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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 504: debated on Thursday 28 January 2010


The Minister of State was asked—

Swindon to Kemble Railway Line

1. What recent assessment he has made of progress on his Department’s feasibility study into the doubling of the Swindon to Kemble railway line; and if he will make a statement. (313710)

Officials at the Department for Transport are currently in detailed discussions with Network Rail to determine an acceptable price for this work along with time scales for construction. We hope to be in a position to give further information on the matter in the near future.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. Do I take it that there will be a decision to go ahead with the redoubling of the line, which is important to people who live in Cheltenham and Gloucester—a major town and an historic major city? The rail link between those places and London is unacceptably slow, unreliable and expensive, and people in the area, including many of my constituents, need to see an improvement. Will the Minister give us an assurance that we will move in the right direction on this one?

The Secretary of State and the Minister for the South West strongly support the scheme, which opens up the possibility for increases in service frequency to Gloucester and beyond, as well as providing an improved diversionary route to and from south Wales. Departmental officials, as I have said, are working closely with Network Rail to ensure that it can introduce a scheme that is affordable within the resources available to the region.

I hear what my hon. Friend has said, but if Network Rail has come up with a figure of £65 million, rather than £45 million, which is what we thought that it would be, can we have an urgent meeting with him and Network Rail to look at how we can make the scheme affordable, because as my neighbour, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), has said, it is vital that that programmed work is undertaken?

I am always happy to discuss with local Members progress on schemes in their areas. If Network Rail comes up with one figure or another, we will continue to discuss it.

I, too, broadly welcome the redoubling of the line, largely through my constituency, on behalf of my constituents who commute from Kemble. None the less, in proposing these plans, will the Minister bear in mind the interests of the people who live alongside the line, particularly in the village of Minety, who are concerned that there will be too much extra traffic on the line, and who seek local improvements if the redoubling goes ahead?

We always expect the concerns of local constituents to be taken into account, but the objective of the improvements is to enable additional trains to run and to provide the option of a diversionary route for south Wales.

The Swindon to Kemble stretch of line is of major strategic significance, and it is a public policy failure that we have not been able to redouble it so far. Given the expected increase in passenger traffic over the next 10 or 20 years, will we have a policy of reopening lines and stations that should not have been closed in the first place, and of redoubling lines that should not have been singled? If the Scots and the Welsh can successfully reopen railway lines, why can we not do so in England?

Of course, we can and do, but it is a question of the affordability of any scheme that is introduced at any particular time. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that his party would make additional resources available for capital investment in the railways, it is something to which we would be sympathetic.

Ticket Offices

2. What recent representations he has received on railway station ticket office opening times in Hornsey and Wood Green constituency. (313711)

No representations have been received on this matter since the hon. Lady last wrote to the Secretary of State about it in October 2009.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the Secretary of State’s successful intervention to halt the plans of South West Trains to close ticket offices. What consideration has his Department given to using those powers on First Capital Connect in my constituency? What criteria does he use for such an intervention, and will he make a commitment to review the recent closures, which have damaged safety at stations in my constituency, with a view to using those powers in Hornsey and Wood Green?

The Secretary of State has no powers to object to major changes under the ticketing and settlement agreement where passenger representative groups have not sustained objections. In this case, FCC agreed to monitor sales of tickets at weekends over an eight-week period last autumn. The Department has not yet received details of that assessment, and will continue to pursue that train operating company for that data, which are months overdue. I am sure that in raising the question, the hon. Lady has reminded FirstGroup of its commitment.

Tramlink (Crystal Palace)

3. How much funding his Department has provided to the Greater London Authority for the extension of Tramlink to Crystal Palace. (313712)

The Department has not received any bids for funding an extension to the Croydon Tramlink.

The Department for Transport provides substantial funding to Transport for London in the form of a block grant. My Department’s funding for TfL has risen dramatically since 2000, more than doubling to just less than £3 billion in 2009-10 and rising to £3.3 billion next year. That funding is not ring-fenced to specific projects, and it is for the Mayor and TfL to prioritise spending to deliver transport services in London as they see fit.

The Minister is right. Substantial moneys have been given for investment in public transport in London, but the Crystal Palace extension, which was on the agenda under Ken Livingstone’s mayoralty, offered the prospect of regeneration for deprived parts of my constituency. Traders in Upper Norwood strongly support such a scheme, and there is close to unanimous support in the community. Is it time for the Government, Transport for London and the Mayor to get together to try and get the scheme back on the agenda?

I know that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents always watch Transport questions. If they are not doing so, it is important that he reports back to them the bad news that the current Mayor’s business plan for 2009 includes no proposals for the Croydon Tramlink. In his draft transport strategy, the Mayor mentions the extension of Tramlink after 2020, with no commitment to any additional funding. One of the downsides of voting for the present Mayor is that areas such as Croydon are neglected.

First Capital Connect (Thameslink)

4. What assessment he has made of the effects on the economy of London of recent disruptions in First Capital Connect’s Thameslink service. (313713)

There have been severe problems with First Capital Connect’s service. The service continues to be unacceptable in terms of cancellations, punctuality and passenger service and information. The poor service has caused disruption for passengers and will inevitably have had some impact on London’s economy. My noble Friend the Secretary of State and I are considering all options open to the Government to require radical improvements.

The Minister will know that not only my constituents, but many, many others have got so frustrated that the number of people petitioning the Government to do something now is growing by the day. Will he assure us that a decision will be taken not on the basis of defending the ideology of sustaining franchises, but in the interests of commuters and other users of the service, and that the users of the service will hear something soon?

The way in which the hon. Gentleman asked the question is important, as is the point that he has made. Hundreds of thousands of commuters have received an appalling service, not for one week or one month, but over a period of three months. We take the matter seriously, and the Secretary of State and I discuss it daily with the train operating company, which includes telephone calls, meetings and letters. The hon. Gentleman is right to remind us that each day the service is not improved is another day of suffering for passengers, and there is a cost to London as well.

Thousands of my constituents travel every day by First Capital Connect, as do I, and we can give a daily account of the failings of that company, which has shown itself to be totally incompetent and interested only in making money, not providing a service. I urge my right hon. Friend to give serious consideration to taking the franchise away and bringing it back to the public sector.

All options are on the table. I hear my hon. Friend’s representations, as I listen to all representations. The point made in the previous question is important. We must not allow dogma to dictate the quality of service, or lack of it, that passengers receive. My job, and that of the Department and our officials, is to ensure a radical improvement in the quality of service provided by First Capital Connect.

The Minister is right. Dogma should not be part of this discussion. First Capital Connect should rightly be condemned for the poor service that it has provided. However, if dogma is not to be a part of the discussion, I am sure the Minister will want to inform the House that the east coast line has seen punctuality drop from 89 per cent. to 67 per cent. since it was nationalised. If we are concerned about the future of the London economy, can the Minister assure the House that there are no plans to reduce the number of trains running through the core on Thameslink 2?

I am glad the hon. Gentleman has given me an opportunity to remind the House of the £5.5 billion investment in the Thameslink programme, which is at risk if, God forbid, the Conservative party forms a Government. On policy, it is important that I remind him of the “Conservative rail review: Getting the best for passengers” policy, which is this:

“The DfT’s role should be radically stripped back . . . retaining only a limited involvement”

with franchises. So the powers that we have would be taken away if the Opposition were to form a Government.

National Concessionary Bus Passes

5. If he will bring forward proposals to enable national concessionary bus passes to be used on community transport services; and if he will make a statement. (313714)

I pay tribute to and thank the more than 5,000 voluntary bodies which provide community transport around the country, making a substantial positive impact on transport priorities. Some sectors of community transport are already eligible for concessionary travel. Local authorities are also able to offer concessions on any form of community transport on a discretionary basis. We have no current plans to extend the £1 billion national concessionary scheme.

I am grateful for that answer and for the tribute that the Minister has rightly paid to the many community groups that run those essential transport services. The problem in constituencies such as mine, where there are not many scheduled bus services, is that the free bus pass is completely useless for many older and disabled constituents. The district council has to run a costly parallel system of travel tokens, which people who qualify for the pass can use on community transport. Will the Minister consider a proposal for extending the free concessionary bus pass, so that we can get rid of a layer of wasteful bureaucracy and have a more efficient, streamlined system that could deliver better services at no more cost to the taxpayer?

I am happy to look at new ideas. Aside from the cost, there are practical problems with the definition of eligibility, including who would be eligible, and with the impact on rural bus demand, given the extra burdens that such a scheme would impose. I am happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman about any proposals that he has, but it is worth adding that Forest of Dean district council did not respond to the recent consultation on the special grant. However, he may have constructive ideas, which I am happy to listen to, about improving the service that his constituents receive.

Passenger Security (Screening)

6. Whether he plans to add profiling to the passenger security screening measures in place at UK airports. (313715)

Security staff at Heathrow are undergoing training in behavioural analysis techniques, whereby passengers are selected if they are behaving suspiciously. We will review the effectiveness of that trial before deciding whether it can be rolled out more widely.

Following the recent alleged attempt to bomb the plane that was destined for Detroit from Amsterdam Schiphol airport, it has been suggested that UK airport security could be stepped up through passenger profiling, which is perhaps what the Minister was talking about. Will it make passengers’ journey through security and travel safer? Will it, in fact, be effective?

All approaches to security have one underlying aim, which is to make sure that those flying to, from and within the United Kingdom are safe and able to go about their business knowing that all agencies and all parts of the industry have taken the necessary steps. Profiling has certain considerable limitations, which is why aviation security is multi-layered. Behavioural analysis techniques mean that one can profile against the norm; therefore people behaving people suspiciously will require further security checks.

Does my hon. Friend have sufficient power to assure himself that a variety of security measures are deployed to respond to changing intelligence information?

Yes, I believe that we do. We have an arrangement whereby a range of security and intelligence agencies come together to advise Ministers, agencies and airlines on the operations that they need to undertake.

We all know that there can be large queues at airport security points, but will the Minister explain why passengers, when travelling to Scotland through Heathrow terminal 5, have to get through security 35 minutes before departure, while at London City airport a more sensible approach is taken, with no time limit so long as the passenger can make the flight?

I shall certainly look into the specifics of that issue, but our role is to set the required security standards; the airport operators need to ensure and manage the necessary processes, including queues.

Kromek is an award-winning company in my constituency, and its chief executive officer, Arnab Basu, was awarded the title of entrepreneur of the year. It is developing a scanner that can identify whether liquid in a bottle is explosive, and the product is being trialled in the United States and other areas. Will my hon. Friend meet me and the company to see what we can do to promote that great British invention?

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) is a strong campaigner for his constituency’s industries and, particularly, for Kromek. I assure him that members of my Department, along with the police and the Home Office, have been collaborating closely with Kromek and, indeed, other companies to take forward that work and ensure that our security systems are ahead of the threat that we face. However, I am always more than willing to meet organisations.

I fully appreciate that the extreme sensitivity of this issue puts real constraints on the detail that the Minister can share with the House, but can he help me with the following question? The Israelis have used behavioural analysis for some years to spot suspicious behaviour within a perimeter that stretches out as widely as airport car parks. Does he see any scope for using such techniques in the UK to address risks that arise before the security check stage to guard against attacks of the sort that we saw in Glasgow in 2007, which are targeted on people queuing?

The hon. Lady is right that it is not possible to go into operational details. As regards the techniques that are available to us, we continue to receive information and consider opportunities through the intelligence agencies as to what is possible. Behavioural analysis techniques are being trialled at Heathrow with the BAA and UK Border Agency staff based there. I saw that for myself earlier this week when I visited Heathrow and discussed it with the operatives. We keep all these opportunities under review.

There is clearly scope for a consensus to emerge on an intelligence-led approach to security, which is welcome. However, the Minister will recall the Prime Minister’s 2007 promise to deliver a data system to identify and stop terror suspects before they board a plane to come to the UK. Why have the “authority to carry” provisions that are necessary to deliver that not been put in place, given that countries such as Australia have had those systems for some years? Will the Minister admit that the e-Borders programme is expensive, late, and leaves us behind other countries that have better systems that are already in operation?

The hon. Lady will be well aware of the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary earlier this month, and of the Prime Minister’s statement to this House on 20 January, clearly taking forward the options and rolling out further the e-Borders programme, as well as the watch list and no-fly list, which we are working on. We are in discussion with other countries, and working together where there is a security threat, before these people board flights to the UK or elsewhere.

Any additional security requirements at airports are likely to be very expensive for airport operators. What assessment has the Minister made of the financial impact on regional airports, which have already been particularly hit by the recession?

The requirements for security have always been very clearly known, and meeting the costs involved is a matter for the business that is running the airport. However, we have regular discussions, and we have obviously had substantial discussions since 25 December last year with airport operators to discuss the roll-out and mechanics that are required. The costs are an operating cost that falls against the business of running an airport.


I am aware of the recent fatal accident at East Winch, and I extend every sympathy to the families and friends of those killed. As part of the strategic road network, the established procedures are being followed, which involves the Highways Agency undertaking a fatal accident study following any police investigation, which may identify recommendations for safety improvements.

I thank the Minister for that reply and for expressing his regrets at what was an horrendous double fatality. What are the prospects for that stretch of road being dualled? Can he ensure that when the Highways Agency sets up its safety audit it looks specifically at reducing the speed limit and installing more fibre optic flashing warning signs?

Obviously, recommendations may be made arising from the investigation by the police and the Highways Agency. There are no plans to dual that part of the A47, which is, overall, one of the safer stretches of A road in our country, as is indicated by the figures on personal injury in accidents. However, any lessons that can be learned arising from a fatality will of course be taken on board.

Some of the worst accidents on this type of road are head-on collisions, when frustrated motorists attempt to overtake lorries in dangerous locations. The speed limit for large goods vehicles on single carriageway trunk roads is 20 mph slower than that for cars. Would narrowing that gap improve road safety?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that that matter is part of the work we have done in the new road safety strategy for 2011 and beyond, particularly in relation to the types of roads referred to by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. We are aware that single carriage, rural A roads account for proportionately more deaths given the volume of traffic on them, which is why we are looking at a range of issues. We are considering the specific point raised by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), but equally, there is a view that such a change would not help and that it would lead to further accidents.

Gatwick Airport (Railway Station)

8. What recent discussions his Department has had on the redevelopment of the railway station at Gatwick airport. (313717)

Enhancements to Gatwick airport station have been discussed with key beneficiaries at three meetings over the past four months. My hon. Friend was at the most recent meeting last week, where Gatwick Airport Ltd and Network Rail agreed to negotiations that could enable work on the full improvement scheme to start by 2013.

I am grateful for that response. Setting aside the worrying 1,500 job losses proposed by Network Rail, Network Rail will carry out a major upgrade of the track and signalling along the Brighton line. If we miss the opportunity to do the much-needed work at Gatwick airport, it will be a travesty. I know that the Department has been working extremely hard with the stakeholders—Gatwick Airport Ltd, the regional development agency and everybody else—to do that work. Can I squeeze some more out of him? Will he do a little more to make sure we deal with the current shortfall?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the exemplary way in which she has engaged with Network Rail, the regional Minister and key stakeholders at Gatwick airport to press for progress. One might argue that she is a model Back Bencher. The full scheme would bring better connectivity and surface access, removal of a platform bottleneck, more reliable journeys on the Brighton main line and inward investment and retention of businesses around Gatwick. It is opportune to remind partners that there is a limited window of opportunity, and that negotiations need to be concluded by the end of March.

High-Speed Rail

9. What recent progress his Department has made on its plans for high-speed rail; and if he will make a statement. (313718)

The Department for Transport is continuing its assessment of the detailed report from High Speed 2, which was received at the end of last year. If the Government decide to pursue proposals for high-speed rail, we will publish a White Paper setting out plans by the end of March 2010.

In thanking my right hon. Friend for that answer, I say that there is enormous enthusiasm for a high-speed rail link across the length and breadth of this country, but can he persuade the traditionally London-centric Departments that this scheme is not about London? It is about connecting together the whole of our nation, which is what makes it exciting and viable.

It is not just a question of Departments; political parties are obsessed with London, forgetting the rest of the country. When some parties form a Government, they want to serve the whole country, not just the privileged few. The benefits of a national high-speed link will not simply be extra rail capacity, faster journey times and positive environmental impact, but economic regeneration and increased employment for those parts of the country that arguably need it the most.

I welcome the Government’s conversion to the benefits of high-speed rail for the whole country, but will the Minister now listen to sense and, on environmental grounds, abandon his plans to build a third runway at Heathrow?

I am grateful for the question, because it gives me a chance to explain to the House the inconsistency of Conservative policy. The Mayor of London wants an estuary airport on the Thames. The Bow Group and Lord Heseltine say that there is a false choice—

Order. I do not require any help from people chuntering from a sedentary position, so they are wasting their voices. I say to the Minister of State that he will want to focus his reply on Government policy and not on that of the Opposition.

Government policy was articulated last January—I know that the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) was here then—when we made clear our support for a third runway as long as the relevant planning processes are gone through. Last week’s report from the Conservative think tank and Lord Heseltine confirms that a choice between the third runway and high-speed rail is a false choice. We want intelligent debate based on evidence, not playing to the gallery.

Does the Minister agree that the best way of boosting the north-east economy and ending the north-south divide is by pressing ahead with the high-speed rail link to Newcastle? Will he put his full support behind the proposal?

Absolutely right. My hon. Friend reminds me that the benefits will be not simply to London but to the north-west, the north-east, the east midlands, Yorkshire and Scotland. We are a party that believes in governing for the whole country and not just for our chums in London.

When we finally get high-speed rail, to which all parties are apparently now committed, there is increasing speculation that one way in which the train operators will seek to minimise journey times is by reducing the number of stops. Stockport station, on the west coast main line, which serves not only my constituency but the wider Stockport area and south Manchester, is a hugely important strategic stop. Can the Minister guarantee that when we finally get the high-speed rail link on the west coast main line, it will continue to stop at Stockport?

I shall try to give a high-speed answer.

The challenge that the hon. Gentleman raises is one of those that David Rowlands and High Speed 2 had to look into. When we produce our White Paper, we will hopefully deal with some of the challenges and the balances that need to be made between stopping at more stations and the disbenefit of slowing down the trains. He makes an important point, which David Rowlands looked into.

Station Reopening (London)

10. If he will discuss with the Mayor of London the merits of reopening (a) Battersea High Street station and (b) other closed railway stations in London. (313719)

If the Mayor puts forward any such proposals for discussion, I will be happy to meet him. It is for Network Rail, the relevant train operator and Transport for London to consider the best way of meeting an identified transport need in that particular part of London.

If only the Department for Transport were London-centric, I would certainly be very pleased; I have not noticed it so far.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the demand in Battersea for the reopening of Battersea station, or at the very least for a footbridge to the newly opened Imperial Wharf station? Battersea station was closed only because of an air raid during the war. It was one of 33 London stations that were closed during wars and never reopened, including Walworth, Camberwell, Wormwood Scrubs and others.

Order. I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but we must have a question, not an essay. We have got the thrust of it, and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

My hon. Friend articulates the case very well for his constituents, and I understand his point about new stations in areas of development and regeneration. We give the Mayor about £3 billion a year to sustain and develop transport networks in London, and I encourage my hon. Friend to engage with the Mayor and local councils to promote the reopening of the station.

Potholes (Highways Agency)

11. What recent estimate he has made of the number of potholes and other road surface defects requiring repair on roads maintained by the Highways Agency. (313721)

The Highways Agency has a comprehensive road resurfacing programme to reduce the potential for potholes and other surface defects. However, the severity of the recent weather has led to an increase in those defects. There is no value in the agency counting potholes, as it has a robust regime for identifying them and allocating the resources necessary for undertaking repairs. That is sufficient to keep England’s motorways and trunk roads in a serviceable and safe condition.

The Minister has obviously not read the report produced last year, before the recent weather that has further damaged the road network, by the Asphalt Industry Alliance, which reported that there is a 13-year backlog of maintenance on our road network. The Government have had 13 years, and not only did they fail to fix the roof when the sun was shining—

Certainly, Mr. Speaker.

Not only did this Government fail to fix the roof when the sun was shining, but they failed to fix the roads. What are they going to do now that the roads are in a much worse condition than they were when that report was issued?

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the Highways Agency, and I have given him an appropriate answer about the strategic road network. If he is widening his question to include local roads, those are of course matters for local authorities, many of which may well be Conservative-controlled.

Transport Network (Cold Weather)

12. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s response to the effects of recent cold weather conditions on the transport network. (313722)

The country recently experienced the most prolonged severe winter conditions for nearly 30 years. The Government’s actions, working with local government and others, stabilised and minimised the disruption to transport systems. We are continuing the work to ensure that those systems are able to respond to further challenges.

I am grateful to the Minister for that somewhat brief reply. Is he aware, as another junior Transport Minister clearly is, that some 17,000 trains were suspended in England and Wales during the snowy weather up to 9 January? Why were 17,000 trains suspended in that period? What are the Government and Network Rail doing to reduce that number for future occasions of inclement weather?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will tell me that when he was in the House 30 years ago, the trains all ran on time and snow did not cause delay or cancellation—when they were nationalised. North Europe, America, Canada and other parts of the world experienced severe weather, and they also had problems with their transport systems. All major road networks were open in this country and I think that we did pretty well. We showed a generosity of spirit and a get-up-and-go attitude, which led to most of the country coping pretty well.

Southeastern Trains stopped running trains in the cold spell at 9 o’clock in the evening, yet the docklands light railway and London Underground continued their services throughout the day, almost without disruption. Why did Southeastern Trains stop running trains? If my right hon. Friend does not know, will he haul the company in and get it to explain why it completely disrupted the service?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We did haul in Southeastern Trains, and we told the company that what happened was unacceptable. That demonstrates that we are a Department that believes in engaging with the private sector, not allowing it to get away with anything it wants to do. Southeastern Trains has learned the lessons and will ensure in future that the service is better. We know from last year that further bad weather is possible in February. We will see whether the lessons have been learned from our hauling in.

Topical Questions

Since our previous Question Time in December, my Department has announced a £200 million electrification programme for key railway lines in the north-west, responded swiftly and effectively to the recent severe weather and aviation security threats, and invested £20 million in bringing integrated smart ticketing to our cities in five years. We have now received the High Speed 2 report, and are working intensively on the Government’s response.

Given that since 1997, the real cost of travelling by motoring and air has gone down, while the real cost of travelling by rail has gone up, will Ministers make a commitment that, if re-elected, the formula for regulating rail fares will change so that the real cost of travelling by train will decrease, not increase?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue. Some train operating companies have used the regulations in which we prescribed regulated fares to introduce much more expensive fare regimes for the rest of the day. We are learning the lessons of that, and ensuring that when a new franchise is awarded, a basket of improvements benefits the commuter rather than any train operating company.

T7. Will the Minister give me an update for long-suffering Severn bridge users on progress on resolving issues, including using debit and credit cards and considering a freeze on the annual tolling increases? (313737)

I am pleased to inform my hon. Friend that, as a direct consequence of her campaign, lobbying and giving me a hard time outside as well as inside the Chamber, work is under way to make the necessary amendments to the secondary legislation to allow card payments to be accepted on the Severn crossing. The Department for Transport legal and policy people are currently making progress on the changes to the regulations and it is anticipated that the amendments will be made, and that the instrument will come into force in April.

T2. Given that we are having the second winter of excessive harsh weather, which is causing serious problems with potholes on our roads, does the Minister accept that local authorities and the Highways Agency must do more to ensure that the repairs are done as quickly as possible? Will he join me in welcoming Essex county council’s decision to double the budget for this year to deal with those problems? (313731)

I am grateful for that question and the way in which it was asked. We have tripled the amount we give to local authorities to maintain their roads. Last year, we announced an additional £32 million to allow local authorities to assess their roads. If local authorities maintain their roads regularly, there is less chance of potholes forming. Of course, we consider sympathetically applications for additional funding. We are talking to 10 local authorities from last year, and will consider applications made this year, too.

The Minister will be aware that a railway workers’ lobby was here yesterday. The thrust of one of their complaints was that accountants are instructing engineers on what to do. The workers fear that that will result in serious safety failures. What can he say to the House in response to that? Can he assure us that the de-manning of the maintenance service will not impede safety on the railways?

The Office of Rail Regulation, which is both the economic and safety regulator for the railways, has challenged Network Rail to reduce its costs, and improve its efficiency and effectiveness, by around a third over the next control period. The challenge to Network Rail is to ensure that it does that without impacting on either the performance or the safety of the railway. The ORR is inspecting and ensuring that safety is maintained, and any concerns that employees or others have should be referred directly to it.

T4. Government figures show that foreign left-hand drive heavy goods vehicles account for three times the number of accidents that our own right-hand drive HGVs account for. Given that I have raised this issue with the Government over the last few years, and suggested a solution—the mandatory issuance of Fresnel mirrors that would eliminate the blind spot—what progress have they made in reducing that accident rate? Will the Minister meet me to discuss the issue? (313733)

Let me at the outset say that I am more than happy to meet hon. Members to discuss road safety issues. The additional resources that we have given to the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency to undertake checks and issue Fresnel mirrors has had a significant effect on the number of accidents. As I said, I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the matter.

Will my right hon. Friend assure me of the Government’s commitment to high-speed rail electrification from London to south Wales?

I can confirm that we are committed to that. As I said, we believe in serving the entire country, which includes electrifying the Great Western line from London all the way to Swansea—that was a £1 billion announcement. My hon. Friend may be interested to know that currently in Europe, only two countries have less than one mile of electrified line—Albania and Wales. That needs to be sorted out.

Has the Minister made an assessment of the costs nationally to the damage to roads as a result of the cold weather? Will he conduct a review into the use of salt, as opposed to grit, which is used by some other countries, because of the damage that it does to road surfaces?

That is one of the things the UK Roads Liaison Group gives advice on. The hon. Gentleman will be aware, although he may have missed what I said earlier, that we have trebled the amount of funding we give to local authorities in relation to roads maintenance. We have also announced an additional package of £32 million to assess the roads, which will include dealing with the point he made. If he has problems with local authority funding, I am happy for him to approach both the Department for Transport and the Department for Communities and Local Government, which give additional money in exceptional circumstances.

Does my hon. Friend agree that a conflict of interest could be residing within the Office of Rail Regulation, because it is responsible for both safety and investment?

I am more than content that the ORR understands how it needs to discharge both those responsibilities at the same time without any conflict of interest.

T5. Rail passengers travel at peak times in overcrowded carriages in conditions in which it would be illegal to transport cattle and sheep. When is that lack of capacity to be tackled? When will adequate rolling stock be delivered for the safety and comfort of the travelling public? (313734)

The hon. Lady raises a point that has been raised before. We have announced plans to increase our rolling stock by 2014 and we are ahead of the curve in relation to delivery from 2008. It is a question of choices. Had we taken the advice to increase our spending this year by only 1 per cent., it would have led to a reduction of £840 million. If we take the advice to reduce our spending next year by 25 per cent., any idea of increased capacity is pie in the sky.

On several occasions before Christmas, the road network in south-east London and east London came to a complete gridlock because of incidents in the Blackwall tunnel or on adjacent roads. That unacceptable situation occurs too frequently. When my right hon. Friend next meets the Mayor of London, will he put that high on his agenda, because it cannot be allowed to continue?

I am not sure what the Mayor’s priorities are, but they are not the Croydon Tramlink or the Dartford crossing. In fact, he seems obsessed with interfering with Conservative leadership issues. I will ensure that we try to impress on the Mayor the priority of serving Londoners and addressing some of the challenges they face, rather than increasing fares on buses, tubes and trams.

T6. Is the Minister aware of the statement by the AA that the money to fix all Britain’s potholes could be raised within 100 days if increased profits from VAT on fuel were diverted to that problem? Will the Government act accordingly to fill in and repair the potholes? (313735)

I am always happy to tell local authorities what to do, but I actually believe in devolution and giving local authorities the power to do as they see fit. I am only disappointed that so many of them are Conservative and decide not to invest in maintaining our roads. They invest in various projects rather than serving the community that they were elected to serve.

In view of the fact that using our airports is becoming increasingly frustrating, uncomfortable and disagreeable because of necessary security measures, will the Minister convene a meeting of all airport operators to see what can be done to address the issue of passenger comfort?

Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that we have regular meetings with the airport operators to discuss exactly those issues. I wish to put on record our thanks to all those who have worked on the new measures that have come into force since 25 December, and to the travelling public for their patience when experiencing delays immediately after the new requirements were introduced. Most people recognise the proportionality of the security arrangements, but we keep them under review.

To be more cost-effective, Kettering borough council, of which I am a member, would like to employ one set of street wardens for parking enforcement and to tackle litter and dog-fouling offences. Two lines of guidance from the Department are preventing the council from doing that. Will the Minister look at that situation?

I thank the Minister for his answers to the hon. Members for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) about First Capital Connect. May I ask him a further question on that issue? How much longer will it take for the Secretary of State to reach a judgment on whether that company is up to the job of delivering its franchise agreement?

I do not apologise for being tough when it comes to those who run our trains, if there are financial concerns or the companies are in breach of the agreements, either through enforcing remedial action or financial penalties. Over the last three months, First Capital Connect’s performance has been unacceptable—I would go so far as to say it has been disgraceful. We are doing all that we can to ensure that the quality of service improves for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. Some people are advising us that we should not micro-manage train operating companies and should let them have more flexible and longer franchises. We have declined that advice, and we take a hands-on approach to ensure that commuters receive the best quality service.

Women and Equality

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Employees with Families

1. If she will discuss with trade union representatives the guidance provided to employers on rights for employees with families. (313700)

The Government are committed to building a fair and family-friendly labour market, and my ministerial colleagues and I meet regularly with both unions and representatives of business to discuss this aim and how to advance it. Today’s announcement that fathers will be able to take up to six months off on paternity leave by replacing the mother at home for some of her maternity leave is a further advance for the flexibility agenda.

The unions are doing a great job in promoting the right to work flexibly, but many parents remain unaware of their rights or are wary of asking for them. What more can the Department do, working with the trade unions, to make people feel more able to ask for more family-friendly hours and to increase the uptake of that right?

There is a range of things that we can do. Equality reps, which many trade unions have in workplaces, can help to provide better information and signpost individuals and companies to it. The section of the website on employing people has 350,000 hits a month from employers seeking information on how to provide better flexibility. The evidence is that many people ask for flexible working and 95 per cent. of requests are positively met.

Many businesses find that operating a flexible working policy brings huge productivity gains, as well as being good for those with families, although some remain either unconvinced or unsure of how to go about it. What can the Government do to promote the business benefits of flexible working too, and encourage more organisations to take it up, whether by creating part-time roles at senior levels or pursuing such policies as job sharing?

The hon. Lady is right. We do a range of such work. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions recently announced that we would bring together employers, business representatives and the TUC to look at how to improve family-friendly working practices further. That type of pragmatic three-way discussion does just that: it is successful, and it is good news for employees and employers. In other words, it is a typical, good Labour policy.

Employees at O2 in my constituency presented me with a petition last week about child care vouchers. It was initiated because the child care voucher companies had left them unaware that the Government had changed their planned policy for tax breaks for child care vouchers. Will the Minister please talk to the child care voucher providers to ensure that they work with the companies that use such vouchers and inform employees of that positive policy?

I am happy to take up the point that my hon. Friend has made and talk to the relevant organisations.

Equality Bill (Religious Groups)

2. What recent discussions she has had with religious groups on the provisions of the Equality Bill. (313702)

Ministers in this House—in particular my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Government Equalities Office—and Ministers in the Lords have had a number of discussions with religious and belief groups and have received a number of representations relating to religion or belief since the introduction of the Equality Bill. Such discussions and representations are ongoing.

Will the Minister finally admit that were it not for the successful amendment from Baroness O’Cathain in the House of Lords earlier this week, the Equality Bill as unamended would have further restricted employment for people working in religious organisations?

No, it would not. We thought that it would be helpful for everyone involved to clarify the law, and that is what the amendment that we brought forward aimed to do. That amendment was rejected. However, it would be helpful for the House to understand that there are religious jobs and non-religious jobs within organisations. For example, I would say that a pensions assistant ensuring that the records database is kept up to date was not doing a religious job. I would also say that issuing and processing invoices, even if it is done in the employment of the Church of England, is not a religious job.

To make it clear, the law applies to religious organisations when they employ people in non-religious jobs in the same way that it does to everyone else. We have always been clear that we are not going to insist on non-discrimination in relation to religious jobs such as being a vicar, a bishop, an imam or a rabbi. The law has stepped back from that and said that religious organisations can decide themselves how to do that. However, when it comes to non-religious jobs, those organisations must comply with the law, and that is how the law remains.

The Minister will know that before the Government’s defeat, her Bill as unamended did not even make it clear that ministers of religion would have to live in accordance with the faith of their religion. Following the Government’s defeat in the other place not once but three times, by a coalition led by Conservative peers, bishops and Cross Benchers, the Bill has been improved. Can the Minister confirm that the Government will accept the decision in the other place to enable Churches to insist that key posts be held by those who live in accordance with the tenets of their faith, or will she seek to reverse that defeat in this House?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is trying to perpetrate a further misunderstanding. We are absolutely clear that we have never intended to extend the non-discrimination provisions to ministers of religion, nor have we ever tried to do so. Therefore they are exempted. We have always made it absolutely clear that they are and will continue to be exempted from the non-discrimination laws, and we have not sought to change that. There has been an issue about what is or is not a religious job, and we sought to clarify that. Our helpful clarification was not regarded as helpful in the House of Lords, and therefore the amendment was defeated. We will consider how to respond to that, but an official announcement will be made in due course, once these things have gone through the machinery, as it were. However, I would reassure hon. Members that the policy will remain as it is, and I would not want to lead them to anticipate that it will be brought forward again in this House.

Equality Bill (Access to Information)

3. If she will bring forward amendments to the Equality Bill to provide equality of access to information for blind and partially-sighted people. (313703)

Undertakings have been given in the other place to consider tabling amendments on Report. However, the existing disability discrimination legislation provides that accessible information for visually impaired people and others is a reasonable adjustment, and the disability equality duty requires public authorities not to discriminate against disabled people on the grounds of their disability. Providing accessible information for disabled people might be required to meet that obligation in appropriate circumstances.

The problem is that organisations such as the Royal National Institute for Blind People feel that the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 to which the Minister referred are unenforceable because access to information is classed as an auxiliary aid and service. I hope that my hon. Friend will look favourably on the suggestion that the Equality Bill needs a separate clause to make these provisions absolutely clear. Will she also confirm that trying to solve this problem by means of a judicial review would not be the way forward?

The requirements of the current Disability Discrimination Act are enforceable, and they can be enforced in appropriate circumstances. However, we want public authorities to take a leading role and to lead by example in providing accessible information to those with visual impairments and others. In that respect, I hope that the House authorities themselves will consider whether refusing to allow a visually impaired parliamentarian a Braille copy of a Bill is really helping that parliamentarian to do his job. Should we not be leading by example in this respect? I believe that we should be, and I hope that the House authorities will reconsider that decision.[Official Report, 3 February 2010, Vol. 505, c. 3MC.]

Equality Bill (Age Discrimination)

4. When she plans to publish the draft regulations on age discrimination as provided for in the Equality Bill. (313704)

We aim to consult in the autumn on a draft order under the Equality Bill, which will specify the exceptions to the otherwise full ban on age discrimination against adults in services and public functions.

I thank the Minister for that response, and I am pleased to see that the Government have accepted the concerns of those of us who served on the Bill Committee about the need to retain good age discrimination. Can she confirm that the exemption for companies such as Saga will be in the regulations, and not just in the guidelines?

Yes, I can, and I am sorry that I could not do so earlier when I was asked to make that clear on Report. There will be a number of specific exceptions. There has been a very good consultation process on this. We had 106 responses from businesses, the age lobby and local authorities—indeed, everyone we could have wished to feed in did so. There will certainly be specific exemptions for financial services, and for age-related group holidays, which are obviously advantageous.

Does my young ministerial colleague not agree that it is totally unacceptable that anyone should be discriminated against because of their age, and that there is no justification for forcing someone out of work when they reach 65 if they want to continue in employment? If it is good enough for us, it should be good enough for the people outside the House.

I volunteer to be the young Minister who responds to my equally youthful colleague’s question. Obviously, we are looking as closely as we practically can, and as quickly as we can, at the question of the future of the default retirement age, which frankly seems unpromising. It is probably older than both my hon. Friend and me, and past its sell-by date.

Following on from the question from the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), and given that the Equality Commission now agrees that a mandatory retirement age is discriminatory and should be outlawed, I should like to inform the Minister that there is an opportunity in the Lords at the moment to table an amendment on this matter. Will the Government table such an amendment to end the mandatory retirement age?

It is prudent, when something has been a fact in a given piece of law in our system for a very long time, not simply to click one’s fingers and remove it, but to consult and to find out what any unintended consequences might be, so that it can be done—if it is to be done—in a sensible way, after all the input has been considered. We have recently mentioned a date by which we expect to complete that process, and I hope that the hon. Lady will curb her impatience at least until then.

I have seen as an employer, and personally as the years roll on, the value of experience. I hope that the good voters of Ochil and South Perthshire see that too. Does the Minister agree that valuable experience will be a building brick to get the economy growing as we move out of recession, and that it should be seen as a significant asset?

Yes, I do—I am equally prepared to volunteer to be an experienced Minister. A number of employers are now seeing the benefits of having older people working for them, which is marked in places such as B&Q. They see enormous benefits in terms of good customer relations and general wisdom. I agree with my hon. Friend 100 per cent.

Is the Minister aware that a golf club in my constituency proposes to stop offering reduced membership to its pensioner members, on the basis of its understanding of the Equality Bill? Has it got it right?

No, it has not. I can write to the hon. Gentleman to set out, step by step, how it has got it wrong. But take it from me—it has got it wrong.

Government Equalities Office

5. What information the Government Equalities Office collates on the gender pay gap for (a) full-time and (b) part-time workers. (313705)

The Government Equalities Office uses data collected by the Office for National Statistics in the annual survey of hours and earnings to monitor the gender pay gap. In 2009, women working full time were paid 12.2 per cent. less than full-time men; women working part time were paid 2 per cent. more than part-time men. Comparing all women—full and part time—with all men, the pay gap is currently 22 per cent.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer. In recent times, one disappointing thing has been the growing pay gap in the private sector. That is possibly a result of the financial restraints currently operating there, but it is still unacceptable. Will the Equality Bill have a material impact on that pay gap in the private sector? Is there any evidence that other parties will offer their support for that step forward?

Overall, during our period in office, the pay gap has reduced from 27.5 to 22 per cent. We are passing pleased about that, although the Equality Bill is intended to jump that process up a lot of gears. Our proposals have not had wholehearted support from the Opposition, to put it bluntly. The proposals hinge on the need to make pay structures in business transparent, so that we can compare business with business, sector with sector, like with like, and see where the imbalances are. Only when such imbalances are visible can they be pushed out. The short answer is that we were not supported in that admirable endeavour by Her Majesty’s Opposition.

Is it not ludicrous that the Government give tens of millions of pounds to the Equality and Human Rights Commission to lecture the rest of the country about the gender pay gap, yet the Equality and Human Rights Commission itself pays women more than men?

I am groping hard for the logic behind that question—was “ludicrous” the word the hon. Gentleman used. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has had a lot of input into making the right measurements available so that the hon. Gentleman, as well as I, can know what the pay gap is, so that he can join forces with me to ensure that women are given equal pay in the very near future.

Let us get real about low-paid women workers. The national minimum wage has increased the earnings of many more women than men. Will the Government Equalities Office keep a close eye on the impact of a minimum wage on the gender pay gap for low-paid workers, and make representations to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to use the minimum wage as a key driver for equality?

Of course the minimum wage has had an enormously advantageous impact on low-paid women, despite the best endeavours of the Tories to stop it getting on to the statute book. It will continue to have a good effect, as will a number of other proposals that we have. Perhaps the most telling fact is that the Tories will oppose all the steps we take to advance equal pay, even though it is clearly known that the most important single measure to get children out of poverty is to give women equal pay. That does not affect the Tories, but they still oppose it.