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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 680: debated on Thursday 17 September 2020

Transport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Infrastructure Projects: Delivery

What steps his Department is taking to expedite the delivery of transport infrastructure projects. (906215)

My Department is looking to deliver infrastructure projects better, greener and faster through initiatives including the Acceleration Unit and Project Speed.

Given the impact that coronavirus has had on communities such as mine in West Bromwich East, will my right hon. Friend throw his support behind West Midlands Mayor Andy Street’s unprecedented investment plans in our transport infrastructure, like the midland metro, helping to bring it to places such as Great Barr in my constituency, so that all communities can feel the benefits of levelling up?

Yes, indeed. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her campaigning on this issue and, of course, to the West Midlands Mayor’s relentless campaigning. I have been to see the proposed extensions. They are very impressive, and the Government will absolutely back any processes that will help to level up communities.

The Heathfield bridge on the A596 at Aspatria in my constituency crosses the Cumbrian coast railway line. It will shortly see the second anniversary of a car strike, which still sees the main arterial road reduced to one lane. Will my right hon. Friend work with me and stakeholders to ensure that action to repair the bridge becomes a priority and that this is not allowed to happen again?

I have been to my hon. Friend’s constituency and I completely appreciate how important the bridge is and the connectivity it provides, so I will absolutely commit to working with him to try to ensure that that connectivity is improved.

Transport Supply Chains: Covid-19

What recent steps the Government have taken to support the UK transport sector and its supply chains during the covid-19 outbreak. (906190)

What recent steps he has taken to support the UK transport sector and its supply chains during the covid-19 outbreak. (906220)

What recent steps the Government have taken to support the UK transport sector and its supply chains during the covid-19 outbreak. (906211)

The Government have undertaken activity across the freight sector to ensure that supply chains are maintained, from vehicle inspections to drivers’ hours and the temporary establishment of freight public service obligation contracts.

Covid-19 has placed major strains on supply chains across the UK, and many businesses that rely on red diesel are concerned that planned tax changes will have a detrimental impact while they struggle to recover from the pandemic. Will the Minister make representations to his Treasury colleagues to delay these changes until enough support is put in place to develop green alternatives to diesel-powered refrigeration?

The hon. Member rightly notes that those tax matters are for the Treasury. I will be sure, in the early days and weeks of my time in this brief, to listen to all representations from the sector and consider any appropriate action.

Several of my constituents in the aviation sector have had their terms and conditions of employment unilaterally changed, and for the worse. While support for the sector is vital, surely when executive bonuses and dividend payments seem unaffected, the protection of workers’ rights is equally essential. Will the Minister commit to supporting the Employment (Dismissal and Re-employment) Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), as well as the calls of the trade unions?

The hon. Member makes an excellent point. The workers to whom he refers are highly skilled, highly trained and of enormous value to the UK and the aviation sector. I urge all employers to treat those who work for them with respect and sensitivity, and I urge them to work in a spirit of partnership with unions and employees.

Remaining in Scotland, we go to Douglas Chapman—he is not there. Let us go to the shadow Minister.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I would like to say that my thoughts, and I am sure the thoughts of the whole House, are with the injured and all those affected by the recent bus accident in Winchester.

Local coach companies are much loved small businesses with the owner’s name and the town of origin proudly painted on the side of the coach. These are local small businesses that have served their communities through thick and thin. However, day trips and coach travel for football supporters have disappeared because of the coronavirus, and four in 10 of these much-loved local companies could go out of business this autumn, with the loss of 27,000 jobs. Will the Minister reassure the House that the Government will take urgent action to support these family-owned small businesses, and will he meet me and the coach operators as a matter of urgency?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that very important point. I know that that is an area in which he has a particular interest. I would be very glad to meet him and representatives of the sector to look at what may be done.

I echo the comments of the shadow Minister on the bus accident in Winchester.

Yesterday, the British Airways chief executive told the Transport Committee that he would protect BA at all costs. Those costs will be borne by 10,000-plus jobless employees and the remainder whose terms and conditions have been permanently slashed and are as yet unknown. Many of those jobs and thousands of others across the sector could have been saved had the Secretary of State kept his word to stand by the industry’s side. When will we see business rates relief for England and when will we finally see the promised sector-specific support?

The hon. Member refers to some of the decisions taken by BA. These are, of course, commercial matters, but, as we have been clear, they are none the less ones that we regret. There are a number of aspects here, but the thrust of his question is, of course, with regard to support for the aviation sector. The Government have made available £330 billion of support through loans and guarantees across the breadth of the entire economy.

Aviation Sector Jobs

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on helping to protect the jobs of workers in the aviation sector. (906191)

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on employment protection for people working in the aviation industry. (906243)

The Government are working at pace to ensure the recovery of the aviation sector, and Departments are working closely together to progress options in support of individuals affected.

Giving evidence to the Transport Committee yesterday, BA boss Alex Cruz seemed to suggest that the company’s notorious fire and rehire threats were now off the table. However, I am informed by Unite the Union that, although its campaigning has meant that many of its members are now free from this kind of blackmail, there are at least 800 mixed fleet staff who still face this threat unless they sign new contracts. What steps are the Minister and his Government taking to banish this shameful practice once and for all?

As I have said, the Government are quite clear that they regret some of the decisions that have been taken, although these are of course commercial decisions. What I welcome is the agreement in principle between BA and Unite on behalf of cabin crew, which encourages the spirit of partnership between employees, the airlines and the union, which I am sure the hon. Member will join me in encouraging across the sector.

As has already been noted, while it is welcome that British Airways has potentially dropped some of its bully-boy tactics of threatening to fire and rehire its workforce on much worse conditions, it comes too late for many employees who had taken the difficult decision to take voluntary redundancy, such as the single father in my constituency who could not afford to feed his family on 40% of pay. What steps is the Minister’s Department taking to support such individuals, because his Department’s response to the Transport Committee report said that it was the Government’s ambition to support these individuals where possible?

It absolutely is the Government’s intention and desire to support these highly trained and highly valued members of our workforce. At the end of the day, we need to concentrate very much on the recovery and restart. The Government have already moved quickly to rebuild consumer confidence, collaborating with industry and the unions and across the sector. It is through that that we will ensure the vitality of the sector and those who work for it.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of Pope Benedict’s visit to Parliament when he addressed both Houses in Westminster Hall and reminded us that, in the pursuit of public policy, we should always keep the common good at the heart of it and that there is an intrinsic link between human dignity and the value of work. In that spirit and in welcoming the Minister to his post today, will he join me in thanking the tens of thousands of ground handlers in every airport across our nation who have kept our skies open, working for companies such as Swissport, dnata, Menzies and World Freight Services? Will he dust down that aviation-specific package that his predecessor had and bring it back to the table?

I thank the hon. Member for making that absolutely superb point. He is quite right to thank those who work in the aviation sector, particularly the ground handlers, because of the way they have continued to work throughout the sector, which has ensured that vital freight and supplies have continued to come in, and people have been able to get around when they have needed to do so. The Government will be looking—as I will be in the course of settling into the role—at any possible steps that we can take to help the sector, which is absolutely vital for our country.

Rail Network: Accessibility

The Government have recently made £350 million available to make accessibility improvements at a further 209 stations through the Access for All programme. We also require the industry to comply with current accessibility standards whenever it installs, replaces or renews station infrastructure.

Since July, the lifts at Luton Airport Parkway station have been in the process of being fixed, so people in my constituency who are disabled, have mobility issues or have a family with children and a buggies are not able to access the railway. I am pleased that Luton station has been granted Access for All funding. I spoke to the Minister six months ago about the decrepit state of Luton station and the need not just to add shiny lifts to something that is not fit for the 21st century. Will the Minister give me an update on the much-needed renovation of the station, the accessibility needs that have to be addressed and where we are now?

I know, from when I met the hon. Lady virtually during lockdown, how she aspires to a wider redevelopment of Luton station. At that meeting, I promised to get Network Rail to continue its work with Luton Borough Council to finalise a solution to deliver an accessible step-free route at the station by 2024. Since then, Network Rail has presented a number of options to the council which are currently being considered.

Will the Minister accept a wider definition of accessibility and comment on the plans to stop the free travel for under-18s, which gets students all around London? Is there a plan for the Government to assist Transport for London, given its financial situation, to bring back free travel from half-term for under-18s, so they can get to schools and to other pursuits?

That is slightly beyond my brief and slightly stretching the accessibility definition to which I operate, so if I may I would like to write to the hon. Lady.

Road Condition

The Government have undertaken the biggest ever pothole-filling programme, with £500 million funding each year between 2021 and 2024-25 specifically to tackle potholes on our roads. Further funding for local road maintenance will be agreed as part of the spending review.

Drivers will be pleased to have heard that answer from the Minister. She may also be aware that Lincolnshire County Council has an oven-ready project to construct the North Hykeham relief road, part of the original eastern bypass that I have campaigned for, for many years. That section will give Lincoln its full ring road, boost connectivity in the region and lead to further economic growth. Will my hon. Friend and her ministerial colleagues seriously consider providing the funding for that project and for dualling the whole of the eastern bypass—locally, we all know that that should happen—and perhaps meet me and council leaders in Lincolnshire to enable the completion of this important project which I have promoted incessantly?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his diligent campaigning over a number of years. He knows of the Government’s extremely strong support for that project and the vital role it plays in his constituency. My ministerial colleagues are currently considering the business case very carefully and they will be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to consider the next steps.

From my conversations with Devon County Council, it is clear that one of the barriers to improving roads and filling potholes in my constituency is uncertainty about future funding. Has my hon. Friend looked into whether multi-year funding settlements might be a solution?

Absolutely. The Government are keenly aware that local authorities require certainty in funding to plan their highways asset management programme effectively. Any decision on multi-year funding settlements will be decided as part of the ongoing spending review.

The A15, leading to the A46, is a major strategic corridor for north Lincolnshire. Improved north-south connectivity via the A15 plays a vital function as a strategic economic corridor and is critical for facilitating the movement of goods in connection with heavy engineering and the food sector. It also provides an important economic role, linking the midlands and the south to the Humber ports, the refineries and one of the largest enterprise zones in the country on the south Humber bank. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that such routes are improved as part of the levelling up process?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend is completely right that improving our road network is an essential part of our levelling-up network. That is why the Prime Minister has brought forward £100 million of funding for 29 shovel-ready projects. She will be pleased to know that £4.5 million of funding was awarded to North Lincolnshire unitary authority for such work on the A15.

Rail Services: North of England

I recently announced a £600 million package for the rail network across the north, including £589 million to upgrade and electrify the trans-Pennine route, which is part of a multibillion-pound programme for High Speed North.

On Sunday, the new 195 trains finally started running on the Hope Valley line, which runs between Manchester and Sheffield and serves New Mills, Chinley, Edale, Hope and Bamford in my constituency. While that is welcome news and something I have long campaigned for, services are still not frequent enough or reliable enough. To solve that, we need to increase capacity. May I urge the Secretary of State to invest more in this often-overlooked part of the northern powerhouse and finally upgrade the Hope Valley line?

My hon. Friend is right to campaign for that. I am a great fan of the Hope Valley line. I cannot make an announcement about it today, but as he is aware, Ministers are investigating the possibilities to enhance capacity, and I do not think he will have to wait too long.

As more people return to work using our great northern railway and the southern railway, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that the railway network and public transport is safe for increased passenger numbers?

As my hon. Friend knows, we took over the running of Northern earlier in the year because we were so dissatisfied by the progress, and it was then hit by covid, but I can report to the House some numbers that might be helpful. Some 62% of workers across the country are now going back to work. That is the highest level since the crisis began. In particular, the figure for last week—the week commencing 7 September—was 42% back on our national rail services. Northern is doing a great deal of work to make its services ready for people coming back.

Sustainable Transport: Covid-19

What steps he plans to take to encourage the use of sustainable transport (a) during and (b) following the covid-19 outbreak. (906197)

The Government have provided the largest ever investment in this area, with a package of £2 billion for cycling and walking and £500 million for electric vehicle infrastructure and e-scooter trials, demonstrating our commitment to a green recovery.

Like many Members, I have recently dusted off my bike, oiled the chain, taken it off the wall and ridden it for the first time in many years, exploring the wonderful cycle trails in my constituency along the River Ely and the River Taff and out to the UK museum of the year, St Fagans, earlier this month. It is great to see a cycling renaissance, but what more can be done to ensure that this country genuinely is world-beating on cycling—I am sorry to throw one of the Minister’s clichés back at her—because at the moment we are not?

I am delighted to see the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for the Government’s ambitions. As I set out, we will be investing £2 billion, which is the largest ever infrastructure investment. We have already delivered £250 million for emergency schemes, and we are helping people to fix their bike with £25 million-worth of vouchers.

Cycling and Walking: Local Authority Support

What support his Department is providing to local authorities to maintain and increase levels of cycling and walking. (906210)

What support his Department is providing to local authorities to maintain and increase levels of cycling and walking. (906223)

The Government are investing £2 billion in active travel over the next five years. That is the biggest ever boost for cycling and walking and, as we heard in the previous question, it is welcomed widely across the House.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I miss you all too.

Thanks to the Government’s active travel grants, Medway Council has managed to upgrade many of its cycling and walking routes, which is superb news for those at the Chatham end of my constituency. However, at the other end, part of the Aylesford towpath collapsed into the River Medway earlier this year and is now closed to the 6,000-plus users per month. Despite Kent County Council’s incredible efforts to find funds to repair the towpath, it still faces a significant shortfall. Could the Minister offer any guidance towards emergency central Government funding pots that would enable the reopening of that incredibly popular path for cyclists and walkers?

First, may I echo your words, Mr Speaker, and say how good it is to see my hon. Friend? She is one of the few MPs I follow on Instagram, from which I know what a keen cyclist she is—and, indeed, what she looks like in Lycra.

The Government allocated the first tranche of active travel funds to councils earlier in the summer; a bigger second tranche will follow shortly. I am quite sure that my hon. Friend will be able to persuade her county council to make the appropriate investment in Aylesford towpath, and I would be very happy to work with her to try to help that happen.

During the summer, I enjoyed a socially distanced walk with the regional Canal and River Trust team along the canal towpath between Marsden and Slaithwaite in my constituency. I support its bid for £45 million of funding from the Department as part of the commitment of £2 billion for cycling and walking to get people out on the canal towpath. Does the Minister agree that supporting such regional bids is a big part of encouraging more cycling and walking in our regions, and that it is a vital part of our levelling up the country and improving the health of our constituents?

I happily agree with my hon. Friend; he is absolutely right. The canal towpath network across the country, a huge chunk of which runs through my constituency, is a wonderful place for walking and cycling. He is right to identify that we have committed a £2 billion package to active travel. We have started to get money out the door, and I very much hope that we will see schemes such as the one he mentions benefit from it so that we can all enjoy the countryside—and, indeed, other cycle routes through our cities and towns—more in the future.

Rail Infrastructure

The Government continue to invest record amounts in our rail infrastructure, with £47.9 billion to be spent over the next five years.

Getting more trains into Carshalton and Wallington stations is reliant on completing the Croydon bottleneck project to unblock congestion on the Brighton main line at Selhurst. Network Rail will finish its consultation on the project on Sunday. What assurances can the Minister give me that the Government will back the project and get more trains into Carshalton and Wallington stations?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for continuing to champion transport improvements in his constituency. My Department is currently considering an outline business case to progress the Croydon bottleneck scheme through our investment pipeline.

Public Transport Authorities: Buses

The Government’s view is that the commissioning and provision of bus services should be kept separate, particularly as new partnership and franchising powers in the Bus Services Act 2017 are likely to lead to more local authority control and better influence of local bus services.

I thank the Minister for his response, but I do not think it amounted to an answer to my question, so let me try again. If publicly owned bus services are right for London, why are they not right for the Liverpool city region?

To be fair, the right hon. Gentleman’s question was, “What plans he has to enable public transport authorities to operate their own bus services,” and I gave the appropriate answer. However, as he will know, I am quite keen, as a localist, to try to do some of this, but the Government are committed to implementing the UK’s first ever long-term bus strategy, which will be accompanied by long-term funding. That strategy will focus on passenger needs and set out how the Government will work with local authorities and the private sector.

Integrated Public Transport Systems

What recent representations he has received on the creation of additional integrated public transport systems throughout England. (906202)

The Department receives requests through many different routes to fund schemes that consider integrated transport, intra-city transport and all the other types of integration.

As covid-19 breathes down the neck of my constituency and much of the north-east goes into local lockdown, and with local access to transport now needed more than ever, can the Secretary of State tell the House why many residents have seen their bus routes cut routinely over the last 10 years?

Good news for the hon. Member: this Government have committed to putting a record amount into bus investment. As he will know, 4,000 shiny new zero-carbon buses are part of that plan, as is a massive investment—a bus, cycling and walking package of £5 billion—in ensuring that bus routes can be expanded. We are certainly on the side of him and his constituents when it comes to expanding those bus services, notwithstanding the significant challenges of covid.

National Bus Strategy

Covid is creating huge challenges for our bus network, and if we are serious about improving services after the pandemic, we need a commitment to long-term investment from all tiers of government. In South Yorkshire, we have produced an improvement plan for our buses, but we need support. So I ask the Secretary of State: when will we see more investment from Government for the sustainable, affordable and accessible bus service that we all want?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to his bus review report, which I have read. It is very impressive. We share the ambition to do much of what he has just said. The South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive has received a £1.127 million grant, as he will know, and the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority has been allocated £703,614. We are putting our money where our mouth is. We will publish our national bus strategy, and I think he will find that it complements the bus review report that he is behind.

Bus manufacturing is a key industry and companies such as Alexander Dennis, despite being world leading, face huge challenges. The Scottish Government recently announced millions of pounds of funding for ultra low emission vehicles, which is vital not just to the bus industry but to communities and businesses across the country. Will the Secretary of State please accept that our bus industry is teetering on the brink and needs a green bus fund rolled out now, not after Alexander Dennis and other companies like it are gone?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the need not only to build buses but to turn them into green ones. That is why the extraordinary investment we are making—sufficient to build 4,000 buses—will come forward as part of the national bus strategy. It is important to recognise that there is huge turmoil, not just in the bus sector, because of the ridership figures. I mentioned the ridership figures for trains a moment ago, and it is right to inform the House that ridership on non-London buses has now gone back up to 58%. It is increasing, but that is all in the context of how we take the bus sector forward, and we will say much more about it very soon.

Seafarers: Furlough Scheme

What estimate he has made of the number of UK seafarers who will be directly affected by the end of the Government’s furlough schemes. (906204)

There is no appropriate statistical breakdown. The Government’s focus is to support the sector’s recovery and to stimulate jobs and growth.

The job retention scheme has clearly helped businesses right across our economy, including in the maritime industries of port constituencies such as mine in east Hull, but when it is clear that the shipping and ferry sectors may take years to recover, the Chancellor is casting jobs in east Hull adrift by ending the furlough scheme, with no replacement and no plan. What action is the Minister taking to ensure that British seafarers, who have kept this country afloat throughout the pandemic, do not bear the brunt of that short-sighted decision? Will he please assure me that the UK will retain the maritime skills base that is vital for our future?

The hon. Gentleman makes a number of excellent points. I am encouraged to see that some firms such as P&O have offered their own job retention schemes with a view to reducing any redundancies that have been announced. More broadly, I will work with all aspects of the sector to hear their views and to see how the Department may be able to help. Maritime 2050, which I will look at with fresh eyes, gives a good opportunity to see what policy objectives may be possible in the future, but I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that it remains a long-term policy of the Government to grow the number of UK seafarers and to support the sector.

Pollution: Covid-19

What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to prevent an increase in air pollution from transport and a potential related increase in levels of covid-19 mortality. (906206)

We are making active travel and public transport the natural first choice for journeys. We are providing £2.5 billion of support to accelerate the transition to zero-emission vehicles.

And a Welsh flag, Mr Speaker!

The Minister will know that congestion levels in outer London have now grown to 150% of what they were before the lockdown and that pollution causes both covid infection and death, so why is she not encouraging the Prime Minister to continue to get people to work from home and to encourage investment from the Chancellor in public transport, when instead we are told to travel to work by car and not to work from home?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not attempting to travel to Wales via New York because that would definitely encourage congestion. I can assure him that we are investing strongly in public transport. We will continue to support the bus sector. We have provided £218.4 million of funding on a rolling basis from 4 August. We have provided over £700 million-worth of funding for public transport throughout the pandemic.

I am pleased that the Government have listened to Labour and are considering bringing forward the date for the phase-out of the sale of new diesel, petrol and hybrid vehicles, but how is the Minister actually going to get us there? All we have had from the Government lately is gimmicks like green number plates and the suggestion that they will paint electric vehicle parking spaces green. The charging infrastructure is woefully inadequate. Other than painting everything green, what is her actual strategy?

This was a Conservative Government pledge in our latest manifesto. We are accelerating the transition to zero-emission vehicles with £2.5 billion of support. We already have one of the most extensive charging networks in Europe, and we are ramping it up all the time.

Bus Services: Covid-19

Integration between all elements of public transport is critical. Will my hon. Friend bring the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), who has responsibility for HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, to Sedgefield to better understand the local frustrations and needs? We need to see rail investment delivered in places like Ferryhill station, where my hon. Friends could meet the team at the inspirational Cornforth Partnership to understand the need for more and better buses, particularly to better connect places like Cornforth to employment centres. They could also visit magnificent companies like Hitachi in Cleveland Bridge to understand how Government procurement processes need to better reflect their commitment to local economies as we build back better.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government recognise the importance of multi-modal integration and connecting communities such as his to employment opportunities. That is why we have made £198 million available for the transforming cities fund, which will deliver improvements to bus services, cycling and walking in County Durham. My hon. Friend the Minister will be delighted to speak to him further.

Emergency Funding Agreement: London

What recent discussions he has had with (a) the Mayor of London and (b) Transport for London on the expiration of the emergency funding agreement on 17 October 2020. (906209)

The Department regularly engages with Transport for London and the Mayor, including in relation to understanding the impact of covid-19.

Private train operating companies were told on 23 March, just as lockdown began, that the Government would take on all their revenue and cost risks and support them through the pandemic. By contrast, Transport for London was not granted this emergency funding deal until 14 May. Will the Minister explain why that is and reassure Londoners that the additional emergency support that TfL needs will be confirmed as a matter of urgency, rather than being left until the eleventh hour like last time?

The Government agreed a £1.6 billion funding package in May. But let us be clear that Transport for London’s finances were in trouble well before covid-19, with a projected deficit of £220 million last year and £422 million the year before. Many of the financial problems can be directly traced to poor decision making by the current Mayor of London.

Support for Bus Manufacturers

What steps his Department is taking to support UK bus manufacturers in (a) Scarborough and Whitby constituency and (b) England. (906216)

We are committed to providing at least 4,000 British-built zero-emission buses through our £5 billion funding package for buses and cycling.

If 2020 has been a tough year for bus and coach operators, it has been even worse for manufacturers such as Alexander Dennis Plaxton in Scarborough. We have heard on a number of occasions today of the £5 billion announced in February for 4,000 zero-emission British-built buses, but does the Minister agree with me that we need to get this money out of the door very quickly indeed if we are to avert a crisis on the production lines?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I completely agree with what he says, and I commend him for what he has been doing to support manufacturers in his constituency. The Government have announced over £700 million in support for the bus and light rail sector already to date, and we are also providing £50 million for Britain’s first all-electric bus town and the £20 million rural mobility fund, which will support additional jobs. However, I agree with him, and I hope that we will make an announcement soon.

Connecting Towns to the Rail Network

The Government have pledged £500 million to start reopening lines and stations to reconnect smaller communities that no longer have a station.

Improving services to the north-west of England, including Bolton, while balancing the capacity and performance impacts on passengers, remains under constant review.

Coach and Bus Sector: Covid-19

What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on the viability of the coach and bus sector. (906245)

I am the Minister for active travel, and these steps I am getting now are quite productive for my step count.

The Department works closely with the bus and coach sectors to assess the ongoing impact of covid-19 on their industries.

Many of the coach companies based in my constituency are family-run businesses, and they inform me that they are facing a year-and-a-half-long winter in economic terms as a result of the covid pandemic. They are, of course, vital cogs in the tourism sector, yet they cannot access covid-related hospitality, leisure and tourism funding. What discussions is the Minister having with colleagues in the Treasury and the devolved Governments to address this anomaly?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. My Department has been in regular contact with the representatives of the coach industry, and we have been working very closely together. Officials from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport also engage with the Coach Tourism Association via the Tourism Industry Emergency Response Group. My Department has helped to put together the package for home to school transport—a £40 million package that is benefiting the sector. We have regular conversations with the Treasury, and it is clear that the £330 billion of Government support through loans and guarantees can reach parts of this sector, too.

Topical Questions

My Department continues to tackle the very many different challenges that covid presents to all the forms of transport discussed here this morning.

It might be worth mentioning that I visited London Bridge station earlier in the week, where a programme that involves all the Network Rail stations is being rolled out. It is using antiviral cleaning materials, which means that surfaces become protected from coronavirus for up to 30 days. It actually repeats this on a 21-day basis, and it carries out the cleaning during the night, enabling people to return to the railways with the confidence of their being covid-free.

In addition, yesterday, the first meeting of the Hammersmith bridge taskforce took place. This major artery through London has been closed for too long; it is now closed to pedestrians and cyclists as well. The Department for Transport is looking to get this resolved, and I have brought in my own engineers to do so.

Arguably the biggest transport issue that impacts on my constituents in Ipswich is the Orwell bridge. At the moment, the current speed limit is 60 mph, and when it closes because of high winds, the whole town grinds to a halt. The economic impact of this should not be underestimated. Highways England has a plan involving a 40 mph speed limit, which will I hope mean that the bridge can stay open even when it is very windy. However, I am slightly concerned about the timescale. Will my right hon. Friend communicate to Highways England his expectation that these new measures will be put in place before the new winter season—the windy season—when these closures will continue if we do not implement the new measures?

My hon. Friend is right that the Orwell bridge is another key artery for Ipswich. I know that it is subject to ongoing work by Highways England that requires wind tunnel validation. I have been promised that that work will be completed by the end of September. From the Dispatch Box, I send a clear message to Highways England that I expect to see it on my desk.

Our transport industries have been devastated by coronavirus, but its frontline workers have kept the country going in difficult times. We owe them a debt of gratitude.

At the outset of topical questions, with 72 hours to go before the current rail franchise emergency measures agreements are due to expire, I expected the Transport Secretary to update the House. I am afraid my sheet is blank because no such statement, comment or indication followed. That is absolutely staggering. Are we to expect that, rather than something being reported to the House, it will come out over the next couple of days or the weekend, denying the House the opportunity to look into it? Will the Transport Secretary commit to making a statement to the House on Monday?

Let us be absolutely clear that in the last six months, with the current management agreements in place, while many parts of our transport sector have been denied the support they need, £100 million has been paid out to shareholders, many of which, by the way, are foreign Governments. That cannot continue in its current form.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the first emergency measures were worth some £3.5 billion to ensure that our rail sector was able to continue. I have already described how passengers are now returning to them and the work that is going on to make sure that they are safe to return.

As the hon. Gentleman points out, it is the case that the EMAs, as they are called, come to an end quite shortly. I do not think the House would realistically expect me to stand here and carry out those negotiations in public, but I reassure him that I will certainly return to make a statement in the House as soon as there is something to say.

There are just 72 hours left to go—it is literally last-minute. It is a timetable that would make Northern shy. I do not know what is going on with the Transport Secretary.

We know that passenger numbers have fallen to 7% of what they would be in normal times, yet rail fares are set for another increase in January. The average commuter will pay £3,000 for their season ticket, which is over £900 more than they would have paid in 2010. To encourage commuters back safely, will the Government commit to freezing fares and introducing part-time season tickets, as Labour has proposed?

I hate to play politics at the Dispatch Box, but it is worth reminding the hon. Gentleman that, under Labour, there were inflation-busting fare rises that added 4.9% during its time in office. Again, I want to make sure that we are speaking on the basis of facts. I will return to the House on the emergency measures.

It is not true to say, as I think the hon. Gentleman did, that the number of passengers is down to a single-digit percentage. As I said before, the number of passengers returning was at 42% last week. It is incumbent on all of us to demonstrate that the railways are safe; to take the railways from time to time, which I am sure Members on both sides of the House do; and to reassure people of the safety and efficacy of using the railways and all other public transport systems.

Ruabon station in my constituency of Clwyd South is the only station on the Chester to Shrewsbury route that is not compliant with Access for All. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the urgent need for step-free access at Ruabon station, particularly given the projected increase in footfall due to new housing and commercial developments locally? (906163)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Government are committed to ensuring that our rail network is more accessible. We are in the process of making 16 stations in Wales more accessible as part of our £350-million Access for All programme. My hon. Friend the Rail Minister would be happy to meet him to discuss Ruabon station.

One thing that makes the British countryside unique, special and loved by everybody around the world is that, since the 1940s, it has been illegal to put up great big advertising hoardings outside towns and cities. That means that our motorways should be free of advertising, and people should just be able to appreciate the countryside. Unfortunately, on my journey back from London last night, I saw 23 such hoardings that have been plonked in fields by farmers and others. What is the Government going to do to return the British countryside to the way it should be without constant advertising along the motorway? (906161)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I can confirm that no one puts illegal hoardings on land controlled by the Department for Transport or Highways England. Much of this illegal signage is put up on land located next to motorways, so this becomes a planning matter. I will therefore raise his concerns, if he is happy for me to do so, with Housing, Communities and Local Government Ministers.

My constituents are fed up with speeding vehicles and horrendous noise pollution, especially on the so-called Rutland TT race circuit. Will my right hon. Friend please consider running noise camera trials in some of Rutland and Melton’s stunning 160 villages, especially Great Dalby and Langham? (906164)

My hon. Friend will be interested to hear that we have carried out some trials using noise equipment and automatic number plate recognition software, to see whether it is possible to match the two up and use them as we might use a speed camera, but for noise. Work is ongoing to compile the results of that study into a report, so I hope to be able to report back to the House on that. I agree with her that this is a problem. For example, sometimes exhausts have been modified, both in motorcycles and cars, and for no other purpose but to make a huge amount of noise. We are certainly interested in finding solutions to that, and I will report back to the House.

Before the summer recess, the Secretary of State told the Select Committee on Transport about his plans to introduce hydrogen bus towns and hydrogen hubs. That is an excellent opportunity for my city of Bath, where having electric buses is a real challenge because of our steep hills. Will he update us on those plans, and especially on how cities such as Bath can profit from that, and quickly please? (906166)

We are very keen to improve air quality, and that goes hand in hand with reducing carbon dioxide—the two often go together. Our massive investment in car electrification, which has not yet been mentioned, means that we now have more charging locations than petrol stations, and one of the best charging networks, in this country, although it could still be better. We are also ensuring that public transport and bus services switch over, and I have mentioned previously from the Dispatch Box the 4,000 zero-carbon buses that will be coming in. We will work closely with local authorities such as Bath to create clean air zones and improve air quality for everyone.

Will the Secretary of State work with me to see that Tettenhall gets the train station it needs, to support the surrounding area and to increase connectivity and infrastructure in Wolverhampton? (906165)

The aim of the Restoring Your Railway programme is to reconnect people and communities. I know that my Department has provided feedback on the proposal to reopen Tettenhall station, and I encourage my hon. Friend to contact the programme’s team to discuss the next steps.

Just before the general election, the Prime Minister committed to electrification of the entire midland main line, but since then we have seen no such commitment from the Department. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to reassert that commitment, or was that just another broken promise to the east midlands? (906168)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are currently delivering the midland main line upgrade, which includes electrification from London to Kettering, with additional electrification to Market Harborough being developed. Further electrification of the midland main line is currently at an early stage, but it is being examined by Network Rail. The Department will continue to work closely with Network Rail on the development of a proposal for this, including approaches to advancing the delivery of electrification across the route.

There are over 360,000 licensed taxi and private hire drivers in England, and the sector has been very hard hit. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact on the sector, and will he tell us how he plans to measure the impact of his rather disappointingly weak statutory guidance issued back in July? (906169)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the impact, and the same is true of many other forms of transport. I pay tribute to the work of taxi drivers and private hire vehicle drivers, who have been incredible during this crisis and have often provided the only form of transport available for people in certain areas.

The statutory taxi and private hire vehicle standards have considerable teeth, because for the first time ever we will have national databases, and we will put enormous work into ensuring that all local authorities and hackney carriage authorities sign up to those and use them. I will say more in the not too distant future about our support for taxis and private hire vehicles through the pandemic.

Many taxi drivers in my constituency have raised concerns about having to pay East Midlands Railway the full £600 fee for a permit to ply for hire at Loughborough station, despite the unprecedented collapse in business they have been forced to face over the past few months. I would be grateful to know whether the Minister has had any discussions with rail operators about permit fees and, if not, whether it is something he would consider. (906167)

Officials from my Department have been in discussions with East Midlands Railway and provided guidance last week that should, I hope, enable train operators to resolve this issue.

I declare my interest as an electric vehicle driver. The charging network across Thirsk and Malton is pretty woeful. Many of the connection types are different, the chargers are slow and even the new BP Chargemaster ones for contactless payment cards often do not work. What more can we do to prevent the charging network from becoming a deterrent to the take-up of electric vehicles? (906170)

I, too, declare an interest as an electric car driver. Although I said, accurately, that there are now more charging locations than petrol stations, it is still the case that in particular areas—Thirsk and Malton is perhaps one such example—the charging is not good enough. One issue that I have come across, as I am sure has my hon. Friend, is machines that require sign-up to a membership system or particular requirements in advance, preventing me from charging up. He will be pleased to hear that we intend to enforce, particularly on rapid chargers, a system whereby it has to be possible for people to walk up and pay contactlessly for the energy that goes into their car, without signing up to a particular scheme in advance. We have taken powers to enforce that system and I hope it will make his drive easier, as well as mine and everybody else’s who switches to an electric car.

Back in July, the Government committed to decriminalising moving traffic offences, which will provide parity across England. Given that Greater Manchester has called for this change for a number of years, will the Secretary of State give an update on the timeline for delivering on the commitment? (906172)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. These powers have existed in London forever. They prevent, for example, box junctions from being blocked up, along with a number of other things. As he rightly says, we intend to extend the powers throughout the country and I will report back to the House on that shortly.

I want to return to support for the aviation sector during the pandemic. Thousands of jobs have been lost at easyJet and Airbus, and easyJet has moved many pilots to part-time contracts and closed three of its bases. Staff who are losing their jobs in aviation or managing on part-time pay need the sector-specific support package that has been promised. That will be essential in avoiding more job losses, so when will we see that support for the sector? (906174)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the impact on aviation, which has been enormous, but so has the support, and that is often not recognised. If I may detail it, there has been £1.8 billion of support through the Bank of England’s covid corporate financing facility, which easyJet and others have used; £283 million has come from the coronavirus job retention scheme; and 56,400 staff have been furloughed, with the salaries that have been paid worth well north of £1 billion. When those figures are added up, there has been an enormous amount of support for the sector. We are working with it every day and the best thing we can do is to open up the routes, which is dependent on the progress of the virus and the progress of technology to help us beat the virus.

As chair of the all-party group on disability, I have been contacted about accessible transport by many constituents across the UK. Next Wednesday, it will be two years since the Department’s consultation on audio-visual announcements on buses, but it has yet even to publish the consultation responses. We must do everything possible to be a fully inclusive society, so when will passengers finally get the benefits of audio-visual announcements on buses? Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and the all-party group? What progress will the Government make towards their 2030 inclusive transport strategy ambition? (906178)

That is an incredibly important subject. The good news, which the hon. Lady may have missed, is that during my time as Secretary of State I have put several million pounds into precisely this issue of audio-visual on buses. I will certainly write to her with the details, and I will also arrange for her to meet the buses Minister.

This Conservative Government are putting unprecedented levels of investment into the Highways England strategic road network. The A64 Hopgrove roundabout upgrade is one project that is vital not only to my constituents but to people from West Yorkshire and beyond who suffer in the queues. Will the Secretary of State give me an indication that this project is still in the programme and of when we are likely to see spades in the ground?

My right hon. Friend is right about the £27.4 billion we are investing in the road investment strategy 2 programme to upgrade and build roads fit for the 21st century. There was very effective lobbying on the roundabout, and I will certainly come back to him in writing to provide more of an update.

I know that you, Mr Speaker, the Secretary of State and the whole House will share my grief about the fatal Stonehaven tragedy and the environmental damage wrought by the Llangennech derailment. It seems that the Government have finally listened to the Labour party and look to be ending their failed franchise model. Given the many billions of taxpayer funds that this will cost, it is simply unacceptable that we have to read about these agreements piecemeal in newspapers. As my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State said, perhaps the Secretary of State can enlighten us as to when he will make a full statement to this House outlining the future of rail. Will he also confirm what percentage of contracts, especially for HS2, will be going to UK suppliers?

There is a lot to cover there, but I will try to make it brief. The hon. Gentleman is right about Stonehaven. I went to the scene of the tragedy—I was taken over in a helicopter—and it was like a Hornby train set had been thrown up in the air. Our thoughts and prayers go not only to the three who died, but to those who were injured, the emergency workers and the brave people who rescued others—our thoughts are with them all. The House will have noted that I issued the Network Rail interim report on Stonehaven a week or two back, which comes to some very important interim conclusions. I will update the House further with the full report shortly.

As for the ending of the emergency measures agreements, I hope the House will understand that it is not possible to conduct negotiations with nine different operating companies in public—I cannot do that from the Dispatch Box. As he knows, the EMAs come to an end shortly, so I will of course be coming back to the House. I would disbelieve everything that you read in the newspapers; I do not think I have read a single thing that relates to what is actually happening. I will return to the House in due course to update it on precisely what is happening, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can doubt our commitment to rail—the £3.5 billion we have put in so far, and indeed our support for HS2, which he mentions.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for a few minutes.

Sitting suspended.