Skip to main content


Volume 676: debated on Monday 18 May 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Covid-19: Repatriation of British Nationals

What steps his Department has taken with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to repatriate British nationals stranded overseas as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. (902641)

What steps his Department has taken with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to repatriate British nationals stranded overseas as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. (902644)

We estimate that more than 1.3 million people have returned to the UK via commercial routes, the majority through our work to keep the vital routes open.

It is hugely welcome that 1.3 million people have been brought home by commercial airlines. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he continues to work with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ensure that support and guidance is available for those people who are struggling—there are many of them—to find commercial routes home?

Yes, I can absolutely provide my hon. Friend with that reassurance. The UK has close links with Nigeria and elsewhere, and I am pleased that we have been able to support charter flights, thereby enabling around 1,700 British travellers to return home since 18 April.

I thank my right hon. Friend for helping, with other Departments, to bring so many of my constituents home safely. Can he tell me, in my role as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria, what the situation is there with regard to the availability of aircraft? How many more repatriation trips are we looking to make?

My hon. Friend’s great work as a trade envoy is known throughout the House. Some commercial routes are still available, we are keeping the international travel advice under constant review, and we are still, on a daily basis, organising charter flights to bring the remaining overseas British nationals home. I think there are around 20,000 still to repatriate.

Covid-19: Aviation Sector Workers

What steps the Government are taking to support aviation sector workers during the covid-19 lockdown. (902647)

We are speaking regularly to companies across the aviation sector to encourage them to draw on the Government’s various different packages of cross-economy financial support.

With Gatwick on my doorstep, a lot of my constituents work in the aviation sector. Will the Secretary of State outline what support he is giving to airlines to make sure that they are employing people and continuing employment where they can? What support will he give to aviation workers who will need to transition into other forms of employment?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we are making available a huge amount of support, including things such as the coronavirus large-business scheme—in other words, the coronavirus job-retention furloughing scheme—and various other business-interruption schemes, but it is true to say that airlines and the aviation sector in general are facing a particularly hard time. They were first into this crisis and we think there will be quite a long tail to their coming out of it. I am therefore working closely with my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Work and Pensions to support workers who lose their jobs as well.

The Scottish Government have given full business rates relief to the aviation sector; by contrast, the UK Government promised sectoral support for aviation before reneging. Last week, Willie Walsh floundered before the Transport Committee when trying to justify the cull of 12,000 British Airways employees—including many from BA CityFlyer, which is based at Edinburgh—despite having access to €10 billion of liquidity, the vast majority of which was generated by British Airways profits. What are the Government actually doing to prevent tens or even hundreds of thousands of job losses in the sector?

Not only do we have the Bank of England scheme, which enables companies that would not ordinarily have the ability to raise money through a paper route; we also have the business interruption loan scheme for different-sized businesses, the time to pay flexibility, financial supports to employees and the VAT deferrals. We also have a special process in place, available only to the aviation sector, so that when it runs out of those other options, it can talk to us about it. That request needs to be made formally in writing to me. I then discuss it with the Treasury, and many aviation-oriented businesses are in the process of doing that.

British aviation is in freefall. BA, Ryanair, Virgin Atlantic and now the Emirates are set to lay off tens of thousands of staff. The job retention scheme is becoming the job restructuring scheme. We cannot allow that. With the added difficulty and confusion of the Government’s travel quarantine measures, will the Secretary of State urgently bring forward an aviation support package for the sector, matching Labour’s commitment?

It is a very welcome change, actually, because ordinarily I stand at this Dispatch Box and from my opposite numbers hear a lot of attacks on the aviation sector. I absolutely will bring forward enormous amounts of support to aviation businesses, including all those schemes I just mentioned. There are 43,500 furloughed staff right now from the airlines alone and another 2,600 from airports. I am acutely aware of the job losses and proposed job losses, about which we are very concerned, which is why we have the additional scheme, the Birch process, with the Treasury. Although I cannot go into details of individual cases, for reasons of confidentiality, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that work is very much ongoing.

Covid-19: Transport Sector

The Government have announced financial support measures worth £350 billion and are working with the sector to overcome specific challenges.

We have heard about the challenges of the aviation industry, including the threat of 12,000 BA redundancies, but the entire transport industry is worried. Haulage is seeing volumes dropping and revenues plummeting, the coaching sector faces imminent ruin, and holiday companies have no idea if the Government will stand by them and their customers. What specific action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure we actually have a transport industry left when all this is over?

The answer is a multi-billion pound programme that rescued our railways; £400 million used to keep our bus services going; and a multi-million pound plan for critical freight routes, which enabled us to keep 16 routes available, with 17 different contracts in place, ensuring vital food and supplies to this country.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the aviation industry is a sector in need of support. Will he consider airbridges so that those entering the UK from countries where the infection rate is below one would not be subject to quarantine? This would boost confidence in aviation travel and target safety where it is most needed.

In answer to a previous question, I should say that final details of the quarantine scheme will be released soon and come in early next month. We should indeed consider further improvements—for example, airbridges enabling people from other countries that have achieved lower levels of coronavirus infection to come to the country, but those are active discussions that go beyond what will initially be a blanket situation.

I call Minister Andrew Stephenson to answer the substantive question tabled by Kevin Hollinrake. Minister—my word!—Minister Andrew Stephenson.

English Regional Transport Infrastructure

It is a great joy to join you from sunny Pendle, Mr Speaker.

We are investing in transport infrastructure to level up the United Kingdom, with £500 million to reverse the Beeching cuts and £5 billion extra support for buses and cycling.

Some of us do not have those hair problems, Mr Speaker.

Will the Minister confirm his commitment to investment right across the north—not just the big projects, such as northern powerhouse rail, from the east coast through the west coast, but the smaller but no less important projects, such as the dualling of the A64 in my constituency?

I am happy to provide my hon. Friend with that reassurance. The integrated rail plan is looking at various transport investments in the north, and we very much intend that still to report by the end of this year. On the dualling of the A64, I can assure him that that is now officially in the road investment strategy 3 pipeline, and it will be investigated carefully as we prepare to make decisions for the next strategy.

It is so good to see so many cities and towns now putting in place infrastructure to support active travel, particularly cycling, but not everyone can work or cycle to work, not everyone has a car and no one wants the new normal to be cars clogging up the streets and despoiling the clean air. Why are the Government not working with city regions and other councils on a safety-led scaling up of passenger transport, why did they not talk to local leaders about public transport before urging a return to work and why is there a support package for Transport for London but not for other major cities?

We are working closely with all the metro Mayors and the devolved mayoral combined authorities to get this policy right. It is incorrect to say that we have provided support only for Transport for London. As was talked about in Treasury questions, we have already provided significant support for things such as the Manchester Metrolink and other schemes. It is right to say, though, that we need to ensure that inclusive travel is at the forefront of this, and there is a huge amount of work under way in the Department to ensure that disabled people particularly, are able to return safely to work and use the public transport network that so many depend on.

Covid-19: Public Transport Workers and Key Worker Rail Users

What recent steps he has taken to protect (a) public transport drivers and (b) other public transport workers during the covid-19 outbreak. (902638)

What recent steps the Government have taken to help prevent key workers who (a) work on and (b) use the rail network contracting covid-19. (902645)

What recent steps he has taken to protect (a) public transport drivers and (b) other public transport workers during the covid-19 outbreak. (902650)

I pay tribute to all public transport drivers and workers, who have been working incredibly hard to ensure that those on the frontline can get to work. New safer transport guidance was published on 12 May, and we are working closely with transport operators across the sector on its implementation.

Last week’s figures from the Office for National Statistics show that public transport drivers have one of the highest covid-19-related death rates compared with other professions. With the Government encouraging people to go back to work and many workers having no choice but to use public transport, what extra measures have the Government taken to protect drivers and other public transport workers?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The safety of public transport workers is of course paramount for the Government, and we have been working with operators to ensure that additional measures are put in place. These include risk assessments, looking at who should be at work, social distancing and face coverings, workforce planning, queue and passenger flow management, and the way that emergency incidents are dealt with, in addition to cleaning ventilation, communications and other forms of training.

I thank the Minister for his answer. To protect public transport workers’ safety, they need job security. The Government’s funding arrangement runs out with the Metro and Nexus on 9 June, so it is fine that risk assessments are taking place, but we need the trains to run. Can the Government tell me when the arrangements will be made with the Metro and Nexus to allow our crucial Metro system to carry on running?

We continue to work with the metro Mayors to look at these issues, and we work closely, in conjunction with Treasury Ministers, to ensure that the funding necessary is provided and that we can support public transport networks right across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. May I start by paying tribute to our frontline transport workers, and may I offer my condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives through covid-19?

The latest advice from the Government now explicitly rules out providing personal protective equipment, such as face masks, to drivers, instead reserving them for health and social care workers. The response on this is that the health advice apparently does not support it. If the evidence says that masks will not save them, gloves will not save them and banning the handling of cash will not save them, that begs the question: what will save them, given that transport workers, including bus drivers, are more likely to die from covid-19 than the general population? Can that evidence be provided to the House of Commons Library so that it can be properly looked at and investigated? We cannot allow transport workers on the frontline, working to keep our country moving, to face a greater risk than the general population.

I start by welcoming the shadow Secretary of State to his position. It continues to be Public Health England advice that face masks are not necessary outside clinical settings or where Health and Safety Executive employer risk assessments suggest that it would be necessary to protect against non-covid-19 risks. However, workers should refer to the guidance, which I mentioned, when considering whether wearing a face covering would be appropriate and they should consider using a face covering when social distancing is not possible.

LNER: Grimsby to London Service

What recent discussions his Department has had with LNER on a direct rail service between Grimsby and London. (902640)

Mr Speaker, I am sorry that you do not have a picture because the broadband in rural Lincolnshire is so bad. That is why it is even more important that we get our through train from Grimsby and Cleethorpes down to London, which we have been promised again and again. It is a huge catchment area. All the Government have to do is to kick-start this project. Given that they are spending £100 billion on HS2, if they just give us £1 million, LNER will give us the through train. Will the Government fulfil their promises and kick-start the through train to London from Grimsby and Cleethorpes?

My right hon. Friend has lobbied me on this several times already. I know that the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), is looking very closely at what my right hon. Friend says, and hopefully he may have some good news in due course.

Covid-19: Financial Loss to Rail Passengers

What steps he has taken to protect rail passengers from financial loss during the covid-19 outbreak. (902636)

We have extended refunds to all ticket types and made claiming refunds easier to ensure that passengers do not lose out financially.

What discussions has the Minister had with rail operators such as Southeastern over season ticket holders who have just a couple of months left on their season ticket, and who, because of the virus, have been unable to travel but are ineligible for a refund? These commuters have suffered quite considerably and it would be welcome news if some assistance were available for them.

The Government have been talking to train operators throughout this whole process, as my hon. Friend would expect, but we do not have plans to extend season tickets. Season ticket holders are already entitled to request a refund in accordance with the National Rail conditions of travel. Over 100,000 season ticket holders have already claimed refunds totalling £150 million in the current covid travel restriction period.

Mr Speaker, you may hear my toddler chuntering away in the background.

It is crucial that people who are doing the right thing and avoiding public transport are not left out of pocket. Will my hon. Friend therefore confirm that passengers in Morley and Outwood who have purchased their advance tickets—as well as those with season tickets, which he has already mentioned—will be able to receive a refund without any charge for any unused travel during the outbreak?

We have worked with the rail industry to temporarily extend refunds to all ticket types. These changes reflect the exceptional circumstances and the Government’s advice to avoid unnecessary travel. Anytime off-peak and super off-peak tickets can be refunded as usual, and since 17 March all admin fees have been waived. Advance tickets purchased before 23 March for travel from that date onwards are eligible for a fee-free refund, whether the train is cancelled or not. Unused carnet tickets can be refunded or extended depending on the train operator, and season tickets, including station car park season tickets, are already refundable, so we have not changed that policy. A £10 admin fee remains for season ticket refunds.

Rail Services: West Sussex

I am sorry, Mr Speaker—I was worried about my husband for a moment there. Problem or opportunity, whichever way you take it.

The Government are investing around £48 billion in maintaining and upgrading the rail network between 2019 to 2024, focused on increasing reliability and punctuality for passengers, including in West Sussex.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply and for the significant extra investment that the Government are making in rail transport. As we seek to regrow the economy, may I ask him to consider the investment project known as the Arundel chord, which would enable trains to turn east near Arundel and travel directly to Horsham, significantly improving the resilience of rail services for my constituents in Arundel and South Downs?

Network Rail has recently concluded a study of services in the West Sussex area, produced in consultation with local authorities and stakeholders. While the Arundel chord might have value as a diversionary route, its capacity would be limited and it would cause a negative impact on existing Arun Valley and West Coastway services. However, the study has suggested numerous beneficial changes involving train services and infrastructure, which my Department will take forward with Network Rail and which will benefit all my hon. Friend’s constituents.

Rural Mobility and Supported Bus Services Funds

How many applications have been made to the (a) rural mobility fund and (b) supported bus services fund since February 2020. (902635)

What support his Department is providing to help ensure that bus services continue to operate during the covid-19 outbreak. (902639)

The Government are providing significant funding for the bus industry at this time. Our covid-19 funding package for England’s buses totals £397 million. As part of this, local authorities have access to a £30 million supported bus services fund. To date, 46 bids have been received. No bids have yet been received for the rural mobility fund because the deadline is 4 June.

Of course, hydrogen-powered buses have a much longer range, making them more suitable for rural routes and rural areas, and we have some of the leading hydrogen-powered bus manufacturers in the world. The Government have introduced the all-electric bus town scheme. Where is the equivalent for hydrogen?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we are focusing on new all-electric bus towns, which is an exciting part of the money that the Prime Minister has announced to support buses up and down the country, but it is not right to say that we are not focusing on hydrogen buses. We have actually allocated £4.36 million to hydrogen buses and supporting infrastructure.

The Government have recently published the safer transport guidance for operators, which is very welcome indeed, but I wonder whether the Minister could set out what steps are being taken to ensure the financial viability of bus services while maintaining social distancing.

I can tell my hon. Friend that we are working urgently to provide further support to bus operators so that they can run service provision as people return to work and at the same time observe social distancing.

Covid-19: Active Travel (Local Authorities)

What support the Government are providing to local authorities to promote active travel among people returning to work as the covid-19 lockdown is eased. (902643)

On 9 May, the Government announced a £2 billion package of support for active travel. This includes £250 million of funding this financial year to support people to take up cycling and to enable local authorities to make their roads and pavements safer.

I welcome the £250 million funding so that cycling and walking improvements can be rapidly installed ahead of the expected tidal wave of traffic as people go back to work, but when will the Government finally publish their long-awaited revised design guidance on cycle-friendly infrastructure and the evidence that they commissioned back in 2018 on the amount of funding needed to meet their targets to double cycling and increase walking by 2025?

I recognise that the hon. Lady is a really keen cyclist. We want to boost cycling across the country. The schemes that she refers to are being worked at, and we can provide further details of those in due course.

Covid-19: Food Delivery Drivers

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on protecting the health of food delivery drivers during the covid-19 outbreak. (902649)

Ministers have been in discussion with Cabinet colleagues about measures to protect the welfare of delivery drivers, including those carrying food.

At a time in this crisis when many of us are very dependent on home delivery, there is growing evidence that children as young as 16 on a provisional licence are wobbling on to the road, holding a mobile phone with Google Maps on it in one hand, to make deliveries. That is a very dangerous situation. Is the Minister not aware of the large number of reports of young people being killed and seriously injured because they are not qualified to drive and are doing a very dangerous task?

Of course the Government would be concerned by the incidents that the hon. Gentleman mentions. Ensuring the safety of drivers making deliveries is of paramount importance, and the Government do not want anyone to feel unsafe or unsure about whether they have the necessary equipment to work safely. That is why detailed guidance has been issued to all transport workers, in conjunction with our colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

British Airways

What recent discussions his Department has had with representatives of British Airways on its planned restructuring. (902637)

The Department and I are working with airlines, airports and unions to understand the full impact that covid-19 is having on the sector and its workers.

Many of my constituents are long-serving members of British Airways staff, yet they face redundancy or being stripped of their terms and conditions, despite BA furloughing some 23,000 staff. Does the Minister think that is responsible behaviour by Britain’s flag carrier? What pressure is she bringing to bear on the company? Will she guarantee that any bail-out will come with stringent and binding conditions on reducing carbon emissions?

I understand that it is a worrying time for airline staff and their families. I have been speaking regularly with companies across the sector to encourage them to draw down on the unprecedented support package. Terms and conditions of employment are for negotiation between the employee and the employer, but we in the Department stand ready to support any workers affected.

Gosport Ferry Service

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, my officials and I are working with the company and the councils, alongside the extensive financial packages announced by the Chancellor.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I know that when the Secretary of State met council leaders last week he spoke positively about the Government providing a package of support to secure the future of the ferry service. I look forward to the Department achieving that. The continuation of the Gosport ferry after this crisis is vital to the connectivity of communities along the south coast, but so too is tackling the climate crisis. As the fourth most congested city in the UK, Portsmouth faces some of the worst air pollution outside London. The Pompey Street Space campaign aims to give pedestrians and cyclists priority, widen narrow pavements and create commuter cycle routes to allow people to travel safely. What steps will the Department take to—

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, although I missed his last point. Absolutely, the Gosport ferry provides an important service for the local community to navigate their way around the peninsula. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met the council leaders. We have spoken to the organisation, and my officials are working with the councils to find a suitable support package for the operator in order to maintain that service.

UK Aviation Sector

We are working across Government and closely with the sector on establishing a clear vision and objectives for the recovery of the sector.

The day prior to the announcement of BA CityFlyer redundancies at Edinburgh airport, Willie Walsh gave evidence to the Transport Committee in which he did not mention that once. It is inconceivable that he was not aware of the announcement. Does the Minister share my frustration that that lack of transparency simply prevents Parliament from performing effective scrutiny?

The aviation sector is so important for the UK economy, which is why it has been able to draw down on an unprecedented support package. The Department and I have set up a restart and recovery unit to work with industry, including unions, ground handlers, airlines and airports, in order to come up strong measures to aid the recovery and restart of the aviation sector.