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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 688: debated on Thursday 28 January 2021


The Secretary of State was asked—

Covid-19: Safety of Rail Workers

What steps he has taken to ensure the safety of rail workers during the January 2021 covid-19 lockdown. (911485)

Good morning, Mr Speaker. We have worked closely with the rail industry throughout the pandemic to mitigate covid-19 risks to workers. Since the covid outbreak, operators have been cleaning trains in line with existing guidance, increasing cleaning regimes and concentrating on high-touch areas that present a higher risk of contamination.

The Minister will be aware that the rail industry coronavirus forum’s figures show that total covid deaths among rail workers have tragically more than doubled since November, from 12 to 26, and that absences have also doubled. The figures could be even higher when subcontractors are included. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers is concerned that, despite the new variant, some rail companies are acting like it is business as usual. Can the Minister tell the rail companies to do more to protect our rail workers who are so bravely keeping our country moving?

I thank the hon. Lady for her excellent question. I have been talking to the rail companies and, indeed, the general secretaries of the unions throughout this crisis and we have issued comprehensive guidance to public transport operators, including rail operators. This has been reinforced by officials throughout the pandemic on how to keep staff safe and trains clean, so that passengers and staff are able to maintain good hygiene.

Railway Stations: Tactile Paving

If he will make it his policy to speed up the installation of tactile paving in all railway stations. (911486)

The Department expects the industry to meet current accessibility requirements whenever it installs, renews or replaces station infrastructure. This includes appropriate tactile paving.

Does the Minister acknowledge that travellers will need extra encouragement to get out of their cars and back on to public transport once the coronavirus restrictions have been lifted? Will he prioritise making railway stations safe and accessible as a means of attracting travellers back?

I am fully aware, as is every single person in the industry, that we will need to entice and encourage passengers back when they are allowed to travel on our trains. And yes, the hon. Lady is absolutely right: our stations need to be more friendly, more welcoming, more accessible and spotless—and they will be. To accelerate the programme of tactile paving, we have included it as part of our core scope for accessible routes installed under the Access for All programme, so I hope that she will see some changes when she returns to public transport.

Oxford-Cambridge Expressway

The project is paused and no work is being done on it. We are considering how other transport interventions can best support growth and jobs in the Oxford to Cambridge arc.

Residents in Oxfordshire, who are strongly opposed to the Oxford to Cambridge expressway, are worried that while the expressway is officially paused, it seems that parts of the road project are going ahead, but in smaller chunks. One expressed it as “expressway by stealth”. Can the Minister tell us how many subsections of the expressway project are in their planning stages, and does “pause” mean that “go” is still an option?

I can assure the hon. Lady that the Government have announced plans to develop with local partners a long-term spatial framework, and that it is along the lines of the 25-year environment plan to build beautiful and sustainable places in her community and in the whole region. Consultation with local residents and herself is central to achieving this vision.

Transport for London Budget

What assessment he has made of the progress of the Mayor of London in putting the Transport for London budget on a sound footing. (911488)

The Mayor of London is responsible for Crossrail’s costs and completion through Transport for London, although the Government have offered an additional £825 million in borrowing to meet Crossrail’s funding shortfall.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Mayor of London has monumentally mismanaged the Crossrail project, which is over budget and several years delayed, and that it is ordinary Londoners who are having to pick up the bill with a 10% increase in the share of council tax for the Mayor?

My hon. Friend is of course correct. We have had the failure to deliver Crossrail on time, £5.2 billion; higher pensions at TfL, £828 million; the fare freeze, with £640 million of fares not collected; and fare dodging, £400 million. I know that that is all just millions and billions to us, but it all adds up.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Instead of levelling up the north, where this Government have cut £4 million from Transport for the North, the Minister and his Government clearly intend to level down London’s transport network. This is not the first time we have had to come to the House to ask about the Government’s support for TfL because it did not go far enough in the first place. At a time when public transport ridership has collapsed and we are still a long way off recovering to pre-pandemic ridership levels, we must think about redistribution. That is clearly the right approach. Vehicle excise duty, which raises £500 million from drivers who live in London, is invested almost exclusively in roads outside the city. Keeping it in the capital would enable TfL to continue to be a world-class transport provider and boost our nation’s economy, so will the Transport Secretary commit to looking at this as a way to support TfL?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position, warmly congratulate him and look forward to many exchanges. He asks about TfL. The Government have provided £3.3 billion and counting to TfL to keep it afloat. I just listed some of the moneys that had not been collected in by the Mayor, and I hear that the hon. Gentleman now wants to give the Mayor responsibility for the collection of vehicle excise duty in addition. Londoners will be interested in this. The Mayor is already planning an over £31 band D increase in council tax this year and now he has this new boundary tax, which might be £3.50 or £5.50—we await to hear—for entering London from certain locations. Where does it end?

Cycling and Walking

What support his Department is providing to local authorities to maintain and increase levels of cycling and walking. (911489)

The Government are investing £2 billion in active travel over the next five years, much of which will go to local authorities. This is the biggest ever boost for cycling and walking.

In Cornwall, we have benefited from over £600,000 in the second tranche of the Government’s active travel fund—that is 100% of our initial indicative allocation. This will allow Cornwall Council to take forward a package of walking and cycling projects in the two biggest towns in my constituency, Truro and Falmouth. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s active travel fund is the key to enabling our country to start walking and cycling? Will he confirm that further tranches of this fund will be available to local authorities?

Obviously, we agree that the provision of high-quality infrastructure is vital to getting more people cycling and walking, and that local authorities have a key role to play in delivering that. There will be further funding for local authorities to deliver high-quality cycling and walking schemes in the next financial year, and beyond, as part of the £2 billion announced by the Prime Minister in the gear change plan, and I will be announcing further details of this in due course.

Car-free Environments

What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to make an assessment of the effect on the economy of car-free environments. (911490)

The Government strongly agree that investment in cycling and walking infrastructure delivers benefits to national and local economies, better public health and cheaper travel. That is why, as Members will have heard my colleague just set out, the Prime Minister has announced the biggest ever funding boost to cycling and walking— a total package of £2 billion.

As our high streets struggle and, ironically, York’s Green-Lib Dem council is waving through new car park developments, which will suck even more cars into York, Living Streets’ work on “The Pedestrian Pound” is certainly the antidote, showing that pedestrianisation and investment in the public realm will drive up footfall by up to 35% and retail sales by a similar proportion. Will the Minister work with me to realise York’s potential as a car-free city, so that my community can reap the environmental, social, health and economic benefits of walking, cycling and active travel?

I very much thank the hon. Lady for the way in which she is championing active travel in the city of York, and the Department strongly shares that ambition. For example, she will know of the electric park and ride service that has been delivered, thanks to funding from the Department. We very much look forward to continuing those conversations with her.

Rail Connections: North of England

Last year, we took control of the Northern rail franchise to deliver better and more punctual services. We announced £589 million to kick-start the Trans-Pennine route upgrade, and we continue to invest in improving Leeds station. This month, we have launched a consultation to address the Manchester bottleneck, and on Saturday we announced £34 for the initial work on reopening the Northumberland line.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s commitment to rail in the north. Will he give me and my constituents an update on step-free access at Garforth station, which I have been campaigning on for many years?

My right hon. Friend has been a tireless champion for the much-needed improvements at Garforth station, to make it safer for all passengers, especially those with restricted mobility or those with pushchairs. I share his frustration at the length of time it has taken to deliver the improvements that he has secured for his constituents, and we will seek an update on timescales from Network Rail.

It is concerning to see, in the local press at least, incredibly negative and biased reporting that the High Speed 2 eastern leg is to be scrapped. Will my hon. Friend confirm whether those reports are true? If so, how does that fit in with his longer-term ambition to improve rail connections in the north?

My hon. Friend frequently raises his constituents’ concerns, particularly about the Calder Valley line and the need for improvements in local services. He is completely right to raise the importance of major rail infrastructure projects such as the eastern leg of HS2. We are committed to building HS2 phase 2b and to enabling the east midlands, Yorkshire and the north-east to reap the benefits of high-speed rail services. We aim to publish the integrated rail plan early this year, which will set out our plans covering the eastern leg.

Delivery of Transport Infrastructure Projects

What steps his Department is taking to accelerate the delivery of transport infrastructure projects. (911498)

My Department is at the forefront of delivering plans and detail for the national infrastructure strategy, and we are using Project Speed initiatives and my acceleration unit in the delivery of infrastructure.

Duffield railway station in my constituency is expected to become busier during the next few years, as work on improvements to the A38 will make driving from Duffield to Derby very difficult. I am concerned that the platforms are not accessible for mothers with children in pushchairs, the elderly and the disabled, as the steps are steep and narrow and there are no lifts. Will the Secretary of State inform me of what plans there are to improve accessibility at Duffield railway station in the immediate future, because work on the A38 is starting very soon?

I am delighted that we are upgrading the A38. I know that my hon. Friend is a regular user of Duffield railway station. She will be pleased to know that there will most likely be further rounds of the Access for All funding, which has done so much to improve access to railway stations throughout the country. I look forward to receiving an application from my hon. Friend.

My right hon. Friend is used to me bending his ear about the Toft Hill bypass, but today I am mixing it up. Last week, I held a call with residents of Whorlton, Wycliffe and the surrounding villages about the full closure of Whorlton bridge. Durham County Council has funding available for the necessary testing of the bridge’s components, but there are concerns about funding availability for the full repairs, so will the Secretary of State meet me and council officers to help to find a funding solution for the repairs of this nationally significant bridge?

I came armed to the teeth with information about Toft Hill bypass, so I am disappointed. None the less, my hon. Friend’s concerns about Whorlton bridge sound like they would be well addressed by the £4 billion levelling-up fund that we recently announced. We look forward to hearing from her when that fund becomes available. Of course, I would be happy either to meet my hon. Friend myself or to arrange for my roads Minister to do the same.

I am delighted that the progress on my bid for the restoring your railway fund means that feasibility studies at Ansdell station are soon to begin, bringing the doubling of services on the South Fylde line closer than ever before. With more passengers on the line ending their journeys or transferring at Preston, which is already a busy station, what plans are in place to increase platform capacity at Preston station?

I know that my hon. Friend has been campaigning tirelessly on this issue. It is fantastic that these Beeching reversals, with the restoring your railway bids, are helping to improve Ansdell. Increasing platform capacity is part of the proposals for Preston, which include extending platforms 3 and 4 and removing platforms 3c and 4c. I know my hon. Friend already knows that, but it is very exciting and I congratulate him on all the work that he has done to bring the issue forward for his community.

Transport Decarbonisation

What plans his Department has to facilitate a green recovery from the covid-19 outbreak through transport decarbonisation. (911493)

Transport decarbonisation through more active travel, electric vehicles, greener aviation and shipping, is at the heart of our green recovery.

With our borders open and our schools closed and the Prime Minister introducing new quarantine measures, the recent aviation test and release announcement is now in tatters. We want to decarbonise and we want to give the industry confidence, but the Jet Zero Council, much lauded by the Prime Minister, has met only once and has no workstreams and the Government are dithering over financing the airspace modernisation programme. When will the Secretary of State step up?

I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman missed my speech yesterday at Davos where I addressed that subject in detail. In fact, I want to correct the record of the House: the Jet Zero Council has actually met on two occasions and—wait for the punchline—has sub-committees that have met on many occasions, because they are the work horses of the Jet Zero Council and they bring together academia, the sector itself, Government and international partners to deliver zero-carbon flight by 2020. I refer him to my speech of yesterday, which he can get to from my tweet at @grantshapps.[Official Report, 1 February 2021, Vol. 688, c. 5MC.]

More needs to be done to create jobs in decarbonised transport. I have three asks of the Secretary of State: introduce mandatory e10 fuels; provide funding for sustainable aviation fuel plants; and provide a bus strategy that copies the combined Scottish Government-EU initiative that saw the world’s first hydrogen double-decker buses in Aberdeen. The bus strategy needs to include orders for Scottish and UK manufacturers. Will he confirm dates and funding for these initiatives and in writing as well, please?

I certainly share the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for all things hydrogen, and I think I am right in saying that the UK Government fund a hydrogen bus project in Glasgow.[Official Report, 8 February 2021, Vol. 689, c. 2MC.] He will know that we are also funding a hydrogen train project. In fact, I have ridden on the HydroFLEX train. We have also announced the country’s first hydrogen hub, which happens to be in Teesside. Mr Speaker, given the Prime Minister’s 10-point decarbonisation plan from last month, you will not find a more pro-decarbonisation Government than this one. I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman on many more measures, including in Scotland.

I do not know about you, Mr Speaker, but I cannot wait to read the Secretary of State’s speech to Davos. As he very well knows, Scotland is more ambitious in this area and is world leading in its pursuit of rail electrification, with the editor of Rail magazine saying last week that Scotland has made big progress here, all while the major English electrification projects got cancelled by his Department. Moreover, in our electric vehicle industry alone, domestic charge point funding and e-bike loan schemes have also been deemed world leading. When will the UK Government match their climate emergency rhetoric and decarbonise transport and improve transport sustainability?

The audio was not perfect there, but I got the bit where the hon. Gentleman was saying that he is very enthusiastic about zero carbon and getting to the point where the UK Government are the first major economy in the world to legislate for net zero by 2050. I am pleased that he is so enthusiastic. He will no doubt be backing the UK Government’s plan to get to zero carbon cars, starting with the end of the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030. I know that he will be welcoming the enormous sums of money that will have gone right the way across the United Kingdom, which has enabled—credit where credit is due—the Scottish Government to roll out an impressive number of charging stations for electric vehicles. Let us work together to get this job done. It seems that we are better when we do these things together.

Covid-19: Support for the Rail Industry

What financial support his Department is providing to the rail industry during the covid-19 outbreak. (911494)

The 2020 spending review provided a total of £10.1 billion of confirmed funding for the Department for Transport to support passenger rail services in England during the covid outbreak.

The service on both the Greater Anglia and c2c lines has been significantly cut during the latest lockdowns. Many constituents have contacted me to tell me that social distancing is near impossible on the few trains that are being run. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that enough money is being given to allow train operators to run a safe service?

My hon. Friend from nearly the city of Southend is absolutely right to mention the importance of keeping the right level of trains running. I mentioned that we funded £10.1 billion—an unprecedented amount—to keep these trains running during the covid crisis to make sure that essential workers can get to work. Of course people should not be travelling to work unless they cannot do that work from home. He will be interested to know that there have been discussions with Build UK and the Construction Leadership Council, particularly on that c2c line and concern about those trains coming into Canning Town. We will keep a close eye on this, and I have asked Sir Peter Hendy, the chair of Network Rail, to also work to ensure that we are alerted as soon as there are any signs of congestion and make sure that these lines can operate safely.

Railway Resilience Work: Dawlish

Work is under way on the second phase of the new sea wall following the opening of the first phase, which I was happy to open in person in September—one of the few visits that I have been able to make in the last year.

This region is still talking about the Minister’s visit to Dawlish. He will know the importance of the rail link from Plymouth to Paddington, and the disruption that we have suffered in the past. The region is very grateful for the work that has been carried out in recent years, but can he assure me today that the next phase of work at Dawlish, to secure the cliff face from crumbling on to the track, will not be delayed or compromised, in order to ensure that essential rail services can continue along this iconic part of the journey?

I thank my hon. Friend; I am sure that the ticker tape and dried rose petals are still being cleared. I am happy to assure him that we remain committed to improving the resilience of this vital transport artery. Network Rail is continuing to develop proposals for further phases of the resilience programme, using £17.2 million of Government funding that has already been given.

Rail Network Capacity

The Government have made record investments in building and modernising our rail network, and providing capacity for rail users. The spending review included over £58 billion of investment for road and rail transport between 2021 and 2025, delivering some of the Government’s largest capital projects and helping us to build back better post covid-19.

The Government’s programme of rail improvements is the biggest since the Victorian era. Will the Minister confirm that it is going ahead, even if passenger numbers take some time to recover from the covid outbreak? Will he also ensure that it delivers significant improvements to connections between our great northern cities, because that is essential to levelling up economic opportunities in our country?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We are getting on with delivering record amounts of investment in our rail infrastructure, particularly across the north, with the TransPennine route upgrade. We announced £589 million for that investment, joining Manchester, Leeds and other great cities across the north of England. That will be the biggest investment in the conventional rail network. Of course, at the same time we are also making progress with major infrastructure projects such as high-speed rail; last week we concluded the parliamentary passage of the High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill, taking the railway line from the west midlands through to Crewe.

Port of Liverpool: New Rail Link

The Department is increasing rail freight at the port of Liverpool by enhancing the Bootle branch line. This will double capacity from one to two freight paths per hour each way, and will be completed later this year.

Moving freight off the roads and on to rail is crucial if we are to cut carbon emissions. The changes that the Minister announced will be a very small contribution because the Government are planning a new road from the port of Liverpool through the Rimrose valley into my constituency, which will have precisely the opposite effect and increase emissions. Earlier, the Secretary of State told us that transport decarbonisation is at the heart of his plans. Do Ministers want to play their part in meeting Government targets or not? If they do, will they think again, look at the report produced by Arup for Sefton Council on alternatives to road from the port of Liverpool, and invest properly in rail freight?

Doubling capacity on the Bootle branch line is expected to meet forecast demand for the foreseeable future. Recent forecasts, unconstrained by limits on infrastructure capacity, indicate demand for 40 trains per day in each direction by 2043. Two paths per hour in each direction of course provides capacity for 48 freight trains per day. However, the nature of some freight requirements, particularly for shorter movements and smaller loads, means that road transport can sometimes be more economically efficient.

March 2021 Rail Fares Increase

What assessment he has made of the potential effect on passenger numbers of increasing rail fares by 2.6 per cent in March 2021. (911502)

What assessment he has made of the potential effect on passenger numbers of increasing rail fares by 2.6 per cent in March 2021. (911513)

This is the lowest fare rise in four years. Passengers are advised to reduce journeys as much as possible, and, as such, usage has fallen dramatically during the lockdowns. Passenger behaviours in the future are unbelievably uncertain, but a small fare rise will help to ensure that taxpayers are not unfairly overburdened for keeping vital rail services running.

Because millions of commuters are now working from home, the RMT union has produced research on flexible rail ticketing that shows that if the cost of full-time season tickets was pro-rated to two, three or four days a week, these tickets would offer better value for money and encourage passengers back to our railways when it is safe to do so. Will the Minister update us on the Department’s plans with industry on flexible ticketing and when these tickets might be introduced?

I thank the hon. Lady for her very wise question. I welcome the work done by the RMT in this area, and a whole host of others. We are working with industry on what we can do with flexible ticketing going forward. We are wary that sending mixed messages at this time in trying to encourage people to buy tickets for future travel might not be the right thing to do, but I promise her that we are working closely with industry and expect to make announcements when we can.

Train commuters using the Greater Anglia service from Edmonton Green to London Liverpool Street are set to pay £1,436 from March 2021—£436 more than in 2010. Labour has long argued that public ownership of the rail network would provide better value for taxpayers and for passengers. Does the Minister agree that the Government must stop bolstering profit for private companies and bring the network in-house?

No. I am absolutely sure that public ownership of the railways, if we nationalised rail, would mean that the increases the hon. Lady outlined would be way more.

In the midst of a pandemic and facing a deep recession, when people are losing their jobs and seeing wages slashed, this Tory Government are pushing through inflation-busting rail fare increases this March. After a period of record low passenger numbers, we need to encourage people back on to trains to help our economy and our environment, so it makes absolutely no sense to increase ticket prices. Can the Minister explain why his Government continue to pay risk-free guaranteed profits to private train companies? Is it fair that rail passengers across our country will be picking up the tab and paying more—much more—to get to work or see their loved ones?

I always try not to be overtly political in these matters, but under the last Labour Government, in the run-up to 2010, we had rises of 4%, 3.9%, 4.3%, 4.8%, and 6%. We have temporarily frozen fares in January and February so that people can look at what their travel plans might be as lockdown plans are announced. We have introduced all sorts of railcards and a whole host of discounts, and regulated fares will be increasing at the lowest actual rate in four years. But yes, the hon. Gentleman is quite right: we do need eventually to encourage people back on to our railways. If we are going to decarbonise, and if we are going to level up, we want to take people off the roads and entice them back to the railways, and we will have products to do that—but now, I am afraid, we also need to remember that the taxpayer stood by the railways with £10.1 billion in the course of this time, and they do need some money back.

Traffic Management: Kent

What steps his Department is taking to ensure the effective management of traffic in (a) Dover and (b) Kent. (911503)

We are working to support all those in Kent with traffic management, including the Kent Resilience Forum and the local authorities. I also pay tribute to the military and to NHS Test and Trace for the way that they helped to get things going again after the Christmas lorry crisis.

Having worked so positively with my right hon. Friend and with the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), over so many months on the Keep Dover Clear strategy, it was extremely disappointing that Dover came to halt and a standstill and faced gridlock following France’s unreasonable closure of the border. Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm the Government’s commitment to keep Dover clear so that whatever happens at the port of Dover or is done by the French, people can get around to work, to school and in their daily lives?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to her for the way that she has campaigned to keep Dover clear. She is right also in saying that before Christmas, President Macron decided to close the French border with no notice, meaning that we ended up with thousands of lorries gridlocking Kent. We had to put in place emergency measures, which have included at this stage having provided lateral flow tests to 120,000 hauliers in order for them to cross. I can report to the House that once they have crossed to the other side, the French have also been carrying out some tests. No one has come across with coronavirus as a result of the enormous programme we have put in place, none of which would have been possible without my hon. Friend’s tremendous assistance during those few days before Christmas while the military, NHS Test and Trace, the police and, not least, the local MP worked to clear the problem.

Access to Bus Services: Cumbria

Bus services offer a vital lifeline for people in rural communities such as Penrith and The Border, and the importance of this connectivity has been brought into sharp relief in the pandemic. In 2014, Cumbria County Council opted to stop using central Government funds to subsidise commercial bus services, meaning some routes were not viable for operators, leading to a reduction in provision. Does my hon. Friend agree that now is the time for the council to revisit that decision and use available funds to support rural bus routes to allow people to go about their lives, reconnect and improve their health and welfare?

We recognise the importance of public transport for the sustainability and the independence of communities, particularly in rural areas like Cumbria, which is why we are providing a £20 million rural mobility fund to support demand-responsive services in rural and suburban areas. I am pleased to say that thanks to my hon. Friend’s support, Cumbria County Council was successful in phase 1 and has been invited to participate in phase 2.

Covid-19: Aviation and Airport Transport Workers

What assessment he has made of the effect of covid-19 on the level of (a) infection, (b) hospitalisation and (c) deaths of transport workers in the (i) aviation, (ii) airports and (iii) airport transfer sectors since January 2020. (911505)

My Department engages regularly with the Department of Health and Social Care, SAGE and the Joint Biosecurity Centre to ensure we have up-to-date information on the risk of transmission in the aviation sector. We have published safer transport guidance to operators on reducing the risks, and we engage regularly with the sector on the steps they are taking, including the level of absences they are seeing.

This week, we passed the grim milestone of 100,000 people having lost their lives tragically to this terrible disease. Last year I was strongly critical of the Government’s policies on the border, including through our airports. Figures released by Government Ministers showed that more than 2,000 UK Visas and Immigration and Border Force officials were off with symptoms of coronavirus in January to April last year, and that is before we even look at others working in, for example, our airports and on planes. Can the Minister explain what exactly he is doing to keep airport workers safe, particularly those at Heathrow and other major hubs and especially those who will be involved in transporting individuals to quarantine hotels?

The hon. Gentleman is right to pinpoint the critical importance of those who work in the aviation sector for the country, and I join him in mourning the loss of every single life tragically lost during the course of this pandemic. We are working very closely with operators and the Home Office to operationalise the safer transport guidance that I referred to earlier, in addition to the rapid testing pilots, which may also assist.

North Cotswold Line

What assessment he has made of the potential merits of additional improvements to the North Cotswold line. (911506)

An updated strategic outline business case for improvements to the North Cotswold line is due to be resubmitted by the North Cotswold Line Taskforce.

I think people will be astonished to learn that the great cities of Worcester and Hereford are served by a rail line from London that in many places is single-track. The North Cotswold Line Taskforce has done some fantastic work in proposing that we redouble some of that track. Will the Minister look closely at its suggestions and support the local councils that are contributing to the develop phase of this project?

The Department and Network Rail will continue to work with the taskforce on its proposals. I recognise that the line has experienced a renaissance over the past decade, and the taskforce is keen to build on that. I know that my hon. Friend’s desire for improvement is shared by many of my colleagues, not least the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts).

Support for Hauliers Transporting to and from the EU

What steps his Department is taking to support hauliers transporting goods to and from the EU; and if he will make a statement. (911507)

We have rolled out a large-scale haulier communications campaign, opened 46 information and advice sites around the country and published our haulier handbook in 14 languages—all the languages that hauliers will be speaking when they come to the UK. We are also offering free covid-19 testing for hauliers at many of our information and advice sites.

My hon. Friend may well know about the Road King truck stop, which is along the A5, not far from Burntwood. I was going to ask her a question about what work she is doing, but she has already answered it, so instead I will ask her this: when we are allowed to do so, will she join me for breakfast at the Road King?

How could I possibly turn down such a wonderful invitation? I can tell my hon. Friend that I have already visited an information and advice site in Hopwood. It is a fantastic service, and there are thousands of hauliers visiting these sites up and down the country, including the Road King at Cannock. I would like to join him there, and hopefully he can tell me what the best breakfast is.

I am afraid that my question for the Minister might be slightly tougher to answer. As she knows, the new three-stop limit will be devastating for UK hauliers working with touring musicians or on events that involve multiple stops in EU countries. This is such an important sector for the UK, and it has already been hit so hard by covid. Can the Minister at least acknowledge today that the Government’s failure to seek an exemption during the negotiations was a massive own goal? Will the Government get back round the negotiating table and sort this out before the summer, when we all hope that the live music scene will be open once again for business?

We certainly share the hon. Lady’s desire to see the live music scene open once again in this country. The trade and co-operation agreement that the Government have negotiated with the EU is an excellent deal for our hauliers that allows 95% of haulier movements to continue as they did before. All hauliers who carry out work for a commercial purpose in the EU will be subject to the provisions of the UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement. It is really important to put on the record that during negotiations with the EU, the Government proposed exemptions for specialist hauliers such as the ones she referred to due to the nature of their businesses, but unfortunately the EU did not agree to those asks. However, because we recognise the important impact that this will have, we continue our discussions.

Covid-19: Support for Coach Operators and Manufacturers

What plans the Government have to support coach (a) operators and (b) manufacturers during periods of reduced demand as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (911511)

A range of support measures have been made available to UK businesses, including the coach industry, such as the coronavirus job retention scheme. Coach operators and manufacturers can also contact their local authority regarding discretionary funding provided by the Government for companies experiencing a severe impact on their businesses.

Notwithstanding that answer, I have a simple question: why have Ministers still not committed to providing targeted support for coach companies, most of which are small, family-run, community-based businesses that provide essential support to other sectors but have been unable to access coronavirus support packages?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter. I know that he led a very well-attended debate in Westminster Hall just before Christmas. This is a very challenging time for the sector; I entirely recognise that. It is a very diverse sector, and it is difficult to have a one-size-fits-all scheme. A variety of support has been provided by the Government, such as the Department for Education’s money to provide additional support for school and college transport, the Department for Transport’s money to support Christmas travel and the Treasury’s funding for the additional restrictions grant.

Improving Roads in England

The Department is committed to providing improvements for all road users. It is providing over £2.7 billion for the maintenance of England’s local highway network outside London over 2020-21 and 2021-22, and as part of road investment strategy 2, it is providing £4.1 billion for capital renewals on the strategic road network in England over the next five years.

Too many roads in Beaconsfield, Iver and Denham in my constituency are blighted with potholes. As my hon. Friend is well aware, we want to see our potholes mended. Can the Minister confirm that the Government are still on track and committed to investing £500 million every single year in tackling potholes, and will the Minister commit to meet me to discuss further how we can tackle potholes together?

I thank my hon. Friend so much for raising this issue. Every single Member in the Chamber is supportive of this question, because we all know how important this is to our constituents’ daily lives. I can happily confirm to my hon. Friend that that is absolutely the case: Budget 2020 announced £2.5 billion in total for the pothole fund, providing £500 million this year to local highway authorities in England for tackling potholes and £500 million each year for the next four years. I am sure that my noble Friend in the other place who deals with this matter would be delighted to meet her to discuss the matters in Beaconsfield.

Topical Questions

On Saturday, I was delighted to announce £34 million to help to reopen the Northumberland rail line between Newcastle upon Tyne, Blyth and Ashington. Restoring many of the lines closed during the 1960s is an important part of this Government’s mission to level up the north when it comes to transport. I can announce today that, since the creation of the northern powerhouse in 2014, this Conservative Government have spent more than £20 billion on the region’s transport, delivering roads, rail, and cleaner and better transport, including 168 miles of rail electrification.

The Committee on Climate Change has reported that aviation accounted for 8% of UK emissions in 2019, before the pandemic stopped flights. I am pleased that the Government have finally indicated that they will bring forward a support package for aviation this autumn, but will this be conditional on action to tackle emissions in the climate crisis?

Mr Speaker, do not think that I did not hear that plea for a rail station.

I want to address the hon. Gentleman’s point about aviation. Again, without sounding like a stuck record, I must refer him to my World Economic Forum discussion and announcements on this just yesterday. Of course, we have COP26 coming up at the end of this year, where the whole world will come together to try to tackle some of these aviation emission problems, and the UK is taking an absolute leading role through the Jet Zero Council. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s interest in this subject, and indeed extend an offer to work with him to progress it.

I welcome the decision to have evidence-based enhancements to control covid at our international borders, as opposed to a blanket approach. Would the Secretary of State agree with me that a blanket approach could see essential goods and services failing to come into this country from countries where the covid risk is perhaps less than our own, because those delivering are currently enjoying a 10-day stay in the Holiday Inn? Can I ask him, in particular, to ensure that he publishes the criteria for countries that will go on to the red list or come off it, so that the aviation industry in particular has the chance to plan ahead?

I think my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Transport Committee, is absolutely right. This has required a proportionate and science-based approach to where people for quarantine in hotels should come from, and that includes a red list of countries. I can tell my hon. Friend and the House that that list is available on gov.UK—it contains 30 countries. South America, South Africa and Portugal are primarily the areas and countries involved. I think it is very important that we do make this science-based, and this adds to the pre-departure testing and, of course, all the other measures we have put in place. We will hear from the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) shortly, and I know he is going to explain why he called for quarantine to be lessened.

I am very disappointed that the Secretary of State would go so low as to repeat an untruth that was made by the Prime Minister yesterday, and a point of order has been submitted on that matter.

Nobody would deliberately say there was an untruth; somebody may not have had the right information, but it certainly would not be a deliberate mistruth.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. As we all know, 500 covid cases have been recorded at the DVLA offices in Swansea. There have also been worrying allegations that employees were coerced into turning off their track and trace apps or given warnings for taking time off sick, and those must be fully investigated. The evidence offered by the chief executive of the DVLA to the Transport Committee has, I am afraid, turned a crisis into a political test. Will the Transport Secretary explain why he ignored warnings about that issue, and why he essentially allowed a Government office to become a covid-19 superspreader? Will he confirm whether the chief executive of the DVLA still enjoys his full support?

I would like to clear up this confusion, because I do not think that a mis-statement should stand. I will quote from the hon. Gentleman on 3 July:

“Labour, like families and businesses up and down the country, are keen for the Government’s quarantine measures to be lessened,”.

That was the precise quote.

On the DVLA, I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the stories we saw in the newspapers this weekend, and I have investigated fully. Only one-third of the staff are currently working at DVLA. He might ask why any staff are working there, and the simple answer is that there are paper-based forms and submissions that are not being made online, and without them key workers and others would not be getting their licences. There are databases that, for privacy reasons, cannot be connected to from home, and that requires some people to go to the offices. A number of important steps have been taken, including work with Public Health Wales and setting up a new office for people to work in. No requests to turn off test and trace have been made by either DVLA or the Department for Transport. DVLA works under strict civil service guidance on sick pay and leave, and it must not diverge from that. I take the matter extremely seriously, and I will provide further written reassurances to the hon. Gentleman.

That opportunity for the Transport Secretary to confirm his support for the chief executive was not taken, which is interesting in itself.

Let me turn to smart motorways. This month, a coroner concluded that the lack of a hard shoulder on the M1 in South Yorkshire contributed to the deaths of two men, making a total of nearly 40 lives lost as a result of smart motorways and the absence of a hard shoulder. Even the former roads Minister, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), who introduced the programme in 2010, admitted that it was a gross public policy failure. Enough is enough. Will the Secretary of State commit, the minute this session finishes, to pick up the phone and issue an instruction to reinstate the hard shoulder on smart motorways? God forbid we will be here again reviewing more deaths if action is not taken.

It is tragic that anybody ever dies on our roads, and it is worth recalling that motorways in general are safer than most roads overall. Smart motorways were, and are, an issue that sparked a great deal of interest from me, and as the hon. Gentleman may recall, before he was in post last year I set up a review, a stocktake, which recommended 18 different measures, including spending more than £500 million to put in a whole series of measures to ensure that smart motorways are not just as safe, but safer than conventional motorways. That stocktake is now one year through, and I will soon return to the House to report on its progress. I know there is a lot of interest in that.

On the very day that the Prime Minister shamefully sets a terrible example by making a completely unnecessary cross-border campaign trip, which by my reckoning is against the law in Scotland, will the Secretary of State say what steps he is taking to ensure that the impact of border disruptions, which have hammered important Scottish industries such as seafood and fresh food, is reduced, and that hauliers are able to take more return loads than the scarce amount they can take at present?

The House will know that, through a process called the Brexit operations committee, there were over 180 meetings, which have ensured that, with regard to the routing that those lorries take—typically down to Kent and through the so-called short straits—we have seen no queues at all thanks to that planning. There have been some issues with paperwork. I know that that has impacted Scottish fish. I know that Scottish fishermen are celebrating the fact that they can catch and keep a quarter more—in five and a half years’ time there will be no requirement to give any of it away, subject to the discussions then—and I know that additional money and assistance is going to both the Scottish Government and Scottish fishermen in order to resolve any outstanding problems with paperwork, which I trust will be concluded as quickly as possible.

What discussions has my hon. Friend had with the Mayor of London about his proposals to charge my constituents in Kent £3.50 to drive into the neighbouring London Borough of Bexley? Does my hon. Friend agree that that would have a catastrophic and disproportionate impact on places such as Dartford that border London? (911456)

There are always lots of conversations going on between Transport for London, the Mayor and the Department. Transport in London is devolved to the Mayor of London and TfL, and it is because of decisions that the Mayor has made that TfL has found itself saddled with massive debt and unable to deliver infrastructure projects, leaving it in a weak position even before covid raised its ugly head. The Government—the UK taxpayer, therefore—have agreed two extraordinary financing packages for TfL worth over £3 billion to ensure the continuation of public transport services in this great city.

Greenfield station in my constituency is completely inaccessible. Anyone with a mobility impairment or young children in a buggy may be able to get a train from Greenfield to Manchester, but they would not be able to come back, because they would have to get over the footbridge to get to the exit, which is impossible. We have applied for every grant available to us to address this and we have never been successful. If the Government are committed to levelling up—there is a lot to level up in the north—when will the Transport Secretary ensure that my disabled constituents get a fully accessible station? (911457)

As I have said at the Dispatch Box a number of times, we have a lot to do in getting all our stations accessible. This is a Victorian network. While 75% of all passenger journeys go through step-free stations, that means there is a huge number of old stations that need major improvements. The trans-Pennine route upgrade is expected to bring major improvements to several stations along that route, and we are committed to making those stations directly impacted by the TRU more accessible.

Flexible season tickets will help commuters from Havant save money, reflect modern working practices and support our railways when movement restrictions ease. What work is my hon. Friend doing with South Western Railway and Southern in particular to make flexible season tickets a reality in our area? (911458)

I thank my hon. Friend for his wise question. We are actively working with the train operators he mentions and others to develop a solution that offers better value and convenience for those who will be commuting flexibly in the future, and we will provide further details in due course.

Taxi drivers in my constituency have gone above and beyond the call of duty during the pandemic to provide safe and reliable transport for essential journeys. However, some have been excluded from the self-employment income support scheme. Will the Minister commit to providing the financial assistance necessary to ensure that all taxi drivers are able to keep their businesses going during these terrible times? (911459)

The hon. Lady has raised the issue of self-employed taxi drivers and the grants they have received during the first three rounds of the self-employment income support scheme previously. We have announced several measures that are available to UK businesses, including the taxi and private hire sector, to support them through this challenging time, including that scheme. Over the first three rounds of the scheme, up to £21,570 has been made available for those eligible, but I will happily speak to her about those who have fallen through the gap that she mentions to see what we can do.

Once the current pandemic is over, many people are predicting a rise in staycations and domestic tourism, which will be especially beneficial to Blackpool. However, it will be difficult for many of my local businesses to take advantage of these opportunities without the ongoing viability of the coach sector, which brings thousands of people into Blackpool every single year. What assistance is my hon. Friend able to provide to this vital industry going forward? (911460)

We all look forward to staycations in Blackpool and maybe the odd party conference again, with those enjoyable days that some of us of a certain age used to have there. Coach companies have access to support measures such as the job retention scheme and bounce back loans, as well as locally administered funding. When it is safe to do so, the Government will explore opportunities to open up business for coach operators.

The Transport Committee was told yesterday by the chief executive of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency that work is being slowed down and that she holds regular meetings with Ministers to discuss work priorities. Does the Minister really believe that activities such as processing provisional licences and even personalised number plates, which I am told are still being carried out, are priorities for the DVLA during this lockdown? Does he agree with the Public and Commercial Services Union that only the most essential work should be happening there right now? (911461)

I do agree with the hon. Lady. It is right that only essential work should be taking place at DVLA, and I will check the reports she mentions. It is absolutely critical. I pay tribute to the people ensuring that essential work for key workers, for example checking databases for the police, has been able to continue. I appeal to the public to please use online facilities wherever possible, because that prevents people from needing to go into the office. I should mention that the UK Government have provided 2,000 lateral flow tests. That is now being expanded to every single DVLA worker, something the Welsh Government were not providing, and is helping to protect people now.

The Government’s support for active travel is very much welcomed by cyclists, walkers and horse riders in West Worcestershire. Is the Secretary of State speaking to his counterpart in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to find ways in which farmers could be incentivised through their agricultural management plans to contribute to the public good of creating new greenways like the one proposed from Worcester to Leominster? (911463)

The Government are committed to providing an unprecedented £2 billion of dedicated funding for cycling and walking over the rest of this Parliament. There are a whole host of ways in which that can be spent. Conversations are going on across Government about how to support cycling and walking infrastructure in various areas, including potentially on disused railway lines. I have seen the benefits of how they can be used in my own constituency when cycling down the wonderful Brampton Valley Way.

I appreciate the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), my constituency neighbour, but I think he may have missed the substantive point my hon. Friend was making. There is a proposal to rip up Rimrose Valley Park, which is the only substantive green lung in my very small urban constituency, and plough a major road through it. Before he puts his signature to the £300 million-plus cheque to build the road, will he agree to meet me, my hon. Friend, council colleagues and very worried friends of Rimrose Valley Park to listen to our fears about the irreparable and long-term damage to our environment, leisure opportunities, and the health and safety of our community, and hear about alternatives to this road, which does not meet the spirit or aims of the Prime Minister’s 10-point decarbonisation plan? (911462)

Unbelievably, I have actually campaigned politically for my party in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency in the past; I say unbelievably because it is one of the safest Labour seats in the country. I actually think he represents a wonderful part of the world, with wonderful people, and he represents it well. I will sort out the meeting with the appropriate Minister on his behalf.

I will now come to the final question, from Greg Smith. I am pretty disappointed—topical questions are meant to be short and punchy. I say to everybody that, in the future, we have to get through them.

On 6 January, the Transport Committee heard evidence of the continuing nightmares faced by communities at the hands of HS2 Ltd. What progress has been made on the excellent suggestions made at the Committee, particularly for a new independent role with real teeth to hold HS2 Ltd to account? (911466)

My hon. Friend modestly mentions the excellent suggestions that I believe he suggested at the Select Committee on 6 January. HS2 Ltd is meeting some parish councils on 1 March. I know that my great friend the HS2 Minister is looking forward to ongoing discussions about the ideas that my hon. Friend raised in that Select Committee.

I now suspend the House for a few minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.