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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 641: debated on Thursday 24 May 2018


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.

The east coast main line will be very important following our departure from Europe. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that smaller operators, such as ScotRail, have a say in what happens to rail?

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 must tell the hon. Gentleman that one of his constituents, not very far from here, has been listening intently to his question.

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.

I call Tom Tugendhat—where is the fella? He has obviously beetled out of the Chamber. It is a pity that the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling is not here, but we will bear up stoically and try to manage without him.

18. Following the collapse of the east coast main line franchise, will the Secretary of State make a firm commitment to Virgin’s previous pledge to deliver additional train services between Lincoln and London in 2019? They are essential for our local businesses. (905565)

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.

Bus Services

14. What steps his Department is taking to improve the provision of bus services throughout the country. (905559)

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?

That is an interesting question. The Government have provided plenty of support for bus services in Manchester—[Interruption.] I will continue, Mr Speaker.

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.

I can only imagine that it was a noise of approval. Who knows? It may be a divisible proposition, but there we go.

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?

A series of potential schemes are in place and they are moving forward to different forms of announcement or development, but I would be happy to send my hon. Friend a more detailed update.

Can the Minister explain to me why Highways England refused to take any interest in the provision of an alternative for the Orwell bridge on the A14, which is a vital strategic link that is often closed?

The hon. Gentleman and I have met and we have met Highways England to discuss this, and I think it is overstating the matter to say there is no interest at all, but we continue to look at the issue.

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?

There is guidance on this already, as my hon. Friend will know. I am not sure whether it is reflected in the road safety statistics, but I am happy to look at that.

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?

As the hon. Lady will know, many of those ancient woodlands were planted only in the past couple of decades, so I am not sure that she has quite made her point.

GWR Franchise

7. What plans he has for the operation of trains in the Thames valley after the end of the Great Western rail franchise. (905552)

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?

My hon. Friend is a strong champion for services on the Cotswold line. We will certainly take into account his advocacy for it.

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.

Order. Forgive me; these are very informative answers, but we have a lot of questions to get through, so we need short answers and short questions.

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

9. What recent discussions he has held with the Scottish Government on the proposed merger of the British Transport police Scottish division with Police Scotland. (905554)

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.”

He continued:

“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

10. What estimate he has made of the cost to the public purse of the construction and operation of a third runway at Heathrow. (905555)

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.

Order. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) has had to be away for a period. We have missed him, and I think I speak for colleagues in warmly welcoming him back to the Chamber.

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

12. What steps his Department is taking to respond to rail passenger concerns on the introduction of the new timetable for peak-time services in Hitchin and Harpenden. (905557)

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 midlands main line changes and efficiency improvements take place in a rolling way up to 2020, which is when the significant benefits to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency will start to flow through.

Road Repairs

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.

North Lincolnshire’s roads and pavements are pitted with potholes. Given what the Minister has just said, should North Lincolnshire Council not be doing a better job of tackling this issue?

Of course, these are matters for local authorities in each case, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out. Our job is to take a more strategic view of the overall picture, which is what I have said we are planning to do.

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.

The answer—I always like to provide information to satisfy colleagues—is that Question 17 was withdrawn and the person who had Question 18 came in on an earlier question.

South Eastern Rail Franchise

19. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on passenger safety of the terms of the new south-eastern rail franchise which require some travellers to change trains at Lewisham station. (905566)

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.

Rail accessibility is an important topic, so will the £430 million saved by not electrifying the Cardiff to Swansea line still be spent in Wales?

At the time the announcement on electrification was made, we made it clear that we would be looking at a number of schemes to invest in infrastructure and enhancements in Cardiff and Swansea. Those discussions are currently under way.

Topical Questions

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.