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Topical Questions

Volume 580: debated on Thursday 8 May 2014

The House will recall that five weeks ago the HGV user levy came into force. I am pleased to say that in that short period the levy has generated £7.6 million in revenue from overseas hauliers and achieved a mainland payment compliance rate of 96%. Thanks to the actions of this Government, foreign hauliers are at last paying for their use of British roads.

Driver distraction is a major cause of death and serious injury on our roads, and it has been the focus of a leading campaign by the charity Brake. What are the Government doing to work with such organisations to tackle driver distraction? By way of a digression, I was given the “parliamentarian of the year” award by Brake for campaigning on road safety.

I have known of Brake’s work for many years, as one of its founding members was the relative of a victim who died in my constituency. I think that the whole question of driver distraction is important. I am still amazed by the number of people who use mobile phones while driving. In August 2013 the Government increased the penalty for using a mobile phone while driving from £60 to £100. I will look at the matter and review it in due course.

The hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) deserves the hearty congratulations of the House, and I feel sure that the award is prominently displayed in his home.

The Government are blocking an EU directive that bus drivers should have disability awareness training. In January, the Minister promised me a review in March, but in response to a later question he seemed to back off that promise. With my letter on this to his Lords colleague at the end of March still unanswered, when will the Government keep his promise to the House and stop letting disabled people down?

I will certainly ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives a reply to his letter. I am somewhat surprised that he has not had one already, but I will find out what has gone wrong. As we discussed in Westminster Hall recently, the voluntary approach is working very well with over 75% of drivers having this sort of training, which is important to ensure that disabled people have equal access to all forms of transport.

T3. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has had the opportunity to travel on the M1 between Leeds and Sheffield recently. It is a pig of a journey due to a 17-mile stretch of roadworks with a 50 mph enforced speed limit. I recognise the need for those roadworks, but is there any reason why they cannot be done in stages to improve the experience for motorists? (903920)

I have indeed travelled on that section of the M1 and it does seem to go on for ever. However, I am assured by the Highways Agency that doing the work in this way will incur a time saving of two thirds compared with doing it in stages. When we do such work, which includes replacement of steel central barriers with concrete ones, it improves repair time and over the long term will certainly improve road performance.

T2. East Coast’s current operator, Directly Operated Railways, was barred from bidding for the east coast franchise. The Secretary of State presumably welcomes the bid from Eurostar-Keolis, which is largely owned by French state railways. Is it not time to change policy and to allow Directly Operated Railways to bid for franchises? (903919)

There are a number of reasons why it would not be right to allow that to happen, not least because it would be funded directly through the taxpayer. That would put Directly Operated Railways at a great disadvantage compared with other companies in the private sector. The east coast and west coast franchises cannot be compared as they are very different, not least because, at the moment, East Coast runs 155 services a day compared with the 324 services on the west coast line.

T4. The proposed Congleton link road will help to boost the economy across the east Cheshire region, relieving not only local town congestion, but that along the M6, both of which are frequently described as chronic. It will also improve access to and from Crewe station. Will the Minister consider making Government funding available to fund this vital link road project? (903921)

I understand that the Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership has submitted a bid for local growth fund funding to support the Congleton link road as part of its strategic economic plan. We are currently assessing the plans and bids submitted by every LEP in England and we hope to be able to make an announcement in July.

T5. Mr Shah and other wheelchair users in my constituency will be disappointed by the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) in relation to the disability awareness training for bus drivers under EU regulation 181/2011. They tell me that drivers simply say, “Sorry mate, the lift is not working” or “the ramp is not working.” Sometimes they drive by with their thumb down and ignore them. Only 28% of drivers have received such training. When will the Minister get on and act on the regulation? (903922)

I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that his assiduity is not in question, but his ability to distinguish between a substantive and a topical question in terms of length perhaps is.

We feel we should take the voluntary route, but I certainly understand the problem. Indeed, one of my noble Friends at the other end of the corridor told me that they sometimes have to put somebody outside to flag down a taxi so that a disabled Member of the other place can then get into it. It is not just about training and awareness; it is about the attitude of taxi drivers, which cannot be instilled through training.

T6. From Gargrave to Embsay and from Masham to Ripon, communities across Skipton and Ripon are concerned about cuts to rural bus services. What more can Ministers do to work with the most rural parts of our communities on buses? Will they look very favourably at North Yorkshire county council’s bid to the sustainable transport fund, which closes later this month? (903923)

As a North Yorkshire Member myself, I am aware of some of the changes to rural bus services that are affecting my constituents as well as my hon. Friend’s. The fact remains that, outside London, 44% of the fare box that goes to bus operators is provided through various subsidies. We need to be more intelligent in targeting the services that people, particularly pensioners, use in rural areas.

Earlier this morning in Westminster, the Freight Transport Association launched its excellent 2014 logistics report. One policy area success that has eluded successive Governments is in the promotion of coastal shipping. What are the Government doing in this regard?

I have not yet had time to read the report as it was published only this morning. The way in which coastal shipping works and links with the rail network is very important, and we need to develop it even further. I had a very interesting meeting yesterday with one operator who is drawing directly from ports into Drax power station.

T7. My right hon. Friend will know that many of the 8,000 miles of roads in Devon are blighted by potholes. Will he therefore join me in congratulating Devon county council on its online pothole advisory system and the efficient way in which it is tackling the problem? May I also press him to consider very seriously Devon county council’s bid for some of the additional funds that were announced in the Budget? (903924)

Indeed. Before the year-end, we allocated extra money to local authorities that they were encouraged to spend on potholes and to show how they had spent it. That will have a bearing on how we allocate the future fund for local authorities that the Chancellor made available in the Budget.

Does the Secretary of State share my profound concern that roadside recovery operators working on our motorways have been instructed that they must continue to work when they have asked for a lane closure, even for safety reasons, but the Highways Agency has refused that closure? This is putting people’s lives at risk. Will he order an urgent inquiry and put an immediate stop to this dangerous practice?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter. It is the first time it has been brought to my attention, and I will certainly have a conversation with the Highways Agency. Our smart motorways schemes make it much easier to close lanes and move traffic, so it should not be a problem on those sections of road. I will get back to the hon. Gentleman with the reply I receive.

T8. The railway line from my constituency to London is probably the worst in the country for regularity, speed and reliability. May I urge the Secretary of State to persuade Network Rail and First Great Western to take this Cinderella line to the ball at last? (903925)

If my hon. Friend was here at the start of questions, he will have heard a number of Members call for better services in their areas. I think the line that he mentions does get substantial investment as a result of the intercity express programme, and I therefore hope he will get the better services he wants.

Further to his earlier answer, will the Secretary of State update us on links from HS2 to the continent before or after the summer recess?

T10. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the welcome news about the heavy goods vehicle levy shows that this was a long overdue reform that will create a level playing field for UK hauliers? (903927)

The levy has made a remarkable difference. It sends a positive message to foreign hauliers that if they come to this country they have to make a contribution to the cost of maintaining the road network. I am very pleased that we have been able to do this. It has been warmly welcomed by the freight industry in this country.