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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 501: debated on Thursday 3 December 2009

Transport

The Minister of State was asked—

Rail Carriages

1. How many of the 1,300 rail carriages referred to in the rolling stock plan in January 2008 have been delivered. (303664)

2. How many of the 1,300 rail carriages referred to in the rail White Paper in July 2007 have yet to be delivered. (303665)

7. What progress has been made on the delivery of new railway carriages; and if he will make a statement. (303670)

We remain committed to delivering 1,300 additional carriages by March 2014. Some 543 new carriages have been ordered, either for direct deployment or to release existing vehicles to expand capacity in line with the rail White Paper. Around 232 of those are already in service. We are currently in negotiations for a number of other procurements. As a result of our decisions to electrify railway lines, rolling stock requirements have changed. We will set out our revised strategy shortly.

I thank the Minister for that response. As part of those 1,300 carriages, the Government promised Southeastern an extra 110, which obviously affects constituents in my part of south-east London. It was rather a disappointment that those extra carriages have been shelved in the short term. My constituents are therefore still waiting for that desperately needed new capacity to relieve the overcrowding. Can the Minister not speed up the process?

I echo the representations that the hon. Gentleman has made about his constituents’ concerns about the overcrowded trains. I can only say what I have already said, which is that we will come back shortly with a revised rolling stock plan. He will be aware of the fantastic announcement made by the Secretary of State in July about electrifying the Great Western line and the line between Liverpool and Manchester. That has a knock-on effect on the numbers of diesel trains and EMU—electric multiple unit—trains that are needed. I hope to come back in due course with an announcement that will, I hope, alleviate some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

By the end of 2016, when the current South West Trains franchise expires, the rolling stock on the Isle of Wight will be almost 80 years old. What plans does the Minister have to ensure that new rolling stock will be provided in the new franchise agreement?

It is important that we consult the hon. Gentleman and his constituents about what the needs and demands are locally. One of the benefits of committing ourselves to £15 billion of investment in our railways over the next five years is that there is a possibility of his residents getting new rolling stock. If we followed the suggestions of others—that we should cut the amount that we invest in our railways this year, and then cut it in crude terms over the next five years—there would be no chance at all of his constituents getting new rolling stock.

During this fast of Advent, it behoves us all to show some humility. Were the Transport Select Committee not right when they said in 2008 that the Government do not have

“adequate and appropriate expertise to handle such vital strategic decisions in-house, and to do so efficiently”?

Go on—they were right, were they not?

I always enjoy interventions by the hon. Gentleman. I will answer his question in the spirit in which it was asked. Phase 1 of this Government’s job was to repair and make up for the chronic under-investment of the previous couple of decades—a consequence of what his Government had done. He will also have seen us make up for the botched privatisation that his Government were in charge of, which some might call fixing the roof while it was leaking. Phase 2 of this Government’s reformation will lead to growth and increased capacity. I am sure he will join me in welcoming that approach, rather than the savage cuts that his leader wants to make.

I welcome the Minister’s renewed commitment to the 1,300 carriages. Can I take it from his answer that the Northern Rail franchise will get the 186 carriages that it was promised some time ago?

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole), has already met Greater Manchester integrated transport authority, and we are working with Northern Rail and the passenger transport executives to see what their demands are. We are also looking at the appraisals model to ensure that we get phases 1 and 2 sorted out, so that my hon. Friend’s constituents can get the investment that other parts of the country have received.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that 23 Electrostar trains have been introduced since the start of this year on the First Capital Connect Thameslink service. However, those trains are of limited utility if there are not enough drivers to drive them because of the current industrial action. Will he give us an update on what is being done to sort out the dispute between FCC and ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, and on what he is doing to try to ameliorate the situation?

My hon. Friend will be aware, not just from his previous life but from his current life as a Member of Parliament, that negotiations are taking place between the train operating company First Capital Connect and the trade union ASLEF. I am pleased to tell him that my understanding is that the two sides met this week. I am an optimist by nature, so I am hoping that those negotiations and discussions will lead to a fruitful resolution of the drivers’ action. As my hon. Friend knows from his own constituency interest, the impact on passengers is huge. At a time when we are investing in our railways and in new rolling stock, it is clearly perverse if the actions of individuals can deter people from using the trains.

Some time ago, our right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), who was one of the last commoners to be Secretary of State for Transport, announced a substantial order for high-speed rolling stock, which was associated with the Hitachi consortium. Will my hon. Friend tell us the current position on this particular project as two of the potential sites for assembly are in North-West Leicestershire, and this would have a very significant social, environmental and economic effect on my constituents?

My hon. Friend is right to remind the House of this Government’s record of investing in infrastructure and new rolling stock. He will have seen the fruits of High Speed 1, which has benefited transport in the southern part of the country. He will also have seen—and, I hope, ridden on—the Javelin train. As far as Hitachi is concerned, he will be pleased to know that I hope to come back in due course to provide an update on our rolling stock. The announcement to electrify the Great Western line and the Liverpool to Manchester line has had an impact on our inquiries. I know that my hon. Friend will be pleased with the news when I return for the update shortly.

With passenger numbers at record levels and growing further, and overcrowding a problem throughout the network—not least during the evening peak to Lewes—it is disappointing that only 543 carriages have so far been ordered. Will the Minister confirm that the rolling stock plan he has talked about will include a commitment to order the rest of the 1,300 carriages before the election—just in case there is going to be a Conservative Government committed to 10 per cent. cuts?

I have a revelation to make, Mr. Speaker. If you were to draw a line graph from 2007, when there was zero rolling stock, to the middle point up to 2014, when we expect a rolling stock of 1,300, you will find that we are not on schedule but ahead of schedule, with more rolling stock being ordered. I am confident that with a combination of a cascaded rolling stock and the new stock, the hon. Gentleman will see his wishes delivered. He is right to point out that if we followed the advice of some, there would have been massive cuts this year and savage cuts in the next few years.

Was the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris) wrong when he promised that the 1,300 carriages would be in addition to Thameslink, or was the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), wrong when he made it plain that the total number of carriages to be ordered was far fewer than 1,300 unless one includes in it the Thameslink programme?

I told myself that I was going to be charming and nice at the Dispatch Box. All I can say to the hon. Lady is that she should read the White Paper of July 2007; she should read the update produced in January 2008; she should then read the update we produced in July 2008—and if she is still not clear, she can write to me so that I can write back to provide the clarity she needs.

Why can the Minister not admit that the Government got their numbers wrong and that incompetence and excessive micro-management is holding up the carriages that four successive Secretaries of State have now promised? Will he admit that millions have been spent on diesel carriages and rolling stock, which the Government then decided they did not want; and will he admit that the new Thameslink carriages are now running around a decade late, which is why it is not surprising that they no longer call it Thameslink 2000?

I am happy to talk about numbers. In 2009-10, we secured from our Chancellor in the comprehensive spending review an increase of 2.25 per cent. expenditure on transport. Had we taken the advice of others, including the shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition, the increase would have been just 1 per cent.—effectively a cut in 2009-10 of £840 million. That would have meant no chance of new rolling stock, no chance of investment in Crossrail and no chance of any announcements on electrification. Over the next period, we have a choice. We have a choice to invest in High Speed 2 and we have a choice to continue to invest in the electrification of the Great Western line and the Liverpool to Manchester line, which will have knock-on effects on rolling stock. On the other hand, we have a choice to listen to the advice of some who want to cut savagely from the amount we invest in transport, which will mean more overcrowding, less investment and—

Railway Stations (North-West)

We have agreed with Network Rail that it will make up to £50 million available in the near future to tackle improvements at the 10 key stations identified in the stations champions report as being in most need of improvement, seven of which are in the north-west.

Will my hon. Friend remind Network Rail from time to time that the overall experience of train travel includes not just the journey itself, but arrival at and passage through the stations? Some of our stations in the north-west have been badly neglected in recent years. Victoria station in Manchester is to be significantly upgraded as a result of actions by the Department, which is welcome news, but will my hon. Friend ensure that a programme of improvement is implemented in all our stations in the north-west?

I assure my hon. Friend that there are a number of Government initiatives committed to station improvements. They include the national stations improvement programme, a five-year initiative worth £150 million for the modernisation of approximately 150 medium-sized stations, and—in the north-west—a £1.5 million upgrade of Ormskirk station, to which £500,000 has been contributed by the national stations improvement programme. The Access for All 10-year programme, worth £370 million, will improve access to stations, and the Access for All small schemes fund will enable more than 1,000 stations to benefit from about £6 million a year.

Manchester Victoria is a potential candidate for the national stations improvement programme funding. The planned improvements include cleaning and redecorating passenger seating—

Order. I am extremely grateful to the Minister, but we must make timely progress down the Order Paper.

At Macclesfield station there is an overbridge leading to the London platform. The steps up and the steps down ought to be fully enclosed, because those seeking access to the London platform can get absolutely soaked. Will the Minister attend to that, in order to ensure that a station that is a major profit centre is properly equipped for all who need access to the London platform?

I am sure that the train operating company that runs services through Macclesfield station will want to ensure that the environment is as pleasant as possible in order to attract as many passengers as possible to the service. Yesterday I was able to inaugurate the opening of a bridge at Southampton airport station which has received £2 million from the Government under the Access for All programme, and it did indeed include a very nicely covered bridge.

I was pleased to note that Liverpool Central station features on the list of stations to be improved, but has my hon. Friend seen the report “Better Rail Stations”, which was recently submitted to the Secretary of State by Chris Green and Professor Sir Peter Hall? It describes a vision of the development of major hubs where high-speed and local rail services can operate together and be linked with fast bus services, offering seamless travel.

We entirely back the idea of developing stations as interchanges with other modes of transport . The whole idea of station travel plans was endorsed by the station champions. The Association of Train Operating Companies is leading a programme of 24 pilot schemes covering 31 stations, and the action plans were formally launched on 19 June.

Passenger Security

4. What steps he is taking to improve levels of personal security for passengers using public transport. (303667)

We are committed to improving the personal security of public transport passengers. For example, new rail franchises now specify minimum levels of investment in public safety, and we are encouraging crime and disorder reduction partnerships to work with the transport industry in helping to tackle transport crime.

I commend the work of the British Transport police, for the simple reason that they have to look after not only the personal security of rail passengers, but station property. There is no comparable organisation to deal with bus and coach travel. I should like Congleton station to be improved, with better lighting, CCTV and eventually—we hope—customer information screens. When representatives of the British Transport police attended a meeting that I had convened, I discovered that there had been little liaison with the local constabulary. Will the Minister consider that point? It is important for the two sides to get together to deal with the problems.

I could not agree more. The situation the hon. Lady describes serves as a good example of why it is important that there is work going on at the local level through programmes such as the crime and disorder reduction partnership, which can bring together all those players in making sure that crime levels continue to decrease on our public transport, and particularly at railway stations. I, too, commend the work of the BTP.

In commending the work of the BTP, I hope the Minister will recognise that, in terms of numbers, over much of the rail network its resources are very stretched. Despite increased funding, its staff find they are having to cover vast areas. Will the Minister talk to ministerial colleagues about ways in which BTP funding can be enhanced and its work can be improved?

Obviously, I take every opportunity to work with colleagues to improve the position of the BTP and those involved in security at our stations. In 1997, there were just over 2,100 BTP officers, whereas there are now 3,200 police and community support officers patrolling our network. Obviously, the budget is a matter for the BTP authority.

How effective does the Minister think CCTV is in combating antisocial, as well as violent, behaviour on public transport?

All the research on this matter and the consultation that is conducted with consumers and customers of the public services show the importance of CCTV in deterring antisocial behaviour and in increasing safety, and the feeling of being safe, at stations. The number of CCTV cameras has increased, and they are now in 50 per cent. of overground stations.

Seafarer Training and Employment

5. What recent representations he has received on seafarer training and employment; and if he will make a statement. (303668)

I am grateful to the maritime trade unions and the Chamber of Shipping for submitting joint maritime training proposals, and I am aware of the strength of feeling on this matter. However, the proposals would require significant additional investment at a time of increasing pressures on Government resources, which is why we need to consider all elements of the proposals very carefully.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, and I am aware that his Department has been carefully considering these proposals since it first received them from the unions in April 2007. He recently referred to them as being open-ended. I can tell him that the unions are happy to talk about limits to define these proposals, but they would need to have an answer from the Department first.

I appreciate that. Actually, the latest proposal was submitted on 30 March this year. I have had regular meetings with Nautilus International, the Chamber of Shipping and others concerning support for training and employment opportunities for seafarers. I want the UK’s position to continue to be strong. I also want to build on these opportunities, and I am currently considering how we can progress towards exactly the same goal that the hon. Gentleman clearly has, as do those in the industry.

A417

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Highways Agency on improvements to the A417 Cowley to Brockworth road in Gloucestershire; and if he will make a statement. (303669)

The proposed A417 Cowley to Brockworth improvement scheme has not been included by the south-west region in its forward programme of priorities up to 2019 contained in its regional funding advice submitted earlier this year, and I have accepted that advice. As the major scheme is not being pursued, the Highways Agency has commissioned a study to identify what smaller-scale, more affordable measures might be pursued to improve the performance of the road. I expect the study to report later next year.

I thank the Minister for that response, but he will be aware that this issue has been dragging on for probably the best part of 20 years, having been ably taken up by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown)—the road runs through his constituency and into my area—and we are now told it will not be considered for the next 10 years. This is a major disappointment for the residents of the area, and for the people who are injured on those roads and who queue on them every single day, not just in the rush hour. Is there nothing the Minister can do to bring about the much-needed improvements to that road?

As I said in my initial answer, the Highways Agency is committed to ensuring that the road is as safe as possible until regional colleagues are able to identify the scheme for inclusion in its programme.

Mobile Phones (Road Deaths)

8. What his most recent estimate is of the number of road traffic accident deaths which have been caused by driving while using a hand-held telephone in the past three years. (303671)

Contributory factor data reported in the statistical returns to the Department show that “driver using a mobile phone” was a factor in 19 deaths in road accidents during 2008—the returns do not distinguish between hand-held or hands-free phones. However, there has been no formal estimation of the numbers of deaths.

Frankly, I think this is an area in which the Government need to raise their game a bit. What action is the Minister taking in respect of the police, who seem very focused on motorists who abuse the speed limit but do not always seem to take seriously the issue of people driving with phones stuck to their ears, often as they go around dangerous corners? What more will the Government do?

Tackling distraction and excessive speeding is important if we are to ensure that the number of people killed and seriously injured on our roads continues to decline. I should point out that there were 135,000 prosecutions and fixed penalties issued in 2007 for hand-held phone offences, those enforcement actions being undertaken by the law enforcement authorities—the police.

One of the most watched YouTube clips around the world this summer was a short film called “Cow”, which was commissioned by Gwent police and graphically illustrated to young people the dangers of texting while driving. If the Minister has not seen the film, will he do so? Does he agree that we could learn lessons from this hard-hitting, well-targeted campaign?

Most certainly. Invariably, getting the message across about the implications of certain actions in cars is fundamental. I congratulate Gwent police on what they have achieved, and we need to continue exactly that sort of work. The pre-driver programme that we are looking at for 14 to 16-year-olds will seek to change behaviour; we also recognise the importance of getting people to understand that once they are behind the wheel they are in control of a very important vehicle.

This summer, the Government spent £2.3 million on their controversial “spooky eyes” drug-driving campaign, suggesting that police officers can easily spot a person who has taken drugs. However, every day we see drivers openly using mobile phones, which is a much more obvious offence. Despite the tougher penalties, is the Minister concerned that drivers think they can get away with this dangerous behaviour unless they bump into another vehicle?

Both are important. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman drew attention to a hard-hitting anti-drugs campaign. Since its launch in August, we have had substantial feedback about its effect. Unfortunately, he clearly did not listen to the response that I gave to his Front-Bench colleague about the police undertaking the enforcement regime correctly and their rightly looking at both the distraction caused by mobile phones and speeding.

Concessionary Bus Fares

9. What recent representations he has received on the national concessionary bus fares scheme; and if he will make a statement. (303672)

I have received many representations, including those from my hon. Friend, on the concessionary travel scheme recently, mainly in relation to funding issues. As she will know, I have recently launched a consultation regarding the concessionary travel special grant funding for 2010-11. Representations have been received from Members of both Houses, local authorities, councillors and members of the public.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The reason why the campaign to safeguard this scheme has been so important is that the scheme has meant so much to the over-60s, especially in such very rural places as North-East Derbyshire. Will he use this opportunity to put on the record a guarantee for this scheme under any future Labour Government?

May I put on the record a recognition of the work that my hon. Friend has done, and not only in lobbying me? I remember that at the previous Transport oral questions she asked a similar question about access issues for her constituents on rural buses. The £1 billion that goes towards concessionary bus travel in off-peak hours means that 11 million older and disabled people in England can use buses at off-peak times. Had we accepted the advice to make a cut in this year’s budget from a 2.25 per cent. increase to a 1 per cent. increase, that would have led to cuts. We will not means-test this, or cut it as some would want us to do.

Will the Minister of State congratulate Conservative-controlled Kettering borough council, of which I am a member, which has extended the concessionary fare scheme to cover peak-time travel, too?

May I, through the hon. Gentleman, commend the council for its use of that discretionary element of the scheme? Other parts of the country have also, on a discretionary basis, increased the coverage that they provide and have found the means within their coffers to do so. I congratulate them on that.

Does not the enormous success and popularity of the pensioners’ concessionary fares scheme lead the Government to conclude that we must now extend the national concessionary fare scheme to young people? From the point of view of reducing congestion, reducing emissions, improving road safety and reducing car dependency, is that not the next step in a sensible, integrated green transport policy?

Mr. Speaker, I know that you were present during the Youth Parliament debate that took place here a few Fridays ago, although some did not want it to take place in the Chamber. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that that was one of the key issues raised by the young people who came to Parliament. I met young people around the country on my bus tour and this was one of the key issues that they raised. He will appreciate the pressures on our budget, but we keep these things under review all the time.

The Minister will remember that we urged the Government to consider the distribution of funding arrangements for the scheme. Indeed, we welcome the commitment to a review. However, we cannot welcome the fact that the Minister has arbitrarily reopened the three-year settlement. His proposals would savagely penalise London and savagely penalise the constituents of Tooting. I urge the Minister yet again, as London Councils has, to reconsider that proposal, which will savagely hit the voters of London. I am sure that the voters of Tooting will savagely remember that.

The hon. Gentleman is a mate—a savage mate—but I have to say that there are dangers in trying to face both ways. I caution him against doing so. We know, because we have seen the London Councils minutes, that in 2008-09 the councils spent £5 million on off-peak travel caused by the additional intake of out-of-London commuters. We gave them £55 million. They did not send us a cheque for the difference. We know from discussions that I have had with the Tory chair of the transport and environment committee that next year they will need £18 million, with the TfL agreement. We are giving them £30 million. I look forward to receiving a cheque from the Tory chair for the difference.

Could the Department work more closely with the devolved Administrations to improve and increase free bus travel across borders?

My hon. Friend asks an important question. At the moment, we are unable to have a harmonious system across borders because, as he will appreciate, these matters are devolved. Councils near the borders have made arrangements to reach agreements with councils on the other side of the border. He will appreciate that if we were to harmonise cross-border travel with Scotland and Wales, the cost would be extreme, but we will keep this under review and we encourage local authorities to reach agreement where they can.

Train Operating Companies (East Anglia)

I will be meeting representatives of National Express East Anglia on Monday 14 December 2009 at Liverpool Street station in London.

Will the Minister turn his attention to the First Capital Connect service from King’s Cross via Cambridge to King’s Lynn? Is he aware that, in spite of recent improvements, there is still substantial overcrowding on trains leaving London during the rush hour? Furthermore, does he agree that a route of such importance should have refreshment trolleys on the trains? Will he find time to join me on the route to see the problems for himself?

The hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench colleagues accuse us of micro-management, yet he seems to be asking us to intervene to specify what should be on the trolleys on trains on the First Capital Connect routes. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) seems to want to spend her time in the future specifying how many Mars bars there should be. For us, it has been about ensuring that we have the capacity on that line, which is why we have been investing in the Thameslink programme.

I wish the Minister well with his meeting on Monday. I am pleased to say that I had one with National Express East Anglia on Tuesday afternoon. In his meeting on Monday, will he try to get confirmation about, and to firm up, the promises and pledges that there would be improved rail services, more trains and more carriages on the line from Ipswich to London Liverpool Street via Colchester, and about the improvements to Colchester station?

I am very much aware that improvements have been made to the signalling at Colchester station to ensure that we can get the right capacity of vehicles through. I hope that on 14 December we will be able to make an announcement about the additional rolling stock being delivered through the high-level output specification, which will bring 120 new vehicles on to the National Express East Anglia network.

Northern Rail Franchise (Rolling Stock)

We are in discussions with the Northern Rail franchise and the passenger transport executives on a first phase of additional rolling stock. We will make an announcement in due course.

I thank the Minister for that slightly disappointing answer. We have already had a number of bids for rolling stock from different regions of the UK, but the 142s on the Manchester-Southport line are some of the oldest, most unsafe and, at times, most overcrowded stock in the network. Surely, if anything is a priority, this is.

Of all the rolling stock interventions, Northern is the most complex for a variety of reasons, not least because five major cities are involved and because of the interrelationships between the different cities. I have referred before to the discussions that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole), has had with the integrated transport authority and passenger transport executives in the region. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that we are working more closely with the PTEs and Northern to form a joint undertaking of the predictions, which will include his constituents and his area, as well as on the appraisal process. We hope that there will be good news around the corner.

Topical Questions

Since our last Question Time in October, my Department has made a number of significant announcements, including today, about winning bids from a £30 million fund for green buses that aims to encourage and help bus operators and local authorities to buy new low-carbon buses to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. We have also made announcements about a further £30 million programme to develop electric car-charging points in six leading cities across the country, and about a review by Sir Peter North of the law on drink and drug driving, for which a report is expected in March 2010.

I am sure that the Minister shares my horror that, this year, the number of children who were killed or seriously injured while riding their bikes has increased by a third. The Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust has pointed out that four official websites show children not wearing safety helmets. Is the Minister able to tell the House when the report on the effectiveness of cycle helmets will be published?

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his track record on this important issue. He moved a ten-minute Bill on this issue, and he is also, like me, the father of young children who ride bicycles. On the research that he referred to in his question, he will welcome the fact that we hope to receive some response by the end of this year about the effectiveness of cycle helmets. I am happy to meet him to discuss how we can move much faster in this important area, because I am as impatient as he is to see progress to ensure that zero young people are injured—or, of course, killed—on our roads as a consequence of riding their bikes.

T6. Will my hon. Friend tell me what conversations he has had with his counterpart north of the border, particularly about the Glasgow airport rail link to Glasgow city centre? That proposal was part of the bid for the 2014 Commonwealth games and helped us to win the bid and be the city that will hold the games. (303689)

My noble Friend Lord Adonis has good relations with his counterparts in the Scottish Government, but this is a devolved matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) might be interested to know that in developing a sustainable transport strategy for the rest of the UK, one of our priorities is connecting the country’s major cities with international gateways such as ports and airports, but it appears that the current Scottish Executive do not have the same priorities.

T2. Since 2007, the Driving Standards Agency has been looking for practical motorcycle testing facilities on the Isle of Wight. My constituents still face a long and costly journey to the mainland to be tested. The EU allows that test to be carried out on the road, so why will the Government not allow appropriate island and rural roads to be used? (303685)

We have endeavoured to ensure that the vast majority of people are within a recognised mileage or distance travel limit of a recognised centre. Of course, I recognise that there will be some difficulties in achieving that and I believe that I have corresponded with the hon. Gentleman on the matter. However, we want a safe environment for the training required to ensure that people are not killed or seriously injured on our roads. It is right that we continue our work to ensure that we have the right centres for that training.

T7. Slough contributes £8 billion a year to Britain’s gross domestic product. Its station is the fourth busiest on the Great Western main line, yet the recent rail utilisation strategy proposes no improvement to our appalling commuter rail service. However, buried in it is a tiny opportunity to connect the Great Western main line directly from the west to Heathrow. Can the Minister please put that proposal higher up the agenda? Unless we have a rail connection to the airport from the west we will lose opportunities to build Britain’s economy. (303690)

The Thames Valley local authority has identified a case for direct rail access to the airport from the west, particularly from Slough, Maidenhead and Reading, but one of the constraints identified by the study was a lack of electrification on the Great Western main line. The Government’s announcement earlier in the summer has had a positive impact on the case for western rail access to Heathrow. We look forward to the local authorities and BAA taking that into account in their further assessments of airport surface access requirements. However, I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to see what we can do to facilitate such a development.

T3. A recent report by the Association of Train Operating Companies identified Wantage Road station in my constituency as one of just seven stations in the country that could be reopened. Will the Minister support me in pressing Network Rail to undertake a further detailed evaluation to reopen the station, with a view to getting it into Network Rail’s investment programme for 2014-19? (303686)

It is primarily for local authorities to give the lead on what local stations are needed for local transport services. We would expect Oxfordshire county council to work with Network Rail and the train operating companies to see what trains could call there. Any station that would require funding from the council would need to demonstrate that it would recover its costs from additional fares. We would then look at taking it into the franchise process.

On question 3, the Minister quite rightly set out the suggested improvements to Manchester and Preston railway stations. They are on the line between Blackpool and Manchester that goes via Chorley, which is known as the misery line because of the overcrowding and undercapacity that exists on it. Does he agree that the line is in desperate need of electrification and the right rolling stock?

When we made our announcement in the summer, we committed to looking at further potential schemes for electrification around the country. My hon. Friend has entirely correctly identified the interplay between electrification and rolling stock on particular sections of track. When those requirements come together, we will get the benefits from having cleaner and cheaper electric trains to replace the diesels that might currently exist. We are still reviewing some of the lines in the areas that he is talking about, and we hope to report shortly.

T4. The Minister may not be aware, but last week I attended a meeting of residents from the centre of King’s Lynn who are very concerned about road safety and the speed of traffic along King street and Queen street, both of which have speed limits of 20 miles per hour. Will he confirm that, under the highways regulations, it is possible to have 20 mph repeater signs, including flashing fibre-optic signs, on such roads? (303687)

One of the issues that we have been looking at in reviewing the road safety strategy has been taking forward guidance to local authorities. We want to allow them to reduce speeds, where they believe that is relevant, in predominantly residential areas. The use of the signs to which the hon. Gentleman has referred is certainly permissible, and they are used.

The Government deserve praise for a smooth transfer from National Express to the new company, East Coast. I would particularly like to thank my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for giving a guarantee back in the summer that the company headquarters would remain in York. Now that he is looking at franchise arrangements for the longer term, will he ask his officials to consider the case for maintaining York as the headquarters in the terms of the franchise put out to contract?

With such an advocate for York as my hon. Friend, I cannot see the officials reaching any other conclusion. I am happy to arrange to meet him so that he can lobby me once again, as he has been doing so effectively since earlier this year.

T5. Given that Ministers forced the public-private partnership on London Underground, will they now call for a report from Transport for London on why so many underground routes are closed every weekend for engineering works, disrupting the plans not just of Londoners but of people from all over Britain and further afield? It is really not helpful to London’s tourism and economic health. (303688)

The hon. Gentleman, who believes passionately in devolution, will know that powers to run the tube have passed to the Mayor of London. He will be aware that TfL and the Mayor are in dispute with Tube Lines about closures caused by signalling changes on the Jubilee line. I will ensure that his comments are passed on to the Mayor, TfL and Tube Lines as soon as possible, and I will report back to him if there are any developments in that regard.

The Association of Train Operating Companies recently said that the risks that it takes on in providing rail services to the public should be reduced. Does the Minister agree that with annual ATOC profits approaching £1 billion from a public subsidy of £1.5 billion, we should be renationalising rail passenger services rather than tinkering with an already wildly generous franchise mechanism?

We have finally got some stability into the franchising system. The National Audit Office commended the Government on the operation of the franchising arrangements. On that basis, it would not be helpful, at a time of record passenger numbers on the railways, to start disturbing the franchising arrangements.

T8. Are the Government concerned at all about driving standards in this country, particularly appalling lane discipline on motorways? Will the Minister consult with that excellent organisation, the Institute of Advanced Motorists, to see how driving standards could be raised, for the personal security and safety of those driving and of others on the roads? (303691)

We always take every opportunity to review the standards and the training provided—they are constantly under review. I am delighted to be able to tell the hon. Lady that I will start having those discussions with the Institute of Advanced Motorists at lunch time, when I will address its annual lunch.

Women and Equality

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Human Trafficking

1. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the effect on trafficked women of the proposed closure of the Metropolitan Police’s human trafficking unit. (303692)

3. What her latest estimate is of the number of women who have been trafficked (a) into the UK and (b) from one part of the UK to another for the purposes of sexual exploitation in the last 12 months. (303694)

There are regular discussions between Equality Ministers and ministerial colleagues in the Home Office on the question of human trafficking. Trafficking is by nature a covert activity, so it is difficult to be precise about the numbers. The Association of Chief Police Officers, the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre and others are on course for an estimate of the number of women trafficked into the UK for sexual exploitation to be made available inearly 2010.

I am very concerned about the proposed closure of the trafficking unit in the Met, as particularly specialised skills are involved in the unit. What is the Minister’s view on the issue, particularly bearing in mind that I have had a letter from Cressida Dick saying that it is inevitable that the change will take place because of reduced funding from the Government to the Met? That certainly came as a surprise to me, as I thought that the Government had been very generous to the Metropolitan Police Service in terms of funding via the Greater London authority. She says that the—

Order. The hon. Gentleman should resume his seat. We want to get off to a good start at this session. The question is simply too long. I will ask the Minister for Women and Equality to respond to the part of it—quite a long part—that she has heard.

In order to reassure hon. Members that the Government, the Metropolitan police and police forces around the country will be taking strong action to investigate and bring to court those engaged in human trafficking for the purposes of exploitation, I should explain that human trafficking includes the offences of breaching immigration rules, rape, assault, kidnap, abduction, fraud and serious organised crime. A unit was set up in the Metropolitan police to focus on the new context of human trafficking, which involves all those crimes. Training is under way for both prosecutors and police, and we have the UK Human Trafficking Centre. A unit in the police was funded especially to upskill and improve the understanding of the Metropolitan police so that the whole issue could be mainstreamed. Funding has been made available for that, and it continues.

The Leader of the House has shown her passion and care on that issue, but does she share my concern that although the police are doing very well at breaking up brothels that use people who have been trafficked into this country, the real problem is at the borders? We should tackle that and try to stop it, but we do not seem to be doing so very successfully. Could we do more at the borders?

We are working internationally, across Europe, through the UK Border Agency, which is working with its counterparts, to identify victims of trafficking. We have worked through Eurojust, which is the European network of prosecutors; and we have worked through European police forces. There is international action going on; it is by definition an international crime. There is also work taking place to freeze assets internationally, because sometimes many more than one or two countries will be involved. This is serious and organised crime; it is international; and we are all working together, as well as domestically, to track down the perpetrators and protect the victims.

But the unfortunate truth is that it is very hard to investigate and successfully prosecute cases of trafficking and sexual exploitation, and the Metropolitan police unit was making inroads. Will the Minister confirm that if the success in increasing the number of prosecutions does not continue, the decision will be revisited?

I pay tribute to the police and prosecutors for bringing to court so many cases in which the victim was an unbelievably vulnerable victim of human trafficking, but still the authorities managed to support them to give evidence and bring the traffickers to justice. Since the introduction of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, there have been 113 convictions for human trafficking offences, but beyond that there have been many more convictions for offences such as rape, fraud and assault. The police and prosecutors are making good progress on bringing offenders to justice, and that will protect victims. Obviously, we keep—

Because we want to ensure that these issues are mainstreamed. This is not some separate business for some separate unit; this is serious and organised crime. Incidentally, the Serious Organised Crime Agency works internationally as well.

But dealing with trafficked women is a very specialised procedure, and the issue is not just about trafficked women, either. What about forced labour and child trafficking? I can get my head around the Met’s clubs and vice unit dealing with that aspect, but what on earth will happen to the very specialist skills on the very special aspects surrounding trafficked women and children?

I think that there are particularly specialised skills in terms of supporting the victims, and that is why we maintain financial support for the POPPY project, the Eaves housing charity and other organisations that support victims. However, all those involved in investigating serious and organised crime need to be aware. When I was Solicitor-General, I saw one case in which a woman had escaped from a brothel where she had been held captive and, effectively, raped 10 times a day—day in, day out, week in, week out. She found her way to a local police station, and even though she hardly spoke any English they understood and realised what had happened to her. We have to ensure that every police officer in every police station understands this issue. She cannot be expected to find her way to a specialised unit. This has to be understood across the board and mainstreamed, and we will give all financial support to the police and other authorities to ensure that that happens.

We all agree that human trafficking is the modern-day slave trade and remains a prevalent form of violence, particularly against woman and girls. There is a need to take strong action against trafficking. Does the Minister agree that reports such as the recent one from London Metropolitan university, which downplayed the extent of trafficking and was based on asking a very small number of women whether they thought that they had been trafficked—hardly the best basis for evidence—do not help to make the case for action? The case for ensuring that every police officer is suitably trained and understands human trafficking and related issues would be far better made if we raised awareness generally about the extent of the problem. What are the Government doing to ensure that we do just that?

I wholeheartedly agree with the right hon. Lady. We have to make it absolutely clear that although we do not know the exact numbers, we have never based our case for concern on the overall numbers; it is enough if even one woman has been kidnapped, brought across borders to this country and bought and sold like a modern-day slave. When I was Solicitor-General, I came across one case in which two gangs brought a girl to a supermarket car park and bartered over her; she was sold from one gang to the other. If there is even one case such as that—and there are many more—that is enough for us to take tough action.

I take this opportunity to deplore the reporting in The Guardian; it sought to imply that because we did not know the specific numbers, or because some estimate had been wrong, somehow we were on the wrong track. Those involved should be ashamed of themselves.

Equal Pay

4. What progress the Equality and Human Rights Commission has made on developing a set of metrics for reporting on equal pay. (303696)

Given that women are, on average, still paid 22 per cent. less than men 40 years after the Equal Pay Act 1970, we need greater transparency about pay structures to find out what is happening in organisations so that we can tackle this unacceptable inequality. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is working with business, the unions and others to give comparable, clear figures so that they can be published business to business in places with more than 250 employees. The consultation that it held closed on 28 October and we expect its recommendations soon.

My understanding was that the Equality and Human Rights Commission would publish its findings on metrics in July and that the measure would come out at Christmas. Will the Minister enlighten us about when it is due?

I saw the commission chairman at an event about positive action on Tuesday; he reassured me that the commission is on the cusp of being ready to publish. I expect the findings to come out in January—about then.

Domestic Violence (Migrant Women)

5. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the future of the rule on no recourse to public funds in respect of migrant women who have experienced domestic violence. (303697)

Last week, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality launched “Together we can end violence against women and girls”, in which the Government gave a commitment to launch a national pilot to assist victims of domestic violence who have no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status. The pilot, administered by Eaves housing, was launched this Monday.

I very much welcome that news, because I have had direct experience of the issue in my constituency. A woman came over here as the wife of a British citizen, was subjected to domestic violence and sought protection in the local women’s refuge, where she was accommodated. However, the refuge got no funding. If the pilot looks as if it is working, may I urge the Minister to roll it out across the country as soon as possible?

I reassure my hon. Friend that the pilot has been operating across England and Wales since this past Monday; her constituent would have help on the basis of the pilot. We will, of course, be evaluating the outcomes, and, subject to that, looking to make the arrangements more permanent.

Age Discrimination (Public Services)

6. What steps she plans to take to reduce the incidence of age discrimination in the provision of public services. (303698)

The Equality Bill will prohibit unjustifiable age discrimination in the provision of goods and services and outlaw the discrimination and unfairness that still persists against older people in social care, NHS services and insurance company services. We particularly welcome the work of the Department of Health and the findings of the south-west review of age equality, which will join the anti-discrimination efforts from 2012 onwards.

The Equality Bill is welcome, but older people, our largest vulnerable group, would surely still benefit from the appointment of a commissioner to oversee their access to services across the public sector, an idea promoted in my own private Member’s legislation. What discussions has the Minister had with the Equality and Human Rights Commission on how our older citizens can best secure rights in this area equivalent to those of the younger section of the population?

The Government are the champions of older people, supported by friends such as my hon. Friend. With our ageing society, it is increasingly important that the voice of older people is heard by Government at all levels. I am pleased to remind my hon. Friend of the role of Dame Joan Bakewell, who has been hugely valuable as an independent voice of older people, as has Michael Parkinson in his role as dignity champion. My hon. Friend can be assured that we will continue to take all advice that we possibly can in ensuring that this becomes a reality.

How can we have any confidence in this Government on the issue of age discrimination when their much-vaunted Equality Bill still allows employers forcibly to sack people into retirement at the age of 65?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, this issue is under active consideration; we will be looking into it later next year, with the support of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It is important to remind him, however, that he voted against the Second Reading of the Equality Bill.

Primary School Teachers (Gender Balance)

7. If she will discuss with the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families proposals to increase the proportion of male primary school teachers. (303699)

There are too few male primary school teachers. Although applications are rising, men still account for only 15 per cent. of registered teaching staff in primary schools. The positive action provisions in the Equality Bill, which passed its final Commons stages last night, will allow employers who wish to do so to choose to appoint a person from an under-represented group, provided that all the candidates are equally qualified to do the job. That would improve diversity in the work force, and it would have an application in the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Does the Minister agree with the chief executive of the General Teaching Council, Mr. Keith Bartley, who said in September:

“We should focus on attracting the best recruits to teaching—regardless of their gender”?

It is very important, though, is it not, to try to encourage male role models into primary schools? A lot of families do not have fathers at home, and it is incredibly important to have a male role model at that age. The broader welfare of children in our primary schools requires that we try to make some effort to redress this imbalance, and the Training and Development Agency for Schools is doing some of that work. I hope that the positive action provisions will be seriously taken up and used to very good effect.