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Topical Questions

Volume 608: debated on Thursday 28 April 2016

We have continued to deliver on issues that affect the motorist, following the findings last year that defeat devices were fitted to Volkswagen vehicles. I instructed the Vehicle Certification Agency to test 37 different vehicle types in the UK over a period of six months to ensure that similar devices were not present on other models. The tests confirmed that they were not, but they did confirm that existing lab tests designed to ensure that emission limits were being met were inadequate. That is why we have been at the forefront of securing tough new Europe-wide real-driving emissions tests. We have also announced further funding to help with the problem of potholes across the country.

I recently completed a blindfolded walk with that excellent charity Guide Dogs to try to understand the challenges faced by visually impaired people, and I am greatly supportive of its campaign to improve access for guide dog owners and their dogs. It is not right that they should be often refused access to businesses and services because their dog is with them. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that taxi and private hire vehicle drivers receive adequate disability awareness training, given that a large number of guide dog owners are still being turned away from those vital transport services?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her question, and I entirely agree with the point she makes. Taxis and private hire vehicles are essential for many disabled people, and drivers are required to make reasonable adjustments for disabled passengers. It is also a criminal offence to refuse carriage to an assistance dog. Failure to comply with that requirement can result in prosecution and a fine on conviction of up to £1,000. A driver was recently fined £1,546 for refusing access to a guide dog; that figure included legal costs as well as the fine. That message needs to go out right across the industry, and we will draw it to the attention of the licensing authorities.

On Monday, the Minister of State said that Volkswagen had not yet fixed any cars in this country. NOx emissions pose a serious health risk to drivers, and indeed to everyone. As he acknowledged, we now know that all manufacturers produce diesel models that pollute above approved limits. How will he address the problem of higher NOx emissions across all models, and will he take urgent action to ensure that when it comes to Volkswagen, the UK is not left at the back of the queue?

We certainly will, and the Minister of State and I have been dealing with the matter. Before I get to the hon. Lady’s attacking us for not doing enough, she needs to remember who started the dash for diesel. Gordon Brown reduced the duty on low sulphur by 3p in his 2001 Budget—just before a general election—which increased diesel car registrations in Great Britain from 3.45 million, or 13% of the UK fleet, to 8.2 million, or 28% of the fleet.

That decision was of course based on the science at the time. As the Secretary of State knows, American VW owners may be entitled to up to $5,000 in compensation, while the owners of the 1.2 million VW vehicles in this country are not receiving a penny. Last week, the No. 10 press machine assured us that the Secretary of State had pressed VW specifically on the discrepancy in compensation. However, the Minister of State said on Monday that compensation was a matter for the courts, not Ministers. This is a matter of basic fairness, so when will the Secretary of State step up a gear and fight for a decent compensation deal for UK VW drivers?

I have made it clear in the meetings that I have had, as has my hon. Friend the Minister of State in his conversations, with not only Volkswagen but other motor manufacturers, that we take this subject seriously. We want to see action. When the hon. Lady responded to my point about the huge increase in diesel cars in this country, I am glad that she said that the decision was based on the evidence at the time; that shows that the proper research was not done.

T2. The Minister will be aware that the House of Lords recently completed a review of the impact of the Equality Act 2010 on disabled people. A large part of the review focused on the accessibility of taxis and private hire vehicles. Will the Minister update the House on what action the Department will take as a consequence of the review? (904729)

I can indeed update the House. The Government are committed to ensuring that disabled people have the same access to transport services and opportunities to travel as everybody else in society. We plan to commence sections 165 and 167 of the Equality Act by the end of this year. I was pleased to see that raised in the Lord review, as I have been working on it for some time. Drivers will be required to provide assistance to wheelchair users, and to refrain from charging extra.

T7. Will the Minister take the trouble to come to the north- east and take the train from Nunthorpe, Middlesbrough, to Newcastle? Using an ancient Pacer train, it takes almost 90 minutes. The journey might be quicker by bicycle. If we had had a new train every time it was announced that the old ones would be replaced, we would have a whole fleet of them. If the Minister came and got a wiggle on, that might speeds things up a bit. (904736)

I think I need a bit of mentoring in the dialect being used this morning. I accept that the last Labour Government did nothing to improve the system in their 13 years. I am glad to say that new trains will be operating on that line by 2020 as a result of a decision that I took, which was to override the advice, and to instruct the permanent secretary that the Pacers would be phased out, and that we would have new trains on the line. I am very proud of that decision.

T3. Every time I come across Network Rail, it seems to have a great deal of power, but to be utterly unaccountable to central Government. As we are seeing in Lincolnshire, that power can be used to frustrate growth infrastructure schemes that have the support of local authorities. What can the Minister do to ensure that Network Rail does not act to stop schemes that are in the best interests of local people and supported by local authorities? (904730)

The best schemes are those that are strongly supported by local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and local businesses. Network Rail is in a new phase in which route responsibility will be devolved, and it will work to a set of investment plans that are agreed, based on important bottom-up analysis.

Over the past 10 years, destinations and routes from Scotland have doubled, but flights to London have fallen by more than a third. Not only do we need starter routes, such as the Inverness to Heathrow route that we will have next week, but we need to up the frequency of these routes and guarantee them, as that would allow them to bed in and become fully established. Will the Minister establish a point-to-point public service obligation, including specific regional hub airports, and do all he can to create PSOs for airports such as Skye in my constituency?

We absolutely understand the importance of PSOs and of aviation, particularly for island communities. I am pleased that we have seen such a successful uptake of many of these routes, a number of which have been started without needing subsidies because of the buoyancy of the economy and the aviation sector.

T4. The slogan of CrossCountry trains is “Going that bit further”; my constituents would be delighted if it did exactly that and instructed more than three out of 63 trains a day on the inter-city service between Birmingham and Bristol to stop at the city of Gloucester. Will the Minister with responsibility for rail confirm whether the Department will require CrossCountry to restore decent commuter services from Gloucester on that line as part of its franchise extension? (904731)

Nobody could be more assiduous in calling for those service requirements than my hon. Friend, but we must not have services to cities such as Cheltenham lost as a result of a change that he is requiring. I can confirm that discussions are ongoing. We have asked CrossCountry to report on the best way to deliver the services that he is talking about, and I am looking forward to discussing that with him shortly.

Despite the Secretary of State’s pride in the Pacer announcements, there remains huge under-investment in transport in the north, compared with London in particular; the ratio is 24:1. Ministers are now saying that they are going to cut the subsidy to the Northern franchise by up to 85%. Does he really think it adds to the credibility of the northern powerhouse if it takes half a day to cross it, in trains that are better suited to a railway museum than a railway system?

I would sometimes like to offer Opposition politicians another briefing about what these new franchises are going to deliver. It sounds a bit like “The Generation Game”, but thanks to my Government, the hon. Lady’s constituents will be rid of those outdated trains, and will get many more services of a much better quality; that will be delivered at less cost to the taxpayer. Only a Labour politician could argue for worse services and more subsidy.

T5. We have been very positive about the new Northern rail franchise. However, there are throngs of people who want to get from Leeds to Goole but cannot do that at the moment; there may even be some who wish to get from Goole to Leeds. The situation is the same on the Brigg to Sheffield line. Both lines are very under-utilised, so what opportunities are there under the new franchising agreements to get those improved services? Will the Minister come and ride the train with us? (904732)

I think the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) wanted the Minister with responsibility for rail, but he is lumbered with the Secretary of State.

What my hon. Friend wants and what he gets are two entirely different things, Mr Speaker. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for talking about the need to improve capacity on the networks, and I am very interested to hear of all the people who wish to travel between Goole and Leeds. The new rail franchise for the north will provide a tremendous increase in capacity and a lot of new routes, and we will see whether his argument stands up.

With the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim Fathers, can we get a helping hand to do up Retford railway station, including the car parking, so that people can see the best of British when they visit my area?

The hon. Gentleman is far more familiar with Retford station than I am, but this is certainly something that would be considered by the local growth fund. I suggest that he goes through the necessary procedures to encourage his local enterprise partnership to apply for that funding.

T6. The Roadmaster velocity patcher can fill 300 potholes in a day, and Lincolnshire has got one—but we would like more. What help can the Minister offer my county council in getting more? Will he consider incentivising councils to work together so that we can increase the nationwide fleet of these fantastic machines? (904735)

I am aware of the Roadmaster velocity patcher, and the Government certainly support the use of innovative and efficient methods to maintain our local highways. We have provided a budget of more than £6 billion for highways maintenance, plus there is the pothole action fund. We have introduced incentive elements to the highways maintenance fund, which includes an element of collaboration. I should like to see local authorities working with their neighbours right across the country in exactly the way that my hon. Friend describes.

What are the Government doing to stem the flow of job losses among British qualified seafarers? In particular, will the Minister with responsibility for shipping have a look at how some of our regulation operates here? My constituents tell me that the operation of the certificates of equivalent competency, for example, are putting them at a disadvantage compared with seafarers from other parts of the world.

We certainly have the best-qualified seamen in the world, due in no small part to the tonnage tax scheme and the SMarT—support for maritime training—funding of £15 million a year. It is of concern if less-qualified people are taking jobs. I know that there are particular problems in the North sea with regard to jobs being cut. I would be pleased to meet the right hon. Gentleman to talk about the matter in more detail.

Will my hon. Friend reassure me that the Department is training apprentices and investing in apprentice-training programmes, so that the country can continue to have the skills and expertise to keep on with our world-leading transport infrastructure programme and improvements?

I can indeed give my hon. Friend that assurance. The transport infrastructure skills strategy sets targets for delivering apprenticeships throughout the supply chain, and will deliver them via procurement contracts. One apprenticeship will be created for every £3 million to £5 million of contract value, or for 2.5% of the workforce per year, depending on the contract type. Apprenticeships are right at the heart of our skills agenda.

I freely admit that I want the Secretary of State, and I hope that I get him. He has visited Bullsmoor Lane in my constituency, and he knows that it is being used as a slip road off the M25. It is a residential area with a very serious accident record. There is a lot of freight coming into north London and using the road as a route to central London. May I ask him in good faith to meet me and two of the leading resident representatives to discuss this very, very serious issue, and to find a satisfactory way forward?

Well, sometimes we get what we want, Mr Speaker. I am more than happy to meet the right hon. Lady on this. There does seem to be some confusion over whether it is a matter for Transport for London or for Highways England. That is no answer to the people who are suffering from the problems. It is a very difficult area to deal with, because of all the residential implications, but we will have that meeting.

I do not really care who answers my question. From the Minister’s description earlier, the local major transport projects fund could have been tailor-made for the Carrington bridge and the Worcester southern link project, which the finest minds at the Worcestershire LEP are preparing a bid for. May I say to the Secretary of State and his team that there should be no wiggle room for the Government in approving this project?

I visited—probably almost a year ago to the day—the bridge to which my hon. Friend referred. I cannot quite remember what was going on at the time. I viewed it from a site that was opened by his father some 30 years previously. The point that he makes about it being a suitable scheme for the local majors fund is certainly one that should be considered, and I urge the LEP and the local authority to ensure that they put in an application for it to be considered.

Will the Secretary of State work with the new Labour—obviously—Mayor of London to ensure the effective development of the HS2 Crossrail interchange at Old Oak? In particular, will he revisit the deal he made with the current Mayor of London in 2014, which means that no development—commercial or housing—can take place on the site unless there is a very extensive movement of the lines almost immediately after they open at great public expense?

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I take no election for granted and I will meet whoever is the Mayor of London, but I very much hope it is my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), who will be able to work much better with the Government than the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan). With reference to development around Old Oak Common, that site will be a major transport hub in the United Kingdom, so it is very important to get the infrastructure right.

The Department has responsibility for delivering a number of local and national transport infrastructure projects, so will the Secretary of State undertake to write into every funding agreement that at every opportunity we will procure British steel for the construction of those projects?

I am happy to say that we have made a number of changes to our procurement process to reflect exactly the point that my hon. Friend makes. Wherever we can, we should support our own industry. That must be on a competitive basis, but there is a special case for British steel and about 98% of the steel that Network Rail purchases is British.