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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 447: debated on Tuesday 13 June 2006


The Secretary of State was asked—

Swinden Quarry-Grassington Rail Service

1. What estimate he has made of the cost of reinstating the railway from Swinden quarry near Linton to Grassington. (76574)

We have made no estimate of the costs of reinstating the railway from Swinden quarry to Grassington, but the current north Yorkshire local transport plan refers to a study of this proposal that was made in 2002.

It is disappointing that the Government have not made an estimate, because at the moment quarry traffic runs to within two miles of Grassington, which, as you know Mr. Speaker, is the capital of lower Wharfedale—deep in the Yorkshire dales. At a time when we are trying to get people out of their cars to enjoy the countryside, surely it makes economic sense, political sense and good social sense to reinstate that railway and get people to the beauties of the dales without their having to rely on their own transport.

I agree that it is beautiful part of the world. My hon. Friend is a great champion of the need to improve the local railway and I know that he has raised many issues about it. However, the study did not show a positive cost-benefit ratio and therefore the business case has not been made. As he knows, we are investing a record amount in the railway. I am only sorry that I cannot be helpful to him today.

The concern of the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) for my constituency is touching from a neighbour and I am grateful to him. Will the Minister note that, over the last few weeks, there have been four reports on the condition of the countryside, all of which highlight the problems of rural transport? If any resources were to become available for extending passenger rail links, will he bear in mind that getting ordinary people who do not have the means of transport to work and enabling them to carry out their normal daily tasks is more important than transporting tourists to the Yorkshire dales?

Rural railways and local railways are important, which is why we have developed the community rail partnership and why we are seeing investment in community rail. At the same time, there have to be enough passengers to justify the service. If there is a case for extending rail links in the future, that will have to be made by the local authority, working with Network Rail. We are keen on developing community rail, which is why the partnership has developed well.

Transport Innovation Fund

2. What role the transport innovation fund will play in tackling road congestion through demand management. (76575)

Up to £200 million a year of the transport innovation fund has been made available to support local packages of measures to address congestion. Those include demand management measures, such as road pricing, as well as investment in public transport to ensure that our towns and cities support the long- term economic success of the UK.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that Bristol is one of the local authorities that is bidding for funds from the transport innovation fund to run a road pricing pilot. What support will the local authority be given from the Department for Transport in that bid?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We have already given the greater Bristol area £1.5 million of so-called pump-priming money to support the development of a potential bid for the transport innovation fund. The four unitary authorities in the area are working together to investigate the potential for using demand management and road pricing to address the problems of local congestion. I would expect to receive the first scheme proposals next year, with pricing pilots possibly going live in four to five years.

Will the Secretary of State say whether he expects any bids for money from the transport innovation fund to be successful if they do not include an element of congestion charging or road-user pricing?

Those issues are covered in the guidance notes. We have made no secret of the fact that we think that there is considerable potential to learn useful lessons from the pilots, but that is one element of the opportunities that are available to local authorities, given that there have to be local solutions that work in local areas.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s inclusion of the west midlands conurbation area in the feasibility study to bid for money from the transport innovation fund. What consideration has he given—perhaps with his colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry—to how initiatives such as the transport innovation fund can be used to maximise the technological, industrial and employment potential of different kinds of traffic management schemes, as well as reducing road congestion?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks about the west midlands, which is one of the seven areas that are benefiting from the pump-priming money, as I described it. The broader relationship between transport and economic growth will be addressed by the Eddington study, which was commissioned jointly by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and my predecessor. The study should come to us later this year and will address exactly that type of relationship.

First, I welcome the Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box for the first time in his new job and congratulate him on his promotion to the Cabinet. I also congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) on her promotion. It is a shame that they come to the Dispatch Box on a day when the Government have cut back the time that is available for Transport questions, which demonstrates what a low priority transport is for this Government. In the Secretary of State’s first speech, he confirmed plans for a national road pricing scheme. He has made reference again today to the concept of pilots by 2010 in areas such as the west midlands and Bristol. Does he yet have an idea of what form the pilot will take? In particular, will it involve only vehicles registered in the area covered by the pilot, will it be fiscally neutral for those involved and what technology will it use?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks, in relation both to me and to my ministerial colleague. I said in the speech that I wanted to make a personal priority of taking forward the debate on a national road pricing scheme. We need such a debate, partly because there are genuine questions in the minds of motorists and other members of the public that need to be addressed. We would aim for a national consensus, and I hope that we can secure it over the months ahead, or at least begin to unbundle some of the questions that have been directed at me today. I make no secret of the fact that genuine technological questions need to be addressed. I hope that the local pilots will help us to answer other questions, which is why I think that it is sensible to have a graduated response that shows the benefits of road pricing in areas in which that can be seen to be an effective solution to congestion.

I was interested to note that the Secretary of State was not able to give specific answers to my questions. I have talked to people in the west midlands and Greater Manchester who are involved in the potential pilots and they have no idea of what is going on, what the technology involved will be, or what the pilots will look like. When will they get some information about what they should expect?

Business cases are being worked up and it is important that those responsible for the areas themselves work out a solution that works for them. I have examined the matter quite carefully in recent weeks. The hon. Gentleman puts his points to me, but I have no idea whatsoever about his position on the questions that have been asked. We will bring forward detailed proposals from the seven areas, and that will be the basis on which we can examine the range of alternatives that, in turn, will inform the thinking that we develop on national road pricing.

My right hon. Friend’s predecessor assured the House on many occasions that road charging would not be a condition for future funding of the tram system in Manchester, yet we appear to be entering into a competition for transport innovation funds between Manchester and Birmingham that will almost certainly require road charging. Does my right hon. Friend agree that rather than getting into such a destructive competition, it would be much more sensible to use the TIF money to lever in private sector funds, or as a basis for prudential borrowing, so that Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol—all the cities—can have the tram systems that they require?

I pay tribute to the leadership role that my hon. Friend has played in Manchester over a number of years, both in local government and now here in the Commons. Within days of my appointment as Secretary of State, I travelled to Manchester and reiterated the commitment that my predecessor had given on the funds available for the Manchester Metrolink. Discussions continue with the Manchester authorities and I hope that we can bring them to a conclusion relatively quickly. I understand that in addition to those discussions, consideration is being given in Manchester to the applicability of TIF funding in the future. However, in the weeks ahead, I will not in any way resile from the commitment given by my predecessor to Manchester.

Rural/Community Railway Lines

The Government recognise the importance of local railway lines to the communities they serve and seek to support their development, primarily through the implementation of the community rail development strategy.

When will the Government publish their response to the recent consultation on the future of rural and community railway lines? Does the Minister accept that it is vital that there are improved connections between the rural lines which survive the forthcoming cuts and the national network, which would bring increased revenue to offset public subsidy? Would that not be a simple example of an integrated transport policy, which was much heralded nine years ago by the Deputy Prime Minister, although it subsequently appears to have sunk without trace?

I do not accept that. We launched three franchises only last week: new cross country, west midlands and east midlands. They will lead to a 3 to 5 per cent. increase in services. The east and west midlands franchises will be asked to work with and develop community rail. We are thus seeing an improvement to services and an increase in their number as a result of what the Government are doing. Part of the west midlands franchise will be a new hourly service between Birmingham and Manchester that will serve Congleton, which is in the hon. Lady’s constituency.

Will the Minister give an indication of the Government’s thinking on the National Forest line, a passenger service that would be restored to the Leicester to Burton section of the rail network? It seems to tick all the boxes that are necessary, but in his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), he talked about a business case. This line has one that is strong environmentally, economically, socially and, dare I say, running through four marginal Labour seats, politically?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, especially his last comment. On business cases, there is a great demand for services and improvements to stations and lines. Although a record amount of money is going to the railway and significant improvements have been made, we have to consider such cases. In the first instance, it is up to the local authority, as the promoter, working with Network Rail to produce a business case. However, my hon. Friend will be aware, that as I just mentioned, last week we published the east midlands and cross-country franchise consultation documents, which set out the minimum service required. We want views from a range of stakeholders, and I am sure that we will hear from him, about what people want. We will consider responses carefully before we make final decisions about the franchise.

Will the Minister repeat the assurances of earlier occupants of his post that neither the Henley-Twyford line nor any other such line will be converted to a community railway without the express support of the community concerned, even though the line runs through solid Conservative territory?

Community rail development obviously has to have the support of the community; otherwise, it does not stack up and make sense. If there is no community support for a line to be designated as a community line, it will not happen. The important point to make is that the more involvement there is, whether it is through the more formal process of community development or from the local community, local business and people generally within particular areas covered by a railway station and service, the better it is. If the line is supported and more people use it, its viability is increased and it makes good business sense. There are, however lots of opportunities without necessarily going down the community rail development route. That said, it is an excellent scheme, but if it is not supported, it will not happen.

In the Minister’s answers to my hon. Friends, he reiterated the Government’s rhetoric that rural, community and light rail are important to them. However, if they really believed their own rhetoric, they would not be closing rural railway lines but increasing their usage, and they would have spent more than 0.3 per cent. of the Department for Transport’s budget on light rail. The consultation that is now happening is leading to the closure of rural, smaller and community rail links. They are surely on the way to ditching another policy. That means another policy will be ditched, another policy will be U-turned, and there will be more problems for the travelling public.

That is a bit rich coming from the Conservatives, who gave us botched privatisation, Railtrack, and years and years of underinvestment in the railway. We have seen record investment in the railway under this Government. I keep asking, as I did earlier, which line we have plans to close. Can the hon. Gentleman let us know?

We have 2,500 stations, and I have opened two or three new ones in the past 12 months; for example, Liverpool Parkway is opening and the east midlands line is being developed. There has been a growth in services as part of the franchises for east midlands, west midlands and Virgin. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman’s arguments do not stack up.

Mottram-Tintwistle Bypass

4. How many submissions have been received by the Highways Agency in connection with the proposed Mottram-Tintwistle bypass; and what proportion of these submissions objected to the proposal. (76577)

The draft orders for the scheme were published on 31 January 2006 and a 13-week period ending on 5 May 2006 was provided to allow affected parties and other members of the public to provide their comments. By the end of this period the Highways Agency had received 2,691 pieces of correspondence concerning the proposals. Some 1,446 objections, 997 support letters, 28 representations and another 220 miscellaneous pieces of correspondence, which included queries, freedom of information requests and other questions were received.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. May I tell him why I could not agree to the proposals? In my constituency, the scheme will displace the problems that have been experienced in Tintwistle. For example, on the A628, over Salters bridge, the traffic in 2010 will increase by 56 per cent. and in 2025 by 94 per cent. Those are already busy roads. It is a similar story through Penistone, Thurlstone and Millhouse Green. On the A616 on the other side of my constituency, there will also be marked increases in traffic through Bolsterstone, Midhopestones and Langsett. Does he agree that there need to be robust restraining measures to ensure that the lorries—

Order. I think that the Minister knows that the hon. Gentleman is displeased with his proposal.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing his concerns to my attention. I am happy to hold a meeting with him so that he can discuss them in detail. However, he is entirely right that there are issues that need to be addressed, including possible restraint measures and restrictions on heavy goods vehicle access to the road if it goes ahead. The Highways Agency has already considered such proposals, and I am happy to pass on any suggestions that he wishes to draw to my attention.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the proposals affect my part of south Yorkshire, too, including the villages of Langsett, Midhopestones and Bolsterstone. I am therefore pleased that he has made a commitment to a meeting, and I hope that he will invite all the MPs in south Yorkshire who are affected.

I am certainly happy to meet my hon. Friend, too, to hear her objections. I do not know whether she wishes me to invite to that meeting Government Members who support the proposals strongly, or whether we should have a separate meeting to discuss the issues.

Rail Services

5. What steps his Department has taken to improve the punctuality and reliability of rail services since 1997. (76578)

7. What steps his Department has taken to improve the punctuality and reliability of commuter rail services. (76580)

The rail network has undergone major improvements in recent years. Punctuality on the network is now 86.7 per cent.—the highest level since May 2000. Following the 2004 White Paper, Network Rail is now accountable for performance and for co-ordinating rail industry planning and operational management. My Department holds regular meetings with Network Rail and industry representatives to discuss further performance improvements.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he join me in congratulating the Labour-led Scottish Executive on improving punctuality and reliability? Only two weeks ago, they announced that they would extend the rail line from Bathgate to Airdrie, ensuring that my constituents have three direct rail routes to Glasgow and Edinburgh.

It is obviously the case that punctuality and reliability are challenges in every part of the United Kingdom, but I join my hon. Friend in those congratulations.

May I draw to my right hon. Friend’s attention the continuing problems with One railway in my north London constituency? In February, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), wrote to me about the difficulties that had occurred as a result of industrial action on the railways. Since then, very little has improved. Four days ago, my constituent, Ray Knight, received a letter from the Advertising Standards Authority, in which it said that it was instructing One

“to change their advertising to remove the claim regarding a 30 minute frequency where it does not apply”.

Can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that the Government will undertake a robust review of the franchise agreement to ensure the reliability of rail services in my constituency?

In the first instance, it is for Network Rail, working closely with One management, to try to secure the performance improvements that we all want. There has been a decline in performance in the past year, albeit from a higher base than elsewhere in the country. I understand that 87 per cent. of One services run on time, against a national average of 86.8 per cent. One management has recently been restructured, and performance has shown signs of improvement, but I will ensure that the point made by my hon. Friend’s constituent is passed on directly to Network Rail and, indeed, One management.

Will the Secretary of State consider the future of commuter services in Kent, particularly when the high speed channel tunnel rail link is finished, which will provide many welcome benefits? Can he guarantee that that will not be used as an excuse to cut services, especially to smaller rural stations in my constituency and elsewhere in Kent?

Passenger numbers on the railways have been increasing significantly in recent years. We now have a billion-passenger railway. On the other hand, as my predecessor once remarked, we are not in the business of carting fresh air around the countryside. It is inherent in a confident growing number of passengers that we face challenging decisions at times. We therefore need to consider how we can secure value for money from the network, but that is clearly in the context of continuing to grow the railways.

How will punctuality and reliability be improved by the Secretary of State’s extraordinary proposal to extend the Mayor of London’s power to set fares and control service levels to stations such as Sevenoaks, outside the London boundary, where my constituents cannot vote for the Mayor of London and certainly would not do so if they could?

My understanding is that the services are predominantly within London, but that matter is being consulted upon.

May I welcome the Minister to his new role? As someone who is quite good at spotting odd cover-ups, let me tell him that all Thames valley MPs of all parties are concerned about the punctuality and efficiency of the commuter service that leads into the Thames valley. The service between Slough and Paddington has become less frequent, and because of the reduction in frequency, it might appear more punctual and more effective. Unless we have an effective rail commuter service into the Thames valley, which is the engine of Britain’s economy, we risk losing much inward investment into the UK.

We continue to invest record amounts in the British railways, but in the context of those rising passenger numbers, it is necessary at times to introduce changes to the schedules that make sense in the context of the differing demands in different parts of the country. However, the improvements that we have seen over recent years are the result not only of more sensible timetabling changes, but of the better integration of working relationships between the train operating companies and Network Rail.

In order to improve the punctuality and reliability of congested peak-hour commuter services, what action is the right hon. Gentleman taking to replace the present chaotic system of rail fares among the rail companies with consistent and generous incentives for off-peak use?

A balance must be struck, given that there are essentially two sources of funding to the railway: there are funds provided by the taxpayer and there are funds provided by the fare payer. However, the hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which was previously raised by the Transport Committee, about the present complexity of some of those fares. We are deliberating about our response to that Select Committee report.

The Secretary of State will be aware that some train companies are almost as creative about their timetabling as they are about their accounts. Will he please look carefully at some mainline services, where the airline habit of adding in minutes to schedules is being used in order to improve the running of trains? The Secretary of State is doing a good job. He has given the train companies the money. Let us make sure we get value for it.

I concur with my hon. Friend’s final point about securing value for the investment that has been made. As I say, it is inevitable that there will periodically be timetable changes. It is important that those changes are made not simply to slacken the performance, but to reflect the changing demands over time on the network.

Is the Secretary of State aware that one of the things he could do to improve the punctuality and reliability of commuter services is to unplug the national bottleneck that exists at Reading station? Will he finally announce that the funds will be made available?

Discussions are continuing on that. I am aware that in a previous answer to, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), my predecessor explained that he had seen the station at Reading, was aware of the difficulties and recognised the challenges that are faced.

Road Accidents

6. What progress has been made in reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured in road accidents since 1997. (76579)

Our provisional statistics for 2005 indicate that 32,150 people were killed or seriously injured in accidents reported to the police in Great Britain, which is 33 per cent. less than the baseline average between 1994 and 1998 and 31 per cent. less than the figure in 1997.

I thank my hon. Friend for his response and welcome the reduction in the number of deaths and injuries. However, far too many people still suffer death and injury as a result of drink-driving. Does he agree that now is the time to consider reducing the alcohol limit from 80 mg to 50 mg, which would bring us in line with other European countries?

I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to do more to reduce drink-driving. She will have seen the campaign launched by right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport about drinking during the summer months and the World cup, and other extensive efforts in education are continuing. However, we are still not enforcing the 80 mg limit as strictly as I would like, and we should put our resources into that before we reduce the level to 50 mg. When we have achieved strict enforcement at 80 mg, perhaps we can re-examine the matter.

When will the Minister publish the Department’s new guidelines on speed limits in villages? He will be aware that the parish councils and highways authorities believe that the speed limit should be reduced in many villages, but until his Department produces the guidelines, they cannot reduce speed limits for fear that they will have to reverse their decision when the guidelines are issued.

We will publish the guidance shortly. Over the next year or two, it is important that all highways authorities use the guidance to review all the speed limits on our roads. Speed limits should be set appropriately—they can be reduced for safety purposes or, where engineering or other improvements have happened on a stretch of road, they can be increased. That is an important part of the deal that we need to strike with motorists, and we must be seen to set speed limits fairly and in accordance with objective criteria.

I was a bit disappointed by the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin). The Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland has recently indicated its support for a reduction in the alcohol limit, and there is a growing body of opinion within the road safety community in favour of that. Will the Minister think again and consider the advantages of reducing the limit in terms of saving lives and reducing injuries on the roads?

I hear what my hon. Friend has said and acknowledge his interest in the matter. I have spoken to the Association of Chief Police Officers in England, which has expressed the view that it would like to see the level come down to 50 mg at some point. However, there is no point in discussing harmonisation with the level in Europe, because, although most states in Europe specify lower levels of alcohol in their law, they do not enforce at those levels. In this country, we are at least enforcing hard at 80 mg. I have pointed out to ACPO that the police need to put resources into making sure that nobody breaks the 80 mg limit. When we are confident that we are achieving success at that level, it will be time to think about further reducing the level.

May I begin by congratulating the Secretary of State and the Minister on their appointments? Does the Minister agree that a major problem is the courts’ interpretation and use of laws passed in this House? In my constituency, for example, there is a young man with three convictions: first, he left a boy of five paralysed and was given a two-month driving ban; secondly, he left a 67-year-old woman for dead; thirdly, he stole a car and crashed into a stationary car, which led to a four-month suspended sentence. Working with other Departments, what can the Minister do to ensure that the courts enforce the laws that we pass?

We must work with the courts, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and others on reviewing the sentencing guidelines. The courts need to understand that it is the wish of this House that serious punishments should be issued for such offences. People around the country are fed up with seeing people avoid long sentences, and being given a tap on the wrist for some of the most serious offences that we can envisage. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his party will support us in our approach.


8. What recent discussions he has had with trade unions on employment issues in the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. (76581)

The DVLA has ongoing and regular discussions with the trade unions on all issues affecting the agency and its staff, in line with its partnership agreement. The most recent meeting took place between the chief executive and Public and Commercial Services Union officers at national and local level on 1 June, when they were brought up to date with the agency’s resourcing plans to March 2008.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, and for the opportunity to meet him to discuss this matter. He is aware that several of my constituents have written to me to say that they do not wish their jobs to be outsourced to a private company, but want to remain within the DVLA doing the job that they are doing very well. Will he ensure that when he next meets the director of the DVLA he will make those representations to him on my behalf and that of the union?

First, it is important that I stress that no decisions have been made as yet. It is essential that we review these matters from time to time. All the agencies make sure that they are getting the most cost-effective use of the funds and resources that they are given. I am meeting the chief executive tomorrow, and I will certainly ensure that the views expressed by my hon. Friend are made known to him.

Is the Minister aware that UK British citizens living in Northern Ireland continue to experience problems because their driving licences are not issued by the DVLA in Great Britain, which means that they are being discriminated against as regards penalty points, the recognition of their driving licences and the registration of their vehicles? Will he work with his colleague in Northern Ireland to end that anomaly?

I am aware of the anomaly, and I am talking to my colleagues in Northern Ireland about it. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to provide me with further evidence of the problems facing his constituents, I shall be grateful to receive it.

Rail Infrastructure

Responsibility for the condition of railway embankments is an operational matter for Network Rail. Responsibility for the condition of stations is shared between Network Rail and the train operating companies. In addition, franchise agreements require the train operators to keep their stations in a clean condition.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the amount of fly-tipping and dumping of rubbish taking place on railway banks and land around stations in Cardiff, particularly next to Lisvane station in my constituency, where sewage pipes, fallen lamp-posts, television sets and a whole load of cans are dumped? Things are similar at Llandaff North station.

My hon. Friend raises important local matters, which all hon. Members know are of direct concern to her and her constituents. Through my discussions with her, I am aware of the instances that she mentions. It may be helpful to say that the land is owned by Network Rail and leased to Arriva Trains Wales, which is responsible for removing the litter and fly-tipped material. I know of my hon. Friend’s considerable efforts on behalf of her constituents, and I will be pleased to assist her further by raising the matter with Arriva Trains Wales.

Is the Minister aware that pesticide run-off, which is often a big problem on the rail network and with highways weed control, is often blamed on farmers? Will she work with Network Rail to try to minimise that problem as, despite the fact that the problem is not caused by farmers, it may result in some important pesticides being limited for agricultural use?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. It would be helpful to me, in pursuing the matter, if he gave me some specific examples. As he says, bank maintenance is a matter for Network Rail, which is more than willing to arrange meetings with any Members of Parliament who have particular concerns. I would be happy to facilitate that for him.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the condition of a city’s railway station plays an incredibly important role, as it provides the first impression, and the last memory, for many visitors. Will she therefore join me in calling on the relevant authorities to support my campaign to upgrade Dundee’s Tay Bridge station, which has lain in a neglected state for many years now?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is also Secretary of State for Scotland, so clearly he is aware—as I am—of the importance of the campaign. From my experience, I share the view that the condition of stations is important both for visitors’ perceptions and for our constituents who use the stations as residents.

Rail Services

10. What funds the Department has made available for extending the rail network over the next three years. (76583)

The then Secretary of State’s statement to the House on 10 February 2005 set out the Government’s spending plans for rail for 2004-05 to 2008-09. In that period, the Government are to spend more than £23 billion on Britain’s railways, to make up for years of underinvestment. That is an average of around £88 million a week.

The Under-Secretary will acknowledge that there are many excellent schemes that can increase rail capacity at limited cost, such as Burscough curves near my constituency and the Halton curve near his. However, he will also acknowledge that there is no formal mechanism for opening lines, although there is a clear formal mechanism for closing them. What can we do about that?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I visited Burscough a few months ago to open the new station there. I looked at the area and I appreciate that he has been promoting it, as has the local Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper). As he points out, there is a procedure, which involves going though a sponsoring body such as a local authority and a rail operator. Merseyrail has examined the matter. Lancashire county council previously considered it but decided that the business case did not stack up. It had aspirations for the Blackburn-Preston-Bolton-Manchester corridor. Merseyrail has been working on the issue, and I know that the hon. Gentleman has been liaising with it. It is a matter for Merseyrail to take forward with the relevant local authorities.

Constitutional Affairs

The Minister of State was asked—

Boundary Reform

20. If she will consider the merits of boundary reform to equalise voter numbers in each constituency. (76560)

The independent parliamentary boundary commissions review parliamentary boundaries every eight to 12 years. Although the electoral quota is important, it is necessary to take other factors into account, such as geographical and community issues. The boundary commissions consider all those factors when conducting their reviews.

How can it be right for, for example, Birmingham, Yardley to have an electorate of fewer than 51,000, when in the same old county of Warwickshire, Rugby and Kenilworth has an electorate of more than 83,000? The Boundary Commission for England recommends an average of 70,000 electors per constituency and is trundling through its changes. However, the Boundary Commission for Wales will still have only 56,000 electors per constituency. Will the Government review the terms of reference for all the boundary commissions of the United Kingdom to ensure that the priority is equalisation of voters, so that each elector’s vote has the same value? I suggest a standard of 80,000 electors per constituency. That would also reduce the number of politicians, which would be popular with the British people.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is volunteering to stand down—but that might be welcome in several places.

The boundary commissions take into account not only numbers but geography and community issues. There have been historic arrangements for Wales to compensate for its smaller size. If the hon. Gentleman suggests that Welsh constituencies should be the same size as English ones, he might just as logically say that the Welsh Assembly should have the same powers and authority as the Scottish Parliament.

Does my hon. Friend accept that getting equality between numbers of electors takes us only part of the way to our destination? The objective should be equality between numbers of residents, and that means getting the percentage of residents who register to vote up to nearer 100 per cent. If we do not achieve that, young people, people in rented accommodation and others are less likely to register to vote. Some constituencies, especially those in inner-city areas, have far more residents than those in the leafy suburbs.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which we shall doubtless debate later today when we consider the Electoral Administration Bill, which deals with registration. I take his point seriously. The number of people who live in inner cities but are not registered and therefore not counted by the boundary commissions makes a considerable difference. He makes a good point about ensuring that everyone is counted and registered, so that we properly reflect the communities that we are supposed to represent.

Does the Minister accept that the criteria given to the Boundary Commission by the House need to change? The reason why constituencies are so hopelessly out of kilter in numbers of electors is that the commission is always working on out-of-date statistics. It is allowed to look backwards but not forwards, and this causes huge anomalies that could easily be avoided. Will the Minister give me an undertaking that this matter will be looked at?

I think that I can give the right hon. Gentleman that undertaking. He has made a valid point, and I shall take it on board and discuss it with the boundary commissions in due course.

Following the tone of earlier questions, may I push the Minister to consult her colleagues to see whether she can come up with a Government policy to ensure that the same number of adults are entitled to vote in every constituency across the United Kingdom for this Parliament? There can be no justification these days for a differential figure in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England, if each vote is to be of equal value. Of course, the number of residents entitled to vote is just as good a test as the number who actually end up getting their names on the register.

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Hon. Members have in the past raised the issue of the Isle of Wight, a constituency with a very large number of electors. If we did not take geographical issues into account, the Isle of Wight would have to be considered with at least one other part of the south of England; it would be very difficult to make it into two or more constituencies. Nevertheless, I hear what the hon. Gentleman has said, and in my discussions with the Boundary Commission, I shall look at all aspects of ensuring that every constituency represents the people who live in it as well as possible.

But does the Minister not accept that there is a bit of party politics going on here? She will know that, after last month’s local elections, Sir Michael Lyons—a former Labour councillor and an adviser to the Government—said that council boundaries should now be politically redrawn to make council elections more “closely competitive”. Of course, we know what happened in those local elections. Is the Minister intending to follow this principle for parliamentary elections? Is it not the case that if Labour cannot win elections, its first instinct is to gerrymander the boundaries involved?

Dear, oh dear. I really think that the hon. Gentleman ought to reflect on what he has just said. The Labour party has won the last three general elections, I am very pleased to say—[Interruption.] The Boundary Commission is an independent, non-party-political organisation—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I would just remind the hon. Gentleman that the Boundary Commission, which recommends changes to the boundaries, is a neutral, non-party-political organisation. This is not done on a party basis. It is done in a logical, neutral way, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on what he has said and consider whether the changes that the Boundary Commission has made over the years have also benefited his party from time to time.

Limitations of Actions

21. When the Government plan to implement the recommendations in the Law Commission’s 2001 report on limitations of actions. (76561)

Those are recommendations from the Law Commission’s report that the limitation period—the time within which one person may bring a civil action against another—ought to be made more flexible. The Government announced their acceptance in principle of the recommendations in 2002, subject to further consideration of some aspects of the Law Commission’s report. That work is now well advanced and it should end shortly. We will then seek a legislative opportunity to reform the law.

Four years is a long time to wait. My constituent, Kevin Young, was repeatedly sexually abused by a prison officer while he was in a youth offender institution 29 years ago. He wants the terms of the Limitation Act 1980 changed to make it easier for people like him to claim compensation. In a letter to me in March, Baroness Ashton said that it might be possible to use the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, if it is passed by Parliament, to change the law more quickly by statutory instrument. Will the Government will look into that?

Yes. It is correct to say that there is a fast-track provision in that Bill to introduce non-contentious recommendations by the Law Commission by statutory instrument, and that could be used to fast-track these proposals. I am very sympathetic to my hon. Friend and his constituent. People who suffered sex abuse when they were children and did not appreciate its impact until much later often find themselves outside the limitation period, and therefore suffer injustice. We will certainly look at using that Bill to bring such a proposal forward; otherwise we will seek an early legislative opportunity.

The Minister referred to the four years since the Government basically accepted the Law Commission’s recommendation. Would it help to produce parliamentary encouragement for the Government if a list of all the outstanding Law Commission recommendations was published each year, outlining what progress is being made and what blockages there are to fulfilling those steps towards greater justice?

I am sure that from time to time we do indicate the progress that is being made on Law Commission proposals, and of course the hon. Gentleman can, and will, ask questions of the Department about precisely that. The recommendations went far wider than the concern raised by my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), as they also related to matters such as time limits on squatters’ rights, corruption, insolvency applications and compulsory purchase orders. A great deal of work has had to be done across a number of Departments, which explains the delay. My noble Friend Baroness Ashton, whose portfolio this relates to, and the Lord Chancellor are particularly keen to get on with implementing this change.

Courts Service

22. What assessment she has made of the likely impact of changes in the Courts Service’s budget on the Government’s plans for the court system. (76562)

The courts are working to deliver the Government’s plans for the court system, particularly improving public safety and increasing public confidence through simpler, speedier justice. Like all public services, the courts are facing tight spending limits this year.

I declare a relevant interest as a solicitor. What is the hope for improved administration of justice in Enfield magistrates court when the north-west London region courts were told last month that, following the Lord Chancellor’s overestimate of legal aid savings, they need to find £2 million-worth of savings this financial year? Is that not good news for fine defaulters and compensation defaulters, and bad news for court users and victims?

We have to be sure that the Department as a whole lives within its financial spending limits, but within that we can improve the services that we provide. I believe that it is possible to meet both those aims.

Has my right hon. and learned Friend had an opportunity to see the evidence of Sir Mark Potter, the president of the family division, to the Constitutional Affairs Committee? He says that any changes in the budget will dramatically affect his ability to bring down the current casework delay in the family division. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend is very keen on modernising the Courts Service and that she has great ambitions to do so, but a cut in the budget that is not agreed with the judiciary will have serious implications for the delays that are still inherent in our family justice system.

We are all concerned that there should be no unnecessary delay in court processes, especially where children are involved. I have discussed the delays with the president of the family division and his fellow judges. One of our aims is to ensure that as many cases as possible do not come to court at all, but can be agreed outside it, as well as ensuring that cases that are brought to court are dealt with more swiftly.

We understand that the £80 million cut in the court budget this year could lead to a reduction of services and the loss of up to 1,300 jobs. Last week, the Minister of State revealed to me that the courts failed to collect some £282 million-worth of fines. Does not that debacle prove once again the Government’s inability to run public services, and the inability of Constitutional Affairs Ministers to run their own Department?

No, it does not. The hon. Gentleman is well aware that we inherited a position in which nearly half the fines imposed by the courts were not collected, a great deal of work has been done between the police and the courts across the country, and the collection rate has been increased to more than 80 per cent. That money goes to the Treasury, which I am sure is extremely pleased to receive it. The finances of the Courts Service are not what the hon. Gentleman said that they were. In fact, the courts did not spend the full amount that they thought that they would in the previous year. Perhaps, to help hon. Members to understand the exact position, I will place in the Library a copy of the permanent secretary’s letter to all court staff. That would enable hon. Members to see the financial situation, which is challenging, but not of the dimensions that the hon. Gentleman implied.

Further to the Government’s plans for the court system, will my right hon. and learned Friend say what plans she has for the family courts, especially in relation to ending their ability to send people to prison—for example, for contempt of court for breach of a contact order—without having a public hearing?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point, which she has put to me in a written question, so I know what the answer is. Last year something like 200 people were sent to prison by the family courts, which happens in complete privacy and secrecy. The idea that people are sent to prison without any reports of the proceedings makes even more important the work that we are undertaking with the family courts, and with the important intervention of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, to open them up so that they act in the public interest while maintaining personal privacy.

Colchester Courthouse

The Courts Service has now purchased a site in Colchester for the new courthouse. The next step is to appoint a firm to construct the building. [Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] Before hon. Members cheer, I must tell them that that is subject to funding discussions with Her Majesty’s Treasury.

The time taken between the decision to build a new courthouse in Colchester and the present day is longer than the duration of the second world war. Does the Minister regard that as a success or a failure, with regard to the concept of the private finance initiative?

Obviously, we would have liked the hon. Gentleman’s local courthouse to have been renewed earlier. When he last made the comparison between the duration of the second world war and the time taken to build the new Colchester courthouse, the land had not yet been purchased. On that basis, at least, we are making progress. We will let him know when the construction company has been appointed, and I am sure that he will ask a question about that.

Order. The hon. Lady’s constituency is much too far from the area under discussion for me to call her.

Dr. David Kelly

The Oxfordshire coroner opened and adjourned the inquest into the death of Dr. David Kelly on 17 July 2003. He resumed the inquest on 14 August 2003 to admit post-mortem evidence from the Home Office pathologist and a toxicology report. He then adjourned the inquest as directed by the Lord Chancellor pending Lord Hutton’s public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. Kelly. Having read the Hutton report, the coroner announced at an open hearing on 16 March 2004 that there was no exceptional reason to resume the inquest.

The Minister will be aware that under the 1984 coroner’s rules, as amended in 2002, where an inquest has been adjourned for any reason, an interim certificate of death shall be issued, which accepts that the death has occurred without giving the precise reasons for the death. Why, then, did the Oxfordshire coroner, on 18 August—barely a week after Lord Hutton began taking evidence—issue a full death certificate giving reasons for the death? What was the point of the Hutton inquiry if the death certificate already gave the reasons?

The Hutton report obviously ranged much more widely, which is one of the reasons why a further inquest by the Oxfordshire coroner was not necessary.

Cohabiting Couples

25. What plans the Government have to reform the law relating to the rights of cohabiting couples. (76565)

The current state of play is that the Law Commission published a consultation paper about cohabitation on 31 May. That consultation paper poses questions on how the law in this area might be reformed, and we look forward to the outcome of the consultation and will consider any recommendations made. We expect the final report in summer 2007.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her reply and congratulate her on her new position. Does she agree that the principle of equal rights for cohabiting couples is based on the principle of fairness? I have received an anonymous letter from a woman who has lived with a man for 17 years and has borne five of his children, but who now finds herself unable to leave him as he refuses to give her a share in the family home, which is in his name. She describes her position as that of a concubine. What steps is the Department taking to make people aware that there is no such thing as a common-law marriage, and that they need to protect their rights if they are embarking on cohabitation?

The Law Commission produced its paper at the request of the Lord Chancellor because of concern about the fact that there are now 2 million cohabiting couples in England and Wales and about 1.25 million children dependent on them. We must think about reducing the potential financial hardship suffered by cohabitants when there is a break-up.

Apparently, 56 per cent. of people who responded to a survey thought that there was such a thing as common-law marriage, and that cohabitants’ rights to property and finance were very similar to those of married people. That is not correct. We have engaged two charitable not-for-profit groups to try to make people aware of the limitations on the legal status of people who cohabit, but the important point is that the Law Commission, at our request, is considering responsibly—as is essential when so many individuals, including children, are involved—whether there should be some sort of safety net in the event of a break-up.

I welcome the Law Commission’s consultation paper. As a co-sponsor of the early-day motion on this subject tabled by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), may I implore the hon. and learned Lady—whom I welcome to her responsibilities—to recognise the powerful case for a change in the law? Overwhelmingly, this is not about the distribution of largesse or about providing a rival to marriage, but about fairness, and, in many cases, about rescuing people from the destitution to which they would otherwise be consigned.

I entirely recognise that. Let me make what may be a partisan point, and say that it is women, usually, who are left high and dry after cohabitation, perhaps having dreamt that they did have some property rights, and they may indeed be thrown into destitution. It is important for us to examine the whole subject with a great deal of care. It involves sensitivities on numerous fronts, which is why it was appropriate for us to ask the Law Commission to consider it. We look forward to the results of the commission’s consultation, which will doubtless be followed by plenty of debate.