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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 483: debated on Tuesday 25 November 2008

TRANSPORT

The Secretary of State was asked—

Heathrow

The Department for Transport received almost 70,000 responses to the “Adding Capacity at Heathrow Airport” consultation, which closed on 27 February this year. An equalities impact assessment consultation has since been undertaken to consider how development at Heathrow might affect equality priority groups. Responses showed a wide range of views on the proposals, and we are still considering the position. We have made it clear that the expansion will go ahead only if air quality, noise and public transport commitments are satisfied.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. He will know that the Liberal Democrats were the first party to oppose the third runway and to support a high-speed rail link. Does he accept that many of the hundreds of daily short-haul flights that go to Heathrow from constituencies such as mine could be replaced by a north-south high-speed rail link, which would be good for the environment, good for the economy and would remove any need for a third runway?

As I have made clear, this is not an alternative—we are not posing expansion at Heathrow as an alternative to high-speed links. It may well be that, on economic grounds, both are required. That is why I have taken forward urgently work in the Department for Transport to look precisely at how we can develop new capacity, new rail links and, if necessary, high-speed rail links. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have regard to the views of the chief executive of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, who clearly represents the views of Scottish businesses. He said:

“Heathrow’s international route network is a national asset that is therefore every bit as important to Scotland’s future as it is to London’s.”

How does the Secretary of State answer the representations made by Lord Smith, chairman of the Environment Agency, this week that the construction of a third runway at Heathrow would make it impossible to meet legally binding targets on air pollution?

The Environment Agency made a submission to the consultation. That, of course, will be taken fully into account alongside the other submissions that were made during the relevant period.

Will the Secretary of State be able to give us a definite idea that the decision will be announced before Christmas? Once that decision is made, will we be able to vote on it in the House?

It is certainly my intention that the decision should be announced before the Christmas recess.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Cabinet Minister best qualified to judge whether the third runway will reach air quality and noise standards is the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and will he take his opinions particularly into account?

My hon. Friend will be well aware that the Government in this country operate on the basis of collective Cabinet responsibility, and I am sure that all my colleagues will express their views in their usual fashion.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the controversy surrounding the so-called fantasy plane that has been used in the modelling essentially to force-fit the environmental tests and make them met? From which aircraft manufacturers and jet engine turbine manufacturers has he had confirmation that that plane will ever be in existence?

Of course, I am aware of the controversy. I know that the hon. Lady has researched these matters assiduously, so she will be aware that the assumptions made about that particular aircraft were not helpful in relation to any argument about noise or air quality. It was not a particularly noisy aircraft.

Every single plane that flies from London to north America flies directly over the north of England. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that if they landed, say, at Manchester, they would save half an hour of flying time, 400 miles of fuel on a round-trip and, if a north-south fast railway were built, passengers could be in London as quickly as if they had landed at Heathrow and had to fight their way in from the suburbs of London? Is it not time to think about that seriously as an alternative to a third runway at Heathrow?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestion. The last time I looked, I was the Secretary of State for Transport in the Government, not the chief executive of British Airways.

How many children will have their education affected by a deteriorating noise environment if the Government press ahead with their plans for a third runway and mixed mode at Heathrow?

The hon. Lady knows full well that a number of schools are in the immediate vicinity of Heathrow. Action has been taken to provide noise insulation at those schools. Clearly, in the event of there being any decision to expand Heathrow, further action would have to be taken to ensure that those schoolchildren were able to attend and participate in lessons in the way that they do already.

According to the local authorities affected, 114 schools and around 100,000 children will suffer from serious noise problems if a third runway goes ahead. Meanwhile, around the world, air traffic is falling, Stelios is telling the easyJet board that the days of exponential passenger growth have gone, and yesterday’s pre-Budget report predicted a fall in demand for aviation. Is it not time that the Secretary of State revised down his aviation growth forecasts and scrapped his plans for a third runway and mixed mode at Heathrow?

Unfortunately, the statistics that the hon. Lady quotes are not additional to any decision to build an extra runway. She simply gives the number of children currently affected. I anticipated that in the answer that I gave a few moments ago. She needs to ensure, when she is putting forward this case, that she has her statistics right and that she deploys them accurately as far as the House is concerned, so that we can have a proper debate about these matters. As I made clear at the outset, no decision has been taken on the matter. Any decision that is taken, will be taken in the light of air quality, noise and public transport arrangements.

Public Bus Services

2. What estimate he has made of the number of people using public bus services in 2006-07; and if he will make a statement. (238593)

Just under 4.5 billion bus journeys were made across England in 2006-07. There was a further increase of 600,000 journeys in 2007-08. Overall, local bus use has increased by over 17 per cent. since 1997. This achievement is due in part to the success of the London bus network, the hard work of operators and local authorities, and the introduction, of course, of increasingly generous concessionary travel by this Government.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. The number of people using buses in Wakefield went up in one year by 30 per cent. following the introduction of the free pensioners pass, which made some dodgy routes in and out of Denby Dale and Kirkburton much more viable, and I thank him for that. Will he now look at introducing concessionary fares nationwide for young people—the 16 to 18-year-olds—whom we want to be able to benefit from free transport, particularly in the Wakefield district, where specialist schools are sometimes located 10 or 15 miles away from where a young person might live?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments about the concessionary fares that were introduced from April of this year. She is absolutely right: more than 11 million benefit from that concession for the over-60s and for those with disabilities. I know that my hon. Friend and the work of the Youth Parliament very much push for young people to have access to free transport. I recognise the arguments, which are about them being socially excluded, but I do not believe that they fall within the same remit as the concessions that we have already introduced. Our assessment is that concessionary fares for all five to 19-year-olds would cost approximately £1.4 billion.

Bus ridership in the borough of Fylde has increased very substantially as a result of the concessionary fares scheme, but the local authority, over and above the additional funding provided by the Government, will this year lose some £360,000, whereas the borough of Pendle will gain £385,000. Can I seek an assurance from the Minister that he will re-examine the formula used to allocate the national budget for the scheme, to make certain that boroughs such as Fylde do not lose out?

I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman welcomes the Government’s decision to introduce nationwide concessionary free travel for 11 million people. I recognise the issues that he raises. However, we spend approximately £1 billion on concessionary fares, mainly through the rate support grant mechanism, provided through local authorities. When we introduced the new nationwide scheme in April, we added an extra £212 million, which will rise to £223 million over the next two years, to compensate local authorities for that delivery. Invariably, all local authorities received on average a 30 per cent. increase in the allocation of moneys for the concessionary schemes. However, we always keep these matters under review.

Is not the problem that the figure for bus patronage is skewed by an enormous increase of use in London, whereas in most parts of the country, such as my constituency, the picture is one of services being reduced to the most profitable routes and to routes that are subsidised with ever-increasing and hefty subsidies from the taxpayer? Is my hon. Friend aware of the recent report by the Centre for Cites, which demonstrates what a huge problem deregulation has been in cities? How confident is he that the measures contained in the new Local Transport Bill will address that?

My hon. Friend raises some important points. Although the increase is principally due to success in London and the concessionary fare scheme, there have been other clear increases. Indeed, hon. Members have already referred to some in their constituencies: in Brighton, Nottingham, Oxford and York, for example, bus patronage has increased. I sincerely believe that the Local Transport Bill, which recently completed its parliamentary stages, will allow local authorities to decide what best suits their areas, and it is up to local leaders to use the Bill’s toolkit to make a difference for their local people.

Will the Minister recognise that the review that he has just promised needs to be carried out with the greatest possible urgency? The scheme whereby elderly people and disabled people will have three bus passes threatens to shoot a huge hole in the budget of dozens of local authorities throughout England. Harrogate’s local authority, which serves my constituency, faces a deficit, over and above the grant, of between £1.3 million and £1.6 million, depending on the volume of traffic this winter, and York has a multiple of that already. Will the Minister recognise that the distribution of funds bears no relationship whatever—

Let me make it clear that the additional funding that was made available as of April was distributed on the basis of the discussions that were held with, and the representations that were received from, more than 200 local authorities. Destinations, major shopping areas and areas with a high number of retired people were taken into account in the allocations. Indeed, we looked at the budgets that local authorities had allowed for 2006-07, and that is why I am confident that, on average, there has been a 30 per cent. increase in funding, out of the extra £212 million. We keep the matter under review, but we do not necessarily intend to revisit the whole operation, other than the administrative side.

Those with enduring mental health problems are not entitled to participation in the concessionary fare scheme, but they would undoubtedly use buses more if they were. Will the Minister reconsider the current classification of those entitlements?

My hon. Friend will know that the current scheme covers all those people over 60 years old, and approximately eight groups of people with disabilities. I recently attended a lobby by Sense on the issues of mental health and companions for people with disabilities. There are no current plans to extend those concessions, but, like all these things, we keep the matter under review.

Rail Network

3. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the capacity of the rail network; and if he will make a statement. (238594)

6. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the capacity of the rail network; and if he will make a statement. (238597)

The White Paper on rail set out the Government’s commitment to increasing rail capacity by 2014, backed by investment of some £10 billion. This includes the procurement of an additional 1,300 carriages for operation right across the network; 423 vehicles have already been ordered; and yesterday, we announced proposals to procure a further 200, which will benefit passengers in the Thames valley, around Bristol and on longer distance regional services in central northern England.

Last week, in evidence to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, the Minister of State for Transport, Lord Adonis, admitted that the Department’s own forecasting models had failed to predict the significant increase in rail passenger growth. What steps are the Department taking to ensure that those models are improved, and that more accurate and reliable statistics are provided?

We simply did not anticipate the remarkable success of the funding that Labour Governments have put into the railways since 1997. Had we based things on the likely forecast when the Conservatives were in power, we would be managing a very small rail network today. In a sense, I take the hon. Gentleman’s question as a tribute to the success of Labour’s policy on rail. Obviously, we want that success to continue, and that is why we are putting in the extra investment.

Does the Secretary of State support the “In the can” campaign, through which rail users are encouraged to send a tin of sardines to the chief executive of East Midlands Trains because of the gross overcrowding? Or does he think that this tin of sardines would be better presented to him as Secretary of State, for his inaction and complacency?

I am grateful to Conservative Members for thinking about my health and welfare and ensuring that I eat oily fish. Having already received a tin of sardines from one of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues, I suggest that rather than sending his to me, he sends it to an appropriate charity in his constituency.

What proposals does my right hon. Friend have to bring forward new investment in rail to meet the current economic situation?

As I have already said to the House, some £15 billion is set out to improve our rail network, and it will concentrate particularly on capacity. We want to ensure that trains are appropriate and that platforms are of the appropriate length. I have established a group under the leadership of my noble Friend Lord Adonis to consider the question of new lines, electrification and high-speed lines for where they are necessary. A tremendous amount of work is under way at the Department for Transport to ensure that we have the capacity on our rail network to meet likely levels of demand.

My right hon. Friend will have heard it said that the Norwich to London line is second class, going on third class. To top it all, we now hear that there are 314 job losses to be determined—yes or no?—by Christmas. Secondly, the famous restaurant cars—often supported by many of our colleagues and others—are to be taken away. How is that compatible with quality service and with a franchise that says that there should be an ongoing kitchen in every train? How can there be a kitchen without a restaurant attached?

My hon. Friend has been assiduous in standing up for the interests of his constituents in Norwich, particularly in relation to transport and communication links between Norwich and London. I would be delighted to see him and any other Norwich Member with a particular interest in the restaurant facilities whenever that can be arranged.

The Secretary of State will know that it has been estimated that regulated and unregulated rail fares will rise by 6 per cent. and 7 per cent. What assurance can he give hard-working commuters that the issue will not continue to affect them adversely?

I recently met representatives of the Association of Train Operating Companies, and I set out to them that, in making any increases, it was important to take account of the current economic circumstances and the impact on those who regularly commute by rail—not least, those with season tickets. What is important is that some 60 per cent. of all rail fares are regulated and that since 1997 those regulated fares have remained within the overall rate of inflation. That is not to say, however, that we do not take seriously the impact on other fares; I hope that train operating companies will take that into account when setting future fare increases.

I welcome the Government’s previous commitment to the development of Birmingham New Street station, and I read with interest about the transport investment announced yesterday. However, if money comes forward in future, may I ask the Secretary of State not to overlook the region of the west midlands, and Birmingham in particular? It is in the heart of England and part of our manufacturing base, and we need investment desperately.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was at Birmingham New Street yesterday; the investment to be made there will transform the station and make it central to the investment that we are putting in right across the rail network. I hear what she says about the west midlands, which is an important network hub for the United Kingdom. I certainly look to seeing new investment there in the future.

Why has the decision been made not to proceed with the upgrading of the Stroud valley line, which is used to re-route services from south Wales to London when the Severn tunnel is closed? Why should passengers have to wait an extra hour to complete their journey at weekends for the want of a £32 million investment?

I am aware of that proposal. Several criteria have to be satisfied. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that all the schemes to which he refers in general terms are looked at on a regular basis and kept under review.

You, Mr. Speaker, will be aware that for over a decade I have been asking questions about the upgrade of the west coast main line, which, thanks to the generosity of this Government, is almost complete. However, even when it is completed, there will still be a capacity problem in the near future. What plans does the Secretary of State have to build a high-speed line going from London to Scotland on the west coast?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for paying tribute to the Government for spending some £8.8 billion on improvements to the west coast main line. That has meant extra capacity and improvements in journey times right up the line and on either side of it, and it has been a considerable success. I recognise, however, that it is important that we maintain capacity levels and see where there are capacity constraints on the network. I am sure that my noble Friend Lord Adonis will take my hon. Friend’s submissions into consideration when looking at possible routes for future high-speed rail links. As my hon. Friend will be aware, there is more one route to Scotland.

The Secretary of State’s Department’s projections for future passenger numbers demonstrate that they will be well in excess of the capacity that the Department has planned. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that part of the strategy is to price people off the railways, which is why over the past few years, since 1997, prices have risen 6 per cent. above inflation and only this week we saw 6 per cent. and 11 per cent. increases in regulated and unregulated fares. Why does not he introduce a freeze on rail ticket prices for a year in the same way that the Chancellor has introduced, three times since 1997, freezes on fuel duty to help motorists. Why should motorists be helped and not train passengers?

I accept neither the hon. Gentleman’s premise nor his conclusion. He is wrong on both counts. The assessments of capacity that have been made are in keeping with the extra capacity that the Government will make available in terms of our future plans for the rail network. As I have indicated in response to previous questions, it is important that we not only go on looking to improve capacity—not only at the various pinch-points in the network where there is clearly congestion and overcrowding—but consider the longer-term plans for new capacity, new lines, electrification and high-speed links. I have set that out very clearly to the House and I will go on doing so, at least until the hon. Gentleman starts listening.

I make no apologies for referring to the west coast main line again, as it is a very important artery for Great Britain. The question of infrastructure, particularly the length of platforms, is troubling if we are to have these new locomotives working. I refer especially, again without apologies, to Wolverhampton, where the private developer leading the work has now stopped because of, he says, the lack of the possibility of growing the station in the present economic circumstances. Given the Chancellor’s statement yesterday, will my right hon. Friend ensure that these questions of capacity in relation to station infrastructure are considered carefully and properly for Birmingham and the whole west coast main line, but with a special plea for Wolverhampton?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an important issue about his constituency. I said earlier that in looking at capacity constraints, not only the length of trains but the length of platforms is crucial to improving capacity and the ability of our trains to provide a proper service to his constituents and others in the west midlands. I will certainly consider the case of Wolverhampton with a degree of urgency.

The Secretary of State will want to acknowledge that since privatisation rail patronage has increased by 40 per cent. However, in contrast to his answer to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), recent independent research from the Institution of Civil Engineers and the university of Southampton clearly indicates that improvements in capacity have not kept pace with that increase in patronage. Following last week’s unregulated fare increases of up to 11 per cent., many people using the railways believe that the Government’s only strategy for dealing with capacity is to price them off them. Does the Minister not realise that overcrowding plus huge increases in unregulated fares does not represent value for money for the travelling public?

I simply do not accept what the hon. Gentleman said. Interestingly, when someone—perhaps it was the hon. Gentleman—was asked by The Times on Friday or Saturday what the Conservative party’s view was on these fare increases, no answer came. No answer was given on what the Conservative party would do if faced with a similar situation. Unfortunately, that is all too typical of the Conservative party’s approach to the present grave economic circumstances faced by this country and others.

Is the Secretary of State aware—and he probably is not—that one of the trains on the morning peak-time Morecambe to Lancaster commuter service has been taken off because of capacity problems with the west coast main line? We welcome the improvements that the Government have made to the line, which have made a difference, but there are still capacity issues for smaller lines crossing the main line. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss that matter?

My hon. Friend is quite right: I was not aware of that consequence of improving capacity on the west coast main line. I would be delighted to meet her to discuss the issues affecting her constituents.

South London Line

4. What his Department’s policy is on the future of the south London line; and if he will make a statement. (238595)

It is planned that the south London line service will be diverted away from London Bridge toward Bellingham to maintain connections into Victoria from stations such as Peckham Rye and Denmark Hill.

Are Ministers aware that the travelling public who use the railways from Denmark Hill, the two Peckham stations and South Bermondsey think that they and the Government have been hoodwinked? Would Ministers look at the plans of Network Rail and Thameslink, which, as far as we can remember, said nothing about the end of the south London loop line from London Bridge to Victoria? That line is used by many commuters in a part of London that is fairly poorly served as far as railways are concerned.

I am happy to look at the documentation to which the hon. Gentleman drew my attention. He will be aware that Thameslink modernisation is attracting £5.5 billion of funding for one of the most overcrowded routes in the UK. It will be an important addition to the capital’s transport system, given that it is the only overground railway through the centre of London. By 2015, the trains will be twice as long, and will be travelling much more frequently. I will, however, look at the information that the hon. Gentleman asked me to consider.

Also on the south London line is Crystal Palace station. There has been an announcement from city hall in the past few weeks that the extension of the Croydon tram link to Crystal Palace will no longer be worked on. There was £9.9 million in the budget for the scheme, but city hall has said that it will not progress with it unless the Government commit to funding the whole scheme beyond 2010. If we were to ask the Government for the money, would that be possible?

I take it that the hon. Gentleman is expressing regret at the election of Mayor Johnson, and at the dropping of many of the priority plans of Mayor Livingstone. The Department for Transport has allocated a fairly generous settlement to Transport for London of £40 billion over the next 10 years. I know that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will be disappointed at Mayor Johnson’s decisions, as are many people across London, but he has the money to prioritise the elements of transport that he thinks are appropriate, and perhaps he will take notice of what the hon. Gentleman says.

Cycling

Cycling has an important role to play in people’s transport choices. The Government have been supporting local authorities financially, by issuing guidance and advice, and by providing ideas and inspiration. All that work is supported by a £140 million programme developed by our advisers, Cycling England.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Everybody knows the health and environmental benefits of cycling, but it is important that we inspire even more young people to take up cycling in the first place. What is his Department doing to train more very young children to take up cycling, and what is it doing about building more cycle paths directly to schools?

I thank my hon. Friend for that. It is well known that she is a keen cyclist who is often seen ready for the off, in her gear, at the last vote. Her question is spot on about the need for us to take as many steps as possible to encourage young people and adults to cycle. We have various plans, such as our work with Cycling England to train 500,000 young people between now and 2012 to attain level 2 at cycling, and travel-to-school plans are equally important to encourage cycling and walking.

I am delighted to inform the right hon. Gentleman that both my parliamentary colleagues sitting on the Front Bench today cycle, and I am sure that that is more than enough.

Will my hon. Friend give a welcome to the proposal from Spokes, the Lothian cycle campaign, of which I am happy to declare myself a member, for a £20 million fund for cycle projects in Scotland? Under the previous Administration, Scotland was ahead of England, but under the Scottish National party, spending on cycling is falling behind. When he next meets his colleagues in the Scottish Executive, will my hon. Friend urge them to ensure that Scotland does not fall behind the rest of the UK in encouraging cycling as an important way of improving health and supporting the environment?

I would always take the opportunity to encourage anyone making decisions about transport, including colleagues in Scotland, to develop all possible modes. However, I might add that if my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser), the chairman of the all-party cycling group, has his way, he will have me on a bicycle very shortly.

As a cyclist, may I encourage the Minister to join his two colleagues and get into the saddle himself? Will he join me in congratulating the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who is rolling out a Paris-style rent-a-bike scheme in the capital? Does the Minister also agree that we will persuade people to use their bicycles for urban journeys only if we have better secure parking in town centres and, in particular, at railway stations?

I would support any development of cycling and giving people those choices, but I am equally aware that there has been some adjustment in the budget for cycle lanes and so on. However, it is obviously for the Mayor to make those choices under the devolved powers. Equally, I am aware that having the confidence to cycle, whether to school or for leisure, is a particular concern for parents and young people. That is why we have invested money in ensuring the safety and training of youngsters.

Topical Questions

Today we are announcing more than £1 billion in transport spending. This includes £700 million of funding, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced yesterday would be brought forward to help stimulate the economy, together with £300 million of new Government funding to help speed up the delivery of links to some of the United Kingdom’s most important international gateways.

The £700 million will help to advance the Government’s plans to increase capacity on the motorways and other key roads, and to accelerate the delivery of improvements to rail services. The funding that has been brought forward and the schemes that can benefit include: £174 million to dual the A46 between Newark and Widmerpool; £300 million for 200 train carriages to relieve congestion on the Great Western, Northern and TransPennine rail franchises; and £300 million to introduce more managed motorway schemes to make best use of our existing motorway capacity.

In addition, £300 million of new Government funding will speed up the delivery of other key schemes, including: £30 million for improvements to the A180-A160 junction to improve access to Immingham port; £60 million to enhance traffic flow on the A12 between the M25 and Ipswich, improving access to Felixstowe and Harwich ports; £165 million for the south-east Manchester relief road to improve access to Manchester airport; and £54 million for improvements to the North London line on that important rail freight link. Delivery of some of those schemes is subject to agreeing regional funding contributions and the outcome of statutory planning processes. The combined package will help the Government to relieve congestion and reduce crowding on the railways.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that lengthy list of projects, towards the end of which he mentioned the Manchester airport eastern link road, which is vital to many industrialists in my area who export to America and the continent. Will that road, together with the proposals in the south-east Manchester multi-modal study, go ahead as a matter of urgency? My area has been starved of resources for roads. That road, and the allied roads that go with it, will be of huge benefit to a wide area. Will he assure me that the road will go ahead?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a considerable interest in the road, and I am aware of the need to improve access to Manchester airport, particularly from the east. That is why the scheme is to be brought forward as a matter of urgency. As I have indicated to the House, however, it requires regional funding contributions, and those must be agreed quickly if we are to proceed with the urgency that the hon. Gentleman requires.

We have taken several steps, such as the introduction of the Local Transport Bill. Buses are the backbone of our public transport system, providing more than 5 billion journeys every year. We want to ensure that quality services are available across the length and breadth of the country. The Bill is important for local authorities making decisions about what best meets their needs. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred earlier to the steps being taken on railway travel.

T2. Swindon borough council recently announced that it is going to remove all its speed traffic cameras and spend the £300,000 that it will save on more effective safety measures. Does the Secretary of State agree that highly visible speed cameras have a real role to play in deterrence, whereas the cameras that motorists are not aware of until it is too late have no purpose other than to raise revenue? (238613)

That decision is for Swindon to take, but I think it regrettable. There will have to be negotiations with the local police and the road safety partnership on how that will play and when that change will be brought in. We have devolved responsibility and power to local authorities to determine what road safety measures are appropriate in their area, so this is very much a matter for them. Speed cameras have clearly saved lives and prevented injuries for many years, and they still have a role to play. I hope that Swindon will change its mind.

T4. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Barnsley council on working in collaboration with Stagecoach to provide free bus passes to 16 to 18-year-olds from next summer? Unfortunately, the scheme was opposed by opposition Tory and independent councillors, but does the Minister agree that the scheme will help youngsters better to access services in Barnsley, as well as work towards the Government’s green agenda? (238615)

My hon. Friend highlights exactly the powers that are available to local authorities to add to the minimum concessionary schemes that have generously been introduced by the Government. By doing that in Barnsley, councillors have decided what their priorities are, and I welcome that. All hon. Members should urge their local authorities to consider the options for improving transport in their communities.

T5. May I ask the Secretary of State about carbon dioxide emissions from shipping? I think that we all agree that ships are the most CO2 efficient way of moving goods around the planet, and that we must reduce CO2 emissions. He has engaged in a consultation on this issue; will he give us the nature and extent of his thinking on how that can best be achieved through shipping? (238616)

I gave evidence to the Select Committee on Environmental Audit this morning, along with the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock). There was a good exchange between us and members of the Select Committee about how we hope to reduce shipping emissions. The Marine Environment Protection Committee of the International Maritime Organisation is convening at a meeting in July, and the United Nations framework convention on climate change will be held in Copenhagen next November. We are doing all we can through the IMO, which is the appropriate body through which to advance measures that will achieve the hon. Gentleman’s objective.

T8. Today is white ribbon day—the day to mark the “end male violence against women” campaign. In view of the fact that women are less likely than—[Hon. Members: “Transport questions”]. I know—this is about transport. (238619)

In view of the fact that women are much less likely than men to have direct access to, and use of, a car, what is the Department doing to make sure that women who use public transport, walk or cycle, who have been shown in studies conducted by the Department to be fearful of—

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. I agree with her that anyone using public transport should feel safe and be confident that they can be safe. That applies particularly to women. My hon. Friend is right to raise the matter as she has, and I assure her that I will take a personal interest in the sort of measures that can be taken—for example, in terms of the new rail franchises, we are considering the installation of cameras to monitor trains. Giving women—and everyone—the confidence that they can use public transport safely is a perfectly proper ambition of the Department.

T6. Government figures confirm that foreign heavy goods vehicles account for 3 per cent. of journeys, but for 10 per cent. of HGV accidents, resulting in approaching 40 deaths a year. Given that Fresnel mirrors have been proven to eliminate the blind spot on the passenger side of those left-hand-drive vehicles and given that the Government have also admitted that the latest EU directive will not eliminate that blind spot, why will the Government simply not make all Fresnel mirrors mandatory for incoming HGVs instead of handing them out at our ports of entry as freebies? (238617)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of Fresnel mirrors, of which we are great supporters. The evidence that we have shows that they are effective in reducing the number of side-swipe incidents and improving driver vision. We are sharing with our European colleagues the information and the data that we are collating. We are always looking to improve the safety of all vehicles. One hopes that the use of such mirrors will be one measure to achieve that. At the same time, we have given the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency £24 million extra funding this year to address the issue of foreign HGVs, as a higher proportion of them are in breach of road safety regulations than are UK vehicles. That funding has meant staff increases, 24/7 coverage, new testing stations and many more inspections.

T7. What sort of joined-up government is it when the Chancellor says how important it is to keep down the costs to the public of bank charges, energy prices, food and other purchases, yet three days previously, Transport Ministers refused to intervene when regulated fares were announced to go up 6 per cent. for everybody and unregulated fares by 11 per cent. from the new year? Where is the consistency? (238618)

I have already set out the arrangements for fare increases and it was made very clear to the Association of Train Operating Companies that they should take account of the present economic circumstances. To that extent, the Government were clearly and consistently setting out their policy to deal with the present situation. It is important to acknowledge that some 60 per cent. of the total fares are regulated fares, so, in those circumstances, the overall rate of inflation in those fares has been retained ever since 1997.

Women and Equality

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Equality Impact Assessments

1. What estimate she has made of the effect on the expenditure of public bodies of replacement of the requirement to undertake separate equality impact assessments with a requirement to undertake a single assessment. (238582)

The new single public sector equality duty will ensure that public bodies are fair employers and that they design and deliver public services that meet the needs of the whole community. We expect that the costs will be mitigated by the efficiency gains of integrating the existing three duties into a single new process. The new duty is just one part of the simpler, stronger and more effective legal framework that the Equality Bill will deliver.

Will the Attorney-General’s “Race for Justice” declaration help public sector organisations, not least universities, to meet their single equality duty obligations? Does the Minister agree that there will be quite some kudos in being the first university so to do?

I agree that a university that took that opportunity and seized that initiative would gain a good deal of kudos. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he does in the all-party parliamentary group against anti-Semitism. Although “Race for Justice” is a criminal justice declaration, it is infinitely adaptable. It is there to expose systematically, and help to work away and erase, discrimination. It will read across excellently to universities.

Will the Solicitor-General address the point about low-paid women, particularly those in public sector bodies such as Government Departments? Will she assure us that the single equality impact assessment will deal directly with that issue?

An equality impact assessment was carried out when “A Framework for Fairness” was launched, and another will be carried out on the Equality Bill. I should make it clear, however, that we intend to tackle low pay for women in the public sector and also in the private sector. We have set out a number of models for how we intend first to expose it and secondly to tackle it. I believe that the hon. Lady will join cause with us, and I look forward to working with her.

I know that my hon. and learned Friend will agree that paving the way for equality carries costs, but does she also agree that we should measure the benefits as well? Should we not be especially vigilant at a time of economic difficulty when it is only too easy for things to slip, which would surely cause many more problems in the long term?

I entirely agree, but let us be clear about one matter: in business terms, diversity is dynamic. Involving people with different life experiences and different perspectives with which to frame their talents strengthens business, as well as matching it better with its consumers. Yes, of course we must be especially vigilant at this time of pressure, but there is no dosh in discrimination.

I am keen for equality impact assessments to be effective, but I fear that in some cases they have been more about going through the motions. Can the Minister tell me what work is being done to assess the value and change that result from such assessments, and what extra resource she will provide under the new legislation to ensure that there is effectiveness, not just a tick-box approach?

We have been examining, in specific terms, the impact that, for instance, going through a whole gender pay audit can have. Sometimes it is a process rather than an impact. That is why we have hesitated rather than going wholesale for impact assessments, assuming that they are the key to all mythologies and will put everything right. They do not necessarily do that.

We are working on this, and we consider that the watchword for the Equality Bill and for equal pay in particular is transparency. We will pin a number of proposals on to that basic bedrock as we take the Bill forward.

It does not matter whether one duty is involved or three: public authorities, especially local authorities, must have bought into their obligation to carry out those duties. What does my hon. and learned Friend think about Aberdeen city council, which, when it found that it had a £50 million budget deficit in February this year, cut services for disabled people in particular without conducting a disability impact study, any kind of assessment or any consultation? That was a despicable action by a Liberal-SNP administration. Will my hon. and learned Friend ensure that other local authorities, particularly those facing cuts in their budgets, do not—

Apart from the fact that that was obviously an utterly reprehensible way in which to behave, Aberdeen city council, like others, has a duty to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people. It therefore behaved not only in a disreputable way, but almost certainly in an unlawful way. We must make it absolutely plain that that kind of discriminatory behaviour will not be tolerated as we move into a new era in which everyone starts to appreciate the importance and value that are to be attached to diversity.

Domestic Violence

We are continuing to back up and work with the police, prosecutors, courts and voluntary sector in their work to tackle domestic violence and we will change the law to abolish the provocation defence to homicide.

Mrs. Jennie Davies, the president of the Prestbury branch of the Women’s Institute in my constituency, has drawn my attention to the National Federation of Women’s Institutes campaign to end violence against women. What are the Government doing to develop and implement an integrated strategy to raise awareness of and prevent violence against women?

I would like warmly to congratulate and pay tribute to the National Federation of Women’s Institutes on its campaign to tackle violence against women and its participation in the End Violence Against Women coalition. This morning, I spoke at a conference that it is having just down the road on that very subject. Some years ago, the Government set up inter-ministerial groups to tackle domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual offences. We have brought them all together so that we can work strategically across Government on tackling violence against women. In January, we will publish a consultation on how we make further progress.

One third of incidents of violence against women are domestic, and the period between reporting a crime and the conclusion of a court case is often very long and one of increased risk. Too often the perpetrator of the violence remains in the family home and the mother and children are removed to a hostel. What more can be done to introduce justice into the system so that women can have the courage to report such violence and are not faced with having to take their children out of the family home while the proceedings are going on?

I agree that across the board, whether it is the police, local government, prosecutors or courts, we still have a long way to go, but we seem to be making real and substantial progress on tackling incidents of domestic violence. The British crime survey, in which women report to a confidential survey rather than to the police, shows that in the last 10 years the incidence of domestic violence has fallen by 58 per cent. We still need to tackle the great deal of suffering caused by domestic violence, but by working together and challenging the myths that domestic violence is just one of those things and that nothing can be done about it, we are making real progress.

Does the Minister agree that in the light of the experiences of Southall Black Sisters in my constituency, more needs to be done to support specialist domestic violence support services, especially those helping black, Asian, minority ethic and refugee communities?

Across the board, support for victims of domestic violence, as well as for its prevention, is very important and I pay tribute to Southall Black Sisters, an organisation that I know my hon. Friend has supported and worked closely with over the years. If someone does not speak English, is thousands of miles away from their family and is not working outside the home, it might be even more difficult for that person to escape from violence. We need to have the right support services on the ground and, once again, I pay tribute to the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, which is looking at how it can tackle domestic violence in rural areas. Whether it is in Southall or in a rural area, we need to make sure that victims have the right support so that women do not have to put up with violence and children do not have to live in fear of it.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the support that I received in making sure that the new court in Bridgend had a domestic violence court. As the three years of funding for the independent domestic violence adviser ends in March 2009, what help will Bridgend get to ensure that that invaluable help for women going through court proceedings is still available?

A lot of lessons have been learned from the pilot projects that have taken place in many courts—including at my hon. Friend’s—which show how we can ensure that the perpetrators of domestic violence are brought to justice. Just a few years ago, only half of all domestic violence cases brought to court resulted in a conviction. That is now up to three quarters, and all courts, prosecutors and police recognise that it is important to bring offenders to justice so the level of violence does not escalate.

The cost of domestic violence is huge; in Leeds, it is estimated at £332 million a year. That is often not reflected in the funding from central and local government and the charitable sector that goes to domestic violence organisations, such as Behind Closed Doors in my constituency, which does a wonderful job in helping women in this very difficult situation. Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that this issue should be looked at across the piece, and does she also agree that there is concern that some funding organisations do not prioritise domestic violence charities and organisations, because that is not seen as high profile or fashionable?

For the Government’s part, we have backed the campaign against domestic violence at national level. We have supported the police in expanding their work on domestic violence, and over the past decade there has been a transformation in how they respond to domestic violence. We have backed up specialist prosecutors—and I pay tribute to prosecutors for now taking cases that might previously have been dropped—and we work across the health and education services as well. On delivery of local services, however, it is important that local authorities fund local organisations. For our part at national level, we have made this a priority. It is down to local authorities to recognise the scale of the problem in their area, and to make sure there are local services for local women.

But does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that in societies where women can be bought and sold like objects there is a greater risk of violence towards women, and what is she doing to try to combat this kind of exploitation of women and the consequent violence which leads to prostitutes, for example, being 40 times more at risk of a violent death than the rest of us?

My hon. Friend might well be referring to the fact that in local newspapers across the country we see women for sale for sex. It is important that we do not accept that as inevitable. Who wants to see in the back of their local newspaper, alongside “skip hire” and “lost pets”, advertisements such as, “New Thai girls. Choice of two avail., satisfaction always…nr Jct 11 M4, parking,” or, “Brazilian girls. Barkingside…£60 Full Service”? These are exploited women being sold for sex, and it is about time that local newspapers stopped taking advertisements from sleazy gangs exploiting women.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to publishing a consultation on a Government strategy on violence against women, but I regret the delay in bringing this forward. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition called for such a cross-cutting Government strategy more than a year ago. All the groups involved in this area—including, so it would seem from the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), the Prestbury branch of the Women’s Institute—have been calling for such a strategy for some time now. Indeed, the End Violence Against Women coalition has even published a blueprint for such a cross-cutting Government strategy. Following the consultation, when will this Government strategy be put in place, and what on earth has taken the Government so long?

There has been no delay. We have been taking action across the piece, whether on domestic violence, sexual assault or human trafficking. We have been tightening the law, we have been backing up the police and we have been changing the court processes. That is producing results; now, for example, 45 per cent. more men are convicted of rape than 10 years ago. We are also challenging the myths and assumptions that go along with that. After 10 years of hard work on the issue—work which has made a difference in both rape convictions and in protecting women from domestic violence, and has highlighted the new threats such as human trafficking—the Home Secretary will launch a consultation in January on how we can make yet further progress. I urge the right hon. Lady not to undermine, or deny, the progress that has already been made, because we should be building the confidence of women in the criminal justice system, and we should be saying, “Yes we will take action, and it will make a difference.”