Cross-Solent Ferries

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Tuesday 26th March 2024

(2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Huw Merriman Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Huw Merriman)
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Let me begin by saying that it is my pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I am delighted to be standing in for the maritime Minister today; he cannot attend because he sits in the other House, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) has pointed out. I would also like to congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I know that this is an incredibly important topic to both him and the community he represents. The ferry service is essential for the Island, the Islanders and its visitors. He has been championing this important link for many years, campaigning for a more resilient and reliable service for his constituents.

I know that my hon. Friend’s recent plan for the future of cross-Solent ferries, which I have in my hand, is the culmination of all his hard work. It offers a route map towards better services, better prices and ticketing, and greater transparency over the ownership structures of ferry operators. I can assure him that the Department for Transport will take time to digest the report thoroughly, and we will respond to all the questions he has asked me this afternoon. For now, I will simply say that we welcome this work, and we look forward to seeing the final report once both his constituents and the Isle of Wight Council have had the opportunity to comment, which he is of course giving them in the consultation. The consultation is important because, as we have always made clear, the solutions to these issues are better resolved at a local level, where all stakeholders—Islanders, the operators and the council—can get around the table and, if possible, agree the best way forward.

The Government have a history of backing reliable and accessible ferry services for the Isle of Wight. During the pandemic, cross-Solent ferry services were safeguarded, and significant funds were made available to the Isle of Wight Council to ensure that they were preserved—an excellent example of the council and operators coming together to tackle the challenges faced at that time. However, as my hon. Friend is aware, although that intervention highlighted the Government’s high regard for lifeline ferry links, it was made under those exceptional circumstances, and as the country moves from recovery to renewal, we must acknowledge that the current operators of cross-Solent services do so in a fully commercial market. The bar for central Government intervention in such a commercial market is rightly extremely high, although I am aware that my hon. Friend is asking us to meet that height. The economic growth that we are striving for relies on a healthy private sector that brings jobs, investment and opportunities to communities up and down the country. We must acknowledge that these ferry operators are part of that ecosystem.

The Government pride themselves on recognising the benefits of private investment, and we have worked hard to make sure that UK plc is an attractive place to do business. That means that when local issues arise around local services, locally led solutions are the best way to resolve them. That is, again, why I commend my hon. Friend for the report he has produced.

The Isle of Wight transport infrastructure board could well be the perfect vehicle for these discussions, and I hope my hon. Friend reaches out to the board as part of his consultation. We should not forget that the investigation into the Isle of Wight ferry market by the then Office of Fair Trading back in 2009 was instigated by the then local MP, working with his constituents, which is yet another example of the community coming together to drive action.

Of course, as my hon. Friend set out today, the services are not perfect, and we can all acknowledge that there is work to be done. That was highlighted by the disruption to Red Funnel services last week, when many passengers endured frustrating delays. I think we can all agree that the situation was not acceptable and, while we thank Red Funnel for the mitigations put in place, they do not take away from the impact of those cancellations on the Islanders. The Government welcome the independent review that Red Funnel is conducting and I know that, once it is complete, the maritime Minister will be meeting with the company to discuss the recommendations.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. He has expertly pressed home his concerns and those of his constituents, and he has taken time to put them together in a report, and to put that report out to consultation. I thank him for his engagement on these important issues. I underline that he has the Government’s full support in striving for the quality of service that his community deserves.

Question put and agreed to.