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House of Commons

Tuesday 4 December 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

London Bridge Station

1. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): What assessment she has made of the likely effect of Thameslink construction works on the ability of London Bridge station to handle trains terminating from south London suburban lines. [170384]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): The final phase of Thameslink construction will involve complete remodelling of the track and platform layout at London Bridge. We are working with Network Rail to ensure that inconvenience to passengers is kept to a minimum while the works proceed.

Tom Brake: Does the Minister agree that the building of phase 2 of the East London line would be helpful in ensuring that passengers going to the City who currently have to go into London Bridge, with the associated disruption, could use the East London line as an alternative? Does he consider that project to be good value for money, and will his Government support it financially?

Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman will, of course, know that phase 2 of the East London line is a matter for Transport for London. He is right to say that the line might provide some assistance for passengers otherwise inconvenienced by the work going on at London Bridge. However, there are alternatives that might provide the same kind of relief for passengers using London Bridge during the construction period. He will have to be patient, because in April next year Network Rail’s route utilisation strategy for south London will be published. That will contain a list of all the options, and I am sure that the one that he mentions will be given due attention by Network Rail and by the Government.

Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): My constituents welcome the commitment to rail demonstrated by the Minister and his colleagues, as delivered by First Capital Connect and advocated by Bedford commuters association, which
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welcomes the start of the Thameslink project, with developments such as the one at Luton Airport Parkway station. It welcomes the promised extra trains that will be delivered—

Mr. Speaker: That is understandable, but a supplementary question must be brief, and this is a little speech. Perhaps the Minister will answer the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Harris: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. Thameslink is a vital part of the high-level output specification that we announced in July, with £5.5 billion going towards a project that some suggested might never happen. It is happening, it is being built, and by 2015 it will have been completed, under this Government.

Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con): As the Minister is considering construction works in south London, will he confirm that he knew that the five international platforms at Waterloo station were due to be released at least five years ago—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I apologise—I should have stopped the hon. Gentleman sooner. That has nothing to do with the question before us.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Victoria overground station— [ Interruption ]is also likely to be subject to major overhaul in the years ahead. Will the Minister personally ensure that the essential maintenance programme is properly phased, because presumably a lot of London Bridge traffic— [ Interruption ]will otherwise have to go to Victoria and Charing Cross?

Mr. Harris: That was nicely done, Mr. Speaker.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that in planning the works Network Rail will make great efforts to avoid the inconvenience that he mentions. I cannot undertake that I will ensure personally that that happens; Ministers are not best placed to make such provision. However, he is right to say that lines to Victoria will be subject to some inconvenience and disruption during the Thameslink construction, and it is up to Network Rail to minimise that wherever possible.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the disruption caused to south London suburban services by the Thameslink construction programme will be avoided only if phase 2 of the East London line is built first, freeing up badly needed platform space at London Bridge? Will he meet me and other south London MPs to consider a proposition that would be in everybody’s interests?

Mr. Harris: As my hon. Friend knows, my door is always open—but I would correct him in at least one respect. The completion of phase 2B of the East London link is not the only way of relieving pressure on London Bridge during construction. As I said, the options for what Network Rail can do will be set out in the route utilisation strategy to be published next spring. The funding of the East London line, while a matter for Transport for London, will of course be considered as part of that strategy if it is seen that the
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construction of that phase would have a beneficial financial impact on works that would otherwise be funded by the Department for Transport.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Given that the route utilisation strategy consultation is due some time next year, one begins to wonder how many endless consultation processes we will have to go through. This process is called Thameslink 2000; it is now 2007. Will the Minister ensure that the consultation process does not lead to the programme being put into the sidings?

Mr. Harris: My first ministerial decision on taking office was to rename Thameslink 2000 as Thameslink. The hon. Gentleman is perhaps getting confused between consultation on two different issues. The consultation currently under way is the one on Network Rail’s route utilisation strategy. However, Thameslink is now being built. It is going ahead and will be fully funded in the next control period between 2009 and 2014.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): The Thameslink development, the lengthening of platforms and the increasing of the electricity supply to increase capacity on the Southeastern network is very welcome in my constituency. When my hon. Friend is considering the route utilisation strategy, will he remember that south-east London is not served by the London underground? That means that there is a heavy reliance on overground rail services for commuters into central London. When he is considering the outcome of that process and the number of trains that might be serving central London, will he also consider that issue for people in south-east London?

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend is correct, which is why the route utilisation strategy and the consultation process under way at the moment are so important to his constituents and those of many other hon. Members.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions

2. Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) (Lab): What contribution her Department is making to the Government’s strategy for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. [170385]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Ruth Kelly): Transport has a vital role to play in supporting sustainable economic growth, but it is clear that it must also play its full part in the UK’s overall framework for reducing carbon emissions. That is why we are investing record amounts in public transport, providing people with better information about their travel choices, making fuels cleaner and vehicles more efficient, and leading the argument in Europe for including aviation in emissions trading.

Dr. Ladyman: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for putting that on the record, as the Department is seldom given the credit it deserves for what it is doing to reduce carbon dioxide. Does she agree that measures that win public support are most likely to be effective? The measures that she is considering, such as introducing aviation into the emissions trading scheme, and the renewable transport fuel obligation, are far
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more likely to succeed than banning people from taking holiday flights and making them pay to park in supermarket car parks, which are the proposals coming from the Conservatives.

Ruth Kelly: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. It sometimes seems to me that the Conservative party is torn irrevocably in two different directions, and cannot choose between the two. He is right to point to policies such as the renewable transport fuels obligation, which, I can inform the House, make up nearly a quarter of the CO2 savings in the Government’s climate change objectives. I am clear about the scope to go further, and that is why the Department recently published a response to Eddington and Stern, which sets out the progress that I hope we can make.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): But will the Secretary of State get a bit radical? Does she realise that unnecessary emissions are caused when a vehicle has to stop unnecessarily? Why does she not trial some of the schemes in force in the United States of America, where vehicles are allowed to turn on a red signal—over here, we would allow a left turn—and consider other schemes whereby during non-rush hour periods, traffic lights do not go to red unnecessarily but flash amber in all directions?

Ruth Kelly: I think that the right hon. Gentleman is referring not to the report by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) on economic competitiveness, but that of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) on the environment, which illustrates how torn the Conservative party is. Of course, we are prepared to listen to constructive suggestions on all the issues, but to return to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), it is important that we are able to convince people that credible propositions are in place that are likely to succeed in reducing CO2 emissions.

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): We all want to reduce carbon emissions, and we have to balance that with the importance of air travel to regional economies. Would my right hon. Friend consider making the air route between Durham Tees Valley and Heathrow airports a public service obligation route to protect the prosperity of the north-east?

Ruth Kelly: I congratulate my hon. Friend on championing the cause of his constituents. It is important that we maintain and revitalise regional air services in the UK economy, which is one of the reasons why, provided that the strict local environmental conditions are met, the Government support in principle the third runway at Heathrow airport. If we have more capacity at Heathrow to serve more regional destinations, it should become possible to re-energise local and regional economies.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): In view of Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot’s recent announcement on tracking containers, why have the Government chosen to exclude imports from the Climate Change Bill? Does the Secretary of State realise that goods travelling much of their journey to the UK by lorry have a much higher carbon footprint than those that travel the whole way by sea?

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Ruth Kelly: Of course it is right that we take any action that reduces CO2 emissions in a way that is cost-effective and delivers the maximum CO2 reductions consistent with economic growth. The Climate Change Bill, which is the UK’s framework for delivering substantial reductions in CO2 emissions—at least 60 per cent.—considers domestically sourced CO2. Of course there is an argument about how we treat imports, international aviation emissions and emissions that are not domestically sourced, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we are leading the debate in Europe and beyond.

Bus Services

3. Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): What plans she has to enable the public to have greater involvement in making decisions about local bus services. [170386]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton): Today I have published a consultation paper, “Options for strengthening bus passenger representation”, covering England. This follows our earlier commitment to consult on ways to ensure that bus users have their say when key decisions are being made, and to provide a more influential voice for bus passengers.

Mr. Mahmood: I thank my right hon. Friend for that, but will she ensure that when local authorities and local bus service providers such as Centro in Birmingham make rescheduling announcements, pensioners who rely on those services do not find them drastically cut at the stroke of a pen, and that clear consultation is put in place instead?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is right to highlight some of the problems in his constituency. People feel strongly if a bus service is suddenly taken away, particularly if they have not been consulted. One of the options for our new bus champion body would be the ability to conduct research into what people want from their bus services and what they get from them. If necessary, the process can be about naming and shaming operators that do not meet the public’s expectations. That is what passengers want to see.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): The Minister will be aware that one of the issues causing consternation to users of bus services in rural areas is the break-up of routes following the community drivers regulations. In a debate in the other place on 19 June, the Minister’s noble Friend Lord Bassam invited representatives of rural bus companies to meet officials to discuss the issue. Has that meeting taken place, and if not, when is it likely to do so?

Ms Winterton: I had a meeting with some of the coach operators and smaller bus companies in which we discussed that issue. One of the problems is that when the legislation was going through, representations were not made and evidence was not forthcoming about some of the potential problems down the road. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) has also taken an interest in the matter. We
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have to bear it in mind that there is a safety issue, too, which is about carrying passengers, sometimes on quite long routes. We have to achieve a balance between ensuring that safety is properly covered and the need of operators to run those routes.

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): Is not the best way to get the public involved through the local democratic process? In particular, would it not be better if decisions on quality contracts under the new Local Transport Bill were made by locally elected councillors, rather than a quango composed of transport commissioners?

Ms Winterton: Perhaps it would be helpful if I explained the process that we would expect any approvals board to go through. We would want local authorities to carry out a consultation and make a properly costed proposal on how they wanted to put together a quality contract. It would then be for the approvals board to ensure that those costings were correct, that the consultation had been carried out and that the scheme was going to work. That will provide local authorities with greater certainty that they will not be judicially reviewed, and operators with the knowledge that the scheme has been properly considered before it goes ahead.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): My constituents have made clear their position on the concessionary fares scheme. We have a problem because of our geography, in that many of my constituents need to travel across the border into Wales. I have tried to make my constituents’ views clear to the Welsh Assembly Government, but having received a somewhat unenthusiastic letter from the Deputy First Minister, I would welcome the Minister’s support, working with colleagues in the devolved Administrations, for making the concessionary fares scheme work more smoothly across the UK’s internal borders.

Ms Winterton: I certainly hope that we can ensure that the concessionary fares scheme works smoothly. I have to say that it has been greatly welcomed among elderly people and people with disabilities. It will operate at a cost of about £1 billion a year. It is running now at the local level and it will be extended to the national level from April. Of course we want to see the scheme operating properly across the borders.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that such plans should be capable of being implemented as speedily as possible, should be meaningful and capable of delivering what local people want, and should be designed so that those local people cannot be unreasonably frustrated by appeals and recourse to judicial review by bus operators?

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