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17 July 2007 : Column 147

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I also welcome my right hon. Friend to her new post. From the fact that this question comes from outside Birmingham, she will be aware of the importance of the regeneration of New Street station nationally and not simply to the city of Birmingham and the west midlands. She mentioned discussions: does she need any further information from any of the partners involved to convince her just how vital that project is to the country as well as to the region?

Ruth Kelly: I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. I know that he, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and others in the region have been championing the cause of New Street station, not just in terms of passenger capacity, which is clearly needed, but because of the regeneration potential of the plans. My Department has been liaising with Birmingham city council and challenging it to come up with plans that represent clear value for money.

We are currently in a process of iteration, and the local council still has significant work to do to prove its case. I can pledge to my hon. Friend that I will give the issue my close attention and focus especially on the value for money case, while understanding that value for money will include any potential regeneration benefits.

Mr. Speaker: Mr. Philip Hammond.

Hon. Members: Stephen.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I welcome the right hon. Lady to her new role and wish her success in curing the nation’s transport problems. Seven years ago, in the 10-year plan, the Government promised to tackle the very bottlenecks that she has been talking about, but they persist. The real progress in reducing train congestion and increasing capacity at New Street will be secured by the £500 million station upgrade that we all expected to hear in the high level output statement, which was expected yesterday. Was the HLOS delayed because of the emerging crisis in the Underground public-private partnership or the embarrassment caused to the Government by First Great Western and TravelWatch’s performance review at the weekend? When will the Government announce something to help west midlands commuters—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is entitled only to one supplementary question, even if I get his name wrong.

Ruth Kelly: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post and I congratulate him on his creative efforts in his questioning. I am sorry that they were not more successful. He is right to say that we have to think about Birmingham New Street station and the capacity issues. I understand that the issues include pedestrian access as well as rail connections outside the station.

One thing that I have not mentioned to colleagues so far is that the recent award of the Cross Country franchise will, I hope, make a significant difference to reliability across the whole network, including at Birmingham New Street station. If trains on that franchise are able to run on time and carry more passengers, that will also help all other trains leaving and arriving at that station.

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Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): I should like to welcome my right hon. Friend to her new post, and I am glad that she is aware of the congestion problems in the west midlands, especially at New Street. The proposed redevelopment, whenever it takes place, will not help that problem, so will she speak to the rail operators with a view to taking some of the congestion away from the station? Tamworth is the crossroads between the main lines to the west coast and the north-east. Will she consider making it a hub station, as that would reduce people’s need to go into New Street during the reconstruction period?

Ruth Kelly: I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that I plan to meet the train operating companies next week, when we will discuss their plans to tackle capacity problems at stations around the country. It has been made plain already that many passengers are forced to change at Birmingham New Street station, and that different options are needed. One of the merits of the recent award of the Cross Country franchise will be that fewer passengers will be forced to change at New Street station, but we keep such matters under constant review and they will inform the contents of the rail White Paper to be published shortly.

Rail Fare Regulation

6. Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): What recent discussions she has had with South West Trains on the regulation of rail fares. [149832]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): There have been no discussions about either the scope or the level of fares regulation. There has been some discussion about the forthcoming investment in modern smartcard ticketing, which may require fares regulation procedures to be changed.

Sandra Gidley: In May this year, South West Trains hiked up prices by 20 per cent. for passengers from Winchester and Southampton who arrive in London between 10 am and 12. No such increases were introduced for people travelling from Basingstoke and Reading, where there is competition from First Great Western. What can the Minister do to prevent companies such as South West Trains from fleecing passengers on routes where there is a monopoly franchise?

Mr. Harris: I of course sympathise with those who find that their fares have gone up by a significant amount. I am sure that the hon. Lady will understand that the Government can intervene in such matters only by extending the scope of regulation. However, there would inevitably be a cost to the public purse, at a time when many more demands are being made on it, both in the rail industry and elsewhere.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I welcome the Minister to his post, not least because he provides an element of gender balance in a Department that is becoming very much a female province in this House. The hike in fares to which my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) referred is not unique to South West Trains, but it runs contrary to the original
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plan that the Association of Train Operating Companies would try to attract more passengers by providing a range of options for off-peak travel. Will he therefore consider looking at the model recently adopted by Transport for London? It has decided to take the revenue risk involved in running the north London line franchise, in order to get much more integrated travel and to achieve the goal of getting people to transfer from road to rail, rather than from rail to road.

Mr. Harris: I welcome the hon. Lady to her new post and point out that, having been there for 10 months, I am now the veteran Minister in the Department for Transport. The price of a regulated fare in Britain is now 2 per cent. lower in real terms than it was 10 years ago. As for innovative ways to get people on to trains, she will be aware that South West Trains has instituted the so-called Megatrain fares scheme that enables people to buy tickets at very low prices. I do not believe that we should change the current structure of the franchising system: there has been enough change in the industry over the past 10 or 15 years, and the system is delivering for passengers.

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): I welcome the whole ministerial team to their roles. Will the Minister tell us what representations he received from South West Trains about the impact on fares when the DFT set the franchise premium payments up to 2014? Has he made any estimation of how much fares will have to increase to fund the increased premium payments set by his Department?

Mr. Harris: In welcoming the hon. Lady to her new position as shadow Transport Secretary, I express the hope that she will not go down the cul-de-sac pursued by her predecessor in suggesting that as long as there is a public subsidy to train operating companies all is well and good but that we should never allow a premium to be paid by train operating companies back to the public purse. South West Trains made the Department aware that some off-peak, unregulated fares would have a higher than inflation increase, but even if the company had not told us that, the fact is that as the fares are unregulated we would not be in a position to change its mind. Unregulated fares do exactly what it says on the tin.

Mrs. Villiers: Is not the reality that the Minister and his Department are responsible for ratcheting up fares because of the ever-increasing premium payments they demand from train operating companies? South West Trains will be paying almost £250 million a year in premium payments by 2014. In total, the five highest value franchises will be paying well over £1 billion in premium payments by 2014—a more than tenfold increase. Is not the Secretary of State using the franchise system to price people off the railways to deal with the overcrowding problems that the Government have wholly failed to tackle?

Mr. Harris: The hon. Lady has clearly decided at an early stage to ignore my advice. However, as I told her predecessor, the Department for Transport at no point specifies any level of premium, or indeed any level of subsidy. If the hon. Lady is to stay in her post for any
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length of time, it may help her to become slightly more informed about the franchising process. I and my officials would be more than happy to meet her and talk her all the way through the process from the early points, so that she can understand exactly how a franchise is let.

Road Infrastructure (North-West)

7. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): If she will make it a departmental priority to improve the road infrastructure in the north-west. [149833]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton): The north-west will receive £345 million over the next three years for local authority road and public transport projects and Highways Agency major schemes. We will continue to take advice from the region on how investment should be prioritised.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Is the Minister aware that the letter from the previous Under-Secretary in her Department to me and others relating to the south-east Manchester multi-modal recommendation has created immense anger among all local authorities—Labour, Liberal and Conservative—in Cheshire, Macclesfield and Greater Manchester? It really is about time that areas such as Cheshire and Macclesfield, as well as Greater Manchester, had a fairer distribution of money for road improvements up to 2022. Will the Minister receive a delegation from me, including Members from all parties, to discuss the matter?

Ms Winterton: I have read the letter that the Under-Secretary sent to Members of Parliament in which the offer was made that a meeting would be arranged with local councils and Department for Transport officials. I believe that meeting will be on 23 July. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) has already approached me about meeting a delegation of MPs and I am more than happy to do so, but I suggest that we wait until after the meeting on Monday, in order to see what is resolved there.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to her new job, and I very much welcome the offer she has made to meet all Members of Parliament with an interest in the SEMMS relief road. Will she consider all the options for progressing the road, which is vital to relieving congestion on the A6 in my constituency, including building part or all of it as a toll road?

Ms Rosie Winterton: I can assure my hon. Friend that we are certainly committed to working in close collaboration with the local authorities to look at all the possible funding options. As I said, when the meeting on Monday has taken place, we should sit down and look at the various proposals. I understand her point about toll roads. I hope that we will be able to take this matter forward. As I am sure all right hon. and hon. Members are aware, the cost of the scheme has escalated—looking at some of the funding options—up to £1 billion. We have to recognise that we need to explore the different options very closely.

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Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Is the Minister aware that the recommendations by the regional authorities have caused my constituents great anger? They mean that we have very little infrastructure investment in county roads such as the A34, which runs from Manchester and is a major commuter road south through Congleton to Stoke-on-Trent. When the long-overdue Alderley Edge bypass is completed, that will merely decant vast amounts of traffic into areas in and around the town of Congleton. When are we going to get a bypass, and when will some money be spent in rural areas, rather than just in the large metropolitan areas?

Ms Rosie Winterton: It is important to recognise that the north-west region has a 10-year regional funding allocation of £1.245 billion, and that local transport funding has doubled in the past seven years. However, it is also important to recognise that the Department takes advice from the region about the region’s priorities, which is the right approach. We will continue discussions, but it is important to remember that that is the principle on which we work.

Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that the north-west has enjoyed unprecedented growth over the past 10 years, yet still lags behind the national average. One of the reasons for that is our poor road infrastructure. May I invite the Minister to meet the Northwest Development Agency and see all the plans that we have in the north-west, and—I hope—put some more money into our infrastructure, so that we can have economic growth at the same level as the rest of the country?

Ms Rosie Winterton: My hon. Friend is right to say that transport infrastructure is an important part of economic growth, particularly at the regional level. I thank him for his kind invitation. I would be more than happy to meet him, and perhaps the regional development agency, to discuss some of the issues that are clearly of such great interest to Members.

Road Safety

8. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): What plans she has for measures to reduce the number and severity of injuries arising from collisions between vehicles and pedestrians. [149834]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): The Government, local authorities and road safety organisations are working to reduce pedestrian casualties through education, engineering and enforcement. From October 2005, passenger cars and light vans are required to provide protection for pedestrians in their design. This is the first legislation of its kind. A second stage of requirements will apply from 2010.

Paul Flynn: The Government are to be congratulated on their part in the recent ban on the manufacture and sale of bull bars—what the Americans call killer grilles—the macho fashion accessories that concentrate and multiply the force of an accident at the level of a child’s head and vital organs. However, being a pedestrian is still twice as dangerous as travelling in a car. Have the Government any more plans to restrict the use of very heavy vehicles, particularly those with non-flexible fronts?

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Jim Fitzpatrick: May I return the compliment and congratulate my hon. Friend on the campaigning he has done on this issue over a considerable time? The Government are serious about improving the safety of pedestrians and we made a significant contribution to the development of the European legislation that he mentioned, including the personal protection directive of 2003, the frontal protection systems directive of 2005, and the second phase of the personal protection directive of 2003, which will be introduced in 2010. My hon. Friend has contributed to ensuring that from 25 May 2007, new vehicles have had to be fitted with a frontal protection system approved under the directive, and that from the same date, any frontal protection system offered for sale as an accessory must be approved and carry an approval mark. We will continue to monitor these issues.

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Does the Minister agree that one of the most effective ways of reducing the number and severity of injuries is to reduce the default speed limit on lit urban roads to 20 mph?

Jim Fitzpatrick: That is an issue for local authorities to decide. We have given them the power to introduce reduced speed limits in areas where that is appropriate. The hon. Gentleman is well aware that the Government set out their road safety strategy in 2000 and indicated their targets for reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured by 2010, so it is lower than the average figures for 1994 to 1998. We are well on our way to meeting those targets, but we should not be complacent, because there are some differences in scale. We need to make sure that we press for a reduction in that number, and the speed restrictions that the hon. Gentleman requests can certainly play a part in our campaign.

Port Security

9. Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): What steps she has taken to improve port security. [149835]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Ruth Kelly): My Department works with the ports industry in implementing the international ship and port facility security code, which came into force in 2004. The code introduced new requirements, under which port facilities and ships must work to security plans, which set out the response measures that are to be taken in normal, heightened and exceptional security situations.

Patrick Mercer: I am very interested in the right hon. Lady’s response. Over the past few years, I have made it my business to visit a number of ports and consider their security. When I went to the extremely vulnerable port of Holyhead, I was particularly surprised to find that there were no Border and Immigration Agency or customs and excise officers present, and special branch officers were having to deputise for both. Why was that?

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