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Topical Questions

Volume 705: debated on Thursday 16 December 2021

I wish you and your staff a merry Christmas, Mr Speaker, along with the Opposition Front-Bench team, who will recall that I announced the integrated rail plan last month. Since then—last Thursday—Hitachi and Alston have been chosen for a £2 billion contract to produce trains in the midlands and the north; that will bring 2,500 jobs. Last Monday saw the introduction of a brand-new train service from Middlesbrough to London—the first in more than three decades. We are already delivering on the integrated rail plan.

The dualling of the A64 was first mooted in The Yorkshire Post in 1905, since when it has been promised and cancelled several times, despite being much needed. Its delivery would massively reduce the journey time between York, Malton, Pickering, Scarborough and Filey. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on plans to dual the A64?

My hon. Friend has been a long-term advocate of dualling the A64 north-east of York. I can confirm that it will be one of my Department’s options for consideration in the enhancements programme under the road investment strategy from 2025.

I wish you and your team a very merry Christmas, Mr Speaker.

Ahead of a tough Christmas, people across this country are paying the price of Tory inflation. In Dewsbury, for example, since the Conservative party came to power, the price of the commute into Leeds has risen more than three times faster than pay. Does the Secretary of State think that that is reasonable? If he does not—he failed to answer this point earlier—will he rule out the brutal 3.8% hike in rail fares rumoured for millions of passengers next year?

I am pleased that the hon. Lady mentions Dewsbury, because it gives me the opportunity to mention that it benefits much more from the integrated rail plan than the original High Speed 2 plan. She is right about inflation, but it is a global post-pandemic issue, rather than specific to this country. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced a series of measures, including a big uplift in the living wage of 6.6%, which outclasses even inflation.

Rail passengers across the country will have heard that reply, and will know that the Secretary of State will not rule out the massive hike next year. It is not just rail fares that this Government are refusing to tackle. They have been told by the Competition and Markets Authority to tackle the scandalous PCR market, given that the Secretary of State requires hundreds of thousands of people travelling home this Christmas to take a test. Ministers claimed that many of those tests are available at £20, but the truth is that just 0.4% of those advertised on the website are available at that price. Why has he refused to take the action that regulators have demanded, clean up this racket, and help families with the huge cost of travel this Christmas?

I agree that it is very important that private sector providers stick to the prices that they are advertising; like the hon. Lady, I have checked the site and have been disappointed when that has not happened. The site is operated by the Department of Health and Social Care; I will pass her comments on to that Department. I did, though, check the site last night, and found that I could buy PCR tests for the prices being advertised.

T2. I represent a commuter constituency in East Surrey, where reduced train services have been causing workers misery. We are still trying to unravel the situation that arose after previous work-from-home measures. Part of the challenge has been the number of drivers who went out of circulation the last time we told people to work from home; there was the challenge of getting them back in circulation. Will the Minister reassure me that he will work with the train operators this time to make sure that that does not happen again? (904772)

Following the Chancellor’s U-turn on sector-specific support, the sector hardest hit by covid is aviation, with the UK sector’s uneven recovery being the slowest in Europe. Understandably, omicron may now wipe out Christmas travel, so does the Secretary of State agree that the sector needs support now, whether it through furlough, grants, or route development funds? We need to see that the Government understand the urgency of the situation, including by their extending the terms of the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme so that it covers aviation and travel businesses.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the aviation sector has benefited from approximately £8 billion of support from the Government’s cross-economy measures. We are just about to announce the third iteration of the airport and ground handlers business rates support scheme to help with fixed costs. We will continue to listen to the sector to understand how best it may be supported.

T3. Despite Burnley having a premier league football club, a university campus, world-class engineering companies and an incredible spa resort, there is still just one rail service between Burnley and Manchester an hour. Will the Secretary of State look at that, and meet me to see what we can do to increase that frequency? (904773)

I wish my hon. Friend a happy birthday, and look forward to sharing his birthday cake later and discussing these matters. He is a persistent campaigner for better rail services for his constituents. The constructive manner in which he goes about his business on behalf of his constituency will pay dividends for him. Future services will depend on demand, but of course I will continue to work with him on how we can get the best out of our rail plans, including the £96 billion integrated rail plan, for Burnley.

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that when he meets and gets into discussions with Transport for London, hopefully today or tomorrow, he will take into consideration the effects of rising fares, reduced services and possible closure of lines on the environment, job opportunities and air quality for the people of London? Will he also consider the effects on the mobility of young and older people who have campaigned for years for the ability to travel around their city, which has a higher use of public transport than many other places around the world because of progressive transport policies?

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we want to see this resolved, and we are in constant contact with TfL and the Mayor’s office. He is right to say that we want to ensure that TfL’s rail service, bus service and all the rest of it are there for Londoners, and those who travel into London, to use. We are well on the case, and I look forward to a resolution.

T4. Buckingham- shire Council recently refused to allow HS2 Ltd to use roads in my constituency for its lorry movements, because despite repeated requests, it failed to provide the amount of information needed to properly assess the impact of those truck journeys on local residents. Does my hon. Friend agree that if HS2 Ltd is to live up to its promise to be a good neighbour, it must provide all relevant information to local authorities, so that they can minimise the effect of HS2 on residents and businesses? (904775)

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I know how tirelessly he works for his constituents impacted by HS2. In this case, the Planning Inspectorate found that Buckinghamshire Council had been supplied with adequate information, and of course it is important that these decisions are not held up indefinitely, but I will of course continue to work with him and local residents in affected communities to ensure that we get the right approach.

The bus recovery grant expires in mid-March, and with notice to traffic commissioners required for any potential withdrawal of services, that leaves operators in Cambridgeshire and across the rest of the country facing a really difficult cliff edge on 19 January. Notice periods are important, but given the exceptional circumstances, can the Secretary of State Minister give us any assurance that action will be taken to avoid those difficult decisions and protect vital services?

It is absolutely true that the bus sector has required enormous support throughout the pandemic, and this Government have stood by it so far. We are of course seeing how omicron is affecting it, and will return to the House to provide additional information to operators.

T5. I applaud the Government’s decision not to go ahead with the eastern leg of HS2 through the Bolsover constituency. That gives huge relief to those in dozens of the villages that I represent. Can my hon. Friend give me the Christmas present that so many residents are looking for, and lift the safeguarding on the land across dozens of villages in the constituency? (904776)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on standing up for his constituents. One of the benefits of the integrated rail plan, of course, is that it will benefit many smaller places across the midlands and north, rather than just the big cities. On the issue of safeguarding, though, I must ask him for patience. We have committed £100 million to working on the best way to get HS2 trains to Leeds, and we must wait for the outcome of that work before lifting any safeguarding.

York has not had a local plan for 67 years and has not had an upgrade of its local transport plan for over 10 years. I hear that the Liberal Democrat-Green council is now kicking proposals into the long grass. York Civic Trust is now grasping the nettle, but wants to know when the new instructions on local plans will be coming out, and what focus there will be on decarbonisation.

The hon. Lady will have to forgive me, because I do not know the answer to that question, but I will happily write to her with it.

T6. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a fantastic early Christmas present that Melton and Leicestershire councils have come to an agreement on the Melton Mowbray distributor road, and that our bypass will finally be built, 40 years on? Will the Government continue to put their full weight behind the delivery of this crucial infrastructure for my constituency? (904777)

Absolutely, and my hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for Rutland and Melton. I know that she has been instrumental in brokering this agreement. It means that after 40 years, the people of Melton are much closer to getting the bypass that they want. The Government are showing support for the bypass through the housing infrastructure fund and the local authorities major schemes fund, and we look forward to receiving the final business case, so that we can conclude the approval phase and allow construction to begin.

The aviation sector has renewed its calls for Government support, as it remains one of the hardest-hit sectors and will continue to be one of the first industries impacted by travel rule changes—especially airports, which, as physical structures, have high overheads. Has the Secretary of State had any recent discussions with the Chancellor about what extra support could be offered?

I am pleased to report to the hon. Lady that we have indeed provided additional support—starting now—for those airport operators and ground handlers, who, in most cases, will have their business rates paid. I know that she sits independently, but as a Scottish Member of Parliament she might want to approach the Scottish Government. According to Scottish airports including Edinburgh airport, the approach taken in Scotland, where the Cabinet Secretary and Ministers in Scotland have refused to meet them, has been in “stark contrast” to the approach taken by the UK Government, where engagement has been “proactive”.

Like everyone else, Mr Speaker, I wish you and your team a merry Christmas.

Do Ministers agree with me that the proposed Beeching reversals could be transformational for some of our communities? Ferryhill station is an obvious example. The Stillington line could connect communities on Teesside with jobs and days out on the coast, but also with the newly introduced Middlesbrough to London service. That could not only stimulate economic growth but, more important, give hope to our young people. When will it be given final approval?

In the traditional way, I could “refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave some moments ago”—to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger)—but we are assessing all the schemes in the new year, and there will be answers then.

A merry Christmas to you and your staff, Mr Speaker, and a ho ho ho.

The integrated rail plan was fantastic news for the people of Ashfield. Not only did it scrap the eastern leg of HS2—which created havoc and devastation in my constituency—but it allows for the investment of £12.8 billion in the east midlands. However, my priority now is the Maid Marian line, which will bring rail services to Selston for the first time in 60 years. Will the Minister meet me to see what a good case I can put for the return of that service?

Ho ho ho, Mr Speaker. I should be delighted to meet my hon. Friend, who is an incredible champion for his constituency.

I am delighted that the Government have accepted my ten-minute rule Bill as part of the transport decarbonisation plan. The plan has mandated that all new homes and office buildings that were due to have car parking spaces should have electric vehicle chargers, and I think that that makes a great deal of sense. Can my hon. Friend update the House on the timing of the likely legislation?

I thank my hon. Friend for the work that she has put in, especially while preparing her Bill. The Government have taken this on board and regulations will be laid early next year, which will contribute to the additional infrastructure available for the transition from fossil fuel vehicles to the zero emission vehicles of the future.

The Christmas and new year periods typically see significant work on our rail network. Will my hon. Friend tell us what is happening this year, perhaps with particular reference to the east coast main line?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, a former Rail Minister, for his question. It gives me an opportunity to thank all the rail workers who will be out over the Christmas period delivering £131 million-worth of value with more than 370 projects, including—because we need to get ready for the trans-Pennine upgrade—nine days of major work in Leeds and a number of days’ work at Manchester Victoria, as well as renewal work at Skelton, near my hon. Friend’s constituency. So a huge amount is being done.

I am more than pleased to ask a question. It relates to delays at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. I know the Secretary of State has indicated that giant steps have been taken to address the issue, but what discussions has he had with the Northern Ireland Minister for Infrastructure to address the 1.4 million applications in Northern Ireland that have been affected by backlogs which have also affected the UK mainland?

I am delighted to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. We are, of course, in touch to make sure that the backlogs which have, understandably, built up during the coronavirus outbreak are being dealt with as quickly as possible. One of the best ways of doing that is digitising the services to ensure that more transactions take place electronically, online, and do not require pieces of paper to be sent around.

I thank everyone who has taken part in the questions session. Please have a good Christmas and a peaceful new year.