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House of Commons

Tuesday 19 December 2006

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

EU Emissions Trading Scheme

1. Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): What steps he is taking to include aviation in the EU emissions trading scheme. [109928]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): We have pressed for early progress on this issue. We expect the Commission to publish a draft directive imminently. We call upon the German and Portuguese presidencies to make this a high priority in 2007.

Alison Seabeck: I am sure that my right hon. Friend will do all that he can to ensure that aviation is included in the EU emissions trading scheme, particularly given the Stern report’s clear backing for such measures to help tackle climate change. I would, however, be grateful if he could reassure me and the House that the Government will continue to press for any agreement to avoid being over-generous in the credits offered to airlines to ensure that they cannot benefit financially from entering the agreement, and that it will be brought forward as soon as possible along with other measures to ensure that they reduce their overall emissions.

Mr. Alexander: I am aware of the concern that my hon. Friend expresses. I can give her the comfort that she seeks, because we are determined to ensure that aviation comes within the EU emissions trading scheme. I am also aware of the recent publication by the Institute for Public Policy Research suggesting that that could somehow result in a significant windfall to the airlines. Our intention is absolutely that that should not be the outcome. Aviation will clearly continue to be a very competitive sector and I am sure that the design of the scheme will reflect that.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): Does the Secretary of State think that encouraging the growth in air transport is good or bad for the environment?

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Mr. Alexander: The Government are very clear about the important challenges involved in getting aviation within the emissions trading scheme, so that we can reach a judgment as an economy and as a society on what we value and where the limited availability of carbon credits should be directed. It is worth bearing in mind, for example, that five power stations alone generate more CO2 than the entire aviation sector in the United Kingdom. It is therefore right that aviation takes its place along with the other sectors of the economy as we seek to deal with the issue as the Stern report recommended.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend explain how building new runways at Heathrow and Stansted will reduce the rate of growth in aviation carbon emissions?

Mr. Alexander: Our objective is that aviation should come within the emissions trading scheme. If one reads the Stern report, as I did ahead of the progress report on the air transportation White Paper, it is clear that the right response to meeting the environmental challenge that faces the aviation sector is not to make arbitrary decisions in relation to the cancellation of particular pieces of infrastructure, but instead to work internationally and domestically to meet this challenge. That is why we have been at the forefront of efforts to bring aviation within the emissions trading scheme. It is worth reminding the House of just how international is the challenge that we face. China is currently building 49 airports. We need only look across the channel at the number of runways at Schiphol or in Paris to see that the challenge must be addressed internationally, given that carbon does not respect international borders.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Does the Secretary of State accept that if the inclusion of aviation in the emissions trading scheme is to be effective, the scheme will need to be rather more robust than that which came from the European Union in the first round? In particular, what are the Government doing to ensure that the credits that are available will be offered to companies by auction rather than by a system of grandfather rights?

Mr. Alexander: Of course, we want to see what lessons can be learned from the establishment of the emissions trading scheme at a European level. The hon. Gentleman is right to recognise that there have been difficulties with the original scheme, but that does not argue against the need to ensure that improvements are made to it or, indeed, that aviation should come within it. That is the most effective means by which we can take international action, and at the same time reach that judgment as an economy and as a society on where we place our priorities.

Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend think that Britain’s contribution to dealing with aviation emissions is likely to lessen unless BAA at Heathrow gets its security shaken up and sorted out? What is the Department doing to ensure that that happens before BAA management at Heathrow cause lasting damage to Britain’s tourist trade and London’s position as a world centre, let alone severely inconveniencing travellers over this holiday period?

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Mr. Alexander: Of course there will be peak demand at Heathrow in the days to come—that is why only yesterday I had a lengthy conversation with the chief executive of BAA to ensure as best I could that he was offering me the assurances that need to be given. Clearly, there will be challenging days ahead given the volume of traffic passing through Heathrow, which I hardly need remind the House is the busiest airport in the world. Since the events of August, BAA has taken steps in recruiting more staff, but I will watch closely the progress that BAA management make on what are essentially operational decisions in the days to come.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Now that we have all seen the paper anyway, does the Secretary of State agree with AirportWatch and others that a carbon trading scheme that will reduce emissions by 2020 from 142 per cent. to 136 per cent. is “meaningless” and at the same time manages to be burdensome and difficult to implement. Is there not a better way?

Mr. Alexander: We are committed to the emissions trading scheme because it represents the most effective way forward in terms of both the action that we can take and the action that needs to be taken at a European level. I certainly do not think that the way forward is to offer different messages to different constituencies. When preparing for the debate today,I took the trouble of familiarising myself withthe various representations that have been made on the emissions trading scheme. Although the leader of the Conservative party has supported the emissions trading scheme, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) stated to Tory Radio on 17 April:

In contrast, he told a green audience—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Perhaps we will leave that.


2. Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): What the cost has been to date of the preparation of schemes to dual the A1 between Morpeth and Felton and at Mousen, near Belford. [109929]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport(Dr. Stephen Ladyman): To date, £4.26 million has been spent on preparation costs for the A1 Morpeth to Felton scheme, and £1.23 million has been spent on preparation costs for the A1 Adderstone to Belford scheme.

Mr. Beith: That is more than £5 million. Now that the Prime Minister has said that he wishes that the A1 was dualled and all the regional bodies have said that it is a strategic national road, surely that money should not be wasted, but used as the basis for those limited improvement schemes to be introduced much sooner than now looks possible.

Dr. Ladyman: I naturally noticed the Prime Minister’s interest in the scheme, but one of the things about my job is that I often have to say no to very important people. The simple fact of the matter, as the
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Prime Minister pointed out, is that we have to set priorities. There is not a huge amount of money available to fund every possible scheme. We asked the local people in the region for their advice on the scheme, which was that it should not be a priority and that we should stop moving forward with it.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend look again at the answer that he has just given? If he does, he will find that the region did not say that the dualling of the A1 was not a priority. It said that any funds for that scheme would eat up all the funds available for the rest of the transport systems in the region. Therefore, it is not that the scheme is not a priority; it is just that there are insufficient funds for it.

Dr. Ladyman: The simple fact of the matter is that we identified a sum of money that it was reasonable to spend in each region of the country and we asked the regions to prioritise that. My hon. Friend knows perfectly well that the region came up with other priorities, including many that he has supported and which are moving ahead on a faster time scale than the dualling of the A1. We have asked the region to look at its priorities again in two years. If it has got things wrong, it can prioritise the dualling of the A1 over some of the other schemes, but I suspect that my hon. Friend will be back complaining about that, because it will mean that some of the schemes that he supports will sink down the priority list.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): Will the Minister admit that that is a totally unjustified attack on the regional transport board, which was given a paltry £547 million for all transport—rail, buses and roads—in the north-east over the next 10 years? It had to work within that constraint when fixing its priorities. Does the Minister accept that the only way that important schemes such as the A1 western bypass could go ahead is through the introduction of road charging, which would be hugely unpopular in the region?

Dr. Ladyman: That is the first time that I have ever heard the words “£547 million” and “paltry” in the same sentence. It seems like a large sum of money to me. The simple fact is that funding was allocated to each region using exactly the same formula. Every region faced the same problems and difficulties in prioritising its schemes. The region took the view that the scheme in question should not become a priority until 2016 and that other schemes should be moved forward first. We have taken the advice of the region because we believe in devolution and listening to local people.

Bus Services

3. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): What steps he is taking to improve the quality of service offered to bus passengers. [109930]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): Last week we published our proposals for a modernised framework for bus services. It contains a number of measures to improve the quality of service offered to bus passengers.

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Dr. Starkey: My constituency has benefited considerably from Government funding for bus priority measures, but we are trying to expand bus usage from a low base in a city that was built essentially for private car use. Will the Secretary of State explain how the new proposals will help cities such as mine, which are expanding bus usage from a low base?

Mr. Alexander: Milton Keynes, as an authority, will benefit from the opportunity provided by the powers that we announced last week to enhance the working relationship with private operators. There are many examples throughout the country of effective partnership between local authorities and the bus companies, but there are other areas in which that partnership needs to be strengthened. Powers are now available to local authorities such as my hon. Friend’s to ensure that that effective working relationship is not limited to a number of locations, but much more widely spread throughout the country.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): You, Mr. Speaker, will have read, as I have, the “Putting Passengers First” document, which on the opening page states:

That at least confirms what the Secretary of State said last month about no return to the pre-1985 regulation era. Will he also confirm something else? According to the document, bus usage has been declining since 1970, and page 21 states that increasing car usage is the single most important factor behind bus decline. How will he reverse that policy?

Mr. Alexander: Bus patronage has been decliningfor many decades—indeed, in an exchange across the Floor of the House in a previous Question Time, there was an argument about whether it started in the 1950s. I fully acknowledge that there has been a decline in bus patronage for many years. It is also the case that the number of vehicles on our road has been increasing. As I recollect, since 1996 it has risen from about 26 million to 33 million. We face a challenge, and that challenge is to give people a real alternative to using the car. It partly involves resource, which is why we have committed new sums to buses over recent years, but it also means that we need to have the governance arrangements right so that there is an effective partnership working between local authorities and private bus operators. That is the spirit in which we published the document last week.

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): It is beyond peradventure, is it not, that the decline in bus services was exacerbated when buses were deregulated in the mid-1980s? Is not it the case that the single most important way of improving the life of bus passengers is to re-regulate the bus service? I acknowledge that my right hon. Friend has made a nod in that direction in “Putting Passengers First” by saying that it should be possible to introduce quality contracts and that there should not be an unnecessarily high barrier. My question is why my constituents should have to wait when they are being exploited by unreasonable bus groups, like First Group and Stagecoach, every day of the week. We want action to enable quality contracts to be introduced now.

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Mr. Alexander: I recognise the force of my hon. Friend’s point about the need to ensure that quality contracts not only exist in theory, but can be achieved in practice. That is why we have looked carefully at the hurdle for quality contracts. I hope that there is a consensus in the House that the right way forward is to publish the document and to facilitate a draft Bill, so that there isproper discussion of the measures, which could have an impact on communities across the country, beforewe move on to legislation. That strikes the right balance between urgency and the appropriate level of consultation.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that for many people in rural areas the bus will never be a real alternative to the car? Does he further accept that in those rural areas there is real concern about suggestions for road pricing? Will he address that when he replies to the question?

Mr. Alexander: It is curious that the Conservative party is changing its position on road pricing almost by the question. We are clear about our position on road pricing. We see a case for taking forward regional pilots. We also want to take forward the debate on a national scheme, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have a view on those matters. In terms of the provision of bus services in rural communities, I shall take no lectures from the Conservatives. Of course we need to continue to consider the provision of public transport to our rural communities, but I do not see the way ahead as being the approach adopted by them during their 18 years in power.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that we are spending considerable millions of pounds supporting bus services provided by the private sector. Has he had discussions with the private sector with a view to directing some of that money towards supporting young apprentices to get into work, in particular in the bus industry, where there is an acute shortage of suitably qualified individuals?

Mr. Alexander: It is a matter of record that in recent years, under this Government, the number of apprentices has significantly increased from the position we inherited. I recently visited a bus depot and saw for myself a number of workers who were being trained as bus drivers. The industry has a responsibility to recognise that it needs those properly trained people if we are to have the increase in bus usage that many hon. Members on both sides of the House would like to see.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that some bus companies are changing their timetables in a way that prevents pensioners from taking up the free travel that is available to them? For example, the 9 o’clock Yorkshire Coastliner service from Scarborough to Malton, York and Leeds now leaves at 8.50 am and pensioners cannot use it without getting a lift down the road to the first stop from which the bus leaves at 9 am.

Mr. Alexander: I defer to the hon. Gentleman’s greater knowledge of that particular route, given his constituency interest, but I hope that—as seems likely from the tenor of his question—he welcomes the resources that we
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have committed to the concessionary travel scheme for pensioners, and trust that he will continue to support it in the future. As for his point about the changing of timetables, one of the facts that surfaced during our long, hard look at bus services over the six months leading up to last week’s publication of our document was that timetables are too often changed in an arbitrary manner that leaves the passenger behind. That is exactly why we want the changes that the document describes.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): When my constituent Mrs. Margaret Pollard complained to Stagecoach in Manchester that a 42A bus had failed to stop at the university bus stop, she was told that it was a busy bus stop. She was advised to board another bus in future and to wait for the 42A at a quieter stop. As my right hon. Friend will know, there are too many buses on the route because of companies competing for passengers, which has led to congestion involving both buses and cars. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the proposals in “Putting Passengers First” will help Greater Manchester passenger transport authority to deal with the problem?

Mr. Alexander: First, let me express my sympathy for my hon. Friend’s constituent. It does not seem to me that the approach adopted in that instance is the best way to produce the increase in passenger numbers that we have been discussing today.

I have met members of Greater Manchester passenger transport authority, and also the leader of Manchester council. I am fully aware of the so-called bus wars that have been taking place in that community, and we were mindful of those circumstances when we produced our document last week.

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