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Topical Questions

Volume 652: debated on Thursday 10 January 2019

May I begin by extending the condolences of the whole House to the family of Lee Pomeroy, who was tragically murdered on a train in Surrey last week? I pay tribute to the three members of staff who dealt with the tragic situation and all the British Transport police who responded to it; they all acted with great bravery. While I am talking about bravery, let me also pay tribute to the British Transport police officer who was stabbed in Manchester during the terrorist incident a few days ago.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and share his sentiments about the terrible attacks on our trains recently.

On 2 January I was at Castleton station in my constituency, watching train cancellation after train cancellation as my constituents were trying to get back to work after the new year break. Does the Secretary of State think that it is fair to hit rail passengers with an above-inflation rise in fares, given the clear decline in punctuality and reliability, and worsening overcrowding on our trains?

We have set a limit in line with inflation for the increase in regulated fares. Transport for the North and the Rail North Partnership have additional financial resources from the compensation package provided last summer that they can use on lines that continue to be affected by underperformance if they choose to do so. I would be very happy to see them do that.

T3. The Minister will be aware that it is illegal for a taxi not to collect someone with a guide dog, yet 42% of taxis still refuse to do this. Will the Government please bring in strict new guidelines to raise awareness throughout the taxi and minicab industry? (908500)

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. For over a decade it has been illegal for taxi and private hire drivers to refuse assistance dogs, and I am clear that they must comply with the law. We cannot risk lowering people’s confidence and ability to travel independently. Licensing authorities have the power to stop this happening by training drivers to understand their duties and by prosecuting them when they fail to comply. We are considering the recommendations mentioned by my hon. Friend and will publish a response in due course.

Owing to undercutting caused by the exclusion of seafarers from equality and minimum wage legislation, UK seafarers only account for about 15% of all seafarer ratings in the UK shipping industry. That is shocking. But now that the Secretary of State has spent £103 million of UK taxpayers’ money on these UK ferry contracts, will the Minister tell us whether any UK seafarers will be employed, and will the crews be protected by UK employment legislation? Yes or no?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is mistaken and has not heard what the Secretary of State mentioned earlier. No money has yet exchanged hands and it is up to the company how it crews its ships. It is important to note that we are working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that we can deliver the national minimum wage for our seafarers.

T8. I was alarmed to see the traffic chaos as a result of yet another incident on the A5 at Mancetter island this week caused by an overturned lorry. I have raised this issue before, so it is not an isolated incident. Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss this precarious junction and look at what more can be done to protect local residents who live alongside it, as well as motorists using it? (908505)

My hon. Friend has been a very tireless campaigner for transport issues in his constituency and I would be delighted to meet him.

T2. In my constit- uency, it has been suggested that our regional Mayor—the West of England Combined Authority Mayor—has the power to adopt an underused bit of highway from Highways England to construct an east of Bath park-and-ride, and the council has failed for a long time to find a suitable site. Is it the Minister’s understanding that the regional Mayor has these powers, and does he agree that such a use of existing land is an elegant solution? (908499)

I will resist the temptation to comment in advance on the elegance of the solution, but I think it is a very interesting idea in principle. As the hon. Lady may be aware, it would require the transfer of the road from Highways England and the agreement of the Secretary of State. We would also want to be sure that any changes were consistent with the combined authority’s long-term transport plans. Subject to those constraints, we would be very interested to see it.

Neither the police nor the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has records of foreign-registered vehicles that have been in the UK for more than six months, which means that our roads are more dangerous and there is not equality under the law for British nationals. What are the Government going to do about this issue?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the problem concerns foreign-registered vehicles. For British nationals, there is an equality under the law. I recognise that there is concern about this issue. He knows that we seek vigorously to apply road traffic legislation where we can. This is for the police, in the first instance. In some cases, local authorities use international debt recovery agents. However, I recognise the problem that he describes.

I do not have the costs immediately to hand. However, the point about Operation Brock is that it is designed to replace Operation Stack and provide a solution well into the early 2020s in the case of disruption at the channel ports, which I do not want to see. To do the work on the M20 and the work that has happened on the M26, the cost is in the low tens of millions of pounds, but I will be able to give the hon. Gentleman an exact number. It is really important that we do not see a repeat of the disruption of 2015 in Kent.

Knutsford commuters have been repeatedly promised an upgrade to the Knutsford to Manchester line to two trains an hour. However, after excuses and procrastination, that is now not happening at the time it was meant to happen. It is unacceptable to have such an unreliable and irregular service for such a busy part of the country. Will the Secretary of State intervene, speak to Northern, speak to Network Rail, and get this promise fulfilled?

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend that we want to see reliable services offering high capacity. She speaks well on behalf of her constituency. I will of course look into the matter and get back to her.

T5. The Financial Times reports that the EU has warned the owner of British Airways, IAG, that its plans to allow flights to continue in and around Europe in the event of no deal are not acceptable. When asked how BA plans to ensure that its plans are acceptable, its chief executive replied, “Magic”. Given the Cabinet Secretary’s repeated assurances that these negotiations are in hand, what more serious assessment can the Secretary of State give us that this will be resolved? (908502)

This is really an issue for the Spanish and Irish Governments; it does not affect British Airways at all, as it will be covered by the transitional arrangements as well as by the international agreements we have in place. It is an issue for Iberia and for Aer Lingus, which will clearly want to carry on flying within the European Union.

I declare my interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council. What further progress is being made by the roads Minister and his team towards tabling the statutory instrument to facilitate the decriminalisation of parking in Kettering?

As my hon. Friend will know, we have discussed this at some considerable length over a long period. The matter currently rests with discussions with Northamptonshire County Council, but we are pushing ahead as fast as we can on it.

T6. Following December’s fiasco at Gatwick airport, the Secretary of State displayed his characteristic Midas touch when he said on Monday: “The Government are taking action to ensure that passengers can have confidence that their journeys will not be disrupted in future”.—[Official Report, 7 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 101.]Twenty-four hours later, Heathrow passengers found themselves having their flights suspended following another drone sighting. When can passengers expect this promised action to have the desired effect? (908503)

First, let us be clear: there is no perfect, off-the-shelf system available to airports that will simply deal with this problem overnight. I pay tribute to those in the police and the military, and across government, who responded so quickly to the Heathrow problem, ensuring that the runway was closed for a very short length of time, and to the team at Heathrow who did the same.

Now that the consultation on the High Speed 2 working draft environmental statement has closed, has the Minister had any indication of when HS2 Ltd will publish its response? Can she ensure that every submission will be given careful consideration?

I can indeed assure my hon. Friend that all submissions will be given appropriate consideration, and the report will be published in due course.

Currently just one out of 10 tube stations in Kensington is step-free. That is unacceptable. The council and London’s deputy mayor for transport tell us we must rely on developer funding to pay for it, which will never be enough, and in some instances they suggest funding just one platform in one direction, which is insulting. Just 50 stations out of 270 are step-free in the capital— the worst record in Europe. Will the Minister review Government funding to address the severe lack of inclusivity across our capital’s transport system, which is a national disgrace?

I believe that the hon. Lady is talking about the underground, which is the responsibility of the Mayor. Transport in London is devolved to the Mayor and delivered by Transport for London. It is for the Mayor to determine how to increase step-free access at underground stations. If the hon. Lady is embarrassed about the situation, I suggest she takes this case straight back to the Labour Mayor of London.

Heathrow flight paths go over the most densely populated part of our country—London communities. Drones are a clear public safety risk, as things stand. Does the Secretary of State agree that we should review the decision to further expand Heathrow and have more flights over more communities, on public safety grounds?

I am afraid I do not agree with my right hon. Friend. Airports in this country and around the world are now working intensively to ensure they can deliver technology that will deal with this issue. That needs to be done long before we ever get to the point of expanding Heathrow airport.

How much additional funding will the Department require in the 2019-20 financial year in the event of no deal, and has the Treasury approved that?

We have an allocation of funding for next year, but almost all our expenditure has taken place within the current year—it is in the region of £70 million. That is the prime amount we are spending. In the next financial year, if we require some of the contingency capacity to which I have committed, there will be a cost. As the House is aware, the maximum that we have contracted for is £103 million.

Can the Secretary of State give us an update on the midland main line delayed franchise? As he knows, I am very grateful for the conversation we have had. Stagecoach has taken out £35 million of profit, and it appears to be running down an otherwise excellent system. Can he tell us when the franchise will be awarded?

The slight delay to the issuing of the new franchise is for complex reasons related to rail pensions. I have noted the issues that my right hon. Friend has raised. I am concerned about it. It would be unacceptable for any current franchisee to run down the franchise in the run-up to renewal, and a strong message is being sent to the company that, if that is happening, it has to stop right now.

It is not clear to me what the unforeseeable emergency was that allowed the Secretary of State to award the contract to Seaborne Freight outside the rules. Did he receive explicit legal advice about that, and if so, will he consider publishing it?

We are confident that this was a proper procurement process, handled by the procurement team in my Department in the normal way.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I’ll buy my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) a cup of tea in a minute.

Will the roads Minister meet me to discuss how we can transfer a section of the A21 through Hurst Green from the hopeless Highways England to East Sussex County Council, before more of my constituents end up in hospital?

I will not comment on that sartorial choice. Of course I completely disagree with my hon. Friend’s description of Highways England, but I would be delighted to meet him.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In relation to the debate we are about to have, the Government have said that they have already accepted some amendments. That is a concern, because they seem to directly contradict the withdrawal agreement that this House is debating whether to approve. In itself, it is a legal document that has been negotiated and agreed with the European Union and 27 member states, but, again, the Government seem to have accepted amendments I am not sure you have yet selected for debate. Can you tell me whether that is in order?

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Lady for her point of order. It is important that people, within this Chamber and outside, know the procedure and know the facts. No amendments have been accepted by anyone to date for one very simple and compelling reason: no amendments have yet been selected by the occupant of the Chair. Moreover, no amendments can be selected by the Speaker until the last day of the debate, which is to say next Tuesday, as required by the Order of the House of 4 December. Some people it seems—certainly not the right hon. Lady—really do need to keep up.