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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 649: debated on Thursday 22 November 2018


The Secretary of State was asked—

Train Services in the North

1. What steps he is taking to increase the (a) reliability and (b) number of train services in the north. (907763)

We are now running significantly more services on Northern than we were prior to May, but I am aware that there are continuing performance issues, particularly this month. In September, with Transport for the North, which jointly manages this franchise with my Department, I appointed leading industry figure Richard George to co-ordinate the efforts of the train operators and Network Rail to improve the reliability of services in the north. Richard is also working with industry and TfN to examine the significant increase in services which the operators committed to in December 2019. It is essential that these changes are realistic and deliverable, given the need for rail operators to provide a reliable service to passengers.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but he is showing a bit of a tin ear to the lived experience of my constituents. One of them took six hours to travel the 75 miles between Wakefield and Scarborough, which, with a good wind, I could have achieved on a bicycle in the same amount of time. Why has capital investment in the north fallen—as the Institute for Public Policy Research has shown—when the need for investment in our services has never been higher?

I would make two points. First, the IPPR keeps using misleading comparators. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority figures, which are the official figures prepared for the Government, have already shown that, per capita, the north is currently receiving and will over the coming years be receiving more expenditure per head of population than the south.

Of course, in the north—the hon. Lady’s area—the flagship programme for the next five years on rail, the trans-Pennine upgrade, is the most substantial anywhere in the country. Her constituency is also benefiting from increased services on the route to Knottingley.

I accept that there have been some real issues with the TransPennine Express on the route to Scarborough. Those are things that need to be addressed. There are performance issues that are not good enough. It is not a question of having a tin ear. We are actively working to try to improve things on a network that is delivering more services, rather than fewer, and in which substantial investment is happening. One of the frustrations is that the timetable problems in the north this year were triggered by an investment programme that was delayed.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we get a full picture of this? Will he ensure that we see what new trains were being made available in the north between 1997 and 2010, and between 2010 and let us say 2020, so that we can see the investment that is going on by the Government in the north?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point and I pay tribute to him for ensuring the investment programme that is currently taking place. The reality is that, in that decade, there were no new trains in the north and no investment: the Labour party let a standstill franchise on the northern rail network. It is this Government who are renewing every single train in the north of England and it is long overdue.

The Secretary of State goes back to the timetable changes, but currently one in four Northern trains are delayed or cancelled and nearly one in three TransPennine trains are delayed or cancelled. Is not it time that he took control and took these franchises back, so that we can have a proper rail service in the north of England?

That is precisely why I say that I am not satisfied with the current performance issues. That is why we have appointed Richard George to understand why the service is not performing adequately. It is of course hampered by the fact that some of the performance issues recently have been caused by the elderly Pacer trains, which are being phased out, starting in the coming weeks. However, we need to do everything we can and we will continue to do everything we can, in partnership with Transport for the North, to identify the ways of getting performance up. It is not simply a question of changing ownership of the franchise or control of the franchise. There is not a magic team down the corridor waiting to step in and make this work better. We have got to make it work better.

As we have heard, TransPennine passengers to and from Scarborough have had to endure a summer of delays. Indeed, because of drivers’ hours, many trains have been terminated at York, leaving passengers waiting an hour for the following service, if it is not also delayed. Although there has been some improvement, when are we likely to see a return to normality?

I absolutely sympathise with people in Scarborough. Of course, we are introducing additional services to Scarborough in the coming months, so that there will be a Northern service there as well. The work that Richard George is doing to look at why these performance issues are happening is similar to the work we did with Chris Gibb on Southern, which has led to an improvement in performance on that network, and I am absolutely clear that we have to deal with the issues that he highlights.

Let us get to the real north, which is Scotland. Overall, the Abellio ScotRail franchise is the best performing large franchisee, but 50% of delays and cancellations are attributable to Network Rail. The Secretary of State is being obstinate with us, but will he not consider devolution of Network Rail to allow the Scottish Government to take full responsibility? It would generate savings, which would also help to offset the £400 million shortfall from his Government.

The hon. Gentleman makes that argument regularly, but the devolution of Network Rail was not recommended in the report produced on devolution in Scotland. Given the SNP’s less-than-good record in running other services in Scotland, it escapes me why he thinks that devolving Network Rail would make a difference to train services in Scotland.

As usual, the Secretary of State shows his full knowledge of Scotland. He will be aware that the rail industry review panel includes Tom Harris, a former rail Minister, who has written a report that calls for the devolution of Network Rail to Scotland. I wrote a letter to the Secretary of State on 15 October but he has not responded. Will he now confirm that he has not restricted the terms of reference for the rail industry review panel, and that if they recommend devolution of Network Rail to Scotland, he will act on that?

I have not set any limits on that approach. I have asked the panel to consider the question of devolution, as well as how we can improve the workings of the railways. It is no secret that in my view we need a more joined-up railway to meet the challenges of a system that is under intense pressure. The Government are investing record amounts in infrastructure upgrades, including spending money in Scotland, and that is in addition to using the Barnett formula, which is the norm for the allocation of funds to Scotland. We have a railway that is bursting at the seams, and it needs to work better if it is to deal with the pressures on it.

Since the announcement of the northern powerhouse agenda, transport spend per person has risen by twice as much in London as it has in the north. New analysis of Treasury figures published this week shows the gap widening, with an increase in spend of £326 per person in the capital, just £146 per person in the north, and the amount even falling in Yorkshire—more than in any other region—resulting in poor reliability and capacity. Why such under-investment?

I am the Secretary of State who has planned over the next five years for 50% of the rail enhancement budget that the Government are putting in place to be spent in the north—on upgrading the east coast main line, on the trans-Pennine upgrade and on other schemes that will make a real difference. When Labour Members were in government they did none of that, so you will forgive me, Mr Speaker, if I take no lessons from the Labour party about investment in transport in the north. We are getting on with delivering it.

South Western Railway and National Rail Review

2. What steps his Department has taken to implement the recommendations of the independent review of South Western Railway and National Rail. (907765)

The South Western Railway performance review was published on 10 September 2018. It was independently chaired by Sir Michael Holden, and SWR and Network Rail are already working to implement its conclusions. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the former rail Minister met representatives from South Western Railway and the Network Rail Wessex route on 24 October to review their progress in implementing the performance review. They are on track to complete delivery of all the recommendations in that review, a number of which are already complete, and all short-term recommendations will be complete by the end of this year.

May I welcome my hon. Friend’s return to the Front Bench? Although my constituents will welcome the review, they are furious about the terrible disruption across South Western Railway on “mayhem Monday” this week, with seemingly no contingency plans and diabolical communication. Will my hon. Friend ensure that South Western Railway and Network Rail are held to account and made to learn lessons from this week’s mess, especially given the planned Network Rail engineering works this Sunday?

That incident was utterly unacceptable—there is no question about that—and I am not surprised that my hon. Friend’s constituents are furious about it. The Secretary of State spoke to Andrew Haines, chief executive of Network Rail, at 7 o’clock on Monday morning, and he made clear his dissatisfaction with the incident and demanded action. Network Rail has started an independent investigation to look at how the work was planned and delivered, and how the resulting disruption was managed. It has already made management changes, and new leadership on the Wessex route will start next week. South Western Railway also has lessons to learn, and it must review its communications with its customers. That part is critical and it failed on Monday. It must do far better.

Welcome back, but—I have had some pretty miserable experiences on that train line, but they are as nothing compared with how ghastly it must be to be rail Minister. Does my hon. Friend think that that might have contributed to his predecessor’s resignation?

That question is flawed, Mr Speaker. There is nothing ghastly at all about being the rail Minister, and I cannot understand where my right hon. Friend is coming from. I think the reasons for my predecessor’s departure are already documented elsewhere.

The Minister’s portfolio grows by the day. He previously served the House and the nation with distinction as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for buses, so from bus to rail really is an impressive CV, it has to be said. [Laughter.] Well, it is.

Train Timetable Changes

We recognise the appalling disruption that some passengers experienced following the May timetable introduction. We have to be very clear that this cannot be repeated. The final Glaister report, providing recommendations on future changes that can be made to prevent disruption at timetable changes, will be published shortly. We are also working closely with the rail industry to provide a seriously enhanced level of assurance on planned timetable changes in December 2018 and May 2019.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, contrary to the impression that he gave in this letter, the Department for Transport did have a significant role in the timetabling fiasco? In fact, according to the Office of Rail and Road interim report, the DFT’s decision to phase in the introduction of Thameslink stretched resources badly. Does he agree that one of the most damning comments in that report is that the industry placed engineering requirements ahead of serving passengers? How will he ensure that in future the DFT accepts full responsibility for its failures and the industry prioritises passengers over rails and rolling stock?

The latter point is extremely important. It is not good enough to have Network Rail too focused on engineering and not focused enough on passengers. It is one of the problems in the rail industry and why we have already started to work towards a more joined-up railway through an alliance structure. As I said with the announcement of the rail review, that is an essential part of delivering the much more substantial change that is necessary, given what happened this summer.

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that it is not just timetable changes that are important, although they have been improved on lines from London to Stafford, but the number of coaches on the trains? On the London Northwestern railway—the LNWR—we are seeing very good services, but the trains are too short, with four carriages, instead of eight. Will he have a look at that?

I will certainly have a look and the rail Minister will be happy to talk to my hon. Friend about that. We are supporting a programme of substantial investment in new rolling stock all around the country, which will benefit passengers. New coaches will be arriving on the LNWR franchise, but we could certainly have a discussion about where they are serving.

In the last timetable changes, on the midland main line, Stagecoach was forced to lengthen the journey times of peak time trains from Sheffield to London to accommodate more Thameslink commuter trains. Is it true that the Department for Transport has told Stagecoach it cannot revisit that in the next timetable changes because of the shambles last time and the nervousness that has created in the Department?

We would dispute that we have done anything to disadvantage Sheffield to help Govia Thameslink Railway. We are of course doing a massive upgrade programme on the midland main line. I pay tribute to all those involved in the recent Derby station remodelling. Many projects have gone badly wrong; that did not. It was handled very well. Further improvements are happening up and down that line, as part of the biggest modernisation programme on that route since Victorian times. That work will continue. We will do everything to make sure, if we can, that the timetable remains as intact as possible as those changes happen.

I do not wish to disappoint the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely), but he does have Question 9, which will be reached and is grouped, so it is mildly inconvenient to call him any earlier than that. We are keeping him waiting, but it will be worth waiting for, I feel sure.

Is there any advice that the Secretary of State can give to the Welsh Transport Minister? Changes to the franchise and timetable changes have resulted this week in the chief operating officer coming out with a statement saying that too many trains have been cancelled, delayed or have arrived late, with fewer carriages than normal—and that is under a Labour Government.

My hon. Friend puts his finger on the nub of the issue. The Labour party says, “If we just wave our magic wand, it will all be fine.” The reality is that we have a deeply congested railway facing big operational challenges. We are investing substantial amounts in it but—he points out the situation in Wales—there are no magic solutions anywhere in the country, under any Government.

The Secretary of State can duck and dive but the fact is that there is a lack of strategic leadership in his Department. What we found in Huddersfield is that, overnight, they cancelled the link between Huddersfield and Wakefield Westgate, so people cannot get a main line train unless they go to Leeds—and nobody in Huddersfield would want to go to Leeds at any time. The fact of the matter is that we want good strategy and policies that stop people living in chaos and not being able to get to work or go on holiday.

What the hon. Gentleman needs are policies that invest money in rail in the north to deliver—as I know is happening at his station—new trains to replace long out-of-date trains and provide more services for passengers. That is what we are aiming to do and what we are doing.

Local Roads

The Department for Transport is providing over £6.6 billion to local highway authorities in England between 2015 and 2021 to improve the condition of local roads. That includes a £296 million pothole action fund and the additional £420 million for local highways maintenance announced in Budget 2018.

Many councils now use technology to enable residents to report road-related problems. Will my hon. Friend encourage the greater use of digital apps and technology tools to make councils more accountable for the road issues in their area?

I am well aware of my hon. Friend’s interest in technology and the potential ways in which it can improve productivity. He is absolutely right, and I encourage all councils to use technology better as far as possible for residents to report road-related problems. As he will be aware, they do so in Hampshire, where the county council uses an online reporting tool, but the Department has also done work to support this, not least through assistance to Cycling UK to revamp its pothole reporting website.

I hope that the Minister will find £60 million for County Durham. In the meantime, new estates are being built without proper roads. Instead of overseeing this 21st-century squalor, will he talk to his colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to require the planning rules to be changed so that roads are built to adoptable standards?

The hon. Lady will be surprised to know that there is a housing infrastructure fund that is in part precisely designed to facilitate the relationship between road building and new housing, and of course, that is what it is doing.

It is not so much the condition of local roads but the amount of obstructions on them, from double parking to kerbside parking to parking in bus and cycle lanes. Rather than waiting for traffic management orders, which can be quite binary, to come into place, would it not be better for the Department to issue guidance on the definition of “obstruction”, so that more local authorities can deal with it in a flexible way that means that motorists are not being penalised in an unreasonable manner?

Gosh, I am going to resist the temptation to bring in the casuists to discuss the question of how obstruction is to be defined, but I direct my hon. Friend, without giving too much of a sneak preview, to the work that we have done—announced today in a written ministerial statement—on the cycling and walking safety report, which includes enforcement against parking in mandatory cycle lanes for precisely the reasons that he indicates.

This week is Road Safety Week, yet investment on minor roads has fallen by 40% since 2010 and the number of potholes is rapidly increasing, leaving 17% of local roads in England in poor condition, according to the Asphalt Industry Alliance. The Department’s own figures show that there have been 13 deaths and 192 cyclists seriously injured since 2010 on roads that have a defective road surface. In this week of all weeks, how can the Government defend their record on maintaining local roads?

I am not sure where to begin with that. If the hon. Gentleman looks carefully at the work of the RAC Foundation, he will discover that, in relative terms, the number of potholes on our roads spiked between the years 2005 and 2010 and has been coming down slowly but steadily, more or less, ever since.

Is the Minister in all sincerity denying the evidence of the Asphalt Industry Alliance, which carried out a detailed survey of local authorities, which showed that there is a backlog of a minimum of £9 billion of work on potholes?

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman might want to look at a wider range of sources than just the Asphalt Industry Alliance for his information about the use of asphalt in filling potholes, but the issue is a serious one. He will know that I have made clear my interest not merely in an in-year road settlement of £420 million for potholes, which the Government have just passed and which is highly welcome, but in a more strategic approach to local roads funding over the next five years.

Engineering: Girls and People from Ethnic Backgrounds

5. What steps his Department is taking to encourage more girls and people from ethnic backgrounds to pursue a career in engineering. (907768)

My Department launched the Year of Engineering to increase the number and diversity of engineers across the UK and to address the engineering skills gap. I am indebted to my hon. Friend for his tireless work as he criss-crossed the country, working with 1,400 partners to help us to deliver 1 million experiences to young people in his role as ambassador, or envoy, for the Year of Engineering, focusing particularly on girls and people from ethnic-minority backgrounds.

Over the past year, I have been greatly encouraged by the reaction that I have seen from young people as they come into direct contact with inspiring engineers from all backgrounds. Does my hon. Friend share my commitment to finding a way to carry on the good work of the Year of Engineering, so that we can continue to push the message that engineering is open to everyone, regardless of background, ethnicity and gender?

Absolutely. We are building on the legacy of this year, working with organisations ranging from Siemens, FIFA and Apple to the Science Museum, and we are committed to building on that work so that even more young people understand and appreciate the success of a career in engineering.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) on the success of the Year of Engineering in promoting engineering as a fantastic career for everyone, but engineering is not just for one year; it is forever. Will the Minister follow Labour’s example and produce a diversity charter for the transport sector, so that the numerous initiatives—which are all very good in their own way—can be brought together, and we can see concrete progress and, most importantly, measure it?

The Year of Engineering has been a collaborative project involving more than 1,400 firms and partners. One of their objectives was to reach out to communities that may not have had experience of engineering. We have had some successes: young people in primary schools are thinking about engineering as a career, as are older students. We will work with our partners and see what more we can do, building on the work that we have done this year.

I had an opportunity to visit Northern Ireland with the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), and we thank him for coming. Northern Ireland has seen a 5% rise in female engineering students in the past two years. Does the Minister intend to target children in key stage 3, to initiate a passion for engineering in the early stages of secondary school applications?

Absolutely. We fully appreciate that girls in particular can close their minds to engineering at quite an early stage, at primary school. We want to work with young students throughout their school lives to ensure that they realise that it is a good career, and one that is open to them.


6. What recent discussions his Department has had with Southeastern on (a) timetabling and (b) performance standards. (907769)

The franchise agreement between the Department and train operators includes key performance benchmarks. The Department monitors each train operator against those levels, and that includes regular meetings with their senior management team at which performance figures are scrutinised and challenged. A range of enforcement mechanisms are available to the Department in the event of non-compliance.

Given their experience in recent years, many of my constituents are looking to the next operator of the Southeastern franchise to significantly improve timetabling performance. With that end in mind, will the Minister—whom I warmly welcome to his post—confirm that the Department still expects to announce the winning bidder this month and reassure passengers that the start of the new franchise will not be delayed?

The level of performance management in that area is 91.2%, which is high across our railways. I will write to the hon. Gentleman with full details of the answer that he has requested.

I congratulate the Minister on taking up his post. My constituents could be forgiven for thinking that new Rail Ministers turn up more frequently than Southeastern trains.

Public performance measures are currently below their 2010 level. They are running below their target and are not due to reach it until 2025. Does that not show that privatisation is not working for my constituents, and it is time that Southeastern was brought under public control and the Mayor of London?

I would just highlight to the hon. Gentleman that the railways are carrying significantly more passengers. On his privatisation point, privatisation has turned around our railways: after decades of decline under British Rail, we have seen passenger numbers grow from 750 million to 1.7 billion. We have one of the most intensively used, fastest growing and safest railways in Europe. Privatisation is the answer.

East Coast Main Line Route Study

7. What decisions on railway investment he plans to make as a result of the recent east coast main line route study. (907771)

The Department is investing up to £780 million to upgrade the east coast main line from 2019. The works are to be completed in the early 2020s and will enable faster, more frequent journeys with more seats. Building upon those works, the east coast main line route study has identified a broad range of investment choices. We are working closely with Transport for the North, Network Rail and High Speed 2 Ltd to assess which enhancements should be taken forward.

In 1990, British Rail ran an express train from King’s Cross to Edinburgh with track cleared of other traffic in 3 hours and 30 minutes, including a two-minute stop at Newcastle. This was less time than planned for HS2, and with some additional four-tracking and two rail flyovers, the east coast main line could run regular 140 mph services in such times, and with the existing stock. Will Ministers look positively at such investment, as first proposed long ago by British Rail?

The key point to make is that we are carrying significantly more passengers on the east coast main line, and this investment will enable it to deliver faster and more frequent journeys with more seats between London and Edinburgh.

I welcome the Minister back to the Dispatch Box. He will know from his previous time in the Department of my campaign for better train services into northern Lincolnshire, particularly a direct service from King’s Cross. May I invite him to visit northern Lincolnshire and to travel by train—a wonderful experience—and meet the major businesses in the area who have joined my campaign?

I always enjoy my visits to north Lincolnshire and will happily take up my hon. Friend’s invitation.

As the Minister will be aware, the east coast main line goes through my constituency of East Lothian. Can he confirm that, following this review, the stations at East Linton and Reston in my neighbouring constituency are still on task to be reopened?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is already in discussions on this very issue, and we will get back to the hon. Gentleman with detailed answers.

Cycling and Walking

The Department will today publish a response to its recent call for evidence on improving cycling and walking safety. This will set out a vision and a two-year plan of action, with some 50 actions. It will also include a summary of the many steps the Government have taken to encourage cycling and walking and the significant additional funding that has been made available under the cycling and walking investment strategy.

When will there potentially be a new round of funding to support new and upgraded cycle routes such as the planned cycle route in West Wight between Newport, Yarmouth and Freshwater, which will significantly improve our cycling offer on the island?

The Government have made available £1.2 billion under the cycling and walking investment strategy, and that has been supplemented by a range of other funds since then, including the local growth fund. Further funding is to be made available through the highways infrastructure fund and the future high-street funding programme just announced in the Budget. Further funding from 2020-21 onwards will be a matter for the spending review.

Some 5% of my constituents cycle to work, which is double the national average. However, CrashMap shows the number of accidents between my home and Parliament Square and that has frightened me off taking the plunge. In addition, today is our third day in a row of poor air quality alerts. Will the Minister please tell me, in road safety week, what we are doing to tackle the scourge of poor vision and behaviour of construction and delivery lorries and the problem of air quality, which are, literally, a deadly combination?

We are addressing these issues with the utmost seriousness. Today, we are publishing a cycling and walking safety review, with 50 actions designed to pull together a whole suite of Government policies and set in motion further work specifically designed to improve not merely cycling and walking safety, but also air quality and the fight on issues of health and obesity, and to improve access to high streets and economic productivity, all of which go to many of the general points the hon. Lady raises.

Following the success of the Tour of Britain in 2016, the Cheshire East Council leader called Congleton

“The heart of cycling in Cheshire East”,

and town councillor Suzie Akers Smith, who is mayor of Congleton this year, in our 700th year of having a mayor, made cycling her flagship project. Yet despite leading the development of a cycling masterplan for Congleton in 2016, more than two years later, after a number of funding applications and more than 400 meetings, Councillor Akers Smith has been unable to make any progress to obtain material substantive support for her project. Will the Minister meet me and the mayor to discuss this?

I am delighted to hear that Congleton has been declared the centre of cycling in Cheshire East, and I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the problem in more detail.

Air Travel: Disabled People

The Government recognise and are addressing the needs of disabled passengers who choose to travel by air. This forms an important part of the new aviation strategy, which we are developing, and the inclusive transport strategy, which I published in July. The Government are considering what more can be done to ensure that disabled passengers have equal access to air travel and the confidence to travel independently. We will consult on options in a Green Paper, due to be published by the end of the year.

I welcome the Government’s work. Tomorrow, my private Member’s Bill is due for its Second Reading. It sets out steps to improve the experience for disabled passengers, from car parking to getting on and off planes and, crucially, reducing damage to wheelchairs. Do I have the Government’s support for my Bill and my efforts overall to ensure that air travel is more accessible for everyone?

My hon. Friend’s Bill raises vital issues. I commend her for all her campaigning work and thank her for the opportunity to meet her and her constituents to discuss the matter. It is crucial that disabled air passengers are able to travel in comfort and with dignity, and independently if they wish. That is why we will continue to work with the Civil Aviation Authority to secure improvements throughout the industry.

There have been many reports recently of disabled people suffering poor service when travelling by plane, yet we still await publication of the aviation strategy, which might offer some reassurance to disabled air passengers. Why has the strategy not been published? When will it be published?

The aviation strategy is due to be published, but the hon. Gentleman will have had sight of the inclusive transport strategy, which covers many elements of work to be done by the Civil Aviation Authority to ensure that accessibility, dignity and independent travel are delivered for passengers with disability as they are for passengers without disability.

Disabled access is equally important in our rail stations across the United Kingdom, which is why the Access for All scheme that my hon. Friend has commissioned is fantastic. I know that Montrose station in my constituency has already benefited. When will the next round of funding be released for the bids sent in?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. That is very kind of you. The Access for All fund has £300 million, and we had more than 300 applications. Decisions on the stations that will be able to receive that extra funding will be made early next year.

Bus Journeys

Local bus passenger journeys account for about 59% of all journeys made on public transport. The number of local bus passenger journeys in England fell by 1.5% to just over 4 billion in the year ending March 2017. The Bus Services Act 2017 introduced new powers for authorities and operators to work together to improve local bus services and grow passenger numbers.

Evidence shows that regulating buses improves services and bus patronage, so why are the Government siding with the bus companies rather than passengers by refusing to give councils such as Manchester’s powers to take back control of local buses?

The hon. Gentleman seems confused. When you wait for a bus, three come along at once: over £13 million of bus service operators grant has been made available to Manchester; the transforming cities fund has given the mayoral authority £312 million to drive up intercity connectivity; and, moreover, the Mayor has the authority to ask for franchising, but he has not—I suggest that the hon. Gentleman and his Mayor just jump on the bus and ask for it.

Late-running and cancelled buses cause just as much misery for people as late-running and cancelled trains. We talk a lot in this Chamber about the trains, but it is also happening on the buses at the moment. The Transport Committee has heard about the problems in Bristol, and there is misery on the buses in Cambridge. What assessment has the Minister made of bus punctuality, particularly the effect of bus driver shortages?

I have been following the Select Committee inquiry very closely. It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman mentions Bristol, because bus passenger numbers have gone up by 42%. He raises a valid point, because punctuality, the timing of bus arrivals and departures, and journey times are key to increasing bus patronage, which is why we are increasing funding to make sure that information is available.

Since 2010, bus funding has been almost halved, fares have been increased by over 50% and thousands of routes have been cut, shrinking the network to its smallest size in decades. Does the Minister agree with the United Nations assessment of Tory transport policy:

“Abandoning people to the private market in relation to a service that affects every dimension of their basic well-being is incompatible with human rights requirements.”?

I would rather stick to the facts. We make over £1 billion of funding available for concessionary bus passes every year, and we continue to be committed to that. Some £250 million is paid to support bus services up and down the country. There is no denying that there are challenges in some parts of the country. However, the hon. Gentleman forgets to note that bus patronage is up by 42% in Bristol, up by 38% in South Gloucestershire and up by 31% in Central Bedfordshire. There are services that are working right, and local authorities are working with bus providers to make sure that up-to-date information is available.

Just as Conservative Members ridicule complaints about the state of our roads, the Government have dismissed the UN report as political. Let me tell the Minister that the decision to axe vital public services to fund tax cuts for millionaires, now that is political. Now the Prime Minister has declared that austerity is over, will the Minister commit to reversing these cruel and harmful cuts that are denying people their human rights?

I am afraid that Labour Front Benchers have run out of anything positive to say about any part of our transport infrastructure, even to support buses across the country. As I said, there is £1 billion of funding for concessionary bus travel. We are making franchising available to those mayoral authorities that wish to take it up, but they refuse to do so. [Interruption.] I do not know whether this is just going to go back and forth, but the fact is that we are putting funding into bus services, making sure they are greener, making sure that more information is available and making sure that more people can catch a bus.

TOCs: Derogations from Franchise Obligations

14. What criteria his Department uses to assess train operating company requests for derogations from franchise obligations. (907779)

A derogation is a deferral of a contracted obligation. Requests for derogations are assessed by considering the operator’s reasoning on why delivering as contracted is not possible and the impact of the proposed deferral. Derogations will not be agreed if requested retrospectively.

I am grateful to the rail Minister, who will know that, in its 2017 franchise award, CrossCountry’s intercity service was required to make two additional stops a day in the city of Gloucester, once the Network Rail works at Filton Bank are completed at the end of this year. Will the Minister celebrate his return to the Department for Transport by saying when this derogation will come to an end and when the operator will deliver those two additional services a day?

My hon. Friend is a long-standing campaigner on this issue. He is right to say that we want to see the services in the franchise resumed. The derogation was granted in March, and I know he has met my predecessor to discuss this issue. The works at Filton Bank are progressing, but this is a complex project. It is firmly on my radar, but perhaps I may ask him to meet me so that we can review the project and I can update him.

A19: Safety Improvements

Since 2011, Highways England has delivered safety improvements at many locations on the A19, and more are planned or are under way. For example, works to improve safety at Sheraton have commenced and are expected to complete by spring 2019. A safety review was undertaken along the A19 from Dishforth to the Tyne tunnel in summer 2018, in order to inform further interventions.

The Minister will be aware that this week is Road Safety Week, and my two local newspapers, The Shields Gazette and the Sunderland Echo, are running a “Safe A19” campaign, backed by the local MPs. Bearing in mind that the Department’s safer roads fund was underspent by £75 million last year, will he commit funds to the A19 to alleviate local concerns?

I am grateful for the question. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the study of the A19’s safety has already been completed and is being analysed at the moment. The £75 million to which he refers was not underspent; the whole fund was used for the 50 schemes that were applied for and was fully discharged for that.

Free Ports

16. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits of creating free ports in the UK. (907781)

The Government have been clear that they are open to ideas that deliver economic advantages in the UK. Section 100A of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 provides the legal basis for the designation of free zones by the Treasury and will continue to do so following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Applying for designation as a free zone will be a commercial decision to be taken by private port operators.

We are in uncharted waters as regards Brexit, and the danger is that Scottish exporters will not be able to access their European markets in the same way as they have done pre-Brexit. Does the Minister agree that this is the time to advantage ports such as Rosyth in my constituency and make sure that we have a strong ports sector in the future? Free ports would add into the benefits associated with doing that.

The cost and benefits of free port status will depend on the final outcome of the Brexit negotiations, but we in the Department are preparing for all outcomes. The hon. Gentleman will know that I will continue to work as hard as I can to ensure that our ports sector is promoted, and continues to be efficient and as competitive as possible.

Strategic Road Network

The Government have a massive investment programme taking place in our strategic road network, where we have just announced £25.3 billion for Highways England for the next road investment period. We are also committed to a substantial investment in the major road network, the next tier down of roads, and indeed in large local major roads, where some important connecting projects are needed around the country.

The A6 in Kibworth in my constituency has a major problem with air quality and congestion every morning. Will the Secretary of State look closely, as part of plans for the major route network, at proposals from Leicestershire to solve that serious problem?

I hope the major road network fund will enable us to deal with problems such as the one my hon. Friend has identified. The A6 is one of the roads I expect to be eligible for that funding. I am pleased that we are moving ahead with that and particularly pleased with the first schemes we announced. We are doing what the Labour party never did, which is looking after Barrow-in-Furness and finally get rid of the Grizebeck bottleneck on the A595. That is the kind of thing Conservatives do for the north and Labour never did.

Leaving the EU: Aviation Sector

19. What recent assessment he has made of the potential effect on the viability of the aviation sector of the UK leaving the EU. (907784)

The UK Government and European Commission have agreed in principle that the two sides should negotiate a comprehensive air transport agreement, and the Department is working closely with the aviation sector to ensure its requirements are factored into the negotiations.

The draft withdrawal agreement will have done little to alleviate the uncertainty of the aviation industry, and with the post-Brexit relationship yet to be negotiated and the risk of no deal increasing, can the Minister confirm whether the aviation agreement talks, which the Secretary of State earlier this month said were ready to start, have now begun? When does the Minister expect them to be concluded?

The hon. Gentleman is a keen student of Adam Smith and he will therefore know that free trade is constantly something that both sides will benefit from and will seek to derive gain. The conversations that he mentions continue and both sides have a strong interest in reaching a deal. That should be no cause for surprise, because the President of the European Council said on 7 March:

“I am determined to avoid that particularly absurd consequence of Brexit that is the disruption of flights between the UK and the EU”,

and he was right.

Less than a month ago, the Secretary of State told the aviation conference that it was theoretically possible that the European Aviation Safety Agency could refuse or delay the certification of UK-certified planes. Now we have even less time before we leave the EU, so can the Minister offer any more certainty to the aviation sector?

I can do no better than to remind the hon. Gentleman of the notice that was published on 13 November which said specifically that there would be reciprocity in operations between the UK and the EU in the air transport sector, that aviation safety certificates would remain valid for a period of time, and that passengers and cabin luggage from the UK would not need to be rescreened. This all points to the likelihood of a perfectly good, sensible and comprehensive agreement.

Will the Minister tell us whether Airbus, which is critical for Bristol jobs, and the other manufacturing industries in its supply chain will be able to maintain planes and move parts between the UK and the EU exactly as before if there is no deal?

As the hon. Lady knows, we expect there to be a deal and there is every reason for there to be a deal. Contingency arrangements are already in place, and I would direct her to the technical notices that have been published on this topic.

Crossrail: Mayor of London

The Secretary of State has regular discussions with the Mayor of London covering a variety of subjects, including progress on delivering Crossrail.

There have been reports in the media that Transport for London’s finances are in trouble. Crossrail reaches out into my constituency, with stations at Brentwood and Shenfield. Is the Minister concerned by these reports, and will this affect the delivery of Crossrail?

TfL’s finances are a matter for the Mayor of London, and Crossrail is a 100%-owned subsidiary of TfL. It is becoming clearer how the Mayor’s policies are causing long-term problems with TfL’s finances, but the Government will continue to work with TfL as joint sponsors to oversee Crossrail’s delivery of the new railway as soon as possible.

What discussions has my hon. Friend had with the Mayor of London about the funding that the Department for Transport provides to London for Crossrail?

I know that the conversations involving the Secretary of State are extensive. I have not personally had any yet, as this is day 6, but I intend to pick up on those conversations in order to support my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Order. Just before we come to topical questions, I want to advise the House of a change in the order of business. After topical questions, we were due to have an urgent question on Bombardier, followed by the business question. In fact, what is now going to happen is that after topical questions we will have the business question, and after that there will be a ministerial statement on Bombardier. I have agreed to a request for such a change to be made. The rationale for it is not something that I need to go into now, but I am advising the House so that colleagues can make their preparations accordingly.

Topical Questions

I shall start with some good news for the south-west. A couple of months ago, I announced that we would be extending the current public service obligation on flights from Newquay to Gatwick. I also spoke at the Dispatch Box about the potential benefits for Newquay airport and the south-west of a direct link to Heathrow, once Heathrow expands. I am pleased to say that that link is going to happen sooner, and that it will be starting in the spring of next year, supported by the Government. I think that it will provide a really good boost to business in the south-west, providing it with connections to important destinations around the world.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. The A27 in Chichester is at capacity and that is restricting economic growth. The local councils have approved their local plan review, which is now out for public consultation and, as is required to pass the process, it includes minor improvements to the road. The strategic solution, however, is the only viable answer to the problems with the A27. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that it is still the Department’s intention to fund major road improvements around Chichester in the recently increased road investment strategy 2—RIS2—budget?

I know how important this is to my hon. Friend and to many of her constituents. She will know that the divisions of opinion in the local community have put the project back by a number of years. I do not want to give her undue cause for optimism about its position in the queue, because it was certainly a setback when the local authority decided to reject Highways England’s plans, but it remains the view of the Government and Highways England that improvements in the area around her constituency will be necessary in the future.

T2. In my recent community consultation, I heard growing concerns about bus services and prices, particularly from young people. Sheffield fares are as high as £3 for journeys of little more than a mile and a half. Throughout the country we have seen a 12-year low in the number of bus journeys. The spiral of decline started with Tory deregulation in the 1980s, but since 2010 bus budgets across England and Wales have been cut by 45%. When are the Government going to recognise that we need a new approach? (907790)

Bus patronage is different up and down the country. Those local authorities that work closely with their bus operators and use technology and concessionary fares appropriately see an increase in bus patronage. I mentioned earlier the areas in which patronage is going up—it is up 22% in Brighton and Hove—and there are areas throughout the country where younger people are jumping on buses, too. It is about making it work better, collectively; it is not just about money—even though there is more than £1 billion for concessionary fares and we have invested £250 million in bus services.

T3. Disruption on the M20, M26 and all roads in Kent is having a serious impact on the county’s economy. Schools are reporting that as many as 15% of students are getting in late, and businesses are already preparing for shift working in case their employees cannot get to work. That will cost serious time and serious money. A combination of works on the M26 and overnight closures on the M20 not ending until 6 am are causing the problems. My hon. Friends the Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) and for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) and I have already written to Highways England for answers. Will the Minister explain to residents, schools and businesses in Kent just what he, Highways England and Kent County Council are doing to keep Kent moving? (907791)

My hon. Friend will know, because we have met on many occasions and discussed this matter in the Chamber, that the Department is very focused on concerns in the south-east. Highways England is carrying out works on the M20 smart motorway scheme between junctions 3 and 5. That work is about relieving congestion and improving journeys. Of course, some disruption is inevitable—that goes with major programmes of road investment—but I will ask Highways England to investigate the effect of the current roadworks, and in particular the timing of the overnight closures on the M20.

If the Government really are serious about Northern Powerhouse Rail, will they commit to giving it precedence over Crossrail 2? Will they also commit to starting with the route from Hull to Leeds, as that part of the track has had very little investment over the years?

We remain absolutely committed to Northern Powerhouse Rail. I have been clear that the two projects—Crossrail 2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail—must march in lockstep. The hon. Lady will be aware that we have just provided an additional £40 million for the continuing development of Northern Powerhouse Rail. Transport for the North is working on the business case right now. We provided for passive provision for Northern Powerhouse Rail in the structure of HS2, so the necessary junctions will be there. We are very committed to the project.

T4. Following the massive reductions in bus services in parts of Stoke-on-Trent, does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential to take action to strengthen the local bus market to improve services in the city? (907794)

Absolutely. The Bus Services Act 2017 introduced a number of new tools to help local authorities to improve local bus services, including through partnership working and franchising. Stoke-on-Trent City Council has not yet engaged with my Department about using the new powers available, but we are working together to develop its proposals for the transforming cities fund. I was delighted that the council successfully applied for a share of the £1.7 billion fund.

Crime is soaring on the railways. It is up a fifth in the past year, and that is fuelled by a spike in sexual offences, which are up 16%, and violent crimes, which are up 26%. The highest increases are in areas where trains operate without guards—just one symptom of our broken franchise model. The guards in the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers are striking for passenger safety on Northern rail. Why will Ministers not follow the evidence and end the expansion of driver-only operation?

The problem is that even in areas where there is an offer to the RMT that guards will remain on the trains, they are still on strike. This strike is not about safety—the national safety regulator for the railways has said that it is nothing to do with safety. We are trying to deliver a better railway, and the reality is that if guards are not standing at the back of trains waiting to press a button, they are better able to look after passengers. It is also worth saying that on the new trains that are being introduced by this Government right across the country, the introduction of closed circuit television will make a real difference to safety. May I also pay tribute to the work of the British Transport police? They do an excellent job in trying to protect passengers on the railways.

T5. Will the Minister inform the House what progress is being made on creating apprentices in the transport sector? (907796)

There has been good progress, but we are committed to doing more. Leading transport employers are committed to providing quality apprenticeships, and more than 5,000 apprenticeships have been created in road and rail since 2016. In 2017-18 alone, we have seen a 22% on-year increase. Employers have committed to 10,000 apprenticeships with Heathrow expansion and 8,000 in express delivery. Training places for maritime cadets will rise to 1,200 each year over the next seven years, and we have seen 1,300 apprenticeship starts in road freight, but we are committed to doing more.

We have known for five decades that there were 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, but the number in Gateshead now far outstrips that—potholes I am talking about. When will we get some resources to the local authorities to mend the holes in our roads and to give drivers much-need alleviation from the problem?

I absolutely understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. As I have already pointed out, the spike in potholes, to which he refers, originally occurred between 2005 and 2010. He asks when, and the answer is in the previous Budget where a specific £420 million in-year contribution was made. I do not have the numbers to hand, but if I did I have no doubt that I would find that multiple millions of pounds have been spent in his highway authority locally on potholes as a direct result of that funding announcement.

T6. Following our summer of severe service disruption that saw Northern rail cancel more than 12,000 services, will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss how we can ensure that it does not happen next year? More importantly, though, can we also discuss the building of the South Fylde line, which will see the doubling of the service from once an hour to every half an hour, as it will be a huge boost to the Fylde coast? (907797)

We have been very clear that disruption following the introduction of the May timetable was entirely unacceptable. I would, of course, be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss his proposals and the work that is under way to ensure that we minimise the risk of disruption for future timetable changes.

Ministers will be aware of the work that is being carried out by Bridgend County Borough Council, me and my Assembly Member to try to close the Pencoed level crossing following safety concerns. Network Rail is now agreeing to regular meetings to try to progress the closure. It tells me that it needs more funding from the Department for Transport. Wales Office officials have now agreed to attend these three-monthly meetings to be able to progress the closure and improve infrastructure. Will Ministers now agree to their officials attending these meetings so that we can make some progress on closing this dangerous level crossing?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I have to say that I am not immediately familiar with that particular level crossing, but I will, of course, look into it and get back to him with the answer.

Order. The hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) is in a category of her own. She is the only hon. Member standing who has thus far not asked a question this morning. I know that colleagues will agree, in a spirit of equality, that their own need is secondary to hers.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the review into non-statutory property schemes for High Speed 2, and why did it fail to deliver a bespoke package for Long Eaton, which has been promised by Ministers on more than one occasion?

My hon. Friend and I have had many discussions about Long Eaton. I am very keen to make sure that we have done the right thing by the different people affected by the proposed railway line through Long Eaton, whether it is the businesses affected or the people who live in the railway cottages. If there are things that we are not yet doing, I suggest that she and I sit down and go through it again.

It costs me more to get a bus a few stops up the West Road in Newcastle than to cross the whole of London. It costs more to get a bus from Newcastle to Amble—30 miles—than to get a bus from London to Newcastle—290 miles. Can we have a comparative study of the cost of bus travel in Newcastle under a Tory Government and in London under a Labour Mayor?

Managing bus fares and having transparency on bus fares will further encourage bus patronage. Those bus companies that make bus fares available and public will always see an increase in bus patronage. We are working with the bus sector to do what we can to make sure that this information is available, just as it can be available on journey times and at stops, too.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement and the Department for Transport’s ongoing commitment to connecting Cornwall. What assessment has he made in light of today’s announcement on Heathrow of the potential for exports from Cornish businesses and for inbound tourism, and of their effect on the Cornish economy?

Improving transport connections for the south-west is essential, and it is one of the parts of the country that needs those improved transport links. A range of things are happening: the number of local trains within Devon and Cornwall is increasing, new trains are now serving that route, and road improvements have taken place. Now, there will be a better link for business into Heathrow airport. This is all part of making sure that we deliver on our promises for better transport in the south-west.