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Written Statements

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 19 October 2006

Written Statements

Thursday 19 October 2006

Driving Standards Agency

My honourable friend the Minister of State for Transport (Dr Stephen Ladyman) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The Department for Transport has published a consultation paper seeking views on a package of measures which propose changes to the way in which the Driving Standards Agency conducts its business to deliver a better service and improve the quality of the assessments that it offers, and to ensure that the costs of the services provided are recovered in a fair and efficient manner. The proposals are grouped into three areas: service improvements, safety-related measures and general fee increases.

Copies of the consultation paper and regulatory impact assessments have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. The documents are also available from the DSA website at www.dsa.gov.uk or by telephone on 0115 901 5921.

Those wishing to comment on the proposals have until 11 January 2007 to do so.

Government Indemnity Scheme

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (David Lammy) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

HM Treasury has granted a biennial increase of £600 million to the contingent liability ceiling under the Government Indemnity Scheme for non-national museums. This increase is due to an increase in both the number and value of temporary exhibitions arranged by non-national museums.

The contingent liability was previously £1.2 billion and now stands at £1.8 billion. This ceiling came into effect from 1 August 2006 and will be valid until 31 July 2008.

Gulf War Illnesses

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

A central principle of the Government's approach to addressing the health concerns of veterans of the 1990-91 Gulf conflict is that there should be appropriate research into veterans’ illnesses and factors that may have a bearing on these.

As a key part of that research, the Ministry of Defence has sponsored a vaccines interactions research programme into the possible adverse health effects of the combination of vaccines and tablets given to troops to protect them against the threat of biological and chemical warfare. The programme, which has been overseen by an independent panel of experts and veterans representatives, consisted of three main studies. The first examined the interaction of certain vaccines in mice and reported last year on 21 July 2005 (Official Report, House of Commons, 117WS).

The second, and main, study has been undertaken at Defence Science and Technology Laboratories (Dstl) Porton Down and involved monitoring marmosets for up to 18 months following the administration of vaccines and/or pyridostigmine bromide (the active ingredient in nerve agent pre-treatment tablets). Partial results from the study, covering cognition, muscle function, general health and sleep, were announced on 20 July 2006 (Official Report, House of Commons, 37 WS). Papers reporting the remaining final results on the immunological aspects of the study have now been published online in the journal International Immunopharmacology and can be found at www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/15675769. The papers report that the immune system had not been compromised by any of the treatments and that there was no evidence of adverse health effects due to the administration of vaccines and/or pyridostigmine bromide. The study findings have been independently endorsed. Donald Davies, Emeritus Professor in Toxicology at Imperial College, London, who chaired the independent group which oversaw the study, has commented that the study was well designed and conducted. Together with the expert immunologists from the panel, he supports the conclusion that the animals suffered no adverse health effect, despite exposure to exaggerated doses of vaccines.

The final study examined whether staff from Dstl Porton Down who received multiple vaccinations during their employment have higher levels of sick leave than their unvaccinated colleagues. The findings, which are being made available today on the MoD website, show that staff at Porton Down who had received multiple vaccinations suffered no excess sick absence.

The overwhelming evidence from the programme is that the combination of vaccines and tablets that were offered to UK forces at the time of the 1990-91 Gulf conflict would not have had adverse health effects. This has been a key area of concern among Gulf veterans and the results of the research should be reassuring to those veterans who have been concerned about the safety of the medical countermeasures that they were given. I hope, too, that it will reinforce confidence in the countermeasures that are offered today and in the future.

Ministry of Defence: Advanced Jet Trainer Contract

My right honourable friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Adam Ingram) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I am pleased to announce that the Ministry of Defence has signed a contract worth around £450 million with BAE Systems for the production of, and associated logistic spares for, 28 Hawk 128 aircraft providing the advanced jet trainer for our Armed Forces. The contract underlines the Government's commitment to sustain core aerospace industrial skills and technologies in the UK as set out in the defence industrial strategy.

The procurement of this world-class aircraft will enable our RAF and RN fast jet aircrew to develop the skills they need to exploit the capability of the UK's fast jet fleet such as Typhoon. It is also good news for BAE Systems and its supplier and employees at BAES’s Brough factory. The first aircraft will be delivered in 2008.

Prison Service: Sustainable Development Report

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Joan Ryan) has made the flowing Written Ministerial Statement.

I have today placed in the Library of the House copies of the Her Majesty's Prison Service's fourth annual sustainable development report for public sector prisons covering the period April 2005 to March 2006. The report relates the progress being made by the Prison Service in pursuing its sustainable development targets. There are significant achievements in the areas of biodiversity, waste management, alternative fuel sources and training prisoners and finding them employment on release. The report includes chapters on waste management, biodiversity, transport, procurement, construction, energy efficiency, conservation and prisoner resettlement.

Railways: London Zones

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Tom Harris) has made the following Ministerial Statement.

I am announcing today that a new, simple zonal fares structure will be introduced for train travel within London from January 2007. The Future of Rail White Paper, published in 2004, announced our intent to work with the Mayor on rationalising fares and ticketing technology within the Greater London Authority (GLA) boundary. At the moment, there are several thousand individually priced station-to-station rail fares within London. The system is complex and a barrier to introducing smartcard technology to train services within the capital.

We have changed the franchise agreements of those train operators setting fares within London, to require them to replace the many different individually priced fares with a simple set of London-wide zonal fares. The new fares will be based on the same familiar zones already used for Underground and travelcard fares. Operators will be required to set peak single, peak return and off-peak return fares for journeys wholly within London on a zonal basis from January 2007. Operators will be required to set rail-only seasons on a similar zonal basis from January 2010.

The prices for the new zonal peak singles and returns—and from 2010, seasons—will remain subject to the limits set by fares regulation. As a result, London commuters will on average pay no more using the new zonal fares than they would have done had current fares continued and been increased as permitted by regulation. Operators will not make a net gain from the change in these fares.

The new fares mean that the same fares will apply in all parts of London. Passengers who have been paying fares below the London-wide average may find the new fares higher, whereas those currently paying higher-than-average fares are likely to find the new fares lower. Prices are being published today on the DfT website, and will be placed in the Libraries of the House.

This simplification of London rail fares paves the way for Oyster pay-as-you-go smart ticketing to be rolled out across national rail in London over the next few years. As interoperable smartcards based on the Department for Transport-sponsored ITSO (Integrated Transport Smartcard Organisation) standard are rolled out outside London, passengers will be able to benefit from national through-ticketing on all modes of travel to deliver truly seamless journeys.

Railways: North-west Regional Planning

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Tom Harris) has made the following Ministerial Statement.

The Department for Transport has today published the north-west regional planning assessment for the railway (RPA), the fourth in a series of 11 RPAs covering England and Wales. The north-west RPA covers the whole of the north-west region.

RPAs are the key link between regional spatial planning (including preparation of regional transport strategies) and planning for the railway by both Government and the rail industry and are designed to inform the development of the Government's strategy for the railway. They look at the challenges and options for development of the railway in each region over the next 20 years, in the wider context of forecast change in population, the economy and travel behaviour. An RPA does not commit the Government to specific proposals. Instead, it sets out the Government’s current thinking on how the railway might best be developed to allow wider planning objectives for a region to be met and identifies the priorities for further development work.

The north-west region has a population of just over 6.8 million, 11 per cent of the UK total, and the highest population density of any region outside London. While population levels are not expected to grow significantly, the number in employment is expected to grow. Growth in rail passenger journeys is forecast for the region and it is expected that there will be particular growth in longer distance journeys, particularly to London and the south-east. Within the region, the highest increases are expected to be in journeys to and from the metropolitan areas.

Planning for railways in the north-west needs to take into account a changing economic and social context set out in the regional spatial strategy and regional economic strategy. Rail has a part to play in addressing national and regional government agencies’ aims and delivering the objectives of initiatives such as the Northern Way, which have influenced the formulation of the north-west RPA.

The RPA clarifies the role of the railway in the region, its contribution to the economy and its place in the overall transport system, setting out where greater rail capability and capacity will be needed over the next 20 years, and the options for responding to that need. The focus of the RPA is making better use of the existing network but it also draws attention to the need to improve access to stations, including interchanges, and the expected need to increase train capacity to meet forecasted growth in demand.

Copies of the document have been placed in the House Libraries.

Roads: Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, Dartford

My honourable friend the Minister of State for Transport (Dr Ladyman) has made the following Ministerial Statement.

The QEII Bridge at Dartford was built under a concession agreement whereby it would return to public ownership after the construction costs were paid for through tolls at the crossing. This happened in March 2003. The Government decided at that time to implement a regulatory charge at the crossing at broadly the same levels as the tolls, using powers in the Transport Act 2000. The reason for this was to manage the high demand for use of the crossings.

The department has been reviewing the charging regime in the light of current traffic levels, likely future demand and broader transport policy considerations. Given the forecast growth in traffic, maintaining a charge for the use of the crossing is the only credible way of keeping traffic at manageable levels in the medium term. However, we have concluded that the case for imposing a charge at night when traffic is much lighter is outweighed by the potential gains from encouraging traffic to avoid peak times. The department therefore intends to drop the charge for all vehicles using the crossing between the hours of 22.00 and 06.00. The department believes that this will be an incentive, for lorries in particular, to make journeys outside busy periods where this is an option. Our analysis indicates that if daytime charges are left at the current levels then traffic will continue to grow, leading to worsening congestion. Cars have been paying a £1 rate for 10 years.

The case for increasing charges has been clear for some time. One reason why increases for cars have not previously been proposed is because of concerns that multiple coin transactions are likely to cause delays at the booths. For some years it has been possible to pay tolls electronically, using microwave “tags”. Such systems are common on the Continent and in the USA. Dartford, and some other tolled roads and crossings in the UK, already offer the option of paying via a tag. This means of payment saves costs for operators and allows drivers a smoother passage through the charging booths.

The Government also wish to mitigate the impact of charge increases on those who depend on regular use of the crossing for work or business. The Government therefore propose that charges for car drivers paying cash should increase to £1.50. Under these proposals, drivers who choose to use a dart tag would pay a significantly discounted rate of £1, which is the current cash charge. With more people using the dart tag, traffic flow through the charging booths will be smoother, and regular users such as commuters will experience little financial impact.

The implementation of the new charges will be made using a charging order under the Transport Act 2000 and the Government will, as is required, consult on this. We expect to launch that consultation by December 2006 with a view to having the order in place by October 2007 and the new regime coming into effect by January 2008.

In the longer term, we expect demand for use of the crossing to continue to grow. Various options for new capacity across the Thames have been considered in the past, but the Government believe the issue now needs to be moved forward, particularly in the light of development plans for the Thames Gateway. The department will therefore be commissioning a study to look at the options for addressing traffic issues in the longer term, including the possibility of a new crossing. Work will start immediately on specifying the scope of the study with a view to letting the study as early as possible in 2007.