House of Commons
Thursday 24 May 2018
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: Rail Industry
The Government’s rail sector report was published in December and included an analysis of the rail industry. We keep our analysis under constant review. Our future relationship with the EU on rail will be a matter for the negotiations. Both the UK and the EU have greatly benefited from investment in each other’s rail markets. We want that to continue as the UK leaves the EU.
The Secretary of State will be aware that passengers in Scotland have been protected from the impact of fare increases as a result of the Scottish Government’s cap of RPI minus 1%. Will he not take a leaf out of the Scottish Government’s book to ensure that passengers are not hit in their pockets as the result of his Government’s inability to provide even basic certainty over Brexit?
I am not sure quite what that has to do with our future relationship with the EU, but I want the rate of increase of rail fares to come down. The biggest barrier to that is the Labour party’s and the trade unions’ insistence that the RPI measure has to be at the heart of every pay increase in the rail industry. The industry collectively needs to move to RPI, but the training manuals for the unions that back the Labour party insist that it is unacceptable to negotiate on anything except an RPI increase.
The Government often cite EU regulations on state aid as a constraint on their agency. Can we therefore look forward, after Brexit, to innovative new approaches to the public ownership of the railways, or will the Secretary of State continue to sell rail services to the state-owned companies of other EU countries?
We have a diverse rail market, with investment from the UK and international investment. I hope very much that after Brexit we will not become a country that does not welcome international investment. We are an outward-facing global nation, and I hope that will continue.
In the Secretary of State’s assessment of the rail industry post Brexit, did he include the vital nature of securing resilience in the coastal railway at Dawlish, given the link to Falmouth docks and the freight services that bring in exports?
I want to reiterate that this is an absolutely crucial project for our railways. Network Rail is currently doing preparatory work for the very necessary improvements at Dawlish. I have given an absolute commitment that those works will go ahead. I regard this project, to make sure a proper resilient railway for the future is delivered to the south-west, as the most important infrastructure project in the country. It is one thing having a railway that is not quite up to date; it is quite another having a railway that gets cut off. We will not let that happen.
It is really important that we protect the interests of passenger and freight operators. I have been clear that the new board leading the integration and development of the London North Eastern Railway will have representatives whose job is to protect the interests of smaller operators.
EU rules clearly did not prevent the Government from taking the east coast franchise off Stagecoach last week, which shows their power to remove a franchise from a failing operator is not hampered by them. Given that this week we managed to pass 300 cancellations on the Lakes line in Cumbria since the beginning of April, and the enormous and catastrophic impact that is having on commuters, tourists and GCSE students trying to get to their exams, will the Secretary of State listen to the exasperated travellers of Cumbria and intervene to strip Northern of both its Furness and Lakes franchises—and do it today?
Let us be clear: the situation with Northern has been unacceptable. As I said yesterday, I will this morning chair a conference call with the Northern leaders. This is the most devolved franchise. It is a partnership between Northern leaders and the Department for Transport, but it is not solely led by the Department. None the less, it is no less important to me that we get this situation resolved. I am very clear that this problem has arisen for two prime reasons: the problems with electrification Network Rail is carrying out on the line through Bolton and the failure of Network Rail to deliver a finalised timetable in time. When the hon. Gentleman talks about the need to strip the franchise and renationalise, he is shooting at the wrong target. This is a Network Rail failure and it must not happen again.
We know that since rail privatisation the Secretary of State thinks magic money appears from nowhere with no risk to the taxpayer, but that is not the case. When it comes to infrastructure, the UK relied on £35 billion of loans from the European Investment Bank between 2011 and 2015. Where will that money come from for rail infrastructure post Brexit?
We are a substantial net contributor to the European Union, so the money given to the UK from different European funds actually originates in the UK. We will be able to spend our money in the way we see fit. We are of course spending record amounts of money on rail infrastructure to develop what needs to be a better, expanded and more resilient rail network.
Digital Railway Strategy
Two weeks ago, Mark Carne, the chief executive of Network Rail, and I launched the company’s digital railway strategy in York, where we announced that the industry should make plans for all future renewals to be digital or digital-ready. I have already approved funding to develop digital schemes in Moorgate and the south-east, and in particular, I have set out plans for the new TransPennine route. The £2.9 billion modernisation, starting around this time next year, will be Britain’s first, principal inter-city digital railway, and very necessary it is.
Later this month, the priced option for the Island line in my constituency will be presented. I will be writing next week in support of that priced option. Can the Minister assure me that the Government understands the importance of the Island line to the Island and the importance of investment in it—in track, railway and stations such as Ryde Pier Head, which is on the pier, and Ryde Esplanade, which is a key gateway? Is he aware of my strong support for a feasibility study into extending the Island line south and west?
I know indeed, Mr Speaker—in fact, he used to be a constituent of mine and is now benefiting from the wonderful environment that is the Isle of Wight. My hon. Friend has been an excellent champion for it since his election. I can assure him that the Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), and I will be taking careful note of the plans as they come through, and we will work with him to try to find the best way to ensure that his constituents have the best service that it is possible to deliver to them in future.
Let me be very clear: it is my intention that the commitments to new services made in the Virgin Trains franchise are delivered. The hon. Lady will know, as I have told the House before, that there is an issue and has been for some while around the timing of some of those services because of problems with infrastructure improvements. I am putting Network Rail under as much pressure as possible to deliver those as quickly as possible. I give her and all Members who are waiting for these new services an assurance that I will make sure that they are delivered.
Can the Secretary of State tell me how the roll-out of the digital strategy, which is in itself a good thing, on my local lines is going to stop me receiving tweets like the one I received this morning? It said:
“Chaos for 4th day on SE lines—trains cancelled, late, diverted, not stopping, short formation & angry passengers”.
How is the strategy going to help that?
There are benefits of digital technology, but my hon. Friend will be aware that this is a difficult week on the railways, as I have explained. It has happened because of the late delivery of the timetable. This is the second time that it has happened in six months. I have already had discussions with Network Rail about this. It must not happen again. What the digital railway will do is create a railway that can run more trains more reliably. It gets rid of the risk of traditional signal failures, which are a big part of the frustrations that many commuters face, and I want to see, over the next few years, our stopping replacing old-fashioned traffic-light signals and using digital technology instead.
A digital railway is vital for improving capacity in the far south-west but will not necessarily improve journey speeds. If our journey times are to be long, they at least need to be productive, so can I ask the Secretary of State to commit to working with colleagues at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to improve our mobile and wi-fi signals to remove all the notspots in the far south-west, especially on rail journeys to Plymouth?
Sometimes, we disagree across the Chamber, but on this one I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are looking at the best options to do this. I think that we should be getting mobile operators to put up more masts down the route, and particularly as we move to a 5G network, I want to see that 5G network up and down the railway—and not just for passengers; it helps the digital railway as well. On this one, I am absolutely with him.
I commend my right hon. Friend for his very good question. The transition to digital technology basically means that in future, rather than having a red-amber-green signal by the trackside, the signalling is done automatically from the cab of a train. Each train will know how far it is to the train in front. It is therefore possible to manage the network more efficiently, to run trains safely closer to each other and to deliver more capacity for passengers.
The bus market outside London is deregulated, and decisions regarding service provision are primarily a commercial matter for bus operators. Decisions on subsidised bus services are a matter for individual English local authorities, in the light of their own spending priorities. The Government paid out some £250 million last year to support bus services in England through the bus subsidy operators grant. The Bus Services Act 2017 introduced new powers for local authorities and operators to work together to improve local bus services and increase passenger numbers.
Arriva has cut the bus service in Hartburn on which my constituents rely, replacing a doorstep service with what is now a 20-minute walk for older people. I have written to the Tees Valley combined authority about it, but what is the Government’s position on communities that are isolated by public transport cuts?
The hon. Gentleman has raised a valid point, but local authorities are responsible for providing local bus services, and we expect them to work with local operators, Members of Parliament and local communities to do that. Of the £250 million grant that I mentioned earlier, £40 million is paid directly to local authorities to improve bus services in their areas, including the service to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. I believe that the Department paid £88,000 last year to Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council, which I am sure he will welcome.
Over the past four years, Greater Manchester has lost 8 million miles of bus routes, largely owing to the chronic underfunding of local government. Councils are forced to freeze funds, while costs rocket. Does the Minister accept that unless local government funding is increased, mayors and transport authorities will not be able to use the new powers in the Bus Services Act to full effect?
It was the hooting of a bus horn.
It happened because I was about to mention two very important packages of funding.
The Department contributed just over £32 million towards the £43.2 million Manchester cross city bus package, which was completed in 2017. Now we need another little beat of the drum, because there is another huge sum coming up. The Greater Manchester combined authority received a guaranteed allocation of £243 million from the £1.7 billion transforming cities fund to improve public transport. If the hon. Gentleman is still not satisfied, I suggest that he talk to the Mayor.
One very important aspect of bus services is the role played by community services, particularly in rural areas. There is great concern about the consultation that the Department are currently undertaking. When can we expect some final announcements?
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), is overseeing the consultation, and he will make an announcement before the summer. The Department understands the importance of community transport services, which not only tackle isolation but enable people who would not otherwise have access to transport to keep appointments. I understand their importance particularly well, because I represent a rural constituency. The Department is very concerned about the issue, and we will do what we can to help.
For the first time in decades, the people of Cornwall are enjoying brand-new buses on our roads. They offer facilities that people used to think were available only in big cities, such as contactless payment, on-board wi-fi and charging points, and they have been delivered thanks to a partnership between First Kernow, the operator, and Cornwall Council. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the new buses; would she like to come to Cornwall to see them; and does she agree that their delivery demonstrates what can be done, even in rural communities, when local authorities use the powers available to them and work with the private sector?
I welcome the invitation to Cornwall—my summer holiday seems to have been sorted out—and I welcome the new First Kernow buses. I also welcome the fact that the local authority in my hon. Friend’s constituency has worked with the private operator and with the Member of Parliament. That shows that if people and organisations work together, they can put bus services together, even in rural communities.
Since 2010, bus budgets have been slashed by a third and over 2,500 routes have been withdrawn entirely. The Government recognise that franchising boosts patronage and improves services, which is why franchising was extended to the metro mayoralties. Why then in the midst of a bus crisis is the Minister refusing these same powers to councils across the rest of the country?
Packages for buses are at an all-time high, and I would ask why the mayors who already have the powers have not taken them up. The policy at the moment applies to London and the Mayors of Manchester and Liverpool, so I suggest the hon. Gentleman ask his own Labour Mayor of London why he has not taken these powers up.
Strategic Road Network
Projects up and down the country are being delivered through the Government’s £15 billion investment in our strategic roads, our motorways and main A roads. I salute my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), who had a fanfare a few minutes ago, and I think the reason for that was that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State officially opened the £400 million A1 upgrade from Leeming to Barton last week, so there is now a continuous motorway link between Newcastle and London for the first time in this country’s history.
The A5 through Warwickshire and Leicestershire is an important strategic route throughout the midlands and is a valuable relief road in the event of hold-ups on the M6, which can happen from time to time. It is however mostly single carriageway, and with significant amounts of development proposed along the route, will the Minister ensure that detailed work can start urgently to improve both safety and capacity?
As my hon. Friend will know, we discussed this in a Westminster Hall debate in February and I have seen him and colleagues recently. It is a very important matter; we are aware of the strategic importance of the A5. We already have work in prospect between Dodwells and the Longshoot junction and we will continue to look closely at the matter.
Substantial congestion exists on the M60, M62 and M56 around Greater Manchester, but Highways England’s investment plans start north-east of this area. Given the very significant economic regeneration plans for south-west Manchester including at the airport, the new HS2 station and New Carrington in my constituency, which the Minister has visited, does he agree that Highways England must now attend to the investment that that will require in the south-west quarter of this motorway network?
I take on board the hon. Lady’s point, but the point I would make in response is that, over the next three years, Highways England will be investing and, by the end of that period, at a rate roughly three times more than the rate the Government inherited in 2010. Therefore, unprecedented levels of investment are going in. The hon. Lady is welcome to write to me or meet me if she wants to discuss this issue further.
I welcome the improvements to the A1 to Newcastle, but there is great demand for improvements to the part of the A1 north of Newcastle to the border and my constituency. Can the Minister update the House on improvements to that part of the road to Berwick-upon-Tweed and the border with Scotland?
Drivers who hog the middle lane of motorways has always been a problem, but as traffic volumes increase the impact will be even greater. This problem makes the roads dangerous for other drivers and slows down traffic. What can be done about this?
Owing to the sheer scale of the damage the proposed A27 project will do to ancient woodland and the South Downs national park, let alone the eventual impact on air pollution caused by induced capacity, 10 of Britain’s leading environmental groups have written to the Secretary of State to highlight how his proposals contravene his own national policy statement for national networks. So has he changed his definition of “irreversible damage” or will he urgently review this scheme?
The current Great Western franchise ends on 31 March 2020. In November 2017, the Department started its consultation on the future of services. Department for Transport officials are currently evaluating options for the specification of the franchise from April 2020, and throughout the 2020s, with the aim of issuing the specification later this year.
It is a tale of two railways in Ealing and Acton. This week I have heard praise for not-for-profit TfL rail services, whose users rate its reliability, but also complaints about GWR services, which are based on profitability, that have been cancelled without recompense. Will the Minister at the first opportunity take the Thames Valley franchise back into public ownership and scrap the crackpot idea to split it further? That would do us all a favour—the Exchequer and not just shareholders—before he is forced to do so when it flops.
I fear that the hon. Lady is under a misapprehension as to the nature of the TfL contractual arrangements on that line, but she will be pleased to know that we are transferring services to TfL, including those from Paddington to Hayes and Harlington, and Heathrow Connect.
When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announces the successor to the GWR franchise, will he ensure that the Cotswold line and the Kemble to Swindon line have an increased number of services and increased punctuality, so that the large amount of money that the taxpayer has put into Network Rail to redouble those services is properly utilised?
Disabled Rail Passengers
The Government will publish an inclusive transport strategy later this year. I assure my hon. Friends that I and the Department believe that disabled people should have the same access to transport as anyone else and be able to travel easily, confidently and without extra cost. All train fleets operating passenger services will meet modern accessibility standards by 1 January 2020. Further funding for the Access for All stations programme will be made available for 2019 to 2024.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Clearly, there is a desperate need for a lift at both Stanmore and Canons Park stations. That is the responsibility of the Labour Mayor of London, who has failed to deliver. Also, Harrow and Wealdstone station is in my constituency, and the local authority’s civic centre is part of the “Heart of Harrow” regeneration scheme. The station does not have disabled access or step-free access, even though it has an overground, underground and Network Rail interchange. How can we get suitable access to that station?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Transport for London manages transport services in the capital and is responsible for implementing the Mayor of London’s transport strategy, so Stanmore and Canons Park underground stations are his responsibility. I hope he is following today’s proceedings and will deliver for disabled and able-bodied passengers in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
Of course, Harrow and Wealdstone station falls under the Access for All stations programme, and bidding for funding will open shortly. I urge my hon. Friend to get in touch with his local authority, which can work with the transport operating companies and put together the best possible bid to secure funding.
Now that the Minister has confirmed that the Government will continue the Access for All scheme, which has improved accessibility across many of this country’s railway stations, can she advise us on how can we get the Cumbrian coastal railways included in future funding bids?
My hon. Friend is a great champion for her constituency, so she will no doubt help the local authority and transport operating company to put together the best possible bid. The Access for All programme will provide step-free access to stations across the country, and I know how popular it is across the House. It will be open for bidding shortly. Stations will need to be nominated by the transport operating company, based on chosen criteria. Annual footfall and the local incidence of disability will be taken into account, as well as priorities such as industry and local factors such as proximity to hospitals and availability of third-party funding.
The Secretary of State has already slashed £50 million from the Access for All fund, and now Govia Thameslink Railways’ new staff guidance says,
“do not attempt to place persons of reduced mobility on a train if there is a possibility of delaying the service”
and that they should
“move from the train as quickly as possible”
someone having a seizure. That is not only completely wrong medical advice, but directly discriminates against disabled people. Why has the Minister not intervened, and why has GTR been allowed to get away with this direct disability discrimination?
Since 2006, about 200 stations have been made step-free and 75% of rail journeys are now step-free through stations. Funding has been made available and will continue to be made available. One of the biggest issues we have in getting people who are disabled to use public transport is confidence, so we need to let them know that we have accessible stations. Now I will respond to the point about GTR. There was one line in the document—
Will the hon. Lady give me a minute to respond? It was not the best use of language, and I can update the House and say that my officials have spoken to GTR and raised concerns about that line and the language used in the leaflet. The leaflet is good overall, but the hon. Lady is right to point out that one particular line was not appropriate, and it will be revised.
Disabled passengers in the Lawrence Hill area of my constituency are not being served with step-free access, although they have been promised it for some years. They have to get a train upline and then another downline on the other side before they can get to Temple Meads to get a mainline train. Will the Minister meet me and Councillor Margaret Hickman to discuss this urgently?
Of course I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to talk about accessibility in her constituency. As I mentioned earlier, Access for All funding is available for train stations; if she were alluding to a tube station, that would be another situation altogether. As she is talking about a train station, I am more than happy to meet her.
Transport Police Merger: Scotland
Officials have been working closely and effectively with the Scottish Government, the two police forces and the two police authorities, through a joint programme board established to oversee arrangements for delivering the transfer of the British Transport police’s functions in Scotland. We want to see a smooth transition to the new arrangements that ensures the safety and security of rail passengers and staff, and recognises and protects the UK’s interests.
Earlier this month, BTP Federation chair Nigel Goodband said:
“It is appalling that the Scottish Government constantly reminds us that one of its three aims in full integration is accountability to the people of Scotland. British Transport police officers and staff…are people of Scotland. They are proud Scots; they are proud to be in the British Transport Police and proud of living in Scotland.”
“They have said to me that they feel abandoned…by their Government. That is pretty disgusting. It is alarming that they feel that way.”
Does the Minister agree that that quote proves that the SNP Scottish Government are letting down hard-working and dedicated BTP officers and staff in Scotland and that their interests and the interests of the public they proudly protect would be better served by maintaining the way that the BTP operates in Scotland, rather than breaking up a force that serves Scotland and the United Kingdom well?
I certainly understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. It is in both Governments’ mutual interest to make the new arrangements work. The Government are very focused on protecting UK interests generally, including those of passengers, officers and staff, and that is why we are working closely with the Scottish Government, the police forces and the police authorities.
Heathrow: Third Runway
The Government have always been clear that any scheme for additional airport capacity should be financed by the private sector. The Airports Commission concluded that this was a viable way forward. As set out in the revised draft airports national policy statement, independent financial advisers have undertaken further work and agreed that expansion of Heathrow can be carried out without public finance.
I thank the Secretary of State for the answer. The report by the Select Committee on Transport on the airports national policy statement said that the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant should be treated
“with equivalent recognition as the Immigration Removal Centres and that the replacement of its facilities be accounted for in the DCO process.”
Will the Secretary of State confirm that his Department has assessed any infrastructure upgrade needed, such as that to roads and powerlines, to accommodate the relocation, and will those costs be met by the taxpayer?
First, I extend my thanks to the Select Committee, which has produced a thoughtful report. We will be responding to the report in detail very shortly; indeed, my officials are speaking to the Chair of the Committee to make sure she is fully up to speed with how we are handling all this.
Of course it is essential that appropriate provision is made for the energy from waste plant, and I think that provision should be funded by the airport as part of its work. I do not see why the taxpayer should bear the cost. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) that the plant and other facilities, and the communities around the airport, are very much on my Department’s mind as we take these matters forward.
The Transport Committee report on the national policy statement found that the Heathrow north-west runway proposal has little, if any, advantage over other schemes, or even over doing nothing at all, for passenger growth or for the number and frequency of long-haul routes, and that the proposal would actually cut international links for non-London regions and would have little economic benefit to the UK, so are the Government pushing ahead with this hugely expensive and environmentally damaging project?
When I am ready to update the House, I will of course come back to do so in person. The Committee recommended that the Government progress with their work, and it made a number of very helpful and constructive suggestions about elements to be included within that work. I remain absolutely of the view that airport expansion is necessary for the economy of this country. The important thing is that we deliver it in the best possible way for local communities.
May I suggest to the Secretary of State that a much cheaper and more practicable alternative to the Heathrow third runway would be to use the considerable spare capacity and long runway at Birmingham airport by electrifying and upgrading the Chiltern railway line and linking it to Crossrail? This would provide for a fast, direct, non-stop shuttle service between central London and Birmingham airport and would help to solve the south-east airport capacity problem. Will he give serious consideration to this proposal?
Of course the arrival of HS2, with projected future growth in passenger numbers at our airports, will provide an alternative and will provide for a bit of competition between airports, which is no bad thing. The hon. Gentleman is right about that, but I do not think it is either one or the other.
That is very kind, Mr Speaker. Thank you very much indeed.
Can the Secretary of State confirm whether he will be revising the airports national policy statement in the light of the 25 recommendations from the Transport Committee?
The hon. Gentleman and I sometimes spar vigorously across the Chamber, but I echo your words to him, Mr Speaker.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I do not think it is appropriate to talk about our response to the Select Committee report before our response is published, which will happen shortly. I simply give him the assurance that we are taking the recommendations very seriously. I certainly want to see many of the recommendations embedded in our planning as these matters go forward.
Fishing Vessel Safety
Fishing safety remains a priority, and we are making improvements through education and legislation. New codes of practice set higher standards and will soon include stability requirements. Globally, the International Maritime Organisation’s maritime safety committee will this week discuss the safe operation of fishing vessels operating in the polar regions in the context of the Cape Town agreement.
As everybody who has taken a vessel of any size to sea at any time will know, the International Maritime Organisation is critical to worldwide efforts to ensure safety at sea. The IMO is in fact the only UN agency to be based in the United Kingdom, so what assurances can the Minister give the House that Britain will continue to play an important role in the IMO in the years ahead?
I can give my hon. Friend the fullest assurance. Shipping is an international industry, and the UK strongly believes it should be regulated at an international level by the IMO. My officials and I recently played a leading role at the marine environment protection committee, where we secured the landmark agreement on phasing out greenhouse gas emissions. The UK takes great pride in being the host Government of the IMO, which is based just across the Thames, and we will continue to maintain our active role within the organisation’s work for the foreseeable future.
One of the biggest problems facing fishing vessel safety is boats going to sea undermanned because they cannot get enough crew. Will the Minister use her offices to make a proper assessment of that and pass on her findings to the Home Office to inform its consideration of the opportunities for getting more crew from non-European economic area countries?
Trying to encourage, recruit and retain people to work in the fishing, port and shipping sector is a priority for the Department. We know how difficult it is to attract people who are not already in contact with fishing, ports and ships. We are doing what we can to try to encourage people to think of shipping, fishing and working in ports as jobs going forward. We have set up a number of initiatives, especially this year, through the Year of Engineering, to try to get young people interested in being employed in fishing, ports and shipping, and we will share that information with any Department that wishes to see it.
Train Timetable: Hitchin and Harpenden
The new Thameslink timetable started on Sunday. It brings more frequent and better connected journeys for passengers across London and the south-east. As part of this, rail passengers at Hitchin and Harpenden now have a more regular train service throughout the day than they did previously. The Government, along with the rail industry, are monitoring performance of the new timetable, as well as passenger feedback.
On Monday, the first day of the timetable for commuters, 24% of Hitchin’s services were cancelled and more than 50% were delayed. Please will the Minister reassure me and my constituents that the Department will do everything it can to force Govia Thameslink to improve its performance drastically or be stripped of its franchise?
We are grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing all the issues facing his constituency to our attention, and we look forward to working closely with him in the coming weeks. This week’s timetable changes are the first phase of a totally recast timetable, which will deliver, in time, the full benefits of the £7 billion Thameslink programme.
The new timetable produces winners and losers across the country. Yesterday, the University of Nottingham told me that
“connectivity to London and to the world is crucial to Nottingham attracting jobs, talent and visitors that will drive the future of our economy. We are concerned that the timetable changes will hinder these ambitions.”
That is a clear indictment of the changes forced on East Midlands Trains’ services by this Department in order to accommodate the new Thameslink timetable. What have this Government got against the east midlands that means that, yet again, we are getting a raw deal?
The May 2018 timetable change will see about 90% of our services change. It is perhaps the single biggest timetable change in the country’s history and it will bring an extra 1,300 train services across our network. This is a very significant operational challenge. We recognise the disruption that is temporarily occurring in various places, and we are working carefully with train operators to reduce it as rapidly as possible.
Let me follow up on that question from my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood). Last month, the Secretary of State promised quicker and better train services to Sheffield. As a result of these Thameslink changes, East Midlands Trains says that priority is being given to these new trains on Thameslink services over trains to Sheffield. As a result, peak-time trains to Sheffield are now six to eight minutes slower than they were under the previous timetable—they are slower than they were 10 years ago. Have the Secretary of State’s promises of a month ago already been ditched?
The Department for Transport is providing just over £6 billion to local highway authorities in England, outside London, for highways maintenance funding from 2015 up to 2021. Of course, my hon. Friend will be aware of the £296 million pothole action fund.
I welcome the prospect of upgrades to main roads in west Oxfordshire, financed through the housing infrastructure fund and the growth deal, but what are Ministers doing to ensure that small rural roads in areas such as West Oxfordshire, which often bear the brunt of winter damage, are not neglected and are also maintained to a high standard?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that point, especially in the light of the recent very bad bouts of weather we have had, which have particularly affected local roads. Until then, it was true that the A and B roads were improving over time but that that leaves out the C and the U roads. A more strategic approach needs to be taken to that, and I am planning to do that in the months to come.
We have got a brand new road in my constituency and it is supposed to have a vital bus link on it between Hengrove and Long Ashton, but the West of England metro mayor refuses to use his devolved powers to help make it happen. What is the purpose of devolving powers to a metro mayor if he will not use them?
The proposal to put a weight limit on the North bridge in Oundle is causing great concern, not only to residents but to businesses and bus service users. I have written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the matter. Will he undertake to see what can be done to make sure that the repairs are carried out as soon as possible?
As my hon. Friend will know, the North bridge in Oundle falls under the responsibility of Northamptonshire County Council as the highway authority. Since 2015-16, the Department has provided the council with £72 million of local highways maintenance finance, including £12 million this year. That can be used to help to strengthen bridges. It is entirely for the council to determine how that funding is deployed.
Leaving the EU: Ports
The UK ports sector is in an excellent position to facilitate growth in trade, both from the EU and from other countries, when we leave the EU. Indeed, many of the port operators have exciting plans to do so. Many UK ports have recently invested vigorously in capacity, to handle the largest container ships and to adapt to changing patterns of energy generation. We are seeing investment at crucial ports such as Dover, where the western docks are being developed to enable better use of capacity at the eastern docks to handle ferry traffic.
Teesport in my constituency is going from strength to strength. It handles 5,000 vessels a year and more than 40 million tonnes of cargo. It is a gateway to the world, but especially to Europe, our largest trading partner. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that Brexit will not result in trading barriers and customs checks, or in lorries queuing down the A66?
The Prime Minister has been absolutely clear that this country is committed to frictionless borders. Teesport is doing a great job; I saw some of the firms that operate at the port only recently. That is one reason why I have announced the study into the potential reopening of the Skipton to Colne railway line, because one thing we lack for ports such as Teesport and, indeed, Liverpool, is better freight connections across the Pennines. Every time I talk to the port operators, that is top of their list.
One of the Brexit myths is taking control of borders, yet the Secretary of State continues to say that there will be no further checks on transport at ports. Is that just because he does not have a clue about how the Government can put in place a system that allows checks to be made but does not cause carnage on the roads round about the ports?
No, I am afraid it is because the hon. Gentleman does not understand how ports operate today. It is not necessary to stop every lorry at a border—indeed, every lorry is not stopped at the border—to have a free flow of trade. Countries inside the European Union and countries that have no connection with the European Union manage to operate a free flow through ports and across borders, and that is what we will do after we leave.
South Eastern Rail Franchise
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that Lewisham is already a fully accessible station. In terms of the total numbers of passengers required to interchange, analysis by Department officials suggests that it may decrease in the next franchise.
Having been through all the upheaval of the London Bridge refurbishment, my constituents now face fewer choices of London destinations under the new franchise, which means they have to change at Lewisham. The additional development right on top of Lewisham station is going to cause a great deal of congestion there. Will the Minister carry out a safety assessment at Lewisham station to make sure that it is safe for passengers who change at the station in future?
As I said, officials believe that we will see a decrease in the numbers of passengers interchanging at Lewisham station in the next franchise period. It is currently an accessible station, although I recognise that its existing design means that it can get crowded at peak times, as the hon. Gentleman said. In recognition of that, the invitation to tender incentivises bidders to consider investment to improve the flow of passengers at Lewisham. Bidders will be required to spend no less than £6.5 million on station improvements, and Lewisham is one candidate for that spend.
I am bound to say that Lewisham station is a very considerable distance from Blaenau Gwent, which the hon. Gentleman represents, but perhaps he has a connection with south-east London of which I am unaware and about which I am shortly to be enlightened. Who knows? I call Mr Nick Smith.
Before I answer my hon. Friend’s question, it might be appropriate for the whole House to express our thanks to all of the transport workers who were involved in the planning and delivery of a smooth journey to and from Windsor last weekend for the royal wedding. It was a very smooth operation and it went gratifyingly well on what was a fantastic day for the country.
Drivers on the Jubilee and District lines are threatening all-out strikes on 6 and 14 June, bringing misery to literally millions of Londoners. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning this action, which will put the passengers and commuters of London in a desperate plight, and call on the Mayor of London to intervene to stop this strike?
In my view, there is never a justification for industrial action causing that degree of disruption to the lives of individual passengers and of other workers. It is not fair on them; it is the wrong thing to do. Disputes should be solved through means other than strike actions on our public transport system. However, I do remember being informed on regular occasions by the Mayor of London, when we had the troubles on Southern, that he would be much better at coping with these things because there would never be a strike on his watch. He has already broken that one, because he has had them already. It looks like he will have some more.
This week’s timetabling debacle is characteristic of all that is wrong with the railway. The Secretary of State told the press yesterday, and not this House, that Northern Rail issues were his top priority and that he would improve train driver rostering and driver recruitment to improve things, but he cannot simply tinker with rosters and pick new train drivers off a shelf. Does he not realise that it takes a year to train a driver and that roster changes have to be worked through, with the workforce, well ahead of their introduction?
First of all, the hon. Gentleman has not been following things too closely, because my recollection is that when I was in this House yesterday afternoon I expressly talked about the issues with the timetabling.
Secondly, Northern does not have a shortage in overall terms of drivers. The problem has been caused by the operational difficulties that resulted from, first, Network Rail’s failure to deliver the electrification to the schedule that was expected on the line to Bolton, and, secondly, from Network Rail’s failure to finalise timetables in time. That has been the prime reason for disruption, which was not helped, I might add, by an unnecessary work to rule by one of the unions.
What has happened has been unacceptable for passengers, but I also remind the hon. Gentleman that this is the most devolved franchise in England. The management of the franchise is shared by my Department and northern leaders through Rail North, so it is not simply a question of my Department. I will be working now to see whether Rail North together has done enough of a job in monitoring these problems.
I do not wish to be unkind to the Secretary of State, and he has certainly given us very full information, but let me say this. I gently chided the Minister next to him, the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), for a mildly lengthy reply to one question, but he seems determined to outdo her. It is not a competition. Their replies are extremely informative, and I thank them for that, but we do not have unlimited time, although I do try to extend the envelope.
Northern Rail issues may be the Secretary of State’s top priority, but what about the long-suffering passengers on Thameslink and Southern? This is the fault not of 400 hard-working timetablers, but of train companies that do not have enough drivers with the right knowledge in the right places at the right time. Is it not the case that these train companies have had years to prepare for this and that this Secretary of State simply trashes the hard-working men and women across the industry who strive to deliver rail improvements? He simply throws them under the bus.
If I am not mistaken, the hon. Gentleman has just trashed the hard-working men and women of the train companies, who are trying to do a decent job for passengers; he cannot have it both ways. I am afraid that this is a problem with Network Rail, and I have said that it cannot happen again. We have now had the late delivery of the timetable twice in six months. It is not what I would have expected to happen at this moment in time, with such a big, complex change. None the less, it is happening because we are running vastly more trains to more destinations. New trains have been running this week, and there are people getting on trains this week who have a seat for the first time in four years. That is a good thing.
I am certainly aware of stakeholders’ desire for faster and more frequent services along the North Cotswold line between Worcester, Oxford and London. We will continue to provide advice to Lord Faulkner’s taskforce as it develops its proposals.
The hon. Gentleman is right to welcome this legislation. The misuse of lasers can have very serious consequences, and offenders should face tough penalties for endangering the lives of others. The new offences in relation to maritime and aviation will come into force on 10 July across the entire United Kingdom. As road and rail are devolved to Northern Ireland, these elements of the Act will require a legislative consent motion to be approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly when it returns.
As part of the local growth deal, the Government have already provided nearly £8 million of funding for the construction of phase 1 of the Northampton north-west relief road. We work closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that investment in this infrastructure and others helps to unlock new homes and create workable, sustainable communities.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I also read the story, which was very alarming. He knows that licensing authorities are responsible for ensuring that taxi drivers are fit and proper, renewing licences and doing criminal record checks. He will also be aware that there is a task and finish group looking at taxis. I am waiting for that group to present its report to me. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am looking at the issue very closely, as the safety of passengers is a big priority for me.
I like every opportunity to talk about HS2 and the benefits that it will bring across the country. It is forecast to support about 25,000 new construction jobs and 2,000 apprenticeships during the construction of phase 1 and 2, as well as 3,000 operations and maintenance jobs once the services are running. Economic growth as a result of HS2 is estimated to support the creation of up to 100,000 jobs. HS2 will provide better connectivity to Scotland. This will enable businesses to create new opportunities and people to have better choices of jobs, as well as creating extra capacity for freight.
The answer to that question, as the hon. Lady will know, is that there is no correlation between having targets at the national level and the success of a road safety strategy. Many countries that do not have targets have had thoroughly successful road safety strategies. There are many parts of our public realm in which targets can be set by the authorities involved, and we welcome them when they are set.
A week ago today, the Government announced funding of £83 million for improvements to the north Devon link road. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Indeed—hear, hear. I thank the Minister for that decision. Will he join me in congratulating Devon County Council on the brilliant bid that has got this funding?
I am really grateful to Devon County Council for the work it has done. I am also very grateful to my hon. Friend for the arguments that he has brought forward about why this should be a priority. It is a sign of this Government’s commitment to the south-west of this country, where we are delivering actual projects that are really essential to local infrastructure and that are long, long overdue.
We are just finalising this. I do not know if we have made an announcement on when it is going to come out, but it will come out very shortly. The midland main line is going through the biggest modernisation programme since the 1870s. The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) referred to the question of timetable changes. There have been a number of difficult timetable changes, both in the London area and further up the line. However, this is all paving the way. When this route is completed properly in 2020, when we will have new trains, the railway will be much better than it has been for a century.
My hon. Friend has raised this with the Department and with me on a number of occasions, and we continue to look at it. It seems, though, that a stand-alone, North Cotswold-line-only franchise would potentially be too small to be sustainable in its own right, as it would be only a small fraction of the size of what is currently the smallest franchise in the network.
Following up on the earlier question about the consultation on community transport licensing, North Norfolk Community Transport has already lost contracts worth half its income during the consultation period because it cannot win any more business due to the fear that hangs over the sector. What steps will the Government take to guarantee the future of these vital community transport links? We fear losing this one.
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, we have published guidance making it perfectly clear that local authorities would be acting prematurely if they withdrew or curtailed funding through grants before further guidance, which, as my ministerial colleague has said, we expect to give before the summer.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your indulgence—you have been very kind indeed.
However, one thing that has been less kind to us, sadly, is the timetable changes on GTR and Southeastern. Many people in the constituency I have the privilege to represent, and indeed many in neighbouring areas, are commenting on the lack of capacity taking people into London in the morning and home at night to West Malling, Kings Hill and other places on the Maidstone East line. What will the Government be doing to increase capacity to get in and out of London for these valuable people?
I can assure my hon. Friend that there has not been a change to capacity on the Maidstone East line. Some trains on the new timetable are faster and some are slower, but in overall terms the services will continue to deliver for passengers. Right now, as I explained to the House a little while back, we clearly have initial problems with the new timetable. This is the biggest logistical change that the railways have made for a very long time. My Department is working very closely with all those involved to try to get this sorted out as quickly as possible. But this is all about delivering more services, longer trains and new destinations across the south-east, and once it is bedded in, I think that passengers in his constituency and elsewhere will see the benefits.
Will the Secretary of State update the House on his invitation for proposals on a southern rail link to Heathrow? This is of great interest to families and businesses in my constituency, with the potential for a direct rail link from Waterloo to Heathrow via Feltham.
That is very timely, because after this Question Time session I am going to meet a number of organisations that are interested in participating in this project. As the hon. Lady knows, we are going to deliver a massive improvement to service access around Heathrow. Western access will be delivered through the control period 6 process, and I aim for southern access to be a privately funded project. This has enormous potential to link not just Waterloo to Heathrow but to link parts of the south-west network through Heathrow on to Paddington.
As my right hon. Friend will know, 2018 is the Year of Engineering. As my local contribution to that, I am organising an engineering showcase in Basildon town centre on 14 July. Will he encourage other Members to consider doing a similar thing in their own constituency? May I also invite him to come and join us to celebrate all the fantastic engineering going on in Basildon?
I am really grateful to my hon. Friend for the work he is doing as our ambassador for the Year of Engineering. He is a tower of strength in making this a successful year. We have hundreds of firms involved around the country, and I encourage other Members to take advantage of what he is doing and to lay on an event for new students in their constituency this autumn, as I will. This is a great opportunity to unite the whole House in saying that engineering is a great profession and we need more young people to go into it.
I know that HS2 Ltd has put in place community managers who are meeting communities up and down the line. HS2 Ltd is also hosting regular meetings here in Parliament, at which Members can make representations on behalf of their constituents. We must not forget that HS2 will bring more than £92 billion of benefit across the whole country. HS2 Ltd is available here in Parliament and also in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, if he so wishes.
Network Rail is responsible for Ayr railway station in my constituency, which has important links with Stranraer and Glasgow. The functionality and passenger safety at that station is under threat due to the derelict state of the nearby Station Hotel, which is privately owned. May I urge my right hon. Friend to encourage Network Rail to seriously engage with the owners of that hotel and the local council, to avoid a catastrophic event at Ayr railway station?
First, there is no question but that we are very happy to have a meeting between Ministers and the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner). If his office gets in touch, we will sort that.
On my hon. Friend’s question, I would like to find out a bit more detail, because clearly we would like to ensure that that problem does not exist. If he provides a bit more detail to myself or my hon. Friend the rail Minister, we will get on to the case.
The recent court case that found the collection of tolls at the Mersey crossing unlawful has afforded Ministers an opportunity to pause and review the operation of those tolls, which are hated across my region. Will they take that opportunity and review the tolls?
Residents in Uplawmoor are currently campaigning against proposed airspace changes at Glasgow airport. I very much welcome the Department’s decision to move that process on to the new Civil Aviation Authority guidelines, but does the Secretary of State agree that it is vital that airports carry out meaningful consultation with affected communities and do not try to bamboozle and bludgeon them into submission with technical jargon that they cannot understand?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The management of airspace and flight paths is extraordinarily sensitive for local communities. Airports that engage well have a much easier time, and those that do not engage properly pay a price. I agree that community engagement is really important.
When we form the London North Eastern Railway in its final form, as I have said, it will not be a conventional franchise bidding process. It will move to a completely new approach, as I set out in my statement earlier this month, and we will bring more details to the House about the shape of that in due course.
I know the Secretary of State shares my excitement about the fact that in July we will see the first new Hitachi trains on a booked service west of Taunton. Will he update us about the wider progress being made with the new Great Western franchise, particularly about the idea that it may be split?
I have now got back the responses to the consultation, and I am carefully considering my response to them. I give my hon. Friend an assurance that I have a fairly clear message from the people who responded, and I will take that view very carefully into account in how I take this forward.
When will the Government stand up for small towns in the shires of this country? While the cities get new trains and powers over bus services, the small towns in the heartlands, such as Lancashire, get nothing. This Government do not seem to care about small towns.
It is nice to finish with a degree of hokum from the Opposition. Lancashire has benefited, for example, from the Heysham relief road—connecting two smaller centres in a way that is absolutely vital if we are to unlock parts of the economy—and, starting later this year, all the small towns in Lancashire are getting new trains. Once we have bedded in the timetable and overcome these infuriating problems, the Northern Rail franchise will deliver more services in Lancashire—and, indeed, in Copeland, where my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), who has now gone, had the pleasure last weekend of travelling on the west Cumbria line’s first Sunday service in decades.
Marks & Spencer
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy if he will make a statement on the implications of the decision of Marks & Spencer to close 14 branches across the United Kingdom.
I welcome the chance to address the House on this matter. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her chairmanship of the all-party group on textile and fashion, and I commiserate with her on the fact that one of the stores that will be closing is in her constituency.
Who among us is not touched by the hand of M&S? I counted up this morning, and I am in fact wearing three items of M&S clothing—I will not declare what they are. Indeed, my breakfast this morning entirely comprised items bought at the Gatwick M&S after a late-night flight. By the way, I defy anyone in the House not to say that they have at least one item of clothing in their wardrobe from that fine retailer. This is, however, a worrying time.
As the hon. Lady said, Marks & Spencer made an announcement on Tuesday about 14 of its UK stores. This is part of a well-advertised plan to reshape its estates and, essentially, to reshape its stores to compete, given the very big challenges of many online retailers in the country. Five of the stores will close this year or early next year, and all colleagues at those locations will be offered redeployment to other stores. Nine other stores have been proposed for closure, and Marks & Spencer has entered a period of consultation on the redeployment of staff in those stores. All of us will of course recognise that this is a worrying time for the over 600 staff members currently going through that process. I know that there will be concern among Members on both sides of the House about this issue. The Government—the Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus—will of course stand by, should support be required, to work with the company.
There have been a number of announcements in the retail sector recently—negative and also positive in terms of job creation. We should all recognise the incredible contribution of this sector to the UK economy—it was almost £95 billion in 2016—and this Government’s ongoing support for the sector. We have announced measures worth more than £2 billion over the next five years to cut business rates, with a positive change to the indexation of business rates.
Only this March, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), set up the Retail Sector Council, which is determined to drive up this sector’s productivity and ensure that it is fit to face future challenges. Sitting on the sector council are retailers—large and small; online and offline; in town and out of town—and the unions are of course very much a part of that process. The object of the council is for the Government and industry to work together to drive up productivity, and also to secure our fantastic retail sector’s future health and direction. We are working together on the requirements to make sure that productivity and economic growth in this sector can continue for many years to come.
I must just say—I probably do not have to, but I will do so anyway—that I share the Minister’s enthusiasm for Marks & Spencer, which is a most admirable institution. What she said about almost every Member having an item or more from Marks is incontrovertible.
I thank the Minister for her response.
Over the past few years, there has been a cascade of commercial announcements from well-known companies saying that iconic retail high street stores need to close if they are to cut costs: British Home Stores, Mothercare, Toys R Us, the Royal Bank of Scotland and now Marks & Spencer. As chair of the all-party group on textile and fashion, I know that the market is changing, but retail companies need to strike a balance between remaining competitive and understanding the wider implications of closing landmark stores. Marks & Spencer’s proposed store closures—14 imminently, and more than 100 in the next few years—will not only result in thousands of potential job losses, but could devastate our local town centres. It is well known that when anchor stores close, the surrounding subsidiary stores feel the impact of reduced footfall, meaning that many close as well.
Are our high streets to become ghost towns? My constituency has already felt the effects of BHS closures, and we expect to lose 67 jobs if the Marks & Spencer closes. Has the Department made any assessment of the impact of the proposed closures on local economies in Scotland and across the UK? What is the impact on disabled people who find it difficult to travel to outskirt retail parks to shop? Since the report by Mary Portas on saving the high street that the Government commissioned in 2011, how many of its recommendations have been implemented? Finally, will the Minister agree to meet jointly with the all-party group, MPs affected and representatives from Marks & Spencer to facilitate further consultation on these proposals, and to consider desperately needed plans to save our high streets?
The hon. Lady raises some valid points—there is an M&S food shop in my Devizes constituency—and is right that attractive stores bring in footfall from which subsidiary stores benefit. Of course, the Government have taken forward many plans to support the high street, which is part of the reason for the rate changes. Local councils, which might be responsible for setting parking policy, rely on parking receipts to fund other transport services, but if those rates are remitted straight back to Westminster, their desire to create a more attractive parking and retail culture might be diminished, which is why it is important that our rate localisation policy proceeds. I hope that the Scottish National party will support it.
The hon. Lady asked whether an assessment had been made. There are ongoing assessments. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Burton, who sends his apologies for not being present, would be the person to take that meeting. I would not like to speak on behalf of his diary, but I shall make sure that the hon. Lady’s representations are put to him. He is working tirelessly on this issue across Government even while our retail sector continues to thrive and grow. As she will know from her work on the all-party group, there have been several important announcements in the last few weeks: Amazon has announced the creation of 400 jobs; Lidl has announced the creation of 40 new stores; and ASOS, an amazing online store employing thousands of people in call centre and support capacities, has seen its sales grow by 30% this year—it is becoming a truly global brand.
There is definitely a rotation in the way in which we all shop. I am sure that we all now buy many more of our unmentionable items online—sometimes we even buy them in stores—but the hon. Lady makes some valid points. We should all think hard about what we can do as individuals, particularly to support our local authorities, which are often responsible for planning, decision making, rates setting and parking decisions, all of which can have a material impact on the high street experience.
I will take away the hon. Lady’s request and make sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary responds to her. I assure her that the reason for setting up the Retail Sector Council—it includes all sorts of retailers, from farm shops to large online companies, and of course the vital Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, which is providing so much support to workers in the industry—is to make sure that these conversations can be had on a cross-Government basis, and that policy making can be joined-up.
I must declare an interest: I am wearing a Marks & Spencer suit, although I do not want to give the House the impression that I am the fashion icon for Marks & Spencer.
Does the Minister agree that it is not all bad? Marks & Spencer has opened a massive store at Rushden Lakes in my constituency. It is hugely successful and employs lots of people. The store is a mixture of retail and leisure. It might just be that times are changing and Marks & Spencer is changing with them.
Perhaps there will be a competition at the end of these proceedings to judge who wears M&S best—I am declining all responsibility for that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) makes an important point. Companies such as Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and other major retailers have embraced this change and worked out how to be fit for the future. Sadly, in other companies—BHS, for example—the corporate management and the level of responsibility that were taken did not prepare the chain adequately for that change, meaning that many jobs were lost. Addressing that is partly the responsibility of the Retail Sector Council.
I appreciate that changes to jobs can be worrying for the more than 600 staff involved, but it is great that one of our iconic British retail chains is prepared to embrace the future, invest, and ensure that it can continue selling us the things that all of us—old and young—would like to buy. I will declare a final interest: I have about 12 Marks & Spencer jackets. They are the perfect combination of cheap and bright, meaning that I could catch your eye, Mr Speaker, when I was standing on the Back Benches.
My suit is from an independent retailer in my constituency, not from M&S.
The Press Association reported last month that 21,000 retail jobs were at risk in the first three months of the year, with administrations at Maplin and Toys R Us, and store closures at New Look, House of Fraser and Carpetright. We now learn that M&S is to close 14 branches this year, and 100 stores by 2022. As we express our fond memories of M&S, may we remember that 872 members of staff will lose their jobs? We need some sobriety in the proceedings here.
High street retailers struggle to compete against out-of-town and online shopping, given their lower cost base, and that is not helped by the long-term squeeze on incomes under this Government. The Government have their much-trumpeted industrial strategy, but where is the retail sector deal? How do they propose to help the affected communities and high streets? The Government must go much further on business rates because the changes simply have not cut through to make the difference needed by high street retailers. What conversations have the Minister and her colleagues had this year with trade unions that represent retail workers?
Unless the Government are prepared to step in to secure a level playing field between our high streets, and online and out-of-town retailers, more shops will close, more high streets will lose key big-name brands, more communities will lose out, and more workers will lose their jobs. The Marks & Spencer closures show that leaving market forces to their own devices is simply not working, and the Government must ensure that there is a fair market in retail for the good of businesses, workers, communities and our high streets.
The hon. Gentleman and I are in violent agreement. That is why the establishment of the Retail Sector Council, which absolutely involves store worker representatives, is vital. A series of financial measures has been taken forward. The Government have given almost £20 million to towns funding initiatives such as the Great British High Street. We have established the Future High Streets Forum, which is chaired by the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), and that also involves retailers. More than £2 billion of measures were introduced in the autumn Budget to cut business rates, including the 100% small business rate relief that is so vital to independent retailers.
The hon. Gentleman says that, but he bought his suit from an independent retailer, which will no doubt have benefited from that—[Interruption.] He should have bought more suits there, Mr Speaker.
One point that has not been raised is that there is an unfairness in the current structure of online and offline retailing because of the way in which retailers pay VAT. That is an issue for us all, and it is why online prices can be much lower. We are therefore bringing forward a review into the wider taxation of the digital economy to ensure that international corporation tax rules are fair, and that sellers that operate across online and offline marketplaces pay an appropriate amount of value added tax.
I assure my right hon. Friend that she is indeed a fashion icon in her M&S outfits.
This sad announcement by M&S, particularly for the people who work there, puts further pressure on our high streets, on top of the correct announcement on betting regulations and the trend towards online shopping. Will my right hon. Friend redouble her efforts, and that of her Department, to ensure the vitality and diversity of our high streets up and down the land?
Most assuredly. Working with high streets in my constituency, as I am sure many right hon. and hon. Members do, I know there is a huge power in having a vibrant high street sector with lots of shops and big anchor tenants, and perhaps also, as a way of driving footfall, shops where people pick up their online packages. Our high streets are part of our incredibly vibrant history. Many of us represent small market towns where the high street is a hugely important part of the local economy. Let us not forget that they employ hundreds of thousands of people right across the country.
All this is terrible news for our local retailers and for businesses on our local high streets. We have lost a staggering number of businesses over the past two or three years. It is terrible news for the employees and their families, and for our local economy. In my constituency, we will lose about 90 employees, which will have a devastating impact. Is it due to a combination of the Government’s austerity and the clicks versus bricks regarding VAT rates, which we have just spoken about? I know that the Government were planning a consultation on VAT. Will the Minister update us on where we are with that consultation? Is there any possibility, as I asked the Chancellor some time ago, of reducing VAT for our high streets to give local shops and high street retailers a fighting chance against online retailers?