Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 461: debated on Tuesday 19 June 2007


The Secretary of State was asked—


In July the Department will publish the high level output specification, which will set out what we expect the railway industry to deliver in the years to 2014. It will be accompanied by a statement of funds available, setting out the funds that we expect to make available to the industry over the same period.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Streatham to Mitcham Common is the longest line of track in London without a station, and that although I have been campaigning for 10 years for a station in Mitcham, the campaign for the Eastfields halt goes back to the 1930s? Does he share my delight that Network Rail intends to build a station there, and will he do everything he can to ensure that it is introduced at the earliest possible date in December?

I am fully aware of the tireless efforts of my hon. Friend in relation to a new station at Eastfields. She has a reputation in the House for her efforts on behalf of her constituents, and I know that the matter is of particular concern to a number of commuters, who are keen to see a new station on that route. She is right to recognise that ultimately a decision rests with Network Rail. I understand that there have been constructive and positive conversations with Network Rail, and I urge her to continue those conversations.

It is interesting that the Secretary of State says that the decision about a new station rests with Network Rail. Last Friday I had a meeting with Network Rail to discuss the new station in Corsham in the light of the very helpful letter that I had from the Secretary of State for Defence, who said that he was keen that the station in Corsham should open. The Network Rail people said that it was nothing to do with them—it was a matter for the Government or the regulator, but they were not quite certain which. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether he agrees with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence that the new station in Corsham would be a good thing, and if so, who will take the decision to reopen it?

With the greatest respect to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, I doubt that the terms of the letter to which the hon. Gentleman refers suggest that the decision is one for the Ministry of Defence or the Secretary of State for Defence. I am happy to look at the correspondence and we will be back in touch with him.

When considering future rail investment, will my right hon. Friend take a particular look at west Yorkshire and especially the lines that run through New Pudsey, Horsforth and Guiseley in my constituency, bearing in mind the relatively low level of investment per person on transport in Yorkshire and Humberside?

I am aware of the importance of rail services not just in one region, but in every region and nation of the United Kingdom. I am happy to give the assurance that we will consider the needs of every part of England when we publish the high level output specification in due course.

Will the Secretary of State consider the service given to rail passengers on a Sunday? Does he think it is acceptable that most train companies offer appalling services on a Sunday, which take far longer than any other train journey during the rest of the week, and charge the same price for them?

Of course it has been the case historically that significant engineering work has often been undertaken on a Sunday. It is right to acknowledge that as lifestyle, retailing and leisure patterns change, there are greater expectations of the network on a Sunday than was the case in a different era. I am sure Network Rail is aware of that, and I will make sure that the point is made to it, in light of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that any moneys paid into the public purse by rail operators are ring-fenced for use within the franchise area where the moneys were raised, for further improvements to the franchise and the benefit of passengers?

There has been some misapprehension on these issues in much of the commentary. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that she seeks, which is that the money received from the franchise is ring-fenced in the budget of the Department for Transport. It is part of the ongoing sustained investment which accounts for about £88 million per week on Britain’s railways at present.

Given the threat of climate change, is it not time the Government got serious about high-speed rail from Scotland to London to get people out of planes and into trains?

With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, it is about time the Liberal Democrats got serious. If she was serious about looking at high speed trains, she might recognise that there is a correlation between speed and energy consumption, and therefore that the easy assumption that in every circumstance a high speed train is the pro-environment choice does not bear scrutiny. These are serious matters. We are considering them in the Department and we will bring forward our recommendations at the time of the high level output specification in the summer.

Will my right hon. Friend talk to his Treasury colleagues to ensure that the East London line extension is completed—not only phase 1 which is under construction, with the operator announced today, but phase 2 to Clapham Junction, which requires another £75 million under the comprehensive spending review?

Many Ministers are keen to speak to the Treasury this week. I am happy to pass on the point that my hon. Friend makes.

I am sure the House is aware of the reports that this is likely to be the last occasion on which the Secretary of State stands at the Dispatch Box for Transport questions. May I offer him my thanks for a constructive relationship over the past few months and wish him well for the purges that we expect on the Government Benches next week. Can he tell the House, though, whether Britain’s trains will be more or less overcrowded by 2015?

First, I know that in the rail industry as in other walks of life, forecasting is an inherently challenging and difficult business. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman is in possession of information that I am certainly not aware of as we look ahead to the events of next week.

Let me deal with the substantive point, however. We have already recognised in the high level output specification discussions the centrality and importance of greater capacity on the railways. That is why I made it clear in March that as part of that statement this summer, 1,000 extra carriages will be provided for the country’s railways. At the same time, we are looking at a range of measures on infrastructure, such as platform lengthening, for example. I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that capacity will be one of the central challenges that the high level output specification will address.

It is a shame that the 1,000 extra coaches will not be with us for another seven years.

The Government are receiving higher premium payments from train operators, because they in turn are passing on substantially increased fares to passengers—increases that are well above the rate of inflation. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment today that all the extra money raised from passengers in that way will be spent on tackling the overcrowding crisis on our railways?

Let me address both the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised. First, he has suggested once again that the 1,000 extra carriages will not be available for a number of years. Let me correct that misapprehension, which I am sure is inadvertent, by confirming that carriages will be available on the network by the end of next year, which is 2008 rather than 2014.

Secondly, reflecting the earlier answer that I gave, we recognise that the premium payments that came in under the franchising system form part of the rail budget. I have already made it clear that one of key priorities for the rail budget in the years ahead will be capacity.

Bus Services

Last month the Government published a draft Local Transport Bill for consultation. It includes proposals to provide the necessary powers for local authorities to improve bus services, as set out in “Putting Passengers First”.

The proposals have been broadly welcomed in south Yorkshire, even to the extent that last Friday, almost 100 bus users turned out on the wettest day for 35 years to discuss the measures with the Secretary of State. Does my hon. Friend agree with me and those bus users, however, that the measures in the Bill could be improved by giving local authorities the right to introduce the quality contract without having to go to an unaccountable body?

My hon. Friend is indeed an effective campaigner, as has been mentioned before. Indeed, I know from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that her work last week to promote a better deal for bus passengers by bringing them together with my right hon. Friend was extremely valuable. I congratulate Sheffield city council and the passenger transport executive on signing up to a voluntary quality partnership that will mean better bus services.

I can assure my hon. Friend that the draft Bill does indeed provide for better working partnerships between authorities and operators. It will give more powers to local authorities where needed, and it is important that where quality contracts are proposed, they are properly scrutinised, because they are for the benefit of all, and it is important that we ensure that they are in the public interest.

Does the Minister recall that on 21 May 1997, when the Prime Minister first answered Prime Minister’s questions in this Chamber, he promised the House that the Deputy Prime Minister, who then had responsibility for transport, would be carrying out a review on the question of bus regulation? Since then, we have progressed as far as having a draft Bill. During that time, however, the cost of travelling by bus has increased by 15 per cent., while the cost of travelling by car has fallen by 9 per cent. Does the Minister think that the Prime Minister should be satisfied with the progress that her Department has made in the course of the past 10 years?

I am quite sure that the Prime Minister is very pleased that we now have the biggest shake-up of buses for some 20 years and that we have a balanced package of measures in the Bill, which is basically about ensuring better services for bus passengers. In particular, I want to draw the attention of the House to the fact that, just last week, provisional figures were published showing that there has been a rise of 85 million bus and light rail passenger journeys, and that 80 million of those additional journeys are made in the English non-metropolitan areas. That shows that bus patronage is on the rise, due in part to the concessionary travel provisions introduced by the Government.

If we are serious about tackling road congestion, there needs to be a meaningful role for park-and-ride, linked into strategic and key bus services. Given that fact, what discussion is my hon. Friend’s Department having with the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive to ensure that that essential element is included in its transport innovation fund bid for Greater Manchester?

Discussions are under way on the TIF bid, which is to deal with congestion. I am sure that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members are aware that I recently had the honour of opening the new GMPTE offices in Manchester, and its commitment to improving bus services, tackling congestion and working for the people of Greater Manchester is commendable.

Will the Minister, or her successor, visit Kettering to discuss local bus services with local residents and to be briefed on the remarkable 23 per cent. increase in bus patronage in the past four years?

I am sure that I would be absolutely delighted to visit Kettering. Areas up and down the country have experienced great success in passenger growth. The Local Transport Bill is all about spreading good practice and making sure that the benefits are available, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State saw for himself in Oxford yesterday.

I urge my hon. Friend to make sure that the new powers in the Bill are coupled with the continuation of the Government’s kick-start programme, which in Newcastle has given us a new, high-frequency bus corridor, the X47 in the north-west of the city, that has attracted thousands of new bus passengers. Sadly, however, the Liberal Democrat council in Newcastle failed for many months to carry out its part of the deal, which was highway improvements to support the scheme.

That is disappointing, if not unsurprising, news from my hon. Friend. The important point about kick-start funding is, as I am sure that the House is aware, that bus funding has almost doubled in real terms since 1997, which includes the kick-start programme. I cannot make a commitment today, but I assure my hon. Friend that we will put the matter under review.

The Government spend much of their time demonising the deregulatory provisions of the Transport Act 1985. If those provisions are so evil, why have the Government not included re-regulation in the draft Bill?

What an interesting question. We have had an apology from the Opposition about rail privatisation, but we have had no such apology about their action on buses. The draft Local Transport Bill, which I hope that the Opposition will support, will introduce a new regime that will put passengers first and deliver better punctuality. That will mean the further development of the community transport sector and the implementation of quality contract schemes through effective partnership working. The Bill is not about returning to the 1980s; it is about looking forward and providing bus travel not only for those who do not have a choice, but for those who do.

Since rail passengers have got an effective way of complaining if they do not get good service, is there a particular reason why bus passengers do not have the same provision?

I assure my hon. Friend that we are strengthening the role of the traffic commissioners, who are also being included in the assessment of quality contracts to use their expertise and time to best effect to improve bus services.

Rail Services

3. What recent discussions he has had with Network Rail on improving the track between Kemble and Swindon. (143382)

I am aware that the Swindon to Kemble section is single track and that that limits the number of trains that the route can accommodate. Network Rail’s business plan 2007 states:

“Redoubling the single track between Swindon and Kemble is being evaluated as the first phase of the Swindon-Gloucester-South Wales line upgrade for delivery in 2008/09”.

However, that remains a matter for Network Rail to progress.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response, but we need to hurry up that improvement. Some 220,000 people live in Cheltenham and Gloucester alone, and many more people in the area use the trains. There is a direct train only once every one hour 52 minutes; on many trains, people have to change if they want to go to London, a journey which can take as long as two hours 36 minutes; and an open return often costs £139. That is a very poor service between an important area of the country and London, so we need that improvement. Will the Minister redouble his efforts in persuading Network Rail to take on that project?

For every Conservative Back Bencher who complains about not enough money being spent on the rail network, their Front Benchers complain that we are spending too much. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the line but, as he will know, it is currently served by 18 trains in each direction every day—a level of service that would be envied in many other parts of the country. However, it is entirely up to Network Rail to decide if and when to spend money on the project, and how much.

As someone who has campaigned on this issue for 10 years, it is good to hear that it has now reached so-called GRIP 3, which will be known to my hon. Friend if to nobody else in the House. There is some optimism. However, I would like to know that there is a degree of transparency in the process. As the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) says, this redoubling is greatly needed in Gloucestershire, and indeed in other parts of the region, so it would be nice to know that Network Rail will take advice from MPs and other interested parties to ensure that it gets a full view of the benefits that the upgrade could bring.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to express concerns about the transparency of such decision making. Network Rail consults extensively throughout the industry. I would recommend that he visits its website to get the latest on the precise identity of the consultees on this particular business plan. If he wishes to write to me, I am happy to pass on his concerns to the chief executive of Network Rail.

May I add my support to my colleagues from all parties in Gloucestershire on this important proposal? The redoubling of the line from Swindon to Kemble will deliver benefits in my constituency as well as those of my neighbours. Does the Minister agree that with passenger numbers on the railway network as a whole at their highest since the 1940s, such measures to increase capacity should be given the highest priority by Network Rail?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s congratulations to the Government on their success in growing the network over the past 10 years. I would caution him and other hon. Members who have spoken on this issue by pointing out that the severe constraints on track capacity to the east of Swindon mean that although the work, if it goes ahead, will help to improve the reliability and performance of through services, it will be a much greater challenge to increase the number of services through to London.

Private Roads

Local authorities already have the power to bring unadopted roads up to the standard required for adoption. It is a matter of priorities for each individual authority to decide whether to do so, and there is no further role for central Government.

As my hon. Friend is aware, coalfield communities are disproportionately affected by unadopted roads, of which Derbyshire alone has 700. Will he agree to meet local authorities from coalfield communities to find finally some strategy to deal with that problem, which is not going away?

I certainly do know about the problem, because my hon. Friend has worked hard to ensure that Ministers are aware of it and of the specific issues. Of course, one of the ministerial team—these matters are usually dealt with by the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron)—will be delighted to meet her. Our ability to get involved in this is limited, but we can help to try to identify the various opportunities for funding such schemes of which my hon. Friend’s constituency can take advantage.

The Minister says that this is nothing to do with central Government. When the new town corporations handed over the overspill London new towns to local councils, many roads were not adopted, and local authorities simply do not have the money to put those roads into the state that they should be in for public use. As it was the Government’s fault when those agencies did not do their job properly, can we look into the problem again to see whether there is any central money to solve it?

Local authorities might take advantage of various sources of funding for such schemes. The Department for Communities and Local Government offers several opportunities through regeneration funding. The local authority can use its own local transport plan funding, the integrated transport block and revenue support grant. It can even consider the possibility of using private finance initiatives and neighbourhood renewal funding. There are opportunities for local authorities to deal with this. If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to us, we will enumerate them and he can get his local authority working on an opportunity to put the problem right.

Wakefield is a coalfield community with more than 200 unadopted roads. As my hon. Friend knows, the legislation that governs adoption is outmoded, requires unanimity from householders and is normally defeated because of apathy and the cost to those householders. They wish to resolve difficulties only when there are problems with sewage or street lighting. Will he liaise with Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that, as we embark on a programme of house building, we do not allow any more unadopted roads to be built on private estates and that, if they are built, planning agreements cover the costs of maintaining them in perpetuity and their adoption?

I will pass on those views to my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government. My hon. Friend makes a good point and any new housing developments should take such matters seriously and ensure that the problem does not get worse.

Will my hon. Friend take it from me that he cannot pass the buck in the way in which he appears to have done? It is his Department’s responsibility that many people in my constituency and in Kirklees cannot get an unadopted road made up. May we have some leadership from him on the use of recyclable aggregate, which can often be used to make up the roads economically? His comments do not sit well when I have to face a Kirklees council that is run by the Tories with Liberal Democrat support, and it has to wait for a Labour Government to get its road done up.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend is cross with me, but there is little scope for central Government in the matter. It is for local authorities to decide how best to use their resources. We can make a variety of resources available to them, including regeneration funding and neighbourhood renewal funds. I am told that some local authorities have even used the home zone scheme as a way of moving matters forward. If the Liberal Democrat or Tory-controlled council to which my hon. Friend refers genuinely intends to resolve the problem, it has the mechanisms at its disposal.

Trains (Overcrowding)

We will work 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 July, will include a commitment to 1,000 extra carriages. They will be targeted at the most congested routes on the network.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, in places such as my constituency, where junction 21 of the M5 is badly congested at peak hours, it is essential to have a high quality commuter rail scheme and that, for stations such as Worle, where there is bad overcrowding, we are moving in the wrong direction, with reduced rather than increased services? Will he make a commitment to people who wait for trains at Worle station and elsewhere in north Somerset that some of the resources that he mentioned will be targeted at the severe rail congestion there?

Doughty though the hon. Gentleman is in defence of his constituents, I doubt whether he would expect me to preannounce such specific elements from the high level output specification, which will be before the House in only a few weeks.

Let me make the general point that there has been sustained investment in our railways in recent years, in contradiction to literally decades of under-investment that we previously experienced. Transport Ministers used to claim that we had the most efficient railway in Europe. I regret that, all too often, that was code for the fact that money was not spent on maintenance or capacity, and we are therefore trying to catch up. That is why there needs to be additional capacity in the fleet and why we have announced 1,000 extra carriages. That is why we want sustained investment in the network and why it is sensible to present all the proposals at the same time in July. That is exactly what we will do.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that an announcement of the funding for the Reading station upgrade in next month’s high level specification output statement would contribute significantly to reducing train overcrowding on the Great Western main line?

I know that my reply will disappoint my hon. Friend. I passed through Reading station only last night when travelling back from Oxford. Much as I would like to assure him that, on the basis of outrageous congestion that I experienced, I will make an immediate announcement, I fear that I will disappoint him because I cannot make such an announcement at this stage and the station was remarkably quiet when I passed through it.

In all seriousness, my hon. Friend has made clear to me the concerns of his constituents about the high level of usage of Reading station. He has brought a group to the House of Commons to present his concerns directly to me and I assure him that we are mindful of them as we prepare the high level output specification.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Chelmsford has a significant commuting population and that railway journeys on One railway are unacceptable in respect of overcrowding during the rush hour? What specific and detailed advice can he give about how One railway can reduce the overcrowding and ensure that my constituents can travel to work as members of the human race rather than as cattle?

Obviously, there are steps that individual train-operating companies can take, whether it be train lengthening, with additional capacity being provided by additional carriages, or platform lengthening to facilitate those additional carriages, but there are specific requirements on specific routes. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it would not be the right response simultaneously to suggest that we can have lower fares, a higher level of investment and lower taxes. Ultimately, there are two sources of funding available for the network: one is the rail fare and the other is the taxpayer. That is why the Government have, over many years, seen sustained investment in our railway, but we recognise that more needs to be done on capacity, which will inform the high level output specifications published this summer.

But surely my right hon. Friend—like me, he is a regular traveller—will understand that there are safety implications from the overcrowding of our trains. Is it not now possible in the modern age to restrict the numbers on trains, just as we restrict the numbers travelling in cars, planes and boats? We should restrict the numbers travelling on our trains because we are now reaching the point at which it is becoming unbearable. That problem really should be addressed by restricting the numbers that are allowed on our trains.

Of course, safety on our railways is a matter that we keep under constant review and there are appropriate bodies to advise us on the technical requirements of improving the safety regime on our railways. As to my hon. Friend’s point about what other steps can be taken, I made it clear back in March that we are making provision for an extra 1,000 carriages, which will go some way towards addressing some of his concerns.

Passenger Focus Report

6. If he will make a statement on the recent report by Passenger Focus on levels of rail passenger satisfaction. (143385)

The spring 2007 results from the national passenger survey show that there has been a small but disappointing decline of between 1 and 2 per cent. in rail passenger satisfaction in the last year. That needs to be viewed in the context of the steady improvement in rail passenger satisfaction experienced over recent years.

I think that the Minister is being somewhat selective in looking at the Passenger Focus survey. What area of dissatisfaction is he most concerned about—dissatisfaction with delays, dissatisfaction with value for money or dissatisfaction with reliability?

The passenger survey was undertaken in the context of steadily improving performance on the rail network. The industry is committed to achieving 89.4 per cent. reliability by the end of March next year and 90 per cent. the year after. In that context, with record amounts of public money being invested in the railways, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that investment and not tax cuts should be the priority for the travelling public.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating Midland Mainline on its high-quality service and on the very high levels of customer satisfaction that are recorded in the survey? Will he reassure me and others in the east midlands and south Yorkshire area who rely on Midland Mainline services that they will not be unduly disrupted and that the quality of service will not be lost as a result of the new East Midlands rail franchise?

It is, of course, the Department’s aim to ensure that when any new franchise is introduced, passenger services continue as smoothly as possible. Inevitably, there will be timetable changes every December for every franchise. The new East Midlands franchise will be in place this summer and the new timetable for the new franchise will be introduced in December 2008. I expect service levels to be an improvement on what passengers currently receive.

The Minister knows that rail passenger satisfaction has improved greatly on the C2C Fenchurch Street service over recent years, but it could be improved even more if uncertainty about the franchise renewal were removed, so that the line could get on with making more investment in rolling stock to tackle problems such as overcrowding. What is the Minister going to do to remove the uncertainty about the franchise?

There is an ongoing debate in the industry about the length of franchises; the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point that out. However, there is no consensus on how long a franchise should last. I am of the view that the present length of between seven and 10 years is appropriate, and that it does not serve as a disincentive to train operating companies in making the necessary investment. The idea of a 20-year franchise has been mooted, but that would not provide an incentive to improve performance, for example.

Does my hon. Friend agree that modern well-equipped railway stations contribute to improving levels of rail passenger satisfaction? Perhaps he thought that he could get through an entire Question Time without anyone mentioning New Street station, but I must ask him when he thinks we in the west midlands might get some good news on this project, which is vital for the entire region?

My hon. Friend is correct to say that the travelling experience is greatly coloured by whether the facilities at a train station are good or bad. As far as Birmingham New Street is concerned, I would love to be able to give him some cheer, but I shall have to ask him to await the announcement on possible funding for the redevelopment of the station that will be made in due course.

Did the Minister detect any customer satisfaction whatever on the state of the so-called Stansted Express? Seeing the state of our railways must be the most appalling introduction for foreigners coming to Britain. What are we going to do about that smelly, slow and unacceptable route?

The right hon. Gentleman understandably takes a close interest in these matters. His indignation would sound better, however, if he had not been complicit in the botched privatisation of the railways in 1993. The fact is that performance on our railways has gone up by 10 per cent. in the past five years, largely because of record investment by the Government in the railway network.


The Government are committed to increasing cycling; it is a healthy, environmentally friendly transport mode. We doubled Cycling England’s budget to £10 million last year and launched Bikeability cycle training earlier this year. The six cycling demonstration towns with which Cycling England is working have increased cycle trips by about 30 per cent. in just one year.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he agree that one thing that helps cycling is better cycle and rail integration—and that that is not helped by the attitude of some rail operators that do not encourage cycles on trains, and of some stations that prevent cyclists from bringing their bicycles into the ticket office?

I accept my hon. Friend’s concerns. Since late 2004, the Government have funded about 2,500 new cycle parking spaces at stations. However, there will always be constraints on the ability to accommodate non-folding bikes on trains at peak times. I believe that the train operating companies are the best placed to know where and when pressure on services exists, and they must be free to impose restrictions when necessary.

I call Rob Wallace. [Interruption.] I am sorry—I have a friend called Rob Wallace. I call Rob Wilson.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that we will become firm friends in a short space of time.

This week I shall participate in Reading’s cycle week, but Reading has a very poor cycle network that is neither safe nor fully integrated. What central funds will the Minister provide to address that deplorable state of affairs in my constituency?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on trying to pin the blame for poor cycle routes on the Government. However, he will know that cycle facilities are entirely the responsibility of local government, using record levels of funds provided by this Government. I suggest that he engage with his local authority on this issue.

EU Emissions Trading Scheme

We have led the debate in Europe on this issue, and welcomed the European Union's announcement on aviation's inclusion in the EU emissions trading scheme in 2011 and 2012. However, we continue to press for an earlier introduction.

Assuming that introducing the measure would involve additional costs, may I ask the Minister to use her good offices to remind the major airline companies that they too have a responsibility to the environment, and that passing on any additional costs to the travelling public should not be an option at all, let alone the first option?

I understand my hon. Friend’s point. I know that he has a particular interest in the subject because Glasgow airport is in his constituency. Although other measures, including the offsetting of costs, are part of the mix and need to be considered, emissions trading guarantees a specific outcome in ensuring that an environmental contribution is made. We therefore believe that it is the best way forward.


The Minister of State was asked—


20. What steps she is taking to increase the period of time that prisoners spend on purposeful activity. (143365)

Commissioners are continuing to strive for improvements in purposeful activity across the prison estate that are achievable with the resources provided.

May I invite the Minister to join me on a visit to Reading prison, where blue-chip private sector companies are running extensive training programmes to guarantee jobs for young offenders when they complete their sentences? The programmes have cut reoffending rates from 70 per cent. to less than 7 per cent., turning lives around. Should the Government not be following that private sector-driven example of best practice, rather than allowing reoffending to cost the taxpayer up to £12 billion a year? Is that not a better idea than letting burglars and drug addicts out of prison early?

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to learn that I visited Reading jail very recently, and saw the excellent work going on there. As he says, it is important to tackle reoffending and to ensure that as many providers as possible are available, whether they come from the voluntary, the private, or indeed the public sector. I hope he will support the Offender Management Bill, which his party is opposing as it goes through its paces in the House of Lords.

In the context of, in particular, younger prisoners who are restrained from any kind of activity, may I ask what the thinking was behind the Government’s proposal to change the rules on restraint, and whether and when we shall hear a full statement on that important proposal?

I know that my hon. Friend has taken a close interest in this issue. A statement will be made shortly, but I can say now that the purpose of the Secure Training Centre (Amendment) Rules 2007 was to prevent ambiguity. The primary legislation was very clear. We listened to what the coroner had to say to us, and changed the rules accordingly.

Does the Minister agree that one of the major barriers to giving prisoners purposeful activity is the fact that the sentences served are often so short that by the time they have been assessed, there is no point in putting them on a programme? Will he assure us that he will end the Executive early release of prisoners, to ensure that more of them are given the excellent training described by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson)?

There is no Executive early release of prisoners. As the hon. Gentleman says, what we must do is cut reoffending, and we can do that by providing the right programmes to tackle it. The Prison Service is doing what it is doing and the probation service is doing whatever it can do, but reoffending rates are still far too high. One way of reducing them is through the Offender Management Bill, which the hon. Gentleman’s party is opposing.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating James Ewers and Pete Middleton, and all who took part in the Jail Guitar Doors campaign concert in Reading on Saturday? It raised more than £2,000 for the drug rehabilitation charity Turning Point, and to purchase musical instruments for some of the inmates of Reading young offenders institution.

I am happy to congratulate those who took part in the event, and wish the organisers well. Turning Point is doing a tremendous job in trying to tackle reoffending, particularly among young people. It is important for us to use every available tool to reach young people through music or the arts to try to stop them from reoffending, and we will continue to do that. I hope the whole House will support the programmes that we want to introduce.

Does the Minister not agree that although work and training, and the drugs-related programmes about which we have heard, are vital to stop criminals from reoffending, with the current overcrowding they are simply not available? If there is no purposeful activity and criminals are let out on to our streets with a “get out of jail free” card, will they not reoffend, committing crime after crime time after time?

Given the Chancellor’s refusal to fund the extra places that everyone knew were necessary for so many years, and given that the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), said only the other day that there were no extra funds, did it not take some brass neck for the Chancellor to stand up today and offer money for new places? How much confidence can the public really have that he will keep them safe?

We will take no lessons from the Opposition on prison funding. We have built 20,000 places since 1997, and last year we announced that there would be a further 8,000 places. We must tackle reoffending. We all agree that end-to-end offender management is the way forward, to stop people going into prison so that we do not need so many prison places. Let me ask the hon. Gentleman a question: why does he oppose the Offender Management Bill? We will build more prison places, and the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn will make a statement shortly.

Prison Population

21. What estimate she has made of the prison population on 1 July (a) 2008, (b) 2010, (c) 2012 and (d) 2014. (143366)

The Government recently published prison population projections up to July 2012. They are to be reviewed in August 2007 and are available on the Home Office and Ministry of Justice websites.

Why does the Minister think that the Secretary of State said, when the Ministry of Justice was set up just a few weeks ago, that there would be no further early release schemes? What has gone wrong? What message does this give to those who are fighting crime?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has indicated that there will be no Executive early release schemes, and I shall mention that in my statement. What message on crime does the right hon. Gentleman wish me to give people? When his party was in office, the crime rate doubled, violent crime increased by 170 per cent., the chances of being a victim trebled, convictions fell by a third and police officer numbers were cut. That was the message from his Government. Our Government have a different message.

I know that my right hon. Friend is aware that there are 45 fewer women in prison now than a year ago, but the number has still doubled over the past 10 years. What does he plan to do to bring down the number of women in prison, and does he plan to adopt Baroness Corston’s proposals?

My hon. Friend will know that Baroness Corston produced a report on the female prison population, and we are currently considering it. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), will examine the recommendations, and we warmly welcome them. We want fewer women to be in prison, and I am confident that we will be able to respond to the report positively—by late autumn at the latest, I hope.

I will get on with it.

As the Minister will be aware, the prison population has doubled over the past 15 years. Does he believe that it will double again in the next 15 years—and if not, why not?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I will shortly make a statement on prison population projections and what steps we intend to take. I am confident that we can take a number of measures to protect the public and put serious offenders in jail, and also look at community-based sentences and work with sentencers to ensure that we manage the sentenced population effectively. We will need to build extra prison places, and we have plans to do so. I shall say more about that in my statement. I am confident that we can build extra places, manage the prison population effectively and make sure that we protect the public from serious and dangerous offenders.

When I was first campaigning to enter the House, in the run-up to the 1992 election, our party made a great deal of the fact that the number of prisoners had gone past the 40,000 mark, which at that time was the highest per capita in Europe, with the possible exception of Turkey. It has now gone past the 80,000 mark. Does the Minister attribute that doubling to a heightened level of criminality in the British population, or to a response to evidence showing that prison works—that is unlikely—or, which is more likely, are we pandering to the middle-market tabloids of the Daily Mail and Daily Express variety, and trying to obtain yet more votes from that section of the population?

I must tell my hon. Friend that if we are pandering to the Daily Mail, it is not working. The prison population has certainly risen. Overall, crime is down, convictions are up and the Labour Government are catching more criminals because of the greater numbers of police on the streets. Irrespective of that, I recognise the problems that my hon. Friend identifies. We want there to be better use of community sentences, and stronger community sentences. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 has given 12 orders which I hope will be utilised more effectively over the next three years than they have been, with a great deal of effort, over the past three years. I am confident that we can build extra prison places, manage the prison population in an effective and productive way to prevent reoffending, and build on community sentences to ensure that people do not return to jail or to offending once they have been through the criminal justice system.

I hear what the Minister says, but given that there are now 16,000 extra prisoners in England and Wales why should anybody presume that if Labour were in power for another seven years, there would not be the same rate of increase? What is the answer to the problem that not only do we still have more prisoners per head of population than any other western European country, but we have half as many again as countries of the same size and type—Germany, France and Italy? Are the British more criminal, or has the policy failed?

The hon. Gentleman will know from the statement made on 9 May that I have a great deal of sympathy with some of the points that he makes. We need to look into focusing more on community sentences, on drug treatment and alcohol orders, and on a range of measures such as—dare I say it?—home detention and tagging, because they can help to prevent reoffending as much as prison can. We have a rising prison population, and at 3.30 I shall announce some steps to deal with those matters, but I am confident that community sentences and guidance, and work with sentencers, will be among the key drivers in helping to reduce the prison population in due course.

The Minister was asked a perfectly straight question by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), and he has yet to answer it. He referred us to his website; I thought that we had questions and answers across the Dispatch Box, not via a website. Is the Minister not answering the question put to him because he knows very well that according to the projected figures, the prison population for the years in question will go way over 100,000 and towards 120,000, and he does not have any plans to cope with that sort of capacity?

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for pointing out the content of my website, and I am pleased that he views it. I referred the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) to it because it is an important way of looking at the facts and figures that we have. I am happy to provide the hon. and learned Gentleman with figures on these matters. The ones that he mentions are projections, and as I said, we are planning to review those projections in August. I will shortly announce steps to be taken on prison population issues with which I suspect that he, even if not his Front-Bench colleagues such as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), will have some sympathy. [Interruption.] If the hon. and learned Gentleman would care to contain himself, I will report on these matters at 3.30.

Machinery of Government

22. If she will make a statement on the progress of her Department’s working group with senior members of the judiciary on the recent machinery-of-government changes. (143367)

We all know that this dreadful Labour Government have messed up the police service, and now they are about to do the same to the judiciary. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House whether, during those discussions with senior members of the judiciary, she has been able to reassure them that there is no constitutional problem, that their traditional independence will be preserved, and that they will not be compromised in terms of any sentencing?

There will be no messing up of the judiciary. Its independence is in statute passed by this House, under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, and nothing is going to change that.

Was it not disgraceful that the Lord Chief Justice heard about the Ministry of Justice from the pages of The Daily Telegraph, and does my friend feel at all embarrassed that the judiciary were not properly consulted, as they should have been? Finally, has my friend read the report from the Public Administration—

It was short, but there was more than one supplementary—that is the point that I am trying to make. Try to use good manners; it is important. The hon. Gentleman will learn something after a few years.

As soon as it was a serious proposal to go ahead with the Ministry of Justice, as my hon. Friend will know from looking at the evidence given by the Lord Chancellor to the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee on 22 May, at that point arrangements were made to have a working group of the Lord Chief Justice, at which Department for Constitutional Affairs officials engaged in discussions in preparation for the Ministry of Justice. However, the most important thing is that section 1 of the Courts Act 2003 lays out the Lord Chancellor’s responsibility to ensure that there is an “efficient and effective” courts service, and the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 ensures the independence of the judiciary. Moreover, a concordat sets out the agreement on relationships between Ministers and judges. I am sure that all those things will have the full support of this House.

As there is not even agreement with the judges on interim working arrangements, let alone a long-term solution to what the Lord Chief Justice sees as a serious constitutional problem, is the Minister prepared to allow a situation to continue in which there is a real divide between the judiciary and the Executive, even about the implementation of the concordat in the Act that she has described?

There are interim working arrangements in place. The courts are working and the judges are ensuring that justice is done in the courts. The Lord Chancellor and the Ministry of Justice are ensuring that the court system is operating. Of course there are operational issues that the judiciary raised with the Lord Chancellor’s Department and are now raising with our Department, and those are being considered. I have seen the evidence that was taken by the right hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee, and obviously there will always be discussions between the judiciary and the Ministry of Justice, but I cannot see any point in adding to the situation through hyperbole.

I welcome, of course, the assurances given by the Minister of State about the importance of the independence of the judiciary, and it is, of course, protected by statute. Following the evidence given to the Select Committee, has the Lord Chancellor spoken to the Lord Chief Justice about this issue, because Committee members felt strongly that that personal contact between them would break this logjam?

I can reassure my right hon. Friend and the House that the Lord Chancellor is in weekly, sometimes daily, contact with the Lord Chief Justice. They have regular discussions, and that will continue to be the case.

The Lord Chief Justice and his colleagues also gave evidence to the Select Committee to the effect that if there were to be any meaningful assurance of judicial independence, there should at the very least be a ring-fenced courts budget. Can the Minister and her colleagues assure us that we will have that vital safeguard, as requested by the Lord Chief Justice?

There are two separate issues here. One is the resourcing of the courts budget within the Ministry of Justice. The courts budget is some £1 billion, compared with the legal aid budget of £2 billion, to which is added the prison budget of some £2 billion. Obviously, it is the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor, under section 1 of the Courts Act, to ensure that there is an efficient and effective system to support the carrying out of the business of the courts, and that resources are dedicated to that. As for the independence of the judiciary, that too is enshrined in statute and underpinned by the concordat.


23. How many prisoners left prison with a drug or alcohol dependency problem in the last 12 months. (143368)

Defining and assessing dependency is not straightforward, and records are not kept on the numbers leaving prison with drug or alcohol dependency. A comprehensive treatment framework is in place to support prisoners with a drug problem, with a range of services available for those with an alcohol problem.

It is a shame that the Government are not able to provide those statistics, because one in five people going into prison have a drug dependency problem. Many of them then have treatment in prison—detox and rehab. They start their treatment regime and then, when they leave prison, they go to the back of the queue and lose out on all the benefits that they might have experienced if they had been able to continue their treatment. If we are to tackle recidivism, is it not important that we ensure continuity of treatment for those people?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I appreciate the work that he does in his community to try to tackle drug use. He will know that prisoner health care has been transferred to the national health service through the primary care trusts, and there are now end-to-end programmes for people with drug problems. We have also seen a 997 per cent. increase in spending on drug problems.

May I make a helpful suggestion? Too many prisoners leave prison still addicted to class A drugs, and then reoffend. What about moving prisoners coming to the end of their time in prison into an established residential drug rehab centre for the balance of their sentences? That would save money and be much more effective. It would be cheaper than prison, and cost the country much less in the long term.

Again, I appreciate the work that the hon. Gentleman does in our courts and criminal justice system. It is important that we look at what works. As I said, there has been a 997 per cent. increase in spending on drug treatment. We are trying to find the best way to stop people taking drugs, and we believe that using the NHS is an appropriate way forward. We are also looking at what providers in the voluntary sector can do, and at what is best practice in this area, but I shall be happy to consider the suggestion that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Burial Facilities

24. If she will assess the implications of the Government's recently announced policy on burial law reform for the provision of burial facilities for the people of West Lancashire and other areas where there is a lack of burial space. (143370)

We understand the importance that many families attach to having a local cemetery. Our decision to enable the reuse of old burial grounds will provide local authorities with a further option when deciding how best to meet their communities’ needs at an affordable cost.

Does the Minister believe that West Lancashire district council should refund to its council tax payers the increased cost that they incur when burying their loved ones in cemeteries in neighbouring local authority areas? This is a tax on dying. It is being imposed on the council tax payers of West Lancashire with no regard to their ability to pay, while the local authority denies its responsibilities.

I know that my hon. Friend represents the considerable strength of feeling in her constituency of West Lancashire about the fact that local people are unable to bury loved ones in their own area. They have to incur the expense of travel, and are obliged to pay a higher price when they get to a burial ground outside their area. I know that she will continue to put pressure on West Lancashire district council. Under provisions announced in my written statement earlier this month, councils have additional options available to them, but there really is no excuse for not providing the burial services needed by local people.