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House of Commons

Tuesday 11 October 2005

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

A27 (Congestion)

1. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): What steps he is taking to tackle congestion on the A27 in West Sussex. [16810]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): Small-scale improvements on the A27 are currently being implemented by the Highways Agency and West Sussex county council. The Highways Agency is also working in partnership with the county council to develop a package of traffic management measures for the A27, and advice is expected in the new year.

Tim Loughton: The Minister knows that the A27 is one of the most congested roads in Sussex, and in particular one of the most congested roads in the Worthing area. For 30 years, constituents have been holding out hope for a bypass. In that time the traffic has worsened, and business investment is now threatened. The Minister's response has been a consultation exercise that yielded 10,000 replies, and he now talks of "small-scale improvements"—which means a few traffic lights and the felling of some trees.

Will the Minister come down to Worthing? Will he demonstrate to my constituents that he is taking the problem seriously and is prepared to do something about the congestion on the A27, which has been made worse by his right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister plastering houses all over our countryside?

Dr. Ladyman: I entirely understand the frustration of local people, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will at least acknowledge that there is no easy solution to the problem. The south coast multi-modal study proposed a bypass, as he knows, but it would have cost about half a billion pounds as well as destroying some areas of natural beauty. There was no way in which that was a practical proposition. The measures that we are taking now to consult on the various stretches of the A27 and
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come up with alternative suggestions that are practical, affordable and environmentally sustainable are the only possible answer.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Does the Minister think that if he remains in the House for 20 years, he will see an end to the deaths, discomfort and delays experienced by residents, let alone travellers and commercial traffic? Why does he not accept the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and come to Worthing, experience what local people have to put up with and apologise for the delays of the past eight years, which have led us nowhere?

Dr. Ladyman: We have nothing for which to apologise. We are engaging in a perfectly rational process, and trying to come up with sustainable alternatives to schemes that were quite simply unaffordable and would have destroyed areas of natural beauty. The hon. Gentleman would have been one of the first to object, along with many of his constituents, if we had proceeded with any of those schemes.

We will find alternatives, we will find them as expediently as possible, and we will do our best to relieve the frustration of the hon. Gentleman's constituents.—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) should not shout across the Chamber, especially given the meal that he made of his supplementary question. He had a good say then, did he not?

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Is the Minister aware that the Highways Agency website includes an A27 construction project on its list, among many other projects? Is he aware that, according to the Department for Transport's methodology, when the A27 project and the others are complete, average traffic flows on those roads will increase by 190 per cent.? Is it not time that he came clean and confirmed what his Secretary of State seems to have hinted—that the Government have reverted to a discredited policy of predict and provide in relation to roads, and are simply going to try and build their way out of congestion?

Dr. Ladyman: A moment ago, Conservative Members were complaining that we did not provide. How we can be accused of "predict and provide" in that context is beyond me.

The simple fact is that the Liberal Democrats would be the first to object if we embarked on large-scale road-building in an area of natural beauty. I have no doubt that they would be happy to promise the constituents of Worthing half a billion pounds for a road, but they will not have to raise the money for it. We will find a value-for-money, sustainable solution, and we will ask the local people for their views on it.

British Vessels (Flagging)

2. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): If he will make a statement on the flagging of British vessels sailing outside EU waters. [16811]
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The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): Ships entered on the UK registry must demonstrate compliance with international conventions and standards, and meet all the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 and the Merchant Shipping (Registration of Ships) Regulations 1993. A United Kingdom-registered ship is entitled to fly the red ensign, and to operate anywhere in the world. Wherever they sail, UK ships are subject to applicable domestic laws and international conventions to which the UK is a state party.

Mr. Carmichael: The Minister knows of the circumstances of my constituents the Sinclair family. They own the Orcades Pacific, a fishing vessel which they wish to operate in Chile but to flag in this country. That would produce a significant economic benefit for the United Kingdom, but would require them to obtain a fishing licence in this country, which they do not need and which would cost them several million pounds. Will the Minister examine the position, and bring some common sense to bear on it?

Dr. Ladyman: All UK-flagged ships must have a licence to fish, wherever they operate in the world. That is for good environmental reasons: we do not want uncontrolled fishing anywhere in the world, and we wish to abide by local arrangements to control the exploitation of fisheries.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman's constituents feel that application for a fishing licence is an onerous procedure, but the matter is dealt with primarily not by the Department for Transport but by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—and, in this case, by the Scottish Assembly. So it is important that he address his question to the right people, but I shall certainly liaise with DEFRA and ensure that it understands his concern.

Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that the UK register has expanded threefold since 1998, when we brought in the new tonnage tax. But does he accept that the increase in the number of ships on the register has not been matched by an increasing number of British officers and ratings employed thereon? Will he look again at establishing a link between entering into the tonnage tax and the British register, and creating British jobs?

Dr. Ladyman: I share entirely my hon. Friend's concern and I am grateful to him for raising it. The UK register has increased tremendously since the tonnage tax was introduced, and we need to ensure that that is feeding through into good training and employment opportunities for UK mariners. We have set up a shipping taskforce consisting of both employers and unions, and I hope that it will come to me with proposals that will enable us to resolve this issue amicably. I have made it clear, however, that if both sides are unable to reach a voluntary agreement on how to resolve it, I will have to take some decisions, because I am determined to see an increase in UK maritime employment.
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Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): The Minister points out that the UK register has expanded, but will he not admit that most vessels are foreign owned and are flying the British flag for tax purposes? The explanation has nothing to do with manning.

Dr. Ladyman: As my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser) said, these vessels are flagged in the UK because of the tonnage tax—the Deputy Prime Minister introduced it when he was responsible for these matters—which is a favourable and tremendously successful tax regime that encourages people to take up the UK flag. If ship owners decide to flag in the UK for tonnage tax purposes, they have certain obligations in respect of providing training opportunities for UK mariners. My hon. Friend's concern is that those opportunities are not following through into employment opportunities, and I have made it clear that I am determined that they will. But had it not been for the Deputy Prime Minister's tonnage tax initiative, we would still have the diminishing UK fleet with which the previous Government left us.

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