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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 634: debated on Thursday 18 January 2018


The Secretary of State was asked—

Community Transport: Licensing

In the first Transport questions since the beginning of the year, the Year of Engineering, I would like to put on record my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for all the work that they have done.

The Government want to protect as many community transport services as possible. We will soon be consulting on the issuance and use of permits, and have been working to interpret the scope of the exemptions to the regulations as widely as the law will allow.

I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware that the proposal is estimated to cost the industry £37 million and each driver £1,500. It rather seems like the Government have taken a sledgehammer to crack a nut. What does the Minister say to Shotts’ Getting Better Together in my constituency, which provides essential community transport services, yet has no interest in being a commercial entity and could be lost to the community under these plans?

I do not recognise the description that the hon. Gentleman gives. I have been up and down the country talking to community transport schemes. It is not at all clear that the implication for local community transport operators will be anything like as severe as has been suggested, and the one case that has been tested has been referred back for further evidence gathering.

I am grateful to the Minister for recently visiting my constituency, where he saw the great work being done by Our Bus Bartons. He will know that such companies all over the country are urgently seeking reassurance, but can he clarify whether any action proposed by the transport commissioner reflects upon the consultation that is taking place, or whether the consultation will be taking place in any event?

The consultation will be taking place in any event, and the details will be announced shortly. I greatly enjoyed my visit to see the Our Bus group, which is a model of good practice in local community transport.

I welcome the Minister to his appointment. While I understand that the Government have said that they are not going to end the sections 19 and 22 arrangements, the letter they sent out in July last year has caused what the Select Committee on Transport has described as paralysis in the not-for-profit sector. Do we not now need clarity from the Government about what they intend to do, so that they can demonstrate real support for the community transport sector, including for firms such as Shencare in my constituency?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming me to my job. I have actually been in it for a while, so I am sorry not to have made more impact on him, if not on the sector. In that regard, he will have seen—I am sure he has noted it carefully—the testimony that I and one of my officials gave to the Transport Committee, which put to rest the question of whether the letter was inappropriate or had caused difficulty. There certainly has been concern, and rightly so: it is a reinterpretation of the law. Some people may not be compliant, that is true, but the vast majority will be, and we expect the consultation to be successful in further allaying concerns.

North Norfolk Community Transport says that at the moment it is unable to get new section 19 permits because it has bid for some of its services competitively, but those services are cross-subsidising vital community services and it is doing exactly what the county council urged it to do. These vital services could go under unless that uncertainty ends, so can the Minister give some reassurance urgently?

The traffic commissioners are acting speedily and effectively and as a unified group on this issue. I expect the consultation to continue to give—through the proposed exemptions and workarounds that we have been looking at—further comfort to the sector.

Rail Improvements: Devon and the South-west

We are investing more than £400 million in the rail network in the south-west. This includes a fleet of brand-new trains for services to Devon and Cornwall, which will enter service later this year, transforming journeys for passengers. We are continuing to work with Network Rail and the Peninsula Rail Task Force to explore the potential for longer-term improvements in the south-west.

I welcome the Minister to his new job. The Waterloo to Exeter line serves Axminster and Honiton and the southern part of my constituency. It is a great rail line and it needs a second loop in order to get more trains into Exeter and then back up to London. Could the Minister give me details of what is happening with that?

The Devon Metro proposals for enhanced rail services in the Exeter area include aspirations for additional local services between Axminster and Exeter. This is being progressed as a local scheme by Devon County Council, and we will continue to provide assistance as it develops its proposals.

I welcome the Minister to his new position. The new Minister will be aware that the Government missed the Christmas deadline for funding the three-minute speed reduction between Plymouth and Exeter. At just £600,000, why did the Government knock back the south-west?

I can assure that hon. Gentleman that that is not the case. We are continuing to look closely at the issue, and we are working on it in the Department and with Network Rail.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his post. As he will know, one of the key improvements that could be made for my constituents would be the provision of a new station at Edginswell. Does he share the enthusiasm of his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard)—whom I see further down the Front Bench, in his new post as a Whip—for that project, and does he agree that it would be a perfect beneficiary of the new stations fund?

I do share the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys. We are currently investing more than £40 billion in our network, including more than £15 billion on rail enhancements, as part of the biggest rail modernisation programme for over a century, and we are always on the lookout for good proposals to support.

I, too, welcome the Minister to his post. When will the electrification programme for the railways in the south-west—including the chunk to Bristol—be “un-paused”?

We are thinking about how we can deliver the best outcomes for passengers, because that is what is important to us. We are delivering the same benefits more efficiently, and at a lower cost to taxpayers. We are delivering faster journey times and better trains, and I think that Members on both sides of the House will welcome the new fleet of 29 Hitachi trains which will serve that part of the country.

Accessible Stations

The Government are committed to improving station access for disabled people, including those with hidden disabilities. Further funding for the Access for All programme will be made available in the next rail control period, and we are introducing new accessibility commitments as part of franchises. In addition, whenever the industry carries out infrastructure work at stations, it must meet current accessibility standards. I must say “thank you” to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who did a huge amount of work on accessibility across all transport modes.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on disability, I have been hearing accounts from people throughout the United Kingdom about a lack of access to both underground and railway stations, which contributes to isolation and social exclusion and also impedes their ability to get back to work—and getting people back to work is one of the Government’s key tasks. Would the Minister kindly agree to discuss with the all-party group the progress that can be made if we work together on the issue?

I am aware of the hon. Lady’s work on the APPG. As she will know, I was chair of the all-party parliamentary group on eye health and visual impairment, and we did a lot of work together.

I believe that 75% of platforms are accessible by steps, but we need to do much more work. All train operating companies and Network Rail are required to have a disabled people’s protection policy as a condition of their licences.

The hon. Lady also contributed to the draft accessibility action plan. There were a number of recommendations, and I look forward to meeting her and ensuring that they are followed through.

21. Having previously chaired the sight loss group, the Minister may be aware of concern expressed by Guide Dogs and the Royal National Institute of Blind People. Equality disability training has been standard for bus drivers throughout Europe since 2013, but the UK’s opt-out will run out on 1 March. I asked about that during Women and Equalities questions last week, and the fact that the Minister knew nothing about it did not sound terribly good in the context of interdepartmental working. Will the UK meet its deadline, or will this be another loss from Brexit? (903385)

At present, bus drivers must undertake licensing training to ensure that they are able to deal with people with not just visible disabilities but invisible disabilities such as sight loss. They cannot obtain their competency certificates without that training. I will ensure that the issue is followed up at local authority level, and if there is a gap, I shall be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady to ensure that it is dealt with.

I recently undertook a journey on our Bexleyheath line service with a disabled person who was using a wheelchair, to demonstrate how inconvenient it will be when the Victoria line link is removed with the new franchise. She would then have to change at Lewisham, and she says that she would not undertake that journey. Is it right that we are designing disabled people out of our rail service? Will the Minister implore her colleagues to change their minds?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this. It is not acceptable, but I believe that it is going to be addressed later on down the line at Charing Cross. I refer, too, to my earlier response: all train operating companies have to comply with the disabled people’s protection policy, and if they are unable to, they have to provide alternative transport for the passenger, such as an accessible taxi to the next station. If the hon. Gentleman has a particular case, I will be more than happy to follow it up.

Rail Passenger Compensation

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that, principally because of greater awareness and greater ease in accessing compensation, passengers in the Greater Anglia region have received twice as much compensation in 2016-17 as they did in 2015-16.

I apologise for arriving late—due to a train delay this morning. We in the east of England are looking forward to our sparkling new trains arriving next year, but in the meantime we often face delays, and when people face delays they should be compensated. Will the Minister look at issues such as when trains are overcrowded and people have to get the next one, or when they are cancelled, and see if we can find some technical improvements?

I am glad my hon. Friend welcomes the new trains. Passengers can look forward to a complete fleet replacement, with over 1,000 new carriages by the end of 2020. This will mean passengers will be travelling on longer and, crucially, more regular trains.

The problems the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) describes as facing her constituents are exactly the same as those my constituents have been experiencing in recent months on Northern Rail. Pleas for a compensation system that recognises that delays might be short but repeated and that trains are often overcrowded so that they cannot even get on them are falling on deaf ears. Will the Minister undertake to take this up directly with Northern Rail since my own meetings with it have produced absolutely no progress on this matter?

That is why it is so important that trains are being extended and replaced. The crucial thing is that, where there are delays, passengers are more aware of, and have easier access to, compensation schemes, and overall across the system over £73 million was paid in compensation in 2016-17, an increase of over 64% over the previous year.

The compensation scheme works on the basis that the delays are an exception rather than the norm. Will the Minister sit down with me, or perhaps follow me on Twitter so that he can see the messages I have had every day since work was resumed after the holidays on south-east trains, with delays and disruption every day on every line?

I share my hon. Friend’s concerns and sympathise greatly with the experience of his constituents and other constituents in that area. The Southeastern service is one of the most congested in the country, and it has been vulnerable to the impact of infrastructure failures. We are working closely to ensure closer working between the operator and Network Rail to secure a reduction of such problems in the future.

Compensation arrangements have to work, so will the Minister outline whether he believes that the compensation system can be streamlined and, importantly, be accessible?

Passengers are accessing compensation schemes far more easily than ever before. That is reflected in the greater take-up of compensation payments, which is growing at a far faster rate than any delays in services. We continue to work with operators to ensure that this becomes easier for passengers to access and we will be looking carefully at that in the next franchise renewals process.

Private Sector Rail Investment

5. What recent assessment he has made of the role of private sector investment in the rail industry. (903367)

The private sector has generated almost £6 billion of private investment over the past decade, providing new trains, upgrading stations and transforming the passenger experience.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The irony will not be lost on him that public sector satisfaction in the railways is declining as Government influence is at its highest since rail privatisation. What discussions has his Department had with Network Rail to change procurement and design practices so that the private sector can have more influence in funding and financing future projects?

I want to see both. We have just announced the biggest investment programme in our railways—over the period 2019 to 2024—since the steam age, including £20 billion of renewals. That is crucial: one of the reasons why we talk at Question Time about train delays is that the infrastructure in many places desperately needs renewal, which is why we are spending £20 billion on that. It is also important that we bring in additional private finance alongside that public investment, and I have been discussing extensively with Network Rail how we can make that happen.

The private sector can only bring in investment if it knows what the Government’s plans for infrastructure are going to be. Will the Secretary of State tell me now what the latest Government position is on the electrification of the trans-Pennine line?

I have just received the proposals from Network Rail, and we are now reviewing them. My aim is to start this £3 billion upgrade within a matter of months. The project is due to really get under way next year. We are looking at all the different options but, as I have said, electrification will be part of the programme.

Up until 1992, when the only investment in the railways came from the public sector, rail usage was declining. Since privatisation, we have seen a massive increase in the amount of people using the railways. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is because of the changes that the private sector brought in?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. I do not understand the policy adopted by the Labour party. We are now seeing the construction of thousands of new carriages funded by the private sector, and we are getting rid of some of the legacy trains from the days of British Rail that were not up to scratch in those days and are certainly not up to scratch now. That is because private money is coming in alongside our investment programme.

The real question for the Secretary of State is: does he have the political will to ensure that the money is available to invest in the northern rail system in this generation? Not jam tomorrow. Trains today.

The answer to that is clearly yes, because every single train in the north of England is being replaced or refurbished as new. All the old Pacer trains are going, and we are about to start the trans-Pennine upgrade, which will account for one third of the total funding available for enhancement on the railway between 2019 and 2024. That is a large investment programme that will make a difference to the north, and it is a sign of our commitment to the north.

Following the sad demise of Carillion, will the Secretary of State confirm that he is carrying out a full review of the HS2 project, including the business case, to ensure that the remaining private sector companies have the capacity to deliver the project without serious overruns and extra cost to the taxpayer?

My right hon. Friend will be relieved to know that the demise of Carillion, a tragic event for this country and for corporate Britain, will none the less not affect the HS2 project. The existing contract is part of a three-company consortium, and the other two companies, Kier and Eiffage, are taking over responsibility for the project. The apprenticeships are being transferred, the staff are being transferred and the project will continue uninterrupted.

On 17 July last year, the day on which Carillion was confirmed in the HS2 contract, I asked the Secretary of State about the financial instability of the company. He declared himself to be confident that the expected results would be delivered. Given the unfolding events of the last few days, has he now reflected and does he now accept that he got it spectacularly wrong and that his judgment and confidence were disastrously misplaced?

I do not accept that at all. The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to the HS2 contract. At the time, I reviewed those carrying out the contracting very carefully, and I have carried out due diligence since. As I said a moment ago, the HS2 project will not be affected by this, even to the point, I am pleased to say, that the apprentices working with Carillion on the project are being transferred to one of the other two partners. The work will continue uninterrupted. There is no delay and there are no cost implications.

On Monday, The Times newspaper said:

“The transport secretary’s decision to award lucrative contracts to an ailing Carillion is only the latest worrying misjudgment to come to light.”

It highlighted his trip to Qatar on the day of the biggest rail fare hike in five years, the notorious £2 billion east coast bail-out and his dysfunctional dealings with trade unions in the private sector, saying that the Prime Minister

“needs to consider whether it is time that this transport secretary left the station.”

Has not The Times got it absolutely right?

The only station that I am going to be leaving is Euston station for a visit to the midlands this morning. There has been no £2 billion bail-out of Virgin Trains East Coast. The contracting with Carillion was actually not with Carillion, but with a consortium of companies that are equally responsible for delivering the contract and will do so. I am happy to stand here to defend the record of a Government that have done more for our transport system than has happened in decades. That is in sharp contrast with what the Labour party did over 13 years in government, which was very little indeed.

Transport Funding: South-west

Figures for transport spend in the south-west show a significant increase—part of a pattern, Mr Speaker—totalling £1.7 billion in 2016-17 alone. That spend is helping to deliver a package of investment worth over £2 billion on the strategic road network in the south-west, as well as investing more than £400 million in the rail network.

I very much welcome the commitment to funding for the notorious A358 in my constituency, and I am pleased that the Secretary of State and Highways England listened to local concerns and my calls for a new consultation, which opened just this week with three proposals. However, I would like an assurance that the upgrade will deliver not only strategically, but for local people and for productivity in Taunton.

This is an important matter. The A303 and the A358 are a crucial part of our investment programme in the west country, and they will open up a new corridor for people travelling down to the south-west, but they do have to work for my hon. Friend’s constituents and others in the region, particularly for the new employment area next to the motorway in her constituency. I assure her that I will continue to work with her to ensure that the projects delivers both for the region and nationally.

There is some evidence that trains from Paddington to Bristol and onwards are much better, less crowded and more reliable. However, people face delays and overcrowded and unreliable trains when getting from the south-west to the midlands. Will the Secretary of State put some funding into those lines?

I am aware of the particular congestion problems on the CrossCountry franchise. We will be re-letting the franchise shortly, and I want to see longer trains with more capacity for passengers. All of us who travel on CrossCountry trains from time to time know that they are too short for the loads they carry, and we need to find a way of sorting that out.

I echo the concerns about CrossCountry trains. Even outside of peak services, cramped trains are increasingly the norm for my constituents, who are jam-packed into vestibules, and that comes on top of delays and cancellations. Does my right hon. Friend agree that CrossCountry needs to raise its game?

I do agree. This is a question, as it is across the country, of ensuring that we have longer trains for the future. That is central to our strategy and is what the private sector is delivering for our railways, and it needs to happen on CrossCountry trains as well.

On funding, Cardiff Central station—the busiest in Wales—is in urgent need of redevelopment to accommodate expected passenger growth of 22 million in the next five years. This week, our Labour council and the Welsh Labour Government announced their funding contributions and the private sector funding, but the project can go ahead only if there is UK Government funding, too. When will the funding be confirmed?

The important thing about Cardiff Central station is that there is huge development taking place around the station. I have met the developers and local politicians, and I want to see there what I want in other parts of the rail network, which is a real integration of station development with commercial development. That should be an absolutely integral part of what is happening all around the station, not just in the station project in its own right, and that is what I want to happen.

Road Links: Kent and the South-east

Highways England is making good progress with upgrades on the A2-M2 corridor to improve links to Medway and Kent, and the preferred routes for the A2 Bean and Ebbsfleet junction upgrades were announced in 2017.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Given the impressive growth and regeneration that Medway has seen over the past 20 years and will continue to see, I thank the Government for the £6 billion lower Thames crossing. Will the Minister confirm that the supporting local highways infrastructure programme will go along with the project so that areas such as Medway can fully benefit?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the lower Thames crossing is a transformational strategic road project with enormous benefits to Medway and to the region as a whole. We announced the preferred route last year, and we are now developing it further. On the local transport side, it is worth noting that the South East local enterprise partnership has secured nearly £600 million of funding from local growth funds, supporting around 30 transport schemes in Kent and Medway, in order to support the area’s continued economic growth.

18. As the Minister will be aware, one of the big investments announced for the south-east is the Oxford to Cambridge expressway, which will potentially go through Botley in my constituency. The people in my constituency are very worried. May I invite the Minister to come to Botley to meet residents and to allay their concerns about the possible bulldozing of hundreds of houses? (903381)

I would be delighted to come with the hon. Lady to meet the residents of Botley and to discuss these concerns.

Last week there was a horrific crash in my constituency in which a car ran into a parked lorry. Three men have died and one is seriously injured. I am not attributing blame, as we do not know exactly what happened, but the Minister will know that lorry parking is a long-running problem in my area of Kent. Will he meet me and representatives of Kent County Council, drivers and lorry parks to see what we can do to speed up the provision of increased lorry parking?

I am very sorry to hear the news of the crash last week. I would be delighted, as always, to meet my hon. Friend and Kent County Council. She should know this is a topic of great interest to me and the Department. Indeed, I met freight operators only this week in part to discuss these very issues.

Passenger Rail Usage

Rail passenger journeys have more than doubled in the past 20 years, and journey numbers are at their highest level since the 1920s.

Journeys on the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise fell for the first time last year as commuters shunned its shoddy services. The management contract given by DFT means the state has to shoulder a £90 million loss as a result, and Office of Rail and Road figures show that passenger numbers are starting to fall across the country. Is the franchise model sustainable if that continues?

Passengers are switching away from using traditional season tickets to using pay-as-you-go travel. They are choosing more flexible ticket options to suit their lifestyle. Changing travel behaviour may mean that historical assumptions about the number of journeys taken per season ticket are no longer appropriate. Although the number of passenger journeys is reported to have decreased recently, it does not necessarily mean that fewer people are using the railway network.

Violent attacks on trains have risen by 12.5% in the past year, and sexual offences on trains have doubled in the past five years. A Passenger Focus report in 2014 said that the most important factor identified by passengers is personal security on trains. Wales has guaranteed a guard on every train, and ScotRail has done likewise. When will this Secretary of State take responsibility for passenger safety on trains?

The introduction of new trains across almost the entire network, many of which will have CCTV, will play a significant part in ensuring that passengers can continue to travel safely.

There is a direct link between competition on the line, usage and lower fares. We welcome the fact that electrification is coming to Corby and I am grateful to Ministers for making that happen. Will they now look at options for extending Thameslink to Corby?

I would be happy to discuss that proposal with my hon. Friend. Electrification can play a part in improving passenger experience and reducing journey times, and it is one of the things the Department continues to look at closely.

One of the things deterring people from using the railways in the wintry weather we have had over the past few days is the failure of Northern Rail to properly grit some of the stations on its route, particularly Crossflatts in my constituency, making it hazardous for any passenger who wants to use those stations. Is there anything the Minister can do to intervene to make sure Northern Rail properly grits all its stations on the route so that people can use the railways safely?

I thank my hon. Friend for his suggestion. We continue to work closely with Network Rail to ensure the impact of severe weather on the system is minimised. Across road, rail and aviation, we want our transport system moving whatever the weather.

I always thought the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) had a substantial supply of grit all his own.

19. My constituents can barely get a seat on the train, yet this month they have had the shoulder the biggest fare increases in the country. Although Whitehall and rail bosses crow about improvements to stations such as London Bridge, can the Minister tell me how such projects will benefit passengers in northern towns like mine? (903382)

It is northern towns like the hon. Lady’s that are going to be some of the principal beneficiaries of the replaced train fleet across the country. Passengers in her constituency will have improved, more reliable, safer and more punctual services.

Transport Infrastructure: the North

As my hon. Friend will know, the Government are very committed to the northern powerhouse, and to giving the great towns and cities of the north of England more say over transport investment through Transport for the North. This Government are spending more than £13 billion to transform transport across the region—the biggest investment of its kind in the region for a generation.

The commencement of regional flights from Carlisle, which we hope will happen later this year, will be welcomed by my constituents. Will the Department look at ways to add additional services and to make it faster to reach central London from Southend?

I share my hon. Friend’s pleasure at the potential expansion of air services there, as elsewhere in the country. He should be aware that Greater Anglia provides train services from Southend Airport to London, and the entire franchise fleet is to be renewed, with more than 1,000 state-of-the-art vehicles and with the existing fleet retired by the end of 2020. That, combined with significant timetable changes, should mean that Greater Anglia is able to offer quicker, safer journeys, with reduced journey times, across the whole franchise—we are talking about something like 10%.

Is it not the case that if the Government had not given the £2 billion bail-out to the operators of the east coast line, they would have had sufficient money to fund every electrification scheme that has been cancelled, including the midland main line, and have funds left over?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there has been no bail-out. [Laughter.] I notice that Opposition Members are happy to quote from The Times, and may I remind them that the Secretary of State responded to the scurrilous editorial piece with a letter of his own setting out the position? There has been no bail-out of any kind.

I welcome the Minister to his post. On his opening remarks, may I remind him that there is a north beyond the northern powerhouse, and it is called Scotland? In general, in order to deliver high-quality, reliable rail services, funding needs to be based on the needs of the sector, taking account of future growth, the size of the network and essential maintenance. Does he agree with those sound principles?

I certainly share the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to the fact that the north goes beyond the northern powerhouse—of course, I entirely agree with him on that. That is why the Government are involved with the borderlands growth deal, the precise point of which is to work with local authorities on both sides of the border. He will be aware that the high-level proposition to the UK and Scottish Governments on that was submitted last year. We will continue to work on that, and of course we will continue to invest in roads, alongside that process, to the extent that we can.

On the principles I was trying to lay out, Scotland has 17% of the UK rail network but was allocated only 10.4% of the UK spend. The Government regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, has stated that £1.9 billion is needed for essential repairs and £2.3 billion is needed to meet future demand. So why was the funding formula cut and why were experts ignored, leaving Scotland with a £600 million shortfall?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there has been a fiscal settlement which has changed over time, very much in consultation with and with the support of the Scottish Government. Of course, any changes to UK funding in England will be followed by Barnett consequentials, with an impact in Scotland.

Well, investment does not seem to be working that well. The Carillion staff working on the Manchester-Bolton-Preston electrification project had their contract suspended this week. So can the Minister clarify this: should all these workers only expect the jobcentre phone number, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, or can he guarantee that these works, and all similar infrastructure undertakings, will continue to completion, with the current workforce, apprentices, supply chain and project plan?

The hon. Lady will be aware that this Government have made it clear that anyone turning up to work on those schemes through subcontractors will continue to be paid in the normal way. It is important to get that message out there, and not to spread misinformation or misunderstanding about it.

The problem with the Minister’s reply is that the vultures are already circling over the Carillion contract carcases, which will place these projects into future risk, not least as companies such as Interserve and Mitie have had profit warnings served in the last six months. So what due diligence has he instructed officials to undertake of all contractors, and will he end his market speculation by taking these contracts back in house?

Had the hon. Lady done her homework, she would know that there is almost no exposure to the rail sector through the companies that she mentioned. The fact of the matter is that the contracts have often been reinforced and proofed. Certainly on the road side, which I obviously know best—I can refer her question to the rail Minister—we have joint-venture partners that are jointly and severally obliged to pick up these obligations, and they will do so.

Transport Fuels: Renewable Sources

10. What steps his Department is taking to meet the target of at least 10% of transport fuels being from renewable sources by 2020. (903373)

13. What steps his Department is taking to meet the target of at least 10% of transport fuels being from renewable sources by 2020. (903376)

In September, we published our response to the consultation on amendments to the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligations Order 2007. It set out proposals to meet the 2020 target and reduce carbon emissions from transport. A draft statutory instrument to implement the proposals was laid before Parliament on 15 January. Subject to parliamentary approval, the legislation will increase targets for the supply of renewable fuels from April 2018.

Progress on the RTFO is positive. Are the Government ready to introduce E10 petrol, which is already available in France, Germany and Finland? That would also help the UK’s bioethanol industry, which is an important employer in Teesside.

I am aware that the industry is an important employer, and it has been a matter of concern to Ministers to ensure that it continues to succeed. I met representatives from Ensus in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency in November, and we have been having close conversations with them and others. E10 remains a commercial matter for the fuel suppliers. The RTFO encourages suppliers to use the most cost-effective solution. Our analysis suggests that E10 may not be required to meet the targets, but it may nevertheless be an attractive option for suppliers.

Abellio’s hybrid buses are generally a plus for the Uxbridge Road, but they are cancelled out by the ComfortDelGro group’s diesel vehicles, which pollute the lungs not only of my constituents on our major thoroughfare but of people all over the country, as they are standard vehicles. Surely the Government should be doing more to encourage best procurement practice and to rid our roads of dirty diesel.

As the hon. Lady will know, the Government are investing hugely in support for electric vehicles and in improvements to air quality across cities and other parts of the country. That is very much with a view to mitigating the effects of diesel fume particulates.

Fuel providers have stated that they require a Government mandate to introduce E10 fuel to avoid a breach of competition law. Will the Minister reconsider the possibility of mandating E10 fuel? If not, will his departmental lawyers work with fuel providers to overcome this legal hurdle?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comment. He will be aware that we have this matter closely under review, and we are continuing to discuss it with suppliers and forecourt operators. In some other EU countries, there has been no such mandate and there has nevertheless been significant take-up.

Southern Rail: Passenger Compensation

11. What steps he is taking to ensure the provision of adequate compensation for passengers on Southern Rail as a result of poor service in the past 12 months. (903374)

My hon. Friend knows full well that I absolutely understand the difficulties that his constituents have faced. I hope he will accept that performance has improved over the past year, since the height of industrial action. We have had compensation arrangements in place, including the special compensation for past disruption, which saw £13.6 million paid to 58,000 passengers. We have also taken steps forward on the ways to implement Delay Repay and will keep the situation under review.

On 2 December 2016, the Secretary of State said in a written statement:

“Southern passengers have suffered from unprecedented and sustained disruption to their journeys during 2016”,

and offered some very welcome compensation for season ticket holders. The problem is that Southern passengers suffered from unprecedented and sustained disruptions to their journeys during 2017 as well. In fact, the punctuality figures for the most recent quarter are even worse. When are my constituents going to be compensated this year?

As I said, additional compensation measures are in place now. The issues that network currently faces are all to do with the condition of the infrastructure. My hon. Friend will know that we have just announced two major closures to allow upgrade works to take place, and there is a substantial ongoing programme of investment in that route, which I hope will make a significant difference.

Bedford commuters will lose their fast peak train services in May. Many now do not know how they will balance work with their childcare arrangements. Does the Minister agree that Stagecoach should compensate these people and rail users who, by the Government’s admission, have borne the pain of the changes to the rail network timetable?

I cannot promise—I wish I could—no change and no disruption as a result of major investment programmes. The hon. Gentleman will know that the combination of the upgrade to the midland main line and the Thameslink programme must mean, for an interim period, changes to services. There will in fact be more seats from Bedford in peak hours. Of course, many of the east midlands trains arriving at Bedford are already full, so I absolutely regret the fact that we have to inconvenience passengers, but we cannot upgrade and improve the network without taking some difficult decisions.

Bus Journeys: England

12. What estimate he has made of the number of journeys taken by bus in England in each of the last three years. (903375)

15. What estimate he has made of the number of journeys taken by bus in England in each of the last three years. (903378)

16. What estimate he has made of the number of journeys taken by bus in England in each of the last three years. (903379)

The estimated number of passenger journeys made on local bus services in England in each of the past three years is as follows: 2014-15, 4.63 billion; 2015-16, 4.51 billion; and 2016-17, 4.44 billion.

My constituents regularly contact me to complain about infrequent and unreliable bus services. Does the Minister think that there is a link between that, the decline in bus usage, and the 33% cut to the bus budget since 2010?

What is striking is that in many ways there is so much to be optimistic about with the bus industry. When I talk to operators, I see great investments in technology and ticketing, and tremendous potential for the industry in the context of the air quality changes that have been made by this Government.

In Bristol, more than 85% of routes are provided by First Bus, which makes a healthy profit every year, but under current rules it cannot use those profits to subsidise commercially unviable routes, which may be really important to local people. Why cannot bus companies’ contracts stipulate that they have to run those services using their profits from income-generating routes, instead of letting them pocket the profits while the local council has to foot the bill?

It is not historically the job of Government to be intervening in the precise allocation of a company’s profitability. I note that there has been a substantial increase in journeys in Bristol, from 32.7 million to 39.9 million over the past three years. If the hon. Lady has some specific proposals, I will be happy to look at them.

Mr Speaker, I hope you will not mind if I take this opportunity to record my gratitude to both the emergency services and railway staff for their outstanding response to the fire at Nottingham railway station last week, ensuring that everyone was safely evacuated. Damage was minimised and services were restored very quickly.

Around a quarter of all concessionary passholders’ bus journeys are for medical appointments, yet many struggle with inaccessible and irregular bus services, and seven years of cuts to supported services have only exacerbated those problems. Research from Age UK has found that 1.5 million people over 65 found it very difficult, or difficult, to travel to hospital appointments, and stressful, complicated or expensive public transport journeys inevitably lead to missed or cancelled appointments. Has the Minister discussed that pressing problem with colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care, and what does he plan to do to address it?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and I absolutely associate myself with her support for the emergency services in relation to the fire in Nottingham.

In many ways, the concessionary fare scheme has been a colossal success, as the hon. Lady will be aware. Something like 12 million people have concessionary permits in this country and they make enormous numbers of journeys every year, heavily supported by Government.

Government cuts have led to the axing or downgrading of 400 bus routes, and passenger numbers are now at a 10-year low. Will the Minister reinstate those services, or, if he is unwilling or unable to do so, will he give local councils the power and resources that they need?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position on the Opposition Front Bench, and I thank him for the question. Of course, these services are deregulated and operate, in many cases, in collaboration with local authorities, which receive substantial amounts of funding from central Government. We expect them to deploy that money as they see fit.

CAA: Pilot Health Requirements

14. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the Civil Aviation Authority on health requirements for UK-based pilots. (903377)

The Civil Aviation Authority keeps such matters under constant review and has today announced that it will be issuing class 1 medical certificates with a restriction to applicants wishing to become commercial pilots where this is required for safety purposes.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the case of my constituent who has been denied his commercial pilot’s licence on the ground that he is HIV-positive. I am not entirely sure what the Minister’s answer means, but I hope it means that he will meet the CAA and the European Aviation Safety Agency very soon to stop them passing the buck, and let this pilot fly.

To reassure the hon. Gentleman, my answer means that today the rules are being changed, and while I cannot give a certain outcome to an individual case, people who suffer from conditions that have made it difficult for them to become commercial pilots will find it easier to become commercial pilots, as the CAA takes—I think—a more sensible approach to this matter.

Topical Questions

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.