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Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): May I too welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities, and also ask for his help? Is he aware that the decision of one of his recent predecessors to make this a regional rather than a national priority has had the inevitable effect of causing indefinite delay to an important scheme on a dangerous road that is very important to the regional economy? If the Government are now serious in their stated intention of giving greater priority to capital expenditure in the course of reviving the economy, surely this is an obvious scheme to consider. It has already gone through years of preparation, has practically completed the planning process, and is ready to be started in a comparatively short time—in the next year or two, if the Government were to make the funds available.

Paul Clark: I hear exactly what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying and I thank him for welcoming me to my post. There are many schemes that right hon. and hon. Members would describe as absolutely critical, for a whole host of very sound reasons. We took the decision, rightly, to bring together the decision-making processes on roads, economic development and housing at regional level so that there could be a better understanding and meshing of those requirements at regional level, where, as I am sure the right hon. and learned Gentleman will accept, the importance of schemes is best known. In terms of regional priorities and whether this scheme can proceed, let me add that the Highways Agency is working closely with the east midlands region to see what phasing of this scheme there could be, to make the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s dream—and the dream of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping)—come true.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): May I welcome the Minister to his post—and may I expose my dream to him as well? No wonder prices for this scheme are increasing disproportionately, because we have been talking about it since 1958, and nothing has been done. The fact remains that Newark is being strangled economically by this one piece of road that has not been dualled. We have good pieces of road running up to Lincoln and in the other direction down to Leicester. Unless something is done about this quickly and effectively, which it can be, Newark will continue not to fulfil its full economic promise. May I invite the Minister and/or the Secretary of State to come and visit, and to see exactly what are the effects on my constituency of this dangerous road, which is long overdue for improvement?

Paul Clark: I am interested in the fact that this road scheme has been waiting since 1958—and I wonder why progress was not made under other Administrations. [Interruption.] Yes, the former Chancellor, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), may have had something to do with that. The safety issues are rightly recognised locally, by the region, by the Highways Agency and by us, but there must be an order of priority for schemes. It is necessary for that to be built into the whole programme for the allocation of funding, which over this period is tremendously higher both regionally and in terms of the strategic network of roads. We always take into account invitations to visit, although whether there can be a visit soon is another matter.

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Seafarers’ Pay

5. Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): When his Department last held discussions with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on the application of the national minimum wage to seafarers. [228329]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): There has been regular contact between the Department for Transport and DBERR on this issue, going back many months. The last discussion at official level was on 16 October.

Gwyn Prosser: I am sure that my hon. Friend shares my pride that Labour’s minimum wage has made this a fairer country and taken millions of people out of poverty—but when are Ministers going to take action to close the loophole that allows foreign seafarers sailing between British ports to be paid as little as one third of the national minimum wage—sometimes less than £2 an hour? Will he meet me and my colleagues, and DBERR representatives, prior to our discussions of the Employment Bill, so that we can stop this exploitation of working people?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I well remember the introduction of the national minimum wage; I remember staying up all night to fight the Conservatives tooth and nail, while they did everything they could to prevent it from being introduced. The application of the national minimum wage to seafarers is a complex issue, as my hon. Friend knows, and it is the subject of ongoing discussions within Government. Three Departments have an interest: DBERR as the owners of national minimum wage legislation; the Department for Transport because we have general responsibility for seafarers’ employment rights; and the Foreign Office because of the implications for international law. Ships are generally governed by the law of their flag state even when on what is known as innocent passage through the territorial waters of another state. Any changes to national minimum wage legislation would need to be consistent with international law. I know my hon. Friend knows that, and that he also knows that we are trying to address this question.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): UK seafarers can be denied the national minimum wage by foreign flagged vessels even when they work exclusively out of UK ports—and, as we have just heard, foreign seafarers face racial discrimination on UK ships. Why do we continue to allow this kind of thing to happen in UK territorial waters, when we would never allow it on UK territorial land?

Jim Fitzpatrick: The national minimum wage currently applies to those who are working, or who ordinarily work, in the UK under their contract. For seafarers, “in the UK” means in internal waters—in other words, the water and waterways to the landward side of the baseline. It applies to those working on UK-registered ships, unless the employment is wholly outside the UK or the worker is not ordinarily resident in the UK. It applies to offshore workers—for instance, on oil rigs in territorial waters—but excludes workers on ships in the course of navigation or engaged in dredging or fishing. The maritime unions are campaigning to get the extension to which
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my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser) referred, and we are doing what we can to address the issue.

Midland Main Line

6. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What steps are being taken to raise line speeds and reduce train congestion on the midland main line. [228330]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Network Rail has proposed line speed enhancements on the midland main line as part of the plan to deliver the capacity improvements sought by the Government in the July 2007 rail White Paper. The independent Office of Rail Regulation has indicated that it is minded to agree to that project. A final determination is expected from the ORR at the end of the month.

Mr. Hollobone: When the next timetable change happens, half the trains north from Kettering will be lost, and all the fast trains between Kettering and the capital will disappear, because of capacity constraints on the midland main line, inadequate line speeds and the Department’s insistence that services between Sheffield, Nottingham, Derby and the capital be sped up. Can the Secretary of State reassure my constituents in Kettering that the line speed upgrades that he has just promised will ensure that those services are reinstated to Kettering as soon as possible?

Mr. Hoon: I have admired the consistency with which the hon. Gentleman raises issues of behalf of Kettering and his constituents, but I thought that he was less than generous in his observations about improvements on the midland main line, not least those that affect Kettering. Not only will significant investment improve line speeds, but a new timetable that comes into force in December is likely to provide two trains an hour from Kettering to London, one of which will actually start in Kettering. As he will be aware, there are times when those of us who catch the train from further up the line at Derby, Nottingham and Leicester fill it before his constituents have the opportunity to get on. Starting a train at Kettering and having an hourly service direct from Kettering to London will mean that his constituents are well served. I hope that when he goes from this place and talks about the remarkable improvements in the service from Kettering, he will give them a bit more praise than he has so far.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of State’s positive response to the question, and I know that he knows the line very well. Does he agree that the most significant improvements to it can be achieved only as a result of electrification? Does he share his predecessor’s commitment to a study of electrification, and does he recognise that, uniquely among main lines, this one has a very positive cost benefit attached to it?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. He will be aware that I take a close, indeed personal, interest in the midland main line, as a regular user of it. I certainly share my predecessor’s enthusiasm for electrification, and I assure my hon. Friend that the Department will examine it very closely.

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Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): I welcome the new ministerial team to their posts. Typical—you wait months for a new Transport Minister, then three come along at the same time.

The Secretary of State’s predecessors promised extra carriages. How many have been ordered for the midland main line?

Mr. Hoon: I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome. I remember her as an enthusiastic Member of the European Parliament, where she had a deserved reputation for a practical and pragmatic approach to issues. I am sorry that on her return from Brussels to Notting Hill she seems to have fallen in with a bad crowd. Nevertheless, I look forward to answering her questions, not least on the midland main line. I am delighted that she is so enthusiastic about it that she has chosen this matter to discuss with me. I use the line on a very regular basis and I can assure her, as I have assured Labour Members, that close attention will be paid to future investment in the midland main line.

Mrs. Villiers: I think that the answer that the Secretary of State is groping for is actually “zero”. The Government’s response to congestion on the midland main line and the rest of the network is wholly inadequate and painfully slow. He cannot even give a straight answer about the new carriages that they have promised time and again. Will he deliver all 1,300, and will they be in addition to the new Thameslink carriages? If he really wants to tackle congestion on the rail network, will he work with me on a cross-party basis to take forward plans for high-speed rail for this country?

Mr. Hoon: Again, I am sorry to hear such a grudging view of the investment in the railways that the Government are planning. We have proposed to spend £15 billion on improving our rail network, of which £10 billion will be devoted to reducing congestion. That is an enormous commitment. I am sorry that the former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer is not in his place, because he will know that no previous Conservative Transport Secretary could ever have made that commitment. I am proud that my predecessors were able to secure such support from the Treasury to allow that investment to go ahead.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that with the £15 billion of investment, to try to increase rail line speeds and reduce train congestion, we should nationalise the railways, just as we are nationalising the banks, by not renewing the franchises as they fall due? Many of those franchises, just like the banks, are bankrupt and would not be operating except for huge Government subsidy. Let us move the railways back into state ownership. What are his views on that?

Mr. Hoon: I think that I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question—I may have to reflect upon it. I am sorry that he takes that view of the contributions that have been made by train operating companies, not least because there has been a remarkable change in the usage patterns on the line that we have just been debating, the midland main line. Whereas trains used to stop only at Derby, Nottingham and Leicester on their way south, passing all the stations in between, there is now an
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hourly service from stations such as Kettering right down the line, and that has made a huge change to the usage. A further change has been the way in which off-peak services have attracted rail users. When I travelled down from Derby to London on Saturday, the first class compartments were full. In the days of the nationalised railways, those compartments would, sadly, have been completely empty on Saturdays. I hope that he gives some credit to the innovation that the private sector has brought. The position of Network Rail has clearly changed in recent times, and we ensure that Network Rail provides a safe and reliable system for users of the rail network. Thus, on balance, I shall probably resist his invitation.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I formally welcome the Secretary of State to his post on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, merely observing that the average tenure of office of a Secretary of State for Transport since 1945 is considerably less than 18 months—that is, of course, some way short of the next general election.

On the midland main line, is not one of the causes of the capacity constraints and the failure to electrify the cuts that have been made to the Department for Transport’s budget? Rather than the investment that the Secretary of State mentions, the reality is that the rail budget has reduced by 17 per cent. this year and is now lower than in 2003-04, whereas the road budget has doubled. Given that, and given the Secretary of State’s unhelpful response to the Select Committee on Transport on the subject of fares and his support for aviation, is it not clear that the new Transport Secretary is no friend of either the railways or the environment?

Mr. Hoon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his qualified welcome. He and I had many dealings in my time at the Ministry of Defence, and I always admired his ability to dig himself into a trench and launch a constant barrage at what he perceived to be the enemy; sadly, he sometimes did so after the war had finished. Nevertheless, I look forward to debating these issues with him. As a start, he might perhaps like to examine the remarkable increases in investment in the railways and the remarkable improvement in passenger journeys on our trains. I assure him that while I am Secretary of State for Transport—however long that might be—there will be no lack of investment in or commitment to our rail network.

Topical Questions

T1. [228345] Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to set out to the House the new ministerial responsibilities in the Department for Transport. I shall, of course, maintain an overview of all transport policy. My noble Friend Lord Adonis will take responsibility for our national road and rail networks, the environment and climate change. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), will cover our international aviation and maritime networks, road safety and transport security. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport,
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my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), will take responsibility for all our local transport networks, including responsibility for buses, taxis, cycling, light rail, walking and general accessibility policy. That role is known otherwise in the Department as the Minister for Adjournment debates.

Mr. Prentice: May I repeat a suggestion that I have made to every single one of the Secretary of State’s predecessors whom I have encountered, but without success? Why not set up in his Department a dedicated unit of civil servants to work with people outside to reopen disused and dismantled railway lines? That is crying out to be done. I have a railway in my constituency between Skipton and Colne, and I am sure that it would benefit if he had the best minds in his Department working on this issue to re-establish a railway that was closed in 1975.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s consistency on this question. I am sure that, with his commitment to local government and democracy, he will not mind me saying that if there is a strong local case for reopening railway lines, the case can be made and brought to the Department, where it will be looked at favourably. I am sure that he would not want me to interfere in these matters from the lofty heights of central London, as it would be better if he could persuade the local authorities along the line in question to make the case for reopening the line and to get on with it.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State to his new role. Will he now focus his mind on what is scheduled to happen on Monday next week, when we are due to debate the remaining stages of the Local Transport Bill? Is he aware that already 68 pages of new clauses and amendments have been tabled, many of them by the Government? There is still time for more to be added. On reflection, does he agree that one day’s debate is woefully inadequate, and will he have a word with the Labour Chief Whip to point out that this situation verges on contempt of Parliament and that we need two days?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful for that welcome. Having served as Chief Whip and as Leader of the House, I am reluctant to interfere in the wise decisions made by the business managers. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham, is looking hard at the amendments and trying to find a sensible way to deal with all of them. It is a matter for the business managers to allocate time, and I am confident that there will be sufficient time for a full and proper debate of the remaining stages of the Bill.

T5. [228349] Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Can Ministers look into the situation whereby Chorley borough council was granted £4 million by Royal Ordnance to provide a new railway station at Buckshaw in Euxton? The cost was estimated at £4 million, but Network Rail now says that it needs £6 million to build that new railway station. It comes on the back of a wagon, so why will it cost £6 million? What can Ministers do through their good offices to bang heads together to get that railway station up and open?

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Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend was a persistent questioner at Defence questions and I am delighted to see him in his usual place for Transport questions. On the particular issue that he raises, I may need a little more notice to answer his question in detail, but I assure him that he will get a full and complete answer.

T2. [228346] Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): The Secretary of State will be only too aware of the magnificent work carried out by the brave men and women of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, who take part in nine out of 10 sea rescues around our shores. Will he comment on the impact on safety at sea if Ofcom gets its way and decides to introduce charges for VHF frequencies for rescue charities such as the RNLI?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): I fully agree with the praise heaped on the RNLI by the hon. Gentleman, as I am sure does the whole House. I was lucky enough to visit its headquarters in Poole only a few months ago, and I saw for myself the excellent facilities and the plans to improve them even further. I am sure that he knows that the spectrum issue is the subject of consultation that is about to close. I can assure him that the issues that he raises have been brought to the attention of the appropriate authority. Issues remain to be resolved, but I can assure him that we are involved, and as a result of this exchange, his concerns will be fed back to the Department involved.

Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): The Minister will be aware of the concern among offshore workers following recent guidance from the Treasury on the seafarers’ earnings deduction. Will he confirm that he has spoken with the Treasury about that and assure offshore workers that they will not be adversely affected by the guidance?

Jim Fitzpatrick: The Department has had informal discussions with Nautilus UK and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs following the special commissioner’s decision in the Pride of South America case. Although there have not been any discussions with the Treasury, I understand that my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is aware of the concerns raised by the decision. HMRC will work closely with stakeholders on the interpretation of the commissioner’s decision to ensure that it is implemented in a fair and practical way.

T3. [228347] Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Has the Minister had an opportunity to read the conclusions of the independent inquiry set up by Essex county council—his noble Friend Lord Whitty took part in it—to look into the problems of congestion and traffic accidents on the A12? Is the Minister aware that the A12 is probably the main road into the hinterland of the east of England, leading to the ports at Harwich and Felixstowe? What are the Government prepared to do to assist Essex county council in funding the improvements that are badly needed?

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