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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 636: debated on Thursday 1 March 2018


The Secretary of State was asked—

Regional Expenditure

We do not allocate transport funding on a per head of population basis; our decisions are based on a rigorous and fair appraisal process that ensures that spending goes where it is most needed and where it delivers the greatest value for money. Recent analysis by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority shows that planned central Government transport investment over the next four years is evenly balanced, with £1,039 per head of population in the north, compared with £1,029 in the south.

May I first take this opportunity to thank all those involved in keeping our transport systems going in this inclement weather? I am sure that fellow Yorkshire MPs will have shared my surprise at the Secretary of State’s recent article in The Yorkshire Post, in which he claimed that spending in the north was somehow greater than that in the south—if, through a rather imaginative calculation, we ignore London. Does he agree that simply spinning figures will not fix our archaic northern railway systems or get northern commuters to work on time?

I echo the hon. Lady’s comments about those who are working hard to keep the transport system open today; we are very grateful to them all. In a week when the Labour party has already had issues with its use of statistics, she should look up the official statistics from the independent Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which show that planned central Government spending is higher in the north than it is in the south.

I am sure that we could spend more Government money on transport in the east midlands, particularly in Northamptonshire, and especially in Kettering. The new franchise for the midland main line is currently being negotiated. Will the Secretary of State ensure that Kettering’s rail services are better after the franchise is awarded than they are now?

My hon. Friend, who is a strong champion of Kettering, will be delighted to know that the expansion in capacity to Corby means that there will be a much better commuter service in the mornings and evenings through Corby down to Kettering, and to Wellingborough and beyond. That is one of the benefits of the biggest investment in the midland main line since the 1870s.

Just to give the Secretary of State an example of unequal treatment, is it true that for the new east midlands rail franchise in 2020 the current HST—high-speed trains—carriages will be scrapped, because they are disability non-compliant, and the power cars will then be matched with second-hand, cast-off carriages from the east coast main line? Instead of the brand new, hybrid hydrogen trains that we were promised, we will be getting hybrid trains composed of 30-year-old power cars and 30-year-old discarded carriages from another line.

I do not know what stories the Labour party has been listening to. The midland main line will have brand new, bi-mode trains delivered as soon as possible—

In the early 2020s, which is years ahead of what would otherwise have been the case under the original scheme.

Within the context of equity of spending, I wonder whether, after this snow event is over, my right hon. Friend will ask some serious questions about, or even have a review of, why we still seem to be in no way prepared for such events. For example, I discovered yesterday that Heathrow is busy offloading flights because it cannot cope, whereas—[Interruption.]

Yes, regional flights. What I am saying is that, given all of that, airports such as Gatwick and others are able to cope. Does my right hon. Friend not think that it is ridiculous that some airports are simply unable to cope while others across the UK can?

I know that a number of Members are here today because their flights to regional airports have not been able to take off. I hope and expect that we will be able to sort that out as quickly as possible today, although it is really important that the transport system is run safely. Of course, one of the benefits of the expansion of Heathrow is that the airport would become more resilient to such difficult situations, and connections to regional airports would be more reliable.

I, too, pay tribute to those transport workers who are keeping the system going at this difficult time. The Secretary of State said in his first answer that the allocation of funding is a rigorous and fair process, so can he explain why the Government have ignored the Office of Rail Regulation’s recommendations by underfunding Scotland by £600 million? Since then his Department has been able to cope with a £240 million loss of revenue as a result of the situation with Southern rail and found £245 million for High Speed 2. The Government have been ignoring the Scottish Government since last July, so will they now meet the Scottish Government, or are these just weasel words about equity of funding?

Once again, the Scottish National party is arguing against the use of the Barnett formula. SNP Members love the Barnett formula when they think it is advantageous to them, but when they do not like the Barnett formula, they want to get rid of it. I simply say to them that this Government have followed the principles of the Barnett formula, and actually the Treasury has given Scotland a bit more money above that. I wish the SNP would stop complaining. The reality is that Scotland is now better represented, with a group of Conservative MPs who are much more effective than the SNP ever was in getting this Government to do that bit extra for Scotland.

Reading-Basingstoke Line: Electrification

2. What assessment he has made of the timescale required for the electrification of the Reading to Basingstoke line. (904102)

The Secretary of State’s acceptance of the Hendy review in 2016 recognised the necessity of changes to the scope of Great Western electrification. Following completion of a feasibility assessment of the line between Reading and Basingstoke, it has been identified that electrification of that section is not required to deliver improvements to passengers.

Given my hon. Friend’s commendable plan to scrap all diesel-only trains from our tracks by 2040, would he consider extending Crossrail from Reading to Basingstoke, as an alternative to Great Western, to improve capacity into London from north Hampshire?

The Department always welcomes suggestions from my hon. Friend. There are no current plans to extend the Crossrail route, and no assessment has yet been made of the amount or availability of any such scheme.


We have very ambitious plans to reduce transport emissions, including by ending the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans, and by ending the use of diesel-only trains by 2040. Clean growth strategy actions will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the UK plan for reducing nitrogen dioxide concentrations sets out action to tackle hotspots of air pollution. We will shortly be launching our new zero-emissions transport paper, and the House can review that, too.

The Minister will know that 24% of all emissions are transport related. He will know there are hotspots across the country, including in my constituency, and thousands of people die prematurely as a result of poor air quality, including 61 people in my Gedling constituency. How does he intend to accelerate the progress and policy development he has outlined to us today?

We absolutely recognise the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises. He will know that we work very closely on this issue, through the joint air quality unit, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Our specific plans on transport emissions will be released in our report later this month.

Can the Minister assure the House that, as far as the Department for Transport is concerned, “emissions” refers both to carbon and to air quality emissions, such as nitrogen oxide and small particulate matter, and that they are fully addressed together within the Department?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Of course, DEFRA is the lead agency within Government on emissions. Only on Monday we put the renewable transport fuel obligation on the statute book. The obligation specifically balances the two sides of that equation.

Oxford is proud to call itself a cycling city, yet last week it was identified in the High Court ruling on air pollution as one of the 45 cities that the Government need to do more to help. Will any more money be coming to Oxford to help us make that modal shift?

The hon. Lady will be aware that substantial amounts of money have already been put aside to help local authorities that have been affected by air quality problems, and it is up to Oxford to see if it can apply for that money when it becomes available.

I drive an electric car, but many people do not. Northern powerhouse rail will take many cars off the road. The all-party parliamentary group on the northern powerhouse is calling for the northern powerhouse rail project to be brought forward to coincide with the completion of High Speed 2 in 2032. Will the Minister support that proposal?

I am always grateful for invitations to support proposals. I think I will leave that proposal to the specific Ministers concerned, but my hon. Friend will be aware it is a manifesto commitment.

Virgin Trains East Coast

4. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of the early termination of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise. (904105)

8. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of the early termination of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise. (904110)

15. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the early termination of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise on (a) passengers and (b) rail services. (904118)

17. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of the early termination of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise. (904120)

I am not sure I see any merit in the early termination of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise. That is not something I would wish to happen, but we have to deal with the world as it is, rather than as how we would like it to be.

My priority is to ensure the continued smooth running of the east coast franchise for its passengers and employees, and to make sure that the trains run and deliver the service that people need. As I told the House on 5 February 2018, a new arrangement to operate the railway prior to the new east coast partnership in 2020 needs to be put in place. We are currently conducting a full appraisal of the options, and I will return to the House in due course.

I am afraid to say that service standards have deteriorated on the east coast line since Virgin-Stagecoach took the franchise—I am a regular customer on that line—despite the best efforts of the excellent staff on board trains and at stations. Those staff face having their sixth employer in a decade and a half. Will the Secretary of State meet me and some of those staff, so that they can express their concerns about the way in which the franchise has been conducted? Will he give the House an undertaking that there is a genuine public sector operator ready to take over should that be required—or has Directly Operated Railways been outsourced already?

On the last point, I can give an absolute guarantee that that is the case; we have been making preparations for different eventualities for some time and there is a genuine alternative, if that is deemed to be best for the passenger and best value for the taxpayer. My ministerial colleagues and I are happy to talk to staff, but I would correct the hon. Gentleman on one point: the reality is that the independent assessments have shown a higher level of passenger satisfaction on that route since the change of franchise, not a lower one.

I, too, wish to say a huge thank you to the staff who have been involved in keeping the trains running. As has been said, the current Virgin Trains east coast line franchise agreement will end three years early, making it the third franchise failure in about a decade. As someone who uses the line, I do not agree with the Secretary of State’s assessment of it. But will he recognise that there is a problem and see this as the perfect opportunity to bring the contracts back in house?

As I have said in this House before, I need to do what is best for passengers and for the taxpayer. The reality is that since the transition, regardless of the fact that Stagecoach clearly got its numbers wrong, passenger satisfaction has risen, more people are being employed by this railway and it is delivering more money to the taxpayer. [Interruption.] That is the reality. Labour Members can say it is not true, but it is; it is a fact that they just have to deal with.

I assure the Secretary of State that after three failed franchises and the experiences of a directly operated railway my constituents would much prefer a directly operated railway. Will he commit to providing a directly operated railway service, in the public interest?

As I have said, I am going to do what is best for the passenger and for the taxpayer. I am sorry that the Labour party does not seem to get this, but the reality is that passenger satisfaction levels are higher today than they were three years ago—that is what the independent research shows. Labour Members may not like it, but it is true.

Next year, Bradford would have seen a marked increase in the number of much-needed direct inter-city trains serving the city, but the chaos with the east coast line has put that in serious doubt. These extra trains are vital to improving Bradford’s connection to the rest of the country, so will the Minister commit to ensuring that, whatever happens to the east coast franchise, Bradford will see an increase in the number of direct trains?

This is an important point, so let us be clear: it is my intention that, whatever arrangements are put in place for the next few years, the service improvements that have been promised will be delivered. We face an issue on infrastructure and additional capacities on the northern part of the route, which will have to be resolved and may mean some amendments to the timetable for new services, but that will not stop us delivering those new services. In Bradford’s case, I am expecting to be able to fulfil the commitments that were made.

I agree with my right hon. Friend that there are no merits in the early termination of the franchise, but there are opportunities from the new partnership. My constituency has 10 railway stations, none of which have a direct rail service to London. Does he agree that this is an opportunity to look at providing services to those towns not currently served?

As I know, my hon. Friend has been a regular advocate for direct services, and I would like to see those happen. I am looking to see whether we can maximise the capacity on the east coast main line to make additional services possible. Of course the arrival of HS2 will allow many services that cannot be run now because of capacity constraints to happen, because of the additional capacity it will create on routes to the north and Scotland.

I am not entirely sure what the impact of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise is on Horsham, but doubtless the hon. Gentleman is about to explain to us with the lucidity for which he is renowned in all parts of the House.

I am absolutely going to. In respect of the proposed alternatives to the current east coast franchise, has the Secretary of State seen President Macron’s recent remarks about the nationalised French railways, and has he any remarks to make on them?

Wisdom sometimes comes from our allies across the channel. I did see those remarks, and they are a timely reminder that a nationalised railway is not the panacea that some believe it is.

It was not the Horsham perspective, but the international perspective. Why would I expect anything less from someone so illustrious as a man who served as my constituency chairman for three years, for which he deserved a medal?

The Secretary of State says that Stagecoach got its sums wrong, but clearly his Department got its sums wrong, too, when it awarded the franchise to Stagecoach. Surely one merit of this situation should be that failing franchise holders should not be allowed to bid for future franchises. Does the Secretary of State agree that this gives us the opportunity to put the franchise into the public sector, allow further public sector involvement across all franchises, and review and improve the franchise tender process?

We certainly keep the franchise process under continual review to work to improve it but, as I said a moment ago, a public railway is not the panacea that everyone on the Opposition Benches claims it is. I intend to do two things: to take the right decisions for the taxpayer and the travelling public on that route, which is really important, and to act within the law, which is also important.

On Monday, the chief executive of Stagecoach said that he knew there was a problem with the east coast franchise’s finances just weeks after taking over the contract in March 2015, and that he had been talking to the Department about it for two years. Given that the Department was in dialogue with the operator about the difficulties, why did the Secretary of State not put together a contingency plan for the route? The Secretary of State has had two years to sort out this mess; is it not simply incredible that he still does not know what to do?

The shadow Secretary of State clearly cannot do his sums, because I have not been Secretary of State for two years. We have been planning—

I have been Secretary of State for 18 months; the shadow Secretary of State cannot do his sums. Since I became aware that there was a problem on the east coast route, we have been doing careful contingency planning, so we have a long-term plan and short-term options for the route. We cannot put those short-term options into place until the appropriate moment arises at which they are necessary. We are prepared for when that moment arises and will deliver the alternatives.

Given that the taxpayer has already lost out on more than £2 billion of premium payments, can the Secretary of State advise the House as to whether the financial ramifications of the termination of the franchise are now completely known and concluded? If not, what sums of money are earmarked to settle any further system-gaming demands from Messrs Branson and Souter through litigation or arbitration?

Again, the Labour party cannot do its sums. We have no more written off £2 billion than Labour wrote off £1.4 billion when National Express collapsed. The reality is that the east coast is and always has been in recent times a profitable railway. Whatever happens, it will continue to generate a substantial return for the taxpayer. It is about time that Labour did its sums properly, rather than misrepresenting the reality.

HS2: Construction

5. What assessment he has made of the need to mitigate the effects of congestion resulting from the construction of HS2 phase 2a. (904106)

I know that my hon. Friend is concerned about the impact of traffic in his constituency; indeed, we discussed it when he came to the Department just last week. HS2 Ltd is already working with Highways England and local highways authorities to mitigate the effects of construction traffic, and will continue to do so as the High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill progresses. The planning regime established under the Bill includes powers for local planning authorities to approve final construction routes for large goods vehicles. We will work closely with local authorities to make sure that impacts on local communities and traffic are appropriate.

Will the Minister update the House on the measures that will be put in place to tackle and mitigate the impact of traffic, and particularly its effect on junction 15 of the M6, resulting from the construction of phase 2a?

Indeed, we recognise the need to keep traffic moving on local roads during construction, primarily for the benefit of residents and businesses. Under current plans, junction 15 of the M6 is an important access route for HS2 construction traffic. We recognise that it also provides an important access route to the Stoke-on-Trent area. HS2 Ltd is working closely with Highways England to minimise the impact on the M6 and consider any opportunities for co-ordinated delivery with a smart motorway.

Bus Journeys

The Bus Services Act 2017 presents local authorities with new powers to bring about change and unlock the potential for the bus service industry to increase passenger numbers. Since 1982, bus usage has fallen, but it is variable across the country. Passenger journeys on local bus services in England have decreased by 4% since 2009-10, to 4.44 billion in 2016-17.

Does the Minister believe that there is a link between her Government’s 33% cut to the bus budgets and bus patronage falling to a decade low? What action has the Secretary of State taken over the past 18 months to rectify that?

Bus patronage is actually increasing for people who go to work—3 million people choose to travel to work on a bus—and 60% of people who use public transport use the bus. Increasing bus patronage is at the forefront of the Government’s bus agenda. It is vital to combating congestion and reducing emissions. Government provide about £1 billion of funding for concessionary travel every year, and around £250 million will be paid this year to support bus services in England via the bus service operators’ grant.

Recent devolution deals have seen the power to re-regulate buses, via London-style franchising, devolved to areas such as my own that have a metro mayor. Can the Minister tell me how the Government plan to support those metro mayors who make the local democratic choice to franchise their bus networks so that local passengers can get the routes that they need?

Mayors have the freedom to do that. It is absolutely right that these decisions are taken locally, whether by the local authority or the mayor. We therefore encourage all local authorities and mayors to consider how they can use enhanced partnership and franchising powers to make improvements for passengers and to increase bus patronage.

Lorry Parking

7. What steps his Department is taking to identify emergency parking sites for lorries when travel across the channel is disrupted. (904108)

As my right hon. Friend knows, I have asked Highways England to progress plans to promote a lorry holding area through the normal planning process as a potential permanent solution to Operation Stack. Highways England intends to undertake an initial public consultation on this in the spring, which will consider the scope, scale and function of the lorry area. As he knows, I am frustrated that we have not been able to do this sooner, but the commitment to it is strong.

The Secretary of State is, I know, aware of the extreme urgency of finding a solution to this matter. Even if we assume a full implementation period after Brexit, we could be less than two years away from new customs arrangements at Dover, and problems there could be disastrous not just for roads across Kent, but for the national road haulage industry. Can he assure us that, by the time of Brexit, sufficient off-road parking spaces will be available to avoid a recurrence of Operation Stack?

There are two points that I should make. First, on the border, it is absolutely the intent of this Government to maintain a free-flowing border; that is of paramount importance. The other point, be absolutely clear, is that we will have a solution in place for next March which keeps the M20 flowing in both directions and provides a solution if there is congestion at the ports; and that we intend to move beyond that and deliver a long-term solution, which will not only deal with the issue of trouble at the ports, but provide some respite to Kent residents, who I know are fed up with having lorries simply parking on their local roads.

Eighty per cent. of the road freight to and from the UK goes through Dover. There is surely no realistic chance of all those lorries being checked from March next year. Is not the reality that, if we leave the EU without a deal, utter chaos on the road network within miles of Dover is completely unavoidable?

No, I do not think that at all. It is for this country to decide how we manage our borders and what checks we put in place. The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that there is a free-flowing border at Dover, and we will deliver that.

We should have some big, bold visions for the future. That is the way that we plan properly in transport terms. Our big, bold visions for the country right now are HS2, the potential expansion of Heathrow airport, the lower Thames crossing, the trans-Pennine tunnel, the A303 dualling and the Stonehenge tunnel. This Government have and are delivering lots of big visions for Britain.

The chairman of Maritime UK has said that, if a deal is not reached on Brexit, lorry drivers could be stuck on the main roads to Dover for up to two days. Even if a deal is reached, with a hard border at vital ferry ports, the industry is warning that customs and port health checks will cause massive disruptions. What concrete assurances can the Secretary of State give us that that will not be the case?

As I have said before, I have regular dialogue with the haulage industry and the ports sector. I have been very clear to them, as I am being clear in this House today and as the Prime Minister has made clear, that we do not intend to impose a fixed border. We want a free-flowing border and that is what we will deliver.

Rail Franchising

9. Whether his Department can prevent a rail operating company from bidding to retain its franchise as a result of that company’s performance. (904111)

All franchise operators are required to obtain a pre-qualification passport. The Department may suspend or withdraw a passport in the event that the passport holder triggers certain requirements within the passport application. This would place restrictions on or remove the passport holder from bidding for franchise competitions.

I take it from that answer that it is possible for the Secretary of State to deny an existing franchise holder the right to rebid in a new tendering process. Govia, which has had the south eastern franchise for a long time, has consistently been a poor performer, so can he remove Govia from the service? If it were to get the franchise, what guarantees can he give to my constituents that they will get the improved service that they deserve?

In the case of the south eastern franchise, we will accept the bid that is going to deliver the best possible outcome for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, with longer trains and better services. This is a competitive process. I will not hesitate to remove a passport from a firm when that is required. I also have to operate within European procurement law—something that the Labour party is still very keen on—and that requires me to take a proportionate approach. I will always seek to do that and I will always seek to operate within the law.

Last year, no fewer than 67 million rail journeys were cancelled or severely curtailed. I raised this matter with the Prime Minister yesterday. Most of the compensation paid by Network Rail was trousered by the train operating companies. When they bid to renew their franchises, will the way in which they have treated their passengers with compensation be a key consideration, as it should be?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to ensure that passengers get the compensation payments to which they are entitled. Of course, the compensation structure is much more complex and there are far more issues than those that have been highlighted in the media in recent days. I am very clear that the move that we are going through this year to provide digital ticketing across the whole network will make it much more straightforward to give passengers the compensation that they deserve and need, and enable them to do so simply, without having to fill out long, complicated forms.

The estimates report was very revealing, showing how hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on compensation, underwriting failure and bail-outs. In control period 4 alone, a staggering £339.4 million of public money—our constituents’ money—was handed over to private operators, while passengers were forced to pay over the odds to travel. How much more public money will the Secretary of State pass to these failed rail operators?

The Opposition keep talking about the huge amounts that are paid, but they fail to understand that less than £3 in every £100 that is spent on the railways remains with the companies. The rest is going into the biggest infrastructure investment programme, better services and newer trains—the kind of improvements that people could only dream of in 13 years of Labour Government, but which they are getting under a Conservative Government.

That is certainly no apology to our constituents. The Secretary of State’s lack of due diligence has caused chief exec David Brown, of embattled Southern rail fame, to announce that he has done a—expletive deleted—good job, and that he will bid again for the next franchise contracts. Virgin and Stagecoach will do the same. These companies are on a huge gravy train at the expense of taxpayers, so why is the Secretary of State being held to ransom and why he is even prepared to consider rewarding their failure?

The hon. Lady talks about a privatised gravy train. I would encourage her to look at the conversation that the French Prime Minister had about a state railway, where he said:

“The dilapidated network, delays, abysmal debt…The situation is alarming, not to say untenable. The French, whether they take the train or not, pay more and more for a public service that works less and less well”.

I would say to her constituents that I am delighted that over the next 12 to 18 months the people of York are going to see every single train, pretty much, that serves their station replaced as new, or brand new trains—trains that they have not seen for decades.

During the franchise process, business cases get a lot of focus. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) mentioned the Virgin Trains east coast contract and the franchise holder criticising some of the figures he had been passed. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee who was present at that hearing, I can say that the franchise holder actually said that, although the figures were not what he was expecting, they were not an insurmountable barrier to the franchise working. He quoted the Scottish referendum and Brexit, and a declining trend in passenger figures, as the real reason why the franchise failed. When franchises across the companies are being bid for, will my right hon. Friend encourage those companies to have a broader range of dynamic scenario planning so that they get accurate figures?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We are now migrating the franchise system to being much more focused on quality. The quality of service is going to drive revenues as much as anything else. People will see a very different approach where we do not necessarily take the highest bid, we look for high quality in the bids, and we look to be prudent about the risk-sharing mechanisms so that hopefully this does not happen again.

Road Safety

Since becoming road safety Minister, I have met the hon. Gentleman several times, as well as a broad range of road safety organisations and others with an interest in road safety, to discuss many different issues. Those institutions include RoadPeace, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the RAC, the AA and many others.

I congratulate the Minister on his keen interest in this subject; I have been impressed by him so far. However, is it not the case that there are still 1,720 knocks on the door by a policeman or a policewoman who says that your daughter, your son, your mum, your dad, your grandmother or your grandfather are dead? That is the truth, so we cannot be complacent. Can we now look to having a national investigatory body to investigate every death on the road? Will the Minister also talk to his overseas development colleagues, given that 1.3 million people worldwide die in road accidents every year? Is it not time that we did something to help them?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are very closely involved in supporting nations around the world to raise road safety standards; he has been involved in that himself. With regard to a national body, we have looked at that. I am sure that he will take some comfort from the fact that only today we are laying regulations that allow driving instructors to undertake motorway driving with learners. That is part of a much wider pushback to improve driving quality and reduce fatalities.

The previous Transport Committee’s June 2016 inquiry into all-lane running concluded that 8% non-compliance with red X signals was unacceptable. In their response, the Government agreed, promising to tackle it through a combination of education and enforcement. In January this year, the chief executive of Highways England wrote to me with an update, stating that

“we have reduced levels of non- compliance with red-x signals to 8%”.

How can it be acceptable for the Government to be continuing to roll out all-lane running when it appears to have made zero progress on reducing these dangerous driving offences?

As the hon. Lady will be aware, a study has been done on all-lane running showing that, if anything, it may be safer than the previous arrangements, and that is to be welcomed. We will be making an announcement on red X signals fairly imminently.

Does the Minister not recognise the correlation between his Government’s decision to scrap road safety targets, introduced by Labour, and their failure to reduce the number of those seriously injured or killed on our roads?

I am a little reluctant to get into the statistics game with the hon. Gentleman. He will be aware, however, that for the year ending September 2017 road fatalities fell by 4% and overall road injuries fell by 5%, compared with the previous year. The picture is mixed and generally heading in the right direction.

In December 2015 the Department for Transport published the road safety statement “Working Together to Build a Safer Road System”, and we are making excellent progress in delivering its objectives. I am pleased to announce today that the Department has, at our third attempt, commissioned an objective scientific study to understand the relationship between tyre degradation, the passage of time and the effect on tyre safety. Two earlier attempts to commission that research were unavailing. The guidance given has been very effective in this area, but that marks a further move towards better road safety.

My constituents Julian and Gill Smith, who tragically lost their daughter Rhiannon nearly a year ago in a car collision, are now campaigning for better preventive action. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) and ask that the Minister looks seriously at calls by campaign groups such as Brake to establish a UK road collision investigation branch, so that we can have more crash data and evidence to prevent deaths and injuries on our roads.

As the hon. Lady says, that is a tragic incident for the family concerned, and one’s heart goes out to them. As I said to the hon. Member for Huddersfield, we continue to look closely at the possibility of setting up such a national body.

In the last 15 years, there have been 340 casualties on the notorious A417 near the Air Balloon pub. There have been 148 accidents in the last five years alone. Will my hon. Friend join me in warmly welcoming the landmark of reaching the consultation stage on the shortlisted new roads scheme? Does he agree that, by backing that project, this Government are committed to saving lives on Gloucestershire’s roads?

Of course I welcome that. As my hon. Friend will be aware, it has been the product of a great deal of hard work by local campaigners and the Department over a considerable period.

Would the Minister consider reducing the drink-drive limit? The reduction in Northern Ireland and Scotland has led to fewer deaths and injuries on the road and less work for the police. It is surely the most obvious thing to do.

We continue to keep the situation under review. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there have been moves in that direction in Scotland. As that policy works its way through, we will continue to look closely at the issue.

Road Improvements

The Department published its latest statistics on road conditions in England in January 2018, which show that local classified roads are improving, with fewer local roads to be considered for maintenance. There is still much to do, which is why the Government have committed record levels of investment, including more than £6 billion to highways maintenance up to 2020-21, as well as having an action fund to combat potholes totalling £296 million in this Parliament, which colleagues across the House will warmly welcome.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. He will be aware that Shropshire Council has submitted a very effective business case, supported by our local enterprise partnership, for the funding of the north-west relief road in Shrewsbury, which is the final bit of the circular around our town. What steps is he taking to ensure that the scheme is looked upon favourably?

I am absolutely aware of that. My hon. Friend has been a tireless campaigner for that road over the years. I reassure him that we recognise the concern that he indicates. The Department has received the funding bid for the Shrewsbury north-west relief road, and it is being actively and currently considered.

The Government are intending to close the driving test centre in Pontypridd and move it to Llantrisant, which will make it far more inconvenient for people in the Rhondda—one of the poorest constituencies in the land—and probably more difficult for people cost-effectively to learn how to drive safely. It will also put the driving test centre in a place that does not have suitable roads for people to do the test properly. Will the Minister look again at closing the Pontypridd driving test centre?

One wonders if style is everything in these matters or whether content should have a place at some point. The answer to that question is that of course we will continue to look at it, but I doubt the answer will change.

Community Transport

In the 2016-17 financial year, the Department spent almost £3.5 million on supporting the community transport sector through the bus services operators’ grant, and since January 2013 it has devolved approximately £2.9 million of that grant to support local councils’ community transport services. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Department is currently consulting on changes to the law and guidance on the use of section 19 and section 22 permits. The consultation closes on 4 May.

The Minister will know that the changes on which he is consulting pose a real threat to the future of some operators. What more can he do to protect the existing use of permits rather than require what are generally small local charities to move to the full commercial status of the operator licence?

As colleagues will know, I have spent a lot of time working with the bodies responsible for the sector and visiting local community transport organisations. I take my hat off to them for the astonishing work that they do, which is, in a way, a form of social care as much as a form of transport, if not more so. Our consultation document, which I am sure my hon. Friend will have read, lays out three potential exemptions: derogations from commercial operators in favour of community transport operators, showing that there is in fact no competition in specific cases; a potential distance exemption of 15 miles from a particular hub; and the separation of commercial and non-commercial activities. We expect them to receive a lot of comments. I am not aware of a direct threat to any operators in particular, but we very much seek their feedback.

Notwithstanding what the Minister said about the hat—he talked about taking his hat off—I would not have thought he would want to do so in the present weather, as a protective function.

Many community transport operators use diesel vehicles, so what representations have the UK Government made to the German Government to hold Volkswagen to account for its emissions scandal?

It is the Rhondda valley by proxy. We continue to press the German Government hard on the issue and regard the behaviour of Volkswagen as unacceptable. We are greatly improving the emissions regime, toughening up the testing regime and taking active steps to penalise the use of defeat devices.

Infrastructure: Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire

16. What estimate his Department has made of the amount that will be invested in transport infrastructure in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire between 2010 and 2020. (904119)

In the east midlands, almost £7 billion has been spent on transport since 2010, improving connectivity, shortening journey times, reducing congestion and transporting people, ideas and goods. In Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, that has included £371 million from Government for extensions to the Nottingham tram system, and £4.5 million for the new station at Ilkeston.

Indeed, the Government have a proud record on transport infrastructure. More transport infrastructure has been planned in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire over these 10 years than ever before. I welcome the proposals for the A38 and smart motorways, and for the Derby and Nottingham stations. May I suggest to my hon. Friend that we also consider smaller projects, which will make vast improvements, and may I put in a bid for the Ashbourne bypass?

My hon. Friend has been a great advocate of transport locally and is obviously an expert in the field, as a previous Minister in the Department. He is absolutely right that we are investing in the biggest upgrade of the midland main line since it was completed in 1870. It is, however, for Derbyshire County Council to assess the need for that particular project in Ashbourne, and to decide whether to work on plans to deliver it. If the council applies for appropriate Government funding, we would be pleased to consider its bid.

I know that the hon. Lady will accept that he was not merely a Minister in the Department but the Secretary of State and a right hon. Gentleman of notable industry and distinction.

The previous speaker said a lot of things about the possibility of getting extra money spent in Derbyshire. What he failed to do—this is very important—is say that when the electrification of the midland main line was put forward in this House, it was decided that it would go only as far as Kettering and Corby. Should not the question now be about the wholesale electrification of the midland main line, which would result in people in Derbyshire being better off?

I apologise to my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin) for my earlier mistake.

Perhaps not right now, but I will consider it in future. I was expecting a question on High Speed 2.

The hon. Gentleman is saving it—that is wonderful. Perhaps he will even acknowledge the great jobs that will be coming along the line. On electrification, Labour’s 2007 rail strategy stated that

“it would not be prudent to commit now to ‘all-or-nothing’ projects, such as network-wide electrification…for which the longer-term benefits are currently uncertain and which could delay tackling the current strategic priorities such as capacity.”

The Government believe that it is vital to deliver for passengers and for the taxpayer.

Between 2016 and 2021 the east midlands will receive just 3.2% of all transport investment, and that is exacerbated by the cancellation of the electrification of the Midland main line. That electrification is wanted by business and communities, and it is better value, better for the environment, and has a brilliant business case. Why are Ministers in the Department for Transport the only ones who do not understand that?

We have not yet fully announced what we will be doing on electrification, and at times some of the information shared is not entirely accurate. The Government have supported the midlands with HS2, and by investing £1.8 billion in the region’s motorways and trunk roads, and £1.7 billion in the local growth fund. We are also investing £25 million to develop and progress a transformational strategy across the midlands with Midlands Connect.

Order. The hon. Members for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) and for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) who missed out on substantive questions can seek to catch my eye during topical questions.

Topical Questions

Briefly, let me inform the House that the Space Bill has completed its passage through Parliament, and I extend my thanks to all Members involved in the debate. That debate was conducted in good humour by Members from across the House, and we all share the aspiration for this Bill to pave the way for a thriving commercial space sector in the United Kingdom.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Network Rail and Govia Thameslink have committed to ensuring that eight-carriage trains are introduced between Cambridge and King’s Lynn by the end of the year, which is vital to relieving unacceptable levels of congestion? Will he help to ensure that that commitment is honoured?

I will certainly do that, and I also recommit to the improvements needed in Ely, which are essential over the next control period to unlocking those capacity improvements that are needed for the growth and development of those parts of Cambridgeshire.

T2. Since 1979 the distinctive yellow and green minibuses of Ealing Community Transport have provided a vital lifeline for the disabled and elderly of the borough, but changed Government guidance now threatens the existence of that award-winning social enterprise. A delegation of volunteer drivers came to see me nearly in tears. They are mostly pensioners and they do not have the time, resources or inclination to retrain for the passenger carrying vehicle licence that is now demanded. Will the Minister think again? (904127)

As the hon. Lady is aware, the matter is currently out to consultation, although it does not cover the certificate of professional competence, which will be handled separately. As I have indicated, there are many workarounds for this issue, and there is no reason for any community transport company to be adversely worried. There is a misalignment between EU law and UK law, and there may be some players who, unfortunately, are operating in a commercial way. That is how the matter rests, and we will do everything we can to protect community transport operators that are doing a good job.

T3. It is wonderful that so many new technologically superior trains are being introduced on Britain’s railways, but many passengers are complaining that some of them have cramped and uncomfortable seats. We do not want to have Ryanair on the tracks. Will the Minister do all he can to ensure that the specifications for those new trains have passenger comfort at their heart? (904128)

Train seating is required to address the comfort of passengers and to conform to relevant design standards, including on fire safety and crashworthiness. We do not want passengers to feel that they need to bring in their own inflatable cushions, and my hon. Friend will take comfort in the fact that seats normally become more comfortable over time through use.

T4. It is now over 800 days since the Government promised to research a new law on pavement parking. Will the Minister or the Secretary of State give me an update on what progress has been made? (904129)

T7. Last weekend, and so completely unrelated to the current weather, Southern rail passengers at Redhill suffered the most appalling, shambolic and potentially dangerous scenes. I appreciate that underlying that situation might be the extremely good investment programme, but what assurances has the Minister received that these awful scenes will not be repeated? (904132)

Let me say very clearly and unequivocally that what took place last Sunday was unacceptable. On behalf of the Government, I apologise for it and the company has already done so. We have made our views known to the company in the strongest possible terms. It was unacceptable and lessons have to be learned. The company is putting in place arrangements to make sure people receive appropriate financial compensation. It must not happen again.

T5. Last Friday, I arranged a site meeting between Network Rail and the YMCA for south London to talk about an abandoned strip of land owned by Network Rail on Rialto road in Mitcham, close to Eastfields station, in the hope that they can together provide some great prefab housing for young people. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can encourage Network Rail to use all its scraps of land to the benefit of everyone? (904130)

I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this issue. It is really important that we make the most of all such opportunities for Network Rail to put scraps of land to good use, whether for housing, strips of walkway, or other pedestrian or cycling purposes. I am happy to meet her to discuss that.

T8. What is the Department doing to help more people to cycle safely, as happens in such cities as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, especially given the startling revelation to the joint air quality Committee by Professor Stephen Holgate that drivers and passengers are inhaling up to 10 times more poor quality air than cyclists and pedestrians on the street? (904133)

The answer to that question is a great deal, with more to come. I was very pleased to be able to go to the meeting of the all-party group on air pollution, of which my hon. Friend is a member, with Chris Boardman. That is an excellent example of how an individual initiative in Manchester can be used to drive great change. The cycle safety review is coming up shortly and will look at a very wide range of issues relating to cycling, including recent information on some of the impacts on air quality. As he says, cycling is remarkably good for the body and soul of the people who do it.

T6. Cheshire Oaks in my constituency is a great success story, with increased investment leading to another 300 jobs. However, it is very difficult for those living in Neston in the other part of the constituency to access those jobs because there are no bus services in the evening and Cheshire Oaks is open until 8 o’clock at night. Is that not a sorry state of affairs and can we not do more to help people to get into work? (904131)

Bus services, what journeys they take and how frequently they are run, are down to the local authority. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to discuss this matter with his local authority, which can take it forward with local bus service providers.

T10. I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State for visiting my constituency recently. On that occasion, I was pleased to give him the Stoke-on-Trent HS2 masterplan. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on his plans to make Stoke-on-Trent HS2-ready? (904135)

First, I want to put on the record again my commitment to making sure that Stoke is in receipt of an HS2 service when the route opens. The local authority’s plans for Stoke station are very exciting and I want to work on them with my hon. Friend and the local authority.

T9. The western side of the M60, in the process of the upgrading to the smart motorway system, has seen congestion, gridlock and horror for commuting traffic on a daily basis. Even now, the 50 mph limit remains in place. When will we see progress? (904134)

I know that these works have taken longer than intended. I have spoken to Highways England and we want to get this situation resolved as quickly as possible. It is certainly the case—I speak as somebody who travels from time to time to Old Trafford—that the area is surrounded by roadworks on the motorway and the work on the new extension to the Metrolink. I hope the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge, however, that this is a sign that the Government are making sure there is investment in, and resource provided to, Manchester, where transport investment on this scale has not happened for a long time.

My right hon. Friend will know from our many previous conversations that the people of Plymouth have waited too long to see improvements on their rail link, so I am grateful for his Department’s response yesterday, but when can they expect to see something delivered—some work completed—on Dawlish, which I know is his No. 1 responsibility?

Protecting the line at Dawlish is a national priority of utmost importance and we are determined to find a permanent solution for this vital connection. Some £15 million of funding has been provided to Network Rail to take this forward and planning and development work is well under way. There will be no unnecessary delay, and we will complete this work as soon as we can within the law.

Thank you so much, Mr Speaker. There is one set of tracks and one franchise operator between London and Brighton, but there are three separate pricing structures. I urge the Secretary of State and the Rail Minister to think about implementing the Gibb recommendation to lower the pricing to the lowest possible one—the Thameslink one—for a two-year period. That could be done with no technical changes whatever, and it would have a transformative impact on passengers who have suffered so much in the last few years.

We are working our way through the recommendations of the Gibb report, and we are working our way through the automation of ticketing, which I think is a prerequisite of the broader fares reform that is necessary. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the keyGo card has just launched across the Govia Thameslink Railway network, and that smart ticketing is progressing. That will provide the opportunity for fares reform in a way that has not been there previously.

During the recent appalling weather, Worcestershire County Council has been sharing information about where the nearest grit bin can be found, and getting the gritters out on the road. Will the Secretary of State join me in praising them for helping residents to prepare for the recent appalling conditions?

I absolutely praise them, and I am delighted that we have ample stocks on hand to deal with the current inconveniences. I put my hat squarely back on my head to deal with that on a personal level. Not least of the joys of this particular scheme and approach is that they open the way to Herefordshire, a place that I know the House will wish to visit on regular occasions.

The Secretary of State will be aware that no money was spent in control period 5 on supporting enhancements to the rail infrastructure in north Wales. Having seen the unanimity in north Wales and in north-west England on Monday this week, does he not accept that our time has come for cross-border rail investment?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I went to that event and made a commitment. I praise my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) for bringing the event together and thank all the Members from north Wales who attended. I gave a clear indication of the Government’s sympathy with the need for the Crewe hub. I talked about the re-signalling on parts of the route, which will improve performance on the line. The hon. Gentleman will be aware, as the Member of Parliament for Wrexham, that we are now carrying out the study on how we deliver a proper service on the Wrexham to Bidston line. Under this Government, the time has certainly come for transport improvements.

BACT—Beccles and Bungay area community transport—plays a key strategic role in north Suffolk in serving remote rural areas and many vulnerable people. Will the Minister assure me that in assessing the feedback from his current consultation, his No. 1 objective will be to put the future of organisations such as BACT on a sustainable, long-term financial footing?

I can absolutely assure him that the Department’s goal has always been to manage this process with as little impact as possible and ultimately to the benefit of the community transport sector, if we possibly can.

The Minister and his predecessor have been supportive of my trailer safety campaign and #towsafe4freddie, following Freddie Hussey’s tragic death in 2014. Does he agree with me that the Haulage Permits and Trailer Registration Bill, which is currently going through the Lords, offers a fantastic opportunity to further highlight the importance of trailer safety?

I absolutely recognise the campaign that the hon. Lady fought, and I think it is very worthwhile. I slightly doubt whether what she suggests is in fact the case, but attempts can of course be made within the rules. This is a very narrowly defined piece of legislation that focuses very specifically on permitting and on trailer registration, so there may not be scope to add other things, but I continue to be delighted to talk to her about the campaign that she is waging.

From the need for a final fix to the A40 to urgent upgrades to the Cotswold line, the need for a boost to west Oxfordshire’s transport is now acute. Will Ministers agree to work with me to make it happen?

The A40 is one of the roads that could benefit from the creation of the major roads network. It is precisely designed to deal with those second-tier roads that were detrunked by the last Labour Government and tend to fall through the cracks between decision making in local communities and the national work done on the strategic road network. My expectation is that my hon. Friend and his local authority will be beating a path to my door when that funding is first released. However, I would say that his railway line is getting new trains much sooner than that, which I hope will be a benefit to his constituents.

Ministers say that they want to reduce roadside emissions. The road leading from the port of Liverpool has some of the biggest air quality problems in the country. Will the Secretary of State listen to calls for investment in rail freight as an answer to the problem?

This is precisely why I am so pleased to have started feasibility work on the reopening of the Skipton to Colne railway line, a route that could provide an important link across the Pennines. It is no doubt a matter of real frustration that it takes eight to nine hours for a freight train to travel from the port of Liverpool to the power station at Drax, and it is clear to me that we need additional transpennine capacity. This is one route that could deliver it. I look forward to seeing the conclusions from that study at the end of the year, which I think is the likely timetable.

This week of all weeks, rail passengers want up-to-date information about delays and cancellations, but Southeastern’s website has failed to provide any live-time updates in any single rush hour this week, today included. Will Ministers bear that in mind when the franchise comes up for renewal?

My hon. Friend is a powerful champion of his constituents, and he is right to expect Southeastern to provide prompt, accurate and timely information so that passengers can have journeys of the quality that they deserve.

My constituent Jim Irvine, who was active all his life, now suffers from motor neurone disease, and, like many other people, relies on his mobility scooter for independence. Scooters are currently banned from the Tyne and Wear metro. What will the Secretary of State do to remedy the situation, and will he give assurances that our promised new rolling stock will include provision for mobility scooters?

As the hon. Lady says, it is time that we had new rolling stock on the Newcastle-upon-Tyne metro. I expect to see updated, modern rolling stock that can provide proper accessibility for people with disabilities. The decision about the configuration will of course be made locally, but I certainly expect the money that is available to be spent on disability-compliant rolling stock.

Will my right hon. Friend give us an update on the progress of the negotiations on air connections with the European Union after we leave in March next year?

The European Commission has published its negotiating position on aviation links. There have been a lot of scare stories around over the last few months, but the Commission has said that in all circumstances—whether or not we have a trade deal, and whether or not we have an implementation period—there must be an aviation agreement. There is a recognition on the Commission’s side that the flights need to continue, and there is an absolute commitment on our side. I met my Spanish counterpart yesterday, and we agreed that it was essential for flights to continue. We will all work to ensure that there is absolutely no interruption in services.

Does the Secretary of State understand the severe disappointment and anger in the far south-west about the sham of a south-west rail strategy that was published yesterday? Will he now do the right thing, and, instead of re-spinning the £50 million that has already been announced, match Labour’s £2.5 billion rail investment plan for the south-west?

I will take no lessons from the party that did nothing for transport in the south-west over a long period. This Government are doing things that Labour never did—dualling the A303, providing brand-new trains, and resignalling in Cornwall to increase the number of rail services. The hon. Gentleman should be embarrassed about his party’s record.

Order. We are very short of time. In fact, we have run out of time. We have had some very comprehensive answers, for which we are grateful, but I will take only two more questions, if the questions and answers are very short.

Will the Minister please look into the concerns that a flyover and tunnel at Stonehenge will damage the valuable archaeological site at Blick Mead?

My hon. Friend will be interested to know that I sent a message of welcome to the team from the International Council on Monuments and Sites that is currently considering the issue of Stonehenge. Of course we will look into my hon. Friend’s concerns, and he is welcome to write to me with further details.

When will the Government catch up with the rest of the world and take advantage of a quick, easy, cost-effective way of reducing transport emissions by introducing E10 fuel?

We are reviewing that option at the moment. As the hon. Gentleman will know, it would require legislation, but we are already giving considerable support to the ethanol industry, and we are continuing to look into it.