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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 456: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2007


The Secretary of State was asked—

Rail Franchise Agreements

2. If he will provide for new rail franchise agreements to include a requirement for a maximum time a rail commuter should expect to stand without having access to a seat. (112056)

Before I answer the question, on behalf of the Government I express the sympathy of this side of the House to the family of Paul Channon, the former Member for Southend, West. He served as Secretary of State for Transport between 1987 and 1989, during which time he had to deal with both the Clapham Junction rail crash and the Lockerbie disaster. Our thoughts are with his family at this time.

The Government recognise the pressures faced by many passengers at the busiest times on the busiest routes into work. That is why, in all franchises that we let, we set a target that standing should not exceed 20 minutes and that peak capacity should meet demand. The recently let First Capital Connect and South Western Trains franchises contain commitments to increase capacity. We recognise that demand for rail has increased markedly in the past decade and this summer, for the first time, the Government will publish a fully funded strategy to buy extra capacity where it is most needed.

May I associate myself with the Minister’s opening comments?

Given that the cost of a season ticket from Milton Keynes and Wolverton is £3,440, surely commuters can expect to get a seat—something that cannot be guaranteed at the moment. With the rapid expansion of Milton Keynes, they are even less likely to get a seat in future. However, there is one thing that the Minister can do for me. Virgin trains stop to drop off passengers at Milton Keynes during rush hour, but not to pick them up. That is frustrating for commuters, when there are empty seats and it is the last stop before Euston. Please will the Minister look into that matter?

One of the challenges in Milton Keynes is ensuring that there is a sufficient length of platform to accommodate longer trains. I hope that, in the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman associated himself with my earlier comments, he will associate himself with the hard work and campaigning efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), who for many years has campaigned for that extra investment. There is a fundamental connection between the length of the platforms at Milton Keynes and the length of trains that are able to run, with a consequence for capacity.

Another form of access to seats that I have had complaints about from some of my constituents and my city council relates to the lack of properly functioning toilets on many commuter trains and other trains along the south coast. Is it true that the train companies have no requirement to provide toilets on trains? If so, will the Minister take steps to rectify the matter?

On the subject of standing on trains, our local rail service, One Railway, suffers from extreme overcrowding. We are desperate for more capacity on the service, but one of the problems in providing that capacity is the franchise fee that One Railway pays each year to the Department for Transport, which is £50 million. Will the Secretary of State take a look at that franchise fee to see whether the money would be better invested on new rail infrastructure and longer platforms?

I fear that the hon. Gentleman is labouring under a misapprehension. The premium payments by the franchisees do not go back to the Treasury, but are ring-fenced within the Department for Transport rail budget. It is exactly the kind of premium that he speaks of, as well as the sustained public investment, that accounts for the fact that 4,800 new trains and carriages have been purchased over the past 10 years.

Could my right hon. Friend use some of those returns to deal with the situation in relation to First Great Western? It is not just that people cannot get access to a seat; the space that they are expected to stand in is insufficient for a human being. As one of my constituents pointed out to me, under regulation 1/2005 and directive 91/628/EEC, there is a minimum amount of space specified for a pig, a cow or a sheep, but at no point is there a minimum amount of space specified for a person on a train.

I welcome the opportunity to state clearly to the House that the performance of First Great Western over recent weeks has been simply unacceptable. I have made that point not solely to the House, but directly to the management at First Great Western. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), the Minister with responsibility for rail, has done so too. We have raised concerns on behalf of passengers not simply in Slough, but further west in Bristol. I am glad to say that First Great Western has recently apologised publicly to its passengers. Its challenge is to take the remedial steps necessary to ensure that the new rolling stock, which should already have been available to passengers, is made available. That will have an impact on capacity.

Of course, Ministers today have more direct operational involvement in the running of the railways than they did even in the days of British Rail. In the past few weeks, overcrowding has led to passengers fainting on trains; we have seen commuter rebellions and newspaper campaigns about the raw deal that passengers are getting; and last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), and my office received a letter from a lady in Scotland whose daughter had to stand from Kirkcaldy, the Secretary of State’s spiritual home, all the way to London—a five-hour journey. The Secretary of State has promised us another White Paper. When will the Government actually start doing something to fulfil some of their promises in their 10-year plan on tackling overcrowding?

The hon. Gentleman is right to acknowledge that there is genuine public concern about capacity. There has been a significant uplift in the number of people using our railways in recent years. He challenges me to name some of the improvements that have already been brought about as a result of investment. Southern Railways’ new trains programme represents the biggest single procurement of commuter trains in 40 years, and some 1,700 old slam-door trains have been replaced by 225 new rail vehicles. The west coast main line delivers 12-car suburban services on the southern end of the route and there is scope for growth in future years. For Chiltern, the delivery of the Evergreen 2 allows more trains to operate into Marylebone. Although there is genuine public concern, it is difficult for the Conservative party to be a credible articulator of that concern when it seems to be saying simultaneously that it wants lower fares and taxes and higher investment. That simply does not add up.

The Secretary of State is always ready to boast about the amount that he is spending on the railways, as are the Government in other areas of their activities. However, if I were in his position, I would be asking myself why, although I was spending so much money, the situation for many passengers was still so bad. How will he cope with the official forecasts of more than 30 per cent. growth in passenger numbers in the next seven years? If we already have an overcrowding crisis on our railways, where are those passengers going to travel?

As I have made clear, we will announce the additional capacity that we will be able to buy in the summer, which will be in addition to the ongoing programme of investment. It ill-behoves the hon. Gentleman to assert that something must be done while simultaneously asserting that fares and taxes must be cut. It simply does not add up for a principal party of opposition that is trying credibly to associate itself with genuine public concern to be willing to talk about the ends, but be unwilling to commit the means.

Although frequency and punctuality on the north Wales coast have improved considerably, there is still pressure on seat capacity. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the proposal of Virgin Trains to introduce five-car trains to replace larger nine-car trains in 2008 will compound that problem? There is already sufficient capacity to fill the nine cars. Will he assure me that the franchise will provide a full service west of Chester—from Holyhead to London—and that that service will use the prime trains?

There is a misapprehension that franchising agreements prohibit franchisees from adding capacity to services, or putting in place additional services. There are choices for the franchisee to make. In many cases, franchisees want to put in place additional capacity because that generates further revenue for the railways. I know that there is concern in north-west Wales. I have held discussions with colleagues from Wrexham on the matter, and I will certainly consider the points that my hon. Friend makes.

First Great Western’s advice to passengers who feel unsafe on crowded trains is that they should get off. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), has advised us that there is no legal limit on the number of people who can travel on a train. When Labour came to power, one of its first actions was to legislate about the overcrowding of animals on trains, including chickens. Is it not time that the rights of commuters were dealt with in the same way as those of chickens?

I fear that the hon. Gentleman has evidenced the risk involved in writing down a question prior to discussions in the Chamber. I reiterate that we recognise that there is a genuine challenge facing not only the Government, but the whole country, as a consequence of the sustained economic growth that we have experienced over the past decade and the chronic under-investment that was witnessed on the railways over many decades. There are two sources of funding available to address the capacity challenges that we face. In terms of public resources, there is the contribution from the fare payer and the contribution from the taxpayer. It is necessary to find the appropriate balance. In recent years, the net contribution from the taxpayer increased significantly, but we will continue to address the matter and we will bring forward further proposals this summer.

Car Pools

The previous Secretary of State for Transport announced in December 2004 and March 2006 plans to trial high-occupancy vehicle lanes on the M1, junctions 7 to 10, and at the junction between the M606 and the M62 respectively. We will be monitoring the success of the trials carefully. HOV lanes introduced by local authorities in the UK and highways authorities in other countries have been shown to work well.

May I thank the Minister for that answer? When I was on holiday in California in the summer, I saw for myself how effective car-pool lanes on freeways were in encouraging people to share cars at peak times, instead of sitting in a queue, one to a car. Will he seriously consider the idea of local authorities in urban areas introducing bus lanes that could double up as lanes for car-pool cars? That might be an effective way of reducing congestion at peak commuting times.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support of high-occupancy vehicle lanes. She is absolutely right to say that they work well in the United States, as they do in other countries, too. We have already done some experiments; local authorities in Leeds and South Gloucestershire have introduced HOV lanes on local roads, in conjunction with a package of other measures, and the lanes have been shown to reduce journey times for commuters significantly. Her idea about the possibility of bus and high-occupancy vehicle lanes is a positive one, and I will make sure that local authorities consider it.

Are there any plans to give local authorities greater powers to support car-pool schemes, as that would go a long way towards giving people the chance to use high-occupancy vehicle lanes?

Local authorities already have such powers. In fact, we have just published a traffic advisory leaflet, which explains to them their powers and what they can do, and which sets out evidence gained from schemes in other areas, showing how successful they have been. If my hon. Friend has any concerns about her local authority and wants to discuss those concerns with me, I would be happy to have a meeting with her.

Road Congestion

4. How much funding he has allocated to local authorities for the development of innovative solutions to road congestion for 2006-07. (112058)

Five million pounds has been earmarked in 2006-07, as part of a package of more than £14.5 million, to support initial scheme development by local transport authorities for the transport innovation fund. The support available for TIF schemes to tackle congestion will increase to £200 million per annum from 2008-09.

I welcome that information from my hon. Friend. When congestion charging was introduced in London, there were many arguments about the economic and environmental impacts of tackling congestion. Will my hon. Friend assure me that long-term environmental impacts will be a key part of the Department for Transport’s assessment of any forthcoming schemes? It is easy to pay lip service to environmental issues, but backing schemes that are not universally popular is another matter.

Of course the environment must be an important part of the issues that a local authority takes into consideration. The primary function of demand management schemes, including the congestion charge, is to control congestion, but within those schemes there are many opportunities to improve the environment for local communities. In London, the Mayor is taking those considerations forward, and other local authorities considering demand management schemes will doubtless also take them into account.

Does the Minister accept that much congestion is created at junctions that have inadequate capacity, and at points where roads cross railway lines? Will he target the money on improving junctions, so that traffic can flow better, as that will bring green benefits, and benefits for business and people trying to get to work and school?

It is for the local authorities that apply for the money to consider how best they can improve congestion on their local roads. The type of work that the right hon. Gentleman mentions will, no doubt, be one of the options that they will consider, but they have to take into account not only options for building, but demand management, because frankly we cannot continue to build our way out of the problems caused by congestion. They will have to bring an open-minded attitude to those serious issues, which is far more than can be said about the taskforce that the right hon. Gentleman leads on behalf of his party. Its big idea for dealing with the problem is to introduce double-decker motorways that would cost £35 billion—

Manchester airport has estimated that the increase in air passenger duty announced at the end of last year will raise £90 million from that airport alone. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that the money should be put into public transport and environmental schemes, but would it not make more sense to use it to extend the tram system in Greater Manchester, rather than forcing on the people of Manchester a regressive and unwanted road pricing scheme?

We have just announced support for the extension of the transport system in Manchester, so my hon. Friend knows that we are indeed investing in the city’s public transport system. The fact of the matter is that we must get realistic about congestion. Thanks to the Government and 10 years of economic growth, the number of vehicles on our roads has increased from 26 million to 33 million. In a small island, we cannot continue to build our way out of the problem. Yes, investment in public transport is part of the answer, but I am afraid that in Manchester, just as in every other city in the country, we have to get realistic about demand management, too.

When the Minister comes to allocate funds to those local authorities, what advice will he give them on levying congestion charges on the 2.2 million vehicles that are not registered or taxed?

That is one of the key problems that we must identify if we are to move forward. Demand management solutions will indeed help us to identify vehicles that are not taxed, so one of the added benefits of road pricing is the fact that there will be no more people driving around without tax or insurance.

Rail Fares

6. For what reasons Southeastern Trains has removed zone 3 from its ticket prices on north Kent services; and if he will make a statement. (112060)

I reassure my hon. Friend that Southeastern has not removed zone 3 from its ticket prices on north Kent services. However, may I commend him on identifying that omission and bringing it to my attention? I am informed that the company made an error in implementing London zonal fares, which affected zone 3, and I can confirm that that error has now been corrected.

I am sorry that I have had to approach my hon. Friend to receive anything close to an apology for the error. When my constituents wrote to Southeastern, the company chose to ignore the complaint in its reply, blaming the Government for a 66 per cent. increase in fares. It is several weeks since I pointed out the error, so will my hon. Friend ensure that Southeastern publicise it and give people who can prove that they were overcharged and who paid an excessive fare the opportunity to obtain a refund?

I well understand my hon. Friend’s concern. It is for Southeastern to decide whether or not to publicise any new arrangements, but I have been told that it is working on a process to refund season ticket holders who have overpaid.

Is the Minister aware of the anger among commuters in my constituency, both at the large fare increase on north Kent services, and at the unreliable service that they receive? Surely, increased ticket prices far above inflation and train delays are not the way to encourage more people to use the service.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that regulated fares have increased more on Southeastern than on most other franchises, at RPI plus 3 per cent. compared with RPI plus 1 per cent. for other train operating companies. Those rises can be justified by the significant investment that has taken place on Southeastern in recent years, and that investment will continue. It should be noted that over the past three years, Southeastern’s performance has increased by 9.3 per cent., as it has achieved a public performance measure of 88.8 per cent.

Bus Fares

7. How many pensioners and disabled people used free fares on off-peak local bus travel in the last 12 months. (112061)

The Government introduced the free off-peak local bus travel concession for some 11 million older and disabled people in England on 1 April 2006. Since then, bus patronage has increased nationally by about 3 per cent. Further information will be published in the autumn.

I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. My constituents in Great Yarmouth are certainly pleased with the Government’s response, and look forward to the national travel concession next year. However, there are two problems. First, the scheme has been so successful that many fare-paying passengers cannot get on the buses and, secondly, in rural areas, there is a lack of public services, so pensioners cannot take advantage of the benefits offered by the Government. Can the Minister give us any news that will provide a boost both for pensioners in those areas and for fare-paying passengers?

I am grateful for the work that my hon. Friend has done to secure the benefits of concessionary travel arrangements for his constituency, and I am delighted to hear of the success of Government policy in Great Yarmouth, as has been the case across the country. I am aware that there have been concerns about the level of service provided by First Group in the area, and I urge the local authority and First Group to get together to address the issues. More broadly, we recently announced proposals to improve bus services across the country, which include improved partnerships between local authorities and bus operators to deal with the kind of matters that my hon. Friend—

Given that the settlement for free local bus travel forced many councils to increase council tax, causing significant hardship to many older and disabled people, what reassurances can the Minister give regarding the settlement for free national bus travel so that the Government are not accused of giving with one hand and taking away with the other?

That is not a situation that I recognise. After the introduction of the new national bus concession in 2008, the Government will be spending about £1 billion a year on concessionary travel for older and disabled people. Our commitment is to keep that going and extend it nationally, and I hope the hon. Gentleman’s party will support us in that.

May I suggest to my hon. Friend that she encourage other authorities to follow the example of Derbyshire county council, which extended its Gold Card discount and transport scheme to cover a number of community transport schemes, so that people with mobility problems—elderly people and disabled people—can go on the dial-a-bus schemes to the local shops or travel to other towns free?

I am happy to endorse that local arrangement, which I know my hon. Friend strongly supports. Local authorities have the discretion to vary their concessionary fares scheme and extend it to community transport in the way that she describes.

Pensioners in Rushden who want to go to Wellingborough do not get free travel. The Minister speaks of free national travel. When will that be brought in, and will it be subsidised by council tax payers or out of general taxation?

The Minister will be aware that one area with the highest take-up of concessionary fares is Tyne and Wear. She will also know that it cost the passenger transport executive £5.4 million to introduce the scheme last year, and it will cost a further £2.6 million to continue the scheme over the next financial year. Are there any measures that can be brought in to compensate Tyne and Wear PTE for that £8 million loss, so that when the national scheme is rolled out we will start from a level playing field?

The Department for Communities and Local Government and my Department continue to work on the matter. We are considering a number of options for distributing the existing funding. I have spoken to my hon. Friend and others about the matter. It is in the interest of us all to ensure that local authorities are adequately funded for providing the statutory concession. As I said, the Government will spend about £1 billion a year on concessionary travel from April 2008.

Although many pensioners in my constituency welcome access to free travel, will my hon. Friend join me in condemning Go North East, which is cynically stripping out bus routes from many of the outlying villages in my constituency and the neighbouring constituency of City of Durham, which is leaving pensioners isolated? Although they have a free pass, they cannot use it because there is no bus service.

Local provision is a matter for bus operators and local authorities, and I hope my hon. Friend will contribute to the process. Our document, “Putting Passengers First”, will enable local areas to have a far greater say to ensure that his constituents are much better served by bus services.

As has been said, the concessionary travel scheme has been a great success in Tyne and Wear, with an increase in travel through it of about 20 per cent. Will the Minister re-examine the funding formula, which has been alluded to and which can only be described as absolutely barmy? It is based on the number of over-60-year-olds in the population, which means that the Scilly Isles, with no buses at all, gets cash, while places such as Tyne and Wear are obliged to withdraw services and scrap the concessionary scheme for young people to make sure that the scheme works?

I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend’s considered view of the funding scheme. I should say that funding is provided by the formula grant, which is in line with the wishes of central and local government. As I said, we are considering several options for distributing the existing funding. I am looking forward to my own visit to the north-east to see bus services there.

Rail Travel

8. What his estimate is of the level of rail travel undertaken in the latest year for which figures are available. (112062)

More than 1 billion rail journeys were made during 2005-06—the most since 1961. That represents a total distance travelled of more than 43 million km during the same period.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I can tell him that the number of rail passengers travelling from Chester to Euston has increased by more than 30 per cent. in the past year. Contrary to what Opposition Members may think, that is surely a sign of success as a result of local economic prosperity and improvements to the west coast main line. Is it not time to turn to considering improvements to the facilities at stations to take account of that increased rail usage? For instance, at my local station—

My hon. Friend is right to acknowledge that, having addressed many of the safety concerns as regards rail services that were uppermost in many people’s minds a few years ago, as we continue to address the challenge of performance and reliability, capacity is undoubtedly one of the dominating challenges that we face now and in the years ahead. The straightforward answer to that is to ensure that there is sustained investment. Many people forget that back in the days of British Rail there was annual budgeting, whereas we are now looking at year-on-year budgeting, which can make a significant contribution. Part of the reason for the improvement in passenger numbers on the west coast main line is the record levels of investment going into that service, with the consequence that there have also been improvements in performance and reliability.

Given that the Government accepted a bid from First Capital Connect that meant fewer passengers and increased fares, our only hope is to get increased capacity through the Thameslink project. Will we have an early funding decision on that to help my constituents who want to travel?

Capacity will be increased on the First Capital Connect route between Bedford and Brighton to ensure all eight-car running in the course of the franchise. The decision that the hon. Lady asks about, along with several others, will be considered in the context of the high level output specification next summer.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that in recent years there have been new trains and an increased frequency of service on the Cross Country franchise. However, the problem is that the trains are shorter than they used to be, and there is a serious problem of lack of capacity and overcrowding, particularly on the central part of the route between Birmingham and Leeds. Now that that service is out for refranchising, will he give an assurance that he will consider that particular problem when deciding who the new service operator should be?

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that in all our franchise negotiations capacity is one of the considerations uppermost in our minds. He speaks of Leeds. That is a timely reminder that this is not merely a challenge for the south-east of England. As the Eddington report indicated, we are now dealing with circumstances whereby we have economic growth in several cities, and we therefore need to address the challenge not only in the south-east but in cities throughout the country.

Does the Secretary of State agree that more use of the services could be achieved if the timetable were more conducive? In particular, I draw his attention to the fact that there are two services an hour in each direction from Euston to Stockport, but only one on the line from Chester to Stockport, which passes through Altrincham and which is not timetabled in a way that matches with any of the mainline services on the west coast main line. Will he encourage a more sensible use of timetables to ensure that connecting services match up?

Appropriate timetabling changes can certainly make significant contributions to performance and service reliability, but it might help the hon. Gentleman if he consulted his Front-Bench spokesman on these matters. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) recently stated:

“I do not think it is the role of Ministers to decide detailed service configurations.”—[Official Report, 30 November 2006; Vol. 453, c. 1290.]

Aviation Emissions

We welcome the European Union’s recent announcement on aviation’s inclusion in the EU emission trading scheme in 2011 and 2012. We have led the debate in Europe on the issue and will continue to work on the detail of the proposal, including an earlier introduction.

It would be wrong to assume that people who derive their income from and contribute to the general economic well-being of an area such as Crawley are not concerned about aviation pollution. What more can we do collectively to alert people to the continuing problems with aviation? Although they are currently small, they are increasing. What more can communities do to assist in the battle to reduce global warming?

My hon. Friend is an effective representative of her constituents, who have a wide range of interests in Gatwick airport. The Government are fully committed to ensuring that aviation meets its environmental costs. In addition to the EU emissions trading scheme, seeking reform of the Chicago convention to recognise global environmental considerations, doubling air passenger duty and pursuing other measures such as improving aviation working practices, research and development and promoting voluntary action by individuals will all contribute.

Does the Under-Secretary agree that one of the ways in which she can limit carbon emissions from aviation is to encourage civil servants to fly less? If so, will she speak to her colleagues at the Treasury? Thanks to the merger and subsequent centralisation of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs functions, it has managed in the space of only a year to double the number of civil servants who take domestic flights so that, on any given day, more than 50 HMRC managers travel through regional airports in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister took a lead in that. All official and ministerial air travel is offset and people fly only when it is necessary in the course of their work.

Rail Capacity

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the Department is already taking steps to increase the capacity of the railways through the franchising process, the high level output specification and the longer-term strategy framework for the network to be published in the summer.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the latest national passenger survey, which shows that nearly 40 per cent.—6 per cent. more than previously—of travellers on First Great Western are dissatisfied with the amount of room available for passengers to sit or stand. Does not that make the case for increasing capacity on the railway rather than having expensive new refits of first class compartments?

I fully accept that the performance of First Great Western in the past few weeks has unfortunately overshadowed the good news in the rest of the rail network, especially in the light of the passenger survey to which my hon. Friend referred. It showed that customer satisfaction is 81 per cent. nationally. I expect First Great Western to meet its franchise commitments and provide a significantly improved service to passengers in the next few weeks.

The removal of First Great Western’s 5.18 service to Swansea has had a knock-on effect on other commuter services in south Wales. Recently, 340 people in Cardiff boarded a Cardiff to Swansea train which had only 186 seats. Since the last time the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) asked the same question, things have got worse. When will they get better?

The removal of the 17.18 service from Cardiff to Swansea was a commercial decision that First Great Western took and the Department has no authority to reverse it. Of course, we will keep the position under review with Arriva Trains Wales and First Great Western.

I congratulate the Government on the improvements on the west coast main line between Lancaster and London. They have made journeys much better. We must now consider capacity, especially, in my area, on trains between Lancaster and Morecambe, and improve the frequency of the trains by improving the track. What funding is available for such improvements?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Let me repeat that the high level output specification, which the Government will publish in the summer, will specify the capacity that we wish to buy from the rail industry in 2009 to 2014. We will also state the funds available for that.

London Underground

12. How much his Department has allocated to London Underground in support of the public-private partnership in each year up to 2009-10. (112066)

The three PPP agreements were signed by April 2003. Since then, the Department has agreed £9.5 billion grant for London Underground up to 2009-10.

Sadly, my constituency does not lie on the London Underground system. Perhaps my hon. Friend could do something about that. The Piccadilly line runs close by, however, and there have been real problems on that line because of a lack of investment over many years that has led to delays and difficulties for passengers. What reassurance can my hon. Friend give to the House that the PPP will lead to the investment needed to improve the service for my constituents?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns for his constituents, including the fact that there is no underground station in his constituency. However, the Piccadilly line is now performing at a level above the contract specifications and, importantly for my hon. Friend’s constituents, it is due for a major upgrade in 2014, when new signals and trains will reduce average journey times by a fifth and increase passenger capacity by 25 per cent.

Will the Minister outline how much of the £9.5 billion will be spent on the District line, which is the only tube line serving my constituents? To my knowledge, there is no substantial investment planned for it until 2013.

I shall be happy to write to the hon. Lady about that. I can tell her, however, that refurbished trains are now being provided for the District line, that new trains will be delivered between 2013 and 2015, and that a new signalling system will be in place by March 2018. I hope that she will welcome those improvements.

Will my hon. Friend cast a leery eye over the value for money of these private finance initiatives? The underground is a very old system and it needs a lot of cash. The Government are providing the cash, but are we quite sure that the passengers are getting the benefit?

I look to London Underground and its PPP partners to work together to address any areas of poor performance. We know that there have been a number of successes, but we are also aware that performance needs to be improved, and I can assure my hon. Friend that I am extremely mindful of that.

Constitutional Affairs

The Minister of State was asked—


My Department does not collect data on the age and gender composition of juries for monitoring purposes. Random selection from the electoral register should mean that the composition of juries is broadly representative of the general population.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does she, however, share my concern that many younger people might be being disadvantaged in this respect, perhaps by virtue of the fact that they move more frequently or are not on the electoral register? What is her Department doing in general terms to increase the awareness and involvement of young people in the jury system, perhaps in relation to citizenship awareness in schools and other projects of that nature?

My hon. Friend makes an important point in marrying the random selection of juries and registration on the electoral register—a subject that is close to my heart. He will know that my Department has done a great deal of work to encourage electoral registration, as has the Electoral Commission. However, young people are more likely to move more frequently than others. When the Department publishes its report on diversity in the jury system in England and Wales shortly, I hope that we can examine that aspect of the report in more detail.

May I reassure the Minister that, in the almost 15 years that I have been a Member of Parliament representing a Lancashire constituency, I have not received one letter of complaint from anyone who felt that they were being denied the opportunity to serve on a jury? Will she give the House an assurance that the random nature of jury selection will remain, and that it will not be artificially skewed one way or another?

I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that the random nature of jury selection will remain. As he will know, we have now extended the jury pool, which means that Members of Parliament should also now have the opportunity to serve on juries.

My hon. Friend will be aware that this is about getting the right balance, whether in regard to gender or age. Will she also ensure that that same balance is struck in regard to the selection of magistrates?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, whose policy area covers magistrates, is aware of the diversity needed in the magistrates court, as is the Magistrates Association, of which I have been a member for some time.

Carter Review

22. What representations she has received from solicitors and barristers following publication of the conclusions of the Carter review. (112042)

The hon. Gentleman asks about responses to the Carter review published in July 2006. We had 1,595 responses from solicitors and 469 from barristers, as well as much input from the various meetings that I had around the country, which were mostly attended by practitioners.

Quite a few legal aid practitioners in my constituency have written to me saying that they are worried about the Government’s proposals, which they have called “cost-cutting and damaging”. Those are experienced people who have been doing such work for a long time. Is the Minister saying that their assessment of the likely effect of the proposals is wrong, or is she suggesting that they are merely protecting their fee income?

Clearly, the legal aid fund is not underfunded; it is the best funded in the world by a significant margin. When we move, as we will in October 2007, to fixed fees for crime—which perhaps the hon. Gentleman is talking about—we would expect efficiencies to be driven so that, ultimately, solicitors will be more profitably able than now to do their business and to serve more people. There will be challenges between then and now, and I understand that those will be seriously problematic for some solicitors. I hope that we can support them to overcome those, as there is a good future for those who can do so.

As we are discussing fee income, I should perhaps mention that I am a solicitor. If at all possible, will my hon. and learned Friend consider the question of experts’ fees? I have tabled some questions on the issue, and legal aid expenditure on experts’ fees has increased far more quickly than expenditure on solicitors’ and barristers’ fees over the past five years. Will she get a detailed breakdown of that expenditure, and take steps to restrict such expenditure?

My hon. Friend has tabled such questions, and he is right about those increases. We are considering experts’ fees. If I can supply the information that he seeks, I shall do so.

Will the Minister consider the evidence that the Constitutional Affairs Committee is hearing week by week, from not just barristers and solicitors but judges and others, including representations from the president of the family division, about the likely impact on the availability of family law practitioners? Is she ready to make alterations to the timing and content of the proposals in the light of some of that evidence?

I am, of course, taking note of the evidence, and looking forward to an opportunity to deal with it, either personally or through the Lord Chancellor, in due course. We do, of course, listen carefully to what the president of the family division says. He is talking about deferring, but there is urgency none the less to introduce such fees. It was notable that Lord Justice Thomas was strongly in favour of our proposals, so perhaps a balanced approach was taken.

Has my hon. and learned Friend specifically considered whether advice deserts might emerge following the introduction of scale fees and contracts in relation to family law? Is she reviewing that possibility as a result of the change in practice this autumn?

No, I would not expect the emergence of any advice desert; I would prefer to call them historically bare-ish patches, which are now being pretty well watered with Legal Services Commission money and are basking in the mild sunshine of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, with green shoots coming through, if not bushes and trees. But enough of that metaphor. We are re-consulting on the levels of family fees, and I hope and expect that we will publish that re-consultation soon. I hope that that will ensure that family practitioners benefit from the efficiencies that all the Carter reforms will drive, and that the service given to the public will be improved.

The expression “parallel universes” comes to mind. Is the Minister aware that in a recent survey 99 per cent. of civil legal aid solicitors said that fixed fees would make their work unviable, while a staggering 82 per cent. of family lawyers said that they might withdraw completely from legal aid work? Surely that is why dozens of charities ranging from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Mind to Shelter and the Refugee Council have warned that the plans will leave vulnerable people unrepresented. When it comes to protecting such people and standing up for them, who should we listen to, Ministers who appear ever more complacent or world-class charities which spend all their lives helping the vulnerable?

There are Ministers here who spend their lifetimes helping the vulnerable in cases of all kinds.

The opportunities that the proposals offer the not-for-profit and for-profit sectors are extremely significant. I entirely accept that the transition is not easy for all people to see their way through, but I am sure that when it comes it will be advantageous and more vulnerable people will be better advised than they are now.

The effect of the Carter proposals is that there will be fewer suppliers. Whether there are patches or deserts, the fact remains that there will be less access to justice. The Law Society and the Bar Council have made representations, and hundreds of Members of Parliament have signed an early-day motion opposing this measure. Will the Minister listen to what is being said by all concerned, and delay implementation of these ridiculous reforms?

I am not sure what ridiculous reforms are being referred to, but if there are any ridiculous reforms to be deferred I will defer ridiculous reforms. What I do not accept is that fewer firms will mean less supply. On the contrary, if that is the outcome in some areas it will be because the volume of fixed-fees cases means that more people are being better represented. Fewer supplies do not necessarily mean poorer supply, although the effects will vary from area to area. As I have said repeatedly, we will consult locally in order to reach the right conclusion for the local market and—this is overwhelmingly important—for local people.

The Minister will know that since the Government announced their response to the Carter reforms and since the two debates in Westminster Hall in which the Minister spoke—after which her words were scrutinised very carefully—there has been no less concern among both the voluntary sector and the professionals that the new reforms will reduce access to justice in rural and urban Britain alike. Given the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and the fact that a Select Committee is examining the evidence now, will the Minister at least do the public and their representatives the courtesy of saying that she will not implement anything until the Select Committee has reported and the House has had a chance to debate its report?

It is not the case that there is “no less concern” than there was. Universally—and that includes the early-day motion that the hon. Gentleman signed—the changes that we have made since Carter have been welcomed. The early-day motion welcomes the changes, and they are good in pace-of-change terms. We have waited to make cuts, and we are not making cuts that were expected to be made very soon under the Carter proposals. I do not know when the Constitutional Affairs Committee will report, but the first fixed fees come into force in October 2007 and I imagine that it will report before that.

Voting Age

I have received nine letters about the issue in the last six months. The matter has been raised with me by students and young people on an informal basis during engagements and visits that I have undertaken during that time.

In the Scottish parliamentary elections in May, 130,000 people in Scotland will be old enough to marry, to join the Army and even to become company directors, but will be deemed too young to be given a vote on who should govern them. When will the Minister recommend action to correct that injustice and give Scotland’s young people a voice at the ballot box?

This issue divides us in a cross-party sense. I have a good deal of sympathy with the hon. Lady’s argument for voting rights at 16, but I know that many Members feel very differently about it.

This morning I was at Greenford high school in Ealing discussing this very topic with students on their citizens’ jury. They were divided 50:50 on it. I think that before we could implement such a measure we would need more than a 50 per cent. enthusiasm rate from the people to whom we would be extending the franchise.

My hon. Friend says that she is sympathetic, but what has happened to the old-fashioned virtue of leadership? Why does she not put forward a radical idea for once and say, “We will legislate”—as the Isle of Man did in advance of its general election, at which people voted at 16 years of age? The last time I flew over the Isle of Man it was still there; it had not sunk, and it has a better democracy than we have. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

I am interested to hear my hon. Friend, who I always think of as one of the fathers of democracy in this House, suggest that the Isle of Man’s democracy is better than ours. I am disappointed that he takes that view. However, we have to listen to all views, and I have conducted surveys in my constituency—I spoke about the young people I met this morning—and I have to say to my hon. Friend that young people are not as enthusiastic as he or I might be about this subject. We must have further discussions with them before we move forward. My hon. Friend talks about leadership, and in that context we should also talk about the fragility of democracy and the importance of democracy in this country. One way to ensure that we continue to have a proper debate is by ensuring that the democracy of the country is upheld.

There is not much point in lowering the voting age unless we can convince young people who have already reached the age of 18 to vote. Why does the Minister think that there is massive apathy among young people? Is it because young people believe that the main political parties are driven by focus groups and spin, rather than principle?

I speak to young people throughout the country—and to others about the views of young people—and the idea that young people are apathetic about politics is nonsense. They take a keen interest in many of the important political issues of the day. They might not, however, like some of what they see on television with regard to how the political process works, and I have sympathy with them on that. Members of this House must work very hard in engaging with young people on the issues that are important to them and in finding ways in which they can express their opinions and get them heard. In my constituency, the London borough of Lewisham has an elected young mayor who has a budget from the council which is used to involve young people between the ages of 11 and 17 in the electoral process. We might want to extend that example to elsewhere in the country.

Some 15 months ago, my local radio station carried out an opinion poll on this issue, and more than 90 per cent. of those who responded were in favour of reducing the voting age. Would doing that not make a major contribution not only to citizenship, but to Britishness?

It is important that we have a debate on this matter. Having talked to young people around the country, I can say that they are particularly keen on the citizenship classes that now take place in schools thanks to this Government, and they feel that that is one of the ways in which they can develop their own political ideas. There are a variety of ways in which we can continue to involve young people in the political process both locally and nationally, but I am sure that the debate on whether we reduce the voting age to 16 will continue for some time to come.

Does the Minister not agree that there is a wider dimension to this issue, particularly at a time when the Government are suggesting raising the school leaving age to 18, which is to do with what adulthood really means? As she knows, some of those who suggest that the voting age should be 16 also suggest that buying tobacco and alcohol, and even starring in a porn film, should be possible at the age of 16. Does she not agree that all the evidence—and we should look at the evidence—from the Isle of Man shows that only half the young people there bothered to register to vote, and that the Electoral Commission seems to suggest in its report that overall turnout at elections would fall if we made this change?

The hon. Gentleman makes some valid points about the issues associated with reducing the voting age to 16, such as whether young people would participate, but I do not accept that reducing the voting age to 16 would automatically mean that a much smaller number of people would take part in elections; in fact, it might be a way to get young people further engaged. The Electoral Administration Act 2006 reduced the candidacy age from 21 to 18, and we can look to that example to see whether we can properly involve more young people in the democratic process by electing them at local—and, indeed, parliamentary —level.

David Kelly

24. If she will make a statement on the actions of the Oxfordshire coroner in August 2003 in respect of the death of David Kelly. (112044)

The Oxfordshire coroner briefly resumed the inquest into the death of Dr. David Kelly on 14 August 2003 to admit post mortem evidence. He then adjourned the inquest, in accordance with the provisions of section 17(a) of the Coroners Act 1988, having been informed by the Lord Chancellor that Dr. Kelly’s death was likely to be adequately investigated by the Hutton inquiry.

I thank the Minister for her reply. She will know my view that the coroner acted in a most peculiar way and contrary to the 1988 Act in resuming the inquiry after Lord Hutton had been appointed. In a letter that I received from Lord Hutton last week, he tells me that he had “no knowledge” of the inquest being reconvened, and no knowledge of the meeting with her officials, which she was aware of, that took place at the Oxfordshire coroner’s request, in August 2003. Is this not an extraordinary situation, and does the Minister not agree that it would be helpful if the Oxfordshire coroner agreed to a meeting with the Minister and me, at which we could discuss these matters in more detail? It is clear that there are a great many loose ends.

I do not agree that the coroner acted in a most peculiar way. I have looked into this issue with great care and in great detail, and I do not think it necessarily odd that Lord Hutton had no knowledge of, or information about, the meeting that the coroner held with officials from the Department for Constitutional Affairs. I know that the hon. Gentleman remains suspicious and thinks that something underhand has gone on regarding the meeting between the Oxfordshire coroner and officials from the Lord Chancellor’s Department, but I do not think that that is the case. I have so far been unable to reassure the hon. Gentleman through very detailed letters and parliamentary answers, but perhaps he should meet the officials who were involved in that meeting, who I am sure can reassure him of its propriety. Obviously, I cannot offer a meeting with the Oxfordshire coroner, who is an independent judicial official.