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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 584: debated on Thursday 10 July 2014


The Secretary of State was asked—

Congestion (Roads)

Before I answer the question, I should explain that, as you and the Opposition Front Benchers will be aware, Mr Speaker, the Secretary of State is unable to attend Transport questions this morning because of his duties attending on Her Majesty the Queen in Derbyshire.

Road investment is central to our long-term economic plan. We are spending more than £24 billion on strategic roads between 2010 and 2021. A further £7.4 billion will be spent on local roads in the next Parliament, together with £1.5 billion of funding from the local growth fund that was announced on Monday. That will bring forward much needed schemes such as the Bury St Edmunds eastern relief road in Suffolk. All the schemes are designed to relieve congestion and open up growth across the country.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I welcome the growth deal for the New Anglia local enterprise partnership, which will help to relieve the congestion on many roads. May I make a bid for support for the A12 in Suffolk Coastal, and particularly for the stretches of the road that will be used heavily by Sizewell C construction traffic? There is the possibility of a four-villages bypass involving Stratford St Andrew and Farnham.

I know that my hon. Friend is disappointed that the four-villages bypass was not included on this occasion, but we are still looking at that possibility. Indeed, I was in Norfolk and Suffolk last week undertaking —dare I say it—a “tour d’East Anglia”. I looked at the A12 and the A47, which are greatly in need of improvement.

I welcome the recent growth deal announcement and the £16.4 million of funding that will be put to good use on the Poynton relief road. Does my hon. Friend agree that that will not only reduce traffic congestion for the residents of Poynton, but enhance the strategic links to Macclesfield’s science community?

Yes, that is very good news for the residents of Poynton, Macclesfield and the whole of east Cheshire. The scheme to link the A6 to the Manchester airport relief road, to which the Government are contributing £165 million, will improve access to the significant employment opportunities that are being developed at the Manchester airport city enterprise zone.

Listening to the Minister, one would never guess that the National Audit Office has warned that the Government’s approach is not good enough to fix the pothole epidemic on our local roads, which is aggravating congestion; that the Local Government Association has expressed the concern that the Government’s roads policy will lead to gridlock on local roads; that bus use outside London is down, not up; or that British Cycling has expressed disappointment that the Government are not providing the leadership that is needed to get people out of their cars and to walk or cycle. This is not jam tomorrow; it is traffic jams today. Is it not time that the Minister got a grip?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman can keep a straight face as he says that. We are tripling road investment in the Highways Agency’s infrastructure. We have substantially increased the investment for local authorities to address the pothole problem. More money was announced in the Budget and following the bad weather at Christmas. This Government realise that we should be improving our infrastructure and mending our roads. It is not only the roof that the Labour party did not mend in government; it did not mend the roads either.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the A12 through Essex and on to the ports and the hinterland of East Anglia is severely congested, and that the best way to relieve that congestion would be to turn it into a motorway? Will he update the House on what is being done to evaluate that proposition, following the answer that the Secretary of State gave to me two Question Times ago?

The A12 is certainly featuring prominently today. My right hon. Friend is a great exponent of the proposal to upgrade the A12 to motorway status. The last time he raised this matter, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said:

“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.”—[Official Report, 20 March 2014; Vol. 577, c. 892.]

This is just one more of those occasions.

I know the Secretary of State visited the west country a few weeks ago. Did he come back as committed as I have been for 30 years to finally doing something to improve the iconic A303?

I had the pleasure of travelling down the A30-A303 corridor with another colleague who has an interest in that matter. A number of areas along that road were pointed out to me, including the difficult Stonehenge area and the Blackdown hills area, which is more difficult for another reason, and where there is some low-hanging fruit that I hope we can address. That is one of six key routes that we have identified as needing improvement, and I suspect that my hon. Friend will have to wait for the autumn statement to hear further news.

Does the Minister agree that congestion on our roads is the one thing saving our safety record from plunging even further—as he knows, it has now plunged below that of Sweden? Many more young people are being killed on motorcycles under his watch. Does he think it time we went back to targets on reduction so that we can look after people on the roads?

I have only one target for casualties on the road, and that is a target of zero. The UK, along with Sweden, has the safest roads not only in Europe but in the world. Although it was disappointing to see a small increase in the number of motorcycle fatalities last year, in all other areas we have seen improvements owing to a number of factors, not least the investment that we put into better roads in this country.

One way of reducing congestion in the west midlands would be the new M6 south link to the M54 in Shropshire. Will the Minister join me in continuing to petition the Treasury to ensure that funds are available for that within the next few years?

My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) has also raised that issue with me on a number of occasions, and I note the aspirations to upgrade that road to having motorway-type status, despite the fact that it does not have a hard shoulder in every location at the moment.

High-speed Rail (Kent)

The Department for Transport is currently undertaking an economic evaluation of High Speed 1, covering transport user benefits, wider economic impacts, regeneration, and Government shareholdings and assets. That evaluation is planned to be completed this summer.

I thank the Minister for that answer, and I welcome the announcement of the full extension of HS1 to Deal, Walmer and Martin Mill in my constituency, and the benefits that that will bring to the local economy. Will he give an idea of the similar benefits that might be provided by HS2?

It is only fair for me to recognise the extraordinary efforts of my hon. Friend in ensuring that high-speed rail comes to Deal. I also recognise the extraordinary efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), who is making the same case. HS2 will make an important contribution to securing prosperity across the country. It will generate jobs and rebalance the economy, and our estimates suggest that there will be more than £70 billion of benefits, including £53 billion of benefits to business.

Regional Airports

4. What assessment he has made of the level of domestic and international connectivity provided by regional airports. (904756)

The Government value the domestic and international connectivity that the UK’s regional airports provide. They make a vital contribution to the growth and recovery of regional and local economies, benefiting businesses and passengers alike.

The first hovercraft passenger service in the world was from Rhyl to Wirral more than 50 years ago, and currently three hovercraft companies want to restart that. One of them—Hoverlink—wants to establish a link to Liverpool airport from north Wales. Will the Minister meet a delegation of MPs involved in that, and Hoverlink, to establish what could be the first hovercraft link to an airport in the world?

I was expecting to be asked about surface connectivity, but travelling on the surface of the water is a novel idea. That is an exciting idea, and I would be delighted to meet those involved, and possibly even take a ride on one of those vehicles.

In the light of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s statement about the importance of a northern hub, should we pay more attention to that having a hub airport? Manchester has the possibility and potential increasingly to become a port of entry to this country, opening up the whole of the north of England and north Wales, as well as easing pressures on connectivity in the south-east.

I am a great fan of Manchester airport, and many of my constituents on the east coast use it because it has such good connectivity by rail. I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is also keen to take pressure off other airports in the south of England, and Manchester airport and other regional airports have a great part to play in relieving pressure on the south-east. Indeed, with more point-to-point destinations being served, such as the one I saw at Newcastle recently, that is the way forward.

I apologise, Mr Speaker, for missing my earlier slot, as it were.

Newcastle airport grew its freight from £20 million in 2006 to £250 million last year, mainly on the back of the new Dubai route, but because it attracts more than 3 million passengers per year, it cannot have access to the regional connectivity fund, so what is the Minister doing to bring new routes to Newcastle and improve the economy?

I was pleased that the Chancellor announced the regional connectivity fund. When I was at Newcastle airport in February, there was excitement about that. It is also looking to serve further routes. Although the limitation is for airports of fewer than 3 million passengers, there is a provision under exceptional circumstances to allow airports such as Newcastle with fewer than 5 million passengers to participate. We are having conversations with the European Commission to ensure that we can do something and that we do not breach any state aid rules.

One way of encouraging airlines to establish new routes from regional airports is to allow them to operate free of air passenger duty for, say, the first two years. Will my hon. Friend discuss the possibility of introducing that measure with Treasury Ministers?

I am sure Treasury questions will be along very soon, when my hon. Friend will have an opportunity to ask the Chancellor that very question.

The regional airports of Munich and Barcelona have been named as two of the best airports in Europe and the world. Both have direct links to emerging economies throughout the world. The situation in Scotland is very different, with the UK Government imposing the demand-management, London-centred approach of having the highest air passenger duty in the world, which they have no intention to devolve. Could not Scotland do an awful lot better if it had the powers to help its airports to catch up with the likes of Barcelona and Munich?

I suspect that this matter will be decided in September, but I am pleased that the Government have taken the opportunity of offering public service obligation flights to London. Dundee has put a deal together, and I hope other airports will come forward with good proposals to tap into that fund.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming business leaders from across the globe to the aerotropolis conference in Manchester today—Cottonopolis itself? Does he agree that we must rebalance the economy in this country, and that to do so we must turn our focus away from Heathrow—the Transport Front-Bench team have a rabbit-in-the-glare obsession with Heathrow—and rebalance connectivity to our regional airports such as Manchester?

I represent a constituency in the north of England and my constituents rely on regional airports. In fact, I would rather call them local international airports. Manchester is one of the premier local international airports and I very much enjoy using it. It has exciting plans for further development.

Regional airports fear that the Government are not doing enough for connectivity, not least to London. Those concerns are reflected in the most recent Davies commission report. In his Budget, the Chancellor grandly announced more money for the regional air connectivity fund, but name-checked airports that are not currently eligible. The ones that definitely are eligible still have no guidance on how to apply. In addition, Ministers still have no green light from Europe to say that airports with 3 million to 5 million passengers, such as Newcastle, can apply. Only one airport—Dundee—is confirmed to get any money so far. How can we be sure that airports such as Newcastle, Leeds Bradford and Norwich, or anywhere else for that matter, will get more support from the Government by 2015?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government are very successful in negotiating in Europe when we need to get a deal. Having spent five years in the European Parliament, I know that we are always keen to engage and ensure that like-minded member states can come to an accommodation. We are optimistic that we can have a positive outcome with the European Commission. We will have further information for airports wishing to apply during the autumn when the details have been hammered out, so that we can comply with the state aid rules and ensure that the money goes to important regional airports such as Newcastle, which I know has aspirations to have flights to the United States.

Caledonian Sleeper Service

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has not yet used the service in an official capacity, but plans to do so shortly. My noble Friend the Minister of State, Baroness Kramer, used the Caledonian sleeper service on the evening of 31 October on a visit to Scotland. The Caledonian sleeper service is part of the ScotRail franchise, which is the responsibility of the Scottish Government.

By my reckoning, there are at least four Members in their place this morning who are regular users of the sleeper service. When the Minister’s right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has the opportunity to use the sleeper service soon, he will, I am sure, discover that although it is not particularly high speed and he might not necessarily get that much sleep, it is a useful service. Given that the UK Government, along with the Scottish Government, are part-funding significant upgrade of the rolling stock, what is the Department doing to ensure that as much of the supply chain work for the upgrade goes to UK companies?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Scottish Government announced in May that the winning bid for the franchise will commence next year. We want to ensure a service that not only he, but all Members, can sleep on. The rolling stock competition will lead to an upgraded rolling stock. The competition will of course be open to British companies, which are currently very successful at winning contracts across the panoply of rolling stock contracts let by this Government.

Mr Speaker, may I make it abundantly clear that those of us with a clear political conscience sleep very well indeed on the sleeper service?

Will the Minister reflect on the fact that 15-plus years ago the then passenger franchise director was seeking to get rid of sleeper services, saying that they had no commercial future? In their wisdom, the Government—I support them on this one, for once—are providing match funding of £50 million at each end, with the Scottish Government, for a massive expansion to secure the future under Serco’s new 15-year franchise. This is a vote of confidence, the like of which has not happened in the lifetime of anyone in this Parliament. Will he welcome that fact and sleep well himself?

I sleep well most nights, but nothing my right hon. Friend says ever fails to surprise me, either about his conscience or other matters. I am delighted to have his support on this matter. He is of course right: the sleeper service offers a unique, valued and high-profile service between Scotland and London. He is also right to say that the Government are committing to these services. The House will have noted the Prime Minister’s remarks in Cornwall last week on the Cornish sleeper service.

May I, on my birthday, reflect that the passage of time and progress are not always the same thing? Nothing will ever equal the excitement of a child at King’s Cross station taking the night sleeper steam train to Inverness and the highlands, and waking up at Aviemore to have kippers in the restaurant car. That is one of the many joys, like all-night sittings, that younger Members will never enjoy.

We are always pleased to be informed of the source of the right hon. Gentleman’s excitements, whether current or historic.

May I wish my right hon. Friend—and my sister—a happy birthday?

I think progress will be appreciated by all younger Members. The rolling stock will ensure that they get a good night’s sleep as they are whisked swiftly to Scotland to enjoy the many benefits of that country, which must of course stay in the Union with the rest of this country.

Rolling Stock (North of England)

The Department for Transport reached agreement with Northern Rail in April 2014 to introduce four-coach electric trains that will begin operating in passenger service between Liverpool and Manchester from December 2014.

TransPennine Express also received 10 new four-coach class 350 electric trains, which will now operate between Manchester and Scotland. Since May, TransPennine Express has used the displaced diesel trains to provide an additional service every hour across the Pennines and additional capacity across the network. In relation to the TransPennine Express diesel class 170 trains that Chiltern will lease from April 2015, the Department is continuing to explore options with industry partners and is in commercial negotiations. The Department will be outlining its proposed solution later in the year.

Perhaps the Minister missed the fact that I am a Hull MP, because he did not actually mention any of the services that go to Hull. Last week there was a lot of spin about HS3 for the north, which obviously will not happen until years after 2030, so let me press the Minister on the fact that we still do not have a resolution to the rolling stock being moved from TransPennine to Chiltern Railways. Again, is it not the case that, for the north, it is jam tomorrow, but today it continues to be jams for local people on the railways?

The hon. Lady is wrong: the Department has identified a potential solution. We hope to be able to make a formal announcement later this summer. The decision to move the nine TransPennine Express class 170s was made by their owner. To address that, the Department is in commercial negotiations to develop a solution that is likely to see the introduction of more electric trains into the north, in addition to the 14 class 319s we have already announced, to release even more diesel units.

The improved rolling stock that was introduced by TransPennine for Cleethorpes to Manchester services a few years ago increased patronage considerably. Will the Minister give an assurance that when the new franchise documents—the invitation to tender—are published later this year, he will specify that the highest quality of rolling stock be maintained on services out of Cleethorpes and that it will be at least the quality of the 185 units in use at present?

My hon. Friend is an absolute campaigner for his constituents, and he has spoken to me a number of times on this issue and on the consultation. I should say that the consultation is just that. We are viewing a number of proposals at the moment, including the remapping of certain services, but I am sure that he will wish to continue to make those points during the consultation period. When the consultation finishes, we will consider all the points made and look to specify the necessary rolling stock requirements in the invitation to tender to ensure that the best services are provided for people across the north.

When the Department agreed to move rolling stock from the north to Chiltern Railways, the Secretary of State said that he could not have “unreasonably” withheld his consent. As it is clear that no solution to the problem has yet been identified, under what circumstances would it have been reasonable for him to refuse to allow that move from north to south?

It is not often that I would dare to correct the hon. Lady, who chairs the Select Committee on Transport, but she clearly was not listening to my two previous answers. A solution has been identified. We are in commercial discussions and we will be making a formal announcement this summer.

Four trains an hour leave St Pancras destined for the north of England, with rolling stock through Kettering, but only one an hour stops at Kettering, so we have only an hourly service northbound, whereas we used to have a twice-hourly service northbound. Will the Minister speak with East Midlands Trains to give us our old service back?

I thank my hon. Friend for his campaign on behalf of his constituents. Not only will I speak to East Midlands Trains about the issue, to ensure that his point is heard, but I am sure that he will want to catch me later to stress the point further.

The Government’s consultation on rail services in the north proposes a number of route level changes to TransPennine Express, but is silent on Ministers’ plans for Northern Rail, even though it is clear that wide-ranging changes are envisaged. Will the Minister come clean with passengers, rule out a backroom deal and let people know what is planned for their area?

There is a live consultation on Northern and TransPennine at the moment, which invites views across the region on a number of proposals, including the remapping of some franchise services between the two franchises. It involves both Northern and TransPennine, and I should stress that it is a consultation, which does not finish until mid August. When it does so, we will consider all those responses. There is no question of any backroom deal.

Can the Minister assure us that in the consultation on the new rail franchises, he will take account of the strong campaign being run by the Scunthorpe Telegraph and the Grimsby Telegraph in respect of our desire and requirement to maintain our services through to Manchester? Can he assure us, too, that whatever changes come, we will not be condemned to the Pacer units that I have to use every week on the train back to Goole?

Let me give my hon. Friend two pieces of good news. First, I know he will have read the consultation document from cover to cover, so he will have noted paragraph 7.7, which states that the

“bidders will be required to include plans, either in their core proposition or as an option, which would enable the withdrawal of all Pacer units from Northern services.”

I obviously recognise the campaign of the two newspapers he mentioned, and I am aware of the campaign he has rightly put forward on behalf of his constituents. I would say to my hon. Friend, as I have said to those newspapers, which faithfully reported my words, that this is a consultation and no decision has yet been made.

High Speed 2 (Wigan)

The Department has not estimated the case for the western leg of the Y-shaped route for High Speed 2 without the Wigan spur. However, preliminary analysis undertaken by HS2 Ltd suggested that this section of the line is likely to provide benefits in the order of £1.2 billion, revenue of about £600 million, and is likely to offer very high value for money.

I have been, and remain, a strong supporter of HS2 because I believe in the transformational benefits that will occur. However, none of these transformational benefits occurs because of the line north of Manchester—it is not in the published business or in the published economic case—and the cost of this line is the better part of £1 billion, including allocated contingencies. Will the Minister confirm that he will look hard at this issue during the current consultation?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for High Speed 2, and I welcome the opportunity to lay on the line yet again that the mischievous remarks of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), suggesting a figure of £80 billion, are completely false. I will, of course, look through the consultation, but I am sure my hon. Friend will recognise that having the Wigan spur will ensure that we can deliver some of the benefits to the west coast main line, which is why the Government believe at this stage that it offers high value for money.

Order. I am sure that from her vantage point as the Member of Parliament for Chesham and Amersham, the right hon. Lady will nevertheless wish to reference the Wigan spur.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. This morning, I heard of the death of Mrs Shirley Judges, one of my firm campaigners against HS2—and she was probably against the HS2 Wigan spur. She had put up a robust defence of our local environment in the Chilterns and throughout the country. The cost-benefit analyses of this Government have always been questionable, but I would like the Ministers to look very seriously at the benefits for those people who are forced to move house because of HS2 or indeed those who may be forced to move house in future because of the Wigan spur. Would it be possible to give these people a stamp duty holiday on the sale of their properties because they are being so badly affected? Finally, let me say that without people such as Mrs Judges, we would not have the strong voices that will make this project either go away or become a better project in the future.

I never cease to be supportive of my right hon. Friend’s support for her constituents, and on this occasion she has managed to alter this country’s geography so that the Wigan spur is somewhere close to Chesham. I am sorry to hear of her constituent’s death and our condolences go to her family. She will, of course, recognise that the Government are already paying the stamp duty on properties within the 60-metre boundary. If she writes to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I am sure he will consider her proposition for a further extension as part of the consultation.

A417-A419 (Gloucestershire)

10. What recent progress he has made on improving the A417-A419 at Nettleton Bottom and Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire; and if he will make a statement. (904762)

The Highways Agency is preparing a route strategy for the midlands to Wales and Gloucester. It covers the section of the A417 that includes Nettleton Bottom and Crickley Hill, known as the “missing link”, which has been identified as a key issue on the route. The next stage will be to assess options, and to produce indicative business cases as a basis on which to prioritise investment from 2015 onwards.

The Minister will be aware that the death toll on the road continues to rise, as do the delays experienced by travellers as a result of congestion. He will also be aware of how long my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) and I, in particular, have continued our campaign to secure improvements to the road. It would be good if he and/or the Secretary of State visited us in the near future to observe the problems for themselves.

This is a particularly challenging operation from both an environmental and an engineering perspective. The cost of the work has been estimated at about £255 million. It would include two junctions which would be grade separated, and the road is, of course, in an area of outstanding natural beauty. However, I have some good news for my hon. Friend: the Secretary of State plans to visit that part of the road next week.

While we look forward eagerly to the Secretary of State’s visit, we look forward even more eagerly to what my hon. Friend the Minister can do to upgrade the priority of this particular scheme. This is one of the busiest arterial roads in the country: it links the M4 to the M5. Tragically, we have had five deaths since last November. This is a really important priority. What can my hon. Friend do to help?

It was made clear to us when we met my hon. Friend and our hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) during the winter that dealing with the problem has been in the “too difficult to do” box for too long. The phrase “missing link” is a very good way of describing this piece of road, given the congestion that it causes and, of course, its accident record, which is not good at all.

May I briefly convey the support of constituents on my side of the river for the campaign that has been run by my hon. Friend the Members for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) and for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) over a long period? The improvement is important to us, so let me add our support for anything that the Minister can do to speed it up.

I know that all Members in that part of the world understand the importance of the route, and also understand the need to carry out the work in an environmentally sympathetic way because the road is in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

Offshore Oil and Gas (Helicopter Safety)

11. What recent assessment he has made of the safety of passengers in the offshore oil and gas helicopter transport system. (904763)

The Civil Aviation Authority published its review of offshore helicopter safety on 20 February this year. The United Kingdom has a good helicopter safety record, and there is no evidence to suggest that travelling to oil and gas installations by helicopter is any less safe than travelling by any other helicopter operated in the UK. However—like the hon. Gentleman, I am sure—I am pleased that the CAA review has proposed a number of recommendations for further examination of the overall safety for passengers in the offshore oil and gas helicopter transport system. I note that the oil and gas industry has accepted the recommendations. It is working closely with the CAA to implement them and introduce safety improvement measures, and the Department is carefully monitoring the effectiveness of the CAA and the industry in doing so.

I am sorry that the Minister did not mention the Transport Committee’s report on the serious problem of helicopter transport in the offshore industry, which was published on Tuesday this week. I hope that, when the Secretary of State sees the report, he will focus on the part that deals with the survivors of the last fatal crash in August last year, so that he can fully understand what the work force in the North sea have to put up with every day, and why those workers and their families support the demand for a full public inquiry into helicopter safety.

We have obviously seen the Select Committee’s report, and, as the hon. Gentleman will know, we are considering our response carefully. We will respond by 28 August, and we will certainly read and respond to the section about the impact on the lives of the survivors. As for the question of a full public inquiry, the CAA has conducted a thorough review and has made important recommendations. We need to give the organisations involved time to implement those recommendations, and we are making sure that they address the concerns of the industry.

Topical Questions

May I update the House on a few matters my Department has been involved in since the last Topical Questions? The announcement of the first £6 billion of growth deal projects on Monday included a raft of transport schemes across the country, with money being spent on schemes determined by local priorities to boost local economic growth. This landmark investment comes after our allocation in June of an extra £200 million to local authorities to fix potholes. Since the last Transport questions, the Department has also signed a contract with Virgin Trains for rail services on the west coast main line providing an extra 1,000 seats, and at the beginning of the week we announced £53 million to be spent on improving wi-fi access on trains, enabling passengers to receive seamless mobile broadband connections.

I thank the Minister for that reply. I am sure he will be aware that it is very important, particularly cross-border, that we maximise the use of rail freight in this country, but I note that the east coast invitation to tender document states that

“there is no requirement to protect capacity for freight”

on what is a key section of that line. Will he confirm that that is the case and that, as part of this rushed privatisation of the east coast main line, he is making it much harder for freight to access this network?

The hon. Gentleman has unfortunately failed to mention the upgrades on the other part of the freight line, which will ensure that all of those freight services still operate and there will be no diminution of service for freight operators north-south.

T5. I thank my hon. Friend for the significant investment benefiting both Lydney and Cinderford in my constituency that was announced at the beginning of this week as part of the growth deal. It is a part of our long-term economic plan, showing joined-up Government, which is welcomed by my constituents and will make a real difference to their everyday lives. (904784)

I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning both those schemes. The Cinderford north quarter link road and the Lydney transport strategy will be of benefit to his constituents, and he has been a real campaigner for them. I am delighted he welcomes them, and I am sure he will have noticed the remarks of the chairman of the Gloucestershire First—now GFirst—local enterprise partnership, Dr Diane Savory, who said:

“I’m absolutely thrilled that the Government has recognised the huge economic potential in Gloucestershire”.

Indeed, we have.

The press announced last Wednesday that aviation security in the UK was being stepped up, yet it was Tuesday evening, a full six days later, before this Department issued a statement to MPs. There is confusion among passengers about what they can and cannot take through security, and different airlines appear to have different policies on the checks and on returning confiscated items to travellers. Nobody is arguing with the need to protect passengers, but can the Minister reassure the House that he and his Department will work with airlines to give passengers the clear information they need to prepare before they travel, ensure that airports have adequate charging points for electronic gadgets, and guarantee that Members of this House will be kept fully informed?

The Secretary of State was on breakfast television today making it quite clear what the new rules will be, and making it clear that passengers travelling to and from the UK may be required to demonstrate at the departure gate that their electronic devices can be powered up. I know that airlines are taking steps to ensure that this can be addressed in a number of ways—for example, people can be reunited with their devices or charging facilities could be made available—but it is important that we react to this new security threat in a way that continues to protect the travelling public.

T6. Governments sometimes help with one Department but take away with another—on this occasion the non-ministerial Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Will my hon. Friend make an assessment of the Isle of Wight’s connectivity and the impact on the Solent growth deal of HMRC removing the island’s ferry services from the tonnage tax regime? HMRC says it is not going to sea, which sounds a bit odd. (904786)

My hon. Friend has lobbied me on a number of occasions about the island’s ferries. In this particular regard, qualification for the tonnage tax is a matter for HMRC. It is our understanding that since 1 July 2005 ferries have had to be operating at sea to qualify for tonnage tax. The cross-Solent ferries are regarded as operating within an estuary, as opposed to the sea, and therefore do not qualify, so there is no impact on the Solent growth deal in respect of these services.

T2. What study has the Minister made of the potential for open access operators to reduce journey times between Newcastle and London on the east coast main line? What competition policy is he operating with regard to that matter? (904780)

The right hon. Gentleman will know from the prospectus that we have welcomed the possibility of open access operators opening up new markets on the east coast main line. There is scope for that within the proposals, and we are looking at the bids very carefully. We recognise the benefits that open access has already brought for a number of people in a number of markets from the north of England, and I look forward to any other costed proposals.

T7. Under the previous Government’s franchise, South West Trains passengers are the single biggest subsidisers of other train lines in Britain, yet their services were rated as third worst value for money in 2014, mainly because of overcrowding. Does the Minister recognise that my constituents using South West Trains deserve a fairer deal when Labour’s franchise is renegotiated in 2017? (904787)

My hon. Friend has rightly consistently raised this matter on behalf of his constituents. He will recognise that the level of overall satisfaction with South West Trains in a recent survey was at about the sector average, but I recognise, as he does, that overcrowding on South West Trains in the peak hours is a well-known issue and it affects the perception of value for money. My Department is working closely with South West Trains to address that.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to the Airport Operators Association report “Airports in the community” which shows the excellent work that regional airports—also known as local international airports—are doing in the United Kingdom? Does he agree that the development of our regional airports is just as important as HS2 or HS3 in delivering economic growth, jobs and broader community benefits?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, and I am pleased he was paying attention earlier on. It is vital that local international airports play their part, and I know that Newcastle airport is doing that. Of course, the Government are improving connectivity to Newcastle airport, with upgrades on the Metro, work taking place at Newcastle International station and, as he will know, the £61 million upgrade of the A1 western bypass between Coal House and the Metro Centre. That will address not only congestion, but the anxiety that many people feel as they are travelling to the airport worried that they may miss their flights.

Will my hon. Friend encourage HS2 Ltd officials to meet petitioners to resolve their issues in advance of Select Committee hearings? I, and many of my colleagues, have constituents such as Sally and Stuart Jackson and Gordon and Harriet Raitt in south Northamptonshire who are in desperate situations and want nothing more than to settle their petitions as soon as possible, without the need to appear before the Select Committee.

We are absolutely determined that, where we can, we come to some accommodation with petitioners. Indeed, two weeks ago, I met the Country Land and Business Association and a number of its members who are affected to try to resolve some of the outstanding issues they had. It is important that we do whatever we can to resolve these matters ahead of what some may feel is the daunting prospect of appearing before the Committee.

T4. With airports in the south, especially London’s, bursting to capacity and the north-east desperate for some form of economic stimulus, does the Minister not agree that it is about time the Government looked again at reducing air passenger duty or even scrapping it altogether for airports such as Newcastle’s? (904783)

Once again, I am tempted to direct the hon. Gentleman to the Chancellor, but of course some simplification of APD was announced in the Budget, which makes it simpler for some long-haul flights. APD is never far from my thoughts when I meet people from airports up and down the country.

The consultation on the Great Western franchise, which has recently closed, covers a period that includes electrification and the first phase of the east-west rail project. What scope does the Minister see for introducing in the latter phase of that franchise additional services between Bristol and Oxford and beyond?

My hon. Friend is right in what he says. He will have seen that consultation and the fact that we have invited initiatives from operators and franchise bidders in that regard. The possibility of extra services is being opened up by this Government’s commitment to electrification; by 2019 we will have put in place more than 870 miles of electrification whereas Labour managed less than 8 miles.

Will the Minister with responsibility for shipping support the Mission to Seafarers, the Apostleship of the Sea and Seafarers UK and the excellent work those important charities do? Will he look at what support the Department gives and whether it can be increased for those very important charities?

The hon. Gentleman is right. I support those charities, and I am delighted to have attended a number of their events with him. I will look at that and see whether there is any more that the Department can do.

Aldi is ready to go ahead with the development of a new supermarket in Bingley that commands great public support. To go ahead, the development needs a land transfer from the Highways Agency via Bradford metropolitan district council. Will the Minister ensure that the Highways Agency pulls its finger out as soon as possible to make that happen so that that essential regeneration can take place in Bingley?

In my experience, the Highways Agency is very good at pulling its finger out when Ministers raise issues, so I will raise this issue with the Highways Agency myself.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—


1. What recent guidance he has given to his ministerial colleagues on making statements to the House before they are made to the media. (904788)

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

Does the Leader of the House think that it is acceptable that the media are reporting that the Government have paused the proposed sale of the Land Registry when the Business Secretary has not yet made a statement to the House?

I am not aware of the media reports to which the hon. Lady refers. I will, of course, look at them, but as far as I am concerned announcements are made to the House first. I cannot always preclude speculation in the press, which is sometimes well informed and sometimes very badly informed. I do not necessarily reach the same conclusion, but I will ensure that I let her know what the situation is.

That is all very well, but the Leader of the House has eight minutes and 14 seconds to tell the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister that they should not be making a speech to the media about their intention to legislate next week before a speech is made to this House.

The hon. Gentleman will know, and the House will have seen, that the Home Secretary will be making a statement. Indeed, I will be making a business statement, too. Sometimes it is necessary for the public to be told at what is, effectively, broadly the same time as Parliament itself.

Written Questions

2. What recent guidance he has given to his ministerial colleagues about providing timely answers to written questions. (904790)

Both I and the Leader of the House regularly remind ministerial colleagues of their obligation to give accurate, timely and truthful information to Parliament, as set out further in the ministerial code and included in the guidance issued by the Office of the Leader of the House of Commons.

Two weeks ago I raised with the Leader of the House a series of parliamentary questions on the important issue of passports to which I had not had answers. He helpfully wrote to the said Department, and I have had a nice letter back, but I have still not had answers to the parliamentary questions. The questions were tabled on 4 June, and they were on pertinent matters to do with passports. Can a timetable be set for when answers should be given to Members?

I was aware that the right hon. Gentleman had raised those questions with my right hon. Friend, the Home Secretary. As I am sure the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) is aware, the Home Office, like other large Departments, receives a very large number of complex questions, and it takes time to produce a thorough response. Home Office Ministers take their responsibilities seriously, and indeed I had occasion yesterday to remind them of those responsibilities.

3. What recent guidance he has given to his ministerial colleagues about providing substantive answers to written questions. (904791)

The Office of the Leader of the House of Commons provides guidance to all Departments on the practice of answering parliamentary questions. The guidance advises Departments that Members should receive a substantive response to named day questions on the date specified and that Departments should endeavour to answer ordinary written questions within a working week of their being tabled.

In a recent TheyWorkForYou survey, it was found that less than half of parliamentary questions receive a satisfactory response. Does the Deputy Leader of the House think that is acceptable?

I am aware of that report. The only thing I will say is that people’s judgment of whether a response is satisfactory is down to them.

What changes does the Deputy Leader of the House consider necessary to improve the quality of ministerial replies to written questions about the performance of agencies and non-departmental public bodies, because Ministers sometimes appear to be acting as no more than mailboxes?

If there are individual cases that the hon. Gentleman would like to raise with me, I am happy to pursue them with the appropriate Departments and bodies. Of course, he has the opportunity to refer any concerns to the Procedure Committee.

On 6 December 2010, the Home Secretary replied to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), stating:

“We are also taking steps to ensure that the database will, for the first time, hold the profiles of all serving prisoners and all those previously convicted of serious crimes”—[Official Report, 6 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 99W.]

A few weeks ago I asked

“how many DNA profiles of current prisoners have not been added to the DNA database”

but was told:

“The information requested is not held.”—[Official Report, 2 July 2014; Vol. 583, c. 645W.]

How on earth can Ministers say that something will definitely happen and then, at a later date, say that they have no mechanism for judging whether or not it is taking place?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Clearly it is a complex matter that he has serious concerns about. If he would like to write to me with the specifics, I am happy to follow it up with the Home Secretary.

The failure to implement universal credit and personal independence payments has left the Department for Work and Pensions in complete chaos, so is the Deputy Leader of the House surprised that two out of every three of its answers to written questions are judged by the public not to have answered the question? What does he intend to do to get DWP to improve that sorry state of affairs?

I do not recognise what the hon. Lady says about universal credit, which I think will be a success. As I understand it, it is something that she and her party support. With regard to concerns about whether questions are accurate and satisfactory, I suspect that many of the respondents will have got a perfectly factual response, but perhaps not the one they wanted to hear.

In May I asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer a named day question about Treasury research on the number of jobs in the UK that are dependent on Europe. What I received back from one of the Ministers was complete waffle, and it was late. A couple of weeks ago the Chief Secretary to the Treasury was able to confirm that 3.3 million jobs in the UK are dependent on Europe. What can the Deputy Leader of the House do to correct that quality of answer?

I thank my hon. Friend, who I think has corrected the quality of the answer by pointing out that 3.3 million jobs in the UK are dependent on our trade with Europe.

House of Commons Commission

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

Parliamentary ICT

4. What recent assessment he has made of the quality of service to hon. Members provided by Parliamentary ICT. (904792)

Parliamentary ICT services are scrutinised by the Administration Committee on a regular basis. The most recent report to the Committee was on 16 June and related to the migration of mailboxes to Microsoft 365 services. This summer, all parliamentary services were subject to a process of interviews with Members and their staff. A summary of the feedback has been published, and a summary of responses from PICT and House departments to the feedback will be considered by the Committee on 14 July.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that answer. I will not detain the House with the six-month tale of trying to get my BlackBerry mended, because it would take too long, but I know that I and many other Members are having considerable difficulties with IT services in the House at the moment. For example, Microsoft 365 seems to require people to have 20:20 vision, and the average age of a Member of this House is 55. It is proving extremely difficult. What can he do to ensure that the service is centred more on Members’ needs and less on strategy?

I was going to suggest that the hon. Lady seek an Adjournment debate on the subject, until I realised that she has, in fact, just staged one.

I have great sympathy for the hon. Lady. The problems I have had with my Android would detain the House for just as long. First, very considerable benefits will accrue from the transfer. Secondly, and most importantly, we have a new structure for the management of IT coming in, following the recommendations of a strategic review of our online services by mySociety. That will result in different organisational and management structures. I believe that many of the problems to which she has alluded, which are shared by many Members, will get us to the place we all want to be more quickly and efficiently.

May I suggest to my hon. Friend that hon. Members consider using Google, which is completely free, and Google Docs for saving documents, and then we do not need to spend thousands of pounds on things such as Microsoft 365?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestion. The particular difficulties of operating in many locations with different staff and different devices mean that the cloud gives us a significant opportunity to improve service. Incidentally, it also gives us the opportunity to save a considerable amount of money, which can be put into further improving the service—

I get quite a good service out of PICT. I had the fortunate experience of walking through PICT’s offices the other day. Why is it that so many men are employed in PICT? There are hardly any women at all. What is going on in recruitment here? Surely we believe that women can do this kind of task in a way that is equal to, if not better than, men.

I can only say to the hon. Gentleman that the House Service is committed to diversity in terms of gender and in many other ways. It is led by Mr Speaker and the management. As to PICT itself, I would have to look into the matter and write to him as I do not have the facts to hand.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

House Business Committee

5. For what reasons he has not brought forward proposals to implement the coalition agreement commitment to set up a House business committee. (904793)

The reasons for not bringing forward proposals for a House business committee were set out in full last December when the Government responded to the relevant inquiry of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee.

Allowing the House of Commons to timetable its own programme while allowing for sufficient time for the Government of the day to get their legislation through is a really good idea and was perhaps the best feature of the coalition agreement. Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that this key part of the coalition agreement has been dropped?

I am sure that my hon. Friend will be as aware as I am that, in trying to identify a consensus around which the House could coalesce in relation to the House business committee and the need for it to be able to take into account the successful establishment of the Backbench Business Committee and what is happening in the House of Lords, it was in fact impossible to come forward with a proposal that would satisfy all Members.

House of Commons Commission

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

Clerk of the House and Chief Executive

6. What assessment he has made of the procedures for the appointment of the next Clerk of the House and Chief Executive; and if he will make a statement. (904795)

The process for appointment of the next Clerk of the House and Chief Executive has included public advertisement and the use of an executive search agency to identify potential candidates, undertake initial interviews, review all applications and draw up a long list of suitable candidates. A short list for interview has been agreed by the selection panel. As the process is not yet concluded, I cannot yet provide the assessment that my right hon. Friend seeks.

I accept that the role of the Clerk of the House is of vital importance to all hon. Members. Given that the world has been trawled for a potential successor, even, for some odd reason, as far as Australia, will my hon. Friend tell me whether the taxpayer will be paying the cost of travel to the UK for interview of any candidates from abroad, and what budget has been set aside to fulfil that?

With regard to the first part of the right hon. Gentleman’s question, I can of course confirm that we all recognise the supreme importance of the role of the Clerk and the Chief Executive in our affairs, and I am sure that the panel will be working very diligently—I am serving on that panel—to ensure that the person with the right qualifications is chosen for the job. With regard to the second point, I do not know what the expenses may be for candidates and therefore may I write to my right hon. Friend on that question?

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Select Committee Reports

7. What recent guidance he has given to his ministerial colleagues about providing substantive responses to Select Committee reports. (904797)

Written guidance produced by the Cabinet Office, commonly referred to as the Osmotherly rules, specifies that Departments should aim to provide the considered Government response to both Commons and Lords Select Committee reports within two months of their publication.

The “revolving door” is the pernicious system whereby senior Ministers, military people and civil servants can prostitute their insider knowledge for private gain in their retirement years. The system for controlling this, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, was criticised by a Select Committee and reforms were suggested. That did not have an answer in two months; it has not had an answer in 22 months.

I am aware that the hon. Gentleman has an interest in the pre-appointment hearings issue, and I understand that the Minister for the Cabinet Office was questioned recently by the Public Administration Select Committee about the matter. I am pleased to report that the Cabinet Office has now submitted its response to the Committee.