Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 596: debated on Thursday 11 June 2015

It is good to be back. Five weeks ago today, the British people gave us a clear mandate to finish the job of fixing our economy, paying off our debts, modernising our infrastructure and securing a better future. I am glad to say that no time has been wasted since the election. We have already seen the completion of the tunnelling for Crossrail and announced the train companies shortlisted to transform rail services in East Anglia. We have also confirmed that high-speed rail and the northern powerhouse are priorities, which will help to end the decades-old economic gap between north and south. This Government will continue with that job and that challenge.

The Secretary of State seems keen to talk about increased majorities. Many of the 21,829 people who recently voted for me in Chesterfield are concerned about the state of our roads. They are saying clearly that the state of Britain’s roads is dangerous and damaging to people’s cars, not only in Derbyshire but across the country, and should be a major priority. When will the Government take seriously the issue of potholes, and when will we see a serious plan to get them sorted?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will address the question he has just put to me to Derbyshire County Council, because I have substantially increased the funding available to that council to fix potholes. They have got the money; let them get on with the job.

T5. I welcome the Secretary of State back to his place. In Lowestoft, we are now getting on with the preparatory work for a third crossing at Lake Lothing. A lot needs to be done in a short time, and I would be grateful if he could confirm that he will continue to work with me and the local community to get the crossing built as quickly as possible. (900239)

I have visited the site of the crossing, which my hon. Friend is keen to see completed, on no fewer than two occasions. He is to be congratulated on the scheme, to which the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I have paid considerable attention. I have asked my officials to support Suffolk County Council and the local enterprise partnership in taking forward the scheme, and I understand that a meeting took place in Lowestoft last Friday to maintain the momentum. I am sure that my hon. Friend will keep up the pressure on us.

This was the week in which Ministers boasted that they were going to cut red tape by replacing the counterpart driving licence with an online system. That is a good objective. The trouble is that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency’s computer system has already crashed under the strain. Motorists who want to hire a car abroad now have to contact the DVLA online and obtain a code in order to access the same information that they would previously have had in their pocket, and if they do not hire the car within three days, they will have to go back to square one because the code will have expired. Mr Speaker, you could not make it up! Cutting red tape? It’s a mess, isn’t it?

The simple fact is that people do not have to do that online; they can phone. There was a problem on the first morning of the new system, but since then it has been operating successfully.

T8. I thank the Secretary of State for his tremendous support in helping us to secure a direct train service from London to Shrewsbury. Initial results from Virgin show that the passenger numbers are very encouraging. Our next priority is to secure the electrification of the line from Wolverhampton to Shrewsbury. Will he meet a delegation from Shropshire, to enable him to understand the urgency of this matter? (900242)

All my colleagues are urging me to agree to extra investment and extra spending, and I am keen to do that where a good case can be made for it. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for rail will be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter.

T2. Can the Secretary of State clear up the confusion caused by the Chancellor’s recent comments about a separate rail franchise for Devon and Cornwall? He will be aware that those bits of the First Great Western franchise are the least profitable. Is there not a danger that they would be unviable on their own, and that we would suffer service cuts? (900236)

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor said what I would say as well—that we are always looking at ways to improve the franchising system and the service for passengers. I very much hope that new rolling stock will be announced for that particular line in the not too distant future.

What level of assurance can my right hon. Friend give to my constituents who most frequently use the Great Eastern and West Anglia lines that the outcome of the Greater Anglia franchising process will lead to new rolling stock?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) and for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), on leaving us in no doubt of the importance of upgraded, improved rolling stock on that franchise. We are looking at all rolling stock options as part of the process and high quality points will be awarded for proposals to upgrade the franchise. The invitation to tender will be provided to bidders in August of this year.

T3. Now that HS2 Ltd has declared that it sees no business case for extending the high-speed line to Scotland, will the Secretary of State confirm that it is now an England-only railway and that full Barnett consequentials for the devolved countries will be announced in the next comprehensive spending review? (900237)

I do not accept that at all. Indeed, I have said that I want to see services going to Scotland, and one of the points in the report by Sir David Higgins about faster services was that those will go on to north Wales as well.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for confirming a further announcement on phase 2 of High Speed 2, but a number of my constituents are affected by blight in relation to HS2 Ltd. Will he encourage representatives of the company to meet with my constituents to discuss the severe impact on their businesses and homes?

I understand the point made by my hon. Friend. With big infrastructure schemes such as HS2, announcing the route always brings problems for people living along it. I am more than happy to meet her and see if more can be done by HS2 Ltd.

T4. This week we have heard further reports of delays to the decisions about another runway in London. Will the Secretary of State comment on when he thinks that the Government will finally make a decision about whether to have a third runway at Heathrow? (900238)

The hon. Lady may read reports, but I suggest that she should not believe everything that she reads. We have not yet had the report. When we have had the report, I will make a statement to the House and set out the proposals and our intended way forward.

One measure that would help enormously with aviation capacity issues in the south-east, in particular given the worries of my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), is the reopening of Manston airport. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his visit to that location only a couple of months ago. The PricewaterhouseCoopers report is now with his Department, so will he agree to meet me as soon as possible to discuss its implications?

I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend and his neighbour to discuss the PwC report, although I have yet to see it.

T7. The Secretary of State may be aware that a tender process is under way for the Northern rail franchise. Salford and Eccles is a densely populated urban area that requires good transport links to the rest of Greater Manchester and beyond but, like many northern cities, it enjoys a less than favourable rail service. Favourable rail services are essential for the economic growth and regeneration of areas such as Salford and Eccles. What action will the Secretary of State take to ensure that the Northern rail franchise tender process provides for an increased level of rail provision, including more frequent services and better connectivity to our cities across the north? (900241)

I fully accept how important rail services are to the hon. Lady’s constituents and those in neighbouring constituencies, and that is why we are investing hugely in the northern hub. As she knows, investment that is finishing off at Victoria station at the moment is incredibly impressive. Furthermore, I am sure that she will join me in thanking the Government for announcing that we will get rid of the Pacers. They were there throughout the previous Labour Government, but we have announced that they will go after 40 years.

Order. Maximising the number of contributors demands brevity, which in any case is expected of topical questions. In looking for the textbook example of the genre, my gaze focuses on someone with 27 years’ service, who can provide the tutorial— Sir Gerald Howarth.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State knows, I am a practising aviator. Indeed, I believe I am the only Member of this House who performs aerobatics, and so I believe we can never have too many runways. In that spirit, may I ask him to assure the House that he has not ruled out additional runway capacity at both London Gatwick and London Heathrow?

Given your recent ruling, Mr Speaker, I shall say that I am awaiting delivery of the Howard Davies report. When I have it, I will make a further statement to the House.

T9. Last week, I attended the handover ceremony at Enfield Town station whereby some suburban rail lines were transferred to London Overground. Its promise of a better service and cheaper fares is good news for commuters. But how does the Minister intend to ensure that all passengers, across Enfield and beyond, will get a fair deal, given that some are having to pay National Rail pay-as-you-go fares simply because their services are operated by Govia Thameslink Railway or Abellio Greater Anglia, and not London Overground? Will she put pressure on those companies to match London Overground? (900243)

The Government welcome the devolution of these inner services to the Mayor and Transport for London, which, again, demonstrates our support for devolution when appropriate. However, many people using those lines will be coming from further afield, and the national franchising system provides the best way to secure rail services. We are freezing rail fares for the next five years and working extremely hard to deliver a massive infrastructure improvement that will benefit the right hon. Lady’s constituents, as well as those across the UK.

A collapsed wall is blocking one lane of an already congested road through the centre of Shipley. That wall is owned by Network Rail. My constituents have been waiting for months for it to be repaired by Network Rail, but it keeps delaying and we now face a further three-month delay before the wall is fixed. Will the Minister get Network Rail to pull its finger out and get that wall repaired straightaway?

May I say to the Secretary of State, given my knowledge of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), that he is very wise?

The Secretary of State is aware that the funding for the coastguard tug currently stationed in Orkney is guaranteed only until the end of this financial year. Will he convene a round-table meeting, perhaps involving Scottish Ministers, local authorities and industry representatives, to see how we might find a way of keeping this most vital provision in place in the future?

I am aware of the vessel, partly because I visited it with the right hon. Gentleman in the last Parliament, and I am more than happy to meet him to discuss this matter.

Can the Minister confirm that money allocated to the regional air connectivity fund has been safeguarded and that it will continue to support public obligation services such as that currently enjoyed by Newquay airport in my constituency?

I have used that service on a few occasions in the past year, and it has been very much welcomed. That funding is there for the duration of that contract and then we will look further at things once it comes to an end.

The Woodland Trust has identified 43 ancient woodlands that are threatened by HS2. Will the Secretary of State advise the House of the measures he will take in the ambitious infrastructure roll-out programme he talked about earlier to protect further bodies of ancient woodland?

It is important that we do our best to protect woodlands wherever we can. I would also point out to the hon. Gentleman that 2 million more trees are to be planted on the proposed route.

I am sorry to disappoint colleagues; the demand is greater than ever, which is a very healthy phenomenon, but I am afraid that supply is finite.