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Topical Questions

Volume 619: debated on Thursday 12 January 2017

As you will be aware, Mr Speaker, I have said in this House and elsewhere that I am very committed to improving the transport situation in the south-west, and I am pleased today to announce a new phase in our £7 billion plan for that region. We are launching the next stage of the formal consultation on a major upgrade to the A303—the main A road into Devon and Cornwall. This involves the development of the 1.8-mile tunnel past Stonehenge, which will protect that world heritage site from traffic, reduce local congestion, and speed up journeys to and from the region. We will now be talking to local people to the west of that tunnel about precisely which route it should take around the village immediately to the left. In addition, we are committed to upgrading the remaining sections of the A303 between the M3 and the M5 to dual carriageway. The next step will be public consultations on the A303 Sparkford to Ilchester and A358 Taunton to Southfields schemes that will come very shortly.

A 79-year-old constituent has been repeatedly refused car hire contracts by leading rental companies. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of any restrictions that are being placed on OAPs by these rental companies?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. This is a very difficult issue. The Equality Act 2010 provides general protection against age discrimination for people of all ages, but there is an exemption for a person conducting an assessment of risk for the purposes of providing a financial service to another person. My Department has not made the assessment that my hon. Friend describes, but I encourage his constituent to contact the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association, which should be able to help him in identifying a suitable provider.

An icy chill is about to descend on parts of the country. That is not an impending DFT ministerial visit, I hasten to add—it is of course the impending weather front. Will the Secretary of State tell us about the state of preparations for gritting our roads in the coming days? What discussions has he had with his colleagues and those in local government to ensure that at least our roads run more smoothly than our railways?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there was no icy chill last time I visited Cambridge, when he and I were there for the first bit of work, albeit a rather small bit of work with a spade, on the A14 project, which will make a big difference to Cambridge. My ministerial team and I have had detailed discussions about this in recent weeks, and the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), has been in regular contact with local authorities. We have in this country, if not a salt mountain, plenty of salt and plenty of grit. We estimate that we have what is necessary to cope with the winter ahead, but we will obviously keep that under review.

I thank the Secretary of State; let us hope that we are well prepared. Taking him back to the time just before Christmas, given that soon after his visit to Cambridge he told the Evening Standard that cycle lanes cause problems for road users, will he clarify exactly who he thinks road users are? While he is thinking about cyclists—a helpful clue—could he explain why it is taking such an extraordinarily long time to produce a cycling and walking investment strategy?

Cyclists use cycle lanes, and motorists and other road users use the roads alongside them. That is fairly straightforward, to be honest. If the hon. Gentleman is eagerly anticipating our cycling and walking strategy, he does not have long to wait.

T2. Will the Minister of State’s inspirational words about beauty be matched by the deeds of Highways England? (908106)

It does not surprise me that my right hon. Friend has drawn attention to my rapturously received and beautifully articulated speech on beauty. He is right to say that we now need action. We have established a design panel at Highways England, and in a few weeks’ time we will produce a new design guide. It will dismay all the crass modernists and harsh brutalists, but it will delight all those who believe that our public infrastructure can be stylish and elegant as well as deliver the necessary utility. My role is only this: to rediscover the age-old golden thread with which all of that will be woven.

T3. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), is as frustrated as I am by the constant delays to the tram-train project between Sheffield and Rotherham. Will he confirm that passenger services will start next year? Will he also give a date by which lessons can be learned from that project and rolled out across the country? Will he give particular consideration to the availability of hybrid tram-trains, which would mean that the vehicles could run on non-electrified heavy rail routes? (908107)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about hybrid tram-trains and I will look into it. As far as I am aware, the project is on track and on schedule, but I am particularly keen to understand the lessons that can be learned from it, to make sure that any projects elsewhere are done properly and to time the first time around.

T6. The excellent report “The Free Ports Opportunity”, written by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), sets out the possibilities for UK ports to become free ports, post-Brexit. It estimates that that could create 86,000 jobs in the UK. Will the Minister of State outline the possibilities for ports such as that in Newhaven in my constituency to become free ports, post-Brexit? (908111)

I have with me the report to which my hon. Friend refers. It is an excellent piece of work, and I have already arranged to meet its author. I initiated the maritime growth study when I was last in the Department, but it is time to refresh that. It must be a living document. As part of that exercise, we will consider the role of ports now that we are freed from the clutches of the European Union. My ambitions are, as ever, measured and modest: I seek nothing more than for Britannia to rule the waves.

T4. Ministers will be aware of the comments in Public Health England’s recent alcohol evidence review that drinking alcohol up to England’s drink-drive limit increases the risks of fatal accidents by 13 times. We have the highest drink-drive limit of any country in Europe expect for Malta, so will the Government look again at reducing the limit as a matter of urgency, in line with the views of the Police Federation, the RAC, the House of Lords, the Fire Brigades Union and 77% of the public? (908108)

We have no plans to review the drink-drive limit. The level of 80 mg per 100 ml of blood is one of the higher ones, but no country has a better record than us on road safety and improving performance in tackling drink-driving. Taken together, it is the combination of the right limit and enforcement and the cultural belief that drink-driving is wrong that makes progress.

Before Christmas, a parent at Morley Primary School in my constituency was badly injured when driving in the school’s vicinity, because another car was going too fast, which is a regular occurrence. I have consistently requested that the county council change the speed limit and move the signs—only move them—but it consistently refuses to do so because, it says, nobody has been killed yet. I do not want a child, parent or anybody else to be killed. Is there any way that the Minister can change the criteria by which councils decide to change such speed limits?

Local authorities already have the powers to introduce lower speed limits where they think it is appropriate. I think that that should apply especially around schools. The decision does not have to be a reactive one—waiting until something happens—and it is inappropriate to think in such a way. I suggest that I write to the Highways Authority in Derbyshire to highlight the powers that it already has. My right hon. Friend the Minister responsible for roads will visit my hon. Friend’s constituency in a fortnight or so to discuss roads, so perhaps she could pick the matter up with him then.

T7. Brexit will cause a dangerous free-for-all in cabotage. Will the Minister agree to meet the Scottish Government to consider how to avoid that? (908113)

I think we are some way away from that. Discussions have to take place between our Government and the European Union on arrangements post-Brexit. They will take place, and we will inform the House of progress on the matter in due course.

A start has been made in the first road investment strategy on upgrading the A47 from Lowestoft to the A1. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that he will work with me and other East Anglian colleagues on the second road investment strategy to ensure that this good work continues.

My hon. Friend will know that we managed to achieve what he wanted in respect of the bridge in his constituency, but he is right that we need to do more in respect of RIS2. To his customary eloquence and commitment he has added prophetic powers, because just this morning I am writing to all the colleagues he describes inviting them to participate in that process. This will be for the people and shaped by the people’s representatives.

T8. The A75 in my constituency benefits from Euro-route designation. Will the Secretary of State assure my constituents that he will support the continued designation of Euro-routes after the UK leaves the European Union? (908114)

I have to confess that I have never heard anyone in this country, north or south of the border, refer to an A road in the United Kingdom as a Euro-route. If they cease to be Euro-routes after we leave the European Union, I suspect that we will be able to count the number of people who miss that on the fingers of one hand.

I declare an interest as a daily commuter on the east coast main line, which is a very well run strategic route. Service outages, infrequent as they are, can be very disruptive. May I ask the Minister to prevail on train operating companies and Network Rail to improve communications with passengers in real time, to ensure that passengers are made aware of these problems and can make alternative arrangements as necessary?

It is entirely right to say that passenger information during disruption is something that all train operating companies and Network Rail need to improve. Not only do we need a single source of information that is consistent, but it needs to provide the most up-to-date information. It is not acceptable for people who have checked their phones on leaving home and thought that their train was on time to find, by the time they get to the station, that the train has been cancelled. That is not good enough.

Will the Secretary of State reject the new proposal of a spur line from HS2 in the constituency of Bolsover between Hilcote and Morton? Not only will it cut the Blackwell council in two, but it will destroy scores of houses in the village of Newton. Will he have a look at the letter I have sent him, in order to pacify the people of Blackwell about this mad idea?

Of course I will. I have taken a close interest in the eastern leg, and I have been up and down most of the route myself. I am very keen that we deliver the economic benefits, but that we do so in the way that works best for local communities. I am happy to take a look at the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

It has been yet another week of misery for hundreds of thousands of passengers on Southern rail. Given that the unions have received guarantees on jobs, on pay and—from the independent rail safety regulator—on safety, would the Government now support Conservative proposals to limit strikes, or at least the impact of strikes, via legislation?

There is a lot of interest in the matter, and a lot of calls have been made for such measures to be taken. We are considering carefully how we approach future issues. Of course, nothing in legislative terms would solve the current dispute. I think my hon. Friend will join me in expressing the disappointment of Conservative Members about the fact that we have not heard from the Opposition today one word of regret or condemnation, and not one call for the unions to go back to work. They just do not care.

The RAC has estimated that drivers have been over-charged by hundreds of millions of pounds owing to over-zealous enforcement by private car parks. Requiring operators to sign up to accredited trade associations would help to stop that type of behaviour. Does the Secretary of State agree that having all companies sign up would ensure that their business models were based on fair treatment of the motorist?

I will happily look into the matter that the hon. Lady raises. It is actually the responsibility of the Department for Communities and Local Government, but I will take it up with my ministerial colleagues.

In view of the increasing number of passengers and employees using Stansted airport, the growth of the Cambridge biomedical campus, the prospect of Crossrail 2, the announcement of major housing developments and the welcome prospect of new, high-performance trains, what plans has my hon. Friend for increasing track capacity on the West Anglia line to take advantage of those factors?

My right hon. Friend is right to raise all those factors. He will know of the important work that the taskforce has done. We are also looking at timetabling, to which I hope he can make substantial contribution. He is right to raise the matter and we are looking at it very closely. Control period 6 announcements are on the way and I hope that his concerns will be reflected in them.

This time two years ago, when the Blackpool North electrification scheme faced delays and the rail Minister was a Back Bencher, he rightly demanded answers from Ministers. There is now real concern that the electrification of the midland main line will be further postponed or even cancelled north of Corby and Kettering. Will the Minister provide the House with the clarity that he sought for his constituency and give an unequivocal assurance that this key Conservative manifesto promise will not be broken?

We are continuing to work towards the key outputs that matter most to passengers. I recognise the importance of the network, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) will work on a cross-party basis to identify the key regional priorities that we want to be reflected in the new franchise. I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood).

In Broxtowe, there is widespread and cross-party support for HS2. Of course, we get the east midlands hub at Towton, but there is still concern about the route. Will my right hon. Friend assure residents in Trowell, Strelley Village and Nuthall that their voices will be listened to and that, if necessary, changes to the route will be made without affecting the timetable for delivery?

I can absolutely give my right hon. Friend that commitment, as I did to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) a moment ago. The route will bring huge benefits to the east midlands and to Yorkshire, including the areas around Sheffield, but I want to make it clear that we will be as thoughtful and careful as we can about the detail of the route. The reason for the consultation is that it gives us a chance to listen to those views, and we will.

Mr Speaker, you will be aware of the Vauxhall car fire scandal. Last month, I hosted in the House of Commons around 25 people who had been affected, and heard about traumatised children and how the incidents led to increases in insurance excesses and cost families thousands of pounds. Will a Minister agree to meet not me—I am not interested in meeting Ministers myself—but the families of those affected?

I am aware of the issue and the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency is taking action with Vauxhall to remedy the situation. I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and some of the families affected.

As my hon. Friend will know, we have recently announced plans to dual the A66. We are currently waiting for the conclusion of the work on the potential for a trans-Pennine tunnel. I give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance that whether or not it is recommended that that work go ahead, our commitment to delivering trans-Pennine improvements will not be affected in any way by the outcome of that study.