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House of Commons Hansard
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12 March 2020
Volume 673

The Secretary of State was asked—

Bus Services

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1. What steps he is taking to improve bus services in (a) rural and (b) other areas. [901489]

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11. What steps his Department is taking to encourage more frequent bus services. [901500]

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Our £220 million better deal for bus users includes measures to improve bus services in rural and urban areas. This is together with the new £5 billion fund for overhauling bus and cycle links throughout the country.

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Towns such as Crook, Willington and Burnopfield in my constituency are starved of late evening and weekend bus services. What plans will the Government bring forward in the next few months to enable those areas to have better services?

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As I mentioned, there is not only the £220 million fund, but the £5 billion fund, which will enable us to bring forward a comprehensive package of measures, which I hope will significantly boost Durham County Council’s current £347,000 towards the bus service operators grant.

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My constituents tell me that very often buses come late or do not turn up at all. As we look to invest more in buses, what are we going to do to make sure that the companies delivering the services are doing a decent job for our residents?

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My hon. Friend is right: it is really important to make these bus services work in a manner where people can just rely on them and where they do not even have to look at a timetable because the frequency is there. As part of doing that, we will be opening up bus open data powers, which will ensure that that information is transferred and available to people at bus stops and in their apps, enabling a much more frequent service to run.

Rail Fares

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2. What steps he is taking to reduce the cost of rail fares. [901490]

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5. What steps he is taking to reduce the cost of rail fares. [901493]

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8. What steps he is taking to reduce the cost of rail fares. [901496]

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9. What steps he is taking to reduce the cost of rail fares. [901497]

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Fares are crucial to funding railway operations and our upgrade programme. We have frozen regulated rail fares in line with inflation for the seventh year running.

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Given that rail fares have gone up by a massive 40% since 2010, we now have the second most expensive railway in Europe. However, I still have a situation where constituents in the Northwich part of my constituency cannot get a reliable train service—in fact, disabled passengers cannot get one on one side at all. What are the Minister and the Government going to do about that?

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The hon. Gentleman would probably like to know that 98p of every £1 paid in fares goes back into the railways, which allows investment in all the areas where he would like to see it, including accessibility for his constituents.

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Under the Conservatives, rail fares have rocketed by 40%. An annual season ticket from Coventry to London is now £5,760, to Birmingham it is £1,400 and to Nuneaton it is £1,200. That unfairly puts rail travel beyond the reach of many of my constituents and it discourages green travel. Privatisation has failed, so will the Government bring our railways into public ownership to slash fares and combat the climate emergency?

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I am sure the hon. Lady will look forward, as I do, to the issuing of the Williams review, which answers some of the questions she raised, but she should be careful what she wishes for because, today, using a single fare—£7, I believe it is—to go from London to Coventry, a host of Conservative Members are going to campaign in her hyper-marginal seat, at very good value for money.

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Trade unions represent the hard-working staff on Northern who have had to take the brunt of passenger frustrations as the franchise has collapsed under Arriva Rail North. Will the Minister explain why, with Northern having been taken back into public ownership, the expert advisory panel established to guide the new service through its first 100 days excludes rail unions, the experience and expertise of which could ensure that passengers in the north finally get the rail service that they need and deserve?

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It is a fair question. The answer is that Richard George, the head of the operator of last resort, is working closely with the unions and will continue to do so, because the workforce is all important to the delivery of a reliable service for passengers.

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Many Portsmouth people rely heavily on South Western Railway for their daily commute. The service that they receive is substandard, with less than 50% of mainline services operating on time, while rail fares have soared by 2.7%. Put simply, Portsmouth people are paying more but getting less. Will the Minister confirm what steps his Department is taking to address this injustice for my community?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his correspondence and the way that he has engaged with my Department over this issue. He has been representing his constituents on this matter very well. As he knows, a request for a proposal has been issued to the south-west franchise owners, FirstGroup and MTR, and to the operator of last resort. Parliament will be kept informed of those developments. It is all about trying to improve the service for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

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As we have heard, rail passengers throughout the country are struggling with the exorbitant cost of train travel, with fares having risen by a staggering 40% since the Conservatives took office. In stark contrast, Germany has recently cut rail fares, and in Luxembourg public transport has been made entirely free, thereby both supporting families and helping to tackle the climate crisis. The Government used yesterday’s Budget to prioritise once again unsustainable and expensive new roads ahead of support for public transport. When will the Government finally treat this issue seriously and take the urgent action that is needed?

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I completely get where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but he should understand that taxpayers already subsidise the rail network by more than £4 billion a year, meaning that 54% of our transport budget is spent on the 2% of journeys that the railways account for. He mentions Germany, which has cut rail fares, but to do that Germany cut the VAT on rail fares from 19% to 7%; he might like to know that we charge no VAT on rail fares in this country.

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Question 18, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] Will my hon. Friend give an indication of his estimate for completing the new airports national policy statement? Will there be sufficient time to take into account—

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Order. It has to be linked to the question that you were standing for. Do not worry; we will come back later.

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I note that the questions that my honourable and hairy friend has answered so far were about reducing the cost of rail fares, but that implies that either more people must make more journeys by rail, or taxpayers generally, such as those in Lincoln, must subsidise the rail industry more. Which would my hon. Friend prefer? Does he have any plans to improve the franchise process to make bidding for them more attractive to businesses?

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We are going to change the franchise model—the Williams review is absolutely going to change how our franchise model operates—but my hon. Friend will have to wait a bit longer to see how that is going to happen. We have strong views on the direction of travel and look forward to informing the House shortly.

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It is important to have affordable rail fares so that residents can access our railways, but many of my constituents do not have any access to trains at all because they do not have a local train station. The people of Gamesley were promised a railway station more than 50 years ago, but it has still not been delivered. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the bid for Gamesley train station?

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My hon. Friend wisely highlights a proposal that will be considered among the bids for the Restoring Your Railway fund. I would be delighted to meet him to talk about it.

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The Secretary of State is already aware of how unhappy my constituents who use Lockerbie station are—after fare increases, they have seen an appalling level of service from TransPennine. TransPennine has now made certain commitments to improve the service; what can the Department do to ensure that it meets those commitments?

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The Secretary of State and I met the TransPennine leadership not so long ago to put the very points that my right hon. Friend has just made. As he knows, there has been quite a big change at the head of that franchise. We are working with the new management to ensure that the new trains operate correctly and that the service his constituents would like is actually delivered for them.

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While rail fares remain too high, the cost of disruption to our commuters when services go wrong, as is so often the case with Southern, is considerable. Although Delay Repay has been helpful, it does not reflect the true cost of taxis, hotels and loss of work that our constituents have been suffering. Can the Minister tell us whether the new ombudsman is going to tackle the issue and make sure that we have a compensation scheme that accurately reflects the costs that our commuters and constituents suffer?

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It is absolutely true that there are huge numbers of delays and cancellations on our railway on a daily basis. That completely disrupts people going to work and kids going to school, and it also affects students and people just socialising. Different plans are being mooted. The Williams review will have a fuller plan, on which I will be able to communicate with my hon. Friend.

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People who live and work in Nottingham need Ministers to do something about fares, sooner rather than later. Highways England’s partial closure of the A52 Clifton bridge is making their car journeys unbearable, and we urgently need more people to use trains, trams and buses to get into the city. Will the Minister or one of his colleagues meet me and other hon. Members representing constituencies in and around Nottingham, to discuss how the Department and Highways England can support Nottingham City Council and its efforts to get our city moving during this serious disruption?

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Again, the hon. Lady raises valid points on behalf of her constituents. I or perhaps another appropriate member of the ministerial team will be delighted to do that.

Bus Links

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3. What steps he is taking to improve bus links in North Warwickshire. [901491]

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The bus market outside London is deregulated, with service provision being a matter for bus operators and local authorities. We are, however, providing £5 billion of new funding to overhaul buses and cycling across the country.

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The reality in predominantly rural North Warwickshire is that I can get to London quicker by train than it takes for me to travel by bus from outside my house to my constituency office just 6 miles away. The situation makes it really difficult for people to get to hospital appointments, to work, to school and, as I found out last week, to Jobcentre Plus appointments. What can we do to reinvigorate transport across North Warwickshire and Bedworth so that my constituents can access the fantastic opportunities that this Government are keen to deliver as part of their levelling-up agenda?

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I understand my hon. Friend’s frustration. I am pleased to say that the Government have launched two schemes that are relevant to North Warwickshire. The first is a call for an expression of interest in a £20 million rural mobility fund to support innovative solutions to transport problems in rural areas, and the second is the allocation of £30 million to every local authority in England to support new bus services or replace lost services.

Covid-19: Public Transport

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4. What steps he has taken to help avoid the spread of covid-19 on public transport. [901492]

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We have published health guidance for staff and the transport sector, following carefully the Public Health England advice on protocols. In addition, I have contacted the various ports on several occasions.

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As the Secretary of State knows, the World Health Organisation has declared covid-19 to be a pandemic. Will he clarify what new measures will be taken to keep passengers and transport workers safe on public transport?

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Obviously, the issue of covid-19 is occupying the minds of everybody in this country at the moment. As an example, 2,500 posters—digital as well as printed—have gone up in our railway stations. There is a very wide programme of enhanced engagement, and we are working with the Public Health England protocols. Yesterday I met the chief executive and chair of Network Rail to discuss the subject. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), who has responsibility for aviation, and I have also had similar discussions with all the aviation industry leaders.

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Yesterday, we saw welcome support in the Budget for small and medium-sized enterprises to deal with coronavirus, but ferry companies and airlines are very much at the forefront of that challenge. What financial support and liquidity are available to these companies? Will the Secretary of State update the House on what progress he has made on reforming slot allocation, and will he meet me and sector representatives to discuss the adequacy of the Government’s support so far?

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My hon. Friend was absolutely right last week to raise the issue of the so-called ghost flights; I think he was the first person to raise the matter in this House. I have since written both to the slots allocator in this country, Airport Coordination Limited, and to the European Commission, which has indicated that it will alleviate those slots to stop empty flights flying. My hon. Friend is also right about the pressure that the airlines are under, and we are doing further work with the Civil Aviation Authority and the EU, particularly over EU regulation 261. I would be very happy to meet him to discuss the matter.

Bus Patronage

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6. What steps he is taking to increase bus patronage. [901494]

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The Bus Services Act 2017 introduced powers for local authorities and operators to work to grow their patronage. That is in addition to the £5 billion national bus strategy that I just mentioned.

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Will the Secretary of State back the “Bring Back the Buses” campaign to reconnect communities and isolated villages in my area that have lost their services?

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Yes, I will gladly back that campaign. Everyone recognises that buses could and should be doing a lot more. I recognise that we have lost services over a period of time. Buses are still the chosen form of transport for 50% of travel, so it is important that we get this right. Even going back as far as 2017, we were passing legislation to ensure that franchises can work in conjunction with local authorities, and those processes are going into place. We want to see the London standard of bus service everywhere in the country.

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As we have heard, the Government like to say that they support bus travel. However, they have cut bus funding for supported bus services by 45% since 2010. To make matters worse, the Chancellor has just announced 27 times more spending on new roads than on supporting buses and local transport. Will the Secretary of State tell the House when the Government will finally stop paying lip service to public transport, and actually provide the investment that bus passengers so urgently need?

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I am surprised that the figure 5 with “billion” after it did not answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. We are not just paying lip service; we are doing it. What he does not seem to understand about building roads is that buses run on them.

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Of the £250 million in direct revenue support for bus operators, just £43 million goes to local councils outside London. We are going to need a lot more than that if we are going to reinstate local bus services in rural areas, aren’t we?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is where the £5 billion national bus strategy, which we will be publishing shortly, comes in. Our aim is quite simply to get to a London standard of service throughout the country, including in rural areas and his constituency.

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For £1.50 in London—which the Secretary of State mentioned—I can get two buses anywhere across the capital for up to 30 miles. In Newcastle, £1.50 will not even get me three stops up the West Road, while if I want to go to Ashington, which is 18 miles away, it will cost me £8. Can we have a comparative study of bus fares in London and the north-east so that we can understand what we need to do to make them fairer and improve bus patronage?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I can assure her that that is exactly the process that we will be following in developing the national bus strategy, and I would be more than happy to work with her and incorporate her ideas. We can argue about the past, but it sounds to me that we both want to see bus services that are excellent for all our constituents, so I completely agree with her.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that, to get more people on the buses, we need to make them cleaner and greener? In that vein, what is the Secretary of State doing to promote the use of hydrogen?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want buses that are cleaner and greener. We want them to be the right temperature—air-conditioned in summer, and warm in winter—with 5G plug-in points for phones. And we want to have electric buses—4,000 of them, with this new money. These new buses can be electric or, indeed, hydrogen powered, like the buses being developed by Wrightbus in Northern Ireland. We warmly welcome all such developments. My hon. Friend can be reassured that we are working closely with bus operators to develop new British buses.

Airport Expansion: Paris Climate Change Agreement

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7. Whether he plans to take into account the Paris climate change agreement in future decisions on airport expansion. [901495]

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The Court of Appeal judgment on the airports national policy statement is complex, and we will set out our next steps in due course. This Government remain supportive of airport expansion, but we will permit it only within our environmental obligations.

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From “No ifs, no buts, no third runway”, to engineering a trip to Afghanistan to skip the vote, the last three Prime Ministers have started off very clear on Heathrow expansion and then obfuscation and U-turns have set in. Why do not the Government take the opportunity of the Court of Appeal ruling that expansion is incompatible with our Paris climate accord obligations and make this dead and buried once and for all, and also review the other 21 planned airport expansions?

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As I have already outlined, the Government are, and remain, supportive of airport expansion where we are able to deliver it within our environmental obligations. I must point out to the hon. Lady that the Court did not conclude that airport expansion is incompatible with climate change. As I have already outlined, we are reviewing this complex judgment and will lay out our next steps soon.

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In the light of the Court of Appeal’s decision, the Government were wrong to deny the relevance and application of the Paris agreement. Do the Government now accept that their overriding obligation is one of compliance with our Paris accord commitments in reducing emissions, meaning that their national policy statement on aviation has to be revisited and revised, and that they should be saying no to climate-busting expansion at Heathrow?

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I can understand the concerns that many hon. Members may have around the Government’s next steps. That is why we have outlined that it is currently an ongoing legal process. We have said that we will review the judgment, which is complex, and set out our next steps. As I have already outlined, the Court did not judge that the airport expansion is incompatible with climate change. But we will obviously update the House as soon as possible on any future steps that we will be prepared to take.

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The Court of Appeal said that it was illegal.

In the midst of a climate crisis, the Chancellor announced the biggest-ever programme of road building—a £27 billion splurge that will increase car use, worsen congestion, and increase climate emissions. In anticipation of legal challenges, as with airport expansion, and before the Government go any further, can they confirm that the roads programme has been subject to rigorous environment impact assessments and complies with our Paris agreement obligations?

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The climate emergency concerns us all, and the aviation sector faces a particularly tough challenge to decarbonise, whether or not additional airport capacity is added in the south-east. However, we cannot shirk that challenge, so I am proud that Loganair, based in my constituency, is currently working to provide passenger services using electric planes to help to tackle our climate change targets. In Scotland, these targets include aircraft emissions. Will this Government match that level of transparency and honesty, and include emissions in their targets?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for outlining his particular interest and his understanding of the situation within Scotland. As he will know, Sustainable Aviation has committed to delivering on its net zero target.

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As the Minister has outlined, progress has been made with new engine technology continually setting new standards of efficiency and reducing carbon emissions, and there is huge research and development in the sector right now. Given that background, plus the fact that it may cost up to 10 times more, and that it is one of just two bodies whose regulations are followed the world over, replacing the European Aviation Safety Agency properly may take up to a decade, and recruiting the expertise required will be extremely difficult. Does the Minister not realise that leaving EASA is an act of sheer folly that is putting Brexit politics before passenger safety?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will know—I believe he spoke about it last week—that we will potentially see the first electric flight this year. We have invested £300 million in the future flight challenge fund. We are committed to working with everyone across the industry to ensure that we have the technology and the skills and can deliver on our target.

Electric Vehicles: Charging Infrastructure

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10. What steps his Department is taking to support the roll-out of charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. [901499]

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As the Chancellor announced yesterday, the Government are providing an additional £500 million over the next five years to support the roll-out of a fast charging network for electric vehicles, ensuring that drivers will never be further than 30 miles from a rapid charging station.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. I commend the Government on the progress that has been made on charging infrastructure over the last decade, from dozens to hundreds and now thousands of charging points; that challenge is being well met. My concern is that, even with the current grants, the purchase price of electric vehicles is still out of reach for most people on lower incomes. Does she agree that, if we are to see more electric vehicle use in the years to come, the purchase price of electric vehicles is equally as important as the availability of charging infrastructure?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks about the Government’s support. It is right that the Government are committed to supporting the up-front cost of an electric vehicle. That is why I am pleased that, at yesterday’s Budget, a further £532 million of funding was announced to keep the plug-in vehicle grant for another three years. He will know that those with fully electric cars will pay no company car tax this year, and vehicle excise duty for all electric vehicles in all price brackets has been abolished.

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The extension of the plug-in taxi grant until 2022-23 is welcome. That works for bespoke vehicles, but what about cities such as Cambridge, where the city council rightly expects higher standards, but for hard-pressed drivers, the cost of the vehicles is prohibitive, as the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) said? What are the Government doing to help them?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for what is happening in Cambridge. He will know that a range of support is available for all vehicles, including taxis that want to upgrade to electric vehicles, and the Government are committed to continuing the funding for those grants.

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I wonder whether the Minister could help me with the next vehicle I should buy. I used to drive a petrol car, then Dave persuaded us all to go green, so I bought a biofuel car, which was destroying the planet, so they said, “Buy a diesel car because it emits less CO2,” so I bought a diesel car, and now I am poisoning people. An electric vehicle might be the solution, though it might be terrible because of the batteries, but I live in a flat both here in Westminster and in my constituency, so an electric car is not the answer. Is it a diesel car with AdBlue? Help me!

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I am delighted to assist my hon. Friend. I encourage him to think about purchasing an electric vehicle. The answer is to ensure that there are charging points at his block of flats and across the country. In fact, the Government have doubled the funding available to local authorities to install charging points for electric vehicles on-street, to £10 million. I am sure that that will assist him.

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Or he could get roller-skates!

Road Network National Policy Statements: Climate Change Commitments

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13. Whether he plans to make road network national policy statements compatible with the UK’s commitments on climate change. [901503]

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We take our commitment to climate targets seriously. We have one of the world’s most ambitious plans for reducing carbon emissions from our roads, and our infrastructure policy is entirely consistent with that.

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Does not the decision on Heathrow demonstrate that the Government need to upgrade their statements in the light of climate change, otherwise there is a danger that their massive expansion of road building will get bogged down in legal challenges?

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As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Court of Appeal judgment on Heathrow is a very complex issue. Our road policy contains many elements, including a plan for decarbonisation, funding to improve public transport and plans for road improvements. That balanced package is entirely consistent with reaching net zero, which is what the Government are committed to doing.

Noise: Heathrow Airport Flight Paths

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14. What plans he has to reduce the number of people affected by aircraft noise living (a) near and (b) under Heathrow airport flight paths. [901504]

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The Government’s airspace modernisation programme should allow aircraft to climb more quickly and descend continuously, which will have a noticeable noise reduction benefit for communities overflown by Heathrow flights.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. She will know that 70% of the aircraft that arrive at Heathrow do so via what is known as westerly operations, involving a final approach over my constituency and others in south London. Given the concerns about noise on the part of those living under these flight paths, can the Minister tell the House whether the Bill on modernising our airspace that the Government have committed to will include provisions aimed at reducing the concentration of flight paths and mandating measures to reduce arrival noise?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I understand his concerns. Airspace modernisation is intended to reduce the amount of noise per flight for those living under concentrated flight paths. However, there is a risk that they may experience more noise than currently. Whether this is the case will depend on the final routes proposed by airports, including any respite routes, and on the outcomes of consultation with local people, and I expect he will be very vocal at that time.

Rail Services: North of England

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15. What steps his Department is taking to improve rail services in the north of England. [901505]

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We are working with Network Rail, operators and stakeholders to raise performance, and we are investing billions of pounds to improve services for passengers.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he agree with me that, in addition to national rail projects, light rail projects such as extending the Metrolink to Middleton and Heywood in my constituency form a vital part of levelling up and increasing capacity?

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Under this Government, the Metrolink has been extended to reach new destinations right across Greater Manchester. The most recent extension to the Trafford centre is due to open later this month. While the development of light rail proposals is a matter for the Mayoral combined authority, we will work closely with them. I hope to see the Metrolink extended to my hon. Friend’s constituency. As the Chancellor said yesterday, we are getting investment done.

European Aviation Safety Agency Membership

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16. What his policy is on the UK’s membership of the European Aviation Safety Agency after the end of the transition period. [901506]

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The UK will leave EASA at the end of the transition period.

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The Secretary of State will be aware that that news has not been well received by the aviation industry. The ADS, which represents over 1,100 UK companies, has noted that the UK and the EU could have an arrangement, in the same way that Switzerland does, giving us full membership of EASA without even having any jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Why would that be a problem for the Government?

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Because the EU said in its statement of negotiating parameters on 15 January that UK participation in EASA is not viable from its perspective. It would not be viable from a UK perspective either, because we would be subject to ECJ rulings in one form or another, and certainly, without any doubt, we would have to accept the European Commission creating the laws under which we would exist— and this country voted for Brexit. However, we will have a bilateral aviation safety agreement—a so-called BASA. We will also have a comprehensive air transport agreement—a so-called CATA—to enable smooth transport to continue.

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The aviation industry is in crisis and 84,000 UK jobs are potentially under threat, yet the Government plan to withdraw from EASA, despite the warnings from the industry and despite its costing 10 times as much money. Will the Transport Secretary put a stop to this reckless plan, stop this needless waste of public money and protect Britain’s impressive and world-leading role in aviation safety?

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The hon. Gentleman is right that the UK has the third largest aviation network, but the idea that we are there because of EASA is untrue. The reality is that we already have the expertise in this country. It is the Civil Aviation Authority that administers the entire system, so there is no particular role that we cannot step up and fill. In case the hon. Gentleman had not noticed, this country voted to leave Europe. I know the Labour party has struggled to understand this fundamental point about when we vote to do something, but people voted for it in a referendum and they voted for it again in a general election, and we are leaving.

M66: Safety

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17. What steps he is taking to improve safety on the M66. [901507]

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Highways England has a programme of works under way, north of junction 2 of the M66, to resurface and renew road markings and studs. Once completed, those works will deliver safety benefits for all road users.

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In 2011, lighting on the M66 between junctions 1 and 3 was decommissioned. Many of my Bury North constituents have contacted me, expressing their concerns that that has created unsafe driving conditions, especially during heavy rainfall. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me, and a number of local residents, to discuss those concerns, and investigate what actions can be taken to address them?

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I appreciate the concerns of my hon. Friend’s constituents about motorway driving without lighting. Highways England is working closely on that topic, and monitoring the safety situation on that section of the M66. Baroness Vere, the Minister responsible for roads—she is in the Gallery—will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further.

Airports National Policy Statement Review

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18. Whether he has made an estimate of the time it will take to review the Airports National Policy Statement. [R] [901508]

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The judgment by the Court of Appeal was complex, and the Government need time to consider it carefully. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State issued a written statement on 27 February.

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I apologise for my earlier mistiming, Mr Speaker.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as digesting what I agree are the complex implications of that judgment, she could take this opportunity to consider the report by the New Economic Foundation, entitled “Baggage Claim”? That report debunks many of the received wisdoms about the value to the UK economy of Heathrow expansion, and sets out in detail the economic opportunities created by regional expansion, especially in terms of levelling-up, which is a clear commitment of this Government.

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As my hon. Friend has outlined, just as I have a number of times today, the Court of Appeal judgment is complex. We are considering it, and we will set out our next steps in due course. On regional connectivity, we are committed to delivering airport expansion that is in line with our environmental obligations. We are also committed to levelling up, and ensuring that people are able to travel, whichever part of the country they live in, and that obviously relates to local and regional airports.

Rail Franchising System: Viability

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19. What recent assessment he has made of the viability of the rail franchising system. [901509]

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Keith Williams has been tasked by the Government with leading a root and branch review into the rail industry, and he has confirmed that he will recommend scrapping the current franchising system. Full details will be set out in the White Paper which, all being well, will be published before summer.

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I thank the Minister for his comments. Passengers in my constituency and across northern England welcomed the decision to bring Northern Rail into public ownership on 1 March, following the collapse of Arriva Rail North. In the past decade, more than £178 million has been paid in dividends to Northern Rail shareholders, while simultaneously, there have been cuts to safety-critical staff on trains and stations. Research has shown that if our railway was in public ownership, we would save £1 billion a year—enough to fund an 18% cut in rail fares. Will the Minister assure Members that Northern Rail will be kept in public ownership, to rebuild the trust and confidence of rail users, and that it will not be privatised at the earliest opportunity?

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First, may I push back on the hon. Lady’s point about safety, which is completely incorrect? That issue is regulated by an independent body, and she is wrong. Since privatisation, we have seen the number of passenger journeys more than double, as well as more services and better trains. Northern Rail’s fleet is now being replaced with new trains, and that will be finished by the end of May. I very much hope that the new system will include a profuse and large group of private companies that want to run services for us.

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Problems with the franchising system mean that London North Eastern Railway is now under control of the Minister’s Department. He will be aware of my long-running campaign to get through trains from King’s Cross to Cleethorpes. Can he tell me when that will happen?

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I cannot answer my hon. Friend from the Dispatch Box today, but we are working to deliver the service that he has outlined, certainly at the beginning and end of each day to start with.

Bus Accident Data Collection

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20. If he will bring forward legislative proposals for the mandatory collection of bus accident data by bus companies for publication by local authorities. [901510]

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It is up to individual local transport authorities to determine which powers in the Bus Services Act 2017 are used to address issues of bus safety. Under a partnership or franchising scheme, bus operators could be required to provide bus safety data at specified intervals.

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While in London this data is collected, in all other areas of the country it is not. It is public transport we are talking about and the public should be made aware, or be allowed to be made aware, of this key data on the number of accidents and the causes of those accidents. Will the Minister agree to meet me and members of the family of Rowan Fitzgerald, who sadly died in 2015 in an unnecessary accident, to discuss the proposals in Rowan’s law?

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I know the hon. Gentleman has met a number of bus Ministers to discuss the fatal accident in Coventry in 2015. I offer my deepest condolences for this terrible tragedy. Collection of data could be considered within the national bus strategy. I, or one of my colleagues, would be happy to meet him to discuss that further.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [901514]

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With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to say a few words about an issue that I know a lot of Members have been concerned about: smart motorways. I announced last year that the Department would carry out an evidence stock-take to gather the facts about the safety or otherwise of smart motorways and make recommendations. I have listened to friends and families affected, and I have looked hard at the evidence. Today, I am publishing a report into the findings. Alongside that report, I am launching an 18-point action plan to raise the bar on smart motorway safety. Overall, the evidence shows that in most ways smart motorways are as safe or safer than conventional ones, but they are not in every way. I have therefore developed new measures to further improve safety.

I pay tribute to Edmund King of the Automobile Association and the families of those who have lost loved ones, including Meera Naran who is here today watching our proceedings. I also want to thank other campaigners, in particular my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), and my hon. Friends the Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and for Harborough (Neil O'Brien). Their work to help to ensure our motorways are as safe as they can possibly be is, I think, something the whole House will welcome. I have laid copies of the report in the Library and a written statement will be laid later today.

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I thank the Secretary of State for those comments on smart motorways. The new plan for a northern powerhouse between Manchester and Leeds has been announced every year since 2014. Why would anybody think it will be any different this year? If Northern Powerhouse Rail is to be a success, it has to go right across the north, so why is there is nothing about the Liverpool to Manchester part of the route, which is the easiest part to deliver? As the Prime Minister was fond of saying during the election, it is oven ready.

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I share the hon. Gentleman’s frustration. I have a consultation virtually ready to go. I am working with Transport for the North to get that signed off across various different parties up there. I will be expressing the hon. Member’s concern to them to get on with that. I agree that Manchester to Leeds is part of it, but getting on with the bit to Liverpool, out to Hull and all the rest is also important.

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T2. Greater Anglia, which runs the trains round our way, is currently introducing a £1.4 billion fleet of brand new trains—very good. Among other benefits, that will support the local economy and tackle social exclusion. However, the great eastern main line needs to be upgraded quickly. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that key upgrades, such as the Bow junction remodelling, extra loops between Chelmsford and Colchester, and the provision of digital signalling, are delivered within the next five to 10 years? [901515]

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The new Greater Anglia train fleet will certainly deliver many benefits, including extra passenger capacity on the great eastern main line. I am particularly interested, too, in seeing the results of the great eastern main line taskforce study work on the upgrades my hon. Friend mentions, and the renewal of the strategic outline business case and wider economic benefit studies so we can move forward.

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More than 12 months has passed since the Government announced a consultation on banning old tyres from public service vehicles. The Tyred campaign and tens of thousands of supporters have waited far too long. I pay tribute to Frances Molloy and my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) for the work they have done. The Secretary of State has the power to act now before more innocent people are needlessly killed. Is it not time for the Government to get this done?

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As with the smart motorway point that I made a few moments ago, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the need to get this right, and it has been the subject of several coroners’ reports. He will not have to wait very long and I do not think he will be disappointed.

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T3. The A68 runs from the town of Darlington all the way up to Edinburgh and through five constituencies in the north of England, including mine. Given that 30% of its use is from heavy goods vehicles, will the Secretary of State consider Transport for the North’s recommendation that it becomes part of the strategic road network? [901516]

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My hon. Friend mentioned that briefly to me already, so I know that it is on his radar. It is important that all our roads are managed by the appropriate authority in the interests of road users and local communities, and I would be quite happy to meet my hon. Friend and the roads Minister.

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T8. A recent survey of social media found that the M56 was the most complained about motorway in the whole country. Junctions 12 to 14 are a complete bottleneck, causing regular accidents and frustration for local people, so I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that among the many announcements yesterday, those junctions on the M56 will also get some investment. [901521]

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We are very keen, unlike the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench team, to sort out the problems on our major roads. I would be more than happy to meet him or for another Minister to do so.

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T4. At a recent community event in Middlewich organised by Redeeming Our Communities, one of the loudest calls from young people was for improved bus services in the town. What support can the Government give to help to facilitate that? [901517]

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My hon. Friend will know that we are providing £5 billion in new funding to overhaul buses and cycling nationwide to benefit all passengers of all ages. The national bus strategy will set out further details.

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T9. Yesterday’s Budget provided no further clarity on the £350 million for cycling that the Prime Minister mentioned on 11 February. As a consequence, from the start of next month, local authorities outside London have nothing earmarked for their local cycling and walking infrastructure plans. Will the Minister explain why cyclists were forgotten in yesterday’s Budget? [901522]

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The hon. Lady will recall that when it was announced that we would go ahead with HS2, a £5 billion fund for buses and cycling was also announced. Cycling will get a very good chunk of that money and that will be outlined in the forthcoming spending review, but I absolutely understand the point that she has made. We are working to ensure that the gap that there could be in funding is resolved.

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T5. A short-sighted decision by Transport for Greater Manchester and Stagecoach to scrap the 375 bus service, serving my constituents in Mellor and Hawk Green, has been met with dismay. Will my hon. Friend, the excellent Minister, meet me urgently so that we can maintain this important service and keep the wheels on the 375 bus going round and round? [901518]

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My hon. Friend will know that decisions are made locally for Transport for Greater Manchester, and Greater Manchester already receives just under £3 million each year to support local bus services. The Government have also committed to £5 billion more for buses, which I hope is a cause for optimism for him, but as he knows, I will always be happy to meet him to discuss any particular issues.

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Fairground operators make a significant economic contribution to my constituency and use red diesel for their power-generating equipment. Members of the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain have contacted me to say that the Chancellor’s planned increase in fuel duty on red diesel will put them out of business altogether, and they are not in line for an exemption. Will the Minister make representations to her colleagues in the Treasury to exempt the fairground industry from the planned increase to protect the livelihoods of this unique and vibrant community?

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Red diesel has traditionally enjoyed a significant subsidy, which, as the hon. Member rightly points out, was constrained by yesterday’s Budget. The Government are working across the board, with many sectors, including farmers and fishermen, and the consultation will be open to reflecting exactly the concerns she raises about fairground operators and others. I would encourage her to engage in that consultation.

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T6. I was pleased to hear the Chancellor announce a new £500 million a year pothole-filling programme in yesterday’s Budget. Will the Secretary of State commit to ensuring that this funding is targeted and gets to local authorities as quickly as possible, and will he confirm that the Government will work to improve the conditions of roads in Stafford? [901519]

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I am sure my hon. Friend was pleased by the £500 million a year—£2.5 billion in total, which is more than the £2 billion promised in our manifesto—to help fill potholes, and I look forward to working with her and other colleagues to ensure their potholes are filled as soon as possible.

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At a recent meeting, London North Eastern Railway shared with me its ambition to introduce an extra train per hour between Newcastle and King’s Cross, but owing to a lack of capacity on the east coast main line, this can only be achieved by curtailing other providers’ services at York, meaning that fewer trains, if any, will run between Edinburgh, Tyneside, Tees Valley, south and west Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside. How soon can we expect the levelling-up investment on the east coast main line north of York necessary to fulfil all these competing ambitions?

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I am fully aware of the issue that the hon. Gentleman—no, right hon. Gentleman?

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indicated dissent.

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One day. Alas, I cannot promote him to that position.

I am fully aware of the problem the hon. Gentleman has just outlined, and we are working with the franchise and throughout the industry to resolve it. As he knows, investment in rail takes a long time to come through the system, but I promise we are looking at this.

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T7. I welcome the Government’s decision yesterday on the A303. The potential to unlock the south-west has just been announced, and I look forward to seeing it come to fruition. I also congratulate the Government on their 2050 maritime strategy. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can uplift the potential in our coastal communities and make sure their local economies are not at sea? [901520]

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Like my hon. Friend, I represent a coastal constituency. The south-west has great strengths in maritime autonomy and renewables and clean maritime innovation. We look forward to working with the recently formed Maritime UK South West to create an environment where these objectives can be realised nationally and in the south-west. I would be more than happy to work with him as we progress some of these ideas.

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The Government’s airports policy has been struck down by the Appeal Court, and the Government have decided not to appeal that decision. Does the Minister accept that the Government cannot be a bystander on this and leave this for a decision between the courts and Heathrow’s management, who have no interest other than their own financial interests?

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We have been clear that the court case is complex and we will set out our next steps. We have always been clear that any expansion would be done via the private sector. It is for the promoters of the scheme to take that forward, and as I have already outlined this morning, there is an ongoing legal case.

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In my constituency, we have major issues with disabled facilities at Dewsbury railway station, where there is no tactile paving for the blind and partially sighted, and at Shepley and Mirfield railway stations, where there is a lack of wheelchair access. What assurance can the railways Minister give to my constituents that these problems will be tackled in the near future?

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As my hon. Friend knows, the Government recently made £350 million available to add another 209 stations to the Access for All programme. The stations he mentioned were not successful in that round of money, but I would be delighted to meet and work with him to ensure that those stations get the funding they deserve, because our rail network needs to be accessible for everybody.

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The Coventry and Warwickshire branch of the National Federation of the Blind says that people with visual impairments are missing their destinations or cannot find timetable information as bus stops and buses are not enabled with audiovisual announcements. Can the Minister tell me what steps the Government are taking to make talking bus stops and buses a reality for visually impaired passengers?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and this is something we are really passionate about. My hon. Friend the Minister in the Lords recently made an announcement on talking buses. In addition, just a couple of weeks ago I launched a new Access for All campaign for stations in London to extend it right across our network. There are so many things that we can do to make our rather antiquated, old-fashioned railways and transport systems much more access-friendly.

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May I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s decision, in principle at least, that something needs to be done about the rules of pavement parking outside of London? Will he join me in urging people to commit to the consultation and, if there is a case for change, ensure time in this place to deliver it for vulnerable people in this country?

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May I pay tribute to the Chair of the Select Committee on Transport, and indeed the former Chair, for promoting this subject so much? We are pleased to respond today to “Pavement parking” and will certainly wish to join him in taking forward those steps, exactly as he has described.

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Will the Secretary of State commit today to making sure that every single decision taken in his Department is assessed for whether it contributes to or mitigates against climate change?

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Yes, that is absolutely the case. We are committed to 2050 and will soon be producing a decarbonisation plan, which will do precisely what the hon. Lady is after.

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The development consent order decision for the Lowestoft third crossing should have been made by 6 December. More than three months on, I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State advised as to when a decision will be announced. Does he agree that if the UK is to build the infrastructure that the Chancellor outlined yesterday, we need a timely and efficient legal process for making such decisions?

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I understand my hon. Friend’s frustrations with the delay. We will be issuing a written ministerial statement setting out a new date for the decision as soon as practically possible, but as it is a live planning application, I unfortunately cannot comment further on the scheme. However, as he knows, we of course want to ensure that all applications are dealt with in a timely way, and our Department will work to ensure that.