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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 693: debated on Thursday 29 April 2021


The Secretary of State was asked—

International Travel: Covid-19

What steps his Department is taking to prepare for the safe reopening of international travel as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (914899)

What steps his Department is taking to ensure the safe operation of international travel as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (914923)

What steps his Department is taking to prepare for the safe reopening of international travel as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (914929)

The global travel taskforce report clearly sets out how, when the time is right, we will be able to restart international travel, without putting our hard-won progress against the virus at risk. We will confirm by early May whether non-essential international travel can resume from 17 May.

Comprehensive covid testing will be critical for the safe reopening of wider international travel. We already know that countries with very low rates of covid infection will be placed on a green list. Will my right hon. Friend confirm whether there are plans to allow individuals travelling from those countries at least to meet baseline testing requirements using lateral flow devices rather than the costly Polymerase chain reaction tests?

I know my hon. Friend will agree that it is very important to ensure that, whatever we do, we keep the British people safe. It is a question very much for the scientists to let us know whether PCR or lateral flow tests would be the appropriate test for a day, too. However, it is the case that I am very anxious to get the cost of those tests down. I can bring some good news to the House: there are now test providers providing tests for £60 and, indeed, one now for £44.90.

Constituents have come to me raising the issue of queues at airports. There are long waits, no food and drinks, and nowhere to sit, in some cases for five hours. There is totally inadequate social distancing, and arrivals from safe destinations and from red list countries are forced into the same queues all mixed together. Heathrow Airport has been clear that Border Force is the problem. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with his counterpart in the Home Office about fixing this fiasco?

I should remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that people should not be travelling right now. In fact, they cannot travel right now without a very exceptional reason indeed, because people have to stay at home—stay domestically. However, it is the case that Border Force is checking every single person who enters the country to make sure that they have completed the pre-departure test and the locator form to say where they will be. I am afraid that, at the moment, that inevitably creates some queues. As we move towards the unlocking of international travel, we will be addressing this issue not least through beginning to automate the e-gates with the pre-departure form.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that Leeds-based Jet2 has recently announced the cancellation of all flights until 23 June, citing continued uncertainty about Government restrictions. With the wider travel industry braced for many European holiday destinations being off limits for some time, will the Secretary of State commit to publishing detailed assessments of the categorisation of specific countries in the traffic light system so that the industry bodies can see whether there is an immediate prospect of improvements? Furthermore, will he take into account the economic value of certain European destinations to the UK travel industry?

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that we will be having the Joint Biosecurity Centre look at four principal factors: the level of coronavirus in any given country; the number of vaccines that has been dispensed in that country; the concern over any particular variants; and the quality of the data. Those are the facts and figures that it will be looking at. None the less, I do share his concerns about when a country jumps from one category to another, and we saw that last year. We are taking a couple of different steps to try to help with that. One is to have a green watch list where we are able to flag up, perhaps a couple of weeks in advance, to say that we are looking at a variation of interest, which could turn into a variation of concern, in order to help provide a bit more forward guidance this year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) is bang on the money today. Border Force is operating an onerous, manual, assurance check on inbound passengers’ covid compliance despite there being very low incidence of non-compliance and robust pre-departure checks by carriers, causing huge queues in our immigration halls. The Secretary of State likes his taskforces. Where is the one to alleviate these bottlenecks before our skies reopen on 17 May?

I am somewhat confused. The hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the shadow Transport Secretary—the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon)—wants 100% mandatory quarantine for those coming from all countries everywhere in the world, which surely could only lead to even more problems and delays at airports. So which is it to be: 100% quarantine and therefore much longer queues, or a practical and rational approach that has red list countries but also recognises that there are people who can quarantine at home? As I mentioned to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), we are working with Border Force on electronic gates, but it is not quite as straight- forward as the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) makes out, not least because it requires both hardware and software in order to make those e-gates.

I very much hope that in 18 days’ time people in this country will be able to enjoy international travel once again. Could I just press the Secretary of State with regard to the need for a PCR test for those coming in from green list countries? Currently, those coming in from amber countries take the lateral flow test, yet those who come back from green countries will have to have a more expensive PCR test. I recognise the need to detect mutant strains, so may I suggest that we require green country travellers to take a lateral flow test and, if they are positive, then take a PCR test so that we could detect the strain? That may be a good balance to strike.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his Select Committee for the excellent work that they do on this subject and many others. Of course, like him, I look to the scientists to provide the evidence as to what should be the appropriate level of testing at any stage. Just to reassure him, while we will most likely need to start off with PCR tests, I have incorporated three separate checkpoints during this process, the first of which is on 28 June, when we will look at the rules guiding this in order to make them as low as they can possibly be while at the same time making sure that we maintain the hard-won gains of the British people in this lockdown.

Rural Transport Connections

Through schemes such as the Beeching reversal fund and the national bus strategy, we are determined to ensure that rural areas have the transport links they need to grow and prosper.

Beautiful Hastings and Rye has an extensive rural area and low population density, making practical and affordable public transport difficult to provide. However, accessible and affordable transport is a lifeline for many rural residents. Transport for the South East has highlighted the need for integrated transport approaches with better integrated transport hubs to achieve efficient provision of transport services, including integrated timetables, ticketing and fares, among other measures. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to facilitate innovation and new services in rural transport?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We have established the rural mobility fund worth £20 million to trial more demand-responsive services, and we have awarded funding to 17 pilot projects already. We have also published a call for evidence for the future of transport rural strategy that sought views on how rural communities can benefit best from transport innovation.

My constituency has lots of the challenges that one would associate with a predominantly rural area, but No. 1 on my list is trying to reopen Grove station, which, in a recent survey, 98% of people supported. We have submitted our bid to the Restoring Your Railway fund. Will my hon. Friend provide an update on when we will hear—hopefully good—news?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his continued advocacy on behalf of his constituency, as I know this is an issue that he has raised repeatedly with Ministers. The Department has received the bid for development funding. Decisions will be made by our expert panel following an initial review carried out by the Department for Transport and Network Rail. We expect to announce outcomes in the summer.

After five years, Andy Burnham is finally getting on with franchising bus services in Greater Manchester, and this is a step that I broadly welcome. However, there are many towns, like Glossop, Hadfield and New Mills, that are just outside Greater Manchester and rely heavily on cross-border bus services. Does the Minister agree that the Mayor of Greater Manchester and Derbyshire County Council need to work closely together to ensure that my constituents are not forgotten in any changes to bus services, and that we should take this opportunity to improve local bus routes, including delivering a badly needed direct bus from Glossop and Hadfield to Tameside General Hospital?

Indeed, Mr Speaker. I thank my hon. Friend for being such a great champion of active travel across his constituency of High Peak. Of course, it is for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority to determine the geographical area of the franchising scheme. Local transport authorities may also join together to produce joint plans and should seek to do so where local economies and travel-to-work areas overlap significantly. He makes a strong case, and I certainly hope that the local authorities in question will listen to him.

Recent research by the Campaign to Protect Rural England has found that the past decade of Government cuts has seen the loss of 134 million miles of bus coverage, leading to the creation of so-called transport deserts. There needs to be proper funding for bus manufacturers—such as Mellor in Rochdale, which I recently spoke to—that produce the vehicles that serve rural towns and villages. Mellor produces state-of-the-art low emission vehicles that are used in many rural areas, but unfortunately it is a victim of the big bus bias and is being excluded from the Government’s “bus back better” strategy for producing vehicles at a 23-passenger capacity or less.

At the same time, by the Government’s own figures, the rural mobility fund totals just £19.4 million, a sixth of the £120 million ZEBRA—zero emission bus regional areas—funding for zero emission vehicles. What assurances will the Minister give that significant investment will be offered to ensure that such companies have greater support to deliver the vehicles that green our industries and ensure that our rural communities are genuinely connected?

There can be no greater champion of buses than the Prime Minister, who has committed us to bus back better following the pandemic. The House will be aware that he announced £5 billion in funding for buses, cycling and walking, of which £3 billion is allocated to buses. The roll-out of 4,000 zero emission buses is crucial. We are keen to work with all manufacturers, large and small, to ensure that we get the best technology available, the best value for taxpayers and the best service for passengers.

Network Rail: Staff Levels, Working Arrangements and Employment Conditions

What recent discussions he has had with representatives of Network Rail on (a) future staff levels, (b) working arrangements and (c) employment conditions. (914901)

As sole shareholder, the Secretary of State has regular discussions with the chair and chief executive officer of Network Rail, as do I. Obviously those discussions sometimes cover matters such as the structure and operation of that organisation.

I thank Network Rail for contacting me yesterday, but may I point out that the trade unions are alarmed to hear of its recent proposals, which could involve the loss of thousands of rail jobs and a halving of the frequency of safety-critical planned maintenance work? We certainly do not want any return to the cost-cutting and safety failures under Railtrack. Can the Minister assure the House that safety will not be compromised and that any changes will be agreed with the trade unions and the regulator, which play such a vital role in protecting safety on our railways?

Motorcycle and Moped Training Centres

What steps he has taken to support motorcycle and moped training centres (a) during and (b) between covid-19 lockdowns. (914902)

The Government have made financial support available through the self-employment income support scheme grant, which is set at 80% of three months’ average trading profits. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency has provided trainers with guidance on operating safely and on testing restart dates.

My constituent was not self-employed. She worked supporting vaccine research during the pandemic, but with poor public transport connections and limited income, her only option was using a moped to get to work. Sadly, the Government’s failure to sufficiently extend the validity period of compulsory basic training certification during lockdown until test centres could safely reopen has resulted in her being forced to leave her job. What will the Minister do to support essential workers such as my constituent who have suffered because of the closure of training centres and the lack of extensions to their certificates?

I completely agree that our frontline workers have played a vital role in the response to the pandemic—our thanks go to all of them. The hon. Lady will know that it is important that learners have the right skills to drive, because safety on the road is just as important during a lockdown as at any other time. It is vital that up-to-date road safety knowledge is there at the critical point when people drive and supervise for the first time. She will also know that motorcycle training resumed on 29 March, with testing restarting on 12 April in England and Wales. We got that testing up and running, which was possible because it is easier to maintain a covid-safe working environment for motorcyclists than for in-vehicle training and testing.

Road Condition: England

In addition to investing £1.7 billion in 2021-22 in local roads, plus an unprecedented £27 billion in the strategic road network through to 2025, we are working towards the creation of a common data standard for the monitoring of road condition. That will aim to drive innovation and flexibility in monitoring local roads, enabling authorities to target defects in their networks more quickly.

Fifty of my constituents in Boatman Drive, Etruria, have been unable to access the road to their homes for over a year due to a large sinkhole that has forced Stoke-on-Trent City Council to close the road to all vehicles, including emergency services. Many of the residents have been in contact with me. One, Mr Madadi, was offered a fantastic new employment opportunity but could not accept the offer as it required relocation, and his home could not be sold because of the sinkhole. Will the Minister meet me to help resolve this issue, which I am sure she will agree has been going on for far too long?

I commend my hon. Friend for raising that concern in the House and standing up for her constituents. I fully understand that this is a long- running issue involving several parties, including the water utility company and the housing developer. I completely share her and her constituents’ frustration. I would be delighted to ask my noble Friend the roads Minister, who deals with this, to meet her; she has already undertaken to do so.

I do not know whether the Minister has recently visited Tory-controlled Derbyshire, but I have, and the roads are in a shocking state. Plugging potholes and patching up roads in a piecemeal fashion simply does not work. What we need is a proper road maintenance programme, yet the Government have slashed funding by £375 million and are ploughing £27 billion into road expansion during a climate emergency. Does the Minister not think that it would be better for motorists, cyclists and the planet if we focused on fixing what we have got?

I am delighted that the hon. Lady enjoyed her visit to Derbyshire—long may it continue to be Conservative-controlled. She is wrong to say that we are not investing in local roads. The Government announced £1.7 billion for maintenance and upgrades to tackle potholes, relieve congestion and boost connectivity.

I would like to address this allegation head-on. It is incorrect to say that we are spending £27 billion on road building or that 4,000 miles of new roads are planned. We are actually investing £27 billion in the operation, maintenance and renewal of England’s strategic road network to secure safer and more reliable journeys that have less impact on adjacent communities and places.

Cycling and Walking

My Department is investing an unprecedented £2 billion in active travel over the course of this Parliament, which is the biggest ever boost for cycling and walking.

In Cumbria, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to walking and cycling routes, such as the Hadrian’s wall trail, coast to coast and countless Wainwrights. As well as those activities being hugely important for physical and mental health, many businesses in my constituency depend on tourism, and encouraging visitors will assist the recovery of those businesses. Does my hon. Friend agree that now is a great time to enjoy the beautiful Cumbrian countryside by walking and cycling and that longer-term projects such as reopening Gilsland railway station will improve the accessibility and connectivity of our region, which will make these activities easier to enjoy?

Yes, I do encourage people to cycle and walk in Cumbria. I welcome the bid for funding from Gilsland station and visited it only last Thursday to see what it looks like for myself. We will announce in due course whether the bid has been successful, but if successful, the money will unlock funding for a strategic outline business case that could see a fantastic development of a station that has huge potential for tourism and other things.

Rail Passenger Numbers

We are working with the rail industry to develop a number of recovery initiatives focused on restoring passenger confidence in travelling by rail.

Any steps to encourage people post covid to regard rail travel as safe have to be welcomed, but would the Minister recognise that the very poor quality of the train service between Rochdale and Manchester, for example, a major community route—poor- quality trains, unreliable service—is a handicap both to commuters and to the economic development of the town of Rochdale? What is going to be done about that in the short term? We need the Government to act.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Actually a huge amount is being done while there are fewer passengers on our network. When passengers return to travelling, hopefully, as they previously did between Rochdale and Manchester, I would like to think that they will not find a Pacer train being used, because they have been replaced by a new fleet, and that they will find these trains in spotless condition, because they are unbelievably clean. We are also working, and there has been a big consultation, as he will know, to sort out some of the very big structural problems that we have with, for example, the Castlefield corridor and the timetabling of trains through it. We are trying to have short, medium and long-term solutions to this very thorny problem, which will guarantee much better service in the long run.

The Government’s approach to recovering our railways is chaotic. They have introduced inflation-busting rail fares while freezing fuel duty. They talk about the green agenda, yet fail to commit to a rolling programme of electrification. They talk about levelling up, but have put into doubt dozens of key rail infrastructure projects. They have brought franchises back into public ownership just to pay risk-free profits to private companies, and where are the flexible season tickets for cash-strapped passengers? All hidden, no doubt, in the long-promised Williams review, which never seems to arrive. So my question to the Minister is simple: does not the British public deserve much better than this?

I do not recognise the picture that the hon. Gentleman has painted. We have electrified way more miles of rail than any previous Labour Government. The Government have stood behind the railways. A huge amount of money is going into our rail system at this point in time; nearly £12 billion over the course of the last year—money that would not have been able to be spent under a Labour Administration, because the economy would have been in tatters and we would have been in a very different place.

Cruises: Covid-19 Travel Advice

What discussions he has had with the (a) Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs and (b) devolved Administrations on the global travel taskforce and restarting cruises as covid-19 restrictions are eased. (914906)

What recent discussions he has had with (a) the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs and (b) representatives of the cruise industry on amending the covid-19 travel advice on cruises. (914918)

The Department for Transport engages regularly with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the devolved Administrations and the cruise industry on the global travel taskforce and cruise restart. Travel advice is the responsibility of the FCDO.

My constituency of Inverclyde hosts over 80 visits from international cruise ships each year. They make a valued contribution to the local economy and, when the time is right, we look forward to welcoming them back. However, with health to the fore, can the Minister tell me how the travel regime operates under the traffic light system with countries that have emerging variants of concern, or a prevalent spread of variants, and in what ways will the Government seek to react in good time to prevent transmission?

The hon. Member is right to draw attention to the huge economic importance of the cruise industry to constituencies such as Inverclyde. My Department continues to work closely with the FCDO and with the Department of Health and Social Care. A covid-19 framework drawn up by the cruise industry informs health protocols on board those ships. That has been recognised as good practice by the UN’s International Maritime Organisation. We will see a safe restart of international cruises in accordance with those protocols.

The cruise industry is a significant employer in the Southampton area, but British travellers are still advised by the FCDO against cruising, even as advice on flying is set to be relaxed along with eased restrictions. Approval has been given for domestic cruising, but please can my hon. Friend work with colleagues across Government to make sure that international travel advice for cruising is aligned with that for aviation?

My right hon. Friend is quite right. A home port call is estimated to generate approximately £2.95 million in today’s money, which underlines the critical importance of cruises for employment in Southampton and other ports. The restart of domestic cruises has indeed been confirmed, and the global travel taskforce advises that international cruises will restart alongside the wider restart in international travel. I am committed to working with colleagues at the FCDO and across Government to see a safe restart of international cruises as soon as possible, in line with the GTT.

Highland Bus Services: Net Zero Target

What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on increasing bus services in the highlands to help achieve the UK’s net zero target. (914907)

Responsibility for bus services is a devolved matter. My Department engages with the devolved Administrations, including in Scotland, on issues with bus services all the time.

I live near an Asda store. Many of the people who work there, who are friends of mine, would like to use the local bus services to get to work, but the timetables do not work. Equally, I have people living in Caithness who are disabled, who would like to use the buses to Inverness more, but the disabled facilities are not what they should be. I have made representations to the Scottish Government and to the bus company, Stagecoach, but to no avail. I realise, of course, that transport is devolved, but what advice can the Secretary of State offer me to try to sort this wretched problem out?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right that this is a devolved matter, but there are Barnett consequentials, so there is quite a lot of money coming through, particularly from the “Bus Back Better” plan. He is also right to be concerned, as I have been, about the level of bus services and threatened cuts across Scotland, including by First Bus in Glasgow and Stagecoach in Stirling. I encourage him to work hard to highlight these issues and remind the Scottish Government that they have a lot of money for buses coming through as a result of Barnett consequentials.

Access to Airports: North of England

The Government recognise that good access to airports is essential and are happy to work with airports, transport bodies and local authorities to bring improvements where needed.

Vital plans to expand Leeds Bradford airport have been delayed due to planning matters. I realise that my hon. Friend cannot comment on planning matters, but does he agree that expansion of airports in Yorkshire, which is very under-served in airport capacity, is vital to the economy and to leisure opportunities for people in Yorkshire?

My hon. Friend is right that I am unable to comment on the specific planning case at Leeds Bradford airport so as not to prejudice any consideration of that proposal. This Government have been clear that they are supportive of airports’ making best use of their existing runways, and they fully understand and value the critical connecting role of regional aviation.

Transport Decarbonisation

What recent steps his Department has taken to help facilitate transport decarbonisation in line with the Government’s commitments to (a) the Paris agreement and (b) COP26. (914911)

What recent steps his Department has taken to help facilitate transport decarbonisation in line with the Government’s commitments to (a) the Paris agreement and (b) COP26. (914912)

The transport decarbonisation plan will set out transport contributions to net zero, and we continue to work with our international partners ahead of COP26.

Promoting and investing in cycling and active travel is essential if we are to reduce car journeys. The Scottish Government already spend over £15 per person, compared with just over £7 in England—more than twice as much. The SNP has pledged to increase that investment to over 10% of the transport capital budget. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is the sort of ambition required to drive real change, and will his Government commit to replicating it in England?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me an opportunity to talk about our active travel plans. With £2 billion-worth of spending, the Barnett consequentials from that will no doubt give him something to boast about in the future—but invented in Downing Street and, I hope, delivered in Scotland.

Shipping is a significant contributor to carbon emissions and pollution around the world. We all know that change is coming, but investment and incentives are required now, so what support will the Secretary of State’s Department provide to those in our maritime and shipping sectors as part of the Government’s commitment to moving towards net zero shipping?

That is absolutely right. The shipping industry is one of the harder to decarbonise areas of the economy. However, technologies such as hydrogen have a big part to play, so this Government are putting a lot of research and development investment behind hydrogen in particular with a view to shipping. We have just announced the Teesside hydrogen hub, the country’s first, to help develop more of those technologies, and the hon. Gentleman will not be disappointed by our ambition through our transport decarbonisation plan.

As we have heard, the Government are finally, finally inching forward with a fraction of their 4,000 green bus plan, but in Scotland orders have already been placed for the equivalent of 2,720 battery electric buses, with many more to come. At the Transport Committee, Baroness Vere called this investment “brilliant”. Graham Vidler of the Confederation of Passenger Transport also welcomed it, plus the £5 billion equivalent on bus infrastructure, and called the Scottish Government’s commitment to reducing car journeys by 20% by decade’s end a

“big, bold and ambitious target that we would like to see matched in the UK Government’s decarbonisation plan”.

Will you match it, Secretary of State?

Once again, I am very pleased that the Barnett consequentials ensure that money is available to spend in Scotland. We should welcome the fact that £3 billion is going to buses. The hon. Gentleman mentions the £120 million we have announced for zero-emission buses in 2021-22, which will give many hundreds of buses a start on the production line. We are on target to deliver all 4,000 that we have promised to start building in this Parliament.

That is not what the industry says. The gap in ambition is simply startling. The SNP plans to have the majority of fossil fuel buses removed from service by 2023. This Government’s plans represent just one tenth of the English fleet. When we consider that, along with commitments and action on rail decarbonisation with a nationalised ScotRail, increasing the active travel budget to 10% of transport capital, free bikes for children who cannot afford them, interest-free loans for electric cars and free bus travel for under-22s, does the Secretary of State agree that if Scots want that progressive and decarbonised future it has to be both votes SNP next Thursday?

Funnily enough, I do not agree. It is worth the hon. Gentleman’s Scottish voters understanding that that money is available through the Barnett consequentials. If bus services were as good as is claimed, then it would not be the case that in Dundee bus users were being warned just last November to expect big changes to services, the worst since the 1950s, which would have negative impacts for older people and those dependent on bus services. I do not think it is quite as rosy as he likes to make it sound. This Government in Westminster are committed to decarbonising the whole of the United Kingdom.

Greater London Boundary Charge

The Government do not support a boundary charge. The Mayor of London cannot expect non-Londoners to clean up his mismanagement of Transport for London finances.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is precisely not the fresh start that TfL or London as a whole needs to see? The cost of the Mayor’s financial mismanagement should not be passed on to my constituents and other Londoners at precisely the time when we are trying to kickstart our economy after covid. Does he agree that this measure, if implemented, would be damaging particularly for high streets in outer London boroughs, and especially for the disabled and those who rely on their cars for personal reasons?

That is absolutely right. Let us be fair to the Mayor of London. No one could have predicted the coronavirus. This Government have generously backed TfL with more than £3 billion of support so far, but it is because of the Mayor’s mismanagement of that organisation, with years of being woefully unprepared, that he was not ready when this economic shock came. If London wants a real fresh start for TfL and does not want this boundary tax, it should consider voting for Shaun Bailey on 6 May.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the proposed charge is a result of the London Labour Mayor’s poor financial management, and that this reckless charge would have severe detrimental effects on businesses, employees, families, shoppers and visitors in outer London boroughs like mine in Bexley?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the threat. I wonder whether everybody realises that the Mayor of London would like to introduce this border tax, so that non-Londoners end up having to pay for his financial mismanagement of London. It is not on. It is called taxation without representation and, as our American cousins used to point out, that is tyranny.

Leamside Line

As the Minister said, the proposal to reopen the Leamside line in full is being considered as part of the integrated rail plan. We were told to expect an answer in March, then it was April, and now we are almost in May without any further news, so when can my constituents expect to find out if the Government intend to follow through on their promise to level up from Westminster to Wearside?

We certainly intend to follow through on our promises to the people in the north-east and Wearside, something that decades of Labour disinterest in that area have failed to deliver. Ahead of finalising the integrated rail plan, we are fully considering the evidence from all stakeholders; we have had an awful lot. I just remind the hon. Lady, who I know supports this scheme, that it was driven by local campaigners, at the start with a guy called Christopher Howarth, who was a Conservative campaigner. There was little interest from her party or its representatives before he got involved.

Rail Infrastructure: South-west Wales

Significant improvements are being planned and delivered at pace and, on 6 May, the people of Wales will be able to vote for a Welsh Conservative Government committed to working with us to deliver even further rail infrastructure improvements.

I was disappointed to receive an answer from the Department to a written question indicating that the Labour Government of my country had not made any formal representations to the British Government regarding the proposed West Wales Parkway on the main line. However, while I fully support the project, we need to be far more ambitious. It could form part of a transformational metro system for the west of Wales, centred on Swansea city, by linking up the whole western coalfield valleys and beyond. Considering the manner in which High Speed 2 is shafting Wales, will the British Government compensate the communities that I represent so that a comprehensive public transport revolution can be delivered for south-west Wales?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, this Government are committed to delivering the West Wales Parkway station—indeed, it was in the 2019 Conservative manifesto. We continue to work with all local partners to deliver this. It is currently being progressed to outline business case stage using regional funding.

Rail Network: Accessibility

What steps he is taking to improve accessibility for people with physical and hidden disabilities who use the rail network. (914919)

We are making stations more accessible and improving staff training and passenger assistance. The disabled persons railcard reduces fares, and better, accessible trains are coming into service.

Only 40% of railway stations in Greater Manchester have step-free access—that is 38 out of 93 stations. This is significantly lower than the north-west region as a whole, which is at 63%, and the national average at 61%. Mayor Andy Burnham has called for all railway stations in Greater Manchester to be fully accessible by 2025. According to the charity Leonard Cheshire, it would take just 1% to 3% of annual transport spending to make the rail network accessible by 2030, so what steps has the Minister taken to ensure that this will be a reality as soon as possible?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and his interest in this. This Government are spending hundreds of millions of pounds on improving our network and continue to do so. Indeed, I met the chief executive of Network Rail yesterday to talk about how we can speed up the delivery of elements of our accessibility programme. I read the Leonard Cheshire report on this, and it was interesting, but I tend to think that it has underestimated the figures involved in improving our network to the level that it should be at by now.

Transport Decarbonisation Plan

We are working to finalise our bold and ambitious plan to decarbonise transport, and we expect to publish it as soon as possible this spring.

The Government’s Brexit deal means that in order to avoid tariffs on electric vehicles, 55% of vehicle parts, including batteries, will need to be locally sourced by the end of 2026. Will the Government back Labour’s call for investments in at least three battery gigafactories by 2025, and can they commit to building one of those factories on Merseyside?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that a gigafactory will play a critical role in decarbonising our transport sector. We have a world-beating automotive industry in this country, and at the election the Government committed £1 billion to back investment in a gigafactory in this country. Can I remind him that leaving the European Union has provided us with a lot of opportunities to set our own pathways to decarbonise transport? We will be setting out those plans in detail in the transport decarbonisation plan.

A1 Roundabouts

The Department aims to create more free-flowing journeys across the strategic road network, including the A1, through its road investments.

The A1—the great north road—is a beautiful road linking Scotland and England, and I think that to honour the upcoming jubilee we should rename it the Queen’s highway. Why not? But it is not an entirely safe road. I have spent hundreds of hours on it, and there are many fatalities on it. I cannot understand why all the roundabouts have been stripped away between Newark and the Black Cat roundabout, but going south from the Black Cat to the north circular there are still roundabouts. There are also many crossing points in Lincolnshire and other places. Will the Minister now commit to really upgrading the A1 to make it entirely safe by getting rid of all the traffic lights, roundabouts and crossing points? Let us make it a true Queen’s highway.

I fully agree with my right hon. Friend’s suggestion for renaming that beautiful road, and I am sure that the Transport Secretary, who is listening carefully, will take that away and consider it. I am happy to say that we are investing significant sums in making the A1 safer and more reliable as a result of our near-£1 billion A428 improvement scheme, and there will be a major reconstruction of the Black Cat junction on the A1 so that north-south traffic will flow freely underneath it. There is potential for further enhancement along the A1, which will be considered in the light of Highways England’s work to update its route strategies, starting this year, and I fully expect my right hon. Friend’s journeys to be very pleasant indeed in the future.

Topical Questions

I know that the House is interested in the updates with regard to travel returning internationally over the coming months, and I want to provide a quick update to say that, although polymerase chain reaction—PCR—tests may be required from the medical and scientific point of view, we have been working with private laboratories, pharmacies, supermarkets and other companies to encourage them to deliver on their logistical expertise, enter the market and drive down the costs. We have seen some success, because, as I mentioned earlier, the cost of a single PCR day-two test from one of the large providers on the Government link site has now come down to £60 and a new entrant at £44.90 is now enabling more people to access PCR tests as international travel returns.

I understand that work on the strategic outline business case for the redevelopment of Chester station, which has been submitted to the Department, has produced a highly positive cost-benefit ratio, and that it is also being proposed as a priority project for the DFT acceleration unit supported by Transport for the North, so can the Secretary of State confirm when Chester station will be included in the rail network enhancement programme and when further development funding will be allocated to take this project forward?

We are continuing to work closely with Cheshire West and Chester Council on its preparation of the strategic outline business case for enhancements at and around Chester station. Having received an initial strategic outline business case from the council last summer, DFT officials undertook to carry out a detailed review of the requested further information for the SOBC, and it is being considered for inclusion in RNEP, which is the—well, the hon. Gentleman knows what RNEP is, so I will not explain.

The active travel grant funding made available to local authorities such as mine was very welcome, but unfortunately the Labour-run council in Southampton has used this funding to halve road capacity on main arterial routes into the city. As lockdown has eased, this has caused congestion and made already poor air quality much worse. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the active travel funding provided to local authorities did not come with directions on how it should be used, and that the decision to implement any schemes, for good or ill, are the responsibility of the local authority? (914961)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Department for Transport has made it absolutely clear that local authorities must focus on scheme quality. They must demonstrate that they have carried out appropriate consultation, listened to local communities, and considered access for emergency vehicles and traffic impacts. We recognise that poorly designed, temporary cycling and walking schemes can have negative impacts, but we also recognise that they can be very positive when delivered in the right way.

After much delay, the Transport Secretary has finally published Highways England’s review into smart motorways. The stocktake has revealed that over the last five years 63 people lost their lives, which is a significant increase on the figure given just over a year ago—38. Victims’ families and campaigners are crying out for common sense—and for action from the Secretary of State—recognising that the radar technology does not even capture broken down vehicles 35% of the time. As the legal challenges mount, will he publish the specific data comparing deaths on the hard shoulder of existing motorways with deaths on the lane that was previously a hard shoulder and is now used as a live running lane?

The hon. Gentleman and I, and the whole House, share similar concerns about the safety of our motorways. One of the first things I did as Secretary of State was to introduce the smart motorways stocktake. One factor we have to look at is the level of fatalities on both smart motorways and regular motorways. As I mentioned to the hon. Gentleman previously, from 2015 to 2019 there were 39 fatalities on smart motorways, but there were also 368 fatalities on regular motorways. It is very important that we look at all the questions he asked with regard to the data, which is why I have asked the Office of Rail and Road to analyse the data and provide reassurance that it can be trusted. When those figures are provided we can compare them to make sure we are producing the safest possible roads in the world.

The victims’ families will want to know that action will be taken on lives that are avoidably lost and I am afraid that answer will not satisfy those families at all.

Moving on to our regional economies, the Secretary of State knows how important our regional airports are in providing tens of thousands of important, well-paid, decent jobs in our regions. Will he make sure the Government do far more than the standard schemes on business rates and furlough support to make sure that our regional airports not only survive but can thrive in the future—or does he believe the market will decide their fate?

First, on smart motorways I understand that it is the hon. Gentleman’s and Labour’s policy to close all-running lanes, which would create more traffic. The current estimate is that it would create 25% more traffic on other roads; that in itself would, we think, produce about 25 more fatalities per year. So I urge the hon. Gentleman to follow the work of the Office of Rail and Road to make sure that we do not create more fatalities, rather than fewer.

With regard to regional airports, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to support them. We have put £7 billion into protecting and supporting our aviation sector. I am slightly mystified, however, because if I understand it correctly, the hon. Gentleman’s current policy is to quarantine all traffic so that nobody could quarantine at home, which would do further damage to our regional airports.

I am delighted that North Devon is soon to become home to the first rural e-scooter trial. However, what steps is the Department taking to inform the public that e-scooters, already seen in so many public spaces, are not legally permitted unless part of the trial? (914962)

I thank my hon. Friend for her support for this innovative form of transport technology. Trials of rental e-scooters began last July and have been a huge success: over 2 million trips have been taken and 5 million km ridden—the equivalent of six times to the moon and back. But the Department has written to all major retailers of e-scooters in the UK to ask them to make it clear to customers that it is illegal to use e-scooters on public roads. Retailers make this clear online and in their stores, and motoring offences will apply to the private use of e-scooters. The local police are fully engaged and have enforcement powers, and they are expected to use them.

Given that the national infrastructure bank will be based in Leeds, would it not be highly symbolic to start building phase 2b of the eastern leg of HS2 from Leeds southwards? The Secretary of State was quoted recently as saying that he is looking at bringing forward the start date. Would he consider that idea? (914960)

I actually agree with the right hon. Gentleman; it probably would have been sensible to start the entire project from the north to the south in the first place, but having looked at this in great detail, not least through the Oakervee review, I also know that chopping and changing those plans partway through is the most expensive possible outcome and does not work out. None the less, we are committed to ensuring that the integrated rail plan answers all these questions, and his point has been clearly heard.

The Secretary of State will be aware that almost 50% of UK container freight goes through Felixstowe port, and he will be aware of the importance of improving rail links from that port to the midlands and the north. Can I get his reassurance that the Felixstowe to Nuneaton freight rail link is a priority for this Government and will be delivered on time? (914965)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of freight links in our country. Since 2009, more than £200 million has been invested in capacity on the Felixstowe to Nuneaton freight corridor. Through the rail network enhancements pipeline, Network Rail is developing business cases for enhancements at Ely, Hockley and between Ely and Soham to provide additional capacity on this key freight corridor.

Constituents of mine who had travelled for essential medical treatment for their disabled children were required to quarantine at Heathrow in a hotel room that was completely inadequate for their needs. What consideration is being given to the needs of disabled people and those with medical needs in the hotel quarantine scheme? (914963)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to stand up for her constituents, particularly those who may have special circumstances. There is a process in place for special circumstances to be considered. I would be interested to understand why in the case of her constituent, from her question, it does not look like that was effective. We would be very happy to investigate that particular case, although I understand that would of course be retrospective.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Representing a constituency in a county that has a large number of commuters to London, the future of flexible rail ticketing is an issue to which many are paying close attention. With the reality of more people enjoying hybrid working arrangements in the future, we need to ensure that is reflected in the structure of rail tickets. Therefore, can the Secretary of State confirm when the Department will be in a position to set out what rail ticketing will look like for passengers in my constituency and across the south-east, and provide an assurance that the new fares will offer genuine flexibility where it is needed? (914967)

May I say on behalf of everybody how fantastic it is to see my hon. Friend back in the House in her rightful place? She is absolutely right about the changes in how people will commute going forward, because the world has of course changed. I am sure that people will come back to the railway, but perhaps in a more flexible way, and I can reassure her that we will be setting out more details of our view about how ticketing should work, not least through the Williams-Shapps review.

Last week, the Government’s sixth carbon budget included aviation emissions for the first time—a welcome step. Can the Secretary of State explain how the Government think they can hit their net zero target without updating the airports national policy statement? Will he finally commit to scrapping Tory plans for a third runway at Heathrow, if he is serious about tackling the climate emergency? (914964)

The hon. Lady will know that the whole House voted for the Heathrow plans, as she stated, but we will shortly be bringing forward our transport decarbonisation plans, which will discuss in full and in detail our ambitious plans to decarbonise the entire transport sector, including the aviation sector. She is right to say that we have increased our ambition on this front, and we are the only major leading nation that will set out such an ambitious set of plans to decarbonise the entire sector.

Hello from Lancashire, Mr Speaker. In South Ribble, there is quite a lot of interest in the Government’s recently announced £3 billion national bus strategy. Speaking to residents, many improvement suggestions have already been received. Joanne, for example, wants a west-east bus between Tarleton, the Hooles, Longton and getting into Leyland. Can my right hon. Friend share how he plans to ensure that the communities’ voices are heard during the planning of this strategy so that their needs are in the mix, and it is not just the ideas from the men in grey suits and the established industry? (914968)

I note your remark, Mr Speaker. I thank my hon. Friend for her point. I am not a man in a grey suit, so I can reassure her fully, and I thank her for the massively constructive way she has engaged with the national bus strategy since its launch. The way she has stood up for her constituents is absolutely exemplary, and I know from the discussions that she and I have had how important that is. By October, local transport authorities are expected to provide bus service improvement plans, which should be developed in collaboration with local people to ensure that they genuinely reflect the area’s needs.

Many of my constituents are concerned that each of the three rail timetabling options put forward by the Manchester recovery taskforce means reduced connectivity between West Lancs and Manchester. Will the Secretary of State assure my constituents that they are not the poor relations of the larger northern cities, and will he intervene to ensure that the supposed levelling-up of services in the north does not leave areas such as West Lancs behind? (914966)

Yes, that is absolutely right. I have been working with Transport for the North and many others in consultation to sort out that fundamental problem, which is the bottleneck around the Castlefield corridor in and out of Manchester, which impacts on the entire northern rail service and beyond. The hon. Lady is absolutely right; we will be taking all those representations into account, and very carefully. Indeed, the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), would gladly meet her to discuss it further.

When direct all-day high-speed services to Martin Mill, Deal and Sandwich were suspended, I received written assurances that they would be fully restored after lockdown. Can my hon. Friend confirm that it remains the intention to fully restore the high-speed services to Deal, Sandwich and the villages as soon as possible? (914970)

Morning and evening peak services to Martin Mill, Kingsdown, Deal and Sandwich are currently operating. Passenger volumes are continually monitored, and all-day service provision will be reviewed in the light of passenger demand as lockdown restrictions are eased.

The Secretary of State will know that the consultation on Manchester’s rail services is considering the removal of the direct link between Sheffield and Manchester airport. Our chamber of commerce is deeply concerned about the damage that axing this service would do to local business and jobs, and our two world-class universities believe that it threatens international student recruitment, which brings more than £200 million into the local economy. Does he recognise those concerns, and will he meet me and other local Members to discuss the issue? (914969)

Yes, I absolutely recognise the concerns. As I mentioned a moment ago, there is a problem with congestion on rail services around Manchester, which needs to be resolved. I am working with all the local partners in order to do that. I have set up a special meeting of the Northern Transport Acceleration Council after the elections, in order to work with the Manchester recovery taskforce and resolve exactly that issue.

Between January and June last year, the Minister of State told the House three times that his Department would shortly publish its research on the level of funding needed to meet the target of doubling cycling and increasing walking by 2025. Will he now publish that missing research, or is he breaking his promise because he knows it confirms that the funding allocated falls woefully short of what is needed? (914971)

Given that we have £2 billion of funding for walking and cycling—the biggest sum ever invested in active travel, as far as we can work out—the idea that there is a lack of investment is, of course, entirely untrue. The hon. Lady will have noticed that last year the coronavirus occupied almost everything we were doing, but it did not prevent us issuing a new cycling strategy, published by the Prime Minister and backed by me. We will be saying a lot more about that, and I welcome the hon. Lady’s enthusiasm.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary environment group, I am incredibly supportive of the Government’s ambition to phase out diesel trains across the entire UK network by 2040. East West Rail is soon to build a railway line in my constituency, due for completion in 2030, but it is not being built as an electrified line, and my constituents are very worried that they might end up with a new diesel railway line. Will my right hon. Friend, or my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean)—I am not sure who is answering—work with me and the Treasury to make sure that East West Rail is aligned with the Government’s ambition to phase out diesel trains? (914975)

I will answer my hon. Friend. East West Rail, the company behind the new line, is aiming to deliver an entirely zero-carbon railway. It will be considering conventional and emerging technology solutions for powering trains, which could be part-electric and part-hydrogen or battery in the future, for example, so that services that operate along the whole length of the route are zero carbon.

Sometimes I forget that I am wearing the mask, Mr Speaker, but I thank you very much for calling me.

Airlines have had a difficult past 12 months. Belfast City airport, Belfast International airport and Londonderry airport are important Northern Ireland regional airports. Can the Minister confirm the Government’s support for them, which I know has been there, and that every effort will be taken to ensure that they can and will be part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s strategy for the future?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out the importance of those links with our Northern Ireland airports. I made sure that we put public service obligations in place during the height of the crisis last year, and we will always look to do everything we can to make sure that connectivity across our great Union continues to exist.

Cutting-edge maritime projects such as the Holyhead hydrogen hub and the proposed Anglesey freeport in my constituency will move forward this Government’s renewable agenda. To take full advantage of these opportunities, excellent transport infrastructure is needed across north Wales. Will the Minister confirm that he will support necessary improvements to the A55, as highlighted in Sir Peter Hendy’s Union connectivity review?

My hon. Friend is a brilliant champion of connectivity for her constituency, and as a result, my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary was in north Wales early this week, discussing plans to upgrade the A55 with the Welsh Conservative candidate standing in May’s election. We look forward to the final Union connectivity review recommendations ahead of the spending review, in which we will consider funding plans for delivering improved UK-wide connectivity. However, I must say to the hon. Lady that the fastest way for her constituents to secure upgrades to the A55 is to vote for a Welsh Conservative Government, who have pledged to end Labour’s neglect of north Wales.

That brings me on to my final point, which is just to say that I will be pleased when next Thursday is out of the way, but I remind Members who are going into other constituencies, other than for a private, personal visit, to please ensure that they notify the MP. That goes to all sides, because I am getting letters of complaint. Please, I do not need any more letters of complaint: just abide by good practice.