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Topical Questions

Volume 614: debated on Thursday 15 September 2016

First, I thank the Scottish National party and others for their kind words of welcome to me and the new team. It is great to be back in the transport brief after a decade. I am very proud that my first actions as Secretary of State were to give the go-ahead for the expansion of London City airport and to visit the Bombardier factory in Derby to announce a £1 billion new train order for a service that is essential to this country. I am grateful to all the people throughout our transport network who are making it a success across most of the country.

As they do not know, will the Government count the mileage of residential roads that remain unadopted by local highways authorities, including a large and growing number in Kettering, and ensure that no residential road remains unadopted after 10 years?

That is an issue that I have experienced in my own constituency. It is not acceptable. I will happily meet my hon. Friend to talk about the situation in Kettering and how we address it.

The Minister will be aware of the calls in national newspapers today, including the Daily Mirror, for action on the increasing number of drivers who put other people’s lives at risk by using mobile phones while driving. In the past couple of years the RAC has found that more people think that is okay. That has happened on this Government’s watch. Will he work with us, the Mirror and others to clamp down on this dangerous practice?

Let us be clear. Labour was in power for 13 years and did not tackle the issue. I am very clear that this is an unacceptable practice, and we intend to unveil tough action on it shortly.

T2. Do Ministers agree that the Brighton main line 2 rail line, which will reopen the Lewes to Uckfield line and has a feasibility study ongoing at the moment, is the only realistic long-term solution that will increase rail capacity to the Sussex coast? (906380)

I am very interested in this as a proposal, and it is being looked at very carefully. What I would say to my hon. Friend, to every Member on the Southern route and to all the passengers on the Southern route is that I recognise that the issues over the last few months have been unacceptable. I am working hard with all those involved, and I have unveiled a number of changes in recent weeks, which I believe will help to get this situation resolved as quickly as possible. It has not been acceptable; it has to be dealt with, and we are working as hard as we can to ensure that it is.

T5. Clause 21 of the Bus Services Bill bans local authorities from forming their own bus companies. This policy went unmentioned in bus reform workshop documents and in any prior announcements. Will the Minister explain how this clause can possibly be reconciled with the Government’s so-called devolution revolution? (906383)

It is simply because the Government are giving more powers to local authorities to franchise services, and we were anxious that the powers to commission and provide were separated.

T4. Two out of three platforms at Lichfield Trent Valley railway station, which is on the west coast main line, are completely inaccessible to disabled people. First there was a plan to make them accessible; then we were told it was delayed. People in Lichfield—and, in particular, the Member of Parliament for Lichfield—are getting rather irritated about this. What is happening? (906382)

Like me, my hon. Friend is a passionate advocate of improved accessibility on our rail network. As he will know, some of the Access for All funding was re-prioritised under the Hendy recommendations. I am hoping to announce very shortly which stations will be prioritised again. I stop in Lichfield Trent Valley often myself—largely in the dark, I must confess—and I am sure there is a great need for improved accessibility there. I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend to further discuss that.

Rail passengers in the north, including on the Calder Valley line, which serves my constituency, are frequently packed on to ageing trains, including Pacers. It is encouraging to see that Arriva Rail North has signed a deal to deliver hundreds of new carriages from October 2018, but what assurances can the Minister give my constituents that Eversholt’s financing of new rolling stock will not lead to delays, sharp fare increases or de-staffing?

As a fellow north-west MP, I am sure the hon. Lady shares my interest in seeing the back of our inefficient and unpleasant Pacers, and she will welcome the fact they will be disappearing by December 2019. I hope she will also welcome the improvement on the Calder Valley line, which will occur in two phases: Calder Valley East in December 2018 and Calder Valley West completing this year—a full upgrade to signalling and speed on the line.

T8. The public consultation on the 2018 Great Northern timetable launches today, but I understand that the platform 5 turn-back facility at Stevenage may not be completed on schedule, jeopardising the promise of additional semi-fast trains to Peterborough. Can the Minister intervene and persuade Hertfordshire local enterprise partnership and Network Rail to sort this problem out as a matter of urgency? (906386)

I have recently been made aware of this situation. I do not want to see the timetable held back, and I will be engaging with all those involved to see how we address the issue.

T7. A constituent has complained to me that his Virgin Trains East Coast commuter rail fare back and forward to work has been increased from last week by 35%. Does the Minister agree that that should not be done without consultation and, furthermore, that it should be against the law? (906385)

I always recognise customers’ concerns about the amount they pay on fares. I have been very clear with the rail industry so far in my dealings with it that it has to put the passengers first in all the decisions that it takes, and the convenience of the industry must be a subsidiary concern.

T9. Current noise levels from Heathrow flights are breaching medically safe guidelines for my residents. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss how his Department can help us to address this very serious concern? (906387)

I will be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. I am obviously aware of the noise issues. I am pleased to see that the latest generation of aircraft are bringing down noise levels, but I recognise there is still a big challenge for residents close not just to Heathrow but other airports around the United Kingdom. I will be very happy to talk to her.

T10. Is the Secretary of State able to offer any reassurance to my local residents and businesses on HS2 compensation? We have heard about the Public Accounts Committee report. HS2’s chief executive resigned this week. People’s lives have been blighted and they see the scheme as a white elephant. (906388)

As the hon. Lady knows, there is a substantial compensation scheme in place for those affected by HS2. HS2 will bring greater prosperity across the United Kingdom. I hope that she and her party would recognise that and support it, notwithstanding local challenges.

It is likely that in a few weeks’ time this House will be asked to decide if it wants a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick. One of the core considerations will be deliverability of those schemes. All the evidence suggests that even if the Government give a green light to Heathrow, it cannot happen. To that end, will my right hon. Friend commit to providing this House, before any vote, with a clear risk assessment looking at environmental risk, planning risk, legal risk and financial risk so that it can take a properly informed decision on the deliverability of those schemes?

I can assure my hon. Friend that when the time comes to bring these matters to the House, we will place before it the detailed information on which the Government have formed their view. That is right is proper. He will know that there are differing opinions and strong views across this House. There are three strong proposals for us to consider. We will take the best possible decision in the interests of the nation, and I am sure that subsequently this House will do the same.

A constituent of mine has raised concerns about the number of road accidents involving young people. The most recent research from Swansea University supports his case that young drivers aged between 17 and 21 are five times more likely to crash than drivers over 70. With this in mind, will the Minister agree to look at policies such as a graduated driver licensing scheme?

We want to strike the right balance between safety and freedom for young drivers, many of whom rely on their cars to get to work or to college. We are focusing on efforts to encourage learner drivers to be better prepared for the wonderful freedom that a licence provides, through the reform package on changes to the driving test. The consultation on that closed only a few days ago. I hope that the hon. Lady participated in it.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the new proposals for the HS2 route to Leeds will still be published this autumn?

It is definitely my intention to publish details of the proposed northern part of the route—the right-hand side of the Y on the last leg to Manchester—later this autumn.

What is the Minister’s current assessment of when the Severn bridge’s concession will end, given the extra traffic when the Severn tunnel is closed for electrification work? Are the Government on top of this, given that we have not yet had a date for the public consultation?

It is right that we should have that confidence. I am more than happy to commit to doing the work necessary to reassure the hon. Lady about that. It needs to be safe, it needs to be secure, and it needs to be right which is why I am more than happy to make that commitment.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. People in Corby would like to see a greater number of rail services, both northbound and southbound. Will Ministers commit to factoring that into any future discussions that they have on this?

I am always happy to take suggestions from all parts of the House as to how we can improve rail services across the country. I look forward to hearing more from my hon. Friend about what he perceives in Corby.

Given his earlier line on regional connectivity, will the Secretary of State ensure that the aviation Minister and officials give positive and prompt consideration to the submission by City of Derry airport for at least PSO—public service obligation—support for a twice daily service to London?

Yes. This is on my desk right now and I recognise its importance. I am very pleased that over the summer the link to north America was kept in place. Good connectivity in Northern Ireland is, remains, and always will be very important.

On 16 July I wrote to the rail Minister requesting a meeting to discuss the daily failings that my constituents have at the hands of Southeastern Trains and Network Rail. Will he say yes to that meeting today?

As we are seeing a bonfire of the vanity projects associated with the former Chancellor and Prime Minister, would it not be sensible not to be seduced by “grands projets” and to add to that list, heeding the sage advice of Rod Eddington in his 2006 study, binning HS2 and focusing on local capacity to benefit, much sooner, passengers and regions?

The trick is to do both. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that he, as a Birmingham Member of Parliament, is absolutely not speaking the same language as his city council and many of those involved in the business community in Birmingham, who are looking forward to the improvements that HS2 will bring to that city.

Will my right hon. Friend commit that if there are any further delays in phase 2b of HS2, which affects my constituency, compensation will be given to my residents whose properties are blighted?

I will happily talk to my hon. Friend about that, but it is not my desire that we delay announcing routes any further. As I have said, I intend to set out our plans later this autumn.

What discussions is the Minister having with Vauxhall concerning its Zafira models that have been catching fire—over 300 of them in the UK alone—and will he agree to meet me and affected drivers later in the year?

The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency is leading on this issue, on which it has met, corresponded with and continues to liaise with Vauxhall. There have been two safety recalls. I am very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, but significant progress is being made on the issue.

Missing for 25 years, the Chickenhall Lane link road is a vital piece of infrastructure for my constituency. It is backed by the Solent local enterprise partnership and the local council, and it was in July’s Budget book. Will the Minister meet me at a rectangular, round or square table to discussing bringing it forward?

Will the Minister agree to invite all Members whose constituencies are served by Southeastern trains to the meeting with the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill)? Our constituents are suffering daily disruption to their lives, as a result of the poor performance of Network Rail and Southeastern, and we would welcome a meeting with him to bring that to his attention.

I very much recognise that there are issues involving Southeastern. I am happy to meet Members from all parts of the House.

As the Government have committed to the development of Crossrail 2, will my hon. Friend give equal support to the construction of four-tracking on the West Anglia line, which is an integral part of it?

If that is a key part of my right hon. Friend’s forthcoming report, I look forward to reading all about it and discussing it with him.

My constituents who work at Liverpool airport face paying an extra £1,000 a year in tolls when the new Mersey crossing is opened. Will Ministers try to find some mechanism for existing employees so that they are not hit with what is essentially a retrospective charge for going to work?

Yes. The answer is that that sounds like a very good idea to me. I will obviously need to look at the detail, but I am very happy to do so. My open mind is well known.

I always thought, having known him for 30 years, that it was the defining characteristic of the right hon. Gentleman.

Insurance for young drivers has become very expensive. One method that some insurance companies have put forward is the black box system, whereby they monitor people’s driving and reduce their costs. What steps have been taken with insurance companies to ensure that young drivers can take advantage of that system?

Such a system is already built into some companies’ pricing, because people get cheaper premiums if they accept some of the benefits that technology can provide. I have met the insurance industry, and will meet it again shortly, when I will raise the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.

Further to the Secretary of State’s inadequate reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on the deadly menace of mobile phone use, may I ask him whether he heard an expert say on the radio this morning that the use of mobile phones impairs drivers’ ability more seriously than drinking? Does he accept that a £50 increase in the already paltry fine is a totally inadequate response to this deadly menace on our roads?

I am sorry if the right hon. Gentleman thought that. I will be announcing tough plans on this matter shortly, in response to sensible pressure from a wide variety of outside groups. The hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned one national newspaper group. In fact, the campaign is coming from both sides of the spectrum, because the Daily Mail is running the same campaign. Those newspapers are right to do so, and the truth is that, in my view, this requires strong action. It is happening far too often.

The Secretary of State may be aware that I secured a debate earlier in the year on the establishment of an independent aviation noise authority. Given his warm words today and the concerns of my constituents about noise pollution from aircraft, will he commit to supporting the establishment of an independent aviation noise authority?

Given the impending decision on runways, I am not going to set out any plans today. All I will say is that I have taken note of what the hon. Lady has said. Noise is of course a major issue for us.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that he supports his predecessor’s welcome announcement earlier in the year allowing Transport for London to take over Southeastern services when its franchise lapses in 2018?

My policy and the Government’s policy is that devolution should happen where it will make a difference, not simply for its own sake. I need to see the Mayor’s proposals about how he thinks he can enhance services in London—I am looking forward to seeing them—before I consider any changes.

Given that the Secretary of State has today confirmed his commitments to Scotland and to investment in infrastructure, will he have a word with the Chancellor about reversing the 25% cut that Scotland has suffered in its capital budget to allow further investment in roads and rail in Scotland?

Scotland benefits enormously from the funding support that is provided to it as part of the United Kingdom. That will continue, unless people seek to change the situation and put Scotland in a position where it would be far worse off and far less able to invest for its future.