fully recognise the importance of mobile services for the travelling passenger and I am keen to see improvements made. We are discussing with First Great Western how to deliver better services to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

T4. Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) about fares, in a recent poll by Passenger Focus only 42% of passengers were satisfied with the service they were receiving. Exactly what is the Minister going to do to improve that? Might it not be time for us to freeze fares until people are satisfied with the service? (161786)

The Opposition have to decide whether they want investment to continue at the levels that we are putting in to the railways. If they do, it has to be paid for. I believe the cost has to be shared between taxpayers and those who use the services. I make no apology for the amount of investment that this Government are putting in to Britain’s railways. It is desperately needed and the right thing to do, but it has to be paid for.

T9. I am pleased that in recent years the volume of freight being carried on our railways has increased, and it is important that that welcome trend continues. What plans do the Government have to encourage as much freight as possible to transfer from road to rail? (161791)

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. He will be as pleased as I am that since privatisation, freight transport has increased by 60%. We are helping the rail industry to develop a strategic freight network, which will make rail freight increasingly competitive, so that we can get even more freight off our congested roads and on to our railways.

T8. Will the Minister look into the scandal of Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency checks on the practices of private parking companies? Schedule 4 to the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 is supposed to protect motorists from rogue car parking companies, such as the operator of Eastgate car park in Accrington, but the answer to a freedom of information request on 18 June revealed that, in breach of the 2012 Act, the DVLA is not checking either notices or correspondence between car parking companies and motorists. (161790)

I visited the DVLA only a couple of weeks ago to look at the various departments there, and I know that the agency is alert to the problems of fraudulent car park operators. If the hon. Gentleman brings this particular case to me, I will make sure that we look into it.

Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State accept that the transformation of the passenger experience at Stansted airport needs to be matched by a transformation in the time it takes to get to Stansted airport, specifically an improvement on the 51-minute journey, which I understand he undertook a week ago?

My right hon. Friend is right. As he knows, I was at Stansted last week and saw at first hand the subject of his representation and his call for greater investment in Stansted airport. I would like to discuss that with him and think about it with Network Rail.

T10. Stafford road and Stanhope way in my constituency are in a state of chaos owing to unco-ordinated bus services using narrow residential roads. What plans does the Minister have to look at the strategic co-ordination of bus services outside London? (161792)

We think that these decisions are best made locally. It is therefore a matter for the relevant local authorities to engage with the main bus operators to drive that forward. We have incentivised partnership working through the creation of Better Bus Areas. That is putting £70 million more into the bus network, so there is a financial incentive for local authorities and bus companies to work together. If they are not doing so, I suggest the hon. Lady contact both of them in her area.

Further to that answer from my hon. Friend, what steps are the Government putting in place to protect vital rural bus services, particularly in sparsely populated areas?

I hope my hon. Friend will have noticed in the statement yesterday that we have fully protected the funding for bus services in order to recognise their importance to rural areas, including his. In addition to that, we are continuing to fund new bus initiatives—Better Bus Areas, the green bus fund and so on—to make sure that buses are properly funded in this country.

Earlier this week statistics were released suggesting that in London, transport spending per head of population is 520 times more than in the north-east region—£2,700 in London, compared with a measly £5 in the north-east. What is the Secretary of State going to do to ensure a fairer distribution of transport finances to the north-east region?

It is right that there has been large capital investment in London. Building Crossrail was the right thing to do. It was long overdue and it is now being built. It is currently the largest construction project anywhere in Europe. But I also think we must get the balance of transport spend right, and that is partly why HS2 is an important means of spreading those benefits. I very much bear in mind the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. As I pointed out to one of his hon. Friends, we are spending £4.9 billion on the intercity express programme for new trains for the north-west and the south-west.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

European Union: Scrutiny

1. What steps he is taking to improve the role of the House in scrutinising European Union-level decision making. (161794)

This coalition Government have significantly increased scrutiny of European Union-level decision making through the provisions of the European Union Act 2011. Three Bills were taken forward in the last Session to signal the approval of Parliament under the Act. In addition to that, the Prime Minister has made 16 statements to this House on business at the European Council. The House will be aware that the European Scrutiny Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the European scrutiny system in the House and we await its findings with interest.

What more can the House do to ensure early engagement with the European Union in such matters?

The Deputy Leader of the House and I visited the European institutions during the Whit recess. It was clear to us that there is more that we can do in this House to improve our engagement with and impact on European legislative proposals, especially through the work of the Select Committees of this House. In my view, which I think is widely shared, this House is the prime source of democratic legitimacy and accountability for law making. We should therefore be taking every opportunity to develop our influence, including in EU law making.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Library/Table Office: Opening Hours

2. What comparative assessment he has made of the opening hours of the Library and the Table Office and the sitting hours of the House. (161795)

In the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), I have been asked to reply.

Members expect that both the Table Office and the Members Library will remain open at least until the rise of the House on sitting days. In the case of the Table Office, the Adjournment of the House at the end of sitting is the point at which no further procedural business can be transacted. Some adjustment has been made recently to opening hours of the Table Office and the Library to reflect the earlier sitting of the House on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the use made of services by Members.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer. I recognise the importance of the Table Office staying open until business has finished, for example so that amendments can be laid, but I suggest, as we are trying to save money, that we look again at the Library service’s opening times so that when we have a late moment of interruption on, say, a Monday, we do not have Library staff here until 1 o’clock in the morning, as frankly that is unnecessary and more office hours would be appropriate?

I think that Library staff who are on duty are working on other matters, because Members phone in with questions and all the rest of it. The present arrangements were agreed by the Administration Committee after a study of last year’s changes to the House’s sitting hours. If the hon. Lady wants to take the matter to the Committee to look at again, I am sure that its Chair, who is sitting next to her, will be happy to listen.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

All-party Parliamentary Groups

3. What steps he plans to take to promote the transparency of hon. Members’ membership of all-party parliamentary groups. (161796)

Rules relating to APPGs are a matter for the House. The hon. Lady might be aware that the Standards Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into APPGs. Its terms of reference include the transparency of the House’s regulatory system.

Given the public concern about APPGs and lobbyists, might it be possible, as a very small measure, to list next to each Member’s entry on the parliamentary website all the APPGs to which they belong?

I thank the hon. Lady for that suggestion, which is one that the Standards Committee might like to consider. Indeed, the House might want to look at that in future. I am sure that we will work to support the initiative.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will take no steps in this matter until he has heard the evidence and read the report from the Standards Committee, to which the Administration Committee has submitted its own evidence?

Yes, I would like to assure the right hon. Gentleman that that is the case, and we await the Committee’s report with great interest. Incidentally, Members still have an opportunity to contribute to that process. I am sure that we will then want to allow the House the opportunity to consider the matter in great detail.

I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in thanking you, Mr Speaker, for the leadership you have shown in recent weeks in helping to restore public confidence in Parliament after the public’s concerns about lobbyists and APPGs. The Administration Committee, which is so ably chaired by the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), has recommended, as part of a range of measures, the scrapping of APPG passes. Will the Deputy Leader of the House confirm that the Government will not oppose those recommendations? On the broader concern about the transparency of APPGs and lobbyists, does he not now accept that all lobbyists must be covered by a register and a code of conduct?

The Administration Committee makes sensible proposals, and I look forward to the House being able to come to a decision on them in due course. On lobbyists, the hon. Gentleman will have heard the debate that took place just a couple of days ago. The Government have made our position very clear: we will come forward with a third-party register of lobbyists.

Does the Deputy Leader of the House not agree that the real problem with APPGs is that there are simply far too many of them and that the House would benefit from the imposition of a moratorium on the creation of any new ones and a programme of amalgamation and mergers across the whole system?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. We all have our different views on whether there are too many APPGs. The Standards Committee might want to consider that proposal. If it comes forward with proposals to limit numbers, that is a matter that I am sure the House would want to consider.

E-petitions

6. What plans he has to introduce an e-petitions system applicable to both Parliament and Government. (161799)

8. What plans he has to introduce an e-petitions system applicable to both Parliament and Government. (161801)

The introduction of the coalition Government’s e-petitions system has been a successful improvement for public engagement with Parliament. However, it is clear that the public expect to be able to petition their Parliament and seek action from their Government. I want to work with the Procedure Committee, the Backbench Business Committee and interested Members from across the House to develop the current system into something that more fully meets that expectation.

I thank the Leader of the House for his answer, but can he really assure the House that any changes to the e-petition will not impact on or restrict the work of the Backbench Business Committee?

I agree that reforms of this House should not have an adverse effect on the successful work of the Backbench Business Committee, which this coalition Government established. It may be possible, none the less, that there is a role for a Select Committee or Committees in examining petitions, taking evidence on petitions, seeking information from Government, and even recommending debates in Parliament. However, I envisage that it would remain for the Backbench Business Committee to consider and schedule debates.

Under the current system, the MP of a signatory to an e-petition is not made aware that a constituent’s signature has been added. Can reforms to the e-petition system take account of the importance of promoting direct engagement between the signatory and their elected representative?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Improving engagement with Parliament and politics must be the focus of any improved system. I am grateful to him for his suggestion on how we can achieve that. However, I alert him to the fact that more than 11 million signatures have been added to petitions in the two years or so since the Government’s e-petitions system was established. I am not sure that hon. Members would welcome an e-mail for each of those signatures, but I do agree that there are ways in which we can open up the data overall to help Members and their constituents to identify and work together on popular petitions.

In order to increase opportunities for debate on e-petitions with 100,000 signatures, will my right hon. Friend consider bringing forward a motion to reopen Westminster Hall on Mondays?

My hon. Friend may not know this, but I have this week written to the Chair of the Procedure Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), to set out the Government’s response to the Committee’s sixth report of the previous Session, which related to debates on Government e-petitions in Westminster Hall. I hope that we will shortly be able to bring forward a motion to extend the practice of opening up Westminster Hall for e-petitions until the end of this Parliament while we consider longer-term proposals for the petition system in this House.

When the right hon. Gentleman is looking at the e-petition system and perhaps setting up a Committee to do so, will he ensure that we do not ignore paper petitions and give e-petitions and paper petitions the same status?

The hon. Lady is right. I referred to the petition system advisedly—that is, not just the e-petition system. At the moment the e-petition system is working well and is a significant improvement on what happened in the past. The paper petition system in this House is somewhat anachronistic. What we need—I want to work with colleagues to make this happen—is a petition system that enables our constituents to petition their Parliament but also engages with Government to get a response from Government. The signal improvement, I hope, will be for this House to be able to use the petition system as a basis for demonstrating further improvements in the engagement of the House with the issues that matter to our constituents.

Government Expenditure: Scrutiny

5. What progress he is making on the introduction of measures to improve financial scrutiny of Government expenditure. (161798)

9. What progress he is making on the introduction of measures to improve financial scrutiny of Government expenditure. (161802)

The coalition Government are keen to build on the success of the alignment project in simplifying Government financial reporting. We intend to do this by working with Select Committees to support better scrutiny of Government expenditure and to promote greater efficiency and improved value for money in all Departments.

What assessment has the Deputy Leader of the House made of estimates day debates in scrutinising Government expenditure? Could they be a useful tool to monitor the ever-escalating costs of projects such as HS2?

The three estimates day debates each Session present a valuable opportunity for Select Committees to hold Departments to account, but too often the debates are focused on specific Committee reports rather than departmental expenditure as such. We are keen to explore with Select Committees any ways in which we can enable these debates to focus on a wider range of financial and performance-related documentation. I am sure, for instance, that as part of that process the Transport Committee would want to pick up on the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised in relation to HS2.

The public believe that Parliament scrutinises Government expenditure. When I talk to people they are surprised that in fact we have a few debates about very specific items on estimates days and do not even look at the entirety of one Department’s expenditure. Will my right hon. Friend look urgently at options to reassure the public that Parliament does look at expenditure in these areas, whether through debates in this place, Westminster Hall or Select Committees? We have to hold the Government to account.

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Some Select Committees do provide the level of scrutiny that he wants. For instance, the Health Committee and the Transport Committee look at the estimates carefully. I am pleased to say that at least one of the estimates day debates, on 3 July, is a broad one that will look at public expenditure on health and care services.

As we drive forward the necessarily tough reforms and efficiency savings in the public sector, I urge the Government to keep their foot on the pedal in driving that revolution through the internal mechanics of Government. What steps can this House take better to scrutinise Government expenditure and, indeed, expenditure in the House, so that we can show the public that we are putting our own house in order?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. As I have stated, more effective use could be made of estimates day debates. We have a range of Select Committees that look at financial matters. I think most people would agree that they are effective in doing that.