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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 481: debated on Tuesday 21 October 2008

Transport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Ports

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on the effects of recent changes to the rating system in ports on the operation of those ports. (228325)

Following representations that I have received on behalf of businesses in ports, I am in correspondence with the Minister for Local Government, and our officials at the Department for Transport have been discussing the matter with officials at the Department for Communities and Local Government.

In the light of damning remarks by the Treasury Committee, what comfort can the Minister offer to struggling companies working in 55 UK ports, which are faced with 200 per cent. business rate increases while wealthy port owners will have a windfall?

While researching for my response to the hon. Gentleman, I naturally looked at Northamptonshire to see what particular port was of special interest to him—

I am not critical of the hon. Gentleman at all. As Minister with responsibility for shipping, I am grateful for any interest in the subject, as I know that shipping feels undervalued and that it is not give the credit that it is due. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government are aware of the concerns of businesses within ports about the backdating of business rates, and are we are looking at the position. Other right hon. and hon. Members have also made representations.

Can my hon. Friend give the House an assurance that he is dealing with this matter as a matter of urgency? Does he accept that levying retrospective business rates in ports such as Liverpool and Hull has an effect on the economic regeneration that is so evident in our ports?

As my hon. Friend, who is the Chairman of the Transport Committee, knows, during a debate on regional matters by our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government she was given an assurance that the Government are aware of the concerns about backdating raised by business within our ports, and we are looking at the situation. Indeed, I had a telephone conversation with the Minister for Local Government earlier today; we are looking into this as a matter of urgency.

In the course of his discussions with the Minister for Local Government, will the Minister seek to resolve a paradox? The Financial Secretary to the Treasury indicated to me in a written answer that retrospective taxation should be imposed only

“where the Government consider that it is necessary to protect revenue and…is fair, proportionate and in the public interest”.—[Official Report, 9 October 2008; Vol. 480, c. 802W.]

How can that be reconciled with another written answer from the Financial Secretary saying that no impact assessment was made of this retrospective decision—or, indeed, with the written answer from the Minister for Local Government saying that no assessment has been made of the amount of revenue that might be raised, and, I assume, protected?

I am at a slight disadvantage in not having to hand the three replies that the hon. Gentleman refers to. I can say that assessments have been made of the financial impact on ports and the businesses within them in respect of the increase in revenue afforded as a result of the examination of business rates within ports by the Valuation Office Agency. As I said in response both to the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), the Chair of the Transport Committee, the Government are looking into these matters and we will respond as soon as we can.

My hon. Friend will no doubt be aware that I am the Member of Parliament representing the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company—a fantastically thriving port. It had been decimated by the Tories, so in 1997 unemployment was very high. I accept what the Minister has said about his intervention in this very important matter, but will he come to visit our port, and some of the very successful companies that are working there, in order to hear about their prospects for the future under this Government?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s generous offer of a visit to the city of Liverpool and the port in her constituency. I am visiting ports as a matter of routine, and I will certainly look to see how quickly I can fit this particular visit into the schedule, and write to my hon. Friend about it.

The Minister knows of the desperate plight faced by those all those who serve the shipping industry, with the collapse in shipping rates. Will he confirm not only that there was no impact assessment of any sort, but that while the ports that stand to do well out of this were all consulted, there was no consultation of any kind with any of the businesses that will be adversely affected?

As I have explained over the last few minutes, this is very much a matter for the Department for Communities and Local Government, to which the Valuation Office Agency is responsible and reports in respect of its activities. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman once again that assessments have been carried out. I have to apologise to the House for not being in a position to confirm whether a full impact assessment was made, but I will ask my DCLG colleagues whether that was the case, and I will certainly let the hon. Gentleman know the position as a matter of urgency.

New London Airport

2. What recent discussions he has had on the possibility of development of a new airport to the east of London. (228326)

The Government consulted on an option for a new airport in north Kent in preparing the 2003 “Future of Air Transport” White Paper. As the White Paper makes clear, that option and other proposals for a new airport in the Thames estuary were rejected in favour of supporting development at existing airports in the south-east of England. That remains the Government’s position.

Has the Secretary of State considered the effects of airport expansion, or of the building of new airports, on wildlife, birds and the wider environment? What guarantees can he give that the country’s rich biodiversity will be protected? Will he undertake to consult the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds before conducting further airport expansion in our country?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question, because one of the main reasons why the Mayor of London’s proposals are not practical is that building an estuarial airport in places of ecological sensitivity, which have large seabird populations, is not practical, because of both the impact on the environment and the risk of bird strike—a phenomenon not unknown to those who operate aircraft. Perhaps surprisingly, I find myself agreeing with the hon. Gentleman, and I trust that he will communicate his views firmly to the Mayor of London.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his recent appointment as Transport Secretary, and I look forward to him dealing effectively but resolutely with all issues, particularly the need to secure more aviation capacity in the south-east. Does he agree that the problem is not just the local environmental impact of a potential new airport in the Thames estuary, but the lack of a substantial work force locally? Is it not fantasy politics to suggest that a Thames estuary airport could ever obviate the need for a third runway at Heathrow?

Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to the excellent work completed by my right hon. Friend during her service in the Department for Transport. She was well respected within the Department and across the transport industry. I am grateful for her comments, not least because she displays a knowledge and understanding of the issues, which I hope in time to acquire, and which certainly far outstrips the rather feeble views set out so far by Opposition Front Benchers on such questions. Clearly they lack any consistent support from their Back Benchers, as we have seen recently. It is disappointing that they have not paid attention to the voice of British business on a question as vital as the future of the United Kingdom’s major airport. I hope that there is some principled reason for their position, but I suspect that there may not be.

The Secretary of State may be a little complacent in his duties if he says that it would be perfectly proper to consult the RSPB about an estuarial airport. The United Kingdom is likely to need a 24-hour airport in the future, and historically, demand for air travel has grown constantly. If the Government did not keep the options under review they would not be doing their duty, and they should not dismiss the suggestions of the Mayor of London so lightly.

In preparation for the 2003 White Paper, some 400 different possible sites were examined. Other than the existing airports, one was examined in greater detail, and even that was rejected on grounds of feasibility, cost and practicality. It cannot therefore be said that the Government have not looked in detail at the options. The hon. Gentleman is right, however, to say that it is always necessary to keep such issues under review. Given that a major undertaking involving the consideration of 400 possible sites was carried out very recently, I hope that he accepts—fair man that he is—that there is not much point in reviewing the whole issue again so soon.

But one thing is for certain: if we do not increase capacity in this country, the trade will end up in Europe, either at Schiphol or at Charles de Gaulle. Is that not one thing that the Opposition have not considered?

If they have not considered it, they have not considered the matter carefully. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to consider the 100,000 jobs provided by Heathrow in the surrounding area, the impact on British business, and the impact on overseas investment: 70 per cent. of companies that invest for the first time in the United Kingdom do so in places less than an hour from Heathrow. All those are major considerations. If the Opposition’s position rests somehow on an environmental case, they need to face up to the fact that the great majority of people travelling into Heathrow, who catch long-distance flights, would transfer their journeys to continental airports such as Schiphol, Paris and Frankfurt. There would be no saving of carbon, but instead—[Interruption.] Opposition Front Benchers are laughing, but this is not a laughing matter as far as British jobs are concerned. British jobs would be exported to the continent, which is a remarkable result for a party that is supposed to be anti-European.

Waterloo International

3. What progress has been made on the conversion of Waterloo International for the use of London suburban rail services. (228327)

Works to convert one platform of Waterloo International for domestic use will be completed by December 2008. The Department continues to work with South West Trains with a view to some existing services operating into and out of platform 20 from next year.

I thank the Minister and his predecessor for their support for this project, but the rail operators are saying that they cannot improve services unless they have more rolling stock. Will the Government give priority to that additional investment, under their accelerated programme for railway investment?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are, in a sense, two stages—a short-term and a medium-term solution—in relation to, in this instance, Waterloo station. In the short term, we need to establish a service by next year through South West Trains. The longer-term solution will involve HLOS—the high-level output specification—and the reconfiguration of all routes into Waterloo, with longer trains to meet capacity requirements. That is part of the £10 billion package in which the Government are investing until 2014.

The Minister may be aware that Waterloo International, designed by that great British architect Nick Grimshaw, is one of the finest steel and glass constructions—if not the world’s best—since the Crystal Palace was built for the great exhibition in 1851. Alas, at present we can only see it from the top of the London Eye. As the Minister contemplates what will happen to Waterloo International, will he arrange for one or two buildings around it to be demolished, so that we can actually see one of the finest bits of glass and steel architecture built in recent years?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. I am currently dealing with issues related to transport, but he is right to point out that redeveloping and proceeding with plans in an optimal way invariably involves many other players. We will certainly take his comments on board, and I am sure that the relevant authorities will imagine seeing Waterloo in the same splendid way as we now see the Barlow shed at St Pancras.

As well as finding out whether Waterloo International might be used for London suburban rail services, will the Minister find out whether it might be used for services from further afield—from Hampshire and the south-west, where there is enormous pressure on the train service?

The right hon. Gentleman has raised a wider issue, relating to capacity and ways of making the best possible use of our existing facilities and infrastructure. The current HLOS plan is to build on capacity and the available options through that £10 billion package. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly) has asked Network Rail formally to consider a number of options for the period beyond 2014, and we await further work which will undoubtedly start to feed ideas into the work stream in 2009.

I welcome the Minister to his new role, and hope that he is as successful in it as his predecessor.

Every morning commuters from all over south-west London, and indeed from further afield, are reminded that they travel on one of the most overcrowded parts of our railway network, yet they continue to see four platforms not being used. The Government knew in 2004 that Eurostar services would go to St Pancras, yet only one platform will be in operation before 2014, as the Minister has just confirmed. According to estimates provided by industry, it would cost only £10 million to bring the other four platforms into use, and it is costing half a million pounds to mothball them. Is this any way to treat commuters?

One thing of which I am certain is that we must invest constructively in infrastructure fit for the 21st century. I am well aware of the vast increase in passenger journeys over the last ten years, causing substantial demand on our safe, secure and relatively efficient network. That is important. Reliability has improved tremendously and South West Trains’ latest figures show that its reliability is up to 92.5 per cent from August to September. That is what people want: reliable services at a reasonable cost.

On investing, there will be many demands on the £10 billion to which I have referred to increase capacity. I am sure that other hon. Members from all regions have demands in their neck of the woods. We are dealing with the short-term requirements to 2009; the longer term will involve changing capacity at Waterloo and other stations.

A46

Plans for substantial highway improvements on the A46 between Newark and Widmerpool are well developed and being reviewed by the east midlands region in its assessment of funding priorities. The Department for Transport expects to receive the region’s advice early in 2009.

Let me welcome my hon. Friend to his new position, and immediately ask for his help in resolving a problem that applies to the whole of the east midlands. He recognises the problem; it is simply one of funding. The road scheme costs £370 million, and it is simply unreasonable to ask the regional pot to fund it. It is like keeping a whale in a bucket. Will he look again at this matter?

I thank my hon. Friend for his words of welcome. I am well aware that this has been a long saga. He will be well aware that the costs for the scheme have increased tremendously. He mentions £370 million, but he will find that the figure is between £370 million and £500 million, at some £437 million. We are looking at the possibilities. The Highways Agency is working closely with the region and the local authorities in the east midlands to see whether there is a possibility of phasing, and we are expecting that work to be completed shortly.

May I too welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities, and also ask for his help? Is he aware that the decision of one of his recent predecessors to make this a regional rather than a national priority has had the inevitable effect of causing indefinite delay to an important scheme on a dangerous road that is very important to the regional economy? If the Government are now serious in their stated intention of giving greater priority to capital expenditure in the course of reviving the economy, surely this is an obvious scheme to consider. It has already gone through years of preparation, has practically completed the planning process, and is ready to be started in a comparatively short time—in the next year or two, if the Government were to make the funds available.

I hear exactly what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying and I thank him for welcoming me to my post. There are many schemes that right hon. and hon. Members would describe as absolutely critical, for a whole host of very sound reasons. We took the decision, rightly, to bring together the decision-making processes on roads, economic development and housing at regional level so that there could be a better understanding and meshing of those requirements at regional level, where, as I am sure the right hon. and learned Gentleman will accept, the importance of schemes is best known. In terms of regional priorities and whether this scheme can proceed, let me add that the Highways Agency is working closely with the east midlands region to see what phasing of this scheme there could be, to make the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s dream—and the dream of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping)—come true.

May I welcome the Minister to his post—and may I expose my dream to him as well? No wonder prices for this scheme are increasing disproportionately, because we have been talking about it since 1958, and nothing has been done. The fact remains that Newark is being strangled economically by this one piece of road that has not been dualled. We have good pieces of road running up to Lincoln and in the other direction down to Leicester. Unless something is done about this quickly and effectively, which it can be, Newark will continue not to fulfil its full economic promise. May I invite the Minister and/or the Secretary of State to come and visit, and to see exactly what are the effects on my constituency of this dangerous road, which is long overdue for improvement?

I am interested in the fact that this road scheme has been waiting since 1958—and I wonder why progress was not made under other Administrations. [Interruption.] Yes, the former Chancellor, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), may have had something to do with that. The safety issues are rightly recognised locally, by the region, by the Highways Agency and by us, but there must be an order of priority for schemes. It is necessary for that to be built into the whole programme for the allocation of funding, which over this period is tremendously higher both regionally and in terms of the strategic network of roads. We always take into account invitations to visit, although whether there can be a visit soon is another matter.

Seafarers’ Pay

5. When his Department last held discussions with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on the application of the national minimum wage to seafarers. (228329)

There has been regular contact between the Department for Transport and DBERR on this issue, going back many months. The last discussion at official level was on 16 October.

I am sure that my hon. Friend shares my pride that Labour’s minimum wage has made this a fairer country and taken millions of people out of poverty—but when are Ministers going to take action to close the loophole that allows foreign seafarers sailing between British ports to be paid as little as one third of the national minimum wage—sometimes less than £2 an hour? Will he meet me and my colleagues, and DBERR representatives, prior to our discussions of the Employment Bill, so that we can stop this exploitation of working people?

I well remember the introduction of the national minimum wage; I remember staying up all night to fight the Conservatives tooth and nail, while they did everything they could to prevent it from being introduced. The application of the national minimum wage to seafarers is a complex issue, as my hon. Friend knows, and it is the subject of ongoing discussions within Government. Three Departments have an interest: DBERR as the owners of national minimum wage legislation; the Department for Transport because we have general responsibility for seafarers’ employment rights; and the Foreign Office because of the implications for international law. Ships are generally governed by the law of their flag state even when on what is known as innocent passage through the territorial waters of another state. Any changes to national minimum wage legislation would need to be consistent with international law. I know my hon. Friend knows that, and that he also knows that we are trying to address this question.

UK seafarers can be denied the national minimum wage by foreign flagged vessels even when they work exclusively out of UK ports—and, as we have just heard, foreign seafarers face racial discrimination on UK ships. Why do we continue to allow this kind of thing to happen in UK territorial waters, when we would never allow it on UK territorial land?

The national minimum wage currently applies to those who are working, or who ordinarily work, in the UK under their contract. For seafarers, “in the UK” means in internal waters—in other words, the water and waterways to the landward side of the baseline. It applies to those working on UK-registered ships, unless the employment is wholly outside the UK or the worker is not ordinarily resident in the UK. It applies to offshore workers—for instance, on oil rigs in territorial waters—but excludes workers on ships in the course of navigation or engaged in dredging or fishing. The maritime unions are campaigning to get the extension to which my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser) referred, and we are doing what we can to address the issue.

Midland Main Line

6. What steps are being taken to raise line speeds and reduce train congestion on the midland main line. (228330)

Network Rail has proposed line speed enhancements on the midland main line as part of the plan to deliver the capacity improvements sought by the Government in the July 2007 rail White Paper. The independent Office of Rail Regulation has indicated that it is minded to agree to that project. A final determination is expected from the ORR at the end of the month.

When the next timetable change happens, half the trains north from Kettering will be lost, and all the fast trains between Kettering and the capital will disappear, because of capacity constraints on the midland main line, inadequate line speeds and the Department’s insistence that services between Sheffield, Nottingham, Derby and the capital be sped up. Can the Secretary of State reassure my constituents in Kettering that the line speed upgrades that he has just promised will ensure that those services are reinstated to Kettering as soon as possible?

I have admired the consistency with which the hon. Gentleman raises issues of behalf of Kettering and his constituents, but I thought that he was less than generous in his observations about improvements on the midland main line, not least those that affect Kettering. Not only will significant investment improve line speeds, but a new timetable that comes into force in December is likely to provide two trains an hour from Kettering to London, one of which will actually start in Kettering. As he will be aware, there are times when those of us who catch the train from further up the line at Derby, Nottingham and Leicester fill it before his constituents have the opportunity to get on. Starting a train at Kettering and having an hourly service direct from Kettering to London will mean that his constituents are well served. I hope that when he goes from this place and talks about the remarkable improvements in the service from Kettering, he will give them a bit more praise than he has so far.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s positive response to the question, and I know that he knows the line very well. Does he agree that the most significant improvements to it can be achieved only as a result of electrification? Does he share his predecessor’s commitment to a study of electrification, and does he recognise that, uniquely among main lines, this one has a very positive cost benefit attached to it?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. He will be aware that I take a close, indeed personal, interest in the midland main line, as a regular user of it. I certainly share my predecessor’s enthusiasm for electrification, and I assure my hon. Friend that the Department will examine it very closely.

I welcome the new ministerial team to their posts. Typical—you wait months for a new Transport Minister, then three come along at the same time.

The Secretary of State’s predecessors promised extra carriages. How many have been ordered for the midland main line?

I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome. I remember her as an enthusiastic Member of the European Parliament, where she had a deserved reputation for a practical and pragmatic approach to issues. I am sorry that on her return from Brussels to Notting Hill she seems to have fallen in with a bad crowd. Nevertheless, I look forward to answering her questions, not least on the midland main line. I am delighted that she is so enthusiastic about it that she has chosen this matter to discuss with me. I use the line on a very regular basis and I can assure her, as I have assured Labour Members, that close attention will be paid to future investment in the midland main line.

I think that the answer that the Secretary of State is groping for is actually “zero”. The Government’s response to congestion on the midland main line and the rest of the network is wholly inadequate and painfully slow. He cannot even give a straight answer about the new carriages that they have promised time and again. Will he deliver all 1,300, and will they be in addition to the new Thameslink carriages? If he really wants to tackle congestion on the rail network, will he work with me on a cross-party basis to take forward plans for high-speed rail for this country?

Again, I am sorry to hear such a grudging view of the investment in the railways that the Government are planning. We have proposed to spend £15 billion on improving our rail network, of which £10 billion will be devoted to reducing congestion. That is an enormous commitment. I am sorry that the former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer is not in his place, because he will know that no previous Conservative Transport Secretary could ever have made that commitment. I am proud that my predecessors were able to secure such support from the Treasury to allow that investment to go ahead.

May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that with the £15 billion of investment, to try to increase rail line speeds and reduce train congestion, we should nationalise the railways, just as we are nationalising the banks, by not renewing the franchises as they fall due? Many of those franchises, just like the banks, are bankrupt and would not be operating except for huge Government subsidy. Let us move the railways back into state ownership. What are his views on that?

I think that I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question—I may have to reflect upon it. I am sorry that he takes that view of the contributions that have been made by train operating companies, not least because there has been a remarkable change in the usage patterns on the line that we have just been debating, the midland main line. Whereas trains used to stop only at Derby, Nottingham and Leicester on their way south, passing all the stations in between, there is now an hourly service from stations such as Kettering right down the line, and that has made a huge change to the usage. A further change has been the way in which off-peak services have attracted rail users. When I travelled down from Derby to London on Saturday, the first class compartments were full. In the days of the nationalised railways, those compartments would, sadly, have been completely empty on Saturdays. I hope that he gives some credit to the innovation that the private sector has brought. The position of Network Rail has clearly changed in recent times, and we ensure that Network Rail provides a safe and reliable system for users of the rail network. Thus, on balance, I shall probably resist his invitation.

I formally welcome the Secretary of State to his post on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, merely observing that the average tenure of office of a Secretary of State for Transport since 1945 is considerably less than 18 months—that is, of course, some way short of the next general election.

On the midland main line, is not one of the causes of the capacity constraints and the failure to electrify the cuts that have been made to the Department for Transport’s budget? Rather than the investment that the Secretary of State mentions, the reality is that the rail budget has reduced by 17 per cent. this year and is now lower than in 2003-04, whereas the road budget has doubled. Given that, and given the Secretary of State’s unhelpful response to the Select Committee on Transport on the subject of fares and his support for aviation, is it not clear that the new Transport Secretary is no friend of either the railways or the environment?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his qualified welcome. He and I had many dealings in my time at the Ministry of Defence, and I always admired his ability to dig himself into a trench and launch a constant barrage at what he perceived to be the enemy; sadly, he sometimes did so after the war had finished. Nevertheless, I look forward to debating these issues with him. As a start, he might perhaps like to examine the remarkable increases in investment in the railways and the remarkable improvement in passenger journeys on our trains. I assure him that while I am Secretary of State for Transport—however long that might be—there will be no lack of investment in or commitment to our rail network.

Topical Questions

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to set out to the House the new ministerial responsibilities in the Department for Transport. I shall, of course, maintain an overview of all transport policy. My noble Friend Lord Adonis will take responsibility for our national road and rail networks, the environment and climate change. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), will cover our international aviation and maritime networks, road safety and transport security. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), will take responsibility for all our local transport networks, including responsibility for buses, taxis, cycling, light rail, walking and general accessibility policy. That role is known otherwise in the Department as the Minister for Adjournment debates.

May I repeat a suggestion that I have made to every single one of the Secretary of State’s predecessors whom I have encountered, but without success? Why not set up in his Department a dedicated unit of civil servants to work with people outside to reopen disused and dismantled railway lines? That is crying out to be done. I have a railway in my constituency between Skipton and Colne, and I am sure that it would benefit if he had the best minds in his Department working on this issue to re-establish a railway that was closed in 1975.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s consistency on this question. I am sure that, with his commitment to local government and democracy, he will not mind me saying that if there is a strong local case for reopening railway lines, the case can be made and brought to the Department, where it will be looked at favourably. I am sure that he would not want me to interfere in these matters from the lofty heights of central London, as it would be better if he could persuade the local authorities along the line in question to make the case for reopening the line and to get on with it.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new role. Will he now focus his mind on what is scheduled to happen on Monday next week, when we are due to debate the remaining stages of the Local Transport Bill? Is he aware that already 68 pages of new clauses and amendments have been tabled, many of them by the Government? There is still time for more to be added. On reflection, does he agree that one day’s debate is woefully inadequate, and will he have a word with the Labour Chief Whip to point out that this situation verges on contempt of Parliament and that we need two days?

I am grateful for that welcome. Having served as Chief Whip and as Leader of the House, I am reluctant to interfere in the wise decisions made by the business managers. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham, is looking hard at the amendments and trying to find a sensible way to deal with all of them. It is a matter for the business managers to allocate time, and I am confident that there will be sufficient time for a full and proper debate of the remaining stages of the Bill.

T5. Can Ministers look into the situation whereby Chorley borough council was granted £4 million by Royal Ordnance to provide a new railway station at Buckshaw in Euxton? The cost was estimated at £4 million, but Network Rail now says that it needs £6 million to build that new railway station. It comes on the back of a wagon, so why will it cost £6 million? What can Ministers do through their good offices to bang heads together to get that railway station up and open? (228349)

My hon. Friend was a persistent questioner at Defence questions and I am delighted to see him in his usual place for Transport questions. On the particular issue that he raises, I may need a little more notice to answer his question in detail, but I assure him that he will get a full and complete answer.

T2. The Secretary of State will be only too aware of the magnificent work carried out by the brave men and women of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, who take part in nine out of 10 sea rescues around our shores. Will he comment on the impact on safety at sea if Ofcom gets its way and decides to introduce charges for VHF frequencies for rescue charities such as the RNLI? (228346)

I fully agree with the praise heaped on the RNLI by the hon. Gentleman, as I am sure does the whole House. I was lucky enough to visit its headquarters in Poole only a few months ago, and I saw for myself the excellent facilities and the plans to improve them even further. I am sure that he knows that the spectrum issue is the subject of consultation that is about to close. I can assure him that the issues that he raises have been brought to the attention of the appropriate authority. Issues remain to be resolved, but I can assure him that we are involved, and as a result of this exchange, his concerns will be fed back to the Department involved.

The Minister will be aware of the concern among offshore workers following recent guidance from the Treasury on the seafarers’ earnings deduction. Will he confirm that he has spoken with the Treasury about that and assure offshore workers that they will not be adversely affected by the guidance?

The Department has had informal discussions with Nautilus UK and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs following the special commissioner’s decision in the Pride of South America case. Although there have not been any discussions with the Treasury, I understand that my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is aware of the concerns raised by the decision. HMRC will work closely with stakeholders on the interpretation of the commissioner’s decision to ensure that it is implemented in a fair and practical way.

T3. Has the Minister had an opportunity to read the conclusions of the independent inquiry set up by Essex county council—his noble Friend Lord Whitty took part in it—to look into the problems of congestion and traffic accidents on the A12? Is the Minister aware that the A12 is probably the main road into the hinterland of the east of England, leading to the ports at Harwich and Felixstowe? What are the Government prepared to do to assist Essex county council in funding the improvements that are badly needed? (228347)

The A12 has been referred to by the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members before. As he knows, the matter has been under consideration for some time. In respect of road accidents and collisions, we are about to launch the consultation early next year on our post-2010 strategy. We are looking at the EuroRAP—European road assessment programme—assessment system for roads, whereby accident rates are fed into that which ought to be done to reduce casualties and instances of death and serious injury. The A12 may well be prioritised above its station, given the description that the hon. Gentleman has just provided, but it will form part of a strategy for 2010 onwards.

In welcoming the Secretary of State to his new position, may I urge him to review the drink-drive limits and to make proposals to bring us into line with most of the rest of Europe?

The Department is on record as saying that we will issue relatively soon our consultation on drink-drive limits as well as on compliance and enforcement on a range of other issues, such as driving with drugs, careless driving, speeding and so on. That consultation will come out shortly. We have said so far—we have been misreported in the press—that we will not recommend a reduction of the limit to 50 mg, in line with other European countries. We have said that it might not and probably will not be one of our recommendations, but having a drink-drive consultation obviously opens up the question. There are strong feelings on the issue, so we fully expect that a number of organisations will argue for such a change. The evidence will be tested against those submissions and we will look at the conclusions in due course. Although some other European countries have a 50 mg limit, they do not have the same penalties as us for drink driving. Some have a points penalty and a fine, and their record on road safety is not as good as the UK’s. The issue is complex and emotive, and I am sure that it will be fully examined as a result of the consultation.

T6. The Secretary of State referred to the Office of Rail Regulation’s consultation, part of which is a proposal to double the line between Swindon and Kemble—a proposal that many of us in Gloucestershire have been fighting for for many years, with good reason. The line between Gloucester and Cheltenham and London is totally inadequate for a city and town the size of Gloucester and Cheltenham. Will the Secretary of State have a word with the office and stress how important that proposal is? (228350)

Of course, the office is totally independent, and its remit is independent of the Department for Transport. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising yet another illustration of where the significant investment that the Government are making available to the network might produce benefits by reducing congestion and improving journey times. I hope that those on his Front Bench can emulate the commitment to railways that the Government have made.

T7. The Chancellor of the Exchequer says that he is bringing forward public building programmes. Will the Secretary of State be very kind and bring forward the upgrading and improvement of junction 9 on the M40? It is work that seriously needs to be done if we are to see the development of Bicester. The last group of Transport Ministers undertook to get the work done, and it would be really good news if the right hon. Gentleman would get on with it. (228351)

T8. May I ask the Secretary of State to have an early look at the actions of the Driving Standards Agency with regard to the introduction of the new motorcycle test? The agency believes that it is acceptable to require people from Orkney to travel to Wick on mainland Scotland to take their test. Will he join me in impressing on the DSA that that is not acceptable, and that provision needs to be made available within the island groups? (228352)

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the DSA keeps under close scrutiny the new arrangements that will be introduced in due course for the new multi-purpose test centres and the new motorcycle test. He will know about the criteria that have been laid down, and we are aware that they do not fit in certain parts of the country. We will look very closely at the arrangements that will be in place for his and other constituencies. We have deferred the introduction of the new test for six months because of the concerns expressed by the motorcycle training sector. That shows that we are listening, as we will continue to listen, to representations from hon. Members.

Women and Equality

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Equality Bill

We are making good progress in preparing the Bill. It is a significant challenge to simplify all the existing legislation and to strengthen protection in the ways that we are proposing. I therefore cannot give a precise answer as to the timing of the Bill’s introduction, but the House can rest assured that we are getting on with it and that the Bill will be introduced when it is ready.

I am grateful for that response, and wish the Parliamentary Secretary no insult when I say that I hope that the Minister for Women and Equality will be back with us shortly and in time for business questions on Thursday. I am interested in the Parliamentary Secretary’s answer, as the director general of the Government Equalities Office suggested in an interview in Whitehall and Westminster World on 27 August that the Bill would be introduced to the House at the end of February or in early March. I received a written answer from the Parliamentary Secretary’s predecessor on 6 October that simply committed to it happening sometime during this Parliament. Perhaps she cannot give us an exact answer, but will she give us some idea as to whether the director general’s suggestion about February or March is accurate, or whether the Bill will be introduced later? That would be very helpful to all the organisations that wish to lobby us about the contents of the Bill.

When preparing legislation, I am a great one for pressing for it to be brought forward as soon as possible, but I am also keen to make sure that it is in a fit state to be dealt with properly by this House. I think that that is desirable, but I have been doing this particular job for only a week and a half and I do not wish to commit myself to a precise date. [Interruption.] No, the Bill is in a fit state, but I and my officials will be pressing to make sure that it is introduced in the best possible state and as soon as possible.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the measures in the Equality Bill should apply in good times and in bad, and that progressive policies that address inequality, such as the right to request flexible working, should not be the first to go when there is a downturn in the economy?

I agree completely with my hon. Friend. I also agree with my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who said yesterday that we will carry on supporting flexible working, because a whole load of people need it. That is absolutely true, and it is important that fairness is at the forefront of our employment practices at times of economic downturn as well in the good times. We intend to make sure that it remains that way.

The timetable for the Equality Bill has slipped already, and we now hear that the Government are seriously considering scrapping their commitment to the right to an extension of flexible working and paid maternity leave. Given that, and the importance that the Minister for Women and Equality places on the Bill, will the Parliamentary Secretary give a firm commitment that the Bill will be on the statute books before the next general election?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is overreacting to coverage in the newspapers that has gone a bit too far. His own party has also had coverage in the newspapers. On the Sunday before last, The Observer suggested that the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was saying that flexibility should be scrapped immediately and that there should be less regulation of businesses, by which he meant less employment protection. There are different signals coming out of the hon. Gentleman’s party. At the same time, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is proposing a private Member’s Bill—

Order. I must say to the Minister that she should be speaking about the responsibilities of her Department. We will leave it at that.

In reviewing the equality legislation, will my hon. Friend take full account of last week’s debate on the report on women and work by the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee, including its recommendations on flexible working, introducing clarification on the use of public procurement to promote such policies, and ensuring that businesses meet their requirements to promote equality?

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that commitment. As she is aware, public procurement is worth up to £160 billion of business in any particular year. It is sensible that the Government’s commitment to closing the gender pay gap and promoting equality should make use of that purchasing power. When the new Bill gets on to the statute book, which will be as soon as possible, it will ensure that the purchasing power of public procurement can be used to promote these desirable objectives.

Public Service Employment

2. What discussions she has had with the Equality and Human Rights Commission on organisations which discourage people from ethnic minority backgrounds from seeking employment in public services. (228316)

I have not yet had any formal discussions with the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I will have a formal meeting for the first time in November.

Does the Minister agree that it is an absolute disgrace for the Black Police Association actively to discourage black people and those with Asian backgrounds from joining the Metropolitan police service? What action would the Government take against an organisation that said that only white people should join a public service?

The hon. Gentleman has every right to that opinion, but the Black Police Association is a self-organised group that is entitled to say what it wishes about the experience of black people in the police, on which it has a perspective. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality has strongly supported the Home Secretary’s decision to set up a nationwide inquiry into the recruitment and promotion prospects of ethnic minority people in the police service. It is right that the Equality and Human Rights Commission should have an interest in the fact that ethnic minority employment is 15 per cent. below the national average. The extent to which that is caused by discrimination is a matter for the commission, but the individual views of people in a self-organised group are not.

Adoption

3. If she will review the adequacy of the leave entitlements of those about to adopt children. (228317)

The Government have a strong record on supporting working families, including those looking to adopt children. I am pleased to say that since April 2003 couples and individuals who are adopting children have had the right to take up to 52 weeks’ adoption leave provided that they give their employers sufficient notice. This is equivalent to the rights to maternity leave.

I welcome the Minister to her place. I accept her answer, but is she aware that couples who are adopting are given approximately only 50 per cent. of the paid leave available for couples who have their own children? I have encountered two cases in which that has happened. Does she agree that given that those children often need more support, their adoptive parents should be able to have the same amount of maternity or paternity leave as is given to other couples? That would be a big help.

The hon. Gentleman will have to talk to me outside about individual cases, which I am happy to take up on his behalf. Women who have given birth are required by law to take time off—a minimum of two weeks if they work in an office or four weeks if they work in a factory. Maternity pay for the first six weeks after a mother has given birth is now 90 per cent. of her pay. He may be referring to the fact that that is different for those who are adopting. If I have got that wrong, I am happy to talk to him about the precise circumstances of his constituents and try to provide him with an answer. He will recall that until April 2003, those adopting children had no right to any leave or pay for that purpose. I hope that he therefore accepts that this is an advance.

I welcome the Minister to her place. Given the change in the law, what monitoring are the Government doing to ensure that same-sex couples are not excluded from adoption, particularly by religious agencies and particularly in light of recent reports that the Catholic Children’s Society (Westminster) is openly trying to dodge that new law?

The law relating to that issue applies equally to all adoption agencies. There was a 20-month transitional period, as the hon. Lady may recall, for the Catholic adoption agencies, which had particular concerns, to adjust their policies and procedures to comply with the law. That is due to end on 31 December 2008. It would be unacceptable to have an exception in the law for any agencies that were offering publicly funded services in respect of regulations designed to prevent discrimination. Statistics are collected about adoptions, and I can assure my hon. Friend that it will be possible to use them to check whether any discrimination is taking place.

Equality Panel

The Government have a proud record of tackling inequality. By introducing the national minimum wage, extending flexible working and expanding access to child care, we are seeking to level the playing field. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality set up the national equality panel to help us do more. Its objective is to close the gaps in our current understanding of inequality and to examine, for instance, why even today, by the age of six, talented children from poor families are overtaken by less talented children from richer families.

I accept that, as my hon. Friend says, the Government have a good record on the entire equalities agenda, but there is still much to do, particularly in relation to the gender pay gap and, as she said, the life chances of children brought up in poverty. Will she confirm that it is the Government’s intention to carry on making sure that the equalities agenda is at the top of their agenda, especially as in times of economic downtown, that may be one of the areas to which less attention is paid?

I agree with my hon. Friend that there is still more to be done and we intend to do it, not only through the provisions that will be enacted in the Equality Bill when it is taken through the House, but by increasing the transparency of what goes on so that we can better understand the causes of inequality. She knows that across Government we have a number of public service agreement targets, which are designed to make sure that we reduce health inequalities, close educational attainment gaps between those who are deprived and those who are less deprived, narrow the gap in employment for those who are disabled, lone parents or members of ethnic minorities, and increase equality generally. We are setting ourselves tough targets to ensure that we do that, and I can assure her and the House that we will continue to make progress.

As a former Minister for disabled people, my hon. Friend is aware that traditionally there have been people across Government in various Departments who have championed different equalities issues. Now, in her present role in the Ministry of Justice, she is expected also to take responsibility for equalities. Is she able to call on champions in every Department to ensure that all these issues are mainstreamed in every Department?

I certainly hope to be able to do that. Going into my eighth year as a Minister, I am starting to feel as though I have been in every Department and had to deal with these issues. I am able to call upon that experience. The public service agreements and targets across Government, which are cross-cutting and which I mentioned in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), indicate that the whole Government are committed to the equalities agenda and that we are increasingly mainstreaming our efforts in that regard.

Trafficked Women

5. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on the number of places made available in refuges to women who have been trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation. (228319)

The interdepartmental ministerial group on human trafficking, of which I am a member, regularly discusses that subject. This year, the Government invested a further £1.3 million in the POPPY project to support these vulnerable victims, taking the total to £5.8 million since 2003. That provides 35 supported accommodation places. The Government will expand the support services for the victims next year as part of our commitment to implement the Council of Europe convention against trafficking in human beings.

I am grateful to the veteran Minister for her response. Does she agree that 35 places are far too few, given the thousands and thousands of victims of human trafficking? There is a great imbalance.

I agree that we need to do more. In fact, we are now developing a national referral mechanism that will enable the POPPY project or similar accommodation projects to take referrals from other areas to ensure that we develop more capacity for helping the vulnerable victims of a horrific offence.

Is not the imperative now to expand the model created by the POPPY project across the country? We do not want young women who have been sexually exploited coming to just one area—basically, south London—and putting pressure on housing, although we hope that they are granted leave to remain. As we consider rolling out the model, is it not important that joined-up agencies work together for those women, who have often been the victims of violent and sexual crime?

My hon. Friend will be aware that the POPPY project takes referrals from areas other than just London. Via the interdepartmental ministerial group on human trafficking, I am liaising with my ministerial colleagues on funding to try to make sure that we can expand our capacity to deal with the victims of those horrific offences and ensure that the women get proper support once we have managed to get them out of the exploitation into which they have been trafficked.