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Topical Questions

Volume 621: debated on Thursday 23 February 2017

As you know, Mr Speaker, we are a Government who make big decisions and are ambitious for the future of our country. This is an important week for my Department in terms of legislation. We will shortly see the Bus Services Bill back in the House of Commons to bring improvements to bus services throughout the country; earlier in the week we introduced the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, which will ensure that we are at the head of the game when it comes to the new generation of vehicle technology; we have published, in draft, the Spaceflight Bill, which will also take us forward in an important area of new technology; and, as we heard earlier, this is the week in which we see the completion of the progress of the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill.

The current Highways England scheme for improvements to the A64, which is a key road in my constituency, involves spending £135 million on a roundabout when what we need is a dual carriageway between York and Malton. Will the Minister agree to meet me and members of the A64 Growth Partnership to discuss how we can secure the best scheme for local residents and the best value for the taxpayer?

We are well aware of the importance of the A64 to my hon. Friend’s constituency and, indeed, to the economy of Yorkshire. I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend, as will my hon. Friend the roads Minister. We will ensure that progress in the road’s development continues as we move towards the start of the next investment period.

A report by the Office of Rail and Road on Highways England revealed that the road investment strategy is in chaos. The agency is £1 billion over budget, the cost of 31 projects has more than doubled, and there is little evidence that 60 major schemes can be delivered on time. The strategy is beginning to look more like a fantasy wish list than a deliverable plan to improve England’s road network. Will the Minister take this opportunity to try to reassure the House that it is not the comedy of errors that it appears to be, and will he guarantee to deliver it on time and on budget?

Let us be clear about the road investment programme. It is a £13 billion programme that is currently delivering improvements around the country, and is on track. It is absolutely not the disaster that the hon. Gentleman says it is. Let me also remind him—Conservative Members will remember—how ineffective 13 years of Labour government were in dealing with infrastructure challenges. We will not be taking any lessons from Labour Members.

It is about time the Government took responsibility. Labour has been warning consistently that this Government have been over promising and under delivering on investment in England’s road network. We were promised the biggest upgrade in a generation, but the ORR is now warning of the deterioration of England’s roads. The number of people killed and seriously injured on our roads is already rising, so can the Minister explain how he will guarantee road user safety and mitigate the increased safety risk caused by his Government’s failure to manage investment in England’s roads?

The Labour party neglected our roads for 13 years. The hon. Gentleman needs to travel around the country today and see the schemes that they did not do, that we are doing: dualling the A1; building the link road between the M56 and the M6; smart motorways; starting the progress, finally, on the A303 and developing the tunnel there; as well as smaller schemes around the country. Last week I was in Staffordshire, seeing an important improvement to the A50. None of that happened when the Labour party was in power. It is, frankly, bare-faced cheek to hear them saying what they are saying now. I also remind the hon. Gentleman that in the autumn statement we provided an additional £75 million to improve Britain’s most dangerous roads.

T5. I was hoping to ask some questions about spaceflight, but, sadly, when others are able to focus on the stars, some of us are stuck in the gutter just outside East Croydon waiting for Southern rail to get us in. Can the Secretary of State tell us a little bit about not just how Tim Peake is getting to the space station, which is obviously wonderful, but how some of us can, perhaps, get into London Bridge on time? (908867)

My hon. Friend is identifying the fact that the problems on the Southern rail network are not simply about the trains; they are also about the track and infrastructure. That is why we are now spending £300 million, in addition to the money I announced last September, on things like points replacement, track replacement, and replacing the small things on the infrastructure that go wrong regularly and cause frustrating delays for commuters. We are now moving ahead with that quickly, and it is very important in making sure that my hon. Friend spends less time on a train outside East Croydon and more time in this House asking about space.

T2. The Minister has told us today that he is pursuing the interests of consumers, but can he explain why we still have no timescale for UK drivers of Volkswagen cars to have them fixed and compensation paid, as has happened for US consumers, and will he tell us who in the UK Government will be taking responsibility as they face legal action from the EU Commission for their poor response to the scandal? (908864)

Having been a little unkind to the Scottish National party earlier, let me be rather more generous now: the hon. Lady is right, and this is a matter for the whole House to work together on. As I made absolutely clear earlier, Volkswagen’s behaviour has been unacceptable. It is vitally important that we move ahead with rigour, but with care, too, to make sure that consumers are properly dealt with by Volkswagen as a result of this unacceptable behaviour.

As most of East Anglia has a two-track railway at best, does my right hon. Friend accept that it is very difficult to reconcile the ambitions of the Mayor to have increased frequency services to inner London train stations while there is a growing need for faster services to Norwich, Chelmsford, Stansted airport and Cambridge, without providing extra track capacity at key points?

My right hon. Friend is certainly right to observe that on any crowded part of the network—be it in the south-east or elsewhere—we have to make choices over the stations that are served. He rightly points out that that choice will involve outer stations in the south-east versus inner London stations. I can certainly assure him that this ministerial team is more than aware of those challenges, and I am sure my officials can benefit from his wisdom on this part of the network and look forward to his meeting with them.

T3. Today marks another step towards the national folly that is High Speed 2. May I beg the Secretary of State, even at this late stage? Here is a project that is totally out of control in terms of expenditure—zooming past £60 billion—with the chief executive having resigned. Will the Secretary of State change his mind, and invest this money in fast network rail in the north of England and the NHS? (908865)

Of course, it is not an either/or. We are currently spending money on the Ordsall Chord in Manchester, which will provide a dramatic improvement to services in the Manchester area and enable more services across the Pennines. We also have the most ambitious improvement plan that the northern rail network has seen in modern times. So I am very proud of what we are doing transport-wise in the north of England. I would simply say that if we are going to meet the capacity challenges of the future, we are going to need to build a new railway line, and if we are going to build something new, why would we not build something state-of-the-art? That, I am afraid, is the view of the overwhelming majority of Members of this House?

The Minister of State will recall our meeting in December with representatives of Vivergo Fuels, where jobs are under threat. The renewable transport fuel obligation consultation has now closed. Will he enlighten us as to when he is going to make a decision and lift those threats of redundancy?

My hon. Friend is right to suggest that we are looking closely at these matters following the consultation. He will know that I held a meeting with all those concerned recently. We will consider the representations that we have received and make a decision as soon as possible.

T4. In the light of this morning’s release from the Government, what guarantee can the Minister give us that any savings resulting from reducing pay-outs to innocent victims of motor traffic accidents will be passed on to drivers? (908866)

We are working hard to ensure that the benefits of technology and improvements in road safety are passed on to drivers through motor insurance premiums. We are working particularly with younger drivers, and a research programme on this is under way. I will write to the hon. Gentleman with details of the work we are undertaking.

I am sure the whole House will be disappointed that my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) was unable to ask about space flight, so will my right hon. Friend the Minister please set out what steps he is taking to ensure that the UK becomes the world leader in commercial space flight?

Ah, the final frontier! And who better to take us there than Britons? Our journey to the stars will be informed, and we will become the premier site for satellite launches and lead the way in commercial space flights, as we set out in our document earlier this week. Mr Speaker, I see you as Captain Kirk and me as Mr Spock. Other parts will be played by members of the cast.

We will leave that open to the imagination, but I think it is safe to say that the right hon. Gentleman will always shine brightly on the outer edges of the galaxy.

At the last Transport questions, and again today, the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) has been bullish about Volkswagen executives facing criminal charges for the diesel emissions scandal in the UK. How is that going?

It is important that we work with the Germans on this. The tests were done in Germany, and they have much of the evidence that we need to proceed with all that we are doing to force Volkswagen to do the right thing. It is also important that we work with and support the private prosecution that is being brought by consumers. I am doing both, and I will bring the results of all that work back to the House in due course. The hon. Gentleman can be sure that I am absolutely determined to defend the interests of people against this soulless corporate behaviour.

The A27 Reference Group has long campaigned for investment, and my constituency of Wealden—and especially my town of Hailsham—are in desperate need of modern roads. Will the Minister agree to meet me and representatives of the A27 Reference Group to discuss how we can secure extra funding for the A27?

I can hardly wait. Coffee, tea, supper—whatever my hon. Friend wishes. I will be happy to meet her and her friends to consider these matters.

T7. Seeing the first Aventra train undergoing trials on the existing Crossrail network east of Liverpool Street earlier this month was a proud moment for the workers at Bombardier, and indeed for the whole east midlands rail supply chain. Given Bombardier’s success with sales of Aventra to the East Anglia franchise, does the Minister share my hope that we will see this train being deployed more widely across Britain? (908870)

Yes, but I actually have a slightly different ambition. I have an ambition to see that train deployed in other countries as well. I have already told the Japanese Transport Minister that, although he has good trains on the suburban network in Tokyo, our Bombardier trains from Derby are better and that he should buy some for his network.

Back on planet Earth, the recent ASLEF ballot was obviously disappointing, and the guarantee of a second person on the train clearly remains a bone of contention. Will the Secretary of State consider making it a performance indicator measure when, in exceptional circumstances, a train leaves without that second person?

I am happy to look carefully at that option. It is not my policy or the Government’s policy to remove people from trains. Ways of working will change, but we will need more people, not fewer, delivering services to customers on our railways as demand grows.

T8. Some 54% of all train delays in Scotland are due to the Tory Government’s responsibility for Network Rail, so the Secretary of State must agree with my colleagues here and in the Scottish Government that critical functions, such as capacity planning, major projects delivery, and legal and property management relating to Scotland, could and should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Are the Government sitting on their hands for purely political reasons, and not because it is in the best interests of the people of Scotland? (908872)

The thing is that I have seen the SNP make such a hash of education in Scotland that I do not trust it with the transport system. We benefit from having a national rail infrastructure operator as part of the United Kingdom.

Is the Secretary of State in a position to confirm that Bradford will be one of the stations on the northern powerhouse rail?

I imagine that there is a strong case for that. We are waiting to see what Transport for the North has to say about northern powerhouse rail, but I will be surprised if Bradford does not feature in those plans.

I support the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) in raising the issue of Vivergo Fuels and the danger that the 2% crop cap may pose to an important local business. Will the Minister meet MPs of all parties from the region to consider the matter before determining what to do?

I have had meetings about that. I know how closely the hon. Gentleman has worked with colleagues from across the House to promote the interests of his constituents and others. I will happily have more meetings. It is a challenging matter, but we must get it right. The hon. Gentleman is right that we do not want unintended consequences, so I will of course be delighted to meet.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the proposals for Crossrail 2? If there are to be any delays, will he tell us what can be done about overcrowding on our trains, such as the one I was on this morning, in the meantime?

I am waiting for Transport for London to deliver the business case for Crossrail 2. I am expecting that in the next few weeks, but we are taking action on capacity in the meantime. I will be at Waterloo station this afternoon to see one of the new generation of trains that will be operating in the coming months on the routes that serve both our constituencies. The works taking place at Waterloo this summer will allow 10-coach trains, rather than eight-coach trains, to serve our suburban networks. That is good news for passengers.

The Department for Transport is currently consulting on the airports national policy statement. Why are residents in Chiswick, Brentford, and Osterley not being told in that consultation that the approach path to runway three will be over their heads? Will he meet my constituents to explain the noise impact that the runway will have?

The important thing to understand about the consultation, and about airspace management in particular, is that more precise technology will enable us to provide a much more varied management of airspace in a way that minimises impacts on communities. Much more precise flightpaths are one of several measures that we can take to minimise those impacts. We have been pretty clear in the consultation. We are consulting all the areas that will be affected by the airport’s expansion, and we are expressing a desire for views and opinions from across the House and across the affected areas.

Points of order ordinarily come later, but if it flows from Question Time and is brief and not disputatious, we will hear it briefly.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance. In response to my earlier question, the Minister suggested that ending toll charges in Scotland had led to bridges in Scotland being closed. When the Forth road bridge was damaged it was repaired ahead of schedule. The Queensferry crossing is being completed on time and significantly under budget without the need for tolls. Perhaps the Minister of State would like to take this opportunity to correct his earlier comments.

I very much doubt that the Minister wishes to do so. The hon. Lady, who is well informed and I imagine has a very good vocabulary, has just feigned ignorance of the word “disputatious.” I said that her point of order should not be disputatious, but it was disputatious. I think we will leave it there. I am not knowledgeable upon the matters to which she has referred and, more importantly, I have absolutely no responsibility for them myself, which is a great source of relief.

Royal Assent

Before we come to the urgent question, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Commonwealth Development Corporation Act 2017

Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Act 2017

High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Act 2017.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wonder whether you might indulge me. As you have now confirmed Royal Assent for the HS2 Act, I thank everyone in the House who was involved in its passage. It has been a long and arduous process, particularly for those who served on the Committees in both Houses. I thank them for their work.

The Secretary of State’s courtesy will be warmly appreciated on both sides of the House, and I thank him for what he has just said.