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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 745: debated on Thursday 8 February 2024


The Secretary of State was asked—

Seafaring Support: Red Sea

1. What steps his Department is taking with Cabinet colleagues to support seafarers working in the Red sea. (901406)

Let me first take this opportunity to offer my support and best wishes to His Majesty the King for a swift and full recovery. I look forward to seeing him out and about again on his public-facing duties.

This is a challenging time for seafarers. Their welfare is central to our concerns during the Red sea crisis. Their bravery has ensured the continued supply of vital goods to the UK. We have engaged with organisations that represent seafarers, working closely with the International Maritime Organisation—I have met its new secretary-general twice this year. We will not hesitate to take action to protect innocent lives and preserve freedom of navigation. In response to the Red sea crisis, the RAF has engaged in three waves of proportionate and targeted strikes against Houthi military targets with the United States and other allies. My Department continues to work closely with industry to provide the best possible advice and support.

I associate myself, and the people of Banff and Buchan, with my right hon. Friend’s remarks wishing His Majesty the fullest of recoveries. Could he set out in more detail precisely what engagement the Government have had with British companies across the UK on not just the attacks but the threats of attacks in the Red sea?

I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that we have been engaging regularly with shipping companies to ensure that they have as much advice and support as possible, so that they can take informed commercial decisions about vessel movements based on a full consideration of recent events. We provide security advisory notices and convene meetings with the sector at both official and ministerial level. I have met sector leaders to discuss these critical developments.

I thank the Minister for that positive response. It is clear that the Government are taking the right steps to broadly address the issue, but what is being done to ensure that individual seafaring companies with responsibility for crews have access to up-to-date advice? I would go so far as to suggest protective measures to enable them to keep their routes open—perhaps protective staff on boats, or helicopters or planes overhead.

The hon. Gentleman is right to put the safety of ships and seafarers at the centre of the issue, as we and the IMO do. We work very closely with the sector to ensure that it has the best possible information, both at policy level and in the region. We are taking further steps to ensure that the best advice is available on the ground, so that individual captains as well as their companies can make the best decisions commercially and, importantly, for the safety of their crews.

Transport Connectivity: North-west England

2. What steps he is taking to increase transport connectivity between towns and cities in the north-west. (901407)

Network North will see a further £19.8 billion- worth of investment in the north of England following the redirection of funding from High Speed 2. That is in addition to what has already been committed through the £3.5 billion to northern city regions from the first round of the city region sustainable transport settlements; the development of Northern Powerhouse Rail, which will transform rail connectivity between the north of England’s key economic centres; and £11 billion for the trans-Pennine route upgrade.

In the light of the Government’s commitment to level up through Network North, will my hon. Friend commit to a meeting with me and other key stakeholders to discuss reinstating the Burscough curves rail link, which would connect Southport to Preston and the wider north of England, fulfilling our economic potential and helping us welcome another million visitors a year to Southport?

I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to his doughty campaigning on the reopening of the Burscough curves. It is for local transport authorities to consider whether such projects are the best way to meet local transport needs and, if so, whether they wish to develop the schemes from the significant new transport budgets that the Government will shortly be allocating from HS2 savings.

When the Prime Minister made the decision to scrap HS2, the Department for Transport said that the plan would “lead to increased capacity on the west coast mainline.” That is not correct, is it? I have a leaked document from the Minister’s own officials that proves it. In it, they admit that the decision will mean fewer seats than today, with Glasgow and Manchester badly hit, and because HS2 trains cannot tilt, they will be even slower than current trains. Does he not owe it to the north finally to admit that? Does he accept that he will be the high-speed rail Minister who left behind slower trains and fewer seats?

Obviously, we do not comment on documents that may or may not have been leaked. What I can say is that the HS2 train design has always had capacity for 500 seats; if the trains had doubled up to 400 metres in length, the capacity would, of course, be 1,000 seats. The Network North document committed half a billion pounds to look at unlocking further capacity. Let us be quite clear that the 140 miles of HS2 being built to Birmingham will reduce the journey times not only to Birmingham, but to Manchester by another 27 minutes, and to Liverpool by 26 minutes. As far as the tilting is concerned, as the Department made clear to the Public Accounts Committee, we are looking at where those speeds can still be achieved on the west coast main line without the need to tilt.

Taxi Licensing

16. What steps he is taking to ensure consistent standards of taxi licensing across local authorities. (901427)

The Department for Transport issues guidance to licensing authorities in England to help them regulate the sector, including the statutory taxi and private hire vehicle standards and the best practice guidance, updated in November 2023. Last year the Government enacted legislation requiring licensing authorities in England to use a national database to share information, in order to prevent drivers who have lost their licence from applying to other authorities that would not know about their previous wrongdoing.

Local taxi drivers in Barnsley are having their prices undermined by cross-border taxi drivers who do not have to abide by the same regulatory measures. Local councils have no jurisdiction over out-of-borough hires, and concerns have been raised about differences in the training and safety precautions required. The Labour party has committed to action. When will the Government do the same?

There is already a database and already a duty on local authorities to share information. Licences can be taken away in the particular circumstances the hon. Lady identifies.

Taxis and private hire vehicles are a very personal service, and it is important for customers that both the vehicles and the drivers have proper safety checks, so that if things go wrong they can take a complaint to the licensing authority. The problem is that when that authority is 100 miles away in Wolverhampton, the system simply does not work. When will the Minister legislate to ensure that journeys can be made in a licensed vehicle only when they either take place or finish in the licensing authority area?

With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, we have already brought in changes to the rules that mean that individual authorities can take action against an individual operating in another authority, which is something I think he should welcome.

As we have heard from colleagues, the cross-border issue remains a real problem right across the country. We have the additional problem of the potentially changed relationship between operators and drivers, which is highlighted by the press campaigns about the possible imposition of VAT on private hire journeys. Does all this not show that the Department should have modernised taxi and private hire legislation ages ago, rather than waiting for companies such as Uber to drive a coach and horses through regulations that were, frankly, written in the time of coaches and horses?

I would not refer to regulations written in 2020 and updated in 2023 as written in the time of coaches and horses—perhaps the hon. Gentleman should check his history. On the Uber case that he rightly identifies, that is clearly a court case that the Government have to address and will therefore consult on thereafter.

I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s best wishes to His Majesty the King.

During my time in this House, I have worked alongside victims and survivors of the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal. Following the scandal, Rotherham council set very high standards for its taxi drivers, including installing CCTV in cabs and requiring national vocational qualification level 3 on child safeguarding. Those standards are being undercut by the Government’s deregulation of taxi standards, and nothing the Minister has set out this morning will stop that. Does he not agree that the Government’s position is putting the safety of women and girls at risk? Is it not time for robust legislation and national minimum standards to protect them?

With respect, on 27 April 2023 a new law came into force that requires licensing authorities in England to use a database to record refusals, suspensions and revocations made on safeguarding or road safety grounds. The new requirements mean that individuals who are not fit and proper to hold a taxi or private hire vehicle licence will be unable to apply for a licence with other authorities without that authority being made aware of past safety concerns. That change will help to protect passengers, including women and girls, as well as the reputation of the majority of drivers, from those who are unfit to hold that office.

Bus Services

The Government are providing the largest public investment in buses for a generation, providing more than £4.5 billion-worth of services in England outside London since 2020, as we rebuilt post covid.

My constituents are deeply concerned about the proposed cuts to the 78, 79 and 200 bus routes linking villages and towns in Bedfordshire. That is in the context of the Government’s own latest bus statistics, which show that in the last decade the bus sector in England outside London lost 15,000 workers and had around 600 million fewer annual bus passenger journeys. The Government’s bus strategy, published in 2020, is not reversing that decline. Will they commit to reversing the ideological ban on municipal bus companies and ensure that all local authorities get sufficient funding to deliver the bus services our communities need?

The hon. Lady seems to have forgotten the covid pandemic. The number of local bus passenger journeys in England increased by half a billion—that is 19%—in the financial year ending March 2023. Her local authority received extra BSIP-plus—bus service improvement plans—funding of £19 million. I urge her bus operators to sign up to the £2 bus fare, which has been transformational across the country in raising bus numbers.

Would the Minister be as surprised as I was to learn that, of the £3.722 million long-term BSIP Government cash given to Blackburn with Darwen Council, only £180,000—less than 5% of the entire budget—is being spent in the town of Darwen? It is all very well for the Minister to give money to councils such as Blackburn with Darwen, but will he ensure that it is spent fairly among the populations they represent?

My right hon. Fried makes a very good point. This is money that the Government give to ensure that communities across a particular constituency receive support. It should not be solely focused on one area. I will take up that point and write to the local authority myself.

Bus mileage has dropped by just 5% in London since 2010, yet astonishingly it has fallen by more than 30% in the north-east, as the Minister will know. Kim McGuinness, Labour’s candidate for North East Mayor, is keen to fix that as a priority, if elected in May. Is it not beyond time to let local communities have power and control of their own local bus services?

Clearly, that we are to have a regional Mayor for the North East is good news, but I did not think the hon. Lady would be celebrating the fact that she has a disastrous police and crime commissioner as her candidate and that the previously Labour Metro Mayor of North of Tyne is now running as an independent against the Labour party. However, it is without a shadow of a doubt the

“best-funded devolution deal in the country.”

Those are not my words, but those of the previously Labour Mayor. I genuinely believe we are building back better post covid, with enhanced bus company usage in circumstances where the £2 bus fare is making a huge difference.

Recent statistics show that the Bee Network is already making a daily difference for bus passengers across Greater Manchester, with an 8% rise in patronage in the first month of franchising alone and more bus services running on time than before. Liverpool and West Yorkshire are now following in Greater Manchester’s footsteps and exploring their own franchising plans to revolutionise local transport for thousands of residents. Does the Minister agree with Labour’s plan to give every local authority, not just Metro Mayors, the same freedom to take back control of their own bus services? If not, what does he say to the millions of people whose bus routes are being so badly cut back under this tired Tory Government? Does it not prove that while the Conservatives dither, Labour delivers?

With respect, the number of bus journeys in England increased by half a billion to 3.4 billion in the financial year ending March 2023, and that happened because of massive Government funding, which has effectively doubled since 2009. The hon. Gentleman is actually lauding something that is funded by this Government. It is unquestionably the case that we have allowed certain local authorities and Mayors to engage in franchising—something we introduced—but there has to be a way of paying for it, and it has been demonstrated repeatedly that when Labour organisations are challenged on this, they struggle to find out how they are going to deal with the funding, because, quite simply, they do not have a plan.

Speed Limits

In England, this is primarily a matter for local authorities. The 20 mph limits work in the right places, such as outside schools, and following the right consultation with the public. They do not work as blanket measures. We do not want them to be set indiscriminately on all roads, without due regard for the safety case and without local support.

The 20 mph limits can work in quiet, narrow residential side streets where there is local consent, but London’s Labour Mayor and boroughs are increasingly inflicting them on wide roads and main roads where they are not justified. Now Barnet Council wants to introduce a big 20 mph zone in Whetstone without adequate consultation. Will the Secretary of State intervene to ensure that these speed limits are introduced only in appropriate circumstances, and only when they have strong local support?

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. Imposing blanket 20 mph zones without local support—which is what Labour has done across Wales and in London—is bad for drivers, but it also risks reducing the specific protection for vulnerable road users which operates, for example, near schools. As our policy paper “Plan for drivers” explains, we will be providing stronger guidance to ensure that blanket 20 mph zones are restricted, and we will consider further action against councils that do not comply with it.

On one hand the Secretary of State acknowledges the ability of local authorities to deliver their own local transport strategies such as low-traffic neighbourhoods and 20 mph zones where they fit, but on the other hand this “Plan for drivers” weaponises such policies. Will he stop weaponising them, and consider those who are not in vehicles but are using our roads and the safety measures from their local authorities? Will he recognise that we are all road users, whether or not we are in a vehicle?

I think that question had the disadvantage of being written before the hon. Lady had listened to my answer. I said very clearly that I supported 20 mph zones in areas where they make sense. Outside a school, for instance, they make perfect sense. What does not make sense is imposing blanket policies that bear no relation to the circumstances, which, as I have said, is what Labour has done in Wales. It has implemented blanket policies that are very unpopular, do not carry public support, and damage the acceptance of 20 mph zones in places where they do make sense—

The hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, refers to conspiracies. My constituency is next door to Wales, and I can tell the House that that is not a conspiracy; the 20 mph zones are incredibly unpopular in Wales. This is a blanket policy that makes no sense and is not supported by the public.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel

6. What steps he is taking with the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero to improve the allocation of resources between the production of sustainable aviation fuel and other uses of biomass. (901415)

In developing the biomass strategy and our forthcoming low-carbon fuel strategy, my Department has worked closely with the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, whose policy paper on the biomass strategy was published last year. Sectors that are harder to decarbonise, including aviation, should be priority uses for biomass. We are continuing to work across Government, and with industry experts, to ensure that policies that increase the supply of sustainable aviation fuels deliver on our climate change commitments.

As the Minister will know, the sustainable aviation fuel mandate will come into force in 2025, but meanwhile the Government have not yet responded to consultations on how it will work, and there is no real-world fuel sourcing analysis or plan that would take account of the changing nature of municipal waste arising from the already allocated uses of municipal and agricultural feedstock for purposes other than the production of SAF. What steps is the Minister taking to develop a realistic plan for feedstock availability and use?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s question. As I have just said, we will shortly publish the low-carbon fuel strategy, which will set out the different sources of low-carbon fuels. We will publish our response to the SAF mandate by the spring. A great deal of detailed analysis and work is being done in relation to different fuel sources. We will also publish a revenue certainty mechanism to ensure that we have a UK SAF industry. We engage regularly with the industry on this, and it is very confident about and supportive of the Government’s policies. We do have a detailed plan, and I want to commiserate with the hon. Gentleman, because I am sure that as Energy Minister he too had a plan, but the Opposition’s plans seem to have been U-turned today.

Rail Fares

Since 2010, regulated fares across Great Britain have decreased by around 7% compared with the retail prices index. The Government continue to intervene to keep fares affordable, and to encourage travel, by capping increases below inflation and delivering initiatives such as the second great British rail sale. We have to strike a balance between encouraging passengers to use our rail network and supporting the rail industry to get back on a good financial footing as it continues to deal with a revenue shortfall following the pandemic.

For a period last year, Urmston train station in my constituency was one of the country’s 10 worst performing train stations for service reliability. Given the level of service experienced by my constituents who use Urmston and other stations on the line, why are they set to face an inflation-busting fare increase in March?

If we take the current year’s fares as an example, we delivered the biggest Government intervention on rail fares since privatisation by capping fare increases at 5.9%, which was 6.4 percentage points below the July RPI. It is all about striking a balance, and I believe that balance is a fair one.

In the last three years, the UK taxpayer has contributed £45.9 billion to keep the railways going. This year’s figure of 4.9% is, again, below inflation. It cannot be that bad, because Labour-run Wales has done exactly the same. It is better than Scotland, where the SNP has put up fares by 8.7%.

If a person were to get a train from Market Rasen to London later this morning, not only would they be hit by a hefty rail fare, as we all know, but, worse, it would take them over three hours and two changes. My hon. Friend has repeatedly promised me and my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) that he will give us a through train to London. I understand that he has now approved that—he can confirm it today—but it is held up on the desk of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. We do not want some bean counter in the Treasury stopping our train.

I fear a career-limiting response. My right hon. Friend’s campaign is strong, and he is absolutely right that it has this team’s support; I am sure that it will have support across Government. It is currently being looked at, and I hope to be able to give him and his colleagues good news.

I apologise for the disruption to normal service: my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) is on Committee business, so the House will have to put up with a spokesperson replacement service this morning.

Last October, peak fares were scrapped across Scotland’s railways for six months. That has been extended to nine months, until the end of June. As a result, ScotRail services are 4% busier and demand has shifted across the service day. Meanwhile, Department for Transport-owned London North Eastern Railway has pushed up prices for thousands of tickets in the name of simplification, in some cases costing passengers going to and from Scotland hundreds of pounds extra. Will the Minister look to the lessons that Scotland has learned from scrapping peak fares, and apply that policy across Anglo-Scottish services?

I am delighted to talk about things that are being scrapped, because perhaps we can shift towards rail freight. The SNP budget has just been set. Mode shift revenue support has always been given to rail freight, to move freight from road to rail, but the SNP Scottish Government have just announced that they are axing that subsidy. Not only that, but for the year to come, the cross-border subsidy between Scotland and the rest of Great Britain is being scrapped, too. We stand by the rail freight subsidy, so we will fund the Scottish element.

What are the Scottish Government doing? They talk about decarbonisation while shifting more freight on to the roads, because they refuse to support rail freight. That is an absolute shocker. That, along with the 8.7% increase in fares and the £80 million cut to ScotRail, means that the hon. Gentleman is in no place to lecture anyone when it comes to rail.

Road Resurfacing

As part of the Network North plan, the Government are providing a record funding increase of £8.3 billion for local highway maintenance in England over the next decade to enable local highways authorities to resurface roads up and down the country. Over that period, Nottinghamshire will get £138.44 million of additional funding over and above what it would have received. In the current financial year, most highways authorities in England will get 30% more funding than they did in the previous year.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer, and for the billions that have been redirected to the midlands for road repairs from HS2. Conservative-controlled Nottinghamshire County Council, in difficult financial circumstances, is endeavouring to spend millions, beyond its regular highways budget, on road repairs. May I impress on him that this remains perhaps the top issue raised with me in my inbox? Will he bear that in mind, particularly when he has his conversations with the Treasury? Will he join me in my campaign to carry on fixing Gedling’s roads?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue, and for pointing out how effective Nottinghamshire County Council is in spending the £2.3 million that it is getting this year and will get next year; this is revolutionary long-term funding. Interestingly, this is happening because we have a plan, not just for delivering better roads, but for paying for that. Having a plan for delivering and paying for things is important, as the Labour party is finding out today; it has no plan and no way to pay.

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks wishing His Majesty the King a speedy recovery?

Potholes in Broxtowe are incredibly bad; my constituents raise this issue all the time. The ongoing situation has been compounded by multiple recent flooding events in Nottinghamshire, which have resulted in five times more damage to our roads than has occurred in other years. My office gets calls and emails constantly about this plight, from constituents in Beeston, Stapleford, Strelley, Nuthall and Kimberley, to name a few of the areas I am contacted about. This week, I met my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), the leader of Nottinghamshire County Council, to raise this issue. What more are the Government doing to work with local councils to tackle potholes in Broxtowe?

My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) raised the issue of flood damage with me as well, and we are looking at what we can do. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry) raised the issue of the importance of funding for improving local roads. We made a big decision on that, and improving the road network over time and allowing local authorities to spend that money shows an important sense of priorities. We are also making sure that reporting requirements are in place, so that highways authorities have to set out to the people to whom they are accountable what they are spending the money on.

The pothole situation is a metaphor for what the Government have been doing with public investment in the past 14 years. The roads have got worse and worse, with the Automobile Association describing October as the worst month for pothole breakdowns on our roads. If the Government were really concerned about this issue, they would not have starved local authorities of the resources to deal with the problem. Is that not correct?

No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on that at all. We have given local authorities more than £5 billion of funding for local road maintenance. The £8.3 billion in the Network North plan is over and above that. I would have thought he would welcome the fact that when we announced the money for local road maintenance, I decided that in London, 95% of that extra funding would go to London councils, rather than Transport for London, so that it gets spent on fixing the roads, rather than being wasted by the Mayor of London.

The Secretary of State seems to have forgotten the extensive cuts to the road repair budget that his Government have presided over. Let us consider the example of Northamptonshire, where the Government have cut £16 million from highways maintenance since 2020 alone. That is leaving 330,000 potholes unfilled. He knows that the Network North announcement will give Northamptonshire back only £2.5 million of that £16 million over the next two years. As for Wellingborough, the last time Peter Bone mentioned road repairs was in 2015. After 14 years of neglect by the Conservative Government and their former Conservative MP, is not the best advice for people in Wellingborough who want action on potholes to vote for Labour’s Gen Kitchen next Thursday?

It will not surprise the hon. Gentleman to hear that I do not agree with him at all. Before the Network North announcement, the Government were already investing over £5.5 billion of capital funding in highways maintenance between 2021 and 2024-25, and in the Budget last year, the Chancellor found an extra £200 million for eligible highways authorities. The £8.3 billion is on top of that, so I would urge voters in Wellingborough to vote for our fantastic candidate, Helen Harrison, who will make a fantastic Member of Parliament to serve on the Government side of the House.

Road Safety

In January 2022, the Government updated the highway code to improve road safety for people walking, cycling and riding. The changes aimed to make a positive shift in road-user behaviour, by making road users aware of their responsibility to use roads safely and to reduce the dangers they may pose to others. The Government’s flagship multimillion-pound road safety campaign, THINK!, also plays a crucial part in reducing the number of people killed or seriously injured on our roads.

Are the Minister and his team aware that our country, once known to be one of the best places in the world for road safety, is now, after 14 years of neglect, no targets—in fact, there is a hatred of targets—and little enforcement, a very dangerous place to be a vulnerable road user? When will this Government wake up and start doing something about that?

With no disrespect to the hon. Gentleman, who I like as a person, he is simply wrong. In the last year, ending June 2023, there was a decline of 9% in fatalities compared to the year ending June 2022. Look at the specific measures taken: we have toughened up the driving test, made the highway code more robust and introduced tougher criminal sentences. Those are the actions of a Government who are listening and taking action.

Unused Rail Capacity

12. Whether the Office of Rail Regulation has identified unused rail network capacity for open-access services. (901421)

The Office of Rail and Road has been working with Network Rail and the Department for Transport to identify unused access rights. That work will support the release of under-used capacity on the rail network, which may then be used by potential operators in the development of open-access proposals.

It is great to hear that there is work under way, but I notice that my hon. Friend did not say how far it had got. I know that he understands that this is a huge opportunity to improve our over-subsidised, post-pandemic railways, so that passengers can get a better deal, but if we do not move faster it will slip through our fingers. The only people who are happy with the status quo are middle-aged men who want to carry on playing with trains at the expense of taxpayers, and the Labour party, which wants to run rail for the benefit of rail unions rather than passengers, so please can we get on with this a lot faster?

I thought he was referring to me with that “middle-aged man” point, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we are working at pace. Since we met in November with the team, which included my hon. Friend, to see what further we could do, we have written to operators to clarify that unused access rights should be released. With regard to Department for Transport operators, we have hundreds of unused access rights that we have identified for release. We also talked about speeding up the entire decision-making process, and the ORR and Network Rail now have a draft service level agreement to do that. I will write to him with more detail, but a lot has happened in the last month.

Transport for London: Funding

Transport in London is devolved to the Mayor of London. Since 2020, the Government have given TfL £6.6 billion of funding to support transport services. It is the responsibility of the Greater London Authority to hold the Mayor and Transport for London to account. The Department is in regular contact with TfL and monitors its finances in accordance with the terms of our funding settlement letters.

Clearly, the £6.6 billion to subsidise TfL came with strings attached, including raising fares in line with the rest of England. No sooner did the last instalment of the money arrive than the Mayor managed to find £30 million to pay off the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, which threatened strike action, storing up problems for the next negotiations. He then found £120 million so that he does not have to raise fares in line with the rest of England. He has now come up with a crazy policy of reduced fares on Fridays, without having talked to anyone before introducing it. Will my right hon. Friend have a meeting with the Labour Mayor of London and ensure the money provided by the Department is used for the benefit of Londoners?

My hon. Friend is right: it is important that the money is used for the benefit of Londoners. We have provided very significant support, as I have set out, but it has not stopped the Mayor of London from putting up taxes on the poorest motorists, with the extension of his ultra low emission zone scheme to outer London. Rather than my having a meeting with him, the best way to hold the Mayor of London to account is for voters in London to vote for Susan Hall and kick him out.

Transport Connectivity: North Yorkshire

Because of the Prime Minister’s decision, Network North will see £19.8 billion of extra transport investment in the north of England, including a brand new £2.5 billion fund to transform local transport in 14 rural counties, smaller cities and towns in every part of the north outside the big city regions. This is in addition to what has already been committed through the integrated rail plan and the £11 billion TransPennine route upgrade.

I thank the Minister for visiting my constituency back in January. Following that visit, he became aware of the important economic impact of the A64 on York and North Yorkshire. May I stress to him again how important the upgrade is to safety on the road? A few days following his visit, the road was again closed due to a serious accident. Sadly, that followed another fatal accident on the road in December. This is becoming an ever more frequent occurrence, so when he looks at the upgrade of the A64, will he ensure that the safety impact plays an important role?

It was a pleasure to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and meet him and other parliamentary colleagues who were so passionately concerned about the improvement of the A64 and its safety issues. I take the point he raises on board. I know that National Highways is developing options to address the concerns that he, local people and businesses have identified with the road. We will look at them very closely. I welcome the fact that he continues to champion this important matter.

Support for Motorists

The Government are helping low-income motorists by keeping down the cost of motoring. There has been no increase in fuel duty since January 2011, 13 years ago. Furthermore, recognising the fuel price volatility after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, we cut 5p from fuel duty in March 2022. This was extended for another year in March 2023. This cut, along with the inflation freeze, has saved the average car driver around £100 this year.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Months after the Mayor of London’s ULEZ expansion came into effect, some of Uxbridge and South Ruislip’s most hard-working and least well-off residents continue to be penalised by it. As part of the Government’s work to help motorists, will he commit to continuing to work with me and colleagues from across outer London to ensure that we are doing all we can to lessen the financial burden on all motorists?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that matter. I am very sorry to hear about the burden that the Mayor of London has forced on the poorest motorists in London, particularly when we hear that his scrappage scheme is underfunded and slow to process payments. This is a direct consequence of a Labour Mayor who did not keep his word to Londoners. The only remedy for Londoners is to vote him out and vote in Susan Hall in May.

We need to incentivise people from all incomes to participate in the green transition. However, electric vehicles are totally out of reach for most car owners, especially those on low incomes. In addition, people who rely on public charging points are still paying a lot more than those who can charge from home. Will the Government close this gap to ensure that everybody is getting a fair deal, including those on low incomes, to make sure that we get to net zero? Those on low incomes also want to help the country get to net zero.

I thank the hon. Member for her question. It is my responsibility to help roll out electric vehicles. We introduced the zero emission vehicle mandate to ensure that 22% of vehicle sales this year are zero emission. I should say that, throughout the life cycle of an electric vehicle, they are cheaper than petrol or diesel cars to drive. This Government have given £2 billion-worth of support to owners of electric vehicles and to charge point companies to help smooth that introduction. The specific question that she raises is about VAT, and that is a matter for the Treasury.

Rail Connectivity: Cambridge and Norwich

Greater Anglia currently operates an hourly direct rail service between Norwich and Cambridge using its new rolling stock, with a journey time of around 80 minutes. It is also possible to travel between Norwich and Cambridge at other times by changing trains at Ely station. When the Ely area capacity enhancement scheme is delivered, it could create improved regional journeys for passengers across East Anglia.

Costs are rising for growing a business in Cambridge, yet Norwich, a finer city, is just down the road and, more importantly, just down the railway. We need a greater frequency of trains, and faster trains, to make the Norwich-Cambridge tech corridor a greater reality. It is being held back by the delays in getting the Ely junction fixed. How soon will that be sorted out by the Department?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s campaign for the Ely junction capacity enhancement scheme, which is one of the schemes referenced in the Prime Minister’s Network North plan. Network Rail has developed the scheme to outline business case stage, and next steps will involve further investment case development and delivery planning. I am keen to see it delivered, because it will deliver for rail freight.

Topical Questions

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.