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Topical Questions

Volume 634: debated on Thursday 18 January 2018

I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) about the emergency services’ response last week. I pay tribute to all those who carried out works across the rail network over Christmas, giving up their Christmas holiday period for the investment programme.

I am proud to be from a party of opportunity. We are a party of opportunity that provided this country with its first woman Prime Minister. Today, we are the party that provides the first Muslim woman Minister to speak from the Government Dispatch Box—my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani). I congratulate her, and I am very proud to sit alongside her today.

The Secretary of State will be aware that Essex adds over £35 billion to the economy; but our businesses that want to grow cannot grow, because of poor transport infrastructure. Will my right hon. Friend help those businesses by committing to back key projects such as the rail loop north of Witham, investment in the A12 and investment in the A120?

I absolutely understand the importance that my right hon. Friend places on transport links in Essex, which is why we are investing both in the county and across the country. Highways England is progressing the A12 improvements, which are now going through the consultation and design stages. On the railways, a number of improvements are required to the eastern main line, and the rail loop is one of those under consideration.

T2. Does the Minister agree with me and the Transport for the North draft strategic transport plan that there is a compelling economic case for a northern powerhouse rail network stop in Bradford, both for my constituents and for the wider region? (903389)

We are very closely studying the report by Transport for the North—a soon to be statutory body—and we will look at that scheme alongside others.

T4. Is the Minister aware that in west Norfolk we have a very active guide dogs group? They took me on a blindfold walk, which was a very moving experience. It brought home to me the number of obstacles that blind people face, such as unauthorised cars on pavements and unauthorised street furniture. What is the situation with the accessibility action plan? (903391)

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the guide dogs group to the attention of the House. The Government are committed to ensuring that disabled people have the same access to transport and opportunities to travel as everyone else. The Department for Transport is currently analysing the responses received to its draft accessibility action plan and will publish the Government’s response in the spring. The final action plan will be published in the summer, and will set out the Government’s ambition for this agenda, based on the feedback provided, and the Government’s timescales for delivery.

T3. Do Virgin East Coast’s franchise promises to run trains every two hours from London to Bradford, Harrogate and Middlesbrough still hold good, or have they been scaled back? (903390)

There has been absolutely no change to any part of the terms of that franchise; as of today, there is absolutely no change. It is business as usual. I have set out in this House the challenges, but as of today, to be clear, nothing has changed—neither the service specification nor the contracts for franchise.

Will the rail Minister be kind enough to agree to meet the Kettering rail users group to discuss how rail services might be improved to and from Kettering?

T5. In my constituency we have the Greenock ocean terminal, from which goods are imported and exported around the world. What assurances can the Minister give me that Brexit will not adversely affect the transportation of goods by sea from my Inverclyde constituency? (903393)

I absolutely understand the importance for the future of our maritime sector—of shipping goods by sea. Indeed, I recently had the pleasure of visiting Montrose port to see the important work that it does for the east of Scotland. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the maritime sector, while often not the highest-profile sector in these questions, is enormously important to this country.

While many of us were enjoying our Christmas lunches, an army of Network Rail engineers were working hard making improvements and repairs across the country. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating them on their hard work and thanking them for it?

We often fail to appreciate the hidden army of people who support our transport system. Those who turned out over the Christmas period—with some extraordinary work was done—deserve all of our thanks. Whether it is the improvements in the north-west, the expansion of Liverpool Lime Street that has taken place over recent months or the extraordinary work at London Bridge, north and south we are seeing huge investment programmes that will make a difference to the passenger experience.

T6. The Orwell bridge was closed again yesterday, forcing about 5,000 lorries from Felixstowe, the UK’s largest container port, to take two hours each getting through Ipswich. Will the Secretary of State urgently meet me and other local MPs to expedite a northern bypass for Ipswich? (903394)

I will be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman and colleagues about that. As he will be aware, the DFT was awarded £77 million at spring Budget 2016 for the upper Orwell crossings. That scheme was one of the first large local majors to be funded. We will happily revisit any discussion he wishes to have on this topic.

Does my hon. Friend recognise that many hospitals around the country do not have good public transport links? For that reason, will he write to the Health Secretary urging him to scrap hospital car parking charges?

As my right hon. Friend will know, the first debate I ever secured in the House of Commons was on car parking charges at Hereford Hospital—[Interruption.]

I apologise, Mr Speaker. My first ever debate in the House was on car parking charges at Hereford Hospital, so I absolutely understand and share my right hon. Friend’s concern. I am afraid that this has been the legacy of the Labour Government’s investment in private finance initiative projects in hospitals in the period up until 2010.

T7. The head of US aviation has stated that the UK had a month to outline an aviation safety strategy or be faced with costly disruption to transatlantic trade. What progress has the Secretary of State made on US aviation strategy post Brexit? (903395)

Since my appointment, in recent months I have had regular meetings with the US airlines and the US Federal Aviation Administration, and I have met and discussed these issues with my counterpart in the US Department of Transportation. We are making good progress with our successor arrangements for aviation after we have left the European Union.

On what evidence are the Government now pushing ahead with what I believe to be a flawed plan for expanding Heathrow? The updated national policy statement shows that it is more expensive, lower value, more congesting, noisier, and provides fewer connections. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss this?

I know how strongly my right hon. Friend feels about this. She and I have had many conversations about it and I know that we will carry on doing so. She and I, of course, do not share the same view—I believe that this project is strategically important for the United Kingdom—but I am happy to carry on discussing it with her.

T8. I was very disappointed recently when a Department for Transport publication on national strategic roads did not even mention the dualling of the A27 between Lewes and Eastbourne. Will the Secretary of State confirm in the House today that that was an oversight and that we will be looking to dual that shocking road? (903396)

The hon. Gentleman will know that his predecessor secured from me a commitment to allow the local authority to use funding allocated for the improvements to the A27 to review what the best options are east of Lewes. I wait to see the response of that work.

With the initial consultation currently open on “Shaping the Future of England’s Strategic Roads”, will the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State will look closely at the vital upgrade of junction 15 of the M6, serving Stoke-on-Trent?

I can certainly confirm that if that scheme is given the enthusiastic support of the local transport authorities involved, then we will look closely at it, as we would with all such bids.

T9. Given the importance to jobs and the economy of international connectivity through airports, such as Edinburgh in my constituency, will the Secretary of State say what discussions he has had with the European Commission about participating in the Open Skies agreement after Brexit? (903397)

We have two jobs to do for aviation post-Brexit. One is to conclude negotiations within the European Union, which will be part of the ongoing process of negotiating our successor arrangements, and the other is to negotiate successor agreements around the world. We are working on both those things right now.

On the east coast main line, rather than taking us back to the bad old days of British Rail, as the Labour party’s renationalisation proposals would do, will the Secretary of State instead consider the Competition and Markets Authority’s recommendations for more on-track open access choice and competition, with the far better quality and cost of rail services that it says would result?

There is no doubt that open access makes a difference. I do not think for a moment that those who, for example, live in Sunderland, Middlesbrough or Bradford and have services from Grand Central would say anything other than that open access has been a good thing. That is the area in which the private sector has really made a difference, bringing services to the network that never existed in the days of nationalisation.

With the Severn bridges at long last coming into public ownership on 8 January, will the Minister meet me to discuss the future operation of the bridges, including abolishing the tolls following the long local campaign?

I am sure the hon. Lady, on behalf of her constituents, will welcome the news that this Government are reducing or abolishing the tolls on the bridges. This will make journeys much more efficient and open up the area to much more economic opportunity. I am more than happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss anything further.

At a recent meeting with senior HS2 personnel, they promised to provide all MPs along the route of HS2 with advance notice of construction works in their constituencies. They have not done this. Will the Secretary of State ensure that they keep their promises?

I absolutely will—no question. I expect HS2 to be good corporate citizens as it embarks on this huge construction project. If there are examples of its failing to do so, I invite all Members to come to me and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), who will be leading within my team on HS2. We will want to make sure that, where it is humanly possible to do so, we do the right thing by all those on the route.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Bus Services Act 2017 has created those powers. We are in conversations—my officials are in conversations —with Mayors in Manchester and elsewhere in the country, and we remain very interested in having further conversations with other Mayors who wish to avail themselves of these powers.

When can we expect a decision on the Transport and Works Act order application for the improvement of the Hope Valley line? The public inquiry was in May 2016 and it reported in November 2016, but so far the Department has been unable to say when we will get a decision.

I will seek to gee things along. The Hope Valley line, as my right hon. Friend will know, is one part of the package of proposals—some new lines, some upgraded lines—that Transport for the North has brought forward for the northern powerhouse rail. I will seek to make sure that that process is concluded as quickly as possible.

Will the Government work with businesses that supply renewable fuels to see what impact the renewable transport fuel obligation has on them, and will they continue to look to develop E10?

We have already consulted quite extensively, and we will continue to work with those businesses.

May I welcome the new HS2 Minister to her place and take this opportunity to make an early plea, on behalf of the residents of Erewash who are directly affected by HS2, for an urgent review of the statutory compensation plans for residents and businesses and of the way in which HS2 Ltd is administering this process?

My hon. Friend has previously raised that with me, and I am pleased that she has raised it with me again today. I am more than happy to meet her and take on board any concerns she has on behalf of her constituents.

Has the Secretary of State had a chance to look at early-day motion 775 about taking musical instruments on to aeroplanes? In his coming discussions on aviation, will he take the opportunity to meet the Culture Secretary to talk about how we might solve this real problem for musicians?

An airline’s hand luggage policy is obviously a matter for the airline, but I am very happy to have a discussion with the hon. Gentleman about the issue. There may not be a simple solution, but I am always happy to talk to hon. Members about the challenges they face.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) on her appointment. Following her review of station accessibility, will she look carefully at the hundreds of applications from residents in my constituency for improvements at Stanmore and Canons Park stations which have not been provided by Transport for London, but will I hope be provided by the Government?

I thank my hon. Friend for welcoming me to the Dispatch Box, and of course I will meet him to discuss the matter further. I look forward to arranging that meeting.

The Minister may be aware that the level crossing in Pencoed in my constituency will now not be improved because of the cancellation of electrification, and that is causing access issues and considerable safety concerns. I made this request to the previous Minister, so will the new Minister now meet me, and a representative of Pencoed Town Council, to start the process of closing that level crossing and improving the highways around Pencoed?

Decisions on electrification do not and will not in any way impede safety improvements. We have announced a large amount of money over the next five years, and I am happy to see what we can do to move this issue on rapidly.

A very short question is required so, of course, I look in the direction of the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne).

As my right hon. Friend will know, these are night closures because of the protections being offered to daytime running. Upgrading of smart motorway junctions has already taken place—junctions 2 to 4 are complete, and work on junction 6 is due to complete soon. Other work on junctions 9 and 14 is planned, but it has not yet commenced.

The previous rail Minister agreed to meet me to discuss the reopening of the railway line to Fleetwood. Will the new Minister honour that and get Fleetwood back on track?

I will speak quickly. As the Minister said in his opening remarks, 2018 is the year of engineering. Will the new Minister, my fellow Brummie, say what the Government are doing to increase diversity within the engineering profession?

I feel obliged to respond to a fellow Brummie. I congratulate the engineering envoy, my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), who I believe is sitting in the Gallery. The Government have launched the Year of Engineering—I did that myself on Monday at Crossrail—and we are particularly keen to open up engineering as a career for young girls and boys, especially those from black and Asian ethnic minorities. I urge Members to become ambassadors for science, technology, engineering and maths in their constituencies if they have not already done so.

The environmental impact assessment of the Government’s decision not to electrify the Midland main line north of Kettering has revealed that 25 times more savings in carbon emissions would have been achieved with that electrification. If the Government are serious about their new commitment to the environment, will they think again about that decision?

I expect to see a transformation of technology on our railways over the coming years, with the introduction of different types of battery electric hybrid trains and hydrogen trains, and I see that as a priority. I want the first hydrogen train to operate on our rail network within a short period of time.