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Topical Questions

Volume 627: debated on Thursday 13 July 2017

T1. Número uno, Señor Presidente: if he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (900476)

Order. Just because the King of Spain visited yesterday and the hon. Gentleman felt it necessary to show off his language skills on that occasion, there was no need for him to do so again, but he obviously felt the need, and we have all seen what an edifying spectacle it was.

All three of us have taken part in business questions, so I am sure that you were not totally surprised by that contribution, Mr Speaker.

On a serious note, I pay great tribute to the officers of the British Transport police and the staff of Northern Rail for the way in which they responded to the bomb attack in Manchester. The rail staff in particular, whose job description that was in no way part of, responded heroically, and they deserve our thanks.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thought you might have picked something up from the Queen of Spain yesterday—[Interruption.] Some Spanish. I wholly concur with what the Secretary of State said about the staff in Manchester.

When the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is upon us, may I urge the Secretary of State to come to the Rhondda to visit the Rhondda tunnel between Blaencwm and Blaengwynfi? That would be a magnificent tunnel if it were open for the public and cyclists to go through. It would be a great tourist attraction if only his Department would hand the project over to the local charity, and give it £250,000 as well.

I know that relations between the hon. Gentleman and the Labour party in south Wales can sometimes be slightly strained, but I am sure that he will use his influence on the Welsh Government, to whom we have offered to give the tunnel. They have not responded—I am waiting for their response—but it is there for them. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could encourage them to give us a response.

T3. May I ask the Secretary of State to sit down with the West Yorkshire combined authority to ensure that the Shipley eastern bypass, which is badly needed by my constituents and the local economy, is actually delivered, and that neither can blame the other for a lack of progress on it? (900478)

I regularly meet the combined authority, so I will happily discuss that issue with it. The creation of the major roads network and its bypass fund will, I hope, mean that in future we can unlock some of these schemes that will make such a difference to towns like Shipley around the country.

Two weeks ago today, the High Court gave the Secretary of State 14 days to make a decision over Southern rail’s claims that its appalling service was not its fault, but was all down to industrial action. With the record fine that has been imposed today, such nonsense has been totally blown out of the water. After months and months of the Secretary of State and his Ministers coming to the Dispatch Box and blaming the unions, they have had to come clean and accept that Southern rail is simply not fit for purpose. Does the Secretary of State now accept that continuing to tolerate such ineptitude—expecting a rail service to rely on workers’ overtime, and compromising safety and accessibility—simply will not wash any longer, and that he has to call time on Govia Thameslink Railway?

The hon. Gentleman clearly still has not read the judgment from two weeks ago in this case—a case that we actually won. Let us be clear about what is being done today. For months I have said that the problems on this railway are not purely down to industrial action; there are other reasons. I am very clear, and so is Chris Gibb’s report, that the prime responsibility for the trouble on that network in the past few months lies with trade unions fighting the battles of 30 years ago, and still they get support from the Labour party. The reality is that the Labour party and the unions are colluding to bring trouble to passengers, and it should stop.

Order. Before we proceed, may I say to the hon. Gentleman that his second question must be shorter? The right of Front Benchers to come in on topical questions is not sacrosanct. I have to cater to Back-Bench Members, and if Front Benchers take too long, I might reconsider the entitlement of Front Benchers to come in, trespassing on Back-Bench time. Please, a sentence. Be brief.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

We are missing appendix 9 from the Gibb report. Can we see it, and will the Secretary of State tell us which claims he accepts and which he rejects?

Today’s penalty has been for partial non-performance of contracts. The House and the country would expect me to impose penalties where they are needed and I have not sought to do anything otherwise. The reality is that, this afternoon, we expect the result of a ballot for yet further strike action for a 23.8% pay rise and a deal that has already been accepted by the ASLEF union on the same routes for the same company. This politically motivated set of threats of action should stop, and the Labour party should stop supporting it.

T5. For the first time in 45 years, there is a commercial rail service between Swanage and Wareham in my constituency, thanks to the dedication and hard work of the volunteers and members of Swanage Railway. What assurances can the rail Minister give that he will support our rail heritage and ensure that this trial becomes a permanent success? (900480)

I am pleased to hear what is happening on Swanage Railway. I have met the all-party group on heritage rail, and it is always good to hear examples of where heritage rail can work with main line operators, although I agree that that has to be done safely. We are looking to build on more franchise agreements when there are sensible schemes that we can support.

T2. Last year, Nexus published its ambitious plans to expand the Tyne and Wear Metro, which included a welcome reference to extending the metro to Washington in my constituency. Will the Minister assure me and my constituents that the Government will act to upgrade this crumbling 37-year-old network, and to ensure that the proposed extensions, such as that to Washington, go ahead? (900477)

The hon. Lady knows that the Government invest a great deal in the metro, and it is right that we should. Part of that is about improving the existing stations, ticketing and rolling stock. I understand her point about the extension of the metro. Perhaps she can articulate that, among the other things that we shall doubtless discuss, when I visit her constituency.

T6. Queuing traffic and air pollution are the public health concerns for those living and working in my constituency. The local economy continues to grow and thrive under this Government, but air pollution affects the maritime industry, especially at Hamble Lane, where queueing is a real problem. Will the Minister outline the commitment to fund bypasses in my constituency in order to tackle air pollution? (900481)

Was it not Hegel, Mr Speaker, who said that nothing worthwhile is ever achieved without passion? My hon. Friend is certainly a passionate advocate for this scheme, which is important to her constituents. It is also important to the port, which she champions as well. We will look at these matters closely because port connectivity is vital if we are to make our maritime future as glorious as our maritime past.

T4. Will the Minster say whether the new rolling stock for Merseytravel, HS2 and Crossrail will be procured using private or public finance, and why that is the case? (900479)

There has been a long tradition, under Governments of both parties, of a railway where we lease trains from the private sector. There have equally been occasions, as in the procurement of railway carriages for the east coast main line and the great western main line, when the Government have stepped in and taken that decision. We will have to look at which packages are available for those individual schemes. In the case of Merseytravel, the hon. Lady will have to talk to the Labour-controlled Merseyside councils.

It is very good of the new Chair of the Select Committee on Education to drop in on us; we are obliged to him.

T7. With Southend airport booming, there are great opportunities for associated business parks and businesses around that expanding airport. Will the Secretary of State agree to look at how we can expand business around successful regional airports? (900482)

It is really important that we make sure that our regional airports are successful. My hon. Friend and I visited Southend airport a few years ago. I was very impressed by what it has achieved and the way in which it can be a driver of growth in the surrounding area. That applies across the whole country. It is one reason why the expansion of Heathrow is so important for regional airports further afield, and it is also why I hope that we will work together in a smart way to ensure that airports such as Southend flourish.

We have had many flowery words from the Government about understanding the experience of our constituents in the north-east who are forced to use crumbling rolling stock on Tyne and Wear Metro, but flowery words will not get our constituents to work on time unless they are matched by investment. Will the Minister now commit to investing in our rolling stock from the public purse?

The hon. Lady should know that investment is central to what we want to achieve. We are investing £370 million through an 11-year asset renewal programme. We are undertaking a major programme of track and infrastructure renewals. We are refurbishing most of the 90 vehicles, modernising 45 stations and introducing new smart ticketing. What is not to like about that?

T8. Chelmsford is one of the busiest commuter stations in the country, but Chelmsford commuters have experienced frequent and significant delays. Will the Minister please provide an update on what actions are being taken to counter these delays? (900483)

I am sorry to hear of the delays that are being experienced by my hon. Friend’s constituents. Clearly we have had a period of very hot weather, which does impact on rail reliability, and speed restrictions do help to protect overhead line equipment. I met the industry forums just this week to discuss what lessons can be learned about repeated periods of hot weather and how we can best protect critical infrastructure, and I hope the decisions they now move on to take can start to improve reliability.

When the Chancellor came to Bristol in May, he refused to confirm whether electrification of the Great Western line into the city centre would go ahead. Will the Transport Secretary confirm whether it has been deferred, as we were told last year, or has it really been ditched?

As I said earlier, we are focused on delivering service improvements right now. The electrification process is continuing—there is no secret about the fact that this project has not gone as well as expected—but the key thing for the hon. Lady’s constituents is that, from this autumn, there will be brand-new trains, more capacity, a better service and six trains an hour from Bristol to London. This is really good news for her constituents.

T9. A number of my constituents are deeply concerned about the impact of High Speed 2—particularly residents in Ashley, who came to see me in a surgery last week. I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, will be pleased that I am not going to go through every point they raised with me, but could the Minister meet me to go through every concern they had? (900484)

At the same time as we meet to discuss the mid-Cheshire line, I will be more than happy also to discuss some of the issues with the HS2 phase 2b route, which goes through my right hon. Friend’s constituency.

When the Conservative manifesto was published, there was no mention of Crossrail 2. Will the Minister tell us whether that was by accident or design? When does he plan to make a decision on the business case?

First, I absolutely support the need for the capacity improvements that Crossrail 2 will bring to London—indeed, not just to London, but to areas outside. We are working our way through the business case. I do not think it is any secret that the Transport for London funding package has not quite lived up to initial promises, but I want this to work. I am seeing the Mayor next week, and we will do everything we can to make it work.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Belper, in my constituency, which is part of the world heritage site, is a great place to live, apart from the traffic? The A6 is far too clogged. Could we look at a bypass for Belper and at a new cycleway right up the Derwent valley?

Not only can we look at it, but we would be delighted to receive an application for a bypass. I look forward very much to cycling that section of the Derwent valley when I come to visit it on a future occasion.

The Transport Secretary is due to outline his plans for rail investment in the coming days. There is real concern that the promised electrification of the midland main line, which has the best business case, will be delayed again or dropped completely. Keeping promises is important. Will Ministers be keeping theirs?

The promise I will be keeping is on the services that people want. We will be delivering, by around 2020, the faster journey times to Sheffield and the capacity improvements that are needed to make this route fit for purpose for the next century.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating Michelle and Mark Williams, who run the C&C taxi firm in St Austell? They have recently replaced all 14 of their diesel vehicles with electric vehicles. Theirs has been hailed as the greenest taxi firm in the country. Does he agree that more taxi firms should follow their example?

Indeed. I have visited the new factory in Coventry that is building electric London cabs and the future is certainly for low-emission vehicles. That applies to vehicles that we might own, as well as to private hire vehicles and taxis. I certainly support what my hon. Friend suggests.