If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.
Earlier this week I announced to Parliament my decision on High Speed 2, giving the go-ahead to a national high-speed network that will dramatically increase capacity and reduce journey times between our cities. Over Christmas, negotiations were concluded on a £188 million deal between Southern and Bombardier which will see 130 new carriages ordered from the Derby-based manufacturer. The Minister with responsibility for roads announced a £2.7 million investment in 3D laser-scanning technology. Before Christmas, I announced funding approval for a further 21 local authority major schemes, on top of the 20 schemes announced by the Chancellor in the autumn statement. The total Department for Transport contribution for all 41 schemes will be up to £972 million.
My right hon. Friend referred to the procurement by Southern of more than 130 new carriages. Is that not fantastic news for hard-pressed commuters from my constituency and for Bombardier, its employees and its supply chain?
I absolutely agree. This is a win for everybody concerned. Southern will deploy the new vehicles on its most overcrowded services, which will be of huge benefit and relief to passengers.
Today’s excellent report from the Transport Committee highlights the scandal of dodgy whiplash claims that are hiking up insurance premiums for honest motorists. Why, just a couple of months ago, did the right hon. Lady’s colleagues reject Labour’s amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill which would have curbed whiplash claims? In light of today’s report will she reconsider that opposition?
The hon. Gentleman would be better directing his question to the Ministry of Justice, which leads for the Government in this area. I very
much welcome the Select Committee’s report and the work of Mr Straw in raising the issue. The Government are already taking action to ban such things as referral fees. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will work very closely with the Ministry of Justice to see what action we can take on this issue.
Last month the Department announced funding for a number of road projects, including the Loughborough inner relief road. I thank the Secretary of State for that decision, for which we have been waiting 40 years. Does she agree that road infrastructure is critical for the regeneration of towns and cities such as Loughborough?
I absolutely agree. The investment that we have been able to put into Loughborough will make a critical difference to Loughborough, not least in helping to regenerate the town centre, improving public transport access and reliability and, importantly, improving accessibility for pedestrians, cyclists and people with disabilities.
I am sure that most hon. Members would agree that for many visitors to any town or city in the UK their first impression, and perhaps their last, will be of the train station. Will the Minister use her good offices to ask ScotRail, Network Rail and Dundee city council to look at improving Dundee’s train station?
As the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged, this is a devolved matter over which I have no direct power, but I am happy to raise it with ScotRail and Network Rail if he would find it helpful.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the announcements on HS2 and the longevity of the railway system in this country. May I press her to find out what steps are being taken to open up access on the west coast main line link so that passengers from Carnforth can get to London?
As my hon. Friend may be aware, high-speed rail will enable capacity on the west coast main line to double, and Network Rail is now able to review the ability to use that released capacity to provide better services for constituencies across the country, hopefully including his own.
The Secretary of State will be aware that many of the rail enhancement projects in Scotland, including the Edinburgh Glasgow improvement programme and Borders Rail, are being funded by borrowing against the value of Network Rail’s regulatory asset base, which is of course a Great Britain-wide asset. Does she agree that those projects and many in the future would not happen in a separate Scotland, given that there would be no GB assets to borrow against?
That is one of many questions of this nature that a push towards an independent Scotland would raise. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise his concerns about the destabilising impact that
independence would have, where none of the benefits hoped for by those who want independence would be realised, but many of the downsides would absolutely come to fruition.
Road crashes are the biggest single killer of young people aged between 17 and 25 in this country today. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Cheshire safer roads partnership’s “Think, Drive, Survive” scheme, which brings officers into schools to teach young drivers about better road safety? What more can the Government do in this respect?
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that I have done that excellent scheme in Cheshire and have the certificate on the wall in my office. One of the things we can do is ensure that the test taken before someone is given a driving licence is fit for purpose and that it is not simply a case of passing a test, but of giving the skills everyone needs, particularly young people, to be able to drive and enjoy the road safely.
Driver fatigue and sleepiness is a major cause of road accidents, and it is estimated that one in six lorry drivers suffers from sleep apnoea. Does the Minister have any plans to increase health checks on lorry drivers to diagnose sleep apnoea?
This is a condition that I have known about for many years, as I used to be a heavy goods vehicle driver, and it is something I am looking at now. The hon. Lady has met me and knows that we are working on this. I look forward to bringing forward proposals so that we can ensure that an industry that is already very safe is even safer in future.
Chippenham station lacks disabled access, in large part due to restrictions on modifying buildings and structures considered to be historically important—I wonder what Brunel would think of that. Does the Minister agree that such heritage concerns ought to be applied proportionately so as not to frustrate either access to the railway or, indeed, impose an unreasonable financial burden on achieving it?
I agree with that proposition. One of the problems is that the Victorian infrastructure, which is marvellous in many ways, was not built with the needs of present-day communities in mind. The full Access for All programme is continuing, and I think that it should be possible in most cases to improve access while respecting the integrity of such buildings.
All parties support the proposed new Mersey Gateway crossing, but there is concern that local people will have to pay a toll to cross the bridges. I believe that they should continue to pay nothing. My big concern is that the deal that the Government have offered Halton borough council means that they will take 70% of any excess revenue from procurement savings and 85% of any
excess toll revenue, which will leave the council little room for manoeuvre to discount local tolls. Will the Secretary of State please look at this again?
I think that the deal we struck with the hon. Gentleman’s local council is the right one, and one that it signed up to. It enables it to get on with the new crossing, which will provide welcome extra capacity for many people in the area.
I am very aware of the significance of that road. This is something we are looking at and will continue to look at as we develop plans for future road improvements.
I will be announcing the next steps on those plans very shortly and can absolutely assure the hon. Lady that, as with any decisions I take, safety is of paramount consideration.
May I thank the roads Minister for his interest in and commitment to the £110 million expansion of the A14 around Kettering, and, given its proximity to the town of Kettering itself, urge him to include as many noise reduction measures as he can when the scheme is constructed?
I had a fantastic visit to Kettering and looked at the roads programme that is going to be developed, as well as at the town centre redevelopment, which is a huge success. We will ensure that noise reduction is part of the plan, so that the local community benefits from the new road and is not encumbered by it.
In Bristol, the city council is being forced to make savings of £2 million, directly affecting its subsidy to First Bus. Routes are being cancelled, operating times are being cut and fares, which are already far too high, are still rising. What efforts are Ministers making to ensure that local bus routes remain operational and affordable?
I had thought that the hon. Lady might have written to congratulate the Government on the major investment programme in Bristol which we announced at the end of last year, with a number of schemes going ahead. But in terms of buses, she might have written to congratulate the Government also on the new “better bus area” programme, which includes an extra £50 million for buses, £20 million for more green buses and more money for community transport.
So there is a lot of money going into buses, and we are doing a great deal to protect bus passengers and to improve bus services.
I know that the Minister is aware of the importance to economic growth of the Hastings to Bexhill link road, which he is now considering. Is he also aware of the enormous lengths that its promoters have gone to in order to mitigate environmental concerns, including the proposed building of dedicated tunnels for dormice that might have to cross the road?
I was not aware of the proposals relating to dormice, although I very much welcome them. I have had many representations from people in that region about the importance of the scheme. We are considering them very carefully now, and I hope that we can announce our final decision on the scheme shortly.
Is the Secretary of State aware that, although there is a welcome on both sides of the House and in the city of Derby for her decision on the Southern contract, and indeed hope for her decision on eVoyager, the real touchstone of the Government’s approach to rail procurement will be the handling of Crossrail and, in particular, whether its financing is handled as was the Thameslink project? I know she has that in mind, and I hope that she can give us a favourable answer on it today.
I am very pleased that the right hon. Lady has welcomed the deal that was struck between Southern and Bombardier. I had her in my thoughts on the day of the announcement, because I know how much difference it makes to the city that she represents. I assure her that I take incredibly seriously the negotiating process, ensuring that it is fair for all people involved including bidders such as Bombardier, and I will now work very closely over the next months and years with all people who want to bid for the important Crossrail procurement and ensure that that is fair. We have seen that when Bombardier bids for contracts, as it does, it can be successful.
Almost 50 years have passed since the 70 mph maximum speed limit was introduced, and in that time there have been significant advances in motoring technology. When does the Minister expect to announce the outcome of her review of the matter?
I shall announce it very shortly, and we are absolutely committed to striking the right balance between looking at the important issues that my hon. Friend has just raised and doing what we can to maintain and, indeed, improve motorway safety.
Will the Secretary of State reject the previous Transport Secretary’s comments that high-speed rail would be affordable only for business passengers, and will she reassure passengers that the new high-speed line will be both affordable and accessible?
I want to be absolutely clear: my predecessor was very clear that the new high-speed rail line needed to be a railway that was beneficial to all
people, including of course business people who want to use it. The business case works on an assumption of standard rail fares, as we have on the current network, and I am absolutely clear in my mind that the way in which we are going to make high-speed rail successful is by having as many people use it as possible—and that means having value-for-money fares.