My Lords, the Government are committed to delivering electrification from Paddington to Swansea, which is a priority and part of the largest enhancements programme since the Victorians. Challenges have arisen from electrification, and construction and planning consents have taken longer than expected. That is why my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has asked Sir Peter Hendy to look into issues of both deliverability and affordability, and he is due to report in the autumn.
My Lords, the Minister referred to this being a top priority. Can he explain why this is being delayed? Is it due to the inability of the Government to provide sufficient funding, or is it because they have encountered fundamental technical problems? I am aware that initially, in answers here and in the other place, Ministers said that there would not be a delay. The reference to a delay came last Sunday, from the Secretary of State for Wales.
I reiterate that this programme of electrification is a priority. It is not an issue of funding alone. We are spending £38 billion during the next four to five years. That is the largest investment that has been made since the Victorian age. Challenges have arisen over electrification, to which I alluded in my initial response, but other schemes have been put on pause to ensure that we give this particular scheme the priority that we have emphasised before.
My Lords, the term “on pause” is a very vague concept for a government Minister to employ. Is it not clear that this so-called priority of the west coast main line will not see electrification for some time? Would it be wrong of the Opposition to suspect that it is something to do with funding after all? The Minister can probably confirm that the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s northern powerhouse is having the plug pulled on it with the delays to electrification on the Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds line and the delays to electrification from the London to Sheffield line. Will the Minister explain just what “on pause” means?
As a general principle in life, it is often good to pause and reflect. I suggest to the noble Lord that it is something he should sometimes deploy. We have asked Sir Peter Hendy to look into the whole issue and the challenges that have arisen around electrification. He will report in the autumn and, after he does, I am sure we will return to this subject. As for the northern powerhouse, the plug is truly in and the switch is turned on.
My Lords, is it not something more to do with lack of engineering capacity, because we have not done very much electrification in recent years, until this Government came into office?
My noble friend speaks from great experience on these matters, no least because he has spoken from this Dispatch Box on the issue of skills. I am delighted that that is one of my specific portfolio responsibilities at the Department for Transport. As noble Lords will know, we have already established the Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy, which I visited only last week, an incredible investment that has come out of the Crossrail project. Later this year, I will be joining the Secretary of State for the opening of the National Training Academy for Rail. Britain has some great challenges as far as the skills agenda is concerned. It is certainly this Government’s view that we not only meet the skills challenge domestically but establish institutions to provide for skills abroad as well.
I think it would be useful if we heard from the Labour Party Benches and then perhaps from Plaid Cymru.
I must say to noble Lords that I am very impressed by my popularity on the last day of term. The noble Lord nevertheless raises an important point. I mentioned affordability because of course challenges have arisen. That is why it is important to allow Sir Peter to look into all elements of the challenges that have arisen around Network Rail. As I have said already, we will return to this issue in the autumn.
May I press the Minister further on that term “affordability”, which he chose to use in his first Answer? If affordability is an issue and if the answer is that the project is going to be more expensive than expected, may that in some circumstances rule out the priority that has been given to this line?
On the contrary—as both the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have indicated, this project remains a priority. We are working with the Welsh Government on issues relating in particular to the connection between Swansea and Cardiff. We have provided additional funding in that respect. Of course, there are challenges; otherwise, we would not have Sir Peter Hendy reviewing this area.
My Lords, I had hoped that we would have a trouble-free occasion.
Would the noble Lord mind sitting down, please? I think that we should hear from the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, as the Question refers to Swansea.
My Lords, as perhaps the only Swansea resident in the House, might I say that, whatever the priorities of the Government—and we are well aware of the pressure of the 40% cut in public expenditure—for us in Swansea this is a major matter? It is part of a trio of developments, including the lagoon and the new university campus. I therefore assure the Minister that this project is not only important for Swansea and the region but will send a signal to businessmen that there is life beyond Cardiff.
There is—I agree with the noble Lord. That is why the Prime Minister said on