Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): We have had an interesting and well-informed debate with contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House, including my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi

3 Sep 2014 : Column 387

Alexander), who is no longer in her place, but who spoke passionately about the waste of resources when her constituency desperately needed school places.

We also heard from the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who said he worked at the coal face in Swindon for many years and claimed to be above party politics—before launching into his highly partisan comments. My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) said that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) and I were glad to see the previous Secretary of State go. May I correct him? We were disappointed that he left, because the polls were showing the impact he was having on voters—not just teachers, but parents. Had he carried on, we would have been heading for a landslide. Nevertheless, we now have the continuity Secretary of State.

We heard from the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), who also is not in her place, and from my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), who, like the hon. Member for North Swindon, served for 10 years as a local councillor, as did I—it is obviously a common apprenticeship for this House. We also heard from the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), who said it was easy to bandy about statistics, and then immediately did so himself, copiously. We then heard, as usual, a common-sense contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman), who said we were looking not for uniformity, but for equality of opportunity. She was exactly right, as she was about how resources should follow need—a point, in fact, that touches precisely on the nature of this debate.

I am sorry that, even after that preamble, the Secretary of State has not been able to return from her live web chat, after opening the debate, to be here for the wind-ups. I am sorry about that, Mr Speaker, and if I refer to her in her absence, it is not through choice.

It is always a bit of a lottery seeing who will turn up to education debates these days, because the Department for Education has become so dysfunctional after four years of being run by a right-wing ideologue and his crazed advisers that we have not one, but two Schools Ministers. One is the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), whom I am sincerely delighted to welcome back to his place on the Front Bench today. Despite our disagreements, we have always got on very well on a personal level, and I am glad that he was resuscitated by the Prime Minister, in the recent botched reshuffle, to placate the right wing of the Conservative parliamentary party. It is his job, we are told by the Prime Minister, to preserve the legacy of his former boss, who has now been forced into a vow of silence as the Chief Whip.

The other Schools Minister—the yellow variety—who seems to have become an invisible man these days in debates on schools in the Chamber, is obviously—

Ben Gummer: He is working hard.

Kevin Brennan: I am sure he is working hard—in his other job, in the Cabinet Office, dreaming up more fantasy Lib Dem manifesto pledges at the taxpayer’s expense. Indeed, it appears—just to be topical for a

3 Sep 2014 : Column 388

moment—that the coalition Government have now introduced compulsory setting, in that the two Schools Ministers are not allowed to be in the same room at the same time. That perhaps explains why the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) is not here with us this afternoon.

However, it would be useful if the Minister in this debate would clarify in his winding-up speech—[Interruption] —after he has finished reading the Parliamentary Private Secretary’s telephone—the whole shambolic issue around setting, which we have heard about today. We have not really had clarity today; we have just had chaos, in what is, after all, the first major policy announcement by the Secretary of State. It would be good if this House were told exactly what is going on, rather than our having to try to find out from Twitter. Despite the Secretary of State’s earlier remarks about not relying on Twitter for such information, we have to, unless we get it in the Chamber, which is where we should first hear of such things.

The first duty of any Education Minister is to ensure a sufficiency of good school places where they are needed. The figures that have been unearthed in recent weeks and which have been highlighted in today’s debate show that the Government have failed in that basic duty. We all remember the pledge, which has been mentioned in the debate, in the 2010 Conservative manifesto, when the Prime Minister promised

“small schools with smaller class sizes”

and said,

“the more we can get class sizes down, the better”.

That pledge has turned out to be as worthless as a Lib Dem pledge on tuition fees, because we have seen a 200% increase in the number of infants in larger class sizes over 30 since 2010, and the pressure on places is growing.

Toby Perkins: I am prompted to rise to my feet by my hon. Friend’s mention of the Liberal Democrats. I wonder whether he would like to reflect on the fact that we have had a debate on schools with not a single contribution from a Liberal Democrat Member. Is it not remarkable, when we think of what the Liberal Democrats once were, that we can get through an entire debate on education without a single Liberal Democrat thinking it worth actually turning up and speaking?

Kevin Brennan: I apologise for provoking my hon. Friend, but as I think I explained earlier, this is all part of the Secretary of State’s new policy on setting, in that the Lib Dems are set in a different group for this subject and are not allowed to participate in our discussions.

That pledge by the Prime Minister turned out to be worthless, so one would think, under the circumstances, that every sinew of ministerial effort at the Department for Education would be straining at the task of tackling this issue—that no distraction from the cause of meeting the challenge would be allowed and that scarce resources would be prioritised for the issue, with money spent on creating school places where there is a real need. But no, because according to the National Audit Office, two thirds of the places created in the Government’s pet free schools project have been created outside areas classed as having high or severe primary school need. The Government try to claim that the programme is tackling the shortage of places, but the very essence of the programme—a built-in design feature of the policy—is

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that the distribution of free schools is essentially random. The Department has received no applications to open primary free schools in half of all districts with high or severe forecast need for school places—not one. In fact, overall, only 38% of approved free schools are primary schools, while over 40% of them are secondary. Given that secondary schools are typically double the size of primary schools, despite the growth of “titan” ones under this Government, far more secondary school places are being created than primary school ones, which is where the greater need exists. As we have seen from the debate, there is an acute need. In other words, this Government’s insistence on ideology over pragmatism in opening new schools is producing the wrong kind of schools—secondary—in the wrong places. That is the very definition of policy failure.

Indeed, the National Audit Office found that 42 schools had opened in districts with no forecast need, with estimated capital costs of at least £241 million out of a projected total of £951 million for mainstream schools. That is not an accident. The Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton used to care passionately about class sizes. He told “Daily Politics” back in 2009 that it was important to get class sizes down,

“particularly at primary school level. This is really dramatic, how big our class sizes are compared with other countries.”

That is what he said in 2009, when there were 31,000 infant children in class sizes over 30; by January this year, that had risen to 93,000, which really is dramatic. Before the general election, the Minister told BBC London:

“A child can wander around corridors of a school anonymously because the teacher will not know the name and face of every child in the school. Smaller schools are much more intimate and it’s difficult for a child to be anonymous.”

Those are fine words, but the number of titan primary schools is soaring, with nearly five times the number of primary schools with over 800 pupils than in 2010. So much for intimate smaller schools as promised by the Minister.

What about this Minister’s views on trying to alleviate growing numbers by targeting the resources to areas where there is a shortage rather than a surplus of places? Here is what he said to “Attain Magazine” in spring 2010 about areas with surplus places:

“If it has surplus places beyond a certain figure, 10%, they will at the moment resist any new school coming in because they’ve got to fill these places first. But we’re saying that’s irrelevant”.

That was his attitude. “Irrelevant”—there we have it; it is not an accident. Instead of directing resources to where there is a shortage of places, more places are created where there is surplus of more than 10%. Why? Because right-wing ideology demands a market solution—creating an over-supply to drive out existing schools, rather than operate supportive and collaborative systems such as the highly successful London Challenge approach under Labour, which raised standards for all, and allow investment in new places to happen where those places are needed.

That is the ideology that lies at the root of the places crisis that we are seeing today, and the attempts to blame the last Labour Government are a smokescreen. The number of pupils in primary schools was falling between 2005 and 2010—it fell by 107,000—and the projections of increased numbers from the Office for National Statistics did not come until 2008-10. The last

3 Sep 2014 : Column 390

Government recognised that while overall numbers were falling at the time, in some areas, particularly in larger local authorities, more places would be needed. They provided core capital funding of £400 million a year from 2007-08 to 2010-11 to cover local growth in demand for places. Of course, the current Government never acknowledge that in their attempt to create a smokescreen about their role in the places crisis.

In addition, there was an annual “safety-valve” whereby local authorities, if they felt they needed it, could apply for additional funding to address exceptional growth. Until 2009, very few did, but in 2010-11, an extra £266 million was allocated to 36 authorities to provide primary places for September 2010 and 2011.

Mr Gibb rose—

Kevin Brennan: I will let the Minister answer in his winding-up speech; I do not want to eat into his time.

That additional funding is never mentioned by Ministers seeking to deflect blame for their failure. In fact, in the last two years of the Labour Government, schools capital budgets were £4.08 billion and £4.44 billion; in the first two years of this Government, they were £3.62 billion and £3.1 billion—storing up huge issues for the future, with the main maintenance and repair budget also slashed. These cuts in capital make it all the more of a dereliction to direct funds away from areas in which places are needed. We will restore coherence to the system, and ensure that precious resources are spent where those places are needed. We will also end the ludicrous system whereby Ministers approve new schools and, in particular, new free schools, which is the Government’s current policy.

Members, including the Secretary of State, mentioned Falcons Sikh free school in Leicester. It was due to open at the weekend, but at the last second the Under-Secretary, Lord Nash, ditched it, leaving 70 pupils and their parents high and dry and uncertain about the future. How could circumstances arise in which, the weekend before a school was due to open, a Minister had to intervene to ensure that it did not do so? Where were the checks along the way? Why was the process allowed to reach that stage without the problem being picked up earlier? We need answers to those questions, because Falcons was exactly the sort of school that is supposed to be providing the places that we say are needed in our system.

What a shambolic and wasteful way to run a school system! We will restore local accountability through independent directors of school standards. We will stop the waste, and build for the future.

6.46 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): We have had a very good debate, but I must admit that I was surprised by the Opposition’s choice of subject, because they do not come to this issue with clean hands. There has been a steady increase in the birth rate in this country since 2002. Between 2002 and 2010, there was a 22% increase in the annual birth rate. There were 120,000 more births in 2011 than there were in 2002. It should have been clear to the last Labour Government that that would translate into a need for more primary school places, but huge amounts of taxpayers’ money was devoted to rebuilding existing

3 Sep 2014 : Column 391

secondary schools in the Building Schools for the Future programme, and the Government cut 200,000 primary school places instead of creating more.

For that reason, one of the first decisions that the present Government had to make was to double the amount of money allocated to basic need capital—the money provided to increase the number of school places. Over the whole Parliament, that amounts to some £5 billion, and another £2.35 billion has already been announced for 2015-17. That is in addition to the £820 million that the Government are spending to create more than 70,000 new places through the targeted basic need programme, and in addition to the 250 free schools which have been opened since 2010 and are delivering more good-quality places in areas that need them. The £5 billion contrasts with the £1.9 billion that was spent by the previous Government over the same period—and I can tell the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) that that does include the £400 million per year over four years, the £60 million safety valve, and the emergency top-up of £250 million or £260 million which was allocated when the last Government began to realise that there was a problem.

This Government are committed to keeping infant class sizes at or below 30 children, but we want to do so in a way that will not split up twins or hinder our objective of giving the best possible start to children in care. No one takes seriously the irresponsible scare stories from Opposition Front Benchers, which are reflected in their motion and based on a deliberate misreading of census data. The truth is that a single snapshot taken on a Thursday in January will always reflect the fact that some schools bring classes together for assembly, PE, or other lessons such as drama and music. As the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) should know, it is simply wrong to claim that that means there are infant classes of 70. In fact, the average number of pupils in an infant class is 27.4. In primary schools as a whole, the proportion of pupils in very large classes of 35 or more has fallen since 2010, and since 2010, nearly 4,500 infant classes have been added to our school sector.

I listened very carefully to the shadow Education Secretary’s speech. It beggars belief because he talked about titan schools, yet the last Government were the past masters of creating titan schools, as they amalgamated schools because of the surplus places rule that required local authorities to remove surplus places even while it was clear, as the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) pointed out, that the birth rate was increasing and that in four or five years’ time those places would need to be recreated. What a waste, which is why this Government abolished the regulations that amount to the surplus places rule.

It was interesting to note, during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), the shadow Education Secretary’s sedentary intervention that pupils should have to go to schools that are unpopular and underperforming before a new school can be built. It is the quality of schools that matter, just as much as the quantity.

The shadow Education Secretary complains about the free school programme, but the 250 free schools have added 175,000 new school places, 72% of open

3 Sep 2014 : Column 392

mainstream free schools are in areas of basic need of school places and 74% of free schools opening this September are in areas of basic need. He should also know that half of open free schools are in the most deprived 30% of communities in the country. Free schools are opening up opportunities in areas where parents are unhappy with the standard of education on offer, and he should be supporting these proposals, as his party colleague the hon. Member for Darlington is doing in a pragmatic way. The shadow Education Secretary should also know that in his own local authority of Stoke-on-Trent the funding for new places under the last Labour Government, between 2007 and 2011, was £2.5 million, whereas under this Government it is £12.5 million.

I listened very carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), and I do understand the concerns she raised and the challenges some parents face in securing primary school places: the proportion of people nationally who achieve their first place is about 95.7%, but in Lewisham that figure is 75.5%, one of the lowest in the country, so I understand the concerns she is raising. That is why we have allocated capital of some £96 million to Lewisham to try to tackle that problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon raised important points about new developments and the need for new schools. He is right that the surplus places rule should not force parents to send their children to failing or underperforming schools which is why we abolished that rule, and he is also right to point out the importance of building schools more efficiently using standard designs. That has resulted in huge savings being made in constructing new schools compared with the wasteful Building Schools for the Future programme. We have cut the cost of construction of a new school by 40%, and he is right to point out that that will help in applications for school places. Some 92% of parents in Swindon got their first priority and 98% got one of their top three schools, so he is right to praise the local authority for what it has been doing.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) on his work, on the support he has given to raising education standards in Bedford and on his support for Bedford free school. Parents support the education standards of that school, the strong pastoral care and the exemplary behaviour delivered by its head teacher Mark Lehane and his staff.

Pat Glass: The Bedford free school is less than half full and is costing the taxpayer a great deal of money per pupil. That is the evidence the Select Committee on Education has received.

Mr Gibb: There are teething and transition issues as new schools are established and as they establish their reputations. That school was established in the face of fierce opposition from members of the hon. Lady’s party, against the wishes of the parents who send their children to the school. They are very happy with that school and its reputation will grow in the years ahead.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) raised again the myth of larger class sizes, and I again point out that the average infant class size is 27.4 and in primary schools as a whole the proportion of classes of over 35 has fallen since Labour left office. He seems also

3 Sep 2014 : Column 393

to have a very dogmatic view about the infant class size rule, so he would rather refuse to give priority to looked-after children or twins and send one twin off to another school, because otherwise the 30 class size rule would be breached. That is a harsh and uncaring approach and most parents would share our approach and not his.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) has been working hard in her constituency to help schools to tackle the increasing demand for primary places. I pay tribute to her for that important work and I am grateful for her welcome for the announcement of £2.35 billion for basic need over the next three years, giving local authorities the time and certainty to plan. Some £70 million of that money will go to Norfolk, bringing the total basic need capital in Norfolk to £83 million compared with just £22 million under the previous Labour Government.

The hon. Member for Leeds North East made a candid speech about the surplus places rule and about the fact it is short-termist to close schools when rolls are falling. If there is clear evidence that in a few years the rolls will rise again, it is better just to close a classroom, turn off the heating in that room and wait. He also talked about siblings not being able to attend the same school, but he should know that schools can give preference to siblings to avoid that problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) spoke interestingly about the Public Accounts Committee away day to Barking and Dagenham. I seem to recall that during my days on the Public Accounts Committee we had more interesting away days than those which the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) has selected for her Committee. My hon. Friend pointed out that pressures in that local authority area are very different from those in his constituency of Daventry, but that is why the Government have provided £148 million of capital for that very small part of east London. That is a staggering sum of money to tackle the real problems with places in that constituency.

I welcome the speech made by the hon. Member for Darlington and her pragmatic support for the free school in her constituency, in contrast to the views of her Front-Bench team. She said that she queried the Labour Whips’ briefing for this debate when she saw the reference to class sizes of 70 and she was right to do so, because it is absolutely wrong. As I said, it is a misinterpretation of the census figures taken on one particular day when in some schools circumstances have led them to amalgamate classes for that one day only. That does not mean that there are routinely classes of 70 in our schools in this country.

Action has been taken by this Government to create more good school places and local authorities are delivering. We have already seen an increase of 260,000 school places between 2010 and 2013, including 212,000 primary places, with more than 300,000 primary places in the pipeline for delivery by September 2015. We are working closely with the local authorities across the country facing the greatest pressures to support them in ensuring that every child is offered a local school place.

That is this Government’s record, taking urgent action to correct the school place deficit left by the Labour party in government, putting in money at a time when across Whitehall savings have had to be made to tackle the crisis of the budget deficit left by the Labour party in government. This is a Government who are raising

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academic standards in our schools, improving the quality of the curriculum and trust in the exam system, improving the way children are taught to read, improving their arithmetic and mathematics and improving standards of behaviour in our schools. This is a Government who are ambitious to make every parent’s local school a good school and who are preparing young people for life in modern Britain. That is our education plan; a clear plan and a plan that is delivering. The Opposition have no plan, no leadership, no clear sense of direction in their education policy. They are floundering in an area of policy that could not be more important to the long-term future of our economy—

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster Central) (Lab) claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).

Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.

Question agreed to.

Main Question accordingly put.

The House divided:

Ayes 200, Noes 296.

Division No. 44]


6.59 pm


Abbott, Ms Diane

Abrahams, Debbie

Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob

Alexander, Heidi

Ali, Rushanara

Allen, Mr Graham

Anderson, Mr David

Ashworth, Jonathan

Austin, Ian

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Balls, rh Ed

Barron, rh Kevin

Bayley, Hugh

Beckett, rh Margaret

Benn, rh Hilary

Betts, Mr Clive

Blackman-Woods, Roberta

Blears, rh Hazel

Blomfield, Paul

Blunkett, rh Mr David

Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben

Brennan, Kevin

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Buck, Ms Karen

Burden, Richard

Burnham, rh Andy

Byrne, rh Mr Liam

Campbell, rh Mr Alan

Campbell, Mr Ronnie

Caton, Martin

Champion, Sarah

Chapman, Jenny

Clwyd, rh Ann

Coaker, Vernon

Coffey, Ann

Connarty, Michael

Cooper, Rosie

Cooper, rh Yvette

Corbyn, Jeremy

Crausby, Mr David

Creagh, Mary

Creasy, Stella

Cruddas, Jon

Cryer, John

Cunningham, Alex

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Cunningham, Sir Tony

Danczuk, Simon

David, Wayne

Davies, Geraint

Denham, rh Mr John

Dobbin, Jim

Dobson, rh Frank

Dowd, Jim

Dromey, Jack

Dugher, Michael

Durkan, Mark

Eagle, Ms Angela

Eagle, Maria

Edwards, Jonathan

Efford, Clive

Elliott, Julie

Ellman, Mrs Louise

Engel, Natascha

Esterson, Bill

Evans, Chris

Farrelly, Paul

Field, rh Mr Frank

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flello, Robert

Flint, rh Caroline

Flynn, Paul

Fovargue, Yvonne

Gapes, Mike

Glass, Pat

Glindon, Mrs Mary

Goodman, Helen

Green, Kate

Greenwood, Lilian

Griffith, Nia

Gwynne, Andrew

Hain, rh Mr Peter

Hamilton, Mr David

Hamilton, Fabian

Hanson, rh Mr David

Harman, rh Ms Harriet

Havard, Mr Dai

Healey, rh John

Hendrick, Mark

Hepburn, Mr Stephen

Heyes, David

Hillier, Meg

Hilling, Julie

Hodge, rh Margaret

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Hoey, Kate

Howarth, rh Mr George

Hunt, Tristram

Irranca-Davies, Huw

Jackson, Glenda

James, Mrs Siân C.

Jarvis, Dan

Johnson, rh Alan

Johnson, Diana

Jones, Graham

Jones, Helen

Jones, Mr Kevan

Jones, Susan Elan

Kane, Mike

Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald

Keeley, Barbara

Kendall, Liz

Khan, rh Sadiq

Lavery, Ian

Leslie, Chris

Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma

Lewis, Mr Ivan

Lucas, Ian

Mactaggart, Fiona

Mahmood, Mr Khalid

Mahmood, Shabana

Malhotra, Seema

Mann, John

Marsden, Mr Gordon

McCabe, Steve

McCarthy, Kerry

McDonagh, Siobhain

McDonald, Andy

McDonnell, John

McFadden, rh Mr Pat

McGovern, Alison

McGovern, Jim

McKinnell, Catherine

Meacher, rh Mr Michael

Meale, Sir Alan

Mearns, Ian

Miliband, rh Edward

Miller, Andrew

Mitchell, Austin

Moon, Mrs Madeleine

Morris, Grahame M.


Mudie, Mr George

Munn, Meg

Murphy, rh Paul

Onwurah, Chi

Owen, Albert

Pearce, Teresa

Perkins, Toby

Phillipson, Bridget

Qureshi, Yasmin

Raynsford, rh Mr Nick

Reed, Mr Jamie

Reed, Mr Steve

Reeves, Rachel

Reynolds, Emma

Reynolds, Jonathan

Riordan, Mrs Linda

Robertson, John

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey

Rotheram, Steve

Roy, Lindsay

Ruane, Chris

Ruddock, rh Dame Joan

Sawford, Andy

Seabeck, Alison

Shannon, Jim

Sharma, Mr Virendra

Sheerman, Mr Barry

Sheridan, Jim

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Slaughter, Mr Andy

Smith, rh Mr Andrew

Smith, Angela

Smith, Nick

Smith, Owen

Spellar, rh Mr John

Straw, rh Mr Jack

Stringer, Graham

Stuart, Ms Gisela

Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry

Tami, Mark

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Timms, rh Stephen

Trickett, Jon

Turner, Karl

Twigg, Derek

Twigg, Stephen

Umunna, Mr Chuka

Vaz, rh Keith

Vaz, Valerie

Walley, Joan

Watts, Mr Dave

Whitehead, Dr Alan

Williamson, Chris

Wilson, Phil

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Woodcock, John

Woodward, rh Mr Shaun

Wright, David

Wright, rh Jeremy

Tellers for the Ayes:

Nic Dakin


Tom Blenkinsop


Adams, Nigel

Afriyie, Adam

Aldous, Peter

Amess, Mr David

Andrew, Stuart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr James

Bacon, Mr Richard

Baker, Steve

Baldry, rh Sir Tony

Barclay, Stephen

Barker, rh Gregory

Baron, Mr John

Barwell, Gavin

Bebb, Guto

Beith, rh Sir Alan

Bellingham, Mr Henry

Berry, Jake

Bingham, Andrew

Binley, Mr Brian

Birtwistle, Gordon

Blackman, Bob

Blackwood, Nicola

Blunt, Crispin

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bradley, Karen

Brady, Mr Graham

Brake, rh Tom

Bray, Angie

Brazier, Mr Julian

Bridgen, Andrew

Brine, Steve

Brokenshire, James

Brooke, rh Annette

Browne, Mr Jeremy

Bruce, Fiona

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burns, Conor

Burns, rh Mr Simon

Burrowes, Mr David

Burstow, rh Paul

Burt, rh Alistair

Burt, Lorely

Byles, Dan

Cable, rh Vince

Cairns, Alun

Carmichael, Neil

Cash, Sir William

Chishti, Rehman

Clark, rh Greg

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Collins, Damian

Colvile, Oliver

Crouch, Tracey

Davey, rh Mr Edward

Davies, David T. C.


Davies, Glyn

Davies, Philip

de Bois, Nick

Dinenage, Caroline

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Dorries, Nadine

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Drax, Richard

Duncan, rh Sir Alan

Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain

Ellis, Michael

Ellison, Jane

Eustice, George

Evans, Graham

Evans, Mr Nigel

Evennett, Mr David

Fabricant, Michael

Featherstone, rh Lynne

Field, Mark

Foster, rh Mr Don

Fox, rh Dr Liam

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Freeman, George

Freer, Mike

Fuller, Richard

Garnier, Sir Edward

Garnier, Mark

Gauke, Mr David

George, Andrew

Gibb, Mr Nick

Glen, John

Goldsmith, Zac

Goodwill, Mr Robert

Gove, rh Michael

Graham, Richard

Grant, Mrs Helen

Gray, Mr James

Grayling, rh Chris

Green, rh Damian

Greening, rh Justine

Griffiths, Andrew

Gummer, Ben

Gyimah, Mr Sam

Hague, rh Mr William

Halfon, Robert

Hames, Duncan

Hammond, rh Mr Philip

Hammond, Stephen

Hancock, rh Matthew

Hancock, Mr Mike

Hands, rh Greg

Harper, Mr Mark

Harrington, Richard

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan

Hayes, rh Mr John

Heald, Sir Oliver

Heath, Mr David

Heaton-Harris, Chris

Hemming, John

Henderson, Gordon

Hendry, Charles

Herbert, rh Nick

Hinds, Damian

Hoban, Mr Mark

Hollingbery, George

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Holloway, Mr Adam

Hopkins, Kris

Horwood, Martin

Howarth, Sir Gerald

Howell, John

Hughes, rh Simon

Hunt, rh Mr Jeremy

Hunter, Mark

Huppert, Dr Julian

Hurd, Mr Nick

Jackson, Mr Stewart

James, Margot

Javid, rh Sajid

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Jenrick, Robert

Johnson, Gareth

Johnson, Joseph

Jones, Andrew

Jones, rh Mr David

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kelly, Chris

Kirby, Simon

Kwarteng, Kwasi

Lamb, rh Norman

Lancaster, Mark

Lansley, rh Mr Andrew

Leadsom, Andrea

Lee, Jessica

Lee, Dr Phillip

Lefroy, Jeremy

Leigh, Sir Edward

Leslie, Charlotte

Letwin, rh Mr Oliver

Lewis, Brandon

Lewis, Dr Julian

Liddell-Grainger, Mr Ian

Lidington, rh Mr David

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lloyd, Stephen

Lopresti, Jack

Loughton, Tim

Luff, Sir Peter

Lumley, Karen

Macleod, Mary

Maude, rh Mr Francis

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Jason

McCartney, Karl

McIntosh, Miss Anne

McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick

McPartland, Stephen

Menzies, Mark

Metcalfe, Stephen

Miller, rh Maria

Mills, Nigel

Milton, Anne

Mitchell, rh Mr Andrew

Mordaunt, Penny

Morgan, rh Nicky

Morris, David

Morris, James

Mosley, Stephen

Mowat, David

Munt, Tessa

Murray, Sheryll

Murrison, Dr Andrew

Neill, Robert

Newmark, Mr Brooks

Newton, Sarah

Nokes, Caroline

Norman, Jesse

Nuttall, Mr David

Offord, Dr Matthew

Ollerenshaw, Eric

Opperman, Guy

Ottaway, rh Sir Richard

Paice, rh Sir James

Parish, Neil

Patel, Priti

Paterson, rh Mr Owen

Pawsey, Mark

Penning, rh Mike

Penrose, John

Percy, Andrew

Perry, Claire

Phillips, Stephen

Pickles, rh Mr Eric

Pincher, Christopher

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Prisk, Mr Mark

Pritchard, Mark

Pugh, John

Raab, Mr Dominic

Randall, rh Sir John

Reckless, Mark

Redwood, rh Mr John

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reevell, Simon

Robathan, rh Mr Andrew

Robertson, rh Sir Hugh

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Rogerson, Dan

Rosindell, Andrew

Rudd, Amber

Ruffley, Mr David

Russell, Sir Bob

Rutley, David

Sanders, Mr Adrian

Sandys, Laura

Scott, Mr Lee

Selous, Andrew

Shapps, rh Grant

Sharma, Alok

Shelbrooke, Alec

Shepherd, Sir Richard

Simmonds, Mark

Smith, Chloe

Smith, Henry

Smith, Julian

Soames, rh Sir Nicholas

Soubry, Anna

Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stanley, rh Sir John

Stephenson, Andrew

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Iain

Stewart, Rory

Streeter, Mr Gary

Stride, Mel

Stuart, Mr Graham

Stunell, rh Sir Andrew

Sturdy, Julian

Swales, Ian

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Syms, Mr Robert

Teather, Sarah

Thornton, Mike

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Tredinnick, David

Truss, rh Elizabeth

Turner, Mr Andrew

Tyrie, Mr Andrew

Uppal, Paul

Vickers, Martin

Villiers, rh Mrs Theresa

Wallace, Mr Ben

Ward, Mr David

Watkinson, Dame Angela

Weatherley, Mike

Webb, rh Steve

Wharton, James

Wheeler, Heather

Whittaker, Craig

Whittingdale, Mr John

Wiggin, Bill

Willetts, rh Mr David

Williams, Mr Mark

Williams, Roger

Williamson, Gavin

Willott, Jenny

Wilson, Mr Rob

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wright, rh Jeremy

Wright, Simon

Yeo, Mr Tim

Young, rh Sir George

Zahawi, Nadhim

Tellers for the Noes:

Harriett Baldwin


Dr Thérèse Coffey

Question accordingly negatived.

3 Sep 2014 : Column 395

3 Sep 2014 : Column 396

3 Sep 2014 : Column 397

3 Sep 2014 : Column 398

Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Public Bodies

That the draft Public Bodies (Marine Management Organisation) (Fees) Order 2014, which was laid before this House on 13 May 2014, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),


That the draft Community Interest Company (Amendment) Regulations 2014, which were laid before this House on 26 June, be approved.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),


That the draft Renewables Obligation Closure Order 2014, which was laid before this House on 30 June, be approved.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)

Question agreed to.

independent parliamentary standards authority (motion)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 9(6)),

That the Motion in the name of Mr William Hague relating to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority shall be treated as if it related to an instrument subject to the provisions of Standing Order No. 118 (Delegated Legislation Committees) in respect of which notice has been given that the instrument be approved.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)

Question agreed to.

3 Sep 2014 : Column 399

Transport Infrastructure (Northumberland)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Dr ThérèseCoffey.)

7.14 pm

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): My constituents and I are grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to have a debate on the transport infrastructure in Northumberland. This coalition Government inherited a massive debt, a serious recession and a country that needed turning around. In Northumberland, it also inherited a transport infrastructure that has lacked investment for some time. We now have a long-term economic plan that is slowly bringing this country out of recession, and we are beginning to put in place a regional north-east infrastructure plan and a Northumberland infrastructure strategy that address the need to improve roads, bridges, buses and railways. We also have the proposed future northern rail franchise and the work of Rail North and the electrification task force to help progress developments in our rail services.

I am here to speak up for our efforts to get better transport infrastructure and help the economic recovery continue as the northern hub cities of Carlisle and Newcastle-Gateshead become ever more connected, prosperous and creative with the jobs and infrastructure that we need and as we improve connectivity to Scotland and Cumbria.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): On the subject of connectivity to Scotland and Cumbria, does my hon. Friend agree that in addition to our focus on the A69, the A66 is crucial? The Scotch Corner connection to the under-used M6 has for years needed to be dualled; the plans are in place, and the Department for Transport should act on that immediately.

Guy Opperman: I endorse entirely what my hon. Friend says, but I will also make a very strong case for the A69.

John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con) rose

Guy Opperman: On cue, my hon. Friend jumps to his feet.

John Stevenson: I lend my hon. Friend my support in making his suggestions and representations. Like the A66, the A69 is key for Carlisle, and my constituents would be delighted to see it dualled. In the short term, we would like to see improvements to it. I suggest that he, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) and I make representations to the Department about improving and ultimately dualling the A69.

Guy Opperman: I entirely endorse that and certainly have begun the process of meeting the Highways Agency and the Department for Transport, following the meeting that I had with the Secretary of State about the A69 earlier in the summer.

Rory Stewart: Does my hon. Friend agree that if we look at dualling the A69, we should also look at creative ideas such as a bypass and bridge at Warwick Bridge, to ensure that the misery of its inhabitants is alleviated?

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Guy Opperman: I seem to be straying quite a way from Northumberland, and I have not made it past page 1 of my speech, but my hon. Friend makes a fair point. Having driven through that village, I recognise that it needs a bypass.

The dependence on public transport in the rural north is strong, and the importance of proper transport links cannot be overstated, whether it is for the children who are struggling to get to school, the patients who need to travel to urban-based hospitals or the many thousands of tourists who visit Northumberland national park, Hadrian’s wall and our county’s many attractions.

On heritage, transport infrastructure is going full circle. Northumberland is the birthplace of the father of the railways, George Stephenson. He was born in June 1781 next to the Tyne in my constituency, and built the first public steam railway between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830. The industrial revolution and advances in transport emanated from the north east, yet our transport legacy is showing its age. I am pleased to say that one of the finest examples of Victorian engineering, Ovingham bridge, which was opened in 1883, is being fully refurbished thanks to £3 million of pinch point funding from the Department. In addition, Wark bridge is being rebuilt thanks to the campaign that I started with Councillor Edward Heslop and many of the enterprising locals from Wark back in 2009.

I come now to the specifics and the issue of roads. All of us welcome the widening of the A1 western bypass, especially between Lobley Hill and the A184 junction, which will tackle congestion and speed up journey times. It is a key consequence of the Government’s Newcastle city deal. I for one will continue to push the Chancellor, as part of the long-term economic plan, to commit final funds for the Dual the A1 campaign, led by, among others, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), the local communities and the north-east chamber of commerce. This last stretch of dualling north of Morpeth will transform the north Northumberland economy and improve connectivity to Scotland, and, let us be blunt, save lives.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Would it not be a good idea, just weeks before the referendum, to make it clear that we care about the link between the north-east and Scotland? An announcement on dualling the A1 would be very helpful.

Guy Opperman: We could not make the case more clearly that we care that the Scots stay as part of the Union and that we hope they say “No thanks” on 18 September.

The A69 is the chief arterial route that connects east and west across the rural north. It is dualled between Newcastle and Hexham, but thereafter it is a notorious stretch of single-track road, with occasional dual passing points. It has seen too many accidents, and its limitations are holding back the growth of the economy in west Northumberland and Cumbria.

As I said, I met the Secretary of State for Transport in the summer, I continue to make representations to the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency, and I very much hope that the three key Members of Parliament who are concerned with this road will be taking forward their commitment to trying to improve

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in many shapes and forms the A69 west of Hexham, leading on into Carlisle. We accept—I will help the Minister on this point—that the present spending round is committed up to 2016, but I want to make the case today that the upgrading of this crucial road should be in the frame for the investment programme post-2016, leading up to 2020.

Finally, I come to the A696 as it heads to Otterburn, which only last month saw another fatality. Clearly, that is not part of the DFT strategic road network, but I welcome the recent increase in the DFT integrated transport block funding, paid by the Department to Northumberland county council for transport capital improvement schemes. The allocations to Northumberland during the last four years have increased, and last year’s £1.9 million has now risen to £2.7 million. I will be liaising with my Ponteland and other Northumberland county councillors to pitch for improvements for this road from capital funding.

No speech on roads and infrastructure in Northumberland and the rural north could go ahead without a mention of the chronic potholes that we suffer. However, I must thank the DFT for the £5.6 million to alleviate some of our many potholes, and also payments for elsewhere in the north, such that the situation has massively improved, although there are some in various parts of my constituency that, amazingly, have not been addressed.

The Minister has particular responsibility for railways, so I turn my attention to the Tyne Valley line between Newcastle and Carlisle. This is an essential link. It leaves Newcastle, which again has just had an £8.6 million upgrade, paid for by the DFT, and carries significant freight and more than 1 million passengers a year through urban, commuter and rural areas. It connects thousands to their jobs, hospitals and schools, and provides connections for the long-distance services that emanate from Newcastle and Carlisle. I am in regular contact with members of the excellent Tyne Valley rail users group, and I thank them and all the constituents who have written to me and made representations on my blog or in any other way for their help both in keeping me informed and in preparing for this speech.

Looking to the future, the potential for the line is vast. This northerly cross-country route needs greater attention. There are significant issues surrounding the timetable of the line, ticket retailing and the line’s integration with other modes of transport. The present service features very out-of-date rolling stock. The Sprinter and the infamous 1985 British Leyland Pacer trains desperately need improvement. The Pacers in particular are uncomfortable, expensive in terms of lease and repair costs, are hot in the summer and cold in the winter, lack wi-fi and offer limited luggage space, and my constituents and our tourist visitors deserve better.

Yet despite these limitations, our story locally is a positive one, because these last few years have seen improvements. Frequency on the line has increased, passenger usage at stations west of Hexham has increased markedly, and the service to smaller stations has also improved. In that context, we have the Northern rail franchise. We are all conscious that that is coming, and I want the Minister to allay concerns about the franchise. I hope she agrees that it is essential that the new franchise on the Tyne Valley line offers a timetable that gets passengers to where they want to be, at the times they want to travel, with improved carriages that run on

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time, and changes that make the railway competitive and more attractive to locals and tourists alike, with integrated ticketing with other transport providers. In short, we want an improvement, not a contraction, of the capacity and the services.

Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): I am really enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech and he has a well-deserved reputation as a local champion. I chair the Government’s electrification taskforce. Will he meet me outside this place to go through his proposals, so that I know much more about what is necessary for the line and can take his proposals forward within the taskforce?

Guy Opperman: One of the best advances of the Secretary of State has been the creation of the electrification taskforce, and I am glad that a northern MP—in this case, the Member for Harrogate—is leading the way, such that we can make representations. The longer term must see electrification of the Tyne Valley line, as it sits between the east coast line and the west coast line, both of which are electrified. Frankly, without that forward movement we will struggle in the longer term, so I will meet my hon. Friend, as will other Members interested in this area, and I genuinely welcome his intervention.

The increased capacity, customer service and satisfaction, which I understand are the key points of a franchise, are what we seek going forward, and I can only add that the longer the franchise is awarded for, the greater the prospects are for improvements.

Given the time left to me, I will briefly make the point about the Tyne Valley line that along with electrification we need to review the signalling processes and address the maximum speed on the line. I could talk at length about the stations and the Network Rail issues that apply to the line, but I will simply say that I have a forthcoming meeting with Network Rail, at which I will raise the crossing points that concern so many people, as well as everything from the upgrades needed at Prudhoe station and to Bardon Mill station that are being proposed.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential that funding is found for the Ashington-Blyth-Tyne line, to allow people from south-east Northumberland access to the Metro, and to Newcastle, Sunderland and other areas, which will benefit the local economy, jobs and the rest of it?

Guy Opperman: It is crucial—and I will make the point in relation to Gilsland station—that this is part of the local enterprise partnership’s strategic economic plan, and that the plan is tied into the work done by the LEP, the county council and the rural growth network, and to the support that is then given, so that we have the integration and development of the transport links that we all look forward to. The electrification that we seek in Northumberland should certainly include the parts of the line that my hon. Friend mentions.

I am completely behind the Campaign to Open Gilsland Station. The work of Julie Gibbon, local councillors and so many local people too numerous to name needs to be applauded and supported.

Rory Stewart: I am very fortunate to share Gilsland station with my hon. Friend; in fact, Gilsland stands on the boundary between our two constituencies. Does he

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agree that, along with the bottom-line analysis that Network Rail must undertake, some recognition needs to be given to the extraordinary energy, imagination and community spirit of the people in Gilsland, who have come up with such an extraordinary proposal?

Guy Opperman: I totally agree. I have invited the Minister to come to Northumberland, and I hope she will confirm in her response that she will do so. We would take the Tyne Valley line and get off at Haltwhistle—sadly—to get in a car to drive to Gilsland station, so that she could see this wonderful project and what we propose: that where Hadrian’s wall and the Pennine way cross we will alleviate pressure on the road and bus network, and create significant local jobs and address significant rural poverty. A 1967 closure by Dr Beeching is surely capable of being reversed at relatively low cost, with the wider economic benefits palpably clear to everybody. A feasibility study by the Tyne Valley line rail users group concluded that the revenue from passengers using the station would cover operating costs and that there would be a benefit to the community of over £500,000. This area has suffered from poor transport connections for some considerable time.

Time does not permit me to make the case that over the past year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) will know, we have made tremendous improvements to the bus services that were failing in the Gilsland, Greenhead and Low Row area, with a huge amount of work by all the persons involved. This is a highly rural area that needs the rebuild at Gilsland that we are proposing.

I accept that ultimately direct funding and support will need to come from the two county councils and the two LEPs, which need to push this project into their strategic economic plan for 2016-17. The LEPs need to look to their local growth funds, which are clearly a potential source of the funds we need. We will also be speaking to our individual rural growth networks to assess how they can help. I ask the Minister not only to come and visit but to give the Department’s support, expertise and guidance so that local people can see that this important and much needed campaign is supported and they can be helped through the laughably described GRIP— governance for railway investment projects—process that determines all major railway rebuild programmes.

I am conscious of the time, so many of the points that I would have made about buses and transport connectivity will have to wait for another day, Mr Speaker, when you grant me yet another debate on transport infrastructure in the north.

This really does matter. This is a genuinely rural and semi-rural area that requires the support of public transport, whether because of the difficulties with bus services, the problems that children are having getting to school, or the simple fact that there is a lack of infrastructure available. Moving forward, we are hoping to see an Oyster card system working in the urban areas so that the seven local authorities come together to create an integrated transport system.

I thank you for the time for this debate, Mr Speaker. We look forward to welcoming the Minister soon. We see ourselves at a pivotal point in terms of future planning, future funding, and so much more.

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7.32 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Claire Perry): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman)—and he is a friend—on securing this vital debate. He is an assiduous campaigner on many issues in his constituency, specifically on this transport agenda. The debate allows me to stand here and talk about something I am very proud of—the Government’s commitment to spreading the benefits of the investment in rail and roads across the country. It also gives many other colleagues equally committed to transport schemes in their constituencies an opportunity to discuss the importance of those. My only disappointment is that we have no Member here whose first name is William, which removes my opportunity for a Puffing Billy joke, although it is of course lovely to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson)—no relation to George Stephenson but a marker of the importance of that name.

I am proud to stand here as a representative of a Government who recognise the crucial role that transport infrastructure plays in facilitating growth right across the country. That is why we have been absolutely determined to reverse what could be described as an Administration’s period of neglect by securing significant levels of investment in the road and rail networks. As a marker, by the end of the current capital spending period we will be a Government who will have electrified 850 miles of railways. Sadly, only seven miles were electrified under the previous Administration, although of course other investments were made. At the end of this capital period we will be able to proudly say that spending on road and rail infrastructure outside London is higher than it was under the previous Government, despite the investments in Crossrail, Thameslink and other things that are so important for the London economy.

We are very committed to making sure that this investment is spread right across the country from north to south and in our major cities and market towns—and, crucially, in our rural seats such as those that my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham and I are proud to represent. I am delighted that his appetite has been whetted by some of the conversations that have taken place. I am looking forward to having many discussions with him and other hon. Members over the next few months. I confirm that I will, of course, visit my hon. Friend’s constituency to see some of those schemes for myself. It will form part of what will be a great rail journey—I hope it will take several days—in the new year.

Let me turn to the issue of rail services, which my hon. Friend raised eloquently. We are investing significantly in the national rail network—in terms of electrification, new rolling stock and signalling and upgrading station facilities—to meet ever-rising passenger demand. The number of passenger journeys now is double what it was at the point of privatisation. Up to 1.6 billion journeys are made every year and we have simply not invested enough to meet that demand and take the country forward.

In order to meet record and growing levels of demand in the north in particular, we are continuing to invest in the most significant rail modernisation programme for generations. The northern hub programme—on which £500,000 is being spent—and the electrification of routes in the north-west and across the north Pennines on the

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North TransPennine route will transform rail connectivity in the north of England by increasing capacity, reducing journey times and enabling the introduction of far better train services. I will refer specifically to the Pacers later.

Electrification of the trans-Pennine rail line between Manchester and Leeds will enable us for the first time to run an electrified service all the way from Liverpool to Newcastle via both Manchester and Leeds. That will really transform connectivity between crucial northern cities.

I will briefly mention HS2, of which colleagues will know I am a supporter and which is about not just speed and journey-time reductions, but freeing up capacity on the existing rail network. The north-east in particular will benefit, because HS2 will widen the opportunities for millions of people by providing faster links to London and inter-regional connectivity, which can provide real competition for businesses in London and the south-east. I am very proud of the specific investments in the north.

I will now turn from the general concerns about the north to the specific issues my hon. Friend raised relating to the existing service on the Tyne valley line. Hon. Members present will know that the Government, in conjunction with Rail North, are working on a new franchise to replace the existing northern franchise. We ran a very healthy consultation over the summer and it has just concluded. It received about 17,000 responses, including specific ones on the route. Genuine questions were asked about all sorts of issues, such as what the service and connectivity should look like and which trains will be needed on the routes. We are working through all of those responses as input to defining the invitation to tender that will be issued later this year.

We have announced the three companies that are pre-qualified to bid for the franchise and have asked the operators specifically to demonstrate how they will deal with issues such as capacity and future demand and improve customer service and passenger satisfaction across the network. We expect bidders to develop their own plans for rolling stock, but we will be very clear that we want bidders to submit options for replacing the Pacer trains, which, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, are a source of dissatisfaction for many rail users across the north. Everything is up for conversation in these franchises and we want to be extremely specific about that. We are also looking at options for extending the provision of wi-fi across the network. We take it for granted off the trains, but we think it should be extended to as many passengers as possible.

I pay tribute to the Rail North partnership, which is working well in taking the franchise negotiations forward. The more local participation in rail services across the north and other parts of the country, the better. A number of senior Rail North staff are now working with the Department for Transport franchise teams to help us evaluate the bids and root them firmly in what local passenger demand wants those services to be. That is crucial, because the franchises are key in transforming how rail contributes to communities and businesses right across the north, leveraging our investment in the train services.

Turning quickly to the issue of rail fares, which I know has come up several times in my hon. Friend’s constituency, we have, of course, seen an overall freeze

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on rail fares this year in real terms. The retail prices index plus 0% calculation is important, and this is the first time it has been done. Of course, Northern Rail in particular is introducing various reduced advance purchase fares on a number of routes, offering substantial discounts for passengers. The overall question of fares—what is the right balance of fares that provides value for money and allows us to invest in a crucial part of the network?— is explicitly part of the franchise negotiations and conversations.

I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased that the community rail designation for the Tyne Valley line is under review. I want to make them aware that the consultation ends on Friday, so if they have constituents or councillors who feel that their views should be heard, I encourage them to send in that information. Community rail can be very successful in breathing new life into local and rural railways—no more so than in the north of England. Among all that it enables us to do is to provide local freedom for fare structures, and to invest in local services and stations, as my hon. Friend realises.

I would love to take a train to Gilsland station and cycle the whole length of Hadrian’s wall, so if we could organise something like that—perhaps not in January—it would obviously be an even stronger draw for plans to reopen the station. As always, but specifically during the franchise period, we are looking for new ways to support community rail services and make them even more effective in providing what local communities want.

My hon. Friend mentioned electrification. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), as someone who leads assiduously for the Government on the proposal in looking at the north of England, has offered a meeting. As I have mentioned, we intend to electrify more than 850 miles of railway, including the key trans-Pennine route between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and York. We are already seeing the benefits of the first electric service between Manchester and Scotland. We will continue to look at all options; indeed, the taskforce is free in its remit to consider all non-electrified routes in the north.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham spoke eloquently about various investments in his constituency, and they are clearly of interest to other hon. Members, including those north of the border, as was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith). The Government have already announced increased levels of funding to deliver improvements to the strategic road network, again targeted specifically at supporting economic growth, and our commitment to deliver the step change was set out by the Chancellor in his spending review. The Treasury Command Paper “Investing in Britain’s Future” stated that the Government will invest more than £28 billion in enhancements and maintenance of both national and local roads, including £10 billion for major national road projects.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham will be aware that the Highways Agency is conducting its route strategy process. Among other things, it is looking at the question of dualling the A69. He raised that, and he has discussed it with the Secretary of State for Transport. The case for the sensible and vigorous campaign for dualling has been made by many hon. Members. Although the first evidence review completed by the agency suggested

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that network performance is consistent for peak period speeds, it does not feature in the top 10% of roads for delay. However, the strategic analysis is still ongoing. As my hon. Friend rightly said, with capital allocations for the 2016 period coming up, now is the time to make representations. I assure all hon. Members that the Department’s doors are always open.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of safety on the A69, of which there has been a detailed review. Tragically, more lives have been lost on the route recently. The road has been described as having a good safety record, but we have to be vigilant if we are to maintain that record. I welcome his and his constituents’ help in maintaining such vigilance for this important route.

In relation to local roads, my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we have already invested money on improving some local pinch points. One is in his constituency at Ovingham bridge, for which he has

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campaigned, and others nearby are in Rothbury. We must keep investing in these important local roads.

I want briefly to mention road safety on the A69. Although we are very proud of the Government’s overall road safety record, we again have to be vigilant. We must also recognise that rural roads have specific problems. I am pleased that I will launch a new Think! campaign focused on country roads later this year to address some of those issues.

I again thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I hope that what I have said demonstrates the Government’s very real commitment to expanding growth across the north of England. I look forward to visiting his constituency and I encourage him and his constituents to keep talking about transport infrastructure, as that is the way to deliver long-term economic growth for this great country.

Question put and agreed to.

7.44 pm

House adjourned.