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Commons Chamber

Volume 647: debated on Thursday 11 October 2018

House of Commons

Thursday 11 October 2018

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before Questions

Middle Level Bill

Motion made, That the Lords amendments be now considered.

Object.

Lords amendments to be considered on Tuesday 16 October at 4 pm.

Oral Answers to Questions

Transport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Electric Vehicle Infrastructure

As Members will be aware, earlier this summer we published our Road to Zero strategy, setting out plans for our £400 million charging infrastructure investment fund. We now have more than 14,000 public charge points, and the fund will lead to the installation of thousands more. Importantly, we are also planning to consult on introducing a requirement for charge points in new homes in England, and we want all new lampposts to include charge points, where appropriate.

In my constituency, we are getting to the end of the signing of the Tay cities deal, part of which includes a proposal for an innovation highway. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss that highway, which will form part of Perth West development?

I am happy to do that. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government is actively engaged in preparing the deal. I am pleased at the way my hon. Friend is championing the future of technology in transport in his constituency, and I would be delighted to meet him to discuss it.

Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with Jaguar Land Rover, which is concerned about Brexit at the moment, meaning that there could be a hold-up in investment in electric vehicles?

I have indeed discussed, on more than one occasion, both Brexit and new generation automotive technology with the chief executive of Jaguar Land Rover. I am very excited about what it is doing on electric vehicles, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I know of no reason why it would pull back on that investment. Indeed, I am looking forward to the Government Car Service taking delivery of its first five electric vehicles from Jaguar Land Rover in the next few days.

Does the Secretary of State agree that in areas where inadequate power is available in the grid for large commercial installations wishing to switch over to electric power, a battery solution, provided by companies such as Off Grid Energy Ltd in my constituency, may be the answer?

We are on the threshold of exciting developments in battery technology—I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We are working with National Grid to look at ways in which we can increase the capacity to key locations such as motorway service areas, but I say to him that battery technology is going to deliver some solutions we do not have at present. It is great to see businesses in the UK at the forefront of developing those technologies.

Does the Secretary of State see any contradiction between the policy of trying to move motorists away from petrol and diesel vehicles to electric vehicles, and freezing fuel duty while cutting grants for electric vehicles?

We are focusing our support on electric vehicles, which are the part of the market we want to see grow the fastest. We provide substantial incentives to buyers of electric vehicles. It was great to see that, in August, 12% of the new car market was low-emission vehicles, which is a big step forward for this country.

Carbon emissions in Scotland have been halved since 1990, but the next part of the low-carbon transition is the electrification of Scotland’s roads. The Scottish National party Government have committed to 1,500 new charge points. Does the Secretary of State agree that Scotland needs to get its fair share of the £400 million charge fund, based on our rural nature and unique geography?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, public spending in England is always matched by a Barnett-based element of public spending in Scotland, and that will continue to be the case.

That answer is completely inadequate. We should not be getting such funding based on Barnett. Scotland has two thirds of the land mass of England but got only a fifth of the broadband funding. Will the Secretary of State make sure this iniquitous position does not happen in respect of the £400 million charging fund?

This is a bit of a groundhog day, because every time we hear SNP Members talking about the finances of Scotland, if Barnett works in their favour, they are happy to say that they insist on having Barnett, but if they want more than that, they say Barnett is not good enough. They cannot have it both ways.

Traffic Congestion: A120

As my hon. Friend will know, the Department has provided up to £4 million of funding to Essex County Council to support the development of proposals for improvements to the A120 between Braintree and Colchester. The council consulted on options last year and announced its favoured route in June 2018. My Department is now considering whether or not to include the scheme in the next road investment strategy, which will be published next year.

The Minister will be aware that the A120 around Braintree is a road so heavily and regularly congested that my constituents regularly cut through Braintree to bypass the bypass. We welcome the money for the preferred route option, but will the Minister ensure that he will also consider any interim measure to relieve congestion?

Aware, Mr Speaker? How could I not be aware? My hon. Friend has been indefatigable; in fact, few parliamentarians in any Parliament could have matched his energy and zeal in pressing the case for the A120. He has been terrier-like in his lobbying, and he can take it from me that the Minister has been duly terrierised.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have that tribute framed and erected in a suitable location in his home. We look forward to an update on that in due course.

I am not sure how this matter relates to Northamptonshire, but I have a feeling that the hon. Gentleman is about to explain.

Mr Speaker, to get to the A120 in Braintree, which a lot of my constituents want to do, they have to go down the A509, which is even more congested. The Minister has kindly given £25 million for a bypass, but the wretched South East Midlands local enterprise partnership quango is blocking it. Will he get together with me to knock some heads together and get the bypass sorted out so that we can get to Braintree on the A120?

I am frightened and worried to think that that may be the only use for the new road; if that is in fact the case, perhaps we should reconsider the investment case. My hon. Friend can take it from me that the Department for Transport has been following the issue very closely. It is entirely a matter for SEMLEP and Northamptonshire County Council, but I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further.

Leaving the EU: Perishable Scottish Food

3. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the transportation of perishable Scottish food abroad after the UK leaves the EU. (906914)

My Department has regular discussions with Scottish Government officials and has discussed this issue with them. We are well aware of the importance of rapid transit for perishable goods. I should reiterate that we are of course committed to securing a deal that works for the entire United Kingdom—Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England. Having thought back to events earlier this summer, I should also say that the biggest conduit for perishable Scottish produce is of course Heathrow airport, from where Scottish smoked salmon is carried around the world. That makes it all the more sad that the Scottish National party chose to vote against the expansion of Heathrow, which will be good for Scotland.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, which was interesting and helpful. It is obvious that most Scottish perishable food products have to pass through England to reach the export markets. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be best if all the laws in Scotland and in the rest of the UK that might affect the movement and export of such products were brought into harmonisation? Any misalignment of laws would be unhelpful to the export of Scottish food products. Will he press this matter with the Scottish Government whenever he can?

I am slightly puzzled, because the harmonisation of laws would imply backing away from devolution. The reality is that in a devolved settlement, as we have with Scotland, there will always be some differences. Nevertheless, we and the Scottish Government must always work together in the interests of the whole United Kingdom and of producers throughout the whole United Kingdom.

Air transport is obviously vital for Scottish food producers, as it is for businesses and people throughout the UK. In October 2016, the Secretary of State told the Transport Committee that future aviation arrangements would form part of the Brexit negotiations

“in the next few months”

and would be handled by the Department for Exiting the European Union. A year later, with no evidence of progress, the Secretary of State assured the Committee that there was no danger of planes being grounded by a no-deal Brexit. A year on, it is clear from the Government’s own technical notices that that is a real possibility. Who in the Government is handling this matter? What progress has been made? What confidence can people have when booking flights? How can we reach any conclusion other than that this matter has been badly mishandled?

I am sorry, but the hon. Lady has got this completely wrong. The Government have said or done nothing to imply that planes will be grounded and there will be no flights after we leave the European Union. I give the House the categorical assurance that flights are going to continue. Interestingly, those in the aviation industry who have been most vociferous about the risk of planes being grounded are now selling tickets for next summer and expanding the number of routes from the United Kingdom to the European Union next summer.

Post austerity and post Brexit, what additional funding might be used by the Government to invest in Scottish ports so as to allow more exports into Europe, our main market for food and drink?

Well, of course, a number of the Scottish ports are trust ports. I have been to the port in Montrose. I am very keen to see ports like that expand and I am working with a local Member of Parliament—a fantastic new Conservative Member of Parliament—to ensure that we provide the support and the opportunities for such ports to grow and develop.

Railway Infrastructure

4. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the cost of railway infrastructure; and if he will make a statement. (906915)

Information on trends in infrastructure costs on the railways are published by the Office of Road and Rail in its UK rail industry financial report, which is found on its website. Spending by Network Rail was £7.3 billion in 2016-17, an increase of half a billion pounds, or 7% in real terms, on the previous year.

Since rail privatisation, the costs of rail infrastructure works have gone through the roof, multiplying several times. The Minister may have seen a recently published analysis showing that electrification, for example, now costs seven times more in real terms—stripping out inflation—than when British Rail electrified the east coast main line. Is it not obvious that we should not only nationalise train operations, but rebuild publicly owned in-house works capacity and save billions for the public purse and for passengers?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that Network Rail is responsible for most railway infrastructure work in this country and it is, of course, in the public sector. He rightly highlights the need for Government to ensure that they get the greatest possible efficiency and value for money from all our infrastructure investments. That is why we have set up a mechanism to benchmark costs across the industry in the most rigorous way possible so that we get full value for money from the record sums that we are investing in our railways— £48 billion over the next five-year period.

Despite being the centre of population of our country, my seat has no railway station. I have been campaigning for many years for the opening of the Ivanhoe line between Burton-on-Trent and Leicester to aid further economic growth and reduce road congestion. Does the Minister agree that it is better to spend money on these local deliverable projects to improve people’s lives than on national white elephant projects with huge runaway budgets?

Of course, we need to invest in transformative schemes such as HS2 and Crossrail, which are going to change connectivity for the better, but we can do everything. We can invest also in the smaller schemes, which will deliver valuable change to local communities.

The Minister will be aware of my ongoing campaign to close the Pencoed level crossing in my constituency. When he met me, he said that Network Rail had not prioritised the closure, but Network Rail tells me that the scheme costs so much that it would require additional funding from the UK Government. I am meeting representatives of Network Rail again tomorrow, so can he say now, ahead of my meeting, that Ministers in the DFT will give additional funding to close the level crossing?

We take the issue of safety at level crossings exceptionally seriously. This is an area that the Department, alongside Network Rail, is looking at closely, and I look forward to receiving an update from Network Rail following the hon. Gentleman’s meeting with its representatives tomorrow.

The Great Western electrification project has become a case study in weak project planning and control, so will my hon. Friend work closely with the Railway Industry Association on its electrification cost challenge to help drive down the costs of these projects with a view to looking again particularly at the south Wales bit of that project, because electrification of all the main lines must remain a long-term ambition for our railways.

I share my right hon. Friend’s concerns in that respect. That is why the Department has asked the industry to come together in the transport infrastructure efficiency strategy, which was launched last year and which will benchmark costs, including in electrification, so that we get the greatest possible value for the money that we are investing in our railways.

We have seen Crossrail delayed at great cost, a failure in electrification and many question marks over HS2. When will the Minister’s Department get a real grip on the cost and delivery of decent rail infrastructure in this country?

We are investing £48 billion in these projects over the next five-year period. It is vital that we get value for money. Obviously, it is disappointing that Crossrail, which is a 100% subsidiary of Transport for London, told the Department that it needed to revise the delivery schedule for phase three of the project. We are disappointed by the news and want that phase completed as rapidly as possible.

East Midlands Trains: Sheffield to London

5. What discussions he has had with East Midlands Trains on improving the timetable for the Sheffield to London service. (906916)

We are investing in the biggest upgrade of the midland main line since it was completed in 1870. The upgrade will reduce journey times between Nottingham and Sheffield and London by up to 20 minutes in the peak once it is complete.

I thank the Minister for that response, but it misses the immediate point. The May timetable changes mean that we have no direct rail services from London to Sheffield between the peak afternoon hours of 16.47 and 18.02, where previously there were three. These services have been sacrificed to improve Govia Thameslink services for London and the south-east. Does the Minister think that that is acceptable? If not, what is he going to do about it?

We recognise the challenges of integrating the £7 billion Thameslink programme with the ambitious upgrade of the midland main line costing over £1 billion. That did require hard choices regarding the rationalisation of services, but the situation will be resolved from 2020 onwards with the completion of the upgrade of the midland main line, which will add capacity to the route.

All the trains from London to Sheffield have to go through Kettering, but sadly not enough of them stop at Kettering. We used to have a half-hourly service northbound from Kettering, but the last Labour Government cut that to one an hour. Will the rail Minister reinstate the half-hourly service?

In the consultation on the next east midlands franchise, we have proposed that the extra capacity to be delivered on the midland main line is used to provide 50% more seats in the peak on the fast direct service between Corby, Kettering, Wellingborough, Bedford, Luton, Luton Airport Parkway and London St Pancras. This will mean longer, quieter, more comfortable and more efficient trains.

It costs over £150 a month to commute to Leeds and Sheffield from Barnsley, yet the trains—which belong in museums—are often delayed and packed to a dangerous capacity. When will the Government get a grip and invest in northern transport?

We are investing in new rolling stock, not just across the north of England with all trains there being either replaced or fully refurbished, but also on the midland main line, where new trains will be coming in from 2022 onwards. These will be efficient, environmentally friendly, bi-mode trains of the most innovative kind anywhere in Europe.

Rail User Numbers

After a decade of sustained growth in passenger numbers across Great Britain between 2004 and 2014, averaging at about 5% growth every year, journey growth slowed to under 1% in 2016-17 and fell by around 1% in 2017-18. However, there was growth of about 3% in passenger numbers in the first quarter of 2018-19.

Since 2010, fares have risen at double the rate of wages. What assurances can Ministers give me that there will not be a reduction in rail usage from poorer communities such as mine as people are increasingly priced out?

Passenger numbers have more than doubled in the period of privatised operation of fares. This has happened in an environment in which the Government have frozen fares in real terms for the past six years, and we will be doing so again for the coming financial year. Fares rose by 20% in real terms under the Labour Government. By contrast, they have risen by 2% in the period since 2010.

In last year’s budget, the Chancellor announced a new railcard for those aged 26 to 30, giving 4.5 million more young people a third off their rail fares. Would that increase the number of people using the trains, and what has happened to that scheme?

It is quite possible that it would lead to such an increase. This is an exciting, industry-led trial of the 26-to-30 railcard that the Chancellor announced in his Budget last year. We are waiting the full assessment of that trial, and further steps will be announced in due course.

Every week I am contacted by constituents who are giving up travelling to work by train because of the appalling service that they have received from Northern rail. When are Ministers going to get a grip of—or preferably scrap—this failing franchise?

At the request of Transport for the North in one of its recent board meetings, we have jointly appointed Richard George, who previously played an important role in the delivery of the London Olympic games, to co-ordinate better the performance of the train operators in the north of England—Northern and TransPennine Express—alongside Network Rail. We are looking forward to seeing the results of his work. I met him yesterday, and he has a hard-driving agenda.

I have just heard the answer that my hon. Friend has given, but this morning, as most mornings at my constituency station of Woodlesford, 40 people could not get on the 7.41 train. Numbers are reducing because quite frankly people cannot get in the damn carriage. What pressure is my hon. Friend putting on Northern and Network Rail to get the new rolling stock over to my constituents’ service so that they can get on the train?

I can tell my hon. Friend that new rolling stock is starting to be delivered right now. Improving performance on Northern is a priority. It has been improving significantly since the difficulties over the summer, but there is always room for further progress. The Department will hold it and its owner Arriva to account for their performance in the coming months.

In discussions with the devolved legislatures, will the Minister ensure that the promotion of rail travel, especially for the elderly, in rural areas right across the United Kingdom is put at the forefront of the minds of Translink in Northern Ireland and the other providers across Great Britain?

That is an important consideration, and the Department gives it great attention. We want to ensure that rail is accessible to all communities. The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point.

Careers at Sea

The Department supports a number of initiatives promoting careers at sea and on land in the maritime sector, including Seafarers Awareness Week, Maritime UK’s maritime careers forum, the Women In Maritime Taskforce and the Year Of Engineering. To increase cadetships, the SMarT budget is being doubled to £30 million, and the Government continue to support the sector in developing maritime apprenticeships.

Southampton is one of the busiest ports in the country, and the UK’s No. 1 export port. There are many opportunities in the marine and maritime sector in addition to a life at sea, and if our ports are to continue to thrive beyond Brexit, we will have to attract the brightest and best of the industry. What plans does my hon. Friend have to promote opportunities in the wider marine and maritime sector?

My hon. Friend, like me, is a champion of Southampton port and of increasing the seafaring population. Ports such as Southampton have a key job to do in accessing our global markets. We support a range of initiatives promoting careers at sea and on land in the maritime sector. We have developed maritime apprenticeships and doubled the SMarT budget to £30 million to increase cadetships, and we support a wide range of campaigns such as seafarers awareness week and a campaign that I launched myself—Women in the Maritime Task Force—to increase the current pitiful 3% of maritime jobs held by women.

One thing that would bring young people into the industry is decent wages. The Scottish Government recently commissioned a survey of the extra freight service from Aberdeen to Lerwick. I am told by RMT officials that the operators may be paying as little as £3.78 per hour. That is something that the Scottish Government should not be allowing, but it would not be an option if the Minister implemented the legal working group recommendations that she received earlier this year without any further delay.

I recently met the RMT to discuss a number of issues, including the national minimum wage, which I am keen to explore, working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The right hon. Gentleman is right. We need to ensure that people are paid and dealt with appropriately and work in comfortable circumstances, whether at sea or on shore.

It is scandalous that British officers and ratings hold fewer than 20% of jobs on UK vessels, while the shipping companies reap the benefits from the tonnage tax. Does the Minister agree that we need to create a mandatory link to training and employment of British seafarers, including ratings, as other EU countries have?

The tonnage tax enables us to have six types of apprenticeship, and it encourages companies to employ UK ratings as well. We are doing everything we can, whether it is on ports or working with our ship owners, to ensure that every opportunity is available for young people to enter the maritime sector as a career.[Official Report, 15 October 2018, Vol. 647, c. 6MC.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman, I can see, is in what I would call good chuntering form. His favourite sport is to chunter from a sedentary position. [Interruption.] I am grateful to be advised of the hon. Gentleman’s opinions from his seat as well as when he is on his feet.

Electric Vehicles

It is always a pleasure to answer a question from such a distinguished former Transport Minister. I know that my right hon. Friend will be excited by the progress we are making with the Road to Zero strategy. Our ambition is for all new cars and vans to be effectively zero-emission by 2040, supported by a package of demand, supply and infrastructure measures and £1.5 billion of funding. He will also be interested to know that we hosted in Birmingham recently the world’s first international zero-emission vehicle summit, which was attended by countries from all around the world.

Mr Speaker, you know, and the Secretary of State does too, that in my time as Minister of State I sought to electrify the Department, this House and our country. To make the future electric, we need charging infrastructure sufficient to build confidence in those who, unlike the liberal bourgeoisie, do not have space to charge vehicles at home. Will the Secretary of State set out plans for how we will have widespread on-street charging infrastructure that is accessible, recognisable by its beauty and has a common payment method? I say that not to guarantee my own political legacy, but in the national interest and for the common good.

None the less, Mr Speaker, you will recall that in the debates in Committee on the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill, such infrastructure became affectionately known as “Hayes hook-ups”, and we expect to see them spreading round the country shortly. Quite apart from the work we are doing with local authorities to ensure, for example, that lamp post installations contain the facility for on-street charging, what is particularly exciting is the progress being made towards high-speed, high-voltage charging, which I think within a relatively short number of years will lead to the ability to charge a vehicle in under 10 minutes. That is when we will see the breakthroughs that spread electric vehicles all across our society.

Can I offer the Secretary of State a really good opportunity for a win on electric vehicles? The biggest fleets in our country are the waste trucks that pick up waste from every house in every street in every part of our country every week, and they are polluting vehicles. This is a great opportunity. Dennis Eagle, a British manufacturer, is now producing a battery-operated waste truck. If we could get electric trucks to pick up the waste in this country, we would have a fantastic decline in pollution in our cities.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The roads Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), is already working with manufacturers on transforming the local delivery fleet network, but we will certainly take on board the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. I was not aware that that vehicle had been produced. If we are going to meet air quality challenges, we need to make the kind of change he describes.

One of the great prizes of the electric vehicle revolution will be autonomous vehicles, but for them to bring all the great advantages they can bring to all of us, and particularly disabled people, we need to have public trust in that technology. What is the Department doing to establish that public trust?

A number of trials are taking place around the country, which are paving the way for this revolution. I pay particular tribute to Andy Street, the Mayor of Birmingham, who is working with the industry in the west midlands—the heart of our automotive industry—on on-street trials on all kinds of roads there. This revolution is going to transform lives. It is going to create real opportunities for people with disabilities and the elderly. We are a way away from an automated vehicle being able to go up and down a single-track road with passing spaces, but the reality is that in and around our major towns and cities, this revolution is going to start happening very soon.

Electric vehicles need to be dependable. Can the Secretary of State outline what consumer protection and consumer care will be in place for those with electric vehicles who have an issue with charging that leaves them stranded? I am aware of that happening.

It sounds as though the hon. Gentleman and I had better have a conversation about that, so that we can look at specific cases. It is clearly important that consumers with electric vehicles have the benefits of the same consumer protections as any other kind of vehicle driver.

Civil Aviation Noise

We have set a policy framework which expects industry to manage and provide mitigation for aviation noise. Within this, the overall level of civil aviation noise in the UK continues to decrease. Last October, I introduced a suite of new policies which enhance the way the impact of noise on communities is assessed in airspace changes. At the same time, I announced the establishment of an Independent Commission on Civil Aviation Noise. Through the development of our new aviation strategy, we are now looking also at the regulatory framework, to make sure we have the right protection in place for local communities.

The Secretary of State will be aware that complaints about London City airport have gone up dramatically since the introduction of the new concentrated flightpaths. Although quieter aeroplane engines are welcome, will he do all he can to ensure that there is a fairer spread of flightpaths along the east Thames corridor, particularly affecting my constituents in Romford, Hornchurch and the whole London Borough of Havering?

This is a very important issue, and one that my Department and the Civil Aviation Authority are reviewing carefully. Notwithstanding the work needed in the shorter term to address noise from City airport, I believe that the outcome of our airspace modernisation programme, using new technology to manage airspace, will enable us to manage the impacts on communities much better and make a real difference.

Yesterday, the World Health Organisation issued new, tighter guidelines on noise. Given that about 1.5 million people in London and the south-east already live within the 45 dB Lden noise contour, where the WHO now says there are adverse health impacts, will the Government reassess their approach to Heathrow expansion?

It is important to recognise that the change in technology—the arrival of a new generation of lower noise, lower emission and lower fuel-consuming aircraft—will transform the environment around Heathrow and all our airports. One just has to listen to a Boeing 747 landing at Heathrow compared with, for example, one of the new Airbus or Boeing aeroplanes to realise the huge difference. As the older aeroplanes are phased out, I expect noise at all airports will be reduced, and that is a good thing.

Access for All Programme

Access for All has delivered step-free, accessible routes at more than 200 stations since it was launched in 2006, and smaller access improvements at over 1,500 stations. To build on that success, we have extended the fund and made a further £300 million available via the inclusive transport strategy.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. For disabled people, particularly wheelchair users, having decent access to public transport is the difference between being able to work and get out and being confined to their home. Does she agree that the Mayor of London should match this exciting scheme, so that we can get Transport for London to implement proper access to Stanmore, Canons Park, Queensbury and Harrow & Wealdstone stations in my constituency?

My hon. Friend is right: if the Mayor of London spent as much time fixing the tube station as he did promoting himself at the station, it would be far more accessible. As my hon. Friend is aware, transport in London is devolved to the Mayor and delivered by Transport for London, so it is for the Mayor to determine his accessibility policy and the provision of step-free access at individual stations.

There is no step-free access at Bedford station while much needed repairs are made to the lifts, but passengers were not informed until days before of the severe disruption to their journeys. Govia Thameslink Railway is already facing potential fines for not keeping passengers informed. Does the Minister agree that no lessons have been learned from the chaos over the summer?

Bedford station is, I believe, fitted for step-free access. It is unfortunate that the lifts are broken and that they have not been repaired quickly. Hopefully, the hon. Gentleman raising the matter today will alert GTR and Network Rail to the need to get their act into gear. I know that taxis are available for passengers who need the service, but the lifts should be fixed.

Government cuts have forced local authority bus budgets in England and Wales to be cut by more than £20 million last year. Services such as the No. 3 bus in Wincobank in my constituency have been reduced, affecting the elderly and those with mobility issues. What are the Government doing to ensure the provision of sustainable and accessible public transport in areas such as my constituency, particularly in view of the Prime Minister’s announcement that austerity is now over?

Budgets to support our buses are helping bus services up and down the country, and patronages are changing depending on where people are in the country. The hon. Lady is right to say that disabled people tend to take buses more than other forms of transport, but if local authorities work closely with bus operating companies they can increase access and patronage. In areas such as Liverpool, Bristol and South Gloucestershire, patronages have gone up. Bus companies can do a lot to ensure more accessibility, from using technology to ensuring that the buses themselves are more accessible.

Road Transport Emissions

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government’s mission is for all new cars and vans to be effectively zero emission by 2040. The Road to Zero strategy, which we published in July, sets out a wide range of actions that have been taken to achieve that goal, as well as steps to drive down emissions from conventional vehicles in the meantime. Those measures involve about £1.5 billion of investment.

The recent National Infrastructure Commission report identified Accrington as the most congested town in the country. Has the Minister read that report, and does he recognise that fact? Will he meet my local authority to try to find a resolution, and what outcome to that problem would he like to see?

Yes I have—not only have I read the report, but I have talked to Sir John Armitt, head of the National Infrastructure Commission, about the implications of the work it is doing. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman. This is the first I have heard about the issue from him, but if he wants to come and bring with him representatives from his local authority, he is welcome to have that conversation.

This month’s United Nations climate change report offers a chilling glimpse of the apocalypse of drought, flooding and human displacement that we face should global warming not be restricted to 1.5 °C. Given the contribution made by road transport to the UK’s greenhouse emissions, was the Prime Minister’s boast yesterday that fuel duty has been frozen for seven years, at a cost of £46 billion, ill-judged? Has the Secretary of State failed to provide the leadership necessary for the road transport sector to play its full part in reducing emissions?

I will leave the Secretary of State to answer for himself in future questions and conversations, but there cannot be much doubt that the goal is to balance the effective use of all modes of transport with the important need to make a transition to low emissions as fast as possible. We are doing so at a great pace, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the many decisions that have been taken about improving air quality across the country, of the zero emission vehicle summit that we held in September, and of the Birmingham declaration that was world-leading in bringing other countries to the table.

The reality is that the policies of this Government have directly increased harmful emissions from road transport. Bus funding has been slashed, plug-in car grants cut, and there is chaos in the transition to electric motor vehicles and trains. Will the Secretary of State wake up and accept that he cannot continue to crawl along in the slow lane when it comes to tackling climate change?

I apologise for being the same person that I was when I answered the previous question and not the Secretary of State, but let me pick up on the hon. Gentleman’s points. In August, 12% of new vehicles were electric, and that is because electric vehicles are beginning a fast S-curve of take-up. They have been heavily supported by this Government, and they will continue to be so supported.[Official Report, 15 October 2018, Vol. 647, c. 5MC.]

Sexual Assaults: Railways

12. What recent steps he has taken to reduce the number of sexual assaults and public order offences on the railways. (906926)

The Department and the British Transport police are committed to tackling crime and antisocial behaviour. The BTP takes sexual offences exceptionally seriously and has been encouraging people who experience harassment or assault of a sexual nature to report their experiences under the Project Guardian programme and the “Report it to stop it” campaign.

My constituent’s son was travelling down from school on the Wrexham to Bidston line, and was waiting at Upton station when he was attacked by a group of youths. The station is unmanned, and my constituent was horrified to find out that there is no CCTV. What can be done to ensure better security at unmanned stations?

The son of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent clearly had a terrible experience, and our sympathies go out to him. The Department is working closely with train operating companies on the Secure Stations Scheme, to give more stations across the network accredited status. CCTV will have an important role to play in stations, just as it does in the new rolling stock that we are introducing across the country. I remind Opposition Members that we want more staff working on our railways, not fewer, and for operators where there have been disputes relating to staffing levels, such as Southern and South Western Railway, that is indeed the case.

Every day, women make choices on the basis of their safety, continually planning, checking and trying to read situations. Since 2012, sexual crime has seen a staggering 167% increase on our railways, to a record 2,472 cases last year. Women are 13 times more affected than men and the highest increases are in areas where trains operate without guards. What strategy are the Government deploying to ensure that all women feel, and are, safe?

All passengers and all women must feel safe when travelling on our trains. The Department takes this issue exceptionally seriously, as do all train operators and the British Transport police. In concrete terms, Project Guardian is ensuring that the reporting of sexual offences becomes easier than ever before. We have introduced a new discreet safe texting service, 61016, which has encouraged much greater reporting of sexual harassment on trains or assaults of a sexual nature—[Interruption.] Guards and conductors have not been removed from trains, as Opposition Members are suggesting. It is very frustrating that that line is being propagated in this misleading way. Driver-controlled operation means tasks such as closing doors can now be performed safely by the train driver, freeing up more time for guards to look after passengers, including women.

Public order offences also rose by 116% over the same time period. A staggering 11,711 violent crime offences were committed just last year, with a total of 61,159 criminal offences in 2017-18, again hitting record highs. As we know, the presence of people in authority reduces the prevalence of crime, so can the Minister tell the House why he supports removing guards from trains—the very people who are passenger safety champions?

We want the railways to be safe. In terms of crimes per million passenger journeys, they are safer than they were a decade ago. There are 19 crimes per million passenger journeys today, and a decade ago there were 30 crimes per million passenger journeys, but that is still too many and we want crime levels to come down. That is why the British Transport police are focusing on this very carefully. We have better reporting schemes, such as 61016, which I mentioned. As I said, we want more staff working on our railways, not fewer. That is the case for operators such as Southern and SWR, where there have recently been disputes.

Cycling and Walking

A man can only dream.

My hon. Friend will, I hope, be delighted by the enormous energy that the Government have been showing in the area of cycling and walking, following our investment strategy published last year. That includes: the new safety review; new funding; cycle ambition cities; the transforming cities fund, which is being heavily used to improve urban environments for cycling and walking; support for changes to the “Highway Code” on close passing; and a great number of other measures. When we announce the response to the cycle safety review later this year, I hope there will be more to say on this topic.

If we are going to get half of all children cycling to school, as happens in the Netherlands—that can be compared with the paltry 3% here in the UK—so that we can cut pollution, congestion and obesity, can we ensure that all new roads and housing estates have safe cycle infrastructure designed into them, as it is more expensive to retrofit later?

I certainly share that ambition. As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are seeking to have a child of 12, as well as people of all sexes, races and backgrounds, able to cycle without fear or impediment. Not all housing estates will be suitable for this kind of change—[Hon. Members: “Why not?”] Some may be too far removed from urban city centres, but where they are suitable, I would support that ambition in the way that the Government have done by looking at electrification for new housing.

The Transport Department’s own statistics show that the Government are set to miss their target to increase the number of people who regularly walk and cycle. Walking is barely increasing, and many people are scared to cycle, as has been suggested, with nearly 60% telling the British social attitudes survey that they felt cycling was too dangerous, apparently because of the volume of traffic on the roads.

The Minister himself has said that the UK has a long way to go to improve levels of cycling and walking. Is it not high time for the Government to show some leadership and invest properly in walking and cycling, rather than paying lip service to pedestrians and cyclists?

Well, I think I said that we had a long way to go to match the standards set in some European cities that have been pioneers in this area. I do not think there is any doubt that the Government are doing more than any previous Government have done, and certainly more than the last Government by a factor of some three times in terms of funding per person—[Interruption.] The national chuntering club is out on the other side of the House. We have also taken a host of other measures to try to support cycling and improve safety, with precisely the laudable aims that the hon. Gentleman has in mind.

Rail Network Accessibility

Three quarters of all passenger journeys are now made through stations with step-free access, compared with only half in 2006, and 87% of current rolling stock now meets accessibility standards compared with 75% last year. The inclusive transport strategy is the next step in our ambition to deliver accessible transport, and it includes up to £300 million to fund the Access for All programme for stations until at least 2024. All rolling stock will meet accessibility standards by 2020.

For thousands of disabled people, an accessible rail network can make the difference to going to work and seeing family and friends. We know that last year more than a third of disabled people experienced problems when travelling. In my constituency, three stations—Battersea Park, Queenstown Road and Wandsworth Town—are inaccessible. Rather than rail companies having to compete for funding to make stations more accessible, why cannot the Minister agree to ensure that the Access for All programme is adequately funded so that every single station can be made accessible?

Access for All is a £300 million fund. At present, 75% of all journeys take place via step-free stations. I understand that the Battersea station was put forward for step-free access in the previous round. The new £300 million fund that is now being made available will take on board deferred projects next April, so the hon. Lady will be pleased to note that step-free access will be allocated and, through working with Network Rail, should be delivered for her station.

Topical Questions

It might be helpful if I inform the House that High Speed 2 is today publishing its environmental statement for phase 2b, which is the northern leg from Crewe to Manchester and through the east midlands to Leeds. It will be available in the Library. The route will clearly have an impact on many people, and I have instructed HS2 to treat people with as much decency as possible at what is a difficult time for them. If there are examples of where that is not happening, I want to hear about it, as does the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani). I would encourage Members to come and see us about that.

The northern powerhouse Minister was in my constituency last week to see the new Northern trains. During his visit, he said that passengers would be delighted that they have air-conditioned trains with wi-fi and charging points. New trains are welcome, but what my constituents need more than anything is reliable services that run on time. A recent Liverpool Echo poll showed that 52% of readers said that they would have to find another way to travel if services remain as unreliable as they have been since the timetable changes. There is still a very serious problem, so what steps will the Secretary of State take to resolve the rail disruption caused by the introduction of revised timetables since May?

As the hon. Lady will be aware, Northern rail’s performance has improved markedly since the difficult days in June and July. It is now running more services than it did prior to the timetable change. As for what we will do, we will replace every train with a newer and more reliable train, and we will get rid of all the old Pacer trains that run into and out of Liverpool which, frankly, should have gone to the scrapyard years ago. I hope that she will welcome the investment we have put into Liverpool Lime Street station. I am going there next week to see the long overdue work that has been done to upgrade that station.

T5. Chesterfield canal is part of the way through a restoration of its historical route, which is to be completed in time for its 250th anniversary a few years from now. However, the restoration of the last few miles has been stopped in recent years because confirmation cannot be obtained from HS2 that barges will still be able to get underneath it if the trains go ahead. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that that will be possible? (906942)

I should like to give my hon. Friend that assurance. It is a tragedy, in an era when canals are being reopened for leisure purposes, that when the M6 was built, so many parts of the Kendal canal were cut off and are no longer available. I do not wish, and I do not expect, to see HS2 do the same and culvert canals when the railway is being built.

T3. Will the forthcoming aviation strategy Green Paper contain clear proposals for how the new slots to Scottish airports from Heathrow will be protected, and a guarantee on their numbers? (906939)

That will not happen as part of the aviation strategy document itself, but it will be done through separate mechanisms. I have made it very clear that—probably using the public service obligation procedure—we will introduce requirements alongside the development consent order, when it comes, to ensure that those slots are guaranteed for regional airports in the United Kingdom. That is an essential component of the expansion of Heathrow, and my Department will ensure that the protection of those slots for the regions of the UK is absolutely watertight.

T6. Since July, the Arriva Trains Wales service from Telford to Birmingham has been running with only two carriages, causing delays and overcrowding. Telford is a rapidly growing new town, but with only one direct train service per hour, we are being left behind. Will the Minister meet me, and the Telford train forum, to discuss how we can work together to ensure that Telford has the train service that it needs in order to grow and thrive? (906943)

Of course I should be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. Let me just add that the new West Midlands franchise serving Telford will in future introduce greater capacity on lines serving her constituency.

T4. What role do Ministers see for sub-national transport bodies such as Midlands Connect in the prioritising of investment in our major road network? (906940)

We work closely with the sub-national transport bodies, which can be rather helpful in assessing local demand and local needs across a region.

T7. I have been contacted by a number of constituents about the use by heavy goods vehicles of unsuitable rural roads as rat runs. I understand that technology now exists to track those HGVs and create geo-fences to deter them from using unsuitable roads. Will the Minister consider making that technology compulsory to improve the lives of rural communities? (906944)

We absolutely recognise the problem. At present, the unsuitable use of roads is controlled through information and traffic control mechanisms, by Highways England and local authorities. We are tracking the geo-fencing technology closely. It requires a lot of other moving parts, but we are certainly thinking about it.

T8. Tomorrow, Southeastern will introduce a temporary autumn recovery timetable, which will cause reductions in services and station-skipping throughout my constituency. Will the Minister commit himself to monitoring the situation to ensure that a normal timetable is introduced as soon as possible? (906945)

We will of course be monitoring the autumn timetables across the country. I am glad to see that Southeastern’s performance has been good in recent months: I believe that the current public performance measure is 94%.

Will the Minister update me on the work that he is doing with Devon County Council to ensure that there is a prompt start to the improvement works on the north Devon link road?

As my hon. Friend will know, the council is carrying out preparatory work on the road. We have been delighted to offer more than £80 million of funding under our large local majors scheme. We would like the work to begin in 2020, but we rely very much on the extra commitment that the council is making to ensure that the different aspects work.

T9. There have been a number of incidents involving Uber and black-cab drivers in the west midlands, and in one instance police were called to Coventry station to sort the problem out. When will the Minister legislate, as recommended by the Task and Finish Group on Taxi and Private Hire Vehicle Licensing? (906946)

The Task and Finish Group was established as a result of the ingenious foresight of a previous Transport Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes). Its report was made public only in the summer, but I am evaluating all its recommendations and will make a statement shortly.

HS2 will bring significant extra capacity and resilience to our railways. What more will it do to help and support places such as Nuneaton on the existing west coast main line?

There is a lot of discussion about HS2 and I simply wish to state again today the Government’s commitment to the project; it is, I think, supported across the House and I welcome that support. The point about HS2 is that we have a rail system that is bursting at the seams and we have to create extra capacity on it. By creating the extra capacity on HS2 and taking the express trains off the conventional lines and putting them on to HS2, we will free space for more commuter services into the cities affected and to places such as Nuneaton.

The rail service offered by TransPennine Express to my constituents is frankly abysmal. If trains turn up at all, they are usually late, overcrowded and far too short. No more warm words, Secretary of State: what are you doing about it here and now?

What we are doing is making up for the fact that the last Labour Government in power established a zero-investment set of franchises in the north, with no new trains and no new investment. We are replacing, with either a brand new train or a refurbished-as-new train, every single train on the Northern and TransPennine franchises, with more seats, more carriages and a better deal for commuters. It has taken longer than I would have wished, but it is going to make a difference.

I acknowledge the Secretary of State’s work to reduce congestion in the south-west, but may I urge him to look specifically at increasing capacity and reducing congestion on the A31 in Dorset?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, we have invested heavily in the A303. We have been looking closely at the A358 corridor and upgrading the A30, so I will absolutely discuss further with him the particular road he has in mind.

The M56 is even more congested now than when I last raised the problem just a few months ago. When can we expect confirmation that it will be included for upgrade in the next road investment strategy?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we are already investing quite heavily in junctions 6 to 8 on the M56. Decisions about the second stage of the road investment strategy will be announced next year.

On behalf of the huge number of passengers who were delayed getting into London today, may I invite the rail Minister to give an enormous, if perhaps metaphorical, kick up the backside to the train operators, which should tell us not to get off trains when the tube station there is closed, to Network Rail, which should tell us the same thing as we walk through the station, and to Transport for London for perhaps not letting those organisations know in the first place? It is not good enough when disabled people have to walk to one part of a station only to find it is closed, and then to get back on their train and have to be told by other passengers not to do so. We pay for the service; we should not have to run it.

There is clearly an important lesson to be learned regarding communication between the operating companies and passengers, and I will ensure that the Department gives it careful attention.

Now that the Secretary of State has admitted that HS2, with its £56 billion bill—and still rising—has got enough money to avoid the Chesterfield canal, will he take a decision to avoid the 30 houses due to be knocked down by HS2 in the village of Newton? Say it now, and let’s get the matter sorted out.

It will surprise you, Mr Speaker, to know that I had a very productive meeting with the hon. Gentleman, and his councillors and activists, to understand the pressures he is under as he represents his constituency. There is no denying that HS2 is a large infrastructure project, and we will do everything we can to mitigate the impacts on communities and the environment.

As a regular user of the A44 cycle path, I have seen many of the benefits that cycling can bring. As we look for improvements to the A40 and the Cotswold line to address congestion, does the Minister agree that cycling plays an essential part in an integrated transport network for West Oxfordshire?

Yes, we feel very strongly that for both the strategic network and local roads there is more scope for integration, and much of the investment we are making through both Highways England designated funds and local road investment is designed to support that integration.

Has the Minister followed the developments since our last meeting on the issue of ports infrastructure on the west coast of Scotland, and is she able to update us on any progress?

We are working on our Maritime 2050 strategy, which will look at ports, infrastructure, the environment, accessibility and employment opportunities. I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to update him since our last meeting.

Does the Speaker agree that it has come to a pretty pass when a Member finds out that works have begun on a motorway to turn it into a parking lot without consultation either with the local community or with surrounding Members? The M26 works started last night. I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in April to ask whether this was going to happen, and I was assured that works were not planned. Only yesterday was it confirmed to me that Highways England had said that that was exactly what was planned, despite having told me the reverse only a week earlier. Does the Speaker agree with me, and will he urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to explain to the House how this planning permission has been granted with no consultation?

I admire the breathing capacity of the hon. Gentleman. I get the impression that he is at least moderately discontented.

I am not sure that my view is of any great interest to the House, but I am sure that it will want to know what the Secretary of State has to say to my somewhat irritated colleague.

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this. I do not expect any of the contingencies that we have in place for a no-deal Brexit to be needed, because I am confident that we will reach a sensible agreement, but I would be happy to discuss this with him.

Peak-time trains were cancelled yesterday and today, and there are regular delays at peak time. Is the railways Minister satisfied with the performance of the network and of the Southeastern train operator?

Of course there is always room for improvement, and the next franchise has set demanding specifications for the south-eastern section of the network. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that the performance of Southeastern has been strong in recent months. Today, the public performance measure that tests arrivals within five minutes of the scheduled arrival time for Eltham to London Bridge has been excellent, at above 90%.

I am sorry that I was late this morning, Mr Speaker—the train was delayed again. When are we going to get 15-minute Delay Repay compensation for passengers on the Great Eastern main line?

Under this Government, we have been rolling out Delay Repay 15 in a number of franchises. We are seeking to do that as and when franchises come up for letting so that more passengers get compensation when their trains are delayed by more than 15 minutes.

Last week, the chief executive of Go-Ahead, one of our major private bus operators, called for a national bus strategy. We have strategies for everything else, so why not for buses?

I know that the hon. Gentleman is a passionate advocate for buses, and we have met to discuss this issue many times. I am keen to ensure that we are putting the right resources into this and that the people making decisions on bus services are given the right support. This is something that I am exploring and keen to do.

Will the Minister undertake to give Highways England a nudge to carry out the environmental study required for the A45 dualling works between Stanwick and Thrapston so that they can go ahead in the next road period?

Given that the introduction of E10 fuel would improve air quality and reduce carbon emissions, why do we not introduce it? When are the Government going to do this?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this is the subject of a consultation that has only just closed. We will need to review that, but we are looking closely at the issue and we have been making tremendous progress on it. He will also be aware that some of the business concerns that have been expressed had much more to do with the low bioethanol price and higher wheat prices than with the Government’s position.

Student Loan Book: Sale

Just before I call the shadow Secretary of State to ask the urgent question, I should like to point out to the House that this is not the occasion for a general debate on the merits or demerits of student loan arrangements. This will be narrowly focused—with laser-like precision, I am sure—on the sale of the student loan book, and inquiries that pertain thereto will be orderly. We must not have what I would call a Second Reading-style debate. In any case, I do not intend to run this for longer than half an hour, and possibly for a shorter period than that.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on the sale of the student loan book?

I want to explain to the House the rationale for the sale of the student loan book and make some important points. The sale will categorically not result in private investors setting the terms or operating the collection of repayments. Loans in scope will continue to be serviced by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Student Loans Company on the same basis as equivalent unsold loans. Investors will have no right to change any of the current loan arrangements or to directly contact borrowers. Furthermore, the Government’s policies on student finance and higher education are not being altered by the sale. These older loans, the borrowers of which benefited from lower tuition fees and lower interest rates, are not in the scope of the current review of post-18 education and funding.

The sale represents an opportunity for the Government to guarantee money up front today, rather than fluctuating and uncertain payments over a longer period. That will allow the Government to invest in other policies with greater economic and social returns. We will proceed with the sale only if market conditions remain favourable and if the final value-for-money assessment is positive.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and I thank the Minister for turning up today. It is a shame that the Secretary of State is too busy talking about Labour’s policies to come to this House to explain his own, because the Government last night snuck out a plan to sell another £4 billion of the student loan book, but they have once again told us nothing about their proposal. Will the Minister therefore tell us his Department’s valuation of the loans that it is planning to sell? What value does the Treasury’s Green Book place on them?

Does the Minister acknowledge that the National Audit Office found that his Department made a loss of £900 million on the previous student loan book sale and that £600 million in future income was lost? The sale was supposed to be subject to a so-called value-for-money test, so will he commit to publish the details of the test so that the House can scrutinise them? The Government have previously said that they will raise £12 billion by privatising student debt, so will the Minister tell us whether that is still their plan and state the total value of loans they are planning to sell? How was the figure of £12 billion reached?

Will the Minister confirm that when the sales go ahead the Government will lose a source of income for as long as 25 years in exchange for a one-off payment? Can he give us any justification for the policy of selling off an asset to flatter this Government’s terrible position on national debt? With nearly £1 billion lost in the previous sale, just how low would the sale price have to go before the Government decided that selling simply was not worth it? In short, how much public money do we have to lose before Education Ministers start learning their own lessons?

I object to the hon. Lady’s point that the loan sales plan was snuck out under the radar. The proposal was set out in a written ministerial statement for the House to see, which is obviously why the Opposition spokesperson is in a position to ask an urgent question today. Student loan sales in this country have happened over nearly two decades. This is not new, and it started with two sales of mortgage-style loans under the previous Labour Government in the late 1990s. It was that Labour Administration in 2008 that passed the enabling legislation for the current sales. As I have said, the sale will not affect borrowers, who will continue to deal with the Student Loans Company.

The National Audit Office did refer to the write-down of the loan book, but anybody who has studied accounting will know that the present value of a future income stream will be lower than the value if one waited 30 years. In capturing some of that money, the Government can invest in vital public services today, and that is the rationale for selling the student loan book—the previous Labour Government saw that rationale as well.

The sale will also be good for the taxpayer. Once people have been to university, it serves no public purpose to have the money tied up. The sale will release that money to invest in other priorities. On the valuation, the face value of the sale is £3.9 billion, but what we will do and how we will look to proceed will ultimately depend on market conditions.

What is the Minister’s range of estimates for how much money the sale might raise, and will he confirm to the House that any money raised will be reinvested in other public services?

My hon. Friend will be aware that money raised from student loan sales goes to the Treasury, which makes a decision about in which public services to invest that money. This ultimately means that the taxpayer gets some of the reward now, rather than having to wait for 25 years. We are working with professionals on the range of estimates and I am happy to share it with my hon. Friend when we have the answer.

This policy highlights the limitations of how this Government assess value for money and measure the cost of student loans over time. It prompts the question which Department has it right: the Department for Education or HM Treasury. This is clearly another example of the UK Government selling off assets for short-term capital gain. Will the Minister confirm how much of the student loan book he intends to sell off? What assurances can the UK Government give that the selling off of the remaining tranches of the student loan book will achieve long-term benefit for the taxpayers? And why are the UK Government devaluing assets and selling them off for less than they are actually worth?

The sale remains subject to market conditions and a value-for-money assessment, but I will not be taking lessons from the Scottish National party on student finance. The SNP has created a system that actively works against the disadvantaged in Scotland. We have a system that is funding our universities well and helping the disadvantaged.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answers. Can he give me and my constituents, either students or borrowers, an assurance that whoever buys this loan book will have no access to personal data and no contact or involvement in setting the rates for the loans?

The Minister must know that those in the financial services sector—the sort of people who buy these loan books—are the least trusted people in this country. Is it not a fact that there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of former students out there with some £50,000 of personal debt who are extremely worried about what will happen to the debt sold to these unscrupulous people?

The loans we currently have are income contingent and are collected through the tax system, so even when the loans are sold off, the new owner of the loans has no means or mechanism to contact the students or chase them for payment.

The Minister seems to be saying that he is selling off the student loan book to invest in the public services that his Government have slashed. Given that it is the end of austerity, should it not be possible to invest in those public services without privatising the financing of our higher education and the debt of so many students?

All the Government are doing is trying to capture an income stream that we will get over 25 to 30 years. This is money due to the Government and the Government are coming to a financial arrangement that allows the money to be captured today. As the last Labour Government saw fit, so this Government see fit, in a sensible and prudent way, to manage the Government finances.

How many accountants does the Minister know who would advise their clients to sell off an asset worth £3.5 billion for less than half that?

The final sale price will be determined by market conditions, but it makes a lot of sense in terms of the time and the value of money for the Government to capture those assets now.

Surely now, like at no other time, we should be educating our country as best we can for the future, particularly in view of the uncertain times ahead. Does the Secretary of State not agree that this House has the right to demand that all the money thus received is spent on education and only education?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that promotion, but I am not the Secretary of State. If he is willing to lobby the Treasury on my behalf, I would be delighted if all this money were to be spent on education.

The value of these loans is raised by the extortionate interest rate being charged to ex-students—at 3% above the retail prices index, it is currently 6.1%, which is far higher than the rate for any other loan available on similar terms. Have the Government made an assessment of the impact of these loans and repayments on young people’s ability to find housing, buy a home and get a secure financial future?

These loans are earlier loans and not affected by the current interest rate policy. I make it absolutely clear that whoever buys the loans cannot alter the terms of the loan. The post-18 review is looking at interest rates on existing loans, as well as a number of other aspects of the student finance system.

Will the Minister elucidate how many students have yet to make any payments in terms of their loan obligations? What analysis have the Government made of why they have not yet made any payments?

The hon. Gentleman, an experienced parliamentarian, will know that we have an income-contingent loan system. The repayment threshold has recently been raised from £21,000 to £25,000, thereby benefiting students to the tune of £300 a year. Deliberately designed into the system is a subsidy from the Government; we understand that 45% of students will not pay back the loans in full—that is the subsidy that goes into the loan system. The system means that no one is barred from going to university as a result of their personal financial circumstances.

One benefit of being elected to this place last year was that I was able to pay off my student loan much quicker than I expected. As the Minister will be aware, it was arrested from my wages directly, in the same way as national insurance contributions and income tax. So why on earth would the Government sell off future revenue sources such as student loans, given that they would not dream of doing it for national insurance or income tax? This is absurd.

The repayments are collected through the tax system, and that does not change at all. All that changes is that the benefits of the future income stream now accrue to someone else. That is done not only by Governments around the world, but by businesses. It is a simple fact that if we can capture the value of an uncertain income stream today at a reasonable price, it makes sense to do so.

I caught just the tail end of that question. If I understood it correctly, my hon. Friend was asking about the process and the decision making in the past. We have been dealing with this for two decades in this place; under the last Labour Government there were mortgage-style loans, where loans were sold to private investors, who could contact students directly and chase them for the money. That has now changed under this system.

Will the Minister tell the House at what level the Department is currently assessing the resource accounting and budgeting charge? Will he share his consideration of the Office for National Statistics review of the treatment of unrepayable debt on the Government books?

The RAB charge was at about 35%, but as a result of raising the repayment threshold from £21,000 to £25,000, which in essence makes the loan system more generous, it now stands at 45%. The hon. Gentleman is right to ask about the ONS reclassification of the student loan book, but that is an exercise the ONS is going through and we have yet to hear what its recommendations are. When we find out what those recommendations are, both the Department and the post-18 review will look at them and take the appropriate action.

It is very good of the Minister for Security and Economic Crime to drop in on us; he is just in time for the next urgent question and we are greatly obliged to him, but I note that the shadow Minister is not yet present, which is mildly disappointing. It was disappointing that the Minister left it as late as he did, but there is obviously not always very good communication between Whips Offices and ministerial offices. We should now proceed with the urgent question, because the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is present, although if people wish to raise points of order, I might be tolerant of them. There appears to be no great appetite for points of order at this time—

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As a new Member of the House, although I have managed to get on to the Front Bench, I was wondering whether you could guide me on what happens under these circumstances. Am I able to assist Mr Speaker in his dilemma?

Well, I thought it would be useful if the Opposition spokesman were here, but there is no formal requirement for that person to be present, because the question is of course to the Minister, so as long as a Minister is present, that suffices. What happens otherwise is one or other of two things: either a very helpful Member—perhaps even a shadow Secretary of State—pops up at the Dispatch Box to raise a very worthy point of order, which I take my time in responding to, or alternatively it is necessary for there to be a temporary suspension of the sitting. That would be if a Minister were not present, but the Minister is present—

Only just. He should not be too proud of the fact that he is present, because he is only just on time, but at least he is here. The hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) has helped our proceedings, for which we are grateful, and we can now proceed. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), will no doubt get here as soon as he can and take up his place on the Opposition Front Bench.

Foreign Fighters and the Death Penalty

(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement on foreign fighters and the death penalty.