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House of Commons

Thursday 22 October 2009

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business before questions

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [ Lords]

Motion made, That the Bill be now considered.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be considered on Thursday 29 October.

Manchester City Council Bill [ Lords]

Motion made, That the Bill be now considered.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be considered on Thursday 29 October.

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)

Third Reading opposed and deferred until Thursday 29 October (Standing Order No. 27)


City of Westminster Bill [ Lords]

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

T o be considered on Thursday 29 October.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Minister of State was asked-

Mersey Gateway Bridge

1. Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): When he expects to announce his decision in respect of the proposed Mersey gateway bridge. [294793]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Sadiq Khan): The inspector's report following the recent public inquiry is not expected to be received until the middle of December and its recommendations will need to be considered carefully before the Secretary of State can announce the decisions. A further decision on funding will be taken after that.

Derek Twigg: May I urge my right hon. Friend to make a decision as soon as possible after the inspector's report has been received? I remind him of the project's importance
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for Cheshire and Merseyside, as it will ease congestion, improve public transport and create more than 4,000 jobs. It will also create hundreds of much-needed construction jobs during its construction phase.

Mr. Khan: I acknowledge the role that my hon. Friend has played as an advocate for the Mersey gateway bridge. I have heard him ask questions of the Prime Minister and raise the matter in debate, and I have also heard the representations made by Halton borough council. I commend both him and the council for all the hard work that they have done.

My hon. Friend has heard from me the time scales in respect of when we expect to receive the public inspector's report. He will be aware of the scheme's complexities, but I assure him that we have taken on board the points that he has made and the sense of urgency that he has expressed this morning.

Rail Services

2. Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): If he will hold discussions with train operating companies on proposals to increase the number of rail services operating on Boxing day 2009. [294794]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole): I understand from Network Rail that it plans to enable around 50 per cent. more rail services to run on Boxing day 2009 to reflect changing travel demands, and I welcome this. As my hon. Friend is aware, Boxing day service provision is a matter for the train operating companies and Network Rail, as the owner and operator of the national network.

Mr. Grogan: The almost full level of service on Boxing day in every other EU country means that people can visit family and friends, attend sporting fixtures or go shopping in the sales. When I met Lord Adonis this spring he promised to contact the train operating companies on this matter. Should not the Government take a more active role in promoting a comprehensive Boxing day service in future?

Chris Mole: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way that he has advocated the development of services on behalf of the public, but I must advise him that his international comparisons suggesting that this country is unusual in providing a relatively low level of service are misleading. Although Boxing day is a public holiday in England and Wales, by and large it is not in many continental European countries. I know that he understands that the seasonal break is an important time for Network Rail to take possession of busy lines to undertake essential maintenance. Although that will mean that there will be no access to destinations such as Manchester international airport this year, there is evidence of growth in travel over the Christmas and new year period, with 23,000 more trains running in 2008 than in 2007.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): The Minister gave the House an interesting answer when he said that services had increased by 50 per cent. So that we can understand that figure, will he say to what extent that represents the normal service on any other working day of the year?

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Chris Mole: The 50 per cent. figure represents the increase over previous years that is planned for this year in the 2009 timetable.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): To travel on a bank holiday, British citizens need to know the train operators' timetables, but the data are licensed as the companies' intellectual property. Does not my hon. Friend think that the timetable data belong to the people, and that we should make them available for free?

Chris Mole: My hon. Friend's question would be better directed at the Association of Train Operating Companies, which owns the intellectual property behind the timetable.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): Is it not symptomatic of the culture and mindset that persists in the railway industry these days that Boxing day, public holidays and Sundays are somehow not regarded as days on which people travel, as they were 50 years ago? When are we going to get the seven-day railway that Network Rail promised us? Is it not time that, instead of thousands of people being shoved on to bus replacement services, we had guaranteed rail services on Sunday? To give Network Rail an incentive and passengers a chance, should not Network Rail give a third off the ticket price to those who are forced on to buses?

Mr. Speaker: Order. Front Benchers have got to learn the habit of asking one question, not a quartet of questions.

Chris Mole: This Government are the first Government to assert the notion of the seven-day railway, and in doing so, we have had constructive dialogue with Network Rail about the scheduling of maintenance works. Of course, one of the challenges we face now is that we are investing more in our railways than ever before to ensure that they are properly maintained. To undertake those works, the railway must be possessed by Network Rail, which will judge the best time to do the work, which is inevitably a Sunday.

High-speed Rail

3. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): What assessment his Department has made of the economic effects of the introduction of a high-speed rail line via Yorkshire. [294795]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Sadiq Khan): We have asked High Speed 1 to consider the potential development of a high-speed line beyond the west midlands, in particular the potential for the new line to extend to the conurbations of Greater Manchester, Yorkshire, the north-east and Scotland.

It is expected that high-speed rail services to Yorkshire would result in a measurable impact on economic benefits. Greengauge 21, for example, suggests that a high-speed network would create some £6 billion of economic benefit to the region. The Government look forward to receiving High Speed 2's report on high-speed rail at the end of the year.

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Hugh Bayley: It is good to see the Government taking action to promote high-speed railways, but when Network Rail published its report in August favouring the north-west over Yorkshire and the north-east, did the Minister of State notice, as I did, that it had failed to conduct the same economic analysis of the benefits of the north-west route and the Yorkshire route? Will he confirm that the Government will continue to consider Yorkshire and the north-west on equal terms, and to pursue equally claims for routes on both sides of the Pennines?

Mr. Khan: May I, through you, Mr. Speaker, reassure my hon. Friend that HS2's outlook is national? It is important that we bear that in mind. Some people would draw on the back of an envelope a line from London to Birmingham to Manchester to Leeds, and that would be their high-speed link. We examine the benefits to all the corridors in our country to ensure that all parts of the country get the benefits of high-speed rail.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Does the Minister accept that a high-speed rail link to the north-west that did not go to Yorkshire would have a detrimental impact on the economy in Yorkshire?

Mr. Khan: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. I hope that his Front Benchers are listening.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): Successive Governments have spectacularly failed to tackle the north-south economic divide in any meaningful way. Businesses and politicians in the north-east now believe that one way to tackle the north-south divide is to make the travelling times between the two shorter and bring the two closer together. Those are the priorities for the north-east in terms of high-speed rail. Does the Minister share them?

Mr. Khan: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point about the vision we have for high-speed rail. One of the things we deliberately asked High Speed 2 to look into was the benefits of extending the high-speed link to Manchester, Yorkshire, the north-east and Scotland. It is important that, when HS2 reports this year, we consider the report and come back with proposals next year. The alternative is short-term gimmickry to get a standing ovation at a party conference.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Will the Minister particularly take into account the negative economic effects on the north-east of building a line only as far as Leeds?

Mr. Khan: I did not realise that I had so many allies in the Chamber, but it is good to hear that we have allies who are committed to investment in high-speed rail, which is probably the biggest single infrastructure investment in my generation.

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): The Yorkshire Post this morning again highlights the importance of high-speed rail for the north of England, with its "fast track to Yorkshire" campaign, so I want to ask the Minister: will he promise us a year by which time construction of a new high-speed rail line to the north of England will have begun?

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Mr. Khan: I welcome the hon. Lady's contribution to infrastructure investment. I wish she was as enthusiastic about Crossrail in London as she claims to be about high-speed rail. As for the timeline, we look forward to receiving the report from High Speed 2 later this year. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is a workaholic, will consider the report from HS2 and, I am sure, come back with proposals as soon as possible. Perhaps, if his infectious workaholism spreads, the construction work will begin as soon as the hon. Lady wants.

Mrs. Villiers: What the Minister does not tell the House is that the formal remit of HS2 is a route from London to the west midlands. The Conservative commitment to high-speed rail covers Manchester and Leeds. Why will Labour not match that?

Mr. Khan: I am sorry that the hon. Lady has spent so much time arguing with the Mayor of London that she has not read, for example, the evidence given by David Rowlands to the Transport Committee in June, or the copies in the Library of letters sent by Lord Adonis to David Rowlands, and his responses, which make the matter quite clear. My noble Friend writes in particular about

I undertake to send the hon. Lady copies of Hansard, the minutes of the Select Committee and letters confirming our commitment. I wish that she would make the same commitment.

Road Deaths

4. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): What percentage of road deaths involved collisions with heavy goods vehicles in the last five years. [294796]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): The percentage of road deaths involving collisions with heavy goods vehicles has averaged 14 per cent. over the past five years-an HGV being a goods vehicle with a gross vehicle weight exceeding 3.5 tonnes.

Dr. Iddon: Of those 40 to 50 lives lost per annum, 15 could be saved if the European Community directive on fitting retro-reflective conspicuity tape to HGVs were immediately implemented. Why, therefore, has my hon. Friend decided to postpone the implementation of that directive until the very last minute, in 2011? The Freight Transport Association said in Commercial Motor last month that the impact on the industry would be "minimal".

Paul Clark: We undertook to look at the impact, which was in the impact assessment that was set out and published, and we found that the actual cost would be between £186 and £388 per vehicle. That would mean a cost to the industry annually of some £16 million to £17 million. We had to assess whether, in the current economic situation, it would be right to impose that cost on the industry, and we decided at this stage not to gold-plate the requirements, which will need to come into force by July 2011. Of course, that does not stop companies fitting the markings themselves. In addition, we will continue to work with HGV drivers through SAFED-the Safe and Fuel Efficient Driving programme -and the Safer Driving and the Driving for Work programmes, for example, on this and other health and safety issues.

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Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): A worrying proportion of fatalities, accidents and near-misses involving HGVs on the M1 and A14 in Northamptonshire is down to foreign lorry drivers and foreign lorries. When will the Government take that issue extremely seriously?

Paul Clark: For the record, may I make sure that the House is aware of the statistics? In fact, the number of reported accidents involving fatal casualties and side and rear collisions with heavy goods vehicles has fallen. In 2006, there were 183; the number fell to 176 in 2007; and it fell to 148-an almost 16 per cent. reduction-in 2008. Indeed, the number of accidents involving HGVs has fallen further. The steps that we are taking in respect of all HGVs, including foreign-registered vehicles, include an additional £24 million for the Vehicle and Operator Service Agency to undertake further checks on international lorries to ensure that they are roadworthy.

Local Transport Plan

5. Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): If his Department will amend the local transport plan criteria to allow local authorities more discretion in approving transport schemes. [294797]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Sadiq Khan): No. Local authorities already have almost complete discretion to invest in transport as they see fit. They are obliged to seek approval only when they are bidding for additional funds from the Department-for example, for major schemes of more than £5 million.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: The truth is that there is a box-ticking mentality in the Department, whereby local authorities have to comply with central Government criteria when allocating road improvement funding. Will the Minister accompany me on the protest march along the Berrow coast road this Saturday, when we will be campaigning for the so-called missing link, where there is no footpath or cycle way at all, in aid and support of local democracy over central Government control?

Mr. Khan: I think that the right hon. Gentleman made a similar allegation last year about the DFT interfering with what Somerset county council wanted to do, and he was wrong then, too. There are a number of ways in which one can obtain funding for transport projects. First, there is the £1.3 billion of capital funding, which has no strings attached whereby we could stop local authorities from doing what they want. Secondly, there is the revenue support grant: again there is no ring-fencing, and no project is subject to criteria. Thirdly, there are local transport plans. The right hon. Gentleman would expect us to be responsible to the taxpayer for contributions of more than £5 million. This is not about box-ticking; it is about ensuring that taxpayers' money is spent properly and we get value for money. I am sure that he would welcome that approach.

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