Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 584: debated on Thursday 10 July 2014

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.