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House of Commons

Thursday 25 June 2009

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Minister of State was asked—

Exeter Airport

1. Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): What recent assessment the Secretary of State has made of the adequacy of road links to Exeter airport; and if he will make a statement. [282098]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): First, Mr. Speaker, may I congratulate you on your appointment as Speaker of the House? The Ministers in the Department for Transport look forward to working with you on the business.

On 6 May, the Department gave outline investment approval for £12 million towards the east of Exeter phase 2 improvements. Measures include improving the junction access to Exeter airport. This investment was agreed after assessing the transport conditions in the immediate and wider area, and reflecting proposed development opportunities.

Mr. Swire: I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. Improving road connections to the airport is all very well, but, given the Government’s stated commitment to a high-speed rail network and the desire of the airport to become carbon-neutral by 2015, what additional resources can the Government make available to local councils to ensure a reduction in carbon emissions and congestion resulting from airport traffic?

Paul Clark: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Department for Transport’s overriding goals are to deal with congestion and with climate change. We have imposed strict rules in relation to climate change, and they are monitored independently. The work that needs to be done at local level to ensure joined-up thinking on business and housing development and on transport requirements is part of the regional funding allocations process. We have more than doubled the money that is going into local transport provision.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): The Minister ought also to consider the road network to the west of Exeter, as well as the way in which Exeter airport
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serves the south Devon economy and the need for investment in road infrastructure—most notably the A380 Kingskerswell bypass.

Paul Clark: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that there is always a need to look across a region to examine demand, the economy, proposed developments and the transport infrastructure. We know the importance of having a good transport infrastructure, be it for people travelling to and from work, for businesses moving their goods or for people visiting those businesses’ headquarters in order to trade. That is why the Department has been undertaking processes to give powers and responsibilities to regions and local areas so that they can prioritise their requirements within a given region.

Cross-Border Transport Networks

2. Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues in the devolved Administrations on cross-border improvements to transport networks. [282099]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Sadiq Khan): My noble Friend the Secretary of State for Transport met Stewart Stevenson MSP and John Swinney MSP in April to discuss progress on the Department’s work on High Speed 2 and its potential benefits for Scotland. The Secretary of State has also given evidence to the Scottish Parliament Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee and met Committee members to discuss various matters. Additionally, Ministers in the Department have met Ieuan Wyn Jones AM to discuss Welsh cross-border rail and road issues.

Gordon Banks: Mr. Speaker, may I congratulate you on your new duties?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. The economic success of devolution is largely dependent on efficient cross-UK transport links. He mentioned that there have been discussions with the Scottish Executive about High Speed 2 and the prospect of a London to Scotland high-speed line, but will he do everything that he can to ensure that this turns into reality and to ensure that devolution brings economic success to Scotland?

Mr. Khan: I thank my hon. Friend for his supplementary question. High Speed 2 will report to the Government by the end of this year. We have said to the Scottish Government that the High Speed 2 company would be happy to meet them at any point, and we have also recommended that they have a representative on the relevant reference group. We believe in investment, in these challenging times, but we also recognise the benefits of a proposed route that goes all the way to Scotland, rather than stopping in Manchester, as some people have proposed.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Is the Minister aware of the sardine express? It is the Arriva Trains Wales service that goes from Wales to Shropshire, then on to other parts of the United Kingdom. My concern is that people are being crushed into its carriages, because there are often only two carriages when four are required to meet the demand on the line. If there were a sudden halt or accident, far more people would be
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injured or, possibly, killed as a result of that congestion in the carriages. Will the Minister undertake to meet representatives of Arriva Trains Wales and get an undertaking from them that they will take action to deal with this, as it has been going on for far too long?

Mr. Speaker: Unfortunately, the question went on for rather too long as well; questions must be briefer.

Mr. Khan: The one thing I do not apologise for is longer trains; we need them. The hon. Gentleman raised an important point about the quality of service that passengers receive, which is not good enough on some trains. I am happy to arrange the meeting he mentioned and it would be good if he were present so that he could express and articulate the concerns that his constituents have put to him.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): You, Mr. Speaker, will be aware that there is no greater enthusiast for the high-speed line than myself. As the line passes through my Carlisle constituency on the way to Scotland, will the funding be a Scottish or a UK responsibility? The line starts in London and in Glasgow and meets somewhere in the middle.

Mr. Khan: I thank my hon. Friend for his really helpful question. He will be aware that the Department for Transport is responsible for cross-border franchise train services, and that we work closely with the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Executive. The important thing is to ensure that the quality of service that passengers receive is the right one. It is also important to have proper communications between Members on both sides of the border. There are examples of good practice, but also, I am afraid, of bad practice, but I will endeavour to ensure that we learn the lessons so that the quality of service that passengers receive is seamless.

Violence Against Public Transport Staff

3. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What representations he has received on reducing levels of violence against public transport staff; and if he will make a statement. [282100]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Sadiq Khan): I deplore violence against staff. Both my father and father-in-law worked in public transport for more than 40 years, so I well understand the huge impact of physical or verbal violence on working people and their families. If we are to run an effective transport system, it is essential that staff feel safe when carrying out their duties. That is why we are continuing to work with key stakeholders to improve the personal security of transport staff as well as passengers.

John Robertson: I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, but does he agree that overcrowding and lack of supervision are part of the problem, particularly on the railways, and that we need longer trains, less overcrowding and more supervisory staff so that the staff themselves can feel safer?

Mr. Khan: One thing we did in respect of the most recent franchise we awarded was to take the passenger experience into account. We spoke to passengers and
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asked them what they wanted. The issues my hon. Friend has just raised were the same issues that they raised: they wanted less crowding and they wanted to feel safer on the stations, and that has an impact on both staff and passengers. In awarding this most recent franchise, we took on board some of the passengers’ wishes. I will ensure that we continue to speak not just to Members of Parliament, but to communities, so that when we award franchises, we can take into account the important points that my hon. Friend has raised.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): The Minister will be well aware of the slight downward trend in transport crime, so will he acknowledge that the Mayor of London’s ban on alcohol on the London underground was a contributory factor? Will the Minister also consider that as the recession starts to bite and unemployment starts to rise, that trend may well be reversed?

Mr. Khan: It pains me to do so, but I congratulate the Mayor of London on the alcohol ban. We supported him in doing that and helped with the necessary byelaws to make it work. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that crime has gone down not just on the railways, but on the tube system as well, largely as a result of the investment in more British Transport police and more police and community support officers on the tube as well. The danger is, of course, that with some parties recommending cuts, that could mean cutting those police and PCSOs, which I think would have the impact of making crime go up again.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): What support can my right hon. Friend offer to the British Transport police in its work on protecting passengers in normal times as well as in its counter-terrorism work?

Mr. Khan: In my new role, I am looking forward to working with my hon. Friend in her Select Committee role. She raises a very important issue. As we know, there are record numbers working for the British Transport police and more than 3,000 community support officers. Bearing in mind London and the other potential strategic targets, she is right about the importance of the British Transport police working with the security services. I reassure my hon. Friend that my noble Friend the Secretary of State is committed, as we are in the House of Commons, to ensuring that we have the best possible and safest transport system in the world.

Lifeline Flights

4. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): What recent representations he has received on the future of lifeline flights within the UK; and if he will make a statement. [282101]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): The Department has received little correspondence on existing lifeline services in Scotland and Wales. There have been calls to introduce public service obligations on some domestic routes to London, although no formal applications have been received. Our policy on this subject is set out in the published guidance of 2005.

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Mr. Carmichael: I am grateful for that answer, but in my constituency, which has genuine lifeline routes, there is growing concern about the increasing cost and the decreasing quality of service provided to local people since Flybe took over the franchise. Is he prepared to set up a meeting, perhaps including his opposite number in the Scottish Government and local representatives, to see how the Minister’s regulatory functions and the Scottish Government’s funding obligations might all be brought together to ensure that the people who need the services most get the best quality service?

Paul Clark: Let me make it clear that we continue to support the use of public service obligations as a means of helping to subsidise important lifeline services for communities such as that represented by the hon. Gentleman. Some of the issues to which he refers will be partly subject to a commercial decision-making process, but we will continue to consider how to ensure that people in such communities have lifeline services.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Lifeline services are important, and my constituents also have Flybe as the sole operator from airports within the islands to airports in central Scotland. However, anyone who books with Flybe and changes their travel plans with advance notice will not get a refund. Does the Minister not think that travellers and consumers deserve a better deal?

Paul Clark: Indeed. The Government have been committed to ensuring that passengers get a fair deal, whether on rail, buses or aircraft. Clearly, that is part of the reason for considering introducing a role for Passenger Focus with regard to airline passengers. Within the provisions that we have, we will do all that we can to ensure that passengers get the best deal. As the hon. Gentleman understands, these are commercial matters in many cases, but I undertake to consider the issues raised.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I am pleased that the Minister supports lifeline flights, but he must recognise that the cost to the passenger of some essential flights is excessive, often because there is a monopoly supplier—there is no alternative. In contrast, bargain basement prices are offered on destinations where there is competition with rail. Does he not see merit in the Lib Dem idea of a cap on the cost of essential flights from monopoly suppliers, with a surcharge on those flights that compete directly with rail, both to encourage modal shift and to help to fund high-speed rail?

Paul Clark: The hon. Gentleman well knows the Government’s commitment, not only in policies and words in the Chamber, but in deeds and investment in high-speed rail, and in our continuing work on issues, some of which have been raised, such as improving overcrowding with additional rolling stock. Whereas the Lib Dems see a bottomless pit of taxpayer’s money to fund schemes that are not in balance, we will do what is required to ensure a balanced transport position, and to ensure that lifeline services continue.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Mr. Speaker, may I welcome you to your new post?

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Does the Minister accept that lifeline flights require healthy regional airports? Between higher taxes, new charges for spectrum, and now an imposed blank cheque for security costs, does he see a future for regional airports?

Paul Clark: In our aviation White Paper, as the hon. Gentleman will be well aware, we are clear that regional airports have an important role to play in supporting individuals and businesses and giving people freedom and choice. We shall support that position.

Rail Services (London/South Wales)

5. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to improve rail services between London and south Wales. [282102]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Sadiq Khan): We are taking a number of steps. From 2016, passengers will benefit from new super-express trains, which will reduce typical journey times and add more seats between London and south Wales. In addition, we are considering the case for electrifying the busiest parts of the Great Western main line, which appears promising. Meanwhile, the performance of existing train services between London and south Wales has improved since we issued a remedial plan notice to First Great Western last year.

Alun Michael: May I take this opportunity to welcome you, Mr. Speaker, to the Chair, and the Minister to his new responsibilities?

When we travel by train to areas north of London, those of us who have constituencies in south Wales are quite jealous when we see the improvements that have been made on many services over the past 10 years. Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to accelerate immediate improvements in the services to Cardiff and Swansea, as well as considering electrification of the line in the longer term, and perhaps a late-night service that would allow his constituents to enjoy the benefits of Cardiff’s night-time culture?

Mr. Khan: I am not sure whether that is an invitation for a date. I accept that the train service between London and south Wales has for a long time suffered poorer performance than other First Great Western routes. I also accept my right hon. Friend’s point about the experience of those who live north of London. Our analysis is assessing a range of electrification scenarios, including taking the wires to Bristol and as far as Swansea, which I know will please him.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): May I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Speaker, and also support the points made by my friend from the Welsh Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael)? Cardiff is one of the busiest hubs in the entire system, yet the Wales rail group has been told that approach speeds are 15 mph, which is what they have been for many decades. When the line is improved, will the Minister ensure that the signalling system into Cardiff is also improved so that speeds can increase?

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