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Volume 705: debated on Thursday 16 December 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency: Delays

1. What steps his Department is taking to help resolve delays at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. (904779)

The DVLA has introduced more online services, recruited extra staff, is using overtime and has secured extra office space.

I appreciate the efforts being made by my right hon. Friend, and I understand the various union issues involved, but it is clear from numerous constituents who have got in touch having been unable to get through to the DLVA—this also applies to the MPs’ hotline—that the delays are having an impact on urgent and severe cases relating to other issues. I am sure that Members across the House are experiencing the same thing. What is the timeline for ensuring that the DVLA provides the service it is tasked to do, which we very much need it to do?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the dual problems of the impact of the pandemic and the strike action through the year, which I am pleased to say is now resolved, led to a backlog, particularly of occupational licences—that was at 55,000. I am pleased to report to the House that that has now been entirely cleared and those are being processed in five working days. The rest of the work is now being processed much more quickly as well, and we expect the service to return to normal next year.

The Transport Committee has been raising concerns about the DVLA’s performance for well over a year and it does not seem to have approached the pandemic and its management of confidential and paper records as other Government agencies with similar challenges have been able to do during the pandemic. Does the Secretary of State not recognise that the delays that are still ongoing, particularly for heavy goods vehicle drivers and those who wish to be driving HGVs, are only adding to the crisis in the supply chain and in lorries delivering essential goods?

The hon. Lady is right to be concerned about the backlogs that built up, but she is wrong to suggest that that still applies to HGV drivers. Those licences are now being turned around in five days for medical applications. There are considerably more applications than before the pandemic and that has led, alongside our 32-point plan, to more HGV drivers coming on to the road now. I have to stress that the unnecessary and lengthy strike at the DVLA came at the worst possible moment and it hurt vulnerable people. I am pleased to say that that strike has now collapsed, which is enabling the DVLA to get on top of the rest of the list.

I note what my right hon. Friend says, but my constituency is a major centre of the logistics industry and HGV drivers are certainly still experiencing problems. This problem has continued for years now. Can I urge him to redouble his efforts to ensure an improvement to the service?

As I mentioned, at its height, there were 56,000 applications. The last figure I saw last week showed that that was down to 9,000. There is a regular flow; it will never be zero because, of course, applications come and go. Medical applications are processed within five days and the only time that is not the case is when additional medical information is required. Those medical applications—the D4 forms—require checks from the DVLA to make sure that the information is correct, so the turnaround will never be faster than five days. If any Member has an issue with occupational DVLA applications, please let me know, because I will personally look into it.

TfL Funding: Discussions with Mayor of London

Ministers and officials in the Department for Transport regularly meet officials from Transport for London and the Mayor’s office to discuss a range of issues around funding for Transport for London. Most recently, Baroness Vere met Heidi Alexander on 2 December.

The move to plan B this week has seen bus travel demand in our capital fall by 9% and tube travel demand by a staggering 29%, leaving both still well below pre-pandemic levels. TfL’s financial problems are a direct result of the national effort against coronavirus. The failure to agree a funding settlement will not only decimate services for Londoners, but put at risk the entire country’s economic recovery. I therefore impel the Secretary of State to put aside any vindictive party political considerations and, in a spirit of magnanimity, do what is necessary today to save TfL from collapse.

I am afraid that I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s description of the situation. It does not seem particularly vindictive to pay out £4.1 billion in support of TfL as it rightly battles its way through coronavirus. It is not entirely correct to say that all the problems are related to that; the £13 billion of debt that it has is considerably higher than when the Mayor took over. Putting that aside, I am keen to continue to support TfL. The House will be interested to know that I had to wait more than three weeks for the Mayor to come forward with measures that he was supposed to provide us with in the middle of November.

Yet again, the Government seem to be engaging in a blatant act of political sabotage of London’s vital transport networks. This week, Londoners have listened to Government advice, done the right thing and worked from home to keep our NHS and communities safe. As a result, passenger levels have dropped by over a quarter, which has had a further colossal impact on TfL’s revenue.

All the while, Ministers continue to force a cliff-edge negotiation on TfL finances in what can only be seen as a political attack that will punish hard-working Londoners for simply doing the right thing. As we saw in last week’s Evening Standard, from transport trade unions to square mile firms, London is totally united in its opposition to these disastrous political manoeuvres. Will the Secretary of State do his job and finally meet the Mayor of London? Can he get around the table today and sort it out?

It is interesting that the Front-Bench team have taken their briefing directly from the Mayor of London. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not catch what I just said: the letter that I received with the measures that the Mayor had to meet, which were outlined in an agreement, arrived on my desk three weeks late. Not unreasonably, on behalf of the taxpayer, I went back to him and asked him to clarify some of those points.

The hon. Gentleman accuses us, as other Opposition Members have, of playing politics with this issue, which is completely untrue. Yesterday, I received a long and—I am pleased to say—quite detailed letter to clarify some of those measures, but where did I receive that letter? It was in the Evening Standard, not even on my own desk.

As the Rail Minister in 2018, long before covid, I remember that my negotiations with the Mayor of London resulted in a loan of more than £2 billion for TfL. I am aware of further loans and bail-outs since. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is simply wrong to say that TfL has not been supported by the Government?

My hon. Friend, a former Transport Minister, is absolutely right. There has been about £9.6 billion of waste in TfL finances since 2016. Crossrail is £5.2 billion over—it was on time and on budget when the Mayor took office; there is the pensions cost of £828 million; the failure to raise the fares while the rest of the network had to, which cost £640 million; and another £400 million of combined fare dodging. [Interruption.] The Opposition do not want to hear about the waste, but the Government have supported TfL and will continue to do so, but we will not support the incompetence of the Mayor.

There was a question about meeting the Mayor, and hopefully that can be resolved. I think the Secretary of State got distracted by a former Rail Minister, but we will not get into that.

Northern Powerhouse Rail: Stakeholders

3. What recent discussions he has had with (a) Transport for the North and (b) other stakeholders in the north of England on completing further sections of Northern Powerhouse Rail. (904781)

17. What recent discussions he has had with (a) Transport for the North and (b) other stakeholders in the north of England on completing further sections of Northern Powerhouse Rail. (904800)

We will build Northern Powerhouse Rail, including 40 miles of new high-speed line and electrification of the TransPennine route between Manchester and Leeds.

I thank the Minister for that response, but the reality is that the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities are refusing point blank to meet Transport for the North. The Secretary of State has claimed that the Government’s rail promises to the north are going to be fulfilled, so will he now commit to meet TfN to implement the plans contained in the northern transport charter?

I am sorry, but the hon. Lady is wrong. I meet Transport for the North regularly. I am happy to meet it again.

The Secretary of State meets northern leaders regularly. The Secretary of State established the Northern Transport Acceleration Council. I am sure he will continue to meet all northern stakeholders. But the most important thing here is that we are getting on with delivering for the north, with over £17 billion being invested in Northern Powerhouse Rail.

In the north, we have been waiting six years for the so-called Northern Powerhouse Rail to improve connectivity between our major cities, yet in the integrated rail plan the Government broke their promise and ditched the line between Manchester and Leeds in favour of tinkering upgrades to existing routes. Northern Powerhouse Rail’s chief architect, George Osborne, last month accused the Prime Minister of lacking ambition and said:

“Levelling up, at the moment, feels more like a slogan than a plan”.

Minister, why do this Government keep on failing the north?

It is simply not true. Since 2010, we have invested over £29 billion in northern transport. There comes a moment when you have to move away from big fancy plans to actually delivering. This plan is going to deliver benefits for the north: £17 billion being invested in Northern Powerhouse Rail, with early benefits happening soon; and over £2 billion already committed to the TransPennine route upgrade. We are getting on with delivering benefits to passengers across the north.

After 18 years of Tory underfunding, privatising, fragmenting and running our railways into the ground, the priority of the last Labour Government was to invest billions of pounds to modernise our old, inefficient trains. Given the awareness around the climate crisis, the priority during the last decade should have been to electrify our railways, but it has been a lost decade. After abandoning Northern Powerhouse Rail, betraying our northern towns and cities, I was stunned to read reports that Government promises on electrification are being broken because the Treasury has decided to block the £30 billion needed to decarbonise our railways, even though it knows full well that over 10,000 km of rail must be electrified by 2050 to get to net zero. So can the Minister answer a simple question: how is he ever going to meet Government targets on electrification when the Chancellor is blocking the funding needed to get there?

Again, unfortunately, the Opposition are just getting this simply wrong. The integrated rail plan will kick off the electrification of more than 75% of the country’s rail network. If the hon. Member takes the TransPennine route through Church Fenton at the moment, he will see the overhead electrification cables being erected. The midland main line electrification will start before Christmas. I would just gently remind the Opposition spokesman that, in 13 years of Labour Government, they electrified only 63 miles. Over the past 11 years, we have already electrified 1,221 miles.

Restoring Your Railway Programme

4. What steps his Department is taking to maintain funding for restoring your railway projects following the covid-19 outbreak. (904782)

Good morning, Mr Speaker, and merry Christmas to you and your staff. [Interruption.] Well, someone has to do it.

Through our restoring your railway programme—a £500 million fund—we remain committed to reopening lines and stations, reconnecting communities across the country.

Mr Speaker, a merry Christmas from me, too, to everybody.

Devizes is of course the jewel of Wiltshire. It used to have, according to medieval chroniclers, the finest castle in Christendom, until Cromwell pulled it down. It also used to have a very fine train station. Beeching closed it. The Victorians rebuilt our castle. I hope the Government are going to rebuild our station. Can the Minister tell us when he is likely to announce the successful award of restoring your railway funding to Devizes?

Can I thank my hon. Friend for his question and congratulate him on obviously being a huge champion for his constituency? His knowledge of the history of the railways in his locality and beyond is second to none. As he will know, we have now received the business case for that particular scheme, and we will be considering the next steps for a tranche of projects, including Devizes gateway, in the new year.

Happy Christmas from the Opposition Benches to you and all your staff, Mr Speaker.

Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), I am supporting the opening of the Barrow Hill line, which goes from Sheffield to Chesterfield through my constituency, hopefully with new stations at Beighton and Waverley. The real advantage will be if we can get people out of their cars on to the new line so that we avoid the congestion in Crystal Peaks and Handsworth in my constituency, and on the Sheffield Parkway. We have more chance of doing that if, rather than a heavy rail service going into Victoria that puts people in the middle of nowhere, we get a tram-train on the line going into the centre of Sheffield, which would have a much better chance of encouraging people out of their cars. Will the Minister seriously look at that option?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I actually know the project very well—I have participated in a deep dive on it—and I think he is completely right. There are now many more light rail and very light rail products out there, which would be very suitable for this scheme. The whole point of the restoring your railway scheme is to help people find the right product to deliver the right scheme for them in their locality. If he would like a meeting on this, I would happily meet him.

As well as wishing you a merry Christmas, Mr Speaker, I thank you and all the staff in this place for everything you do for us. May I extend that to the ministerial team and say thanks for all the evidence they have given to the Transport Committee?

With regard to restoring our railways post the pandemic, it is essential that we give passengers the confidence to get back on board. I welcome the proposals announced this morning to allow compensation to be easily applied for. Will the Minister consider looking at automated and automatic compensation to allow the money to come straight back into bank accounts even if passengers do not even know they were late?

I thank the Chair of the Transport Committee and wish him a merry Christmas too. I know for a fact that he is very interested in this subject, because he introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on this very point a while back. He has been ahead of the curve, and certainly ahead of the industry, on this issue for quite some time. Great British Railways will almost certainly be doing this sort of thing. We are trying to make sure that we go faster, so what he will have seen in the story today is our direction of travel. We want people to have every confidence when they return to our railway that, should they be significantly delayed, it is a very simple process to claim their refund.

Zero-emission Buses

5. What progress he has made on the delivery of the 4,000 new zero-emission buses announced by the Government in February 2020. (904784)

The Government remain absolutely committed to supporting the roll-out of 4,000 zero-emission buses and achieving an all zero-emission bus fleet. This will support our climate ambitions, improve transport for local communities and support high-quality green jobs.

Is the Minister aware that the north-east bus fleet is older than the UK average? Transport North East is preparing a bid for funding for 73 zero-emission buses. In this season of good will, will the Minister give her backing to that bid, to show that the Government’s commitment to levelling up transport is genuine? Will she also commit to expanding the roll-out of zero-emission buses across the north-east? People in Blaydon and the north-east need and deserve cleaner air and better buses.

I can certainly give the hon. Member an assurance that I am across the detail of that bid. I am delighted that 49 of the buses would go to Go North East, 14 to Durham County Council and 10 to Northumberland. Those will be in addition to the nine electric buses that are already operating in the north-east at the moment. [Hon. Members: “Where?”] The answer is between Newcastle and Gateshead on Voltra routes 53 and 54. We will have a further nine buses later this year.

Will Ministers make time to visit Equipmake, a fast-growing specialised manufacturer of batteries for electric buses— which began as a start-up at the excellent Hethel innovation centre in my constituency, and having outgrown those premises, has moved to Wymondham, which was in my constituency but is now in that of the Science Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman)—so that the Science Minister and I can explain to them just how at the cutting edge Norfolk is technologically and how much more it can do with the right support?

I would be delighted to accept that invitation. The UK has a wealth of bus and coach manufacturers. About 80% of the service buses are made in the UK and I look forward to the invitation.

In February 2020, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet promised to deliver 4,000 zero-emission buses by 2025 as part of the Prime Minister’s “bus revolution”. After all, there can be no journey to net zero without green transport. Yet 18 months later, where are they? Is Santa going to deliver them? No major British manufacturer has even started production yet, nor have any orders even come in. The Department for Transport still seems unable to show how many are on order. Can the Secretary of State and Ministers confirm that the beginning of the release of funding for the ZEBRA—zero emission bus regional area scheme—contracts for building those buses will be given to British-based manufacturers? After speaking to them over the past few days I know that, given the unfolding omicron crisis and passenger levels again plummeting, they are desperate to have reassurances about their future and the future of tens of thousands of British jobs in their industry. Can the Minister enlighten us as to when, if ever, she expects the 4,000 zero-emission buses to be on the road? Exactly how many are in production now? How many are being procured right now?

As I said, we already have nine in the north-east and 50 operating in the country at the moment. We have 500 zero-emission buses being supported through the ZEBRA scheme, with £120 million of investment. A further 300 zero-emission buses will be supported through the all-electric bus city scheme and over 100 zero-emission buses have been supported through the ultra-low emission bus scheme since February 2020. In addition, £355 million of new funding was made available for zero-emission buses at the autumn 2021 Budget.

I wish you, Mr Speaker, the staff and all Members of the House a merry and safe Christmas, and a good new year when it comes.

Despite that answer from the Minister, the Transport Secretary confirmed to the Transport Committee that only 121 zero-emission buses are actually on the road in England, less than half of them outside London, since the Prime Minister made his 4,000 bus pledge. The Scottish order book, in contrast, is full to bursting. Will the Minister confirm how many of those 4,000 buses are currently on order from bus manufacturers, such as Alexander Dennis? When will any of those buses be on the road? When will all 4,000 buses be on the road? When will this Government raise their ambitions and horizons from their current plans to replace only 10% of the English bus fleet?

As I said, we already have 50 buses operating now and a number of schemes are being supported through the variety of funds I have just set out. As for the more detailed information the hon. Gentleman requests, I will endeavour to write to him.

Affordable Bus Travel: North-east England

Despite having lower average earnings, my constituents pay much more for their bus journey than Londoners. Yet the Secretary of State refuses to confirm funding for our bus service improvement plan or to confirm funding for the Metro throughout the covid crisis, which means there is less money for our buses, which he also will not support during the covid crisis. We have had our application to reopen the Leamside line refused. We have had the HS2 eastern leg abandoned, which means there is no hope of getting high-speed trains in Newcastle. We have had the manifesto promises on the Northern Rail Powerhouse refused and they will not even help to paint the Tyne bridge for its 100th birthday. Why are the Government such a scrooge for north-east transport?

I know it is the season of good will, but do not take advantage by doing a whole road map of the north-east. Minister, pick something from that please.

We are working with Transport North East as it develops its business case under the zero emission bus regional area scheme to introduce 73 electric buses and the necessary charging infrastructure. It will submit its final business case at the end of January.

Major Road Blockages: Climate Activists

7. What steps the Government are taking to help prevent climate activists from blocking major roads in England. (904787)

8. What steps the Government are taking to help prevent climate activists from blocking major roads in England. (904788)

National Highways continues to pursue legal action against individuals who breached its injunctions. Thanks to those injunctions, which I asked National Highways to pursue, 11 people have been prosecuted and will be spending this Christmas at Her Majesty’s pleasure.[Official Report, 5 January 2022, Vol. 706, c. 2MC.]

Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who stop ambulances from reaching emergencies, those who block children from seeing their dying parents one last time and those who block vital goods from reaching their destination should face the full force of the law?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is unacceptable for people to disrupt other people’s lives by gluing themselves to roads. It is dangerous both for them and other users of those major roads; it is irresponsible; and it does not help with climate change, because all those cars are sitting there not moving, blasting out all the greenhouse gases that we are trying to avoid. That is why I instructed National Highways to take out a nationwide injunction, which they received. Two further cases, after the nine who were originally sent to prison, were committed to prison yesterday and there are further cases in the works. I very much hope that the message has been sent and received that this action simply does not work. I note that it has ceased to take place since the beginning of November as a result.

I welcome very much the national injunction on motorways and key strategic road networks. However, I understand that it is temporary. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could confirm that he is considering making it permanent. I also welcome the prison sentences that we have been handing out to many individuals. However, in most cases, it is because they have broken a High Court ruling. Does he agree that sometimes, actually, those sorts of fast punishments should be considered immediately, even if it is a first-time offence?

My hon. Friend is right to spot a gap in the law here, which is why the Home Secretary is introducing, in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, legislation that would make the actual activity criminal. Instead, we have had to resort essentially to civil law. Through those injunctions, 130 activists have been served with 475 sets of injunction papers. We are seeing the fruits of that when they reoffend and the courts take offence to the fact that they have ignored the court injunction and continue to persist. Prison and unlimited fines are the upshot of that, but a proper law to cover this is coming and I invite the Opposition to support it.

Roads across this country are blocked every single day not by protesters, but by traffic congestion, at a huge cost to health, the environment and business. This problem will only get worse unless the alternatives to rising car use—walking, cycling and public transport—are safer, more convenient and affordable. Will the Secretary of State reverse his plans to raise rail fares by an eye-watering 3.8% next March?

I do not want to try your patience by switching to a rail discussion, Mr Speaker, but I will say to the hon. Lady, who knows a great deal about this subject, that Opposition Front Benchers do not want to build or maintain any roads in this country. Whether it is a bicycle or an electric bus—to go back to the previous conversation—they all require roads to drive along, so I suggest that she has a word with her Front Benchers and supports our plan for £24 billion for road maintenance and development.

I thank the Secretary of State for his commitment to legislation that will effectively stop people delaying, inconveniencing and obstructing people going to their work and elsewhere. There is a fine balance to be met between the right to protest and not obstructing or delaying people by what is happening. Will he confirm that the right to protest can still exist but not to the detriment of road users?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the right to protest is absolutely central to the way that we go about our democracy, but that does not provide people with the right to stop people getting to urgent hospital appointments, getting their kids to school and going about their lawful business. That is where we draw the line. It is why these injunctions have been used and, as has been discussed, we intend to put this into proper law as a criminal offence, rather than having to use the civil route.

Park-and-ride Schemes

9. What discussions he has had with transport authorities on the role of park-and-ride schemes in encouraging people to use public transport. (904789)

Government guidance to local authorities on developing bus improvement plans includes advice on park-and-ride services, as set out in the national bus strategy.

In London, suburban tube station car parks are important park-and-ride facilities, encouraging people to get on the public transport network, so will the Government exercise their powers under section 163 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 to prevent the Mayor from shutting down these facilities in Cockfosters and High Barnet and to ensure that these station car parks remain available for people to use?

The Secretary of State has indeed received a number of applications submitted by Transport for London under section 163 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 to dispose of operational land at London underground stations. These are considered carefully on a case-by-case basis, but my right hon. Friend’s views have been heard very clearly.

Transport and Logistics: Labour Shortages

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on tackling labour shortages in the transport and logistics sectors. (904790)

The Government have taken decisive action to address the acute HGV driver shortage, with 32 specific measures that have been taken. As Logistics UK, the main industry haulier body has said, this has reduced the crisis as we have started to see more HGV drivers on the road.

The Government may have taken decisive action in their own eyes, but it does not seem to be having the desired effect, because the temporary visas issued by the Government in the latter part of this year have failed to attract even 10% of the open visa spaces. Given that the rest of Europe also has an HGV driver shortage, will the Secretary of State accept that the UK Government need to make our visa package for HGV drivers more attractive to EU drivers in order to help quell the domestic driver shortage?

I do not accept that. The hon. Gentleman actually highlights the problem, which is that the rest of Europe—indeed, the rest of the world—has a very significant HGV driver shortage. Simply trying to take from another part of the market that is already massively restricted is not the answer. We do not think that issuing visas is the right way forward. I know that the Leader of the Opposition called for 100,000 visas to be issued for HGV drivers. That is not our approach. These 32 measures are seeing vastly more people coming into HGV driving, with more than 1,350 more tests each week compared with pre-pandemic levels.

I have to say that we on the Labour Benches are not feeling the Christmas love from the Secretary of State today. Neither have we been invited to his last couple of Christmas parties, but we will wait to hear more on that. Perhaps, after the Sunday Times article, he should spend a little less time defending the rights of private airstrips where he can land his plane and a little more time sorting out the estimated 90,000 shortage of HGV drivers, which is holding our economy back. So here is some helpful advice: will he finally act to back Labour’s plans to appoint a Minister for the supply chain crisis, boost driver recruitment and retention, and secure agreement with the EU, particularly after the news on France today, to prevent future import controls at ports worsening the situation?

The hon. Gentleman attacks aviation, but Labour does not understand: the Department for Transport is about all forms of transport. We support all the different forms of transport, no matter what they are. He makes reference to the HGV crisis, not understanding that freight both by rail and by air is all part of that, and he does not seem to understand how cargo moves around the world. In relation to his point on the supply chain, which is a very serious one, I can confirm that I have spoken to my French opposite number, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, who has confirmed that although France is bringing in additional controls on movement to France, it will not include hauliers in those measures.

Road Condition

As announced in October’s spending review, during this Parliament the Government are investing over £5 billion in highways maintenance—enough to fill in millions of potholes a year, repair dozens of bridges, and resurface roads up and down the country.

I am grateful for that reassuring answer, but I am sorry to report that in High Wycombe there are all too many jarring potholes, and a number of our surfaces on important junctions are now breaking down to the point that they are dangerous to motorcycles. Is it not absolutely vital that councils are properly funded and equipped to keep our roads safe?

My hon. Friend is quite right. Potholes are a menace to all road users, particularly motorcyclists. That is why the Government are working tirelessly to remove them from our roads. The Government’s decision to provide local highway authorities with a three-year highway maintenance funding settlement will enable them, in line with good asset management planning, to proactively plan their maintenance and pothole repair programme more effectively. I am sure that that will bring results in Wycombe.

I thank the Minister for his answer. It takes an hour and a half by train to do the under 70 miles to Clacton, and we rely on our roads to prosper. We in Clacton often feel overlooked. I would like the Minister to come down to our sunshine coast, where he will see that we need better roads. Does he believe that transport links, particularly in coastal communities, should be the focus when it comes to levelling up?

Coastal communities such as Clacton are part of this nation’s soul, and this Government are committed to such coastal communities and to levelling up across our Union. I can assure my hon. Friend that this Department works closely with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ensure that coastal communities recover from covid-19 and to help them to level up. Of course, that includes transport links.

The road across Hammersmith bridge has been completely closed since April, causing congestion, chaos, pollution and danger across Putney. Can the Minister confirm whether there will be funding in the Transport for London settlement for the repair and renewal of Hammersmith bridge, whether there will be funding for Hammersmith and Fulham Council and whether the Government will provide the additional funding to reopen Hammersmith bridge?

That bridge is of course owned by the local Labour authority. The Transport Department has been stepping in to help, but I would urge the hon. Member to continue engage with her local authority to ensure that the repairs take place.

Mass Transit System: Leeds

12. What steps he is taking to help ensure that work begins on delivering a mass transit system in Leeds. (904792)

The Government are committed to supporting and delivering a mass transit system in Leeds and West Yorkshire, and we will provide funding for the West Yorkshire Combined Authority to progress its plans.

As Leeds remains the largest city in Europe without a mass transit system, or indeed any kind of rail-based system, surely the Secretary of State should stop pouring money into feasibility studies when they have already been carried out and instead give my constituents in Leeds North East some clarity by telling the House just how much of the £100 million from the integrated rail plan will be spent on a mass transit system for Leeds and west Yorkshire. And will he tell us who will make the decisions on how that money is spent?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about Leeds being the largest city without a mass transit system. The integrated rail plan committed £100 million to start work on the mass transit system and to look at the most effective way to get HS2 trains to Leeds. However, it is worth noting that in addition to that, £830 million was allocated to the West Yorkshire Combined Authority through the city regional sustainable transport settlement in the autumn Budget, of which we expect £200 million to take forward the mass transit system based on the current proposals.

A14 at Kettering: Junction 10A Funding

15. If he will ensure that funding for junction 10A on the A14 at Kettering is incorporated into road investment strategy 3 from 2025. (904798)

The Government recognise the importance of the strategic road network in supporting local growth. National Highways has reviewed earlier work on a potential junction 10A on the A14 so that the project can be considered for the next road investment strategy. The review’s findings will be available in the new year.

Residents in Kettering, Barton Seagrave and Burton Latimer desperately needed this junction in RIS3 from 2025; otherwise, Kettering will simply grind to a halt. Will my hon. Friend be kind enough to secure for me a meeting with the noble Baroness Vere, the roads Minister, and North Northamptonshire Council, so that we can finally get this scheme included in the road investment strategy?

My hon. Friend continues to make a powerful case for this scheme. I know that he has met my noble Friend the Baroness Vere before, but I am sure she will be delighted to meet him again to talk about this important scheme for his constituency.

Transport Decarbonisation

16. What recent steps his Department has taken to facilitate decarbonisation of (a) public transport and (b) the wider travel sector in line with the Government’s net zero target. (904799)

Our world-leading transport decarbonisation plan sets out the Government’s commitments and the actions needed to decarbonise transport, putting the sector on the pathway to net zero.

A merry Christmas to you and your team, Mr. Speaker. Considerable Scottish Government investment is going into electrification and new rail lines, but hundreds of millions of pounds are leaving the Scottish rail system every year to pay Network Rail access charges. Does the Minister agree that one of the top priorities for the new Great British Railways must be a review of the system in which Scotland’s railways pay a massive premium simply to run services?

Access charging will remain with GBR, but we can certainly arrange a meeting if that might be helpful.

East-west Rail Connections: North England

The Northern Powerhouse Rail project will deliver real benefits for passengers and communities, enhancing journeys and levelling up for a growing population.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. The integrated rail plan contains many good things, but a significant improvement would be an improved direct connection between Bradford and Manchester. There are ways to do it without significantly increasing the overall £96 billion budget. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss the opportunities?

My hon. Friend is a brilliant champion for his constituents, his region and the whole north of England. The integrated rail plan was designed to deliver improvements to Bradford sooner, but I am of course happy to meet him to discuss possible future investment.

Tram Service Suspensions: West Midlands

19. What assessment he has made of the effect on transport in the west midlands of the suspension of tram services due to cracks on vehicles. (904802)

The Department for Transport has had several meetings with Midland Metro Ltd to discuss the suspension of tram services and the impact that has had in the west midlands.

When a similar problem occurred in Sydney with the same type of trams, built by the same company, CAF, the trams were off the tracks for 18 months. With the Commonwealth games due to begin on 28 July next year—I am sure we all hope they will be a huge success—the west midlands obviously needs a full and efficient public transport service. Will the Minister keep tabs on this issue and offer whatever assistance he can to ensure that the problem does not adversely affect the games?

We have been monitoring the situation since Midland Metro Ltd first informed us of the problem back in June. MML then informed the Office of Rail and Road of the failure and the intended repair method. At that point, the cracks, and the risk they posed to long-term service disruption, were highlighted as minor, but as things have gone on, the situation has obviously become more serious. MML is reviewing the condition of its trams and reopened a reduced service yesterday. I guarantee the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to engage with MML and ensure that people can get to the Commonwealth games and celebrate the fun that everyone can have.

A1: Peterborough to Blyth

The Government recognise the key importance of the A1 as a strategic north-south link across the country. Further improvements to the route, beyond those completed in 2009, will be considered as part of the National Highways route strategy process.

Merry Christmas, Mr Speaker! I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for recognising the importance of the A1, but it shuts down at least once a week in my Rutland and Melton constituency patch because of accidents. It is a core artery for our nation and for goods, not least our Christmas stilton. Will the Minister please meet the A1 working group of MPs, so that we can explain why it is so important to upgrade the A1 to full motorway standard?

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for this issue, and I am delighted to offer her a meeting with my noble Friend the Minister with responsibility for roads, who would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and her colleagues.

Topical Questions

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.