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Topical Questions

Volume 636: debated on Thursday 1 March 2018

Briefly, let me inform the House that the Space Bill has completed its passage through Parliament, and I extend my thanks to all Members involved in the debate. That debate was conducted in good humour by Members from across the House, and we all share the aspiration for this Bill to pave the way for a thriving commercial space sector in the United Kingdom.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Network Rail and Govia Thameslink have committed to ensuring that eight-carriage trains are introduced between Cambridge and King’s Lynn by the end of the year, which is vital to relieving unacceptable levels of congestion? Will he help to ensure that that commitment is honoured?

I will certainly do that, and I also recommit to the improvements needed in Ely, which are essential over the next control period to unlocking those capacity improvements that are needed for the growth and development of those parts of Cambridgeshire.

T2. Since 1979 the distinctive yellow and green minibuses of Ealing Community Transport have provided a vital lifeline for the disabled and elderly of the borough, but changed Government guidance now threatens the existence of that award-winning social enterprise. A delegation of volunteer drivers came to see me nearly in tears. They are mostly pensioners and they do not have the time, resources or inclination to retrain for the passenger carrying vehicle licence that is now demanded. Will the Minister think again? (904127)

As the hon. Lady is aware, the matter is currently out to consultation, although it does not cover the certificate of professional competence, which will be handled separately. As I have indicated, there are many workarounds for this issue, and there is no reason for any community transport company to be adversely worried. There is a misalignment between EU law and UK law, and there may be some players who, unfortunately, are operating in a commercial way. That is how the matter rests, and we will do everything we can to protect community transport operators that are doing a good job.

T3. It is wonderful that so many new technologically superior trains are being introduced on Britain’s railways, but many passengers are complaining that some of them have cramped and uncomfortable seats. We do not want to have Ryanair on the tracks. Will the Minister do all he can to ensure that the specifications for those new trains have passenger comfort at their heart? (904128)

Train seating is required to address the comfort of passengers and to conform to relevant design standards, including on fire safety and crashworthiness. We do not want passengers to feel that they need to bring in their own inflatable cushions, and my hon. Friend will take comfort in the fact that seats normally become more comfortable over time through use.

T4. It is now over 800 days since the Government promised to research a new law on pavement parking. Will the Minister or the Secretary of State give me an update on what progress has been made? (904129)

T7. Last weekend, and so completely unrelated to the current weather, Southern rail passengers at Redhill suffered the most appalling, shambolic and potentially dangerous scenes. I appreciate that underlying that situation might be the extremely good investment programme, but what assurances has the Minister received that these awful scenes will not be repeated? (904132)

Let me say very clearly and unequivocally that what took place last Sunday was unacceptable. On behalf of the Government, I apologise for it and the company has already done so. We have made our views known to the company in the strongest possible terms. It was unacceptable and lessons have to be learned. The company is putting in place arrangements to make sure people receive appropriate financial compensation. It must not happen again.

T5. Last Friday, I arranged a site meeting between Network Rail and the YMCA for south London to talk about an abandoned strip of land owned by Network Rail on Rialto road in Mitcham, close to Eastfields station, in the hope that they can together provide some great prefab housing for young people. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can encourage Network Rail to use all its scraps of land to the benefit of everyone? (904130)

I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this issue. It is really important that we make the most of all such opportunities for Network Rail to put scraps of land to good use, whether for housing, strips of walkway, or other pedestrian or cycling purposes. I am happy to meet her to discuss that.

T8. What is the Department doing to help more people to cycle safely, as happens in such cities as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, especially given the startling revelation to the joint air quality Committee by Professor Stephen Holgate that drivers and passengers are inhaling up to 10 times more poor quality air than cyclists and pedestrians on the street? (904133)

The answer to that question is a great deal, with more to come. I was very pleased to be able to go to the meeting of the all-party group on air pollution, of which my hon. Friend is a member, with Chris Boardman. That is an excellent example of how an individual initiative in Manchester can be used to drive great change. The cycle safety review is coming up shortly and will look at a very wide range of issues relating to cycling, including recent information on some of the impacts on air quality. As he says, cycling is remarkably good for the body and soul of the people who do it.

T6. Cheshire Oaks in my constituency is a great success story, with increased investment leading to another 300 jobs. However, it is very difficult for those living in Neston in the other part of the constituency to access those jobs because there are no bus services in the evening and Cheshire Oaks is open until 8 o’clock at night. Is that not a sorry state of affairs and can we not do more to help people to get into work? (904131)

Bus services, what journeys they take and how frequently they are run, are down to the local authority. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to discuss this matter with his local authority, which can take it forward with local bus service providers.

T10. I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State for visiting my constituency recently. On that occasion, I was pleased to give him the Stoke-on-Trent HS2 masterplan. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on his plans to make Stoke-on-Trent HS2-ready? (904135)

First, I want to put on the record again my commitment to making sure that Stoke is in receipt of an HS2 service when the route opens. The local authority’s plans for Stoke station are very exciting and I want to work on them with my hon. Friend and the local authority.

T9. The western side of the M60, in the process of the upgrading to the smart motorway system, has seen congestion, gridlock and horror for commuting traffic on a daily basis. Even now, the 50 mph limit remains in place. When will we see progress? (904134)

I know that these works have taken longer than intended. I have spoken to Highways England and we want to get this situation resolved as quickly as possible. It is certainly the case—I speak as somebody who travels from time to time to Old Trafford—that the area is surrounded by roadworks on the motorway and the work on the new extension to the Metrolink. I hope the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge, however, that this is a sign that the Government are making sure there is investment in, and resource provided to, Manchester, where transport investment on this scale has not happened for a long time.

My right hon. Friend will know from our many previous conversations that the people of Plymouth have waited too long to see improvements on their rail link, so I am grateful for his Department’s response yesterday, but when can they expect to see something delivered—some work completed—on Dawlish, which I know is his No. 1 responsibility?

Protecting the line at Dawlish is a national priority of utmost importance and we are determined to find a permanent solution for this vital connection. Some £15 million of funding has been provided to Network Rail to take this forward and planning and development work is well under way. There will be no unnecessary delay, and we will complete this work as soon as we can within the law.

Thank you so much, Mr Speaker. There is one set of tracks and one franchise operator between London and Brighton, but there are three separate pricing structures. I urge the Secretary of State and the Rail Minister to think about implementing the Gibb recommendation to lower the pricing to the lowest possible one—the Thameslink one—for a two-year period. That could be done with no technical changes whatever, and it would have a transformative impact on passengers who have suffered so much in the last few years.

We are working our way through the recommendations of the Gibb report, and we are working our way through the automation of ticketing, which I think is a prerequisite of the broader fares reform that is necessary. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the keyGo card has just launched across the Govia Thameslink Railway network, and that smart ticketing is progressing. That will provide the opportunity for fares reform in a way that has not been there previously.

During the recent appalling weather, Worcestershire County Council has been sharing information about where the nearest grit bin can be found, and getting the gritters out on the road. Will the Secretary of State join me in praising them for helping residents to prepare for the recent appalling conditions?

I absolutely praise them, and I am delighted that we have ample stocks on hand to deal with the current inconveniences. I put my hat squarely back on my head to deal with that on a personal level. Not least of the joys of this particular scheme and approach is that they open the way to Herefordshire, a place that I know the House will wish to visit on regular occasions.

The Secretary of State will be aware that no money was spent in control period 5 on supporting enhancements to the rail infrastructure in north Wales. Having seen the unanimity in north Wales and in north-west England on Monday this week, does he not accept that our time has come for cross-border rail investment?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I went to that event and made a commitment. I praise my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) for bringing the event together and thank all the Members from north Wales who attended. I gave a clear indication of the Government’s sympathy with the need for the Crewe hub. I talked about the re-signalling on parts of the route, which will improve performance on the line. The hon. Gentleman will be aware, as the Member of Parliament for Wrexham, that we are now carrying out the study on how we deliver a proper service on the Wrexham to Bidston line. Under this Government, the time has certainly come for transport improvements.

BACT—Beccles and Bungay area community transport—plays a key strategic role in north Suffolk in serving remote rural areas and many vulnerable people. Will the Minister assure me that in assessing the feedback from his current consultation, his No. 1 objective will be to put the future of organisations such as BACT on a sustainable, long-term financial footing?

I can absolutely assure him that the Department’s goal has always been to manage this process with as little impact as possible and ultimately to the benefit of the community transport sector, if we possibly can.

The Minister and his predecessor have been supportive of my trailer safety campaign and #towsafe4freddie, following Freddie Hussey’s tragic death in 2014. Does he agree with me that the Haulage Permits and Trailer Registration Bill, which is currently going through the Lords, offers a fantastic opportunity to further highlight the importance of trailer safety?

I absolutely recognise the campaign that the hon. Lady fought, and I think it is very worthwhile. I slightly doubt whether what she suggests is in fact the case, but attempts can of course be made within the rules. This is a very narrowly defined piece of legislation that focuses very specifically on permitting and on trailer registration, so there may not be scope to add other things, but I continue to be delighted to talk to her about the campaign that she is waging.

From the need for a final fix to the A40 to urgent upgrades to the Cotswold line, the need for a boost to west Oxfordshire’s transport is now acute. Will Ministers agree to work with me to make it happen?

The A40 is one of the roads that could benefit from the creation of the major roads network. It is precisely designed to deal with those second-tier roads that were detrunked by the last Labour Government and tend to fall through the cracks between decision making in local communities and the national work done on the strategic road network. My expectation is that my hon. Friend and his local authority will be beating a path to my door when that funding is first released. However, I would say that his railway line is getting new trains much sooner than that, which I hope will be a benefit to his constituents.

Ministers say that they want to reduce roadside emissions. The road leading from the port of Liverpool has some of the biggest air quality problems in the country. Will the Secretary of State listen to calls for investment in rail freight as an answer to the problem?

This is precisely why I am so pleased to have started feasibility work on the reopening of the Skipton to Colne railway line, a route that could provide an important link across the Pennines. It is no doubt a matter of real frustration that it takes eight to nine hours for a freight train to travel from the port of Liverpool to the power station at Drax, and it is clear to me that we need additional transpennine capacity. This is one route that could deliver it. I look forward to seeing the conclusions from that study at the end of the year, which I think is the likely timetable.

This week of all weeks, rail passengers want up-to-date information about delays and cancellations, but Southeastern’s website has failed to provide any live-time updates in any single rush hour this week, today included. Will Ministers bear that in mind when the franchise comes up for renewal?

My hon. Friend is a powerful champion of his constituents, and he is right to expect Southeastern to provide prompt, accurate and timely information so that passengers can have journeys of the quality that they deserve.

My constituent Jim Irvine, who was active all his life, now suffers from motor neurone disease, and, like many other people, relies on his mobility scooter for independence. Scooters are currently banned from the Tyne and Wear metro. What will the Secretary of State do to remedy the situation, and will he give assurances that our promised new rolling stock will include provision for mobility scooters?

As the hon. Lady says, it is time that we had new rolling stock on the Newcastle-upon-Tyne metro. I expect to see updated, modern rolling stock that can provide proper accessibility for people with disabilities. The decision about the configuration will of course be made locally, but I certainly expect the money that is available to be spent on disability-compliant rolling stock.

Will my right hon. Friend give us an update on the progress of the negotiations on air connections with the European Union after we leave in March next year?

The European Commission has published its negotiating position on aviation links. There have been a lot of scare stories around over the last few months, but the Commission has said that in all circumstances—whether or not we have a trade deal, and whether or not we have an implementation period—there must be an aviation agreement. There is a recognition on the Commission’s side that the flights need to continue, and there is an absolute commitment on our side. I met my Spanish counterpart yesterday, and we agreed that it was essential for flights to continue. We will all work to ensure that there is absolutely no interruption in services.

Does the Secretary of State understand the severe disappointment and anger in the far south-west about the sham of a south-west rail strategy that was published yesterday? Will he now do the right thing, and, instead of re-spinning the £50 million that has already been announced, match Labour’s £2.5 billion rail investment plan for the south-west?

I will take no lessons from the party that did nothing for transport in the south-west over a long period. This Government are doing things that Labour never did—dualling the A303, providing brand-new trains, and resignalling in Cornwall to increase the number of rail services. The hon. Gentleman should be embarrassed about his party’s record.

Order. We are very short of time. In fact, we have run out of time. We have had some very comprehensive answers, for which we are grateful, but I will take only two more questions, if the questions and answers are very short.

Will the Minister please look into the concerns that a flyover and tunnel at Stonehenge will damage the valuable archaeological site at Blick Mead?

My hon. Friend will be interested to know that I sent a message of welcome to the team from the International Council on Monuments and Sites that is currently considering the issue of Stonehenge. Of course we will look into my hon. Friend’s concerns, and he is welcome to write to me with further details.

When will the Government catch up with the rest of the world and take advantage of a quick, easy, cost-effective way of reducing transport emissions by introducing E10 fuel?

We are reviewing that option at the moment. As the hon. Gentleman will know, it would require legislation, but we are already giving considerable support to the ethanol industry, and we are continuing to look into it.