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Topical Questions

Volume 745: debated on Thursday 8 February 2024

This week, the Government showed once again that we are on the side of Britain’s drivers. New measures from our plan for drivers will make it simpler to charge electric cars, with schools and colleges receiving grants to boost charging and the release of the first payments from our £381 million levy fund. We are also consulting on speeding up charge point installation.

We have a plan to decarbonise transport that is working. The Labour party is in disarray. Its leader, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), would ditch Labour’s flagship spending promise, despite only committing to it on Tuesday. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) must feel uncomfortable, having said weeks ago that it was very important. It is not the first time that she has been in that position. She said a month ago that cancelling phase two of HS2 would make transport worse; the very same day, the leader of the Labour party overruled her and agreed with the Prime Minister’s plan. Labour has no plan, no direction, no clue—

Order. Just a second, Secretary of State. You know that you have no responsibility for the Opposition, and I am sure that you would not want to take it on as part of your portfolio. I need to get through topical questions.

I am pleased to hear about the Secretary of State’s plans, but does he have a plan to deal with some of the apparent traffic jams in responding to consultations on private Members’ legislation in his Department? In 2020, the consultation on pavement parking closed. Pavement parking causes huge problems for guide dogs, wheelchair users and everybody else. When will we have a response to that? On the Parking (Code of Practice) Act 2019, introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), when will we see the plans to cut down on cowboy parking enforcement companies? When will that traffic jam be eased?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising those issues. We will come out with a response on pavement parking very shortly. I cannot give him a specific date. On roadworks generally, we will consult on plans to improve the measures that stop utility companies causing roadworks to overrun, putting more pressure on them to ensure that our roads can keep moving, to support drivers.

What does the Secretary of State think that it says about the performance standards in the contracts that he signed with failing operators that senior executives at Avanti, whose cancellations now run at 17%, could boast about the “free money” from the taxpayer that is

“too good to be true”?

Two things: first, Avanti does not have any money under the performance regime, because it has not delivered appropriate enough quality, demonstrating that we pay only for good performance. On the specific issue that the hon. Lady raises, the Rail Minister and I raised that with Avanti. Senior executives at FirstGroup agreed with us that those comments were appalling, and they are taking steps to deal with that issue within the company.

They were disgraceful comments from Avanti, but the problem goes to the contracts that the Secretary of State is signing with such failing operators. Last year, Govia Thameslink failed on every single performance measure at its stations, but rather than enforcing the standards in the contract and demanding better, he lowered them so that Govia would still potentially receive its bonus and performance fee, at a potential cost of millions to the taxpayer. Is that not the perfect symbol of the Conservatives’ broken rail network: failure rewarded, and passengers and taxpayers paying the price?

It absolutely is not. The hon. Lady referred to Avanti West Coast, I gave her the answer to the question on Avanti and then she just repeated something that simply was not the case. According to the service quality regime under which Avanti West Coast operates, it has not received any payments, because it has not been hitting the quality targets—[Interruption.] If she would listen to my answer, Avanti has not hit the quality targets, so that is exactly the performance regime working.

T2.   The Cumbrian Coast railway is vital to the energy coast, for both passengers and freight. I welcome the extra funding and services that Network North will bring, but could the Rail Minister update me on the latest progress? (901433)

I would be delighted to update my hon. Friend. She will know that the upgrade of the energy coast line was one of the commitments in the Network North document. The Department is now working closely with Network Rail and local stakeholders to revisit the scope of the interventions, which were presented in the 2022 outline business case, and we expect that work to conclude later this year.

The A701 relief road realignment is a key regional infrastructure project with knock-on national benefits, not to mention the major improvements it would make in Midlothian. So-called levelling up round 3 did not even allow the project to bid for funding, and I know that the leader of Midlothian Council and the leaders of all the councils in the Edinburgh and South East Scotland city region deal have written to the Levelling Up Secretary to express their disappointment. Will this Secretary of State add his voice to theirs in calling for that critical infrastructure to be supported?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the primary responsibility for delivering road transport in Scotland is the responsibility of the SNP Government, because it is devolved. I am pleased that he has welcomed the levelling-up bids that have been delivered in Scotland—this Government delivering for the people of Scotland where his Government have failed. On the specific issue he raises, I will of course draw his remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State.

T3. Fraserburgh-based Gray & Adams is the UK’s pre-eminent manufacturer of refrigerated trailers—I am told they were involved in the design of regulations in the early days of refrigerated transport. Will the Minister meet me and Gray & Adams’s management and engineers to see what can be done to ensure that regulations are updated at a pace that keeps up with the ongoing innovations made by that great example of British manufacturing? (901434)

My hon. Friend has been a fantastic champion for Fraserburgh and for that business in particular. I know very well the issue in respect of longer semi-trailers and compliance with the regulations. I would be delighted to meet him and the company, and I assure both the company and the wider industry that we are working to find a way forward on this question, because it matters and we want to support that business.

T4.   His Majesty the King is well known and much loved in my constituency, and on behalf of my constituents I wish him a full recovery. Do the Government agree that the sustainability of transport links, particularly air links, between Scottish airports and the rest of the UK are very important? For example, flights in and out of Wick John O’Groats airport are crucial to the economic development of the far north. (901435)

Indeed; aviation is important for economic development across the entirety of the UK, including links between Scotland and England. However, the hon. Gentleman’s question was about Wick John O’Groats airport, and the public service obligations for that airport lie entirely within Scotland and are a matter for the Scottish Government.

The roads Minister will recall a meeting I had with him, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici) and for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft), about resurfacing the A180 and removing the concrete surface. I have had many meetings with roads Ministers over the years who have promised that. Will he be the one who can deliver it?

T5. One SME owner in my constituency told me that, if he has meetings in London, he now often travels down the night before, because he cannot rely on Avanti’s train service. Even if the trains are not cancelled, as we learned recently, Avanti is Britain’s least punctual train operator. Given that terrible service, does the Secretary of State now regret his premature decision to extend the contract for the west coast main line? (901438)

The decision to extend the Avanti contract was taken because its performance had improved dramatically. At that time, its self-induced cancellation rates were at 1.5%, down from 13%. Avanti is in the process of hiring 70 drivers per year. I have spoken to Avanti about matters that have been raised in the Chamber today, and about its recent service. We know that it needs to do better, and we are holding it to account to ensure that it does so.

The proposed west London orbital network could enable trains to run from Hendon to Hounslow and take millions of passengers off the underground, and will be a boon to all people in west London. Has my hon. Friend had a look at the proposal, and will he give it the green light?

We have had a presentation on the plan, and I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to update him. It is a matter of interest, and I like to see such proposals brought forward—although, of course, we have to balance them with ensuring that the taxpayer is not at extra risk.

The dualling of the A47 at Blofield was fully funded and ready to go a year ago. Since then, a former Green party parliamentary candidate has bogged it down in a series of legal challenges. Once they have been overcome, will the Department be right behind that much-needed dualling scheme?

The Government are utterly committed to the A47. The court case to which my hon. Friend refers is also linked to the A57. We are passionately committed to both roads. We await the judgment, which we believe will come within the next month or so.

T6. Bedford borough could become the home of the only Universal Studios theme park in Europe, bringing enormous prosperity and many jobs to my constituency and the eastern region. Although road infrastructure funding has already been allocated until 2025, will the Government commit to supporting that exciting project by funding the substantial road improvements that will be necessary for the plan to go ahead? (901439)

I am familiar with that scheme, on which I have been briefed, and I know that the Chancellor has been involved in it as well. The Government will look carefully at the proposals that are brought forward and will want to do what we can to ensure that that exciting proposal comes to fruition.

Will the Minister update the House on what measures are being taken to reduce the amount of litter and debris blighting many central reservations and grass verges on our major highways?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. It is absolutely vital that the great British public stop throwing litter—that would be the first and most important thing. I can assure him that National Highways is utterly committed on this matter, and gave evidence to the Transport Committee about the dozens and dozens of people it has clearing up the litter every single day. However, it is fundamentally up to the public to stop littering.

T7.   Heathrow airport saw a significant increase in noise complaints last year. Residents in my constituency are regularly woken up in the middle of the night by the roar of jet engines overhead, and there are well-documented impacts on their physical and mental health. Will the Secretary of State finally commit to banning night flights between 11 pm and 6 am? (901440)

On noise, it is important to strike a balance between the negative impacts of aviation on local communities who live close to the airport and the economic benefits of flights around the UK. We will shortly publish the results of a consultation on night flights, and the hon. Member should wait for it.[Official Report, 19 February 2024, Vol. 745, c. 7MC.] (Correction)

Vehicles parked on pavements continue to have a negative impact on disabled people, especially those who are blind or partially sighted like myself. It has been four years since the Government’s consultation on that, yet still no action has been taken. The Minister said that they were going to respond to that consultation soon. “Soon” is not good enough. When will they bring forward a plan to ban pavement parking?

The hon. Lady will understand that there are already provisions in place permitting action by local authorities. We intend to publish the Government review very shortly.

Has the ministerial team seen the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety’s recent report on the growing number of accidents involving e-scooters, and if not, will they look at it? Not only are e-scooters an increasing danger to all our constituents, there is a lack of police follow-up when accidents happen.

The use of private e-scooters on public land—on roads and pavements—is illegal in the UK, and it is up to the police to enforce that law. We have 23 different legal trials of rental e-scooters around the country.[Official Report, 19 February 2024, Vol. 745, c. 7MC.] (Correction) We recently announced the extension of those trials, and we are using that data to learn more about the dangers or otherwise of e-scooters, which will inform the policy for the future regulation of e-scooters.

The Mayor of London has frozen fares for five out of the eight years he has been in office, meaning that they are 14% below national fare increases. Should I take it from the Secretary of State’s earlier answer to the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) that he is opposed to those fare freezes, and that he expects a Conservative Mayor to put fares up if elected?

No. What I find surprising is that the London Mayor spends an awful lot of time pretending that he does not have any money, so he puts up taxes on hard-working motorists in outer London, and then just before an election, he finds a secret war chest that enables him to do popular things. Everyone knows that if he were to win, he would put up taxes again on the poorest motorists as sure as night follows day, which is why they should vote for Susan Hall.

I thank Ministers for all their answers. Regarding accessibility for disabled passengers, being ever mindful that we are in an age of equality and that disabled people deserve the same opportunities as everyone else, has consideration been given to ensuring that taxi firms have an obligation to provide vehicles for disabled people in every shift pattern?

It is always good to have the hon. Gentleman winding up proceedings. I will take away that point and have a very detailed look at it, and get officials to give me a detailed answer that I will provide in writing.