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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 11 July 2006


The Secretary of State was asked—

Carlisle Railway Station

We have received no representations about the number of birds killed at Carlisle railway station, though I am aware that some have become trapped in roof netting and have subsequently died. Network Rail tells me that work is due to take place later this year in an effort to resolve the issue.

May I apologise to the House and to my hon. Friend for having to table that question? For three years many other passengers and I have been trying to get Network Rail and Virgin to take away the netting on the station. At present there are 40 dead birds decomposing on the netting. The starlings and pigeons get in and cannot get out. At this time of year, they are being roasted to death. Is it not ridiculous that it takes a parliamentary question to get action on the matter?

My hon. Friend is a great advocate for the west coast main line development and takes a great interest in all the happenings at Carlisle station, including those involving birds. The situation is clearly unacceptable. Network Rail and Virgin are working together and hope to do something about it later this year. It is possible that something could be done to remove the dead birds and deal with the netting and access in future, but it is a particularly difficult area to deal with because of the nature of the station. Hopefully, action can be taken in August to resolve the problem.

Road Congestion

The Government’s strategy is based on three elements—first, sustained investment, adding road capacity where appropriate; secondly, making the most of the existing network through better management; and thirdly, in line with our manifesto commitment, the Government are exploring the scope for developing a national scheme for road pricing.

Saltaire roundabout is probably the most congested part of the whole of the Bradford district and is the responsibility of the Highways Agency. The Highways Agency, with Bradford council, has done a joint study on what could be done to alleviate the congestion there. Given the importance of Saltaire as a world heritage site, will the Secretary of State ensure that the money is available to put in place the recommendations made by that joint study?

I appreciate that the Saltaire roundabout on the A650 suffers from congestion. It is certainly the case that the Highways Agency and Bradford council are working together to find a solution to address both safety and congestion concerns in relation to the roundabout, and I hope to be able to announce the outcome of that work and decisions on funding in the autumn.

I welcome the announcement this week of £42 million of investment in the Greater Bristol bus network, which will play a major role in freeing up the roads and easing congestion in the centre of Bristol. Can my right hon. Friend advise me about the progress of the road pricing pilot, for which Bristol is always working on a bid?

My hon. Friend recalls the recent announcement, which is only one part of the £1.7 billion that is provided for buses annually by the Department. We are working with a number of local authorities, including the authorities in Bristol, looking at the pilot projects for road pricing. In recent days I met representatives of one of the other local authorities to hear directly of their plans, and I can assure my hon. Friend that a number of local authorities are moving forward in anticipation of bids being received by the Department in the course of next year.

Given that the Minister acknowledged that road pricing schemes can cut congestion, what plans do the Government have for a potential toll road on the M11 between London and Stansted?

We are not at present planning a toll road, as the hon. Gentleman describes it. On paper, road pricing can lead to significant cuts in congestion, but we are maintaining our approach to targeted investment on our road network in the meantime.

Since I live only a few hundred yards from Saltaire roundabout, I agree with the remarks of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). I was becoming a little hopeful because the island there is weed-strewn instead of being planted, as it usually is, so I had hoped that alterations would be made there. Is that not the case?

I do not feel qualified to comment on the specific detail that my hon. Friend has observed while passing the roundabout, but I am happy to note for the record that the A650, to which both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) have referred, has already benefited from the £47.9 million Bingley bypass, which opened ahead of schedule in December 2003.

Last month, I pressed the Secretary of State to give some detailed answers about how his planned road pricing pilot will work, but he chose not to do so. May I press him about the overall principle of his policy? I heard what he said to the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy), but is he still planning a major single pilot project of his proposed national satellite-based road pricing system in an area such as Greater Manchester, the west midlands or Bristol in about 2010? Is it still Government policy to launch such a scheme on a national basis in about 2015?

I tested the thesis that the hon. Gentleman put to me at the last Transport questions in a recent meeting with the authorities in Manchester, and I do not recognise his characterisation of the pilots, which we are taking forward with local authorities, given my conversations with the Manchester authorities. The Manchester authorities are pressing forward on the detail of their proposed bid, which they aim to get to the Department by about next July with a view to the Department having reached a conclusion by the following December. Equally, we are already in close dialogue with the west midlands authorities, and we have made it clear to them that they need to come forward with specific proposals for the west midlands. The pilots will, of course, inform our thinking on national road pricing. We want to see them implemented by the earliest possible time scale, which will probably be four to five years. We hope to be able to develop a national scheme by about the middle of the next decade.

Given the fact that we are discussing probably the largest technology project ever seen in this country and the central part of the Government’s transport strategy, the Secretary of State’s responses are astonishingly vague, so I shall press him again. When will most people in this country start to experience road pricing? When does he expect to tell us in detail how his proposals will work? And will any national scheme that he plans be revenue neutral?

We hope that the pilots will be operational in four to five years. We face considerable technological questions, which is why we want to gain experience from local pilots to inform our thinking on the national scheme. On the national scheme and revenue neutrality, road pricing involves moving away from the present system of motoring taxation.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the recent report on road pricing by Professor Glaister of the independent transport commission. Professor Glaister has concluded that revenue neutrality will be difficult to achieve and that it is almost inevitable that road users in urban areas will pay more than everybody else. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that if there is a pilot project in Manchester, it will not be a scheme that effectively transfers taxation from rural areas to urban areas?

Through the local pilots, we want a fair deal for motorists in urban areas, and I discussed that subject with the leaders of the authorities in Manchester when I visited the city last week.

I urge the Secretary of State to be a little less cautious on road pricing. He has outlined three legs of his policy today, of which road pricing is by far the most important. He will be aware that the difficulties that he anticipates have not been experienced by the scheme in Germany. What lessons has his Department drawn from that?

We have looked at the international comparisons—indeed, a study examining the international experience of road pricing has been published in the past couple of weeks. A balance needs to be struck between advancing a national debate and gaining individual experience within the discrete pilot areas, which will cover a significant portion of the population. As we seek to build a national consensus, it is incumbent on us all to engage with the discussions and to gain practical experience, which only the pilots can provide.

Bus Companies

3. What steps he is taking to make bus companies more accountable to the communities they serve; and if he will make a statement. (83849)

We encourage bus companies to work in close partnership with local authorities and the communities that they serve. That can be done through voluntary agreements, quality partnerships or quality contracts.

I could give countless examples of how the bus deregulation policy introduced by the Tories is failing the people of Halifax. As part of any policy review, will the Minister consider re-introducing a system of regulation to ensure that buses are run in the interests of local people and not of the profit margins of cherry-picking bus operators?

Like many hon. Members, my hon. Friend is rightly concerned about bus services in her area. I assure her and the House that we intend to take a long hard look at the various issues over the coming months to identify the right framework to reverse declining bus patronage outside London. I emphasise that no decisions have been made. Our job is to find the right framework, because local circumstances dictate what works best.

Does the Minister agree that one of the reasons for declining bus patronage is that companies such as Yellow Buses in Wiltshire and Dorset are removing their services from the people they are meant to be serving, namely pensioners living in my constituency? Is it not time that we gave the traffic commissioners some teeth to deal with the haughty way in which these bus companies change routes without consultation?

In order to change a route or a timetable, a bus operator must give 56 days’ notice to the traffic commissioner and the local authority. There is a specific reason for that—namely, to give the local authority time to replace the bus service if necessary. Of course, local authorities are able to do that if it is the right decision for the local area.

Railway Industry

My Department continues to work with Network Rail and the train operating companies to secure further improvements in performance. Punctuality and reliability is now at 86.8 per cent., the highest level for six years, and continues to improve steadily. The industry has committed to achieving in excess of 88 per cent. by March 2008.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the huge investment in the west coast main line, which benefits services from London on the important Euro-route to Holyhead in my constituency. He will be further aware that the post-2008 timetable refers to additional through trains. However, there is confusion as to whether those trains will go from London right the way through to the north Wales coast. There is also the question of a maintenance depot in the area, which is vital to improve the railways for the future. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet a delegation of myself and hon. Friends to discuss these important issues?

I am always happy to meet parliamentary colleagues. The scheme in relation to the Holyhead rail depot is being discussed between Network Rail and the train operators but is also being considered by the Welsh Assembly Government. The post-2009 timetable is being discussed by officials in my Department but also by Network Rail and Virgin Trains, with further discussions between the Department, the Welsh Assembly Government and local authorities.

What is the Secretary of State’s current thinking on the thorny problem that was described by his predecessor as transporting fresh air around the country?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I find myself agreeing with my predecessor that we want to see an expanding rail network. During previous questions in the House, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), posed a challenge to a questioner who suggested that we had secret plans to close a number of stations. We are still awaiting word on what stations Opposition Members were suggesting that we intended to close. None the less, a feature of an expanding rail network would be our ability to take serious decisions reflecting the changing nature of the network given changing patterns of demand in the future. We need to keep all options open, but we have no plans to reduce the number of people travelling on the railways; indeed, numbers have significantly increased in recent years.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that we are facing a shortage of route capacity, particularly for freight? Will he look positively at the possibilities for developing dedicated rail freight capacity for the future?

My hon. Friend is right. There has been a 46 per cent. increase in rail freight since 1997, sitting alongside the significant uplift in the number of passengers choosing to use the rail network during those years. We are giving serious consideration to what scope there is for further investment in rail freight. That is why only last month I announced that we would take forward several of the transport innovation fund productivity bids, which included rail freight as one of the considerations.

On average, a £10 fare will carry a passenger 38 miles in the UK, 107 miles in France and 315 miles in Poland. Why is it that, nine years into a Labour Government, we have the most expensive, most overcrowded and least punctual rail service in Europe?

I do not recognise that description of an expanding railway system—indeed, the fastest growing passenger railway in Europe.

I welcome the improvements that have been made in the train services for my constituents, especially the introduction of the new improved high-speed rail link. However, is my right hon. Friend aware that the new Virgin lines that have been provided are not guaranteed post-2009? What reassurances can he give my constituents that those services will be not only kept but improved post-2009?

I know that my hon. Friend represents an area that is close to the growth areas, which were so designated by the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I assure her that the needs of the growth areas will be considered when we publish the high level output specification next summer.

The biggest problem on our railways today is overcrowding. Lloyd’s corporation has estimated that 60 per cent. of commuters into London travel on overcrowded trains. It is estimated that passenger growth nationally will increase by 30 per cent. between now and 2014, yet there are no plans for capacity increases. The Government’s strategy emerged a couple of weeks ago—they intend to do deals to price commuters off the railways by increasing fares. Will the Secretary of State confirm that his solution to overcrowding is pricing people off the railways?

No, that has never been the Government’s approach. We recognise that capacity will be a challenge in the years ahead. That is one of the main criteria for the high level output specification, which will be published next summer. We must acknowledge that the challenge that we now face on the railways is that of success. More people want to use them, with significantly increased passenger usage in recent years. Few solutions to capacity do not involve a sustained commitment of public investment. It is incumbent on parties that raise capacity to commit themselves to the amount of funding to which Labour Members remain committed.

I saved the taxpayer a fortune by getting a cheap ticket down here from Leeds. However, my connecting train was late and the guard told me that I would have to pay up. I refused point blank to leave the train or pay any more money. [Interruption.] Indeed, direct action. What will we do about the confusing multiplicity of fares, which leads to people becoming victims without realising it?

I know that my hon. Friend has a long history of direct action, although I would not recommend that he engage in such action on the railways now or in the years to come. However, he makes a fair point. Notwithstanding the significant uplift in passenger numbers in recent years, the Transport Committee has identified a genuine problem with the complexity of fares. When one considers, for example, the discount airline carriers, one realises that it is possible to have variable fares and simplicity for the customer. That is why it is important both that the Government reflect on the Transport Committee’s report and, more directly, that the train operating companies recognise that they have a responsibility to tackle the problem, which is a genuine concern for passengers.

A5 (Hinckley)

Several improvement schemes are under way on, or proposed for the A5 around Hinckley. They include: safety works at Stretton bends, including new lighting, surfacing and footways; anti-skid surfacing schemes at Nutts lane and Smockington hollow; the signalisation of the junction of the A5 and the M69; a scheme to improve the capacity of the Dodwell’s island junction; improved warning signs at Hinckley rail bridge; improvements to the A5/A444 Red Gate junction, and changes to speed limits and associated signs.

Additionally, preliminary design work is under way for improvements between Stretton house and the M69 junction.

I thank the Minister for that list but, given that the Hinckley and Bosworth area has to build 9,000 houses in the next 20 years, thanks to the local development framework, is not it time to put dualling the A5 between the M69 and the A47 back on the agenda? Although the Minister talks about improvements at Stretton bends, will he confirm that they will not take place in July, as promised, nor will the £5 million improvements at Dodwell’s island, which the Government also promised? Will he confirm that the works to realign the M69 island will take place in January 2007, as promised, or is that another broken promise of the Government’s?

The Government break no promises. We are delivering sustained improvements in the area around the A5 at Hinckley. There are safety problems on that road—that is why such a list of improvements has been made to it. On a major scheme such as dualling the A5, I advise the hon. Gentleman to work in his region to influence the prioritisation of major schemes when the regional funding allocation is reconsidered in two years.

The Minister has rightly given the House a long list of works scheduled to take place on the A5. However, he did not include the nearby project that has just been announced to bypass Earl Shilton on the A47 on the eastern fringes of Hinckley. Does he agree that this is a demonstration of the success of the tenacity, patience and energy of the people of Earl Shilton, led by the Labour councillors Dennis and John Bown in this Labour enclave in a Conservative and Liberal Democrat area? Does my hon. Friend also agree that, no matter how persuasive and effective the campaign, what was needed in the final analysis was the commitment of the resources to be allocated by the Government to achieve this long-delayed and much-welcomed bypass for Earl Shilton?

Humility prevented my hon. Friend from mentioning his own role in that campaign. He is absolutely right; it will provide a much-needed improvement. It has been included in the regional funding allocation, and that is because local people made the case locally to ensure that we received the necessary advice about the importance of the scheme. The advice that I would offer to Members on both sides of the House is that, if they want to influence major projects such as these, they should become active in their own region and their own local community to ensure that the regional funding advice that the Government receive reflects the true priorities of the local people.

The A5, which runs through my constituency south of Hinckley, is horrendously congested. The Comptroller and Auditor General wrote to me recently to say that the Highways Agency intended to put in a new junction, 11A, at the same time as widening the M1 to save £10 million. However, I learned from a letter from the Secretary of State yesterday that that is only a possibility. Will the Minister write to me to tell me exactly what the Highways Agency is doing?

The situation to which the hon. Gentleman refers has arisen because the region did not prioritise that particular piece of work. We want to stick as closely as possible to the advice that we receive from local people, local councils, regional assemblies and regional development agencies—people who know what the priorities are on the ground—and the road scheme to which the hon. Gentleman refers was not prioritised. However, we want to ensure that if the region changes its priorities, the work will be able to go ahead as expeditiously as possible. That is why we will continue with the work around that particular scheme, in case the region changes its mind in two years’ time.

Closer to Hinckley than the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous)—about five miles to the south-east on the A5—is the hamlet of Wibtoft. To the north and the south is a dual carriageway—the old Watling street—along which very heavy traffic thunders until it gets to Wibtoft, where a single carriageway snakes its way through the village. There is no speed limit; nor is there any proper visible traffic calming. The Highways Agency has refused to contemplate imposing a speed limit or laying a quieter road surface. Will the Minister ask the agency to reconsider its decision, and to impose a speed limit of, say, 30 mph through the residential area of Wibtoft? Many other places along the A5 have exactly that.

I will certainly pass on the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the Highways Agency. I would also advise him to engage with his local road safety partnership to see whether it can make representations to the agency. If such villages need a speed limit, and if there is evidence of safety concerns, I will certainly do what I can to encourage the agency to be helpful.

Road Humps

Advice on the design and implementation of road humps is given in the Department’s traffic advisory leaflets, and a bibliography of these is available in the Library of the House. The Department also plans to publish a local transport note later this year. This will draw together all previous advice on traffic calming policy, including advice on the use of road humps.

The evidence on the use of concrete cushion road humps over the past 10 years is not very good. People can drive motorbikes between them, they fail to take into account on-street parking, and 4x4s can straddle them at great speed. Would the Minister care to come to Market Warsop in my constituency to road test the concrete road humps there?

I am happy that I get to road test many things in my job, but so far a road hump has not been one of them. I am happy to come to my hon. Friend’s constituency at some point, but I would point out to him that certain types of road calming measures are suitable in certain locations. It is for local authorities to decide which type of traffic calming is most appropriate, which type of road cushion is used, and whether it should have gaps in the middle of it for motorcycles. Local people should make decisions about improving those road humps, and I hope that the advisory note that we produce at the end of this year, to which my hon. Friend has contributed, will help them to make those decisions.

While road humps obviously have an important safety role, is the Minister aware of the study by the London Ambulance Service three years ago, which suggested that if one minute could be saved on ambulance times by removing unnecessary road humps, 500 lives a year would be saved in cases of stroke, heart attack and so on? Another issue is the reluctance of paramedics to fit drips to critically ill patients who must travel over road humps.

I am, of course, aware of that study. That is why, when local councils decide on traffic calming measures in a particular area, it is important that they consult the emergency services and take into account the advice of the ambulance service, fire brigade and police about what is appropriate. I remind the hon. Gentleman, however, that road safety is the reason why local authorities install traffic calming measures, and that road humps might avoid ambulances having to do quite so much work in future.

Further to the motorcycling Minister’s last response, and in the interest of getting traffic moving, is he aware that the A406 was brought to a complete halt by an accident early this morning? Strong men wept behind the wheels of their cars and toddlers sobbed in the back seats as they saw the school day recede from them. What can the Government do to try to get traffic moving faster after accidents?

I was not aware of that particular problem this morning. One of the things that we are doing, however, is making available nearly 1,500 highways officers around the country to clear up after accidents, remove debris from the road and keep traffic moving as fast as possible. Those highways officers work with the police, relieving them to perform other more important duties, and concentrate particularly on keeping the traffic moving. That is one practical way in which the Government are keeping the traffic moving on the trunk road network.

In addition to the Minister’s advice to local authorities on road humps, will he advise them to consider the cost and effectiveness of installing equipment that merely flashes the speed rather than taking a picture, as I think that they will find that that is both cheaper and more effective than road humps and speed cameras?

I entirely agree that those types of speed advisory sign have their place and can be very effective in the right location. I repeat, however, that it is for the local council and local people who know the area best to decide what is the right sort of traffic calming. The sort of signs to which she is referring can be very effective, and I would always ask local councils to consider them.

Reading Railway Station

7. What progress has been made in bringing forward plans to upgrade Reading railway station; and if he will make a statement. (83853)

A business case for upgrading Reading station has been prepared by the borough council working with the region and rail industry partners. The plans include additional platforms and improved passenger facilities. We are working with the council, its partners and Network Rail to explore how the plans can best be progressed.

Does the Minister accept that upgrading Reading station to improve track and platform capacity from 23 to 60 trains an hour is vital to removing the bottleneck from the Great Western main line? Does he also acknowledge the importance of the partnership working between Reading borough council, the local business community and other stakeholders in making such a powerful case for a 21st century station for Reading?

We do recognise the need for work at Reading station. I praise my hon. Friend again for his help in developing the good partnership working with Reading borough council. As he knows, Network Rail’s progress plans for resignalling work for 2011-2014 include Reading, and its business plan base case submission last week included Reading as part of the high-level output specification.

I hope that the Minister has been made aware that I have been working for some time with all interested parties—both public and private-sector organisations—on the Reading station development. As a result, there is now a major opportunity to bring about a transformation of the entire area which will create jobs, regenerate part of the town centre and give Reading one of the best station developments in Europe. That can be done through a Government contribution of about £80 million to start it off. Will the Minister now offer his support for that further ambitious project and will he meet me and other interested parties to take it forward?

A great deal of good work has been done in partnership and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) has been working for some years on taking these developments at Reading station forward. It is important that such partnership working takes place. The programme has already been set out by Network Rail in its progress plans, and its business case has been made about what it would like to see included in the high-level output specification. We will consider that. As I have always said, if Members seek a meeting with me, I will do my very best to ensure that it happens.

Order. May I tell the hon. Gentleman that Reading station is some distance from the green hills of Antrim, but I may be able to do something for him when we move on to other questions?

Railways (Vandalism)

The primary responsibility for combating vandalism on the national rail network lies with Network Rail, which works closely with the British Transport police, train operators, local authorities and, of course, the wider community. The cross-industry national route crime group steers the industry’s efforts to reduce the risks posed by trespass and vandalism.

The Government’s 10-year transport plan promised that people would be able to travel safely and feel secure, yet only about a third of stations have CCTV. The Minister may think that I am a big toughie, but I have to tell him that even I do not feel at ease at Congleton station on a cold winter’s night with the wind whistling down a poorly lit platform, with nowhere to shelter because of vandalism, no CCTV and no information to reassure one that the train that is already late is actually coming. Will he knock together the heads of the train operating companies and Network Rail and ensure that passengers indeed feel secure, especially when they are waiting for that train?

I of course accept that vandalism and trespass are serious problems on the railways and we need to deal with them in the best way possible. That includes making sure that we have a good partnership approach to finding solutions to deal with those problems. It is also important to deal with the wider community. The British Transport police are also involved and we have seen a significant increase in their number, as well as a significant increase in the number of CCTV cameras on stations. In respect of the south-west franchise, we are looking to improve the accredited secure station status in terms of 80 per cent. of the footfall. There are therefore a number of areas that we can seek to improve. The industry needs to take that forward and address those problems.

The Minister knows that I am not even a little toughie. I hope that he will agree that the British Transport police in the north-west have not only followed the programme that he mentioned, but put forward imaginative schemes to involve children and schoolchildren in protecting non-manned stations. Will he pay tribute to that work and ensure that the specialised knowledge of the British Transport police is not in any way dissipated in the future?

I will not comment on her toughness, but my hon. Friend always makes a very important point. She is absolutely right that one of the approaches of Network Rail and others is to work with schools and young people at a variety of community events or to provide information through websites. It is important to get home to young people the dangers of trespass and vandalism on the railways—dangers not only to themselves, but to those who work on the railways and those who use them. It is important for the industry to take that sort of community work forward. It is right to work with schools and young people to reduce the amount of trespass and vandalism on the railways.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that combating vandalism on railways and at railway stations is a problem not only in England and Scotland, but throughout the United Kingdom. May I therefore encourage him to speak to his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office, to ensure that the problem is dealt with in Northern Ireland as well, because there is no other forum by which we can deal with the situation and ensure that our passengers feel safe at railway stations?

I am happy, of course, to bring the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Constitutional Affairs

The Minister of State was asked—


22. What steps she has taken to ensure that people with mesothelioma are able to claim compensation. (83868)

I intend to table an amendment to the Compensation Bill, which is due to be debated in the House next Monday, to provide that negligent persons should be jointly and severally liable in mesothelioma cases, so that the claimant can recover full compensation from any relevant person.

I thank the Government for what they are doing and I pay tribute to other hon. Members and organisations, such as the GMB union and Thompsons solicitors, in helping to bring about this change. On Saturday, I attended the Durham miners gala, which is a celebration of traditional industries in the north-east; but because of that industrial legacy, up to 5,000 people die from asbestos-related diseases each year in the north-east. Will my hon. Friend ensure that the proposed changes to the law are retrospective, so that people who lost out under the Barker decision can claim their full original compensation, so that what may well be their final days are dignified and comfortable?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point and I have every sympathy with all he says. I want to put on record my thanks to my right hon. and hon. Friends who have been campaigning on this issue for some time—in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). The Government also realise that the Barker decision makes claims much more difficult, and I am hopeful that the amendment will enable us to achieve the retrospectivity that my hon. Friend seeks.

Does not the Minister recognise that the Barker v. Corus case, which she mentions, was brought by the Government and therefore that she is seeking to overturn with that amendment what the Government argued for in court? We welcome that, but does not she accept that that is hardly joined-up government? Many victims of this crippling disease still cannot trace an employer or an insurer, so they will not be able to make a claim at the moment. Will she examine my new clause 6 to the Compensation Bill and the proposals of the Association of British Insurers and others to consider whether it is feasible to set up an independent body to assess claims and pay out compensation speedily to all those who contracted mesothelioma in the workplace, and then to recover the money from all those who should, in fairness, share liability?

Of course the hon. Gentleman is right that all those who are responsible should share liability where it is possible to trace them. That is why we have been working very closely with all relevant stakeholders, including the ABI, to find a scheme that will be fast, efficient and fair and will reach the people who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) rightly said, are in incredible pain and in the last days of their lives in some cases, so that we can secure some comfort for them and their families.

I thank my hon. Friend for all the work that she has done in introducing the amendment. May I tell her that retrospectivity is very important? I received an e-mail from the Liverpool asbestos group yesterday, to say that a request for deferment had been made in a certain case until such time as Parliament had sorted out the Barker decision. The judge would not allow a deferment. The case went ahead, and the person suffered a substantial reduction in the compensation received. I hope that there is a way—perhaps in the Appeal Court—to review that case.

I understand exactly my hon. Friend’s point, and it was of course entirely up to the judge to make that decision; it would not be right for me to intervene. Judicial process can still obtain in that case, but we are aware of the gap that might now exist in terms of ongoing cases, which is why we are looking carefully at getting a proper scheme in place that will ensure that everyone involved in this terrible, harrowing disease is properly compensated.

A few weeks ago, Councillor David Childs died of this terrible disease and Rushden lost a dedicated person who looked after the interests of the town. His death was a great tragedy. I welcome what the Minister has said, but despite all the words, what many sufferers are looking for is fast action to relieve the problem. I urge the Government to act quickly.

I convey my deepest sympathy to the family of Councillor Childs and to the town of Rushden, which has lost such a dedicated and public-spirited person. We are very aware that the big issue is making sure that we get as fast a response as possible, and we are ensuring that that will happen.

I congratulate the Minister on the great work that has been done. As one of the people who raised this issue when it first became clear how bad the problem was, I am very proud and pleased that my party and my Government have put it right. But can we go a step further by introducing what I, as somebody who always wants more, shall call the Oliver Twist clause? Will the Minister ask the Secretary of State for Health to request that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence lift the limits on the use of the drug Alimta, so that people can have not only proper financial compensation but their lives extended?

I again congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he has done in this area. I will of course express his concerns relating to the drug and NICE to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, and if his suggestion is a suitable and helpful solution, I hope that it will be progressed.

I welcome what my hon. Friend has said, but there are two other issues that need to be looked at. One is the Crown Proceedings (Armed Forces) Act 1987, which forbids claims by members of the armed forces exposed to asbestos before 1987 who only now exhibit the symptoms of the disease; that is a manifest injustice. The second issue is pleural plaques. The Court of Appeal recently indicated that no claims could be brought for asymptomatic pleural plaques, despite the risk of mesothelioma, which might well occur later. Perhaps my hon. Friend will look sympathetically on the new clauses to the Compensation Bill that I have tabled today, so that we can take this opportunity to ensure that we address the issue of mesothelioma compensation claims properly and comprehensively.

My hon. Friend warned me that he would table amendments to the Compensation Bill and I will take a careful look at them. I should point out to him and to the House that pleural plaques is a significantly different disease in terms of how it manifests itself; diagnosis is not as straightforward as it is for mesothelioma. I do not want to go into that issue any further as I am not a medical expert, but that is my understanding. However, I will of course look at his amendments to see whether they can ensure that the principle that we are setting out today can be carried through.

Court Buildings

23. When she next expects to meet representatives of the lay magistracy to discuss improvements to court buildings. (83869)

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for that reply, but when looking at improvements to magistrates courts, will she ensure that her Department always makes a priority of ensuring that justice is kept close to local communities? Does she agree that local hooligans and vandals need to be tried as close to their homes as possible, so that they learn to respect the administration of justice? Does she also agree that it is important that there be no further court closures in East Anglia?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the need for people to see justice happening in their local area. In addition, we want to ensure that the courts in which people are tried have proper facilities for victims and witnesses, and disabled access. If possible, we also want to ensure—certainly on the civil side—that people can get disputes resolved without having to go to court. We must balance all those issues and get good value for money out of the courts estate—including judges’ lodgings.

What impact will the significant cuts in the Courts Service budget have on the court building and refurbishment programme?

Obviously the courts estate budget is part of the Courts Service budget as a whole. People want value for money from all public services. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government have invested across the piece in public services such as health, education, law and order and indeed the justice system, but we must make absolutely sure that we secure value for money, and that is what the Courts Service will try to do.

Verbal Testimony

I have met a good many Court of Appeal judges in my time, two of them very recently, but I have not met any to discuss verbal testimony, and I have no plans to do so in the immediate future.

Every day many prisoners who witnessed serious crimes are interviewed by the police in prisons up and down the country. I am immensely concerned about the integrity and transparency of the procedure, as many of those prisoners subsequently claim compensation. Having discussed the matter with many senior members of the judiciary, I share their view that such interviews should be video-recorded. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree?

Matters relating to the way in which police procedures are carried out are for the Home Office, and of course my hon. Friend’s suggestion has resource implications. However, when it comes to the hearing of such evidence in court, I can only agree with her, and with the senior members of the judiciary to whom she has spoken, that taped or even video-recorded interviews with witnesses in serious cases who are vulnerable or whose evidence is likely to be strongly contested would provide better protection for all parties.

Asylum and Immigration Tribunal

25. What the backlog of appeals is at the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal; and if she will make a statement. (83871)

The Asylum and Immigration Tribunal did accrue a sizeable backlog between April and October 2005, which has caused delays in some appeals. We expect all those appeals to have been heard by the end of the year.

I thank the Minister for her answer, and for a letter that she sent me earlier in the week. Does she agree that part of the problem lies outside the AIT—in some embassies’ delays in sending information and in the quality of judgment elsewhere, which the Court of Appeal then reverses? What steps can she take to ensure that information is given to the tribunal speedily so that it can set a date, and also to ensure that decisions made elsewhere do not necessitate the hearing of appeals?

I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman has said. I can tell him two things. First, last month we began trying to streamline the entry clearance process. We hope that that will reduce the period that elapses between bundles being received and being sent out by seven weeks, which I believe would make a substantial difference. Secondly, it is expected that 100 new judges will be recruited this year. That will also help to reduce waiting times.

I intend to visit some of our high commissions to see what problems entry clearance officers face, and to establish whether we can take direct action to improve their procedures.

I appreciate the enormous efforts that the Minister has made personally to deal with the backlog at the AIT, but the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) is right. Part of the problem is the decision-making process in posts abroad—I welcome the Minister’s proposed visit to the subcontinent—but there is also the fact that documents are being lodged at Loughborough and Leicester, photocopied, sent back to the posts abroad and then returned. That means a 56-day period at the beginning of the process which adds to the delay.

Will the Minister undertake to examine the appeal process and ensure that it is revised so that cases, once lodged, can be dealt with as quickly as possible? Then constituents of ours who want to attend weddings here will be able to do so, and the appeal process will not be taking place when the wedding has already happened.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his recent appointment to the Privy Council. He is right, in that the system he describes has existed in the past; but we are trying to persuade posts abroad to stop engaging in the lengthy photocopying procedure and to use slightly more modern techniques such as e-mail so that the information reaches us more quickly. The listing times for entry clearance and family visitor appeals currently average 11 weeks across the AIT, which is down from the 16 weeks that it was earlier this year.

The Minister’s replies to the previous two questions were helpful, but if appeals are submitted at foreign missions, they can take only six weeks—and that is good. Can she direct that such times should also be achieved if appeals are submitted here in London? On some occasions, the tribunal has allowed entry clearance officers to take 11 weeks or even up to 17 weeks just to get their papers ready. That means that the service can be up to three times worse. If an appeal is successful, but the Home Office wants to challenge it, can it be required to do so promptly, not six or nine months later? That sort of delay is disgraceful.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point and I understand the problem as I, too, have many constituents making such appeals. We are continually looking for ways to reduce the time taken, and he will know that I have held forums with MPs to discuss some ideas, many of which have now been incorporated in the system. I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality will visit the tribunal here in Britain and I hope that, through co-operation, we will be able to achieve a better standard across the piece.


I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply. In July 2000, my constituent, Alison Miller, lost her son, Matthew, when he was knocked over and killed by a speeding driver on the island of Minorca. In Spain, when a death is accidental, prosecution has to be requested by the injured party, but because of a clerical error between the Foreign Office and the British consulate, the time limit expired before Ms Miller could file for a prosecution and she could not get access to justice for her son. What contact have my right hon. and learned Friend and her officials had with the Support Abroad for Equal Justice Foundation, which my constituent set up to ensure that other bereaved British families get access to justice abroad when they lose loved ones in such tragic circumstances?

As it turns out, before my hon. Friend tabled her question, I had already arranged to meet Alison Miller as part of a group of families who were coming to see me about the coroner system and about how we can ensure that those who are bereaved by a sudden death get answers to their questions. Relatives want answers to sudden deaths when they happen in this country, but it is especially difficult for people to get information when it happens abroad. If a local coroner cannot get information from Spain or another country that they need to complete an inquest, our new proposed chief coroner—part of the reform of the coroner system that we will put before the House—will be able to ensure that they get the information instead of struggling to do so or failing, as they often do at present.

Will the Minister investigate the extreme staffing crisis in some coroners’ courts, especially south-west London, which has resulted in prolonged delays in the hearing of cases and great distress to the families concerned?

I will look into the staffing situation in south-west London. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we plan through the coroner system reform to have national standards so that we do not have delays in certain areas. We want to have proper training and we need an overview of what resources there are to support coroners’ offices in their work. At the moment, we do not have a proper national picture and we cannot monitor the situation, but I will look into his particular concerns. Bereaved relatives need to know that there will be a prompt inquiry and that their questions will be answered.

Court Facilities

There are 93 Crown courts, 88 of which of have dedicated witness facilities. Of the 355 magistrates courts, 302 can provide dedicated facilities for witnesses and victims.

One of the successes of the domestic violence court pilots was that better facilities for witnesses and victims improved people’s experience of the system. Will my right hon. and learned Friend elaborate on any plans that the Department might have to roll the provision out further and to invest in more facilities throughout the court system?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. In the past, no one was surprised that many domestic violence cases did not stay the course. Abused wives and girlfriends did not give evidence because that meant that they had to sit in the court waiting area, opposite the defendant and all his friends and relatives. The introduction of proper facilities for victims and witnesses is long overdue, especially as they are often intimidated. We are therefore planning to roll out the provision across England and Wales.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend planning to admit journalists to family courts? If so, will she assure the House that victims and witnesses waiting for their cases to come up will not face unwanted approaches from journalists?

My hon. Friend will know that we are consulting on how to ensure not only that justice is done in family courts, but that it is seen to be done. We want those courts to be more open and accountable, and we are proposing to allow the press in, subject to reporting restrictions. Hon. Members are welcome to engage in the consultation, but we are concerned to ensure that people waiting to give evidence in family courts are property protected, and not hassled by journalists.