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Topical Questions

Volume 591: debated on Thursday 22 January 2015

Last week I introduced an extensive package of compensation and assistance for property owners along the London to Birmingham High Speed 2 route. That will look after the people who live along the HS2 route while balancing this with our responsibility to the taxpayer. People will also be helped by HS2’s new residents charter and the appointment of a residents commissioner.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that Pacer units are not fit for purpose and that Halifax passengers deserve new rolling stock. Will he now put a definite date on when we will get those much-needed trains?

Thanks to the support I have had from the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, I hope that we can move to a position of replacing the Pacers. They have certainly outlived their useful purpose, and I know that many people want them replaced, as do I, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister. It is a pity we have had to wait so long and that 13 years were wasted.

T2. Tomorrow I will visit Abbott and Co. of Newark, a fourth-generation local business that has been manufacturing boilers and fittings for British vessels flying the red ensign since HMS Warrior in the 1860s. What more are the Government doing to support the maritime sector given its importance to the economy? (907165)

I have been maritime Minister for a relatively short time in which we have developed a maritime skills strategy and a maritime growth plan. There are those, tinged by the melancholy of what is past, who do not believe that our future can be as bright. I believe, imbued with the spirit of Nelson, that our island nation’s seafaring future can be just as glorious as its past.

Last week the “Buses in crisis” report from the Campaign for Better Transport revealed that since 2010 more than 2,000 bus routes have been cut and bus fares have risen by 25% on average—five times faster than the rise in average wages—while bus companies continue to make big profits and big bonuses for people at the top. Why will not the Government back Labour’s proposals to legislate to give London-style powers to city and county regions in England, which would give passengers the power to control fares, set routes and integrate services? If it is okay for Boris, then why not the same powers for Bristol, Birmingham, Bedford, Brighton, Burnley, Bradford, Burton, Blackpool and Barnsley?

I do not know quite where the hon. Gentleman gets his facts from. Between 1997 and 2010, the annual average increase in English bus fares, in real terms, was 2.25%, whereas between 2010 and 2013 the increase was 1.5%, so there was a lower increase under this Government than during the whole period of the previous Government. The simple fact is that buses play a very important role in offering transport opportunities both to younger people and older people. That is why we have kept, and will keep, concessionary bus fares for older people.

T3. Are Ministers aware that, every time residents complain to me about cyclists recklessly and dangerously riding their bikes on pavements, the police refer me to section 72 of the Highways Act 1835? Do they agree that that legislation is somewhat outdated, because in terms of its effectiveness it is absolutely useless? (907166)

The Highways Act 1835 was drafted in the era of the penny-farthing, but it still applies in the era of carbon fibre and lycra. If a police officer observes reckless riding on the pavement, he has three options: he can warn the person, issue a fixed-penalty fine or report them for prosecution. The legislation is still enforced and it is up to the police and police and crime commissioners to make sure it is used properly.

T6. The Secretary of State backs greater transport powers for Greater Manchester, yet for the past four years his Department has refused to support a similar quality contract scheme for buses across Tyne and Wear. If it is good enough for Greater Manchester, why is it not good enough for us in Tyne and Wear? (907169)

We have done a deal with Greater Manchester that involves it having a mayor, which is an imaginative way forward. I look forward to seeing how the scheme will work.

T4. I will meet the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) shortly, but will he heed the representations of Councillor David Salter and ask the Highways Agency to review the new design of the A5 Wall Island, which is still causing accidents, tailbacks and huge chaos for my constituents in Shenstone, Wall and Muckley Corner? (907167)

My hon. Friend has presented me with a diagrammatic representation: his original version was a cross between an egg timer and a peanut, but he has now given me a more detailed one. I am aware of the situation. As he will know, the Highways Agency spent £1.5 million on the scheme. Nevertheless, I know there remain problems and I am happy for him to meet with me and the Highways Agency to see if the problems can be solved.

The Prime Minister has said that the Pacer trains are going, but the Treasury has said it will only encourage bidders, so will the Secretary of State give a guarantee that all Pacers will be replaced and a date for when that will happen?

I am pleased that we are making progress that was not made between 1997 and 2010. We are making huge investments in trains and I am very pleased about that. The invitations to tender will be issued shortly and I hope to be able to say more about it then.

T5. The Department for Transport is consulting on removing the MOT exemption for HGVs based on Bute, Islay, Mull and Tiree, but the exemption is there for a very good reason: there are simply not enough HGVs on those islands to justify the cost of an authorised testing facility and the cost of taking an HGV to the mainland is very high. Will Ministers please stop this burden on island businesses? (907168)

The hon. Gentleman knows that the consultation is being looked at on a Great Britain-wide basis and specific exemptions are indeed made for local service and delivery issues. I encourage him to continue eloquently to make the case for the existing exemption in his neck of the woods.

The rail Minister will know that, due to the rebuild of London Bridge station, overcrowding on Southeastern services into Cannon Street has reached dangerous levels. What was previously a poor service is now utterly abysmal. What immediate action will she take to ensure that every rush hour train into Cannon Street is formed of 12 cars, and can she guarantee that the old Thameslink rolling stock, which will become available towards the end of the year, will be used to increase capacity on those services?

The hon. Lady knows that there are potentially many solutions to solving the many problems caused by the unprecedented rebuild of one of London’s oldest stations. I am glad that, directly after these questions, she will join me at the performance summit, which is being held on a cross-party basis, with the operator, Network Rail and the regulators, where we will be able to hear answers from those specifically in charge of running the railways.

T8. The problems in the channel tunnel have led to the use of Operation Stack on the M20, which, as ever, is causing huge disruption to traffic in my constituency and across Kent. What progress is being made in finding an off-road solution to parking trucks when they cannot get across the channel?


Following the disruption this week, we obviously need to look at and investigate that matter further. I am more than happy to meet my right hon. Friend and the relevant authorities to discuss what solutions there may be should it happen again in the future.

Local councils and parties up and down the east coast from Aberdeen and Edinburgh to London have come together in the Consortium of East Coast Main Line Authorities with a plan for comprehensive improvements to infrastructure and trains on the east coast main line. Will the Secretary of State look at those proposals? Does he accept that improvements to the east coast main line are an essential complement to High Speed 2, not an alternative?

I am certainly happy to look at the proposals. We are making huge progress with the IEP trains—we are making a dramatic increase in investment on that line—but I am always willing to look at reasonable proposals to improve services for our constituents.

T9. Since 2005, the number of passengers visiting Wolverhampton station has more than doubled. Recent passenger survey returns show that the service is poor, particularly at peak times. Will the Secretary of State meet me and investors in the station to talk about the specific issues of extended leases and facility charging so that Wolverhampton station can get its new station and we can complete the interchange project? (907172)

When I went back to Wolverhampton station in my early days as Secretary of State, I said that it had not changed much since I used it as a small young person. I said that it was not very good then, and had not improved very much since. I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that problem. I would however say that there are some major station improvements in the west midlands, not least at Birmingham New Street. It is about time that such improvements moved up to Wolverhampton.

I wrote to the Secretary of State before Christmas about the Trafford Park Metrolink extension and ITV’s concerns that noise from trams on the route in front of the set of “Coronation Street” may cause difficulties with filming. While ITV and Transport for Greater Manchester argue, I am sure that he agrees with me that anything that might delay progress in getting the extension built would be very regrettable. What can he do to help to unblock the situation?

I am not aware of the hon. Lady’s letter. I will certainly seek it out and see whether I can address the problems. From memory, the tram runs at the bottom of the set of “Coronation Street”; at least, that is what we are shown.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on progress with connectivity to Leeds Bradford airport? The prospect of a link road is of great concern to many of my constituents. Surely an effective contribution to the northern economic powerhouse would be for one of the largest airports in the north to be connected to the rail network.

Equipped with the information I need, I have that very study here. My hon. Friend is right that it says that a road link is important, but it does not of course rule out a rail link in the way he describes and of which I know he has been a great advocate. In that context, I will take another look at the matter, which of course has to be taken forward locally. He has been a great champion. How proud the people of Pudsey must be to be represented by my hon. Friend.

Last Thursday in Committee, the charming Minister pushed through amendments to the Infrastructure Bill to change the electronic communications code. Last night, he sneaked upstairs to the Public Bill Office to table amendments to delete the very same changes that he made last week. Are these the shortest lived amendments in the history of this House? To be blunt—[Interruption.] I am here all week. To be blunt, is it not time to say that the Government’s whole deal with the mobile phone companies has fallen apart?

My advice to the hon. Gentleman is that it is always better to be sharp than to be blunt, but that option is not available to him most of the time. The truth is that we have listened, because we want to move forward in a spirit of consensus. We know that it is vital to reform the code, and we want to do it properly. The Opposition made the case that we should withdraw it, think again and work with all concerned to make it work, but now when we do so, they criticise us. They cannot have it both ways.

Will my right hon. Friend work with Staffordshire county council to tackle the long-term congestion problems in and around Stafford that are caused by, among many reasons, diversions from the M6 when it is blocked?

As a former member of Staffordshire county council, I am certainly content to work with that excellent county council to see whether we can address some of the problems to which my hon. Friend has referred.