House of Commons
Thursday 3 December 2009
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] and Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords]
That the promoters of the Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] and Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords], which were originally introduced in the House of Lords in Session 2006-07 on 22 January 2007, may have leave to proceed with the Bills in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of bills).—(The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
That on the next sitting day following presentation of the Bills, the Clerk in the Private Bill Office shall lay the Bills on the Table of the House. —(The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
Canterbury City Council Bill and Nottingham City Council Bill
That the promoters of the Canterbury City Council Bill and Nottingham City Council Bill, which were originally introduced in this House in Session 2007-08 on 22 January2008, may have leave to proceed with the Bills in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of bills). —(The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
That on the next sitting day following presentation of the Bills, the Clerk in the Private Bill Office shall lay the Bills on the Table of the House. —(The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Minister of State was asked—
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—
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
Mobile Phones (Road Deaths)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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—
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—
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—
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.
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.
Domestic Violence (Migrant Women)
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)
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.
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)
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.
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.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be:
Monday 7 December—Second Reading of the Energy Bill.
Tuesday 8 December—Opposition Day (1st Allotted Day). There will be a debate on disability benefits for the elderly followed by a debate on local government finance settlement and council tax. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.
Wednesday 9 December—Statement on the pre-Budget report followed by remaining stages of the Child Poverty Bill.
Thursday 10 December—Estimates Day (1st Allotted Day). There will be a debate on students and universities and a debate on the relationship between central and local government. Details will be given in the Official Report.
[The details are as follows: Students and universities; 11th Report of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee of Session 2008-09 HC 170; Government Response—8th Special Report of Session 2008-09, HC 991. The Balance of Power: Central and Local Government; 6th Report form the Communities and Local Government Committee of Session 2008-09, HC33; Government Response—Cm 7712.]
At 6 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.
The provisional business for the week commencing 14 December will include:
Monday 14 December—Second Reading of the Personal Care at Home Bill followed by proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill.
Tuesday 15 December—Second Reading of the Flood and Water Management Bill followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the Welsh language.
Wednesday 16 December—Motion on the Christmas Recess Adjournment.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the forthcoming business.
I make no apologies for repeating my call, supported by others, for debates on the pre-Budget report and on Afghanistan. Last week the right hon. and learned Lady offered the fiscal responsibility Bill as providing the right opportunity to debate next week’s PBR, but that Bill is not even scheduled to have a Second Reading before Christmas. On Afghanistan, she said some weeks ago that she was “sympathetic” to the idea of a debate, but she has given no firm commitment since. The whole country is talking about these issues except the House, and it is indefensible for her not to provide time for debates. May I make a suggestion? Against the wishes of Conservative Members, the Government are proposing that the House should rise on 16 December. If she cannot find time for those two debates, will she postpone the Christmas recess by just two days so that the House can have the time that it wishes to debate the state of our economy and the welfare of our troops?
May we have a statement by the right hon. and learned Lady on the Prime Minister’s claim yesterday that Britain is not the last country in the G20 to leave recession? He clearly stated:
“Spain is a member of the G20 now and it is in recession.”—[Official Report, 2 December 2009; Vol. 501, c. 1101.]
Given that Britain has been chairing that group all year, he should know that Spain is not a member. Does she believe that the Prime Minister ought to correct his mistake and confirm for the record that Britain is indeed the last country in the G20 to exit recession, or does he not do apologies?
Will the right hon. and learned Lady give us a statement on her handling of the Equality Bill yesterday? As the Opposition repeatedly warned, the time allocated for debate was wholly insufficient. Five groups of amendments, including several Government new clauses, were sent to the other place without any scrutiny. Last week, she told us that the Solicitor-General had tabled all Government amendments a week before Report, but what use is that if there is no time to debate them? It is disappointing that the Leader of the House has not shown more leadership when it comes to her own legislation. What proposals does she have to prevent that from happening again?
May I ask yet again when the Leader of the House will give us the dates for the Easter recess? She chose not to respond to my question about that last week. Why is that particular recess causing such irreconcilable difficulties?
What has happened to our topical debates? Today we have had a summary, as a written statement, of the debates that we have had, but we have had no topical debates for more than a month and no indication of when the next one will be. What has happened to them?
May we have a statement on the appointment of the EU’s Economic Commissioner? For weeks the Prime Minister lobbied furiously in Brussels to secure the top post for Tony Blair, and only got his fourth choice as the new High Representative. Meanwhile, the French have quietly assumed control of the internal market, with President Sarkozy gloating that the British are “the big losers”. Yesterday, the Chancellor caved in to a decision to establish three EU supervisory authorities for financial services. Given those developments, will the right hon. and learned Lady ensure that the Minister replying to this afternoon’s debate on Europe will respond to the growing concern about the threat to one of the country’s main generators of wealth and employment?
Finally, will the right hon. and learned Lady join me in condemning the Prime Minister for launching a class war against those with aristocratic connections who were educated at public school?
The right hon. Gentleman asks for a debate on the pre-Budget report, and he was consistent in asking for that on behalf of the House even before he became shadow Leader of the House. I can tell him that there will be a full day’s debate on the pre-Budget report, which will be announced shortly, so we have accepted the representations that he started making when he was on the Back Benches and has now brought to the Front Bench.
As far as the very important question of Afghanistan is concerned, as Leader of the House I take it very much as my responsibility to ensure that the House is informed regularly about the situation, and that does happen. I ensure that there is an opportunity to debate it at large and hold Ministers to account, and that every week that this House is sitting, there is an opportunity for a debate on Afghanistan. [Hon. Members: “What?”] I ensure that there is an opportunity for the House to be informed and hold Ministers to account, or to debate the matter. The country expects Afghanistan to be right at the top of the House’s agenda, and it certainly is. May I say what an honour and privilege it was yesterday to attend the remembrance celebration in Belfast cathedral for those from 19 Light Brigade?
I turn to the right hon. Gentleman’s points about the recession and the G20. I understand that Spain is in the G20 plus, so the Prime Minister was absolutely right on that point. This Government have taken action to protect the economy in the face of a global financial crisis. As a country that has a large financial services sector that goes back decades, of course we are particularly affected by a crisis in that industry. Of course, as a trading nation, we would be affected by a global crisis that has reduced trade. The truth is that this Prime Minister has not only protected our economy from recession, but actually shaped the international approach, which has made sure that the country goes forward. I must say that had it been left to the policies of the official Opposition, we would not even be beginning to come out of recession, which is what we are doing at the moment—we are moving into recovery.
It is important that the Equality Bill received proper scrutiny from the House. May I just reiterate what happened? The Joint Committee on Human Rights scrutinised the Bill and did a report on it, as did the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. There were 38 hours of scrutiny in Committee, leaving aside evidence taken from the public as part of the Public Bill Committee hearings. There were two Select Committees, then 38 hours in Committee. Report stage is one day in this House unless major new policy is introduced, but no major new policy was introduced between Committee and Report.
I am sure that this will be a disappointment to Opposition Back Benchers, but there was no Front-Bench request for an extra day on Report until the business was announced—[Interruption.]
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Leader of the House, but there is far too much sedentary wittering taking place on the Opposition Benches, both from the Liberal Democrats and from the Conservatives. The Leader of the House must be heard. I want to make progress and I want to get everybody in.
I totally agree with you, Mr. Speaker. There is much too much sedentary wittering—it should be for me to witter at the Dispatch Box. I am still on my third point about scrutiny and I have many more to go.
There was no new policy in the Government amendments or new clauses. The Equality Bill will now go to the Lords, who will scrutinise it, and any amendments will come back to us. I pay a warm tribute to the Ministers—the Solicitor-General and the Parliamentary Secretary, Government Equalities Office—who took this very important Bill through the House. The Opposition tabled an amendment declining to give the Equality Bill a Second Reading and abstained on Third Reading. The Tories are not and never will be the party of equality.
We have not even got to the Christmas recess, so I do not know why the shadow Leader of the House keeps on asking about the Easter recess. I thought he was against recesses, yet he keeps calling on me to announce the Easter recess. It will happen all in good time and in due course.
As far as the European Commissioner is concerned, we have to work together with our European partners to make sure that we have proper financial regulation across Europe and across the world as a whole, but of course the Financial Services Authority is accountable to this House and we have our own domestic regulation. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there will be a debate about European affairs this afternoon, when hon. Members can discuss our excellent position, in having the very best Foreign Secretary we could have, the very best Business Secretary we could have, and a really excellent foreign representative for the European Commission in the shape of Cathy Ashton.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about class war. May I just say that clause 1 of the Equality Bill, which we introduced, puts a new duty on public authorities to narrow the gap between rich and poor? The Conservatives voted against that. We have put up the top rate of tax for those who can most afford to pay, to help us with the deficit as we come out of recession. The Conservatives are opposed to that and instead are just putting forward tax cuts for the richest. Theirs is truly the party for the few, and we are the party for the many.
Why is the Leader of the House not giving the House time before Christmas, given the urgency, to discuss the recommendations of the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons—the Wright Committee? It is not a matter of waiting for a Government response. We are interested not in what the Government have to say about the reform of the House of Commons, but in what this House has to say. Will she consider that as a matter of urgency?
May we have a debate on the banking sector, particularly those banks that are actually owned by the people of this country? I note that members of the board of the Royal Bank of Scotland wish to resign if they are not allowed to pay extraordinarily large amounts of money to people in their company. May I say that there is nobody standing in their way, and this House should have the opportunity to say so?
I am tired of asking for a proper debate on Afghanistan, but I hope that we will have one in the very near future. May I also ask for a debate on the humanitarian situation in Gaza, which worries hon. Members on both sides of the House?
May we have a statement on care homes? I was fortunate enough to open a newly refurbished home for elderly people with dementia in my constituency last week, and I am very conscious of the good work that so many care homes do. However, we should be concerned when we read reports of standards not being as good in some parts of the country. May we have a statement on that issue?
I entirely agree that we should not have a class war. When I hear people say that those with double-barrelled names should shorten them for the benefit of the electorate, it really upsets me. But we should have a debate on non-domiciled tax status, especially as it applies to Members of this House and the other place, and would-be Members. It is very important that we show that taxes are not just something paid by other people.
Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, for which we finally set up the board last night, is now a public body subject to freedom of information legislation?
The hon. Gentleman asks about the report on parliamentary reform. That is an important report and its complexity deserves detailed consideration and a proper response from the Government, which it will get. I do not want hon. Members to get the impression that the situation is anything other than as follows: my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) proposed to me that it would be a good idea to set the Committee up and that it could make far-reaching proposals. I welcomed that suggestion and took it forward. Indeed, I brought the proposal for the Committee to the House. It has done very important work and its members can be sure that that work will be carried through.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the banks. It is important for the economy that the banks lend, and there is still too much evidence that businesses, big and small, are not getting the finances they need. The Government are going after the banks to ensure that they fulfil their responsibilities to the economy and start to lend. Also, they must pay back the loans that they have been given—and that is under way—and they should exercise restraint on bonuses. The Government have been clear about that.
As far as Afghanistan is concerned, in the business of the House—be it Prime Minister’s questions, Defence questions, general debates or statements—Afghanistan is at the top of the agenda of this House of Commons, and rightly so.
The hon. Gentleman asked for a topical debate on Gaza, and the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) asked about topical debates in general. Topical debates will be announced shortly, and I will take that as a representation. In fact, other hon. Members have asked for topical debates on issues to do with the middle east and Gaza, so we may look forward to that being a subject.
The hon. Gentleman asked about care homes and mentioned the importance of the care of the elderly. That is important not only in residential care homes, but in their own homes. He will have heard me announce the Second Reading of the Personal Care at Home Bill, and we have all been concerned that some councils have been identified as not caring properly for adults—providing only “adequate” care, when we all want really good care for the elderly and vulnerable adults. That is what they need, and that is what their relatives want. I am very concerned that Southwark council has been identified as one of those councils providing care that is only adequate. Instead of protesting about the findings against it, it should be buckling down to address the concerns that have been identified.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about non-domiciled tax status. The old saying is “No taxation without representation.” Perhaps we should turn that around and say, “No representation without taxation.” People who seek to enter the House and levy taxes should show that they are prepared to pay those taxes. It is not appropriate for anybody to think that they can enter the House and make others pay taxes that they decide not to pay themselves. However, that is for the Conservative party to sort out, not me.
The chair and chief executive of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority are in place already and getting on with their work. They are getting down to it expeditiously and in a way that the House would want them to do. We passed the resolution last night, and like all other public authorities, they will be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Lord Morris’s Bill has had its First Reading in the other place, and the Second Reading is scheduled for 11 December. I am sure that my hon. Friend will watch its progress with great interest and concern, as we all will. I know how important the issue is to her and her constituents, whom she has supported tirelessly on that important issue.
May we have a debate on the application of Criminal Records Bureau checks and what might be the law of unintended consequences? I have a sad constituency case involving a 13-year-old boy who was found guilty of a sexual offence. As a result his ambition to become a teacher has been completely crushed, because the offence will have to be declared in any application that he makes. However wrong it was to commit the offence, it seems wrong that a 13-year-old boy should have his life chances so affected and have to face the resulting psychological damage.
The situation is being dealt with under legislation passed by the House. Sexual offending is often a repeat offence, which is why we have a system of registration. No doubt cases such as that of the hon. Lady’s constituent will be caught by the law, but that law was passed by the House.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend arrange for the Chancellor to make a statement, to the House and the general public, confirming that no barriers in any shape or form will be placed before directors of the Royal Bank of Scotland who choose to resign over not getting a bonus?
I agree with my hon. Friend that they already earn vast salaries, and now they are threatening to resign if they cannot indulge in largesse and the distribution of massive bonuses to top executives across the piece. I think that there will be much sympathy for what he said.
Rarely a weekend surgery goes by when I do not see at least one, if not two or three, Child Support Agency cases, even after all these years and with all the reforms. One constituent has not received any money for more than five years, and others are paying far too much. May we have a proper debate on the workings of the CSA so that we can come forward with proper reforms that will affect everybody and be fair to everyone?
The CSA has such important work to do because too many non-residential parents—mostly fathers—do not show themselves willing to support their children. That is the major problem; it is not the work of the agency. The fundamental problem is men who have children but are not prepared to pay for them and resist doing so. That is why the work of the CSA is very important. If the hon. Gentleman wants to ensure further scrutiny of its work, perhaps he can seek a Westminster Hall debate.
May we have an early debate on what the Government are doing to maximise British ownership and employment in the manufacturing industry, particularly in light of the hostile takeover bid of Cadbury, in my constituency, and other proposed takeovers? Cadbury is not a lame duck, but a thriving business with excellent growth prospects.
Next year will see the first application for one of the new nuclear power stations in my constituency. Under the new rules, there is not a problem with the actual power station, but I have a question about the infrastructure that feeds it—the roads, park-and-ride, hostels and the rest of it. We cannot work out—the Government are giving mixed signals—whether that is included in the application. May we have a debate to clear that up before the first application, which will be one of many, and to avoid long-term problems?
I shall ask the relevant Minister to write to the hon. Gentleman with a specific reply. I am not sure which Minister will be dealing with it, but I shall find out. Next Monday, there will be an energy debate on the Second Reading of the Energy Bill, and there are Communities and Local Government questions next week as well, so he will have the opportunity to raise that point directly.
Does the Leader of the House recall that when the miners went on strike in order to protect the pits, they were denounced as traitors in the press? Does this morning’s action by the bankers remind her of that? Can we expect a similar condemnation? Furthermore, those precious, self-centred people need to be brought here and cautioned for what they are saying about their position. They are blackmailing the Government.
I am happy to condemn those who do not recognise that people expect banks to play their part in the economy, to lend to businesses, to pay back the money they needed because they nearly fell off the edge of a cliff as a result of recklessness and irresponsibility, and not, at the back end of it, to award themselves massive bonuses. I agree with my hon. Friend.
In business questions on 25 June, I asked the Leader of the House:
“Will she open negotiations with the Opposition parties and interested Back Benchers on how her Equality Bill will be scrutinised on Report”?
“I will do both those things.”—[Official Report, 25 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 962.]
On 2 July, she said:
“We will not be going through the motions of consulting…we will actually consult”.—[Official Report, 2 July 2009; Vol. 495, c. 488.]
On 16 July, she said that
“we will want to ensure that we make the Bill an exemplar of how the House should scrutinise Bills on Report”.—[Official Report, 16 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 456.]
Will the Leader of the House accept that, instead of gaining a reputation as the destroyer of scrutiny, she should think about how we can have proper parliamentary scrutiny of Government Bills on Report? Will she accept the recommendations of the Wright report in that respect?
We will, I think, be taking forward the Wright report recommendations. As I said, the Equality Bill had the full scrutiny of the House. It spent 38 hours in Committee, and it has been calculated that the hon. Gentleman spoke for 20 of them, so he knows that he has played his part in scrutinising the Bill. I commend him on doing so, but it is not right to say that the Bill has not been substantially scrutinised.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend make time for a debate on primary care trusts, such as that in Bolton, which spend huge amounts of public money? The Secretary of State for Health refuses to answer questions on PCTs, but in my view, they should be open to scrutiny by Parliament?
I shall ask the Secretary of State for Health to respond to my hon. Friend’s request. We are accountable for, and concerned about, the delivery to everybody and in every part of the country, and about not only first-rate hospital services, but good PCT and general practitioner services.
May I reinforce the two Front-Bench requests for a debate on Afghanistan? On Monday, I put it to the Prime Minister that we should have an amendable motion, on which we can vote, to be debated before 28 January. The Prime Minister replied:
“Of course, if Members of the House want to debate these things in more detail, it is right that we should do so”.—[Official Report, 30 November 2009; Vol. 501, c. 851.]
We know that the Liberal Democrats and my party want to debate that in detail and that the country wants us to do so. May we please have the debate?
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman has reminded the House, the Prime Minister responded on those issues not only in Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesday, but in a statement. However, as hon. Members made clear, neither was a debate, and I shall look for an opportunity to hold one as well.
Is it time for my right hon. and learned Friend to speak to the Prime Minister and ensure that we hold a national jobs summit to protect manufacturing jobs? Other European countries have strengthened their support for manufacturing in their countries, and the time has come to do the same here. Unemployment is a blight on this country. We must do something about it, and we can through a national jobs summit. I look forward to her response.
When the Prime Minister convened the G20 summit in London earlier this year, jobs, manufacturing and how we all work together to protect them was very much at the heart of his concerns. The National Economic Council, which he established, meets on a weekly basis and always has jobs—and particularly manufacturing jobs—high on the agenda for discussion. That includes not only jobs in traditional industries such as the automotive industry, which has benefited from the car scrappage scheme, but green jobs and jobs in new industries such as environmental engineering. Such jobs are always very much at the forefront of our concerns.
In warmly welcoming the Leader of the House’s announcement that there will be a debate on the pre-Budget report, may I ask her to clear up one query? As there is always such a debate, why was she not able to say that there would be one in previous weeks? The reason cannot be her lack of competence. Could it be that the Prime Minister micro-manages everything so much that she is not allowed to observe the obvious in advance and save us all a lot of time?
The pre-Budget report is a relatively recent innovation. Although it is a long-standing practice to have such a debate after the Budget, it has not been the long-standing practice to have one after the pre-Budget report. However, we agree that there needs to be one this time round, and there will be.
In the previous Session I introduced a presentation Bill on financial disclosure. With the announcement that there is an Opposition candidate standing who is a non-dom, and with some question marks over at least one Peer who may or may not be resident in this country, is it not time that the Government looked at the issue properly, as the Liberal Democrat spokesman said, to see whether it should be a criminal offence to stand for Parliament yet refuse to pay full tax in this country?
As my hon. Friend will probably know, Sir Christopher Kelly’s report for the Committee on Standards in Public Life asked for pre-election disclosure by candidates of their financial interests. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice is in discussions with the Electoral Commission and will issue guidance on the matter, as suggested by Sir Christopher Kelly, in advance of putting that into legislation. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is not good enough to say, “Well, I haven’t been paying my taxes up to now, but if I manage to get elected, I’ll probably change my tax status.” That is unacceptable, and the issue is particularly acute for Members of this House, because it is this House that passes the Finance Bill and decides to raise taxes. We therefore cannot have people who expect just the little people—everybody else—to pay their taxes.
The Leader of the House will be aware that sections of the media are covering the issue of libel tourism, which is something that Ministers will have to judge on its merits. [Interruption.] Yes, Libel tourism. However, has she noticed that the issue of no win, no fee methods of compensation for lawyers involved in such cases has been added to the wish list? Does she agree that we are talking about a system of justice that vast swathes of people are entitled to have access to? Will she agree to a debate on the issue, to ensure that the baby does not get thrown out with the bathwater?
No win, no fee was introduced to alleviate pressure on the legal aid budget and to ensure that those with a good case were not prevented from going forward because they did not have the finances. I will look into the hon. Gentleman’s point about libel tourism and raise it with the Secretary of State for Justice, although I thought that he was talking about “library tourism”, which I thought was another marvellous step forward for the tourist industry.
The reign of King James I was not exactly studded with too many glittering achievements, but he did make a major social, spiritual and cultural contribution to our nation with the authorised version of the Bible, which was first published in 1611. Does the Leader of the House know whether the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport aims to make a statement on how we will mark the 400th anniversary? The 2011 Trust is working hard, the BBC has said that it will mark the occasion, online and on TV and radio. We as a nation expect our Government to do so as well.
Will the Leader of the House take the opportunity to find out why the Christmas tree fell down on Monday morning? Did the contractor put the Christmas tree in properly, and should we expect some compensation for the new contract that had to be put in place to put it back up again?
I am sorry, but I was not aware that the Christmas tree had fallen down. I would say to hon. Members that, if they are going to ask such questions and expect informative answers, perhaps they could at least let me know in advance. My room is just around the corner from the Chamber, so it is easy to find me and report any emergencies such as falling Christmas trees.
Any recession impacts severely on young people and school leavers, particularly unskilled school leavers. The Government have been focused on providing a series of measures to help young people in this recession, but for one group it is almost impossible to get a job or even an apprenticeship place. That group is young people in supported housing, where the level of housing benefit makes it not worth their while to go into work. Can we have a debate about the impact of the September guarantees that the Government provided for this year’s school leavers and, in particular, about the remaining anomalies in the benefits system that make it hard for young people in supported housing?
I thank my hon. Friend for acknowledging the mass of concerted Government action that has gone into protecting this generation of young people from the effects of the recession. If a recession hits people at a certain stage in their lives, it can have lifelong effects on their prospects. That is what happened in previous recessions, which is why we were determined not to let it happen to this generation of young people. It is Department for Work and Pensions questions next week. I suggest that my hon. Friend raise his important point about the interaction of benefits and other programmes with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions when she answers at the Dispatch Box then.
Last week in business questions the Deputy Leader of the House, ably coached by the right hon. and learned Lady, listed the achievements of the Modernisation Committee as, inter alia, topical debates and deferred Divisions. Could the organ grinder explain how non-controversial topical debates, the subjects of which are chosen by the Executive, help to hold the Executive to account, and how deferred Divisions contribute to better scrutiny? Can she also say when we will have a debate on parliamentary reform and the Wright report?
The Deputy Leader of the House has tabled a written ministerial statement today setting out the requests that we received for topical debates and the subjects of those debates. The hon. Gentleman will see that, by and large, virtually all topical debates were chosen as a result of requests from Back Benchers or Opposition Front Benchers, so the idea that we sit there deciding what to discuss in topical debates is frankly wrong. Just one debate had not been the subject of such requests—a debate about carers—and that was because the outside carers’ organisations had put in a request for a debate. I also think it very rude and unwarranted of the hon. Gentleman to make disparaging remarks about my hon. Friend, who is an excellent Deputy Leader of the House, so he can say sorry to her afterwards.
Ofsted gave three stars to Haringey just before the tragic news of the baby P case; the rating was dropped to just one star on a further inspection. The same goes for Basildon hospital foundation trust, although how it got that rating we do not know, because the Care Quality Commission then dropped it. May we have a debate in the House on how to inspect the inspectors?
Investing extra money in public services, having high standards and holding services to account for those standards lie at the heart of our commitment to those services; we are making investments, setting targets, giving guarantees and requiring public services to be held to account for them. The inspection regimes across health, social services and education are very important. I will look into how best to ensure that the House can scrutinise them.
Can we have a debate on the unintended damage caused by school league tables? League tables give a perverse incentive to schools not to stretch the people at the very top properly or focus sufficiently on those at the very bottom, but instead to concentrate all their resources on the borderline students. Surely schools should be encouraged to allow children to reach their full potential irrespective of their ability.
It is important that school-by-school information should be collected, so that parents can see how schools as a whole are progressing. It is also right that the results for each child are regularly communicated to their parents. All those are regimes to improve education that we have put in place. We are in favour of that accountability and in favour of extra investment in education. However, we are also in favour of ensuring that schools are held to account for improving children’s results as a consequence of that extra education, which is exactly what they are doing. Indeed, those on the hon. Gentleman’s Front Bench are also in favour of league tables and holding schools to account; they are just not in favour of putting in the investment that we have put in.
The Leader of the House used the Personal Care at Home Bill to deflect the very reasonable request made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). Does she not share my outrage at the finding of the Care Quality Commission’s report, published today, into the state of some of our care homes and the fact that thousands of elderly and frail people are left in truly squalid conditions? Does she not think it should be a priority to debate this specific issue in Government time?
I think that it is important that this issue be subject to discussion, debate and scrutiny. I will consider how best to do that, but as far as the individual authorities are concerned, they will certainly need to look at how they can improve their services. There are a number of occasions—two next week, an Opposition day and an estimates day—when the question of local authority provision and the work of local authorities, which touches on the issue, can be debated.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister yet again damaged his serious message on terrorism by insisting on referring to something he always calls “Alky-Ada”. Today, he is in trouble again over a botched letter of condolence to a bereaved service family. Given that the armed forces serve the Crown and not politicians, may we have a statement from a Constitutional Affairs Minister, confirming that it would be more appropriate if the Prime Minister kept out of letters of condolence to bereaved service families and this were left, as it traditionally has been left, to the monarch?
As well as being the Prime Minister of this country, the Prime Minister is a human being who understands the dreadful bereavement of those who have lost a child. Indeed, when he has written to those families, he has written privately and has not sought to put those letters in the public domain. I really think that the hon. Gentleman, for whom I generally speaking have a great deal of respect, should not have put that question in that way. It does not help our troops, it does not help the terrible loss of bereaved families—and it does not help his party either.
I echo the calls of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) for a debate on the Care Quality Commission. Only this week, a report—a secret report on the Eccleshill independent treatment centre—was made public, yet the Care Quality Commission is now saying that this very meticulous and damning report is wrong. I am afraid that the credibility of the CQC is seriously undermined, and with all the cases that we have now heard, we need to debate it.
The question of caring for people at home and in residential care is important, so I hope that we can find an opportunity to debate these issues over the next week and the week after that. I will keep under review the question of whether we need a topical debate, and decide at the appropriate time.
Could we have a debate on Iran? While media attention has focused on the fate of the recently detained British sailors—I congratulate the Foreign Office on helping to secure a positive result—what has not been widely reported is the fact that President Ahmadinejad of Iran has effectively withdrawn all co-operation with the United Nations on working to resolve the nuclear issue. Given that the US Administration have given until the end of the year to try to move forward in a positive way, we are now running out of time to ensure that measures are put in place to bring this to an end. Could we please make this a priority and have at least a statement from the Foreign Secretary before we rise for Christmas, because time is running out?
I will ask my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to write to the hon. Gentleman. We all agree with his welcome for the release of the British sailors and with his thanks to the consular officials involved in bringing that about. We would all also share his concern. Iran has been offered the opportunity of positive international engagement, as the hon. Gentleman says, but if it does not take that opportunity and it continues to pose a threat, the international community will obviously have to act on that concern, which could go as far as toughening up sanctions. As I said, I will ask the Foreign Secretary to write to the hon. Gentleman.
The Government must not give in to the demands from the directors of the Royal Bank of Scotland for well- cushioned bonuses. Most of my constituents would say good riddance to them if they decided to resign in protest. Will the Leader of the House ensure that if the Chancellor caves in, he will make a statement about it on the Floor of the House?
Flooding has seriously affected not just parts of Cumbria and other areas of England, but areas in Northern Ireland, particularly in County Fermanagh, which does not have a voice in this House on account of the abstention of its Sinn Fein Member of Parliament. Speaking on behalf of people living there and in other areas represented by Sinn Fein, may I ask the Leader of the House for a debate or a statement on the possibilities of assistance from the EU to help areas affected by the flooding? What additional help can be given?
We are having a debate on EU affairs as soon as business questions are concluded. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe is in his place on the Front Bench waiting to start on that. There is also a debate on the Flood and Water Management Bill on Tuesday 15 December. Let me take the opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham), who has worked with the Government, local authorities and the emergency services on behalf of the many families in his constituency who have had an absolutely terrible time. Even though they are no longer at the top of the news, we are all thinking of them, as it is cold there and the rain has started again. They are very much not forgotten. We are working to support them.
Last night, we had the unedifying sight of the Liberal party trying to delay the setting up of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority by using a parliamentary procedure to delay debate and stop a vote. Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate next week entitled “The Liberal Democrat party: neither Liberal nor Democratic”?
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of European affairs.
Having spent eight years analysing its innards and obsessing about its own rule book, Europe now needs to focus all its energies on the needs and concerns of its citizens. Next week’s Council meetings will do precisely that, with key discussions on jobs and growth, on climate change, on European co-operation to tackle crime, on the enlargement of the Union and on external relations, especially with Iran.
On the economy, I know some Members, particularly Conservative Members, would like to pretend otherwise, but no country in Europe has escaped the effects of the global economic downturn. Three things, I believe, have become apparent through this extraordinary period. First, every country in Europe has faced the same set of problems because no economy is a hermetically sealed unit. Italy’s debt is now 115 per cent. of gross domestic product, while Greece’s is 113.4 per cent. and Belgium’s is 97.4 per cent. Unemployment across the EU is currently at 9.4 per cent.—its highest level since the recession began. In Latvia and Spain, it is at its highest, at 20.9 and 19.3 per cent. respectively.
May I take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend on becoming Minister for Europe, a subject about which he is passionate and knowledgeable? May I also take up the issue of the economic situation in Europe? Given that next year is the 10th anniversary of the Lisbon agenda, will my hon. Friend recommit the Government to achieving the goals that were set in Lisbon in 2000—certain and precise benchmarks for European countries to follow, rather than a vague “We hope everything is going to be all right”?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I cannot remember whether he was number six or number seven—or, perhaps, number five or number eight—but I know that some Ministers for Europe have not remained in post for long, and I intend to remain for a long time.
My right hon. Friend has raised an important point about the Lisbon agenda. He is right to suggest that we must work hard in the coming months, especially as we move into the Spanish presidency. I know that the Spanish intend to take up the task with keen endeavour. We need to move towards a compact on jobs and growth, which is one of the subjects I am about to discuss.
May I make a point about jobs and growth? Michel Barnier has been appointed as the single market Commissioner, and yesterday a new regulatory body was set up in Europe to regulate the financial services industry, which is critical to this country’s success. Is the Minister as worried as we are, along with those in the City of London, about the possibility that both developments will damage our financial services industry and reduce the number of jobs in this country?
No. I respect the financial services industry in the City as much, and take as much pride in it, as the hon. Gentleman does. It is a vital part of the British economy. However, I would also argue—as the Chancellor of the Exchequer did in The Times, yesterday or the day before—that the City of London is as important to the economy of the whole of Europe as it is to the United Kingdom. That is why I think that any internal market Commissioner would want to protect and enhance its reputation and strength.
I warmly welcome the appointment of Mr Barnier. I know that he is to visit the United Kingdom before Christmas, and will have conversations with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He has proved himself to be a very effective Commissioner in the past. I think the hon. Gentleman is making a mistake when he presumes that individual Commissioners will be representatives of their Governments. It is made very clear in the treaty, which I am sure he has read on several occasions—
I had no doubt that the hon. Gentleman had read it. May I ask him to wait a moment and calm down? The treaty makes it absolutely clear that Commissioners are there not to represent their countries but to act as a body of Commissioners, and I am sure that the Commission will produce legislation that will be helpful to the City of London.
I welcomed the unanimous agreement that was reached on a set of measures yesterday. I shall say more about that regulation shortly.
Given the point that the Minister made earlier, he might wish to consider the way in which the Spanish Commissioners have always behaved in relation to fisheries reform, which, in my experience, is often quite nationalistic. Will the Minister congratulate the new Conservative group in the European Parliament on securing the chairmanship of the Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection for Malcolm Harbour, a British Conservative Member of the European Parliament representing the west midlands, which will have an influence in that important sphere?
I thought the hon. Gentleman would go on to congratulate the Conservative group on completely isolating themselves in Europe, on not managing to secure a single vice-president of the Parliament, on not managing to secure a single Commissioner, and on being pretty much reviled by most Members of the European Parliament. I do not know whether he has visited the European Parliament recently.
As it happens, I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Harbour. I knew him when I was working in Brussels, and I look forward to working with him. I merely say to the hon. Gentleman that by absconding from the main group in the European Parliament the Conservatives have done themselves absolutely no favours, and have marginalised the British interest in Europe.
I am pleased to tell the Minister that I was a Member of the European Parliament for five years, and that I was deputy leader of the British MEPs and a deputy co-ordinator of the European People’s party. I should be interested to learn whether the Minister’s take on it is any different from mine.
I am very happy to welcome our new group. It is not isolated; it is at the very heart of the decision-making process, as Mr. Harbour’s appointment has demonstrated.
With all that knowledge, the hon. Gentleman should know better. He is aware that the European Conservatives and Reformists, the group that he handpicked, along with his leader and Dastardly and Muttley—[Laughter.] The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) clearly recognises himself.
As the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) knows perfectly well, in the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs a couple of weeks ago, when the portfolios were being handed out on all the key issues relating to financial services and the internal market, not a single Conservative MEP was given a single portfolio. Two of the key portfolios were given to Labour Members. If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I shall move on now.
I think it is a triumph that the new High Representative is Cathy Ashton, because I know her to be a very effective operator. I know that she will build coalitions of opinion. Yesterday even Conservative MEPs were congratulating her on her appearance in the European Parliament, and I am certain that she will do a very effective job.