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Topical Questions

Volume 702: debated on Thursday 4 November 2021

Mr Speaker, you have rightly highlighted the Insulate Britain protests outside the House that are preventing Members from getting into the Chamber, which is completely unacceptable. I therefore thought it would be helpful to update the House: following my requirement that National Highways seek injunctions against the protesters, 475 injunctions have been served to protesters at their homes for contempt of court, of which 32 are due to come to court, nine of them later this month.

When it gets to the point that protests against climate change prevent Members of this House from getting here to hold Ministers to account and be heard, it is clearly counterproductive. Contempt of court can lead to unlimited fines and prison sentences. We will act through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to resolve the gap in the law that has led to this situation.

Five years ago, Sheffield looked as though it was going to benefit from a whole range of levelling-up measures for rail infrastructure, but then the electrification of the midland main line was abandoned in 2017; a positive 2016 report on a new road tunnel between Sheffield and Manchester seems to have lain in the bottom of some ministerial drawer since; and the high-speed rail line between Sheffield and Manchester seems to have become an upgrade to the Hope Valley line which, however welcome, means that trains will get to the very high speed of under 60 mph. The one thing we have left is the eastern leg of High Speed 2. Will the Secretary of State now commit to that eastern leg going ahead? Or is this simply another example of Sheffield being not levelled up but, together with whole parts of the east midlands, being forgotten about and left behind?

I am disappointed by the hon. Gentleman’s lack of ambition. He says that only the east midlands line is left; he is wrong: there are still other upgrades to be considered, such as the midland main line and many others. I am afraid he will have to wait for the integrated rail plan, but I think he will be excited when it is delivered.

T3. The Mayor of London is making cuts to seven bus routes in my constituency and has halted the upgrade to South Kensington tube station, at the same time as he has increased the congestion charge to £15 a day for my constituents. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this reeks of financial incompetence on the part of the Mayor and Transport for London? (904004)

You will not be surprised, Mr Speaker, to hear me say that my hon. Friend is absolutely on the nail. She has listed a litany of problems that the Mayor has created; I shall add to it. She did not mention the 31% increase in council tax for her constituents through the mayoral precept. Also, the Mayor is now considering bringing in checkpoints for anybody driving into London: it would cost £1,000 a year for non-Londoners at checkpoint Chigwell and elsewhere around the capital. It is completely unacceptable and we will fight it all the way.

May I begin by sending my thoughts and prayers to those injured in Sunday’s train crash, particularly the badly injured train driver, and, of course, I pay tribute to the emergency responders.

The British people are looking for leadership on climate change. The Budget was the clearest indication yet that the Government lack ambition, urgency and commitment after a wearying 11 years in power. The Government saw cuts to domestic aviation taxes, yet baked in inflation-busting rail fare increases and did nothing to reverse the rapid decline in bus use. Of the 4,000 new zero-carbon buses promised by the Prime Minister two years ago, not a single one is yet on the road. The roll-out of electric charging points is sluggish, and, today, there are 1 million more diesel vans on the road than when the Government came to power. So, next week, when Transport Day meets at COP26, what will change?

I note that the hon. Gentleman is not listening to the Committee on Climate Change. I will not repeat its quote, but it did say that the transport sector and our plans are particularly world leading. We have actually reduced greenhouse gas by a quarter since we came to power. We are the first country in the world, as he well knows, to legislate for net zero by 2050. In the Budget, we announced another £620 million for that transition to zero-emission vehicles and £180 million for sustainable aviation fuel. The plan that Labour is proposing—and I notice that the GMB union that supports it is proposing—is to stop people from flying, or to allow them to go on holiday only once every five years, and to prevent them from using their cars.[Official Report, 16 November 2021, Vol. 703, c. 4MC.]

With respect, our position on aviation and decarbonisation is absolutely clear. I want to stop the Transport Secretary not from flying, but perhaps from flying his own private plane.

Turning to smart motorways, it has been 10 months since I asked the Secretary of State to reinstate the hard shoulder immediately. No action followed. Instead, he ploughed ahead on smart motorway roll-out. Since then, whistleblowers have come forward confirming our worst fears: broken equipment; a lack of monitoring; and, ultimately, lives being placed at risk. This failure has had a devastating impact on people’s lives. Now that the Transport Committee has published its damning report and the families of those who lost loved ones on smart motorways were forced into Parliament Square this week to protest, will he do the right thing and immediately insist that the hard shoulder is reinstated today?

We all share the passion and desire to make sure that our roads are as safe as they can possibly be. Sadly, 1,700 people die a year on our roads. It is important that we do everything possible. The Transport Committee that the hon. Gentleman quotes did not say quite what he said. It actually said:

“The evidence suggests that doing so”—

in other words simply putting the hard shoulder back in—

“could put more drivers and passengers at risk of death and serious injury.”

It was the noble Lord Prescott who started to introduce smart motorways. As far as I am aware, I am the first Secretary of State—there have been 12 since—who has been working consistently with an 18-point plan and £500 million to get them sorted out.

T5. I am aware that the Government are about to legislate on vehicle modifications for reasons of road safety. Can the Minister please reassure me that this will not unduly affect our legitimate engine tuning activities, our buoyant classic and prestige car markets and also our world-leading motor sports industries, all of which are pivotal for sustaining many thousands of jobs. (904006)

I can assure my hon. Friend that our intention for this consultation is to prevent modifications that negatively impact on road safety, vehicle security and the environment. Department for Transport officials have been instructed to ensure that proposals do not prevent activities such as restoration, repairs or legitimate improvements to classic cars, or do any damage to the motor sports businesses involved in these activities. Motor sport is an important sector for society, our economy and our heritage and I thank my hon. Friend for all that he does in championing this important area, as he is a fantastic advocate.

T2. Rail services on, to, and from Teesside are probably some of the worst in the country, with hand-me-down diesel trains and intermittent services. Soon we will have the 200th anniversary of the start of the railways, which was the Stockton and Darlington railway. Any chance of improvements before then? (904003)

There are a whole host of massive improvements going on across our railways. I will happily meet the hon. Gentleman to talk about individual diesel multiple units around the Stockton area and how they can be improved. The massive increase in new rolling stock on our railways is extraordinarily good for all passengers up and down the country, and helps with our decarbonisation targets.

T7. I very much welcome the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), outlining the good news in the Budget on the delivery of more buses towards our target of 4,000 zero-emission buses. There are three manufacturers here in the UK that can deliver these buses, including one with a production line in Scarborough. Will the Minister give me a guarantee that these orders will be placed with UK manufacturers? (904009)

As Scarborough and Whitby is the proud home of Alexander Dennis coaches, I know that my right hon. Friend will welcome the firm acceleration that is supporting thousands of zero-emission buses, thanks to a further £355 million of funding announced in the spending review last week. With £71 million extra for our zero-emission bus regional areas scheme, we are bussing back better with a cleaner, greener kind of horsepower.

T4. One of the largest city-to-city journeys to work in the country is between Bradford and Leeds, and those journeys are mostly by car. At scale, Northern Powerhouse Rail would support a 400% increase in rail travel and take 64,000 car trips a day off the roads. With COP under way, do this Government have a strategy to ensure that our covid recovery is by rail, rather than by road, and will that include—because it should—Northern Powerhouse Rail in full, with a city centre stop in Bradford? (904005)

The hon. Lady tempts me to speculate on the contents of the integrated rail plan. As I said in response to the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), she will have to wait and see. However, the Government recognise the importance of Bradford, and particularly the connectivity of Bradford to Leeds—two incredibly important northern cities. I hope that we will publish the integrated rail plan very soon.

T9. The Birmingham cross-city line is, I am told, the second busiest rail line in the whole United Kingdom. A continuation of it is the route from Lichfield to Burton via the National Memorial Arboretum. At present, that line is only used for freight traffic. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visit—without a harness—so that he can have a look at the rail line for himself and see what a valuable addition it would be to the rail network? (904011)

I would be delighted to visit. I am sure that the Secretary of State would as well; he definitely does not need a harness to visit places. We are well aware of the opportunities that exist in this area and the importance of the National Memorial Arboretum to so many people. I look forward to continuing conversations with my hon. Friend in due course.

My inbox—and, I am sure, those of many other Members—is mounting up with complaints from constituents who have been waiting months for responses from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency about drivers’ applications. Many of them are professional drivers, of whom there is a shortage at the moment. One of my constituents who was renewing his licence has not had a reply in time and now cannot work. Will the Secretary of State assure us that something is being done to catch up with the backlog?

I bring the hon. Lady and the House good news. It was reported a few weeks ago that there were 56,000 outstanding licence applications at the DVLA, where there had been a long-running strike during covid. The good news is that that 56,000 is now down to just 16,000, of which 4,000 are returned within five days. Those are the new applications. The remainder are being worked on quickly and do not, in fact, stop anybody from driving. They are largely renewals, changes of address and so on. Drivers are allowed to continue driving while waiting for those to be returned, but we will have even that list down within the next week or two.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I do appreciate your understanding when I was blocked getting into the House earlier today by the protesters.

Last year, thankfully, the Prime Minister came to Broxtowe to announce “Gear Change”, which provides £2 billion-worth of cycling and walking funding. That indicates that active travel is really at the heart of the Government’s agenda. I have in Broxtowe a town called Stapleford where people have put in an expression of interest for something called Mini Holland, which sounds fantastic. Will the Minister explain what that scheme is all about and how the process will work?

I will try to amend my answer from earlier. I am very pleased to see my hon. Friend in his place, as he should be, representing his constituents despite the Tarquins in the world outside. I can honestly say to him that “Gear Change” is an extremely important document that has a whole host of pledges that we would like to happen, Mini Hollands being one of them. Where they have been introduced before—Waltham Forest in London is a good example—we are getting towards nearly 50% of all journeys taken within the area being by active travel. That is a massive change in how people go about their business, and indeed massive acceptance by communities that might have been sceptical about them beforehand. They are really valuable schemes.

The Secretary of State and the Chancellor press-released that the Budget would invest in northern transport, but once again the north-east was entirely overlooked. It costs more for a Geordie to go four stops up the West Road on a bus than it does for a Londoner to traverse the whole of London city, so when will the Secretary of State level down bus prices?

The hon. Lady will be familiar with our enthusiasm for buses and the “Bus Back Better” strategy. I have personally been involved with putting tens of millions of pounds into the excellent Nexus system, which helps to connect communities as well. She will simply not find a Government more keen and excited about levelling up transport and bringing it all the way up the country no matter where hon. Members are from.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is very seldom that I become furious, but I am absolutely apoplectic about missing my question this morning due to those reprobates outside who are doing their cause no good whatsoever. I was sitting in my electric vehicle—I know the Secretary of State has one as well—coming here with the sole purpose of putting pressure on the Government to reduce carbon emissions from aviation from Heathrow airport, so it is absolutely bizarre that they should have blocked that question. My question now, which I will slightly rephrase, is: given that aviation is one of the greatest contributors to CO2 emissions, do the Government have any plans to continue to put downward pressure on CO2 from aviation?

I am very glad to see my hon. Friend here fighting for his constituents, as ever. I am glad that he made it in past the protestors to make that entirely forceful and appropriate point on their behalf. He is right to acknowledge that aviation is one of the harder to decarbonise sectors, and clearly it has to make a big contribution. The Government are working very hard to make sure that the carbon emissions in aviation are reduced, through technology and innovation, because we wish to see guilt-free flying. We have consulted on the “Jet Zero” strategy. Next year we will publish the final “Jet Zero” strategy, which will explain how we can keep the benefits of air travel and the opportunities that it has for the UK while ensuring that it is done on a vastly reduced carbon emission basis.

Since City of York Council barred blue badge holders from accessing our city centre, it seems also that the Government are delaying implementing fully accessible transport. We heard earlier about the five-year delay on audio-visual for buses, but also, in commissioning active travel schemes, the Government are not making them accessible either. Will the Minister talk to the companies that are putting in place e-travel active travel schemes to ensure that they have an accessible form of vehicles as well so that we can increase motability for disabled people?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I think I completely understood it, but in case I have not, perhaps it is worth us meeting to clarify this. Yes, we are spending a huge amount on active travel. Another pledge in “Gear Change” is to have e-bikes going out across local communities, and they are being rolled out now, as they should be. This is determined by local authorities, and perhaps it is a question of localism, but let me meet her to work out what the problem is and rectify it, because we should be able to give it a good nudge from the centre.

There can be no better place to Bus Back Better than the great city of Stoke-on-Trent, because, sadly, in a survey of 230 residents from across Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, people said to me that fares are not fair, reliability is non-existent and there is not good connectivity for places such as Brindley Ford and the great village of Milton. The Secretary of State joked with me recently that I must have broken WhatsApp, because I kept bombarding him with demands and messages. He should save himself a load of hassle, give Stoke-on-Trent the £90 million it wants for the Bus Back Better strategy, and ensure that we level up in the great city of Stoke-on-Trent.

Absolutely yes, Mr Speaker. I thank my hon. Friend for his championing of Bus Back Better. The Government are absolutely determined that great bus services be available to everyone, especially those in Stoke-on-Trent. Our national bus strategy explains how we will make buses more frequent, more reliable, easier to understand and use, better co-ordinated and cheaper. We are more than doubling dedicated bus funding compared with the previous Parliament.

Making aviation net zero is clearly a big challenge. Earlier, the Secretary of State said that it is not flying that is the problem, but emissions from aircraft that use fossil fuels. Will he meet me to discuss ideas around synthetic fuels that scientists from the University of Leeds have brought to my attention?

The new agreement between the Department for Transport and Greater Anglia on running the railways in East Anglia has omitted the previous commitment in the franchise to reinstate through-services from Lowestoft to Liverpool Street. Greater Anglia has agreed that it will look at that over the next six months. Will my hon. Friend work with it and me to see whether it is possible to do that?