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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 697: debated on Thursday 24 June 2021


The Secretary of State was asked—

Tactile Paving: Rail Network

If he will take steps to install full tactile paving installation across the entire rail network. (901782)

Network Rail is still working to a timetable of installing tactile paving at all train platforms by 2029, some eight years away. Given that 35% of platforms are seriously dangerous for blind and partially sighted people, will the Minister commit to ensuring that every station has the basic safety measure of tactile paving in place by 2025?

I very much hope so. I have asked Network Rail to develop a programme to install platform edge tactile strips on every platform in Great Britain as soon as possible; I have yet to receive that programme. I will make a further announcement in the very short term.

Cross-UK Transport Links

Following only two days’ notice, this week East Midlands Railway has halved the train services through Stoke-on-Trent on the Crewe-Derby-Newark line to a train only every two hours. The usual hourly service is barely acceptable, so to reduce it further is totally inadequate. Will my hon. Friend work with the Secretary of State to look urgently at what can be done to restore these vital rail services and further improve local rail in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent South and all along this important cross-UK east-west rail link?

I thank my hon. Friend for supporting those vital rail links. I know that he is doing a fantastic job of ensuring connectivity to his constituency; I know that he spoke to the Rail Minister about it yesterday. East Midlands Railway has introduced a new timetable, but I understand that a number of challenges arose because of a different fleet, train crew issues and sickness. This has resulted in the need to swiftly implement timetable changes, but it now needs to provide passengers with a robust and reliable service.

Confidence within the aviation industry and among passengers is at an all-time low—it is shattered. The travel industry will take longer than most industries to get back to business and will need further support to survive. Will my hon. Friend speed up the review of air passenger duty and explore extending business rates relief to regional airports to help the industry weather this terrible storm?

I absolutely commend my hon. Friend for being a continued champion for Exeter airport in his constituency, which provides jobs and employment for many of his constituents. He will know that the airport and ground operations support scheme provides eligible commercial airports with support towards their fixed costs. In the March Budget, the Chancellor announced a six-month renewal of that scheme from April. Initial payments will be made towards the end of the summer.

My hon. Friend mentions aviation tax reform. The Treasury is currently reviewing responses and will update on timing in due course.

To follow on from the question asked by the hon. Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp), regional airports play a critical role in connecting our regions and our Union. This month, Stobart Air collapsed, and easyJet is to close its bases at Newcastle International, London Stansted and London Southend airports; Teesside and Newquay have previously shut their doors. Without a sector-specific deal, our regional airports, the connectivity that they provide and the jobs and communities that they support are at risk. What assessment has the Department made of the long-term viability of this critical infrastructure to our nation?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we fully recognise and support the importance of the aviation industry to our country. That is why this Government have stood behind the sector and provided up to £7 billion, in the round, of support for jobs through the furlough scheme and support for airports and the airline industry. It is vital that we get the travel industry back on its feet, which is why we are taking a public health approach to restarting travel. The Transport Secretary will say more on that this evening.

North of England: Transport Connections

Building on the £29 billion invested in northern transport since 2010, this Government are delivering improved connectivity to level up the north.

Does the Minister agree that we need a fully integrated transport network across the north, with smart ticketing? It is not a question of either/or; we need regular affordable bus services as well as the HS2 eastern leg, as well as Northern Powerhouse Rail, as well as electrification of TransPennine rail and as well as, finally, upgrades to the Huddersfield-Penistone-Sheffield line.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Better transport is central to the Government’s agenda to level up the north. The TransPennine route upgrade is already under way, our national bus strategy is being delivered and we will soon publish our integrated rail plan for the midlands and the north, ensuring that transformational rail improvements are delivered as quickly as possible.

The Penistone line in my constituency connects major Yorkshire towns and cities such as Sheffield, Barnsley and Huddersfield, as well as serving smaller communities such as Penistone and Dodworth, but with only one train per hour in each direction, it does not meet the needs of local people or businesses. I have just submitted a bid to the levelling-up fund, with my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mark Eastwood), to upgrade the Penistone line and improve the service, but does the Minister agree that we must invest in these secondary commuter lines in the north if we are to see the same benefits in our city regions that other parts of the country already enjoy?

I agree with my hon. Friend that we must improve connectivity to all our communities in the north—especially Chorley—and I welcome her commitment to improving services on the Penistone line. Bids to the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund are being assessed, and we expect to announce the outcome of that competition in the autumn.

As the number of commuters travelling from Warrington gradually starts to increase again, does the Minister agree that east-west links from Warrington will really benefit from investment? Could I ask my hon. Friend to update the House on plans to extend Northern Powerhouse Rail from Manchester to Liverpool via Warrington Bank Quay, and does he agree with me that the £2 billion allocated for the Golborne spur could be better spent on helping local rail links across the north-west of England?

The Government remain absolutely committed to Northern Powerhouse Rail and, as ever, my hon. Friend makes a powerful case for Warrington. As he knows, decisions on the routes for NPR and consideration of the Golborne spur are matters for the integrated rail plan, so he will have to be patient just a little bit longer, but I can assure him that his representations have been heard.

Connectivity is key to levelling up northern communities, so I welcome the Government’s commitment to reversing Beeching cuts and restoring rail connections to towns across the region, including through the towns funding for a new railway station in Cheadle town centre. Delivering that connectivity is about timetabling and joined-up services, as well as the rail infrastructure itself. What is the Minister doing to work with Transport for Greater Manchester and other stakeholders to ensure that an integrated service is delivered and provides the regular connections that Cheadle and other communities in the region need?

Through the Manchester recovery taskforce, of which Transport for Greater Manchester is a member, we are working with organisations across the rail industry to develop the service and infrastructure options that will address the congestion and reliability issues across Greater Manchester and, I hope, improve the experience of all rail passengers across the region.

This Government have a track record of over-promising and under-delivering. We know that if the north had received the same investment as London over the last decade, it would have seen £66 billion more. For all their bluff and bluster about levelling up in the north, what do we see? Services between Newcastle and Manchester to be halved, the proposed increase in the frequency of services between Teesside, Sunderland and Newcastle scrapped, Transport for the North’s budget to be cut by 40%, and now Government sources saying that they plan to pull the plug on Northern Powerhouse Rail. Just to ensure that there is no further backtracking, will the Minister guarantee that Northern Powerhouse Rail will be delivered in full, on time and on budget?

Of course, the hon. Gentleman tempts me to prejudge the integrated rail plan, which I will not do, because no decisions have been taken yet. However, I am happy to confirm that we are getting on with investing in Transport for the North; we are not waiting for the integrated rail plan to be delivered. On top of the billions of pounds that we have already invested in transport across the north, just on 26 May we announced two new stations outside Leeds—White Rose and Thorpe Park—and we announced an additional £317 million for the TransPennine route upgrade. Of course, over 60% of the region is now covered with metro Mayors, with historic devolution settlements. We are getting on with investing in the north of England.

Active Travel Pilots: Accessibility to Disabled People

What steps he is taking to ensure that all active travel pilots are fully accessible to disabled people. (901729)

Local authorities are responsible for ensuring active travel schemes are accessible to all. Government guidance, which includes the “Cycle Infrastructure Design” publication, reflects best practice in safety and inclusivity for disabled pedestrians, cyclists and wheelchair and Motability scooter users.

The Government are rolling out a number of pilots for e-scooters and also supporting with funding a number of schemes to expand active travel, yet those schemes do not need to have accessible formats of travel for disabled people and older people, further excluding them from the benefits of active travel and moving around in car-free environments. Will the Minister ensure that every pilot scheme is expanded so that it is fully accessible? Will he also challenge the sector to provide Motability scooters and other forms of e-travel that are fully accessible for everyone in our communities?

It is very important that local authorities consider the impacts of e-scooters on people with disabilities and allow them to access the trials as well. E-scooters have the potential to offer additional means of transport, and we allowed seated e-scooters within the scope of the trials to enable people with certain mobility issues to use them. Our guidance told local authorities to encourage groups representing the interests of disabled people in their areas to advise people with accessibility issues on how they can best use the schemes.

Rail Passenger Numbers

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

Given the importance of improving train passenger numbers once the nation has fully reopened, marketing rail travel will be crucial if only to keep the Treasury happy. What support will the Secretary of State give to community rail partnerships up and down the country, which do so much to enhance the quality of local services, not just in planting out flowerbeds and making stations more attractive but in attracting the leisure passengers that we will need to travel on all our railway lines in ever greater numbers?

As a distinguished former Rail Minister, my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that community rail is very much at the heart of the recent White Paper on rail reform. He can expect to see our commitment to rail community partnerships grow in the years to come, which will, I hope, fulfil the ambitions he set out during his time as Rail Minister.

Condition of Roads: England

In addition to investing £1.7 billion in ’21-22 into local roads, the Department is working towards the creation of a common data standard for the monitoring of the road condition. That will aim to drive innovation and flexibility in monitoring local roads, which will enable local authorities to target defects in their networks more quickly.

First, I thank my hon. Friend for her support and that of the Department in securing the Lytham St Annes M55 link road. After years of fighting for this project I was delighted to see work get under way on Monday. I have, however, been inundated by complaints from constituents regarding the poor quality of many of Fylde’s road surfaces, so can my hon. Friend assure me that the Government are taking the resurfacing of roads seriously and not simply filling in the cracks and covering over potholes?

May I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend for his determined campaigning over a number of years to secure the start of work on this vital road? I am sure that his constituents will be reaping the benefits in the years to come, but he is right to say that they must be able to drive on roads that are pothole-free. That is why the Government have committed £2.5 billion through the potholes fund. The Department believes that local highway authorities should develop a risk-based approach to asset management plans; that means they need to have a long-term inspection regime and be proactively maintaining those roads to ensure that they are in good condition in the years to come.

The very light rail site in Dudley—of course, Chorley could have one as well, Mr Speaker—will be a world-class innovation centre, developing and testing prototypes, and very light rail is installed on roads with minimal disruption. Does the Minister agree that it could be a game changer for public transport for the UK, and will she join me in congratulating the team on pioneering it in the west midlands?

I am delighted to hear about more pioneering innovations in the west midlands. That does not surprise me at all; I visited the west midlands just last week to see some of its groundbreaking work across a number of travel innovations. Of course, Mr Speaker, the west midlands leads the world—I am afraid it even leads Chorley—in these matters. I strongly congratulate all those involved in the project in Coventry and Dudley. We are always interested in building on these successes and seeing them benefit more areas in the future.

HS2 Compensation Payments

May I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend on her recognition in the birthday honours list? My HS2 land and property review, published in November 2020, set out a number of measures to speed up the payment of compensation, and we are making rapid progress in implementing the recommendations of that review.

My hon. Friend has done a great job since taking over as HS2 Minister, but I am sure he will agree that there is so much evidence of appalling behaviour from HS2 in the way that it is treating individual households and businesses and its slowness to compensate even the outgoing legal costs of those who are simply trying to protect their own homes and businesses. What can he do to improve the compassion, quite frankly, as well as the efficiency of HS2?

My right hon. Friend makes a powerful case. HS2 Ltd can and must treat those affected by HS2 with consideration and respect. To that end, I am pleased to say that the root-and-branch review of land and property cases that I commissioned is now starting to bear fruit. I hold HS2 Ltd to direct account in a fortnightly review of the most complex cases, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for drawing my attention to several pressing constituency cases in her area.

Zero Emission Vehicles

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on incentivising the purchase of zero emission vehicles ahead of the 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles. (901733)

Alongside the phase-out dates, we have pledged a £2.8 billion package of measures to support the industry and consumers to make the switch to cleaner vehicles. Discussions with my colleagues are ongoing.

The 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles is a necessary step to reach our net zero targets, but to enable mass adoption of electric vehicles, we need to fix the issues around charging points. Currently, many in service do not work—or they charge inefficiently—and they are under-provided and excessively priced in some areas. Because they are run by independent providers, there is no joined-up national infrastructure. Given that we need to roll out widespread charging points across the UK and tackle these issues, does the Secretary of State agree that the Government need to invest much more and properly regulate the sector so that it is better joined-up, more reliable and more accessible?

As a driver of an electric vehicle, I have experienced the exact issues that the hon. Lady talks about. There are too many different membership cards, and people have to use too many different forms of payment and sign up to too many sites before they can even pay for the miles that they charge. We have a plan in place, which has included taking secondary legislation action that will require all chargers providing rapid charge to allow contactless payment, which I know the hon. Lady will appreciate.

As a fellow electric car driver, I cannot wait for those regulations to come forward.

As the Climate Change Committee made clear this morning, the Government are not delivering on the policies needed to meet their climate targets. As well as incentivising EV purchases and improving EV charging infrastructure, we need EVs to be built in Britain. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with the Business Secretary about Government support for EV manufacturing at the Ford Halewood plant, which is crucial if we are to secure the future viability of the site, and about saving jobs making vehicle components at the GKN plant in Birmingham?

The hon. Lady will know that the Government have pledged half a billion pounds towards creating factories to produce batteries, which is a very important part of the development of electric cars. I often hear people say that we are somehow falling behind. In fact, we had the second highest sales of electric vehicles in Europe in the first quarter of this year; one in seven cars sold now has plug-in. I cannot comment directly on the discussions that my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary has had about those specific plants, but I can tell the hon. Lady that discussions are ongoing in order to achieve the infrastructure delivery in this country, including the manufacturing base, which will continue to ensure that we lead Europe when it comes to electric car provision.

East West Rail Consultation

What recent discussions he has had with transport authorities on the progress of the East West Rail consultation. (901735)

The East West Railway Company will consider the 2021 consultation responses. The 2019 consultation met open and fair consultation standards.

The 2019 East West Rail consultation and the 2020 route announcement made no mention that six tracks would be needed at Bedford Midland station or of the consequential demolition in the Poets area of my constituency. I urge the Minister to please consider the many representations on this matter from members of the public, rail groups and local councillors, and Bedford Borough Council’s SLC Rail report showing a credible four-track option that would avoid the loss of homes.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that this is a non-statutory consultation. It is a consultation where we really do want to listen to the opinions of people affected across the route of East West Rail, and we will most certainly take into account his representations here today.

Many of my constituents are appalled at the environmental damage that the East West Rail route will cause across Bedfordshire, and baffled that this 21st-century project will use a 19th-century fuel. Will my hon. Friend please look again at the environmental considerations that East West Rail has undertaken and bring them up to scratch?

I thank my hon. Friend for the pragmatic and dedicated campaign that he is running on behalf of his constituents and others on this issue. I know that he has encouraged his constituents to have their say in the recent consultation, and I thank him for that too. We are committed to decarbonising our railways, and East West Rail will continue to assess the potential environmental effects as part of the route alignment development work. An environmental impact assessment will be undertaken and an environmental statement submitted when the development consent order application is made to the Planning Inspectorate.

Transport Decarbonisation

What recent steps his Department has taken to help facilitate transport decarbonisation in line with the Government’s commitments (a) to the Paris agreement and (b) for COP26. (901736)

The transport decarbonisation plan will set out a pathway to achieving net zero. We are delivering ambitious international COP26 campaigns, including a zero emission vehicles campaign that aims to at least double the pace of the global transition to zero emission vehicles so that all new cars and vans are zero emission by 2040 or sooner; an aviation campaign that will galvanise industry, state and civil society support for international action to reduce the climate impacts of aviation; and a maritime campaign, where we will deliver important cross-sectoral opportunities for significant emissions reductions nationally and internationally.

The Scottish Government have committed to cutting car use by 20% by 2030 and to providing an interest-free loan for first-time buyers of new and used electric vehicles. In contrast, the British Government are cutting the grant for electric vehicle purchases by 50%. Will the Minister explain how that 50% cut in support will help to facilitate the decarbonisation of transport?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that his constituents in Scotland, like those across the UK, have benefited from up to £1.3 billion of support to help them transition to electric vehicles. Shall we look at the facts, Mr Speaker? The plug-in car grant, the home charge grant, the on-street chargers and the workplace chargers are all funded by the UK Government for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and those across the United Kingdom.

I do apologise for the noise. There is a helicopter somewhere overhead. I know it is Transport questions, but it is getting a bit much.

As someone who is regularly stuck in traffic on the A13, I think no one wants to return to the levels of pollution we saw before the pandemic began, particularly as emerging evidence indicates that exposure to air pollution increases the severity of coronavirus symptoms and other respiratory conditions. That is why I am so glad to see the work done by brilliant, publicly run light rail systems such as Tyne and Wear metro and Tramlink, led by fantastic local Labour administrations. Light rail networks are an effective means of reducing congestion and pollution given that they produce next to no pollution at the point of use. What assurances will the Minister give, therefore, to support projects that incorporate light rail, tram trains, and electric and hydrogen buses such as the mass transit system proposed by the new West Yorkshire Combined Authority Mayor?

I hope the hon. Gentleman was listening earlier when I spoke at the Dispatch Box about the support that the Government have provided for the West Midlands Combined Authority, led by the Conservative Mayor Andy Street, for light rail and a number of other transport innovations. The point is, the Government are investing in zero-carbon green transport across the whole country. We intend to build back better and greener from the pandemic, and we will create hundreds of thousands of skilled green jobs across the country as we do so.

The consensus at the Transport Committee yesterday—I include the Minister in this—was that the EV market is immature. Quite why the Government would therefore reduce support when EVs are still a lot more expensive is beyond me. The fact is, they have cut the grant by 50%. In addition to what my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said about interest-free loans, in Scotland we have doubled the home charge grant as well. On the decarbonisation plan, last week the Minister said:

“We have done a huge amount of work on the plan…I am not satisfied with the draft because it does not meet the ambition we need in order to reach those incredibly challenging targets.”—[Official Report, 16 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 117WH.]

Quite how the DFT has done extensive work on it and yet still lacks ambition is beyond me. Will we see the plan before the summer recess—yes or no?

A27 Worthing to Shoreham: Congestion

What recent progress his Department has made on researching alternatives for alleviating traffic congestion on the A27 between Worthing and Shoreham. (901738)

We have committed to improvements on the A27, including the sections around Worthing and Lancing. Highways England is working to identify options to go to consultation next year.

As anyone setting out for Chorley from the south coast will know, Mr Speaker, the Worthing to Lancing section of the A27 is one of the most congested roads in the whole of the south-east. In 2014, we were allocated £70 million as part of road investment strategy 1. Seven years on, with several thousand additional houses nearby and with a new IKEA attracting 2 million customer journeys a year about to open, nothing has happened. Now, apparently we have just been allocated £20 million in the Budget for delivery of something between 2025 and 2030. Could we please have a bit of levelling up for infrastructure in Sussex urgently?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this vital issue. It is of course right and critical to get the right solution for the right place. Highways England is actively working on the project and, in particular, working closely with stakeholders, because this is a very sensitive area. I hope my hon. Friend will welcome the fact that Highways England is engaging and working closely with stakeholders on detailed options for the A27. There will be a consultation on all those next year.

Eurostar: Long-term Viability

The Department fully expects that Eurostar will continue to be a highly successful, profitable company carrying record numbers of passengers once international travel recovers.

But the Minister knows that there has been a real threat to Eurostar’s survival, and British business leaders and the Chair of the Transport Committee have all called for our Government to be part of the solution. Eurostar is not just a vital service; it contributes to our net zero agenda. When we are in a climate crisis as well as a covid crisis, does the Minister think it is right that the Government should be giving billions in loans and guarantees to air travel and risk Eurostar going under?

The Government welcome the recent announcements from the company and its shareholders and lenders regarding a new financing package. We will continue to engage with Eurostar fully to understand the company’s position, but we would expect shareholders, including the majority shareholder SNCF—the French state-owned railway—to exhaust all options fully and play their full part.

River Tyne: Transport Links

I would like to thank the Minister for that response, but it is not really one, is it? As well as being a great icon of north-east people, culture and engineering, the Tyne bridge is an essential part of our transport infrastructure and it is in a dire state. Hon. Members from across the region, together with local authority leaders, the North of Tyne Mayor and the police and crime commissioner, have written to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Secretary of State for Transport in support of an £18.5 million bid to the levelling-up fund. Does the Minister agree that the Tyne bridge must be levelled up if it is going to be in a fit state to celebrate its 100th birthday in 2028 as a beautiful and functional symbol of the north?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I am aware of the bid that has gone in as part of the levelling-up fund. Obviously, the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will assess the bids submitted to that fund and we expect to announce the outcome of the competition in the autumn, but the Department for Transport is also aware of a proposal for the bridge including the bid for £36 million from the major road network funding developed by Transport for the North on behalf of north-east partners. DFT officials continue to work with Newcastle City Council on the business case for that proposal.

Flexible Rail Season Tickets

I am pleased to say that flexible season tickets went on sale on Monday and they will be available for use from next Monday.

Back in 2018, South Western Railway undertook to conduct a review to ensure that we have earlier and later trains on the network. With many of my constituents working in the care sector, often with antisocial hours, and dependent on public transport, will my right hon. Friend agree to work with me and SWR to make the change?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue of flexibility with train travel, particularly as we return post covid, which is why the flexible season tickets are very important. I would be delighted to arrange for him to meet up with the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), to discuss the specific issue that concerns him on SWR.

Rural Areas: Transport Connections

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

I thank the Minister for that answer. Next month, I will launch a bus survey across the Bolsover constituency, because many of my villages—particularly the rural villages—have either lost services or are completely isolated, such as Hilcote. Will he commit to coming to meet some of the residents who have been most eloquent in their arguments about what this loss of services has done to their communities?

I am sure that my hon. Friend’s survey outputs will assist his local authority in the development of the bus service improvement plan over the coming months and help to ensure that we bus back better from covid-19. My noble Friend Baroness Vere, the Minister for roads, would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and his residents to coincide with the launch of his survey.

Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail

What steps his Department is taking to implement the policies set out in the Williams-Shapps plan for rail. (901745)

What recent assessment he has made of the potential effect of the Williams-Shapps plan for rail proposals on levels of investment in the rail network and infrastructure. (901752)

The transformation of our railways has now started and passengers are already benefiting as we are investing billions in rail across the UK, including with the flexible tickets just announced.

Given York’s historic connections and its strategic location, does my right hon. Friend think that it would make the perfect location for a new headquarters for our Great British Railways?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is a stunning location. I launched the Williams-Shapps rail review at the York National Railway Museum. I commend it to everybody in this House and I think he is right that York could provide a very attractive location for Great British Railways, although that matter is some way down the line yet.

The world’s first passenger railway station is located on Liverpool Road in Manchester. As the Secretary of State knows, Greater Manchester has an objective to integrate rail stations and commuter rail services into a single joined-up public transport network alongside bus, Metrolink, walking and cycling. The best way to do that is to devolve the necessary funding and powers for rail, so can the Secretary of State reassure me that Great British Railways, in partnership with places such as Greater Manchester, will not shut down the route to securing this?

Yesterday I was at what will become Great Britain’s biggest ever railway station built in one go—Old Oak Common—so it is fantastic to hear about the railway station in the hon. Member’s constituency, which was the first ever railway station. I think it is now a museum, if I am correct. I know that he has read and studied the Williams-Shapps rail reform and will have taken particular note of page 41, which contains information about that devolution plan. I do not think it will disappoint him when it comes to bringing together those services—a matter that I was speaking to the Greater Manchester Mayor about just this week.

Suburban Rail Services: London

Transport for London submitted a strategic outline business case for the devolution of these services in late 2019, and the Department considered the potential benefits and risks associated with the proposal to be finely balanced. We were doing further work with TfL when the pandemic struck. I have to admit that not much work has been going on since that time.

I thank the Minister for that answer. He knows that I am firmly of the view that the transfer of Southeastern services to TfL is the best long-term means of guaranteeing passengers in my constituency the fast, frequent and high-quality metro-style rail services that they desire. As we emerge from the coronavirus crisis, what plans does his Department have to pick up and take forward the conversations that took place with TfL about the matter early last year? Will he meet me in due course to discuss the future of the Southeastern franchise in more detail?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I know his passion in this area. As I say, since the pandemic struck, the Department has had to be very much focused on keeping services running while developing our passenger-focused reform. As the Secretary of State just said, Great British Railways will be organised around regional divisions so that decisions are made closer to the places that the railways serve. The White Paper also includes a commitment for strategic partnership with TfL and other local authorities to ensure that the rail sector is working best for passengers in London. I would be delighted to meet him to discuss these matters further.

Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency

What recent assessment he has made of the strength of industrial relations at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. (901755)

What steps he has taken to help protect workers at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency Swansea site from covid-19. (901765)

Two weeks ago, representatives from the Public and Commercial Services Union and senior management, including the permanent secretary of the Department for Transport, had reached a deal to bring an end to the ongoing industrial dispute over covid safety, but in a development unprecedented in 20 years of civil service negotiations, the Department subsequently reneged on a deal, much of which it had written, with no word of explanation. Is PCS right in believing that the deal was scuppered at the last minute after direct intervention from the Secretary of State? Will he apologise to those members of the public who now face further backlogs as a result of this unnecessary, ideological refusal to find the resolution to this dispute?

With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, the only thing that is unnecessary is for the PCS union to be continuing a strike that is purported to be about safety when, in fact, £4.2 million has been invested at the DVLA to make it covid- safe. An additional building has been rented. Air conditioning has been changed so that the air comes directly in from outside. Perspex screens have been put in place. Zones and bubbles have been created, and there is a very substantive clean regime. If this dispute is indeed about making sure that the building is covid-secure, then that has been achieved. What we need to know is why the demands then switched to demands about pay and demands about holiday, which have nothing to do with being covid-secure.

I wonder whether the Secretary of State would therefore be willing to accompany me and other colleagues who have constituents working at the DVLA to the site so that he can show us just how safe it is, because our constituents are telling us a completely different story.

It is probably important that we allow those who are experts in these things to follow through. Public Health Wales has signed this off. Swansea Council’s environmental health team has signed this off. The Health and Safety Executive has signed this off. I think we should be listening to all those health experts as they decide what should happen in a site like this and are looking at the data and facts. We can then make the decision from there. I do not think there is any further excuse for preventing vulnerable people from being able to pick up the documentation that they require from the DVLA, which is the only thing this ongoing strike is now achieving.

Bus Services: Isolated Communities

What recent steps the Government have taken to increase local authority powers to deliver regular bus services to isolated communities. (901761)

The national bus strategy, which draws on £3 billion of transformational funding, sets out the Government’s vision for bus services across England, including in isolated communities, and we believe that those bus service improvement plans, delivered through enhanced partnerships and franchising arrangements, will deliver what is needed. Alongside this, we have announced 17 successful rural mobility fund bids, each receiving a share of £20 million funding to trial innovative bookable minibuses where demand is more dispersed.

Since 2010, 134 million miles of bus routes have been lost and bus coverage in Britain is the lowest it has been in 30 years. In villages such as Pittington and Waterhouses in my constituency, bus services are virtually non-existent. Can the Minister confirm whether the national bus strategy’s bus service improvement plan will give local authorities enough power and resources to deliver regular bus services to communities on routes that may not be commercially viable?

The hon. Lady has put her finger on the entire purpose of the Bus Back Better strategy, which is about ensuring better, cleaner, safer and more reliable buses with simpler fares and ticketing. It is absolutely what communities such as hers and others all over the country want. The Government are supporting local authorities through funding and we have set aside £25 million to help to build the capacity and capabilities of local authorities. Every local transport authority has received £100,000 in capacity support to enable them to submit bids for the funding and get those bus services back.

Topical Questions

Following up on the conversations earlier, I am delighted to inform the House that in the next few weeks we expect a milestone in the number of rapid chargers being available, with 3,000 different locations and 25,000 public charging points. That means more charging point locations than petrol stations in this country. As mentioned, that is on top of £2.8 billion of Government support for the transition to zero emissions, with companies such as Gridserve, BP Pulse and Shell committing to significant investment in charging infrastructure and working together to back up the fact that in this country we now have more rapid chargers per 100 miles of major road network than any other location in Europe.

Last week, Oxfordshire County Council, the Vale of White Horse District Council and I applied to the levelling-up fund for the snappily titled B4044 strategic cycle link between Botley and Eynsham. This project would significantly boost sustainable travel between Oxford city centre and the new housing planned around Eynsham, linking through more deprived communities. Does the Minister agree that this is exactly the kind of active travel initiative that we need more of in areas of high housing and economic growth, especially given our desire to achieve a zero-carbon Oxfordshire by 2050?

I have not seen that particular application yet, but we do know that the Government have put in a record amount of more than £2 billion of active travel funding for walking and cycling. I know that the hon. Lady will be delighted that Oxfordshire investment has now reached £355 million in different transport environments, and that is on top of the £760 million for East West Rail, so when it comes to investing in her constituency in Oxfordshire, this Conservative Government are really going for it.

Is the Secretary of State hearing, as I am, that our airports and Border Force are getting people through arrivals more quickly and therefore more safely? Is he confident that we will be in a position to get more people who have been double-jabbed through arrivals with digitisation and the NHS app delivering proof of a double jab?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The last few weeks have seen a remarkable digital transformation in the background, which means that people coming in from green-list countries have been going to e-gates that have been updated, both physically and with software, or going to see a Border Force officer and having their passports scanned in one way or the other. That has been automatically linked back to the passenger locator form that they filled out before they left their country of departure, which tells Border Force whether they have had a pre-departure test and whether they have future tests booked. This links the whole machinery together, so yes, the automation is really starting to get into place now.

Yesterday, hundreds of workers in the aviation and tourism industry held a demonstration outside Parliament urging the Government to protect their jobs and those of 1.5 million people employed in aviation and the wider supply chain. On behalf of the countless staff and trade unions I spoke to, will the Secretary of State finally deliver on the sectoral deal that his Government promised but have so far failed to deliver? When he makes an announcement later on the traffic light system, which, it should be noted, is not being made to this House, will he publish the criteria, the country-by-country assessment and the direction of travel for each country, to give travellers confidence to plan for this summer?

I find the hon. Gentleman’s policy confusing, only because, as I understand it, he has previously called for all countries to be put into the red category, meaning that there would be no travel at all. In addition, the former shadow Chancellor has said that Labour would never provide financial support to these companies, yet Labour is now saying that it wants more support to be provided and the hon. Gentleman is saying that he does not want to follow his own policy. Having a red, amber and green list enables people to see which countries are in which category, and the Joint Biosecurity Centre is publishing the data on the website to show why particular countries are in each category.

I can give you an assurance, Mr Speaker, that I have tried my hardest to get the Transport Secretary to fully understand our sectoral deal and the way we have laid it out, but I cannot help the confusion that continues to reign with this Transport Secretary.

Let us now move closer to home. We have had two questions today on the DVLA in Swansea, and the Transport Secretary did not give a convincing answer to either. It was reported last week that a deal had been reached with staff, trade unions and the Government to finally resolve the industrial dispute over health and safety failings at the DVLA in Swansea, but that it was pulled at the last minute by a Minister. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether he or senior members of the Department pulled the deal, and, if so, why? He and his Department are now squarely against the loyal workforce at DVLA Swansea. What will he now do to restore trust and confidence in those fantastic workers?

The Public and Commercial Services Union continues to take industrial action, which is targeting the services and having a negative impact on some of the most vulnerable people in society. The fact of the matter is that the safety concerns have been signed off by Public Health Wales, the Health and Safety Executive, the Welsh Government and the UK Government, yet this strike continues and now is apparently not about healthcare, but about demands over money instead. Will the hon. Gentleman actually ask people to go back to their work in order to help vulnerable people in this country? That is the question and this House needs to know.

Next question, Andrew Griffith. He is not here, so let us go to Scottish National party spokesperson, Gavin Newlands.

I have lost count of the number of times I have asked this Government about their long-abandoned commitment to specific support for the aviation sector. Despite the Secretary of State’s tinkering with the traffic light system, it looks increasingly unlikely that there will be any summer season. It is clear to the dogs on the street that an aviation, travel and tourism recovery package and a targeted extension of furlough is now an imperative, so how does he plan to better support the sector and its workers, such as those who were at the travel day of action protest yesterday on College Green, as has been mentioned?

The Department does recognise the severe impact that the covid-19 pandemic has had on regional air travel. We have supported critical routes through policies such as public service obligations and the airport and ground operations support scheme. The Government are working on a strategic framework for the sector, which will focus on building back better and ensuring a successful aviation sector for the future. What the sector will certainly be glad of is that it is this Government who are looking after its interests, not the Scottish Government, who have been accused of sacrificing the industry by the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association.

I welcome the new flexible season ticket that was introduced this week. It will save someone travelling from Stanford-le-Hope into London three days a week more than £120, and someone travelling from Basildon more than £100. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as more and more people move to hybrid working, it is important that we have flexibility in our public transport systems? (901698)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I saw some coverage of the flexible season tickets, and it is true to say that ticketing is complex across the network, but, compared with somebody who would otherwise buy a regular ticket, somebody travelling two or three days a week will always be at least 20% better off with a flexible season ticket.[Official Report, 29 June 2021, Vol. 698, c. 6MC.]

A constituent of mine who was blind tragically died last year when he fell in front of a train owing to a lack of safety measures, a lack of audio announcements and a lack of tactile paving on the platform. I know that the Government have plans for tactile paving, although they are unclear at the moment, but while we are waiting for this to happen, will the Minister commit to introducing audio announcements, which provide safety information at railway stations, as a matter of urgency to keep people safe and to prevent another person from losing their life? (901696)

I am familiar with that absolutely tragic case. Indeed, I know that my hon. Friend the Rail Minister met the partner of the deceased last week and discussed all of these matters, including the integration of audible announcements, which we consider to be very important indeed. We are speeding up the introduction of tactile pavements on railway stations and, in particular, close to the rail tracks.

Improving our air quality is a major priority for my constituents. Both they and I remain very concerned about the ongoing number of drivers who continue to idle their vehicles when parked at the kerbside. A single minute of idling an engine of a car creates 9 litres of CO2. Unfortunately, regulation 98 of the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986 does not adequately equip local authorities with the power they need to deter repeat engine idlers, only with an £80 fine. With that in mind, does my hon. Friend agree that we should now be considering increasing fines for drivers who continue to idle their engines, making it a genuine effective deterrent? (901699)

I know that my hon. Friend is a passionate campaigner on this issue and I completely agree that it is vital that we take action. Ultimately, it will be better technology, such as stop-start and zero-emission vehicles that will solve the issue. The UK is a global leader in the development and the manufacture of electric vehicles and we will continue to work to foster that position.

Experts have warned that the carbon impact of the Government’s £27 billion roadbuilding programme could be around 100 times greater than the official Government estimates. Why will the Government not reassure us by committing to a comprehensive environmental impact assessment of the plans? (901709)

In the same session, we have managed to hear the hon. Gentleman be, first, anti-air, and now anti-road. I have just explained to the House how we will ensure that this country stays well connected, that we serve the people we represent, and that we foster technology, because it will be technology that will give us the answer to the zero-carbon emissions challenge.

Ending financial support before demand has returned could leave bus and light rail operators facing a cliff edge. What plans do the Government have to ensure a smooth recovery for operators, such as Blackpool Transport, so that they can expand their timetables on routes such as the 2C, which runs through to Knott End-on-Sea via many other villages? (901710)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that bus transport has required a huge amount of support. We have put in hundreds of millions during this pandemic. We have also launched the Bus Back Better strategy, which puts a lot of money into buses—some £3 billion. In the meantime, I will ensure that we return to this House to talk about further ways that we can support our bus sector and ensure that those essential local links that she describes are maintained.

The Calder Valley line is a major strategic passenger and freight line, which was placed as the top priority in the 2015 Northern Sparks report, which highlights that the Calder Valley line is long overdue in playing its part in decarbonising the local transport network. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on when we may expect the publication of the Government’s transport decarbonisation plan? (901701)

Yes, the transport decarbonisation plan is central to our lead-in to COP26 and it is absolutely essential that we get this right and that it is ambitious enough to match the scale of the problem that we face. My hon. Friend will not have to wait long, and I think he will be impressed by the ambition.

I was recently contacted by the McKenna family in my constituency in regard to the availability of driving tests. Ross had to travel to Blackpool to sit his theory test, and is unable to sit his practical test in a timely manner because there is a backlog of tests. This issue is impacting many of my constituents, so will the Department speak to the relevant agencies to obtain additional funding in order to make available more localised testing? (901711)

First, I welcome the hon. Lady to the House and to her first question at Transport questions. Secondly, may I say that in my household I have two teenagers who literally ask me the same questions every day of the week. There is a very large backlog—about 440,000—due to the pandemic. The agency has a recovery plan to increase the number of tests carried out every day. I will personally be seeing that it keeps on track with that recovery plan because, as she says, young people need to be able to take their tests and pass

Lorry drivers such as my constituent Stewart have kept the country going through the pandemic, but they face the threat of robbery and assault on a regular basis. He tells me that there are not enough facilities where drivers can take their legally required breaks, forcing many to park in lay-bys, and that even the facilities that exist can be inadequate and insecure. Will the Minister look at that issue and work with the industry to increase the number of secure truck stops for these drivers, who are a critical part of our economy? (901702)

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to hauliers such as Stewart, who have literally kept the country moving over the past 18 months. My Department will continue the work started last year to engage with stakeholders, including the freight associations, to encourage the development of more safe, secure and high-quality lorry parking.

Improving our railway stations and improving connectivity across east Lancashire is key to levelling up and making sure that we spread opportunity, but we still have accessibility issues at some of our stations, such as Oswaldtwistle. Can the Minister outline whether there will be further support to improve accessibility across areas such as mine in Hyndburn and Haslingden? (901703)

All the funding currently available to Access for All has been allocated to projects, including nearby Accrington station, with works due to be completed by 2024 at the latest. When further funding is available, any station without an accessible route into the station and to all platforms will be a potential candidate.

Ministers are aware that E10 fuel, due to be introduced from September 2021, is not compatible with all motor vehicles, and that older vehicles in particular can suffer serious damage if they use it. What extra measures do the Government intend to take, therefore, to ensure that motorists are fully aware of these dangers, so that they do not in error fill their vehicles with the wrong fuel? Can the Minister also assure me that the information on the website on whether a vehicle can run on E10 fuel or not is completely up to date, comprehensive and correct?

I can reassure my right hon. Friend that that website is already up to date and will be accurate. It is the case that some older vehicles and historic vehicles—the type of cars which I know he is very keen on—cannot run on E10 fuel. It will be clearly marked, and he will be pleased to hear that E5 will continue to be available, so that historic cars can continue to travel on our roads.

I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.