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Commons Chamber

Volume 499: debated on Thursday 12 November 2009

House of Commons

Thursday 12 November 2009

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business before questions

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Third Reading opposed and deferred until tomorrow (Standing Order. No. 20).

Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)

Third Reading opposed and deferred until tomorrow (Standing Order. No. 20).

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until tomorrow (Standing Order No. 20).

Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until tomorrow (Standing Order No. 20).

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)

Consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until tomorrow (Standing Order No. 20).

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until tomorrow (Standing Order No. 20).

City of Westminster Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Motion made,

That so much of the Lords message [12 October] as relates to the City of Westminster Bill [Lords] be now considered.—(The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Object.

To be considered tomorrow.

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Motion made,

That the promoters of the Bournemouth Borough Council Bill which was originally introduced in the House of Lords in the Session 2006-07 on 22 January 2007, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Private Business Standing Order 188A (Suspension of bills).—(The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Object.

To be considered tomorrow.

Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Motion made,

That the promoters of the Manchester City Council Bill which was originally introduced in the House of Lords in the Session 2006-07 on 22 January 2007, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Private Business Standing Order 188A (Suspension of bills).—(The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Object.

To be considered tomorrow.

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Motion made,

That the promoters of the Canterbury City Council Bill which was originally introduced in this House in the previous Session on 22 January 2008, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Private Business Standing Order 188A (Suspension of bills).—(The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Object.

To be considered tomorrow.

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)

Ordered,

That the promoters of the Leeds City Council Bill which was originally introduced in this House in the previous Session on 22 January 2008, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Private Business Standing Order 188A (Suspension of bills).—(The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)

Motion made,

That the promoters of the Nottingham City Council Bill which was originally introduced in this House in the previous Session on 22 January 2008, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Private Business Standing Order 188A (Suspension of bills).—(The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Object.

To be considered tomorrow.

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Ordered,

That the promoters of the Reading Borough Council Bill which was originally introduced in this House in the previous Session on 22 January 2008, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Private Business Standing Order 188A (Suspension of bills).—(The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Minister of State was asked—

Higher Education

Last week, we published our higher education framework. There has been a narrowing in the gap between the least advantaged and the most advantaged in terms of higher education participation in recent years, but we want to go further, for example by supporting many of the recommendations in the recent report by the panel on fair access to the professions chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn).

I thank the Minister for that answer. Increasing additional student numbers is incredibly important to constituencies such as mine in Milton Keynes where there is a relatively low participation rate in higher education. Can the Minister give me any good news about the expansion of the new university centre in Milton Keynes and perhaps about having additional student numbers for those who are studying HE in further education colleges?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her doughty championing of extending universities’ reach across Milton Keynes. Milton Keynes is offering higher education to more students through the Open university than any other university in the country. My hon. Friend was lucky and successful in her bid to extend that reach to mature students and part-time students in Milton Keynes. Additional student numbers are of course an issue for the funding council, but I know that the business plan, as it comes forward, will make that case even stronger.

It is probably common ground between those on all three Front Benches that there is a problem of fair access to some of our research-intensive universities and to particular courses. Does the Minister not accept that the brave new world for which he is preparing the ground, with the connivance of those on the Conservative Front Bench, with fully variable market fees after the next general election will make those barriers even harder for people from poorer backgrounds to leap?

I am going to take every opportunity to expose the conceit of the Liberal Democrats over the next few months. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said that they would turn their backs on the 50 per cent. participation rate and their leader said that they would downgrade their position on tuition fees because they could not cost it after the election. That is the Liberal Democrats’ position—conceit and taking our students for granted.

My understanding is that Cambridge and Oxford still refuse to let full-time students work during term time. The access regulator, as I understand it, has never imposed any sanctions against any university. Will my right hon. Friend look into this?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that point to my attention. He knows that universities are autonomous, but I had not heard that before. I will look into the matter and discuss it with the funding council.

In a written answer, the Minister confessed that only 6 per cent. of state school pupils aged 15 progressed to Russell group universities. Of those few, just one in 10 are from the bottom two socio-economic groups. It is clear that very few such students get to our longest established universities. Vitally, many from more disadvantaged backgrounds study HE in FE, but we know from an answer just this morning that this figure is falling too. So is the Government’s expensive Aimhigher programme a failure, or are the answers to the parliamentary questions inadvertently incorrect? It must be one or the other: is it failure or fallacy?

Universities, parents and students up and down the country will be very nervous that a Conservative Government would cut Aimhigher. The socio-economic gap between those in the highest and lowest groups is down by 7 per cent., while participation from the poorest neighbourhoods in the country and from state schools is up. All that is against the backdrop of the Conservatives slashing funding for universities. We have seen an increase of 25 per cent. in the participation rate, so will the hon. Gentleman commit to a 50 per cent.—

Order. I gently say to the Minister of State that the purpose of Question Time is for questions to be put to Ministers, rather than to members of the Opposition.

My right hon. Friend knows that I have been campaigning for fair access for many years, but can we ensure that fair access means that students are suitably qualified and that they can speak and write English properly? In addition, do they not need to work a bit harder, as at present the average student in our universities does not work hard enough?

My hon. Friend has been a campaigner for the use of contextual data in the past, and I hope that he will welcome that in the higher education framework. I think it best that I leave his words of advice to students to him, as that is a point that only he could make.

High-Speed Broadband

2. What steps he plans to take to provide support for development of high-speed broadband networks. (299490)

11. What steps he plans to take to provide support for development of high-speed broadband networks. (299500)

The “Digital Britain” White Paper, published on 16 June, outlined the Government’s plans for a next-generation fund, which will help to deliver at least 90 per cent. coverage of next-generation broadband for homes and businesses by 2017. The fund will be created through a levy of 50p per month on all fixed telecommunication lines.

The distinguished Government adviser Professor Andrew Cave has said that the wrong sort of regulation will deter private investment. Charles Dunstone of TalkTalk has said that the telephone tax will delay it. Why is the Minister introducing a telephone tax, and a wireless broadband tax of £100 a year that will hit our small businesses?

I am surprised and disappointed that the Opposition are setting their face against a policy that will extend broadband to rural communities and create an inclusive broadband system. The Government have a firm and decisive position, and I would be very interested to hear what alternative proposals the Opposition have for delivering broadband to the rest of the country.

Other countries are laying fibre-optic cable to thousands of homes, so why have UK operators barely started to think about doing so? BT, protected by its monopoly over the local loop, appears to be making minimal investment. If we are to get a universal 2 megabit broadband connection by 2012, are the Government not going to have to raise their game in a serious way?

With respect, the Government have set out clear policies to intervene, where appropriate, to take the market position forward. Of course, a great deal of investment must be made by the private sector to take forward the extension of broadband across the UK, but the Government must also play their part. We are doing that by making it very clear indeed that we will support the development of broadband so that we have an inclusive broadband system in the UK.

How acceptable is it that a village like Hilton in my constituency, which has a population of nearly 4,000, should have a speed that is too low to enable people to carry out any normal domestic activities? Its thriving business sector also struggles with a speed that is unacceptable. Is it not correct to take a tougher regulatory line with BT?

Of course, it is not acceptable that individuals and businesses are excluded from access to broadband. It means that they cannot develop as they would like. For that reason, the Government have set out a clear policy and are determined to act to extend broadband coverage across the country.

Internet service providers will lose income from people who are cut off as a result of allegations of illicit file-sharing, yet the figures used by my hon. Friend’s Department to assess the scale of internet piracy are provided by the music industry and are based on a poor sample—fewer than 200—and have been soundly ridiculed by the BBC. Will he give me a guarantee that he will review those figures?

It is extremely important that we recognise the huge impact that illegal file-sharing is having on creative industries, such as the music and film industries, in which we excel in the UK. Any suggestion of removing access from individuals would be very much a last resort, but there is a real issue that we need to confront and deal with, and we shall look closely at the available solutions.

Will the Minister accept that the way we shall get the private sector to create a really competitive market in the roll-out of broadband is by allowing different digital platforms access to content, particularly of BSkyB’s premium programmes? What is he doing to make sure that Ofcom creates that wide competitive programme, rather than simply giving in to Murdoch?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that Labour Members never like giving in to Murdoch and we are, therefore, very keen indeed to create and take forward a competitive business model. We are not in anyone’s pocket. We want to create a level playing field in the UK and we shall work with business to achieve it.

Business Investment (Yorkshire)

My Department is taking a number of steps to support businesses and promote investment across the regions, including schemes such as grants for business investment, the enterprise finance guarantee and support for collaborative research and development projects. In addition, BIS supports the regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward, which has spent more than £200 million supporting businesses in the last two years.

York is performing better than many other cities in the economic downturn. We have a lot of vigorous private sector businesses, but they need help not just with investment, but with exports and in building up their skills base through training. To what extent is Yorkshire Forward focusing on those needs?

My hon. Friend is quite right to point out the local situation in York. He has been very involved in ensuring that there is help for businesses. In fact, Yorkshire Forward supported 17 companies in York during the first two quarters of this year as part of its targeted export support services and, through the Train to Gain enhancement fund, it has supported 32 York businesses. That is a good track record for the RDA in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Can the Minister explain why small businesses in York and north Yorkshire say that they cannot have access to credit and finance from the Government and from the finance credit guarantee to which she referred? What are the Government doing to make that finance and credit available?

Through Yorkshire Forward, we have established Business Link as the first port of call for businesses to get advice, often, for example, on how to have a free financial health check. That has enabled them to put a case together and access the enterprise finance guarantee and other initiatives. I have to say to the hon. Lady that her party voted against all help in such circumstances—

May I tell the Minister that yesterday I was at the launch in Leeds of two research papers commissioned by The Northern Way, highlighting the significant role that all three RDAs—Yorkshire Forward, Northwest RDA and OneNortheast—are playing in supporting local businesses in their regions? Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to strengthen the links between the three RDAs if we are to continue to accelerate economic development in the regions and attract skilled workers?

My hon. Friend is quite right to point to the work that has been done across the northern regions. The work of The Northern Way has focused very much on what needs to be done during the economic downturn and in planning for the recovery. The work of the RDAs has been absolutely crucial during this time, and the Conservative party has sent out very conflicting messages about the future—

Is it true that the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) who just asked the right hon. Lady that question is her deputy Regional Minister? If it is true, how can it happen?

Because my hon. Friend is doing a great job in ensuring that we work closely with business organisations, the regional development agency and local authorities in Yorkshire and the Humber, to ensure that real help is made available to those businesses and individuals and that we are planning properly for the recovery. The Conservative party voted against all those measures and has no answers for the future in Yorkshire and the Humber.

Order. I want to make great progress in getting down the Order Paper. At the moment, questions and answers are too long, and they need to be shorter.

Minimum Wage (Tips)

4. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of measures to prevent tips being counted towards salaries in calculation of the national minimum wage. (299493)

Measures to prevent tips from being counted towards salaries in calculating the minimum wage were introduced by the Government on 1 October this year. The public do not expect the tips that they leave for staff to be used to make up the minimum wage, and the change that we have introduced brings clarity for customers, staff and employers. We will ask the Low Pay Commission to review the measure next year, as part of its annual reporting process.

In constituencies such as Cleethorpes, where many people work in the hospitality industry, this move has been widely welcomed, but can my right hon. Friend tell me whether there is still a difference if people tip via cash or credit or debit card? With one of those methods, the money used to go to staff, and with the other, it did not. Will he clarify the position?

Yes, I am very happy to clarify that. My hon. Friend is right that, in the past, the law treated tips differently depending on whether they were left by cash or by credit card. The change that we have made clarifies the position and makes it clear that all tips and gratuities, whether left by cash or by credit card, can no longer be used to make up the minimum wage. That is right; it is an important measure of justice for service workers; and it is entirely in line with the public’s expectations.

Apprenticeships

5. How many young people started an apprenticeship in (a) Shipley constituency and (b) England in the latest period for which figures are available. (299494)

Some 220 young people aged 16 to 18 started apprenticeships in Shipley in 2007-08, and 107,600 did so in England. The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill will ensure that all young people receive objective and comprehensive advice about their options at the age of 16 and that an apprenticeship place is available for all suitably qualified young people by 2013.

I thank the Minister for those figures, but will he break them down further and explain how many of them were real, traditional apprenticeships, as most people in this country would understand them, and how many of them were other forms of training that the Government call apprenticeships for reasons of political spin?

The hon. Gentleman’s attitude is rather disappointing and rather out of date. More than 180 apprenticeship frameworks, across all sorts of careers, are available now in the UK since the Government rescued apprenticeships from the oblivion that they were heading towards under the Conservative party.

Does my hon. Friend agree that Shipley and England in general can learn from best practice on apprenticeships from across the UK, including Wales and, in my constituency, Rhyl college, which has had a £4 million extension to increase the number of apprenticeships? Will he join me in congratulating Rhyl college, which has been a finalist for a beacon award in open access?

I have always considered Rhyl a beacon for other towns across the UK, and I join my hon. Friend in congratulating his local college on its achievement.

If the Minister is so keen on apprenticeships, will he explain to the House why, in the leaked document that I have before me, he proposes cuts to the funding of apprenticeships, and why he is doing so little to help apprentices who are losing their jobs during the recession? Why does he not adopt our policy of a clearing house to help apprentices who lose their jobs to find new employers? If he will not do that, why does he not ask Lord Sugar to take that on? That might be a better use of Lord Sugar’s time than denouncing Britain’s hard-working small businesses, which is all that he seems to do at the moment. Or is it a case of “Lord Sugar, you’re fired”?

The hon. Gentleman raises a number of issues. Of course, the so-called secret document to which he refers confirmed savings announced in the Budget. It just goes to show that if one wants to keep something secret, one should announce it in the House of Commons. Those figures were no secret to anybody in the further education sector. It was not a secret document, and of course it did not propose a cut in apprenticeship numbers. We are confident that we can maintain the numbers by reducing unit cost. I thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome greater efficiency.

Employees’ Rights

6. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that employees’ rights are adhered to in the workplace; and if he will make a statement. (299495)

Last year, the Government launched a £6 million, three-year information campaign to make sure that vulnerable workers are aware of their rights and of how to report abuses. As part of our efforts, we recently launched the pay and work rights helpline on 0800 917 2368. It combines the functions of five previous helplines, making it easier for vulnerable workers to report bad treatment at work. Today, we are also announcing specific plans to ban up-front fees in the modelling and entertainment industry, to stop agencies trying to exploit young people who are trying to break into those industries.

I welcome that response, but may I remind my right hon. Friend of his words in July? He told the BBC:

“We know that there will be a minority of employers out there who will try to get around the law and perhaps that temptation increases in a recession, but we are determined that the recession must not be an excuse for people to be denied their basic employment rights.”

Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree with the 156 people who have signed early-day motion 2099, and will he implement the agency workers directive now?

It is perfectly normal for member states to be given three years to implement such directives. We will legislate to implement the directive in the coming months, but I have to tell my hon. Friend that if the Opposition had their way, the issue would not be whether the measure was implemented next year or the year after that, but whether it was implemented at all. The Leader of the Opposition said last week—

Order. The Minister’s responsibility is to answer questions appertaining to the policy of the Government, not the Opposition.

Will the Minister confirm that the helpline number that he has given to the House is available to hon. Members’ staff who are threatened with redundancy by the recommendations of Sir Christopher Kelly?

The helpline is open to all. It will, of course, be up to the enforcement agency to decide whether to take up cases referred to it.

EU Agency Workers Directive

8. What plans he has for implementation of the EU agency workers directive; and if he will make a statement. (299497)

The Government are committed to getting the legislation on to the statute book by the end of this Parliament; my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirmed that in his recent speech to the TUC. Last month, we published draft regulations that are scheduled to come into force in 2011.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether he has received any representations from those who would seek to ensure that the directive does not apply to the United Kingdom? Did they make those representations to him because they want to attack vulnerable workers, or is it, for them, merely another promise on Europe to be broken?

If you will permit me, Mr. Speaker, I will answer the question. Yes, we have heard calls for social and employment legislation to be repatriated, and for us not to go ahead with the legislation. I do not know where the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) stands on the issue, but I do not believe that that would be in the interests of the country, when agreements have already been reached in Europe, or in the interests of agency workers, for whom we want to ensure justice, through the implementation, on a proper time scale, of the legislation.

Conservatives did, indeed, campaign for a delay to the agency workers directive’s implementation until November 2011, and business was very relieved when the Government conceded to that delay. But, given the regulations’ complexity, why are the Government now pandering to trade union demands to push the measures through before the general election?

It is perfectly normal for legislation to be passed by this House and then for a period to elapse before its implementation. There is nothing unusual about that, and there is no undue delay to the matter. When such directives are agreed in Europe, it is perfectly normal for member states to be given up to three years to implement them. We have stuck by what we said we would do on the legislation, which is to legislate in the coming months and to have an implementation time scale on the basis that we have set out.

Small and Medium-sized Businesses

9. What progress he has made on ensuring increased access to finance for small and medium-sized businesses. (299498)

A number of targeted interventions are working to ensure access to finance for small and medium-sized businesses. They include the enterprise finance guarantee, whereby 6,240 businesses have been offered loans totalling £630 million to date, and the capital for enterprise fund, whereby £60 million has been offered to 40 businesses.

Picking up the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) made, I wonder whether the Minister agrees with her new noble Friend Lord Sugar, the Prime Minister’s enterprise tsar, who said that those small businesses that are trying to seek credit are merely moaners and living in Disneyland.

That is not my understanding of what Lord Sugar said. However, there has been very good progress in terms of the enterprise finance guarantee, and, as I said, about £630 million has been offered to small and medium-sized enterprises. The hon. Gentleman needs to understand that his party totally opposed those facilities, and that, working with regional development agencies and local authorities, we have not only got real help out there to businesses during these difficult economic times, but set out a very clear plan for the recovery regionally, locally and nationally.

Will my right hon. Friend look at access to finance for research and development in manufacturing and, in particular, the position in Coventry, where Ericsson is sacking 700 skilled workers because it cannot access R and D money owing to its status as a cost centre, and not a profit centre? That seems a big restriction.

I will certainly take up with the regional development agency the issues that my hon. Friend raises, because finance is available to undertake research and development. Obviously, we regret Ericsson’s announcement. It will remain a large investor, so it is not leaving the UK entirely, but I understand the feeling that it will be a great loss to the west midlands.

Access to, and the cost of, bank credit remains a critical issue for many small and medium-sized businesses. However, the financial crisis has equally shown the need for better access to equity finance. In that regard, does the Minister agree that to address the equity gap we need to put in place mechanisms, including local enterprise funds and even regional stock exchanges, such as the very successful Investbx? How are the Government going to achieve that?

Certainly, the recently launched innovation funds will be extremely helpful in that regard. The hon. Gentleman may also be aware of a number of regional development agencies that are considering using European regional development fund money in order to look at venture capital funds and ensure that there is capital for the future.

Grocery Supply Ombudsman

10. What recent representations he has received on the Competition Commission’s proposals for a grocery supply ombudsman. (299499)

We have received a number of oral and written representations from interested parties, expressing a range of views on the Competition Commission’s proposal for a grocery supply code of practice ombudsman. Those views, together with the commission’s careful analysis, will be taken into account when we reach our decision shortly.

After 10 years of inquiries, the Competition Commission’s recommendation clearly identified that supermarkets transfer excessive risk and unexpected costs, to the detriment of both suppliers and consumers. Surely for the Government this is more of a Kelly inquiry moment than a Professor Nutt moment. Are there any circumstances in which the Government have ever refused to accept the clear recommendations of the Competition Commission in this way?

As I discussed with the hon. Gentleman just last week when he came to meet me about this subject, Parliament ultimately intends Ministers to take decisions. That is why the power rests with Ministers, and I think he would be the first to criticise me as a Minister if I simply accepted every recommendation without giving it due consideration.

It is very clear that small food producers face unfair competition with large retailers. The Competition Commission has made a recommendation. When are the Government going to make a decision and announce it?

Groceries Supplies (Code of Conduct)

12. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the grocery industry on establishing a groceries supply code of conduct. (299501)

The answer is none. The Competition Commission has powers under the Enterprise Act 2002 to put in place the revised groceries supply code of practice without involvement from Government. It laid that order on 4 August, and it will come into force on 4 February 2010.

Why is it taking so long to establish an ombudsman, and will my hon. Friend please take note of the representations that he has received today and act quickly?

I will take note of the representations from hon. Members, and in the very near future I will meet interested parties to give further consideration to the matter of the ombudsman. As I said, the code will come into force on 4 February next year.

In Desborough in my constituency, the Co-op has the only supermarket in town and it has restrictive covenants on other sites where supermarkets might locate. Those covenants are effectively acting as a brake on the economic redevelopment of the town. What will the Government do to ensure that they do not act as a brake on economic growth?

That is a separate matter for the Competition Commission, which is considering whether changes are necessary in planning requirements to do with competition. Again, the Government will respond shortly on that matter.

Labour Force Re-skilling

13. What expenditure his Department has incurred on labour force re-skilling initiatives in the last 12 months. (299502)

In 2008-09, investment in work-based learning through Train to Gain and apprenticeships was £1.2 billion. The Department has also focused the total adult skills budget towards skills and qualifications that support progression into and within sustainable employment, as set out in the November 2008 investment strategy.

Following on from the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), may I ask the Minister what discussions he has had with Tata and Ericsson about the Ansty technology park in Coventry? As my hon. Friend indicated, 700 jobs are going to be cut there arbitrarily, and the potential creation of 2,000 jobs has been stopped. What discussions have taken place with both companies?

I understand that the Secretary of State has already been in discussion with the companies about that. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination said earlier, the Government regret Ericsson’s announcement. It will remain a large investor in the UK, but nevertheless the jobs involved are highly skilled and will be a great loss in the west midlands, so we are currently in discussions with the company to see what the Government could do to try to alter its decision.

According to the recent CBI report on skills funding, this year the Government’s Train to Gain programme will fund eight times more courses at level 2 and below than at level 3, with funding often just going to badge up existing skills. Does the Minister think that that lack of focus on technical skills is why four in 10 businesses say that Train to Gain adds nothing to their organisation?

As I said earlier, Mr. Speaker, if you want to keep something a secret, announce it in the House of Commons. The hon. Gentleman may not have noticed, but yesterday we launched a White Paper setting out our policies in this regard, including creating an extra 35,000 apprenticeships at level 3 to raise the level of skills and deal with the problem of what is sometimes called “assess assess.”

Free Trade Agreement (Colombia)

14. What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on a mandate for the European Commission to negotiate a free trade agreement with Colombia. (299503)

Order. I think I am right in saying that Question 15 has been withdrawn—the grouping is with Question 16.

16. What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on a mandate for the European Commission to negotiate a free trade agreement with Colombia. (299505)

Negotiations between the European Union and the Community of Andean Nations were launched in 2007. The mandate was last revised in December 2008 when, because the Andean nations could not agree a common position—[Interruption.]

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister. There are far too many rather noisy private conversations taking place. It is pretty rude and I am sorry to say that it includes those on the Front Bench, and that must stop.

The mandate was last revised in 2008 when, because the Andean nations could not agree a common position, Colombia and Peru asked the European Commission to negotiate a multi-party trade agreement with interested Andean countries. Ecuador remains an observer.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but will he recognise that this House has a strong and proud tradition of supporting free trade union movements, especially when it is called Solidarity? Will he impress upon his European Union counterparts that we cannot enter into a free trade agreement with any country that does not allow free trade union movements?

Of course, free trade unions are a fundamental tenet of any civilised society. That is why we have successfully pressed the European Commission to include a human rights clause in the agreement with Colombia and Peru, which, if breached, would enable the agreement to be suspended.

Small and Medium-Sized Businesses

17. What recent progress his Department has made in assisting small and medium-sized businesses to secure finance. (299506)

A number of interventions are working to help access to finance for small and medium-sized businesses. These include the enterprise finance guarantee, by which some 6,200 businesses have been offered loans totalling £630 million to date, and the capital for enterprise fund, by which £60 million has been offered to 40 businesses.

I have to beg to disagree with the Minister. Many companies in my constituency and the most recent credit crunch survey by the Federation of Small Businesses have confirmed that in too many cases, the cost of credit is actually increasing, whatever the Government say. What are they going to do about that? Which of the Minister’s schemes is actually going to ensure that the cost of credit is affordable, because the EFG is failing in that, and credit is terribly important to small business?

I absolutely accept that access to finance and credit is critical to small businesses. That is why we have acted on this. In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, which he mentioned, 11 loans have been offered to businesses through that scheme. That is just one part of the country—as I said, the total is 6,000 overall. The issue he raises is vital, which is why we have launched those schemes. The enterprise finance guarantee is having an effect, but we must also remember that most businesses will get credit through conventional bank loans. The Government scheme has never intended to replace conventional bank lending, but to be an additional fund where we will share more of the risk in a particular group of cases.

One of the best ways of improving access to finance for small and medium-sized enterprises is to look at the poor cash flows that they are having to endure because larger firms further up the chain are exploiting their vulnerability. What does the Minister intend to do to improve that parlous position?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. That is one reason why the Government have tried to be a better customer and to pay more of our invoices within 10 days, rather than 30 days, as was the case previously. I am glad to say that most Departments have stepped up to the plate on that issue, including the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—more than 90 per cent. of my Department’s invoices are met within that 10-day period. In addition, we have launched a prompt payment code with larger businesses. It is also important that they are a good customer to the many small and medium-sized businesses that depend on their business.

The Minister must be aware that August was the seventh consecutive month in which the net flow of finance to business fell, and that the figures for the third quarter of this year are the worst on record for the fall in lending to business. Will he not acknowledge that the Government’s efforts to tackle this problem of credit for business over the last nine months—the worst of the credit crunch—have failed, and that they would have been much better advised to take up our suggestion of a large across-the-board loan guarantee scheme, which might have saved quite a number of our struggling businesses?

I certainly do not accept that the Government’s efforts to promote credit and help small businesses get access to credit have failed. As I said, our scheme is working. Some 6,000 businesses have benefited, and hundreds of millions of pounds have been lent. We have also reached agreement with the banks in which we have stakes in order to ensure that they keep lending. Another factor is the fall in demand for lending that is experienced during a recession as businesses face difficulties. The right hon. and learned Gentleman’s comments today are in contrast to those he made to the Press Gallery, where he said that our Secretary of State was one of the few Ministers who had workable policies, some of which he wanted to borrow.

NEETs

18. How many people under the age of 24 were not in education, employment or training on the most recent date for which figures are available. (299507)

In the second quarter of 2009, there were 959,000 people not in education, employment or training aged 16 to 24. This includes young mothers with children, those who are seriously ill or have profound disabilities, and young people who have a course or job that has not yet started, including those on a gap year.

Those are absolutely terrible figures and much higher than one would have expected, especially as so much taxpayers’ money has been focused on getting young people into education, employment or training. May I suggest to the Minister that those young people who are fit and well and not included in those three sectors should be encouraged—in fact, made—to work for the local community on worthwhile projects? Our towns and cities are filthy: it is about time that everybody in the local community helped to put that sort of thing right.

I remember being unemployed in 1982 under a previous Government when I left university, and I can tell the hon. Lady that there are now far more opportunities provided by the Government for young people who are out of work than there ever were at that time. The Conservatives have refused to commit to the education maintenance allowance or to match our commitments to job training and places, so those are hollow words from the hon. Lady.

Would my hon. Friend agree that the best that we can do in this situation is to carry on working for these young people and continue the Government initiatives? We should not listen to the Opposition who have nothing but crocodile tears to offer this country.

Small Businesses

19. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s enterprise champion in contributing to the Government’s policy on small businesses. (299508)

Would the Minister recommend to the Secretary of State that he sits Lord Sugar down in a room, looks at him mournfully, stabs his finger at him a couple of times and says, “You’re fired”?

I have many interesting discussions with the Secretary of State, but I certainly would not give him that advice.

Royal Mail

We want to see an efficient and modern Royal Mail and have made £1.2 billion available in financing to enable Royal Mail to implement its transformation plans. We welcome the agreement reached last week between Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union, which has resulted in a period of calm to enable negotiations on taking forward the modernisation plan. The critical challenge, of course, for Royal Mail is to modernise in the face of technological change and the growth of alternative means of communication, such as e-mail, texting and broadband internet.

Does the Minister share the dismay of the British people at how Royal Mail—a great British institution—has been downgraded under this Government? Will he ensure not only that the current truce continues until Christmas, but that the Government take positive action to ensure that once again Royal Mail becomes a flagship institution in our country?

We have certainly not downgraded Royal Mail. We have backed it to the hilt financially. The £1.2 billion that I referred to comes on top of £1.7 billion to support the post office network and on top of more money earlier in this Government to support Royal Mail. Our commitment is not open to question. The issue is transformation in the face of the technological change that affects the lives of each and every one of our constituents, and that is Royal Mail’s task. That is why it is so important to get an agreement that is not only signed up to, but properly implemented to ensure the health of this critical British service.

Topical Questions

Our Department is focused on working with business to help Britain through difficult economic times, to try to ensure that Britain is as well placed as possible for economic recovery, when it comes, and to equip people for the jobs of the future. In recent weeks, we have had a particular focus on the latter point with the publication of the higher education framework and yesterday’s skills White Paper.

When will my right hon. Friend respond to the fatal accident inquiry by Sheriff Mackie in our sheriff court? Furthermore, what action does he intend to take to prevent further child deaths from strangulation by loop blind cords?

In July, officials met representatives of the British Blind and Shutter Association, when the industry’s “Make it Safe” initiative on how to reduce the risk from loop blind cords and chains was discussed. The Department and the industry have agreed a plan to make their guidance available to the widest possible audience, which would include working with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents to address the important and serious issue that my hon. Friend raised.

At a time when 51 companies are going bust every day in this country, and when, as we said a few moments ago, the credit position for small businesses is very difficult, does the Minister agree with Lord Sugar, the small business tsar, that struggling small business men are moaners and living in Disneyland, which he undoubtedly said? Is it not time for the Department’s senior Minister in the House of Commons to apologise on behalf of the Government for what was said? Otherwise, it will appear that they are indifferent to, and out of tune with, the problems of entrepreneurs up and down the country who are trying to save their businesses and other people’s jobs.

I reject entirely the charge that the Government are indifferent to the difficulties faced by small businesses. We know that small businesses are vital to creativity in the country and to employment, and we appreciate the passion and commitment that it takes for people to start and grow a small business. That is why the Government have backed small businesses, why we shall continue to do so and why we are working with them to help them through difficult economic times. We know that the economic recovery is based on their health and strength in the future.

T2. Despite the UK blocking websites that deal in images of child abuse, recent court cases have shown that abusers are still distributing such material using private, peer-to-peer file sharing. Will the Minister assure me that the Government are aware of the need for an action plan to combat this foul trade and will use a digital economy Bill in the Queen’s Speech to curb that practice? (299517)

My hon. Friend raises a serious and grave issue. It is my understanding that the type of foul behaviour to which he referred is unlawful under current legislation and that action is being taken under it to counter that behaviour. The digital economy Bill will address issues relating to the infringement of copyright.

T3. The beer tie is valuable and necessary in respect of small and family breweries, but damaging and unnecessary in respect of pub companies and larger breweries. Will the Minister ask the Office of Fair Trading to make a referral to the Competition Commission setting the bar far higher than in previous cases? (299518)

The OFT has made a decision on the super-complaint made by the Campaign for Real Ale about that issue. We are studying carefully the detail of the findings and are quite encouraged by some of the industry activity over the summer following the Business and Enterprise Committee’s report on the matter. It is too early to decide whether the Government should intervene, but we are encouraging parties to work closely together and to deliver on their commitments. We will be monitoring the situation closely.

T4. Will the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to help people who get into debt through overspending on credit and store cards? Will he also congratulate citizens advice bureaux and the Consumer Credit Counselling Service on the work that they do to help individuals who run into such problems? (299519)

Yes, I will congratulate them, as well as my right hon. Friend on the work that he has done with Citizens Advice and the voluntary sector over the years. We recently announced our consultation on changes in relation to credit cards, which opened on 27 October 2009 and will close on 19 January next year. The consultation is looking at how repayments are allocated to balances, whether mandatory higher minimum payments should be set, whether there should be a limit on unsolicited limit increases and whether re-pricing of existing debt should be banned or restricted. The consultation has been widely welcomed.

T6. May I ask the Minister for further education about the National Star college, which he will know is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and on whose behalf he has been campaigning assiduously? The college has a national remit to help young disabled people, but its capital programme was not funded. It recognises the tough economic climate that we are in and has made proposals to the Minister to reduce the amount of public funding that it needs. What can he say to the House today to demonstrate that the Government are truly committed to helping young disabled people across the country? (299523)

The Government are committed to helping disabled people, and have done more than any previous Government on that matter. I met the principal of the National Star college earlier this year and undertook to look further into the possible funding of its capital programme. The Learning and Skills Council is working with colleges on the next stage of the capital programme, but at this point that is all that I can say on the matter.

T5. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the South Yorkshire Investment Fund, under the leadership of chief executive Mr. Tony Goulbourn, on investing in some 469 South Yorkshire businesses over the past few years? Does he agree that the fund is making a big difference in promoting entrepreneurship in South Yorkshire? (299522)

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. It sounds like the fund is doing a very good job, serving as another example of how we can get finance to small businesses during difficult economic times and help them to make the investments that are so vital for our economic future.

Following on from the earlier exchanges on fair access to higher and tertiary education, do the Government accept that the cause of fairer access was hardly helped this autumn by the difficulties that the Student Loans Company ran into? Members from all parties in the House have been pressing for a proper inquiry arising therefrom. Can the Minister say what steps will be taken to ensure that students do not encounter the monumental backlogs that were experienced in England particularly, but which had knock-on effects elsewhere, not least in Scotland?

Well, for reasons known only to him, the right hon. Gentleman will have missed the fact that there is indeed an inquiry, which is being led by Sir Deian Hopkin, the former vice-chancellor of South Bank university. I have said that I am sorry for what has happened, and so has the chief executive of the Student Loans Company. We did that in the House a few weeks ago, so I hope that the right hon. Gentleman can have a look at Hansard.

May I put on record the fact that I concur with the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on the National Star college? May I also reinforce the point made earlier in Business, Innovation and Skills questions, in the exchange on the statutory code of practice for the grocery trade, about how important it is that the code should be reinforced by the introduction of an ombudsman? I hope that the Government will take that decision as a matter of urgency.

The establishment of an ombudsman raises a number of complex issues. Obviously we will weigh up a number of factors—including possible costs or savings being passed on to consumers, the potential for a better deal for suppliers and the regulatory burdens on business—before we take our final decision.

Students in my constituency are concerned by both the scope and the format of the fees review that was announced this week. Can the Minister tell me what steps he is taking both to ensure that the student voice will be properly heard and to assure students and parents in my constituency that the review is not simply an exercise for putting up student fees?

I can indeed assure the hon. Gentleman, because he will have seen that one of the seven panel members is a former chair of the British Youth Council. Let me also assure his constituents that the Government are committed to a 50 per cent. participation rate and refer them to the statements of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable). We believe that the issue is important and should not be downgraded in any manifesto, so let me also refer the hon. Gentleman’s constituents to the statements made by his leader.

I have just come from a meeting with a group of former employees of a company called Dot2Dot, which ran a shuttle service between Heathrow and the local hotels. The company was sold by National Express Group and it has been passed through a series of owners. Its employees are not being paid their redundancy and holiday pay, or getting their legal entitlements. Will the Minister agree to meet me and other Members who represent former Dot2Dot employees, to ensure that they get their rights?

I will happily accede to my hon. Friend’s request for a meeting. As I have said—I was quoted earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller)—we do not want to see the recession and these difficult economic times used as an excuse to deny people the employment rights to which they are entitled. I will happily meet my hon. Friend to discuss this issue.

In the coming weeks, many of my constituents will be using mail order companies and the internet to buy Christmas presents that are not locally obtainable in the isles. They will find, however, that mail order companies will either not deliver to island communities or do so only at an exceptionally high surcharge. Will the Government take this problem seriously, and take action to ensure that there is a meaningful universal service for parcels, which we do not have at the moment?

Competition in the parcels industry has been far more developed than in the letters business for many years. This is a competitive market, and there is a lot of competition within it. My regret is that, in this area of future growth for Royal Mail—probably in contrast to the letters business—the recent industrial disputes could drive customers away from Royal Mail. It would be a great shame if that happened. I hope to see Royal Mail compete in this market, because it is genuinely the future growth area for mail.

Has the Minister heard the same representations that I have heard concerning companies that believe that European regulatory steps could impede their ability to hedge on their currency—a vital activity for export-oriented businesses? South Derbyshire is dominated by just those kinds of companies.

I have not received specific representations on that issue. However, if my hon. Friend wishes to speak to me about it further, I will happily look into it for him.

May I raise with the Minister the subject of further education and the National Star college? The college provides some of the finest residential training anywhere in the world, and it has worked extremely hard to raise £2 million of its own money, which will be in jeopardy if it cannot access funding from the Government. It has also worked very hard at the Minister’s behest to take 15 per cent. off the cost of the project. Will he redouble his efforts to see whether he can find that funding?

I am happy to join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the work of the National Star college, and I undertake to carry on my efforts to look into this matter. This particular proposal is part of the huge investment in further education that has covered more than 700 projects in 330 colleges in the past few years, at a cost of £2.7 billion.

When will the Minister’s Department own up to its responsibilities in relation to people with pleural plaques who have been denied compensation? Will he agree to work with other Ministers and Members of the House to ensure that we repeal the Law Lords’ decision of two years ago and give those people the money that they are entitled to?

I understand the strength of feeling in the House on this issue, but I believe that the Ministry of Justice is the lead Department on this matter.

What assistance can the Government’s enterprise champion offer to people starting up new businesses, such as my constituent, Pam Randall, who has been told that she might have to wait up to nine months to register for VAT? Will the Minister have a discussion with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, to try to make HMRC more businesslike?

We of course want to do everything we can to help people to start up businesses, and it is important to encourage young people into enterprise. We try to do that through a number of means, and we want the process to be quick and easy in this country, so that entrepreneurship can flourish and grow.

First Capital Connect

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister of State, Department for Transport if he will make a statement on the deterioration in passenger services on the First Capital Connect route, including the route that passes through St. Albans into London.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to ask this urgent question, particularly on behalf of passengers in my constituency who have had an absolutely miserable journey to work this morning.

The action by drivers on First Capital Connect appears to be co-ordinated, and given that talks are continuing, it is highly regrettable. Passengers are being seriously inconvenienced and we urge all parties to resolve this unacceptable situation as soon as possible. Concerted action to stop trains running is irresponsible, but train companies need to ensure that their staffing arrangements are robust, so that they cannot be held to ransom in this way. The franchise agreement with First Capital Connect requires the company to use reasonable endeavours to run a full service. We are reviewing the position on a daily basis, but the disruption should be halted immediately by an end to the current concerted action.

I thank the Minister for that answer; I noticed his reference to “robust” arrangements. Will he tell me whether First Capital Connect is in breach of its franchise by introducing today a new timetable with a 50 per cent. reduction in services? Was he aware that First Capital Connect was planning to introduce that new 50 per cent. timetable, which is causing absolute chaos? What engagement has he had with First Capital Connect in the lead-up to its introduction? For the sake of my constituents and other commuters, will he step in and meet First Capital Connect to bring this matter to a closure as a matter of urgency?

As I said in my response to the hon. Lady’s urgent question, the franchise agreement with First Capital Connect requires the company to use reasonable endeavours to run a full service. As I said, we are monitoring that situation daily. The change to the timetable requires agreement, which has been given on a day-by-day basis. First Capital Connect is being asked to justify the level of reduction in service that it is asking for in that reduced timetable on a day-by-day basis. I can assure the hon. Lady that officials from the Department for Transport have engaged with First Capital Connect on a regular basis, and the Secretary of State met the managing director this morning.

As well as today’s massive disruption to Thameslink services, the same concerted action by drivers caused all First Capital Connect’s Great Northern line services to be cancelled on Sunday. Does the Minister share my anger that drivers chose to disrupt services on a day when many, including my own constituents, would have wished to use the train to attend Remembrance day events? Does he agree that it is really not credible that the unions are not tacitly giving encouragement to drivers who are causing this disruption, and that they are acting in a deeply irresponsible way in using passenger misery as a bargaining chip in pay negotiations?

In the dying days of the last Labour Government, the unions brought this country to a halt. With more strike threats looming as the rain falls down on stranded passengers standing on grossly overcrowded platforms waiting for cancelled trains, what is the Minister doing to stand up to the unions and stop them winding back the clock to the 1970s and bringing our railways to a grinding halt?

It was, of course, deeply regrettable that services were disrupted on Sunday when, as we know, a number of people wanted to travel in order to pay their respects on Remembrance day. I have to say that the questions raised by the hon. Lady are essentially matters for the company. We have a franchise system in which we place trust in the companies to deliver the service that we franchise to them. It is for them to get on with the discussions and negotiations with their employees to ensure that this matter is resolved as rapidly as possible.

The Minister will share my dismay at the grotesque disruption caused to passengers from Brighton to Bedford and elsewhere on the network. The Secretary of State took strong action against London Midland in relation to events that occurred in September, and I welcomed the written statement about that. Can the Minister tell us what action, if any, he intends to take against First Capital Connect, and if the answer is “None”, will he tell us what is the difference between those two events?

Will the Minister provide Members with an analysis by the train operating company showing what percentage of train services depend on voluntary shift working, which has been the cause of massive disruption and cancellations today? Is it not rather worrying that so many trains are dependent on that? Will he also urge the rail union ASLEF to call off the threat of a strike on which it is to hold a ballot whose result will be known on 9 December? Will he suggest that both sides sit down with ACAS, and with the Department for Transport if appropriate? If, as he suggested at the beginning of his statement, industrial action is indeed co-ordinated—I think that that was the word he used—by the rail union ASLEF, is that legal without a ballot?

I asserted in my statement that the action appeared to be co-ordinated by employees, and I will not go beyond that assertion today.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the position on the use of voluntary and shift working was the same as that in other train companies. We are currently trying to determine the extent to which that arrangement is a problem, but it is clear that it is not universal, although it has been inherited by some franchises from former British Rail regions. We will continue to monitor the situation closely in order to be able to answer some of the questions that the hon. Gentleman has posed.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever the merits of a dispute and whatever the issues involved—including the issue, which has been raised today, of whether a company should rely on overtime to run basic services—punishing the passengers is never the answer, and is never acceptable? Will he make it clear that the Government will consider the wider issues involving how the company operates, and how the union is dealing with these matters?

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government’s clear view is that it is not appropriate to disadvantage passengers in that way, whatever the merits of any disagreement between any group of employees and the management. I also assure him that we will continue to look into the degree to which the company was prepared for this situation, and will consider whether that suggests that it needs to take further action to prevent such events from happening again.

The Minister will appreciate that my constituents, who use the neighbouring line run by First Capital Connect running to King’s Lynn and Peterborough, will want to know whether there is a risk of the action spreading. We have had Great Northern and we have had Thameslink. Does the Minister feel that he can reassure my constituents that there will not be a rolling series of disputes that goes on and on and damages my constituents as well?

As has been made clear, the action is currently unofficial, and we have no intelligence that suggests that it is likely to spread.

As a daily user of First Capital Connect services, I have a personal interest in the situation—particularly today, because train cancellations caused me to miss Question Time. Last year First Capital Connect was given the Evening Standard award for the company that combined the worst service with the biggest profits. May I ask my hon. Friend to intervene with the company, and suggest that it solve the problem by spending more of its profits on drivers?

The question of remuneration is obviously part of the package that the management need to consider in their relationships with their employees. It must be said that before the start of this series of incidents the actual performance on the line had improved significantly, and was relatively good.

My constituents endured similar problems with London Midland earlier in the year. Does the Minister not agree that at the heart of the problem is the fact that railway companies are relying on drivers with shift patterns involving four-day weeks? Will he ensure that when he awards franchise agreements in future, the staffing arrangements are robust and do not rely on goodwill and overtime for the provision of a proper seven-days-a-week service?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. One of the challenges for us in the management of franchises is that the starting arrangements can be one thing, but arrangements can change over time. We will need to consider that in the letting of future franchises, and ensure that arrangements that companies put forward as robust, and able to deliver what they commit to in the franchise, remain so.

Does my hon. Friend share the bemusement of commuters from my constituency who use Mill Hill and Hendon stations at the fact that their daily travel to work can be disrupted because of a shift pattern whereby voluntary overtime is the main way of supplying a weekday commuter service? Does he agree that that is not acceptable and has to be dealt with? Does he also agree that if industrial action has to take place, it should take place with proper notice given to employers and travellers alike, irrespective of the merits of the dispute?

My hon. Friend has gone to the heart of the question. The shift patterns are clearly a big part of the problem, but we expect the businesses to have the freedom to manage the franchises within the outputs that we expect them to deliver. Whether the shift patterns need to be changed is essentially a matter for the companies, but we will have to discuss it further with them. My hon. Friend made a point about unexpected changes to the timetable. Those are clearly more disruptive to passengers than anything else, which is why, when there needs to be a change to the timetable, we have to agree it with the company. As I said in my original answer, we intend to ensure that we get back to a full pattern of operation as soon as possible.

My constituents will be as grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) as her own will be for bringing the Minister before the House today to answer these questions. My constituents have been flooding me with e-mails complaining about not only cancellations, but short trains, overcrowding and poor communication by the company. Many of them are spending more than £3,000 a year on season tickets and they want to know whether they will get any reimbursement for the failure to deliver the services for which they have paid. They also want to know from the Minister, who says that these actions appear to be co-ordinated, whether such actions are, thus, outside the law. Does that mean that the company can take action against the unions, or do the Government propose to do so?

The right hon. Gentleman will, no doubt, already have welcomed the investment that the Government intend to make in the Thameslink service over the coming years: some £5.5 billion of investment will be made to improve trains, stations and frequency of service to meet the capacity on one of our busiest railway lines. I am sure that he will want to support that. Reimbursement is a matter for the company—as, indeed, is judging whether the co-ordinated action is anything more than just that.

I note the Minister’s strictures about drivers, but will he also bear in mind the fact that the company involved has a terrible record? Therefore, will he—or one of his ministerial colleagues—stand ready to intervene personally if it fails to get an agreement with the drivers and others in the very near future?

I thank my hon. Friend for his interest. I repeat the encouragement to all parties to seek a negotiated settlement that will allow the railway to resume its full pattern of operation as quickly as possible. On his second question, we will of course stand ready to intervene as a matter of last resort, if necessary.

The Minister says that he is going to monitor the situation. As another regular user of this line, may I assure him that he will not have to monitor it for very long to see the misery that it is causing to my constituents in Radlett, Borehamwood, Elstree and Potters Bar, who pay substantial amounts of money and feel that their interests have been completely overlooked by both the company and the union, and for whom the word “Connect” is a misnomer? Will he tell us exactly what he is going to do to bring this intolerable situation to an end?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have a privatised railway in which the franchises are let by the Government, and that within the period of the operation of the franchise we expect the companies to use their best endeavours to ensure that the service is delivered. Beyond that, it is not appropriate for us to intervene directly unless the situation gets significantly worse.

My constituents and I use both the First Capital Connect lines: the Great Northern and the Thameslink. Indeed, my constituents who were using Sandy, Biggleswade and Arlesey stations last week to go to remembrance events could not get there. As the Minister is given at least 24 hours’ notice of changes in timetables, can he tell us whether there is any suggestion that there will be further disruption on the Great Northern line? Will he ask the company whether it will extend the courtesy of saying what the timetable changes will be to Members of Parliament so that we can give some comfort to passengers, as we will know at the same time as the Minister?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive intervention. The whole purpose of the notice arrangement is to ensure that we can get that advance information to passengers when the timetable has to change for such reasons. He makes a reasonable point about alerting Members of Parliament, and we will seek to ensure that that happens.

Rail travellers from Kettering will be affected by this disruption, not least because many of the Thameslink refugees will seek to use midland main line services. Will the Ministers speak with those who run the midland main line to see how capacity and service slots might be improved to absorb this flow?

The hon. Gentleman is a tad optimistic if he thinks that franchises can turn additional capacity on and off quite as quickly as that. Perhaps he would be more prepared to welcome the announcement that I made earlier in the year that the midland main line would have some additional capacity running in from Watford to relieve congestion on some of those trains.

My constituents use those services. For the sake of balance in this debate, can the Minister tell us how many Labour MPs are sponsored by ASLEF?

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), will the Minister explain to the House how the public can feel that the Government are an honest broker between the unions and the companies in this outrageous situation, especially when I notice that in just six years there have been 81 donations by ASLEF to the Conservative party—sorry, I mean the Labour party—[Interruption.] Sadly, not to the Conservative party. They totalled £359,554.01. Is it not true that this Labour Government have been bought and paid for by the unions, are no longer honest and cannot be trusted?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Ministers in this Government take their responsibilities seriously and impartially, and would not be influenced by any such factors.

Will the Minister take a constructive initiative on this issue? East Croydon commuters cannot use their First Capital Connect tickets on Southern railways. Will he talk to First Capital Connect, if there are issues to do with compensation to Southern, so that we can find an easy way to increase capacity in that way?

As I said, we are in continuous dialogue with First Capital Connect. As I told the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), there are no easy ways to turn additional services on and off.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. So far, 53 Members of Parliament of all parties have signed early-day motion 2250, calling for Sir Ian Kennedy to carry out his duties

“in line with natural justice”,

and for our pay rates to be set independently of MPs and Government. That has been deliberately misrepresented and misreported this morning and signatories have been targeted, presumably to intimidate MPs who have the temerity to express a view contrary to the agenda of The Daily Telegraph. Is this attempt to curtail discussion and chill MPs in breach of privilege, and should I write to you accordingly?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations. I think that he knows that that is not a point of order for the Chair, but what he has said is clearly on the record. If he wishes to raise a privilege complaint, he should indeed write to me.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 2 July I wrote to the Financial Secretary on the subject of Mr. Richard Summersgill in his role as director of both the child benefit office and the tax credit office—two sites 130 miles apart. I wrote to the Financial Secretary because I found Mr. Summersgill difficult to contact. I am not aware of either an e-mail address or a telephone number through which I can contact him, although my staff have made repeated efforts to do so. I wrote to the Minister about contact in July, and at one stage got members of my staff to ring the Minister’s office daily, before I received an apology three weeks ago. I was told that this had slipped through the net, and promised that I would receive a response from HMRC the following week. Three weeks later, after months of effort, I am still none the wiser.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I fear that again it does not constitute a point of order but rather a point of legitimate and understandable frustration. The hon. Gentleman’s point essentially focuses on delay and inaccessibility, and it is a point that is often made by right hon. and hon. Members. He has underlined it very clearly, and the people about whom he is complaining will have heard what he has to say.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Happily, I am not responsible for this particular delay, but as I am in my place on the Front Bench, I promise that I will get further details from the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) and will follow his point up with the appropriate Treasury Minister.

I think that the House will agree that that is a very helpful response to the point of order.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have in my hands 30 closely typed pages of freedom of information requests going back to 2005 that have not been properly addressed by the Information Commissioner, including one from me that goes back more than one and a half years. What remedy do Members of Parliament have in this situation? Can we bring the Information Commissioner to the Bar of the House and ask him to explain these grotesque delays, which go back almost five years?

I have no responsibility for the matter. It might be a matter of considerable sadness that I have no responsibility for it, but that nevertheless is the position. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman has underlined not only a personal concern but a concern that will be more widely shared throughout the House. As an immensely assiduous and perspicacious parliamentarian, he should use all the parliamentary avenues open to him. I sense, perhaps, an application for an Adjournment debate coming on.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you confirm that it was widely anticipated that there would be a motion before the House before Prorogation to approve the appointment of Sir Ian Kennedy as the chairman of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority? The fact that that has not appeared on the Order Paper is a matter of great concern. We cannot raise it with the Leader of the House, because she has cancelled business questions for today. What can be done to ensure that that very important appointment is approved—or rather, put before Members of the House of Commons for approval—as soon as possible?

Of course we do not have business questions on a Prorogation day. The tabling of motions is a matter for the Government, not for me, and I can only say to the hon. Gentleman that anticipation is not a matter for me either.

Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), Mr. Speaker. Can I advise the House that Richard Summersgill is a serial offender? I had the same problem a couple of years ago, which was cured by my tabling a written question asking about his salary and bonuses. I got a phone call within three days.

The hon. Gentleman’s observations will have been noted by the House—and, I suspect, by the person about whom he is complaining.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I regret the need to raise yet again the issue of Armistice day yesterday. Last year, on 12 November, I raised a point of order about the failure of the House authorities to fly the flag of our country from all flagpoles on the parliamentary estate. Following my point of order last year, Speaker Martin wrote to me on 28 January saying:

“I have asked the Director General of Facilities to set out to the Administration Committee the present arrangements for flag flying and to put to the Committee proposals to extend the days on which flags are flown to include 11 November, whether or not the House is sitting.”

Yesterday, the flag was not flown. Will you, Mr. Speaker, investigate this matter and ensure that this breach of protocol does not happen again next year?

Yes, I will investigate it. When I have done so, I will get back to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that that provides him with some satisfaction.

Coroners and Justice Bill

Consideration of Lords message

Schedule 1

Duty or power to suspend or resume investigations

With this, it will be convenient to take the Government motion to agree with Lords amendment 1B.

When this matter was last before the House, there was an extensive debate about whether the Bill contained sufficient safeguards in respect of converting an inquest process, which would be open and with a jury, into an inquiry process, part of which might have to take place in secret to allow intercept evidence to be used. There has been a lengthy debate while the matter has gone through the House, but the Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor knows that there was widespread unease about the provisions, and the vote that was eventually held was extremely close.

At the outset, I want to say that I am grateful that the Secretary of State took on board the concerns that were being expressed. When the matter went back to the other place, he tabled an amendment that, although far from perfect, went a long way towards solving the problem that was causing concern. The amendment proposed that the Lord Chief Justice must indicate to the Lord Chancellor his approval for moving to an inquiry following the appointment of the judge who is to carry it out. My noble Friends in the other place took the view that the correct position was to abstain on the subsequent vote.

I shall outline the potential problems with that amendment. First, as the Secretary of State knows, the view that I have expressed consistently and which I have discussed with him is that, in an ideal world, it would be better if the process by which one moved from an inquest to an inquiry were subject to full judicial scrutiny. In addition, I believe that the Secretary of State should have to apply to the court for approval, as that would allow full scrutiny to take place. That has not happened, but I do not think that there is much point in going over old ground as to why. I spent part of yesterday evening looking for a way to get around the problem, such as tabling a provision that would enable a full application process to take place, but the advice that I received was that that would be impossible at this late stage of the Bill.

The hon. and learned Gentleman has come up with an interesting formulation, but does he agree that there are no safeguards on the face of the Bill? Last time, the debate was focused almost entirely on the question of intercept. Would it not have been better to include a provision in the Bill that secret inquiries could be held only when intercept was the only matter at issue?

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful and important point. Given the problems, it could be that intercept might be the only possible trigger for such an inquiry, but I take his point. When I look back on the Bill’s passage through the House, there have been difficulties in focusing on the key ways to resolve this issue. As I have told the Secretary of State, I have always had some sympathy for the Government’s difficulty in this regard. We have at times been in danger of saying that we will never have anything other than an open inquest, but that would be to miss the Government’s difficulty, especially in light of the Chilcot report

The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has raised a good point, but the beauty of the amendment that we are considering is that the Lord Chief Justice would be in a position to say that he would accept a transfer only when intercept evidence was involved.

The hon. Gentleman has anticipated me by a few sentences, and I shall deal with that point in a moment.

I wonder whether my hon. and learned Friend can give me an assurance about what would happen in the event of a Conservative Government taking office after the next election. At some point, the Chilcot inquiry will produce a proposal to allow intercept to be used in court. If it transpires that intercept is the only issue that causes the Government to require a secret inquiry of some sort or another, will he give me an undertaking that we would change the law to remove unnecessary secret inquiries?

My right hon. Friend and I have worked on this together, and he knows that the Opposition have long been consistent in our desire to see intercept evidence being available to prosecute prisoners and in other settings, including inquests. That remains our commitment, and that is why my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) sits on the Chilcot committee. I cannot predict what the outcome of that committee will be, but the Conservative party will retain its commitment to try and bring this desirable end about.

It is unfortunate in the extreme if people who could be prosecuted are not prosecuted because intercept evidence cannot be used. Equally, it is extremely unfortunate if intercept evidence that could help to clarify matters in an inquest cannot be used for the same reason. Therefore, I can give my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) the assurance that our commitment in that regard remains as strong as ever, but obviously we will have to listen to what the Chilcot committee says.

Will my hon. and learned Friend explain, in light of his amendment, the grounds on which the Lord Chief Justice would exercise his discretion to indicate approval or not? The Bill does not seem to contain anything solid that might tell the Lord Chief Justice how to approach that.

My hon. Friend is right, and that is the next point that I want to address.

The Government came up with their amendment in the other place, but my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) is right that it proposes a full judicial scrutiny process, with a Minister making an application to a court in a hearing at which interested parties can make representations. I would have preferred that. As I said earlier, if I had had the opportunity to table an amendment to that effect yesterday evening, I would have done so, but I must accept that it is now impossible procedurally to achieve that desirable end. Indeed, that is what the Secretary of State told me, and I do not think that he was trying to pull the wool over my eyes.

Essentially, amendment 1B is a fall-back position, and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire is right that it raises questions. It seems to me that, in effect, it asks the Lord Chief Justice to take an administrative rather than a judicial decision—based, I suppose, on his independence and sagacity—because the Lord Chancellor has to get his agreement to a transfer from inquest to inquiry.

In the other place, Lord Mackay of Clashfern raised that concern specifically. He said:

“I assume—I hope this is correct—that the Government consulted the Lord Chief Justice when they put forward this proposal, so that he knows about it and is willing to undertake this extremely important judgment at the stage when it is supposed to be made.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 November 2009; Vol. 714, c. 830.]

He also pointed out that if the Lord Chief Justice were to decline to move from inquest to inquiry it would be, he assumed, the end of the matter.

In reply, Lord Bach made it clear that the Lord Chief Justice was aware of the proposal and—I infer—has not expressed the view that he could not undertake that role. At the same time, it is also clear that he would have the final say in the matter. Quite a lot of the debate in the other place was taken up with Lord Bach seeking to provide reassurance to the noble Lords that the procedure being proposed genuinely involved giving the Lord Chief Justice an effective veto over whether the shift would take place.

For the reasons that I have already given, I hope that we are not putting on the Lord Chief Justice a burden that we should not place on him. I have a residual anxiety about that. Secondly, I had anxieties when the proposal went to the other place that the wording was such that the Government amendment could be construed as amounting to no more than an ability to say, “You can’t have such a judge”, and that another name would be put up automatically rather than giving the Lord Chief Justice a genuine veto over the process. Such was the extent of my anxiety that while the proposal was in the other place, I sought at the last minute to change the wording from “that judge” to “a judge”. The Government’s response was that that was not necessary. A series of assurances were given during the debate, which I am sure that the Secretary of State will repeat, to the effect that what was intended was a genuine judicial lock through the Lord Chief Justice.

I repeat that I am grateful that the Secretary of State has listened. Notwithstanding that, however, I hope that he will not take it amiss that I have tabled a further amendment. The reason for doing so was that if the Government’s intention is correct and their drafting is right, the further amendment cannot be regarded as anything other than affirming their amendment—it is innocuous in intention; it will not wreck or damage the Government’s proposal; and it will not cause the Government any further problem.

Our amendment (a) makes it clear that the approval is not just about the start of the judicial process for the inquiry and the appointment of the judge, but that the Lord Chief Justice also has to indicate approval for the Lord Chancellor to request the coroner to suspend the investigation. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) rightly said a moment ago, that provides slightly wider discretion in the consideration of what the issues might be and—to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore)—ensures that the grounds on which we move from inquest to inquiry are very narrow.

I am sorry that the amendment was tabled at such a late stage, but we are in this place to do our job right to the end. For the reasons that I have set out, I think the amendment is a real improvement that I hope the Government can accept.