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Topical Questions

Volume 639: debated on Thursday 19 April 2018

We spend a lot of time talking about planes, trains and automobiles in these sessions, but we do not spend much time talking about ships. I want to pay tribute to all those involved in the talks that took place in London last week, particularly those from my Department. They paved the way for an historic agreement in the maritime sector on cutting carbon emissions from shipping. It is a really important step forward and I commend all those involved.

Will the Secretary of State visit Long Eaton as a matter of urgency to visit those property owners directly affected by HS2, some of whom are facing the prospect of being tens of thousands of pounds out of pocket? Will he reaffirm his commitment to the House today that no one will lose out as a result of HS2?

I know that we have particular issues with some of the properties in Long Eaton, particularly the railway cottages. I have worked and will continue to work closely with my hon. Friend to ensure that HS2 does the right thing by those people.

On “Question Time”, the Secretary of State intimated that, post Brexit, trucks will not be checked and will move freely through the border, as happens in Canada and the US. I have an official document that confirms that all lorries are stopped on the US-Canada border. Will he apologise for giving out duff information, do his homework and tell the House what the concrete plans will be post Brexit?

As I have said before—I say it again today—there will not be physical checks that require every lorry to be stopped at Dover. It is not physically possible to do it, and in today’s world of trusted trader systems and electronic processing of customs information, there is no need for that to happen. I would also say that we are confident that we will deliver, as is our intention, a sensible free trade agreement with the European Union that will make all this an irrelevant discussion.

T5. Following the delays to electrification, Arriva has announced a new timetable downgrading the train service between my constituency of Southport and south Manchester, which will have significant consequences for Southport’s residents and its local economy. What reassurances can my right hon. Friend provide to my constituents and rail passengers along that line who are now having to make difficult choices about where they live and work as a result of this downgrading? (904839)

My hon. Friend knows that I have been to Southport and talked to some of those affected. As a result of those recent discussions, we have been able to put back in two extra services to Manchester Piccadilly. Of course, the original franchise plan was for the services to go to Manchester Victoria, but I have listened carefully to what has been said. Timetable changes cannot happen quickly and easily, but I will do my best to work with my hon. Friend to ensure that there is a better mix of services for the future.

With free bus travel for the under-25s estimated at £1.4 billion a year, why is the Minister opposing a scheme that could benefit up to 13 million young people, saving them up to £1,000 each a year, at a time when they face significant financial hardship due to tuition fees and the high cost of living?

This was an intriguing policy proposed by Labour at the Budget, and the figures did not seem to add up. At one point Labour was saying it would cost just over £1 billion, but it looks like it might cost closer to £13 billion. The hon. Gentleman needs to go back to school and add up his figures. We already provide £1 billion towards concessionary travel to support up to 10 million older people, and disabled people, too. I would be intrigued to know whether Labour has budgeted for this concessionary travel to be before or after 9.30 am.

Can the Minister explain how she has calculated that figure of £13 billion? Research by University College London, which is widely accepted across the sector, shows that every individual person in the UK could be given free bus travel for £5 billion.

The figures have already changed from around £1 billion to the projected figure of over £13 billion, and now to £5 billion. When the shadow Minister makes proposals, and if he wants not only the sector but young people to take them seriously, I suggest that he comes to the Dispatch Box with the most accurate figure that comes to hand. We are doing what we can to support bus patronage, including enabling local authorities to work with bus providers to make sure that people can make the most requested journeys. I must add that we already provide over £1 billion-worth of concessionary travel to older people and to those with disabilities, and perhaps we could take Labour’s proposal more seriously if the figures added up.

T6. Is the Department doing anything to monitor the effective spending of the additional money being given to councils to fix potholes, including the £262,000 that was given to Walsall Council? (904840)

That is a great question. As my hon. Friend will know, the pothole action fund is part of a £6 billion fund we are spending on local highways between 2015 and 2021, including £105 million for highways maintenance in the West Midlands combined authority, which includes Walsall. We ask that highways authorities provide a statement on their websites on how they utilise the pothole action fund money they have been allocated and, of course, we review and assess how that money is spent. We are always looking for, and seeking to incentivise, best practice.

T2. Bristol City Council is considering five different options for clean air zones. Air pollution is estimated to kill 300 people a year in the city. What is the Minister doing to help councils to deliver on tackling air pollution? (904835)

As the hon. Lady will know, we have spent more money than any Government have ever spent in this country on tackling air quality issues. We are working very closely with local authorities, including Bristol, to do that. Something like £400 million is already in prospect to support local authorities in this regard, and we look forward to seeing further action by Bristol and other local authorities to support it.

I was alarmed to learn that Govia Thameslink Railway is planning to cut Great Northern services at Oakleigh Park station in the morning peak. GTR has promised me it will restore the services when new rolling stock is introduced this year. Will the Minister work with me to hold it to that promise?

T3. Volunteer drivers in Wrexham, through wonderful charities like Dynamic and Chariotts, are very concerned about the impact of possible regulatory change, which may affect their ability to provide a vital service. Can the Minister reassure me that the position of volunteer drivers will not be affected by new changes? (904836)

As the hon. Gentleman notes, we are in the process of seeking to apply EU law as it applies to community transport. We have launched a review to explore several specific workarounds that address the concerns that community transport operators may have. We look forward to the completion of that review, and we will be publishing our own thoughts as a result, based on the substantial input we have gathered.

The bioethanol industry and the farming community that supplies it are looking for some certainty about the introduction of E10. Is the Minister able to give a clear steer as to when they can expect that certainty and whether the Government will be giving support?

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Government have taken a very important forward position by introducing the renewable transport fuel obligation. We are looking closely at E10, and at international precedents and examples as to how enhanced ethanol fuels have been brought into play. It is important to respect market dynamics, so this is a slightly tricky issue, on which we are spending some time and consideration.

T4. There is mounting concern on the Clyde that an active programme is being undertaken by Peel Ports, which owns both the Clydeport authority and the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, to plough billions of pounds of investment into Merseyside at the expense of the Clyde, stifling investment in the Clyde’s port facilities. Will the Minister undertake an immediate investigation into anti-competitive practices in both of the UK’s two main west coast ports, as this is unacceptable? (904837)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. I am glad he has brought it to my attention and I am more than happy to have a meeting with him to discuss it further.

Yesterday, my hon. Friend—my very good friend—the Minister of State responded to an Adjournment debate on impacts of the timetable changes of the Thameslink programme. He said that Members were welcome to suggest changes where there had been negative impacts. May I suggest to him that the reduction in services from Orpington to Victoria via Bromley South is precisely such a negative change, which should be looked at urgently?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Of course, that matter is close to my heart and I will be paying extraordinary attention to it in the coming months.

T8. Will the Minister tell us what recent research the Department has undertaken on whether shared space schemes without kerbs or controlled crossings are safe for people with vision impairments? (904842)

We have been reviewing our accessibility plan within the Department and will be reviewing how we deal with shared spaces. The hon. Gentleman knows that I used to chair the all-party group on eye health and visual impairment, which has huge concerns about shared spaces. We will be making a statement on this shortly. We want to make sure that all of our spaces, especially those around transport infrastructure, are accessible for people with all disabilities.

Reopening Middlewich railway station to passengers is a matter of crucial importance to many of my constituents. What progress is being made on developing the business case for that?

I know there is strong local support for improvements to the rail network in Cheshire. I am pleased to confirm that the Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership is in the process of establishing a working group with local authority partners and Network Rail to examine the feasibility of reopening the mid-Cheshire link railway line, including Middlewich station, in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and that the Department has offered to provide advice.

A few weeks ago, we had the 10th anniversary of the introduction of the free bus pass scheme for pensioners, which is a hugely popular policy. What efforts did the Department make to mark that anniversary? What assurances can the Minister give pensioners about the future of the scheme?

The bus pass scheme tends to be reviewed every five years, and what we have been able to do is ensure that that review does not take place every five years and that the concessionary bus pass remains in place for as long as is needed.

The Secretary of State has long taken a personal interest in the Boston bypass. Will he join me in commending the excellent campaign being run by my local paper, the Boston Standard, which is gathering evidence from local hauliers, in particular? Does he agree that it bolsters an already compelling case for an application to be made to his bypass fund for this road in due course?

As my hon. Friend knows, I have visited the proposed site of the Boston bypass on more than one occasion over the years. I know that a vigorous campaign has been run by his local paper, local activists and himself. You will know, Mr Speaker, that we will shortly be bringing forward the next stage of our proposals for what I have dubbed the “bypass fund”, and there will be opportunities to build bypasses in the not-too-distant future.

T9. Evidence shows that regulating bus services can improve the service and boost passenger numbers, so why are this Government siding with bus companies, rather than bus passengers, by refusing councils the powers to take back control of local buses? (904843)

I am a bit confused as to where the hon. Gentleman read that, because we have not refused any authorities. We are trying to help local authorities to manage their bus services and work with bus operators to deliver the best service that they think is needed at local level. The decision is best made locally. On top of that, we have spent £250 million to support bus services in England via the bus service operators grant, and £40 million of that goes towards supporting concessionary travel at a local level.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is a renowned blue-sky thinker, so does he imagine that any time soon, or even some day in the future, people will be able to get on an HS2 train in Manchester or Glasgow and go non-stop to the European continent?

For a moment, I thought my hon. Friend was going to ask me whether people would be able to get on an HS2 train in Manchester and travel to Lichfield. Of course, it always depends on the market. When the first trains started to operate through the channel tunnel, a fleet of trains was bought to provide links from the north of England through to the continent, but the market was never there—although one never says never.

The Hussey family and I are grateful for the Minister’s support following Freddie’s tragic death in 2014, and we will welcome him to Bristol next week for a trailer safety summit. On Tuesday, the other place agreed to improve trailer safety measures; is the Minister willing to share his view of their lordships’ decision?

I have greatly enjoyed the chance to work with the hon. Lady on the issues that she describes, and I am very much looking forward to attending her trailer safety summit next week. The Haulage Permits and Trailer Registration Bill will come to this House in due course, so we will then have a chance to look at what their lordships have said.