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Topical Questions

Volume 629: debated on Thursday 19 October 2017

Before I respond to any topical questions, may I take this opportunity to express my thanks, and I hope those of the whole House, to all those involved in the repatriation of passengers affected by the collapse of Monarch Airlines? It was a huge effort across government, but particularly by the Civil Aviation Authority, and we all have good reason to be thankful to the team involved.

Boston is a growing port and a growing town. New housing developments have preserved a route for a Boston distributor road, with which I know my right hon. Friend is familiar, but what will he do to help us to deliver the expensive but vital bridge in the middle of the distributor road, which we cannot of course ask housing developers to fund entirely?

Indeed, as my hon. Friend knows from my past visits to Boston, I am well aware of the importance of the Boston bypass project. The town is situated on an A road with a congestion problem and is one of those for which I would expect to see proposals come forward for the bypass fund. We will look very carefully at the bridge issue, and I am very happy to talk to him about that.

You may not be aware of this, Mr Speaker, but just last week there was another great train robbery: £600 million was removed from Scotland’s rail budget because the Tories ripped up a long-standing funding formula. For the sake of Scottish rail users, will the Secretary of State get together with the Treasury and give Scotland the correct funding?

This is an historic moment: the Scottish National party is opposing a funding allocation that uses the Barnett formula. I was under the impression that it regarded the Barnett formula as sacrosanct. However, when the UK Government use the Barnett formula, it complains. The SNP cannot have its cake and eat it.

T2. The excellent Rail Minister is drawing up a new franchise for east midlands railways, which will improve the service. Will he be able to publish an indicative timetable, so that my constituents can see how their rail service will improve? (901265)

I was more than happy to meet a cross-party delegation of Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire MPs this week to discuss this very issue. We have located the information that my hon. Friend desires, and I will place it in the Library and write to him.

T8. If High Speed 3 connected Leeds and Manchester via the Calder Valley line, that would be an absolute game changer for my part of the world. Given that the Secretary of State was keen to spend time in my constituency during the general election campaign talking about how important rail was to the area, will he update the House on whether and when that connection could become a reality? (901272)

There is a two-stage programme of modernisation for rail in the north, despite the nonsense that the shadow Secretary of State was talking earlier. Initially, we are replacing every single train in the north. We have modernised the Calder Valley line and are about to launch the modernisation of the main trans-Pennine route between Leeds and Manchester.

Of course we have done other things, such as electrifying the railway line from Liverpool to Manchester and creating the first ever link between Manchester Victoria and Manchester Piccadilly. A whole range of things is happening. What we said at our conference and will be confirmed at the Budget is that we will set aside funding to create the links between HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. I am now waiting for the detailed Transport for the North proposals for Northern Powerhouse Rail. In the short term, we modernise the trans-Pennine route, and in due course we will build Northern Powerhouse Rail to ensure that we have those better links for the future.

T3. To make much-needed housing developments acceptable, it is essential to provide the right infrastructure—road structure, in particular—to cope with traffic increases. Often, only a small section of road is required: the small spine road through the proposed Staplegrove development in Taunton, for example. Although an application has been made to the housing infra- structure fund, will the Minister advise on what other pots of money might be available to make this housing acceptable? (901266)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question. As she says, the Government made available £2.3 billion precisely for such schemes, as part of the national infrastructure fund. I would be delighted to have a good look at the scheme with officials and ministerial colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government. I direct her attention to the £12 billion that has been committed over the period 2015 to 2021 through the local growth fund, through local enterprise partnerships, to support local strategic projects.

To answer on my right hon. Friend’s behalf, I should say that the answer is in so far as the situation allows us to. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have not ruled out legal action of our own. We are waiting for the German legal authorities—under European law, given the origin of these technologies—to make their decisions. Once they have done that, we will take a final view. But we have been extremely clear about our view in general about how the company has behaved.

T4. Community transport plays a vital role in connecting communities in rural areas in west Oxfordshire and throughout the country. Such groups are worried about the impact of the issue and use of section 19 and 22 permits. Will the Minister confirm that if local community groups are registered as not-for-profit organisations, they will not be treated as commercial providers even if they pay a driver and take a fare? (901267)

I have two things to say. First, we very strongly support community transport operators in general. Secondly, we have been under some pressure to clarify the rules regarding local transport operators who are tacitly operating commercially. I am sure that that is not the case in Oxfordshire, but it is in other parts of the country. If my hon. Friend’s transport authority has a difficulty, he is welcome to get it to talk to my officials and/or the Community Transport Association.

The Shipping Minister will be aware of huge concerns regarding a time lag of almost an hour on a number of occasions between distress at sea and the tasking and launching of an RNLI boat. What can the Minister do to ensure shorter response times in that golden hour, particularly at Maritime and Coastguard Agency level? After all, RNLI men I know have told me that they would prefer 10 false alarms than to be late at the scene of a real distress call.

This a very serious matter, and the hon. Gentleman and I have met to discuss these issues. I take a very clear view that we must be rigorous in the way that we deal with them. There have been disasters, such as the Louisa disaster in his constituency. The first thing to do is to offer commiserations to all those involved. As he knows, I have spoken to the chief inspector of the marine accident investigation branch. I have asked for his view, as quickly as possible, on the very issues the hon. Gentleman raises. I will keep in close touch with him and other Members when I hear that view.

T5. There was widespread excitement last December when the Secretary of State announced a plan to publish a rail strategy document. Will he say what progress he has made and whether he will publish the report that his Department has commissioned on the future of rail franchising? (901268)

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid), who was right to point out the impact of the new charges on the Mersey Gateway will have on his constituents, as well as the charges that are being introduced on the existing Silver Jubilee bridge, will the Minister tell us how many existing crossings, which were previously free, have had charges introduced on them in the past 10 years?

I would be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with that information, but one concern is what the cost to local authorities would be. When we ran the numbers, as part of the wider decision, it became clear that the five local authorities involved would have to pay an extra £350 million to £400 million. That is an important further consideration.

T6. The Minister will be aware that, on the east coast main line, the rail franchisee competes with open-access trains. As a result, it has the highest customer satisfaction rating in the country. Can we not extend that practice throughout the country, so that everybody can enjoy the full benefits of rail privatisation? (901269)

We welcome open-access applications. They have made a real difference to many towns and cities around the country. It is clear that open access should happen where there is capacity for it to take place, so that it fills in gaps and puts in competition. The Office of Rail and Road is very careful in judging when it can permit open access and when it cannot. It looks very carefully at every proposal, and we welcome them.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) about the potential late tasking of lifeboats, will the Minister meet me, parliamentary colleagues and the coastguard to ensure that the launch protocols the coastguard uses are not adding undue delay in the tasking of lifeboats in emergencies?

I am very conscious of the sinking of the Solstice off the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I have met him, too, and I know how much he cares about this issue. I care about it, too, so yes of course I will do that. Furthermore, let me be absolutely clear to him, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar and the whole House. In respect of looking at these matters with assiduity, we will leave no stone unturned. If there can be improvements, there will be improvements.

I certainly can. I was pleased to meet both my right hon. Friend and the mid-Cheshire rail line promotion group in her constituency back in August. Since then, we have been liaising with Transport for the North. She will be aware that one of its key strategic corridors is the Wales and the west stretch in the north-west. It is looking at how the mid-Cheshire rail line scheme fits into its strategic proposals, and I hope to hear more in due course.

To return to community transport operators, many are concerned, including North Norfolk community transport, that the new ruling will push it under, with the loss of absolutely vital rural community transport links. What is the Minister doing to ensure that that does not happen? What is the timescale for the consultation? When will it actually come in, because the uncertainty is very dangerous?

I fully recognise the concern. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the Department is being very careful. There will be no rapid over-enforcement. We will give people as much chance as possible to show that their activities are not commercial in the required sense. We will launch the consultation later this autumn and then take it from there.

In the same vein, I recently met Basildon community transport, which expressed grave concerns and is already pointing at a neighbouring community transport operator closing because of the uncertainty. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me, Basildon community transport and the Community Transport Association to clarify the situation?

Yes, of course. I have met the Community Transport Association to discuss this at length, as my officials have been doing for some time, and other community transport entities. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and his constituents.

Domestic air travel is surely an integral part of the UK’s transport infrastructure. In their planning for Heathrow expansion, how much have the Government budgeted to increase the number of domestic routes to London from Scotland, Northern Ireland, the north and the south-west?

I hope that this is not a question of our budgeting, because I hope that the links will provide strong commercial opportunities. Governments seldom fund airline routes except in specific cases, such as our recent decisions over the air link from Northern Ireland to Stansted. I hope, however, that the opportunities created by the expansion of Heathrow airport for the regions around the country will mean a thriving trade and attract airlines to take those slots.

I know that the Rail Minister will share my excitement at the prospect of the first new station in the bay since world war two at Edginswell. Will he agree to meet me and the local council to see how we can take this forward and what the prospects might be for new stations funding?

I am aware that it was one of the unsuccessful bidders in the most recent round of the new stations fund. We make a point of giving positive feedback whenever we can to help make sure that future bids have the maximum chance of success, so I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend and his council to discuss how we can maximise the opportunities.

The service on the Treherbert line is shockingly bad. Trains are regularly cancelled. When there should be four carriages, there are often two. Obviously, there is to be a new franchise, let by the Welsh Government, but we need more investment in the rail network, and that is down to the Westminster Government. We have 6% of the railways in this country in Wales. Why do we only get 1% of the investment?

In Wales right now, we have the biggest electrification programme in the country coming soon; we have new trains coming to Cardiff, Swansea and Pembroke Dock; we have a big investment programme funded by central Government in the valley lines; and I am now looking at what changes we can make to the north Wales line, where there is a real need for improvement.