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North-south Rail Connections

Volume 632: debated on Thursday 30 November 2017

May I start by making the House aware of the fact that, as you are aware, Mr Speaker, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), is unfortunately not with us this morning, because he has been invited to appear before a Select Committee. I am sure you will share my slight disappointment that any Committee would call a Minister when he is supposed to be giving oral answers to the House, but that is his reason for not being here.

The two things we are doing to improve north-south rail connections in the UK are, first, building High Speed 2—the first new north-south railway in this country for over a century, which will have a transformational effect on people in the midlands, the north of England and Scotland. We will also shortly see the arrival of the new fleet of inter-city express trains, which will operate on the east coast main line, enabling additional and faster services between key locations on the route. Of course, those trains will run right up the east coast to Scotland.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that. While acknowledging that rail funding will increase from £3 billion to £3.6 billion in the next spending period, may I ask what consideration has been given to improved road connections between Scotland and England, especially along the east coast?

The east coast is the key priority in road-building terms. We are very close to opening what will, extraordinarily, be the last bit of motorway linking London and Newcastle; it is long, long overdue, and I am amazed it has not happened already. We are then pressing ahead with dualling the A1 north of Newcastle, and my goal is to take that up to the border, but it will be for the SNP and the Scottish Government to make sure that something is there to meet us coming the other way.

The Minister might know that I have probably done more miles on the east coast line than any other Member of this House. May I tell him, with that experience, that it is chaos again on the east coast? Stagecoach is being let off the obligation to pay the full money it should be paying to the British Exchequer. Yet again, the east coast line is in a mess, and he is doing nothing about it.

I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman has already recovered from his obvious misery at Arsenal’s demolition of his team by five goals to nil last night.

A tiny bit below the belt, I think, Mr Speaker, but the hon. Gentleman seems to have weathered the storm pretty well.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, notwithstanding issues on the east coast main line, passenger satisfaction on that route has actually improved rather than reduced; indeed, the money flowing to the taxpayer has increased rather than reduced, so he is slightly misjudging the current position.

The Secretary of State knows how important the east coast main line is to Newark and my constituents. In recent years, Network Rail’s performance has been poor, and the track does need considerable investment. That is the principal reason why delays have increased on the east coast main line. Will the new public-private partnership see more investment and improvements on the track?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. In fact, we have a substantial investment programme lined up for the east coast main line, upgrading power supplies and improving the tracks, and that will certainly be steered by the new partnership.

21. The Secretary of State referred to the dualling of the A1. Does he understand the deep disappointment at the postponing of the A1 Coal House roundabout scheme, and will he look at that again, please? (902678)

We have been ensuring simply that we phase projects to cause the minimum possible disruption to users of the roads, while making sure the rolling programme goes forward. I am very proud of the fact that, as a Conservative Government, we are the ones transforming the A1—a project that is long, long overdue.

To go back to rail funding, the Secretary of State is well aware that there is a £600 million gap in the allocation of funding to Scotland for the next investment period. Previously, rail funding to Scotland was based on its percentage of the network—that funding formula was developed in 2005—so will he explain why, if he thinks north-south rail links are a priority, he is quite happy for there to be a cut in rail funding on his watch?

As I keep saying to the hon. Gentleman, I am very happy that funding is allocated to Scotland on the basis of the Barnett formula. I thought that was the way things worked.

Let me explain to the Secretary of State that the previous rail funding was based on need and on Scotland’s percentage of the rail network. Helpfully, the other day the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy acknowledged that the allocation of funding to Scotland for infrastructure should be based on need and geography, and it should be the same for rail. In answer to a question tabled in October, the Secretary of State for Transport said he has “various discussions” with the Secretary of State in Scotland only “from time to time”. Is it not time that he prioritised this issue, and will he agree to meet me and the Transport Secretary for Scotland to discuss the budget and north-south linkages?

If the hon. Gentleman wants to meet the Government to discuss the removal of the Barnett formula and the move towards needs-based allocation of funding across the piece for Scotland, I am sure that would be a very interesting discussion; but in this country over the past few years we have tended to follow the Barnett formula. Most recently, we have provided additional funding to Scotland through the allocations in the Budget. Money has been spent on capital investment in England and money is to be spent based on the Barnett formula in Scotland. That is the way we operate.

We learned yesterday that the east coast rail franchise will be terminated in 2020—three years early—potentially forfeiting billions of pounds in premiums due to the Treasury, yet the Secretary of State told the House that Stagecoach will meet in full the commitments it made to the Government as part of this contract. So, can he confirm that the full £3.3 billion due from Stagecoach-Virgin will be paid to the Treasury, in accordance with the terms of the original contract?

Every time a franchisee takes up a new contract it makes a parent company commitment to the Government. That commitment will be kept in full.

Can we get to the heart of this? Will the premiums of some £2 billion due under that contract covering the years 2020 to 2023 be paid? Will they be paid—yes or no?

Self-evidently, given my announcement yesterday that we would have the east coast partnership in place in 2020, there will be new arrangements in place in 2020. As I have said to the hon. Gentleman, every franchisee makes a parent company commitment before taking out the contract and we will hold that that commitment will be met in full.