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Topical Questions

Volume 565: debated on Thursday 27 June 2013

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.