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Volume 708: debated on Thursday 3 February 2022

The Secretary of State was asked—

South Western Railway

1. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of South Western Railway on the adequacy of its service levels. (905397)

Along with Department officials, I am in regular dialogue with South Western Railway about its service levels. I have also recently met all managing directors of the train operating companies, including the managing director of South Western Railway, to discuss service provision, among other key industry topics.

I am glad the Minister is holding meetings with South Western Railway, as Putney residents have faced dreadful service from SWR for years, with overcrowding, delays and the cancellation of trains. Currently, they are on a temporary timetable—a chaos omicron timetable. The Prime Minister announced in Prime Minister’s Question Time that that timetable would end on 19 February, but that seems to be news to SWR. Did he inadvertently mislead the House?

As I explained to the hon. Lady, my officials and I are in regular dialogue with SWR, working hard on the issue of services, because we absolutely understand that it is what matters to passengers right across the country. Services will be restored as soon as possible.

I very much welcome the news from the Prime Minister yesterday that services in Dorset and across the west country will be returned on 19 February. Will the Minister share with the House how we got to the place where an entire region of the United Kingdom—Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire and Devon—had its direct service to London completely severed and slashed in half, without MPs even being told about it?

I assure my hon. Friend that the Department continues to work closely with rail operators, as we work through mitigating the impact of staff absences on rail services. I assure him that the current temporary rail timetable is exactly that—temporary—but it is providing passengers, especially the country’s key workers, with certainty, so that they can plan as much as possible, with the confidence that we want. I really hope that as staffing pressures start to ease, alongside passenger demand increasing, we will see those rail services, which are key, starting to increase accordingly.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) a speedy recovery from covid.

Rail commuters in towns and suburbs across the land did their patriotic duty: they stayed home when asked by the Government at the start of the pandemic. They were told after that that if they did not go back to work, they were shirkers. Then, before Christmas, the Government asked them to stay home again. Now, on their return, they find that fares, including on South Western Railway, have risen by nearly 4%, on a reduced service. Do this Government take rail commuters for fools?

We absolutely do take passengers—[Laughter.] We absolutely do take passengers very, very seriously. I assure the hon. Gentleman of that, and I am not taking any nonsense such as the language he is using, not given the amount of support that this Government have shown to the rail industry throughout the omicron situation and the covid-19 pandemic more broadly.

Clearly taking its lead from South Western Railway, Southern has suspended all direct trains on the Brighton line into Victoria, meaning that my constituents along the south way have to change twice, which they calculate is adding about a third to their commuting times. That is completely unacceptable. Given the special funding arrangements between the Department for Transport and Govia Thameslink Railway, what compensation can be given to my constituents or, better still, what pressure can the Minister bring to bear on that company to provide a decent service again, at last?

I share my hon. Friend’s frustration and, as I said in response to earlier questions, we have been supporting the industry heavily throughout covid-19. During the omicron part of the pandemic, the industry has been handling staff absences, but this is absolutely about getting those services back up and running as soon as possible. I assure him that that is what we continue to focus on.

Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency

2. What recent assessment he has made of challenges facing driving licence and other services at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. (905398)

Online services continue to operate normally. The DVLA has introduced new online services, recruited extra staff and secured extra premises.

I know that this is reflected right across the House. One of those complaints came from Greta. Greta has ill health, she is disabled and she is reliant on her vehicle. Will the Minister intervene? Let us turbocharge this process, not only for my constituents, but for those of Members right across the House.

I assure the House that online applications are not subject to delays and customers usually receive the documents within two to three days. We strongly encourage customers to use online services where possible. I pay tribute to the DVLA staff who have worked overtime and provided extra resources and extra sites. I am pleased to say that of the 36 cases the hon. Gentleman submitted, 32 have been closed, and I am following up the remaining four.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s investment of £96 billion in the railways is the biggest investment in the rail network ever? By reinstating the Northumberland line running through Blyth Valley to Newcastle—

Order. That is not related to the question about the DVLA. [Interruption.] One of us will have to sit down and I am not sitting down. I am sorry, but that is not even linked to the question. Supplementary questions must be linked to the original question tabled.

In my constituency there is huge dependency on the private car. Given the huge backlogs arising in the DVLA, and the similar backlogs at the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, many young people are being deprived of their independence and find themselves isolated both socially and from work and education opportunities. In the light of this situation, the recent DVSA decision to close Whitchurch driving test centre is a hammer blow to people who want only to improve their quality of life. Will the Secretary of State commit to keeping this important facility open and thereby removing the necessity of people paying for double lessons and driving for an additional hour just to practise or attend a test?

I am more than happy to meet the hon. Member to discuss the matter in detail. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency is working hard to increase driving test availability by recruiting more driving examiners, offering out-of-hours tests and asking all those who are qualified to conduct tests to do so. I reiterate my willingness to meet the hon. Lady.

International Travel Restrictions

3. What recent progress he has made with Cabinet colleagues on easing international travel restrictions for UK nationals. (905399)

On 24 January, the Secretary of State announced to the House that all testing requirements will be removed for eligible fully vaccinated arrivals.

Given the success of the roll-out and the welcome news that the plan B restrictions are ending and will end, with travel restrictions set to end on 11 February, will the Minister please assure the country that we will never again go back to travel restrictions of that kind? The latest travel restrictions seem to have had very little effect and the damage done to our economy was vast.

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct: thanks to the success of our roll-out and booster programme—the fastest in Europe—we are now in a position where we can live with covid and start to travel again. The Government are developing a more flexible model, including a contingency playbook to deal with future variants that will provide certainty to consumers and industry alike.

I thank the Minister for his response—he has definitely been on his Weetabix this morning, so he has.

My question is on a specific issue. As filling out a passenger locator form per traveller takes a long time, has consideration been given to providing group application facilities, whereby families can fill in their details as one and save themselves the stress of having to fill out multiple applications in a foreign country so that they can return home safely?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent suggestion. We have committed to looking into and radically simplifying the way that the PLF works. It remains necessary for now but I shall take that suggestion on board and consider it in any upcoming review.

Condition of Roads

The Department is investing more than £5 billion over this Parliament in local highways maintenance—enough to fill in millions of potholes a year and resurface roads throughout England.

The Mayor of London is considering a daily charge of £2 to drive on Greater London’s roads that would slap more than 2.5 million people with a substantial new driving bill. My constituents, like those in many places in outer London, rely on their cars to get around because the public transport alternatives are inadequate. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Mayor should look at more creative ways to fix Transport for London’s finances instead of planning highway robbery?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend: hammering motorists is not the way to do it. Transport in London is devolved to the Greater London Authority and therefore decisions on road-user charging are for the Mayor of London, not the Government. We will continue to work with the Mayor to help him put TfL on a sustainable long-term footing, but it is exactly as my hon. Friend said: creative solutions need to be put forward.

Last year, the Chancellor told people to enjoy National Pothole Day before the potholes were all gone. He then slashed the road maintenance budget by £400 million—enough to fix millions of potholes. Thanks to those broken promises, the roads Minister’s own community has become the pothole capital of England. The Government talk about levelling up, but in reality they cannot even level up the surfaces of our roads. When will the Minister get a grip, reverse these broken promises and deliver the funding that communities need to sort out the mess on our roads?

Actually, at the spending review, the Government announced £2.7 billion over the next three years for local road maintenance in places not receiving those city region settlements, which is enough to fill in millions of potholes a year, repair dozens of bridges and resurface thousands of miles of road. The three-year settlement will help local authorities plan effectively for managing their highway assets, tackling those potholes and other road defects across local road networks.

Rail Services: Yorkshire

The Government are committed to improving rail services across the north of England, and rail passengers in Yorkshire will already be benefiting from our recent £161 million investment in Leeds station. The recently published integrated rail plan outlines our ambitious £96 billion investment plan for the next 30 years.

I welcome the integrated rail plan, which is investing in the trans-Pennine route coming through my patch in Slaithwaite and Marsden, which the Minister has visited. As he knows, though, I have another line—a single track line—going through Huddersfield and Penistone to Sheffield. I have been supporting the levelling-up bid of my hon. Friends the Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) and for Dewsbury (Mark Eastwood). Will the Minister continue to work with us so that we can get investment in this single-track line that will lead to real positivity for local connectivity in our part of the world?

My hon. Friend remains a real champion for his constituency. I can reassure him that the integrated rail plan confirms that the Government will continue to invest in smaller rail enhancements across the north and the midlands in addition to the trans-Pennine route upgrade, HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues to discuss this, perhaps on a future visit to his constituency—probably later this month.

According to the original plans, trains should now be arriving in Sheffield on the electrified Midland Main Line. When will the first electric trains actually arrive?

I am delighted to confirm that we have shovels in the ground on the Midland Main Line electrification. The Secretary of State was pleased to visit those works just before Christmas. As part of the £96 billion integrated rail plan, we will be delivering benefits to passengers sooner than ever anticipated.

Electric Vehicles

The Government continue to support the uptake of electric vehicles. About as many electric vehicles were sold in 2021 as the last five years combined, with one in six cars now having a plug.

I thank the Minister for her answer. In Cornwall, there is clearly an appetite to move towards cleaner and greener transport, and Cornwall Council is currently rolling out a £3.6 million project to install and operate EV charging points across the county. Despite that huge step in the right direction, given Cornwall’s rurality, it is limited in scope. Can the Minister help me to encourage towns, businesses and constituents in my Truro and Falmouth constituency to make use of the Government’s electric vehicle home-charge scheme, which provides grant funding of up to 75% towards the cost of installing electric vehicle charging points?

I commend Cornwall Council, and I also commend my hon. Friend for the work that she is doing to ensure that we have this transport revolution as we transition from a fossil fuel transport system to one that is decarbonised. Electric vehicle charge points are absolutely the way forward at home, at work, en route, and at destination. This Government are rolling out the charging points with local authorities, and I would be delighted to visit her constituency and work with her council to do so.

Modern Railway: 200th Anniversary

Railways are a product of Britain’s rich history of engineering innovation and the 200-year anniversary is a nationally important moment to mark and celebrate. The Department for Transport will work with the whole industry to make this a special event for workers and passengers alike.

Clearly, in York the 200th anniversary will be incredibly significant, with both the reopening of the National Railway Museum, which will be an incredible moment, and the opportunity it gives us to look not just back but forward at the future of rail. Will the Minister therefore work with us to promote the future of digital and civil engineering, and focus on those from minoritised groups and women, to ensure that they have their place in the future of the railway too?

The 200-year anniversary is an important one. I recall many visits to the National Railway Museum when I was a kid; we used to go on school visits there. On the hon. Lady’s point about skills, engineering and more diversity, yes, absolutely—I am really keen, as I am sure are all my colleagues on the Front Bench, to see more diversity in the railways.

What a wonderful way to celebrate that anniversary: setting up a scheme to help small stations in economically important towns such as Milford Haven in my constituency to access funding in a timely way to see an upgrade. The current process, whereby Network Rail works up a project and then it takes years and years of multiple rounds of appraisals—big money-spinners for the consultants—just does not work. Will my hon. Friend please look at that?

I am more than happy to pick up on that point. If my right hon. Friend wants to tell me more about his local station, which he is clearly passionate about supporting, I would be happy to meet him.

Rail Services: South-east London

Department officials are working closely with operators in south-east London, including SE Trains —Southeastern—and Govia Thameslink Railway, to ensure that a reliable and punctual service is delivered as passengers return to work. Performance on both SET and GTR has been at a good level throughout the pandemic, with some recent challenges on GTR, owing to a high level of driver absence, leading to a temporarily revised timetable.

The Minister will be aware that both Southeastern and Thameslink services in south-east London are running on a reduced timetable. With the restrictions having eased and growing numbers of my constituents once again needing to commute, that cut in services is beginning to cause overcrowding on not only trains, but local bus and tube services, as well as incentivising more people to jump into their cars. Can I get a commitment from the Minister today that those withdrawn services will be fully reinstated as soon as possible?

I understand the concerns of colleagues across the House when it comes to trains and passengers. I assure the hon. Gentleman, as I have assured other colleagues this morning, that we continue to work closely with rail operators as they mitigate the impact of staff absences on rail services. It is important that we work together to get people back to work.

UK Supply Networks

9. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of (a) haulage companies and (b) other companies involved in the goods supply chain on disruption in the UK's supply networks. (905405)

The Road Haulage Association estimates a shortfall of some 85,000 drivers, affecting supply chains, retailers and the wider economy, while the Government’s short-length temporary visa scheme has been unfit for purpose, with only 200 visas having been issued. Given the scale of the problem, the industry is asking for a 12-month visa for heavy goods vehicle drivers. Will the Minister confirm whether that is being considered?

The Government have taken decisive action on the HGV driver shortage, with 32 short, medium and long-term interventions. We have more than doubled the number of tests available for HGV drivers in a normal week from 1,500 weekly appointments pre-covid to 3,200 in a normal week now. I am pleased to hear from industry bodies that their current assessment is that the shortfall in drivers is lessening.

That may well be the case, but one haulier has likened Brexit to

“death by a thousand cuts”,

as EU companies withdraw business due to each new round of post-Brexit bureaucracy, administration and delays. That is causing significant hardship for many UK and Scottish businesses; smaller ones, especially, are struggling to cope. After the UK implements import controls in July, the crisis will deepen further, with the current miles-long queues of HGVs on the A20 simply getting longer and longer. What are the Government doing to mitigate the damage they have inflicted with Brexit on the UK’s economy?

I know that the hon. Gentleman likes to blame Brexit for everything, but of course there are HGV driver shortages around the globe. On freight coming in and out of the UK, we are seeing similar numbers at the moment as we would normally. The checks that are due at the ports are on track in England. Of course, in Scotland, they are a matter for the devolved Administration. We are aware of some risks there, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other Departments are working closely with the Scottish Government to find a resolution.

Closed Rail Lines: Restoration

We are committed to reversing the Beeching cuts and reopening railways through our £500 million restoring your railway fund. I was pleased to reopen the first such line—the Dartmoor line—in November 2021.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that restoring the Burscough Curves link, which would connect Southport with Preston and up to Glasgow via the west coast main line, should be a priority for the Government, both to demonstrate the levelling-up agenda and connect all regions of our great United Kingdom?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend—and, it seems, yourself, Mr Speaker—that it would be a great idea. My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for the people of Southport. I know he applied unsuccessfully for the first round of restoring your railway fund money, but I am very committed to working with him on that to link up his community. I will arrange to meet him. I spoke to him about it this week and I am arranging to meet the Rail Minister on the subject.

We are moving forward with the Rawtenstall to Manchester line, which would significantly benefit my constituents in Haslingden, but will the Secretary of State provide the House with an update on the Skipton to Colne railway line?

I certainly can. Regarding the Skipton-East Lancashire Rail Action Partnership—or SELRAP—and the rail link between Skipton and Colne, I appreciate my hon. Friend’s unstinting support for the scheme and will set out our position on the projects in the rail enhancement portfolio very soon.

Good morning, Mr Speaker. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the residents of Levenmouth and East Neuk of Fife, who will see their rail link restored more than 50 years after it was abolished by his predecessor? Yet another Westminster cut reversed by Scottish Parliament as part of the transition to net zero. Does he agree that the glacial progress on reconnecting communities in England to the national rail network is hindering growth, compared with the Scottish Government’s record of delivering real benefits for the people of Scotland?

No, I do not agree. It has taken 50 years for a UK Government to come along and reopen the lines that were closed under Beeching and successive Governments. We are the ones reversing that and paying to reverse it, and Britain is proud of that.

If we are really going to celebrate the 200th anniversary, it would be good to open even more lines. You will know, Mr Speaker, that not far from your constituency, the first person to be killed on the railway was a Member of Parliament and Minister when the Rocket was being trialled. We should remember that.

If we are serious about marking the anniversary and bringing the old lines back into use, will the Secretary of State look again at Yorkshire? We feel absolutely bereft. Here is this opportunity, with a Government commitment to raise standards and level up, at a time when the Government have smashed the integrated plan for Yorkshire rail.

Huddersfield massively benefits from the £96 billion plan—the biggest plan that any Government have ever announced on railway funding. By the way, it is bigger than the plan that President Biden just announced for railways in his package, even though the United States has a population that is five times bigger than ours. I would have thought that people in Huddersfield would be celebrating in the streets.

Fuel Duty Freeze

11. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the impact of the fuel duty freeze on people (a) in Harlow constituency and (b) across the UK. (905408)

I regularly speak to the Chancellor about the impact of the fuel duty freeze, which has now run for 12 consecutive years, in no small way thanks to my right hon. Friend.

My Harlow constituents strongly welcome the fuel duty freeze, and long may it continue. When wholesale oil prices rise, the cost at the pump rockets. The RAC and FairFuelUK have shown that average profit margins for diesel have increased by 150% in the past two years, with petrol margins at the pumps more than doubling. But when the global oil price comes down there is a feather approach; the savings are not transferred to the motorist. Will my right hon. Friend introduce a pump watch monitor to ensure fair prices at the pumps for motorists?

It is genuinely true to say that there is not a more expensive Member of Parliament. The cuts—or the freezes—that my right hon. Friend has persuaded successive Chancellors to make are now accumulating a £1,900 saving for a UK driver every year. He is right that when oil prices go up fuel prices seem to track very fast, and when they come down they are much slower. I will pay close attention to his idea.

Aviation Sector

We have delivered approximately £8 billion of support for the aviation sector through the pandemic, and we are currently developing a strategic framework to help support the sector’s recovery.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Has he given any thought to how public service obligations could help support regional airports right across the UK, including in Scotland—such as Aberdeen airport, which serves my constituency—to recover from the covid-19 pandemic?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. May I congratulate him on his campaign and his support for his constituents’ campaign, particularly that led by Val Fry, to reintroduce flights to Aberdeen such as the easyJet flight from Aberdeen to Gatwick. I have flown from Aberdeen. I can see its importance, and I know that it is exceptionally important particularly for the offshore energy industry. We recognise the significant impact that covid-19 has had on regional airports. We will consider whether there are further opportunities to utilise public service obligations.

Having failed to secure a sector-specific deal from the Treasury, the industry is recovering much more slowly than our international competitors, and now we have the spectacle of an unholy row between airlines and airports on landing charges. With the new rules on slots, we have the prospect of planes flying empty or with half loads. Industry leaders tell me that the Secretary of State has been missing in action, but he has been busy shoring up the beleaguered Prime Minister’s whipping operation—we would like to thank him for that. Is it not time for the Secretary of State to step up to the plate when it comes to aviation?

The Secretary of State and all members of the Government have been in constant contact with the aviation sector, and it is through that that we have been able to tailor our response. We have given £8 billion of support to the sector. The airport and ground operations support scheme is on top of that, and there is the aviation skills retention platform. The Government wholeheartedly support the aviation sector, particularly in getting it flying again.

Ticket Inspection

14. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of ticket inspection by rail operating companies. (905411)

The Government have consulted on changes to penalty fares to ensure that deterrents against fare evasion are effective and fair. Fare evasion costs other rail passengers and taxpayers, who ultimately subsidise the journeys of those who deliberately travel by train without paying the correct fare.

I thank the Minister for her reply, but my experience is that ticket inspection falls very far short of 100%. As she says, the cost ultimately falls on other passengers and the taxpayer. What further steps can she take to ensure that the companies bear the burden of their inadequacies rather than the taxpayer?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and he is right to take this seriously. I can assure him that the Department continues to encourage train operators to prioritise revenue protection and ensure that revenue is maximised and fraud is prevented. He is right to say that it is the responsibility of train operators to follow Government guidance in relation to this.

Public Transport: Night-time Safety

The Government recognise the vital role that safe public transport plays in getting people to and from where they need to be at night. The Department works closely with transport partners on a range of initiatives to ensure safety on the transport network.

Many of my constituents feel vulnerable taking public transport at night, especially women and those returning home from late shifts at work. Will the Minister support Unite the union’s “Get Me Home Safely” campaign and the early-day motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), which calls for the extension of the employer’s duty of care to include safe transport home and policies such as making free night transport for staff a pre-condition for new liquor licences?

I thank the hon. Member for his interest in this important issue. We are already doing much on the transport network to improve safety, particularly for women and girls—for example, the rail to refuge scheme helps four people a day. We have also recently undertaken a review with our transport champions to look specifically at the safety of women and girls. I would be happy to meet him to understand how those proposals align with the recommendations from our champions.

Transport for London: Financial Settlement

16. What recent progress he has made on agreeing a long-term financial settlement with Transport for London. (905414)

It is for the Mayor to take decisions about how to balance the TfL budget. We are committed to supporting the system and have done so with hard cash—£4.5 billion and counting.

As my right hon. Friend knows, the current deal expires very soon. The Mayor was due to provide ways that he would balance the budget; I understand that he has not done so yet. Could my right hon. Friend confirm that in any arrangements that he makes with the Mayor of London, we will exclude the outer London charge for people driving into the London area and stop the Mayor introducing road pricing in London unless the whole country goes ahead with it?

My hon. Friend is a terrific champion of a fair settlement. It is the easiest thing in the world for someone to propose a tax that people other than their own residents pay, which is exactly what the Mayor has been pursuing with the boundary tax. It is not fair; we will oppose it—no taxation without representation.

The Government’s piecemeal funding for Transport for London is short-sighted and, yet again, will have an impact on thousands of jobs across the entire country. For every £1 spent on London’s transport infrastructure, 50p is spent outside the capital. We know that they have the money after yesterday’s news about the latest Government wastage—£9 billion blown on dodgy PPE about as effective as the Prime Minister’s Save Big Dog strategy.

Some 30 TfL projects currently support thousands of jobs around the country from Wrightbus in Ballymena in Northern Ireland to Bombardier in my constituency. That includes a £1 billion contract for building tube trains in Goole in East Yorkshire. Is it not time for the Government to save jobs across the country, stop rolling out the rhetoric and start investing in London’s transport infrastructure?

The trouble is, when someone writes that kind of passage in advance and practises it in front of the mirror, they potentially miss the announcement that was made in the original answer. We have now spent £4.5 billion propping up TfL to help out, rightly, because of the pandemic and, in addition, because of the decisions that failed to be made earlier, such as the four-year fare freeze and the concessions that go way above anything available elsewhere in the country.

Rockets and Satellites

My Department has passed legislation paving the way for space flight and satellite launches from UK soil, and we have already awarded £40 million of grants to kick-start capability.

I recently discussed the current rocket launch environment with Gravitilab, a dynamic Broadland company that provides microgravity testing and space access via reusable launch platforms. Its ambition is to provide that service in Norfolk. Space is no longer just for Governments and multinationals, so will my hon. Friend ensure that our regulatory regime recognises and encourages start-up companies and is made responsive to that fast-rising sector?

I gladly join my hon. Friend in celebrating the growing success of Gravitilab. I congratulate him on being an excellent advocate for it, Broadland and the space industry as a whole. The Government have put in place the most modern space flight legislation in the world. We will continue to review it to ensure that it meets the needs of the UK’s entire space industry.

Cycling and Walking

I thank the Minister for the answer. I am concerned that the Treasury has clearly decided that £2 billion is all the ringfenced funding that will be allocated for cycling and walking, but the Department for Transport commissioned research several years ago that apparently says this £2 billion is only a quarter to a third of what is needed to meet the stated aims of the Government to increase cycling and walking by 2025. Can I ask if she will now publish this research, as a former Transport Minister, the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), repeatedly promised two years ago?

I am delighted to confirm that we have now appointed Chris Boardman as the acting CEO of Active Travel England, which I will be meeting after this session.[Official Report, 7 February 2022, Vol. 708, c. 8MC.] Actually, the £2 billion is an unprecedented amount to be investing in walking and cycling over this Parliament. Our investment is already seeing results: levels of cycling increased by 46% in 2020 compared with 2019. However, I would like to put on record my thanks to the hon. Member for the work she does on the all-party parliamentary group on cycling and walking, which I look forward to joining.

I cycle for 10 hours a week, and on a narrow forest road I always cycle close to the kerb, because I am a driver too and I want to accommodate drivers. The advice in the new code that I should cycle in the centre of the carriageway is bonkers, isn’t it?

I would like to stress that that advice is only on narrow roads, but I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has embraced cycling, because we want to see half of the journeys made in towns and cities walked or cycled by 2030.

Bus Service Improvement Plans

19. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of funding for bus service improvement plans. (905418)

At the Budget, we announced £1.2 billion of new dedicated funding for bus transformation deals. We will provide details of indicative allocations in due course.

Bus companies have suffered financially during the pandemic, and this cost is being felt by customers in downgraded services. Stagecoach has had to replace its coaches from Bedford to Cambridge with double-decker buses with no toilet facilities. This leaves older people, sometimes travelling to access medical treatment, without access to a toilet for 90 minutes. When will the Government give bus companies the investment they need to improve services?

Well, we are doing that at the moment. There is £1.2 billion of new funding, delivering improvements in bus services, fares and infrastructure in England outside London, and that is just part of over £3 billion of new spend on buses in the course of this Parliament.

I was delighted to see in the levelling-up White Paper yesterday that, thanks to this Conservative Government working with Conservative-led Stoke-on-Trent City Council and three Conservative Stoke-on-Trent Members of Parliament, we are going to receive a multimillion-pound settlement for bussing back better in our great city to make sure that we are better connected. Part of the bid does contain some funding for roads, particularly for widening the Waterloo Road, which does suffer from congestion, so will the Minister meet me and Stoke-on-Trent MPs to discuss why it is vital that this is funded?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the leadership he has provided on improving the roads and the buses in Stoke in conjunction with his Conservative colleagues, and I know that the Buses Minister will be delighted to meet him to discuss that further.

In the north-east, we have an ambitious bus service improvement plan, but before we get there we have a crisis in our bus services as a result of covid-19. Can the Minister say what action he will take to prevent our bus services from being reduced as a result of the cliff edge in funding in March?

As I have outlined, over £3 billion of new spend on buses is coming along during the course of this Parliament. The hon. Member is quite right to draw attention to the bus service improvement plans, and we will be able to provide some information on indicative allocations for that by the end of February.

Buses are vital for many of my North West Durham constituents, but to put it simply, at the moment there are not enough of them and they are prohibitively expensive, especially for single-fare journeys. Will the Minister look closely at our bus back better strategy for the north-east to give us the funding and the buses we need for our communities?

I know that the Buses Minister will be delighted to look at that particular strategy in the context of the overall funding the Government are providing.

Docklands Light Railway

21. What recent discussions he has had with Transport for London on proposals to extend the docklands light railway to Thamesmead. (905420)

The Government and Homes England are exploring potential opportunities and options at Thamesmead and Beckton Riverside with the Greater London Authority and Transport for London.

Thamesmead in my constituency needs levelling up. It has some of the worst public transport links in the capital. There are ambitious plans to extend the docklands light railway to Thamesmead, which are supported by Greenwich and Newham councils and Transport for London. Will the Minister look favourably at these proposals when they are submitted to the Government, and provide the necessary funding to finally put Thamesmead on the transport map?

With regard to extending the DLR, the scale of the opportunity from the potential options at Thamesmead and Beckton Riverside is being explored and the Government and Homes England are working together with the Greater London Authority and Transport for London to do this.

Topical Questions

I would like to update the House on action we have taken against the behaviour of Insulate Britain activists. Last year I asked National Highways to seek injunctions against the so-called eco-warriors who have inflicted such misery on motorists across the country, and following the latest High Court hearing yesterday a further five immediate prison sentences were imposed as well as 11 suspended sentences against Insulate Britain activists for breaching these injunctions. That brings the total number of sentences and suspended sentences handed down to 31.[Official Report, 8 February 2022, Vol. 708, c. 10MC.] Gluing oneself to the tarmac and throwing paint on public highways, causing miles of misery, just is not on; it affects hard-working people and causes misery to them, costing the taxpayer money.

The Secretary of State will know that vehicle standards, including for e-scooters, are reserved to Westminster. I am hugely concerned about the impact of e-scooters on people living with sight loss in Wales as they cannot be heard and are very quick. What plans does he have to assess the impact of the already widespread and illegal use of e-scooters in Wales?

We currently have a trial programme for e-scooters, with 31 trials in operation, which is collecting the data that the hon. Lady seeks. I share her concerns, particularly about e-scooters sold through the private market where they are not legal to be ridden on the roads or pavement, or indeed in the public arena. We are looking at measures that will crack down on those while ensuring that those that have been properly insured and used through the trials continue until we have all the data.

T2. Last week-end’s storms have led to the temporary closure of the railway from Norwich to Lowestoft. Good services on that Wherry line and the east Suffolk line are vital if meaningful levelling up is to be delivered to the Waveney area. Can Ministers confirm that the Government are committed to improvements on these two lines and that their ambitions extend beyond that suggested by Network Rail, which is that it aims to have a climate-resilient service on the Wherry lines in 28 years’ time? (905422)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter today, and I appreciate the incident on Sunday near Haddiscoe will undoubtedly have caused disruption to passengers, but I understand that work is going well and I am sure he will be pleased to know that services are expected to resume on Saturday morning. Network Rail recently outlined its long-term adaptation ambitions, which are now being considered at local level. Importantly, this will help build greater understanding of the key areas of vulnerability that are critical in the development of plans to mitigate and minimise impacts on passengers.

I welcome the new rail Minister, the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), to her post. Last year the Prime Minister promised

“great bus services…to everyone, everywhere”,

with £3 billion of new funding to support that. Yesterday we learned the truth about the transformation funding—slashed by £1.8 billion. Why have the Government broken their promise and downgraded the ambition of communities?

I am really pleased that the hon. Lady has raised this, because I have seen her tweet and talk about it elsewhere and I want to inform her that she is inadvertently misleading. The figure is still £3 billion; the £1.2 billion is a part of that £3 billion and there are other elements of funding that have already been announced, including £0.5 billion on decarbonisation, and more money is on the way. So that is simply an incorrect figure that I ask her not to continue to repeat.

I can assure the House that I am not the one misleading anybody. We have it in black and white, in a leaked letter from his own official, who wrote to local transport authorities confirming the cut and saying

“the scale of the ambition across the county greatly exceeds the amount”

of transformation funding. Doesn’t that say it all: the ambition of this country far exceeds that of the Government? So will the Secretary of State come clean by admitting that vast swathes of the country will not get a penny in transformation funding and that he sold bus transformation but is delivering managed decline?

No, that is absolutely incorrect. We have just heard about this Government’s investment in Stoke. That is investment we are going to spread across the country. It is false to claim that that £1.2 billion is the total funding. It is not, as I have already pointed out. There will be £5.7 billion over five years for the city region sustainable transport settlement, for example, bringing more money in. I will write to the hon. Lady with a detailed breakdown, but I ask her to take into account the full amount of money being spent on buses—a record never achieved before by any Government, as far as I can see.

T4. At a meeting I chaired between East West Rail and residents in the town of Winslow in my constituency whose houses back on to the new railway, we were disappointed to learn from East West Rail that it plans to launch with diesel-only trains borrowed from another railway. Will my hon. Friend make an intervention with East West Rail to ensure it launches with bi-mode trains that can run on battery where the railway comes close to people’s homes in towns such as Winslow and villages such as Verney Junction and Newton Longville? (905425)

I know that my hon. Friend takes a close interest in this issue on behalf of his constituents, as I would expect. I would be very happy to have a meeting with him, at which he can share with me some of the concerns he has on behalf of his constituents.

It is two years since the Prime Minister pledged 4,000 zero-emission buses, but that pledge is in tatters. Not a single bus has been ordered through the fast-track zero-emission bus regional areas scheme. In contrast, the Scottish Government have already produced the equivalent of 2,700 bus orders. No one in the industry—not a single person—thinks that the Prime Minister’s pledge will be met, and let us remember that 4,000 is only one tenth of the English bus fleet, while Scotland decarbonises half of its bus fleet. When are the UK Government going to get real on this?

The Government remain absolutely committed to supporting the introduction of 4,000 zero-emission buses and achieving a zero-emission bus fleet. I had the joy of visiting a place in Glasgow, when I was there for COP26, that is rolling out those buses, and this will support our climate ambitions, improve local transport for communities and support high-quality green jobs. Overall, we are providing £525 million of funding for ZEBs this Parliament, and the Government have provided funding for 900 zero-emission buses through existing funding schemes.

T5. Were the brilliant bus recovery grant to end, at current passenger number levels, I could lose half of my services. Will the Secretary of State consider extending but tapering it, so that more services have a chance to recover passenger numbers to economic viability? (905426)

We will of course look into my right hon. Friend’s suggestion, but over the past two years we have provided over £1.7 billion in covid-related support to the bus sector. The recovery grant is worth more than £250 million to operators and local authorities, and has been supporting the sector as passenger numbers remain suppressed.

T3. The fleet of turquoise-coloured buses—they were like a cross between a minibus and an Uber; called Slide buses—that were increasingly being seen on the streets of Ealing and Sutton just before covid abruptly had the plug pulled on them by social distancing. Can I ask the Government to reintroduce these immediately, as we are coming out of the crisis, as a way of combating excessive car dependency? Also, women liked them because they took them directly to their door—they were demand-responsive buses. Will the Secretary of State do this or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) said, are we in Ealing exempt from levelling up these days? (905423)

If the hon. Lady is exempt from levelling up, we need to have a word with the Mayor of London about it, because transport in her constituency is run by him, of course. On a serious note, I am very interested in that scheme, and I will speak to her about it offline.

T6. The HS2 Minister was kind enough to visit my constituency to see for himself the damage being caused by the preparation alone for this train project. He will be aware that ever more areas of South Northamptonshire are now being ruined and dug up just in preparation for the line. What steps can he take to make sure that they do not become a place for fly-tipping, which we are seeing all too frequently? (905427)

HS2 Ltd takes its responsibilities to secure and maintain land along the line of route extremely seriously. I thank my right hon. Friend for taking the time to show me some of the specific problem sites when I visited her constituency. Where fly-tipping or littering occurs, HS2 Ltd must act to address it as soon as possible.

T7. Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones), I am afraid the Secretary of State’s response just reflects the fact that his approach to this issue is laissez-faire and complacent. People on both sides of the House will tell him that there is a real problem with these scooters. The Government’s policy is encouraging a disrespect for the law, because people are riding them with impunity. As he will know, crashes in London alone went up by 3,000%. Will he really get a grip on this issue? Everybody knows it is a real problem, but he is denying it. (905428)

I thank the hon. Member for his question, but I refer him to the 31 trials currently ongoing throughout the country to identify how we can legislate in the safest possible way. We regard micro-mobility as an essential part of the transition towards a much cleaner community, but I will endeavour to meet colleagues in the Home Office to discuss matters of policing with regard to illegal electric scooters.

T9. I most often raise the need to reopen Grove station in my constituency, but today I want to raise my constituency’s roads. In addition to the ongoing safety issues on the A34 and A420, the general condition of roads gets worse and worse, as a result of thousands more houses and more and more cars. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss how the roads in my constituency can be better maintained? (905430)

We would be very pleased to organise that meeting with my hon. Friend. I will set up a meeting for him with the Minister with responsibility for roads. As the House knows, we are spending £24 billion on roads and at least half of that is for their upkeep and maintenance.

T8. With a bunch of parents in Saughall in my constituency, we have been trying to put together a package for school bus transport that would save hundreds of car journeys a week. It is predicated on a successful Bus Back Better bid, but the word from the Treasury is that that money will be halved. Will we get the full amount that Cheshire West and Chester Council bid for? (905429)

That decision is yet to be taken, but in terms of the hon. Gentleman’s council and the money it is missing out on, it is disappointing to learn that in Chester the green bus technology fund, the low emission fund, the ultra-low emission fund, the all-electric bus city fund and all the zero-emission bus regional area funds have not been taken advantage of by his council. I really would encourage him to work with his council to make the most of the generous offers provided by the Department.

Airlines have had a tough couple of years, of course, but so too have passengers and travel agents in obtaining refunds from those airlines. This has been going for years. Reform is badly needed, with a regulator that has upfront powers to effect change. I am delighted to see the Government’s consultation. Can I ask the relevant Minister when we expect to see change implemented?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I commend him for his work on this and a number of issues. The consultation on consumer rights has just been launched. We will be running that and carefully considering the options that come out of it. We will be looking to make the necessary changes as soon as possible.

The Scottish Government are currently rolling out free bus travel across Scotland for anyone under the age of 22. Will the UK Government take a moment to congratulate the Scottish Government and tell us when they might deliver the same for young people in England?

The difficult decisions that need to be made have to be made by every Government, but I think what the hon. Lady was pointing out was just how generous the grant funding is, through the Barnett formula, for the Scottish Government.

Will the Secretary of State agree to an urgent meeting with me and representatives of the business community in North West Leicestershire impacted by the Birmingham to East Midlands Parkway route of HS2, to discuss the necessary changes to the route to enter Parkway station and any possible mitigations?

My hon. Friend remains a doughty champion of businesses in his constituency that will be affected by the proposals in the integrated rail plan. I would be more than happy to meet him again to discuss those proposals and the specific impacts on residents and businesses.

Further to the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), south-east London is not served by the London underground, which means our constituents rely heavily on rail services. A station in my constituency where there has been a major redevelopment has seen a nearly 50% increase in footfall: there are 1.5 million entrances and exits a year. It is essential that capacity is maintained and increased on our rail services because of the lack of alternatives. May I impress that on Ministers who will make decisions on the franchise?

As I explained earlier, we are working closely with the rail operators as they mitigate the impact of staff absences on rail services. Obviously, as restrictions are lifted and staffing pressures ease, operators will reinstate services to meet expected increases in passenger demand. I think it is fair to say that no timetable is ever static. As demand patterns continue to evolve while we recover from the pandemic, timetables must be flexible.

I welcome the massive investment this Government are making in the east midlands. They are electrifying the midlands main line as we bring HS2 from Birmingham to Nottingham. However, to benefit fully, my constituents need better trains to Nottingham. Will the Minister support my campaign for more trains on the Poacher line so that my constituents in villages such as Radcliffe-on-Trent can have the regular train service they need?

My hon. Friend rightly points out the massive investment going into the east midlands. I am sure the Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), will be more than happy to meet her to discuss the specific configuration of local services.

My constituents already face long waits for overpriced bus services without the real-time data that Londoners take for granted, and now we hear that there will be further cuts to bus services. We urgently need a bus service improvement plan. Why will the Secretary of State not urgently support one?

As I have mentioned a couple of times, we have the biggest ever programme of bus service improvements. We have gone out to local authorities to ask them for their plans, and we have funded them to bring forward those plans. They are now coming back with the first stages in the levelling-up White Paper. We will continue to deliver more on the bus agenda over time.

There has been clear interest on both sides of the House in investment in the future of buses, and we have a very positive bid from North Yorkshire County Council, working with local bus companies, to improve the services in Harrogate and Knaresborough. Will the Minister give me an indicative date for when we might hear of that bid’s success?

I am afraid that I cannot give a precise date at this time—there will of course be a date in due course—but I will make the necessary inquiries and relay back to my hon. Friend.