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Topical Questions

Volume 577: debated on Thursday 20 March 2014

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.