8 July 2008 : Column 1261

8 July 2008 : Column 1261

House of Commons

Tuesday 8 July 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Haulage Industry

1. Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): What recent discussions she has had with her EU counterparts on competition in the haulage industry; and if she will make a statement. [216854]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton): I represented the UK at the June EU Transport Council where the Commission’s access to the road transport market proposal achieved political agreement. As a result of the agreement, the rules on cabotage will be simpler and easier to enforce and will limit cabotage to three operations within a seven-day period following an international journey.

Mr. Flello: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. I have just come from chairing the all-party group on freight transport, and the Freight Transport Association had some complimentary things to say about the Minister. UK hauliers are concerned about unfair foreign competition. Does the Minister agree that rigorous enforcement of cabotage rules and safety laws is essential? Our hauliers need reassurance that enforcement is the top priority for her Department.

Ms Winterton: I thank my hon. Friend and the association for their kind remarks. I want to pay tribute to both Roger King and Theo de Pencier, who were very helpful during the negotiations. I kept in regular touch with them about the situation. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that enforcement is a key issue—not just on cabotage but on other road safety issues. That is why an important part of the agreement was to get a commitment from the Commission to look at the exchange of national databases, which would make enforcement much easier for us to carry out.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Has the Minister had any discussions with Her Majesty’s Treasury about the differential in price and duty levels on petrol and diesel, which is placing British hauliers, including those in Kettering, at a distinct disadvantage?

8 July 2008 : Column 1262

Ms Winterton: The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), had discussions with some of the key industry representatives last week. He listened carefully to their concerns and undertook to pass them on to the Chancellor.

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): I am sure my right hon. Friend is a heroine to the whole of the road haulage industry. She appears to have driven a hole through the treaty of Rome and free trade with the concessions that she has managed to get. Can she explain why, when there is unfair competition from foreign lorries that do not comply with our regulations, the graduated penalty and deposit scheme has been delayed?

Ms Winterton: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks—at least I think they were kind. He is right to say that it will make a big difference in enforcement when the Commission can consider the exchange of national databases. On the other issue, I understand that statutory instruments are being drawn up to deal with the graduated penalty and deposit scheme.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): According to research by National Economic Research Associates, foreign lorries operating on UK roads are imposing wear and tear costs of about £195 million a year. Do the Government still accept the principle that foreign hauliers should contribute to the cost of maintaining the UK road network?

Ms Winterton: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that the feasibility study that was commissioned to consider the issue was rejected by the Treasury, as it would almost cost more to administer than would have come in in revenue. However, he might not be aware that another proposal has come forward from the Commission, and we will consider it.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware of meetings that Members have had over the past week with those in road haulage societies. One problem that was identified involved lorries coming from the continent that were not roadworthy. Will she have a word with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary so that there are more exercises, as we suggested in the Select Committee on Transport some time ago, whereby the police and all agencies check foreign lorries? Most of them are not fit to be on our roads.

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is quite right to point out some of the problems that can occur. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town, recently announced some £24 million of extra investment to improve enforcement. As I have said, one of the key proposals to come out of the Council last week was to do with ensuring that the Commission would give a firm commitment to consider the exchange of databases, which is incredibly important in enforcement terms.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): The biggest threat to our indigenous road haulage industry is not new cabotage rules but the difference in the price of diesel on each side of the channel. Eight years ago, when he was the leader of the Conservative
8 July 2008 : Column 1263
party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) suggested a vignette or Britdisc scheme, which was deemed not to be compliant with EU rules. Since then, however, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic have introduced their own schemes. Has the Department examined schemes that could be introduced in this country and that do comply with EU regulations?

Ms Winterton: That is the question that I have just answered. As I explained, the previous feasibility study was rejected because the limit that could be charged was something like £7 a day, and the cost of administering the scheme would have been greater than the money charged. However, as I said to the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), the Commission has made new proposals, and we will of course examine them to see whether they would improve the situation.


2. Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): What recent representations she has received on the dualling of the A21 between Tonbridge and Pembury and between Kippings Cross and Lamberhurst. [216855]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): In the past three months, I have met local MPs, including the hon. Gentleman, and local authority representatives, and received several letters from MPs seeking assurances on the progress of the A21 Tonbridge to Pembury and Kippings Cross to Lamberhurst schemes.

Greg Clark: I am grateful to the Minister for meeting me and my colleagues. He will know that it is 11 years since the dualling of the A21 was cancelled, and every year since then the cost of the scheme has gone up. A new hospital is now being built and will rely on the road. The people of west Kent are clear that the Government should get on with it, because further delay means further costs. Can the Minister assure us that the dualling of the road will continue as planned in 2010-11?

Mr. Harris: I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that I will do everything I possibly can to ensure that that process is expedited. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will announce updated scheme cost estimates to inform the upcoming refresh of priorities within the regional funding allocation. Once that information is available, the regional transport board will be able to reconfirm its priorities for that road if it wishes. That being the case, I will do everything that I can to ensure that progress is made.

Colchester Northern Approach Road

3. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): When she expects work to commence on the construction of a junction from the A12 Colchester northern by-pass to the northern approach road into Colchester. [216856]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): Delivery of the scheme is related to planning conditions and is a matter for developers to take forward in line with plans for the delivery of
8 July 2008 : Column 1264
proposed housing, employment and leisure facilities in north Colchester. The road scheme must also complete its statutory processes. In view of that, a definite start date is not currently available, but work is expected to start in 2009 or 2010.

Bob Russell: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. His briefing will probably tell him that I asked a similar question in January 2004, which led to a productive meeting with the then Transport Minister, David Jamieson. I am pleased to say that the new community stadium, the new home for Colchester United, is nearing completion. The first fixture there is next month. The principal beneficiary of the development in north Colchester will be the national health service, which will sell land. In view of that, will the Minister meet me to consider whether there are alternative ways in which the junction can be built in advance of the land sales?

Mr. Harris: I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and delegates from his constituency if he feels that that would be useful. We can talk about this in more detail at any subsequent meeting, but he might be interested to know that I understand that English Partnerships has already applied for community infrastructure fund money, which would allow the construction of the junction to proceed ahead of any subsequent agreement to invite private developers to contribute. I am more than happy to discuss the details of that at our meeting.

Concessionary Fares

4. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the national bus concessionary fares scheme. [216857]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton): The Department for Transport conducted regulatory impact assessments of both recent extensions to the statutory concessionary fares scheme. They showed that significant benefits such as improved social inclusion cannot be easily quantified, but that even without considering those benefits, on which it is difficult to put a price, the schemes could still offer value for money.

Mr. Harper: It will not come as a surprise to the Minister that I am going to ask here about the cross-border impact of concessionary bus travel between my constituency and Wales. I have been very disappointed by some of the answers that I have previously had from her. She has admitted that extending the scheme across borders would be very expensive, so we cannot rely on local authorities to do it, but I am very disappointed that she has said that she has no plans even to meet Welsh Assembly Government Ministers to discuss whether that might be possible at some point in future. Will she at least reconsider extending the scheme across the border?

Ms Winterton: I fear that I may continue to be a disappointment to the hon. Gentleman. That saddens me enormously, but he must recognise that extending the scheme into Wales or Scotland has some quite strong financial implications. At this stage, we want to make sure that the England-wide scheme is settling down. Obviously, negotiations about that are still going on and we want to wait before we proceed any further.

8 July 2008 : Column 1265

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the situation in Chorley. Concessionary travel was initially welcomed, but the council will no longer let people use the 50p scheme before 9.30 am, and its opposition to the continuation of the scheme means that people cannot travel across Chorley into any other district in Lancashire. What can she do to help pensioners who have to go to hospital, or people who have disabilities or are on training schemes, who now have to pay either full price or half price? The council’s decision seems to have led to a real anomaly.

Ms Winterton: I certainly understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. As he knows, central Government funding provides that the scheme should run from 9.30 am to 11 pm, but some local authorities have exercised the discretion that we have given them to extend it. In my area, it has been extended to carers, and people are able to use it on local trains. In addition, the hours for which it operates have also been extended. It is unfortunate that his local authority is not doing something similar, but I am sure that he will continue to campaign for such a change.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): In replying to yesterday’s debate, the Minister disappointed us yet again when she admitted that the Government intended to stop reimbursing local authorities for the administrative cost of issuing bus passes. Many councils already have to subsidise what was supposed to be a Government-funded scheme. Is this another example of the Government taking the credit for something and local council tax payers picking up the bill—in this case, one of £50 million?

Ms Winterton: I wonder whether I sense another Tory spending commitment in the air. We gave local authorities a very generous grant of something like £31 million, equivalent to about £4.50 per pass, to cover the scheme’s introduction. In the past, local authorities have produced their own passes, so giving them money for the introduction of this pass was a change. However, given that something like £1 billion goes to local authorities for the concessionary fares scheme, we think it is entirely reasonable that they deal with further applications and renewals from now on.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): The concessionary fare scheme has been a tremendous success. It is popular and a credit to the Government, but does my hon. Friend recall the Prime Minister saying that he wanted to remove all barriers to people receiving training and acquiring skills? Will she encourage local authorities and other bodies to come together and extend concessionary fares to young people between the ages of 16 and 19 who are pursuing further education and training?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As he said, something like 11 million people nationwide will be eligible for concessionary fares as a result of the changes that came in on 1 April. He is right to say that local authorities, transport authorities and other organisations in some parts of the country have come together to look at the problems facing young people undertaking training; in some instances, I think they are looking at facilitating travel for young people doing the new diplomas. We have given local authorities
8 July 2008 : Column 1266
freedom to deal with this matter at their own discretion, and I am sure that some of them will consider what my hon. Friend suggests to be a good way forward.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): Does the Minister recall the meeting that we had this morning with representatives of the Doncaster youth council? They raised the possibility of extending the scheme to students, especially those attending sixth-form colleges. Will she consider whether they might be included in the scheme in future?

Ms Winterton: Fortunately, I do remember the meeting that we had not five hours ago. My hon. Friend is right to say that Doncaster youth council was extremely keen to see the concessionary fares scheme extended to young people. As I explained to the council, extending the scheme nationwide to young people would have some severe financial implications, but as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), some local authorities are looking at extending it to young people, especially in areas where people want to get to school or training.

High-speed Trains

5. Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): What plans she has to increase the provision of high-speed trains. [216858]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Ruth Kelly): Following my recent invitation to examine longer-term options, Network Rail announced in June a study of the potential for new lines to accommodate future growth on the network. This will include an assessment of the role that high-speed lines might play. I look forward to seeing the results of the study next year. Separately, the Department is leading the procurement of new rolling stock to replace the existing fleet of high-speed trains.

Andrew George: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response. What reassurance can she give the House about the Government’s welcome ambitions for a new fleet of express trains and five high-speed routes? On the route to Penzance, as a result of rising sea levels, the line 100 miles away at Dawlish always becomes threatened when high spring tides coincide with strong easterlies. Is the Secretary of State able to factor that into the plans, or to make an announcement today that the high-speed route could be rerouted?

Ruth Kelly: I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to make such an announcement today, but I understand that Network Rail is looking at the issue that he has raised with me. Network Rail needs to be in a position over the next year or so to understand where rail is going to be most intensively used, and that is why it is undertaking a study of where there might be a need for new lines, including high-speed lines. If the hon. Gentleman has issues with the scope of those studies, I am sure he will make representations to Network Rail.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the commissioning of the study, but can my right hon. Friend tell us what criteria she has set for Network Rail for assessing the feasibility of high-speed rail?

Next Section Index Home Page