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House of Commons Hansard
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24 October 2019
Volume 666
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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [900133]

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Mr Speaker, this is my first topical questions session and my last opportunity with you in the Chair. I have been in post for 93 days and, with your permission, will give a couple of quick updates.

I know the House is concerned about smart motorways. I have heard those concerns being raised today and previously, and I have asked my Department to carry out, at pace, an evidence stocktake to gather the facts quickly and make recommendations.

As we have heard, my Department was involved in Operation Matterhorn, which successfully repatriated the most people to this country since the second world war. We are also getting ready for Brexit and, of course, decarbonising transport.

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There was widespread disappointment across the taxi and private hire sector last week when the Secretary of State indicated to the Transport Committee that he would not be bringing forward legislation to tackle some of the safety issues relating to licensing. He will know that councils can introduce high standards but cannot enforce them against drivers who are licensed elsewhere. Will he think about that again?

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The hon. Gentleman pressed me hard on this matter in the Select Committee sitting, and I have done some work on it before and since. We intend to go down the statutory taxi and private hire vehicle standards approach, with standardised checks and a national database. I have spoken to Professor Mohammed Abdel-Haq, who is present in the Gallery and who chaired the task and finish group. I invite the hon. Gentleman, along with others in the House, to join us in that programme, and I thank him.

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T4. It may have been Dr Johnson who said that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, but there can be no hope without safety. Professor Mohammed Abdel-Haq’s report, which I commissioned, had public safety at its heart. Will the Secretary of State do all he can through secondary legislation and statutory guidance to make people safer when they travel in taxis, and meet me and the hon. Members for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) to discuss how he will go about that? [900136]

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I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his work on this matter, and particularly for action in commissioning that task and finish group. I absolutely look forward to working with him, other Members across the House and the maritime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), who deals with this issue as well.

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T2. Following on from previous speakers on the taxi issue, we have been raising it now for well over 12 months, probably nearer two years. We have had Adjournment debates and questions on it. It is not good enough for the Secretary of State now to say that we are going out to consultation on some minor parts of it. We should have the full report and it should be debated in this House and amended if necessary. [900134]

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I should just clarify for the hon. Gentleman that we are not going out to consultation; we are in fact acting on statutory taxi and private hire vehicle standards.

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T6. The Minister will be aware that transport affects the whole of the Greater London area, but beyond that, is it not time that this was reviewed so that places such as Essex, Kent, Surrey and Hertfordshire have a say about transport policy in the Greater London area? [900138]

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right, of course, that Transport for London has a big impact on constituencies outside, including mine in Welwyn Hatfield. I do note, however, that there are widely differing views, including in my area, for example, where people would welcome more Transport for London involvement. In his area, perhaps the opposite is the case. I do think that it is a case of making sure that whatever we do fits in with the Williams review and the White Paper, which is to be published shortly.

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T3. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) mentioned that Transport for London had launched its new consultation on the Bakerloo line extension. There is a growing risk that this vital piece of infrastructure could be prevented by premature development coming forward on key sites along the routes. Will the Secretary of State commit today to issuing safeguarding directions to the proposed route as soon as possible? [900135]

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I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I actually met her about this and other subjects only a couple of weeks ago. My officials, along with Ministry of Housing officials, are currently working with TfL to understand the case for the Bakerloo line extension and how it interacts with housing proposals, and I expect to be able to report more very shortly.

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T8. On 3 September, the Secretary of State said that he would discuss with the Chancellor the case for updating the costs and benefits of HS2 to current prices to ensure transparency, but he also said that“there is no future for a project like this without being transparent and open, so we will be candid when challenges emerge.”Has he met the Chancellor? Does he have the updated costs, and how does asking the independent panel to sign non-disclosure agreements fit with his statement about being transparent? [900140]

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My right hon Friend has campaigned on this issue, quite rightly, for a very long time, and she gives me the opportunity to correct something that was suggested from the Front Bench earlier, which is that I somehow have a copy of the report, which I absolutely do not. I have not seen any of it, not even its emerging conclusions. When Oakervee is ready, he will present that report. I stick with everything I said. This is very important. As soon as we have this information, I will make it available to the House. As for non-disclosures, there are, of course, sensitive commercial matters involved in these things, and it is important that all members of the panel work together without releasing those inadvertently in a manner that would be commercially problematic. None the less, I do agree with the basic principle that, as soon as the information is available, this House will have it.

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T5. It is two and a half years since the Bus Services Act 2017 was passed, yet we are still waiting for secondary legislation to make talking buses a reality for blind and visually impaired passengers. When will this finally happen? [900137]

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We have put together a £2 million fund to help smaller bus companies make audio-visual information available, and that should come into place next year. It is a part of our inclusive transport strategy and I believe that we are the first country to have such a strategy: to align ourselves with UN goals to enable people with disabilities to access public transport as easily as those who do not have disabilities.

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T9.   The permanent closure of the Army and Navy flyover has created a transport emergency across Chelmsford and mid-Essex. Can the Minister confirm that officials from the Department for Transport are working at pace with Essex County Council and focusing every effort on developing, funding and delivering a long-term solution to this junction? [900141]

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I am delighted to say that the noble Baroness Vere who deals with these issues and I met yesterday, and we both commend my hon. Friend for her leadership on this issue. This has been a very serious emergency situation, causing huge congestion in her part of the world, and we are determined to ensure that we get the solution right. That means not necessarily rebuilding what was there before, but getting a proper state-of-the-art solution.

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T7. At Highways England, a Government-owned company of which the Secretary of State is the sole shareholder, over 60 executives—mostly men—now enjoy six-figure salaries, while the vast majority of staff have been told to expect their pay increases to remain capped at 1% until 2025? When will the new shareholder be challenging company directors to address these pay disparities? [900139]

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The hon. Lady may be surprised to hear that I agree with her. Some of these salaries—in both road and rail—have gone off the scale, and I am already addressing the issue.

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Many of my constituents think that, as far as the Government are concerned, “northern powerhouse” only means Leeds and Manchester, so will the Secretary of State prove my constituents wrong by unequivocally committing to a station stop in Bradford for Northern Powerhouse Rail, which is vital for the local economy?

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I am sure that my hon. Friend has heard what the Prime Minister has had to say on this matter. He will also know that Transport for the North is looking at options including Bradford for trans-Pennine links. I am immensely sympathetic to his argument.

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T10.   What progress has been made with the Department’s feasibility study regarding the reopening of the Skipton-Colne line for both passengers and freight? [900142]

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I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise the work that has been done on this issue by other Members of Parliament, including my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith). The feasibility work is still in progress, and we are pressing further to assess whether the proposed scheme can be made affordable, will attract sufficient traffic and is part of the right long-term solution for all trans-Pennine rail traffic. The hon. Gentleman will have seen that the issue featured in the rail network enhancements pipeline publication earlier this week.

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Constituents across Gloucestershire will be delighted with the additional 5,000 seats a day of rail capacity between Gloucester and Paddington. Can the Minister tell me when we might also expect additional capacity on the important and very popular Gloucester to Bristol line, which would be welcomed by the Mayor of the West of England, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) and our excellent candidate in Stroud, Siobhan Baillie?

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My hon. Friend has been campaigning on this issue, possibly since the day he was born; he is certainly in my ear about it all the time. Increasing frequency on local Great Western Railway trains is the best way in which to provide additional frequency and seats on the route, and this is likely to be provided as an extension of MetroWest additional services for Bristol to Yate, with the Department funding Yate to Gloucester. MetroWest proposals are under development by GWR as part of the next franchise, which will start in April 2020.

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Transport without a brake would be like a car without a driver—Tom Brake.

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In relation to Operation Yellowhammer, may I ask the Secretary of State what role the 300 troops and 180 police officers who are to be put on standby will play in policing the transport network in and around the port of Portsmouth, and how many other troops and police may be deployed at other ports?

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It is always a pleasure to respond to the happy-go-lucky Member for Carshalton and Wallington, especially on the matter of Brexit because I was reading his website last night, on which he says,

“clearly this was a democratic vote and we must abide by this decision”

—something that he has forgotten, I believe. My Department is operationalising Yellowhammer, and I will happily write to the right hon. Gentleman with the details he requires.

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Ah, let us call a Member who used to have responsibility for buses and various other forms of transport at different times—Mr Andrew Jones.

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After a widely supported and successful campaign against a relief road in Harrogate, the transport authority is now looking at a package of sustainable measures to take transport forward in the area. What support will the Government provide to North Yorkshire County Council and other such councils developing sustainable transport packages?

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My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. We are currently in the midst of talking to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government about a much more fundamental integration of housing and transport through the housing infrastructure fund. I will happily meet my hon. Friend to talk this through to make sure that it works for local places so that housing comes with proper transport.

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Further to the Secretary of State’s earlier comments on the intention to carry out a review of the safety of smart motorways and all-lane running, he will know that the Transport Committee questioned Highways England on this yesterday. Is that review being carried out in the Department or by someone independent? I would be grateful if he clarified that.

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I watched with great interest the evidence from Highways England in front of the Committee yesterday and noted the comments of the chief exec. I will ensure that the Department is making decisions on this, because some of the statistics have been difficult to understand. We know that people are dying on smart motorways. We also know that 70 or 80 people a year die on full motorways. Understanding whether smart motorways are less safe, the same or safer turns out not to be as straightforward as Members might imagine. I want all the facts and I want recommendations that could be put in place to ensure that all our motorways are as safe as they possibly can be. I will get this done in a matter of weeks.

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Growing towns and villages in my constituency need investment in cycle and walking infrastructure. Will the Secretary of State join my representations to the Treasury at the forthcoming Budget to make sure that there is dedicated funding for villages and towns to expand this infrastructure?

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Yes, we are working with cycling groups up and down the country to do exactly that.

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TransPennine rail services between Leeds and Manchester through Stalybridge and Mossley are clearly vital to this country. The previous Government changed their mind quite a lot on improvements, including on full electrification. What is this Secretary of State’s policy on TransPennine rail upgrades, and will he meet me to hear some sensible suggestions on the way forward?

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I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. I am very interested and cannot wait.

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Ah, another habitué of Transport questions —Martin Vickers.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The Secretary of State will have heard my exchange with the Prime Minister yesterday when he agreed with me on submitting proposals for free port status for the Humber ports, an upgrade to the A15, and improved east-west rail freight capacity. Will the Secretary of State indicate his support, and will he agree to meet me and a delegation to discuss the matter?

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It is good to see the hon. Gentleman back on his feet promoting everything in his constituency, including free ports. I will of course be more than happy to sit down and meet a delegation, although I am a bit concerned about how large it will be. I am pleased to be working with the Department for International Trade and the Treasury to ensure that the ports that want it get the free port status that they require.

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I am sorry, but we must move on.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

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Well, very briefly.

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I am grateful, Mr Speaker. In our exchanges on Question 3, my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) raised her concerns about the delayed publication of the Oakervee report. The Minister responded by saying that she was making it up. I can assure you, Mr Speaker, that when my hon. Friend comes to the Dispatch Box she does not make things up—she tells the truth. If the Minister has inadvertently used language that he ought not to, perhaps he could come to the Dispatch Box right now and withdraw the slur that he has laid against her immediately, without any qualification.

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It is incumbent upon a Minister to own up if he or she considers an error to have been made. I would simply say that as a matter of fact Members must be assumed to speak what they believe to be true. It all happened very quickly, and I did mutter at the time that a Member will say only what he or she believes. So it was, I think, infelicitous, at the very least, and a gracious withdrawal would be appreciated.

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I have not received the said report, but I am happy to clarify the point and I withdraw the exact comment.

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I am extremely grateful to the Minister. I thank him for that and we will leave it there.