I welcome the fact that the decision to freeze fuel duty for 10 consecutive years has saved the average driver over £1,000. I firmly believe that the most effective way to keep fuel prices down is through an open and competitive market.
Cars are essential to many people here in North Devon and I have conveyed your comments on fuel duty to my colleagues at the Treasury. They assure me that all elements of taxation, including the various reliefs associated with any given tax, are kept under constant review. Any changes to fuel duty would be considered as part of the normal process leading up to the Budget, and I shall be listening carefully to what the Chancellor has to say about motorists.
For the first time since 1926, money raised through car tax (Vehicle Excise Duty) is now being spent directly on the roads. Around £28bn is being invested in England's strategic and local roads, an amount equivalent to all VED receipts. I was very pleased to see the announcement in the recent Spending Review that £1.7 billion has been made available for local highway authorities in England (outside London) for 2021-2022 to improve the condition of local roads and associated infrastructure.
I welcome that Ministers and officials, together with other Government Departments, have been in regular contact with Eurostar since March 2020 in relation to their financial situation. The Department of Transport continues to work closely with Eurostar to consider all commercial financing options available to the company, which include drawing on existing support schemes where eligible and appropriate.
I understand that the Department will continue to discuss Eurostar’s financial situation with the French Government, and I trust that Ministers will also continue to closely monitor the financial impact of Covid-19 on Eurostar and the international transport sector more broadly.
I understand that the use of e-scooters in pedestrian areas can cause concern for all pedestrians, and especially those who are partially sighted or blind and who use guide dogs.
Other than as part of the Government approved e-scooter trials, it is illegal for e-scooters to be used on public roads. My ministerial colleagues in the Department for Transport, along with the police, are aware of the current issues with e-scooters. I understand that local police forces across the country have a range of sanctions at their disposal to address illegal e-scooter use, including on the spot fines and placing points on any licence held by the user.
MPC Andy Bennett, Road Casualty Reduction Officer with Devon and Cornwall Police has said on the matter that if officers find anyone using e-scooters in a public place, the scooter will be seized and the rider reported for any offences.
Pet Travel (Including Guide Dog Travel)
I truly understand how important it is for guide dogs and their owners, as well as pets in general, to be able to travel to and from the EU with as much ease as possible. Now that the Transition Period has ended, you will need an animal health certificate signed by a vet, a microchip and a valid rabies vaccination. You will also need tapeworm treatment for dogs if you are travelling directly to Finland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Norway or Malta. You can find more information about what is required here: https://www.gov.uk/taking-your-pet-abroad/travelling-to-an-eu-country-or-northern-ireland.
Ministers are continuing to press the EU Commission on securing Part 1 listed status for the UK under the EU Pet Travel Scheme as it is clear that the UK meets all the requirements for this, with one of the most rigorous pet checking regimes in Europe to protect biosecurity. This would enable UK issued pet passports to continue to be used.
I am pleased that Ministers have ensured there are no changes to the current pet travel rules for entry into Great Britain from Northern Ireland, and they are working closely with the Northern Ireland Assembly to ensure a long-term solution which supports pet owners and assistance dog users entering Northern Ireland.
Finally, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is proactively and positively engaging with the assistance dog community on the impacts on dog movements to the EU. I am assured that Ministers will continue to closely work with assistance dog organisations to share the latest advice and guidance in accessible formats with their members on pet travel requirements as this is updated.
The Department for Transport is currently running a series of electric scooter trials in a small number of local areas across the country. This was to allow the Government to look into the true benefits and costs of electric scooters. E-scooters could ease the burden on the transport network and, in light of coronavirus, help to facilitate social distancing. However, the Government will need to understand the full impact of electric scooters before any decision is made on whether they should be legalised.
Some local councils have raised concerns around the safety of e-scooters after reports of misuse, such as use in pedestrianised areas. This is against the clear government guidance first published in July, which lists the rules for members of the general public who are using e-scooters that are part of trials. The full list of guidelines can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/e-scooter-trials-guidance-for-users.
As I understand it, two cities have halted the trials due to these issues. I welcome that local councils are prioritising the safety and concerns of their communities, and understand that trials that have been put on hold will be reviewed by local authorities. It is my hope that trials which have been halted may resume when the e-scooters can be used safely and appropriately. I understand that my Ministerial colleagues have been clear that it is important that trials take place in a safe and controlled way and that more robust initial launch plans must be put in place for future trials. I know the Department for Transport is using this feedback to help other trials avoid these issues.
Sight Loss and Public Transport
As an RNIB Champion, I take a very close interest in issues affecting those with sight loss. I am committed to ensuring those who experience sight loss do not lose access to the parts of daily life we take for granted, such as public transport.
The Government has recently published new guidance for transport operators, reminding them that all equality and discrimination law continues to apply, and that they have a duty to ensure that passengers with disabilities, including those with sight loss, are able to access the transport network.
The guidance makes clear that transport operators must support individuals to ensure they are able to adhere to social distancing, and that guidance should be provided for workers assisting people with disabilities. Information should also be provided for disabled passengers on how they can continue to access transport in a safe way. Operators should publish details about provision for disabled passengers, and they should note any changes to assistance services.
I would also expect passengers using public transport to be considerate towards those with disabilities who may require a seat or more space around them. I also commend the guidance put together by Guide Dogs for the Blind and I would be happy to draw it to the attention of local transport operators.
On the recommendation of the independent Oakervee Review commissioned last year, the Prime Minister has given the go ahead to HS2, alongside major improvements to local transport networks up and down the country.
HS2 will play an important role in the UK’s transition to a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. I understand that HS2 will offer some of the lowest carbon emissions per passenger mile, seven times less than passenger cars and 17 times less than domestic air travel in 2030. HS2 is also expected to help reduce the number of cars and lorries on the road and cut demand for domestic flights.
It is estimated that the total carbon emissions produced by both constructing and operating Phase One for 120 years would be the same as just one month of the UK's road network.
HS2 was also the first major transport infrastructure project in the UK to commit to the achieving ‘no net loss’ in biodiversity.
I am pleased that a green corridor will be created alongside the railway. This will involve the planting of seven million new trees and shrubs, including over 40 native species, along the Phase One route from London to the West Midlands.
It is also welcome that an overall £70 million funding package has also been made available to enhance community facilities, improve access to the countryside, and help improve road and cycle safety in towns and villages along the HS2 Phase One route.
During this difficult time for the country, the Government recognises the extreme disruption the necessary actions are having on people’s lives, their businesses, their jobs and the nation’s economy. That is why it has produced a huge and unprecedented programme of support both for workers and for business, and it will continue do everything it can to ensure people can pay their bills, stay in their home and put food on their table.
I do not underestimate the difficulties currently facing the travel industry, and the Government is engaging with the package travel sector and consumer advocacy bodies to assess the impact of cancellations made in light of the Covid-19 outbreak. The Government has already taken a number of steps to ensure more support for businesses of all sizes, including those in the travel industry. This includes extending the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme until at least the end June, extending the Coronavirus Interruption Loan Scheme to support all small businesses affected by coronavirus and creating a new Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme to help bigger firms as well.
I hope that travel firms of all sizes are using the schemes available to get through this extremely challenging period as best as they can. The Government is making progress on rolling these out, with the loans issued so far already worth more than £1.1 billion. Approvals have doubled in a week and lenders are increasing the number of loans they are approving every day. It has also changed the scheme to make it quicker and easier for banks to get the loans out the door to businesses.
I know that Ministers are aware of the ABTA campaign and will take any measures deemed necessary to support the travel industry. I will continue to engage with the Government on this.
HS2 and the Environment
On the recommendation of the independent Oakervee review commissioned last year, the Prime Minister has given the go ahead to HS2, alongside major improvements to local transport networks up and down the country. I am in regular discussions with Ministers to make sure North Devon gets a fair share of the new investment in transport.
The Oakervee review considered HS2’s environmental impact in line with the Government’s ambitious legally binding target for the UK to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The review found on balance, taking into account both construction and operation, that HS2 appears likely to be close to carbon neutral, and that it could also encourage people to travel by rail instead of by car or flying.
I do also agree with the review’s recommendation that HS2 Ltd should continue to look for ways of being more carbon efficient, particularly in construction in the short-medium term. Moreover, I support the recommendation that HS2 Ltd should look to reduce its forecast greenhouse gas emissions for the construction and delivery of Phase 2.
A green corridor will be created alongside the railway, including the planting of seven million new trees and shrubs along the Phase One route from London to the West Midlands. This is on top of the extensive tree-planting programme the Government has already announced.
Railways should allow people to access education and highly skilled, well paid jobs, and of course enable them to socialise. I therefore welcome that the Government is taking action to bring about much needed change.
From 1st March, the Northern Rail franchise will be taken into public ownership and the Government will begin operating Northern services through the public-sector operator, the so-called operator of last resort (OLR). The franchise system is being reviewed by the Government and all options are being considered to ensure that the railways work for passengers.
The Government is determined to see tangible improvements for passengers and I understand that the Pacer replacement programme will continue. I have been very glad to see that from December 12th of last year, the Barnstaple to Exeter line has received new trains to replace the frankly inadequate, older carriages.
Rail is absolutely key to our economy and we need better rail links in the South West and for North Devon in particular. I have already had many meetings to see what the Government can do to improve our railways and to improve North Devon’s infrastructure more broadly.