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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 497: debated on Thursday 22 October 2009


The Minister of State was asked—

Mersey Gateway Bridge

1. When he expects to announce his decision in respect of the proposed Mersey gateway bridge. (294793)

The inspector’s report following the recent public inquiry is not expected to be received until the middle of December and its recommendations will need to be considered carefully before the Secretary of State can announce the decisions. A further decision on funding will be taken after that.

May I urge my right hon. Friend to make a decision as soon as possible after the inspector’s report has been received? I remind him of the project’s importance for Cheshire and Merseyside, as it will ease congestion, improve public transport and create more than 4,000 jobs. It will also create hundreds of much-needed construction jobs during its construction phase.

I acknowledge the role that my hon. Friend has played as an advocate for the Mersey gateway bridge. I have heard him ask questions of the Prime Minister and raise the matter in debate, and I have also heard the representations made by Halton borough council. I commend both him and the council for all the hard work that they have done.

My hon. Friend has heard from me the time scales in respect of when we expect to receive the public inspector’s report. He will be aware of the scheme’s complexities, but I assure him that we have taken on board the points that he has made and the sense of urgency that he has expressed this morning.

Rail Services

2. If he will hold discussions with train operating companies on proposals to increase the number of rail services operating on Boxing day 2009. (294794)

I understand from Network Rail that it plans to enable around 50 per cent. more rail services to run on Boxing day 2009 to reflect changing travel demands, and I welcome this. As my hon. Friend is aware, Boxing day service provision is a matter for the train operating companies and Network Rail, as the owner and operator of the national network.

The almost full level of service on Boxing day in every other EU country means that people can visit family and friends, attend sporting fixtures or go shopping in the sales. When I met Lord Adonis this spring he promised to contact the train operating companies on this matter. Should not the Government take a more active role in promoting a comprehensive Boxing day service in future?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way that he has advocated the development of services on behalf of the public, but I must advise him that his international comparisons suggesting that this country is unusual in providing a relatively low level of service are misleading. Although Boxing day is a public holiday in England and Wales, by and large it is not in many continental European countries. I know that he understands that the seasonal break is an important time for Network Rail to take possession of busy lines to undertake essential maintenance. Although that will mean that there will be no access to destinations such as Manchester international airport this year, there is evidence of growth in travel over the Christmas and new year period, with 23,000 more trains running in 2008 than in 2007.

The Minister gave the House an interesting answer when he said that services had increased by 50 per cent. So that we can understand that figure, will he say to what extent that represents the normal service on any other working day of the year?

The 50 per cent. figure represents the increase over previous years that is planned for this year in the 2009 timetable.

To travel on a bank holiday, British citizens need to know the train operators’ timetables, but the data are licensed as the companies’ intellectual property. Does not my hon. Friend think that the timetable data belong to the people, and that we should make them available for free?

My hon. Friend’s question would be better directed at the Association of Train Operating Companies, which owns the intellectual property behind the timetable.

Is it not symptomatic of the culture and mindset that persists in the railway industry these days that Boxing day, public holidays and Sundays are somehow not regarded as days on which people travel, as they were 50 years ago? When are we going to get the seven-day railway that Network Rail promised us? Is it not time that, instead of thousands of people being shoved on to bus replacement services, we had guaranteed rail services on Sunday? To give Network Rail an incentive and passengers a chance, should not Network Rail give a third off the ticket price to those who are forced on to buses?

Order. Front Benchers have got to learn the habit of asking one question, not a quartet of questions.

This Government are the first Government to assert the notion of the seven-day railway, and in doing so, we have had constructive dialogue with Network Rail about the scheduling of maintenance works. Of course, one of the challenges we face now is that we are investing more in our railways than ever before to ensure that they are properly maintained. To undertake those works, the railway must be possessed by Network Rail, which will judge the best time to do the work, which is inevitably a Sunday.

High-speed Rail

3. What assessment his Department has made of the economic effects of the introduction of a high-speed rail line via Yorkshire. (294795)

We have asked High Speed 1 to consider the potential development of a high-speed line beyond the west midlands, in particular the potential for the new line to extend to the conurbations of Greater Manchester, Yorkshire, the north-east and Scotland.

It is expected that high-speed rail services to Yorkshire would result in a measurable impact on economic benefits. Greengauge 21, for example, suggests that a high-speed network would create some £6 billion of economic benefit to the region. The Government look forward to receiving High Speed 2’s report on high-speed rail at the end of the year.

It is good to see the Government taking action to promote high-speed railways, but when Network Rail published its report in August favouring the north-west over Yorkshire and the north-east, did the Minister of State notice, as I did, that it had failed to conduct the same economic analysis of the benefits of the north-west route and the Yorkshire route? Will he confirm that the Government will continue to consider Yorkshire and the north-west on equal terms, and to pursue equally claims for routes on both sides of the Pennines?

May I, through you, Mr. Speaker, reassure my hon. Friend that HS2’s outlook is national? It is important that we bear that in mind. Some people would draw on the back of an envelope a line from London to Birmingham to Manchester to Leeds, and that would be their high-speed link. We examine the benefits to all the corridors in our country to ensure that all parts of the country get the benefits of high-speed rail.

Does the Minister accept that a high-speed rail link to the north-west that did not go to Yorkshire would have a detrimental impact on the economy in Yorkshire?

Successive Governments have spectacularly failed to tackle the north-south economic divide in any meaningful way. Businesses and politicians in the north-east now believe that one way to tackle the north-south divide is to make the travelling times between the two shorter and bring the two closer together. Those are the priorities for the north-east in terms of high-speed rail. Does the Minister share them?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point about the vision we have for high-speed rail. One of the things we deliberately asked High Speed 2 to look into was the benefits of extending the high-speed link to Manchester, Yorkshire, the north-east and Scotland. It is important that, when HS2 reports this year, we consider the report and come back with proposals next year. The alternative is short-term gimmickry to get a standing ovation at a party conference.

Will the Minister particularly take into account the negative economic effects on the north-east of building a line only as far as Leeds?

I did not realise that I had so many allies in the Chamber, but it is good to hear that we have allies who are committed to investment in high-speed rail, which is probably the biggest single infrastructure investment in my generation.

The Yorkshire Post this morning again highlights the importance of high-speed rail for the north of England, with its “fast track to Yorkshire” campaign, so I want to ask the Minister: will he promise us a year by which time construction of a new high-speed rail line to the north of England will have begun?

I welcome the hon. Lady’s contribution to infrastructure investment. I wish she was as enthusiastic about Crossrail in London as she claims to be about high-speed rail. As for the timeline, we look forward to receiving the report from High Speed 2 later this year. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is a workaholic, will consider the report from HS2 and, I am sure, come back with proposals as soon as possible. Perhaps, if his infectious workaholism spreads, the construction work will begin as soon as the hon. Lady wants.

What the Minister does not tell the House is that the formal remit of HS2 is a route from London to the west midlands. The Conservative commitment to high-speed rail covers Manchester and Leeds. Why will Labour not match that?

I am sorry that the hon. Lady has spent so much time arguing with the Mayor of London that she has not read, for example, the evidence given by David Rowlands to the Transport Committee in June, or the copies in the Library of letters sent by Lord Adonis to David Rowlands, and his responses, which make the matter quite clear. My noble Friend writes in particular about

“the potential for HS2 to extend to the conurbations of Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, the North East and Scotland.”

I undertake to send the hon. Lady copies of Hansard, the minutes of the Select Committee and letters confirming our commitment. I wish that she would make the same commitment.

Road Deaths

The percentage of road deaths involving collisions with heavy goods vehicles has averaged 14 per cent. over the past five years—an HGV being a goods vehicle with a gross vehicle weight exceeding 3.5 tonnes.

Of those 40 to 50 lives lost per annum, 15 could be saved if the European Community directive on fitting retro-reflective conspicuity tape to HGVs were immediately implemented. Why, therefore, has my hon. Friend decided to postpone the implementation of that directive until the very last minute, in 2011? The Freight Transport Association said in Commercial Motor last month that the impact on the industry would be “minimal”.

We undertook to look at the impact, which was in the impact assessment that was set out and published, and we found that the actual cost would be between £186 and £388 per vehicle. That would mean a cost to the industry annually of some £16 million to £17 million. We had to assess whether, in the current economic situation, it would be right to impose that cost on the industry, and we decided at this stage not to gold-plate the requirements, which will need to come into force by July 2011. Of course, that does not stop companies fitting the markings themselves. In addition, we will continue to work with HGV drivers through SAFED—the Safe and Fuel Efficient Driving programme —and the Safer Driving and the Driving for Work programmes, for example, on this and other health and safety issues.

A worrying proportion of fatalities, accidents and near-misses involving HGVs on the M1 and A14 in Northamptonshire is down to foreign lorry drivers and foreign lorries. When will the Government take that issue extremely seriously?

For the record, may I make sure that the House is aware of the statistics? In fact, the number of reported accidents involving fatal casualties and side and rear collisions with heavy goods vehicles has fallen. In 2006, there were 183; the number fell to 176 in 2007; and it fell to 148—an almost 16 per cent. reduction—in 2008. Indeed, the number of accidents involving HGVs has fallen further. The steps that we are taking in respect of all HGVs, including foreign-registered vehicles, include an additional £24 million for the Vehicle and Operator Service Agency to undertake further checks on international lorries to ensure that they are roadworthy.

Local Transport Plan

5. If his Department will amend the local transport plan criteria to allow local authorities more discretion in approving transport schemes. (294797)

No. Local authorities already have almost complete discretion to invest in transport as they see fit. They are obliged to seek approval only when they are bidding for additional funds from the Department—for example, for major schemes of more than £5 million.

The truth is that there is a box-ticking mentality in the Department, whereby local authorities have to comply with central Government criteria when allocating road improvement funding. Will the Minister accompany me on the protest march along the Berrow coast road this Saturday, when we will be campaigning for the so-called missing link, where there is no footpath or cycle way at all, in aid and support of local democracy over central Government control?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman made a similar allegation last year about the DFT interfering with what Somerset county council wanted to do, and he was wrong then, too. There are a number of ways in which one can obtain funding for transport projects. First, there is the £1.3 billion of capital funding, which has no strings attached whereby we could stop local authorities from doing what they want. Secondly, there is the revenue support grant: again there is no ring-fencing, and no project is subject to criteria. Thirdly, there are local transport plans. The right hon. Gentleman would expect us to be responsible to the taxpayer for contributions of more than £5 million. This is not about box-ticking; it is about ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent properly and we get value for money. I am sure that he would welcome that approach.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) pointed out, it is to this Government’s continuing shame that they are killing off so many innovative local transport schemes by national diktat. When will they do what they have done in so many areas of transport, not least in relation to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers)—drop their policy, follow our policies, and allow local authorities to make truly local decisions?

One of the problems in doing what the hon. Gentleman claims to want to do is that his party in Westminster disagrees fundamentally with the Mayor of London on so many issues, whether it be Crossrail, an estuary airport or speed cameras. On funding, the hon. Gentleman should be aware—if he is not, I am again happy to undertake to write to him to educate him—that any major funding scheme below £5 million needs no approval from the Department for Transport. It is right and proper that we have a duty to taxpayers to ensure that money is spent properly, but there is a light-touch approach. When a major project is submitted to the Department, we work with those involved to ensure value for money and deliverability. I do not apologise for ensuring that every penny of taxpayers’ money is spent properly.

Speed Cameras

The Department for Transport does not hold that data for 1997 or 2008. The deployment of speed cameras and the number in place is a matter for local road safety partnerships.

I am grateful for that rather inadequate answer. The Minister will know perfectly well that the number of speed cameras has almost trebled since 1997. Since statistics from his own Department from 2008 show that only 5 per cent. of road accidents are caused by breaking the speed limit, do the Government not need a broader strategy to reduce fatalities and casualties on our roads, instead of continuing to be a one-club golfer?

The hon. Gentleman has obviously taken his line from his Front-Bench colleague the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), in terms of the idea that there is only one part to the Government’s road safety strategy. It is blatantly clear that that is not so. Our strategy is centred on education, enforcement and engineering. Let me point out that last year, excessive speed remained a contributory factor in 26 per cent. of all deaths on our roads. Although we have had a 14 per cent. reduction overall, which is part of our strategy, excessive speed had an effect in 26 per cent. of cases, involving 600 individuals. I make no apology whatsoever for giving local partnerships the choice in taking forward measures that will help to save lives, which all the evidence indicates happens with speed cameras as part and parcel of the approach, or one tool in the armoury.

Let me add that the Mayor of London—

When are the new cameras hidden in gantries across the M1 motorway in Hertfordshire going to be switched on, and why?

I will write to the right hon. Gentleman specifically about the requirements of the national strategic network in relation to speed cameras. Speed cameras that assist in slowing people down help to save lives. Indeed, that is endorsed by his own party, in the shape of the Mayor of London, who wrote to the Secretary of State saying that safety cameras had helped with speed and saved 400 lives.

Has the Minister seen research from the university of Liverpool and the department of statistical science at University college London on the regression to the mean effect? Does not that call into question some of the claims made by the Government on the effect that fixed speed cameras have on reducing accidents?

Obviously, one would expect any Department worth its salt to keep the evidence always under review. Equally, the hon. Gentleman will be aware of evidence showing that where speed cameras were in place, there was a reduction of up to 42 per cent. in serious injuries and deaths. Of course we keep matters under review, but these measures save lives, and are one of the right ways forward for local partnerships. The change was made in April 2007, so the great announcement recently made in Liverpool that we would end centrally controlled cameras is not correct; that is a matter for local decisions in the local partnerships that are doing sterling work to help to save lives.

Obstructive Sleep Apnoea

7. What steps he is taking to increase awareness of the risks for commercial drivers of undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnoea. (294799)

The Department for Transport has sought to increase awareness of undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnoea by including relevant literature in correspondence sent to vocational drivers and operators. It has also undertaken focused presentations to representative bodies, published informative articles in motor trade industry magazines and increased awareness among medical professionals.

I thank my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for their interest in this issue. My hon. Friend will be aware of recent academic research suggesting that one in five lorry drivers may suffer from sleep apnoea. Given that if diagnosed and treated it does not prevent lorry drivers from continuing their careers, but that if undiagnosed and untreated it means they are a risk to themselves and other people on the roads, can his Department commit to doing even more?

May I first put on the record my recognition of the dogged determination that my hon. Friend has shown in campaigning on this issue? I thank her for arranging with me a meeting with her constituents, including the father and fiancée of her constituent who was killed as a result of this problem. I can guarantee that we will continue to work with the charity sector, the medical profession and occupational health to raise awareness. We will review the new Australian research to which my hon. Friend refers when the full evidence is available, and we are taking steps to reissue guidance to general practitioners on the medical form D4.

Rail Services

London Midland has now received 37 new class 350/2 Desiros and retained seven four-car class 321 trains to provide additional capacity. From December there will be five additional Watford peak services to help reduce overcrowding on Northampton trains between Watford and Euston. That has led to an overall improvement in the public performance measure to 90.7 per cent. for the period from 23 August to 19 September 2009, against 86.6 per cent. in the same period last year.

I am grateful for that answer, but is the Minister aware of the local concerns about the urgent need for real, substantial long-term improvements to the train service? There is local anger about the day-to-day management of services, including cancellations, overcrowding and the farcical failure of the train company to get even the announcements on trains right. Will he or one of his colleagues therefore come to Northampton to meet rail users, listen to their concerns and take up the issues of concern to commuters in Northampton?

One of the Secretary of State’s predecessors was in Northampton only in April, but my noble Friend has advised me that if he is in the area he will be happy to meet my hon. Friend and the local rail user group. I assure her that the performance of the train operating company is the subject of regular scrutiny by the performance delivery group, which I chair. We look closely at factors that contribute to any delays or cancellations, whether they are caused by Network Rail or by train operating companies.

East Midlands Trains, which runs to Northampton, also serves Derby. On Sundays it runs only half the services, and journeys take double the time and cost the same. Is that fair for the consumer?

As I made clear earlier, we are the Government who promoted the notion of the seven-day railway, and we will continue to press Network Rail to ensure that wherever possible, it maintains the Sunday timetable to which it is committed.

Goods Vehicle Testing

9. What assessment he has made of the effect on small and medium-sized businesses of changes to arrangements for the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency to test goods vehicles. (294801)

In assessing its change programme, VOSA considered the impact on its entire customer base, most of which consists of small and medium-sized businesses. Service criteria have been established, based on independent market research and customer consultation.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Operators will welcome any improvement to efficiency in the test station network, but there is great concern among very small businesses about the likely cost impact when the tests are carried out by a private company. When will he be able reassure them, and when will a decision be made, as to the likely cost of tests under the new arrangements?

The overall policy is to ensure that we have testing facilities that are closer and more responsive to the customer base. Indeed, as my substantive answer suggested, some 90 per cent. of all operators have fewer than six vehicles. That represents the vast majority of VOSA customers, and we are keen to ensure that they are not penalised. There is a £6 premium on designated third-party premises at this stage. We are reviewing that and would expect to see it removed within the next two years.

Motorcyclists on the Isle of Wight must get their vehicle to the mainland for it to be tested. That is at least an hour and a quarter each way. What is being done to ensure that a test station is available on the island?

I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about the position in the Isle of Wight, but overall, we seek to ensure for customers that 90 per cent. of the population is covered by facilities that are within either 30 miles or 60 minutes of them: that is our 30-60-90 rule. Obviously, we will struggle to maintain that in some places, but we will always review the situation and undertake to look for further designated third-party premises.

Rail Franchises

10. What recent representations he has received on the functioning of rail franchises; and if he will make a statement. (294802)

Ministers and officials within the Department for Transport have regular discussions with the rail industry about the functioning of rail franchises. The Department continues to manage the delivery of obligations of all rail franchise contracts, and officials report frequently on delivery to the Secretary of State.

Are the Government minded to reconsider the length of the franchise offered, particularly for the east coast main line? Does the Minister share my concern about the debt that the company that holds the franchise—the second company to have failed when holding it—has run up with the banks, which of course is now being serviced by the taxpayer? This is a particularly difficult time, so what is he going to do about that franchise?

The hon. Lady raises an excellent point. We keep our options open on the form and length of rail franchises. She is right to imply that a longer franchise might help to support more investment and provide greater stability, but she will be aware that when the directly operated—[Interruption.] I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, but there is a lot of chuntering from Opposition Front Benchers. Clearly—[Interruption.]

Order. The Minister is right: there is too much chuntering from Front Benchers. I do not like it and I do not want it to happen again.

I am afraid that the public schools they went to did not teach them manners.

The point is that when the Directly Operated Railways company takes over the running of the line next year and when it comes to retendering, one of the things that we could look into, and seek representations on, is whether the franchise should be longer.

To what extent are current franchises furthering greater mobility, particularly among elderly citizens across the United Kingdom?

My noble Friend the Secretary of State looks into some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised, including rail usage—who is using the railways—and whether there are advantages in how a franchise is run. One advantage of retendering is that we can take on board passengers’ concerns. This is not directly relevant to him, but we recently refranchised South Central and asked Passenger Focus to ask users what they would like to see in the next franchise. I am happy to arrange for the hon. Gentleman to meet officials to discuss what can happen in the next phase in relation to his constituency and his community.

Severn Crossings

Under the concession agreement, there is a need for a wide range of regular meetings with the concessionaire, Severn River Crossing plc, regarding day-to-day routine operational and maintenance issues, financial and contractual matters, and contingency planning. Issues recently discussed include operational maintenance, planning for events, including the Ryder cup in 2010, and the use of tag and credit or debit cards for Severn bridge toll payments.

The Minister will be aware that users of the Severn bridges can pay by cash, cheques or euros, but not by credit or debit cards, which is particularly incomprehensible for first-time visitors to Wales and causes a lot of inconvenience. Will he reassure my constituents that this long-standing issue is moving to a satisfactory conclusion?

I have been reading the letters that my hon. Friend has written to the Department, and the Hansard reports of the questions that she has raised. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole), has reminded me that he met the Highways Agency as a direct result of her representations. She will be pleased to know that, in parallel with the negotiations with the concessionaire, we have proposed the necessary amendments to secondary legislation to permit debit and credit card payments at the Severn crossing. As a consequence of her representations, the agency has asked the Severn River Commission to consider the feasibility of introducing a variant of the season tag, which would be suitable for regular car-share groups.

Rail Services

12. If he will assess the effect on the tourism industry of the proposed reduction in the number of direct rail services between London and Torbay constituency. (294804)

First Great Western operates two daily services to Torbay via Taunton that take around three and a quarter hours, and South West Trains operates two slower services via Yeovil that take around four and a quarter hours. The South West Trains services will be withdrawn in December 2009. Few passengers use these services to travel to Torbay from London, and regular faster services are available from London to Torbay by changing at Newton Abbot.

I am not sure that many other constituencies face a halving of their direct line services to London. The Waterloo service is cheaper than First Great Western and is used by people, including occasionally the MP for Torbay to get from the constituency to London. Will the Minister review the situation in the light of the fears of the tourist industry that it will lose custom as a result of those cuts?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the number of trains on the Torbay branch line will remain the same, providing access to Torbay. The Department has received no representations from South West Tourism on this issue. If the Liberal Democrats would run rail services because they are totemic rather than because they meet passenger needs, it perhaps tells us something about how unprepared they are to take—

Topical Questions

Since our last questions in June, the Department has made a significant number of policy announcements. To keep in your good books, Mr. Speaker, I will keep it short. We have announced a £1.1 billion programme for electrification of the Great Western main line and of the line between Manchester and Liverpool, a £14 million package to transform facilities for cyclists at rail stations and green permit schemes for works in the street in London and Kent. We have published “Low Carbon Transport: A Greener Future”, and more details are available on the Department website.

Does the Minister support, as I do, the proposal from the Association of Train Operating Companies that the Crewe to Chester line should be electrified, not least because of its importance to the Cheshire economy and to Crewe as one of the country’s key railway junctions?

It is fascinating how support withers away when it comes to paying for things. There is a consequence of wanting investment in public infrastructure—it costs money. One party is committed to investing—

Two parties are committed to investment, and one is not. When I was in Liverpool announcing the electrification of the Liverpool to Manchester line, I saw no support from the Conservatives. It is slightly rich for a new boy to lecture us about investment.

T5. Will the Minister let me know what practical steps his Department is taking to protect rural bus services—by practical steps, I obviously mean money? (294817)

I thank my hon. Friend for her helpful question. In the last 13 years, we have introduced a rural bus subsidy scheme that gives more than £15 million each year to subsidise buses that otherwise would not be profitable to run. In addition, we have given more money to the revenue support grant scheme, which means that main buses can be funded. We also fund community transport buses, which leads to a number of buses being run that otherwise would not be run. She has raised the important point that social justice demands that rural communities have buses that run.

T2. Given that more than 50 per cent. of flights from airports such as my local one in Edinburgh head to other UK mainland cities, what environmental impact study has been done on the effect of high-speed rail, which would remove the necessity for many of those flights? (294814)

In the work that we undertook for what ultimately became the 2003 aviation White Paper, a substantial review was undertaken into the impact and requirements, for the foreseeable future, of the level of air travel within the UK and for long and short-haul flights. I was recently at Heathrow airport, and although we have obviously committed to investment in high-speed rail and to taking that forward, the proportion of flights to Heathrow is 8 per cent. internal and 7 per cent. short-haul—the vast majority of flights are, of course, long haul, which need to be made.

Again this week, there was an article in a national newspaper on the unacceptable behaviour of a senior manager working at Network Rail. I have been raising this matter, along with the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, for seven or eight months. I had a debate in Westminster Hall on the issue, where I asked 14 questions about it. Can I get an answer to those questions?

Industrial relations and staffing issues are between employers and their staff—in this case, Network Rail and its employees. Network Rail is a private company and the Department cannot involve itself in the staffing and operational aspects of the company’s activities.

T3. The Minister will know that my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), supported by his colleagues in Gloucestershire, has been an ardent campaigner for redoubling the Kemble to Swindon railway line. Now that, as I understand it, a significant amount of money—£30 million—has become available in the south-west, will the Minister take whatever steps he can to ensure that it is used to make that necessary improvement on our rail line? (294815)

I have had discussions this week with the Minister for the South West that indicated that the regional funding allocation for the south-west region has been reassessed, and that it is possible now that the majority of the funds for the redoubling of the Swindon to Kemble link can be found within the region. I will certainly be talking with departmental officials about closing the gap.

Will the Minister inform the House whether there has been any progress in allowing the concessionary bus pass to be used as a senior railcard?

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. We spend £1 billion on the concessionary bus fare scheme, which enables 11 million people who are either over 60 or disabled to use buses free of charge after 9.30 am and before 11 pm who would otherwise not be able to do so. He makes an important point about access to the railways, and I will write to him to give a substantive response, but suffice it to say that we have spent more money this year on such things than ever before in the history of this Government.

T4. May an old boy ask, given the performance of Ministers today, why on earth we have a Department for Transport? Ministers clearly have no influence over rail operators’ timetables. They do not know the number of speed cameras there are about. It is clear that the Highways Agency looks after the roads and that rail operators look after the railways. What on earth is the ministerial team doing? Would it not be a good start— (294816)

Order. I must remind the hon. Gentleman, who is an experienced Member of the House, that topical questions must be brief, and so must the answers.

As an old boy, the hon. Gentleman will remember the privatisation of the railway sector. As an old boy, he will remember the privatisation of the buses. As an old boy, he will remember the fragmentation of the public transport system. And he will remember the chronic under-investment in our public transport system for more than 20 years. Over the past 13 years, we have seen a 20 per cent. increase in the use of our buses, a 40 per cent. increase in the use of our railways and investment in the future as well. I am proud of that.

This week, two conservative think-tanks have proposed getting rid of the pensioners’ concessionary bus pass. Would a Labour Government guarantee the House that they would not do that?

Unlike Her Majesty’s official Opposition, we are committed to the concessionary bus scheme and to having 11 million people in England being able to use it—as I said, free for the first time in the history of Governments in this country.

T6. The Airedale and Wharfedale rail lines, which serve my constituency, are two of the most congested in the entire north of England. When will Yorkshire get its fair share—not extra—of the transport budget to deliver the much-needed extra capacity on those train lines? (294818)

All the regions of the UK get their fair share of rail investment and have done through the life of this Government. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman should recognise that, within his region, the Northern Rail franchise receives more subsidy than any other train operating company in the country.

The Minister will be aware that many of those who work on Britain’s ferries are still not covered by the national minimum wage regulations. Can he outline what steps are being taken to close that loophole?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. It is certainly true that there are issues about the national minimum wage legislation that we need to consider. At the same time, we should recognise the international nature of the shipping industry. One of the other achievements under this Government has been a substantial increase in the number of UK-flagged ships in terms of tonnage. I want to ensure that that continues. We are currently having further discussions with the industry and unions about the issue.

T7. My constituents in Southend, West would like to know whether the commitments originally given by the noble Baroness Chalker will be honoured when the Government sell off the Dartford river crossing toll bridge. (294820)

The pressures on the crossing are well known and the Government are committed to finding a solution to meeting the capacity needs of Dartford.

Will the Minister tell us when the promised public consultation on the shape of the new franchise for the east coast rail line will begin?

We speak all the time to key stakeholders. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that National Express East Coast continues to run the railway. The directly operated company, as a shadow, is ready to take over the running as and when required, and there will be a seamless transition. However, he can write to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State any time that he wishes to do so.

The Minister will be aware that Norfolk is the only county in England that does not have a dual carriageway linking it to a national road trunk network. Does he share my hope that the public inquiry into the dualling of the A11 from Thetford to the Five Ways roundabout will not push back the timetable for the project? Can he also give me an absolute assurance that—

The Government are committed to progressing the dualling of the A11, to ensure that people in Norfolk and Norwich have the best possible access to the rest of the country as soon as possible.

May I ask the shipping Minister to have an urgent look at pay in the Maritime and Coastguard Agency? Last year senior managers were given an average increase of 15 per cent., compared with front-line staff, who got 1 per cent. Surely that is not acceptable.

I have regular meetings with the MCA. There has been a reduction in the number of directors and a change in the provisions. However, we are obviously concerned to ensure that all public sector expenditure not only is in accordance with agreements, but is value for money and delivers the requirements that we need, in this case through the MCA.

Women and Equality

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Equality and Human Rights Commission

1. What recent discussions she has had with the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the commission’s co-ordination of its work on different strands of discrimination. (294822)

4. What recent discussions she has had with the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the commission’s co-ordination of its work on different strands of discrimination. (294825)

My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality wrote to the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission on 5 August, setting out the need for the commission to strengthen its relations with stakeholders and to set out clearly what is being done on each equality strand. A follow-up meeting was held on 22 September to discuss the matter. Such meetings will continue.

Given that the Minister for Women and Equality talked on the “Andrew Marr Show” about the need to be able to see the different strands of discrimination, rather than about having an amorphous, overarching human rights concept, will the Minister of State admit that the Government got it wrong in how they set up the Equality and Human Rights Commission?

No, I do not admit that we got it wrong. It was completely correct to bring together the Disability Rights Commission, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality, in order to ensure, in addition to the new three strands, that employers and those regulated by the commission know where to go and have only one body to go to. That is completely the correct decision. However, it is also correct to ensure that the underlying causes of discrimination, which can be different for disabled people from those for black and minority ethnic people, for example, are visible and have different solutions, for which the commission can account to its stakeholders.

Does the Minister agree with the chairman, Trevor Phillips, when he said that sometimes the best way to frustrate the British National party is for those who feel able to vote Conservative? Surely that is sound advice.

I do not always agree with what the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission says.

Are not human rights one of the important aspects of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and do they not underpin the whole approach to discrimination? Having that strand running through the commission is another reason why those organisations needed to come together.

I agree with my hon. Friend. That is an important underlying strand of the work of the commission. As the commission moves forward, it will be important for it to make its work on all the strands much more visible than it has perhaps been in the past, and it has undertaken to do that.

I am not psychic. I can be guided only by what has been reported to me, and I had it down that the hon. Lady wanted to favour the House with her views on this matter.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker; I will therefore do so.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has said that parental rights are so good that women are having a difficult time being employed. I wonder what the Government are doing about that.

I am not convinced that the hon. Lady has accurately cited what that report actually said. The commission is doing a lot of work on parental rights, for fathers and mothers, but not all the reporting of that work is an accurate reflection of what it has said.

In the interview that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) cited between the Minister for Women and Equality and Stephanie Flanders on the “Andrew Marr Show” on 2 August, the Minister said that she did not favour the Equality and Human Rights Commission using the overarching human rights concept. How does the Minister of State think that it should instead deal with recognising the different strands and with making the commission more effective in combating discrimination?

My right hon. and learned Friend did not say quite what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting. However, it is important for the commission to be much more visible in setting out its work on each of the strands for which it has responsibility, as well as its work on promoting human rights. It will be held accountable for that by my Department, the Government Equalities Office, as well as by the wider stakeholder community and others in this House.

Corston Report

2. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on steps to implement the recommendations made in the Corston report relating to women in prison addicted to drugs. (294823)

In my role at the Ministry of Justice as Minister for Prisons and champion for women in the criminal justice system, I discuss this matter regularly with the Secretary of State for Justice. As of February, there are no longer any women prisoners being routinely strip-searched in women’s prisons in England, and we are investing £15.6 million of new money over this two-year period in existing third sector organisations to divert vulnerable women offenders from custody.

I am grateful for the Minister’s response. On a visit to HMP Send, a women’s prison, I spoke to women on the rehabilitation of offenders trust who were helping women to rid themselves of the scourge of drugs. The particular problem raised by the Corston report was that dangerous moment when women are released from prison, particularly when child care problems are involved. What further discussions has my hon. Friend had on protecting women at that difficult time?

I am glad that my hon. Friend has seen the excellent programme at HMP Send, which I have also had the benefit of visiting. It is doing sterling work. Much of the £15.6 million of extra resources to which I have just referred is going to one-stop shops and women’s organisations in the community that have an express purpose and ability to offer personal support to those coming out of prison, and to solve problems with housing and with getting children back to women coming out of prison to prevent them from reoffending. I believe that that will be very effective.

Will the Minister give me an update on the drug problem in Styal women’s prison, which is close to my constituency? There have been a lot of problems there in the past. Can she report on the current situation?

All our prisons have certain difficulties with drug-addicted prisoners, whether they are women’s prisons or other prisons. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that a record investment is going into drug rehabilitation and support in our prisons—including HMP Styal, to which he referred—with 15 times more money being spent now than in 1997 on drug rehabilitation, and a record number of people engaging with it. That has to be hopeful for the future.

Parental Leave

3. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on plans to reform arrangements for parental leave; and if she will make a statement. (294824)

This Government have transformed support for working parents since 1997—doubling maternity pay, introducing paternity pay and leave, more than doubling good-quality affordable child care places and extending statutory maternity leave from 14 to 52 weeks. Most recently, the Prime Minister has announced new flexibility for working parents, whereby from April 2011, if a mother wants to return to work six months after the birth, the other six months of her leave can be taken by her partner with three months of it paid. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is consulting on the administration of this scheme to make it as accessible as possible for both employers and employees.

I recommend to the Solicitor-General the Conservative proposals for even greater flexibility in parental leave sharing between the mother and the father. Does she agree that that might help to mitigate any negative impact of improved parental leave on the employment prospects of women of child-bearing age?

It is clearly very important to split child care leave between mothers and fathers, not least because if a potential employer is confronted with a man he wants to employ and a woman he wants to employ, he will be unable to discriminate against them if one is capable of having six months leave and the other is equally capable of having that leave if his partner becomes pregnant. The difficulty about the Tories’ leave is that it is totally unpaid.

Well, it is almost totally unpaid. That is very clear. The right hon. Lady would be better off if she explained to those thinking of having their children now that they had better be careful, because those benefits are going to be slashed under the Tory pay cuts ahead.

The right-leaning think-tank Reform has today published a report calling for the abolition of so-called middle-class benefits. Has my hon. and learned Friend been able to consider that report, and does she know the impact on working mothers if we were to abolish maternity benefits?

This issue relates to the point that I have just made. The level of these benefits is such as to provide very good support to working and middle-class people who want to be able to have families and to have optimal choice between flexibility at work and home care. If, as a result of the unhappy occurrence of a Tory majority at the next election, which according to the polls is looking less and less likely—we are now down to a very limited possibility, if at all—these benefits were assaulted and slashed, many of my constituents are very well aware of the dangers that they would face.

Married Couples (Armed Forces)

5. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on application of the Government’s policies on equality to married couples in the armed forces with children. (294826)

I have had a number of discussions with the Secretary of State for Defence and met ministerial colleagues to discuss how to support service families. I also recently met service families at RAF Wittering and Swinton Army barracks and plan to visit more bases to discuss service families’ concerns.

There seems to be a reluctance on the part of the Ministry of Defence to allow flexible working for the parent left at home when their partner is on active duty. As a result, the MOD is losing experienced personnel who are leaving the service rather than leaving their children without either parent at home. Will my right hon. and learned Friend speak to the MOD about how best to support serving couples who are also the parents of young children?

This is a growing issue. Commanders are required to manage their personnel in a flexible manner to ensure that family responsibilities as well as military duties can be discharged. As well as supporting the responsibilities of married service couples, it is important to support their families. I pay tribute to the three service families’ federations—Julie McCarthy of the Army Families Federation, Kim Richardson of the Naval Families Federation and Dawn McCafferty of the RAF Families Federation. They work closely with the Ministry of Defence and with us, and they do a magnificent job.

A 20-year-old British soldier is about to be posted back to Afghanistan. He has a wife and children, and the wife happens to be a foreign national. Because the soldier is 20 and not 21, he does not have the security of knowing that his wife and children can come to the United Kingdom. Is that right?

If the hon. Gentleman is raising an immigration issue, he should probably raise it with the Home Office.

Race Inequality (NHS Staff)

6. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health on levels of race inequality among NHS staff. (294827)

My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality has no direct discussions with the Secretary of State for Health on levels of race inequality, as responsibility for race inequality lies with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. His Department, however, works with key delivery Departments, including the Department of Health, to support them and challenge them to promote race equality. The Government Equalities Office tackles discrimination in a series of different ways, improving advice and promoting awareness of their rights among employees.

May I ask the Under-Secretary or the Minister for Women and Equality to have those discussions? May I also declare my interest as a diabetes sufferer? The south Asian community is six times more likely than the mainstream community to suffer from diabetes. The discussions are important, because they are the only way in which we shall be able to deal with racial inequality in our health service.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister is well known to be a champion of equalities in this context. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the national health service constitution, published this year, puts equality at the heart of the NHS. However, he has raised an important issue, and I know that my colleagues in the Government Equalities Office will wish to continue to discuss it with the Department of Health.

Women in Power: Milestones

7. What her role was in the compilation of the Government Equalities Office’s recent publication “Women in Power: Milestones”. (294828)

The “Women in Power: Milestones” fact sheet was produced in January 2008 by the Government Equalities Office to mark the 80th anniversary of women’s gaining the franchise in 1918 and the 90th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act 1928. The fact sheet was cleared through internal channels and officials only, not by Ministers. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] It is true, though.

We shall be publishing an updated fact sheet shortly, but there will be a new one today which will interest the hon. Gentleman. It is about black, Asian and ethnic-minority women in public life, because we are now in black history month.

—and the longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century, and one of this country’s greatest ever Prime Ministers, would the Solicitor-General like to apologise to the House for the fact that her name was omitted from the fact sheet that her Department published?

It is a pity that she was missed out. I am prepared to go that far but not much further, since she did not do a great deal to advance the cause of women. I really do not think that the hon. Gentleman has a political point. [Interruption.] I have made it very clear that the fact sheet did not come to Ministers. If Members would listen instead of just shouting, they would realise that there is no political point here. The first woman Speaker was a Labour Member, and I am afraid that she was missed out, too. So it really is not about politics, and the hon. Gentleman is barking up the wrong tree.

Equality and Human Rights Commission

8. What research the Equality and Human Rights Commission has undertaken to assess the effect of the recession on the level of funding available for the support of disabled people. (294829)

In June, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Government Equalities Office jointly published research that examined the impact of the recession on disability, age, gender and ethnic minorities. The report found that over the 12 months since its publication, the employment rate for disabled people fell slightly, from 48 per cent. to 47.7 per cent., which was less than the fall from 74.7 per cent. to 73.5 per cent. in the overall population.

One of the effects of the recession is rising unemployment. As we—hopefully—begin to emerge from the recession, what action can be taken to ensure that disabled people are not left at the back of the queue for jobs?

The answer for all people is to make the right investment decisions, as the Government are doing, to ensure that there is no increase in unemployment overall. However, as the Equality Bill takes its place on the statute book, the new socio-economic duty will play an important role in ensuring that the economic outcomes for disabled people are particularly taken into account. That is something for the future that we all deserve.