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Topical Questions

Volume 723: debated on Thursday 24 November 2022

Last week, the Chancellor delivered his autumn statement, which confirmed that the Department for Transport’s budget for the next two financial years remains unchanged. That means we will invest about £20 billion in transport infrastructure in each of the next two years and spend about £6 billion a year to maintain existing infrastructure and operate vital transport services. In the coming weeks, I will work with my ministerial team and officials to assess our portfolio of projects.

Let me say a word or two on rail strikes, which I know are of interest to many Members. I want a sustainable, thriving rail network, but with 20% of passengers not having returned following the covid pandemic, reform is vital. I urge all trade union leaders to get back around the table with employers to hammer out the detail of that reform. The Government will work to facilitate this, and to that end I will be meeting trade union leaders in the coming days.

I welcome the team to their places.

National Highways is planning to plough a road through the much-loved and used Rimrose valley, the only substantial green space in my very urbanised constituency, at a cost of up to £365 million—and that was before the current inflationary crisis kicked in. Perhaps the money could be better used to level up my constituency more constructively, rather than being allocated to a project that is at least 25 years out of date. So will the Department ask Highways England to scrap these plans, which are unwanted and unnecessary, and which will simply exacerbate—

Order. You all want to get in. This is topical questions and you have to be sharp and punchy. Come on, Secretary of State, you will give an example.

Let me try to give a short, punchy reply. National Highways is well aware that there are a range of opinions and views about its proposals for the A5036, and it is committed to working with all stakeholders to try to achieve the right result for all. I am sure that it will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s clear opinions expressed in this House.

T2. Will the Roads Minister confirm that a new junction 10a on the A14 at Kettering remains in the pipeline for road investment strategy 3 for the period 2025 to 2030 and that the proposals are being actively developed by National Highways? (902403)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I can confirm that the Government’s proposed junction 10a of the A14 to the east of Kettering continues to be developed by National Highways as part of the pipeline of schemes being considered for development as part of RIS3.

Earlier this year, the then Transport Secretary said of the P&O scandal:

“we will never support those who treat workers with such callousness”—[Official Report, 30 March 2022; Vol. 711, c. 842.]

I now have evidence that its competitor, Irish Ferries, pays its seafarers just £5.50 an hour, yet in September Ministers awarded it a contract worth tens of thousands of pounds. How can the Government condemn the scandal of seafarers’ pay and then hand over taxpayers’ money without conditions to a company whose business model is based on poverty pay?

We are looking speedily at this important matter at the moment. The Seafarers’ Wages Bill is coming to this House within the next few weeks to address many of these issues that the Opposition spokesman raises.

T5. During my recent visit to West Lodge Primary School in my constituency, I saw the excellent work the children were doing to deal with bad parking and, in particular, engine idling outside the school. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me, my many constituents, my local councils and even Hillingdon Council Labour group that we need effective measures to tackle air quality hotspots in the suburbs, rather than Mayor Khan’s one-size-fits-all ultra low emission zone scheme, which does nothing to address issues such as engine idling outside schools? (902407)

My hon. Friend raises some important issues. The important thing from the Government’s point of view is that we tackle air quality. He will know better than me that how we do that and which schemes are run is devolved to local government, so it is devolved to the Mayor of London. I know that the Mayor has recently consulted on proposals to extend the ULEZ and is expected to announce the outcome, but those are matters for him. I know my hon. Friend will continue to campaign vigorously on them.

T3.   Decisions on Northern Powerhouse Rail will shape the railways in the north of England for generations to come, so we need to be ambitious and we need to get it right. Does the Rail Minister in particular understand the concerns of so many of us in the north about the downgraded rail option for Bradford as part of the core plan? Will he look at that again, please? (902404)

As well as committing to the core integrated rail plan, over the summer the Prime Minister set this Department the challenge of assessing options for Bradford with regard to a new station and better connecting Bradford. That is work that I am doing. It is an incredibly high priority for me, and I will come back to the hon. Gentleman with detail once that is ready.

T8.   The campaign to reopen the Ivanhoe line, joining Burton to Leicester and coming through my constituency, has the support of four MPs. It has been gaining traction, support and funding from the Department for Transport. We are now into the millions and the project is getting closer to coming to fruition. Will the Minister comment on where this programme is and how likely it is to come forward? (902410)

I thank my hon. Friend for all the work that he does with regard to the campaign to reopen the Ivanhoe line and for the success in securing more funding for the Ivanhoe line project in June this year. Network Rail is undertaking development work to test different service and scope options and progress the business case. Decisions on this scheme and others in the restoring your railway programme are expected in the next year, but I just remind him of the financial envelope within which we are all working.

T4. Unite the union, which represents tens of thousands of lorry drivers, has discovered by a freedom of information request that the UK Government’s scheme of £32 million to improve toilet facilities for lorry drivers is entirely unspent a year after the then Chancellor announced it. Why is that the case? (902405)

The hon. Member may have missed the announcement this morning that the scheme has just been opened. I shall be visiting a road haulage site this afternoon to launch the scheme for match funding across the country to improve lorry facilities for our truckers, who worked hard throughout the entire pandemic.

Highways England is now looking at much-needed safety improvements along the A38 between Carkeel and Trerulefoot in my constituency. I welcome that, but what this road really needs is major improvements to help our economy and the economy of Cornwall to level up. Will the Minister commit to start looking at the options to make this a reality?

My hon. Friend is a real champion for South East Cornwall and has been hammering away on this scheme for years. Highways England is developing a package of targeted safety measures for the A38, which will be considered for possible delivery within the third road investment strategy, RIS3. Although we are not considering further massive enhancements such as a bypass at this time, the work that we are doing at the moment would not prevent such a scheme in the future. I look forward to working with her on future road plans.

T6.   Arriva in North Tyneside is letting down my constituents. Buses do not turn up or are cancelled at short notice. Surely enough is enough when pupils at North Gosforth Academy need counselling because they are so worried about getting to and from school. Can the Minister do something to force Arriva to be a more responsible and reliable service provider? (902408)

I have had similar issues in my North West Durham constituency with Arriva over the past few months. It is looking at some of these plans and, as part of the bus service improvement scheme, £163.5 million will be heading to the north-east. We are just finalising the details on that and looking at how we can improve transport services in the future. I look forward to working with the hon. Lady and other colleagues across the region to deliver that.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

I welcome the Chancellor’s announcement last week that capital transport investment will be a central pillar of the Government’s growth agenda. May I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when he will be able to set out a little more detail on which projects he will be prioritising, and make a bid for the next stages of East West Rail to be among the early ones?

First, I am very pleased to welcome my hon. Friend to his place as Chair of the Transport Committee. I look forward to working with him and with all members of the Select Committee, whichever party they come from, to focus on these important transport issues.

Over the coming weeks my colleagues and I will be looking at our priorities across the whole portfolio of capital projects, and we will set those out in the House in due course. I have noted his bid; he will know that the Chancellor committed to East West Rail in the autumn statement, and I hope that gives him some comfort.

T7. Does the Minister think it is a good idea for car manufacturers to build cars with features such as heated seats, performance modes or key fobs that can be activated only by payment of a subscription or a tacked-on fee? Are there any plans to regulate these increasing pay-to-use features? (902409)

Commercial matters around car manufacture and delivery are up to the individual manufacturers. What we have seen in the UK recently is the Government putting in £100 million to help to support Nissan and the next generation of electric vehicles being delivered up in Sunderland.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will know that strike action on our railways will lead to more congestion on our roads. In Essex, that means more congestion on the A12 and A120. Will he kindly commit to meeting me and the leader of Essex County Council to discuss those two road schemes?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her question and for her work when she was Home Secretary to strengthen the law to enable us to deal with those who cause disruption on our transport network. I would be delighted to meet her and the leader of Essex County Council to talk about those important road projects.

Research from the Campaign for Better Transport suggests that the Government are so far behind on their electrification plans that rolling stock leasing companies are being forced to destroy electric units that they cannot use. At the same time, the Government continue to introduce new diesel trains—more not zero than net zero. Will the Government ensure that they order no more diesel trains and get on with electrification?

The Government are committed to phasing out all diesel trains by 2040. That remains our aim and our ambition. There is electrification going on at the moment along the west midlands line, and we are certainly committed to ensuring that we can roll out more electrification, and indeed use hydrogen and battery power where appropriate, in the years to come.

The electrification of the Chase line means that passengers benefit from a more frequent service. However, passengers from Rugeley remain disadvantaged because the last train from Birmingham terminates at Hednesford. Will the Rail Minister meet me to discuss this matter and other issues that Chase line passengers face?

My right hon. Friend does an incredible job for her constituents, and on that basis of course I say yes to meeting her and learning more about those issues.

Last week the RMT voted overwhelmingly for strike action. Last night the Secretary of State said he would be prepared to meet the leader of the RMT. Some 50% of the public and passengers support those rail strikes. They should not just have been shaking hands last night, but they should be shaking hands today on a deal. The Secretary of State knows full well that he sets the flexibility and parameters for both Network Rail and train operating companies on the financial offer they can put forward. It is in his hands to end those strikes, and to do so today.

As I set out at the start of topical questions, I very much want the strikes not to take place. I have set out my ambition for the rail sector and I will be meeting trade union leaders in the coming days, including later today. In order to pay for a better offer for rail staff, we need to deliver reform. That is why I want trade union leaders to get back around the table with the employers and hammer out the detail of those reforms. Then a better offer can be put on the table and we can end the need for these strikes, which cause enormous damage to passengers and businesses across the country.

May I thank the Government for all that they are doing to improve connectivity at Darlington, including the £135 million invested in Bank Top station? However, my constituents in places such as Harrowgate Hill and Whinfield still suffer from congestion and emissions on the roads. Can my hon. Friend guide me on what more I can do to ensure that we ease this gridlock by delivering a northern link road?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question; he and I have worked closely together on many local transport issues. National Highways and Tees Valley Combined Authority have worked closely on developing proposals for the Darlington northern link road, connecting the A66 and junction 59 of the A1. The work to date will form part of a body of evidence informing the investment plans for RIS3—the third road investment strategy—for future roads between 2025 and 2030.

People expect the Government to be trying to help resolve these rail strikes, not block a resolution. How can the Transport Secretary claim that it is not his role to get involved when the Government are handing over tens of millions of pounds a day in indemnity payments to rail companies to back them up during this strike?

I do not think the hon. Gentleman listened to my earlier answers. It is not my interest to block a settlement at all. I want to resolve this issue. I want to facilitate the trade unions and the employers getting together to hammer out some reform measures to help pay for a better pay offer for the staff. I will do everything I can to end these damaging and unnecessary strikes, and I hope he will do what he can to persuade the trade unions to get back around the table with the employers.

Tomorrow I will be visiting Whitcombe Pipelines in Rowley Regis, which has just won a substantial contract for HS2 infrastructure. Does the Secretary of State agree that this demonstrates how HS2 is already delivering significant benefits to my constituency, through jobs and growth, and that it is important that that is maintained?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The supply chain for HS2 and the spending benefits constituencies and constituents across the whole of the United Kingdom, including his and, indeed, mine.

Before the pandemic, the rail services through my constituency suffered from chronic overcrowding, yet the Government used the pandemic as an excuse to cut peak-time services from my constituency without consultation of those rail users. What is he going to do to monitor the damage that he has done and to ensure that those services are restored when those trains get chronically overcrowded again?

Southeastern did indeed ask for a derogation to consult, and changes had to be made quite rapidly during the pandemic, although may I just say that, as a fellow user of Southeastern, the hon. Member will find that there are some benefits from that? It is not just about taking down some costs; it is also about simplifying the line structure, so that at Lewisham, for example, there will not be as many trains crossing. If he would just wait and see how matters progress, he and I might find that it has been a good timetable change after all.

Derby’s bid to be the headquarters of Great British Railways has huge support: more than 20 right hon. and hon. Members, 40 local authorities, and the businesses forming the largest rail cluster in the country, and maybe even in Europe. Will the Minister confirm when the announcement will be made to confirm which of the six shortlisted locations has won the bidding process?

We have had six excellent shortlisted bids, one of which of course is Derby. The Government remain committed to reform of the railways. We will be looking at all the options, and that includes looking at bringing forward legislation to make this happen and revealing the winning bid at that time.

The work, business, leisure, family and educational lives of my constituents are being hugely undermined by atrocious bus services. I heard the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), but the previous Secretary of State promised to meet me to discuss this as a matter of urgency. Will this Secretary of State keep her commitment and meet me?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question; I will certainly meet her. I know how important bus services are, and I will also be meeting, hopefully in the near future, local authorities across the north-east so that we can hopefully deliver that £163 million for them as well.

Two thirds of Londoners have said no to the Mayor of London expanding the ultra low emission zone to the whole of Greater London. Will my right hon. Friend join me and Conservative MP colleagues to tell the Mayor of London that it is not for the poorest Londoners to foot the bill for his financial failures?

As I said earlier, how to respond to the consultation and proceed is a matter for the Mayor to consider. I know that my hon. Friend has had a massive campaign on this issue, with over 5,000 people getting in touch with him about ULEZ. If hon. Members really want to see this policy changed, the best thing they can do is replace the Mayor of London at the next election.

Some 73% of guide dog owners have been refused access to taxis, shops and restaurants in the past year. What is the Minister and his Department doing to improve access and ensure that guide dog owners such as my constituent Robert, and his guide dog Winnie, can get out and about with confidence?

I am very familiar with that issue from my time as Minister for Disabled People. The behaviour that the hon. Lady describes is, of course, already unlawful. She has set out a specific case; if she writes to me with the details, we will look into it and see what further work we can do to make sure that the existing law to ensure fairness for guide dog owners is properly enforced across the United Kingdom.

I, many constituents and countless people up and down the land struggle each week with the poor and unreliable service provided by Avanti West Coast. People are missing interviews, appointments, family events and social occasions. Can the Minister give the latest Government assessment of Avanti’s performance and confirm that nothing will be ruled out, including stripping it of its contract if it does not lift its game?

I am sorry for my hon. Friend’s experience and that of his constituents. We are working very hard with the Avanti team to get more services restored. In December, with the good will of the unions and the workforce, we will see an increase in weekday services from the current 180 to 264, which would be a greater number than before the unions decided not to work to the rest day agreement, which is something I very much regret. I am committed to ensuring that Avanti services improve, which I know is important to you, Mr Speaker, and all Members of the House.