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Topical Questions

Volume 612: debated on Thursday 30 June 2016

Right—I was prepared for this, Mr Speaker.

I am proud of the fact that capital expenditure on infrastructure will increase by 50% in this Parliament. We have set up the first ever roads investment strategy, on which I answered questions earlier this morning, but throughout my time at the Department for Transport I have attached great importance to safety, so I am pleased that the latest statistics for road casualties in Great Britain, published at 9.30 this morning, show a decrease of 2% in road fatalities, a decrease of 3% in serious injuries, and a decrease of 4% in slight injuries. The number of deaths is too high, but the reduction is very welcome indeed.

Please can the Secretary of State confirm four dates for me? When will Huddersfield get its direct London service? When will the Pacers go? When will HS2 link to Yorkshire? And when will the electrification of the trans-Pennine route begin?

Off the top of my head, I think the answers are May 2019; December 2019; 2033; and I am happy to say that preliminary work has started, although final decisions on the scope will have to wait until 2018. I wish I had all the figures in my head, as you often do, Mr Speaker.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) said, Southern rail passengers are suffering the worst delays in the country and its staff are locked into an increasingly bitter industrial dispute. All those who work or rely on this failing service deserve much better. Does the Minister not think that by ruling out the cancellation of the franchise and by winding down the operator of last resort, Directly Operated Railways, the Department has no plan B and has effectively forfeited the chance to place any meaningful pressure on the company to improve performance?

The hon. Gentleman only needs to look at the share price performance of the owning group to see that considerable pressure is being put on the company by the markets, by customers and by my Department. In my view, changing the franchise would do nothing. Everybody has to work together. There is a highly experienced management team already in place. We have an investment programme that is coming to an end. The first major part of London Bridge will open this summer. I urge everyone involved, including the union bosses who are taking out their members on completely unjustified action, to sort this out for the benefit of the hard-pressed commuters, who just want to get to work and get home to their families.

T3. Many of my constituents who live on the eastern side of Enfield are fed up to the back teeth with infrequent and unreliable train services. Does the Secretary of State agree that the early delivery of four-tracking of the west Anglia main line rail route from Coppermill junction to Broxbourne junction offers a unique opportunity to improve services, boost housing growth potential and benefit the local economy? (905561)

I met the right hon. Lady to discuss other issues in her constituency following her request at the last Transport questions, and she mentioned four-tracking. That is being considered under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), who is examining services to that part of London and beyond. I look forward to receiving that report and, hopefully, making progress.

T4. What assessment has been made of the importance of transport improvement and infrastructure projects to the success of the northern powerhouse? Will my hon. Friend provide an update on progress? (905562)

Transport is vital for creating the northern powerhouse, connecting northern regions and supporting jobs, which helps to rebalance the UK economy. Work towards delivering an improved, integrated transport system is well under way. In 2014, we created Transport for the North and we have committed to spending a record £13 billion on transport in the north.

T6. Since it was reopened by the Scottish Government last year, the Borders railway has been a remarkable success. In the first six months of its operation, passenger forecasts were exceeded by 22% and the Scottish Government have committed to a feasibility study on restoring the line to its historic route to extend it to Hawick and Carlisle. What dialogue has the Secretary of State had with the new Scottish Transport Minister on the matter and does he support the principle of a new cross-border rail connection? (905564)

I have not yet had the chance to meet the new Scottish Transport Minister to discuss this particular issue but there will be opportunities. I look forward to our first meeting on these subjects and I am more than happy to consider any of the points that he makes. The hon. Gentleman rightly makes the point about what happens when new services are provided. Particularly on the railways we often see a greater take-up than planned.

T5. My constituents in Motspur Park, Raynes Park and Wimbledon welcome the concept of Crossrail 2, but are worried about consultation. Could my right hon. Friend assure my constituents that the Government will ensure that Crossrail 2 has the money to undertake an extensive consultation and a quality masterplan for the centre of Wimbledon? (905563)

I am well aware of the concerns of my hon. Friend’s constituents about the current plans. Both Transport for London and Network Rail are investigating the feasibility of a number of alternative options, which potentially include tunnelling and reconfiguration of stations in the area. Of course we will continue to consult on this. As he knows from his involvement in many major transport systems, there is a lot of consultation before we start digging the tunnel for Crossrail 2.

T8. Behind closed doors in February, Ministers agreed to allow GTR to cancel even more services without fear of breaching its contract, increasing the number from 23,000 cancellations to 32,000 cancellations. MPs were told about that on the last day before recess in May. How on earth can we have confidence in GTR services when there is such a delay before MPs are told and when it appears that Ministers are in cahoots, setting up risk-free contracts undermining the interests of our passengers? (905566)

I would have hoped that the hon. Lady would have worked with us, with all the investment that we are putting into the railway serving her area. All she has ever done is complain and back up the unions’ unjustified position on the new investment. There has been billions of pounds on new rolling stock and massive investment in London Bridge station. However, all she does is continually complain and take donations from the RMT.

What is the Department doing to ensure that the pothole action money is being efficiently spent and to ensure best practice?

The pothole action fund has a budget of £250 million across this Parliament. The first allocation has already been made this year. It has been allocated to councils according to the number of highways for which they are responsible. We are looking at how we can make the fund as efficient as possible but the key thing is that we are backing local authorities to improve the quality of their local road network.

T9. I have previously highlighted the predicted 45,000 shortage of HGV drivers in the UK. That is only going to get worse after Brexit because many agencies already rely on EU citizens to supply HGV drivers. When will the Government commit to looking at the cost benefits of providing grants for companies to put people who are unemployed through HGV training? (905567)

I have had discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on these matters, as far as training is concerned, and we are looking across at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, too, to assess what can be done to move this issue forward. There are good opportunities for young people to become drivers, and I would encourage them to look at those opportunities.

Has my right hon. Friend’s Department made any assessment of the potential for aircraft types such as the Boeing 787 and the A350, which can fly greater distances point to point, to provide opportunities for Manchester and Birmingham aircrafts, demonstrating that there are more ways of doing business in this country than landing in London?

It is certainly the case that many airlines are investing in the A350, which is exclusively engined with Rolls-Royce engines, and the point-to-point option opens up many new opportunities for regional airports to provide direct services for their people.

I very much welcome the statistics showing that road improvement and road safety are getting better, but those statistics mask what is really happening with all-lane running. The Transport Select Committee has produced a report, published today, which shows the disingenuity going on in the statistics. What we are looking for is the Minister’s acceptance that all-lane running is dangerous and that we need to do something about it.

I am aware that the Transport Select Committee has published a report this morning, but I have not yet had a chance to read it fully. The point about our smart motorways is that they are designed to add capacity to our network without compromising safety. The evidence from the first all-lane running schemes on the M25 show that the busiest journey times have almost halved, the number of collisions has reduced by almost a fifth and casualty rates are down by 21%. Obviously, safety is a priority. I will read the report with much interest.

Does the Minister agree that improvements on our railways will be made only if the unions move into the current century, embrace new technology and stop playing politics with passengers?

Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to scotch reports of Treasury meddling in HS2 post-referendum, confirm that it will be built north of Birmingham and that proper services will run through Crewe to benefit all of Cheshire?

I never comment on rumours, because I have started quite a few of them during my time in this House. I am committed to HS2, which I believe to be very important for this country. We are already seeing the benefits for Birmingham of the investment that is going around.

Lowestoft railway station, which has the great advantage of being in the centre of the town, has fallen into considerable disrepair in recent years. Lowestoft station partners have some exciting initiatives for bringing it back into full use. Will the Minister meet me and them to explore how best to achieve that?

That would be a pleasure. There are many funding pots, including local growth fund money, that could help to regenerate Lowestoft station.

On airport expansion, the Secretary of State has achieved one thing—he has made the Leader of the Opposition look positively decisive. Does he not believe that he owes the Select Committee, this House and businesses across the UK an apology for the fudge that has become a farce?

I have often thought that SNP Members lived in a different world, and if the hon. Gentleman thinks I have made the Leader of the Opposition look decisive, he has proved that this morning in spades. I stand by the statements I made earlier. I would have liked to be in such a position, but realistically that is not possible at a time when the House is not sitting. I have informed the House this morning, as it is right for me to do.

The recent decision by the regulator to refuse direct services between Cleethorpes and King’s Cross shows that the present rules are working more in the interest of the franchise holder than the passengers. The Conservative Government surely support competition, so when are they going to support the passengers and allow more of that competition?

I do not mind my hon. Friend rightly calling for more services directly to his constituency, but in fairness, we have seen a vast improvement and we are going to see it continue as far as the new franchise is concerned, not to mention the protection of services for which my hon. Friend originally campaigned in respect of the Northern franchise and the phasing out of the Pacers so that his constituents and others in the area will have the chance of using new trains. That shows that we are committed to not only better services in general, but better services for my hon. Friend’s constituents.

I recently attended a guide dogs lobby of Parliament, and was shocked to learn about the extent of the problems that guide dog owners experience when trying to get taxis. Has the Secretary of State discussed that issue recently with his Cabinet colleagues?

Like many other Members, I too have been in touch with the Guide Dogs organisation. In fact, I was taken while blindfolded around Bakewell by a guide dog just a few weeks ago, and that demonstrated to me very clearly some of the problems often encountered by people who use assistance dogs. The law should be used to deal with any discrimination in that regard, and it is already an offence for taxi drivers to discriminate against those with assistance dogs.

Investment in the Chowns Mill roundabout and the dualling of the A45 are important priorities for people in east Northamptonshire, and they are part of the road investment strategy. Will the Secretary of State do all that he can to ensure that they are delivered as early as possible, given that they are so desperately needed?

I fully recognise the importance of those schemes to my hon. Friend and his constituents. We are working to ensure that all our road investment strategy schemes are delivered as soon as possible, but I will keep him informed of progress.