Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 511: debated on Thursday 17 June 2010


The Secretary of State was asked—

Heathrow Airport

1. What recent discussions he has had with business representatives on the expansion of Heathrow airport. (2710)

I have not discussed the expansion of Heathrow with business representatives since my appointment, as we have made it clear that we will not support a third runway at Heathrow. This Government’s focus is on making Heathrow better not bigger.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his position. I do not always agree with the CBI, but it has joined the Trades Union Congress and unions across London to say that the expansion of Heathrow is good for business and for London. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore be careful that, in taking his stance—I recognise that it is one of integrity—he does not end up exporting jobs and business from London to Munich, Frankfurt and Paris?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, both parties in the coalition campaigned before the general election on a clear commitment to scrap the third runway at Heathrow. However, we are not anti-aviation and, earlier this week, I set up a working group to consider aviation in the south-east and to work with all the stakeholders, including representatives of business, the airlines and people who work at the airport to ascertain how we can make aviation in the south-east work better within the constraints of existing runway capacity.

The people of Ealing Central and Acton were delighted by the decision to scrap the third runway. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the third runway had gone ahead, it would have imposed intolerable extra blight on those who live in west London?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When considering airport expansion, we must look at not only the economic benefits but the local environmental burdens and the impact on this Government’s and the previous Government’s commitments to CO2 reduction.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to his new position. I also welcome his comments about undertaking a review of aviation policy in the south-east because that suggests that the economic case has not been forgotten. Does he agree that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) said, when there is spare capacity in Paris, Schiphol and Frankfurt, and Dubai has built six runways, we run the risk of being disadvantaged not only by the rest of Europe, but by being bypassed by planes flying straight to the Americas from Asia through Dubai?

Heathrow is Britain’s premier hub airport and we intend to ensure that it remains a major hub airport. We want to work with business and other stakeholders to ensure that Heathrow becomes better, not bigger, and that we protect its status.

Dartford Crossing

The Department and the Highways Agency are committed to improving the levels of service experienced by users of the Dartford crossing. The Highways Agency and I will consider a package of measures, including better information and traffic management to help reduce the congestion at the Dartford crossing.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but is he aware that, since the tolls increased, the delays when approaching the tolling booths are anything up to 45 minutes and more? That causes enormous frustration to those who use the crossing, which is increased by the fact that the original intention was to scrap the tolls once the bridge was paid for rather than to put them up.

My hon. Friend knows that I am personally aware of the problems at the Dartford crossing, having used it for many years. The £40 million net that we recover from the crossing is a significant income, but we need to consider technology that is being used in other parts of the world, particularly in Australia, so that we can remove the barriers and increase the speed at which traffic comes through while also picking up the revenue that the country desperately needs.

Airlines (Industrial Action)

3. What information his Department holds on the effect of industrial action involving airlines on the number of passengers on flights operated by those airlines. (2712)

The Department does not routinely monitor or hold information on airline passenger loads. However, most publicly listed UK airlines, including British Airways, regularly publish traffic and capacity statistics.

Is the right hon. Lady aware of testimony from British Airways staff that British Airways has run commercially unviable flights in periods of industrial action, with low to zero numbers of passengers, to give the impression that it is unaffected by industrial action? Will you condemn any carrier for such environmentally unsustainable behaviour and investigate any report from BA staff?

It is clear that this Government are determined to provide encouragement to airlines to fly greener planes and to switch to flying fuller planes. That is what is behind the proposals we will make on reforming air passenger duty, and it will help to address the concerns around so-called ghost flights.

Turning to the hon. Lady’s specific example, that is primarily a matter for British Airways. I understand from the airline that some planes flew with low passenger loads, some were freight-only, and some had only crew on board, to ensure that the aeroplanes were in the right place to resume passenger operations once the dispute ended. That is a concern to us because of the environmental impact of empty flights. Unfortunately, that is another negative consequence of the industrial dispute and another reason why I urge the parties to get back round the table to ensure that it is resolved as soon as possible to prevent a recurrence.

Concessionary Bus Fares

The Government’s commitment to protect free bus travel for older people is set out in the coalition agreement. The right to free bus travel for both older and disabled people is enshrined in primary legislation.

Will the hon. Gentleman be the Government’s conscience on the freedom pass, because when one looks at all the people who have tried to undermine it in the past, one realises that they have all been Conservatives. They have described the pass as a stealth tax, or said that it goes to the wrong people. Would it be a resigning issue for him if the scheme were to be watered down in any way, and will he keep a weather eye out for those nasty colleagues of his who always try to undermine the freedom pass?

It is something of a record to ask a Minister whether he might consider resigning when he is answering his first departmental question. I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that the coalition—both parties—are committed to free bus travel for older people, as I set out. Indeed, that is enshrined in primary legislation, so I think that his fears are groundless.

The Labour Government reduced the grant for the bus concessionary scheme in London by some £25 million quite late on in the process. Will the Minister confirm that the coalition will not do anything similar to the council tax payers of London?

I welcome the Minister and his colleagues to their appointments, and we wish them well in their responsibilities. It is hard not to notice that the Department is led by two former shadow Chief Secretaries to the Treasury, at least one of whom would rather like to be Chief Secretary to the Treasury, so the Opposition will be keeping a very careful eye on them to ensure that they are genuine advocates for modern transport infrastructure, and not holding office simply to wield the Chancellor’s axe.

Will the Minister give the House a clear guarantee on two points on the concessionary travel scheme? Can he reassure the 11 million people who were given free bus travel under Labour that this Government will not introduce any new restrictions on when and how their passes can be used, and can he guarantee that there will be no means-testing for new recipients of free bus travel during the lifetime of this Parliament?

The Opposition spokesman perhaps did not hear my original answer, which was that the Government are committed to protecting free bus travel for older people. That is set out very clearly in the coalition agreement and will be our policy.

5. What recent representations he has received on the system of reimbursement to local authorities for their expenditure on the national concessionary bus fare scheme; and if he will make a statement. (2714)

Department for Transport Ministers have recently received general representations about concessionary travel, including from local authority and bus operator representatives. Some of those representations have included funding issues.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his position. He will be aware that many councils have found it difficult to meet the full costs of the scheme. I successfully lobbied for extra money for my authority, but it is still out of pocket. While lobbying, I uncovered a report that suggested that significant savings could be made if the scheme were administered nationally, with the Government rather than lots of local authorities negotiating with the bus companies. Will he look at that idea to see whether savings can be made?

The previous Government consulted on that very option, and only 23% of respondents were in favour of it, compared with a majority in favour of administration at county council level—the scheme that has now been adopted. The concern is that if the scheme were administered centrally, it might have an impact on the discretionary concessions offered by district councils. We could end up with a national system and local negotiations, thereby increasing administration costs.

The Minister will be aware that the decision to have a concessionary scheme in England had consequential effects on funding in Scotland through the Barnett formula. The scheme is already underfunded by the Scottish Government, so may I have an assurance that there will be no further cuts in funding in Scotland through the effect on the Barnett formula?

I am happy to say that I am not an expert on the Barnett formula, and I advise the hon. Gentleman to await the outcome of the spending review.

Transport Services (Expenditure Reductions)

6. What assessment has been made of the effects on front-line transport services of the announced expenditure reductions for his Department in 2010-11. (2715)

I can reassure my hon. Friend that this Government take protecting front-line services very seriously. However, we also take very seriously the need to deal with the unsustainable structural deficit we inherited. The Department for Transport is focusing on making its contribution to deficit reduction while supporting economic recovery and protecting priority areas.

Notwithstanding that answer, is the Secretary of State aware that the suspension of major schemes has meant that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency may not provide the Isles of Scilly ferry service with the necessary authority to continue? As the service has been 10 years in preparation, is 99% ready to go and is a lifeline for the Isles of Scilly, will he reconsider this issue?

Perhaps I can clarify what I have done. This scheme has conditional approval, and we have said that schemes with conditional approval or programme entry will have to await the outcome of the spending review before we can confirm them. My understanding is that Cornwall county council is still awaiting listed building consent, without which the scheme could not proceed anyway, but we are aware of the vital nature of the link to the Isles of Scilly and we will review the scheme as soon as the spending review has been completed.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment.

Two days ago in the other place, Lord Attlee stated that rail electrification could not be afforded. Does that mean that the Government reject the notion that investment in transport is essential to support economic recovery?

The Government are committed to rail electrification because of its carbon impact. However, as the hon. Lady will be aware, we have inherited a massive black hole in the public finances—[Interruption.] Labour Members can laugh, but the previous Government announced a halving of the public capital investment programme without giving any indication of where that cut would come. After the spending review, we will have to look at all these programmes in the light of their affordability and the urgent need to reduce the fiscal deficit.

Will my right hon. Friend meet me and a delegation from Reading borough council to discuss the continued funding of proposed transport changes that his announcement last week suggested might be suspended?

The only announcement that I made last week that affects the Reading scheme was about a local authority scheme for highway improvements around Reading station. That scheme will be reviewed following the outcome of the spending review, and my hon. Friend will learn the outcome in due course.

May I genuinely welcome and congratulate the Secretary of State and the ministerial team on their new jobs? Good transport can be a driver of economic growth and I ask the Secretary of State to be a champion for transport, rather than treat his position as an application for his next job.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the rail network is carrying more passengers and more freight than at any time since the 1940s, and projections predict further growth. That is why we promised an additional 1,300 carriages by 2014 and we were well ahead of schedule in providing those. In fact, at the last Transport questions, both Liberal Democrats and Conservatives asked us to provide more carriages even more quickly. Now that they are in government together, can the Secretary of State tell us how many more carriages than 1,300 they will provide and how much sooner than 2014?

I am genuinely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his congratulations.

The Department’s principal task is to support economic growth and the Government’s 2020 carbon reduction targets, and we have to demonstrate that we can deliver them in tandem. Approximately half the HLOS––high-level output specification––rolling stock has already been contracted and will proceed, but no further contracts will be signed during this financial year owing to the disastrous public finances. When the spending review is completed, we will review where we are with the programme and make a further announcement in due course.

One would have thought that if the Secretary of State was serious about moving people from road to rail, he would encourage more carriages, so that people would be encouraged in turn to use the rail system. He will be aware that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) is a passionate advocate of reform of rail fares; in fact, in his last question at a Prime Minister’s questions, he challenged the then Prime Minister to change the rail fares formula to 1% below inflation. I am sure that he remains a passionate advocate and is not simply window dressing, so now that they are hon. Friends, will the Secretary of State confirm how soon he will announce a change in the rail fare regime and how much below inflation it will be?

It is amazing that the right hon. Gentleman, who was a member of the last Government, appears to come to the Dispatch Box with no recognition of the deficit we are facing and the financial challenges that the Government have to deal with in order to clear up the mess that he and his hon. Friends left behind. We are committed to fair rail fares, but we have to do everything within the context of the fiscal inheritance that we have received.

I urge my right hon. Friend, when considering how best to expand rail, to consider branch lines off high-speed rail links to service some of the commuter towns disfranchised under the Beeching review.

Although we want to continue to increase passenger usage of the railways, we have to operate within a tightly constrained public spending environment. Our first priority must be to maintain and improve the trunk railway network that we have already. I will consider any proposals for reopening branch lines, but I have grave doubts about whether it is likely to be affordable in the foreseeable future.

Order. I gently point out that we need to make better progress, so short questions and short answers would be appreciated.

Mainline Electrification

We support rail electrification because it helps to reduce carbon emissions and cut running costs. However, we are in the early stages of the new Government and Ministers are considering the full range of transport policy to ascertain what is affordable.

I welcome the Minister to her post and thank her for her answer. In considering those matters, does she understand the importance of electrification on the line between Wales and London? I am glad that she did not simply repeat the mantra of her right hon. Friend, which is becoming as boring as a vuvuzela at the World cup—the one-note symphony we are getting from the Government. However, does she understand the importance of this kind of infrastructure? It is not just about the budget deficit, but about the future growth of the economy.

I understand the importance of this issue, including in Wales, but the previous Government, of which the hon. Gentleman was a member, had 13 years to do this and failed. Just a few short years ago, the 30-year strategy they published for the railways had virtually no place for electrification. Then we had a last-minute change of mind, made at a point in the cycle when, as Labour’s outgoing Chief Secretary made clear, there was very little money left. We support electrification—it was in our manifesto and the coalition agreement—and we will take forward those projects that are affordable in the light of the deficit left to us by the Government of which the hon. Gentleman was a member.


I welcome my hon. Friend to his place. He worked long and hard to win his seat and he thoroughly deserves the success that he has now enjoyed.

The first priority of this Government must be tackling the country’s unsustainable level of debt. Once the spending review is complete and the Department has settled its budget, we will review all existing schemes, whether road or otherwise, on the basis of the economic benefits that they deliver.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Harlow has just one entrance to a motorway, whereas similar towns, such as Welwyn Garden City, have two or three and Basildon has four? Is he aware that traffic in Harlow is gridlocked and that residents in my constituency are crying out for an extra junction on the M11? With the road review under way, and when finances allow, will he give strong consideration to providing the road infrastructure that Harlow so desperately needs?

Order. I do apologise, but the questions are still too long. We are getting mini-essays. I want short questions.

I can tell my hon. Friend that we will be happy to consider proposals from local authorities and the Highways Agency for improvements, but he will understand that they will be affordable only once the deficit has been eliminated.

A few moments ago, the Secretary of State said that one of the key priorities was supporting economic growth. How does suspending the decision on the Mersey Gateway project help economic growth in Merseyside and Cheshire, particularly given the support from the Conservative councils in Cheshire? And he should not give us that nonsense about a black hole in the finances.

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the black hole in the finances is nonsense, he needs to go back and do a little more homework. It is the most serious problem facing our country today and the most urgent challenge for this Government. However, let us be clear about the Mersey Gateway project. All we have done is suspend the progress of the scheme until after the current spending review is completed. We believe that it would be wrong to encourage or allow local authorities to incur significant additional expenditure on a large number of projects when some of them clearly may not be able to proceed on the original timetable.

Is my right hon. Friend going to treat the A1 as a national strategic road, rather than a regional road, and develop plans for full dualling of it when resources allow?

East London Line (Extension)

9. Whether his Department’s value for money evaluation of the proposed Surrey Canal Road station on the East London line extension has been completed. (2718)

Order. I think that the Minister has the wrong brief. I may be mistaken—if I am wrong, I apologise to her—but she is answering a question about the Surrey Canal Road station on the East London line. That is what is of interest to the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock).

I apologise, Mr Speaker.

A value for money assessment of the proposed Surrey Canal Road station was carried out by Transport for London and Lewisham council last year. The Department for Transport has some concerns regarding the business case. I have asked officials to provide full advice on the matter and expect to make a decision in the near future.

I welcome the right hon. Lady to her position, and I am grateful for that reply. However, she needs to remember that Transport for London has found that the proposal more than meets the business case that was applicable to all other stations in London, and that it is pivotal to the development of 2,500 new homes and to the job prospects of the 2.9 million people expected to use the station. Will she meet with me to see how to get the station built now, alongside the construction of the railway?

I am happy to meet the right hon. Lady as soon as possible to discuss this important issue. She has fought hard on the campaign, and I am looking into the proposal with great care. I am discussing it with officials and, as I have said, I have asked them for extra briefing. It is important to take into account local views, TfL’s views and the views of other stakeholders. However, I must also make it clear that we need to assess such programmes carefully for affordability, given the state of the public finances and the deficit that we have inherited from Labour.

Does the Minister accept that this issue has a cross-borough and cross-constituency resonance, and that there is widespread support for the proposal across the parties? Will she meet all of us who have an interest in it? I hope that we shall be able to persuade her of its merits, because we have a very good case.

Subsidised Bus Services

In 2005, the Department published a document on its website detailing best practice in the process of tendering for subsidised bus services, along with examples of specimen conditions for contracts, as part of its wider guidance to local authorities. The guidance remains available, and there are currently no plans to update it. The Department’s website also provides guidance on the de minimis rules for tendering.

It was Baroness Thatcher who said that if a man finds himself on a bus at the age of 26, he is a failure. I assure the Minister that that is not the case in Newcastle, where the buses are an essential part of our economy. They are how we get to work. Will he assure us that, under the coalition Government, local authorities will have the powers to ensure that we have excellent bus services?

We recognise that bus travel is the predominant form of public transport, and we want to encourage that. We also want to get better value for the taxpayer and the fare payer from the bus services that are provided. We also recognise the good work that many local authorities do in dealing with bus services, and I particularly want to pay tribute to the Tyne and Wear integrated transport authority, which is designing a comprehensive bus network to improve standards of accessibility for local residents.

I welcome the Minister to his new role; I am sure that he will do an excellent job. We heard earlier that he had been unsuccessful in persuading his colleagues to change their views on carriages and rail fares. Has he had any more luck in changing their views on quality bus contracts? He will be aware that local authorities outside London want the same powers as those in London to choose to enter into quality bus contracts with bus operators. Local authorities around the country, led by all parties, are in favour of that, and so was the Minister before the election. Is he still in favour of it, and, if so, has he persuaded his colleagues to change their minds?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind welcome. He was always considerate and helpful to me when I was in opposition, and I shall try to be equally helpful to him, now that the position has changed.

The legislation on quality contracts is as it is; it was set out and passed under the previous Government, and it remains in place. The Competition Commission is undertaking an investigation into the bus market, and it would be premature for me to make any further comments until it is completed.

Manchester Metrolink (Extensions)

11. What assessment he has made of the merits of the 3a and 3b extensions to the Manchester Metrolink; and if he will make a statement. (2720)

Phases 3a and 3b of the Manchester Metrolink were approved for funding by the previous Government. Construction of phase 3a is under way. Phase 3b has been re-examined following the announcement by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on 17 May of a review of spending approval granted since 1 January this year.

With regard to the phase 3b contract for the Ashton-under-Lyne extension, it is important to note that substantial amounts of public funding have already been spent on the route, and significant advance works to provide dedicated strengthened central reserves and bridges have now been completed. Studies show that the East Manchester line will be commercially viable only if it goes all the way through to Ashton. Will the Minister confirm that all those issues will be factored into the review and that they will be carefully considered before a decision is made?

The hon. Gentleman makes a number of pertinent points, and I understand the thrust of his argument and the strength of his case. I cannot give him a specific assurance at this precise moment, but I suggest that he will be interested to hear the statement that is shortly to be made from the Treasury Bench.

Speed Cameras

12. What his plans are for the future funding of new fixed speed cameras; and if he will make a statement. (2721)

15. What his Department’s plans are for the future funding of fixed speed cameras; and if he will make a statement. (2724)

Order. I am happy to allow the questions to be taken together, but this is the first that I have heard of it. The normal courtesy is that the Government notify me of this in advance. I shall let the Minister off on this occasion, but I do not want to see a repeat performance.

I had been informed that these questions had been grouped, and I apologise to you if I was impertinent, Mr Speaker.

The Government will not provide any more money to local authorities for new fixed speed cameras. If authorities want to put up new fixed cameras, they are free to do so using their own resources, but we strongly encourage them to use other methods and effective safety measures.

I am grateful for that reassurance. Does the Minister agree that when speed cameras are used more as a money-raising mechanism than as a road-safety measure, confidence in them will continue to fall?

There are now three times as many speed cameras in this country as there were in 2000, and the public must be confident that speed cameras are there for road safety, not as a cash cow. Under this Government, they will be.

I call Richard Harrington. It appears that not only was I unaware of the grouping of questions 12 and 15, but the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), whom the grouping directly affects, was also unaware of it, as he is not present.

Does the Minister not accept that the very good progress made in recent years in reducing the number of deaths and injuries on our roads is partly due to speed cameras, and that the income generated has been less than the money spent by the Government on speed cameras? Will he consider the introduction of more average-time distance speed cameras and making the existing speed cameras less conspicuous?

The hon. Gentleman, a Minister in the previous Government and a former firefighter, is well aware of how speed cameras can protect the public. As a former firefighter myself, I know that speed has been part of the reason for many road traffic accidents, but not the sole reason for them. The growth of speed cameras has been so great that the public are concerned about whether they are there for safety or to raise money for the Treasury. The Government will not put any more money in; if local authorities want to do so, that is okay. Intermittent and average speed cameras are in use, particularly on motorways, and are an excellent way of easing congestion on our motorways.

Topical Questions

The Government’s first priority is reducing the budget deficit left us by the previous Administration, and I am determined that the Department for Transport should play its full part in that process. Against that backdrop, my Department is focused on building a modern and sustainable transport system that will contribute both to future economic growth and to the achievement of the Government’s climate change targets.

When does the Secretary of State expect to receive Lord Mawhinney’s report on Heathrow high-speed rail access? When he receives it, will he consult Slough, whose prosperity depends completely on its proximity to Heathrow?

I have asked Lord Mawhinney to let us have his preliminary conclusions by the end of July, and I will be happy to consult the hon. Lady’s local authority once I have received that report from him.

T3. As Ministers work out how best to transfer travel from plane to train, where that is possible, will they prioritise talks with European colleagues to make sure that the European rail network works and with colleagues in this country to make sure that high-speed rail will allow people to go through the capital without having to change trains? (2733)

I thank my hon. Friend, who makes a very important point. Now that we have made it clear that there will be no third runway at Heathrow airport, modal shift from air to rail becomes crucially important, including for journeys through to Europe. I have asked HS2 Ltd to look at the options and the costs of providing a direct link from the proposed HS2 to the existing high-speed rail network to the Channel tunnel.

T2. I cannot stress enough the importance of the Tyne and Wear metro to the people of the north-east—in respect of the economy, the environment and the general quality of life. The previous Government pledged £350 million to upgrade the scheme, so will the Minister acknowledge the importance of the Tyne and Wear metro and tell us whether he is going to honour that pledge? (2732)

I do acknowledge the importance of the Tyne and Wear metro, just as I acknowledge the difficult financial position the Government are in. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman wait for the Treasury statement later this morning.

My constituents do not want the pollution that additional runways at Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick would entail, but they do want shorter queues, fewer delays and better service. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are plenty of ways of achieving that through improving operations at those airports?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. That is why the Secretary of State has established a taskforce to look into the ways we can make good on our promise to make Heathrow better. We have rejected a third runway because of the huge environmental damage it would cause, but there is more we can do to improve the regulatory structure and we are bringing forward legislation on that to incentivise the airports to focus on the quality of service for passengers. We need to keep security measures under review so that passengers are kept safe and we can mitigate the hassle that those measures cause. We need to work with the stakeholders and the airlines to get the right solution to integrate high-speed rail with Heathrow, to provide a viable alternative to having many short-haul flights and to relieve overcrowding problems at the airport.

T5. What is happening about the sell-off of BAA, its monopoly—particularly north of the border—and the imposition on passengers, especially in Glasgow, of charges for being picked up after their holiday flights, and the requirement to walk for an exorbitant distance? It is an absolute disgrace, and it is time that such companies were brought to book and made to compete. (2737)

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to a consumer issue which, I know, greatly concerns his constituents and many other users of that airport. It is just the type of issue that we hope our new airport regulation Bill will address. We intend to give airports stronger incentives to look after and respond to their customers.

The proceedings of the Competition Commission in relation to the ownership of various airports around the country are a matter for the commission, but we have often highlighted the benefits that diversity of ownership in the United Kingdom airport sector can yield to customers.

Is the Minister aware that Arriva buses recently introduced a completely new network and timetable in Milton Keynes? At a public meeting last Friday many of my constituents, especially pensioners, told me that they had been greatly inconvenienced by the changes, and that they had not been properly consulted. Will the Minister do all that he can to ensure that operators consult their passengers properly before introducing such radical changes?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We ought to ensure that bus companies work with the grain of local people’s interests. We are considering the period within which bus companies must give notification of new timetables.

Will the Minister reassure us that in considering any spending review relating to funds for the Tyne and Wear metro, he will take account of the need to preserve an existing structure which—unlike many other capital projects—is more than 30 years old, desperately requires reinvigoration, and is vital to the community in Newcastle and throughout the north-east?

As I said a moment ago to the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr Hepburn), we understand the importance of the Tyne and Wear metro to the area. I suggest that the hon. Lady wait for the statement that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury will make later this morning.

May I urge the Secretary of State to accept the recommendations of the North review and, as a matter of urgency, present proposals for a reduction in the drink-drive limit from 80 to 50 mg?

Sir Peter North has delivered a comprehensive report, containing 51 recommendations, on issues relating to driving under the influence of drink or drugs. The Government will consult other Departments on the implications of the recommendations, and we will announce our position in due course.

In April, when Jarvis was placed in administration, Network Rail cancelled millions of pounds of track renewal contracts on the east coast main line. We have recently been reminded of the Potters Bar rail accident. That track renewal work must go ahead. Will the Minister arrange for me to meet Iain Coucher—along with Members representing other constituencies where many workers have been made redundant as a result of the cuts—so that we can discuss with him the timetable for reinstating the track renewal contracts with other companies?

The Office of Rail Regulation is responsible for ensuring that the railway is managed safely, and that works that are required for its safety go ahead. The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that shortly before Question Time, Network Rail announced that Iain Coucher would be stepping down from his role. For that reason it would not be practical for me to arrange a meeting with him, but I should be happy to try to facilitate a meeting with another appropriate representative of Network Rail.

I can give that confirmation. We support the current protections of runway alternation. We defeated Labour’s proposals for mixed mode when we were in opposition, and we will not revive them now that we are in government.

Does the new, post-bureaucratic age of transparency extend to a commitment to publish bus and rail timetables in digital format for open public reuse?

We are looking at that issue at the moment. I think there are considerable benefits to be gained from a more open approach to timetabling, and I would be delighted to have a discussion with the hon. Gentleman if he wants to give me further indications of his ideas on this, so that we can ensure we get the maximum benefits for passengers.

Vehicle excise duty remains unpaid on 2 million vehicles, 80% of which are uninsured and 70% of which are owned by people with criminal convictions. Given that these vehicles kill 160 people a year and injure 23,000, may we have a crackdown?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point, but vehicle recognition technology is now moving forward. I have recently been in police vehicles where we have been able to pick up where other vehicles have not had MOTs and insurance, and I am asking the Association of Chief Police Officers lead on this, whom I met yesterday, to clamp down as hard as possible.

Brake, the road safety charity, has said that cutting Government funding for speed cameras will lead to blood on our roads. Why is the Minister cutting the funding for them, given that they would raise revenue during the forthcoming age of austerity, and how is Wakefield council supposed to put new ones in when it has just had a £1 million cut to its road safety grant?

Local authorities have the powers to spend the money as they wish, and if they wish to spend it on more speed cameras that is entirely within their remit. There are other ways in which lives can be saved. I have looked at what Brake says, but I disagree. Such cameras should not be a cash cow. This should not be determined by issues to do with raising tax. It should be about safety; that is the important thing.

May I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to his new position? Does he agree with me in principle that those people whose homes have been blighted by Labour’s preferred route for high-speed rail should be fully compensated, rather than at the 85% of value as proposed by Labour?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. One of the first decisions I took in my new post was to extend the consultation on the exceptional hardship scheme. That consultation closes today and we will publish our conclusions in due course.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Parliamentary Representation

1. What discussions she has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on constitutional reforms to increase the representation of women and ethnic minorities in Parliament. (2700)

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to notify the House that, given the cross-cutting nature of the women and equalities agenda, I may be joined on the Front Bench for future questions not only by the Minister for Equalities, but also by the Minister with responsibility for race equality, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), who is present in the Chamber today, and by the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) and the Minister with responsibility for pensions, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), in order to allow Members to receive answers from the Minister with responsibility for the issue under discussion so that we can look at the wider equalities agenda.

On the question, I welcome the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) to the House, and I am pleased to say that following the recent general election there are now more women and black and minority ethnic Members of Parliament in the House. I am particularly delighted that across the governing parties there are now 56 women MPs and 11 MPs from an ethnic minority background, but we do need to do more, and I will be talking to the Deputy Prime Minister to ensure that this issue is a matter of concern when we look at our constitutional reform agenda.

I am proud to be one of the 81 Labour women MPs in the House, and it is clear that my party has done more than any other to increase the representation of women and ethnic minorities in this House, but progress is far too slow still. As part of the apparently far-reaching constitutional reform package, what will the Government do to make sure this House reflects the people we serve?

As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made clear in his speech of 19 May, our agenda for constitutional and political reform will be a power revolution because it will be a fundamental resettlement of the relationship between the state and the citizen, but it would be a mistake for anybody to assume that constitutional reform in itself can bring about an increased diversity of representation in this House. The first responsibility for ensuring diversity of representation rests with political parties, and with political parties taking action to ensure we have a greater diversity of candidates, and I am very proud to have been involved in the action that the Conservative party took to ensure we have a much greater diversity of Members of Parliament on our Benches.

The Minister is absolutely right to say that constitutional reform is not the only way to improve representation within this House. Many suggestions were put forward in the excellent Speaker’s Conference report, which this House considered in the last Parliament, such as a democracy diversity fund to help candidates to stand for election where there might otherwise be barriers, and reforms to this House. Will she be taking forward some of the recommendations in the Speaker’s Conference report?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question and I pay tribute to her for the role that she played in the Speaker’s Conference and to the work that was done by the Speaker’s Conference. As she will be aware, the last Government responded to the report and we responded to it when we were in opposition. We will now consider how to take forward some of the proposals made by the Speaker’s Conference—[Interruption.] Opposition Members should have a little patience. They are shouting “What?” and I am just about to tell them, if they wait. We have made an early commitment as part of our coalition agreement to introduce extra support, particularly for disabled people who want to become MPs, councillors or other elected representatives.

The Home Secretary is absolutely right that there are now more Members from ethnic minorities in the House of Commons—26—than at any time in the history of this country. Sadly, the only party that does not have any ethnic minority MPs is, of course, the Liberal Democrats. The leader of the Liberal Democrats supported my private Member’s Bill to allow all-ethnic minority shortlists. Would the Home Secretary support that Bill if I was to introduce it to the House? She is right—it is up to the political parties to make the changes.

In a sense, I think that the right hon. Gentleman has slightly contradicted himself by suggesting that legislation is the way forward rather than the encouragement of political parties. I am pleased that as part of the 26, we have 11 Conservative Members of Parliament from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, which is a significant increase at the last election. It is right that all political parties need to do more on this issue and that all political parties need to consider the processes that they are using to select their candidates. There is a role for us all in trying to go out there to ensure that people in black and minority ethnic communities see this place as somewhere that is for them, so that they want to come and represent constituencies in this House. That is a job that we can all do.

Parental Leave

2. What recent discussions she has had on plans to reform arrangements for parental leave; and if she will make a statement. (2701)

I have had several discussions with Cabinet colleagues and these will continue. We are committed to encouraging the involvement of both parents from the earliest stages of pregnancy, including the promotion of a system of flexible parental leave. Indeed, as we speak my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is making a speech on families and family policy in which he will confirm this commitment.

May I urge my right hon. Friend to consider the needs of and challenges faced by small business employers as well as employees as she develops this legislation?

I can confirm that we will do that. I am conscious that it is important that we ensure that business is consulted when we are introducing such changes to ensure that we can introduce them in as bureaucratically and administratively light a way as possible so that the impact on small businesses is not too great. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will announce this morning that the childhood and families taskforce that he is setting up will consider this matter and consult on how to put it into place.

Has the Home Secretary had a chance to read the Prime Minister’s excellent article in the Financial Times in which he says that the priority for Europe must be full equality in the workplace? I welcome that. Is the Cabinet a workplace, and when will half of it consist of women?

That was a somewhat disappointing question from the right hon. Gentleman. As he will know, the proportion of women who are full members of the Cabinet under the coalition Government is exactly the same as the proportion of women who were full members of the Cabinet under the Labour Government.

Violence Against Women

I welcome the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) to his place. Violence against women and girls remains prevalent in our society. This is unacceptable and a cross-Government strategy is the best way to address this. I look forward to discussing with colleagues across Government how we will take forward our approach in this area.

I thank the Minister for that answer. During the previous football World cup in 2006, there was a 30% rise in domestic violence on the days that England played. What assurances can my hon. Friend provide the House that women will be protected, especially during the current tournament?

The Home Secretary recently stated that such violence is not acceptable under any circumstances, and even the World cup does not give perpetrators the slightest excuse to be violent. The Association of Chief Police Officers wrote to all police forces in May to advise them that they should be aware of that and of the possibility of violence during the World cup. Forces were asked to consider what measures they could implement, and a range of recommendations were taken forward, including visiting the 10 most likely offenders from previous experience.

Does my hon. Friend recognise the advantages of taking a coherent, cross-departmental approach to tackling violence against women, particularly in relation to forced marriages?

Yes, we do recognise that. Violence against women cannot be dealt with by one Department alone, as it cuts across the whole of government. On forced marriage, we all supported the original Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, which was brought forward by my noble Friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill. We will do all we can to work cross-departmentally to make sure that we attack forced marriage, which is unacceptable.

Rape is an act of violence against both women and men, and for both women and men who are victims of rape, it is often their lack of confidence in coming forward that prevents people from being brought to justice. What are the implications of the proposals to extend anonymity to defendants in rape trials on the confidence of male and female victims in coming forward?

Obviously, the conviction rate in this country is not good enough and needs to be improved, and the last thing that we want is for fewer victims to come forward, but we have not yet seen compelling evidence that offering anonymity to defendants would reduce those reporting rates. The attitude that the victim is somehow responsible is prevalent in this country, and that is something that we will be looking at. I assure the right hon. Lady that we will be looking at all the options in terms of addressing this issue and debating it in the House.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) on her appointment as the Minister for Equalities, and I congratulate the Home Secretary on hers as the Minister for Women and Equalities. The Opposition will be very keen to work with them on areas in which we can help to support women and to promote equalities.

I am sorry that the Home Secretary did not answer this question, as she will be aware of the extent of concern about the Government’s proposals on rape. Will she therefore write to me in reply, in addition to her hon. Friend’s response? I wrote to the Home Secretary on 27 May, in her capacity as the Minister for Women and Equalities, about the Government’s proposal to introduce anonymity for rape defendants. I received a reply from her officials making it clear that this was not seen as her responsibility and that it was being sent instead to the Ministry of Justice. I urge her to rethink that approach because she will know, as the Minister for Women and Equalities and as Home Secretary, that according to the British crime survey, 93% of rape victims are women. Singling out rape uniquely as a crime for which defendants need greater protection against false allegations sends strong and troubling signals about the way that women should be treated in the justice system. I urge her to reconsider this issue and to say whether she thinks it is right for defendants in rape trials to be treated uniquely differently from defendants in other serious crimes.

I assure the right hon. Lady that we definitely see this as an issue for women and equalities, albeit that it resides ultimately in the Ministry of Justice legislatively, and that the Home Secretary will contact her directly regarding her questions.

Does the Minister accept that a large number of victims of domestic violence are men? Given that she is a Minister in the Government Equalities Office, will she confirm that the Government treat domestic violence against men just as seriously as domestic violence against women?

I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful contribution. I am, indeed, the Minister for Equalities, and both men and women are included in that. Some 4% of men are victims of domestic violence, and given that the figure for women is 6%, those figures are not so disparate.

Science and Technology

4. If she will take steps to increase the proportion of people entering careers in science and technology who are women. (2703)

We are absolutely committed to working with teachers and careers advisers to encourage more young women to enter careers in science, engineering and technology, and to supporting British business to increase opportunities for professional women in this sector. The science and technology sector is critical to the UK economy, and women have an enormous contribution to make.

I thank the Minister for her reply. When I entered Imperial college to study engineering, the proportion of women in engineering was about 12%. More than 25 years later, that proportion is almost exactly the same. Does the Minister agree that that represents a huge failure in the science and engineering establishment of this country and that now, when we need to rebalance our economy towards engineering and science, urgent measures are required?

Yes, I agree with the hon. Lady, who is an excellent role model in her field, and I should be happy to talk with her if she has ideas to share with me. It is important that we take this forward. Many companies have already taken action to increase the numbers of women in their work force, but we are clearly not moving fast enough. British Gas has been quite good. It has doubled its work force of women engineers by recruiting women and retraining them. We have to move further and we have to move faster.

Flexible Working

5. What recent assessment she has made of the effects of flexible working arrangements on gender equality in the workplace. (2704)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Flexible working is positive for businesses because it helps them keep valued members of staff. The evidence is clear that flexible working arrangements benefit women, by helping them to balance their caring responsibilities. The coalition Government are united on extending the right to request flexible working; indeed, we have a commitment to do so in the coalition agreement. We will launch a consultation with business at the earliest opportunity.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on what wider social benefits the Government believe will result from the extension of flexible working rights?

I am happy to do so, although we should make more of the fact that there are considerable benefits to businesses in providing flexible working, including keeping valued members of staff, attracting members of staff and being able to dip into the widest possible pool of talent. There are enormous social benefits for families when both women and men can better balance their home and work responsibilities through flexible working arrangements. We have seen that already. There are enormous benefits for children when parents are able to spend more time with them.

Will the Minister consider looking at the experience of countries such as Norway and Sweden where, as part of promoting greater flexibility and general equality, the Governments have introduced a whole month of parental leave that fathers have to take? This has increased the number of men taking parental leave and helped promote greater equality in the workplace. Will she consider that, as the Government look at their reform of parental leave?

I welcome the hon. Lady to the House. The proposals that we put forward in opposition on flexible parental leave—we are now looking at how we take those forward and improve the arrangements for parents and maternity leave—gave a better offer to men than the one month’s paternity leave that she cites from Norway. It enabled couples to decide who would take the leave that was available and stay at home with the baby after it was born. So I think we can offer fathers and mothers a better opportunity than the hon. Lady suggests.