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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 459: debated on Tuesday 17 April 2007


The Secretary of State was asked—

Roads (East Anglia)

1. When he next expects to meet representatives of local authorities in East Anglia to discuss improvements to trunk roads. (131449)

That is a pity. Is the Minister aware that the A47 is vital to Norfolk’s economic future, especially given the rapid expansion of Norwich airport and towns such as King’s Lynn in my constituency? Is he aware that most of the A47 is substandard single carriageway and that many villages in my area, such as Middleton and East Winch, are crying out for bypasses? Why has the road been downgraded from a route of national importance to one of only regional importance? Will he reverse that decision?

No, I cannot promise to reverse that decision, as the distinction between routes of regional or national importance was made according to objective criteria on which we consulted and were discussed before they were put in place. Unfortunately, the local regional funding process gave no priority to dualling the A47. We have looked into the possibility of building small-scale bypasses for the two villages mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, but they make no economic or environmental sense in the absence of any overall dualling of the A47.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the disgraceful nature of that reply, I plan to raise the matter on the Adjournment.

Railways (Overcrowding)

We will continue to increase capacity through the franchising process and in other ways. In particular, I announced on 14 March that the high level output specification, to be published in the summer, will include a commitment to 1,000 extra carriages. They will be targeted on the most congested routes on the network.

The Government’s announcement of extra carriages for longer trains is to be welcomed, but does the Secretary of State accept that many commuters and other travellers in my constituency are paying considerably higher fares for the doubtful privilege of travelling in the equivalent of cattle class? That is simply not acceptable, for reasons of comfort and, more particularly, safety. When can travellers expect to see improvements?

With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, what is not acceptable is for a party to suggest that it is possible to deliver lower fares, higher levels of investment—

Order. It is not for the Secretary of State to talk about the hon. Lady’s party. He is responsible for giving ministerial replies.

As I was saying, Mr. Speaker, that is not the approach that the Government have adopted. Instead, we have committed ourselves to 1,000 extra carriages. Moreover, it will be of particular interest to people in the Congleton constituency that bidders for the new cross-country franchise have been asked to make proposals for an increase in seating capacity of at least 30 per cent. on key sections of the franchise. In addition, I can assure the hon. Lady that we pay serious regard to passenger safety, that it is a matter of continuing concern in my Department, and that we are continuing to work on it.

Thanks to a very effective local campaign, First Great Western has reinstated much-needed commuter services at Severn Tunnel Junction in my constituency. However, the company has now reduced capacity, which has led to overcrowding. Will my right hon. Friend join me in pressing First Great Western to ensure that passengers can travel in comfort and safety on that route?

I assure my hon. Friend that I have been in regular dialogue with First Great Western in recent months, and that I have impressed on the company that the standards of service that it has provided on those routes under its franchise have fallen below what passengers and the rest of us have the right to expect. Discussions are continuing, and work with the company is under way. It is now up to First Great Western to offer the level of improvement to which it has made a commitment.

How much faith can we have in the Government’s ability to tackle climate change when it will be another seven years—that is, 17 years since the Government were first elected—before full capacity in the most environmentally sustainable system of transport is achieved? What sort of record is that?

I fear that the hon. Gentleman should read his brief from Conservative central office more carefully. If the guidance suggests that the problems that he describes in fact exist, perhaps he should take that up with its authors. Let me share with him some of the recent capacity enhancements that the Government have delivered. For example, the ongoing Great Western high-speed train refurbishments are increasing seating capacity by about 20 per cent. In addition, the Chiltern route upgrade between London, Marylebone and Birmingham was completed in 2005 and is increasing frequency, while the introduction of Meridian Trains on the midland main line in 2004-05 resulted in increased capacity. The hon. Gentleman is right: we recognise that there is more to do, given that more people are using the railways. That is why between February and March 2007 there was 12-car running on the south-west mainline between Southampton and Portsmouth and London Waterloo, why a new service between Kettering and London will be introduced in December 2008, and why new domestic services will be introduced on the channel tunnel rail link between Kent and London in 2009. That is the Department’s ongoing work, and the suggestion that—

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. May I also thank my right hon. Friend for his announcement of the 1,000 new railway carriages? What might be the effect on that investment of considering breaking up Network Rail?

I have already spoken about our additional capacity and investment in the railways—for example, on the west coast main line. I do not believe it would be wise to break the west coast main line into the 14 component parts represented by the train operating companies that work on the line. The more sensible approach is to recognise that the stability of the industry structure that we have secured in recent years and the sustained investment have not only enhanced capacity on the railway but increased performance and safety.

One way of tackling overcrowding is to increase frequency. In the context of services to Inverness, two things can be done: frequency can be increased between Inverness and London through the east coast main line franchise, and Network Rail can make the necessary investment to reduce journey times between Inverness and Edinburgh to under three hours. Will the Secretary of State use his good offices to support both those outcomes?

The hon. Gentleman is well aware that responsibility for many aspects of rail policy now rests with the Scottish Executive; I will certainly undertake to ensure that his comments are passed on.

My right hon. Friend has rightly spoken about the benefits of upgrading the west coast main line. Will he look at ways of ensuring that the benefits of upgrading are felt as widely as possible by improving inter-city rail services between Edinburgh and north-west England, especially Manchester?

My hon. Friend is right in recognising that there have been significant improvements on the west coast main line as a result of the sustained investment in recent years—not only in services operating from the north to Manchester but in services from London to Manchester, where there has been a significant transfer, or a modal shift, from use of air services to use of the train. There are potential benefits to be gained not just on a single route but in many parts of the country as a result of the investment in the west coast main line.

If the Secretary of State really wants to reduce overcrowding on our railways, why does his Department not try to do less rather than more? His Department has more day-to-day control over the railways than it had before privatisation. Virgin Trains wants to operate 11 carriages per Pendolino train and the rolling stock company wants to provide the carriages. Why does the Department not just butt out and let them get on with it?

The hon. Gentleman makes an uncharacteristically ill-informed observation. I can assure him that in the correspondence and discussions that I have had directly with Virgin Trains about its proposals to increase the number of carriages on the Pendolino trains the relationship with the Department for Transport has been constructive and positive. I am confident that we will find a way through in terms of financing.

As for the substantive allegation that the hon. Gentleman levels that there is greater operational control, it is determined by the effective operation of many train operating companies under the present franchising system, which in part explains the fact that record numbers of people now use the railway compared with previous years.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that certain rail operators such as Southern have used overcrowding as an excuse to ban bikes on trains. Will he assure me that in forthcoming strategy documents this will be reviewed? It is obviously of great environmental importance that we tie up bike and rail travel.

A distinction can be drawn between peak-time travel, when pressure on the network is greatest, and other times, but I assure my hon. Friend that the importance of accommodating not only the commuter and business traveller but leisure travellers and those who want to take bikes on trains is recognised.

Last week it emerged that the Scottish Labour party has been holding talks with Network Rail about giving it the right to run track and trains in Scotland. May I ask the Secretary of State, who as you will recall, Mr. Speaker, is also Scottish Secretary and plays a leading role in running the Scottish Labour campaign, whether those talks have his support?

You, Mr. Speaker, can imagine that this was a matter in which I took some interest last week. I was interested in the letter that Network Rail sent to the newspaper that published the suggestions, and I was interested in the comments of the First Minister, who said that he had absolutely no intention of renationalising the railway in Scotland. I can confirm that it is certainly not the stated policy of the Government, for the reasons that I have already outlined. It is for others to explain why breaking up the Network Rail infrastructure into its 14 component parts on the west coast main line would improve safety, performance or reliability.

As the Government always remind us, Network Rail is a private company, so let us be clear: does the Secretary of State support the principle of Network Rail running trains as well in Scotland?

Let me make two points in response to that question. First, as I have already outlined to the House, there is a significant degree of devolution in the rail industry in Scotland as a result of a transfer undertaken by my predecessor in this office. Secondly, on the substantive point, the right focus for Network Rail is to continue to deliver not just the efficiencies secured in recent years but the engineering excellence that has led to higher levels of rail safety and performance than was experienced as a direct consequence of the Tories’ botched privatisation of the railways.

Will the Secretary of State disregard the point made by the Liberal Democrat spokesman and take an interest in the Virgin Trains proposal for longer Pendolino trains? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the leasing company’s excuse for not taking action at present is a competition investigation? Will he take action to smooth through that problem and get those trains longer as soon as possible?

I assure my hon. Friend that it is not a prospective offer that I am making—I have already been directly involved in discussions with Virgin Trains and have spoken to Sir Richard Branson.

Night Flights

There are no plans to change the new night flying restrictions that were introduced for the period between October 2006 and 2012 for Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports.

The way in which the Government measure the noise impact of night flights is flawed. Why are no measurements taken of noise impact in some of the worst affected boroughs, such as Hammersmith and Fulham and Wandsworth, and why do the measurements that are taken apply only to take-offs and not to landings?

Perhaps I can assure the hon. Gentleman by pointing out that the footprint is what matters. Under Heathrow’s new night noise regime, which covers the six years from 2006 to 2012, although movements will be the same the noise quota will be down.

Everyone accepts the increasing economic importance of India and China, but does the Minister accept that early morning flights from those locations are getting ever earlier and are, therefore, disturbing the sleep of hundreds of thousands of Londoners? What will she do to try to ensure that we have a regime that keeps such night flights to an absolute minimum?

We have a strict night flight regime, under which, as I indicated, there is control both on movements and the noise quota. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman recognises—or I hope he does—that air travel benefits society as a whole, but I accept that its impacts are distributed unevenly. That is why we are keen to bear down on night noise and ensure that the quotas are stuck to. If the hon. Gentleman has evidence to the contrary, I am sure he will take it up with the airport concerned, and if he fails to get satisfaction I am sure he will draw the matter to my attention.

The Minister will be aware that operators that run excessively noisy planes can be fined. I am sure she is also aware that last year the average fine for an excessively noisy plane was only £570—probably not enough to buy a seat on most flights. Does she agree that a £570 fine is unacceptably low and, if so, what will she do to make sure that we properly clamp down on plane operators who breach noise limits so that it makes a difference to their behaviour?

The best way forward in reducing noise is, first, to acknowledge that new aircraft are getting quieter, and we have worked towards achieving that. In addition, there are better operational practices, which the Government have encouraged, as well as a move to improve international standards through discussions in the international community. Those are the strongest and most direct ways to reduce noise and inconvenience to the hon. Lady and other constituents.

Bus Services

Public funding of bus services now totals £2.5 billion annually. Decisions on the allocation of departmental funding in future years will be taken later this year as part of the current comprehensive spending review.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will she confirm that some of the money will support local authorities such as County Durham, which is developing plans to improve bus services in the area? Following the publication of “Putting Passengers First”, how quickly is her Department likely to respond to restructuring bids?

My hon. Friend’s support—and that of her local authority—for “Putting Passengers First” is extremely welcome. I am glad to hear that County Durham is working with operators to improve punctuality and services. It can also start to prepare the ground for community transport being given a greater role. I encourage my hon. Friend to support the authority in responding to the consultation on the draft road transport Bill. I look forward to meeting a delegation and would be happy to discuss my hon. Friend’s points.

Is the Minister aware that my constituents in Newport, Shropshire have to take up to three buses to visit Princess Royal hospital as out-patients? Does she agree that that is unacceptable, and will she undertake to meet me and a delegation from the hospital to discuss public transport to and from the Princess Royal so that elderly people in particular do not suffer from having to make such long journeys?

I am happy to agree to such a meeting, as the hon. Gentleman has requested. Of course, “Putting Passengers First” is all about providing the biggest shake-up of buses for some 20 years since deregulation under the Conservatives. It is rewarding to see that the Opposition now admit that they got it wrong, but I would indeed be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman.

First Group, Stagecoach, Arriva and other bus companies are increasingly ripping off the public purse. They withdraw from ordinary routes in order to get subsidy on routes that are perfectly viable and they put up fares to get extra money out of the concessionary fare system. In that context, I welcome “Putting Passengers First” as a way of tackling that problem. The passenger transport executive group has estimated that the proposals would take—

It appears that the question, if not the process, was too long. If my hon. Friend is referring to “Quality Contracts”, the estimate is some 14 to 20 months, but we are working closely on that with stakeholders, including PTEs. We will publish a draft timetable alongside the road transport Bill.

Why will the Minister not support direct Government payments to bus companies to cover the cost of free bus journeys for the elderly to ensure that no local authority or PTE area is short-changed?

The extension of concessionary fares to cover 11 million people who are able to have free national off-peak travel is a very welcome Government policy. I am keen to ensure, as are all parties, that we have the right system of reimbursement. We are working with all the relevant people to find the right way forward. My interest is in ensuring that those 11 million people all benefit from the £1 billion of Government investment and free off-peak travel and that they can get out and about.

The bus pass scheme has transformed the situation for many elderly people in my constituency, who are delighted with their ability to roam. Would my hon. Friend please make a special effort to ensure that new powers are given to traffic commissioners so that they can insist that the companies getting large subsidies actually deliver value for money? That would be a nice change, and we would all be delighted by it.

I am, as always, delighted by my hon. Friend’s informed support of Government policy to help older and disabled people up and down the country. I agree about traffic commissioners, who will have a greater opportunity to bring local authorities as well as bus operators to account on issues of punctuality, which are of great importance.

Eddington Report

5. What plans he has to take forward recommendations of the report by Sir Rod Eddington on transport; and if he will make a statement. (131454)

The Government set out in the December 2006 pre-Budget report how we intend to take forward the recommendations of the Eddington study, taking account of transport's wider economic, social and environmental objectives. In the coming months, the Government will review their strategy, processes and delivery on transport in the light of the Eddington and Stern reports. We will provide a detailed response to the Eddington study alongside the comprehensive spending review later this year.

Eddington states that two priorities for transport policy should be expanding airports and relieving congested and growing city catchments. The Government are quite keen on the former, but less so on the latter. Can the Secretary of State confirm when a decision is going to be taken on what must be the best example of a project to relieve a congested and growing city catchment area—Crossrail?

I would not entirely accept that characterisation of the Eddington study. Eddington had three principal concerns: first, the challenge of growth cities; secondly, inter-urban connections; and, thirdly, global gateways, which include our ports as well as our airports. On the substantive point that the hon. Gentleman made, we continue our support for Crossrail. There has been real progress with the Bill and we have made it clear that a decision about Crossrail will be made in the context of the spending review.

Yesterday, Sir Rod Eddington indicated at the Select Committee hearing that by 2014 the west coast main line would be running to full capacity and that there is a business case for a high-speed line, but the fact is that there is a lead time of 10 years. When will the Minister announce that there is going to be a new high-speed line on the west coast?

With due respect to my hon. Friend, one of the intriguing features of the discussion about the high-speed train line is the number of hon. Members who presume that it will stop in their constituency. In fact, Sir Rod Eddington gave a searching critique of the case for a high-speed rail line in the course of his report. We have a separate manifesto commitment that we will give consideration to a high-speed rail line and we are reflecting on the recommendations and the insights in relation to the high-speed rail line in the Eddington report at the moment.

Is not our distance from getting anywhere near Eddington’s recommendations on dealing with commuter congestion demonstrated by the fact that Southeastern trains is reported in last night’s Evening Standard to be proposing to weigh commuters as they get on to the trains serving my constituency, to see just how overcrowded the trains are? Will the Minister come to my suffering and physically challenged constituents’ aid with an announcement of significant capacity enhancements on the London commuter network?

I note with civility that the hon. Gentleman did not note any interest before making the observation. He really should not believe everything he reads in the newspapers. As hon. Members can imagine, I took some interest in that story in the Evening Standard. The suggestion was that one of the train operating companies is weighing carriages—rather than individual passengers. Perhaps he will be relieved to hear that. It is, however, fair to say that there is a real challenge in relation to capacity in the south-east and across the network. That is why we have announced the 1,000 extra carriages and why it will be one of the key priorities for the high-level output specification. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) suggests that there will be no new carriages until 2014. That is simply untrue. The first of the carriages will be available on the network by the end of next year.

One of the central parts of the Eddington report was the importance of supermarkets and their distribution networks. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend shares my concern about the behaviour of Tesco in my constituency. On the day that it announced £2.5 billion of profits, it is cutting the terms and conditions of staff, threatening derecognition of the union and telling staff that unless they sign a new contract they will be sacked. Will he tell Tesco to go back to the negotiating table and resolve the dispute?

Sir Rod Eddington said that unless national road pricing was in place by 2015 there would have to be a substantial increase in inter-urban road building. Are the Government going to have national road pricing up and running by 2015? If not, what are they going to do?

As I have stated many times at the Dispatch Box, the position remains that we believe that the right way forward is first to have local pilots, developing local solutions to the congestion challenges in local communities. On the basis of the facts that emerge from those local congestion charging experiences, we will be able as a country to make a judgment on the merits of a national system of road pricing.

Rail Services

The March 2006 target of 85 per cent. punctuality and reliability was met with performance reaching 86 per cent. by that date. Since then, the Department for Transport has been working successfully with train operating companies to create the conditions for further improvement. Punctuality and reliability on the railway are now at 88 per cent. on average.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply, but I have to tell him that punctuality and reliability are not words that my constituents in Bridgend use in relation to First Great Western. I know that that is true among the constituents of my colleagues along the whole of the south Wales corridor. What meetings is the Minister having with First Great Western, and will he please press it to start to improve its reliability and punctuality?

My hon. Friend knows that I have raised First Great Western’s performance with the company on several occasions. It accepts that its performance following the production of the December 2006 timetable was not acceptable. I know that my hon. Friend will welcome the recovery plan that has been drawn up jointly by First Great Western and Network Rail to improve performance. I assure her that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will continue to apply any pressure necessary to bring about the improvements in performance that we wish to see.

In terms of distance from London, the train service to Gloucestershire is one of the worst in the country. To improve the reliability and punctuality of the service—again, it is operated by First Great Western—would the Minister support an increase in rail capacity when that is put to him by Network Rail? The company has feasibility money to dual the line from Swindon to Kemble and from Oxford to Worcester Shrub Hill. Will the Minister support those proposals when they come before him?

Of course, the Government are always willing to consider capacity improvements when there is a robust business case. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me with more details of the proposal, I will be more than happy to look at them.

Given the horrific experience that we have recently been having in Swansea with First Great Western, when the Minister meets the company will he look for a commitment above and beyond its existing franchise? While the company has the franchise agreement now, I am severely worried about the service in the future.

I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard on this issue. She will understand the Government’s position: we must have certain minimum specifications. Unlike the Conservative party, we believe that a minimum level of service that must be provided by franchisees should be written into franchise agreements.

I know that my hon. Friend is especially worried about the removal of the 17.15 service from Cardiff to Swansea and the effect of overcapacity on services run by Arriva Trains Wales. She will know that I went down to Cardiff two months ago and travelled on the Arriva Trains Wales connecting services from Cardiff to Swansea. I know that she will be disappointed that I found that there was plenty of spare capacity on those services. However, I will be more than happy to speak to First Great Western to ensure that it meets its commitments under the franchise agreement.

I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge the great improvement in reliability and punctuality on the c2c line since it was privatised. However, is he aware that some of my constituents were trapped on a train last week for more than seven hours because of problems on the line? Will he look into bringing forward work on the line’s signalling and overhead power lines?

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges the improved efficiency and performance on the rail network. There are inevitably occasions when passengers are inconvenienced, which is always a matter of some regret. However, I hope that he will acknowledge that the record amounts that are about to be invested in the network by Network Rail will lead to a major step change in the improvement of the infrastructure in this country.

Rail Services

Journey times on the west coast main line have already been substantially reduced and will be further improved with completion of the west coast route modernisation in late 2008. Stoke-on-Trent is now an hour and a half from London. Before September 2004, the journey took almost two hours.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his response. As a result of the fantastic improvements to rail services and times, my constituents can transact business with London. Indeed, Stoke-on-Trent is now an excellent place for business. When my hon. Friend next discusses with Network Rail further improvements to train times along the west coast main line, will he press it on the fact that, after almost 50 years, Longton railway bridge still awaits a repainting job?

I know the Longton bridge extremely well, and I am distraught to hear that it has not yet been painted, after all these years. If my hon. Friend wishes me to raise the issue with Network Rail on his behalf, I am more than happy to do so.

Train times from Milton Keynes have actually increased, because Virgin trains no longer stop there during peak hours. As the Minister may recall, back in January I raised the fact that Milton Keynes commuters are upset that although two Virgin trains do stop there, no one is allowed to get on the trains, despite there being more than 300 seats on each train. At the time, the Secretary of State said that the issue in Milton Keynes was the platforms, but that has now been changed, and he has admitted that there is no issue with platform lengths in Milton Keynes. May I finally have an answer on why those two trains stop in Milton Keynes to let people off, but do not allow anybody on?

The Pendolino trains do not pick up passengers at Milton Keynes because they are designed not for short-distance commuter traffic, but long-distance traffic. They are not designed as relatively short-haul commuter business services, which are provided by Silverlink and will be provided by the new west midlands franchise.

I congratulate Virgin Trains on the remarkable progress that we have made on the west coast line. With luck, next year we will be back to the times that we achieved in the mid-1960s, when the west coast electrified line was first introduced. The one thing that we have not achieved is a programme that serves the users of the west coast line. There are still too few trains that stop to pick up people at towns such as Tamworth, although many more trains stop at stations down the line that serve smaller populations. Will the Minister look at the way timetables are organised there, particularly as that is where the cross-country lines cross the lines that run from the top to the bottom of the country, which means that a hub station should be created at Tamworth?

Work is still under way on the timetables for late 2008 and early 2009, and I cannot make any comment on the service that Tamworth will receive, but I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that the west coast main line modernisation will provide a major economic boost to the whole country and will provide a much-improved service for the many hundreds of thousands of passengers who use that service every year.

Road Funding

8. What funding commitments have been made for roads up to 2015; and if he will make a statement. (131457)

I am grateful for that reply. I am sure that the Minister is aware that good transport links are an important factor in stimulating local economies. Will he ensure that there is sufficient capacity in his departmental budget, and in the regional development agency budgets, to make sure that local economies can be stimulated by new road links to any new developments built in the period that I mentioned?

Of course my hon. Friend is absolutely right, and the regenerative effects of new road links are one of the things that have to be taken into account when road schemes are prioritised. However, it is important for him to interact with local stakeholders, whose advice we now rely on when prioritising funding. The funding that we get for road improvements will be distributed fairly across the country, and then we will work with local stakeholders to decide how to prioritise the spending.

Norfolk’s economic success is being stifled by the Government’s lack of investment in the roads infrastructure, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) pointed out. Will the Minister finally join me in saying yes to the upgrade of the A11, which needs to take place if Norfolk is to realise its true economic potential?

I admire the hon. Gentleman’s advocacy of that road scheme, but I again offer him the advice that I have given him on several occasions: it is necessary for him to win the support of local stakeholders if he is to get the scheme prioritised, so that work on it can start within the time scale that he wants. At the moment, the scheme is prioritised, but it will not happen as quickly as the hon. Gentleman would want. It is for him to go back to regional stakeholders and increase the priority of the scheme. By the by, it might be a good idea if he and his colleagues supported some of the measures that the Government have put forward to raise the money to pay for the road improvements that he and his colleagues want.

The last time there was any major investment in the Gateshead A1 western bypass, which runs—or should I say crawls—through my constituency, was more than 20 years ago. When can we expect further investment to bring that important artery up to national standards?

Once again, significant investment in road improvements is being made in the north-east, but my hon. Friend must work with local stakeholders to achieve priority for schemes that he wants in his area. We are trying our best to stick as closely as possible to priorities recommended to us by the local regions, and we will continue to do our best to stick to those priorities.

The Minister said in reply to a supplementary that resources for roads would be allocated fairly across the country. There are many Opposition Members who would think that that was an untruth, but I do not accuse him of telling an untruth to the House. Will he give me an assurance that resources will be allocated fairly and that Conservative authorities such as Macclesfield borough council and Cheshire county council, which have been under-resourced, particularly in east Cheshire, will in future receive a fair allocation of resources in accordance with the prosperity that they create in Cheshire and the north-west.

When we decided to go for a regional funding allocation, we began with an open consultation, which included all the regions, local authorities, and Opposition Members, to decide how the money was to be allocated to the regions. We have stuck to that formula, so it is clear that the money has been fairly distributed. I have received representations since then from every region in the country saying that they would like to change the system, because they have come up with a system that would benefit their region at the expense of every other region. I am afraid that life is simply not like that, and if we want more money for the regions we must raise more money overall, and that comes down to the hon. Gentleman and the Opposition occasionally supporting the Government in raising that money.

Constitutional Affairs

The Minister of State was asked—

Electoral Fraud

The Government have taken significant steps in recent years to tighten up the security of the electoral process, and to assist police and prosecutors in tackling electoral fraud. Those measures are primarily established by the Electoral Administration Act 2006, and associated secondary legislation.

I welcome those improvements in security, but I am sure that the Minister agrees that the introduction of postal voting damaged public confidence in the voting system because of the increased risk of fraud. What specific parallel measures has her Department introduced to ensure that the internet, telephone and advance voting pilot projects, too, are not subject to fraud?

First, may I make it clear that incidents of fraud remain isolated, and have arisen in a relatively small handful of wards? As for the pilots, we have put in place clear security measures, which will be monitored by the Electoral Commission and by ourselves. Every local authority that has asked to pilot innovative ways of allowing people to vote has done so in the clear knowledge that it wants to make sure that the system is as secure and accessible as possible.

Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that an important weapon in combating electoral fraud is the requirement to ensure that the electoral register is accurate and up to date? Will she therefore place a duty on electoral registration officers to use all available databases to make sure that the registration system is as accurate and up to date as possible?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. As I have often said at the Dispatch Box, the fact that 3 million people are not on the register who should be on it is a slight to our democracy and something that we must challenge. He is quite right, too, that the Electoral Administration Act has given local registration officers further powers to use all means of registration to ensure that people who are eligible to vote are on the register and able to vote. I am constantly hearing about new ways of trying to provide further opportunities for registration officers to make such changes.

The Minister seems to be living in a slightly different world from the rest of us. Has she read Sir Alistair Graham’s speech in January, in which he said:

“How does DCA or the Electoral Commission know about the extent of electoral fraud when neither of them have kept any statistics nor have undertaken any research on the issue? Is it that, in their obsession with increasing participation at all costs, they have turned a blind eye to the risks of electoral fraud and its consequences on the integrity of our democratic system?”

Will the Minister respond to Sir Alistair Graham, who made a telling point?

Frankly, Sir Alistair Graham made no such thing. In that speech, which I have read in detail, Sir Alistair Graham waved about the figure of 390 cases of electoral fraud. In fact, the Electoral Commission has been conducting a detailed analysis of those cases, and so far it has discovered that very few of them include allegations relating specifically to voting offences. Sir Alistair Graham and the hon. Gentleman need to understand the difference between offences involving under-age candidates, imprints on leaflets and so on and offences involving people personating others and other kinds of voting fraud. Those are very different things, and they should not be put in the same basket.

Has the Minister had the opportunity to read the Electoral Commission report on allegations of electoral malpractice between 2000 and 2006? It shows that in 25,057 elections in seven years there were only 91 cases involving any allegations of electoral malpractice. That represents 0.00363172 per cent. of elections in which there was even an allegation of malpractice. Is it not more important that we make sure that everybody has a chance to vote as easily as possible than following up the rumour-mongering and scandal-mongering by Opposition parties?

The Minister will know that the Committee on Standards in Public Life warned that impersonation was the most common form of electoral fraud. The election commissioner in Birmingham warned that well-organised fraudsters were getting away with scores of personated votes. Given that, which Minister is responsible for the latest fiasco that the new laws to tackle impersonation will not be introduced for this year’s major set of local elections, because they were so badly drafted? Is that not yet another sign of Government incompetence in the face of growing corruption and fraud?

The hon. Gentleman is just plain wrong. In the local elections in May, there will be personal identifiers for postal votes, which is where there have been allegations in the past of possible fraud. All local authorities involved in local elections in May have already sent out all the information to potential postal voters, and I am confident that they will work as hard as possible under the guidance of the Electoral Commission and with the support of the police to ensure that our elections are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has said, as safe, secure and democratically available as we can possibly make them.

Royal Prerogative

As I said on 30 January, the Government keep policy in that area under review but do not see the case for a wide-ranging consultation exercise at this time.

The BBC recently described royal prerogative powers as

“A series of historic powers, officially held by the Queen, that have, in reality, been passed to politicians.”

Royal prerogative powers allow decisions to be taken without the backing of or consultation with Parliament. Does the Minister agree that in a democracy, decisions taken without the backing of or consultation with Parliament should be illegal? May we have a review to address that anachronistic anomaly once and for all?

My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor provided a statement on the Government’s position on this in the House of Lords on 7 February this year, at Hansard column 705. Moreover, the Prime Minister is very keen to ensure that Parliament has its views known, and he has made statements to that effect in recent months. In 2003, for example, there was a substantive motion in Parliament on the Iraq war. We are of course prepared to legislate to constrain the prerogative powers when it is appropriate to do so.

Given that in 2004 the Select Committee on Public Administration said that

“the case for reform is unanswerable”,

as we come to the end of 10 years of Blair-led Labour Government where ministerial Executive power remains as great as ever, will the Minister accept that making peace and war, making treaties such as the extradition treaty and taking away passports from British citizens in Guantanamo Bay are matters that should be governed not by Ministers but by Parliament, and that unless the Government move on this they will remain a Government who seem to be more keen on retaining power than sharing it?

We should be cautious in this field; let me give an example of why. We must be careful about introducing legislation in some of these areas where we would then have the undesirability of their being overseen by the courts, which would not necessarily be a good thing. Indeed, it should be for Parliament, rather than the courts, to comment on some of these issues. The Government have to be accountable to Parliament for their decisions, including decisions on the deployment of armed forces. Parliament’s rights are therefore fully protected under the existing arrangements. That does not mean to say that the Government are not prepared to look at prerogative powers again. We have done that in the past and we are still prepared to do so. We will continue to listen to views on the subject, although at the moment we see no reason to do anything different from the present situation.

I agree most strongly with my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern). Would it not be useful for my hon. Friend the Minister to look at other parliamentary democracies, especially those with constitutional monarchies such as our own, to see how they do things and perhaps to make some progressive reforms in the light of that?

It is difficult to translate specific constitutional arrangements from one country to another. Procedures in the United Kingdom must reflect our constitutional arrangements. There are occasions when the Executive’s ability to take decisions quickly and to be flexible in using the prerogative powers remains an important cornerstone of our constitution. I am not sure that one can easily transfer what may be good in one country to make it fit here. However, as I say, we constantly keep all these matters under review.

Does the Minister agree that the most important royal prerogative is that of taking this country to war? Can she conceive of a situation whereby we would take this country to war without the endorsement of this House? If so, would she consider changing the royal prerogative in this respect?

The hon. Gentleman asks whether I can conceive of a situation arising in relation to going to war. In order to reassure him, let me quote what the Prime Minister said:

“I cannot conceive of a situation in which a Government…is going to go to war—except in circumstances where militarily for the security of the country it needs to act immediately—without a full parliamentary debate”.

That sums up the Government’s position very well.

I am pleasantly surprised to be called. The Under-Secretary said that she would listen carefully to representations. May I draw it to her attention that nobody has spoken in favour of her conservative position on the matter? There is a case for root and branch review of the power of the monarchical institution, including the prerogative powers, which are not always exercised only by Government. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) drew attention to the fact that no Catholic has been made a member of the Order of the Thistle for hundreds of years—that is royal prerogative. It is unacceptable. We need to re-examine the whole monarchical institution.

Although I may have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend’s example, I have said repeatedly—today and on other occasions—that we keep such matters under review. I shall take the specific example back for further consideration.

Postal Voting

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 build on the measures that were successfully introduced in May 2006. The introduction of personal identifiers for postal voters is especially important and will help ensure that postal votes are safe and secure.

During the passage of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, I raised with the Minister of State advice from the banking sector and subsequently wrote to her. The Under-Secretary kindly replied in April last year. Will she update the House on the discussions with the banking sector and their results?

I must apologise to the hon. Gentleman and the House. Thanks to his question, I have discovered that no such discussions took place. It is often said that “Questions were asked in the House”—I shall certainly ensure that questions are asked elsewhere about why the discussions have not yet taken place and that he is informed of them as soon as they do.

Has the Department put in place any mechanism to examine how many people have not renewed their postal votes under the new regime? Will the Department consider the effectiveness of the verification procedures after the elections?

I assure my hon. Friend that we will consider carefully, with the Electoral Commission’s support, the effect of the new legislation on postal voting. We are constantly gathering information about the number of people who apply for postal votes. We will ensure that we can make comparisons about the new system’s effect on the electorate.

In response to a written question of mine on 28 March, in regard to postal vote fraud, the Under-Secretary said:

“The Government do not consider there is sufficient justification to make further changes that would restrict the availability of postal voting… as is the case in Northern Ireland.”—[Official Report, 28 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 1597W.]

Does the Under-Secretary claim that availability to vote surpasses the integrity of the vote? Is not that Government approach one of extreme complacency?

The hon. Gentleman constantly raises the example of Northern Ireland and I constantly have to remind him that the measures that we took in Northern Ireland meant that registration dropped by more than 10 per cent. Approximately 3.5 million people who should be on the register in England and Wales are not. That is a great democratic deficit. It might suit the Conservative party for fewer people to be on the register and able to vote, but it does not suit those of us who believe in democracy.

Why did not the Under-Secretary ensure that all the secondary legislation was correctly drafted and in place to give returning officers the full power to enforce the postal vote safeguards in the way that Parliament intended?

The right hon. Gentleman is right. It is most unfortunate that we could not do what he suggested. We will ensure that the regulations are drafted correctly in future. It was unfortunate that we could not get that right for 3 May, but I hope that we shall ensure that everything is exactly as it should be in future.

Legal Aid

I have received oral and written representations from rural law firms and their representatives as part of the ongoing consultation into the implementation of our legal aid changes. I have personally been to more than 25 meetings with 1,000 practitioners, including many rural providers, and we took their concerns heavily into account when we revised our proposals and published them earlier last year.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. I assume that, having listened to those representations, she will be fully aware of the concerns such as those expressed by the solicitors in my constituency that the few who still provide legal aid services in rural areas are actively contemplating withdrawing from those services as a result of the Government’s proposals. What will then happen to vulnerable people in rural areas who cannot get representation under legal aid?

We have just been through an exercise in renewing a contract for legal aid in almost identical terms to the one that prevailed before. A number of firms said that they would not sign because they did not intend to carry on, but I am pleased to say that, in the end, all of them did. If the hon. Gentleman has any particular difficulties in this regard, I would ask him please to come and see me about them, but we are confident that rural providers will do well out of our proposals.

I asked the Minister a similar question to this on 6 March, and I then discussed her answer with representatives of a local firm in which I have great confidence. They said that the new contract proposals for family and criminal work amounted to financial suicide, that they had been signed under duress and that many firms would indeed back out in an orderly fashion later this year. Is there not a real risk that we are creating a national chain of “Advocacy Is Us”, which will be based in cities, providing a service that is down to a price rather than up to a standard, and which will denude rural areas?

No, there is not the slightest likelihood of that happening. I am anxious to encourage smaller firms to stay in business. The family fees do not represent financial suicide; they have been put together with a lot of input from the profession, for which we are very grateful. Nor do the criminal fees, which have also been put together with the greatest possible care. They are based on the average claims in the areas of the police station duty rotas. All of this involves the same budget as before. Everyone should have the confidence to go through the transition, as the signatures on the contracts now suggest is happening. They must get over the transition—it is not a simple one; I accept that—and then look forward to a very good future in legal aid.

To be fair, the Minister has engaged with people who are complaining about services in rural areas. However, I have a letter here from a specialist in mental health law, Julie Burton, which is addressed to the Lord Chancellor. In it, she says that publicly funded legal advice lawyers are leaving the service “in droves”. She is the only mental health lawyer in the whole of north and mid-Wales, but she, too, is going to give up. She has dedicated her life to this work but, after 25 years, she can see no alternative.

With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, he is not correct to say that firms are leaving in droves. Of the solicitors who had signed up to the last contract, 94 per cent. have signed up to the new one. That does not suggest that they are leaving in droves; it represents a pretty average fall-away. I am sorry to hear about the lady in Wales. We will have to look for someone else who can provide that service to the vulnerable population that she serves, but I hope that she will reconsider.