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Commons Chamber

Volume 511: debated on Thursday 17 June 2010

House of Commons

Thursday 17 June 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

BUSINESS BEFORE QUESTIONS

Canterbury City Council Bill

Motion made,

That so much of the Lords Message [10 June] as relates to the Canterbury City Council Bill be now considered. ––(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Object.

To be considered on Thursday 24 June.

Leeds City Council Bill

Ordered,

That so much of the Lords Message [10 June] as relates to the Leeds City Council Bill be now considered.

That the promoters of the Leeds City Council Bill, which was originally introduced in this House in Session 2008–09 on 22 January 2008, may have leave to proceed with the Bill in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of bills).––(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Nottingham City Council Bill

Motion made,

That so much of the Lords Message [10 June] as relates to the Nottingham City Council Bill be now considered. ––(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Object.

To be considered on Thursday 24 June.

Reading Borough Council Bill

Ordered,

That so much of the Lords Message [10 June] as relates to the Reading Borough Council Bill be now considered.

That the promoters of the Reading Borough Council Bill, which was originally introduced in this House in Session 2008–09 on 22 January 2008, may have leave to proceed with the Bill in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of bills).––(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Transport

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.

Roads

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.

Legal Aid Payments

To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on the consequences of the timing of legal aid payments to the charity Refugee and Migrant Justice.

Refugee and Migrant Justice entered into administration earlier this week. It wrote to me a month ago warning me of the risk, and has since made requests for substantial assistance from public funds. The organisation was one of many that provide legal advice and representation to individuals on asylum and immigration matters funded by legal aid. The Legal Services Commission is confident that there is widespread provision of legal advice in this area and that overall capacity will not be affected by the closure of Refugee and Migrant Justice. More than 250 offices nationally are currently providing this type of service.

It may help if I explain the background to this unfortunate situation. The Legal Services Commission has worked closely with Refugee and Migrant Justice for the last few years to help the organisation to make the change to a system of payment based on units of work, the graduated fees scheme. As a result, Refugee and Migrant Justice has received substantial support—over and above the support given to not-for-profit and other organisations—to help it transfer to the current payment system.

However, it is crucial that the Government achieve value for public money. The fixed fee system introduced three years ago by the last Government is already being successfully used by the vast majority of not-for-profit organisations in this area of law. As other organisations have successfully made the transition, it is only reasonable to expect Refugee and Migrant Justice to do the same.

It has been suggested, and is implied in the hon. Gentleman’s question, that under this system payments to Refugee and Migrant Justice have been delayed. It is not a question of any late payments. Refugee and Migrant Justice was paid what was due. However, it did not make the efficiency savings that other providers made.

There is significant long-term interest in the work from other providers, both not-for-profit organisations and private solicitor firms. The Legal Services Commission is currently running a tender round for new contracts for immigration and asylum services from October 2010. There has been an increase in the number of offices applying to do the work. Providers have also bid to handle more than double the amount of cases currently available. It would be wrong to divert legal aid funds to one of the bidders in the middle of the bidding process.

In my opinion, given this unfortunate situation, the highest priority must be the vulnerable clients of Refugee and Migrant Justice. Now that the organisation has left the market, the Legal Services Commission will work with it and other providers to seek to minimise disruption and ensure that clients continue to receive a service. I have checked this morning and I can assure the House that the LSC is working closely with the administrators to ensure that any disruption to clients is minimised. Even today, LSC staff have prioritised the approximately 20 clients of Refugee and Migrant Justice who have court appearances.

The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), will ensure that LSC staff continue to prioritise that area. He and I agree that the main task now is to ensure that the interests of that vulnerable group are properly protected and that no one is left without the legal assistance they require.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his full and careful response. On behalf of colleagues who have huge numbers of asylum and immigration cases involving people who use those services, may I say that I hope he appreciates the importance of the subject to them and to our constituents?

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that currently—so I am advised—13,000 clients are being looked after by Refugee and Migrant Justice, including nearly 1,000 children, who are of course very vulnerable? Does he accept, too, that the reason for the financial problem is the change in the payment system? Although there has been a reduction in income because the payment system has changed, Refugee and Migrant Justice has also reduced its costs by the same amount—I am advised that it is by 40%—and is now being paid in arrears rather than up front, a system that the Law Society and immigration law practitioners have said is unsustainable. I should be grateful if, in time, the Secretary of State would discuss with those organisations how we might improve the system.

Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman give an assurance that he or his hon. Friend, the Under-Secretary of State will make sure that all clients who have been the responsibility of the organisation are given the assurance that their cases will be fully looked after in the immediate days ahead? Are there any other charities in the field with the same sort of problem? If so, there needs to be some continuing and widened support. Will he or our hon. Friend be willing to meet those of us with a direct interest, and the organisations where appropriate, to make sure that there is a stable and secure footing in the years and months ahead for this most important legally aided work?

I am grateful to the hon. Member. Certainly the problem arose as a result of the change to the graduated fees scheme in 2007, but I do not accept that the failure was necessarily caused by that. Every other organisation, including the other not-for-profit organisations, has coped with this. I do not criticise the 2007 decision, but it was designed to improve the efficiency of the use of public funds in providing large amounts of money to give legal aid to those making asylum claims or facing threats of deportation, or whatever. As far as I am aware, this is the only organisation that proved in the end unable to manage its affairs and its finances to avoid the demise that has occurred.

I know that the system is not popular; I know that the Law Society does not like it, but in these difficult times I am not going to go back on it, because it does provide value for money. We have just invited tenders under the system, and the number of people who want to provide services in this area has actually gone up.

Order. May I ask the Secretary of State to turn to address the House? I want to hear his mellifluous tones.

Amongst many others, Mr. Speaker, so I will certainly address the House.

I agree with the hon. Member that the main problem now is the vulnerable clients up and down the country. We think that there is a wind-off process going on; Refugee and Migrant Justice is still, of course, entitled to be paid for the work going on, but I have asked the Legal Services Commission to pay very strong attention to that. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be giving more attention to that today, to make sure that there is no problem occurring. Certainly one of us will meet the hon. Member and other interested Members, although we may have to take advice on whether we can properly meet them in the middle of the bidding process. This is complicated by the fact that we were in the middle of a bidding contest, which means that one cannot suddenly divert lots of money to one of the bidders.

May I first apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who is out of London today but who takes an interest in these matters generally?

This is a major first: we have the deputy leader of one of the governing parties challenging his own Government on the Floor of the House. I look forward to more of that in the future from the Liberal Democrats.

The policy of returning people under 18 years old to safe places in countries such as Afghanistan was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) when he was Home Secretary, and we support it, but it was introduced on the basis of ensuring that there was fair legal representation, of quality, for those who were potentially being deported. Will the Lord Chancellor take steps today to assess, as I think he has already, the viability of Refugee and Migrant Justice, and ensure that this is not just a cash-flow problem? If it is a cash-flow problem, will he ensure that he examines it as a matter of urgency?

Will the Lord Chancellor also meet his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to look at the issues of joint tendering? I understand that there is tendering for this type of service involving both Departments, and I think there needs to be some consideration of that. Will he particularly look at the points made by the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) in relation to the client group who are now potentially left without legal representation, so that we ensure that they receive proper representation of quality and are not forced to undertake representation with, potentially, providers who are not giving the level of service that we would expect?

Finally, in the longer term, will the Lord Chancellor look at the Legal Services Commission as a whole? One thing that my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn wished to do was to look at providing for that organisation to become an executive agency as a matter of urgency. We noticed that that was not included in the Gracious Speech; had our party secured government, it would have been. I should be grateful if, in the longer term, the Lord Chancellor looked at those issues for the House.

First, I doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) was asking a particularly aggressive question; he was rightly seeking some more information about a worrying situation, and I do not think the two of us actually disagreed. In any event, coalition government should give us—certainly those of us in the House not bound by collective responsibility—the opportunity to give up the fatuous media convention that every member of every party automatically agrees with every other member of the same party on each and every issue, which the public have never believed anyway.

To return to the more serious question, the organisation is now in administration, so whether it is even remotely possible to rescue its finances is properly a question for the administrators, not for us. It appears to have got into very serious trouble because, over the past month, it asked for large sums to be paid from the legal aid fund for things such as rent. I have already stressed—I accept that the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) was making the same point as my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark—that we must look at the client group and ensure that there is no hiatus in the representation of children and others who were looking to the body, but I think that that can be done.

We rather supported the previous Government’s indications that the LSC should be examined and that consideration should be given to making it an agency, because we must be clear about where policy making is proceeding in the area. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that that is actively in hand, because we have to face difficult issues under the legal aid heading. The matter did not make the Queen’s Speech because important though it is to him, me and many others who look for proper representation in our courts, it was a bit too detailed.

Order. May I appeal to Members for short questions and short answers? I remind the House that we have business questions to follow, as well as two further statements and a heavily subscribed debate.

I was extremely disappointed by the statement. Complacency seemed to be there; the good samaritan was certainly not. On behalf of those who worked out of the Ipswich office, and in the absence of any other east of England Member wishing to speak, may I ask the Secretary of State to confirm that Members of Parliament who represent predominantly urban seats will find that their work load increases as a consequence of the situation?

With the greatest respect, we face a lot of demands on legal aid. Public money should be used to provide individuals with the legal representation they require, but we cannot suddenly start diverting huge sums out of the legal aid budget to bail out a voluntary body that got itself into a financial mess because it did not make the adjustments for the 2007 system that everyone else succeeded in making. I underline the point that plenty of people—both not-for-profit bodies and professionals—want to provide such services and that an increasing number are trying to get into the market. We are ensuring that no one is left without the representation they require.

Some of us on the Labour Benches did not support the previous Government’s cuts to legal aid in this area because, as representatives of inner-city areas, we realised that there were few specialist immigration solicitors. Will the Lord Chancellor ask the LSC to consider an emergency franchising of those firms that have expertise so that the casework may be dealt with? The problem is the casework that is not being done by RMJ, so how do we help people now?

We will not go back on the graduated fees scheme. It might well be that the previous Government will not have been the only one who had to examine what could be done to improve the efficiency of the legal aid scheme and to address its costs, although I realise that that will not be altogether popular.

There are a lot of specialist firms, although there could no doubt be more. The number of firms bidding has gone up in the present contract round, with 330 organisations bidding for twice the amount of work available. However, I will ask the LSC to consider whether something like the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal might be required in particular cities or areas.

I think that part of the problem is that this is not an isolated situation. One of my constituents is owed £11,000 from the past financial year by the LSC. Yesterday, I received an e-mail from the policy consultant of NAGALRO, the professional association for family court advisers and independent social work practitioners, to say that some of its workers are owed more than £15,000 from the previous year—

Order. May I gently say to the hon. Gentleman—he is a new Member and these things take time—that an urgent question of this kind is narrowly focused on a particular organisation operating in a given area and that questions and answers must be confined to that? We have heard the hon. Gentleman, and I call the Secretary of State to make a brief reply.

We have inherited a few problems in this area, and we are reviewing policy, so I will take on board the very helpful comments of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley).

I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman is confusing quantity with quality when it comes to legal advice on asylum and immigration. Just because there are lots of people coming forward to provide it, it does not mean to say that they are providing good services. Every day in my constituency work I see people who are not getting good advice. Does he agree that it is a false economy for people to go to firms that will not provide them with the service they need? It just means that they then go through the appeals process and make further representations, and that clogs up the system. We should focus on getting reputable organisations, such as the one in question, up and running and providing the services that people need.

The contract operation is based on both quality and quantity. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I will certainly ensure that the Legal Services Commission follows through on the fact that there are meant to be quality standards; it is not just a matter of making bids for the work. However, we cannot intervene and take money out of the legal aid fund to rescue one voluntary body. That body is briefing everybody through very extensive public relations activity: archbishops are writing to me, and everybody seems to be informed that the body has gone broke, but someone is still producing a great deal of campaigning material on its behalf. It does very valuable work, but it is no good diverting money from the fund to it because it is the only one that has gone bust.

What this high-quality body has done is highlight a problem that is not restricted to it. In my constituency, which has high immigration advice need, there is no LSC-funded adviser. Will the Secretary of State bring together those Members who have a large number of such cases to discuss with him whether there are better ways of funding immigration advice in our constituencies?

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I will be only too happy to meet the Members of Parliament particularly affected by the issue. We will have to take advice on whether we will be subject to any kind of legal review if we do that in the middle of the bidding process but, subject to that, we would welcome advice from Members who have particularly large numbers of such cases to deal with, because we will have to look at the whole provision of legal aid in this and other areas.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has made much of the fact that this is the only voluntary body that has found itself in such difficulties. Does he recognise the volume of immigration and asylum work that has been done and that has to be done? He suggests that other comparable bodies have not found themselves in such a situation; can he name some of those that particularly relate to immigration and asylum?

The trust that folded had a 7% market share. It was, of course, part of the old advisory service, which was split up some time ago. The other half of the old advisory service is to get a much bigger market share—over 20%. We are talking about a policy of the last Government, and one with which I do not disagree. The graduated fee scheme was introduced in order to get better value for money out of the legal aid scheme, and everybody had to adjust to it. So far as I am aware, the body is the only one that is in great financial difficulties. In a way, it would have been very awkward for us if it folded after we had awarded the contracts. We would have been in a mess if we had discovered that we had awarded a contract to a financially insecure organisation that went down once we were relying on it to do the work. As far as I am aware, everyone else who is bidding is, I hope, in a sound financial state.

I accept the Secretary of State’s calm approach, and his objective of looking after customers, but I wonder about the accuracy of that. In Leeds, vulnerable people have great difficulty getting representation. We are talking about matters of life and death to those individuals. Will he spell out how he will assure them and this Chamber that no one will go forward without proper representation? In Leeds there is real difficulty, even with the organisation working, to meet the need in the market. How will pulling this firm out of the market help those people to get representation?

The LSC tells us that it has full cover for the work. It made a special intervention in 22 cases in which there were court appearances today to make sure that there was representation. I have no reason to doubt that the LSC is on top of the problem, but my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will spend the rest of the day reassuring us that the LSC and our Department are doing everything they reasonably can to make sure that there is no difficult transition for any of the vulnerable people concerned.

Will the Secretary of State provide me and other Members who have a real interest in this issue with regular updates on what is happening? I appreciate his offer to meet us, and the fact that he says he is working to make sure that people have the representation they need meanwhile, but we need that information, too, so that we can share it with our constituents and the organisations involved in providing help and support to asylum seekers and people with immigration cases.

We will certainly consider that request carefully. Of course, if the hon. Lady or any other Member asks for specific information, or says that they do not have enough information, we will certainly do our best to respond and give the information required.

Will the Secretary of State quantify the additional tax-funded resources that have been allocated to support asylum seekers who are affected by the problem?

I have to say that I do not yet have at my fingertips the precise increase in recent years in legal aid dependent on immigration cases, or the additional amounts that may have been provided in recent years, but initial amounts of funding were provided for a very large number of purposes by the last Government, and most of those cases are now having to be looked at again.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 21 June will include:

Monday 21 June—General debate on the strategic defence and security review.

Tuesday 22 June—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

Wednesday 23 June and Thursday 24 June—Continuation of the Budget debate.

The provisional business for the week commencing 28 June will include:

Monday 28 June—Conclusion of the Budget debate.

Tuesday 29 June— Opposition day (2nd allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Wednesday 30 June— General debate on the progress and prospects in energy efficiency.

Thursday 1 July—General debate on global poverty.

Hon. Members will wish to be reminded that the House will meet at 11.30 am on Tuesday 22 June.

I should also like to inform the House of business in Westminster Hall:

Thursday 1 July—A debate entitled “Supporting carers to have a life outside caring”.

I thank the Leader of the House for setting out the forthcoming business.

If there are any statements to be made next week, can we make sure that we do not have a repeat of last week’s discourtesy to the House, when General Sir Jock Stirrup’s departure was announced in the Sunday papers, and by the Secretary of State for Defence on television, but was not even mentioned in the Prime Minister’s statement to the House on Monday? That is hardly the way to treat the Chief of the Defence Staff.

If there are not any planned statements, could the Leader of the House check with the Cabinet whether there ought to be, given that this week the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is becoming something of a serial offender in this respect, again had to be summoned to the House because once again he wanted to make a key announcement, but not to Members of Parliament? We understand that the Chancellor had suggested that the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury might have an airing, but thought better of it on account of the Chief Secretary being a bit nervy under fire. We are quite pleased that the Chief Secretary is to turn out today.

As it turned out, the Chancellor was announcing yet another commission. Just so that we know whether any decisions remain that are likely to be made by Ministers as opposed to being outsourced to a commission or review, will the right hon. Gentleman place details in the Library of all the commissions that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government have set up, all the reviews that have been announced, the number of people who are involved in the reviews and commissions, their terms of reference and their cost? Will he give us a pointer as to whether the Government need so many Ministers to carry out the business of government, given that there might not be a lot left for them to do after all the commissions and reviews have been set up?

I see that the Leader of the House spoke at the Hansard Society last night about altering party conferences. Obviously, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat conferences could be merged and simply called the Conservative party conference.

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the shadow Leader of the House. Doubtless the subject is genuinely scintillating, but it is not a matter of Government responsibility. I hope that the right hon. Lady might want to move on to something that is.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I simply wanted to ensure that if the Leader of the House intends to refer us to the Procedure Committee, as his speech suggested, there will be discussions with all the parties before that is done. I certainly have not been consulted and, as far as I know, nor have other parties. Will he ensure that consultation happens?

On anonymity for defendants in rape cases, we are now getting increasingly confusing and contradictory comments from the Home Secretary, the Justice Secretary and, indeed, the Prime Minister. Three weeks ago, the Government pledged to give defendants anonymity. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister appeared to change that position to one whereby the accused would be named only if prosecutors brought charges, and this week the Justice Secretary blamed the Liberal Democrats, saying that they had adopted the policy in opposition. There was further confusion at questions to the Minister for Women and Equalities today.

Ministers keep saying that they want a proper, considered discussion, but it is extremely difficult for hon. Members to contribute to any discussion when it is completely unclear which Minister is speaking for the Government. The policy seems to be the victim of hasty negotiations, but the real victims will be women who have been raped. The need for a proper debate on the subject has now become urgent, and I ask the Leader of the House to give us an assurance that he will allocate one of the Government’s general debates—we have a lot of them at the moment—to it.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. On the Ministry of Defence, Sir Bill Jeffrey and Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup have announced to their staff that they will retire in the autumn. Both stayed on longer than they originally intended to see things through over the election period and to get through the strategic defence and security review.

The Government have made many statements—nine since the Queen’s Speech. We have been very open with the House, and about five, perhaps even seven statements have been made this week. The Speaker has indicated that he wants more urgent questions, and that is a useful way to hold the Government to account and keep the House informed.

The Chief Secretary is robust under fire and can give as good as he can take.

I have answered a written question on reviews, referring to the coalition agreement, which sets out the Government’s key reviews and priorities. It is then up to individual Departments to provide information about their reviews.

In my compelling speech last night to the Hansard Society, I said that perhaps it was time for an open and serious debate, in which hon. Members of all parties should be engaged, about sitting hours and sittings in September, to ascertain whether we have the right configuration and whether we are making the best use of our time.

Anonymity for defendants in rape cases is a serious issue, about which there is a wide range of views. The Government are determined to drive up the conviction rate for rape and ensure that those who are convicted get serious sentences. I agree with the right hon. Lady that it is right for the House to debate the matter seriously and calmly, and I will do what I can to provide for such a debate.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on planning guidance for local councils now that the regional spatial strategies have been abolished? In my constituency and many surrounding rural constituencies, there are many proposals to erect vast numbers of wind turbines the size of the London Eye. I greatly hoped that we could have some guidance about extending what happens in Scotland and many other European countries so that we have an exclusion zone of 2 km from dwellings.

I understand that my hon. Friend is not a fan of wind turbines. The Government’s view is that communities should be protected from the unacceptable impacts of development. Current planning policy in England is that the distance between a wind farm or turbine and a home should be decided on a case-by-case basis. However, I will bring my hon. Friend’s concerns to the attention of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on competition among providers of liquefied petroleum gas to householders in rural areas? My constituents in the village of Llannon find themselves in an impossible situation because when one person has a contract with one company, no one else can go to another provider. That needs serious reconsideration.

Like the hon. Lady, I have a rural constituency where many people are dependent on one supplier of LPG. Speaking from memory, I think that the Office of Fair Trading had been invited to conduct a review of the matter. I will draw her concern to the attention of the OFT and see whether the issue might be revisited.

My right hon. Friend will know about the great success of the south of England show at Ardingly recently. Does he also know that I am president of the hounds show at Ardingly? Will he see what he can do to lay aside some Government time for a debate on the future of farming, particularly getting more young people into the industry, the security of the food supply in this country and essential research and development for the future of farming in Britain?

I was not aware that my hon. Friend was president of the hounds show, but I am not surprised. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has attended several agricultural shows and I will draw her attention to the success of the one at Ardingly.

My hon. Friend makes a serious point about the future of farming and the need to increase young people’s interest in that career. I will do what I can to see whether we can provide a forum so that he can share with the House his important views on the subject.

Following my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House’s question, will the Leader of the House state when he took over responsibility for setting Labour party conference dates?

That is a wilful misrepresentation of what I just said. I said that I think the House should have a serious debate about its sitting hours, when it sits in the summer and whether the 82-day summer recess that we have had in the past is the right way forward. I think all parties might consider whether party conferences are immoveable or whether there is a more intelligent way of reorganising the political year. I accept that it is not a matter for one party, but one for all parties and the House. I hope that the House will engage in that debate in the spirit in which I launched it.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the actions of bailiffs? The subject was mentioned in the coalition agreement and I am sure that many hon. Members have examples of constituents who have been targeted by bailiffs. As I understand it, that area of law is unclear and it would be helpful to have a debate.

The coalition agreement is specific on the matter. We will provide more protection against aggressive bailiffs and unreasonable charging orders, ensuring that courts have the power to insist that repossession is always a last resort and to ban orders for sale on unsecured debts of less than £25,000. Better regulation of bailiffs will be one of the strands of that policy as we develop it.

Last week at business questions, the Leader of the House, in response to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), indicated that allowances issues are no longer a matter for the House. Of course the administration of allowances is now a matter for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, but is the question of who is entitled to allowances still a matter for the House? Will he therefore correct the record, and in addition confirm that the administration of Short money is still a matter for the House, and that it will remain so?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right on that last point—the administration of Short money is a matter for the House—and I answered questions on that last week. IPSA is responsible not only for the administration of the allowances but for the policy on allowances, as a number of hon. Members said in yesterday’s debate in Westminster Hall. IPSA has simply carried forward the regime that it inherited from the House on questions such as whether Members are entitled to pay or allowances. Under the current legislation, it remains a matter for IPSA to make any changes in the allowance regime.

May I add to the calls for a debate on regional spatial strategies? The Government’s decision to scrap housing targets was most welcome, but it poses questions for the future of Milton Keynes Partnership—the unelected quango in my constituency—its role as a planning authority, the ownership of the land bank and the future of the local plan. A debate would help to clarify those points.

My hon. Friend makes a forceful case for a debate in Westminster Hall, so that Communities and Local Government Ministers can address the issues he has outlined, and see whether responsibility can be passed down to the locally elected local authorities in his constituency.

There is growing concern that further increasing student fees will deter students from poorer backgrounds. I am meeting Luke Young, the president of the Swansea students’ union, next week. When will the right hon. Gentleman timetable a debate on student fees, particularly when we should be tooling up all our young people, but particularly those from poorer backgrounds, for the recovery that we all hope is ahead?

That is a devolved matter in Wales. So far as England is concerned, we are awaiting the outcome of the inquiry by Lord Browne of Madingley. One of the key things that the Government will be looking at is exactly what the hon. Gentleman mentioned— whether any changes would impede or promote access to higher education by students from low-income families.

Will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate on Members who refuse to take their seats and fail to give proper representation to their constituents?

That is a candidate for debate, and a sensitive issue. I can give no guarantee that the Government will find time for such a debate, but it is a perfectly legitimate candidate for a debate in Westminster Hall.

Yesterday the North report, which recommends reductions in drink-driving limits, was published. An hour or so ago, the Secretary of State for Transport said that there would be consultation in Government Departments on the proposals, yet newspapers have been full of reports—inspired, it would appear, by ministerial briefings—that the proposals would be rejected. One headline states: “Motorists escape bid to lower drink-drive limit”. Will the Government agree to a debate in Government time to clarify their policy on drink-drive limits? The Leader of the House is a great supporter of road safety, so I hope he agrees to such a debate, and confirms that the Government will be positive about reducing drink-drive limits.

This is an important issue and our priority is to tackle drink and drug driving in the most effective way. I listened to the Transport Secretary’s response a few moments ago, and I did not detect the equivocation that the hon. Gentleman alleges. The Transport Secretary said that the report covered a wide range of issues and made 51 detailed recommendations, which the Departments concerned need to consider carefully. He also said that the Government would respond to Sir Peter in due course. However, on top of that, I agree that it is an appropriate matter for the House to debate.

One of my constituents recently turned up for duty in court as a witness and spent most of the day there, but was then sent home because no other witnesses turned up. He wasted most of his day but, more importantly, the court case had to be delayed again. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to consider more measures to ensure that witnesses are made to turn up when they are required, so that cases are not postponed or even put off altogether?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is important that we use the resources of the court system effectively, so that the sort of waste to which she refers does not occur. I will contact the Justice Secretary and share her concerns with him, and see whether the Government have proposals for making better use of the available resources.

On 26 May, the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury came to the House and said in answer to an urgent question on the future jobs fund that Government

“policy…has to be informed by the facts, and…advice…from the Department for Work and Pensions”.

He added that that advice was that the fund

“was…not effective and that the money was wasted.”—[Official Report, 26 May 2010; Vol. 510, c. 164.]

However, when I visited my constituency’s district Jobcentre Plus office on Monday, I was told that it was far too early to judge the effectiveness of the scheme, because no data are yet available. May I suggest that we have a debate on the scheme, so that we can work out whether what we are being told about the DWP’s view of the matter is a reflection of what is happening on the ground?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good case for a debate. The future jobs scheme cost about £6,500 per place, which is about five times the cost of other components of a similar programme. Many of the jobs were relatively low-paid and insecure, and many were in the public sector. The Government believe that we have better approaches to dealing with unemployment—namely, the Work programme—but I hope that it will be possible at some point to discuss the issues that he raises. That could happen in the context of the Budget debate, because I believe that the Work and Pensions Secretary will speak then.

Mr Speaker, as the defender of the rights of MPs, I am sure that you were aware of the debate on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority that took place in We