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House of Commons

Tuesday 22 January 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Manchester City Council Bill [ Lords] (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 29 January.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Concessionary Travel

1. Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): What discussions she has had with the Scottish Executive on the reciprocity of national pensioners’ bus schemes in England and Scotland. [180535]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton): In 2006, discussions were held with the Scottish Executive about reciprocal arrangements for concessionary travel. These identified technical and financial implications that would need to be resolved before there could be further extensions to national schemes. However, that does not prevent local authorities from making arrangements for cross-border travel, should they wish to do so.

Mr. Beith: The Minister has just conceded that these difficulties have been known about since 2006. There has therefore been ample time to resolve them before the national bus pass is introduced in April this year. Why should pensioners in border areas, who are now seeing notices on their buses saying that they will not be able to use their national bus passes across the border, not be able to benefit from this scheme, which is intended to enable pensioners to go to the doctor or the hospital, or to see their relations? Why do the Government not just get on with it?

Ms Winterton: Perhaps I can explain how the system would work if there were fully reciprocal arrangements. It would mean that anyone in England could use their pass to go anywhere in Scotland, and anyone in
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Scotland could do the same in England. Obviously, there would be financial implications, which the Scottish Executive and this Parliament would wish to address. There are particular arrangements in Berwick-upon-Tweed, however. I think that one small concession has been offered to enable people to get to the Borders general hospital. If local authorities wish to make cross-border arrangements, they may certainly do so, but they would need to do that as part of their local decision-making processes. There is nothing to prevent them from doing that if they want to.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister has correctly described how such a scheme would work, and most of us—except perhaps the nationalists—do not see anything wrong with the scheme being applied so that pensioners could benefit in England and in Scotland. At the moment, pensioners from my constituency can travel free on the bus in Orkney but not in Carlisle, and pensioners from Newcastle can travel free in Penzance but not in Edinburgh. The Minister should treat this matter with more urgency, and I hope that we shall soon be able to establish a truly UK-wide scheme that will benefit all pensioners.

Ms Winterton: I certainly take on board my hon. Friend’s point. As I have said, there are obviously financial implications. At the moment, we are spending about £1 billion a year on concessionary travel for pensioners. This year, for example, in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), there will be an increase in spending of 126 per cent. compared with the last financial year. The local authority might wish to put some of that towards cross-border travel. However, to make the scheme entirely nationwide between Scotland and England would have severe financial implications, on top of the extra £212 million that we have allocated this year for the concessionary fares scheme.

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): In relation to the scheme in England, I welcome the recognition that the funding has given to areas such as Brighton and Hove, which have done much to increase bus use and the take-up of passes over the past 12 years. Will the Minister liaise with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, however, to consider the representations that my local authority—Brighton and Hove city council—continues to make on the issue of funding?

Ms Winterton: Of course I will continue to liaise with the Department for Communities and Local Government on this issue. I should also point out, however, that my hon. Friend’s local council will see an increase of 33 per cent. in the amount allocated for the concessionary fares scheme, compared with the last financial year. The extra £350 million that was allocated in 2006 and the extra £212 million that is going in this year constitute a generous settlement as we try to make this extremely popular policy a success.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Is the Minister not aware that some of us believe that England and Scotland—and Wales and Northern Ireland, for that matter—are constituent parts of one United Kingdom, and that what the citizens of one country enjoy should be enjoyed by all?

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Ms Winterton: I have said that we have opened discussions with the devolved Administrations about whether to extend the scheme further. Again, however, the hon. Gentleman might like to ask his own Front Benchers whether they would be prepared to make further financial commitments. What we are doing is concentrating on implementing the current scheme. In Staffordshire, this year’s increase over the previous financial year will be 30 per cent.—a massive increase in the amount devoted to the concessionary fares scheme, which, as the hon. Gentleman says, is extremely popular and widely welcomed by older people. It is important to fulfil the commitment in our manifesto to introduce the scheme as we have, but we can continue to discuss the financial and technical implications of extending it further.

Rail Timetables

3. Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): What plans she has to hold discussions on the frequency of weekend train services on the east coast main line with National Express East Coast. [180537]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): The responsibility for the setting of timetables rests not with the Department for Transport but with Network Rail, which is responsible for the national rail timetable. Individual train operating companies can agree changes to their timetables in co-operation with Network Rail.

Mr. Jackson: If we are to encourage people, including my constituents, who want to travel to London away from congested roads such as the A14 and the M11, we need a rail service that is safe, clean and affordable but, above all, convenient. Notwithstanding the Minister’s answer, will he use his charm to persuade National Express East Coast to look again at providing a more comprehensive service on Saturdays, particularly Saturday evenings, because at the moment the last fast train from King’s Cross to Peterborough leaves at 8.30 pm?

Mr. Harris: Unfortunately, the rail industry has no alternative but to close some routes to enable time for maintenance of the infrastructure, which is what happens on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings on the east coast main line. I understand that that is frustrating for the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. However, First Capital Connect runs a service from London King’s Cross to Peterborough at 10 minutes to midnight on a Saturday evening. If it is the hon. Gentleman’s view that this particular franchise was underspecified, I am sure that his Front-Bench colleagues would be interested to hear about it.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): There are frequency and capacity problems with commuter services from Milton Keynes to London on the west coast main line as well. Will the Minister speak to Network Rail and ask it to look again at the 2008 timetable to see if it could make a bit more room to cope with those commuter services and make them faster?

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Mr. Harris: Of course, the £8 billion that the Government are spending on upgrading the west coast main line will have major beneficial effects for all communities along that particular line. It is understandable that communities that believe they should be benefiting more from the new timetable to December 2008 feel that they might be losing out, but I have to tell my hon. Friend that the vast majority of stations and services along the west coast main line will benefit from a markedly improved service, which will justify the Government’s record investment in this project.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): But bearing in mind the fact that passengers who use the trains at weekends are treated in an appalling fashion, why do people end up having to pay the same amount at weekends as they have to pay for mid-week services? If trains are scheduled for long delays, should it not be taken into account in the fares that passengers are charged?

Mr. Harris: I am not sure how often the right hon. Gentleman actually uses the train service—

Mr. McLoughlin: Every week.

Mr. Harris: Then he will know that at weekends, wholly off-peak services are run so many fares are cheaper. I hope he will understand that it is simply impossible to maintain the safety of the infrastructure unless we close large sections of the railway to allow it to happen. Of course I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s frustration and that of many Members on both sides of the House, but I hope that people will understand that if we are to have a safe and efficient railway service there must be maintenance, which cannot be done while trains are running on the lines.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I am not going to embarrass the Minister by referring again to his charm, but I want to reinforce the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson). Weekend services are always late, journeys are unduly protracted and the carriages are always overcrowded. That is bad news and the Minister should do something about it.

Mr. Harris: If you will forgive me Mr. Speaker, I will not refer to the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s charm either.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman suggested that all weekend services were late. That is clearly not the case. Of course there are more challenges at weekends than during the week, because it is at weekends, particularly on Sundays, that maintenance takes place. As I told the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), services depend on a safe and efficient railway, and that can be achieved only if we allow maintenance to be carried out. Yes, we must ensure that it does not overrun, as happened in Rugby over the new year, but it is a crucial part of running the railways.

I am afraid the right hon. and learned Gentleman will simply have to accept that safety must come before all other considerations. If he is seriously asking me to intervene and micromanage the railways, I have to tell him “No”.

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New Roads and Rail

4. Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): How many miles of new (a) roads and (b) railway have been opened since 2001. [180538]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Ruth Kelly): Between 2001 and December 2007, the Highways Agency built approximately 227 miles of motorway and trunk road. The Department does not retain a central record of the mileage of new roads constructed on the local highway network.

In England and Wales, 70 miles of new heavy rail route were opened between 2003 and 2007 on the channel tunnel rail link. There have also been examples of the reopening of disused heavy rail lines, and lines formerly used only by freight traffic.

Martin Horwood: I fail to discern from that answer exactly how much new passenger, as opposed to heavy rail, network has been introduced, but it appears to be a pathetically small amount given the total of some 15,000 km of passenger railway track. Given that domestic transport is responsible for 21 per cent. of United Kingdom carbon emissions, is it not about time to reverse the historic shift from rail to roads initiated by Dr. Beeching? When lines such as those in Gloucestershire can be brought back into use, should that not happen?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman has made an important point It is time that more people had the opportunity to use the railway service, which is one reason why I am delighted that there are 40 per cent. more passengers on the railway than there were in 1997. At the same time, we are making the biggest investment in capacity for a generation. Far from managing the decline of Britain’s railways, as has been done in the past, we find that our problem now is managing growth.

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): The midlands, like every other area, deserves a transport network that is fit for the future. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has just approved the black country study and the designation of Brierley Hill as a strategic centre. The missing part of the jigsaw is the extension to the midland metro. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport undertake to visit the black country to see not only what has already been achieved but what can be achieved once approval is gained, in terms of job creation, regeneration and congestion busting?

Ruth Kelly: I know that my hon. Friend has raised this issue with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has agreed to visit the black country to view the proposed projects. I understand that this could be a priority for a regional allocation. I think it right for us to devolve money to the regions, so that they can choose between the various competing priorities and invest in those that best meet the needs of local people. However, I shall take a close interest in my right hon. Friend’s visit, and look forward to hearing what she has to say.

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Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that only 6 per cent. of passenger journeys are undertaken by rail, and that 84 per cent. are undertaken by road? The Government are currently spending £6.5 billion on rail subsidies, almost as much as the total roads budget. Is it not time to redress that ridiculous imbalance, and should the Secretary of State not start by building more roads?

Ruth Kelly: It is useful, once in a while, to hear the opposite case being put by a Conservative Member. I know that the right hon. Gentleman’s party is not keen on rail subsidy, and would like fare payers to pay more. I look forward to the response of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) in due course, but the fact is that it is not a choice between rail and road. We must have a good road network and we must also invest in rail services, so that people have a real choice in relation to how they travel.

Lord Eddington, who reported to my Department last year, examined the issue and suggested that we consider not just building new roads but investing in rail capacity. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that that is precisely what we are doing.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): Leaving aside the Conservatives’ new green policy, may I say that the Secretary of State is right to refer to the problem of growth? She has said that she wants the industry to produce 22.5 per cent. more capacity by 2014, but a parliamentary answer that I received earlier this month indicated that the Government expected a 54 per cent. increase in the number of railway passengers by 2020. Is the Secretary of State going to allow more of the overcrowding that we are seeing now, is she going to allow people to be priced off the railway, which is also now happening, or is she going to grasp the nettle and expand the network? It cannot wait until 2014 for an assessment.

Ruth Kelly: We are of course expanding the network, which is why the cross-channel rail link was such an important project. It is also why we have committed to look in future at whether disused rail lines such as the one between Birmingham and London might be brought back into use. The fact is that we have set out real money—the biggest investment in rail capacity for a generation—to take us up to 2014. Beyond that, we are planning for a doubling of rail capacity over the next 30 years. What we want to do is not, as it were, look into a crystal ball and predict how many people might be using the rail network in 2020 or 2030, but make the decisions at the right point in time. If more investment is needed, more will be forthcoming over the following years.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): The Government have undoubtedly invested in the rail network in recent years, but is my right hon. Friend aware of the congestion problems in the Manchester rail hub, which is causing particular problems for services going through Manchester Piccadilly, especially from the south of the city where we need to increase capacity? This is a major hindrance to the future growth of the rail network in and around not only Greater Manchester but the north of England.

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Ruth Kelly: I agree with my hon. Friend, which is why before Christmas I asked Network Rail whether it might carry out a full feasibility study to find out whether a radical project around Manchester would enhance rail services. I know that the Northern Way has looked at that and specifically singled it out as its utmost priority in the plan for the region. I think that in the future a sensibly costed plan for Manchester, perhaps including linking Manchester Victoria and Piccadilly, could lead to far more commuters being able to travel in greater comfort in and out of Manchester every day.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that Network Rail has been carrying out feasibility studies into two dual-tracking schemes—those between Swindon and Kemble and between Oxford and Worcester. Last week, there were disturbing rumours that those schemes had been postponed, so I e-mailed the chief executive of Network Rail and received a reply from his PA saying he would give me a substantive reply in the near future. Can the Secretary of State update me on those schemes this afternoon? If not, will she write to me to do so?

Ruth Kelly: I will of course do that, but the fact of the matter is that these issues are for Network Rail to deal with. We have committed the funding for a five-year period up to 2014. Network Rail has put forward a business plan which is now being scrutinised by the Office of Rail Regulation, and which involves investment in 1,300 new carriages, platform lengthening and increasing capacity by, as the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) said, more than 20 per cent. over that period. However, I will certainly ask the chief executive to let me, and hence the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), know of his specific intentions for those lines.

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