Ben Bradshaw

Working Hard for Exeter

8th February Questions

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments on the positive role already being played by the RAF in the coalition campaign to drive Daesh back from territory in Syria, following the recent vote in this House. Does she agree that the catastrophe, including the humanitarian and refugee catastrophe, will continue as long Daesh controls large areas of eastern Syria and as long as President Assad, supported by Putin, slaughters his own people?

Justine Greening: Yes, I agree entirely. As I said in response to the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), it is critical that we maintain Syria’s integrity as a country, and that absolutely means regaining the territory that has been lost to Daesh. There can be no peace settlement in Syria until we have that territory back under control and it can form part of the peace talks.

Full debate


Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): Is it not at the very least odd that the Secretary of State yet again chooses to stay away and not come before the House to answer questions on this very important subject? As a former Health Minister, I know how difficult the BMA can be, but this would seem to indicate to me that it is the Secretary of State who has become the main obstacle to a sensible solution to this crisis.

Ben Gummer: The right hon. Gentleman will know that, numerically, the previous Labour Government had far more scraps with the BMA than the coalition Government and this Government have achieved so far. He will know that it is a mark of all Health Secretaries to have disputes of one kind or another with the BMA. The Secretary of State will be here tomorrow, since the right hon. Gentleman asks, to answer oral Health questions.

Full debate


Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for arriving a few seconds after he rose to his feet. The previous business finished rather earlier than a lot of us expected or had been forewarned about, but I congratulate him on being the driving force behind this timely debate.

At the end of the week, when I get into carriage A at Paddington with my bike in the bike space just in front of it—carriage A is the quiet carriage—I sit down, and I usually have the best two hours of my week. Every time I am on that journey, I give thanks to Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the brilliance of the line that he created back in the Victorian age, from which we are still benefiting. It still think it incredible, given that very little has happened since, that on a good day someone can get from London to Exeter—quite a long way, as I am sure hon. Members who know their geography realise—in under two hours, and that is very much thanks to Brunel.

I completely agree with the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), because for all its frailties, Great Western is my favourite railway line. I travel across the UK quite a lot, and it is certainly better than the new franchise owners on the east coast main line, and the pokey little carriages on Virgin and the west coast main line. Great Western is comfortable and bright. The loos do not work, and when they do they flush straight on to the tracks. That is completely intolerable and unacceptable in the modern age and must change as a matter of urgency. The ventilation is idiosyncratic, and one can often find a carriage that is far too hot or far too cold, but the staff are always delightful and friendly, and the service is excellent.

I have one plea to all railway companies, which is that they should do much more to publicise a passenger’s right to a full refund if they are delayed by more than an hour. I really think that they are getting away with too much, and far too many people do not realise that they are entitled to a refund. I was an hour and a half late coming back at the weekend because of some of the problems that the hon. Member for Torbay referred to, and, in terms of good customer service, such compensation should be announced on the trains as a matter of course.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): In highlighting the beauty of the line to Exeter, may I encourage the right hon. Gentleman to stay on the train and see how even more beautiful the line gets once it passes along the coast? It is not just about the beauty of the line, which I hope everyone will experience, but the economic importance of the line via Dawlish to the economies of south Devon. Will he join me in saying that whatever we do we must protect the line through Dawlish and protect the economies of south Devon?

Mr Bradshaw: I know the line through Dawlish very well. I spent childhood holidays in Salcombe. In fact, my parents used to get a train all the way to Kingsbridge in the good old days before Beeching took his axe to our rural rail network. It is beautiful, but vulnerable. I will come on to say something about it in a second.

Having said all those positive things, we still have rolling stock that was introduced, I think, in the early 1970s. As I have said, travel speeds have not actually increased very much for decades, if not for a century. I mentioned the loos and the heating, and the hon. Member for Torbay mentioned electrification. It is puzzling that Spain and Italy have full comprehensive networks of high-speed electric trains, but in this country we still do not have a network of high-speed trains. We are getting one slowly, but in the south-west we are set to be probably the only major region with big cities left in western Europe that does not have either high-speed trains or electrification. There is absolutely no reason why we should not already have electrification down to Exeter. There have been technical challenges, but having been on electric trains in the Alps that go up steep gradients I have never quite understood what the barrier is to electrification where there are gradients. As the hon. Member for Torbay says, we will very soon have the technology to overcome that.

Kevin Foster: I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who, given the speech he is making today, I will call my right hon. Friend even if that is not strictly correct. Does he agree that the question arises of how long it takes us to deliver infrastructure projects in the UK? We touched on this in relation to western rail access to Heathrow and electrification. We just take too long to make decisions and to deliver on them.

Mr Bradshaw: I entirely agree. The Labour Government set up an independent infrastructure body—I cannot remember its name—and the hon. Gentleman’s Government have gone on to do something similar. We need to be much more radical in how we manage big infrastructure improvements. Network Rail is currently pleading, in today’s Financial Times, with the Government not to privatise it, but instead to hand over such decisions to an independent rail commission. That is a very sensible and sound idea, and I hope the Government will listen to it. The fragmentation and privatisation of Network Rail would be an absolute disaster. It is worth reading the piece in today’s Financial Times.

Oliver Colvile: If we want business to use railways, we also need to ensure a good level of broadband so that people can actually work on them.

Mr Bradshaw: I forgot to mention that broadband is terrible in standard class. It never works. I just use 3G, or 4G, if I have it, on the train. I raised this issue with First Great Western a number of times, but it still has not been resolved. I am told that it is fine in first class, but who travels first class? MPs certainly do not; not in my experience, anyway. I never have and since the new expenses system came in we are quite rightly not allowed to.

As hon. Members will remember, two years ago last week we had the catastrophic severing of the line at Dawlish. As the hon. Member for Torbay said, it had a huge impact on the region’s wider economy. Flooding then cut the line on the Somerset levels and this weekend there was flooding between Taunton and Castle Cary. My train was diverted from Exeter because of flooding. There are a lot of resilience problems throughout the network. As we all know, with the growing threat from climate change there will be increasing occurrences of extreme weather events. There has been meaningful and substantial investment in the railways, including in the south-west—although not as much as in other parts of the UK. Following the Hatfield disaster, hon. Members will remember that under the Labour Government there was a major programme of work to make signalling and track safer. That work is ongoing. Improvements at Reading have already made a significant positive difference to the reliability of the service. There used to be regular delays, in particular when coming into Reading on the return journey.

There have been improvements, but we in the far south-west, as opposed to the Bristol-south Wales corridor, where major electrification is planned, still feel the poor relation when it comes to investment. There were a lot of generous—I will use that term rather than grandiose, because we took them at their word—promises made by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Transport Secretary after Dawlish and particularly in the run-up to the general election. I lost count of the number of times the Chancellor and the Prime Minister appeared in Devon and Cornwall wearing a hard hat and a fluorescent jacket and promising us more than £7 billion of rail and other infrastructure investment. They will be held to those promises. A whole swathe of Conservative MPs were elected in Devon and Cornwall on those promises. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] They are laughing, smiling and “hear-hearing” now, but if those promises are not delivered the smiles will be on the other side of their faces come the next general election. It is up to them to get their Government to deliver.

I feel sorry for my Conservative colleagues. We are friends—we have regional solidarity—and I feel sorry for them. In the past two weeks, we have had an absolute public relations fiasco over a tiny sum of money. The Peninsula Rail Task Force in the south-west is a group that got together after Dawlish. It is run by a Conservative councillor. All the councils have taken part and most of them are Conservative. It came up with a fantastic document, on which the hon. Member for Torbay based most of his speech, about what needs to happen in the south-west. Its very small initial ask is for £250,000 for the necessary feasibility studies into electrification and resilience, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. We were promised that this would happen. There was going to be a press release. It was going to be announced last week on the second anniversary of Dawlish. I hope the Minister will use the opportunity this evening, when she responds to the debate—it is not a very good time to put out such a fantastic news story that our media in the south-west would absolutely love—to come up with this small amount of money. It is £250,000 for two feasibility studies. Nothing has been said about when the work will happen.

Johnny Mercer: Will the right hon. Gentleman concede that Network Rail committed to paying for the studies? The Government have not given money to a project and then taken it away. The money has fallen through as a result of what Network Rail has done. We have asked the Government to step up and deliver in its place.

Mr Bradshaw: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the Government have never come up with the money. I am suggesting that they should. Network Rail is not able to come up with the money because of the massive cost overruns and delays on the whole of the rest of its infrastructure investment projects; not just the huge cost and time overrun on the Great Western line into south Wales but on its overall investment all over the country. Incidentally, the Government knew about that before the general election when they were making all those great and grandiose promises about what they were going to deliver to us in the south-west. Those are the conversations the hon. Gentleman needs to have with his Front Bench colleagues. I will leave that to him and wish him the very best of luck.

It is completely obvious to me why the money has not been made available. Network Rail has not got it because it has massively overspent and overrun on all its other projects. I hope that when the Minister responds we can hear a little bit more detail on exactly what we can expect in the far south-west and when. If she cannot tell us about the feasibility study money this evening, perhaps she can tell us: when we might be able to hear about it; when we might have some hope about the prospect of electrification beyond Bristol into our part of the region along the lines that have been suggested; and when we might have some idea about the timetable for an additional alternative line to Dawlish.

I completely agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). We do not want to lose the line at Dawlish. It is beautiful and the people of Dawlish do not want to lose it. However, the fact is that if we talk to any engineer or climate change scientist about the long-term viability of the route, they do not just talk about storms and sea level rises but the fragility of the cliff. The biggest problem with the block last year was that the cliff kept falling down. It is a multiple problem and the line is between the sea and quite a soft cliff. As hon. Members will know, there was a plan back in 1939 to build a sensible, slightly inland alternative from Powderham Castle to Newton Abbot. That did not go ahead because the second world war broke out. There are other options. I can understand that people in north Devon and north Cornwall like the idea of the Okehampton line being reopened. Let us have a look at that and have some idea about what is going to happen and when. As the Prime Minister himself said, we cannot afford to have the south-west cut off like that again. Our economy cannot afford it. I was on the right side of that block, so it did not affect me, but the Plymouth, Cornwall, South Devon and Torbay economies were seriously affected by it.

James Heappey (Wells) (Con): May I add to the right hon. Gentleman’s shopping list? The Minister might like to reassure us about where the south-west and south Wales sit in the Government’s wider priorities. It would appear that we have neither resilience in our network, nor had significant investment in the speeds of our journeys since the ’70s—certainly beyond Bristol, there is no evidence of that coming soon. Other regions, therefore, will zoom ahead with much faster high-speed rail within a decade or two. It would be useful if the right hon. Gentleman added to his list this question about where we stand in the Government’s priorities.

Mr Bradshaw: I entirely agree, and we look forward to hearing the Minister respond at the end of this debate. I intend to finish with what I hope will be an attractive suggestion to all those Conservative Members who were swept to power—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Claire Perry): I simply hope that at some point the right hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that there will be a new station opening in his constituency next year.

Mr Bradshaw: Yes, and we have already had a new station opened just outside my constituency—and the investment programme for it was put in place by the Labour Government, so I am very grateful that the Minister did not cut it. [Interruption.] Of course I am grateful for that.

Claire Perry rose—

Mr Bradshaw: I am sorry, but I am not giving way again.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Natascha Engel): Order. The right hon. Member is not giving way.

Mr Bradshaw: I have said I am grateful for that station and that I am grateful for the investment programme that the Labour Government initiated. I say to the Minister simply that she has cut that investment programme over the last six years at a time when every sensible economist in the world thinks we should be investing in our infrastructure for the long term. We have record low long-term interest rates in this country and a faltering economy, so now is the time when we should be investing in infrastructure, and particularly in rail. I repeat that I am very grateful that the Minister did not cut the money for that station and that we are going to get another station—but, incidentally, the Labour Government initiated the plans for that, too.

I am going to end with the following suggestion to the Conservative MPs in Devon and Cornwall who were swept to victory last May on great and grandiose promises of a rail revolution and renaissance in the south-west. I got into a great deal of trouble with my Whips in the last Parliament for refusing to vote for the money for High Speed 2 up to the north. To give credit where it is due, one Conservative Member, the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter)—sadly, he is not in his place tonight—did the same. We withheld our support for that money. The Government now have a majority of only 12—

Mrs Sheryll Murray: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Bradshaw: No, I will not. I am finishing and the hon. Lady can speak in the debate.

More than 12 Conservative Members with constituencies in Devon and Cornwall could stop the Government putting that money through if they do not get what this Government promised over the next five years. I challenge them to do that—to stick up for their constituents, stick up for the south-west and stop taking no for an answer.

Full debate

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