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House of Commons

Thursday 17 June 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]


Canterbury City Council Bill

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

To be considered on Thursday 24 June.

Leeds City Council Bill


Nottingham City Council Bill

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

To be considered on Thursday 24 June.

Reading Borough Council Bill


Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked-

Heathrow Airport

1. Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with business representatives on the expansion of Heathrow airport. [2710]

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The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Philip Hammond): I have not discussed the expansion of Heathrow with business representatives since my appointment, as we have made it clear that we will not support a third runway at Heathrow. This Government's focus is on making Heathrow better not bigger.

Mr Hanson: I welcome the Secretary of State to his position. I do not always agree with the CBI, but it has joined the Trades Union Congress and unions across London to say that the expansion of Heathrow is good for business and for London. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore be careful that, in taking his stance-I recognise that it is one of integrity-he does not end up exporting jobs and business from London to Munich, Frankfurt and Paris?

Mr Hammond: As the right hon. Gentleman knows, both parties in the coalition campaigned before the general election on a clear commitment to scrap the third runway at Heathrow. However, we are not anti-aviation and, earlier this week, I set up a working group to consider aviation in the south-east and to work with all the stakeholders, including representatives of business, the airlines and people who work at the airport to ascertain how we can make aviation in the south-east work better within the constraints of existing runway capacity.

Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton) (Con): The people of Ealing Central and Acton were delighted by the decision to scrap the third runway. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the third runway had gone ahead, it would have imposed intolerable extra blight on those who live in west London?

Mr Hammond: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When considering airport expansion, we must look at not only the economic benefits but the local environmental burdens and the impact on this Government's and the previous Government's commitments to CO2 reduction.

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to his new position. I also welcome his comments about undertaking a review of aviation policy in the south-east because that suggests that the economic case has not been forgotten. Does he agree that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) said, when there is spare capacity in Paris, Schiphol and Frankfurt, and Dubai has built six runways, we run the risk of being disadvantaged not only by the rest of Europe, but by being bypassed by planes flying straight to the Americas from Asia through Dubai?

Mr Hammond: Heathrow is Britain's premier hub airport and we intend to ensure that it remains a major hub airport. We want to work with business and other stakeholders to ensure that Heathrow becomes better, not bigger, and that we protect its status.

Dartford Crossing

2. Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): If he will take steps to reduce congestion at the Dartford crossing. [2711]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): The Department and the Highways Agency are committed to improving the levels of service experienced by users of the Dartford crossing. The Highways Agency and I will consider a package of measures, including better information and traffic management to help reduce the congestion at the Dartford crossing.

Mr Whittingdale: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but is he aware that, since the tolls increased, the delays when approaching the tolling booths are anything up to 45 minutes and more? That causes enormous frustration to those who use the crossing, which is increased by the fact that the original intention was to scrap the tolls once the bridge was paid for rather than to put them up.

Mike Penning: My hon. Friend knows that I am personally aware of the problems at the Dartford crossing, having used it for many years. The £40 million net that we recover from the crossing is a significant income, but we need to consider technology that is being used in other parts of the world, particularly in Australia, so that we can remove the barriers and increase the speed at which traffic comes through while also picking up the revenue that the country desperately needs.

Airlines (Industrial Action)

3. Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): What information his Department holds on the effect of industrial action involving airlines on the number of passengers on flights operated by those airlines. [2712]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): The Department does not routinely monitor or hold information on airline passenger loads. However, most publicly listed UK airlines, including British Airways, regularly publish traffic and capacity statistics.

Caroline Lucas: Is the right hon. Lady aware of testimony from British Airways staff that British Airways has run commercially unviable flights in periods of industrial action, with low to zero numbers of passengers, to give the impression that it is unaffected by industrial action? Will you condemn any carrier for such environmentally unsustainable behaviour and investigate any report from BA staff?

Mr Speaker: I will neither condemn nor investigate, but the Minister might.

Mrs Villiers: It is clear that this Government are determined to provide encouragement to airlines to fly greener planes and to switch to flying fuller planes. That is what is behind the proposals we will make on reforming air passenger duty, and it will help to address the concerns around so-called ghost flights.

Turning to the hon. Lady's specific example, that is primarily a matter for British Airways. I understand from the airline that some planes flew with low passenger loads, some were freight-only, and some had only crew on board, to ensure that the aeroplanes were in the right place to resume passenger operations once the dispute ended. That is a concern to us because of the environmental
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impact of empty flights. Unfortunately, that is another negative consequence of the industrial dispute and another reason why I urge the parties to get back round the table to ensure that it is resolved as soon as possible to prevent a recurrence.

Concessionary Bus Fares

4. Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): What plans he has for the future of the national concessionary bus fare scheme. [2713]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): The Government's commitment to protect free bus travel for older people is set out in the coalition agreement. The right to free bus travel for both older and disabled people is enshrined in primary legislation.

Clive Efford: Will the hon. Gentleman be the Government's conscience on the freedom pass, because when one looks at all the people who have tried to undermine it in the past, one realises that they have all been Conservatives. They have described the pass as a stealth tax, or said that it goes to the wrong people. Would it be a resigning issue for him if the scheme were to be watered down in any way, and will he keep a weather eye out for those nasty colleagues of his who always try to undermine the freedom pass?

Norman Baker: It is something of a record to ask a Minister whether he might consider resigning when he is answering his first departmental question. I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that the coalition-both parties-are committed to free bus travel for older people, as I set out. Indeed, that is enshrined in primary legislation, so I think that his fears are groundless.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): The Labour Government reduced the grant for the bus concessionary scheme in London by some £25 million quite late on in the process. Will the Minister confirm that the coalition will not do anything similar to the council tax payers of London?

Norman Baker: We have no plans to revisit the settlement for this year.

Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): I welcome the Minister and his colleagues to their appointments, and we wish them well in their responsibilities. It is hard not to notice that the Department is led by two former shadow Chief Secretaries to the Treasury, at least one of whom would rather like to be Chief Secretary to the Treasury, so the Opposition will be keeping a very careful eye on them to ensure that they are genuine advocates for modern transport infrastructure, and not holding office simply to wield the Chancellor's axe.

Will the Minister give the House a clear guarantee on two points on the concessionary travel scheme? Can he reassure the 11 million people who were given free bus travel under Labour that this Government will not introduce any new restrictions on when and how their passes can be used, and can he guarantee that there will be no means-testing for new recipients of free bus travel during the lifetime of this Parliament?

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Norman Baker: The Opposition spokesman perhaps did not hear my original answer, which was that the Government are committed to protecting free bus travel for older people. That is set out very clearly in the coalition agreement and will be our policy.

5. Mr Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): What recent representations he has received on the system of reimbursement to local authorities for their expenditure on the national concessionary bus fare scheme; and if he will make a statement. [2714]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): Department for Transport Ministers have recently received general representations about concessionary travel, including from local authority and bus operator representatives. Some of those representations have included funding issues.

Mr Sanders: I welcome my hon. Friend to his position. He will be aware that many councils have found it difficult to meet the full costs of the scheme. I successfully lobbied for extra money for my authority, but it is still out of pocket. While lobbying, I uncovered a report that suggested that significant savings could be made if the scheme were administered nationally, with the Government rather than lots of local authorities negotiating with the bus companies. Will he look at that idea to see whether savings can be made?

Norman Baker: The previous Government consulted on that very option, and only 23% of respondents were in favour of it, compared with a majority in favour of administration at county council level-the scheme that has now been adopted. The concern is that if the scheme were administered centrally, it might have an impact on the discretionary concessions offered by district councils. We could end up with a national system and local negotiations, thereby increasing administration costs.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that the decision to have a concessionary scheme in England had consequential effects on funding in Scotland through the Barnett formula. The scheme is already underfunded by the Scottish Government, so may I have an assurance that there will be no further cuts in funding in Scotland through the effect on the Barnett formula?

Norman Baker: I am happy to say that I am not an expert on the Barnett formula, and I advise the hon. Gentleman to await the outcome of the spending review.

Transport Services (Expenditure Reductions)

6. Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): What assessment has been made of the effects on front-line transport services of the announced expenditure reductions for his Department in 2010-11. [2715]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Philip Hammond): I can reassure my hon. Friend that this Government take protecting front-line services very seriously. However, we also take very seriously the need to deal with the unsustainable structural deficit we inherited. The Department for Transport is focusing on making its contribution to deficit reduction while supporting economic recovery and protecting priority areas.

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Andrew George: Notwithstanding that answer, is the Secretary of State aware that the suspension of major schemes has meant that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency may not provide the Isles of Scilly ferry service with the necessary authority to continue? As the service has been 10 years in preparation, is 99% ready to go and is a lifeline for the Isles of Scilly, will he reconsider this issue?

Mr Hammond: Perhaps I can clarify what I have done. This scheme has conditional approval, and we have said that schemes with conditional approval or programme entry will have to await the outcome of the spending review before we can confirm them. My understanding is that Cornwall county council is still awaiting listed building consent, without which the scheme could not proceed anyway, but we are aware of the vital nature of the link to the Isles of Scilly and we will review the scheme as soon as the spending review has been completed.

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment.

Two days ago in the other place, Lord Attlee stated that rail electrification could not be afforded. Does that mean that the Government reject the notion that investment in transport is essential to support economic recovery?

Mr Hammond: The Government are committed to rail electrification because of its carbon impact. However, as the hon. Lady will be aware, we have inherited a massive black hole in the public finances- [ Interruption. ] Labour Members can laugh, but the previous Government announced a halving of the public capital investment programme without giving any indication of where that cut would come. After the spending review, we will have to look at all these programmes in the light of their affordability and the urgent need to reduce the fiscal deficit.

Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend meet me and a delegation from Reading borough council to discuss the continued funding of proposed transport changes that his announcement last week suggested might be suspended?

Mr Hammond: The only announcement that I made last week that affects the Reading scheme was about a local authority scheme for highway improvements around Reading station. That scheme will be reviewed following the outcome of the spending review, and my hon. Friend will learn the outcome in due course.

Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): May I genuinely welcome and congratulate the Secretary of State and the ministerial team on their new jobs? Good transport can be a driver of economic growth and I ask the Secretary of State to be a champion for transport, rather than treat his position as an application for his next job.

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