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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 487: debated on Tuesday 27 January 2009


The Secretary of State was asked—

Midland Main Line

Electrification is advantageous on heavily used parts of the rail network. Electric trains are lighter, quieter and produce less carbon dioxide. In my statement to the House on 15 January, I announced that, commensurate with the timetable for procuring the new inter-city express fleet, I intended to make a decision on electrification of the midland main line north of Bedford later this year.

Last month there were four dewirements on the west coast main line, causing havoc to the service, so will the Government learn from previous electrifications and build a scheme that is of a high standard, and not on the cheap? Otherwise, when the wind blows in Derbyshire the trains will stop in Wellingborough.

I do not accept for a moment the implication of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks—that somehow the improvements to the west coast main line were done on the cheap, or that the failures that occurred over the new year period were attributable to the upgrade. Indeed, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who is generally a fair-minded man, will look at the evidence that demonstrates that a number of different problems arose, that they were all caused separately, and that they were not in any way related to the upgrade programme. I will certainly send him details of the investigations that resulted, but if he accepts what I have said, he will recognise that the proposals to electrify both the midland main line and the Great Western main line do not need to suffer from any particular problems of the kind that have been suggested as being associated with the upgrade of the west coast main line.

In anticipation of the decision on full electrification of the midland main line, will the Secretary of State look at ways in which Network Rail could be persuaded to reverse its current catastrophic decision to cut back on track maintenance? In the face of decisions announced by Corus, will he look at ways of bringing forward the replacement of track, to give us the basis for a genuine rail infrastructure for the 21st century?

I assure my hon. Friend that there is no basis for suggesting that there is any cut in the quality of track maintenance by Network Rail. It is something that the Government, and Network Rail, take extremely seriously, not least in the light of relatively recent tragedies. Maintaining the safety and security of the line is absolutely fundamental right across our railway network.

The chief executive of Network Rail has accused the Government of being short-sighted and betting on the wrong fuel, as the UK has only 39 per cent. of its current network electrified—the lowest proportion of any major economy in Europe. Why do the Government continue to invest pretty much all their money—notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s earlier comments—in diesel trains, which are high in pollution, when there are alternatives, such as electric trains, that would be good not only for the economy but for the environment?

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying so, that was a very odd question to ask in the light of the statement that I have made and the answer that I just gave to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). The reality is that we are looking hard at electrification, for precisely the reasons that the hon. Gentleman has just set out. To try to make a criticism out of the announcement that we have just made is, if he will forgive me for repeating the word, very odd indeed.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to electrification. Does he accept that the electrification of the midland main line will bring by far the best cost-benefits of any electrification scheme, and does he also agree that it will bring enormous benefits to the east midlands region, particularly to Leicester—and to Nottingham and stations further north?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have promised myself that in future I will always refer to the Great Western line before I refer to the midland main line, but the case for both is equally strong.

It sounds as if electrification of the midland main line is going to be many years away, but my constituents in Kettering cannot wait that long for the train service that they need and deserve. Will the Secretary of State take steps to improve line speeds on the midland main line before electrification, so that Kettering’s inter-city status can be returned to the town?

The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this across the Floor of the House before. I recall mentioning on that previous occasion that there will be an improvement in the service from Kettering, in terms not only of the journey time but of the service, including one service that actually starts in Kettering, to ensure that where there are difficulties, the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will have first choice of the seats on that train. I hope that he will join me in welcoming the improvements that the new timetable will bring for his constituents in and around Kettering.

On 15 January, the Secretary of State said to the House:

“we will analyse the value for money, affordability and financing options of the electrification proposals that Network Rail will put to me shortly.”—[Official Report, 15 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 356.]

Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will also consult the Committee on Climate Change, because electrification of major parts of our network is long overdue, and it will have climate change implications? Will he please consult the committee on this matter?

I had not planned to do so specifically, not least because, for all the reasons mentioned so far this afternoon, electrification is generally reckoned to have positive climate change benefits. The proposed electrification would reduce the amount of carbon emitted, and, while it is true that only about 1 per cent. of carbon generated by public transport is emitted by railways in the first place, that small contribution would nevertheless be an improvement.

Regulated Rail Fares

2. What the average percentage change in the price of regulated rail fares has been since 1997. (250987)

A comprehensive fares index is published by the Office of Rail Regulation in the “National Rail Trends” yearbook, and is available on the ORR website. Until 2008, regulated fares were below accumulated inflation. The average increase in regulated fares on 2 January was 6 per cent.

I note the Minister’s reluctance to put a specific figure on the increase. According to research that we have conducted, since 1997 regulated fares have increased by a staggering 43 per cent.—way above inflation—while unregulated fares have increased by an even higher rate. As we know, just this month the Government allowed an inflation-busting 6 per cent. increase in regulated fares. Does the Minister not think it is about time the Government committed themselves to a freeze in regulated fares to help hard-pressed commuters and other rail travellers?

That would obviously bring into question the funding required by train operating companies, thus involving another funding commitment. We must make a decision on the basis of the priorities. The hon. Gentleman referred to an “inflation-busting” increase, but that increase was linked to the RPI in July plus 1 per cent., which is the working cap that we have imposed on operating companies. At the end of the day, we must decide whether to continue to invest in high-speed equipment, new rolling stock and associated requirements to improve reliability, or to give subsidies to private companies.

While my constituents are concerned about the fare increases that they face, Southeastern Trains has also announced a number of job losses. When I arrive at the station each day to catch my train, the barriers are invariably open. People are worried about money being frittered away as a result of a lack of enforcement in the rail service. I mentioned the problem to Southeastern Trains, but the situation has not improved since I did so. We need to ensure that train operating companies are operating efficiently, and that job losses do not result in a reduction in service.

My noble Friend the Minister of State has raised those issues with Southeastern Trains, and will continue to monitor the position. I entirely agree that job reductions should not lead to any loss of reliability, punctuality and safety, which are core concerns for us.

Not only are my constituents suffering as a result of increased fares, but Southeastern Trains has reduced the number of carriages on many trains, which has led to serious overcrowding. What discussions has the Minister had with Southeastern about that reduced level of service, and about when my constituents can expect to be able to travel in comfort and safety?

As the hon. Lady will know, operating companies—including Southeastern—take account of the need to put rolling stock to the best possible use, and changes in timetables have involved adjustments to achieve that. We continue to monitor the changes introduced recently in the network.

My hon. Friend is aware not only that our fares are among the highest in Europe, but that public subsidy for the rail industry has tripled or quadrupled in the last 15 years. The costs of track renewals and maintenance have risen by four and five times. Is that not something to do with the catastrophic failure of privatisation, and should we not bring the whole industry back into public ownership?

I thank my hon. Friend for his suggestion. In a recent Adjournment debate in the House on rail fare increases, it appeared that Opposition Members had forgotten exactly where we were vis-à-vis the number of operating companies that we have, and our requirements in relation to private companies. Substantial investment has gone into the rail system, which is why we have record levels of punctuality and reliability—and why, of course, we have had a 50 per cent. increase in passengers using the rail system, which is good news.

Does the Minister not understand how angered rail passengers are by an increase in fares that is way above inflation, at a time of deepening recession? He seems to be a little complacent about that. Is not one of the reasons for the increase his Department’s policy of extracting premiums from train companies to operate concessions, forcing an unfair ticket tax on passengers? When will he give a fair deal to passengers and remove the unfair ticket tax? How does forcing up rail fares help to tackle climate change?

No increase in prices, for whatever reason, is welcomed, and we recognise the clear pressures on train travellers. But, invariably, as some fares have reduced because of the capping system that we have put in place, some have gone up. If we were to introduce a freeze, we would then need to spend more public funds on those rail companies. That would be another subsidy taking money away from rolling stock improvements, increased main line electrification programmes and schemes such as the £8.8 billion west coast main line. We must recognise the requirements, and that there are only two places that the money can come from—the taxpayer or the fare payer. It is question of getting the balance right between the two.

My hon. Friend will agree that a downside of people paying more for their tickets on the Manchester to Blackpool line is that the passengers at Adlington have seen a reduction in service. They were not consulted, although Greater Manchester passenger authority was. People who know the country recognise that Adlington, in my constituency, is in Lancashire. Why have people there not been consulted? Why are we not getting value for the price increases, to ensure there is no reduction in service? Will my hon. Friend personally look into the matter?

I am always willing to listen to right hon. and hon. Members and to look into matters of concern. Passenger Focus is very much at the heart of giving a stronger voice to passengers.

I have already said yes to the request. Passenger Focus is there to help represent the concerns of passengers across the board.

Ports (Rating System)

3. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government since December 2008 on the effects on the operation of ports of recent changes to the rating system and the backdating of rates due. (250988)

I have discussed this on several occasions with the Minister for Local Government, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury and other ministerial colleagues. Officials in the Department for Transport have also had discussions on the matter with officials in the Department for Communities and Local Government and other Departments.

I am glad that the Minister takes this seriously. In ports around the country, operators are threatened with closure and workers are having their jobs threatened by a retrospective £33 million extra impost. Will he talk to the operators and the ports about whether the Government will adopt the Treasury Committee’s idea of bringing in the new rating system and values in 2010, rather than backdating them so many years to 2003?

I cannot give an undertaking to meet the businesses, on the basis that I am the Minister responsible for shipping and I meet the port authorities; indeed, I have a routine meeting with UK Major Ports scheduled for tomorrow morning. I know that colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Treasury, and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform have been engaging with the business community in ports. A fast-tracking system was put in place to allow challenges and appeals to take place, and the Government announced that we would put in place the opportunity for interest-free payments to be made over the next eight years to ease the pressure on businesses and ports.

Shipping is badly affected by the global economic downturn. Will my hon. Friend press the Treasury to withdraw the backdated bills for businesses in ports, to prevent those businesses from being pushed into bankruptcy at this very difficult time?

I am not in a position to ask the Treasury to withdraw the requirement on businesses in ports to pay their fair and equal sum of rates to local authorities. What we have done, however, is spoken with, and made representations to, ministerial colleagues and, as I explained to the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) a moment ago, we have agreed with them a mechanism to allow such businesses to challenge and appeal where they feel that they have not been dealt with fairly—and, where the rateable value is appropriate, we have tried to make sure that there is a fair and equitable way for them to pay over a longer term.

Since Christmas, on the Mersey, Thomas Nichols Brown has gone bust and Stanton Grove is tottering under a £2 million rates bill, and on the Humber, DFDS is sacking staff. The Minister has acknowledged how difficult the trading environment is. When will he tell his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government that a large part of this money has gone back as an unexpected windfall to port employers, and that it is quite wrong to pretend that the contractual arrangements between port employers, who were warned in advance about this situation, and their tenants is purely a private commercial matter?

I am advised that UK Major Ports and the British Ports Association refute the suggestion that money has gone to them and that they are in some way obliged to pay the money back to businesses in ports. They say categorically that that is not the case, and they have demonstrated that in discussions I have had with them. This matter is still live: there will be another Adjournment debate tomorrow morning—a 90-minute debate in Westminster Hall—which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friends are looking forward to. This matter is still under review, therefore, but the Government have listened to representations, and we have put in place mechanisms to try to do whatever we can to assist businesses in ports, and we certainly recognise the important role shipping plays in the UK economy.

West Coast Main Line

4. What recent estimate he has made of the cost to the economy of disruption on the west coast main line over the new year period; and if he will make a statement. (250989)

Network Rail has apologised to passengers and businesses for the disruption on the west coast main line over the new year period, which was the result of separate incidents. Disruption on the railway does have economic consequences, which is why we are committing record levels of investment to increase capacity and resilience. The economic impact of the improved west coast main line is a very positive one, cutting journey times and allowing 45 per cent. more long-distance trains out of Euston.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. In his latest newsletter, Tony Collins, chief executive of Virgin Trains, says of the delay in the implementation of the new timetable:

“we are disappointed with the current situation. We will continue to work with Network Rail”.

Of the disruption over the new year, he says:

“Setting aside the tragic plane crash in Staffordshire, the bad days have largely related to overhead line equipment failures.”

Does the Secretary of State understand that members of the Lichfield commuters club—and, indeed, other commuters up and down the west coast main line—feel that with increased fares they should be getting increased service? Where does the buck stop? When will the Secretary of State—

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his question. I am told that he chairs “a small but influential group of rail users”. I trust that that small group consists of more than one member, but—

Even better. It appears that the hon. Gentleman’s “small group” is a very small one indeed. Nevertheless, I would be delighted to meet him to discuss rail services in Lichfield, and I agree that it is important that reliable services are maintained from Lichfield, and also along other parts of the west coast main line. That is precisely why we committed so much funding to its improvement, and why we continue to monitor the developments. We hope—indeed, we expect—that his constituents will have a safe reliable journey along that line.

My right hon. Friend said earlier that it was not the quality of the upgrade that was the problem, but is it not a fact that the real problem, not just on the west coast main line but throughout the country, is the poor quality of maintenance on our railways? This is because there is a skills shortage, from project management to technicians. What are the Government going to do to improve the skills on the railways?

I made it clear earlier that we will not, in any way, allow compromises to be made on safety—and that applies specifically to maintaining our railway network. It is vital that passengers and staff on the railways should have complete confidence in the equipment that they use. My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the importance of maintaining and improving skill levels, and that is why the Government are committed to an extensive programme of apprenticeships to ensure that we have the necessary skills for the future, not only on the west coast main line but across our rail network.

The refurbishment of the west coast main line should have been cause for great celebration, but in focusing almost solely on reducing long-distance journey times, it has been an unmitigated disaster for intermediate towns such as Milton Keynes and Rugby. I welcome the fact that we are trying to get people off aeroplanes, but will taking an extra five minutes simply to stop in Milton Keynes really stop people taking the train?

I do not accept that this was solely about long-distance journey times, because it was also about increasing the capacity on the line: some 45 per cent. more services can travel on the line as a result of the capacity improvements. That is fundamental to passengers up and down the line; it means that many more direct services from different destinations can be organised, alongside the stopping trains that travel up and down the west coast main line. It is about both improving journey times and increasing the capacity on the line.

My right hon. Friend is right to emphasise the fact that the Government have played their role in the upgrade of the west coast main line. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) points out, Network Rail has let the travelling public down badly through poor maintenance and the disruption to services. Will my right hon. Friend examine the quality of Network Rail’s senior management? Perhaps he does not wish to comment on that in the House today, but will he take a view as to whether the incentives that they regard as essential ought to be coupled with disincentives when they get things so badly wrong?

I have regular meetings with Network Rail’s senior management, and I assure my hon. Friend, as I assure the House, that safety, reliability and maintenance are matters that are pursued on a regular basis. We will not allow them to slide.

Is not the real reason why it takes so long for the west coast main line to recover from disruptive incidents the fact that when Labour created Network Rail, Ministers left it accountable to nobody—not to the regulator, not to the train operators and certainly not to the passenger? Is it not time to reform Network Rail so that its management have to be accountable to a more effective structure than the toothless membership that they themselves appoint?

I find the hon. Lady’s remarks curious, given the sad history of Railtrack, for which her party, in government, was solely responsible. My predecessor created Network Rail to deal with the complete failure of Railtrack, over which she and her Government presided.

Will the Secretary of State also agree that we can increase resilience on the west coast route and reduce the impact of disruptive incidents by building a new high-speed line from London to Manchester? Will he back our promise to do that? Why did his Department’s 30-year strategy for the railways contain no place for high-speed rail? Why does the high-speed rail proposal that he put forward when he made his Heathrow announcement consist of little more than warm words and a distant aspiration for a line that might get as far as Birmingham, but no further north?

As the hon. Lady might one day eventually find out, being in government and taking decisions involves rather more than scribbling on the back of an envelope—which was pretty much what the Conservative party’s proposals for a high-speed network consisted of. I have been writing on similar envelopes for a very long time—since I was a small child. The reality is that developing a high-speed rail network, which is what we set out, requires a great deal of detailed work, and that work is under way. We have formed a company, which has an influential non-executive chair. That is the kind of work that is necessary; it is not about scribbling on the back of envelopes.

My constituents depend significantly on the west coast main line, accessing what is generally a fast and reasonable service at Tamworth and Nuneaton. But when they arrive in Euston, they get off the train to find a tired and tatty shopping centre that masquerades as a rail hub. When are we going to do something about that? Surely a more impressive Euston might be able to help with the other problems occurring further up the line. [Interruption.]

There appear to be different opinions about the quality of Euston station, but I assure my hon. Friend that there are detailed plans in hand for refurbishing it. I hope that he will be pleased with the results.

Rail Fares

5. What recent representations he has received in relation to fare increases for rail passengers on rail services operated by First Capital Connect and East Midlands Trains. (250991)

According to Andrew Long of the Bedford commuters association, the pain of the recent fare increases, which were well above inflation, has been compounded by the reduction in service by East Midland Trains through Bedford at peak times. That throws much more pressure on to the already overcrowded First Capital Connect trains. When can my constituents expect a better service, or are the Government relying on the recession to make trains more comfortable by thinning out the number of commuters?

The hon. Gentleman should be well aware that there have been increases in capacity to trains serving places such as Kettering, there are faster journey times to Sheffield, and there have been improvements for Bedford. At the moment most of the peak trains consist of eight cars, and he will be aware that we will be able to strengthen the service still further when the first phase of the Thameslink programme is completed by 2011.

Like many passengers, my constituents accept that sometimes fares will increase, but they want an improved service as a consequence. Will my hon. Friend ensure that the capital refurbishment of Loughborough station— the lengthening of the platform, disability access and the regeneration of the surrounding area—is part of the package that East Midlands Trains has to put together alongside the increase in fares?

I will certainly take on board the points made by my hon. Friend, and accessibility and reliability requirements are indeed part and parcel of the franchise agreement.

What representations has the Minister received on behalf of customers of Northern Rail about the recent inflation-busting increase of 6 per cent.? We have some of the most overcrowded trains in the country coming into Leeds, and it is not acceptable to have fare increases without any promise that the overcrowding will be dealt with.

The underlying intention and main thrust of the Government’s investment programme of some £10 billion is to meet those immediate requirements for increased capacity between now and 2014. That is why we have invested in additional carriages and cars to increase the number available. We have also invested in programmes to lengthen platforms to accommodate longer trains, so that we can meet the requirements of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and others who experience congestion and demand on the rail network.

Does the Minister think that those who use East Midlands Trains on a Sunday get a good service for the money that they pay?

I accept that an improved service at weekends is required, but that will inevitably be the case when there is a major programme of investment to improve the infrastructure of the rail network. The best time for it to be carried out is at weekends—but I appreciate the inconvenience that it causes to the travelling public.

Driving Test

6. What assessment he has made of the effect of the introduction of the new multi-purpose test centres on the accessibility of driving test facilities to members of the public; and if he will make a statement. (250992)

The introduction of the new motorcycle test has allowed the Driving Standards Agency to refresh its estate for car and motorcycle tests. Car and motorcycle tests will be delivered from new multipurpose test centres—MPTCs. These are all Disability Discrimination Act-compliant, and offer the public improved facilities such as car parking and toilets. We plan some 60 of these centres, and 39 are already operational. In areas without an MPTC, car tests will be delivered from existing centres.

I note the Minister’s response and thank him for it, but will he explain to learner drivers who are already struggling to meet the costs of learning to drive why the Government increased the cost of the motorcycle test before the new test was implemented?

Very simply, the DSA has to raise money from fees to ensure that it stays even as a trading account. Over the past four years there has been a deficit. The expenditure on the new MPTCs has been spent, is being spent and will continue to be spent, and that money has to come from somewhere. It is appropriate that the user should pay.

Who is going to take responsibility for the botched and chaotic introduction of the new motorcycle test, which is due to come in on 27 April, seven months late? Many young riders will be deterred from taking the test because of the distance that they might have to travel or the fact that in some cases the test will be split in two. Will the Minister answer my hon. Friend’s question about how he has the barefaced cheek to introduce the higher fee from October even though the new test will not be introduced until this April?

I think that I responded to the final element of the question: the money is being spent on the new centres and the DSA has to balance its books. As for who takes responsibility for the delay, ultimately, I do. The decision was taken on the basis of the number of test centres that were available. I did not think that there were enough centres to meet the accessibility criteria that the DSA had set itself in terms of the distance that individuals would have to travel to take their tests. The delay has allowed additional test centres to be completed, and it has allowed temporary test centres to be identified. The coverage will be far greater when the new test regime is introduced later this year.

Topical Questions

On 15 January, I set out to the House a series of major announcements on transport infrastructure. That included confirmation of the Government’s support for a third runway at Heathrow airport, plans for increasing capacity on some of Britain’s busiest roads and the creation of a new company, High Speed 2, to develop the case for new high-speed rail services between London and Scotland. In recent weeks, I have opened the new third platform at Manchester Airport railway station and the new green station at East Midlands Parkway. Both projects will improve journeys for thousands of commuters, reduce congestion on our roads and bring significant benefits to business, as will the newly widened section of the M1 south of Luton, which I officially opened last Friday. Last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), announced new measures to crack down on uninsured drivers by reducing the additional costs and safety risks that they cause. The new measures will help to protect the law- abiding majority.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Constituents have raised with me the safety of our airports following the miraculous events in New York. Will the Secretary of State reassure me about the safety of our airports, in particular London City airport? Apropos of that, has he had any further thoughts about opening a new airport in the middle of the Thames estuary?

If I may qualify my hon. Friend’s remarks to some extent, those events in New York were not miraculous. They were the result of remarkable skills displayed by the aircrew, and we should all pay tribute to them.

My hon. Friend is right, in that all airports must have regard to the risk of bird strike, and each airport is required to have a control programme. That has always been taken extremely seriously, and I am sure that with a little more thought, not least in the light of the history of proposals for airports in the Thames estuary, the Mayor of London might think again about the environmental risks, and the risks of bird strike to aircraft, of siting an aerodrome in that place.

T3. We have regular reports of drivers being led astray by their satnav devices down wholly unsuitable roads and lanes. Indeed, in my constituency there is a low bridge in Templecombe that seems to be hit almost every other week by a heavy goods vehicle, normally driven by a foreign driver who has been told to go down that road by his satnav. Some time ago, we were told that there would be a Government review of satnav devices. Has that now been completed, and are the Government prepared to introduce a route hierarchy into satnav structures, to ensure that heavy lorries do not use roads that simply cannot take them? (251009)

Here is a short answer, Mr. Speaker: the companies that produce the technology are still working on improving satnav performance. Work is also being undertaken to produce a satnav programme for heavy goods vehicles. HGV satnav is under review, because at the start and end of journeys such systems take drivers to the major routes via roads that may not be suitable for heavy vehicles.

T2. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the fury over the quality of train services that has existed in Northampton since the new timetable was introduced. What assurances can he give my constituents about improvements to the service in the short term? In the longer term, what prospect is there that his strategic rail review and new high-speed rail network will lead to more and faster train services to London, Birmingham and the north? (251007)

I was pleased to have a very useful meeting recently with my hon. Friend, at which she put her case on behalf of her constituents in Northampton with her usual determined vigour. I was left in no doubt about the importance of the required improvements that she suggested, and I shall certainly take the matter up with the franchise holder. As for the wider question of capacity, my hon. Friend is right to say that the Government’s programme of enhancing capacity on our rail network will allow for relief on crowded parts of the existing network. They are crowded because of their success, with passenger numbers now equivalent to their levels in 1946. I am grateful to her, and assure her that I shall take her suggestions forward.

T5. Last year, 12 airlines failed and thousands of passengers were left stranded abroad. Unfortunately, more airlines will fail this year. People who book through the Association of British Travel Agents, if the operator has an air travel operator’s licence, will be protected and repatriated. However, people who book directly with the airline are left stranded abroad. When will the Secretary of State stop dithering and bring in a consumer protection scheme that will cover all airline passengers? (251011)

I can advise the hon. Gentleman that we are not dithering over this. The most recent crash, of the airline Excel, affected 85,000 people, and an investigation is being held into the lessons to be learned from it. People were successfully returned to this country in an operation carried out by the Civil Aviation Authority and others, and we will be making recommendations in due course. The Secretary of State and I have had a series of meetings with a variety of interested parties, and work is well under way.

T4. The users of the First Great Western franchise have had to endure cancellations and late-running trains for far too long. Despite the entreaties that we have heard from the midlands today, will the Secretary of State assure the House that plans for the electrification of the Great Western line will be given equal priority? Can he give us some idea of when those plans will be brought forward? (251010)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I shall continue with my self-imposed injunction always to mention the Great Western first. I assure her that the economic case for the electrification of that line is strong, and that we shall be looking at it in detail over the course of this year before we make a further announcement.

T6. The “cycle train” at St. Matthew’s primary school in Bishopriggs involves a group of children who cycle to school and back each day, under the supervision of adults. Not only does that reduce the number of car journeys, but the children arrive at school alert and energised. However, the idea of children cycling on pavements remains a grey area in legal terms, so will the Minister look again at how the problem can be addressed? We need to balance pedestrian safety with clearer guidance to encourage young children to cycle more. (251012)

Interestingly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State suggests that I should join in with what the schoolchildren are doing. [Interruption.] I shall decline that opportunity—but the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) raises an important point. We very much wish to encourage cycling for a host of reasons, not least of which is the need to reduce congestion and the number of car journeys, and to meet the requirements of healthy living. We are investing some £140 million in promoting cycling, and we are training an additional half a million young people between the ages of six and 11 in the Bikeability and national standards process. That will help to give children confidence in using roads and cycle lanes—and I am always willing to discuss how we can take forward work with schools to make children’s cycle journeys safer.

T7. My hon. Friend will be aware of the big issue of concessionary travel, and Chorley borough council’s claims that the Government are short-changing it by not giving it enough money. In fact, the treasurer stated to the editor of the local paper that the council is £250,000 short. I do not believe that he has got the figure right; in fact, I think that he is struggling with his sums. Will the Minister meet the council and me to discuss the issue, as I do not believe that the situation is as bad as the council portrays it? (251013)

The simple answer is yes. I am happy to meet any Members and their delegations. Chorley had a 33 per cent. increase over and above outturn last year—some £280,000—

A huge amount, to help to meet the cost of the Government giving 11 million people the freedom to travel the length and breadth of England.

As I am sure the Secretary of State knows, the A38 between Marsh Mills and Ivybridge in Devon was closed yesterday for six hours. It is the third time that has happened since Christmas, and it causes problems to the local economy. I have on several occasions pointed out that that is a fast and dangerous piece of dual carriageway. When will the Department for Transport do something about the road? Will it be before there are more fatal collisions on that stretch?

I was not aware that the road was closed yesterday. For investment in roads, the process involving the priority of meeting the requirements is kept under review through the regional funding allocation process. None the less, I will certainly look into the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

Women and Equality

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Equal Pay

A key to helping women bring equal pay actions is transparency. Once the equality Bill and its related policy package are in place, employers will not be able to rely on keeping their pay structure secret. We will ban secrecy clauses in employment contracts, so that women can identify unequal pay and seek redress. Women often have different employment patterns from men, but their input into the economy is essential, especially at this time. Women are equal and they will be paid equally.

I thank the Minister for her answer. Of course she will be well aware of the obstacles that prevent women from taking up equal pay cases. In particular, she will know of the range of technical defences available to employers, which often mean that equal pay cases take many years. She will also be aware that the trade unions are calling for class actions as a way of making it easier for women to bring equal pay cases. Is that something that she is considering? What else is she thinking of doing to make it easier for women to bring equal pay cases quickly?

My hon. Friend is to be congratulated; when she was a lawyer for Unison, she won what was, I think, the biggest equal pay case in the UK. We intend to clarify and simplify the law, as far as is practical, in the new Bill, in particular as regards the way in which the burden of proof operates, and how technical questions of general material factors are dealt with. The Civil Justice Council has just reported, and it advocates representative actions that would fulfil the same purpose as the class actions that my hon. Friend champions. The Government Equalities Office will consider how representative actions might apply to equal pay and discrimination cases in employment tribunals, and how they might feed into broader work in the Ministry of Justice, because the CJC is advocating representative actions in all civil cases. We think that representative actions may well have helpful application in equal pay and discrimination cases, but of course we will consult on any proposals for change.

It is pretty widely accepted that the voluntary approach to managing the financial services sector has been an abysmal failure, yet although the Minister just said that women will get equal pay, there is no proposition to bring in mandatory pay awards; there are only to be voluntary ones. What reassurance can the Minister give us that that will be any more successful, and will not end in equal failure?

The hon. Lady refers specifically to the financial sector. She will be aware that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is conducting an inquiry, which it announced recently, into inequities in pay in that sector, so we can expect greater transparency there very soon. We think that mandatory pay audits are probably too broad and draconian. Sometimes pay audits are very effective, but sometimes they are cumbersome processes that do not always come up with the goods that we would wish them to. Sometimes they are a process rather than an outcome. We prefer different approaches that rely on voluntariness, but let us make no mistake: in the end, if transparency and voluntary measures do not work, we will take stronger measures to ensure equal pay for women.

As my hon. and learned Friend is aware, the single status agreement in local authorities and Agenda for Change in health authorities were meant to eradicate the problems of unequal pay in both services. Sadly, with the increase in no win, no fee lawyers, many such negotiations have stalled because people are suing not only their local health authorities or local authorities but the trade unions. Will my hon. and learned Friend use her good offices to resolve the problem?

My hon. Friend is right and points to a significant issue. In a way, he supports my last answer, in the sense that those were total pay orders and they still have not got away from tribunal actions. The Ministry of Justice is looking into the role of no win, no fee lawyers in what is still regarded, slightly oddly perhaps, as a non-contentious area, as employment tribunals are. I can, at the very least, say to my hon. Friend that there are many eyes looking at the problem, with a real intention of solving it.

Because there are many things that lie behind unequal pay for women, we are acting across the board to tackle it, particularly by supporting women who are going out to work as well as caring for families with young children or older relatives, and by strengthening the law to tackle discrimination.

May I say how intriguing it is to see that the Conservative Front-Bench team for women and equality consists of 75 per cent. men and 25 per cent. women—but perhaps it is a good sign that the men in the Tory party are applying to join the honorary sisterhood.

The most recent Government statistics show that women are losing their jobs at twice the rate of men in this recession. Beyond exposing illegal discrimination, what are the Minister’s plans to address the problem, which could further entrench the gender pay gap that women still have to endure in this country?

We are well aware of concerns across the board about job loss during the recession. Because women are employed disproportionately in retail and in financial services, we have to look at the effect of the recession specifically on women. We have to look at the effect of the recession on women because women are still the main managers of the household budget. That is one of the reasons why we will make a focus not only of the work that we do through the National Economic Council and across Government Departments, but of the work on the issues that will be raised in the G20 when it is hosted by this country in April. Everybody is affected by the recession, but women are affected differently, so we need to focus on that.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her characteristically generous welcome to me.

In the other place on Friday, on the Second Reading of our Equal Pay and Flexible Working Bill, the noble Lady Vadera said that the Bill was unnecessary because the Government are to introduce an equalities Bill, which will contain measures on equal pay. Can the Minister confirm that her equality Bill will contain all the measures that are in our Equal Pay and Flexible Working Bill?

In our manifesto, we committed to bring forward a new law to strengthen the laws on equal pay that previous Labour Governments had brought into force, and we have consulted since then. It is disappointing that the Conservative party did not put forward proposals for consultation. In the Bill, we will strengthen enforcement and toughen the law. The Opposition should table proposals, if they want to, when we introduce the Bill, or simply support our equality Bill when we introduce it in April.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend explain to the House how changes to public sector procurement practices could help to narrow the gender pay gap?

Procurement is important for helping to narrow the gender pay gap in the public sector. As well as public authorities having a duty to narrow the pay gap as one of their existing public sector duties, procurement is a public function. They therefore have a responsibility, when they procure goods or services and pay for them under a contract, to take the opportunity to ensure that those with whom they are contracting are making efforts to narrow the pay gap. At present it is not very clear how they can do that. We are working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to make sure that public authorities are able to use their procurement power, which applies to a third of the private sector, to ensure that that is another place where we can take action to narrow the pay gap.

Female Entrepreneurs

3. When she next expects to meet representatives of small business groups to discuss measures to increase the number of female entrepreneurs. (250978)

My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality meets business representatives, including those representing small businesses, from time to time, as do I. The Government’s enterprise strategy, which was published in March last year, includes a package of support for women setting up and growing businesses. Support for women entrepreneurs and employees in the present global circumstances is a priority, and, as my right hon. and learned Friend has said, we are exploring the scope for an international meeting on the matter in London around the time of the G20 in April.

Does the Minister agree that during these incredibly tough economic times what women entrepreneurs want above all else is a sensible regulatory regime? Will she confirm that it is still her Government’s policy to resist the EU agency workers directive and any moves to remove the UK opt-out from the EU working time directive?

Now that the agency workers directive has been agreed, the Government are moving ahead with plans to introduce the necessary legislation. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that there will be detailed consultation on the UK implementation of the directive in the near future. I am perfectly happy to meet him and anybody he cares to bring with him to discuss any concerns in that respect.

One of the difficulties that female entrepreneurs face is varying patterns of employment, which can have knock-on effects into retirement in terms of national insurance stamps. What steps can the Government take to make sure that female entrepreneurs and other female workers have full national insurance stamps at retirement?

The Government have a good record on trying to make sure that women get fair pensions and do not face poverty in old age simply because of their caring responsibilities. Although women entrepreneurs have led a small percentage of UK enterprises thus far, that number is increasing, which indicates that self-employment is becoming increasingly attractive to women.

Corston Report

4. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on steps to implement the recommendations on women’s prisons contained in the Corston report. (250979)

As champion for women in the criminal justice system and as a Minister in the Department, I regularly talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice. Last December, I issued a written ministerial statement to Parliament reporting the substantial progress in delivering the Government’s response to the Corston recommendations and wider work on female offenders. That includes a commitment to provide additional resources to divert women from custody. We are also piloting a women’s conditional caution with Together Women centres, which presents a chance for diversion at an early stage from custody. The Secretary of State for Justice and I recently visited the Together Women project in north Liverpool, and I know that he was impressed by what he saw.

Will my hon. Friend say whether progress has been made in tailoring community support services better to address women’s needs on release from prison? In particular, are voluntary organisations, such as the excellent Open Gate project in my constituency, being used to provide specialist services to women?

I can reassure my hon. Friend in that respect. The Open Gate project, which she has mentioned, does good work with women before and after their release from Low Newton prison in her constituency. It is a fine example of the kind of multidisciplinary, wraparound support that women leaving custody often need to prevent them from sinking back into a cycle of reoffending, which can be avoided with a little bit of help and support. I anticipate that any resources that we announce in due course will be focused on boosting that kind of help.

Shared Parental Leave

5. What recent representations she has received on shared parental leave; and if she will make a statement. (250980)

In recent months, I have not received any particular representations on shared parental leave. However, I can confirm that the Government intend to extend the right to request flexible working to parents of children aged up to 16 from April this year. That demonstrates the Government’s continuing commitment to supporting parents in balancing their work and family responsibilities.

A recent Netmums survey found that 28 per cent. of dads would like to share the child care equally with their partners, although only 5 per cent. managed to do so. Surely we will achieve proper equality for men and women as parents only when the state stops prescribing that it must be mothers who stay at home to look after the children and lets families themselves decide how to split the parental leave.

The hon. Lady forgot to compliment the Government on our record on producing and increasing just that flexibility. The Government have extended paid maternity leave, introduced paid paternity leave, given parental leave to mothers and fathers and introduced the right for mothers and fathers to request flexible working. That, in addition to £25 billion of investment in child care, is surely something on which she should have complimented the Government.

Domestic Sexual Abuse

6. What steps she plans to take to encourage women who are experiencing sexual abuse in their own homes to seek help; and if she will make a statement. (250981)

Sexual abuse is almost always present in domestic violence, although that is not widely appreciated. It plays a role in why women are often slow to seek help. We are making real progress in encouraging agencies involved in health and education to identify vulnerable victims earlier and ensure that they access the support services that they need.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her answer, and I commend her for the work that she has done. Would she like to visit Glasgow to see what we are doing to make sure that women who deserve help get it? Our success with convictions is increasing all the time, and women are getting pleas now rather than having to go through the courts. Is it not important that all women, no matter where they come from in the United Kingdom, are treated fairly? Should we not all use best practices such as those used in Glasgow?

My hon. Friend is right to say that zero tolerance started in Scotland, so there is a good deal to celebrate. I have visited Glasgow many times, and I would be very glad to go again. The city has a system of specialist domestic violence courts similar to the ones that we have here. They have proved very successful in increasing the conviction rates when complaints of domestic violence are made, largely because complainants are befriended and supported so that they sustain their complaint and are not frightened off. That sends out a powerful message to deter such offending in the first place.