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House of Commons

Thursday 28 January 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Minister of State was asked-

Swindon to Kemble Railway Line

1. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of progress on his Department's feasibility study into the doubling of the Swindon to Kemble railway line; and if he will make a statement. [313710]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole): Officials at the Department for Transport are currently in detailed discussions with Network Rail to determine an acceptable price for this work along with time scales for construction. We hope to be in a position to give further information on the matter in the near future.

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the Minister for his response. Do I take it that there will be a decision to go ahead with the redoubling of the line, which is important to people who live in Cheltenham and Gloucester-a major town and an historic major city? The rail link between those places and London is unacceptably slow, unreliable and expensive, and people in the area, including many of my constituents, need to see an improvement. Will the Minister give us an assurance that we will move in the right direction on this one?

Chris Mole: The Secretary of State and the Minister for the South West strongly support the scheme, which opens up the possibility for increases in service frequency to Gloucester and beyond, as well as providing an improved diversionary route to and from south Wales. Departmental officials, as I have said, are working closely with Network Rail to ensure that it can introduce a scheme that is affordable within the resources available to the region.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I hear what my hon. Friend has said, but if Network Rail has come up with a figure of £65 million, rather than £45 million, which is what we thought that it would be, can we have an urgent meeting with him and Network Rail to look at how we can make the scheme affordable, because as my neighbour, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), has said, it is vital that that programmed work is undertaken?

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Chris Mole: I am always happy to discuss with local Members progress on schemes in their areas. If Network Rail comes up with one figure or another, we will continue to discuss it.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I, too, broadly welcome the redoubling of the line, largely through my constituency, on behalf of my constituents who commute from Kemble. None the less, in proposing these plans, will the Minister bear in mind the interests of the people who live alongside the line, particularly in the village of Minety, who are concerned that there will be too much extra traffic on the line, and who seek local improvements if the redoubling goes ahead?

Chris Mole: We always expect the concerns of local constituents to be taken into account, but the objective of the improvements is to enable additional trains to run and to provide the option of a diversionary route for south Wales.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): The Swindon to Kemble stretch of line is of major strategic significance, and it is a public policy failure that we have not been able to redouble it so far. Given the expected increase in passenger traffic over the next 10 or 20 years, will we have a policy of reopening lines and stations that should not have been closed in the first place, and of redoubling lines that should not have been singled? If the Scots and the Welsh can successfully reopen railway lines, why can we not do so in England?

Chris Mole: Of course, we can and do, but it is a question of the affordability of any scheme that is introduced at any particular time. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that his party would make additional resources available for capital investment in the railways, it is something to which we would be sympathetic.

Ticket Offices

2. Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): What recent representations he has received on railway station ticket office opening times in Hornsey and Wood Green constituency. [313711]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole): No representations have been received on this matter since the hon. Lady last wrote to the Secretary of State about it in October 2009.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I am sure that the Minister is aware of the Secretary of State's successful intervention to halt the plans of South West Trains to close ticket offices. What consideration has his Department given to using those powers on First Capital Connect in my constituency? What criteria does he use for such an intervention, and will he make a commitment to review the recent closures, which have damaged safety at stations in my constituency, with a view to using those powers in Hornsey and Wood Green?

Mr. Speaker: I heard three questions, but one answer will suffice.

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Chris Mole: The Secretary of State has no powers to object to major changes under the ticketing and settlement agreement where passenger representative groups have not sustained objections. In this case, FCC agreed to monitor sales of tickets at weekends over an eight-week period last autumn. The Department has not yet received details of that assessment, and will continue to pursue that train operating company for that data, which are months overdue. I am sure that in raising the question, the hon. Lady has reminded FirstGroup of its commitment.

Tramlink (Crystal Palace)

3. Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): How much funding his Department has provided to the Greater London Authority for the extension of Tramlink to Crystal Palace. [313712]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Sadiq Khan): The Department has not received any bids for funding an extension to the Croydon Tramlink.

The Department for Transport provides substantial funding to Transport for London in the form of a block grant. My Department's funding for TfL has risen dramatically since 2000, more than doubling to just less than £3 billion in 2009-10 and rising to £3.3 billion next year. That funding is not ring-fenced to specific projects, and it is for the Mayor and TfL to prioritise spending to deliver transport services in London as they see fit.

Mr. Pelling: The Minister is right. Substantial moneys have been given for investment in public transport in London, but the Crystal Palace extension, which was on the agenda under Ken Livingstone's mayoralty, offered the prospect of regeneration for deprived parts of my constituency. Traders in Upper Norwood strongly support such a scheme, and there is close to unanimous support in the community. Is it time for the Government, Transport for London and the Mayor to get together to try and get the scheme back on the agenda?

Mr. Khan: I know that the hon. Gentleman's constituents always watch Transport questions. If they are not doing so, it is important that he reports back to them the bad news that the current Mayor's business plan for 2009 includes no proposals for the Croydon Tramlink. In his draft transport strategy, the Mayor mentions the extension of Tramlink after 2020, with no commitment to any additional funding. One of the downsides of voting for the present Mayor is that areas such as Croydon are neglected.

First Capital Connect (Thameslink)

4. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What assessment he has made of the effects on the economy of London of recent disruptions in First Capital Connect's Thameslink service. [313713]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Sadiq Khan): There have been severe problems with First Capital Connect's service. The service continues to be unacceptable in terms of cancellations, punctuality and passenger service and information. The poor service has caused disruption for passengers and will inevitably have had some impact on London's economy. My noble
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Friend the Secretary of State and I are considering all options open to the Government to require radical improvements.

Simon Hughes: The Minister will know that not only my constituents, but many, many others have got so frustrated that the number of people petitioning the Government to do something now is growing by the day. Will he assure us that a decision will be taken not on the basis of defending the ideology of sustaining franchises, but in the interests of commuters and other users of the service, and that the users of the service will hear something soon?

Mr. Khan: The way in which the hon. Gentleman asked the question is important, as is the point that he has made. Hundreds of thousands of commuters have received an appalling service, not for one week or one month, but over a period of three months. We take the matter seriously, and the Secretary of State and I discuss it daily with the train operating company, which includes telephone calls, meetings and letters. The hon. Gentleman is right to remind us that each day the service is not improved is another day of suffering for passengers, and there is a cost to London as well.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Thousands of my constituents travel every day by First Capital Connect, as do I, and we can give a daily account of the failings of that company, which has shown itself to be totally incompetent and interested only in making money, not providing a service. I urge my right hon. Friend to give serious consideration to taking the franchise away and bringing it back to the public sector.

Mr. Khan: All options are on the table. I hear my hon. Friend's representations, as I listen to all representations. The point made in the previous question is important. We must not allow dogma to dictate the quality of service, or lack of it, that passengers receive. My job, and that of the Department and our officials, is to ensure a radical improvement in the quality of service provided by First Capital Connect.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): The Minister is right. Dogma should not be part of this discussion. First Capital Connect should rightly be condemned for the poor service that it has provided. However, if dogma is not to be a part of the discussion, I am sure the Minister will want to inform the House that the east coast line has seen punctuality drop from 89 per cent. to 67 per cent. since it was nationalised. If we are concerned about the future of the London economy, can the Minister assure the House that there are no plans to reduce the number of trains running through the core on Thameslink 2?

Mr. Khan: I am glad the hon. Gentleman has given me an opportunity to remind the House of the £5.5 billion investment in the Thameslink programme, which is at risk if, God forbid, the Conservative party forms a Government. On policy, it is important that I remind him of the "Conservative rail review: Getting the best for passengers" policy, which is this:

with franchises. So the powers that we have would be taken away if the Opposition were to form a Government.

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National Concessionary Bus Passes

5. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): If he will bring forward proposals to enable national concessionary bus passes to be used on community transport services; and if he will make a statement. [313714]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Sadiq Khan): I pay tribute to and thank the more than 5,000 voluntary bodies which provide community transport around the country, making a substantial positive impact on transport priorities. Some sectors of community transport are already eligible for concessionary travel. Local authorities are also able to offer concessions on any form of community transport on a discretionary basis. We have no current plans to extend the £1 billion national concessionary scheme.

Mr. Harper: I am grateful for that answer and for the tribute that the Minister has rightly paid to the many community groups that run those essential transport services. The problem in constituencies such as mine, where there are not many scheduled bus services, is that the free bus pass is completely useless for many older and disabled constituents. The district council has to run a costly parallel system of travel tokens, which people who qualify for the pass can use on community transport. Will the Minister consider a proposal for extending the free concessionary bus pass, so that we can get rid of a layer of wasteful bureaucracy and have a more efficient, streamlined system that could deliver better services at no more cost to the taxpayer?

Mr. Khan: I am happy to look at new ideas. Aside from the cost, there are practical problems with the definition of eligibility, including who would be eligible, and with the impact on rural bus demand, given the extra burdens that such a scheme would impose. I am happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman about any proposals that he has, but it is worth adding that Forest of Dean district council did not respond to the recent consultation on the special grant. However, he may have constructive ideas, which I am happy to listen to, about improving the service that his constituents receive.

Passenger Security (Screening)

6. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Whether he plans to add profiling to the passenger security screening measures in place at UK airports. [313715]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): Security staff at Heathrow are undergoing training in behavioural analysis techniques, whereby passengers are selected if they are behaving suspiciously. We will review the effectiveness of that trial before deciding whether it can be rolled out more widely.

Ann Winterton: Following the recent alleged attempt to bomb the plane that was destined for Detroit from Amsterdam Schiphol airport, it has been suggested that UK airport security could be stepped up through passenger profiling, which is perhaps what the Minister was talking about. Will it make passengers' journey through security and travel safer? Will it, in fact, be effective?

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Paul Clark: All approaches to security have one underlying aim, which is to make sure that those flying to, from and within the United Kingdom are safe and able to go about their business knowing that all agencies and all parts of the industry have taken the necessary steps. Profiling has certain considerable limitations, which is why aviation security is multi-layered. Behavioural analysis techniques mean that one can profile against the norm; therefore people behaving people suspiciously will require further security checks.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend have sufficient power to assure himself that a variety of security measures are deployed to respond to changing intelligence information?

Paul Clark: Yes, I believe that we do. We have an arrangement whereby a range of security and intelligence agencies come together to advise Ministers, agencies and airlines on the operations that they need to undertake.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): We all know that there can be large queues at airport security points, but will the Minister explain why passengers, when travelling to Scotland through Heathrow terminal 5, have to get through security 35 minutes before departure, while at London City airport a more sensible approach is taken, with no time limit so long as the passenger can make the flight?

Paul Clark: I shall certainly look into the specifics of that issue, but our role is to set the required security standards; the airport operators need to ensure and manage the necessary processes, including queues.

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): Kromek is an award-winning company in my constituency, and its chief executive officer, Arnab Basu, was awarded the title of entrepreneur of the year. It is developing a scanner that can identify whether liquid in a bottle is explosive, and the product is being trialled in the United States and other areas. Will my hon. Friend meet me and the company to see what we can do to promote that great British invention?

Paul Clark: I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) is a strong campaigner for his constituency's industries and, particularly, for Kromek. I assure him that members of my Department, along with the police and the Home Office, have been collaborating closely with Kromek and, indeed, other companies to take forward that work and ensure that our security systems are ahead of the threat that we face. However, I am always more than willing to meet organisations.

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): I fully appreciate that the extreme sensitivity of this issue puts real constraints on the detail that the Minister can share with the House, but can he help me with the following question? The Israelis have used behavioural analysis for some years to spot suspicious behaviour within a perimeter that stretches out as widely as airport car parks. Does he see any scope for using such techniques in the UK to address risks that arise before the security check stage to guard against attacks of the sort that we saw in Glasgow in 2007, which are targeted on people queuing?

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