House of Commons
Thursday 28 January 2010
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Minister of State was asked—
Swindon to Kemble Railway Line
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, 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?
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.
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)
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)
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
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)
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?
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?
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)
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.
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?
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.
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)
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.
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)
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—
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 businesslink.gov 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?
Equality Bill (Religious Groups)
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)
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)
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.
Government Equalities Office
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.
Business of the House
The provisional business for next week is as follows:
Monday 1 February–Motion to approve the seventh report 2009-2010 from the Standards and Privileges Committee (HC 310); followed by motion to approve a money resolution on the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill; followed by motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution on the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill; followed by Consideration in Committee of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (day 5).
Tuesday 2 February–Remaining stages of the Flood and Water Management Bill.
Wednesday 3 February–Motions relating to police grant, local government finance and council tax.
Thursday 4 February–Motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution on the Crime and Security Bill; followed by remaining stages of the Corporation Tax Bill; followed by remaining stages of the Taxation (International and Other Provisions) Bill.
Friday 5 February–Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 8 February will include:
Monday 8 February–Opposition day [4th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 25 February and 4 March will be:
Thursday 25 February–A debate from the Transport Committee entitled “Rail Fares and Franchises”
Thursday 4 March–A debate from the Foreign Affairs Committee entitled “Global Security: Non-Proliferation”.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the forthcoming business but she has not actually been very forthcoming. We already knew the business for next week and she has only given us the business for one day on the following week. Can she share with the House her plans for the week after next?
Will there be a statement next week on today’s conference on Afghanistan? While I am on international matters, may I ask once again for an opportunity to debate Haiti? Last week the right hon. and learned Lady said that she would look for an opportunity “in some form or another, for Haiti to be debated on the Floor of the House next week”.—[Official Report, 21 January 2010; Vol. 504, c. 449.]
Given the huge international effort that will be needed to rebuild that country and the problems of rehousing millions of people who have been left homeless, surely this is an issue for which we should find time in this House.
We are due to debate the Wright report on 23 February. Despite the Prime Minister’s warm words at Prime Minister’s questions last week, there is now widespread suspicion that the Government have adopted an approach that is simply designed to fail. Today’s edition of The Times reports that we will be voting only on an unamendable order, which could be blocked by a single Member. Is that consistent with the spirit of consensus to which the right hon. and learned Lady has constantly referred? The last time a similar package of reforms was debated in the House, in 2002, we had a debate and then we voted on a series of resolutions on the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee. Why is that not an appropriate precedent for the Wright Committee? Will the House be able to vote on the resolutions of which the Government approve as well as on those that they do not? Does the Leader of the House agree with my suggestion that we should postpone the February recess by one day and debate the Wright report earlier than she proposes, given that we are seriously beginning to run out of time? Yesterday she admitted that she was not much good at reversing. Today she risks stalling.
May we have a statement on the release of material to the Chilcot inquiry? When he announced the inquiry, the Prime Minister unequivocally said that
“no British document and no British witness will be beyond the scope of the inquiry.”
Yesterday, Sir John expressed his frustration that key documents relating to the legality of the Iraq war had failed to be declassified. Has the Prime Minister now backtracked on that commitment?
May we adopt the Chinese menu approach to Business questions? When I say “No. 41”, that means I am looking for the date of the Budget; when I say “42”, I am looking for the date of the Easter recess. Last week, the right hon. and learned Lady very helpfully pointed us in the direction of Easter. We are getting warmer, but may I repeat that I am asking this question on behalf of people who work in the House and who can take leave and holidays only when the House is not sitting? Can she provide us with another clue today?
May we have a debate on how Britain is governed? Two reports in as many weeks from senior civil servants who have worked under Labour paint a picture of a dysfunctional Government, with a “strategic gap” at the heart of Downing street that allows Ministers a free rein to produce endless reams of unnecessary and bad legislation.
On behalf of Conservative Members, may I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for one thing and offer her our full support? According to a survey this week from the National Centre for Social Research,
“New Labour has helped ensure that British public opinion now has a more conservative character.”
I am sorry that I unable to announce any business after Monday for the week after next—the reason is as follows. The Supreme Court has made a decision about the freezing of assets of those suspected of being involved in terrorist activities. As hon. Members will know, it is very important that we stop money flowing into organisations that will then use it for terrorist activities. Freezing assets is an important part of the armoury to tackle terrorist activity. The Supreme Court has given a judgment that the methods of freezing are outwith the law. We therefore need to address that issue, because we are absolutely determined that we should be able to freeze assets, but we must do so in a way that is compliant with the substantive law. We have applied to the Court for a stay of implementation of the release of those frozen assets to allow us to consider whether or not we can bring forward legislation before those assets are unfrozen so that we can put the law in order, but prevent the release of assets to those whom we think should not have them.
I am sorry that I did not have a chance, because these things are ongoing at the moment, to give that explanation to colleagues. A decision will be made at 12 o’clock in the Supreme Court to say whether it will give a stay of implementation of its judgment such that will allow us to legislate. I did not want to announce the business for the week after next given that it may be subject to decisions relating to information that we will not have until after 12 o’clock.
On Afghanistan, we had a debate led by the Foreign Secretary and closed by the Secretary of State for Defence last week. Obviously, the very important conference is taking place today and I know that the House will want to be updated. Similarly, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for referring to Haiti, which remains an important issue. We will look for opportunities to ensure that the House can be updated, not only about the work that the Government are doing—the doubling of the aid that has gone to Haiti—but about the £50 million that the public has donated and the very important work that our search and rescue teams are doing. I acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman’s request about Haiti, which I know is shared by many hon. Members, and I shall do what I can about it.
On the Wright report, the right hon. Gentleman has talked about “widespread suspicion”. It is fair enough for people to be suspicious if there is something to be suspicious of, but he should not be suspicious because we are trying to be very straightforward about this. The Government have been very positive about reforming and improving how the House of Commons works, and we have a clear record of bringing to the House of Commons reforms that have then been accepted by it. We are keen to continue that reform by taking forward the recommendations in the Wright Committee report. The Government’s preference for reaching decisions on these reforms is that we proceed on the basis of consensus, and proceed as quickly as possible. We would like to recommend to the House no fewer than 21 of the Wright Committee’s recommendations. We thought it would help the House to have a full day’s debate—as the right hon. Gentleman said, we have given a provisional date of 23 February for that—at the end of which we will place all 21 before the House under the Remaining Orders of the Day. I hope that some of them will go through without objection, as I know that there will be consensus in the House. That will probably not be the case for all of them, but let us hope that it will be for as many as possible. If there are objections, we are committed to bringing back to the House those motions that have been objected to. Resolutions will then be tabled that can be amended. At the point at which they are amendable, any recommendation from the Wright Committee’s report can thereby be attached.
It is important for people to understand that there is no consensus on some aspects of the recommendations. The Liaison Committee issued a report yesterday about the election of Chairs of Select Committees, and we are in favour of the Wright Committee’s proposals on that—we want the House to be able to elect those Chairs by secret ballot—but the Liaison Committee was split down the middle. It agreed to support the Wright Committee’s proposals, but only by seven votes to six votes. If the right hon. Gentleman is trying to convey the view that there is consensus and that we are trying to oppose it, that is wrong. There are different views and we are trying to get consensus—[Interruption.] I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, that I have had to go on so long about that. I hope that people will understand that we are being completely open about this and are trying to make progress.
On the question of the material for the Chilcot inquiry, the Government will obviously do everything by the rules as laid down. On the right hon. Gentleman’s question about the machinery of Government, we had Cabinet Office questions yesterday and I suggest that he should have put that question to Cabinet Office Ministers.
On the Wright Committee, I do not think that suspicions have been entirely allayed. The Leader of the House might help the process, given that she appears to be seeking unanimity rather than consensus, if she said that if any of the motions were objected to, the matter would be brought back to the House the following week for a decision. I think that that is the appropriate way of dealing with the issue. Will she give that commitment?
The right hon. and learned Lady mentioned Cabinet Office questions. May I ask for a debate arising from Cabinet Office questions yesterday on the subject of the Government Communication Network? My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) asked, among other things, why 225 people were employed as communications officers in a single Department. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office said that in a typical Department 600 calls a day were made to the communications officers, so, according to my calculations, that is fewer than three a day to those individuals. I am sure that they do a lot of other work, too, but that does not seem to be an over-taxing burden. Perhaps we should have a debate on that.
We have heard a lot of talk from the Prime Minister and others about a decision on a referendum on alternative voting systems. However, I have searched the amendment papers for the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill and no amendment seems to have been tabled. I assume from that—of course, the Prime Minister would not indulge in idle talk—that a discrete Bill must be coming forward to implement that. Will she confirm that that will be the case? Perhaps it will be discussed in the week for which she has not yet given all the business.
We read, surprisingly, this week that Pas-de-Calais wishes to be considered part of London and the south-east for the purposes of the 2012 Olympics. This is a novelty that I do not think we have seen since the days of Mary Tudor. Lots of parts of this country would like to be considered part of London and the south-east for the purposes of the 2012 Olympics, so may we have a debate on the Olympics legacy? Two thirds of the Olympic contracts are going to London and the south-east, sports participation figures show hardly any rise—and, indeed, they record a reduction in women’s participation— and tourism benefits will be affected by cuts to the VisitBritain budget. May we have a debate on the Olympics legacy?
May we have a debate on the impending clearance of the radio spectrum and its effect on radio microphones? This is crucial to a lot of theatres and music performance venues around the country that will have to replace expensive equipment wholesale. For some, the cost will be prohibitive and I think that we could usefully have a debate on that.
Lastly, after what the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said, I guess that I just have to say, “41, with no black bean sauce.” I simply want to know when the Budget is. The Leader of the House did not answer me last week, or the right hon. Gentleman this week. Please, let us have an answer.
The hon. Gentleman asked me for an undertaking to bring back to the House the following week those motions that are objected to. I cannot give an undertaking for the following week, but obviously we will want to bring them back as soon as possible. The view that the Government will advance to the House is that we will have a full debate on all the matters arising from the Wright report, but that we should not have to have that debate all over again if motions are objected to and have to be brought back. However, that argument would be undermined if too much time were to pass before we come back to consider the motions that are not agreed. I therefore hope that colleagues will recognise that the chance for the substantive debate on matters that the House might wish to amend will arise before we get to Remaining Orders of the Day.
I am sorry if that is not terribly clear, but I hope that the House will not be suspicious. It is quite complicated, and we should recognise that there are disagreements on this matter. We take the view that we want to make as much progress as possible on reform.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked about the Government Communication Network. The job of people working in Government Departments on communication and information goes beyond just picking up the phone and answering calls, as they also have the very important task of providing information. Their job is about making Government transparent and accountable to the public, so they have to look up and give out the information that people ask for. The Liberal Democrats regard themselves as supporters of openness, transparency and freedom of information, so I am sure that they will agree that someone has to provide that information. That is an important part of Government accountability.
As for the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, all the issues to be discussed in Monday’s debate are already on the Order Paper. An extra day would be needed if any further substantive matters were brought forward.
On the Olympics, I strongly support the motivation behind the question from the hon. Gentleman. We want to make sure that the money spent secures a legacy after the Olympics, and that that legacy is not just for London but for all the UK. No doubt he can put that point to my right hon. Friend the Olympics Minister and get the information that he requires.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the radio spectrum. I shall look into whether there should be a topical debate on the matter. [Hon. Members: “And the Budget?”] As far as the date for the Budget is concerned, we are still a little way away from arranging it. [Laughter.] It is not next week. My job is to announce the business for next week and the week after so that the House can know what is happening, and the answer is that the Budget will not be held in either.
Will the Leader of the House give us an early debate on pleural plaques? We need to be able to lay down a marker on any Government proposal that might allow future victims of pleural plaques in Scotland to be compensated by the British taxpayer, when future English victims will get nothing at all.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. We are aware of the strength of feeling on this matter, and are firmly committed to ensuring that people suffering from asbestos-related diseases receive the help and support that they need. We hope to be in a position to give the Government’s response on pleural plaques soon.
The Leader of the House has said that the Youth Parliament sitting that was held here in the Chamber was a great success, so what requests has she had from other organisations? Would it be possible to have a pensioners’ Parliament? If so, what would the procedure be? Would any such proposal be debated in the House, and who would take the decision about other such occasions?
The Deputy Leader of the House has written to the hon. Lady and, like her, I strongly support the suggestion. I believe that, as happens in Scotland, many other organisations and not just those representing the elderly could use the Chamber when we are not sitting. It would bring people into the House of Commons and would be all to the good.
May we have a debate on London government? We were promised three rape crisis centres, but none has been delivered. We were promised low fares, and some are going up by more than 20 per cent. We were promised more police, and the latest proposal is to cut police numbers in London by up to 500. This man cannot even be bothered to chair the Metropolitan Police Authority but still takes £250,000 from The Daily Telegraph. Is not it the case that London has stopped laughing at this clown?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. We get precious little support from the Mayor of London, whether it be on housing and transport for Londoners, the important local responsibility to provide help and support for rape victims or our initiative to get neighbourhood police in every area. However, the Government will do everything that we can to support Londoners.
Is the Leader of the House aware that next week is salt awareness week? If we cannot have debate on that, will she tell the House what recent representations Ministers have made to the food industry about the desirability of reducing salt levels in its products? Does she agree that this country would be a far better place if we had less salt in our food and more on our roads?
I totally agree. I think that salt awareness is very important indeed. We want to make sure that there is less fat, sugar and salt in our food. This is an important public health issue, and something on which the Government and the health authorities need to take action. That is not the nanny state, just good public health policy.
May we have an early debate on how different local education authorities are implementing the Building Schools for the Future programme? I am particularly concerned about the way that Birmingham city council and Catalyst are imposing charges on the use of schools outside core school hours. Other LEAs seem to be able to charge much lower rates, thereby allowing communities to continue to be able to use school buildings.
This is a very contentious issue, and justifiably so. Public money has gone into state-of-the-art school buildings that are very important for pupils but which also should be available for the wider community. I shall raise the matter with Ministers in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and ask them to liaise directly with my hon. Friend in support of her efforts to ensure that her community can use newly built local schools.
The British Government have always played a very important role in the middle east peace process, so is the Leader of the House aware that it is now commonly held that the Government of Israel’s treatment of the people of Gaza puts them in breach of the fourth Geneva convention, and that their illegal blockade of Gaza now amounts to collective punishment? Does she agree that it is essential for this House to have a debate to express its views, and to give our Government a stronger mandate to try and persuade the Government of Israel that it is not in their interests to proceed in this way?
The Government are in no doubt about this issue. We are strongly committed to the course of action that the hon. Gentleman has outlined, but there are many hon. Members on all sides of the House who also have strong views and who would like to have an opportunity to take part in a debate. I shall therefore look for an opportunity for such a debate.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend give consideration to holding a debate on the benefits to Scotland and the United Kingdom of the Union? Has she had an opportunity in the last week to see the helpful figures from the Scotland Office that put the fiscal benefit of the Union to Scotland at £75.7 billion since 1999? In her view, would that have happened if we had followed the advice of the Opposition parties?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he may find an opportunity to raise the matter at Treasury questions next week. The benefit goes beyond just the fiscal benefit to Scotland, because the Union allows us to stand and work together to tackle the recession and to bring the UK economy into recovery. Without that protection, the situation would have been very perilous for Scotland. He may therefore like to consider raising the point in Treasury questions, when he will be able to get further information.
As I have said, we are going to table 21 recommendations, which is a substantial number, in four key areas that I have identified along with other recommendations. If there are further issues that hon. Members believe would secure the support of the House, they can do so by tabling amendments to other recommendations when we deal with those that are not agreed on the initial day.
Tomorrow, Friday 29 January, is SOS day, on which the Royal National Lifeboat Institution will celebrate the work of our lifeboats and their crews. I declare an interest as a member of its council. The year 2009 was the busiest year for the RNLI crews, as more than 8,000 people were rescued. Can we have a debate on their efforts and the work that they do, and on the linkage with search and rescue teams and other maritime services, as that would raise awareness of safety incidents and the perils of the sea?
First, may I tell the right hon. and learned Lady how well she did yesterday? Has she considered a job swap? Returning to a question asked by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), after 450 years, the good citizens of Calais have come to their senses and want to become part of the United Kingdom. What steps has the right hon. and learned Lady taken in that regard, and when we open up her heart, will she have “Calais” carved on it?
There appears to be some ambiguity surrounding the implementation of temporary and agency workers legislation. Will my right hon. and learned Friend therefore arrange for the appropriate Minister to come to the House and clarify the position and the impact on hundreds of thousands of workers in the UK?
I will ask Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to write to my hon. Friend and place a copy of their correspondence in the House of Commons Library. The protection of temporary and agency workers is important not only to protect those workers against exploitation but to prevent other people from having their terms and conditions undermined by those who would exploit workers. This is an important issue, and I will make sure that he receives a letter.
I am very suspicious about No. 42. The dates of the Easter recess are not important to MPs, because I doubt whether many MPs will take a holiday over Easter, for obvious reasons. However, they are important to all the staff of the House, as they would allow them to take a family-friendly holiday. Will the Leader of the House speak to her right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and tell him to stop dithering and call an election now? Afterwards, Deo volente, the shadow Leader of the House will sit in her position and can determine the date of the Easter recess.
We are entering an era in which the mark of an open society is the way in which it guarantees access to open knowledge through the internet. It is therefore vital that liberal democracies do not send mixed signals to closed societies that seek to restrict internet freedoms for their citizens. The anti-counterfeiting trade agreement that is being discussed in Mexico might inadvertently do that, so may we have a debate in the House so that hon. Members can test that notion and find out more about our negotiating position?
I will look for an opportunity to debate that issue, which may benefit from a debate in Westminster Hall. We believe that it would be helpful if there were more transparency on the anti-counterfeiting trade agreement negotiations. As is common practice in trade negotiations, the ACTA negotiations are taking place in confidence, and working documents are not disclosed without the consent of all the negotiating parties. Our officials have been asked to press for more transparency at every opportunity, and have consistently argued for that in the ACTA negotiations, and in bilaterals with our partners. We will raise the issue, as my hon. Friend requests, in Mexico where the negotiations are under way.
The Leader of the House said it would be good if Scotland and England stood together. May we have a statement or debate on the Student Loans Company, as Glasgow will suffer as a result of the SLC redundancies? Jobs are being transferred from Glasgow to England, which suggests that the Government are anti-Scotland and anti-Glasgow.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider a debate on the leniency shown by magistrates courts to celebrities? Rock star Pete Doherty recently appeared in Gloucester magistrates court on drug and driving offences. While he was there, a sack of heroin fell out of his pocket, and 13 others were found on his person in court. Yesterday, he was given a £750 fine. Does she agree that we need to encourage courts to take a firmer grip on this?
I know these issues concern the public very much, but my hon. Friend will recognise that it is not right for the House to second-guess magistrates in any particular case or, indeed, in any part of the criminal justice system, which must operate independently of our elected representatives.
Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate next week entitled, “Treasury interference in helicopter procurement”, which would enable previous Defence Secretaries to make the point that they made to the Chilcot inquiry: that the Prime Minister interfered with requests from the Ministry of Defence for funding, with the result that helicopters that would otherwise be available in Afghanistan are not available, and lives have been lost as a direct consequence?
Gloucestershire county council is conducting a review of schools that are part of the national challenge arrangements. In my constituency, that involves the closure of the Vale of Berkeley college. There are two questions relating to that on the consultation document, which can largely be accessed on the internet. One is about closure, and the other is about a “hard” federation. The second suggestion is not viable, so we need a third question about whether the school could become a co-operative trust school. Will my right hon. and learned Friend do something to make sure that we get a fair consultation in the county?
When Robin Cook was Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, it produced a unanimous report on the election of Members to Select Committees. Unfortunately, although the measure was supposed to be decided on a free vote, the Government opposed it. Can the Leader of the House give us a firm assurance that when matters relating to the Wright report come before the House, not only for debate but for voting purposes, there will be a genuine free vote on the part of the Government and the Government Whips Office?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his long-standing commitment to these issues and, indeed, his work over many years on the Modernisation Committee. I can assure him that when the Wright issues come before the House, that will be House business and it will be subject to a free vote.
May we have a debate in the House on policing and security in London? The Mayor of London was elected on a promise to provide strong leadership for the Metropolitan Police Authority, and some of us would like to scrutinise exactly what he thinks he has achieved that makes him believe he can break his promise to the people of London and not give up his £250,000-a-year job with The Daily Telegraph.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is a trail of broken promises. First, the Mayor said that he would respect the autonomy—the operational independence—of the Metropolitan police, but then he decided to grab it and try to run it himself from City hall. Now, he is saying he is too busy to do so, although my hon. Friends have rightly pointed out that he does not seem to be too busy to earn a lot of money writing for the newspapers. I will ask Ministers at the Home Office to look into the issue.
Can the Leader of the House find time in the week after next for a debate on “An Anatomy of the Economic Inequality in the UK,” a report of the National Equality Panel, produced by the Government Equalities Office, which was available to the media on Tuesday but was still not available today to Members in the Vote Office? Will she link that with votes on early-day motion 343, on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation audit on poverty?
[That this House registers its dismay that an audit undertaken by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that poverty is at the same level as it was in 2000, with two million children in low-income households, unemployment at a 12-year high and repossessions at six times the level of 2004; and urges the Government to pursue policies to eradicate poverty and promote equality.]
Will she also link it with early-day motion 297, on the Fabian Society study on poverty? Those three reports all point out the failures of the Labour Government.
As the hon. Gentleman has had a chance to read the extensive summary, at least, that has been published, he will recognise that the report shows that we have narrowed the gap between rich and poor, which was growing under the Conservative Administration in the 1980s, and that we have halted the growth in inequality, but that we need to do more to narrow it. We have already had a debate in the House on improving social mobility in accessing the professions, following the Milburn report. This is a constant theme in Children, Schools and Families questions and in Treasury questions as we seek to tackle unemployment. It will also be a subject in considering health issues when we get the Marmot report on health inequalities. There will not be a single debate. The topic will be a running theme of how we make sure that this country is fair, and as we do more to tackle the historic inequality that the hon. Gentleman knows has been handed down from generation to generation.
Why has the Leader of the House yet again, this time in replying to the shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), failed to give a guarantee that the Prime Minister is coming to make an important statement next week? Clearly, it is in the interests of the House that there be a statement from the Prime Minister on the Afghanistan conference, probably on the Yemen conference and probably, if matters develop, on the Northern Ireland peace process negotiations.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Prime Minister was in Northern Ireland in those very important talks; that is why he was unable to be back in the House yesterday. He is engaged in the talks relating to Afghanistan, and he seeks to do all the very important work as Prime Minister of this country and internationally, and also to keep the House updated. I will look up the figures—I think he has given an unprecedented number of statements to the House. In his “Governance of Britain” statement in July 2007, he said that he would make it a priority to give statements to the House and keep the House informed, and he has done that. I cannot announce in advance what statements any Minister is to make, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister regards it as a priority to keep the House informed.
May we have a debate on the desirability of prisoners having Sky TV in their cells? When I asked in 2006 how many prisoners had Sky TV in their cells, the answer was 1,500. When I asked the same question again just before Christmas, the figure had risen to 4,070. Many of my constituents—law-abiding people—would love to be able to afford to have Sky TV, but cannot. Why should prisoners be able to have Sky TV in their cells? May we have a debate so that we can find out how the Government justify that?
The hon. Gentleman can ask a question in Home Office questions. We have been clear in our approach to prison policy, but we have been baffled by the prison policy of the official Opposition. Last week they announced their policy on prison ships. The policy sailed on Wednesday, but it seemed to have sunk by Thursday.
I am sure the Leader of the House will share my concern about the recent crackdown on press freedom and the imprisonment of human rights activists in Kazakhstan. That is all the more ironic because this year, Kazakhstan chairs the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which of course promotes democracy. May we have a debate to discuss this worrying situation and what influence the Government might be able to bring to bear to get Kazakhstan to take its international responsibilities as chair of the OSCE more seriously?
May we have an urgent debate on Somalia? Is it not the case that a small minority of Somalis are leaving the United Kingdom, travelling to Somalia, trying to undermine the transitional Government in Mogadishu, which the Government support, training in terror camps, and coming back to this country trained up and possibly posing a threat to our national security?
The Leader of the House will have seen in the press recently the fruits of the labours of the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. and learned Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) in trying to sell their eleventh-hour improvements to veterans health care. Given that the matter is of enormous importance to veterans and to Members of the House, will the right hon. and learned Lady try to encourage her colleagues, if it is not too much trouble, to come to the House to explain what they plan so that that can be subject to proper scrutiny here?
The hon. Gentleman is wrong to talk about eleventh-hour improvements to veterans health care. There has been a sustained focus on the improvement to veterans health care, whether that is primary care, with new arrangements with the NHS, hospital care or mental health services. If he looks at the Command Paper that was issued by the Secretary of State for Defence a couple of years ago and all the work that has transpired following that, he will realise that his comments are ill-judged. If he wants to suggest anything specific that would contribute to the improvements that are under way, I am sure the Secretary of State for Defence, working with the Health Secretary, would look at that positively.
As the Leader of the House knows, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill is being debated next week. Being formidably well briefed, she will also know that my new clause 1 would remove section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983, which discriminates against Members of Parliament who have a mental health problem. She will also know that Mr. Speaker’s Conference on parliamentary representation recommended that that provision of the Mental Health Act be abolished as soon as possible and a Select Committee report on it. She will know, too, that a Minister in the Justice Department committed the Government to that course of action this Tuesday. I have written to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, to ask his Committee to look at the matter at the earliest opportunity. If he does so and brings his recommendations forward, will the right hon. and learned Lady ensure that the House gets an early opportunity to make a decision so that people in this country with a mental health problem recognise that Members of the House treat mental health and physical disabilities in exactly the same way and do not discriminate against one or the other?
I strongly support the work that the hon. Gentleman is doing on that and the principles that lie behind it. It has, as he says, been taken up by work underlying the Speaker’s Conference. The matter is still under consideration, but I will make sure that we get back to him as soon as possible to let him know how we intend to respond to the situation when the CRAG Bill returns to the House.
I am sure the Leader of the House and all colleagues in the House will pay tribute to our armed forces in Afghanistan, whom I had the pleasure of visiting last week. What was very sad and very annoying was that when we went through Brize Norton, Commonwealth soldiers who are fighting for this country, for our armed forces, were segregated and not allowed to fly with the rest of the British soldiers because they did not have a British passport. I can see that the right hon. and learned Lady is somewhat bemused by that. Will she contact the Ministry of Defence and find out why Commonwealth soldiers, particularly South African soldiers, are not allowed to go through the United Arab Emirates into theatre and why such segregation takes place, and come back to the House to explain why they are treated in such an appalling way?
On the Wright report, I agree that we cannot go on like this, with suspicious minds. To allay suspicions, given what the Leader of the House said, could she reply to the Wright Committee setting out which of the 21 Wright report recommendations she plans to put, thereby helping everyone to identify which recommendations do not currently find favour with the Government? That would be open and straightforward. I commend that action to her.