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Commons Chamber

Volume 494: debated on Thursday 25 June 2009

House of Commons

Thursday 25 June 2009

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


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.

National Security Strategy

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on updates to the national security strategy, including policy on cybersecurity.

At 10 o’clock this morning, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a written ministerial statement, in which he laid before the House this year’s update to the national security strategy. Accompanying the strategy was the first national cybersecurity strategy for the United Kingdom. Last week, the Government presented to the House the Digital Britain strategy. This country is well placed to take advantage of the opportunities of the digital age, but we can seize those opportunities only if people are confident that they can operate safely in cyberspace.

Every day, millions of people across the UK—our constituents—rely on the services and information that make up cyberspace. Indeed, 65 per cent. of UK households have access to the internet, and the figure is growing by about 8 per cent. a year. The national security strategy, published for the first time by the Government last March and updated this year, sets out an honest and transparent appraisal of the risks that we face, including the threat that organised crime poses to our country. Organised crime costs us around £20 billion a year, and we have a duty to the British public and to British industry to take measures dramatically to reduce that cost.

The Government also need to assess the threats from terrorist organisations and prepare our response to them; the public would expect no less. All those threats can arise in cyberspace. As the director general of the Security Service has said, a number of nations and organisations are

“trying to obtain political and economic intelligence at our expense”


“increasingly deploy sophisticated technical attacks, using the internet to penetrate computer networks.”

We know the importance that terrorist groups, notably al-Qaeda and its affiliates, place on the internet and cyberspace, which are particularly important for propaganda reasons. We know that terrorists would like to be able to operate more effectively in cyberspace. I am not scaremongering, but we need to look at the issues. Our assessment at present is not that terrorists have the capability to mount attacks imminently, but that we must honourably prepare as terrorists become more sophisticated.

Such threats from states or terrorists could affect critical national systems, but there is also a real threat to millions of ordinary citizens—our constituents—as well as their transactions and the businesses for which they work. Online fraud generated some £52 billion worldwide in 2007. The average cost to companies of information security incidents is in the range of £10,000 to £20,000. For a large company, the cost can be as high as £1 million to £2 million. As the dependence on cyberspace grows, we need to ensure security, which is critical to the health of the nation.

As I mentioned, today the Government published, in a written ministerial statement made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the first cybersecurity strategy. As a result, we will establish an office of cybersecurity in the Cabinet Office to lead on cybersecurity policy issues, and a cybersecurity operations centre, a multi-agency body, based alongside GCHQ in Cheltenham. That organisation will lead on operations and technical capabilities, which we will examine.

As a result of the new strategy, we will develop a cyber industrial strategy for the UK’s critical security needs, in the same way as we have a defence industrial strategy; we will develop cybersecurity skills for the UK, plugging existing gaps and creating more high-tech employment opportunities; we will make critical systems in the public and private sectors more resilient and enhance our ability to detect attack; we will develop international law and doctrines of national defence in cyberspace, working with other countries; we will consider better advice to business and citizens about the security-risk picture and the steps that they need to take to address it; and we will develop new strategies for tackling terrorist and criminal use of cyberspace with our colleagues in the Association of Chief Police Officers and its strategy on cybercrime, which is due out shortly.

We plan emergency responses, and the new centre will test the UK’s ability to respond to major attacks, which we obviously believe that we can prevent, but which we need to consider. As with our national security, it will be important that the Government’s powers are used proportionately and in a way that is consistent with civil liberty issues, as I know the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) would wish. So, from today, we will establish an ethics advisory group to advise on that issue, and I shall update the House on its membership when it is formed.

The centres will be operational in September, and new funding will be announced before then to meet their obligations, building on existing resources that were allocated largely to intelligence agencies. Again, I shall report back to the House on those matters.

The wider national security debate is important, and the Government have taken forward the good start that was made last year. We look ahead to the broad range of national security threats, and we look at how we can prevent them. Today, we have set out in the documents an updated analysis of the threats that we face, made commitments on what drives insecurity in the world—on conflict, energy, poverty and the impact of climate change—and published the cybersecurity strategy, which I hope will be the subject of some debate and interest.

Britain depends very strongly on the dedicated work of the armed forces, the intelligence services, the police and other services in the support of those strategies. I pay tribute to them all for the courage that they display every day of the week in often very difficult circumstances. I commend the document to the House and hope that the written ministerial statement from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be read with interest by right hon. and hon. Members from all parts of the House.

The Minister owes you, Mr. Speaker, and the House an apology for the public handling of this strategy. As we speak, the Prime Minister is at Detica, a cybersecurity company. Why is he not here making an oral statement? There is no more important responsibility of Government than national security, and, for a key development in the critical area of cybersecurity to be trailed as it has, leading to the first occasion that you, Mr. Speaker, have granted an urgent question, is not only disgraceful but, more alarmingly, shambolic. The Ministers directing the strategy, who are supposed to keep us safe, cannot even manage the orderly public release of new policy.

The lack of detail on cybersecurity in the national security strategy, which the Prime Minister presented last year, was an obvious area of weakness. The security industry publicly warned that the Government had severely underestimated the dangers that cyber attack poses and had accorded cybersecurity insufficient priority and budget. What has galvanised the Government into action? Has the threat from cyber attack grown in the past year, or has the swift and comprehensive response of the new American Administration made them realise that their priorities were wrong? It was an immediate priority for President Obama and, only four months into his Administration, he was reporting on the results. How can we be confident that the strategy before us reflects the proper American sense of priority, rather than being only a pale imitation?

How will the new office of cybersecurity and the new cybersecurity operations centre fit with the work of existing agencies? We already have a number of different agencies working in the area: the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure, the wider information assurance centre and the Communications Electronic Security Group, being the national technical authority for information assurance, which is based at GCHQ. All the above are already co-ordinated by a Cabinet Office-unit sponsor for information assurance. The Serious Organised Crime Agency and the police e-crime unit, based in the Metropolitan police, are responsible specifically for cybercrime.

The “Digital Britain” report, which the Government published last week, announced the formation of a tripartite initiative—the tripartite internet crime and security initiative—which will bring together parliamentarians, Government and business. The Government are in danger of presiding over a patchwork muddle of different agencies and mandates, to which they have now added an ethics advisory group. It is sad that Ministers now need advice on ethics. Will the new director instigate an immediate review of the mandates and achievements of all the different agencies involved in cybersecurity, to avoid overlap and ensure the best use of resources?

There is wholly insufficient time to examine the strategy through the means of an urgent question, but I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for commanding the Minister here today. Will the Government commit, at the earliest opportunity, to a full debate on the strategy, led by the Prime Minister and in Government time? We need a national security council with a dedicated staff and decision-making powers at the heart of the Government. We are not there yet.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. First, I assure him on behalf of my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary that we have acted entirely properly in bringing this matter before the House. You, Mr. Speaker, will know that this morning the Prime Minister issued a written ministerial statement that publishes the documents.

There has been press speculation about the issue, but I guarantee that we did not brief the press beforehand. If I can explain—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] If I can explain to hon. Members the circumstances that have given rise to press speculation—[Interruption.]

Order. May I interrupt the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) for a moment? I say to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), and others who are making quite a lot of noise that they are damaging their own chances of asking questions from the Back Benches.

At 10 o’clock this morning, the detailed documents were published. My noble Friend Lord West of Spithead has written to you, Mr. Speaker. I hope that you have received it by now; it has been copied to the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). His letter outlines the circumstances of a specific aspect of today’s announcement: the name of the individual who will be in charge of the said units, which was the subject of a D notice. As hon. Members will know, a D notice is a voluntary agreement under which the press agree not to publish certain details. The D notice was issued two days ago, rather than today. That was an error, and if I need to apologise to the House on behalf of the Department, I will do so. The notice was issued under embargo, but that embargo was not taken by several among the press yesterday. That is an important issue, but the details of the statement—the key thing for the hon. Member for Reigate—are before the House in the written ministerial statement today.

The hon. Gentleman said that he is concerned that we in the Government have not taken the threat seriously. A considerable amount of work was done by my predecessors and by my noble Friend Lord West of Spithead. Today, we have taken the opportunity to update the national security strategy and to bring forward the key issues. Like the President of the United States, we recognise that the cyber strategy covers a growing area of concern. Governance will be performed through my noble Friend’s reporting to the Prime Minister and through the National Security, International Relations and Development Committee, a Cabinet Committee on which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary sits and which will look at those issues.

I am genuinely happy to debate the issues at an appropriate time. As the hon. Member for Reigate will know, business questions follow shortly. Government time is not in my gift, but the hon. Gentleman can ask a question during business questions if he wishes, and we will consider it as part of our discussions.

This issue is important to citizens in our country, in respect of both business crime and international terrorism. We believe that we will get it right, but we want cross-party support on the obligations because that matters to the people of this country.

Order. I appeal to Back Benchers to ask brief questions and to the Minister to offer brief replies.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker; I shall try a question. As my right hon. Friend will know, I raised the issue of cybercrime and attack when we updated our Contest strategy earlier this year. I am deeply concerned that we not only co-ordinate correctly the organisations that can make a difference, but resource them effectively. My right hon. Friend will know that it is crucial to put resources into workstreams 3 and 5, on awareness and cultural change and on technical development, research and capability. We must also put resources into the e-crime unit, run by the Metropolitan police, which has already shown how effective it can be. As my right hon. Friend updates the House on resources in the summer, will he tell us that those specific areas will be resourced adequately so that the job can be done?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his work as Home Secretary in preparing the ground for some of these issues. Several hundred million pounds are already being spent, mostly by organisations that are part of the GCHQ complex and the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure, which is part of the Security Service. That money comes out of a single intelligence account. With my colleague Lord West of Spithead, I will examine the funding of new organisations before we establish this process in September, and I will report back to the House on the details of the work streams that my right hon. Friend mentioned.

I support the official Opposition’s tabling of an urgent question on this matter. Without it, we would not have been able to have a timely debate on the national security strategy or an opportunity to examine its implications. That would have been a major problem for the House.

The strategy clearly has the potential to defend us, but it could also have a significant impact on our civil liberties. We have to take the Minister’s word for it that what happened was a breach of an embargo, or possibly a leak, but I am sure that Members will be concerned that there has been a leak about the cybersecurity strategy, of all things.

One reason that the Government have given for bringing forward the strategy is the growing threat posed by hostile states, terrorists and criminals. We do not deny that that threat exists and is growing, but it is described in very broad terms. What criteria have the Government used to define hostile states, terrorists and criminals? To give us an idea of the scale of the threat that is posed, can the Minister tell us anything about how many attacks there have been on our networks, for instance over the past 12 months?

This Government have a rather illiberal and invasive overarching counter-terrorism strategy that includes such Orwellian measures as control orders. Can the Minister give us some assurance that the cybersecurity operations centre will not just be used for snooping on British citizens’ internet use? In the cyber strategy, there is mention that the Government will work closely with civil liberties groups. Which groups does the Minister have in mind, and at what point are they likely to be involved in the process?

Finally, as far as I can tell, there is no impact assessment in relation to the proposals. What are the cost implications? We do not deny the need to have a cybersecurity strategy, but we need to be certain that it will not have an impact on our civil liberties. That is the reassurance that we are seeking from the Minister today.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions. May I give him that assurance immediately? The strategy is about defending civil liberties and ensuring that we protect people’s liberty to enjoy their lives free of crime and free of the terrorist threat. We have to have a balance between individual liberties and the issues set out in the cyber strategy. I will defend civil liberties and uphold rights, and that balance is extremely important. We will work through those issues as part of our discussions.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the threat that has occurred to date. We are not aware of any major compromise of national security or key systems to date, but that does not mean that we are complacent. We brought forward the strategy precisely to ensure that we put in place mechanisms to monitor potential threats and attacks. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that it is not appropriate for me to go into the number of countries or agencies that might be involved, because I do not want them to know that we know they are involved. However, I assure him that we will balance liberties with national security.

On the cost element, as I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), I hope to report back to the House before early October about what costs are allocated to particular projects.

I share the concern of the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) about the way in which the Government have handled this matter. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate if the Minister had made an oral statement. However, my right hon. Friend mentioned organised crime in his answer to the urgent question. The director and the chairman of SOCA gave evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs this week, but no mention was made about the urgency of the cyber threat from organised crime. Can the Minister confirm that there have been discussions with the chairman and director of SOCA and that any concerns raised with him have been taken on board?

We have had discussions across government about the implications of the strategy. We are working on crime issues in particular, given my responsibilities, and they are important issues. With regard to the oral statement, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister laid the issues before the House this morning in a written ministerial statement. As I have mentioned, the problem with the breaches arose in relation to the D notice that was issued. Initially, our mistake was that we did not put it under embargo, as we should have. It was later put under embargo, but unfortunately the press published that D notice and made a story around it, without knowing what was in the document, which was published to the House at 10 am today.

The Minister will be aware how critical the counter-terrorism sub-committee has been, despite the slowness of establishing the new operations centre, and, similarly, how concerned we have been at the slowness of establishing the counter-terrorism units in the various regions up and down the United Kingdom. Can he assure us that there will be proper and sensible liaison between the two bodies, with effective sharing of intelligence, and that that will start not next year, but now?

Absolutely. Although I have been in this post for only two weeks and four days, I had a justice background in my previous Department, and I am urgently looking at those issues to ensure that the very things that the hon. Gentleman mentions are put in place. We need to ensure not just that Departments and the organisations within them are operating individually in their silos, but that we have co-operation across the board. Today’s cyber strategy is about establishing a unit in GCHQ under effective leadership to look at those issues across government. That is the objective.

I welcome today’s publication by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister of a wide-ranging, cross-government and cross-agency cyber security strategy. Given the significance that the Obama Administration have placed on cyber security, will my right hon. Friend the Minister outline how we will be able to work with our closest security ally to maximise our joint capability and minimise duplication?

I suspect that my right hon. Friend has as much knowledge of the work done to date as my noble Friend Lord West, who was involved in producing today’s document, and I pay tribute to her for that. She makes a vital point. The internet and cyber security do not end at the boundaries of the United Kingdom. They are international and European issues, and ones on which we need to work closely with our allies in the American Administration. I am confident that the new unit will work closely with our colleagues in Washington and that it will have the same objectives, which are to tackle international organised crime, ensure that we are safe and try to prevent terrorist approaches to our cyber system.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to civil liberties, but will the national security strategy include the establishment of a national database to maintain records of web page visits, e-mails and VoIP—voice over internet protocol—calls and whether the Government intend to introduce a compulsory register of all mobile phones in the country?

If I may, I would like to come back to the hon. Gentleman on the detail of that point. Let me re-emphasise, however, that the whole purpose of the ethics committee that we are establishing is to look at the liberty issues surrounding internet activity under the cyber strategy. We are working through the detail of how we will do that, but I will certainly respond to the hon. Gentleman after this statement. However, the key thing, which those in all parts of the House need to know, is that the liberty of individuals to enjoy their business, their communities and their private lives on the internet is important to the Government, as is, equally, the ability to ensure that they are not subject to crime, terrorist threats or distraction by people who have alternative methods to hand.

What a great shame it is that the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) has squandered his opportunity to hold the Government to account. Is not the key issue that there is state-sponsored hacking of key UK information networks on an industrial scale and that we have to transform GCHQ into a spy school for geeks who are more cunning than their Chinese counterparts?

My hon. Friend puts his finger on a key issue. Today’s document is about the protection of the public and the protection of UK interests in the UK. It is about ensuring that we are prepared to assess and examine the threat, that people understand that threat and that people are supported in their businesses, in their private lives and in government to take steps to prevent that threat from arising. The protection of the public is the key element of today’s document. Without wishing to burden the hon. Member for Reigate, let me say that my hon. Friend puts his finger on an issue on which there is, I hope, cross-government and cross-party agreement.

Contrary to the Minister’s statement that the D notice and the information about the individual appointment were the only things in the public domain, on 15 June more details were put into the public domain, both online and in The Guardian, about the statement that the Government would set up an agency. Given the importance of information security and the Cabinet Office’s role in that, will the Minister initiate a leak inquiry into how the information got into the public domain, unless, of course, that is done deliberately by the Government in the next 14 days?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. Let me say again that the detail of the announcement has been made public only this morning, in the ministerial statement by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. My noble Friend Lord West of Spithead has written a letter to Mr. Speaker and the hon. Member for Reigate in confidence to explain the background to the D notice. I have given the House an account of that, and I hope that hon. Members will be satisfied with it.

For some years I have had the privilege to work with the Information Assurance Advisory Council, which brings together government officials and the private sector on the important issue of information assurance. May I seek an assurance from my right hon. Friend that the new body will reach deep into the private sector and ensure a proper sharing of expertise? After all, the most likely areas for attack are probably in the City of London and other areas where we need proper sharing of our intelligence and the intelligence that the private sector gathers.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. In today’s document, which is clear and public, we have established eight work streams. One of the key work streams deals with skills, education, training and capability. The new unit will need to look at those issues and ask where the skills shortages are, where good practice is, which issues it will need to share and develop, and how it can do that in a way that helps businesses in particular, but also the general public and Departments, to protect and maintain the integrity of their cyber networks.

Will the Minister at least take back to his ministerial colleagues in other Departments the message that, whether it is deliberate or inadvertent, when advance news about matters that ought to be announced in this House leaks into the press, Ministers can expect to be summoned straight away to this House to answer urgent questions?

I think that you have made clear to my ministerial colleagues across the board the regime that you intend to operate, Mr. Speaker. I have no doubt that both my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and other colleagues will help to support you in that objective.

Given that Estonia was the first country to experience the devastating effect of a cyber attack, can the Minister say a bit more about how we are working with our European partners, especially the Baltic states, which are probably on the front line of the threat?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. One of the key things in the document, in work stream 7, is international engagement. One of the office’s new tasks will be to bring together the UK’s work with that of overseas partners and international organisations. Self-evidently, the European Union is one of the biggest local organisations in which we can get cross-governmental co-operation on some of the issues. That is important, and we will be commissioning working groups to take forward work across the board in the next few weeks and months.

There is a serious security concern for citizens, because, after all, the Government have shown themselves to be somewhat ineffective in preventing confidential information from falling into the wrong hands.

Further to the point about Estonia, is the Minister aware of the devastating effect of the first organised cyber war ever launched against a country—namely, Estonia—not only on businesses but on private citizens? May I suggest that he recommend that the individuals responsible for developing the strategy here work directly with the Estonian authorities, which have not only experience of what happens when things go wrong but coping strategies to prevent it from happening again? I am sure that that would be useful for my constituents and all constituents across the United Kingdom.

We will certainly look at the experience of Estonia and at how we can learn from it. The hon. Gentleman’s key point is that everyone needs to have confidence in the use of the cyber network. People need to have confidence that their information is not being hacked into or copied, and that it will not be used for criminal or terrorist purposes. The key objective of the document is to ensure that we help to develop that confidence still further.

Business of the House

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 29 June—Second Reading of the Parliamentary Standards Bill.

Tuesday 30 June—Consideration in Committee of the Parliamentary Standards Bill.

Wednesday 1 July—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Parliamentary Standards Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Saving Gateway Accounts Bill.

Thursday 2 July—Estimates [3rd allotted day]. There will be a debate on looked-after children, followed by a debate on road safety. Details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: Looked-after Children (3rd Report from the Children, Schools and Families Committee, HC 111 and Government response (4th Special report HC 787, to be published on Monday 29 June); Ending the Scandal of Complacency: Road Safety beyond 2010 (Eleventh Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 460), and the Government’s responses (First and Second Special Reports, Session 2008-09, HC 136 and HC422).]

At 6 pm, the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Friday 3 July—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 6 July will include:

Monday 6 July—Opposition Day [15th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No.2) Bill.

Tuesday 7 July—Remaining stages of the Finance Bill (Day 1).

Wednesday 8 July—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance Bill (Day 2).

Thursday 9 July—Topical debate, subject to be announced, followed by a motion to approve the Draft Terrorism Act 2006 (Disapplication of Section 25) Order 2009, followed by a motion to approve the Draft Council Tax Limitation (Maximum Amounts) (England) Order 2009.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 9 July will be:

Thursday 9 July—A debate on the report from the Foreign Affairs Committee entitled “Global Security: Iran”.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business, but the way in which she appears to be presiding over House business at the moment does seem a tad shambolic. Last week, we were informed that the Government would be tabling today’s motions in good time to give the House as much opportunity as possible to look over the proposals. However, nothing appeared on the Order Paper until yesterday. Then, on the same day, the Government inexplicably withdrew the motion that would have established a new ad hoc Committee on reforming this House. Will she advise us as to quite what is happening? If, as I suspect, the Government were embarrassed by the gulf between the Prime Minister’s announcement and the proposed remit of the Committee, which was so narrow as to render the whole exercise absurd, why did not the Government simply support the amendments on the Order Paper that would have widened the Committee’s scope and spared the right hon. and learned Lady’s blushes? Or is the real truth that this whole episode was dreamt up in the No. 10 bunker merely to fill a space in a prime ministerial press release? When will the Committee now be established?

On the new Parliamentary Standards Bill, which we will debate in its entirety next week, will the Leader of the House give her guarantee that issues of privilege will not be discussed by the House at the Bill’s Committee stage until the Clerk of the House has given evidence to the Justice Select Committee, as I believe he is scheduled to do on Tuesday?

May we have a statement from the Home Secretary on the status of the Government’s policy on identity cards? Four statutory instruments on ID cards were due to be debated last week, but then The Sunday Times reported—correctly, as it turned out—that they were to be shelved for a month. In view of your important and welcome statement on ministerial statements yesterday, Mr. Speaker, will the right hon. and learned Lady now promise that the Home Secretary will come to Parliament to clarify here what Ministers have been briefing in private—namely, that the Government realise that they are on to a loser and are getting ready to perform yet another major policy U-turn?

Similarly, will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm the mysterious whereabouts of the Postal Services Bill, on which the Business Secretary has staked his reputation and, along with it, the Prime Minister’s career? I have asked about this twice before and have twice received inadequate answers. There are only 16 sitting days left before the summer recess. The Bill’s First Reading was over four weeks ago and, as the right hon. and learned Lady knows, Second Reading would normally follow swiftly behind. Is the Bill going to be delivered from the upper House or has it—as I heard hon. Members saying just a few seconds ago—been permanently lost in the post?

In the provisional business that the right hon. and learned Lady announced last week, the Child Poverty Bill was scheduled for this coming Monday. Now that we are going to be debating the Parliamentary Standards Bill on Monday instead, will she give us a commitment that the House will indeed debate this important Bill before the summer recess? We on the Opposition Benches are full of contributions that we wish to make to the legislation. The issue is all the more important in the light of yesterday’s Office for National Statistics figures on the level of deprivation facing children growing up in London, nearly a quarter of whom are living in households where no one is working and which are plagued by obesity and crime. As the Leader of the House represents an inner-London borough, and for the sake of those whom the legislation seeks to protect, may I ask the her to guarantee not to lose sight of the Bill, and to bring it to the House as soon as possible?

Given the Prime Minister’s woeful performance at questions yesterday, may we have a full and urgent statement from him on financial honesty in the Government? Yesterday morning, Britain was found to be facing the biggest budget deficit in the world. At lunchtime, the Prime Minister’s attempts to defend himself in the Commons ended in ridicule. In the afternoon, the Governor of the Bank of England complained that he had been left in the dark about important aspects of Government policy, and delivered the final blow by calling on the Government to set tougher targets on the UK’s “extraordinary” debt levels. Is it not clear that the longer the Prime Minister deludes himself about being in power, the longer it will take the UK to recover?

Finally, may I simply note that, this week, we are celebrating the second anniversary of the right hon. and learned Lady’s ascension to her position as Leader of the House? I will send her a card saying “Now we are two.” Members may take that to mean anything they wish.

The shadow Leader of the House asked about the motion on the Committee. The intention is that this Committee of the House will be chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), and that it will consider the improvement of the processes for the Government being held to account by Members of this House. We tabled a motion, and amendments to it were tabled. We considered the amendments; in fact, more amendments have been tabled this morning. If we are trying to achieve consensus across the House, I think that it is right and proper that, instead of ploughing on with our resolution, we should listen to what is being said and see whether we can take on board the different points of view and proceed on a basis of consensus.

The shadow Leader of the House told everyone that he was a new man, but is it not quintessentially old politics to insist that we do not need to listen? As Leader of the House, it is important for me to listen to hon. Members when they table amendments, and to take into account what they suggest. I do not think that that is the sign of a shambles; it is the sign of how the Leader of the House should proceed. I do not think that it is a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength. The hon. Gentleman will be reassured to hear—I will talk to him and all other hon. Members about this—that we will proceed to bring forward a resolution, before the House rises, on which I hope the whole House can agree, so that we can set up the Committee and improve the way in which the House holds the Government to account.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Parliamentary Standards Bill. He has seen it; it has been published, and it will be debated on the Floor of the House over three days. He will see from the face of the Bill that the question of parliamentary privilege is not an issue in that Bill, so that is not a question that hon. Members need to concern themselves with. Essentially, the Parliamentary Standards Bill sets up an authority to deal with our allowances to ensure that they are established and administered independently and that the public can have confidence that that is the case. It will not trample on the question of privilege.

On ID cards, there is no change in Government policy. The hon. Gentleman knows that the Home Secretary keeps the matter under review at all times. If there is any change in policy, the House will be kept updated. The hon. Gentleman will know that we have introduced biometric ID cards for foreign nationals, and I hope he supports that, as it is not only important for security, but speeds up the sorting out of identity questions so that access to visas, for example, is made easier for people who are genuinely who they say they are. He also knows that we are introducing this approach for air-side in airports, and that there will be no compulsory ID cards for everybody else without a vote in this House. If there is any change on that—I do not expect that there will be—the Home Secretary will keep the House informed. He keeps the matter under review, as I said.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Postal Services Bill. It is not announced for next week’s business or that for the week after. He will see that we had to make a space for three days for the Parliamentary Standards Bill. I think it is important, with a crisis of public confidence in the House, to bring forward this measure and address it quickly. At the same time, to ensure proper scrutiny of the measure while bringing it in expeditiously, we need to give adequate time for it to be debated on the Floor of the House. That is why debate of the Parliamentary Standards Bill will be across three days.

The Child Poverty Bill is not in the business that I have announced, but I hope that it will be brought in before the summer recess. I expect that to be the case, and on the basis of what the hon. Gentleman said, I hope that the Opposition will vote for it when it comes before the House.

On the economy, it remains the No. 1 priority of the Government to take action to protect businesses and people’s jobs, and to make sure that if people lose their job, they do not also lose their home. We will intervene and take action in all those respects, and we will make sure that we grow the economy out of recession rather than cut it, which is not the way to take us out of the recession.

I am a generous sort, and I like to give credit where credit is due. I entirely applaud what the Leader of the House has just said—that from now on, she is going to consult before putting motions before the House; she is going to listen to what people say, and then react to those requests. Hallelujah! That is what we have been asking for for years. If that has happened in respect of the Committee to be chaired by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright)—I tabled a modest amendment, which was supported in all parts of the House, and the Leader of the House has now given me to understand that she will agree to it—it is very good news indeed.

When we look at today’s Order Paper, however, what do we see? We see motions 6 to 13, standing in the name of the Leader of the House, setting up the Regional Grand Committees. The right hon. and learned Lady knows that I support the idea of having such Committees, but has she consulted before tabling the motions? No, she has not. Has she canvassed the subject matter that the Regional Grand Committees will discuss? No, she has not. Has she sought convenient places and dates to enable those Committees to meet? No, she has not. All she has consulted is the so-called regional Ministers, who have then decided where those Committees will meet, when they will meet and what they will discuss. What sort of scrutiny of Government is that? Will she now withdraw motions 6 to 13 and talk to me and the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) in order to move forward?

The Government need to come clean on the question of ID cards. The Conservatives changed their minds eventually, and former Home Secretaries—and there are enough of them—have changed their minds, so when are the Government going to admit that they will have to change their mind on ID cards and come to the position that we have advocated all along?

In looking at how this House scrutinises business, can we look seriously at how we scrutinise Government expenditure? As I have said before, there is no adequate mechanism for the House as a whole to look at Government spending. We have estimates days which do not involve looking at estimates; we have Consolidated Fund motions which do not involve any debate on the Consolidated Fund; and we give more scrutiny to a ten-minute Bill than to the Government’s entire spending programme. Can we have some major reforms to enable us to carry out such scrutiny, so that we are not simply asked to write out cheques? If that had happened, we might not have been facing the biggest financial deficit that this country has ever seen, and the biggest seen in Europe. Can we have a debate very soon, so that we can see how the Government plan, as the Governor of the Bank of England says,

“to return to a sustainable position over the lifetime of the next Parliament”?

That is crucial. It is no good pretending that the bills are not mounting up; we have to find a way of paying them.

Finally, I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House has acceded the request I made last week about reconstituting the Science and Technology Committee. I suggest that the Committee be asked an early stage to look at the recent research of Professor Tonegawa, published in Neuron magazine, which reveals that we edit our memories when fast asleep. Could that explain the difference between what the Prime Minister says and what he does?

The question of what the Science and Technology Committee looks at is a matter for that Committee—if the House establishes the new Committee, as I am sure it will when we reach that part of our business this afternoon.

The hon. Gentleman asked about consultation relating to the Regional Grand Committees. I remind the House that motions will come before hon. Members later this afternoon to establish such Committees and to ensure that they sit in September, in the regions. Regional Grand Committees are Committees of all Members in a region, and they will look at how Government agencies and policies are working in that region. There was consultation, and it was with the Regional Select Committees. It is not my fault if the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends will not sit on those Committees, or if the official Opposition do not want to join the Regional Select Committees. I think that they should join them; on behalf of the regions they represent, they should hold Government agencies to account. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will attend and play a part with regard to the Regional Grand Committees, and the Regional Select Committees as well.

On ID cards, I have nothing to add to what I said to the shadow Leader of the House.

The hon. Gentleman asked about scrutiny by the House of Government spending. It is not true to say that there is no scrutiny of Government spending: we have oral questions, the pre-Budget report and debates, as chosen by the Liaison Committee, of Select Committee reports. How the House scrutinises public spending is a subject that could fall within the remit of the Committee that we hope to establish under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright).

I have already said that I want to listen and consult before I table motions, and it is obviously even more necessary to listen and consult when amendments are forthcoming. There is nothing wrong, however, with the process of tabling a motion, seeing that there is a whole heap of amendments and then talking about the matter. That is not a U-turn; it is not weakness or backing down; it is about setting out a position, seeing what people like—or, in this case, dislike—about it and thinking again.

Order. Many Members want to contribute, so I appeal to each Member to ask one brief supplementary question.

On 15 June, for the first time ever, more Labour peers voted against the Government than with them, to close the loophole that allows tax exiles to bankroll UK political parties. Will my friend seek to reverse that vote when the Political Parties and Elections Bill comes back to the Commons, and will we get that Bill before the recess?

When the Bill comes back to this House, the Minister concerned will make the position clear, no doubt having discussed it widely with Members on both sides of the House before doing so.

Will the Leader of the House make time within the parliamentary timetable to revisit the recently imposed abolition of the de minimis rules in the Register of Members’ Interests? I have been told in all solemnity by the registrar today that in future every bunch of flowers will have to be registered. I suggest to the right hon. and learned Lady that that will result in not only my entry in the register, but those of several female Members, having more petals than the average botanical gardens. Can she make time to consider the question? Perhaps we should go with Gilbert and Sullivan: “The flowers that bloom with the speech, tra-la, have nothing to do with the case.”

There is a de minimis rule for donations, which is 1 per cent.—£650. Unless the bunch of flowers given to the right hon. Lady is worth more than £650—[Interruption.] If hon. Members will bear with me, I am trying to explain the situation. If there is a donation, a de minimis rule will apply, and I suspect that when people give her flowers, it is a donation rather than payment for services. If there is payment for services, in cash or in kind, that needs to be declared. It is quite easy for hon. Members to work out whether the item is a gift given after something has been done, or payment for services. If payment for services has taken place, there is no de minimis rule, nor should there be.

Can we have a debate on the impact of high electricity prices on manufacturing in the United Kingdom, particularly on energy-intensive industries such as aluminium smelting? UK companies are finding such prices difficult, and that is threatening UK jobs and production.

Ministers in the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are very concerned about increased energy prices, generated particularly by the cost of oil. I will ask the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to write to my hon. Friend about that.

Further to the question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), the new rules that come into effect next Wednesday are virtually unworkable. If I make an after-dinner speech and my wife is presented with a bouquet of flowers, those become registrable. Under the Parliamentary Standards Bill, failure to register becomes a criminal offence—and if I ask her to give them back, I will be in even deeper trouble. When will the Leader of the House reply to the letter I wrote to her on 2 June asking her to introduce a sensible de minimis threshold for that part of the register?

I think that the guidance will be workable. Obviously, we will ensure that we work closely with the registrar of financial interests to ensure that Members understand the rules clearly. There is no intention to have an unworkable system. The House supported the resolution for a register because the public are entitled to know, if Members are receiving payments for services, who is paying them and what they are paying them for.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend try to find time for a debate on the quality of advice being given to people in jobcentres, particularly in south London? I am increasingly aware that many of the new deal advisers are unaware of the services and support that they can provide to lone parents returning to work.

Department for Work and Pensions questions are on Monday, when perhaps my hon. Friend can put that question to Ministers, who are very concerned to ensure high-quality work in jobcentres.

May I say that the Conservative Members who have spoken about minimum payments are entirely right?

May I ask the Leader of the House about English Heritage’s launch yesterday of “Heritage at Risk”? It cites one in seven conservation areas as being at risk. Given the Government’s failure to bring in a heritage protection Bill last year, can we have an urgent debate on what other measures can be taken to protect listed and other buildings that are deteriorating and being demolished because of lack of action by the Government?

I will ask Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to write to the hon. Gentleman. I do not know whether any of his concerns come within the purview of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but it has questions next week.

May I congratulate the Leader of the House on recognising the strength of support for the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) yesterday, and on giving herself and the Government more time to think carefully about these matters? When she does so, will she think particularly carefully about the distinction between Government time and time that should properly be controlled by the House? Of course every Government have the right to introduce the legislation which they proposed when being elected, and should have plenty of time for that, but surely all other business is a matter for the House, including all matters of scrutiny of the Government. It is not for the Government to decide how much and what sort of time should be given to such scrutiny.

I agree with the sentiment expressed by my hon. Friend. It is important that a democratically elected Government are able to deliver on their manifesto commitments and to get their business through the House, and that the House of elected Members makes sure that that legislation is properly scrutinised and that the Government continue to be held to account. That is why I hope that the Committee, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), will be able to look across those issues.

Can we have an urgent debate on negative equity in the housing market? The recent rise in negative equity across the country has been most pronounced in Northamptonshire and the east midlands, and thousands of people are in real trouble?

Negative equity is a particular concern if people cannot afford to stay in their homes and are forced to sell them at a very low market value. That is why we have taken a range of actions to protect people from being forced into repossession, including the support for mortgage interest scheme, the homeowner mortgage support scheme, the mortgage rescue scheme, the repossession prevention fund and the mortgage pre-action protocol. Repossessions, although rising, are still way below the level in the previous recession, and we are taking all the action that we can to prevent them from rising faster.

My right hon. and learned Friend will have seen in this morning’s papers and elsewhere that energy companies—electricity and gas suppliers—are being accused of grossly overcharging their customers. It is also suggested that Ministers should have a strategy to intervene if such companies refuse to reduce their prices by the end of December. Will she ask the Minister responsible to come to the House and reveal his plans for interventions so that people in this country are not overcharged for what should rightfully be subject to a true, fair and proper price set by a regulator?

The issue is very important for industry and businesses as well as people in their own homes. I will discuss with the Minister responsible the best way to keep the House updated on Government action in this important respect.

It has emerged that the now Defence Secretary told me and the families of 14 service personnel who died aboard Nimrod XV230 that the aircraft had been made safe, despite being warned that it was impossible to be sure that that was true. We were repeatedly told that defence consultants QinetiQ agreed that the aircraft was safe to fly, despite the company warning that

“no statement can, or has been made”

to that effect. Can we have a debate in Government time to learn which version is correct?

If an hon. Member is to raise in business questions an important point on a matter of great seriousness and heartfelt concern to many individuals, it is worth giving me notice of it in advance, so that I can give a proper, fuller answer, having consulted the Minister responsible in advance. I will draw Ministers’ attention to the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

May we assume that the listening and consultation applies to Labour Members as well as to the Opposition? Does it explain the absence of the Postal Services Bill, which has not arrived in the House? Is that because Ministers have found the strength, having listened to scores, indeed hundreds, of Labour MPs, to ensure that the part-privatisation of Royal Mail does not go ahead? If that is the order of the day, well done!

On Leader of the House issues, if my hon. Friend looks at the amendments that were tabled to my motion, he will see that they are in the names of Members on both sides of the House, including on our own Labour Benches. It is a question not just of cross-party talks with Front-Bench spokesmen but of looking at all the names of hon. Members on the Order Paper, including those on our side of the House. I shall refer his comments to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.

May we have a debate on the effectiveness of the NHS in managing its land assets? Putney hospital has been derelict for 10 years. At the eleventh hour, NHS London has pulled the rug on its redevelopment into badly needed GP premises. Clearly there is a general issue about bureaucracy. May we have a chance to debate that in the House?

It is always worth drawing such issues to the attention of Health Ministers in oral questions. Perhaps the hon. Lady will look for an opportunity to do that. It is very important that the NHS manages its assets, including its land assets, properly. That is even more important against a background of hundreds of millions—in fact billions—of pounds of extra investment into the NHS. That is important investment to be made to help improve that vital public service, but obviously we want to ensure that every pound is well spent.

May we have a debate in Government time about the provision of apprenticeship schemes when local authorities award contracts to the private sector? It should be incumbent on local authorities to ensure that when they award contracts to private sector companies, such companies have approved accredited apprenticeship schemes that allow apprentices to attend further education colleges. Dundee city council in my constituency has just awarded a contract to a private sector company, but we have yet to receive assurances from the separatist Scottish National party-led council that it will ensure that an apprenticeship scheme is in place.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Given how public services, in particular local government, procure services and engage in direct construction projects, they have a major opportunity to ensure that apprenticeships are provided. I know, for example, that that is very much at the centre of the work on the Olympics. I will bring his comments to the attention of the relevant Ministers and ask them to write to him.

May I draw attention to early-day motion 1739 in my name on fishermen from the Philippines who work on the west coast of Scotland?

[That this House strongly believes that the Government should quickly reconsider its policies regarding fishermen from the Philippines working in the waters around the Outer Hebrides and west coast of Scotland by establishing a six month moratorium on deportations; notes that these fishermen are not unskilled workers as they need several qualifications to engage in the fishing profession while filling a severe shortage of skilled fishing labour in the Western Isles; and further notes that deporting these fishermen will be yet another blow to the Isles as the Government is already planning to close the Hebrides Range which will result in the loss of almost 120 jobs.]

Fishermen’s leaders are calling daily to tell me that fishermen are being threatened with deportation or are not being allowed back on to their boats from the Philippines. As a result, at the time of credit crunch, boats are having to tie up. May we have a debate on the importance of beneficial immigration into the UK and, indeed, the high regard with which fishermen from the Philippines are held on the west coast of Scotland?

Given that those questions cut across the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office, the hon. Gentleman might want to raise them at DEFRA questions next week.

On 14 January, Mr. Nicholas Mazordze, a constituent of mine, was promised by the UK Border Agency that his immigration case would be resolved within 28 days. It was not. On 2 May, he was promised by the UK Border Agency that it would be resolved within two weeks. It was not. In June, I raised a parliamentary question on the matter. It is still not resolved. Yesterday, I tried to ring the MPs hotline. That was unobtainable. Will the Leader of the House consider a debate on the shambolic nature of the UK Border Agency?

The overall performance of the UK Border Agency has improved over the years. I know that as the Member with the most immigration cases of anyone in the House. Certainly, the MPs hotline has been very helpful to many hon. Members over the year. However, the hon. Gentleman has a particular case, which he has now raised on the Floor of the House. I will ensure that it is brought to the attention of the Immigration Minister forthwith.

When can we have a debate on the free passage of passengers and freight vessels across the channel into Dover? Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the French unions are attempting to disrupt the passage of British flagged, British crewed ships, ridiculously describing them as operating under flags of convenience?

I will raise that with Ministers in the Foreign Office. Part of the importance of us working very closely with other countries in Europe, and making sure that Britain is central and at the heart of Europe, is to ensure that important ports such as Dover, which my hon. Friend champions, can flourish in the future.

This morning’s announcement by Consumer Focus that it has found that energy companies are not passing on the full decline in wholesale prices to consumers must be investigated. May we have an urgent statement from the Energy Minister to get to the bottom of that, as it appears that every consumer is being overcharged by an average of £74? Can we ensure that energy companies are forced to pass every penny of the decline in wholesale prices on to the consumer?

Ministers meet the energy companies regularly. As I said, I will bring to the attention of Ministers the question of reporting the latest situation to the House.

May we have a debate on the allocation of resources for the modernisation and adaptation of the homes of the elderly? My constituent Mrs. Bhanji is 86 years of age. She has Parkinson’s, she is blind, she has low mobility, but she has been waiting for more than a year for the grant to be approved. I am not apportioning blame between the Government or the local authority, but is important that we have a debate on why that takes so long.

I will draw the attention of the Minister for Housing to the points raised by my right hon. Friend.