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House of Commons

Tuesday 6 March 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Broads Authority Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 13 March.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Local Buses

1. Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): What plans he has to hold operators and local authorities to account for the performance of local bus services. [125109]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The Government plan to introduce a new performance regime to improve the reliability and punctuality of bus services. Our proposals, set out last December, will require both operators and local authorities to account for the performance of local bus services, and will include strengthened penalties where performance fails to improve.

Mr. Crausby: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and I welcome the increased powers, which will enable a better service for passengers following what was a disastrous privatisation. How will he ensure, however, that operators and local authorities perform effectively in the delivery of free national bus travel for pensioners?

Mr. Alexander: I can assure my hon. Friend that a great deal of work is under way with local authorities, as the concessionary bodies, and with bus operators to ensure an effective start to the national concessionary bus travel system, which I am sure will be welcomed by many in the House.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): The Secretary of State knows that the real way to hold authorities and operators to account is via traffic commissioners. However, in the north-west, for instance, from Liverpool all the way through to Leeds there is one traffic commissioner and two staff. The Government are not funding traffic commissioners. Will they pledge to do so today, so that there can be real accountability?

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Mr. Alexander: We are looking at traffic commissioners’ powers in the context of the “Putting Passengers First” document, which we published in December. One other principal inhibitor to their ability to do the job that we would wish has been the lack of effective performance data. Through addressing that issue, we are seeking to strengthen traffic commissioners’ ability to get a grip on these problems.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): Owing to low car ownership, most of the constituents in the rural part of my constituency rely on the bus service. However, there is a single dominant operator that decides to make changes to the service as it sees fit, which causes a great deal of distress to my constituents. How will the changes that my right hon. Friend has introduced ensure that my constituents get a reliable service and do not experience the distress that they have suffered so far?

Mr. Alexander: Having declined in the decade after 1986, bus subsidy in England has almost doubled in real terms since 1997-98. The “Putting Passengers First” document that we published in December recognised that, alongside the additional subsidy that has been put into bus services in constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s, there needs to be a strengthened governance regime, which is why we will introduce proposals in due course.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Does the Secretary of State accept, however, that if local authorities and passenger transport executives are to be accountable for the performance of local bus services, they will require not just extra powers but resources? To that end, will he, as part of his consultation, consider giving some or even all of the money that goes to operators through the fuel duty rebate to local authorities and PTEs?

Mr. Alexander: We obviously keep such matters under review, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are in discussions with the PTEs and the passenger transport authorities in the light of the document that we published. However, as I said, the strength of our commitment to subsidising the bus industry has been manifested by the scale of increase in recent years. The challenge is to make sure that that money is used effectively, and we are certainly giving consideration to that.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend share my concern at the fact that the leader of Chorley council is claiming that he, not the Government, is introducing free national bus travel? Will my right hon. Friend confirm who is funding and introducing it?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend brings to my attention something that I was not aware of before this Question Time. If the gentleman whom he describes is also willing to stump up the extra £250 million that the Government are putting into a national concessionary travel scheme, I should certainly be very happy to take forward that discussion.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): What role will competition play in delivering better services and
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lower fares, and how will the Secretary of State avoid the regulators becoming anti-competitive and pro-monopoly?

Mr. Alexander: If one looks back at the experience of far too many communities since the deregulation of bus services in 1986, one sees that the somewhat fundamentalist views of competition, which have been more prevalent among Opposition Members than Labour ones, have been defied by experience. We recognise that competitive bus services can be effective, but that is not being manifested in enough communities today. To judge by the bus services that are operating effectively—for example, in communities such as Nottingham, York and Brighton—such a service involves not simply the fresh gusts of competition but an effective partnership with local authorities. We are keen to make sure that the architecture for that partnership is extended across the country.


2. Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): What action he plans to take to encourage greater use of biofuels in advance of the introduction of the renewable transport fuel obligation. [125110]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): The renewable transport fuel obligation is due to come into effect in April 2008, providing a significant and secure market for biofuels in the UK. In advance of that, the Government continue to support biofuels mainly through fuel duty incentives. Sales of biofuels doubled between 2005 and 2006, reaching more than 250 million litres.

Dr. Whitehead: Is my hon. Friend aware that there has been a reversal in price differential between biodiesel and low sulphur diesel since the renewable transport fuel obligation was announced, and that it will take an increase in production of some 400 per cent. for the industry to meet the targets for 2008? Will he talk to colleagues in the Treasury to ensure both a supply and uptake of biofuels in time to ensure that those obligations can be met in 2008?

Dr. Ladyman: I can of course assure my hon. Friend that I talk to colleagues in the Treasury on those matters. As he rightly implies, incentives are a matter for the Chancellor. I am keen to see that the RTFO is a success and that we also support small renewable manufacturers. To that end, we have just published a consultation document that specifically asked some questions to which my hon. Friend might like to contribute some answers, so that we can inform the way in which the RTFO is developed to ensure that it is a success for everybody.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Is the Minister aware that throughout the country there are many micro-companies producing biofuels—or trying to—which are bamboozled by the tax regime that they suffer? Sad to say, they are often treated with a heavy hand by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Will he please have a much more focused dialogue with his colleagues in the Treasury to stop them undermining the good work that his Department is doing?

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Dr. Ladyman: I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are having good discussions with the Treasury. I do not believe that people are bamboozled by the rules and I am sure that the Revenue will do everything that it can to ensure that people are unbamboozled, if necessary. I encourage the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to respond to the consultation document, as it asks some specific questions about how we can best support micro-providers. It is important that we hear first-hand from them what they look to us to do.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): As a supporter of the development of sustainable biofuels, I am sure that the Minister will be as aware as I am of the “Dispatches” programme last night, which pointed out that were the RTFO to be a success, the UK could end up importing biofuels in a way that was even more damaging than the polluting fuel base that we have now. Will he take a lead role in co-ordinating some of the major research establishments in the UK, especially those involved in marine research on the possibility of deriving biofuels from micro-algae, so that we can ensure that the UK demand for biofuels is met by UK sustainable supply?

Dr. Ladyman: The sustainability of the biomass used to produce renewable fuels is key to the success of the RTFO. If we do not produce the renewable fuels sustainably, there is no point doing it. There will be a reporting mechanism in the RTFO to ensure that biofuel is being derived from sustainable sources. We will also ensure that the RTFO is structured in a way that encourages the production ultimately of second generation biofuels and biofuels produced from other forms of biomass, as my hon. Friend has suggested. I also encourage him, and any contacts that he may have, to respond to the consultation document so that we may build those issues into the RTFO.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): A 5 per cent. biofuel mix can, almost by definition, make only a small contribution to combating climate change. A year ago not a single car in the Government fleet had been converted to use an 85 per cent. biofuel blend. How many have been converted since then?

Dr. Ladyman: The Government car fleet does not use E85 technology. The hon. Gentleman says that 5 per cent. can make only a small contribution, but that 5 per cent. is over the entire country’s land transport network, and that is the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road. We have also said that we will go beyond 5 per cent. as soon as we can guarantee that it can be done from sustainable sources, because—as I said in answer to the previous question—if we cannot produce the biomass sustainably, there is no point doing it. So we will go as far and as fast as we can, commensurate with it being done sustainably.

Maritime Transport Policy

3. Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): What response he has made to the European Commission Green Paper on maritime transport policy. [125112]

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The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): The European Commission has allowed a year-long consultation period for member states to consider the EU maritime Green Paper. The consultation period ends on 30 June 2007.

The UK public consultation exercise closed on 28 February. We are analysing the responses, alongside contributions made at the national stakeholder conference on 12 October 2006. Both sets of comments will inform the Government’s response to the Commission.

Michael Connarty: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. The Department’s letter of 11 December was sent to 96 public organisations, but for some reason not to any of the relevant Select Committees of this House. The European Scrutiny Committee has called for a debate on this matter to be held this month, but should not the Government between now and June ask the Select Committees to look at that policy document, which covers transport, the environment, and trade and industry? The European Scrutiny Committee deserves commendation, rather than condemnation, for our scrutiny of European business.

Dr. Ladyman: The appropriate process is for the Government to notify the European Scrutiny Committee that there is European legislation to be looked at, and the Committee then advises us on how that should be done. As my hon. Friend says, the Committee has arranged for the document to be debated in Standing Committee in a few weeks. I hear what he says, and I welcome contributions from other Select Committees and hon. Members about the development of our proposals. However, it is not for me to tell the Select Committees covering transport or the environment what they should be considering. I suspect that their Chairs might look askance at any interference by me with their autonomy.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): The document contains proposals for a feasibility study for a European coastguard, talks about a common maritime space—a first step towards European territorial waters—and even goes back to the idea of a European register, which would be the first nail in the coffin of the red ensign. Does the Minister not regret that he welcomed last year’s Green Paper on preparing for future mobility, as to a large extent it paved the way for the current document? Is he really standing up for our interests in Europe?

Dr. Ladyman: It is a bit rich for a representative of the party that left the red ensign almost non-existent to come to the Dispatch Box and criticise this Government, who have been responsible for that flag’s resurgence. The red ensign now flies over a very significant fleet. Shipping is this country’s third biggest export earner, but it disappeared almost entirely under the Conservatives.

The Government support some of the Green Paper’s recommendations, but not others. We do not support the EU coastguard idea and we need to know what the term “maritime space” means, as it is not well defined. We need to engage properly in the discussions and stand up for British interests, but this Government have rebuilt the red ensign and will take no lectures from the Conservatives about how we should do that.

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Belford Rail Station

4. Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): If he will visit Belford, Northumberland to discuss plans for reopening the railway station. [125113]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I currently have no plans to visit Belford. It is up to the relevant regional and local authorities to develop a business case with Network Rail for proposals of this nature. I am not aware that any detailed proposals have been put forward to reopen the station at Belford.

Mr. Beith: But they have been, twice. If the Minister tried to come to Belford, he would not be able to get off the train. It stops there twice a day, but the building of a platform has been obstructed by bureaucracy. One element of that is that Network Rail has refused to submit the safety case to the Health and Safety Executive. The Minister is relatively new, but cannot he knock some heads together and secure some progress so that Belford people can start raising money—as they have done before—to get the platform built? When that happens, they can leave the car and take the train.

Mr. Harris: I am always eager to knock heads together, but local stakeholders must put a business case together and raise the money that is needed. They do not need my permission to do that. The first Northumberland local transport plan included reopening Belford station, but the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that that proposal is missing from the current LTP.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): If the Minister does get off his backside and look at Belford, will he pop into Blyth Valley to see the rail link from Blyth to the Tyne and Wear metro system? That link has been disused for a long time, but we are trying to open it up again.

Mr. Harris: I think my hon. Friend may have just made me an offer I cannot refuse.


5. Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): what assessment he has made of responses to his “putting passengers first” proposals on buses. [125114]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): The Government's proposals for a modernised framework for improving bus services have been widely welcomed by bus operators, passengers and local authorities alike. We are working closely with stakeholders to take forward our proposals, in preparation for a draft road transport Bill.

Ann Coffey: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. If we are to persuade people in Greater Manchester and Stockport to make better use of public transport, we need to improve bus services. Will she confirm that in the forthcoming review of the bus service operating grants she will look at ways of tying that grant more into improved bus performance, including better reliability?

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