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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 494: debated on Thursday 25 June 2009


The Minister of State was asked—

Exeter Airport

1. What recent assessment the Secretary of State has made of the adequacy of road links to Exeter airport; and if he will make a statement. (282098)

First, Mr. Speaker, may I congratulate you on your appointment as Speaker of the House? The Ministers in the Department for Transport look forward to working with you on the business.

On 6 May, the Department gave outline investment approval for £12 million towards the east of Exeter phase 2 improvements. Measures include improving the junction access to Exeter airport. This investment was agreed after assessing the transport conditions in the immediate and wider area, and reflecting proposed development opportunities.

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. Improving road connections to the airport is all very well, but, given the Government’s stated commitment to a high-speed rail network and the desire of the airport to become carbon-neutral by 2015, what additional resources can the Government make available to local councils to ensure a reduction in carbon emissions and congestion resulting from airport traffic?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Department for Transport’s overriding goals are to deal with congestion and with climate change. We have imposed strict rules in relation to climate change, and they are monitored independently. The work that needs to be done at local level to ensure joined-up thinking on business and housing development and on transport requirements is part of the regional funding allocations process. We have more than doubled the money that is going into local transport provision.

The Minister ought also to consider the road network to the west of Exeter, as well as the way in which Exeter airport serves the south Devon economy and the need for investment in road infrastructure—most notably the A380 Kingskerswell bypass.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that there is always a need to look across a region to examine demand, the economy, proposed developments and the transport infrastructure. We know the importance of having a good transport infrastructure, be it for people travelling to and from work, for businesses moving their goods or for people visiting those businesses’ headquarters in order to trade. That is why the Department has been undertaking processes to give powers and responsibilities to regions and local areas so that they can prioritise their requirements within a given region.

Cross-Border Transport Networks

2. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues in the devolved Administrations on cross-border improvements to transport networks. (282099)

My noble Friend the Secretary of State for Transport met Stewart Stevenson MSP and John Swinney MSP in April to discuss progress on the Department’s work on High Speed 2 and its potential benefits for Scotland. The Secretary of State has also given evidence to the Scottish Parliament Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee and met Committee members to discuss various matters. Additionally, Ministers in the Department have met Ieuan Wyn Jones AM to discuss Welsh cross-border rail and road issues.

Mr. Speaker, may I congratulate you on your new duties?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. The economic success of devolution is largely dependent on efficient cross-UK transport links. He mentioned that there have been discussions with the Scottish Executive about High Speed 2 and the prospect of a London to Scotland high-speed line, but will he do everything that he can to ensure that this turns into reality and to ensure that devolution brings economic success to Scotland?

I thank my hon. Friend for his supplementary question. High Speed 2 will report to the Government by the end of this year. We have said to the Scottish Government that the High Speed 2 company would be happy to meet them at any point, and we have also recommended that they have a representative on the relevant reference group. We believe in investment, in these challenging times, but we also recognise the benefits of a proposed route that goes all the way to Scotland, rather than stopping in Manchester, as some people have proposed.

Is the Minister aware of the sardine express? It is the Arriva Trains Wales service that goes from Wales to Shropshire, then on to other parts of the United Kingdom. My concern is that people are being crushed into its carriages, because there are often only two carriages when four are required to meet the demand on the line. If there were a sudden halt or accident, far more people would be injured or, possibly, killed as a result of that congestion in the carriages. Will the Minister undertake to meet representatives of Arriva Trains Wales and get an undertaking from them that they will take action to deal with this, as it has been going on for far too long?

The one thing I do not apologise for is longer trains; we need them. The hon. Gentleman raised an important point about the quality of service that passengers receive, which is not good enough on some trains. I am happy to arrange the meeting he mentioned and it would be good if he were present so that he could express and articulate the concerns that his constituents have put to him.

You, Mr. Speaker, will be aware that there is no greater enthusiast for the high-speed line than myself. As the line passes through my Carlisle constituency on the way to Scotland, will the funding be a Scottish or a UK responsibility? The line starts in London and in Glasgow and meets somewhere in the middle.

I thank my hon. Friend for his really helpful question. He will be aware that the Department for Transport is responsible for cross-border franchise train services, and that we work closely with the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Executive. The important thing is to ensure that the quality of service that passengers receive is the right one. It is also important to have proper communications between Members on both sides of the border. There are examples of good practice, but also, I am afraid, of bad practice, but I will endeavour to ensure that we learn the lessons so that the quality of service that passengers receive is seamless.

Violence Against Public Transport Staff

3. What representations he has received on reducing levels of violence against public transport staff; and if he will make a statement. (282100)

I deplore violence against staff. Both my father and father-in-law worked in public transport for more than 40 years, so I well understand the huge impact of physical or verbal violence on working people and their families. If we are to run an effective transport system, it is essential that staff feel safe when carrying out their duties. That is why we are continuing to work with key stakeholders to improve the personal security of transport staff as well as passengers.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, but does he agree that overcrowding and lack of supervision are part of the problem, particularly on the railways, and that we need longer trains, less overcrowding and more supervisory staff so that the staff themselves can feel safer?

One thing we did in respect of the most recent franchise we awarded was to take the passenger experience into account. We spoke to passengers and asked them what they wanted. The issues my hon. Friend has just raised were the same issues that they raised: they wanted less crowding and they wanted to feel safer on the stations, and that has an impact on both staff and passengers. In awarding this most recent franchise, we took on board some of the passengers’ wishes. I will ensure that we continue to speak not just to Members of Parliament, but to communities, so that when we award franchises, we can take into account the important points that my hon. Friend has raised.

The Minister will be well aware of the slight downward trend in transport crime, so will he acknowledge that the Mayor of London’s ban on alcohol on the London underground was a contributory factor? Will the Minister also consider that as the recession starts to bite and unemployment starts to rise, that trend may well be reversed?

It pains me to do so, but I congratulate the Mayor of London on the alcohol ban. We supported him in doing that and helped with the necessary byelaws to make it work. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that crime has gone down not just on the railways, but on the tube system as well, largely as a result of the investment in more British Transport police and more police and community support officers on the tube as well. The danger is, of course, that with some parties recommending cuts, that could mean cutting those police and PCSOs, which I think would have the impact of making crime go up again.

What support can my right hon. Friend offer to the British Transport police in its work on protecting passengers in normal times as well as in its counter-terrorism work?

In my new role, I am looking forward to working with my hon. Friend in her Select Committee role. She raises a very important issue. As we know, there are record numbers working for the British Transport police and more than 3,000 community support officers. Bearing in mind London and the other potential strategic targets, she is right about the importance of the British Transport police working with the security services. I reassure my hon. Friend that my noble Friend the Secretary of State is committed, as we are in the House of Commons, to ensuring that we have the best possible and safest transport system in the world.

Lifeline Flights

4. What recent representations he has received on the future of lifeline flights within the UK; and if he will make a statement. (282101)

The Department has received little correspondence on existing lifeline services in Scotland and Wales. There have been calls to introduce public service obligations on some domestic routes to London, although no formal applications have been received. Our policy on this subject is set out in the published guidance of 2005.

I am grateful for that answer, but in my constituency, which has genuine lifeline routes, there is growing concern about the increasing cost and the decreasing quality of service provided to local people since Flybe took over the franchise. Is he prepared to set up a meeting, perhaps including his opposite number in the Scottish Government and local representatives, to see how the Minister’s regulatory functions and the Scottish Government’s funding obligations might all be brought together to ensure that the people who need the services most get the best quality service?

Let me make it clear that we continue to support the use of public service obligations as a means of helping to subsidise important lifeline services for communities such as that represented by the hon. Gentleman. Some of the issues to which he refers will be partly subject to a commercial decision-making process, but we will continue to consider how to ensure that people in such communities have lifeline services.

Lifeline services are important, and my constituents also have Flybe as the sole operator from airports within the islands to airports in central Scotland. However, anyone who books with Flybe and changes their travel plans with advance notice will not get a refund. Does the Minister not think that travellers and consumers deserve a better deal?

Indeed. The Government have been committed to ensuring that passengers get a fair deal, whether on rail, buses or aircraft. Clearly, that is part of the reason for considering introducing a role for Passenger Focus with regard to airline passengers. Within the provisions that we have, we will do all that we can to ensure that passengers get the best deal. As the hon. Gentleman understands, these are commercial matters in many cases, but I undertake to consider the issues raised.

I am pleased that the Minister supports lifeline flights, but he must recognise that the cost to the passenger of some essential flights is excessive, often because there is a monopoly supplier—there is no alternative. In contrast, bargain basement prices are offered on destinations where there is competition with rail. Does he not see merit in the Lib Dem idea of a cap on the cost of essential flights from monopoly suppliers, with a surcharge on those flights that compete directly with rail, both to encourage modal shift and to help to fund high-speed rail?

The hon. Gentleman well knows the Government’s commitment, not only in policies and words in the Chamber, but in deeds and investment in high-speed rail, and in our continuing work on issues, some of which have been raised, such as improving overcrowding with additional rolling stock. Whereas the Lib Dems see a bottomless pit of taxpayer’s money to fund schemes that are not in balance, we will do what is required to ensure a balanced transport position, and to ensure that lifeline services continue.

Mr. Speaker, may I welcome you to your new post?

Does the Minister accept that lifeline flights require healthy regional airports? Between higher taxes, new charges for spectrum, and now an imposed blank cheque for security costs, does he see a future for regional airports?

In our aviation White Paper, as the hon. Gentleman will be well aware, we are clear that regional airports have an important role to play in supporting individuals and businesses and giving people freedom and choice. We shall support that position.

Rail Services (London/South Wales)

We are taking a number of steps. From 2016, passengers will benefit from new super-express trains, which will reduce typical journey times and add more seats between London and south Wales. In addition, we are considering the case for electrifying the busiest parts of the Great Western main line, which appears promising. Meanwhile, the performance of existing train services between London and south Wales has improved since we issued a remedial plan notice to First Great Western last year.

May I take this opportunity to welcome you, Mr. Speaker, to the Chair, and the Minister to his new responsibilities?

When we travel by train to areas north of London, those of us who have constituencies in south Wales are quite jealous when we see the improvements that have been made on many services over the past 10 years. Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to accelerate immediate improvements in the services to Cardiff and Swansea, as well as considering electrification of the line in the longer term, and perhaps a late-night service that would allow his constituents to enjoy the benefits of Cardiff’s night-time culture?

I am not sure whether that is an invitation for a date. I accept that the train service between London and south Wales has for a long time suffered poorer performance than other First Great Western routes. I also accept my right hon. Friend’s point about the experience of those who live north of London. Our analysis is assessing a range of electrification scenarios, including taking the wires to Bristol and as far as Swansea, which I know will please him.

May I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Speaker, and also support the points made by my friend from the Welsh Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael)? Cardiff is one of the busiest hubs in the entire system, yet the Wales rail group has been told that approach speeds are 15 mph, which is what they have been for many decades. When the line is improved, will the Minister ensure that the signalling system into Cardiff is also improved so that speeds can increase?

That is an important point. Not only do we need to ensure that there is a new generation of super-express trains, we need to ensure that signalling improves as well. One of the things that I hope the hon. Gentleman will see over the next period is, with continued investment, an improvement in the quality of services that he and his constituents receive.

May I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Speaker, and the Minister to his new post? As chairman of the all-party group on rail in Wales, I am concerned about the number of services to south Wales and Wales in general. Our particular current concerns are about preserving rail services at ports and docks in constituencies such as mine, Swansea, East. Will the Minister meet the group to discuss those matters?

The short answer is yes. It is important that colleagues continue to raise the concerns that those of us who do not travel to certain parts of the kingdom do not get to see. It is important that we meet people such as my hon. Friend to listen to their concerns and to ensure that the franchises address those issues.

May I congratulate you on your election, Mr. Speaker, and welcome the new ministerial team?

The Minister will be aware that the previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), told the House repeatedly that electrification to south-west and south Wales was a priority for the Government and that they would improve services. As the Prime Minister was shown yesterday, the Government are planning to cut capital expenditure after 2010. How can electrification to improve services remain a priority for the Government in the face of those capital expenditure cuts after 2010?

May I thoroughly disappoint the hon. Gentleman, who is a friend and a neighbouring MP? We are examining in detail the case for electrifying the diesel-operated inter-city lines—the Great Western main line, which I mentioned, and also the midland main line. We will make an announcement in the coming months that will demonstrate that in challenging and tough times we are willing to invest rather than make cuts.

May I welcome you to your new role, Mr. Speaker, and congratulate the Minister on his new post? The Stroud valley line is the reserve line from south Wales, from the Severn tunnel. There is no better way to improve those services than to redouble the line between Swindon and Kemble. Will the Minister ensure that that happens as a matter of extreme urgency?

There is some good news on the redoubling of the line. My hon. Friend will be as aware as I am of the challenges in that area and will know that in these difficult times we have committed to investment rather than cuts, which have been recommended by some people.

Motorway Congestion

6. What recent discussions the Secretary of State has had with police forces on levels of motorway congestion following traffic accidents. (282103)

May I inform the right hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State has had no recent discussions with police forces specifically on motorway congestion? The Highways Agency takes managing the motorway network seriously. In the event of a serious accident, the police are supported by traffic officers to ensure that delays are minimised and motorways are reopened promptly.

The Minister mentions serious accidents, but is he aware that after quite minor accidents, the police are inclined to regard the accident as a scene of crime and to cordon off long sections of motorway, causing immense tailbacks, frustration, economic loss, and motorists trying to find alternatives through small towns and along small roads? Will he have a word with the Highways Agency and the police? It is a particular problem at the Bristol end of the M5 during a busy holiday period, when the motorway is already congested. There must be a better way of dealing with those accidents, such as photographing them, getting the vehicles off the scene and getting the traffic moving.

The right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that I spoke to the chief executive of the Highways Agency about the matter yesterday. He informed me that a joint strategic agreement on traffic incident management has been in existence since 2006, and that one of its aims is to improve clear-up times. The police must take as long as it takes to deal with what may be a crime scene, but the Highways Agency has helped them with technology that can rapidly determine and record evidence such as the position of vehicles. As I said earlier, following the completion of police work, traffic officers take over to ensure that the motorway is open as soon as possible.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Speaker, and hope that I shall catch your eye on many future occasions.

I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that one of the most congested parts of the motorway network is the M1 south of Sheffield, where a large number of accidents occur. Steps are being taken to widen the M1 between junctions 25 and 28, and consideration is being given to either widening it or introducing hard-shoulder running up to junction 34. Will my hon. Friend assure me that whatever scheme is adopted, variable speed limits will be introduced on that section of the motorway so that we can reduce congestion, ensure smoother running at peak periods and, in particular, lower the high levels of pollution around Tinsley, in my constituency?

As my hon. Friend says, the combination of hard-shoulder running and the application of active traffic management is an important tool, enabling us to squeeze every drop of capacity out of our existing road infrastructure.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Speaker.

With the advent of new technology, more use is being made of electronic signs on motorways, especially mobile electronic signs. Why are they not deployed at motorway access points? Is the Minister aware that most of the congestion that follows an accident is caused by new traffic entering a motorway that drivers do not know is shut?

The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on the button. Technology of that kind is used increasingly throughout the motorway network to enable us to manage vehicles as effectively as possible, especially when incidents arise.

I congratulate you, Mr. Speaker, and the new ministerial team.

What is the Minister’s estimate of the cost to the United Kingdom economy of an hour’s closure of a stretch of a key motorway such as the M25 or the M62?

We know that closure imposes costs. That is why we want to respond to incidents as effectively as we can. I have already set out the approach taken by the Highways Agency, in conjunction with the police, to ensure that roads are opened as quickly as possible.

The Government have no comprehension of the huge cost impact of these closures. They have broken their promises on congestion again and again. In their entire term of office they have built less than 20 miles of new motorway, and they have a road maintenance backlog of 13 years. Have they not manifestly failed motorists in this country?

That was a somewhat surprising response from Her Majesty’s official Opposition, who once told us to vote blue and go green. It is clear that that is no longer their commitment if they talk of a massive investment in motorway building and give no indication of how they would resource it. We are investing in the nation’s infrastructure, and they clearly would not do so.

Should the police clear congestion using British-assembled vehicles? Can my hon. Friend confirm or deny the rumour that there is currently a British-assembled Mini awaiting allocation in the ministerial car pool? Will he show leadership and volunteer to use it, and will he cut through the petty bureaucracy that allows—

It is clearly for the Highways Agency and/or the police to ensure that they obtain best value for the taxpayer when purchasing vehicles. However, if my hon. Friend has any new information that he wishes to share with me, I shall be happy to meet him to discuss it.

A14 (Kettering)

7. When the Highways Agency plans to initiate (a) ramp metering at junctions with, and (b) public consultation on the widening of, the A14 around Kettering. (282104)

It is proposed that ramp metering will be delivered on the A14 at junctions 4, 7 and 8 by spring 2011. A public information exhibition on the proposed widening of the A14 around Kettering is planned for autumn 2009. This replaces a public consultation on options as there is only one viable scheme option in this case.

The Highways Agency proposal is to widen the A14 between junctions 7 and 9, which is badly needed and very welcome. May I urge the Minister to ask the Highways Agency to investigate why it cannot widen the A14 between junctions 9 and 10, because under the Government housing expansion proposals, most of the new houses in Kettering are to be built to the east of the town, for which junction 10 is very important?

The Government are committed to the three-lane widening in order to deliver the improved traffic flows more quickly to the A14 around Kettering, as that can be done within existing Highways Agency land. The planned improvements are based on the needs of Kettering in terms of growth and development, and as I know that the hon. Gentleman has been calling for just this sort of infrastructure investment for some time, I am sure he will welcome it wholeheartedly.

Community Rail Projects (East Midlands)

8. What recent assessment has been made of the viability of community rail projects in the east midlands; and if he will make a statement. (282105)

Community rail projects bring together local communities and the appropriate train operators. We do not expect any issues with the viability of the three main projects in the east midlands.

The rail renaissance since 1997 has led to peacetime record numbers of passengers, which demand some attention on the constraints on capacity. Will the Minister discuss with me the “Connecting Communities” report from the Association of Train Operating Companies of earlier this month, which identifies the Leicester to Burton line—the national forest line through North-West Leicestershire—as having a good benefit-to-cost ratio? Might we have a look at that on site in order to correct the earlier impressions of Lord Adonis, who was rather lukewarm about community rail in the east midlands?

I am, of course, happy to speak to my hon. Friend about the scheme, but it is primarily a scheme of regional significance, and therefore the capital cost of the national forest line would need to be funded through the regional funding allocation. Unfortunately, the east midlands region has not seen this project as a regional priority for funding through that route, but any initial subsidy would have to be funded by local authorities for at least the first three years, although the Government would consider taking the service into normal franchise arrangements once there was a sound business case.

May I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Speaker?

Does the Minister think that a community rail project could further improve the long-term viability of a reopened Beverley to York rail line, and will he accept an invitation from local campaigners for the reopening of that line to come to our area to hear the arguments in favour of it and the benefits it would bring?

As part of our general commitment to the development of the railways, we are always keen to hear of proposals, but the Government have made significant funds available through the regional funding allocation schemes, which are essentially a regional concern, and proposals do need to be prioritised through those mechanisms to ensure that they genuinely have the support of people in regions such as that which the hon. Gentleman represents.

May I ask the Minister to look again at the ATOC report to which my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) referred, and to recognise the powerful case it makes for the Leicester to Burton line? That is one of a number of similar schemes throughout the country that are not only of local significance, but also potentially of considerable national benefit. I ask him to look again at this, and to recognise that national benefit and also the need for Government investment to achieve that benefit.

I can assure my hon. Friend that I have looked at the ATOC publication, “Connecting Communities”, which came out this month. It looked at the opportunity to provide better transport connections for communities that have grown in recent years, but which do not necessarily have good access to the rail network, including connections on the national forest line.

Street Works

10. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the implementation of permit schemes for street works; and if he will make a statement. (282107)

The permit scheme regulations were made on 28 November 2007, and came into force on 1 April 2008. No permit schemes to control works on the highway are currently in place. We have undertaken to report to Parliament on the evaluation of the first implemented permit schemes, following their first year of operation. We hope to make a decision on an application from Kent county council for permit scheme powers within the next month.

The street works permit schemes were designed, as the Minister knows, to make utilities companies carry out work at the same time, in order to reduce congestion for the motorist, inconvenience to the pedestrian and loss of earnings for retail outlets. Since the scheme came into force on 1 April 2008, as he said, how many permits have been granted, and have they been successful?

The hon. Gentleman may not have heard my answer: none have been granted. Local authorities recognise the additional powers that they have and we hope to make a decision on Kent next month—[Interruption.] I hear some chuntering from the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) on the Front Bench. If she wishes to speak to me afterwards, I can give her a response that is not a chunter.

Topical Questions

With permission, Mr. Speaker, as this is the first of what I hope will be many Transport questions, I wish to outline briefly the priorities of the Department for Transport. The new ministerial team is committed to making progress on three main priorities. First, we want to provide extra capacity on our transport networks on a sustainable basis, to meet increased demand. Secondly, we want to move quickly, and for good, to low-carbon technologies and practices within each mode of transport. Thirdly, we want to improve the attractiveness of public transport by making it possible to make door-to-door journeys more easily, in whole or in part, by that means.

The Minister may be aware that the Office of Rail Regulation has failed to find funding for the regeneration or rebuilding of Crewe station in this funding cycle. Although some basic alterations have recently been made, they fall woefully short of what is necessary for the proper functioning of this major interchange of which the town should be proud. Can he undertake to ask the Secretary of State to look at enabling those long overdue improvements?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the interest he shows in the regeneration of that important part of the country. The Crewe railway gateway scheme was confirmed as a regional priority for investment in February. The Department’s officials are ready to discuss with Cheshire the way forward on this scheme once the major scheme business case has been submitted. Either the Secretary of State or I will write to the hon. Gentleman to give him an update, and perhaps he can be involved in the process too.

The Secretary of State, who could be called the Minister for bicycling, knows of the massive increase in the number of people choosing to cycle to work. Given the increase in the number of cyclists on roads that are already congested, what are the Government doing to ensure cyclists’ safety and to encourage more people to get on their bikes?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue, and we need to ensure that more people cycle and are safe while doing so. She will pleased to learn that an announcement will be made when our carbon reduction strategy is unveiled next month, and I think she will be very pleased with some of the things the strategy says.

T2. The shipping Minister is, I know, aware that late last year the Maritime Coastguard Agency was involved in, and approved, the design of bulkers for the transportation of waste meat products from the abattoir on Orkney for disposal on the Scottish mainland. Despite that expensive effort, Northlink ferries this week refused to carry the products because of the escape of a small number of maggots on to the car deck. That refusal threatens the future of meat production on Orkney, which is an agricultural community. Can the Minister assure me that the MCA will not allow itself to be used in this way, as that poses a real threat to the future economic viability of our community? (282119)

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s role is to act for the safety of ships and their crew and passengers. Equally, it has a responsibility under health and safety regulations for cargo of animal by-products that are liable to leak. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that last autumn discussions were held and a route through was found, which involved improvements to the containers. I understand that there has been an issue recently with maggots escaping from the trailer, and that there are one or two other issues. We will certainly ensure that the MCA is not used, and that it carries out its duties properly. We will look further into the matter.

I wonder whether Ministers have yet had the opportunity to speak to their counterparts in Holyrood about the importance of the A1 between Newcastle and Edinburgh to communities on both sides of the border, not least given its appalling safety record. Does the Minister agree that the regional funding allocation system is totally inadequate to deal with the urgent need to upgrade that road? Will he enter into discussions about bringing about a definitive plan to finance and implement urgently the dualling of the road from Newcastle to Edinburgh?

The requirements for being categorised as a road of national importance are based on the amount and type of traffic flow on the road, and take into consideration whether traffic is redirected on to other routes. The case for the A1 north of Newcastle is not robust enough for us to consider re-categorisation, but I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this matter, because I know it is of real concern to his constituents.

T3. Turning to strategic rail links in the south-west, Lord Adonis told me a few weeks ago that after the Axminster loop is completed, he will reconsider the question of dualling the track between Salisbury and Exeter on the Waterloo to Exeter route. Can the Minister confirm that that is going to happen? (282120)

There are growing concerns about both the service to passengers on the east coast main line and the future of the franchise. I have written to the Secretary of State to request a meeting to discuss those concerns—will my right hon. Friend arrange such a meeting as soon as possible?

I have with me the letter that my hon. Friend wrote to the Secretary of State, who is happy to meet him to discuss the concerns he has raised. I know they are concerns not just to him but to his constituents, and I will ensure that the meeting will, hopefully, alleviate some of the concerns he has raised.

T4. The cost of installing and procuring a speed camera is £40,000 plus the ongoing maintenance costs, compared with only £7,000 for a vehicle-activated speed sign. Has a proper cost-benefit analysis been done of those two methods of road safety control, and will the Minister have discussions with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to extol the opportunities to save money while maintaining road safety standards? (282121)

We take every opportunity to take the steps necessary to ensure that our roads are as safe as possible for all users, and that we use everything available to us. I am delighted to tell the House that the road casualty statistics for 2008, announced today, show that the number of deaths has fallen by 14 per cent. Although that figure is now down to just 2,500, we cannot be complacent and we need to take every step possible to ensure that the roads continue to be safe, and to meet our goal of having the safest roads in the world.

May I, too, welcome you to your role, Mr. Speaker? I am delighted to see you there.

Northern Rail, which serves my constituents, faces a 34 per cent. increase in passenger numbers—to 84 million—since being given a contract based on a steady state in 2004. Does the Minister agree that there is a pressing need for new rolling stock, because otherwise everybody will be standing on those journeys?

The Department is very much aware of the pressures that passengers face on some northern train services. We hope that at some stage in the near future, we can relieve some of those pressures.

T7. The Department’s 2008 road transport forecasts predict a one-third increase in vehicle traffic by 2025. How much of that is driven by unacceptably high levels of immigration, and how on earth is this country going to cope? (282124)

I have seen lots of tenuous causal links, although not one involving immigration, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the decisions taken by the Government mean that £6 billion will be invested in our roads that would not have been available had the Conservatives been in power.

Two disabled constituents of mine have faced difficulty when travelling by air. One has pulmonary hypertension and was charged extra for oxygen on the flight. The other is a man with Parkinson’s. Despite having assisted travel, he faced humiliating three-hour waits at Heathrow airport without access to a toilet, food, water or assistance. That cannot be acceptable: what steps can Ministers take to make sure that the airlines appreciate their responsibility for disabled passengers?

At the outset, let me say that I am appalled at the examples given by my hon. Friend, which I should be more than happy to discuss with her. The provision of oxygen, whether free or for a charge, is clearly a matter for the airline operators, and I recommend that people look at their websites to see what is available before they travel. The key UK airlines provide oxygen free of charge, but I am looking forward to next week’s debate in Westminster Hall.

T8. The Government will be aware that many country areas have huge difficulty maintaining their roads and lanes. The maintenance backlog is massive, not least because of the heavy vehicles that use the lanes. What are the Government going to do to help local authorities in rural areas maintain country lanes and roads to a proper standard? (282125)

The investment going to the regions through local transport plans and other funding streams has more than doubled in the past 10 years. It is for local authorities to target that money appropriately, but rural roads are central to the new road safety strategy that is currently out to consultation. We want to focus on finding engineering and other solutions to improve safety on rural roads.

Women and Equality

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Gender Pay Gap

1. On what criteria her most recent estimate of the gender pay gap in the (a) public and (b) private sector is based. (282089)

4. On what criteria her most recent estimate of the gender pay gap in the (a) public and (b) private sector is based. (282092)

The criteria used for estimating the gender pay gap are the same for the public and private sectors. The estimate uses data published by the Office for National Statistics that show that the median hourly gender pay gap for all workers, both full and part-time, is 28.3 per cent. in the private sector and 22 per cent. in the public sector.

I am concerned that the Government continue to set such a poor example with their own staff. The Financial Times has obtained unpublished figures from the ONS showing gender pay gaps within the same grade of 12.5 per cent. in the Ministry of Defence and 19.5 per cent. in the Met Office. Can the Government not do better with their own staff?

I served with the hon. Gentleman on the Work and Pensions Committee and I know that he cares about low pay, but he needs to change his party urgently. The Tories voted against the Equality Bill on Second Reading, even though it will bring in help regarding unequal pay on a gender basis. Moreover, they have just voted in Committee against business even being asked to disclose pay figures that would make the pay gap transparent, and thus exert pressure on firms to press for equality for women. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is a siren voice, and a lone one, from the Tory Benches. I am very glad to say that this afternoon the BBC will publish pay figures for its top 100 executives—

The Minister is simply not answering the question. She has not gone into any detail about the criteria involved, and I should have thought that the Government would have more influence on pay disparity in the public sector. Will she accept my party’s suggestion that every secondary school in the country should have a dedicated and professional careers adviser?

Another forlorn and futile gesture from the Tory party. We will make progress in the public sector through the Equality Bill and the regulations on disclosure that it will put in place, which the hon. Gentleman’s party voted against. In Committee, his party has systematically voted against all the provisions that would help to improve equal pay in both the public and private sectors—a particular pity, since poverty academics are now clear that the most important step to eliminate child poverty is to bring in equal pay for women, but clearly the Tories do not care about that either.

But is my hon. and learned Friend aware that the largest pay gap in Britain is in the financial services sector, where full-time women are paid 55 per cent. less than full-time men, and part-timers 39 per cent. less? As we own many of the banks responsible for that poor pay, what can the Government do?

My hon. Friend is right. The reason she is able to quote those figures is that the Government asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission to look into the appalling pay inequity in that sector and make recommendations for the way forward. Let me assure her that when we get the Equality Bill through Committee, despite the best efforts of the Tories to block it, there will be an impact in that sector, too.

I think we have just heard a quick claim from the Opposition to put up the pay of public sector workers. In areas such as mine in Aberdeen, men generally work in the private sector in the oil and gas industries with very high wages, while women work in the public sector for much lower wages. That is why we have a gender pay gap whereby women earn only two thirds of what men earn.

My hon. Friend again makes clear how little concern there is among the Opposition about equal pay for women. We will make an analysis this very afternoon of the BBC’s top 100 executive salaries to see where the gender pay gap is there. Transparency is hugely important—it is a pity the Tories do not understand that.

The hon. and learned Lady really knows better than that. She knows perfectly well that in Committee, we made it very clear that we recognise there is a real problem. The argument is over the solutions. The Office for National Statistics made it clear that the gender pay gap is 12.8 per cent. The Government’s proposals in clause 73 of the Equality Bill, which we opposed because we think they will not analyse the problem, will tackle only direct and indirect discrimination. How much of the 12.8 per cent. pay gap does the Minister think is accounted for by direct and indirect discrimination? The Equal Opportunities Commission research suggests less than 5 per cent.

The pay gap is 28.3 per cent. in the private sector and 22 per cent. in the public sector. The Tory figures leave out part-time workers. The Tories do that all the time, clearly thinking that part-time workers are a separate breed of second-class citizens, as they are mostly women. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) made a long speech in Committee asserting that discrimination was a very minor reason for unequal pay, which is not what most trade unionists and others in the field believe. Even he did not say there was no discriminatory unequal pay, yet the Tories voted against the very measure that would tackle it.

Although we disagree on mandatory and voluntary pay audits, if we are to have voluntary pay gender information and it has not worked by 2013—because the matrix has not worked or whatever—what threshold will the Minister be looking at to determine whether the scheme has not worked? What percentage of companies will need to have voluntarily displayed at that point?

That is a really good question. As the hon. Lady knows, the commission, the TUC, the CBI and other employer and employee organisations will be working on what we should measure. They will also report annually on how the work is progressing. Part of their consideration now will be exactly how we should measure that progress.

Female Entrepreneurs

The Government recognise the vital contribution that women entrepreneurs are making in building our economy. Women-led businesses contribute £45 billion to the UK economy. Women can get advice and support through the Business Link network. In addition, we are funding a network of women’s enterprise ambassadors to inspire more women to start their own business, and piloting women’s business centres that provide specific business advice.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that many female entrepreneurs employ agency workers? Such workers very often enjoy their flexibility and, indeed, are well paid. They are very concerned about the EU agency workers directive, so can the Minister confirm that the Government are still broadly sceptical about the directive and that they will ensure proper and full consultation?

I commend the hon. Gentleman for the particular interest he has shown in this matter over a number of months. He is right that consultation on the directive is ongoing—it closes on 31 July. Those who wish to have an input into our response may do so in Exeter, Birmingham, Glasgow and London over the next month or so. We intend to ensure that flexibility still remains for agency workers while protecting their rights, which is another important consideration.

I think my hon. Friend would agree that a lot of people are forced into becoming an agency worker. It was clear that the people who lost their jobs at the Mini factory in Oxfordshire had no rights and no way of defending themselves, and the reason why they could be sacked overnight was that they were forced into agency working. The fact is that that is not a way forward or a solution that we should support.

I agree that some people do not choose to be agency workers but have that chosen for them. The directive and our policy are driven by a desire to ensure not only flexibility but fairness. Protection in employment is just as important as flexibility. The trick is to get the balance right, and we intend to do that.

Age Discrimination

We recently received representations on age discrimination against children aged under 18 from organisations including Young Equals, 11 Million, the Association of School and College Leaders and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. We have also discussed the issue with children’s groups, including at the Government Equalities Office senior stakeholder group, and the Equality and Diversity Forum.

I am glad that the Minister mentions Young Equals and I am sure he has read its excellent report, “Making the case”, which details harmful age discrimination against young people, so how can the Government justify ignoring that evidence and excluding under-18s from protections in the Equality Bill?[Official Report, 29 June 2009, Vol. 495, c. 1-2MC.]

We all agree that young people deserve the best possible start in life, but the most appropriate and effective way to deliver better opportunities and services for our young people is through targeted initiatives, which is why, in January, we announced an extra 350,000 apprenticeship places, half of which we expect to go to 16 to 18-year-olds. It is also why we are investing £225 million over three years to support local communities. We need to support vulnerable young people who become homeless. Such targeted initiatives will have the greatest effect for the benefit of young people.

The Equality Bill is a great piece of legislation, but it would be even better if under-18s were included. The Young Equals campaign has been mentioned, and young people are saying powerfully that they feel discriminated against and excluded. Is there any way in which we can make them feel part of the Bill?

As my hon. Friend suggests, most of the arguments in favour of extending age provisions to under-18s seem to arise due to negative attitudes and opinions about young people and mistrust of them. It is important that that be dealt with, but attitudes alone are not the basis of discrimination under the Bill, so we would not solve the problem simply by including under-18s in its measures.

Equality Bill

5. What recent representations she has received on the provisions of the Equality Bill affecting provision of goods and services on the basis of age. (282093)

We recently received representations on the Equality Bill’s provisions on age discrimination from Age Concern, Help the Aged, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Association of British Insurers, Saga and Kingfisher. We have held extensive discussions with a wide range of stakeholders to inform our work on a consultation document to be issued shortly.

A number of my constituents who are pensioners are either regularly refused insurance, or obliged to pay larger premiums because of their age. Given that the Bill is intended to go against any form of discrimination, including age discrimination, will the Minister give an assessment of how existing legislation is working regarding insurance for elderly people?

Of course, there is not a ban on age discrimination in the delivery of goods, facilities and services at present. The new Bill will be fed by the consultation. If discrimination is actuarially justified, it will not be age discrimination—it will operate on a different basis. At the moment, there is no need for any supplier to decide whether there is justification, but now they will have to make such decisions. The consultation document will come out very shortly, and it will help us to sculpt this so that we get all the bad things out and put all the good things in. I hope the hon. Gentleman will contribute to that document.

Gender Pay Gap

7. What recent discussions she has had on the extent of the gender pay gap for those in full-time and part-time work. (282095)

I am grateful for that answer. Does my hon. Friend agree with the chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who has said that the Equal Pay Act 1970 is

“no longer fit for purpose”,

and does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look afresh at what modern equal pay legislation should look like? We should head off problems in the first instance, and not wait until they reach tribunal stage.

Indeed, and that is why the Equality Bill will ensure that provisions are made to monitor equal pay and make a difference for the future.

Equality Bill

8. What representations she has received on the provisions in the Equality Bill on provision of goods and services on the basis of age. (282096)

I thank the Minister for that answer, but it is not only older people who are encompassed in the problem. Very young drivers are a high-risk group, and the insurance industry needs assurances that it will be able to undertake proper risk assessment and make sure that its insurance premiums reflect that additional risk.

It is clear that there is discrimination against older people in particular, but of course, before any regulations are made, the industry will be properly consulted; that, indeed, is the purpose of the Government’s proposals.