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Transport Sector: Support and Covid-19 Emergency Funding

Volume 682: debated on Thursday 22 October 2020

What steps the Government are taking to ensure that covid-19 emergency funding support is fair and equitable across transport operators. (907935)

What (a) financial and (b) other support he plans to provide to the transport sector in the next six months. (907939)

What (a) financial and (b) other support he plans to provide to the transport sector in the next six months. (907941)

The Government continue to provide the support that is necessary to maintain public transport throughout this pandemic. It may be helpful to the House if I let Members know that the Department is expecting to spend between £10.6 billion and £12.6 billion on supporting the transport sector in response to this pandemic.

If there is, as many predict, a disruptive end to the transition period, with long delays and blockages at the EU border and the inevitable financial costs this will bring to hauliers and traders, will the UK Government financially support and compensate these businesses and workers for the costs inflicted on them by this Tory Government’s failure to secure anything bearing any semblance of a deal with the European Union?

I have just described the between £10 billion and £12.5 billion of support this Government have provided to the transport sector through covid. The hon. Gentleman talks about what will happen at the end of the transition period. I hope he is reassured to know that I am leaving from this House to go straight to Kent to review the many plans that are very advanced and in place to ensure that the transition is smooth.

Covid-19 has resulted in the transport sector being hit hard in the north-east. I hear what the Secretary of State says, but will he commit to providing long-term emergency funding support beyond the end of the financial year to cover the damage caused by restrictions on the economy to prevent major service cuts and job losses in the transport sector in the north-east?

I hope the hon. Lady will accept that an enormous amount of money, as revealed today—between £10.5 billion and £12.5 billion—has been put into the transport sector throughout this crisis, and it has taken many different forms. I will say a bit more about, for example, light rail, which I know will be of interest in parts of the north-east, later. But, yes, we will commit to ensure that our transport sector continues to function, and in particular to ensure that key workers through this difficult period are able to continue to travel and able to serve people in this country, particularly NHS and care workers.

A constituent of mine worked as a member of the cabin crew for British Airways out of Edinburgh for over 21 years. They have been forced out of their job and pressured to sign an agreement that has no transparency of the pay breakdown; frankly, they have been totally shafted by BA. Does the Transport Secretary recognise that, on the one hand, there is an urgent need for more financial support for the aviation sector, but on the other, companies such as BA need taking to task, and the fire and rehire Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) would be the perfect way to do that? Would he also commit to meet my constituent and me, so that he can hear at first hand their horrendous experience?

I know this is a subject that the whole House has been concerned about. The Select Committee on Transport has spent some time looking into this and has made a number of different comments on the matter. It is the case, of course, that these are extraordinarily difficult times for many businesses in this country, but I do not think that any are more impacted than the aviation sector. The most important thing we can do to help the hon. Member and her constituents is to make sure that the sector gets going again, which is why things such as test and release are very important. But I will certainly ensure that a meeting can take place between the aviation Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts)—and her constituent.

The independent coach sector must be unique in the impact that covid has had on its business and the level of support—in other words, not very much—that it has had from Government. What can this Government do to support private enterprises such as JP Minicoaches in Forfar and Black’s of Brechin to weather what has been a disastrous summer followed by a catastrophic winter looming?

About 3,000 coach operators in the country employ 40,000 people in businesses worth about £4.5 billion, and it is true that they have been at the forefront of this crisis. They make a lot of their money from tourism, with the remainder coming from things like school runs. I am pleased that through the return to school, the Department for Education made available £70 million, which has assisted in getting some of those often family-run businesses up and running again.

Until we recover from covid, coach operators will not be able to run at full pelt. They have been able to access some of the ground-breaking additional assistance that the Chancellor has made available, but we will continue to work with the Confederation of Passenger Transport, and other Government Departments, to ensure that coach operators are able to continue as best as possible through these difficult times.

When it comes to financial support, the railways have had billions, and I am grateful that they continue to run. The Williams review to reform the railways envisaged a “guiding mind” body that would be at arm’s length to the Department for Transport, the train operators and Network Rail, in order to properly oversee and run the railway. There is some concern that that arm’s length body may end up as Network Rail, which sounds a little like the days of the old British Rail. Can the Secretary of State assure me that there will be that independent “guiding mind” body to run and oversee both train and track?

I thank my hon. Friend for his work on the Transport Committee, and the close attention that the Committee pays to these subjects. Clearly, the rail network has been going through extraordinary times, with much of the support that I described earlier going to rail. As we move forward, it is important that we do not end up back with the old British Rail, with bad sandwiches and the rest of it, but at the same time we bring a fragmented system back together. That is what the Williams review aims to do, and in some ways covid has enabled us to accelerate that process. I assure my hon. Friend that the outcome will not be some conglomerate with no real “guiding mind” and all the worst from the past, and we will move forward with the Williams reforms.

Despite failing to deliver the promised sectoral support, the Secretary of State has said time and again that his Government are listening to and working with the aviation sector. How does that tally with the Government ignoring every response to a Treasury consultation on abolishing the airside shopping VAT exemption, which will cost Glasgow and Edinburgh airports combined £10 million-plus? Does he agree that the last thing his Treasury colleagues should be doing is pursuing policies that will cost yet more jobs in that beleaguered sector?

The aviation sector has enjoyed a significant amount of support from the public purse. I do not think I have previously drawn this figure to the attention of the House, but the covid corporate financing facility scheme, which is run by the Bank of England, has lent 11% of the money that it has lent to aviation, so there has been a huge amount of money. I am aware of the changes in airport shops to which the hon. Gentleman refers. The Treasury has been consulting on that issue for some time and I will ensure that his comments are reflected back to it.

Let us try a much simpler question, to which I am sure the Secretary of State can give a straightforward and categorical answer. With the news that the black hole known as HS2— the English-only HS2—needs another £800 million ploughed into it, when will the UK Government update the Scottish Government on the timing and amount of Barnett consequentials that should flow from the project, so that those funds can be spent supporting and revitalising transport in Scotland?

The Barnett formula is a matter for the Treasury, but at the moment the £800 million is entirely within the budgets. One thing we have done—the Minister of State, Department for Transport ensured that this happened—is to come to the House with six-monthly updates, so that no big surprises suddenly appear in the HS2 budget. I would say in general though that the benefits of HS2 will be felt by the whole United Kingdom. That means, potentially, ultimately, a journey from London to Edinburgh in three hours or so. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that levelling up and connectivity throughout the Union.

Our country faces an unprecedented crisis due to the coronavirus, and I pay tribute to transport workers—bus drivers and others—who have risked their safety at this very difficult time. At this difficult and dangerous time, will the Minister explain why the Government are spending £7 million on a pointless rebranding exercise for Highways Agency rather than spending the money protecting lives and saving jobs?