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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 577: debated on Thursday 20 March 2014


The Secretary of State was asked—

Road Congestion

The Government are committed to reducing traffic congestion and investing in our road infrastructure. Spending on strategic roads over this and the next Parliament will be £24 billion. A £500 million programme of pinch point schemes specifically targeted at tackling congestion is being progressed on both the strategic and local road network and a further £800 million is being invested in 25 local authority major road schemes. I am sure my hon. Friend will also join me in welcoming the additional £200 million that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in yesterday’s Budget for pothole repairs.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. The Prime Minister visited Lowestoft in January and saw for himself the fantastic opportunities in the offshore energy sector. Unfortunately, they could be choked off by congestion such as that experienced in the past fortnight. The problem could be solved by a new crossing at Lake Lothing. Suffolk county council, with the help of the local enterprise partnership and Waveney district council, has commissioned a study to come up with the right solution. Will the Secretary of State visit Lowestoft to see the problem for himself?

It has been a considerable time since I last visited Lowestoft, but following my hon. Friend’s invitation I shall certainly do so. Ministerial colleagues, including the Prime Minister, have visited. My hon. Friend’s points are well made, and they have been made to me by other colleagues.

Congestion would be much improved if the potholes in the roads were removed. Although I welcome the money that was made available yesterday, how will it be distributed? How much of it is coming to Scotland?

Scotland will get its share according to the Barnett formula as part of the announcement made by the Chancellor yesterday. It will be up to the Scottish Government to decide how they share the money between the authorities in Scotland.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the A12 through Essex and into Suffolk and Norfolk is a main road to the ports at Felixstowe and elsewhere? Given that a significant proportion of it from the M25 to Chelmsford is already three-lane, would it not be sensible to relieve congestion into the East Anglian hinterland by turning it into a motorway?

My right hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion. No doubt he will pursue that argument with me and the authorities on a number of occasions to come.

What is the Secretary of State doing about the congestion at Tollbar End, which is affecting businesses, particularly those in the export market, and people getting to work? I contacted his Department last week but I still have not had an answer.

I am very sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not had an answer. I could compare the time delays in reply to correspondence under this and the previous Government, but instead I will try to get the hon. Gentleman an answer as quickly as possible. We are investing significant amounts in road infrastructure, more than that invested by the previous Government. That shows this Government’s overall commitment to infrastructure investment in the United Kingdom.

One of the worst sections of road for congestion is the A27 from Eastbourne to Lewes. It has been appalling for many decades and I know that it is being considered by the Department for Transport. Does the Secretary of State agree that the best way to solve the congestion would be a new dualled trunk road?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has met the Minister responsible for roads, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), to make that point, which has been made to me, too, by other people in Eastbourne. However, there is some controversy, not least because the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) has a different view on the matter.

Traffic jams cost UK motorists 30 hours each last year and were often made worse by a £10 billion backlog in the road repair programme. As local road maintenance was cut by nearly a sixth between 2010 and 2013, is the Secretary of State surprised that the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday of a pothole challenge competition hardly has many motorists shouting “bingo” today?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman makes such a point, because I do not know whether he can get the shadow Chancellor to commit to investments such as those we are putting into this country’s road infrastructure. As I understand it, he is not allowed to make any commitments whatsoever. I am very glad not only that the Chancellor yesterday announced an extra £200 million to invest in our roads but that later today I will announce the allocation of the £140 million that I announced a few weeks ago to all local authorities. I hope that they will use the £140 million along with the £200 million announced yesterday to make significant improvements to our roads.

Durham Tees Valley Airport

2. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of public transport links to Durham Tees Valley airport. (903164)

My assessment is that public transport links to Durham Tees Valley airport are very poor. However, we stated in the aviation policy framework that we will work with airports, transport operators, local authorities and local enterprise partnerships to improve surface access to the UK’s airports.

In the year to last March, the station at Durham Tees Valley airport had eight passengers—not per hour or per day, but in the whole year. Only one service a week stops there, cynically avoiding the costs of a real closure. This is a symbol of the long-term neglect of the area and its airport. Will the Minister require the airport operators to link their passenger terminal to proper public transport services, timed to serve their flights?

I know that this is what is known as a parliamentary service, which does save the cost of closure, but given that the passenger numbers were 900,000 in 2006 and 161,092 in 2013, action on more than just public transport links will be required to ensure the airport’s future.

The Minister will know that the Tees Valley metro was seen as a key component in establishing better links to the airport. That concept appears to have slipped somewhat. Will he meet me to discuss the viability of the Tees Valley metro so that we can pursue our economic ambitions right across the Tees valley?

I will be more than happy to do so, and ensure that Teesside has the same good transport links from which many other parts of the country benefit.

Passenger Transport Executive Group

There are no arrangements in place at present. However, while it has been some time since my last meeting with the group, I have met representatives individually in the intervening period. I would therefore welcome the opportunity to meet PTEG or indeed with representatives of any of the local government organisations from Newcastle.

There is quite a lot to discuss—for example, quality contracts—but of immediate concern is the impact of the new combined authorities on the existing joint boards. Can the Secretary of State say anything today that would reassure the employees of the existing joint boards, who are uncertain about their future?

The proposals for the combined authorities would see the passenger transport executives continuing to provide an executive function on transport issues across the board. The exception to that is west Yorkshire, where the local authorities have decided to dissolve their PTEs in addition to the integrated transport authority. The powers and duties of the PTE will be transferred to the new combined authority. I am more than happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman to discuss his worries.

The next time my right hon. Friend meets PTEG, will he invite representations on the progress of the Dover Priory railway station project, which is being held up by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs?

If my hon. Friend had not asked that question, I do not think that I would have done, but as he has, I will certainly look into it and write to him.

When the Secretary of State next meets representatives from PTEG, they will no doubt tell him that bus fares are rising year on year and that routes are being cut. Should not operators such as Stagecoach, which make a huge profit off the back of the taxpayer subsidy, start behaving more responsibly, rather than threatening legal action at the prospect of a quality contract in Tyne and Wear?

We want to see good co-operation between the passenger transport executives, the combined local authorities and the bus operators that provide the services in their area. They need to work together to give the best services to local people. Bus services are incredibly important to people and are vital in enabling them to go about their daily business and to get to work and to their leisure activities.

“Get Britain Cycling” Report

4. What progress he has made on implementing recommendations of the “Get Britain Cycling” report of the all-party parliamentary cycling group. [R] (903167)

My hon. Friend chaired the all-party parliamentary cycling group yesterday when I outlined the Government’s commitment to cycling. With regards to the all-party group’s recommendations, the Government provided an update to Parliament last month.

I thank the Minister for coming to speak to us yesterday. We made a number of recommendations, which were endorsed by this House when we debated the subject. Two of those would have a cross-departmental action plan and sustained funding at £10 per head. We have had some pots of money, but not at that level. Will he update us on those two issues?

The first point that needs to be made is that, compared with the previous Government, we have doubled spending on cycling. Indeed, the eight cycling ambition cities have benefited from that funding, and Cambridge is one of them.

If we are to get more people cycling, the physical fear—real or imagined—must be removed, particularly on busy roads such as those near my constituency where a number of people have died. How can the Government address that and take away the physical fear of cycling on busy roads?

The Highways Agency is spending £40 million on cycling improvement schemes. I think that some of the media coverage, particularly in London last year, gives the impression that cycling is more dangerous than it actually is. It is safer now than it ever has been.

Local communities in Northumberland are keen to access the future cycling fund. Will the Minister meet me and representatives from Northumberland to discuss how the local enterprise partnership and individual communities can access future funds, and when that will happen?

We are certainly always keen to meet local authorities and local enterprise partnerships to look at imaginative ways of encouraging more cycling. Indeed, we will publish our cycling delivery plan later this year.

Rail Investment

5. What assessment he has made of Network Rail’s planned control period 5 investment programme. (903168)

Network Rail is about to embark on CP5, which runs from 2014 to 2019, during which it will spend £38.5 billion on the railways—a significant increase on the £32 billion spent in the previous five-year period.

May I begin by thanking my right hon. Friend for ruling out the introduction of car parking charges at stations in west Yorkshire and by congratulating him on the significant amount of electrification that is taking place on our railways, compared with the pitiful amount under the previous Government? Does he agree that if he wanted it to be really impressive, to put the icing on the cake, electrifying the Caldervale line through New Pudsey would make it even better?

I am very glad that car parking charges have been ruled out, despite some people’s claims that they would be introduced. It was partly my hon. Friend’s vigorous campaign that led to that decision. He is absolutely right about the huge amount of electrification taking place on our railways—over 800 miles, compared with the 9 miles electrified during Labour’s 13 years in government.

The planned investment is very welcome, but what will the Secretary of State do to ensure that the correct rolling stock is available when electrification is completed so that we do not have a repeat of the current fiasco with TransPennine Express?

I think that it is absolutely right that we get rolling stock. I am sure that the hon. Lady, and indeed the whole House, will join me in welcoming the announcement made by Hitachi overnight that it will base its world headquarters for rail development in this country. That is incredibly good news and I am sure it will be welcomed by all. The point she makes about rolling stock overall is important. It shows the kind of development that is needed in railway rolling stock orders.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the campaign in the Humber to bring electrification through to Hull. Does he have an update on that important project for our area?

I have met hon. Friends and other hon. Members from the Hull area to discuss the representations they have made. I am very pleased to be able to announce today that I can make available the £2.5 million to take this project up to GRIP 3—governance for railway investment projects. That notification will be going to Network Rail and I will write to colleagues today to tell them that I am making the money available.

Although we all welcome investment in Network Rail, does the Secretary of State think that it is acceptable that the procurement programme for traffic management is going forward before a full and independent review can establish whether £1 billion of savings is possible?

The right hon. Lady has written to me on this matter, and I have not only corresponded with the company concerned and other interested Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham), but visited the company. Anna Walker, who chairs the Office of Rail Regulation, has written me a letter showing how it will investigate the points that have been made by DeltaRail.

What proportion of the money that the Government are spending and plan to spend on the railways is being spent on schemes that were initiated or started under the previous Labour Government?

We welcome electrification of the railways, but not if there are no trains to run on the tracks. One of the achievements of this control period will be the electrification of the Liverpool to Manchester line, which should mean better services, but the Department’s incompetence on franchising has put that progress at risk, as some TransPennine Express trains will transfer to Chiltern Railways next year. What is the Secretary of State going to do about it?

I realise that the hon. Lady has to try to find some things to attack and criticise us on, but I would have thought she welcomed a very significant increase in the investment into the railways. There were 9 miles of electrification during the 13 years of the previous Government; there will be 880 miles of electrification under this Government. Of course it is absolutely right to get the rolling stock right. Part of the problem with rolling stock has been the dismal performance of the previous Government in ordering it.

If it was so dismal, I do not understand why Hitachi has moved here because of the intercity express programme, but we will move on from that, because it was a Labour decision that caused that announcement today. [Interruption.] It was an order made under a Labour Government, not a Conservative Government.

The point of railway investment is to make life better for passengers, not worse. The Secretary of State talks about the electrification of the midland main line in control period 5, but again there are no answers on which trains will run on those tracks. Handing down older trains from the east coast line will lead to slower journeys on midland line trains than with the current diesel trains. What reassurance can he give the House that his botching of the TransPennine Express and Northern Rail franchises will not happen again in his own backyard?

The simple fact is that rail usage in this country has been a tremendous success that should be celebrated across the House. There were 750 million passenger journeys when the railways were privatised; there are 1.5 billion rail journeys now. I am very pleased about that. We are investing huge amounts in the railways. Of course there will be some problems with rolling stock, but it is this Government who have confirmed the intercity express programme orders for the east coast line and the great western line, and this Government who are signing off the contracts.

Road Traffic Collisions

6. What estimate his Department has made of the number of people who will be killed or injured in road traffic collisions in the UK between 2014 and 2030; and if he will estimate the economic value of preventing such casualties. (903169)

Road casualties have followed a declining trend over recent decades. With unprecedented investment in roads and continued improvements in vehicle technology, there are signs that this trend will continue. The economic cost of each casualty has been calculated at £1.7 million.

The Minister knows of my long-term interest in road safety as chairman of the parliamentary advisory council for transport safety. Are we not in danger of becoming complacent? From now until 2030, it is likely that a third of a million people will be killed and seriously injured on Britain’s roads. The cost to families, to communities and to the national health service is going to be dreadful. Should we not act now to improve our performance?

The UK leads Europe in road safety. Only Malta has a better record, and our record is twice as good as that of France. However, that is no reason for complacency or for letting up in the measures that we can take further to improve road safety.

My hon. Friend’s constituency and mine are served by the A64, and there will inevitably be casualties and fatalities on that road. Will he take this as a representation on improving it to reduce the likelihood of any such future casualties or fatalities?

There are a number of single-carriageway trunk roads where we have particular concerns about the fatality and casualty levels. The Department collates data and produces a list of the worst blackspots which we can then identify for future investment.

Mountain Rescue Teams

I am pleased to inform my hon. Friend and my hon. Friends the Members for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) and for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart)—and the whole House—that we have listened carefully to the concerns they have raised and will therefore provide in 2015-16 grants totalling £250,000 to mountain rescue organisations in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland for use towards the cost of their equipment and training. That is in addition to the grants totalling £600,000 that we have made available over the past three years and the £200,000 to be payable this year for 2014-15.

I welcome the Minister’s announcement today and the support that he is showing mountain rescue teams across the country. In Macclesfield and other constituencies where outdoor activities in the hills play an important part in the lives of residents and visitors, mountain rescue teams may be seen by many as a fourth emergency service. Will the Minister join me in thanking them for their important work and recognising what the all-party mountain rescue group also does in supporting them?

My hon. Friend is right. I am happy to commend his and all local mountain rescue teams throughout the country. I recognise and commend the work of the all-party group.

I add my voice in thanks to the Minister for this wonderful announcement. May I please remind him of two things: first, the important work also done by cave rescue, in addition to mountain rescue; and secondly, that all the work of the mountain and cave rescue teams is entirely voluntary, notwithstanding the compensation for VAT on their equipment?

I am duly reminded. Undoubtedly, it was my hon. Friend’s campaign and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) and for Macclesfield (David Rutley) that made us consider the grants that I announced today.

It will be not just mountain rescue but cave rescue organisations in Grassington and Clapham in my constituency that benefit. The Transport Secretary has been on his bike in Skipton and Ripon. Will he now commit to coming down a cave with me in the near future?

The hon. Gentleman poses a very serious challenge to even the most vivid imagination in the House.

I really wonder whether I can answer the question better than Mr Speaker. I am loth to commit my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but between us I am sure we will find someone who can join my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon.

Bus and Coach Roadworthiness

Buses and coaches are inspected annually from the anniversary of their date of registration. Tyre condition, wear and their suitability for the vehicle are all checked at that time. Tyres are also checked routinely as part of the safety inspections undertaken by traffic commissioners who manage the licensing of such vehicles.

The Minister may be aware of the tragic death of three people in a car crash on the A3 in September 2010, when a 19-year-old tyre burst on the front axle of their coach. Early-day motion 1166 calls on the Government to commission urgent research into whether legislation can be enacted to limit the age of a tyre on a bus or coach. Will he confirm that the Government are taking this issue seriously? When will they commission such a study?

The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met the previous shadow Secretary of State, along with one of the mothers of the people who were tragically killed in that coach crash. As an interim measure, the Department has already published guidelines to the bus and coach industry recommending that tyres of more than 10 years old are not fitted to the front axles of such vehicles. That was in December 2013, and I can confirm that we are in discussion with the tyre organisations about the product and about whether age and maintenance are the key factors and how they should be addressed.

Severn Bridge Tolls

The UK Government are committed to the continued successful operation of these vital crossings. No decisions have been taken on future management or tolling arrangements on the crossings after the end of the current concession. However, any future regime would need to recover the costs it has incurred relating to the crossings, make provision for maintenance of the crossings and reflect the interests of roads users in England and Wales.

If the toll since the first bridge was built in 1966 had increased simply in line with inflation, it would be just over £2 today, yet it is now £6.40 for a car. That is a tax on the south Wales economy, as the tolls operate only in one direction. Should the Government not give careful consideration to reducing the tolls when the opportunity arises or getting rid of them altogether?

At the end of the concession period VAT will no longer be payable, so the Government of the day could take a decision based on that. Tolls for heavy goods vehicles are comparable with those at other crossings. For example, after taking account of the fact that crossing is free in one direction, the toll at the Humber crossing is £12 to save 45 miles, and the toll at the Severn is £9.60 to save 52 miles.

The Minister will know from the recent debate in Westminster Hall that the old Severn bridge is entirely in England and half of it is in my constituency. When he is considering the future use of toll revenue, will he bear in mind my request for consideration of a third Severn crossing to relieve traffic congestion in my constituency, and whether toll revenue may be used to part-fund that if that is entirely necessary?

The Government should certainly consider that. Indeed, the announcement in yesterday’s Budget on the Merseylink crossing indicates that there can be some cross-subsidisation of crossings to fund new provision.

Road and Rail Infrastructure: Devon and Cornwall

My Department is reviewing the resilience of the transport network to extreme weather events. This will include the south-west. The current priority is restoring rail services through Dawlish. We have announced £31 million for 10 resilience projects and commissioned Network Rail to identify a resilient rail route west of Exeter. There is £183.5 million available nationally to help repair local roads and we are undertaking a feasibility study to improve options for the A303.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the proposal for a new railway line from Exeter to Plymouth via Okehampton and Tavistock. May I urge him to take it very seriously and perhaps to visit Okehampton with me to meet local business people and others in order to have the case for the economic advantages of that route presented to him?

I have asked Network Rail to do a substantive piece of work, which I expect to get this July and which will address some of the options. I very much hope to visit Dawlish shortly and if a visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency can be arranged at the same time, I will try to do so.

I will not go down the route of disagreeing with the hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) about the Okehampton option. The Secretary of State knows of my support and admiration for those involved in keeping the south-west open for business. There are, however, some issues: there was nothing in the Budget for road or rail transport in the south-west and, to be frank, we have a franchising dog’s breakfast which has cost the taxpayer £55 million. People and businesses in the south-west deserve better. Will the Secretary of State press his colleague the Chancellor to ensure that commitments for finance for investment will be made either before or during the next autumn statement?

I hear what the hon. Lady says. I was able to announce some improvements that were welcomed with regard to an early service from Plymouth to London. I hope that goes some way to answering the question. I appreciate the points made by the hon. Lady and the way in which this particular incident had a dramatic effect on the south-west. We need to look at resilience down there. We also need to look at what we can do with regard to both rail and road, and we have already committed ourselves to an intensive investigation of the A303.

Further to that, it is important that we get a resolution on the temporary franchise as quickly as possible. In congratulating my right hon. Friend on getting a solution in Dawlish, may I ask which Government Departments contributed the finance to ensure that that very expensive project was brought to a conclusion?

May I use this opportunity to place on record my thanks to Network Rail—I am sure that I speak on behalf of colleagues in the south-west as well—for responding magnificently to the problems that were faced in Dawlish? Anybody who has read about the continuing work to restore that link will be only impressed with the work that has been put in by Network Rail, which is often criticised for actions on the railways. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about finding the funds. The Government will find them and I am not too worried about which Departments they will come from.

Low-emission Vehicles

The Government have committed up to £900 million to promote the uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles. Measures include a £5,000 buyer incentive and funding for charge points, including at people’s homes and locations such as train station car parks and the public sector estate.

I welcome the pioneering initiative the Government have put in place and the efforts to ensure that this country becomes a global leader in the field. However, I recently met representatives from the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, who brought to my attention the danger that these very quiet vehicles can hold to those whose sight is impaired and to older people and children. These people rely on vehicle noise to help them judge whether it is safe to cross the road. Is the Minister aware of the research that shows that such quiet vehicles are involved in 25% more pedestrian collisions than conventional vehicles?

The latest advice I have is that there is not a higher level of accidents involving these types of vehicles. We have an awful lot of vehicles that make no noise on our roads—they are called bicycles and people have to be aware of them as well.

The Minister initially said that the Government would spend £400 million supporting low-emission vehicles. Answers to parliamentary questions have shown that £170 million of that will not be spent by the end of this Government’s life. Last year, the Chancellor cut the first-year capital subsidy for low-emission vehicles, as a result of which no right-handed vehicles are being produced in the UK. What will he do to incentivise this industry, and to ensure that the emissions causing the deaths of 29,000 people each year are cut down?

As more manufacturers produce these vehicles, they are becoming much more mainstream, and people are getting used to the issues about range anxiety. As a Yorkshireman, I was particularly pleased to hear that the new Volkswagen model is to be called the e-up!

Rail Rolling Stock

The Government have embarked on a programme of rail capacity increase greater than anything seen since the Victorian age. More than 3,100 new carriages will be in service by the end of 2019. Through the franchising programme, we expect the market to deliver additional rolling stock solutions, building on the possibilities created by the rail investment strategy, electrification projects and capacity increases. I am confident that a solution will shortly be found to enable diesel trains to be released to address the capacity issues in Bolton.

My constituents are fed up with jam tomorrow and playing sardines today. With diesel trains in great demand but short supply for the next four or five years and with services for my constituents being some of the most overcrowded in the country, what is the Minister doing to prevent other companies from snatching more of our trains from Northern Rail and First TransPennine Express?

I was pleased to meet the hon. Lady and other Members from Bolton recently. She knows that commercial leases are a matter for the operating companies, but also that, as I said a moment ago, I have worked with operating companies to reach a solution to ensure that there is extra capacity on the line in Bolton from Christmas onwards.

Topical Questions

Following the wettest winter on record, I recently announced an extra £140 million for urgent repairs to local roads, bringing the total fund to more than £170 million. Today, I am announcing the individual allocations of that funding among local authorities. Some £47 million will be allocated to councils in the south-west that were particularly badly affected. I expect councils to spend the money wisely and quickly, and councils that do so will be particularly well placed to bid for additional funds for road repairs in the next financial year from the £200 million pot announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in yesterday’s excellent Budget.

Thirteen months ago, the Public Accounts Committee told the Secretary of State that serious fundamental errors in the franchising process for the west coast main line had led to more than £55 million of public money being flushed down the drain. What action has he taken to make sure that that Tory franchising fiasco never happens again?

I announced a number of follow-ups that I took as a result of that particular franchising problem—I was incredibly open with the House about it—through both the Laidlaw inquiry and the Brown inquiry. I do not recognise the £55 million figure that the hon. Gentleman talks about.

T3. Will the Minister commit to looking at the electrification of the Penzance to Paddington route, a scheme which, at a fraction of the cost of HS2, would benefit everyone in the south-west, unlike some of the other promoted schemes that would benefit only some people at the expense of others? (903146)

In 2012, the Department commissioned a study from Arup to look at electrification to the west of Newbury. We have already seen some of that study’s results, which indicate that there is a very good business case for going to Bedwyn, and further results from that study are being considered by the Department.

First Great Western was originally due to pay more than £800 million in premium payments over the years 2013 to 2016, but the Government have now handed over the franchise for just £17 million a year. If there is now a further five-year extension on the line, with no competition, at the same time as Ministers are selling off the successful East Coast operator, will not taxpayers once again pay the price for this Government’s incompetence and ideology?

The hon. Lady should be careful about the points that she makes about that matter. She talks about First Great Western’s right to cancel the contract, but that right was given to it by the last Government when they negotiated the franchise. All it was doing was exercising an option that the last Government gave it. If she is saying that the last Government made a mistake in dealing with that matter, she might be right. I am determined to ensure that the people who are served by that franchise on that route get better services. That is why we will insist that first-class carriages are converted to standard class to provide more capacity on the line, and why we are improving the sleeper services down to Cornwall—something that has been welcomed widely.

T5. I am a big supporter of high-speed rail, but it has to link to the north and then to Scotland to bring benefits. May I ask the Secretary of State to do what the previous Government failed to do, which is to look at the viable alternative to HS2, “High Speed UK”, which would cause less environmental damage, would be £14 billion cheaper and would connect more cities than just Birmingham and London? (903149)

What we have to do with high-speed rail is vastly to increase capacity, which HS2 does. That is vital. I think that HS2 is the right scheme to go ahead with. Of course it has to link in. In the excellent report that was published this week, David Higgins showed how we will do that and how we will get a train service that is adequate for this country not just for 10 or 20 years, but for the next 150 years.

T2. This morning, like many Members, I caught a London bus on my way to work. Quality contracts are one reason why London has bucked the national trend of rising fares and falling passenger numbers. Will the Secretary of State join me, Tyne and Wear public transport users group and his friend, the Mayor of London, in supporting quality contracts for quality bus services? (903145)

There are many ways of developing quality bus services up and down the country. The Government are making a huge commitment through grants to bus operators and have reformed the bus service operators grant so that local authorities are now in charge of it. We believe that partnership is the best way forward and I am convinced that it still is.

Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that it is somewhat surprising that more has not been said in this Question Time to congratulate Hitachi on its decision to bring its rail business headquarters to England? Does he agree that, ever since he gave it the contract for the intercity express programme rolling stock, it has gone from strength to strength? The irony is that, in some years’ time, we could be a net exporter of rolling stock, rather than having to import it.

I have mentioned that once or twice, and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for mentioning it again. It is fantastic that Hitachi has announced that it will locate its headquarters in London and that it is building its manufacturing plant in Newton Aycliffe. That follows the contracts to build the new IEP trains that were awarded and signed by this Government.

T7. The Government say that there is no time in the next 14 months to bring forward a dedicated taxi Bill. Instead, they are pushing through proposals to lower standards and deregulate the taxi market outside London in the Deregulation Bill. Given that there is so little for Parliament to do most weeks, will Ministers explain their actions and say why they cannot take a taxi Bill through the House in the next 12 months? (903152)

I am not in a position to announce what will be in the future legislative programme for this House. It is no secret, given that it has been announced by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, that the state opening of Parliament will be in June. There is certainly no time left in this Session.

The Institute of Directors surveyed more than 13,000 directors for its spring report to gain their views on HS2. More than half of them thought that it was poor value for money and more than 60% thought that the budget that is earmarked for the project would provide a better return if it was used to improve the existing road and rail networks. Why do the Government not listen to the wider business community, rather than to the lobbying of businesses with vested interests, such as the High Speed Rail Industry Leaders Group, most of whom turned out to be on the Government payroll?

I listen to the Institute of Directors, and I also listen to the CBI, which supports HS2, and to the British Chambers of Commerce, which has written to the Prime Minister about it. I also listen to the local authority leaders, who are united in their view that HS2 is the right thing to do to close the north-south divide in this country and provide the north with the type of rail services that it deserves. I would also point out that we have had significant investment in London transport, and it is about time that the rest of the country got some of the investment as well.

May I join the Secretary of State in welcoming Hitachi’s announcement that it is moving its global rail operation to the UK? That will create a lot of jobs in my constituency. Will he acknowledge two things, however? The first is that Hitachi had identified Newton Aycliffe as its manufacturing base before the last election because of Labour’s intercity express programme, and the second is that it has moved here also because we are in Europe, and it would be a disaster to leave the European Union.

One reason why this country has been so successful in getting inward investment is the long-term market changes that we have made in the United Kingdom, which were started by Baroness Thatcher. I well remember when Toyota came to this country, which was the largest single investment ever made here at more than £800 million. I also remember when Nissan came here. I very much welcome Hitachi, but it follows a number of other Japanese companies in coming to this country, investing in it, providing good, long-term employment and doing very well for the United Kingdom.

Yesterday, the owner of Manston airport in Kent announced the proposed closure of that important airfield. Given that Manston has the fourth longest runway in the country and is a major diversion field and a search and rescue base, will the Secretary of State review the matter in the national interest to see how Manston may be kept open?

It certainly is disturbing news, given the importance that we place on regional airports. It is disappointing that Manston has not been able to attract some of the low-cost carriers that it hoped to, but I am certainly happy to meet my hon. Friend to see whether there is a way forward.

Will the Secretary of State make bus driver disability awareness training compulsory in his Department’s review of the EU bus and coach regulation this month?

That has been mentioned to me, and I will certainly want to look into it. I will write to the hon. Gentleman in more detail.

Pokesdown railway station, in my constituency, is in dire need of upgrade. The lifts have not worked for a number of decades. In response to a parliamentary question, the Minister said that we should blame South West Trains. I wrote to South West Trains, and it said that we should blame the Government, because that is not part of the franchise agreement. All that the people of Bournemouth want is for the lifts to be working. May I invite the Minister to come to Bournemouth to take a look at the situation?

My hon. Friend will know that the Government support local decisions by local communities on improving local connectivity, but I am happy to accept his kind invitation.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues. I recognise the level of demand, but we must move on.

House of Commons Commission

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

Parliamentary Commissions

1. What assessment the Commission has made of the potential implications for the House Service of the establishment of further parliamentary commissions. (903153)

The establishment of a parliamentary commission would be a matter for the two Houses. Should a motion to establish a commission be tabled in this House, the accounting officer is required under Standing Order No. 22C to provide an assessment of the financial implications. If a parliamentary commission were established, the funding and practical arrangements would then fall within the remit of the House of Commons Commission, advised by the Finance and Services Committee and others. Parliamentary commissions are relatively rare, and the implications will depend on the details of any specific proposal.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his answer. Does he agree that it should be down to the House to decide what the remit and resources of any parliamentary commission or Joint Committee should be, to ensure that it does not cut across the work of departmental Select Committees but instead complements it?

The hon. Lady puts her finger on an extremely important point, which is that the merits or otherwise of commissions and Committees are a matter for the House, or for the two Houses in the case of a parliamentary commission. Should a commission or Committee be appointed, it would be for the House authorities, including the House of Commons Commission, to make the arrangements for it to be properly resourced.

Would it not be sensible if the House of Commons Commission were involved in the preparation of the note to be prepared by the Clerk of the House about the costs of such a parliamentary commission, so that it could give its view on the matter? Is it not the case that the additional net cost to the House of Commons of about £175,000 is pretty much de minimis in our budget of £215 million? After all, spending money on scrutinising the Executive is what the House of Commons is for, and cost would be a poor excuse from the Government not to have a parliamentary commission.

I do not quite share the hon. Gentleman’s definition of de minimis. Standing Order No. 22C would take de minimis as below £50,000, and I think that saving, or spending, £175,000 would be above de minimis. However, his point that the resource required would be well within the scope of the resources provided is a good one. As I say, it would be for the House and its relevant Committees to make the necessary decisions, following which the House of Commons Commission would undertake the necessary work on resources.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Written Parliamentary Questions

2. What recent assessment he has made of Government Departments’ performance in answering written parliamentary questions on time. (903155)

My office collates departmental performance information for ordinary and named day parliamentary questions for each Session, which are submitted to the Procedure Committee. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House provided data relating to the last Session to that Committee in July 2013, and those data are available on the parliamentary website.

In January, the Procedure Committee published a report which demonstrated that five Departments are deteriorating in their performance of answering named day questions. What is the Deputy Leader of the House doing about that?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. Clearly, the Government want to ensure that best practice is spread to ensure that all Departments are performing at a very high level. If five Departments are deteriorating, a greater number are improving, and we know that even big Departments such as the Department of Health are able to achieve a fantastic score of responding to 99% of ordinary questions within an appropriate time.

Which is the best performing Department, which is the worst performing, and would the Deputy Leader of the House consider drawing the attention of the Prime Minister to the worst performing Department on a quarterly basis?

Indeed, I am happy to draw the Prime Minister’s attention to Departments that are not up to scratch. It may impress the hon. Gentleman if I tell him that the Department for the Leader of the House of Commons performs the best.

Government Amendments

3. What steps he is taking to encourage his ministerial colleagues to make Government amendments to legislation in the House rather than in the House of Lords. (903156)

7. What steps he is taking to encourage his ministerial colleagues to make Government amendments to legislation in the House of Commons rather than in the House of Lords. (903160)

All will be well—[Interruption.] There are so many questions. [Interruption.] Inspiration is to hand; I thank the Leader of the House. It illustrates just how well we work together.

It is usual practice for the Government to make amendments, where possible, in the House of introduction. However, the Government are rightly expected to listen and respond to debates on Bills in both Houses of Parliament, and it is, of course, the core strength of our Parliament that any amendments made to Bills in the House of Lords must also be agreed by this House.

That is a disappointing response from the Minister. The Government are increasingly bypassing this Chamber by introducing Bills in skeleton form and then pushing them through the House of Lords. The Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill left this Chamber 29 pages long, and ended up with more than 200 pages in the Lords. Other examples include the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013, and so on. Will the Leader of the House commit to ensuring that that does not happen to future legislation?

I am disappointed with what the hon. Lady has to say. Clearly it is appropriate to ensure that Bills that start in the House of Commons are appropriately considered, and that those which start in the House of Lords are appropriately considered. It may be of interest to the hon. Lady to know that the number of amendments passed in each House is roughly of the same order.

The Agricultural Wages Board was abolished last year by an amendment added to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill at the last minute in the House of Lords. The Bill was then scheduled so that there was no time to debate the move in the Commons. Does the Leader of the House agree that the Government are deliberately weakening the ability of the House of Commons to scrutinise the Executive, especially on an issue such as this, which undermines workers’ terms and conditions at one fell swoop?

I do not agree. One of the biggest changes the Government have made is to provide much more time, for instance on Report, to ensure that Bills are appropriately considered. If the hon. Gentleman goes through the history books, he will find that he has to go back a very long time under the previous Government to identify when this level of scrutiny was given on Report.

I commend the Government on that and draw attention to the increasing use of draft legislation, on which this Government have done so much better than the last one. Opposition Members should remember the 2005 to 2010 Parliament; by comparison, this Government have been a paragon of virtue.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful comment. Clearly, this Government have put great emphasis on pre-legislative scrutiny, another area where we have performed outstandingly well in comparison with our predecessors.

Does the Deputy Leader of the House recall, as I do, the Opposition’s many attempts in the House of Lords to muzzle time and again our tradition of a free press, for example in the Crime and Courts Bill? Does he agree that people who sit in glass houses should not necessarily throw stones?

I am very happy to support what the hon. Gentleman says. I am very proud of our record of ensuring that the right level of scrutiny is available for Bills and ensuring that the right number of Bills are going through the House. The Opposition often criticise the Government for what they allege is a light programme. We have a programme that is delivering the goods.

This morning’s written ministerial statement on drafting guidance for Government Bills represents a missed opportunity to address the Government’s dismal record on drafting legislation. Will the Deputy Leader of the House tell us how he and the Leader of the House plan to ensure that their Government’s Bills are more thoroughly drafted and scrutinised, especially by this House?

I do not know, frankly, what the hon. Lady is referring to. This Government have put great emphasis on ensuring that Bills are effectively drafted. For example, we support the good law initiative, which ensures that Bills are clearer. We have done a considerable amount on explanatory notes to ensure that Members have a better understanding of Government amendments. I would appreciate it if the Opposition joined in that process, for example on the Deregulation Bill, to ensure that there is clarity on what their amendments are suggesting.

Ministerial Announcements

4. What steps he is taking to encourage Ministers to make announcements to the House before their release to the media. (903157)

The ministerial code is clear: when Parliament is in session the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance to Parliament. I regularly remind my colleagues of this.

The Chancellor came to the House this week and announced a Budget that had been largely pre-announced through a series of press releases. I hear this complaint all the time in the House and the usual playground response is, “Well, the Labour Government did it.” May I remind the Minister that, whatever happened in the past, this practice is wrong? What is he going to do about it?

I think the hon. Lady may have prepared her supplementary question before the Budget took place. The Chancellor stood at the Dispatch Box yesterday and announced some of the most important reforms to pensions in nearly 100 years, and benefits for savers. As far as I am aware, there was not even speculation on what he was going to do before he announced those measures. She should know that under the terms of the Macpherson report, which the Treasury adhere to, we are clear on not providing advance information on tax and fiscal measures. That was adhered to in the Budget.

Legislative Scruting

5. What steps the Government have taken to improve opportunities for scrutiny of legislative proposals. (903158)

The Government have improved opportunities for scrutiny by publishing more draft legislative proposals in each Session than the last Administration did. We have also piloted public readings in respect of two Bills, and have frequently allocated more than one day for remaining stages: that includes seven Bills in the current Session alone.

What steps are the Government taking to make legislation clearer, more straightforward and easier for the public as well as parliamentarians to understand, in order to facilitate better scrutiny?

As part of the good law initiative, the Government are taking a number of steps to promote law that is clear, necessary, coherent, effective and accessible. For instance, we are considering how we can improve the drafting and presentation of Bills and supporting documents such as explanatory notes, as well as access to and navigation of existing legislation online.

Scrutiny (Statutory Instruments)

6. What steps he is taking to improve opportunities for the scrutiny of draft statutory instruments. (903159)

The Procedure Committee heard evidence on delegated legislation from the Hansard Society on 29 January this year. I am sure that the Committee would welcome the views of the hon. Lady and others when considering whether to undertake a fuller inquiry.

One of the problems of discussing statutory instruments is that we are often given very little notice of them. We have heard that a statutory instrument on fox hunting may well come before the House. Will the Leader of the House tell us how much notice we will be given, how much time will be allowed for a full debate, and whether the statutory instrument will be debated in the Chamber?

There are requirements relating to notice in Standing Orders, and I try to give the House notice of business on a provisional basis if it is to be dealt with on the Floor of the House. I looked at statutory instruments from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs this morning, and, as far as I am aware, no statutory instrument of the kind described by the hon. Lady is before the House.


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

Education Centre

The latest estimate of the cost of constructing and equipping the education centre is £6.93 million, excluding value added tax but including the usual provision for contingencies.

Will the hon. Gentleman tell me how expenditure of some £7 million on what will be a temporary building can possibly be justified? Would it not be much better to put the education centre into the space that is currently occupied by the loss-making day nursery overlooking Parliament square?

The hon. Gentleman and I served together on the Administration Committee during the last Parliament, and I know of his enthusiasm for the education centre. We considered a wide range of options, all of which we have considered again during the current Parliament, and this option provides by far the best value. It allows us to increase the number of children who go through the education centre from 45,000 to 100,000, which is a significant advance.

A teacher who had taken children around the Houses of Parliament said that it had been a

“fantastic experience that allowed children to have firsthand experience of how the Houses of Parliament work. It was great for them to see it as a working building—online it is static and empty. They were very much struck with awe and wonder.”

Engagement with children is the future of our politics.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is very important for children from outside London, particularly those from my constituency, to be able to come and see what goes on in Parliament, and engage with the democratic process? Can he tell us when the first sod will be turned, so that we can have the centre as soon as possible?

I cannot at this moment give the hon. Lady an exact date, but it is hoped that the centre will be open in 2015, probably just after the election. As for her first point, as one who represents the most northerly constituency on the mainland of the United Kingdom—and long may it remain united—I must say that it was a tremendous pleasure to welcome children from Kinlochbervie and Wick high schools two weeks ago who made two separate visits. I am sure that we wish to continue to do everything possible to enable constituencies such as hers to benefit from these resources.