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Topical Questions

Volume 688: debated on Thursday 28 January 2021

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.