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The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman):
We continue to develop and implement our wide-ranging road safety strategy. The 2004 casualty figures show that we are now over halfway towards our 2010 target of a 40 per cent. reduction in the number of people killed or seriously injured, and over three quarters of the way towards our 50 per cent. target for children.
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Anne Snelgrove: The Minister may know that South Swindon is the home of the new Honda Civic, one of the safest cars in its class. Will he join me in congratulating the Honda Civic on being Motor Trend magazine's car of the year? Does he agree that even Swindon car-makers cannot build a car that stops the driver using a mobile phone while driving or ensures that the driver is licensed and insured? Those are still two of our most challenging road safety concerns. What is he doing to counteract them?
Dr. Ladyman: First, I am happy to congratulate Honda on the success of the Civic, and my hon. Friend's constituents on their work in producing it. Such improvements have to some extent come about because of changes that have been made, such as the Euro NCAP test. It is worth noting that that has its 10th anniversary this year, and the standard of safety of vehicles has gone from about two stars on average when it first came in to about four or five stars. The Honda Civic is a contributor to that.
When the Road Safety Bill returns to the House shortly, my hon. Friend will see that we propose to legislate to make it an endorsable offence to use a mobile phone while driving. People will get not only an increased fine, but three points on their licence. It is beyond me why people continue to use a mobile phone while driving, when hands-free sets are so cheap. In addition, my hon. Friend will find that a new offence is introduced in the Road Safety Bill, which makes being the owner of an uninsured car an offence, if the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has not been notified that it is off the road. That, alongside efforts to allow enforcement from the record, will mean that we can clamp down hard on uninsured driving. I hope to see some uninsured cars going straight into the crusher to teach people a lesson.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The Minister and I have corresponded about my constituency, which has sadly experienced more than 20 fatal road casualties in the past year, many of whom were youngsters under 25. Nationally, 24 per cent. of convictions for causing death or bodily harm in road traffic accidents involve drivers under 21, who make up only 4 per cent. of drivers on the road. Clause 1 of the Road Safety Bill gives the Minister the power to award grants to local authorities to fund education and training. When the Bill is enacted, will he give guidance to local authorities to encourage them to implement such measures?
Dr. Ladyman: I will certainly review that possibility. Improved training and efforts to make young drivers in particular understand the dangers of the road and the need continuously to improve and not to try to exceed their skills are important parts of our campaign. Young drivers are clearly involved in a high level of accidents, so it is vital that we get those messages over to them. We should encourage peer pressure to get drivers to behave more sensibly. As well as working with local authorities, we must do more work with the insurance industry to encourage young drivers to do pass plus and other similar initiatives.
Anne Moffat (East Lothian)
(Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware of the Scottish Executive's excellent campaign
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against speeding on the roads, which is bold and depicts the consequence of speeding as a child's coffin? Will he examine that campaign and consider rolling it out across the whole of the UK?
Dr. Ladyman: I have been told about that particular campaign, which complements our own campaigns in England. Equally, the police have brought the very good campaigns in Northern Ireland to my attention. We will continue to review all those campaigns and learn from the best of them, because it is important that we get the messages over.
Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I commend the excellent road safety scheme that the Minister has just mentioned. Some of us have campaigned inside and outside this House for many years about road safety on the approach roads to schools in rural areas. Does the Minister have any proposals to deal with that issue across the United Kingdom?
Dr. Ladyman: We have given local authorities powers to reduce speed around schools across England, and they can introduce 20 mph zones around schools. However, I have not instructed them to do so for all schools, because many schools in England are built on highways where it is not appropriate or sometimes even possible to reduce speed that much. In such areas, it might be better to use engineering solutions to separate the children from the road rather than automatically introducing 20 mph zones. Where reducing speed is an appropriate tactic, it is vital that local authorities use the powers that they have been given.
Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that in the past 10 years there has been the equivalent of one casualty every week on the A1 between Newcastle and the Scottish border, which is mainly due to the fact that the full extent of the road has not been dualled? When will it be dualled?
Dr. Ladyman: There are all sorts of reasons why there are high levels of accidents on particular roads. In the case of the road that the hon. Gentleman mentions, I realise that he may be disappointed that it has not been dualled. That has been considered. Several schemes have been reviewed for dealing with that particular road, and they will continue to be considered as necessary. However, it is important that as well as considering capacity on that road, we look at other reasons why accidents may be happening and address them on a case-by-case basis. I certainly understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about the high level of accidents on that road.
Ann Winterton (Congleton)
(Con): The Minister will be awarein fact, everyone is awarethat drink-driving is a tremendous danger on the roads, but is he aware that the police are also very concerned about the increasing number of people who are taking drugs? Research has recently shown that even a small amount of cannabis can almost double the risk of a fatal accident. Will he join the RAC Foundation and others and mount a campaign so that people are aware of these increased dangers?
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Dr. Ladyman: I will not just join itwe have already started it. Over the Christmas period, I did several interviews with the BBC, including Radio 1, to get over to young people the message that drugs are a serious problem, that their effect might last for much longer than they realise, and that someone who has taken drugs is probably not in the best position to be able to judge whether they are competent to drive. The hon. Lady highlights a very important campaign. We will certainly build up our efforts in that respect. We will also look at other ways of testing for the effects of drugs to see whether we can come up with more effective strategies for testing drivers to determine whether they have been using drugs.
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): Fares are regulated by the Department for Transport, not the Office of Rail Regulation. Unregulated fares are of course for train operators to set.
Mr. Cunningham: I wonder whether my right hon. Friend is aware that a passenger travelling from Coventry to London will be expected to pay between £7 and £10 on a standard journey for the privilege, yet the rail companies have cancelled trains or have run overcrowded trains. Will he have a word with the rail companies about that?
Mr. Darling: I am aware that from time to time it can be extremely frustrating if trains are cancelled. My hon. Friend will know that over the past few years there has been a lot of engineering work on the west coast main line as part of the general upgrade to allow for high-speed tilting trains. In addition, a lot of work continues to be done at weekends, which can cause disruption.
In relation to fares generally, hon. Members are always concerned when fares increase. All that I would say is that there has to be a sensible balance between what the taxpayer pays and what the fare payer pays. By way of comparison, in 1995, 85 per cent. of passenger revenue came from the fare payer; today, the figure is 57 per cent.
Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): Rail travellers in my constituency are experiencing above-inflation rises in travel fares and a doubling in overcrowding on the trains that they use to come into London every day. Given the Government's increased support for railways in recent years, does not the Minister think that my constituents should be getting better value instead of having to stand every day on their journeys into work?
I would say this to the hon. Lady. Much of the rolling stock on South West Trains, including trains that her constituents will use, is newit has been replaced over the past five years or so. That is due, to a large extent, to the additional support that the Government have made available to the railways.
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The hon. Lady is right, though, that overcrowding is an increasing problem. A variety of things need to be done. Additional capacity needs to be provided. In addition, a number of railway companies are considering changing their pricing to encourage people who can travel at different times of the day to do so. That has been a highly successful model on the low-cost airlines, and railway companies are doing it as well.
In the longer term, we as a country have to address the fact that there are capacity constraints in different parts of the network, and that that will require increasing investment. As I said earlier, the test for both political parties at the next election will be how much they are prepared to spend on investing in Britain's railways and other transport infrastructure. In my view, that is absolutely essential if we are to enable people to get to work and enable our economy to continue to grow.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): The increase in fares is compounded by the overly complex ticketing structures. When will the Government lead a review of ticketing structures and at least set a timetable for the introduction of a national rail card?
Mr. Darling: The Transport Committee is conducting a review of the structure of rail fares and we look forward to its findings. I readily accept that a wide range of fares is available, but there are an increasingly large number of pretty low faresadmittedly, there are restrictions on some. For example, it is possible to travel from London to Leeds and pay £128 for an open first class ticket, but the same rail company offers an advance ticket, which must be bought on the preceding day, for £9.50. In this day and age, most people are becoming more sophisticated about shopping around and looking for the tickets that they can best afford and that suit them best. I warn my hon. Friend and others that rationalisation or simplification sometimes results in less of a range of prices. There is therefore a trade-off between low fares and simplifying the system, which results in higher fares generally. I want to encourage more people to travel by train, and that means flexible train fares.
Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): The south-west main line route utilisation strategy, which Network Rail produced in draft, proposes differentiating fares at the peak of the peak between 6 and 7 am and 7 and 8 as one means of tackling overcrowding. Will the Secretary of State make it clear to Network Rail that that is acceptable if such differentiation derives from a reduction in fares between 6 and 7 am but not from an increase between 7 and 8 am, which will drive people off the railways and on to the roads?
I take the hon. Lady's point. South West Trains is an interesting example of a train company that is trying out very low fares. It is piloting a £1 fare at specific off-peak periods because experience on buses and airlines, which I mentioned earlier, has shown that some people who do not have to travel at peak time may find it attractive to change their work and travelling patterns and travel at off-peak periods. We are trying to encourage people to use the railways, not drive them off them, especially in the part of London that the hon. Lady represents. I hope that she accepts that giving
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railway companies that flexibility might result in more people using the railways and some people travelling for less than they have to pay at the moment.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will accept that there is no point in having a wide selection of fares if no one can find out what they are. Will he encourage rail companies to use not obfuscation to keep the customers off the rail system but clarity to help them find the cheapest and the best tickets?
Mr. Darling: I agree. It is most important, no matter what product is being sold, that the travelling publicthe customersknow what is on offer. In the past few months we have awarded new franchises and railway companies are paying more money into the railways than they did in the past, so it is in the companies' interest to ensure that more people travel by train. It is as much in their interest as it is in that of the travelling public. I repeat the point that a range of fares to suit different needs appears to be a good thing. If more of that occurs, more and more people will be carried by the railways. Indeed, last year I believe that more people were carried on the railways than at any time since just after the second world war, in the pre-Beeching era.
Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): On 2 January this year, regulated rail fares, which are supposedly fixed at the rate of inflation plus 1 per cent., rose by an average of 3.9 per cent., despite the official figure for inflation in December being 2 per cent. Unregulated fares rose by 4.5 per cent. on average and some fares by more than 8 per cent. The Secretary of State will recall promising that the Government would seek real reductions in the cost of rail travel by continuing to cap increases in the most recently regulated fares below the rate of inflation. How does he believe that he has achieved that this year? Is it simply another abandoned promise?
Mr. Darling: No. I last set out our policy on regulated fares in 2003, when I changed the then policy, which was completely unsustainable. I said at the time that regulated fares ought to increase by RPI plus 1 per cent. I think that I am right in saying that regulated fares now account for about 43 per cent. of all fare income, so the majority of fares are not regulated and can therefore rise by more than RPI plus 1 per cent. As I said earlier, about 57 per cent. of spend on the railways now comes from passengers; in 1985, that figure was way up at 85 per cent. It is important that we strike the right balance, although it is a matter of judgment as to what the right balance should be. On any view, however, the railways have to be paid for one way or another, and that income can come from only two sources: fare payers or taxpayers. We are trying to strike the right balance between the two. To complete the point, and to reiterate what I said earlier, headline figures such as those that the hon. Gentleman has cited are sometimes not what most passengers pay. Recent figures relating to the London to Manchester route, for example, show that the majority of people buy either advance tickets or saver tickets.
Clive Efford (Eltham)
(Lab): In addition to the fare increases, travellers in the Network SouthEast area who
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use the pre-paid Oyster card face additional penalties because of the incompatibility of the Oyster system with that of the Integrated Transport Smartcard OrganisationITSOwhich does not seem very smart if it cannot accept the Oyster card. It is not an insurmountable problem, but negotiations between the Department for Transport, the train operating companies and Transport for London seem to have reached an impasse. In the meantime, a lot of Londoners are going to miss out. Can the Secretary of State assist in trying to resolve this problem?
Mr. Darling: Yes, and I agree with my hon. Friend. Of course there will be some difficulties when there are two different systems, but it is important that we try to bring the systems together, because we want more people across London and the south-east to use public transport.
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