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Topical Questions

Volume 641: debated on Thursday 24 May 2018

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.

T3. May I impress on Ministers the urgency of upgrades, including redoubling, to the Cotswold line? Will Ministers commit to working with me to ensure thatWest Oxfordshire sees those upgrades, which it so badly needs? (905570)

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.

T2. The whole House welcomes the fact that the Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Bill has received Royal Assent. Will the Minister confirm when this important legislation will come into force in Northern Ireland? (905569)

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.

T6. With increasing house building near the strategic road networks on the edge of Northampton, what steps is the Department taking to finish the second phase of the north-west ring road? (905574)

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.

T4. The Minister will have seen the major story in The Times yesterday, highlighting the problems of licensing and cross-border working in the taxi and private hire industry, and the concerns around public safety. Regrettably, my private Member’s Bill—the Licensing of Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Safeguarding and Road Safety) Bill—was talked out a few weeks ago. Will the Minister now give the public an assurance that the Government will come forward urgently with legislation to address these concerns? (905571)

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.

T7. What recent estimates has the Minister made of the jobs created by High Speed 2? What estimate has been made of the economic benefit to each part of the United Kingdom? (905575)

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.

T5. International evidence supports road safety targets; we know that they work. The European Commission’s new mobility package proposes a target of halving road deaths and serious injuries by 2030. We know that this Government like targets to throw people out of the country, but what is the Minister’s position on targets to save the lives of UK citizens? (905573)

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.

T8. This week we were expecting the tender document for the east midlands rail franchise. It has not been forthcoming. When can we expect it, and will it promote investment in the service, including improved services on evenings and weekends? (905576)

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.

What consideration has been given to breaking off the North Cotswold line into a stand-alone franchise once the GWR franchise comes to an end?

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.

It is very good of the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) to drop in on us. We have missed the hon. Gentleman, who was, I think, attending to important business elsewhere, but is now in the bosom of the Chamber. Let’s hear the fella.

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.

Approximately two months ago, I asked the Secretary of State for a meeting with the Newton people who, because of HS2, are going to see more than 30 houses knocked down in their small village. Has the meeting been arranged yet?

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.

Well, the hon. Gentleman can always table a question asking when the meeting will be. That is a hint.

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?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the road has been extraordinarily successful and is a great example of a piece of newly funded infrastructure. That issue is primarily for Halton Borough Council, but we are following the situation closely.

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 the east coast railway franchise is once again open to bids, will the bidding process include a prosperity weighting clause, in keeping with proposals for some defence contracts?

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.