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Gillian Merron: I am glad that my hon. Friend, who is a longstanding champion of better bus services for local people, welcomes the Government improvements to bus services. I can indeed confirm that we are talking to key stakeholders about how we can better focus bus subsidy money, which has just about doubled in England since 1997, so that we can see improvements in performance as well as in the environment.
Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Local authorities such as Salisbury district council are keen to put passengers first, but the present regime militates against that. The council does not have sufficient money to subsidise deserving routes on behalf of scattered rural communities and at the same time pay for the free transport by bus service that has been ordained by central Government. It simply does not add up. Will the Minister please make sure that the Treasury understands that, if it is sincere about putting passengers first, it has to put its money where its mouth is?
Gillian Merron: Over the past 10 years we have indeed been putting our money where our mouth is: some £2.5 billion of revenue funding goes to support the bus industry through a wide variety of measures. As for the quality of local bus services, Putting Passengers First will enable it to get better. In the meantime, it is down to bus operators and local authorities to work closely together.
Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): As my hon. Friend moves towards 2008 and offers a free bus service throughout England for people who are retired, will she have discussions with those in Wales and Scotland to ensure a transport service that allows free travel throughout the United Kingdom?
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What extra help will the Minister be giving to areas such as Kettering borough, which will see the number of houses increase by a third in the next 14 years? What extra help can the Minister provide to increase bus services in areas such as Kettering?
Gillian Merron: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the provisions in Putting Passengers First, which give local authorities a far greater say and a greater ability to work closely with local operators to get the right schemes. We are looking for local solutions to local needs. Of course, innovative funding such as the transport innovation fund is also available for congestion-beating plans.
Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): Although I welcome much in Putting Passengers First, does the Minister plan to use those ideas as a stepping stone to a fully regulated system that really would put passengers first?
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): May I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, echoing my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan), that the relationship at the moment is wrong? The power is with the monopoly supplier, certainly in my county of Durham, and more power needs to be given to the local authorities. What is happening in Durham is an absolute disgrace. Go North East, formerly Go-Ahead Northern, is stripping out routes and concentrating on the profitable routes in anticipation of powers coming forward.
Gillian Merron: I understand that the situation that my hon. Friend describes is the case in certain places up and down the country. That is why we have talked to all the key people involved and we have received such a good response from all the main stakeholders, who are keen to put passengers first and achieve the right bus services. I emphasise that in the meantime, before the legislation comes in, I am aware that already bus operators, local communities and local authorities are coming together to serve people better.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): As with all franchising competitions, employees are protected under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981.
Hugh Bayley: The re-franchising process creates uncertainty for railway employees and, indeed, for the travelling public, who have been used to a high quality service from Great North Eastern Railway on the east coast main line and do not know what the future will hold. Will my hon. Friend do everything he can to bring the uncertainty to an end as quickly as possible? Is he able to tell us when the end will be and the new franchisee will be announced?
Mr. Harris: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his persistent campaigning on behalf of GNER employees in his constituency. I know that he takes a great interest in the matter. I can reassure him about the time scale; the Department for Transport expects to announce the winning bidder this summer, with the franchisee taking over before the end of the year.
Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): The Minister knows how important the upgrade of the east coast main line is to the regeneration of urban centres in the east of England, whether in York or my areaPeterborough. Will he update the House on the meeting about the east coast main line upgrade held yesterday between his officials and Network Rail and tell us whether any progress has been made on that important issue?
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): One way in which employees of any of the railway franchises could be protected would be to establish one franchise that was not owned by a company and could be used as a benchmark against which all other efforts could be judged. Will the Minister seriously consider whether that can be done, as at present taxpayers have no guarantee that what they are being offered by a muddled franchise system is good value or even workable?
Mr. Harris: I listen closely when my hon. Friend speaks on these matters, since she knows a great deal about the rail industry. However, the European Foundation for Quality Management system, which is used to assess all franchise bids, is a robust measure and I am absolutely confident that continuing to use it will ensure that we obtain the best possible deal for the taxpayer in terms both of value for money and, particularly, of reliability.
Mr. Harris: I am happy to repeat what I told the hon. Gentleman when we discussed the matter at the Dispatch Box in December. The Department for Transport does not specify levels of premium from bidders for new franchises; it is entirely up to the franchisee or potential bidders to decide how much of a premium they may want to pay.
Chris Grayling: The Minister did not answer my question. I asked him about the Departments budgeting. Several of the other new franchises have budgeted on the basis that there will be a shift from subsidy in the current franchise period to a quite substantial premium to the Government in the next franchise period. Has the Minister made contingency plans for the reduction in revenue that could result from both the situation at GNER and similar situations arising for some of the other franchises that may have over-bid?
Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman should understand that I have no intention of trying to speculate about the levels of premium or subsidy that future bidders may propose. The price of any new franchise is an important consideration, as it should bewe have a responsibility to the taxpayer to get the best deal we canbut deliverability, not price, remains our primary consideration.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): On behalf of my constituents who are employed by GNER, I thank the Minister for that response. Will similar consideration be given to workers throughout the transport industry, such as those currently facing an uncertain future with British Airways?
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con):
As the Minister is aware, York is an important railway town and GNER has brought huge numbers of jobs to the city and surrounding villages in the Vale of York and
elsewhere; but the collapse in the franchise arrangements, as other Members have pointed out, has huge ramifications for the whole franchising process. Is there no end to the taxpayers largesse? Will other companies be bailed out if their franchise arrangements fail?
Mr. Harris: I think that, with respect, the hon. Lady is getting the wrong end of the stick. The franchise was taken away from GNER specifically because we refused to renegotiate it, which was exactly the right decision for the Government to take. If we sent out a message that these franchises could be renegotiated, it would simply encourage any bidders to bid well above what they could afford, knowing that the Government would then come in and bail them out. The Government have not renegotiated this contract: we took away the franchise because GNER was unable to meet its franchise commitments.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): The industry-standard public performance measure, or PPM, is a measure of performance of train operating companies rather than individual services. The current PPM of the train operating company one expressed as a moving annual average is 87.1 per cent., which represents an improvement of 0.6 per cent. in the last year.
Mr. Yeo: Passengers using Manningtree have suffered unreliable and overcrowded trains for the last three years. Insult was added to injury with the recent hefty increases in both fares and car parking charges. Does the Minister believe that adding £100 a month to the cost of commuting from Suffolk to London on a sub-standard service is a good way to encourage people to use the train?
Mr. Harris: I am aware of some of the performance issues that one has suffered in recent months. The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that with car parking at Manningtree being oversubscribed, one is currently working on proposals to deck over the car park and make it a double-deck one. As far as rail fares are concerned, increases in regulated fares are restricted to inflation plus 1 per cent., while with non-regulated fares, it is up to the train operating companies to decide by how much they need to go up. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that more fares should be regulated, he will also have to suggest where that money is going to come from. If it is not to come from the rail payer, the only other source is the taxpayer.
Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): My constituents also use this line and they were shocked by the death at Swainsthorpe last Thursdaythe third death there in 16 months. I have written to the Secretary of State about that. Will the Minister tell us whether there will be a full review of automatic half-barrier crossings, which are thought to be a risk factor in the accidents that have occurred?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): As part of the local transport plan process, which includes assessment by the Department, funding for smaller schemes is generally decided by local authorities, which receive block grant funding to enable them to identify and fund local priorities. For larger schemes, decisions are made on the advice from the particular region and met by either regional funding allocation or, potentially, the transport innovation fund.
Mr. Wilson: As the Minister knows, Reading is one of the local authorities currently piloting road charging. Can she confirm press reports that the Department for Transport will fund local transport schemes only for those authorities that actively pursue road pricing? Has that been the case in Reading, and will it be the case in future for other local authorities?
Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): Virtually all the discretionary expenditure for local transport plans is within the transport innovation fund. I understand from talking to leaders of local authorities in Greater Manchester that the Secretary of State has made it quite clear that, to access those funds, the people of Greater Manchester will have to pay a special and extra tax for using the roads. That unpleasant news has been communicated well, but the other side of the package has not been so well communicated. Will the Minister clarify whether, if that tax were to be imposed on people in Manchester, the Government would guarantee to fund the full metrolink extension and give back control of local buses and trains to local authorities?
Gillian Merron: That is quite a shopping list and I would expect no less from my hon. Friend. I refer him to the guidance that is issued in respect of the transport innovation fund. I can confirm to the House that the fund is available for innovative solutions to tackling congestion. It is not the case that the Secretary of State is imposing solutions to local problems; the Secretary of State has set out a requirement that local solutions are found to meet local needs. That is the right way forward.
Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD):
The dualling programme for the section of the A30 in mid-Cornwall is nearing completion. However, further east, from Temple to Higher Carblake, there is a section of single-carriageway road on which we might see further delays, particularly in peak summer months.
The regional assembly has dumped that from the programme, although it has been in there for many years. Local people will be lobbying at the regional level, but will the Minister consent to meet some of my constituents so that they can press upon her the problems with that piece of road?
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Now for the good news. Does my hon. Friend agree that, with infrastructure improvements, come jobs? There is no better example than the 10-year campaign that I have waged for junction 29A, which will lead straight into Markham pit yard, in order to provide up to 8,000 jobs. It will transform the unemployment situation in the whole of north Derbyshire, affecting six constituencies. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend on providing me with a £14.5 million cheque. The diggers have started and the job is now moving towards completion.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Does the Minister accept that some local authoritiesI refer to Cheshire and Macclesfield in particularare somewhat concerned that the funding of local projects is not as transparent as the Government may seek to make out? There appears to be prejudice and, I am sorry to say this, because I am not generally very political [ Interruption. ] There is prejudice against Conservative authorities. Will the Minister indicate whether there are any grounds for my concern, which is widely shared in both the borough of Macclesfield and the county of Cheshire?
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): This is an operational matter for Network Rail, which advises that there are more than 4,000 sets of similar points on the national network. The Office of Rail Regulation, as safety regulator for the railway, is satisfied with the actions taken by Network Rail, following the derailment, to ensure that the railway is safe to operate. In particular, the ORR supports Network Rails precautionary visual sample inspection of similar points across the network.
Mr. Prentice: Trains are running across the network, so there is no design flaw in the points themselves, but I was reflecting on the signalling. At the Carlisle control centre the signal was at green. Why did that happen? Is any work being done to make sure that signalling systems are more sensitive to the condition of the track?
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