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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 465: debated on Tuesday 23 October 2007


The Secretary of State was asked—

Road Deaths

1. What recent progress her Department has made in reducing the number of deaths and serious injuries on the roads. (159761)

Good afternoon, Mr. Speaker. The number of people killed or seriously injured on Britain’s roads has fallen by 33 per cent. in the last decade and the number of children killed or seriously injured has fallen by 52 per cent. in the same period. However, there are still around 3,000 people dying, and nearly 30,000 being seriously injured, every year. Clearly, we need to continue to work hard as there is always more to be done on road safety.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. May I suggest that he looks at the regulations that prevent local authorities from putting traffic-calming measures in place on classified roads, such as City road and Frog lane in Wigan? If we can put such measures in place, we can help the Government to drive down the number of terrible accidents and serious injuries throughout the country.

My hon. Friend has a strong point to make on additional speed restrictions on urban roads. A Transport Research Laboratory study showed that in 20 mph zones accidents fell by 60 per cent., child accidents by 67 per cent., and cycling accidents by 29 per cent. We have devolved the responsibility and authority to introduce the zones to local authorities, and I know that many authorities across the country are taking advantage of those regulations.

But is the Minister aware that the number of deaths on our roads could be cut by several hundred a year, and the number of serious accidents by over double that number, at a stroke if we were to abolish the ridiculous ritual whereby we put our clocks back every autumn, thus plunging the country into mid-afternoon darkness? Will the Minister have a word with the Secretary of State to see whether she can persuade the Cabinet to allow Britain to remain on British summertime throughout the year in the interests of road safety, albeit initially on a trial basis?

I seem to remember answering that question last year, when I was a junior Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry and responsible for time. [Interruption.] Somebody has to be the Minister for time, and I’m your man. The evidence that was presented showed clearly that there was a strong split in the country between those in favour of the change and those against. The statistics on road accidents, compelling as they were, were not entirely convincing. I seem to remember that we tried the arrangements that the right hon. Gentleman suggests, as did other European states, and we all reverted to the time zones that we currently use.

Motorcyclists are particularly badly represented in the figures. I understand that some 20 per cent. of casualties and serious injuries involve people on motorcycles. Will my hon. Friend outline what steps he is taking to address that problem?

As my hon. Friend suggests, motorcyclists continue to be disproportionately represented in the casualty figures. We have been working closely with representatives from the motorcycling industry and with user groups. Indeed, I have met three such groups in the past three weeks. In 2005, we published the Government’s motorcycling strategy, which sets out a range of actions to make motorcycling safer, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right: 600 of the 3,000 people who were killed in the last year for which figures are available were motorcyclists, and that is just entirely wrong.

I have one of the most dangerous roads in Britain, the A59, in my area. On one part of it, where sadly there have been deaths and serious injuries, there have been calls for a roundabout, but I am told by the county council that there are insufficient funds to build it. The council has put up a lot of cones, but accidents still occur. Will the Minister please look seriously at using all the fines from speed cameras to improve road safety on some of our most dangerous roads?

The hon. Gentleman obviously knows his area well, and raises the case of a particular road. The money that is raised from speed cameras is recycled. Local authorities can spend it as they wish. There is a priority system for dealing with accident blackspots, which is used by the Highways Agency and other authorities. If he wishes to drop me a line on the issue, I will certainly get information to him on the latest position in respect of the road that he is concerned about. Obviously, where we can take action to reduce accidents on particular roads, we ought to make sure that it is taken.

May I offer a Welsh solution to an English problem? Will my hon. Friend visit my constituency and see the first-class 20 mph zone that has been created outside Rhyl high school by North Wales police and Denbighshire county council, using money from safety cameras? It is one of the most comprehensive 20 mph systems in the country, with initial warnings, secondary warnings and a camera.

As a Londoner I hate to disillusion my hon. Friend, but he is describing not a Welsh solution but a local authority solution. As I mentioned to our hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) only a few moments ago, we have passed regulations to empower local authorities to do exactly what my hon. Friend’s local authority has done, because it brings benefits to the whole community and in many instances improves traffic flow routes as well. We want 20 mph zones to be introduced where they are appropriate. They clearly are effective. They cut accident rates, which means that we can protect our communities and particularly our children. I would encourage every local authority to engage with its community and see whether they are relevant for them.

The encouraging headlines belie a grim statistical trend. One in six deaths on the roads are associated with drink driving. That has increased from 460 in 1998 to 540 last year. Does the Minister think that by presiding over a reduction in traffic police numbers and not making drink driving a key performance indicator for police forces, the Government are sending out all the wrong messages and contributing to the problem, not to the solution?

The hon. Gentleman raised that very point in Westminster Hall last week and we had an interesting discussion. I was able to reassure him that after our recent efforts to campaign against drink driving, there were more breathalyser tests in recent times. We liaise closely with our colleagues in the Home Office to make sure that enforcement is as high up their agenda as it is on ours. The hon. Gentleman says that one in six fatalities are caused by drink driving. In one in three fatalities, speed is a contributory factor. I am not in any way minimising that. We must take into account all the reasons why fatalities occur. There are far too many, and we both agree that as a Parliament we want to be seen to be doing all we can to encourage better driving on our roads.

The latest figures show that there has been a 37 per cent. decline in the number of fatal and serious child casualties in Stockport. There is still more work to be done, but will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the work of the local road safety officers and the many initiatives that they are pursuing, including their valuable preventive work in schools?

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in commending the activities of the officers of her local authority. As I have mentioned in the past few answers, 20 mph zones and action at local level by local authorities can save lives. All of us in the House would encourage that.

Peterborough Station

National Express East Coast Ltd has been awarded the franchise to run the east coast main line rail service from 9 December 2007. Its plans for Peterborough include additional car parking spaces, cycle storage, passenger information equipment and a refurbishment of facilities.

The Minister will know that the redevelopment of Peterborough railway station is vital to the regeneration of the city centre in Peterborough. Will he give an undertaking that he will prevail upon Network Rail to work speedily and closely with key stakeholders in Peterborough, including Peterborough city council, Opportunity Peterborough and other private developers, to ensure that we have a 21st century railway station not too long into the 21st century?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. His concerns for his railway station and the economic driver that it can be for his community is echoed by many Members of the House. Network Rail’s proposals for Peterborough station are entirely a matter for him and Network Rail’s private sector partners. However, I would be more than happy to convey to Network Rail the hon. Gentleman’s concerns that that work should be progressed early.

Heathrow (Security Delays)

It is paramount that the UK’s aviation security regime is properly enforced. It is also clearly important that passengers are not unnecessarily inconvenienced by security measures. At Heathrow, as at all other airports, the Government are working closely with the industry to ensure that both objectives are fully considered.

Given that we have seen another summer of long queues, and that the Airport Operators Association says that the queues are too long, too intrusive and that good will has been lost on the part of passengers, does the Minister accept that it is now time for some sense and proportionality? By my nail scissors, there are none at the moment.

I am delighted that the right hon. Lady is in her place asking questions; I am only disappointed that she has already declared her intention not to stand at the next general election. The whole House would agree that we will be the poorer for that.

The right hon. Lady referred to delays in security queues at Heathrow, but I make no apology for the fact that we need robust security measures to counter a real and serious security threat. I accept, of course, that at times there are delays and inconvenience for passengers, but we should bear in mind the facts: despite some of the news coverage, queues in central search areas are routinely running at less than 10 minutes for 95 per cent. of the time. However, if we can make sure that a robust security regime remains in place, I am determined that we should make progress on the issue. That is why earlier this year, in the summer, I convened an airline and airport operators security summit and why we have set up a working group to see what improvements can be made.

I have been going through Heathrow and Gatwick a few times in recent months on my journeys to Europe. On the way out, I have never had to wait more than 10 minutes between check-in and buying a book in Borders. On the other hand, on the way back there have been intolerable third-world queues at immigration. That is not my right hon. Friend’s responsibility, but will she have a word with the Home Office? Seeing the businessmen of the world queuing up to enter Britain, as if they were in some third-world country, is shaming and not a good advertisement for a modern UK.

My right hon. Friend is a seasoned traveller and well used to dealing with some of the inconvenience that there clearly is for passengers at Heathrow. As he says, such matters are rightly for the Home Secretary, who takes a close interest in border control. I understand that there are more front-line border officers than ever before; their being there doing that important job is preventing thousands of illegal immigrants from entering the UK every year. The Home Secretary keeps such issues under review and will take action if that is required.

Does the Secretary of State accept that robust security is one thing—we all support that—but unintelligent security brings security into disrepute? Will she look again at some of the knee-jerk regulations brought in last year in the wake of the scare? I do not want my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) to lose any more nail scissors.

Despite my respect for the hon. Gentleman, I do not recognise his characterisation of the situation at all. The one-bag rule was introduced for extremely good reasons—there was a serious, real and ongoing threat to our national security. The UK restriction was intended to limit the number of X-rays per passenger. There was a clear choice: introduce the one-bag rule or stop planes flying altogether.

We keep such issues constantly under review, of course. I am absolutely clear that if we can make progress, we should; I am determined to work with the industry to see what alternatives are possible. However, let me be clear to the House: before sanctioning any change, I will have to be satisfied that it would not have an adverse impact on security.

Like me, Mr. Speaker, you are a regular traveller on planes, as you come from Scotland on a weekly basis. The experiences of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) are nothing like ours; we have to wait for up to three quarters of an hour to go through security at Heathrow. It is a joke. It is down to the inconsistencies; we have to deal daily with bad management at that airport. However, I have an answer for you, Mr. Speaker. You should use London City airport, where security is far better, airline services are of a far higher standard and people do not lose their bags as they do at Heathrow every time they travel.

I certainly sympathise with my hon. Friend, but we need to be clear about the fundamentals of what is happening at Heathrow, which is the world’s busiest and most congested international airport and is operating way beyond its capacity. For example, I understand that its runways are operating at about 98.5 per cent. capacity, which reduces resilience and leads to delay.

As a Government, we have a clear response to that—we need to build more capacity. In the short term, terminal 5 is coming on stream, and in the medium term there will be the new terminal to replace terminals 1 and 2. In the longer term, the Government’s policy is that we need new runway capacity at Heathrow—consistent, of course, with local and environmental constraints, as set out in the 2003 White Paper. I look forward to hearing what the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) says about that.

I think the Secretary of State’s answers show that she has spent too much time in the VIP lounge and not enough time with real passengers. The CBI has warned that Heathrow hassle is an increasing threat to inward investment in the UK. Chicago Tribune readers voted the airport the worst in the world, and anyone who has travelled knows what a deeply unpleasant experience it can be. When is the Secretary of State going to start knocking heads together to get something done to improve the quality of service at an airport that is rapidly becoming a national embarrassment? We think that passengers deserve better.

Actually, I think that passengers deserve better. That is why the Government have the very clear policy position that if the local environmental conditions are met we should have a third runway, which would preserve Heathrow’s place as a premier international airport. The hon. Lady, however, seems to be torn from pillar to post. On the one hand, she is being advised by her one of her right hon. Friends that yes, we need more capacity at Heathrow; on the other, she is being advised by another right hon. Friend that we do not need any increase in capacity at all. Which will she do?

The Secretary of State cannot wash her hands of responsibility for the state of Heathrow today. The Government are part of the problem, when they should be part of the solution. Why do they think that 45-minute waiting times at immigration are acceptable? Do they not recognise that long queues are in themselves targets and security risks? Will they admit that their one-bag rule, which the Secretary of State defended again today, is not in place to preserve safety but because of inefficiency? Why do we have to put up with the one-bag rule in this country when no other country in the world does?

There is a very clear answer to this: we have a more serious threat than other European countries do. The EU sets minimum standards which we have decided to exceed in order to limit the number of X-rays per passenger. That is for very serious reasons: we want to protect the public. If the hon. Lady is saying that I should lift the one-bag rule without regard to the security consequences, that is a totally irresponsible position. Of course we need to do better, and we keep these issues under review. Earlier in the summer, I convened a summit with the airport and airline operators. We have set up a working group to examine what progress can be made. I am optimistic that we will shortly be in a position to make progress, but first and foremost must be the security requirements of people in this country.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that part of the reason for long queues at Heathrow and throughout UK airports is the personal searches that take place of passengers by security staff, which are, I have to say, particularly intimate and intrusive. Will she work with the airport authorities to find some form of technology that could also be used in other countries to make these searches less intrusive?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the potential of better and more sophisticated technology. Indeed, at Heathrow, as in Glasgow, we are trialling sophisticated security screening technology and more sophisticated X-ray technology that may reduce the need for some of the intimate hand searches and may also lead us to a situation in which we can consider changing the restrictions that are currently in place. However, as I have already said, the first priority must be preserving and maintaining the security of the travelling public. Provided that we do that, I clearly want to make progress to improve the passenger experience.

Airedale and Wharfedale Lines

Earlier this year, the Department supported capacity improvements which have maintained longer trains on the Airedale and Wharfedale lines. In addition, the rail White Paper published in July set out the Government’s intention of buying a capacity increase of 53 per cent. for peak hour commuter trains serving Leeds between now and 2014.

Although I welcome the extra carriages promised by the Minister, lines are overcrowded now. Providing carriages many years in the future is not good enough; we need them now. Will he tell me how many of those extra carriages will be on the Airedale and Wharfedale lines, and what work will be done to ensure that infrastructure is in place to cope with extra carriages, such as longer platforms?

The hon. Gentleman should be careful when listening to the propaganda put out by his Front Benchers. The spending commitments in the White Paper that was published in July included a commitment to 1,300 new carriages. Those carriages will be rolled out throughout the network from next year, not 2014 as suggested by his Front-Bench spokesmen. Network Rail’s strategic business plan, due at the end of October, will tell us where capacity will best be provided, and a final decision on the allocation of all the carriages will be made at the beginning of the new year.

Does my hon. Friend accept, however, that the Airedale and Wharfedale lines are victims of their own success? We have refurbished stations such as that at Guiseley, new rolling stock that replaces 40-year-old, slam-door cast-offs inherited from the last Government, and ever increasing numbers of passengers. Does he recognise that in order to overcome major problems with overcrowding we desperately need extra capacity, and extra car parking provision at stations such as Guiseley to reduce the pressure on surrounding neighbourhoods?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Being a Minister with responsibility for rail at this point in the history of railway services is a privilege because the problem that I have to deal with is one of inexorably rising rail patronage. Under the last Conservative Government, however, particularly in 1982, a record low number of passengers were using the network. In the past 10 years there has been a 45 per cent. increase in patronage, which is in no small part down to the role the Government have played in investing in the rail industry, and in ensuring that our economy encourages record numbers of passengers to use the rail industry to get to jobs that did not exist under the Tories.

As the Minister will know, the Airedale and Wharfedale lines, and the other local Leeds lines, need something like 100 additional carriages, and that need is evident throughout the country. Would he please clarify where the 1,300 promised carriages will go? If they are to be delivered early next year, have they already been ordered? What impact will there be on disputes over the future of rolling stock leasing companies? What will the timing be, and when will local lines know about it, so that they are in a position to plan? When can passengers look forward to having a small chance of finding a seat?

If I have inadvertently misled the hon. Lady about the delivery time scale for the 1,300 new carriages, I apologise. I said that a rolling stock plan would be finalised early in the new year. The 1,300 new carriages will be delivered between next year and 2014. She will be disappointed if she expects major changes to the structure of the industry as far as the rolling stock companies are concerned. I believe that the current structure of the industry is fit for purpose and that the rolling stock companies are doing what they intended to do, so I do not envisage any change to that structure. Through the current industry structure, we can guarantee those 1,300 carriages—an increase of more than 10 per cent. on the current level of rolling stock on the railways. That is the biggest single step change increase in capacity for the rail industry since the end of the second world war.

Train Overcrowding

The rail White Paper was published in July. It sets out the resources we intend to make available to the rail industry and the increases in capacity, as well as safety and performance, that we expect the industry to deliver in return. In addition to this, we have given the green light to Crossrail to relieve congestion on both rail and underground networks.

I am grateful for that answer, and the decision on Crossrail is particularly welcome. The c2c train operator on the Fenchurch Street line has done an excellent job. It is one of the best performing in the country and has improved reliability while keeping down ticket costs. However, overcrowding on that line is unacceptable and unsafe. My constituents who try to get on those trains at Benfleet station have difficulty finding seats. What will the right hon. Lady do to encourage further investment so that we can get more rolling stock, and will she support my campaign for an additional terminus station at Canvey Island?

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous remarks about Crossrail, which is a historic achievement under this Government. I understand his concerns about overcrowding—it is precisely for that reason that we are making the investment in capacity that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), has just outlined.

I also understand the hon. Gentleman’s desire for his constituents to benefit from Benfleet and Canvey Island. I know that c2c, a good operator, is already examining options for ways in which it might increase capacity on those routes.

The hon. Gentleman campaigns for a new station on Canvey Island; I understand that that is an expensive route to take. However, as he knows, if he comes up with a robust business case, with improved and significant private sector investment and a high level of benefits to cost, the Government will consider it.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend knows about overcrowding on the west coast main line. The train on which I travelled yesterday from Carlisle was horrendously overcrowded because of the cancellation of an earlier train. However, overcrowding is a day-to-day problem on the west coast main line. I do not understand why Virgin Trains proposes to run a train from London to Glasgow with only one stop at Preston, missing out Carlisle. That will put extra pressure on the other trains in the area in order to reduce the time by only three minutes. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Minister responsible for rail to meet me to discuss the matter before the timetable is agreed?

I shall certainly ask my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for rail to meet my hon. Friend—I should be delighted to do so. I am sure that he welcomes the £7 billion investment in the west coast main line upgrade. It has transformed the prospects for the route and means that far fewer people now choose to fly between London and Manchester but instead, like me, take the train. Of course, problems with overcrowding remain. They will be taken into account in any forthcoming spending plans. However, my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for rail assures me that, given that the timetable is not yet finalised, he is happy to have discussions with my hon. Friend.

The right hon. Lady will know that congestion on the west coast main line is partly due to the fact that the trains have nine carriages. That is an increase of one on the original plan, which was for eight carriages. Negotiations are going on about providing a further two carriages to make 11 in all. However, Virgin Trains asks what profit is in that for the company if its franchise is to last only a short time. Will the Secretary of State look at the matter afresh and realise that if Virgin Trains is to provide two extra carriages per train at its expense, it needs a longer franchise period?

The hon. Gentleman will understand that such negotiations are never easy and that train-operating companies often come to the Department with requests for extensions to their franchises. He should consider the specific request that he mentioned in that spirit. My hon. Friend the Minister responsible for rail assures me that he is optimistic that a deal about the extra carriages will be done. The west coast main line will benefit from greater train frequencies and more rolling stock as we deliver the single biggest increase in investment since the war.

Does my right hon. Friend realise that, on the overcrowded Hove to London line, Network Rail is about to remove the trees from the cuttings? Is she or a member of her ministerial team willing to come and speak to representatives of my constituency, of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and experts from the university of Sussex, who are worried that the risk of landslip on that crowded line is greater than any danger posed by leaves on lines?

I appreciate the fact that my hon. Friend champions the concerns of her constituents. I understand that a meeting is already in the diary for tomorrow, when she will meet my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for rail. I am sure that she will use that opportunity to discuss those issues and ensure that the best solution is reached.

Buses (Antisocial Behaviour)

The 2004-05 British crime survey showed that around 1 per cent. of regular bus users had been a victim of a crime or antisocial behaviour on a bus. However, any level is too high and we continue to work with operators, local government, trade unions and other agencies to tackle the issue.

Does the Minister agree that the issue is not just about crime? For many people, buses are becoming no-go zones. I was at the launch of the Surrey coalition for disabled people, a group that, among others, has raised with me the fact that buses can feel hostile and unpleasant. There is no point in extending free access to public transport, particularly buses, if people do not feel safe to travel on it. Does the Minister agree that it is a matter of discipline, respect and civil behaviour?

The hon. Lady is right that we must do all that we can to ensure that travelling by bus becomes the first choice, rather than the last resort. As I have said, the percentage of people who have been a victim of crime or antisocial behaviour is quite small. However, it is important that we continue, for example, to install CCTV. In London, every bus has around six cameras, to ensure that the police can take up issues where they are reported, while there are 360 extra police officers in London dealing with antisocial behaviour on buses. In the hon. Lady’s constituency, the safer Guildford partnership is looking at a number of issues, including how to make travelling on public transport safer. There is also the STOP—safer travel on buses and coaches panel—campaign, which is looking at what else we can do to overcome any problems that arise.

My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that the number of attacks on buses is quite small, but that does not stop the public having a genuine apprehension, particularly on late-night services. Is not one solution to bring back the bus conductor, even though that would be at a cost to the bus operators?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. However, we should remember that the role of bus conductors was to allow passengers to buy their tickets, not to act as security guards. We should also remember that when conductors were employed in London they were the most assaulted members of staff, so reintroducing them is not the answer. However, it is important that we should continue to look at what further measures we can take, such as installing CCTV cameras, and ensuring that people report incidents to the police and that the police can follow them up. In that way, we can ensure greater safety.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of a survey conducted by the Birmingham Mail into bus use by passengers in Birmingham, which found a considerable increase in antisocial behaviour where the Tory-Lib Dem council had cut down on routes? Will she point out to the council that its duty is to increase passenger usage, not decrease it?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the role of local authorities in encouraging bus use. One of the things that we are doing through the draft local transport Bill is giving local authorities greater powers, which will make it easier to introduce quality partnerships, for instance, and if necessary, to introduce quality contracts, to ensure that local authorities provide the local transport that local people want, particularly bus services.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when people mention antisocial behaviour on buses they are generally referring to young people, particularly in London, where they enjoy concessionary fares? Although there is no excusing antisocial behaviour wherever it occurs, does she agree that we should avoid demonising young people, because that might result in our restricting access to certain services to which they are entitled like everybody else?

My hon. Friend makes the extremely important point that we should not demonise young people. He might have heard some comments recently about the “scourge” of

“some obstreperous kids…abusing the privilege of free travel”

and using buses as

“glorified getaway cars for their criminal escapades”.

I am afraid that those remarks were made by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson). I hope that that does not mean that the Opposition are now backing, as the hon. Gentleman seems to be doing, the withdrawing of—

Transport Expenditure (Yorkshire)

The Department for Transport’s spending on transport services—road and rail—has increased by 77 per cent. over the six years to 2007-08 in the Yorkshire and the Humber region, up from £330 million in 2001-02 to £590 million in 2007-08.

I thank the Minister for her answer, but will she tell the people of Yorkshire just how long they can expect to be rooted at the foot of the league table for her Department’s transport spending? Will she also tell the people of Leeds why £350 million to transform transport in Leeds has been deemed too expensive, even though it fulfils the criteria set out by the Department, but £16 billion on the Crossrail system in the south-east is deemed good value for money?

Something like £1 million a day is being spent to support Northern Rail. As I said, local transport funding for road and rail in Yorkshire and the Humber has increased by 77 per cent., and local transport funding itself has doubled in the past seven years. It has increased from £75 million in 2001 to £156 million in 2007-08, while £250 million of investment has come through the TransPennine Express franchise. The hon. Gentleman needs to remember that it can be difficult to make comparisons between the spending per head in the different regions, because of the amount that might already have been spent on big strategic road networks or on rail. Overall local transport funding in Yorkshire and the Humber has doubled, and the spending on roads and rail has increased by 77 per cent. I would like to know whether the hon. Gentleman feels that Lib Dem policies would produce that kind of—

Duchy of Lancaster

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

Social Exclusion

17. Whether the public service agreement for social exclusion is intended to improve access to employment for the most socially excluded adults. (159745)

Helping more of the most excluded adults to obtain a job as well as a home is a key priority across government through the socially excluded adults public service agreement.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. There is a particular difficulty with people who have chronic psychiatric problems. Will she tell the House what action she is taking to get those individuals back into the workplace and to educate employers about the benefits of employing those people?

My hon. Friend has a long track record of speaking up for that group of people, and I share his view that a home and a job are an important part of getting them back on track. I can offer him some good news. Through pathways to work, we are giving people assistance to manage their condition. We are also helping them through the increasingly successful local employment partnerships, involving more than 100 companies such as M&S, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, which want to see such individuals skilled and ready to work and are prepared to offer them work. In addition, there is the recently announced jobs pledge, through which we will work closely with employers to get about 250,000 of the most disadvantaged people into work.

The Minister will be aware that, since 1997, the number of people living in severe poverty has increased by 600,000, that working-age poverty has increased and that the number of young people not in work or full-time education has risen by 20 per cent. Perhaps we should therefore not be surprised that, last week, the Government decided not to publish their usual annual Opportunity for All report. Instead, they simply slipped out the bare indicators on the Department for Work and Pensions website with as little fanfare as possible. Was last Thursday thought to be a particularly good day to bury bad news?

The figures have been published and they are on the website, which is open and available to everyone. I do not recognise the position that the right hon. Gentleman describes. We have more people in work and in decent homes than ever before; we have lifted 600,000 children out of poverty; and we have seen major increases in income and educational achievement. The whole point about the public service agreement is that it is a Government commitment to go even further.

Does my hon. Friend agree that people who suffer from epilepsy are particularly discriminated against in the workplace? Anything that we can do to help people suffering from that dreadful illness would be gratefully received.

I share my hon. Friend’s concern. I would like to emphasise something that I know my hon. Friend supports: we are working closely with employers through a particular programme to overcome the stigma that exists and to encourage understanding of such conditions.

Is my hon. Friend aware that people with learning disabilities and those on the autistic spectrum are often the most excluded from employment, yet when they get into the right work, they can be the most loyal and most effective of workers? What more can we do to help that group of people to identify the right employment opportunities and get into work?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is true that those who have been most excluded sometimes have a lot to offer. The challenge for us is not primarily about job opportunities—on any given day, there are some 660,000 vacancies—but the fact that we need to raise the game in skills, training and support that can be tailored to individuals such as those identified by my hon. Friend.

Third Sector

The third sector review published in July set out a vision for how the Government can work in partnership with the sector to support its work in four key areas: building stronger communities, transforming public services, creating social enterprise and speaking up for the people they represent. The office of the third sector is financing that with over £500 million of investment and by working with Government Departments to make it happen.

I am grateful for that answer, but I do not know whether it amounts to policy objectives. I hope that the Minister will join me in congratulating many in the voluntary sector on whom the Government are completely dependent, particularly in respect of delivering their care programme. I am thinking of the Leonard Cheshire homes in my constituency, which do a fantastic job for disabled young people. Will the Minister promise that the Government will not stand in the way of the voluntary sector, but work with it to enable it to continue to deliver the excellent work that it does?

I definitely join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the work of Leonard Cheshire all around the country as well as in her constituency. The third sector review, which has been widely welcomed, including by Leonard Cheshire, is aimed precisely at creating the right environment for the third sector, in recognition of the inspiration that it provides. The Government can help the third sector by providing the right conditions, having the right funding in place and, in particular, providing stability of funding, which is crucial for organisations around the country.

My right hon. Friend will know from his visits to Hammersmith and Fulham that we have a very active third sector, as I was reminded last Friday when I visited our volunteer centre. Under the energetic leadership of Marion Schumann, it is now the biggest in London. What can my right hon. Friend do, however, about the local Tory council? From 1 October it has imposed swingeing cuts on advice to the black, minority and ethnic sector, and from next April it promises cuts in the voluntary sector of up to 26 per cent.

My hon. Friend makes his point in a very eloquent way. I very much enjoyed an Adjournment debate a few months back in which we discussed the situation in Hammersmith and Fulham. The Government can do some things and we are strengthening the framework for local government so that it has better relations with the third sector. The truth is, however, that the ultimate sanction is to vote them out.

The Big Lottery Fund is the primary source of funding for third sector organisations. They campaigned to protect it, and we are protecting all the money going to that sector. The Big Lottery Fund has made that clear and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome it.

The third sector in Tameside in Stockport is increasingly taking over responsibility for providing public services, often using one-off grants or other forms of external funding. What efforts are being made to ensure that sustainable funding regimes are put in place for such organisations, so that community groups can plan with more certainty for the future?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about what happens to third sector organisations. I had the privilege of visiting third sector organisations in Stockport, his neighbouring constituency, where I saw their good work. It is precisely through new objectives that measure the performance of local government in relation to third sector organisations that we hope to make a difference to the stability of funding provided.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will salute and champion the role of the third sector in the delivery of aid to some of the poorest and most disadvantaged children on the planet. This is not a request for public funding: will the Minister simply pay tribute to the extremely important work undertaken by the Schools for Africa project, which is engaged in mobilising the enthusiasm and voluntary initiative of thousands of schoolchildren across the country, in enabling the provision of decent-quality books and equipment to children in the developing world whose opportunities are few and far between?

Let me pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his long-standing championing of the need for the right amounts of overseas development assistance. I think that he would join me in suggesting that it is extremely good that we are on the way to the 0.7 per cent. target, which is an extraordinary achievement for this country. I also want to pay tribute to the voluntary work done to support aid organisations. The non-governmental organisation overseas aid sector distinguishes itself by speaking up for changes in the law and policy, and by campaigning in relation to the developing world, and we also very much want to protect that.

My right hon. Friend might not be aware that I was on the management committee of my local citizens advice bureau in the early 1990s, when the CAB and other organisations were condemned by Conservative Ministers for behaving in ways that were deemed to be political. There was an assumption that those organisations could not campaign to get the law changed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that was political correctness gone mad? Does he also agree that this Government’s policy towards the third sector should involve no such restriction on campaigning?

My hon. Friend has a distinguished record in championing the rights of the third sector. I did not know about his history of involvement in his local CAB, but he makes a profoundly important point. We had an illuminating debate on the matter last Thursday. While the third sector review champions the right of voluntary organisations to speak up, campaign, draw on their experience and say how they want policy to change, it is becoming increasingly clear to third sector organisations around the country that the Conservative party has great doubts about that.

The Minister has correctly said that the growth of the third sector, which is welcome, must not replace adequate funding of public services by Government. At the Lewes Victoria hospital in my constituency, however, the league of friends increasingly spends money not on fripperies but on essential medical equipment. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the third sector does not engage in work that the public sector should do, and that we do not effectively have postcode funding based on the strength of the third sector?

I do not know about the local example raised by the hon. Gentleman. I point out to him, however, that the health service budget has increased in the past 10 years from about £30 billion to more than £100 billion. Historically, volunteers have played an important role in relation to the health service, without, as far as possible, substituting for what paid members of staff do. At a local London hospital I had the privilege of meeting volunteers who add to what paid staff can do, and I agree with him that that must be the objective.

In the third sector review published in July the Government stated that they could

“see no objection—legal or other—to a charity pursuing”

its purposes

“wholly or mainly through political activities”.

In last Thursday’s debate I asked the Minister if it was his view that a charity should be allowed to devote 100 per cent. of its resources to campaigning politically, to which he replied:

“No, that is not my view.”—[Official Report, 18 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 989.]

Will the Minister therefore clarify what is the view of the Government? Should a charity be allowed to pursue its purposes wholly through political activities—yes or no?

In this we are guided by the Charity Commission. If the hon. Gentleman had done his homework, he would have read the April 2007 Charity Commission document on the matter. Question 11 asks about a small charity that might for a temporary period devote all its resources to campaigning. The Charity Commission view is that that is all right, and that is my view, too. However, it goes on to say that if in the long term that becomes the sole activity of an organisation, then that is not acceptable. It is becoming increasingly clear that while we want to protect the independent voice of charities, the Opposition want to go back to the 1980s—

If the voluntary sector is to be more successful in bidding for public services, is it not the case that it must improve its bidding, its marketing of itself and demonstrate its track record, and also that it must have more robust forms of governance and clearer lines of accountability to its stakeholders? What are the Government doing to enable it to capacity build in those regards, so that it can have a better track record in winning public service contracts?

Again, my hon. Friend makes an important point. The investment that we are making through Capacitybuilders in this spending review is precisely about building up the capacity of third sector organisations, so that they have the skills to be able to supply public services and fulfil contracts. Also, the Futurebuilders programme is investing in public services. The third sector accepts its responsibility to demonstrate the accountability my hon. Friend talks about, and to have the necessary skills and expertise.

Is the Minister not aware that the voluntary sector in this country is often assisted financially by local authorities, and that that is money well spent? Is he not further aware that many local authorities—not least Cheshire county council and Macclesfield borough council in my constituency—are under-resourced and do not have the opportunity or ability to help voluntary organisations such as the Crossroads association in Macclesfield, of which I am patron? They want to do more, but they do not have the money. Will the Government ensure that local authorities are adequately resourced?

The hon. Gentleman is a long-serving and distinguished Member of this House, but it sounds as if he is making a request that goes beyond my remit: that we should spend a lot more public money on local authorities. I shall pass on his thoughts to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I point out to him that how much local authorities prioritise the work that they do with the third sector is a matter for their discretion. Many local authorities have a distinguished record, and I urge others to follow their example.

Community Organisations

Small community organisations are an essential part of a strong local voluntary sector—indeed, they are a key part of a strong and thriving community—and support for their work is a Government priority. The office of the third sector has created the £30 million community assets fund, which will help community groups to take on the ownership and management of assets. It is also introducing a new £80 million programme of small grants for small community and voluntary organisations and a £50 million programme of endowment grants to help local foundations to provide an enduring source of funding.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. In Hove and Portslade in my constituency, the Sussex multiple sclerosis treatment centre, a charitable organisation set up and run entirely by MS sufferers, was charged VAT on its building work to enlarge its centre. We were eventually able to get the VAT written off, but does my hon. Friend agree that it would be of particular benefit to all charitable organisations if there was VAT exemption for such third sector organisations?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on achieving the write-off. In any application for a local authority grant to pay for refurbishment or repairs, third sector organisations are very much encouraged to include the costs of VAT, so that every such organisation gets the full cost recovery from grants of that kind. On the wider question, there is a generous package of tax relief and tax exemptions for charities, but broader questions about VAT are a matter for the Treasury. I shall bring her point to the attention of my Treasury colleagues.

Areas in my constituency rank in the top 10 per cent. of deprived communities. Last Friday, I discussed one particular project that is seeking funding both to develop volunteers to help others and to help alleviate deprivation in Skelmersdale by increasing access to advice and skills by way of information and communications technology facilities. How will the Government’s investment in the third sector help such organisations?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her excellent work as a champion of voluntary organisations in her constituency. Through Capacitybuilders, the Government are providing some £85 million-worth of investment over the next three years to local and national organisations to give advice and support, including on administration and skills, on making use of computers and on the internet. I would recommend that as a first step the organisation that she mentions goes to the Capacitybuilders website or contacts its main switchboard. We can provide her with the details about that. Many local authorities and businesses often provide surplus computers and equipment to voluntary organisations, and she might like to pursue that avenue too.

Will the Minister join me in condemning Manchester city council’s decision to undermine local community groups by choosing to increase rent massively on its buildings?

I am afraid that it is not my position to condemn one council or another. This Government have made it clear to local authorities that we expect them to provide sustainable, long-term, three-year funding in compliance with the Compact, which applies across the country. They should also ensure, as part of the local government performance framework, that local third sector organisations thrive in every local area across this country in line with this Government’s objective of ensuring that we have a modern, 21st-century third sector that delivers, and stands up and campaigns for the needs of people in communities.

Voluntary Sector

20. If he will make a statement on the role of voluntary sector organisations in the delivery of public services. (159748)

Voluntary organisations have an important role to play in the design, development and delivery of public services. That is why in areas such as child care provision, recycling and employment services we are promoting the sector’s role. Third sector delivery will not be used by this Government as a cut-price alternative to properly funded public services.

While the Minister’s words are fine, in practice very little is happening. Does he understand why the voluntary sector is so disappointed that it is not being included more in delivery in the public sector?

I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman, because lots is happening. If one looks around the country at the different services provided by the voluntary sector, from recycling to pathways to work, the offender management service to child care provision, one sees that in a whole host of different areas the third sector is increasingly playing a role in public services. There is further to go and we want to encourage it.

Before I call the statement, may I say that a practice has come in that hon. Members are reading supplementary questions? I am not going to single out any hon. Member, but they should hear what the Minister has to say and respond accordingly. Questions should not be prepared beforehand. We are well into this Parliament, and the practice should not continue.