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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 457: debated on Tuesday 6 March 2007


The Secretary of State was asked—

Local Buses

1. What plans he has to hold operators and local authorities to account for the performance of local bus services. (125109)

The Government plan to introduce a new performance regime to improve the reliability and punctuality of bus services. Our proposals, set out last December, will require both operators and local authorities to account for the performance of local bus services, and will include strengthened penalties where performance fails to improve.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and I welcome the increased powers, which will enable a better service for passengers following what was a disastrous privatisation. How will he ensure, however, that operators and local authorities perform effectively in the delivery of free national bus travel for pensioners?

I can assure my hon. Friend that a great deal of work is under way with local authorities, as the concessionary bodies, and with bus operators to ensure an effective start to the national concessionary bus travel system, which I am sure will be welcomed by many in the House.

The Secretary of State knows that the real way to hold authorities and operators to account is via traffic commissioners. However, in the north-west, for instance, from Liverpool all the way through to Leeds there is one traffic commissioner and two staff. The Government are not funding traffic commissioners. Will they pledge to do so today, so that there can be real accountability?

We are looking at traffic commissioners’ powers in the context of the “Putting Passengers First” document, which we published in December. One other principal inhibitor to their ability to do the job that we would wish has been the lack of effective performance data. Through addressing that issue, we are seeking to strengthen traffic commissioners’ ability to get a grip on these problems.

Owing to low car ownership, most of the constituents in the rural part of my constituency rely on the bus service. However, there is a single dominant operator that decides to make changes to the service as it sees fit, which causes a great deal of distress to my constituents. How will the changes that my right hon. Friend has introduced ensure that my constituents get a reliable service and do not experience the distress that they have suffered so far?

Having declined in the decade after 1986, bus subsidy in England has almost doubled in real terms since 1997-98. The “Putting Passengers First” document that we published in December recognised that, alongside the additional subsidy that has been put into bus services in constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s, there needs to be a strengthened governance regime, which is why we will introduce proposals in due course.

Does the Secretary of State accept, however, that if local authorities and passenger transport executives are to be accountable for the performance of local bus services, they will require not just extra powers but resources? To that end, will he, as part of his consultation, consider giving some or even all of the money that goes to operators through the fuel duty rebate to local authorities and PTEs?

We obviously keep such matters under review, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are in discussions with the PTEs and the passenger transport authorities in the light of the document that we published. However, as I said, the strength of our commitment to subsidising the bus industry has been manifested by the scale of increase in recent years. The challenge is to make sure that that money is used effectively, and we are certainly giving consideration to that.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern at the fact that the leader of Chorley council is claiming that he, not the Government, is introducing free national bus travel? Will my right hon. Friend confirm who is funding and introducing it?

My hon. Friend brings to my attention something that I was not aware of before this Question Time. If the gentleman whom he describes is also willing to stump up the extra £250 million that the Government are putting into a national concessionary travel scheme, I should certainly be very happy to take forward that discussion.

What role will competition play in delivering better services and lower fares, and how will the Secretary of State avoid the regulators becoming anti-competitive and pro-monopoly?

If one looks back at the experience of far too many communities since the deregulation of bus services in 1986, one sees that the somewhat fundamentalist views of competition, which have been more prevalent among Opposition Members than Labour ones, have been defied by experience. We recognise that competitive bus services can be effective, but that is not being manifested in enough communities today. To judge by the bus services that are operating effectively—for example, in communities such as Nottingham, York and Brighton—such a service involves not simply the fresh gusts of competition but an effective partnership with local authorities. We are keen to make sure that the architecture for that partnership is extended across the country.


2. What action he plans to take to encourage greater use of biofuels in advance of the introduction of the renewable transport fuel obligation. (125110)

The renewable transport fuel obligation is due to come into effect in April 2008, providing a significant and secure market for biofuels in the UK. In advance of that, the Government continue to support biofuels mainly through fuel duty incentives. Sales of biofuels doubled between 2005 and 2006, reaching more than 250 million litres.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there has been a reversal in price differential between biodiesel and low sulphur diesel since the renewable transport fuel obligation was announced, and that it will take an increase in production of some 400 per cent. for the industry to meet the targets for 2008? Will he talk to colleagues in the Treasury to ensure both a supply and uptake of biofuels in time to ensure that those obligations can be met in 2008?

I can of course assure my hon. Friend that I talk to colleagues in the Treasury on those matters. As he rightly implies, incentives are a matter for the Chancellor. I am keen to see that the RTFO is a success and that we also support small renewable manufacturers. To that end, we have just published a consultation document that specifically asked some questions to which my hon. Friend might like to contribute some answers, so that we can inform the way in which the RTFO is developed to ensure that it is a success for everybody.

Is the Minister aware that throughout the country there are many micro-companies producing biofuels—or trying to—which are bamboozled by the tax regime that they suffer? Sad to say, they are often treated with a heavy hand by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Will he please have a much more focused dialogue with his colleagues in the Treasury to stop them undermining the good work that his Department is doing?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are having good discussions with the Treasury. I do not believe that people are bamboozled by the rules and I am sure that the Revenue will do everything that it can to ensure that people are unbamboozled, if necessary. I encourage the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to respond to the consultation document, as it asks some specific questions about how we can best support micro-providers. It is important that we hear first-hand from them what they look to us to do.

As a supporter of the development of sustainable biofuels, I am sure that the Minister will be as aware as I am of the “Dispatches” programme last night, which pointed out that were the RTFO to be a success, the UK could end up importing biofuels in a way that was even more damaging than the polluting fuel base that we have now. Will he take a lead role in co-ordinating some of the major research establishments in the UK, especially those involved in marine research on the possibility of deriving biofuels from micro-algae, so that we can ensure that the UK demand for biofuels is met by UK sustainable supply?

The sustainability of the biomass used to produce renewable fuels is key to the success of the RTFO. If we do not produce the renewable fuels sustainably, there is no point doing it. There will be a reporting mechanism in the RTFO to ensure that biofuel is being derived from sustainable sources. We will also ensure that the RTFO is structured in a way that encourages the production ultimately of second generation biofuels and biofuels produced from other forms of biomass, as my hon. Friend has suggested. I also encourage him, and any contacts that he may have, to respond to the consultation document so that we may build those issues into the RTFO.

A 5 per cent. biofuel mix can, almost by definition, make only a small contribution to combating climate change. A year ago not a single car in the Government fleet had been converted to use an 85 per cent. biofuel blend. How many have been converted since then?

The Government car fleet does not use E85 technology. The hon. Gentleman says that 5 per cent. can make only a small contribution, but that 5 per cent. is over the entire country’s land transport network, and that is the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road. We have also said that we will go beyond 5 per cent. as soon as we can guarantee that it can be done from sustainable sources, because—as I said in answer to the previous question—if we cannot produce the biomass sustainably, there is no point doing it. So we will go as far and as fast as we can, commensurate with it being done sustainably.

Maritime Transport Policy

The European Commission has allowed a year-long consultation period for member states to consider the EU maritime Green Paper. The consultation period ends on 30 June 2007.

The UK public consultation exercise closed on 28 February. We are analysing the responses, alongside contributions made at the national stakeholder conference on 12 October 2006. Both sets of comments will inform the Government’s response to the Commission.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. The Department’s letter of 11 December was sent to 96 public organisations, but for some reason not to any of the relevant Select Committees of this House. The European Scrutiny Committee has called for a debate on this matter to be held this month, but should not the Government between now and June ask the Select Committees to look at that policy document, which covers transport, the environment, and trade and industry? The European Scrutiny Committee deserves commendation, rather than condemnation, for our scrutiny of European business.

The appropriate process is for the Government to notify the European Scrutiny Committee that there is European legislation to be looked at, and the Committee then advises us on how that should be done. As my hon. Friend says, the Committee has arranged for the document to be debated in Standing Committee in a few weeks. I hear what he says, and I welcome contributions from other Select Committees and hon. Members about the development of our proposals. However, it is not for me to tell the Select Committees covering transport or the environment what they should be considering. I suspect that their Chairs might look askance at any interference by me with their autonomy.

The document contains proposals for a feasibility study for a European coastguard, talks about a common maritime space—a first step towards European territorial waters—and even goes back to the idea of a European register, which would be the first nail in the coffin of the red ensign. Does the Minister not regret that he welcomed last year’s Green Paper on preparing for future mobility, as to a large extent it paved the way for the current document? Is he really standing up for our interests in Europe?

It is a bit rich for a representative of the party that left the red ensign almost non-existent to come to the Dispatch Box and criticise this Government, who have been responsible for that flag’s resurgence. The red ensign now flies over a very significant fleet. Shipping is this country’s third biggest export earner, but it disappeared almost entirely under the Conservatives.

The Government support some of the Green Paper’s recommendations, but not others. We do not support the EU coastguard idea and we need to know what the term “maritime space” means, as it is not well defined. We need to engage properly in the discussions and stand up for British interests, but this Government have rebuilt the red ensign and will take no lectures from the Conservatives about how we should do that.

Belford Rail Station

I currently have no plans to visit Belford. It is up to the relevant regional and local authorities to develop a business case with Network Rail for proposals of this nature. I am not aware that any detailed proposals have been put forward to reopen the station at Belford.

But they have been, twice. If the Minister tried to come to Belford, he would not be able to get off the train. It stops there twice a day, but the building of a platform has been obstructed by bureaucracy. One element of that is that Network Rail has refused to submit the safety case to the Health and Safety Executive. The Minister is relatively new, but cannot he knock some heads together and secure some progress so that Belford people can start raising money—as they have done before—to get the platform built? When that happens, they can leave the car and take the train.

I am always eager to knock heads together, but local stakeholders must put a business case together and raise the money that is needed. They do not need my permission to do that. The first Northumberland local transport plan included reopening Belford station, but the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that that proposal is missing from the current LTP.

If the Minister does get off his backside and look at Belford, will he pop into Blyth Valley to see the rail link from Blyth to the Tyne and Wear metro system? That link has been disused for a long time, but we are trying to open it up again.


5. what assessment he has made of responses to his “putting passengers first” proposals on buses. (125114)

The Government's proposals for a modernised framework for improving bus services have been widely welcomed by bus operators, passengers and local authorities alike. We are working closely with stakeholders to take forward our proposals, in preparation for a draft road transport Bill.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. If we are to persuade people in Greater Manchester and Stockport to make better use of public transport, we need to improve bus services. Will she confirm that in the forthcoming review of the bus service operating grants she will look at ways of tying that grant more into improved bus performance, including better reliability?

I am glad that my hon. Friend, who is a longstanding champion of better bus services for local people, welcomes the Government improvements to bus services. I can indeed confirm that we are talking to key stakeholders about how we can better focus bus subsidy money, which has just about doubled in England since 1997, so that we can see improvements in performance as well as in the environment.

Local authorities such as Salisbury district council are keen to put passengers first, but the present regime militates against that. The council does not have sufficient money to subsidise deserving routes on behalf of scattered rural communities and at the same time pay for the free transport by bus service that has been ordained by central Government. It simply does not add up. Will the Minister please make sure that the Treasury understands that, if it is sincere about putting passengers first, it has to put its money where its mouth is?

Over the past 10 years we have indeed been putting our money where our mouth is: some £2.5 billion of revenue funding goes to support the bus industry through a wide variety of measures. As for the quality of local bus services, “Putting Passengers First” will enable it to get better. In the meantime, it is down to bus operators and local authorities to work closely together.

As my hon. Friend moves towards 2008 and offers a free bus service throughout England for people who are retired, will she have discussions with those in Wales and Scotland to ensure a transport service that allows free travel throughout the United Kingdom?

The point is well made. The Concessionary Bus Travel Bill includes the power to allow, via regulations, for mutual recognition of concessionary bus passes across the UK.

What extra help will the Minister be giving to areas such as Kettering borough, which will see the number of houses increase by a third in the next 14 years? What extra help can the Minister provide to increase bus services in areas such as Kettering?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the provisions in “Putting Passengers First”, which give local authorities a far greater say and a greater ability to work closely with local operators to get the right schemes. We are looking for local solutions to local needs. Of course, innovative funding such as the transport innovation fund is also available for congestion-beating plans.

Although I welcome much in “Putting Passengers First”, does the Minister plan to use those ideas as a stepping stone to a fully regulated system that really would put passengers first?

May I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, echoing my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan), that the relationship at the moment is wrong? The power is with the monopoly supplier, certainly in my county of Durham, and more power needs to be given to the local authorities. What is happening in Durham is an absolute disgrace. Go North East, formerly Go-Ahead Northern, is stripping out routes and concentrating on the profitable routes in anticipation of powers coming forward.

I understand that the situation that my hon. Friend describes is the case in certain places up and down the country. That is why we have talked to all the key people involved and we have received such a good response from all the main stakeholders, who are keen to put passengers first and achieve the right bus services. I emphasise that in the meantime, before the legislation comes in, I am aware that already bus operators, local communities and local authorities are coming together to serve people better.


6. What rights GNER employees will have to employment with the successful applicant for the new east coast main line rail franchise. (125115)

As with all franchising competitions, employees are protected under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981.

The re-franchising process creates uncertainty for railway employees and, indeed, for the travelling public, who have been used to a high quality service from Great North Eastern Railway on the east coast main line and do not know what the future will hold. Will my hon. Friend do everything he can to bring the uncertainty to an end as quickly as possible? Is he able to tell us when the end will be and the new franchisee will be announced?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his persistent campaigning on behalf of GNER employees in his constituency. I know that he takes a great interest in the matter. I can reassure him about the time scale; the Department for Transport expects to announce the winning bidder this summer, with the franchisee taking over before the end of the year.

The Minister knows how important the upgrade of the east coast main line is to the regeneration of urban centres in the east of England, whether in York or my area—Peterborough. Will he update the House on the meeting about the east coast main line upgrade held yesterday between his officials and Network Rail and tell us whether any progress has been made on that important issue?

I was not present at the meeting as I had other ministerial engagements yesterday, but if the hon. Gentleman writes to me I shall be more than happy to update him.

One way in which employees of any of the railway franchises could be protected would be to establish one franchise that was not owned by a company and could be used as a benchmark against which all other efforts could be judged. Will the Minister seriously consider whether that can be done, as at present taxpayers have no guarantee that what they are being offered by a muddled franchise system is good value or even workable?

I listen closely when my hon. Friend speaks on these matters, since she knows a great deal about the rail industry. However, the European Foundation for Quality Management system, which is used to assess all franchise bids, is a robust measure and I am absolutely confident that continuing to use it will ensure that we obtain the best possible deal for the taxpayer in terms both of value for money and, particularly, of reliability.

I am happy to repeat what I told the hon. Gentleman when we discussed the matter at the Dispatch Box in December. The Department for Transport does not specify levels of premium from bidders for new franchises; it is entirely up to the franchisee or potential bidders to decide how much of a premium they may want to pay.

The Minister did not answer my question. I asked him about the Department’s budgeting. Several of the other new franchises have budgeted on the basis that there will be a shift from subsidy in the current franchise period to a quite substantial premium to the Government in the next franchise period. Has the Minister made contingency plans for the reduction in revenue that could result from both the situation at GNER and similar situations arising for some of the other franchises that may have over-bid?

Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman should understand that I have no intention of trying to speculate about the levels of premium or subsidy that future bidders may propose. The price of any new franchise is an important consideration, as it should be—we have a responsibility to the taxpayer to get the best deal we can—but deliverability, not price, remains our primary consideration.

On behalf of my constituents who are employed by GNER, I thank the Minister for that response. Will similar consideration be given to workers throughout the transport industry, such as those currently facing an uncertain future with British Airways?

As the Minister is aware, York is an important railway town and GNER has brought huge numbers of jobs to the city and surrounding villages in the Vale of York and elsewhere; but the collapse in the franchise arrangements, as other Members have pointed out, has huge ramifications for the whole franchising process. Is there no end to the taxpayer’s largesse? Will other companies be bailed out if their franchise arrangements fail?

I think that, with respect, the hon. Lady is getting the wrong end of the stick. The franchise was taken away from GNER specifically because we refused to renegotiate it, which was exactly the right decision for the Government to take. If we sent out a message that these franchises could be renegotiated, it would simply encourage any bidders to bid well above what they could afford, knowing that the Government would then come in and bail them out. The Government have not renegotiated this contract: we took away the franchise because GNER was unable to meet its franchise commitments.

7. What recent assessment his Department has made of the quality of rail services between Manningtree and London. (125117)

The industry-standard public performance measure, or PPM, is a measure of performance of train operating companies rather than individual services. The current PPM of the train operating company “one” expressed as a moving annual average is 87.1 per cent., which represents an improvement of 0.6 per cent. in the last year.

Passengers using Manningtree have suffered unreliable and overcrowded trains for the last three years. Insult was added to injury with the recent hefty increases in both fares and car parking charges. Does the Minister believe that adding £100 a month to the cost of commuting from Suffolk to London on a sub-standard service is a good way to encourage people to use the train?

I am aware of some of the performance issues that “one” has suffered in recent months. The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that with car parking at Manningtree being oversubscribed, “one” is currently working on proposals to deck over the car park and make it a double-deck one. As far as rail fares are concerned, increases in regulated fares are restricted to inflation plus 1 per cent., while with non-regulated fares, it is up to the train operating companies to decide by how much they need to go up. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that more fares should be regulated, he will also have to suggest where that money is going to come from. If it is not to come from the rail payer, the only other source is the taxpayer.

My constituents also use this line and they were shocked by the death at Swainsthorpe last Thursday—the third death there in 16 months. I have written to the Secretary of State about that. Will the Minister tell us whether there will be a full review of automatic half-barrier crossings, which are thought to be a risk factor in the accidents that have occurred?

The Department for Transport will, of course, act on any recommendations that we receive from Her Majesty’s rail inspectorate.

Local Transport Funding

8. How his Department decides whether to fund local transport projects; and if he will make a statement. (125118)

As part of the local transport plan process, which includes assessment by the Department, funding for smaller schemes is generally decided by local authorities, which receive block grant funding to enable them to identify and fund local priorities. For larger schemes, decisions are made on the advice from the particular region and met by either regional funding allocation or, potentially, the transport innovation fund.

As the Minister knows, Reading is one of the local authorities currently piloting road charging. Can she confirm press reports that the Department for Transport will fund local transport schemes only for those authorities that actively pursue road pricing? Has that been the case in Reading, and will it be the case in future for other local authorities?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the guidance that was issued on applications for funding. I can also confirm that the reports that he has read are not true.

Virtually all the discretionary expenditure for local transport plans is within the transport innovation fund. I understand from talking to leaders of local authorities in Greater Manchester that the Secretary of State has made it quite clear that, to access those funds, the people of Greater Manchester will have to pay a special and extra tax for using the roads. That unpleasant news has been communicated well, but the other side of the package has not been so well communicated. Will the Minister clarify whether, if that tax were to be imposed on people in Manchester, the Government would guarantee to fund the full metrolink extension and give back control of local buses and trains to local authorities?

That is quite a shopping list and I would expect no less from my hon. Friend. I refer him to the guidance that is issued in respect of the transport innovation fund. I can confirm to the House that the fund is available for innovative solutions to tackling congestion. It is not the case that the Secretary of State is imposing solutions to local problems; the Secretary of State has set out a requirement that local solutions are found to meet local needs. That is the right way forward.

The dualling programme for the section of the A30 in mid-Cornwall is nearing completion. However, further east, from Temple to Higher Carblake, there is a section of single-carriageway road on which we might see further delays, particularly in peak summer months. The regional assembly has dumped that from the programme, although it has been in there for many years. Local people will be lobbying at the regional level, but will the Minister consent to meet some of my constituents so that they can press upon her the problems with that piece of road?

Now for the good news. Does my hon. Friend agree that, with infrastructure improvements, come jobs? There is no better example than the 10-year campaign that I have waged for junction 29A, which will lead straight into Markham pit yard, in order to provide up to 8,000 jobs. It will transform the unemployment situation in the whole of north Derbyshire, affecting six constituencies. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend on providing me with a £14.5 million cheque. The diggers have started and the job is now moving towards completion.

Skinner’s junction is well known in the House. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s thanks. Clearly, Skinner’s junction is all about the very best of this Labour Government.

Does the Minister accept that some local authorities—I refer to Cheshire and Macclesfield in particular—are somewhat concerned that the funding of local projects is not as transparent as the Government may seek to make out? There appears to be prejudice and, I am sorry to say this, because I am not generally very political—[Interruption.] There is prejudice against Conservative authorities. Will the Minister indicate whether there are any grounds for my concern, which is widely shared in both the borough of Macclesfield and the county of Cheshire?


9. How many sets of points of the same type as those at Grayrigg are to be found on the railway network. (125119)

This is an operational matter for Network Rail, which advises that there are more than 4,000 sets of similar points on the national network. The Office of Rail Regulation, as safety regulator for the railway, is satisfied with the actions taken by Network Rail, following the derailment, to ensure that the railway is safe to operate. In particular, the ORR supports Network Rail’s precautionary visual sample inspection of similar points across the network.

Trains are running across the network, so there is no design flaw in the points themselves, but I was reflecting on the signalling. At the Carlisle control centre the signal was at green. Why did that happen? Is any work being done to make sure that signalling systems are more sensitive to the condition of the track?

I am sure that most Members of the House would recognise that it would not be appropriate for me to discuss the subject of an ongoing investigation by the rail accident investigation branch.

In light of the Grayrigg derailment, and the apparent similarities between that and the Potters Bar derailment, is there not a need for more than a precautionary inspection of 900 points? Is there not a need for a thorough inspection of the maintenance system and the inspection system for points, and indeed of the whole safety culture surrounding the points, so as to avoid this type of derailment?

The hon. Gentleman is getting rather ahead of himself. First, we have to take forward the continuing work of the rail accident investigation branch in clarifying exactly what happened at Grayrigg and the reasons for that particular tragedy. I understand that that will take some months. I am sure that we should allow the rail accident investigation branch the opportunity to do that work. In addition, however, it obviously continues to be an option for the ORR, the safety regulator, to set down conditions for Network Rail. My understanding is that, post the tragedy at Grayrigg, the ORR is satisfied with the steps that Network Rail has taken.

Perhaps the Secretary of State will confirm that the west coast main line will open again on 12 March.

Following the Potters Bar derailment, when there was a failure involving the points, the Rail Safety and Standards Board made 16 recommendations specifically on rail maintenance. Have those recommendations been implemented?

I will certainly be happy to write to my hon. Friend about the RSSB recommendations. I assure the House that work is under way to make sure that the west coast main line opens as quickly as possible.

West Coast Main Line

I appreciate that a huge amount has been spent on upgrading the west coast main line. However, following the recent derailment, our thoughts are with the family of the bereaved and the survivors. I appreciate that the investigation is continuing, but if it becomes clear that further resources need to be invested in health and safety, does my hon. Friend agree that that funding must be provided?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already made clear the Government’s willingness to act in light of recommendations received from the rail accident investigation branch. My hon. Friend will also know that investment is running at a historical high, with £88 million being invested in the railway network every week by the Government.

Constitutional Affairs

The Minister of State was asked—

Claims Handlers

All authorised businesses will be required to comply with the regulatory rules by 6 April 2007. The regulatory regime will come fully into force in late April 2007, when we plan to commence the statutory prohibition on providing regulated claims management services without authorisation.

Two claims handlers are responding to my constituents’ consumer complaints by sending them threatening solicitors’ letters. What will be the process through which my constituents can object to the inclusion of those claims handlers on the official register?

When the regulator assesses applications, he will be able to take into account the views of anyone who has concerns about a particular claims handler. Comprehensive and detailed questions will be asked of all people who apply for authorisation. I recommend that my hon. Friend and his constituents make the regulator aware of the concerns that he has raised on several occasions.

The answer that the Minister has just given will be of some relief to people who have been approached by these claims handlers, who have not merely handled their claims inadequately and charged them money when they should not have done, but transferred their claims by selling them on, often to poorly qualified solicitors who have done an extraordinarily poor job of handling claims for mining injuries. I hope that this process will be able to put that matter to bed. Does the Minister share my hope?

I certainly do share my hon. Friend’s hope. There have been recent incidents of claims handlers touting for business with a variety of people, including physiotherapists, and we are ensuring that we get the message across that claims handlers should be very careful before acting in such a way. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will ensure that their constituents are aware that the Compensation Act 2006 will be coming into force in a month. I should also say that people will get their claims dealt with more quickly and successfully if they proceed with them themselves, rather than by going through a middle agent.

What discussions has my hon. Friend had with the regulator about the inclusion on the register of organisations such as the Union of Democratic Mineworkers and the Durham area National Union of Mineworkers? They are acting wholly as claims handlers and are still, in some cases, refusing to identify who has had money deducted and to repay that money. Will she speak to the regulator as a matter of urgency and ensure that he looks into those organisations in detail?

I am aware that the organisations to which my hon. Friend refers have both applied for authorisation, but although I can confirm that, I obviously cannot give any information on the progress of the applications that the regulator is assessing. However, if they were authorised, they would have to be listed in the same way as other organisations, and they would have to comply with all the regulations set down in the Act.

Advice Services (London)

18. What changes she expects there to be to legal aid support for advice services in London; and if she will make a statement. (125130)

From October 2007, the Legal Services Commission will pay advice services in London fixed fees for various types of standard social welfare work, with payment by the hour retained only for exceptional cases. That approach will help to ensure the optimal delivery of effective advice to clients in greatest need.

May I raise just one of the concerns of Barnet law service in my constituency? It works as a second-tier advice agency, primarily on cases that need specialist caseworking and representation referred to it by bodies such as citizens advice bureaux. For that reason, it does not have smaller and easier cases to balance against the more complicated ones. How will it fare under the Minister’s cuts? Surely it is a higher spending priority than judges’ lodgings, on which her Department wastes £5 million a year.

As it happens, I have the figures for Barnet law service in front of me. It is the only not-for-profit provider in my hon. Friend’s constituency that the Legal Services Commission pays. The figures show clearly that if the fixed fee scheme had come into play last year, Barnet law service would have made 8.4 per cent. more money, with its current case load. Of course, we want to encourage efficient suppliers such as Barnet law service, so we are open to suggestions that such suppliers might start doing more work.

When the Lord Chancellor was asked about the subject in the public evidence session held by the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs, he said that he thought that any reduction in the number of suppliers of legal advice in London, which is relatively well provided for in that respect, might be compensated for by an increase in supply in areas where there is a shortage of providers of legal advice, such as the north-east. Does the Minister share his confidence that that will happen?

I do; there is a considerable over-supply of some, but not all, kinds of legal advice in London, and it is rational that the cash now going into that over-supply should be moved to areas where there is under-supply, and where we have been criticised for allowing advice deserts to continue. Certainly, that is the drive, and the economics suggest that that is what will happen.

One of the many concerns expressed by legal and advice agencies in my constituency relates to the abolition of the level 1, or very basic, advice service. How many Londoners who had access to level 1 advice last year will in future be turned away from that simple signposting, and what does the Minister expect will happen to them?

I cannot give my hon. Friend the exact numbers now, but I will write to her, if she will find that information of assistance. Level 1 is general advice, which is gate-keeping and triaging advice. It is not legal advice, and the Legal Services Commission pays only for legal advice. Our target and our achievements in that direction, which are increasing, are to merge our funding with that from local authorities, so that the local authorities’ funding can be used for simpler, straightforward advice, while our resources are reserved for organisations such as the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) talked about.

Is the Minister aware that a recent survey revealed that 95 per cent. of civil legal aid practitioners believe that the changes will make their work non-viable? That puts a huge amount of extra pressure on community law firms and advice centres in London that may well be unable to cope. Shelter, Mind and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children all predict that the legal aid system will soon reach breaking point. Whom should the public trust: world-class charities that help the vulnerable day in and day out, or Ministers?

Interestingly, I had e-mail correspondence with the chief executive of Shelter, who is confidently moving his team of legal advisers into that future framework of supply. I do not doubt that in past months there has been a great deal of anxiety and concern about the size of the change necessary to take on the challenges of that Carter-type proposal, but people have grasped the fact that it is profitable to make those transitions, which will enable them to deliver a good service. I am holding meetings practically daily with suppliers, who are coming round to the notion that they should look to the future. It is time the Tory spokesmen did the same.

Legal Aid

“Legal Aid Reform: the Way Ahead”, published on 28 November 2006, set out our plans for reforming the procurement of legal aid services by moving towards a market-based system. The first phase of the reforms will come into effect next month. More will follow in October and afterwards, subject to the outcome of current consultations on some of the detail.

Solicitors practising in the unglamorous, indifferently paid world of legal aid criminal defence generally do so because they care about giving disadvantaged people access to justice, which is surely a cornerstone of any decent society. Does the Minister think that turning legal aid procurement into a single-buyer market with fixed fees and competitive tendering risks forcing many law firms out of such work, creating legal aid deserts in parts of the country, thus denying vulnerable clients, often with mental health or social problems, any hope of effective representation?

I am sorry that my hon. Friend regards legal aid criminal work as unglamorous; I will try harder. I have spent my life in such practice, and I can assure him that it is very satisfying and rewarding, even though we cannot rise to the levels of pulchritude that he expects. The hallmark of a decent society is good legal advice and representation for the community. That is far more important than particular lawyers’ practices. The proposals will improve a legal aid system that is already the best in the world. Fixed fees for standard cases will ensure that the best, most efficient quality-controlled firms bid to undertake more and more cases. They will provide top-quality advice to more and more people, thus ensuring that high standards are spread more effectively and are available to my hon. Friend’s constituents.

Constituents at my advice surgeries consistently tell me that there is little or no legal aid provision in Wellingborough and the surrounding area. Have the Government carried out a countrywide assessment to determine where legal aid is, and is not, available?

Yes. I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives the details of what we resource in Wellingborough. I accept that about two years ago, there were significant gaps in provision, particularly of social welfare law services across the country, but since then we have paid 20 per cent. more into those services to try to fill the gap, and we have advised 30 per cent. more people. In fact, we are on an upward trajectory, but I would be pleased to meet the hon. Gentleman if he has specific constituency concerns.

When I met Wrexham legal aid practitioners last Friday, criminal legal aid practitioners were concerned about the rates under the new fixed fees. In particular, there appears to be a disparity between payment in the Wrexham area and in other areas, so can my hon. and learned Friend help by explaining the basis on which those calculations are made? Is it historical or geographical? Can she give us a little more information?

Yes, I can. The fixed fees proposed for the new police station duty rota areas, which will apply to my hon. Friend’s criminal suppliers, are the average fees claimed over the preceding year in those police stations. The purpose of going down to the local level and consulting on each duty rota area is to try to thrash out any problems. For instance, if we have got things slightly wrong in cross-border areas, we need local knowledge to straighten that out.

The concern that we have on the Back Benches is that the number of specialist contracts that the Government have issued has declined considerably in the past few years. If my hon. and learned Friend looks at the answer she gave me on 6 February, she will see that in areas such as family law they have gone down from 4,200 to 2,800, so how can she possibly say that a decline in the number of specialist contracts will result in better access to services for our constituents?

By analogy, when we introduced contracting, the total number of legal aid suppliers declined from around 6,000 to around 3,000, but service quality and coverage of supply increased. Those contract numbers have gone down. Let me repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), though: over the same period, the amount of money that we have put into family and civil legal aid has gone up by 20 per cent., and we are serving 30 per cent. more people. That means that we have rightly kept in play the suppliers who do the job well and do it efficiently.

Postal Votes

We are introducing a range of new measures at the May 2007 local elections that are designed to strengthen the security of postal voting. They will build on the measures successfully introduced in May 2006, including the introduction of personal identifiers for postal voters, which will help to ensure that postal voting is both safe and secure.

The Minister knows that I am not a big fan of head of household registration. Does she agree that postal voting for all can lead to head of household voting? There is a concern, especially among certain minority communities, that people are coerced into voting for particular candidates through hierarchical pressures. Will she consider restricting access to postal votes, to make sure that all votes are cast fairly and freely?

The identifiers introduced in the postal voting system this year will show that everyone can vote as they wish. I am interested to hear that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the way postal votes are handled in a household. I notice that in the 2005 general election, which he won with a majority of 422, 9,392 postal votes were returned. I wonder how many of those he considers were handled purely by the head of household.

I call Mr. Bellingham. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman was a little slow; I call Mr. Betts.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Does my hon. Friend accept that although the verifiers of signature and date of birth are probably about right as guarantees, there is a concern that many people who genuinely need a postal vote may not fill in the forms that have been provided because it is another form and they do not like bureaucracy, or they simply do not get round to it? Will she therefore commend the electoral registration officer in Sheffield, who has not merely sent out one form, but has sent a second form as a reminder to those who have not returned the first one? Will she encourage all registration officers to do that, and even to go beyond that and send out a third and fourth form, if necessary, to ensure that people who need a postal vote do not lose out?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. It is good to see that electoral registration officers are being proactive in encouraging people not just to register—the register has gone up this year by some 500,000 or thereabouts—but to take part in postal voting, particularly where people were used to being on the postal vote register in the past. We have had to start with a clean new register and I hope other electoral returning officers will follow Sheffield’s example.

Given that a staggering one in seven postal votes in last year’s local elections in Tower Hamlets may have been fraudulent, does the Minister support Sir Alistair Graham’s call for the Government to abandon next May’s internet and telephone voting trials? Are not Ministers ignoring one hard truth: once ballot papers are allowed to leave polling stations, the opportunities for fraud multiply and the secrecy of the ballot is compromised? Is it any wonder that the Council of Europe, better known for investigating elections in Belarus and Albania, is threatening to send monitors to the UK?

The hon. Gentleman is usually such a charming man. I can see that he was having difficulty trying to manufacture anger in his question. May I say two things to him? No, I do not agree with Sir Alistair Graham that we should stop doing pilots. The whole point of piloting is to ensure that we get the system right. Secondly, I am disappointed that the Council of Europe motion, concocted mostly by some of the hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friends, took no account of the action that we had already taken and the strengthening of the security of postal voting that is in place.

Community Courts (Nottingham)

21. What progress has been achieved in locating community courts in Nottingham; and if she will make a statement. (125133)

Community court sittings dealing with cases from the Aspley and St. Ann’s areas of Nottingham will commence within a community building when the right building is found.

I welcome again the Government’s community court initiative on reuniting communities and the justice system that is meant to serve them. Will my right hon. and learned Friend meet senior judiciary to clarify a couple of matters: first, communities’ involvement in the possible appointment of judges in community courts; and secondly, relaxation of the very stringent accommodation criteria that are necessary for magistrates courts so that they can be located in the neighbourhoods that they are intended to serve?

I thank my hon. Friend for his continuing commitment to ensuring that there is effective community justice in his area of Nottingham. It is absolutely right that everybody involved in the justice system has to do things slightly differently if that connection between the community and their local court is to be re-established. That means looking again at the criteria for the kinds of buildings that could be used as courts, and it raises the question of how the local judiciary could be chosen. One of the strongest points in favour of the Liverpool community justice centre was that community representatives from local tenants associations had the opportunity to be part of choosing the judge, David Fletcher, whom they now regard as their judge for their local community.


22. What the average (a) waiting time for and (b) duration of an inquest was in the last period for which figures are available. (125134)

The average time from the date of death to the conclusion of the inquest is estimated to be 23 weeks. That is based on the information returned by coroners for 2005. Information about the duration of inquest hearings is not recorded separately.

That is a bit of a shame, because it often takes a very long time for an inquest to be heard. Families who are grieving and want closure on the situation that they have had to face find that very difficult. In places where there are logjams, such as Oxfordshire, would not it make more sense if some cases were not dealt with by the Oxfordshire coroner just because they have come through Brize Norton, but went through the individual areas where people come from?

When I said that information is not centrally recorded, I was talking about the duration of each inquest—how long each one takes to hear. We do keep information about the average time that it takes from the death to get to the hearing.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about needing greater flexibility so that various coroners can help other coroners who have built up a backlog of inquests. That is particularly so in the context of inquests into armed forces deaths that are encountering delays in Oxfordshire. We are trying to sort out the situation as best we can within the current legal framework, which is very rigid and archaic. The coroners reform in our forthcoming Bill will make that much easier to do.

Will the Minister give an undertaking that in future there will not have to be a nearly 10-year delay for an inquest as important as that into the death of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and delays of years for people killed in the service of their country, costing a fortune, as she knows? Can we have a guarantee that there will be a limit to the time that it takes for an inquest to be opened and the answers given?

One problem is that each coroner’s jurisdiction is entirely self-contained. There are no central performance standards, there is no central monitoring, and there is no chief coroner to provide leadership such as the Lord Chief Justice provides to judges. As a result, while some areas are conducting inquests very promptly, in others there are delays that nobody in this House would regard as acceptable. We will be able to deal with that when we have our legislation on coroners. However, we are not simply waiting until that happens—we are trying to ensure that we get a much better picture of where the delays are and that we work with our colleagues in local government to ensure that there are no such delays. I think that the inquest into the death of Princess Diana was unprecedented; certainly, the length of time taken has been exceptional.