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Commons Chamber

Volume 463: debated on Tuesday 17 July 2007

House of Commons

Tuesday 17 July 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

private business

London Local Authorities Bill [Lords]

Read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Employment (Former Mining Communities)

1. What steps she proposes to take to improve transport services to enable better access to jobs for people in former mining communities. (149827)

Local transport authorities in former mining areas have made substantial investment to address local regeneration objectives, including enabling better access to jobs through new roads, improvements to public transport and facilities for walking and cycling.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to her new position in the Government. Is she aware of the issue of access to jobs in the Dearne valley project, which is part funded by the housing market renewal programme? It is creating greater opportunities for access to jobs and services in the Dearne and South Yorkshire area in general. Does she agree that future housing development and housing regeneration projects have to go hand in hand with greater accessibility planning at their core?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind welcome and I acknowledge his interest in the subject, which is extremely important for the South Yorkshire area. I read his speech at a conference in March, in which he set out the importance of transport to enable people to get to their jobs while also highlighting the importance of housing development. In preparing local transport plans, local authorities have to look, particularly now, at how disadvantaged people might get extra services and ensure that they plan public transport accordingly. That is exactly in line with what my hon. Friend said and it is particularly important for former mining areas like ours.

Corsham in my constituency is very much a mining community, having had 13 stone mines, most of which—bar one—have now been closed. Sadly, Dr. Beeching closed our railway station. That creates a problem for new development in the town, particularly by the Ministry of Defence, which is opening a £1 billion new centre in Corsham. We badly need a new station as so many people have to travel by car. Will the Minister join her predecessor in supporting our venture to have a new station in the town of Corsham?

I would be most interested to hear more about the plans for such a local station. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that, in planning well in advance, it is important to look at the integration of transport. Where we have railway stations, we need to ensure that they fit in with local bus transport plans and people’s driving habits, for example.

I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to her new role in the Government. I would like to raise the issue of interchangeability. We are lucky to have the Penistone line and the Denby Dale station, but unfortunately the trains tend to arrive and leave five minutes before and after the bus arrives, bringing people from Wakefield and Holmfirth. That is a critical issue for people trying to commute. We have had huge problems and the parish council has written to me about that and other bus services being taken away in my rural areas. Will my right hon. Friend look into this and try to get some sense and heads knocked together on the problem?

My hon. Friend is right. If we are to succeed in getting more people on to public transport, it is absolutely right to look at how we achieve proper integration. We want local authorities to look at all modes of travel, particularly through local transport plans, and to ensure that, if necessary, they sit down with the train companies and bus operators to put forward people’s travel patterns. Frankly, it is to everyone’s benefit if they can get that sort of planning right.

Coventry Airport

I welcome the Minister to his new role—I am quite certain that he will enjoy it—and thank him for that rather opaque statement. May I press him further? Many of my constituents are very concerned by a perceived increase in the number of aircraft; they appear particularly to be flying over the Lutterworth area much more. Many others believe that an expansion of Coventry airport in an area of high population would be unwise. Should any plans to expand the airport come before him, would he please ensure that they go out for the maximum possible consultation?

I am sure that I can give that assurance and I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind words. As he knows, Coventry airport serves a specialist role within the region with a mix of traffic. The 2003 air transport White Paper concluded that the airport could continue to perform that role “within existing constraints”. In the light of our conclusions on capacity elsewhere in the midlands and potential surface access and environmental and airspace constraints, the White Paper did not envisage that any significant further development beyond the current level of passenger throughput would be appropriate.

I agree with the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). The situation relating to Leicester and Leicestershire has become much worse, and any expansion of Coventry will have a serious effect on the environment in my constituency. The best place in which to expand services is Birmingham airport. Will the Minister bear that in mind if he makes any decisions on the matter?

I can only repeat the assurances that I gave the hon. Member for Blaby about the proposals for Coventry and our view of capacity elsewhere in the midlands. The White Paper “The Future of Air Transport”, published in 2003, sets out the strategic framework for the next 30 years. As my right hon. Friend knows, it aims to create a balance between the economic importance of aviation and environmental and other considerations.

The Secretary of State’s recent decision not to permit the development of an extended passenger terminal at Coventry airport has been welcomed by many of my constituents who live very near the airport, but one of the difficulties experienced during the lengthy planning inquiry was that Warwick district council had to bear the financial burden of dealing with the matter, in competition with an airline company with extremely deep pockets. Will the Minister consider—in general terms—ways in which in we can help local authorities to deal with substantial planning inquiries of this kind?

That is a fair point, but when planning issues such as that arise, expenditure by local authorities is always necessary so that they can make representations. I can only tell the hon. Gentleman that the Department for Communities and Local Government always listens to representations made by any local authority in respect of the annual settlement—which, as he knows, has been growing over the past 10 years, and will doubtless continue to grow—and reassure him that his local authority’s representations will be taken into account at the appropriate time.

Humber Bridge Board

Officials from my Department have had frequent and regular discussions with the Humber bridge board on a range of issues. The most recent discussions took place on 19 June, on the restructuring of the Humber bridge debt.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer, and welcome her to her new position. I appreciate that the debt has been restructured, but will she confirm that that means that the board will retain more money, which could potentially be invested in local transport initiatives such as concessions for people travelling to Hull hospitals for cancer treatment?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work that she has done in this area, not least with the rather splendid Bill that she promoted some time ago.

It is for the Humber bridge board to decide what to do with the £16.5 million or so that is available following the debt restructuring. If the board wanted to offer concessionary fares we would certainly consider its proposals, but we would have to be assured that it could meet its financial obligations. My hon. Friend might like to consider whether local health authorities would be interested in working with the board to enable people to be transported to hospital.

Local Bus Services

The draft Local Transport Bill proposes changes that will give local authorities stronger levers to improve bus services and work in partnership with bus operators. That includes making bus franchising a realistic option in areas where it is in the public interest for local authorities to take greater control of bus services.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role. Will the draft Bill allow local councillors to determine local routes for their constituents to provide the better service that is needed in local areas?

I can give my hon. Friend a firm assurance that that will be the case. It might be made possible in a number of ways, including a voluntary partnership between a local authority and a bus operator. If the authority so chose, the arrangement could be put on a statutory basis. Alternatively, quality contracts—a form of bus franchising—would enable local authorities to have much more control over bus services. Behind all that is the idea that passengers must come first, and that local authorities must seek the powers that they need in order to ensure that passengers receive the best possible service.

In investigating the furtherance of bus travel, will the Secretary of State revisit the effect on rural transport of limiting the length of bus journeys? Many rural passengers nowadays have to interrupt their journeys and change unnecessarily because of the new regulations on the length of a bus journey before drivers and buses must be changed.

I certainly will do that. The powers we propose under the draft Local Transport Bill will enable local authorities to do as they see fit by working with the bus operator companies to put in place not only routes but frequencies and to determine punctuality and potentially the fares charged. Those powers will go a long way towards making sure that passengers get the facilities that they need. Also, community transport in rural areas will become more viable as it is made easier for there to be buses of different sizes and for drivers to be hired to operate them.

I think that all Labour Members welcome the Bill’s inclusion in the draft legislative programme, but will my right hon. Friend address concerns that the process set out in the Bill for franchising bus services is too long, especially given the falling levels of bus patronage in metropolitan areas?

I understand that that is a concern, particularly in Sheffield. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will travel to Sheffield to meet people and discuss their concerns. However, I hope that my hon. Friend realises—as the local authority in Sheffield does—that our proposals will lead to the biggest shake-up in bus services for 20 years and that we are lowering the hurdle by making it much easier for local authorities to take the powers they need. I know that Sheffield is already working towards having a quality contract. We must make going down that route as easy as possible. Under the proposals, we envisage that there will be a timetable of about 14 to 20 months for a quality contract to be assured, which is similar to the length of time that a local authority would usually in any event want to spend making sure that it had got its proposals right. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will be delighted to discuss the proposals not only with my hon. Friend but with the local authority.

Will the draft Bill include a proposal for a separate traffic commissioner for Wales so that we can finally end the anomaly of the regulation of bus services in Wales being based in Birmingham? Although it is a splendid city in every respect, it is hardly an appropriate vantage point from which to make decisions on transport in Wales.

I hear the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for the return of powers to Wales, but the important point to make is that traffic commissioners must have the powers that they need to hold both bus operators and local authorities to account—and the Welsh Assembly thereto, where appropriate—in order to make sure that buses run on time and serve people well. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we will propose reforms to the traffic commissioner body. He will have to wait for the consultation exercise to be published, but I hear what he says on this matter.

The Confederation of Passenger Transport UK has boasted that it has more influence on bus policy than MPs or local government, and we know from today’s edition of The Times that it has influence in the other place. Will my right hon. Friend check the 4,000 passes to the Department for Transport and assure me that the CPT and its members do not have undue influence in that Department?

I would be delighted to speak to my hon. Friend and any other Member who has concerns about bus policy or its operation at local authority or city level. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State is travelling not only to Sheffield but around the country to meet people who have particular concerns, and I am sure that she would be happy to discuss such matters with my hon. Friend.

I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to her new Government post. If we are to accept the concept of road pricing, those areas making bids to the transport innovation fund must offer better co-ordination and planning of the bus network. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give that, if Manchester’s bid proceeds, the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive will have the powers it needs?

Of course, I will have to look at the bid from Greater Manchester when it comes to my Department for examination, but the principle is that if a local authority or a city wants to pursue road pricing, it is right that the public services, and public transport in particular, work well and in an integrated fashion. Local authorities must have the powers that they need, especially over buses, to make that possible and they must also have the funding to put in place transport that works to serve the needs of the local population.

Birmingham New Street

Network Rail and Birmingham city council have been developing a scheme for the redevelopment of the station. My Department is assessing whether it addresses future needs and represents value for money.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response. She will be aware that Arriva Trains Wales, which links mid and west Wales and Shropshire with Birmingham, has frequently had to terminate services at Wolverhampton because of lack of platform capacity at Birmingham New Street station. In view of what she has said about the discussions between Birmingham city council and Network Rail, can she confirm whether platform capacity, as opposed to the necessary improvement of surroundings, will be a part of the discussions? There is a great need for that, because many of my constituents think that they receive a lamentable service.

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. I know that there have been reliability problems with the Arriva Trains Wales service and I urge him to take up those concerns with the Welsh Assembly Government, because ultimately the Aberystwyth line is their responsibility. He mentions capacity at Birmingham New Street station, and that is an issue with which I am familiar. Clearly, capacity will be one of the major priorities of the forthcoming rail White Paper and, given the central importance of Birmingham New Street to the rail network, it will clearly be one of the issues in my mind as I go forward.

I also welcome my right hon. Friend to her new post. From the fact that this question comes from outside Birmingham, she will be aware of the importance of the regeneration of New Street station nationally and not simply to the city of Birmingham and the west midlands. She mentioned discussions: does she need any further information from any of the partners involved to convince her just how vital that project is to the country as well as to the region?

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. I know that he, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and others in the region have been championing the cause of New Street station, not just in terms of passenger capacity, which is clearly needed, but because of the regeneration potential of the plans. My Department has been liaising with Birmingham city council and challenging it to come up with plans that represent clear value for money.

We are currently in a process of iteration, and the local council still has significant work to do to prove its case. I can pledge to my hon. Friend that I will give the issue my close attention and focus especially on the value for money case, while understanding that value for money will include any potential regeneration benefits.

I welcome the right hon. Lady to her new role and wish her success in curing the nation’s transport problems. Seven years ago, in the 10-year plan, the Government promised to tackle the very bottlenecks that she has been talking about, but they persist. The real progress in reducing train congestion and increasing capacity at New Street will be secured by the £500 million station upgrade that we all expected to hear in the high level output statement, which was expected yesterday. Was the HLOS delayed because of the emerging crisis in the Underground public-private partnership or the embarrassment caused to the Government by First Great Western and TravelWatch’s performance review at the weekend? When will the Government announce something to help west midlands commuters—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is entitled only to one supplementary question, even if I get his name wrong.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post and I congratulate him on his creative efforts in his questioning. I am sorry that they were not more successful. He is right to say that we have to think about Birmingham New Street station and the capacity issues. I understand that the issues include pedestrian access as well as rail connections outside the station.

One thing that I have not mentioned to colleagues so far is that the recent award of the Cross Country franchise will, I hope, make a significant difference to reliability across the whole network, including at Birmingham New Street station. If trains on that franchise are able to run on time and carry more passengers, that will also help all other trains leaving and arriving at that station.

I should like to welcome my right hon. Friend to her new post, and I am glad that she is aware of the congestion problems in the west midlands, especially at New Street. The proposed redevelopment, whenever it takes place, will not help that problem, so will she speak to the rail operators with a view to taking some of the congestion away from the station? Tamworth is the crossroads between the main lines to the west coast and the north-east. Will she consider making it a hub station, as that would reduce people’s need to go into New Street during the reconstruction period?

I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that I plan to meet the train operating companies next week, when we will discuss their plans to tackle capacity problems at stations around the country. It has been made plain already that many passengers are forced to change at Birmingham New Street station, and that different options are needed. One of the merits of the recent award of the Cross Country franchise will be that fewer passengers will be forced to change at New Street station, but we keep such matters under constant review and they will inform the contents of the rail White Paper to be published shortly.

Rail Fare Regulation

6. What recent discussions she has had with South West Trains on the regulation of rail fares. (149832)

There have been no discussions about either the scope or the level of fares regulation. There has been some discussion about the forthcoming investment in modern smartcard ticketing, which may require fares regulation procedures to be changed.

In May this year, South West Trains hiked up prices by 20 per cent. for passengers from Winchester and Southampton who arrive in London between 10 am and 12. No such increases were introduced for people travelling from Basingstoke and Reading, where there is competition from First Great Western. What can the Minister do to prevent companies such as South West Trains from fleecing passengers on routes where there is a monopoly franchise?

I of course sympathise with those who find that their fares have gone up by a significant amount. I am sure that the hon. Lady will understand that the Government can intervene in such matters only by extending the scope of regulation. However, there would inevitably be a cost to the public purse, at a time when many more demands are being made on it, both in the rail industry and elsewhere.

I welcome the Minister to his post, not least because he provides an element of gender balance in a Department that is becoming very much a female province in this House. The hike in fares to which my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) referred is not unique to South West Trains, but it runs contrary to the original plan that the Association of Train Operating Companies would try to attract more passengers by providing a range of options for off-peak travel. Will he therefore consider looking at the model recently adopted by Transport for London? It has decided to take the revenue risk involved in running the north London line franchise, in order to get much more integrated travel and to achieve the goal of getting people to transfer from road to rail, rather than from rail to road.

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new post and point out that, having been there for 10 months, I am now the veteran Minister in the Department for Transport. The price of a regulated fare in Britain is now 2 per cent. lower in real terms than it was 10 years ago. As for innovative ways to get people on to trains, she will be aware that South West Trains has instituted the so-called Megatrain fares scheme that enables people to buy tickets at very low prices. I do not believe that we should change the current structure of the franchising system: there has been enough change in the industry over the past 10 or 15 years, and the system is delivering for passengers.

I welcome the whole ministerial team to their roles. Will the Minister tell us what representations he received from South West Trains about the impact on fares when the DFT set the franchise premium payments up to 2014? Has he made any estimation of how much fares will have to increase to fund the increased premium payments set by his Department?

In welcoming the hon. Lady to her new position as shadow Transport Secretary, I express the hope that she will not go down the cul-de-sac pursued by her predecessor in suggesting that as long as there is a public subsidy to train operating companies all is well and good but that we should never allow a premium to be paid by train operating companies back to the public purse. South West Trains made the Department aware that some off-peak, unregulated fares would have a higher than inflation increase, but even if the company had not told us that, the fact is that as the fares are unregulated we would not be in a position to change its mind. Unregulated fares do exactly what it says on the tin.

Is not the reality that the Minister and his Department are responsible for ratcheting up fares because of the ever-increasing premium payments they demand from train operating companies? South West Trains will be paying almost £250 million a year in premium payments by 2014. In total, the five highest value franchises will be paying well over £1 billion in premium payments by 2014—a more than tenfold increase. Is not the Secretary of State using the franchise system to price people off the railways to deal with the overcrowding problems that the Government have wholly failed to tackle?

The hon. Lady has clearly decided at an early stage to ignore my advice. However, as I told her predecessor, the Department for Transport at no point specifies any level of premium, or indeed any level of subsidy. If the hon. Lady is to stay in her post for any length of time, it may help her to become slightly more informed about the franchising process. I and my officials would be more than happy to meet her and talk her all the way through the process from the early points, so that she can understand exactly how a franchise is let.

Road Infrastructure (North-West)

The north-west will receive £345 million over the next three years for local authority road and public transport projects and Highways Agency major schemes. We will continue to take advice from the region on how investment should be prioritised.

Is the Minister aware that the letter from the previous Under-Secretary in her Department to me and others relating to the south-east Manchester multi-modal recommendation has created immense anger among all local authorities—Labour, Liberal and Conservative—in Cheshire, Macclesfield and Greater Manchester? It really is about time that areas such as Cheshire and Macclesfield, as well as Greater Manchester, had a fairer distribution of money for road improvements up to 2022. Will the Minister receive a delegation from me, including Members from all parties, to discuss the matter?

I have read the letter that the Under-Secretary sent to Members of Parliament in which the offer was made that a meeting would be arranged with local councils and Department for Transport officials. I believe that meeting will be on 23 July. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) has already approached me about meeting a delegation of MPs and I am more than happy to do so, but I suggest that we wait until after the meeting on Monday, in order to see what is resolved there.

I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to her new job, and I very much welcome the offer she has made to meet all Members of Parliament with an interest in the SEMMS relief road. Will she consider all the options for progressing the road, which is vital to relieving congestion on the A6 in my constituency, including building part or all of it as a toll road?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we are certainly committed to working in close collaboration with the local authorities to look at all the possible funding options. As I said, when the meeting on Monday has taken place, we should sit down and look at the various proposals. I understand her point about toll roads. I hope that we will be able to take this matter forward. As I am sure all right hon. and hon. Members are aware, the cost of the scheme has escalated—looking at some of the funding options—up to £1 billion. We have to recognise that we need to explore the different options very closely.

Is the Minister aware that the recommendations by the regional authorities have caused my constituents great anger? They mean that we have very little infrastructure investment in county roads such as the A34, which runs from Manchester and is a major commuter road south through Congleton to Stoke-on-Trent. When the long-overdue Alderley Edge bypass is completed, that will merely decant vast amounts of traffic into areas in and around the town of Congleton. When are we going to get a bypass, and when will some money be spent in rural areas, rather than just in the large metropolitan areas?

It is important to recognise that the north-west region has a 10-year regional funding allocation of £1.245 billion, and that local transport funding has doubled in the past seven years. However, it is also important to recognise that the Department takes advice from the region about the region’s priorities, which is the right approach. We will continue discussions, but it is important to remember that that is the principle on which we work.

The Minister will be aware that the north-west has enjoyed unprecedented growth over the past 10 years, yet still lags behind the national average. One of the reasons for that is our poor road infrastructure. May I invite the Minister to meet the Northwest Development Agency and see all the plans that we have in the north-west, and—I hope—put some more money into our infrastructure, so that we can have economic growth at the same level as the rest of the country?

My hon. Friend is right to say that transport infrastructure is an important part of economic growth, particularly at the regional level. I thank him for his kind invitation. I would be more than happy to meet him, and perhaps the regional development agency, to discuss some of the issues that are clearly of such great interest to Members.

Road Safety

8. What plans she has for measures to reduce the number and severity of injuries arising from collisions between vehicles and pedestrians. (149834)

The Government, local authorities and road safety organisations are working to reduce pedestrian casualties through education, engineering and enforcement. From October 2005, passenger cars and light vans are required to provide protection for pedestrians in their design. This is the first legislation of its kind. A second stage of requirements will apply from 2010.

The Government are to be congratulated on their part in the recent ban on the manufacture and sale of bull bars—what the Americans call killer grilles—the macho fashion accessories that concentrate and multiply the force of an accident at the level of a child’s head and vital organs. However, being a pedestrian is still twice as dangerous as travelling in a car. Have the Government any more plans to restrict the use of very heavy vehicles, particularly those with non-flexible fronts?

May I return the compliment and congratulate my hon. Friend on the campaigning he has done on this issue over a considerable time? The Government are serious about improving the safety of pedestrians and we made a significant contribution to the development of the European legislation that he mentioned, including the personal protection directive of 2003, the frontal protection systems directive of 2005, and the second phase of the personal protection directive of 2003, which will be introduced in 2010. My hon. Friend has contributed to ensuring that from 25 May 2007, new vehicles have had to be fitted with a frontal protection system approved under the directive, and that from the same date, any frontal protection system offered for sale as an accessory must be approved and carry an approval mark. We will continue to monitor these issues.

Does the Minister agree that one of the most effective ways of reducing the number and severity of injuries is to reduce the default speed limit on lit urban roads to 20 mph?

That is an issue for local authorities to decide. We have given them the power to introduce reduced speed limits in areas where that is appropriate. The hon. Gentleman is well aware that the Government set out their road safety strategy in 2000 and indicated their targets for reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured by 2010, so it is lower than the average figures for 1994 to 1998. We are well on our way to meeting those targets, but we should not be complacent, because there are some differences in scale. We need to make sure that we press for a reduction in that number, and the speed restrictions that the hon. Gentleman requests can certainly play a part in our campaign.

Port Security

My Department works with the ports industry in implementing the international ship and port facility security code, which came into force in 2004. The code introduced new requirements, under which port facilities and ships must work to security plans, which set out the response measures that are to be taken in normal, heightened and exceptional security situations.

I am very interested in the right hon. Lady’s response. Over the past few years, I have made it my business to visit a number of ports and consider their security. When I went to the extremely vulnerable port of Holyhead, I was particularly surprised to find that there were no Border and Immigration Agency or customs and excise officers present, and special branch officers were having to deputise for both. Why was that?

I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done on this subject. I know that he is interested not just in port security, but in the security of our borders more generally, and it is right for me to acknowledge that work in the House. I hope that he will acknowledge that since 2004 security at ports has improved significantly. We monitor security at ports, but they are also independently audited by the EU. Since its last audit, it has said that results have been positive. However, if the hon. Gentleman says that it was not evident what was being done at a particular port, I will take it upon myself to go and examine the situation, or to make sure that it is examined. I will report back to him in writing with my findings.

Is it not time that this country unified not only Customs and Excise, but the police forces responsible for aviation and those responsible for ports, and created a proper security system, capable of resisting the real threats posed to this country by terrorism?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. It is absolutely right that we work together across Government to protect our borders in the most effective way possible. She will have followed closely the latest reorganisation of the Home Office, which means that it can concentrate on counter-terrorism. My Department, which has responsibility for transport, co-operates extremely closely with Home Office officials. On the front line, under the border management programme, we are making sure that the police, the Border and Immigration Agency, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and UKvisas work together to share information appropriately, and take action in specific locations as required. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that that is a serious step forward in making sure that our borders are secure, because protecting our citizens must be one of the most fundamental duties of any Government.

The Government are in denial on that point, and the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) are absolutely correct. Is Project Cyclamen now working in all our container ports 24 hours a day? If not, why not?

I have already set out how the security of our ports is enforced and audited, and the results are broadly positive. Clearly, the extent of the security measures taken at any port will depend on the threat level, and it will be determined accordingly—

As my hon. Friend has particularly mentioned Project Cyclamen, I will establish what the state of play is on that.

Duchy of Lancaster

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Social Exclusion (Adults)

Since 1997 social exclusion has fallen, but we need to do more, so we plan to tackle it through a focus on particular groups of people, such as ex-prisoners and those with mental health problems. Just as through “Every child matters” we have seen better local co-ordination for children’s services, so too through our work we will seek better local co-ordination for adults to tackle people’s multiple and complex needs.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, and I welcome him to his new Department and his well-deserved promotion. As he knows, I worked in psychiatry, and people with mental illness are extremely difficult to place in the workplace, not least because of the prejudice of some employers. Can he reassure me that he will co-ordinate work through all Government agencies and the CBI to ensure that we get those people back in the workplace, which is not only good for their self-esteem, but is therapeutic, too?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the past 10 years, our recognition of the role of mental health problems in society and the extent to which they affect employment and a range of other issues has increased a great deal. He is right, too, to say that we need to do more work with employers, and that is the focus of the review under way as part of the comprehensive spending review. As part of our employment programmes—this was recently emphasised in the pathways to work programme—we need to ensure that when people on incapacity benefit come to us with a set of problems their mental health problems are recognised. That needs to happen across the board if we are to tackle the problems that my hon. Friend identified.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that at the last reckoning, no fewer than 2,063 young adults in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Milton Keynes suffered social exclusion by virtue of the fact that they were not in education, employment or training? Does he share my particular concern that 1,000 of those 2,063 people were in that position because of untreated speech, language and communication impairments? Will he give an undertaking to work across government to improve massively the quality and earliness of intervention, so that many of the problems that manifest themselves at a later stage, to such disadvantage to our society, can be avoided?

The hon. Gentleman makes his point extremely eloquently, and I know that he takes a personal interest in those issues. He is absolutely right about the importance of treating and addressing special needs issues early. If those needs are not addressed early—he raised the issue of individuals who are not in education, employment or training—they are not solved, and they come back to haunt those people for the rest of their lives. I will endeavour to work across government on those issues, and I am happy, too, to meet him to talk further about those and other issues.

In welcoming my right hon. Friend to his new position, may I ask whether he has seen the proposal from the Opposition about a transferable tax allowance, and—[Interruption.]

Order. It is not for the Minister to discuss the Opposition’s policies. If the hon. Lady had phrased her question better, she might have got away with it.

I congratulate the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and his colleagues on their appointments, and I look forward to many discussions at the Dispatch Box. The new Prime Minister said in the 1990s:

“We will reverse the gap between rich and poor that has affected our society.”

After 10 years in which the right hon. Gentleman had unparalleled powers as Chancellor of the Exchequer, with huge parliamentary majorities, is the Minister proud that today’s report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that

“Britain is moving back towards levels of inequality in wealth and poverty last seen more than 40 years ago”?

Is not what is needed the sort of rigorous analysis undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) in the social justice report last week?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome. Over the past two years, he has tried to make the Conservative party address seriously the issues of social exclusion and social justice. That is an uphill struggle, so he is to be congratulated. On his specific question about inequality—yes, it is a problem in our society, and we should all read and acknowledge the Rowntree report. I would point out, however, that its author, Danny Dorling, said today of the “poorest of the poor” that

“that group had actually reduced in size in the last ten years and it also became less geographically concentrated. And that almost certainly is due to Government policies”.

The hon. Gentleman is right: inequality is a big challenge that we face in our society, but I believe that on the basis of long-term investment—Sure Start and other things that we are doing—we will start to tackle it, and we should all acknowledge that. Finally, a transferable tax allowance will not help to tackle those issues, which is why the Labour party will not adopt that proposal.

Community and Voluntary Organisations

A sustainable local voluntary sector is essential for vibrant communities. The Office of the Third Sector is introducing a new £80 million programme of small grants to support small community and voluntary organisations, and the community assets fund, with an additional £30 million, will make it easier for community groups to take on the management or ownership of assets.

Many small community and voluntary organisations in my constituency would benefit from, for example, an accountancy service that could do the books of several organisations, or from training to help them when they sit on partnership boards, so I welcome the Government’s recognition of that need through the funding that they have given to Capacitybuilders, but I am concerned that the funding does not always reach a very local level. Will my hon. Friend ensure that any future funding for building capacity benefits small organisations and helps them to develop the services that they need at local level?

First, I commend my hon. Friend for the work that she does in championing the voluntary sector in her constituency. She is right. The £33 million ChangeUp funding programme, which funds local infrastructure organisations, allocates those funds. Allocations are made by an independent body called Capacitybuilders, and it is local consortiums that identify the local priorities. That is under review, and I will draw my hon. Friend’s concerns to their attention. I emphasise that we want to get financial help to the very small volunteer-led community groups as well, and the £80 million over four years in the new small grants programme will start to be allocated this financial year. Grants, from £250 up to £5,000, will be allocated to the smallest front-line community groups that make such a difference to the lives of our constituents.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating Voluntary Action Swindon on its 75th anniversary? It is good to hear what he said about small organisations. Will he give his full consideration to the request from the chief executive, Chris Lau, that the bidding process be made as simple as possible for small charities, which want and deserve access equal to that of larger charities to commissioning funds and the system?

Many congratulations to Voluntary Action Swindon: 75 years must be close to a track record in this country! My hon. Friend is right to highlight that concern, which is one reason why we have created a national programme for third sector commissioning. This is a training programme for some 2,000 staff who commission public services across the country; half of them will be from local councils. The purpose is to spread best practice in commissioning arrangements, which will deliver better results for third sector providers and, most importantly of all, for the people whom those third sector organisations serve.

Does the Minister accept that small community organisations face two problems? One is the tendency of funding agencies to want to fund projects rather than providing core funding, so the key officials and employees who work for those small organisations are not funded. The other is the difficulty that small organisations have with often complex and time-consuming form filling, which is not guaranteed to provide any funding at the end of the process. What are the Government doing about those two issues?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight those concerns, which have been brought to our attention. That is why we have undertaken the third sector review. We will shortly publish our report on the proposals there. Measures such as three-year funding, for example, will be of great benefit to many voluntary and community groups, ensuring that instead of annual bidding rounds, three-year funding grants and contracts are entered into. That gives local organisations some security, and also means that they do not need to go through the bureaucracy of completing application forms every year. We can be pleased with the measures that the Government have taken. There is always more that can be done, but I hope that the third sector will see the benefits in the very near future.

The Minister will know that small community organisations rely heavily on volunteers. He will also know that yesterday Capacitybuilders, an organisation in receipt of £150 million of taxpayers’ funds, which is a Government agency, has scrapped its separate dedicated programme to encourage and help voluntary organisations. Does the Minister approve of that decision, has he consulted the new volunteering tsar, Baroness Neuberger, and does it have her support?

The hon. Gentleman has got his facts wrong. Capacitybuilders has done no such thing as scrapping that programme, but is looking at ways to organise itself better. It is an independent body making decisions to ensure that it can serve and meet the needs of organisations and those who recruit and deploy volunteers to best effect. I am delighted to say that in another place Baroness Neuberger is leading the Government’s work on ensuring that we can engage volunteers in public services, not only for the benefit of users of those services but for the benefits that undertaking voluntary activity can have for people who work in those public services. I am greatly looking forward to her work and her energy in championing that cause.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the chaos caused in my constituency when Tory-controlled Dudley council cut all funding to youth organisations. I am glad to say that it has seen the error of its ways, and the announcement of further funding is excellent. However, continuity of funding is important. Will my hon. Friend agree to come to visit two organisations, the What? Centre and KIDS Orchard Partnership, which now have service level agreements but are worried about the continuity of their funding?

My hon. Friend, too, champions the voluntary sector loud and clear in her constituency, and it is great that she is drawing my attention to two successful projects in which she has taken a personal interest. I would be delighted to come to her constituency when I can, to see the great work that they do. She is absolutely right to say that local voluntary organisations rely on continuity of funding. That is not helped when a political party makes one set of announcements supporting the voluntary sector but then, at local level, councillors in that same political party decide to cut budgets to try to deliver public services on the cheap. That is something that Labour Members reject—and I only hope that the same signal will go out loud and clear from the Conservative Benches.

Early Years Intervention

21. What steps he plans to take to promote early intervention in support of social exclusion policy; and if he will make a statement. (149814)

Early intervention is key to tackling social exclusion and is a guiding principle for the social exclusion action plan, which proposes a range of ways to offer help and support during a child’s early years, such as the family nurse partnership pilot schemes.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her new post. Could she tell the House what she is doing to ensure that the very successful Sure Start programmes reach out to the families who are most socially excluded but may well not attend a Sure Start centre, so that those parents and their children are supported and the children are given the best possible start in life?

My hon. Friend is correct to raise that point. I thank her for her kind comments to me in my new role. She is a tremendous supporter of Sure Start, which is indeed about making life better for children, families and communities. However, we know that we could do more. That is why I welcome the recently published families at risk review, which talks about how public services can be better organised so that we can better service the small but significant number of families whose problems cannot be dealt with in isolation. I look forward to my hon. Friend’s support in doing that.

Has the Minister had discussions with Ministers from the Department for Children, Schools and Families to see how resources can be channelled through schools that have been proactive in this respect, such as George Pindar community school in Eastfield, which is tackling the problem of social exclusion on a whole-family basis?

The school that the hon. Gentleman mentions is a clear example of the kind of good work that we want to see. I have heard the Department for Children, Schools and Families referred to as the “Every child matters” Department. That explains the importance of our work in ensuring that every child, no matter what their background or circumstances, will have support to be healthy and safe and to prosper. Schools are absolutely integral to that.

Royal Prerogative

22. To what extent he expects his responsibilities to the Queen for the general administration of the Duchy of Lancaster to be affected by the proposed changes to the royal prerogative. (149815)

The reform of the royal prerogative is designed to make the Executive more accountable to Parliament in important decisions such as going to war and making treaties. Since the appointment of a Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster raises no such issues, we do not currently propose change in this area.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that courteous and informative response, but I was wondering whether he is the Minister for the Cabinet Office or the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. If it is the latter, why, at the start of the 21st century, do we require a Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster? If it is the former, will the right hon. Gentleman please ensure that the Table Office has a list of his responsibilities, and those of other Ministers, so that I and other colleagues do not have to dream up questions on the chancellorship and the royal prerogative for his Question Time?

The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that I have both titles: Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. As to his suggested reform of the role of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, it is a personal prerogative of Her Majesty, but I can pass on his representations to the Prime Minister. My responsibilities cover the span of those of the Cabinet Office, such as social exclusion, the third sector, civil service reform, e-government and a range of other matters. As for his question about the Table Office, I am sure that that is not within my area of responsibility.

Third Sector

23. What assessment he has made of recent progress towards meeting the Government's objectives for joint working with the third sector. (149816)

The third sector and the Government are working more effectively than ever before on a range of shared interests, including creating stronger communities, better public services, a stronger social enterprise sector and a more active civil society. Government funding to the sector has more than doubled since 1997 from £5 billion to £10 billion.

Many third sector organisations in my constituency complain that insecurity about funding is impeding their ability to deliver cost-effective, high-quality public services. They welcome the funds for capacity building and pump-priming, but often their funds run out before they have delivered what they want to achieve. What plans does my hon. Friend have to move away from short-term funding to more long-term service level agreements?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the fact that Portsmouth was a pathfinder in looking at the kind of barriers that confront voluntary organisations, and in developing an action plan to overcome them. That way of working is now being rolled out throughout the south-east, so I congratulate Portsmouth on that. My hon. Friend puts her finger on an important issue concerning duration of funding. The present Prime Minister made a specific commitment in the 2006 pre-Budget report to ensure that three-year funding will become the norm rather than the exception for voluntary organisations. I am working closely with my ministerial colleagues throughout the Government to ensure that that is the case at every level—national, regional and local.

I have a new Sure Start centre and two new children’s centres—[Hon. Members: “Good news!”] That is good news, but the problem lies with the funding. It has been withdrawn from the voluntary organisation that used to provide the very services that are now being provided by Sure Start and the children’s centre. Services have closed down and been switched from voluntary status to the state. Is that what the Government intended?

I guess that what the Government did not intend, when they gave extra funding to support children and families, was that the local Conservative county council in Northamptonshire would then go ahead and cut services for young people there.

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that although his party’s Front Benchers may say one thing about support for the third sector, I suggest that he goes back to the Conservative leadership of his local council to ensure that it delivers better services to support the third sector in his area.

Economic Reform

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on local and regional economic reform in England. The Government are today publishing the conclusions of the review of sub-national economic development and regeneration, launched in the 2006 Budget as groundwork for this year’s comprehensive spending review. In this report, we set out the compelling case for reform to give local authorities and communities greater responsibility and opportunity to boost economic growth in their area; to bring consultation and planning for jobs, homes, investment and the environment closer together at both local and regional levels; and to strengthen public scrutiny and accountability of regional plans and the work of regional development agencies, both in the region and in this House.

This report builds on substantial work since 1997 to devolve economic decision making to regions and local authorities. It is informed by Sir Michael Lyons’ comprehensive review, in which he underlined the important economic role of local authorities as part of defining and delivering a vision for the places that they serve. It is also informed by Kate Barker’s recommendations to bring together planning for homes and the environment with planning for economic growth.

The review takes reform a stage further, giving local authorities stronger incentives and greater powers to support economic growth. As the constitutional Green Paper, which the Prime Minister launched a fortnight ago, said, the sub-national review

“will signal a shift of focus to local authorities, open up the possibility of powerful city regions and give a clearer role for the regions of England”.

The report also reflects the Prime Minister’s vision of a modern democracy, in which power is exercised at the lowest level, and those with power are held more clearly to account.

Moreover, the reforms are essential as global economic and technological change places an increasing premium on skills, innovation and enterprise. That means that our Government’s commitment to increase growth in all regions, reduce regional disparities and deliver neighbourhood renewal will, in future, be all the more challenging and important. It means that further freedoms and devolved decision making are required for regions and local areas: first, to respond to rapid economic change; secondly, to deal with persistent local deprivation or poor economic performance, and thirdly, to enable all places to develop to their fullest potential.

Our year-long review has been very open—we have visited every region and consulted more than 300 stakeholders at all levels. I can confirm our main conclusions to the House this afternoon. First, to give local authorities greater powers, flexibilities and incentives, we will consult on creating a focused statutory economic duty for local councils; put economic development and neighbourhood renewal at the heart of the new local government performance framework; and consider options for supplementary business rates, working closely with business, local government and other local experts. We will require regional development agencies to delegate funding to local authorities and sub-regions whenever possible so that they play a more strategic role, and we will move funding for most 14 to19-year-olds’ education and skills to local authorities from the Learning and Skills Council, as announced in the recent machinery of government changes.

Let me deal with sub-regions. To reinforce our cities and larger towns as the engines of economic growth in their areas and to recognise that labour, housing, retail and other markets often do not correspond to council boundaries, we will allow local authorities that work together in sub-regions to strengthen management of transport; develop proposals for multi-area agreements to encourage groups of local authorities to agree collective targets and pooled budgets for economic development priorities; and work with interested city and sub-regions on scope for statutory sub-regional arrangements, which could allow greater devolution of national and regional economic functions.

To strengthen, simplify and improve scrutiny of the necessary strategic role of regions, we will combine the regional economic strategy and regional spatial strategy into a single integrated regional strategy. Following consultation, we will bring together the economic, social and environmental objectives for each region and charge RDAs with executive responsibility to prepare the single regional strategy on behalf of the region. In doing so, they will have a duty to consult widely. They will work closely with local authorities and the first step will be for local authorities to set out a vision for the sustainable development of their area. Regional assemblies in their current form will no longer exist.

The spatial and planning aspects of the strategy will continue to form the regional tier of the statutory development plan, which will remain subject to testing through independent examination in public and will be issued as a statutory document as it is currently. We will strengthen the scrutiny and accountability of RDAs, with the House's new regional Select Committees holding RDAs and others to account in Parliament and with local authority leaders holding the RDA to account in the region and approving the regional strategy. We will consult on how best to implement that.

Finally, at the centre, to improve support and reduce restrictions from central Government we will give the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform single-lead responsibility across Government for performance management of the RDAs and lead responsibility for the regional economic public service agreement; simplify the targets RDAs must meet; and appoint a Minister for each of the regions—we have already done this—to provide a sense of strategic direction to their region and to give citizens a voice at the centre of Government.

The report sets out the principles and direction for future policy and the consultation that we will undertake on our reforms. Important Government announcements will follow: implementing the Leitch report, the housing Green Paper and the welfare reform Green Paper and, in the autumn, the comprehensive spending review. My statement this afternoon is the start of further reform, not the final word. I commend the report to the House.

I thank the Minister for his courtesy in allowing me early sight of the statement and of the sub-national economic development and regeneration review.

It is clear that the Minister comes here not to praise the former Deputy Prime Minister, but to bury him. The regional assemblies were the apple of the eye of the former Deputy Prime Minister—now little is left of the old regime but rubble, broken promises and chaos. Once the people of the north-east rejected regional government by referendum, the writing was on the wall for the assemblies.

Will the Minister confirm the words of the Prime Minister’s official spokesman this morning that sub-national government was

“just another word for regional government”?

This is a rebranding exercise masquerading as localism. The key tests are these: are the decisions taken locally and are the decision makers democratically accountable to local people?

On page 95, the review makes it clear that RDAs will become the regional planning bodies in place of the regional assemblies. The regional assemblies are unelected, unaccountable and unwanted and we will not mourn their passing. However, is not their abolition just a game of musical chairs, passing their functions from one distant regional quango to another?

We welcome the admission that Labour’s tiers of regional red tape are a hindrance to development and regeneration, with the farce of the regional spatial strategies contradicting the regional economic strategies. The RDAs are already failing to deliver on their existing responsibilities, as both the National Audit Office and the Institute of Directors have warned. Yet loading the RDAs with even more responsibility is hardly going to improve the quality of support that local businesses receive.

On page 94, the review asserts that the regional assemblies are not providing a strong voice for their region. Is not the reality that these unloved institutions have ceased to be the Government’s poodle because they stood up for local communities and local people? Now that the regional assemblies are criticising the lack of infrastructure and sustainability in the Government’s building plans, Ministers are seeking to sideline their opposition. The Government’s control freaks’ response is to abolish them and to hand their powers to a super-quango—rather than improving co-ordination, the different tiers of regional bureaucracy have caused confusion.

The regional spatial plans of the regional assemblies contradict the regional economic strategies of the regional development agencies—so much for joined-up government. If the Government wish to speed up the planning system, should the first step not be to scrap the quagmire of regional planning? How do the new regional economic growth initiatives outlined on page 93 square with protecting the countryside, planning against flooding, reducing carbon emissions and improving quality of life? Is not the environment now just a passing fashion for the Government? I fear that the RDAs now have England’s green belt in their sights.

The review concedes that there are too many funding streams. Indeed, there are 50 different, fragmented funding streams for social exclusion, housing and regeneration. How many will remain after this announcement? Has Labour not just created a baffling array of conflicting, confusing and inconsistent quangos, grants and agencies? Even the Government’s friend, Lord Rogers, has slammed the overlapping regeneration schemes as diluting effectiveness and reducing the vision of an urban renaissance to “mediocrity”.

We are, of course, receptive to new powers for local councils to fund infrastructure and transport and to promote economic development. Will the Minister guarantee that any additional revenue from a supplementary rate will not be taken into account in central Government grant allocations? Why are local firms not being given a direct democratic vote on any supplementary rate? How high will a supplementary rate go? Will it be 4p on the multiplier or even more? If local businesses can vote on higher rates in a business improvement district, why can they not be given a vote on a supplementary rate? Does the move not risk becoming a back-door way to hike up business rates?

Good man.

Is the measure not just a stealthy means for the Government to pass the buck of providing infrastructure from the Exchequer to the local taxpayer? Is the move not just higher taxation without any representation?

Month after month since the 2004 “no” vote in the regional assemblies, more and more power has been transferred to expensive and distant regional pen-pushers and politicians. Labour has ignored the voice of the people. Regional government agencies, regional development agencies, regional planning bodies and regional Ministers are all about imposing the will of Whitehall on local communities. Much of the analysis in the report is absolutely correct—it is a catalogue of failure. The problem is that it proposes to reinforce failure with more failure. It risks creating a regional tyranny of governance with no mandate, no legitimacy and no accountability. Only our party will dismantle the regional state, restore power to local communities and make government once more accountable to the people.

I am slightly disappointed by the hon. Gentleman’s response, but perhaps I should not be surprised. I would urge him and his hon. Friends to read the report rather than simply rehearse their soundbites. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) has been one of the strongest and staunchest advocates of regional devolution and of giving greater powers to local authorities. He was one of the architects of our regional economic policy and my announcement this afternoon and the report take significant steps further in that.

The hon. Gentleman really must make up his mind on regional assemblies. Five days ago he said:

“The regional assemblies are unelected, unaccountable and unwanted.”

Four days ago, and again this afternoon, he said that regional assemblies had stood up for local people and that that was why we are abolishing them, and that:

“The Government’s move is expected since many of the regional assemblies are criticising the lack of infrastructure and sustainability in its building plans, and Labour wishes to sideline this opposition.”

Nothing could be further from the truth and, as I have tried to explain, our plans will mean that, for the first time, we are able to bring together the important planning functions within the regions and local areas on jobs, homes, infrastructure and protection of the environment. We will be able to do so better than before and better than through two separate processes. Council leaders will have a stronger role in the new system, not a weaker one—much more so, in fact, than they did through the regional assemblies.

Let me make it clear that we are committed to ensuring that there is strong local authority oversight of housing and planning. The hon. Gentleman’s party called for a stronger role for local authorities, and we are delivering that in the plans that I have announced this afternoon. His party also called for simplified arrangements in the regional and local areas, and we have announced such proposals this afternoon.

We have begun to consider options for supplementary business rates, working with business, local government and other experts. We shall continue with that work and report later in the year. We shall also ensure that there is full and close accountability to business in any of the options that we consider.

I welcome the general approach of the Minister’s statement in bringing together economic planning with housing, employment and spatial strategies. I want to ask him a specific question, however, about the proposals for the accountability of RDAs. He appears to be proposing accountability of the regional Committees to Parliament, and also, separately, to council leaders through some other, unspecified, mechanism. Will he consider the introduction of a hybrid committee to bring together MPs from the region and local authority leaders to hold the RDA accountable?

I applaud my hon. Friend’s interest in this area and the work that she does as Chair of the departmental Select Committee. The principle that we are planning to put in place is that, at regional level, the performance of the RDA in preparing the single regional strategy and in delivering its part of the strategy, as well as the content of the strategy itself, should be subject to greater scrutiny in the region and in Parliament. In the region, that should be conducted by local authority leaders, who will be consulted and charged with scrutinising the preparation of the regional strategy. For the first time, they will also be charged with the role of approving the strategy. In that way, without an elected regional assembly, we shall be able to reinforce public accountability and the democratic oversight of this important work that must be carried out at regional level.

I thank the Minister for providing advance copies of his statement and his report, although to read the latter in the given time would have required a reading speed of two pages per minute, so if I have missed any of its subtle nuances, I apologise to him.

We do not share the phobic hatred of all things regional expressed by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). There are aspects of the statement and the report that we welcome, particularly the recognition that it is important to re-empower local authorities if we are to deliver strongly on the economy and other important features for our local communities. We very much appreciate the intention to encourage co-operation between local authorities, allowing them to take up additional powers devolved from the regions and, we hope, from central Government. It is also good news that there is at least an intention to bring some of the thousands of quangos—including the Learning and Skills Council budget, the Highways Agency and Jobcentre Plus, with which many Members have recently had difficulties—back under local democratic control.

There are also aspects that cause real concern, however. There is nothing substantial in the document or the statement about environmental sustainability; it is all about growth and expansion. For example, I notice that a regional economic public service agreement is to be signed off by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, yet there is no regional sustainability agreement to be signed off by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or agreed with central Government. Will the Minister therefore undertake to add environmental sustainability as a key objective of any regional policy reform?

I also note that the regional Ministers will

“provide a sense of strategic direction for their region”.

We could put that another way and say that this will involve a totally top-down process. Will the Minister explain how such a Minister—perhaps the Minister for the North West or, even more to the point, the Minister for London—will form a view about what the strategic direction for the region should be? Will he take his cue from the Secretary of State, from the regional development agency, from local authority leaders or just off the top of his head? The Minister may well feel that the loss of the regional assemblies is not a great one, but surely he would agree that any sense of strategic direction should come from the grass roots, from local communities and local authorities, rather than being imposed on high through ministerial edict.

Reference is made to moving towards a single integrated regional strategy. We have some difficulty understanding precisely what the Minister has in mind, so perhaps he can provide further explanation. Surely there has to be a diversity of strategies for different regions, and, within regions, the strategies need to be flexible enough to take account of the differences between the centre of Manchester, Carlisle and rural Cheshire. How, indeed, will a single integrated regional strategy apply to the region of London, in particular?

To summarise our view, we see this as a severe case of top-down, economic-growth-centred thinking that is some 30 years out of date, with the environment forgotten, democracy overridden and diversity scorned.

I was encouraged by the hon. Gentleman’s early remarks, but somewhat taken aback by the latter ones—especially as I consulted a Lib-Dem policy document published a week ago today, which states:

“We would devolve real power back down to communities and local councils, bring quangos under democratic control and reduce central bureaucracy”.

Perhaps I should have borrowed those words and incorporated them directly into my statement, because that is precisely what our plans are designed to achieve.

Everyone in every constituency and in every local authority area is concerned about more jobs and more homes, particularly for young people, as well as about taking proper account of the local environment and finding ways up front to fund the infrastructure necessary to support such growth and prosperity for the future. It is by bringing plans for those functions together that we stand the greatest chance of achieving that.

On the environment, let me remind the hon. Gentleman that regional development agencies, which seemed to be the focus of his concern, operate under the legislation that set them up in the first place. They are under a statutory responsibility to pursue sustainable development in the regions. As part of the new arrangements, local authorities will take the first step in the preparation of the new single regional strategy. As I explained earlier, that first step will be to prepare, for their area, their vision of future sustainable development, taking strong account of the needs, pressures and concerns of the environment.

On the question of Ministers, may I gently explain to the hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister has appointed some first-rate female as well as male regional Ministers, so it is not just a male preserve? If I know anything about my good friends and colleagues who are now the regional Ministers, it is that they will not take their cue from anyone in particular. They will consult and listen carefully, but they will come to their own views and make their own contributions to the debate about what is best for their regions.

Finally, to be as clear as possible, the proposals set out in this afternoon’s review do not apply to London, which has its own arrangements on economic policy planning and its own arrangements for democratic control. The regional strategies are, of course, precisely that: they are strategies for the region. If the hon. Gentleman looked into existing regional economic development strategies, he would find that in many cases they place at their centre the cities and sub-regions that are driving economic growth and prosperity within the wider region, creating new jobs and bringing in new investment. That is precisely what this afternoon’s proposals are designed to reinforce.

I hope my hon. Friend recognises that some of us feel that the establishment of regional Select Committees is overdue and welcome this commitment to them, but will the Government ensure that they have real teeth? Will they ensure that the Committees have power to oversee the activities of regional development agencies and all the other quangos, and that Government Departments and agencies are answerable to each of them? If we are going to do this, we must give the Committees teeth and power and make the system effective.

As the Prime Minister said two weeks ago, it is important to ensure that those who hold power are called clearly to account. The House has a much greater potential to play a strong role in doing just that at regional level.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for the principle of the proposed reinforced scrutiny and accountability arrangements, but I should tell him that the setting up of regional Select Committees, their remit and the way in which they conduct their inquiries are a matter for the House. No doubt he will play a big part in discussions of those matters over the next few weeks, but it is not for me, as a Minister, to pass direct judgment.

If the newly empowered RDAs are to be accountable to council leaders in the region, what thoughts has the Minister had about appointments to them? At present it is common practice for council leaders to apply for vacancies on RDAs. Is there not a conflict of interest, in that those who are to scrutinise and hold to account see such vacancies as job opportunities?

Our report does not propose any changes to the process of appointments to RDA boards, which are conducted entirely in line with the established code of practice for public appointments. However, the hon. Lady makes a fair point and an interesting suggestion. In future it will be for Select Committees and those who wish to hold RDAs firmly to account in the regions to consider how they might contribute to, influence or in other ways become involved in the process of appointments to RDA boards.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s statement. The changes he has announced have the potential to provide a stimulus to encourage renewed regional co-ordination and activity, and will be welcomed in the north-east if they provide the clarity and the new vision that they promise.

The regional assemblies brought together local government, business, voluntary organisations and trade unions. Is my hon. Friend satisfied that the new structure he has announced will preserve the best of that inclusiveness, while also improving accountability and effectiveness at regional level? What powers will localities have over bodies such as the Highways Agency?

I am satisfied that the Government have set out the right principles and the right direction for the reforms that are necessary to ensure that the work of RDAs and other agencies at regional level is held to account to a greater extent both in the House and in the regions. If I were not, I would not have announced them today. We are ready to consult on precisely how best to implement the arrangements, and will do so later in the year.

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, the appropriate arrangements for local authority leaders in particular to exercise their role in scrutinising RDAs’ work and approving regional strategies in his area will differ from those in the south-east, where there are 74 separate councils. It clearly makes sense to identify, through detailed discussion and consultation, the arrangements that best suit the circumstances of each region.

The Minister delivered his statement with such pathos that I thought we would hear the theme music from “Schindler’s List” at any moment. I agree with him that city regions are very important, and they may well be the bit of regional geometry that is coming, but why is he so reluctant to endow them with effective powers? There is still a kaleidoscope of delegated responsibilities and conferred duties. Would it not make sense simply to ask city regions rather than the RDAs to deal with such matters as skills and economic development, so that they have real meaning?

If the Minister wants the system to work in Yorkshire, will he note that the parts of north Yorkshire that used to be in the West Riding and wish to be part of a city region should not be imprisoned in a unitary North Yorkshire council, and thus incapable of performing their duties and meeting their responsibilities?

I shall take the right hon. Gentleman’s last point as a late submission or representation on the local government restructuring that I am currently considering.

During the review, we were urged in some quarters to impose new formal arrangements in sub-regions. We took the view that the best approach was for there to be greater devolution of powers and freedoms to local authorities, and that they should collaborate where their city or region requires an economic effort that goes beyond their city council or borough council boundaries. We want to encourage such collaboration. Where that takes place, there should be opportunities for greater delegation of powers and management control in respect of transport—and also in respect of economic development, planning, housing and some of the 14-to-19 skills plans. If local authorities together wish to move to statutory arrangements—without pressure or prescription from central Government, because it must be their decision to do so—that will open the door for us to consider devolving more powers from national Departments and national agencies and to give sub-regions greater certainty and longer term funding for some of the transport functions that can best be delivered at that level.

First, may I welcome this timely statement? The regional development agencies were set up a decade ago—in 1997-98—and some of the Opposition’s arguments then are the same as those voiced against my hon. Friend today. The RDAs addressed an economic deficit that existed at that time; we inherited a dysfunctional regional policy in 1997, and the RDAs have addressed that. There is now a democratic deficit, and the report and today’s statement start to address that through the establishment of Select Committees and through empowering local authorities to play a proactive role. Therefore, I welcome that report and I hope that my hon. Friend will take no account of what the Opposition say. In the 1990s, the electors of Bradford chucked out the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles); he holds no sway with local authorities and I suggest that my hon. Friend continues in the direction that he mapped out in his statement.

Alongside my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) was perhaps the principal architect of early moves to devolve economic policy making to the regions. Indeed, he steered through this House the legislation that set up the regional development agencies. He played an important role during his years in government, and I am glad that he welcomes the further moves that I have announced to devolve more to the regions and local authority areas. If we are able to bring together in a single regional strategy those policies that are currently produced by two different processes and two bodies, often using different bases of information and analysis, we will have the basis for a strong regional vision and strategy that allows us to address at the one and the same time policies on jobs, homes, investment in infrastructure and protection of the environment.

We will also have the basis for achieving what my right hon. Friend continues to want: stronger partnerships at regional and local level and a better alignment of central Government and departmental spending that can help economic development and regeneration through the learning and skills councils, Jobcentre Plus, the new homes agency, the Highways Agency and also the Environment Agency.

Why in a relatively small country such as England, where we already have well established counties and districts that people relate to, are the Government persisting in developing an unwanted, remote and undemocratic regional tier which people do not relate to?

Quite simply, if matters are left at local authority level, there will be concern about equity across regions. As well as that, some projects and priorities need to reach beyond local authority boundaries to foster strategic development in terms of jobs, homes or infrastructure. That is the simple answer, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept the relevance and importance of some regional level functions. I hope that he will also accept that that is combined with a clear expectation and requirement for RDAs to devolve the funding to local authorities and sub-regions wherever possible and, by doing that, to reinforce the hand of local authorities to play, for the first time, a greater role in shaping the economy and prospects for their people in their area in the future.

Order. Many hon. Members wish to catch my eye and, as always, time is limited. I ask for brief questions and answers, so that more hon. Members will be successful.

I welcome the recognition of the importance of local authorities, but will my hon. Friend continue to stress the importance of policies decided at a regional level to address regional disparities? Does he commend the north-west’s efforts to invest major funding in Daresbury, which has resulted in the region having one of only two centres of excellence for scientific research in the whole country?

As someone who wishes to see the South East England Development Agency bite the dust alongside the Assembly, may I ask the Minister to explain why it is that those regions of the UK that have had well financed RDAs for longest—and strong regional planning and intervention for longest—have become progressively less well off compared with areas that have not been blessed with such organisations?

Perhaps I should send the right hon. Gentleman the results and the figures that demonstrate that in recent years the progress on skills, employment levels and general prosperity has been faster in the poorest regions than the more prosperous regions, in part because of the economic leadership that RDAs and some local authorities, especially in the cities, have been able to provide.

The statement has many welcome aspects and I certainly look forward to further discussions in relation to the accountability arrangements for RDAs. When my hon. Friend talks about the welcome new flexibilities for local authorities, both joined together and on their own, will he address the fact that some of the bigger local authorities at city level, while important as a powerhouse for the region, can be remote from local areas? It will be vital for such authorities to be encouraged to devolve what powers they can internally inside the area, so that community regeneration may accompany economic regeneration.

Indeed, and my hon. Friend is the first advocate that I have heard in the Chamber for triple devolution. That is an important principle and it is entirely consistent with the Prime Minister’s statement two weeks ago and the Green Paper on constitutional reform. It is important that local authorities do just that, and I hope that my hon. Friend will contribute to further debate and discussion on these matters and consider offering his services to the regional Select Committee in the west midlands.

What does the phrase

“develop proposals for multi-area agreements to encourage groups of local authorities to agree collective targets…for economic development priorities; and work with interested city and sub-regions on scope for statutory sub-regional arrangements, which could allow greater devolution of national and regional economic functions”

mean in plain English?

In plain English, it means that local authorities that cover a wider city area can come together, pool budgets and decide on the priorities that they think are most important for economic development, transport and some of the skills aspects. They can agree those between themselves and with Government, and that will be how we will judge them, how local people judge them and it is what we want to see for the future.

I welcome the abolition of regional assemblies and the transfer of powers and resources to local democracy, but I remind my hon. Friend that almost all the powers and resources of the scores of regional bodies came originally from local government. Would not it make sense to go the whole hog and abolish all the regional quangos and thus empower the electorate instead of other parts of the quango state?

I know that my hon. Friend, a former leader of Manchester city council, is a leading advocate for that city and for city regions led by city local authorities. However, I must correct him: the arrangements that we have put in place and which we are looking to take further involve some devolution of powers and decision making from the centre. My hon. Friend follows transport policy very closely, and I remind him of what took place in the most recent funding allocations. In that process, £700 million of what would otherwise be determined entirely centrally was allocated according to the priorities set by the regions, and about which they had advised the Secretary of State.

I welcome some of the proposals that the Minister has outlined, and especially his recognition that communities of interest, such as the seven counties in the south-west, exist at levels below the Government’s regional architecture. Will he take seriously the aspirations of the people of Cornwall to have a greater say over their affairs, especially given the ambitious proposals for a unified structure of local government in the area? Also, will he look again at the case for a locally accountable Cornish development agency, in light of the important convergence funding from the EU?

Cornwall still faces some significant economic challenges. It has been greatly transformed by the objective 1 funding that it has received, and by some of the measures that the South West of England regional Development Agency has put in place. I take the hon. Gentleman’s comments as another late representation to be considered as part of my work on local government restructuring.

I warmly welcome the Minister’s statement, and his announcement that the regional assemblies will be abandoned. I am especially pleased that the South East England regional assembly will go, as it never understood housing policy or the needs of the east Kent ports such as Dover and Deal. Does he agree that the new devolved structure will reach out to such areas and allow the voices of deprived parts of Kent to be heard? In the past, they have been drowned out by the prosperity of the wider region.

Indeed it will, and it is important that those areas that do not shout the loudest or have the strongest clout are at the centre of our policy concerns, as they are in our regional-level planning. My hon. Friend may be interested in the proposals set out in the review for a more concentrated allocation of regeneration funding, and for ensuring that mainstream funding from central Government agencies does more to support local regeneration efforts in the most deprived areas.

May I assure the Minister that all my constituents will hear the promises made today to re-empower local government? Will he confirm that that will mean that the 18,000 new homes that have been imposed on my local community are dead in the water and that they will not go ahead if the local authority continues to object?

The hon. Gentleman will know that all the regional assemblies are engaged in revising their regional spatial strategies. With the exception of the West Midlands regional assembly, all regional assemblies are due to complete the process by next summer. Under the new proposals, local authorities will be involved in taking the first steps in preparing the regional strategy. They will set out their vision for the sustainable development of their areas, just as 40 towns and cities have raised their levels of housing growth under our growth points programme. The system will reinforce our ability to meet the need for housing, jobs and infrastructure development.

I welcome today’s statement, and remind him that the regional policy adopted by Conservative Governments of the past was very unfair, based as it was on the premise that success should go to the successful. If we are to build a genuinely one-nation approach, we must make sure that there is a regional process that delivers to the people whom this Government want to represent. However, people in my constituency will not know that the regional assemblies are to go, as they do not offer the accountability that we need. Will he guarantee that the Select Committee and local authority approach will mean that regional institutions are properly accountable to local people?

The plans we are setting out today for stronger public scrutiny and accountability within the region of the work that the regional development agencies and other regional agencies may do will improve public understanding and public challenge of the work being done in the region on the public’s behalf. Clearly, Parliament can reinforce that for the first time, through regional Select Committees, and I hope MPs on both sides of the House will play the most active possible role in making sure that the Select Committees are a success.

Does the Minister agree that infrastructure is the key to local growth and regeneration, and that building before the infrastructure is put in causes damage to local economies? Will he tell my constituents, who want to hear from him today, how the changes will get Canvey Island its much needed additional access road?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have mentioned that we are considering options for a supplementary business rate and the review also lays out plans for reforming the business growth incentive we introduced just over two years ago for local authorities. In addition, it confirms that we are considering innovative funding methods, particularly to raise early investment capital for local authorities and local areas to develop infrastructure to support growth in the future.

I welcome the abolition of regional assemblies and the contribution that will make to lessening global warming by reducing the amount of hot air and strategy papers they produce. I also welcome my hon. Friend’s commitment to sustainable development, but in County Durham the regional spatial strategy outlined at present will actually stop development, so will he go one step further and bin the strategy, which has more to do with Soviet central planning than with a modern dynamic north-east economy?

Of course the elements of the spatial strategy as a whole, about which my hon. Friend is so concerned, will be subject to independent examination and public scrutiny and, ultimately, to formal statutory sign-off by the Secretary of State.

It would be far better were powers transferred back to county districts and boroughs, but if we are to persist with some form of regional quangocracy what consideration has the Minister given to establishing a region called Milton Keynes and the South Midlands? At present, that absurd sub-region, involving three parts of three different bigger regions, is meant to control all the housing expansion in Northamptonshire but simply does not provide the transport infrastructure that local people require.

I welcome the generality of my hon. Friend’s statement, especially the enhanced powers for local authorities in 14 to 19 provision and in economic development, and the flexibility in allowing city regions to develop at their own pace, which is very important. As well as extra powers for local authorities, will he also consider extra mechanisms to enable economic development to take place, and especially, as recommended by the all-party group on urban development, enhancing the ability to enter into public-private partnerships and to use tax increment funding whereby future income streams can be brought forward to enable capital infrastructure to be put in at an earlier date?

I respect deeply my hon. Friend’s experience both as a Sheffield city leader before he entered the House and in his work on the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government. He is right to identify the fact that public money must be used to leverage in much greater private sector investment to help with regeneration and development. He will want to look particularly closely at the passage in the review on our work on innovative funding mechanisms, including possible options for regional infrastructure funds, better use of local authority assets and reliable revenue streams against which local authorities may be able to borrow to fund the infrastructure development needed in the future. We will report back on that work by the pre-Budget report this year.

I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s statement, but I have a concern about the use of private consultants. For too many years, there has been widespread use of private consultants in local economic development. They have been expensive, incompetent and unaccountable. Will he urge all local authorities to do the job in-house, with directly employed public servants, and not to use private consultants?

I thought that I had moved from the Treasury, where I had to deal with questions like that over the previous five years. My hon. Friend is right in general terms to challenge the way in which local authorities and other agencies may use their resources. I hope that he will play a part in doing just that on the regional Select Committee that will serve his region. However, sometimes it is important that expertise that may not rest within a local authority can be brought in so that local authorities can do a better job of analysing the economic circumstances of their area and plotting and planning priorities for the future.

Ministers for Women (Priorities)

Will Members who are not staying for this Statement please leave as quickly and quietly as possible? Thank you.

I would like to set out to the House how my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) and I intend to take forward our work as Ministers for Women. We are publishing today a paper setting out our priorities. The Women's National Commission has agreed that it will take forward a consultation outside the House on the priorities and I am grateful to it. Our work in government will focus on three issues: first, helping families who care for older and disabled relatives, as well as those bringing up children; secondly, tackling violence against women and improving the way in which we deal with women who commit crimes; and, thirdly, empowering black and Asian women to help them as a force for good in their communities and as they build bridges between communities.

Families need to have enough time and money to care for older and disabled relatives, and to bring up their children in the way they want. They need proper support from good local services for both older relatives and children. As Ministers for Women, we will build on the strong foundation of support for families which the Government have already delivered to ensure that all families have real choices about how they live their lives. On this, we will be working alongside our ministerial colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Treasury, and the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

This first strand of work will also include pressing forward with the Government’s commitment to tackle the pay gap between men and women—a gap that is not only unfair in principle, but which plays such a large part in the unequal division of labour in the home, preventing fathers from playing a more active role in their children’s early years and preventing women from fulfilling their opportunities at work. As Ministers for Women, we will also work with Ministers in the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Department for Communities and Local Government on how health and other local services can better support families who care for older and disabled relatives.

The second strand of our work will be about women who are victims of violent crime and women who are offenders. Domestic violence still results in two homicides every week. It not only harms women but has a devastating impact on children. Human trafficking takes many forms and blights the lives of men, women and children in many different continents. Britain is a major focus for the global trade in the sexual exploitation of women by traffickers, who trick or abduct young women and force them into prostitution. We have done a great deal to step up action against domestic violence, sexual offences and human trafficking, but there is more to do. We need to ensure that the substantive law is right and make it clear beyond doubt that domestic and sexual violence against women, and human trafficking for prostitution, will not be tolerated. We will be working alongside Ministers in the Home Office and with my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General to tackle this.

On women who commit crimes, my noble Friend Baroness Corston found that many of the women in prison are there for minor, non-violent offences, and that many of them have mental health problems, or problems to do with drug or alcohol abuse. On women offenders, we will work with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice on taking forward the agenda so ably mapped out by Baroness Corston. We can and will do more to ensure that women who have offended are rehabilitated, and that women who are at risk of offending are prevented from doing so. As Baroness Corston outlined, we will do so through ensuring effective services for drug and alcohol addiction, and for mental health problems.

Thirdly, we will work on the issue of empowering women in black and Asian communities. Women play a crucial role working together in their communities, whether they are working to reduce crime in their area, like Mothers Against Guns, or working to improve local services by taking part in tenants and residents associations, school governing bodies and parent teacher associations, or whether they are Asian women, like Southall Black Sisters, working to support other Asian women. We want to do more to support and empower those women as they tackle problems within, and build bridges between, communities.

We will work closely with ministerial colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to take our agenda forward. We will also work with Ministers from across Government to ensure that black and Asian women have fair opportunities to work and take part in wider public life, including by becoming councillors and Members of the House of Commons. I hope that we can take that work forward with the support of local government, and supported by, and working with, Members of the European Parliament. We will also work alongside voluntary organisations, women’s organisations such as Women’s Aid and the Women’s Institute, trade unions and employers. We want to work not just with our ministerial colleagues, but with hon. Members, both women and men, on both sides of the House.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for coming to the House to make her statement today. I certainly welcome the sentiment behind what she has said, and I look forward to working constructively with her, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) did with the Minister’s predecessor, to improve the lives of women in Britain. However, I am disappointed by the lack of ambition that has been shown in an area where there is still so much to be achieved. Will she confirm that not a single part of today’s statement is a new policy? I have to ask why, after 10 years in power, the Minister is only launching a consultation on the important issues that were mentioned.

We live in a time of rapid social and economic change. Even in the 10 years since 1997, the workplace and the world beyond it have changed remarkably. Government policy relating to women has to keep pace with that change, but it has not always done so. The issues confronting women are diverse and complex, so instead of having a one-size-fits-all idea of how women should lead their lives, Ministers must pursue a policy based on choice for women who are free and empowered to make their own decisions.

The right hon. and learned Lady said that she would focus on helping families, tackling violence against women, and empowering women in black and minority ethnic communities. Those are laudable aims, and when she comes up with new policies, we will support her if she gets them right, but as usual, the rhetoric exceeded the reality by some distance. She said “the Government have already delivered to ensure that all families have real choices”, but what about the 90 per cent. of families who use a relative or neighbour to care for a child? They do not get the support that is available to those who use Government-approved child care. What about women’s pensions? One in four single women pensioners lives in poverty, yet the Minister did not even mention pensions in her statement.

The Minister said that she will be “pressing forward with the Government’s commitment to tackle the pay gap”, but that implies that the Government are already making progress, and they are not: women who work full time earn 17 per cent. less than men. Does she accept that progress on equal pay has stalled? She mentioned violence against women. The Government have indeed acted on the issue of domestic violence, but does she agree that we need further action—and, I suggest, a change to police attitudes—on stalking, an issue on which the Government have so far done little? The Minister said, “We have done a great deal to step up action against…human trafficking”. The Government signed up to the convention on action against trafficking in human beings, but it still has not been ratified. In questions to the Minister for Women on 5 July, I asked when it would be ratified and what specific policy changes have been made as a result of signing the convention. The right hon. and learned Lady did not answer. Will she do so now?

The Minister said that she will work with the Justice Secretary to address problems with women in prisons. We know his answer to problems in prisons—he tends to let people out—but the crisis caused by the lack of prison capacity exacerbates the problems experienced by female prisoners. In the outside world, women are three times less likely than men to commit suicide; in prison, they are twice as likely to do so. Women prisoners are twice as likely as men to be held more than 50 miles from home. How can the right hon. and learned Lady reconcile the hope of improving the lot of female prisoners with the reality of overcrowded jails?

Today’s statement betrays the problem behind the Government’s approach to women’s issues—a problem that goes all the way back to 1997. While some changes are indeed welcome, there is no coherent philosophy or joined-up strategy that underpins that policy. That needs to change. I welcome the fact that the right hon. and learned Lady has set out priorities for women today, but I do not welcome the fact that there is so little substance in her statement. Women of all types and in all circumstances—mothers with children who are juggling their work-life balance, women in pensioner poverty, and vulnerable women—are looking to her for more than fine words. When she returns to the House to make her next statement on women’s issues, we expect substance, not style.

The right hon. Lady appears to agree that these are the right priorities—it is right to focus on families, violence against women, and to support women in their communities. I assume she believes that those are the right priorities, but she criticised us for a lack of ambition. If she wants us to be more ambitious, I would welcome her support for our programme becoming more ambitious. It is important that we will the ends as well as the means. It is not right to say that one supports families who want to balance work and home but then vote against the legal rights necessary to help them. It is not right to say that one supports the fight against human trafficking but will not work with colleagues in Europe to deal with a Europe-wide problem. It is not right to say that one supports women in black and minority ethnic communities if one will not support the financial investment in those poor and deprived communities that the Government have made.

I urge the right hon. Lady to join us in our commitment to do a great deal more, and will the means, not just the ends. Rhetoric—she is absolutely right—does not help a single family, does not protect one single victim of crime, and does not help any minority ethnic woman struggling in her community. We have done a great deal, but we have brought to the House a focus on priorities in areas where we need to do more. I acknowledge that we have not set out a list of new policies. We have said what our three priority areas are so that people in the House and, importantly, people outside it, know what we are focusing on and can work with us to achieve it.

The right hon. Lady talked about choice and people being free to lead their lives how they want. Part of the problem is that the less money someone has and the fewer services available to them, the less choice they have, so I look forward to her support for extra financial support and public services. She talked about the difficulty of families caring for children, and it is true that one of the big demands from families is that people should have more time so that they can care for young children within the family, which is why tax credits and the minimum wage are so important. If someone has to work all hours to make ends meet, they do not have any time with their children, so the minimum wage is not just about money but about time.

The right hon. Lady spoke about pensions. Women in retirement suffering from inequality and having a poor standard of living is a very important issue for the Government, about which my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions Reform will say more when we discuss the Lords amendments to the Pensions Bill in the next item of business.

The right hon. Lady said that action on the pay gap had stalled, and she mentioned some figures. It is true to say that the pay gap between women working full-time and men working full-time is about 12 per cent., but the pay gap between women working part-time and men working full-time is 40 per cent., so I agree with her that much more needs to be done to tackle unequal pay, and I look forward to her wholehearted support for more radical measures. I will pray her in aid when I am talking to my colleagues on the subject.

The right hon. Lady said that we had not done anything about stalking. That is not the case. We introduced the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, and we have done a great deal of work with the police, prosecutors and the voluntary sector to deal with the menace of stalking.

On human trafficking, it is not just a question of signing up to and ratifying conventions. It is what we do about the problem, working with the police, prosecutors and the courts. It is what we do about what is happening in our communities. I have a local newspaper, the Ham & High. The whole House should think about this. Here are some extracts from the personal ads:

“New Polish girls”,

“New Japanese & Korean girls”,

“Romanian ladies”,

“New oriental beauty”,

“All girls 18-25”,

“New tropical models”,

“Beautiful girls daily. All nationalities”.

We need to think—

No. We need to think of the demand side of the problem. Who is reading those ads? This is a very difficult issue. There is no consensus about how we deal with the demand side—the men, the fathers, the sons, the brothers, the husbands who are reading those ads and who are fuelling the demand side of global sexual exploitation of women.

I welcome the support of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) for our focus on women in prison. I think we can make progress on that. We would welcome working co-operatively with her on it. She says that the problem behind our approach is a lack of—did she say ideology?

A lack of ambition, but the right hon. Lady did say something about a lack of ideology. Our commitment is to making sure that we tackle inequality and empower women. I hope she will work with us on that.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for the courtesy of allowing me prior sight of the statement. I take the opportunity to welcome her to her position. She has an impressive track record of working on women’s issues, and I hope that in government she will be a strong advocate for women on a wide range of issues.

In the statement, the right hon. and learned Lady rightly put support for families up front. One of the biggest challenges facing women is balancing their family responsibilities and their work commitments, although that is an issue for men as well. We should not pigeon-hole it as a women’s issue. Indeed, we will probably be able to conquer the problems only when men, too, are engaged with the changes that are required.

On the pay gap, the figures have already been quoted—12.6 per cent. for full-time work and 40 per cent. for part-time work, and we need to do more to reduce the gap. Will the Minister consider extending equal pay audits to the private sector? On flexible working, the paper published today alongside the statement says that the Government are considering extending flexible working to parents of older children. Does that mean up to the age of 18? Will the Minister go further and accept that extending to all the right to request flexible working would help to change our working culture and reduce some of the resentment that can be created when some colleagues have an opportunity to request flexibility and others cannot?

Clearly, affordable child care is an important part of that, and I welcome the Government’s moves to make child care more affordable. Are new resources being announced to facilitate that? If not, how does the Minister expect that that will be achieved?

I agree with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that the part that was missing from the families section of the statement concerned women’s pensions. Later today we will debate the Pensions Bill. Although there are some welcome improvements for women who have taken time out to care for families, they will be applied only after 6 April 2010. The difference that that will make to women who reach pension age the day before is that they will lose out on £27,000-worth of pension entitlements. I urge the Minister to comment on whether she thinks that is fair. If we are really going to be fair to women on pensions, surely it is time that the Government went one step further and based pensions on residency rather than national insurance contributions, because even under the new plans women with fewer than 30 years of NICs will not be entitled to a full pension.

On violence against women, it is welcome that a lot of cross-Government working is planned. The End Violence Against Women campaign has been scoring the Government in this respect. They got one out of 10 in 2005 and two out of 10 in 2006, so I hope that the trend is on the up. I hope that this will lead to better cross-departmental working, because that is what the campaign says has been missing, although individual strategies have been in place, for example on domestic violence. What steps will the Minister take to create an integrated strategy involving all Departments to tackle violence against women, instead of a piecemeal approach?

The moves on women in prison are welcome. We will of course scrutinise the Government on delivery and the action that is taken. However, given that four out of five women prisoners have a mental illness, it is urgent that the situation is tackled, and we will give the Government support in doing so.

On trafficking, it is welcome that the Government have now signed the European convention against trafficking in human beings and is planning the new legislation that is needed to implement the actions necessary to deal with the problem. The advertisements that the Minister read out from the newspaper will have been shocking and horrific to us all. However, while all these things are being put in place, it would be helpful for the House to have some idea of roughly when we can expect the convention to be ratified.

It is well documented that black and Asian women in communities across the UK suffer more discrimination than white women or black and Asian men, so that is clearly an important issue for the Government to tackle. However, the Commission for Racial Equality recently expressed disappointment about the discrimination law review and is concerned that there may be proposals to wrap the equality duties into one single duty that ends up being weaker. What reassurance can the Minister give that new proposals to simplify existing equality legislation will not result in a rolling back or weakening of the current race and gender equality duties?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position and look forward to working with her. I thank her for her comment about the decades of work that I have done in this area. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage and I do not find ourselves on our own in taking forward this agenda. As well as the many men on the Labour Benches who support it, 97 women Labour Members of Parliament will ensure that it is taken forward.

The hon. Lady rightly says that this is an issue for men as well as women. If a new baby comes along and the father is earning much more than the mother is, he has to work increased hours to bring home more money while she works fewer hours to care for the child. The difficulty is that there is no choice. Because he is earning so much more, she has to be the one who takes more time off—they cannot share the responsibility equally or even decide that he will be the one who stays at home and looks after the child. Unequal pay is not just a matter of principle but a matter of choice within families at home. We have taken forward greater rights to paternity leave. Families are not just about women. Women shoulder most of the responsibility of the work of caring for young children and elderly relatives, but men increasingly want to share that responsibility, and we must ensure that the labour market and pay rates do not prevent them from doing so.

I agree with the hon. Lady that equal pay is important, but it is difficult to make progress in tackling discrimination in pay, or unequal pay, while it remains hidden. That is why I welcome our commitment to ensure that Departments publish gender pay audits, so that we can see what is happening in terms of pay rates.

The hon. Lady spoke about the right to request flexible working and suggested that everyone should have the right to request it. It is argued by many, particularly the Equal Opportunities Commission, that if everybody, not just those with children, or with disabled or older relatives, were entitled to request flexible working, it might reduce the hostility of those without children, or such relatives, towards those who have them. We must recognise that it is a social policy imperative to ensure good family care and support for children, disabled relatives and the elderly. We have to argue that case to people and say, “If you don’t have those responsibilities, you are freer at your work, and can do more work than those who are working on behalf of their own family and society as a whole in supporting and caring for elderly relatives, or bringing up children.” There is not a public policy equivalence between allowing flexible work in order to let someone play a round of golf, and allowing it so that someone can care for an older relative. I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s line of argument on that.

We have made progress on affordable child care, but—heavens above—we are just at the start. Many families are tearing their hair out because affordable, flexible, high-quality child care is still not available to them. We have a long way to go—there is no doubt about that.

The hon. Lady talked about inter-departmental working on violence against women. We are considering merging the inter-ministerial group on domestic violence and the inter-ministerial group on sexual offences in order to take an overall view across Government on violence against women.

The hon. Lady recommended that in order to tackle the problem of the inequality of men’s and women’s incomes in retirement, we should simply use residence in this country as the main criterion, rather than the contributory system. My view is that we must ensure that people can contribute when going out to do paid work, which should be recognised in their national insurance contributions, but when they stay at home, caring for elderly or disabled relatives, or children, that too should be recognised as a contribution, and they should be credited for it. The problem with our system is not that it has been contributory, but that the only contribution, which has been disproportionately recognised, is paid work, not the valuable unpaid work that women do in their families. That is the historic problem.

I agree with the hon. Lady that overcrowding in women’s prisons is a particular problem. It is cruel for women prisoners with mental health problems, who have offended because they were victims of violence and sexual abuse in childhood, or because of those mental health problems. We have a positive programme concerning women offenders, which has been ably mapped out by my noble Friend Baroness Corston.

The hon. Lady spoke about the review of discrimination law. There is no intention to have weaker legal duties; it is a matter of strengthening the role that the law can play in equality.

Finally, on the ratification of the convention on human trafficking, when I was Solicitor-General—a role that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) now has, and she is doing a terrific job—I worked with prosecutors in Brussels and many European countries, and with Interpol, and I can tell the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) that what we sign is very important, but beyond that is what we actually do. It is a question of what we do about the demand side. We are talking about billions of pounds of serious, organised crime.

I am in favour of ratification and implementation of any such treaty, but we need to consider some serious issues. What are we going to do about demand? Why is trafficking a multi-billion pound, lucrative serious organised criminal business? It is because men pay for sex with exploited, trafficked girls. We need to consider what we are going to do about that. We need to work further on whether and how to criminalise such exploitation. In Sweden, the problem has been tackled by making paying for sex a criminal offence. We must examine the way in which other countries try to deal with the problem.

Order. Many Members want to speak. May I make a plea for brief, single questions and short responses?

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her statement. It is great to have the priorities laid out at the beginning of her term as a Minister and I welcome the fact that consultation will take place. I especially welcome the section of the statement on carers. What more can we do to help carers who are unable to work outside the home because they look after a disabled or elderly relative and may consequently live in poverty and also be isolated? Has she considered those issues?

My hon. Friend may well be aware that the Prime Minister announced a review of support for carers. We must all acknowledge that the subject will move up the agenda, given that people with disabilities live longer, older people live to a greater age and family care is the choice of the older person and of the family. The question is, as my hon. Friend points out, how we support people to make those choices without their suffering financial destitution and social isolation.

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments about me and my work. I pay tribute to her work in setting up Cardiff Women’s Aid, which is an exemplar of tackling violence against women, and in child care in Cardiff, including Chwarae Teg, which was a joint organisation of employers, trade unions and women’s organisations for greater flexibility at work.

I warmly welcome the right hon. and learned Lady’s priorities for women in public policy, but they must be reflected in such priorities in the work of the House. Given that she is both Minister for Women and Leader of the House, will she conduct an urgent conversation with herself and then agree with me that it is monstrous discrimination against her that she is allowed to answer oral questions for only 10 minutes a month, that the time should be at least tripled, and that, given that she is Minister for Women, it is only right and proper that, in 2007, we should have a Select Committee on women’s issues?

The idea of having a conversation with myself and ending up agreeing with the hon. Gentleman is interesting. The point about setting out our priorities is that we will work alongside our ministerial colleagues as they take policies through their Departments, and they will be accountable to the House. Additionally, as women Ministers we are accountable. We must ensure that the priorities and objectives are clear and made mainstream in the work of different Ministers, who are then held to account by Select Committees.

All the time, we need to think about the structures of accountability and how we create a greater focus on the issues that we are considering. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments in that spirit.

I very much welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s emphasis on violence against women and her reference to the impact on children. I know that she is aware of the project that I am currently running with Women’s Aid called Kidspeak, through which we listen to the experiences of children who are affected by domestic violence. Does she realise that some of the evidence already shows that impacts include truancy, self-harm and poor school performance? There is also a terrible lack of resources to support those children. Will she urgently look into that as part of her priorities?

My hon. Friend set up the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence, which made me remember what a long way we have come since the days of Jo Richardson, who was politely ignored if she mentioned domestic violence once in the House and had people muttering behind their hands if she mentioned it twice.

My hon. Friend’s Kidspeak work reminds us that the old view that people should stay together for the sake of the children even while enduring violence misunderstood the effect of domestic violence on children. All the evidence is that even if children are not physically caught in the crossfire—sometimes they are and sometimes they are killed at the same time as their mother—they are always traumatised and damaged by being in a household where there is domestic violence. That is why it is important not just for women, but for children in the family.

I thank the Minister for her statement; we expect great things from both her and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett). The Director of Public Prosecutions gave a rousing and informed address to the all-party group on human trafficking yesterday and admitted that trafficking was on the increase. The Minister will not be surprised to know that the statutory police performance targets do not include trafficking, so there is no pressure on the police to apprehend traffickers.

In her consultation, will the right hon. and learned Lady look at the question of compensation for victims when traffickers are apprehended? At the moment, not one penny piece has been given by traffickers to their victims. One of the most important things that the Minister could do is to make sure that the victims of trafficking receive not only the identity cards that give them the right to stay in this country, but compensation for the awful ordeal they have gone through.

The hon. Gentleman says that he expects great things of myself and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. We will make great progress if we all work together on this. Many of these issues are difficult, but we need to recognise the scale of the problem and to take radical action. We have to build on these agendas or we will not make progress; we cannot be cautious. I hope that we can work with the hon. Gentleman, to whom I pay tribute, along with the other members of the all-party group, which does good work. I will consider and discuss with my colleagues his point about targets.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about compensation. The CPS has been focusing more not just on apprehending, prosecuting and punishing the offenders, but on seizing the assets. There are vast assets involved and the problem is that someone can spend a couple of years in prison, then come out and live like a millionaire. The more assets there are, the more they get reinvested in bringing more women from different parts of the world to be sexually exploited and raped in this country. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the importance of freezing and seizing the assets. He is also right about the importance of the courts using the powers to order compensation. I am interested to hear that he has already had a discussion with the Director of Public Prosecutions and I will discuss this with my ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and with the Solicitor-General to see whether we can encourage further progress in this respect.

Order. May I once again ask Members to ask a single question and for there to be a brief response? Many hon. Members are still hoping to make a contribution.

I very much welcome the priority given to women at work, especially tackling the pay gap. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look at the outstanding work being done by the YWCA, in its “More than one rung” campaign, in getting women apprenticeships in areas of skilled work that attract higher pay, such as building, electrical engineering and car work, so that they can earn more pay when they are training and throughout their working lives?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing to my attention the work that the YWCA is taking forward. She is absolutely right that it helps to tackle the pay gap. However, the additional point is that if young girls can see a future for themselves and have aspirations, that is the best way of avoiding teenage pregnancy and ensuring that they have financial independence. It was said to me a few moments ago by one of the officials with whom we were talking about teenage pregnancy that the best contraception is aspiration.

As my party’s spokesman on health and women’s issues, I welcome genuine attempts by the Government to improve the lot of women generally. However, I have some issues concerning the objectives. The right hon. and learned Lady has said:

“We are creating the Commission for Equality and Human Rights—a single equality body for race, religion and belief, gender, disability and sexual orientation—and we are currently consulting on the Discrimination Law Review.”

What will the Government do to protect the Christian ethos of the United Kingdom, where currently we cannot have nativity plays or send Christmas cards because that is deemed to be offensive to ethnic minorities? Could the right hon. and learned Lady expand on that?

Also, in relation to recognised—

Order. I have stressed the importance of asking just one question, because so many people want to make a contribution.

We have introduced legal protection against discrimination on the grounds of religion. There is of course no prohibition on people sending out Christmas cards; indeed, the House of Commons produces marvellous Christmas cards. We all send out box-loads of those cards and none of us has been prosecuted for doing so. As far as nativity plays are concerned, many hon. Members go to many nativity plays in primary schools, and long may they continue to do so.

Make no mistake: women welcome the Government’s focus on domestic violence and the progress that has been made over the past 10 years. However, those who work with and support victims, particularly women, are frustrated by the plethora of initiatives across Departments. I welcomed the comment about an inter-ministerial group. However, in the spirit of embracing talent, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider bringing on to that body people such as Sandra Horley from Refuge and women who work at Women’s Aid, who are the real experts, to assist that co-ordination?

The initiatives that we have taken forward on domestic violence, such as specialist domestic violence prosecutors, specialist domestic violence courts and extra support for victims, are important and make a difference. The only problem with them is that they are not yet rolled out so that every part of the country is as good as the best. Because of those initiatives and showing that they work, we have been able to make progress.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about the important work of Refuge and Women’s Aid. They are the organisations that work on the front line and they are the experts. In every hon. Member’s constituency there are women working to tackle domestic violence. They are the experts. We need to listen to them and ensure that we do more. There is a danger, however, in that we must ensure that, while saying that we will not tolerate domestic violence and are determined to act on it, we back that up with practical action, because there is a such a big need for change.

A visible example of the inequality in society is the unequal provision of toilet and restroom facilities for women. What will the Government do to try to correct that imbalance in public buildings? Will the right hon. and learned Lady join me in condemning Tory-controlled Colchester borough council, which is building a public building worth £14 million, where 75 per cent. of the toilet provision is for males and 25 per cent. is for females?

Toilet facilities are a big issue for women whose young children need to go to the toilet—they often find that shops will not let them use their facilities—and for older people, who are disproportionately women. My own view of how to solve this problem is to have more women local councillors. If, instead of only one in four councillors being women, there were equal numbers of women and men, these issues could move up the agenda and be discussed with purpose and without embarrassment.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement and the Government’s commitment to dealing with issues of concern to women. Will she also press local authorities that are drawing up local social care plans to take into account the needs of women caring for elderly relatives? Those women’s needs often go unrecognised.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. She has a background of expertise in social care based on a great deal of experience, including her work in the House. However good the social services are, it is important that older people and people with disabilities are also supported by their families. However great the health services, social services and voluntary sector may be, family care is essential as well. As part of that, we need to ensure that our planning does not only involve building lots of housing for nuclear families. The infrastructure of the community must include facilities for children—playgrounds, schools and nurseries—and it must also have housing for old people, including granny flats, sheltered housing and day centres. We need to build “family friendly” into the planning infrastructure.