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Commons Chamber

Volume 514: debated on Thursday 22 July 2010

House of Commons

Thursday 22 July 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

business before questions

Contingencies Fund 2009-10

Resolved,

That there be laid before this House Accounts of the Contingencies Fund, 2009-10,

showing–

(1) a balance sheet;

(2) a cashflow statement; and

(3) notes to the account; together with the Report of the Comptroller and Auditor

General thereon.—(Mr Vara.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Transport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Rail Network

Sir Roy McNulty’s review of value for money on the railway has produced a scoping study that identifies that the UK’s railway is, prima facie, up to 40% more expensive than railways elsewhere in Europe. We must adjust to a world in which our aspirations for a successful railway have to be met from within a much tighter public spending envelope. I have therefore asked Sir Roy to accelerate his work looking at the drivers of cost across the industry, and to produce recommendations for creating a sustainable railway with growing passenger usage and declining subsidy.

According to the parliamentary report “Transport in the South West”, the south-west has been hit with an increase in the price of unregulated fares. The report states that some rail fares between Swindon and London—a distance of only 77 miles—are the highest for a comparable distance anywhere in Europe. Will my right hon. Friend consider the impact of unregulated fares, especially in Bristol and my constituency of Kingswood, in future rail policy decisions?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. About 60% of rail journeys are undertaken using regulated fares, which are governed by the formula imposed by the Department for Transport, but my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has today initiated a consultation on future franchising strategy, and we can certainly take my hon. Friend’s representation as a response to that consultation.

The inefficiencies identified by Sir Roy McNulty must be addressed as a matter of urgency, but does the Secretary of State agree that passengers, and indeed freight, must not be priced off the railway, and that essential investment, such as electrification, must go ahead?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s support for the review and the work that Sir Roy McNulty is doing, and I am glad that she recognises the urgency of ensuring that our railway is affordable and sustainable, so that it can attract the investment that it needs. I agree with her that we need a sustainable railway with growing passenger numbers and growing freight usage.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that we want a sector that not only is financially sound, but delivers a better quality of service for passengers?

My hon. Friend is, once again, absolutely right. The objective must be to have a railway that is responsive to the needs of its customers, generating viability by responding to those needs—in fact, a railway that does what businesses throughout the economy do if they are to be successful and sustainable.

I agree with the Secretary of State that a central issue for the financial viability of the railways is the Government’s future policy on fare increases. The coalition agreement commits the Government to fair increases in rail ticket costs. Will the Secretary of State confirm recent reports that he has proposed to the Treasury changing the formula on capped fares and season tickets for next year from the retail prices index plus 1% to as much as RPI plus 5%? Does he not understand how unfair and unreasonable a fares hike of up to 10% will be to millions of hard-pressed commuters across the country if he cannot give an assurance to the House that every penny in increased fare revenues will be reinvested in the new rolling stock and capital projects that our railway system so badly needs?

The hon. Gentleman got to the nub of the issue in his last sentence. The coalition agreement commits us to a policy of fair fares, and we are committed to ensuring that fares are fair for rail users. No decisions have been made as yet about future fare increases, but he correctly identifies that, as a result of the spending review precipitated by the fiscal crisis that we have inherited, there may have to be a trade-off between fares and continuing vital investment in our railway. I have said that it would be wrong to rule out, ahead of the spending review, any change to the fare policy.

Rail Franchising

3. What progress has been made on his Department’s review of rail franchising; and if he will make a statement. (10276)

9. What progress has been made on the Government’s review of rail franchising; and if he will make a statement. (10283)

10. What progress has been made on the Government’s review of rail franchising; and if he will make a statement. (10284)

The Government today launched their consultation on the future of rail franchising policy. Our proposed reforms will lead to longer, more flexible franchises to incentivise private sector investment in the railways, which will benefit passengers and improve value for money.

Given the current poor standard of commuter service that my constituents in Enfield North receive from National Express, as evidenced by the lowest average customer satisfaction rates across the south-east, how will our franchising proposals improve the experience for passengers in my constituency and elsewhere?

We will ensure that the new rail franchising system imposes on train operators demanding performance requirements, based on passenger outcomes and passenger satisfaction. Operators that do not meet those demanding requirements will face serious sanctions that will include, in the most serious cases, termination of the franchise. We believe that longer franchises will lead to more private sector investment and the improvements to stations and railways that passengers want, to improve their journeys. Longer franchises will also enable train operators to build longer-term working relationships with Network Rail, which are so vital to ensure that our railways are run efficiently and deliver value for money.

Many of my constituents in Milton Keynes are angry that despite paying about £5,000 for annual season tickets and having undergone years of misery as the west coast main line was upgraded, they are still denied access to Virgin trains at peak hours; the trains either do not stop at all or—perversely—they do stop, but only to let people off, not on. The long-term solution is the extra capacity that High Speed 2 will deliver, but will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that when the west coast main line franchise comes up for renewal in 2012, she will ensure that my constituents have fair access to high-speed services?

All representations from the affected communities will be taken on board as the decisions are made. We hope that what will result from the rail franchising reforms on which we are consulting at the moment is a better and more intelligent and flexible approach to timetabling. That will enable the demands of passengers to be more readily met than they are by the current inflexible system. My hon. Friend is right that the long-term solution has to be a new high-speed rail line. There will come a time in the not-too-distant future when the west coast main line will be simply full to bursting and we will need to provide extra capacity. That will release more space for commuting and stopping services on the west coast main line.

The tourist industry in Great Yarmouth is worth almost £500 million, yet the train station is not exactly a welcoming gateway to our town. Residents would like a better station. Will the Minister give some assurance to the residents of Great Yarmouth that under the new franchise agreement we will be able to put some onus on the franchisee and Network Rail, to make sure that they can invest in things such as the stations themselves, so that we can get a better train station for Great Yarmouth?

I recall the discussions that we had on this issue when I visited my hon. Friend’s constituency. I believe that the issue is a prime example of how the reforms that we are proposing could yield significant benefits for passengers. They will give the opportunity for private sector investment in stations such as Great Yarmouth’s. At the moment the franchise is of about seven years, and that simply does not give the certainty needed for private sector investment to pay for itself during the franchise. With longer franchises, we can expect more station improvements of the sort that my hon. Friend wants.

Will the Minister agree to meet a small delegation led by me and my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) to discuss the Nuckle project in Coventry? The situation has been going on for a number of years and it needs resolving one way or another.

Given that franchises have failed already, many more franchises are going to fail under what is likely to be a much harsher financial regime. Is it not time to bring things in-house and begin to recreate the state railway systems that operate so well and so much more cheaply on the continent of Europe?

The hon. Gentleman’s views on the railways are well known, although I am afraid that I do not share them. It would have been impossible for there to have been the significant growth in passenger numbers that we have seen since privatisation without the benefits that private sector innovation and enterprise have brought. Reversing things and renationalising the railways would be a retrograde step.

I note from the Order Paper that there are five identical questions on rail franchises from new MPs no doubt keen to impress their Whips. Half an hour before oral questions we had a press release from the Department for Transport announcing a consultation on the new rail franchises. Will the Minister confirm that in the new consultation that she has announced this morning, there will not be any barriers to stop new models, such as mutuals and co-operatives, from taking over franchises?

There would be no barriers to mutuals and co-operatives bidding for franchises if they fulfilled the criteria. All franchise bids will be judged objectively on the quality of the services they will provide for passengers and value for the taxpayer.

Port of Dover

Dover harbour board has submitted a transfer scheme to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. If—I reiterate if—that is approved, that will allow the board to privatise the port of Dover.

I thank the Minister for conducting this review. Will it consider the community’s bid to buy the port of Dover and turn it into Dover’s people’s port? It is important that people know that the big society is not just about cycle paths, canal-side tow tracks and things like that—the big society is, well, big. It should include the port of Dover, and deprived communities should benefit as much as well-off communities.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his stalwart and continuing hard work on behalf of his constituents and his continued view on where Dover port should go. The consultation that I announced yesterday is part of the manifesto commitment to allow local people, businesses and the port to ensure that there is as much information as possible in the public domain, including the proposals on the people’s port.

The future of the important port of Dover will be very much influenced and helped by improving transport links and access to it, particularly from the north-west. Does the Minister think it important, therefore, that the proposed Mersey Gateway is given the go-ahead to improve that access?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity, but the key to this question is Dover. He is asking a separate question, and if he wants to write to me, I will be more than happy to answer it.

Environmental Groups

5. What discussions he has had with representatives of environmental groups on transport issues since his appointment. (10278)

Since May, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other members of the Department’s ministerial team have had a number of meetings with environmental groups at which a wide range of transport issues have been discussed.

I thank the Minister for his response. Many people living in rural areas such as Staffordshire Moorlands have no alternative but to use the private car. Will the Minister provide more details about his discussions with the environmental groups that he has been meeting regarding how to promote alternative transport in rural areas to encourage carbon reduction and promote economic growth?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. She is right that in rural areas it is difficult to find alternatives to the private car, but there are examples across the country, not least in my constituency, where voluntary organisations have come together to form effectively operating bus routes, and there is a good community transport network, with dial-a-ride and other such services. We are also investigating in the Department alternatives to travel, including the roll-out of broadband and home working to enable those in rural areas to benefit from society as a whole. Ultimately, of course, local authorities are best placed to decide on local transport polices, and the Government’s policy of removing ring-fencing will enable them to respond more sensitively to issues such as that which my hon. Friend raises.

Environmental groups and, earlier this year, the Transport Committee have highlighted the fact that electrification of the midland mainline would bring great benefits in terms of changing rolling stock and improving the service, as well as the environmental impact. When will the Government prioritise the necessary “stitch in time” investment in the electrification of the midland mainline?

The Government are committed to electrification of the railways and believe that that is sensible in order to remove carbon emissions from the transport sector, in so far as possible, and to improve the conditions and experience for passengers. Obviously, any decisions on that and other matters are subject to the spending review, but that is the direction of travel that we wish to follow.

One voluntary sector organisation that Ministers will want to meet is the Campaign for Better Transport, whose new report, “Smarter Cuts”, shows a rather better understanding of the state of public finances than that of some people in this House. It emphasises the need for cuts that are consistent with our need to meet carbon emission reduction targets and deliver long-term value locally as well as nationally. Will Ministers actively consider this important and useful report?

We are very happy to consider that report. I have already met representatives of the Campaign for Better Transport in the course of my ministerial duties. My hon. Friend is right. In this difficult spending review and the process afterwards, we must ensure that we prioritise job creation that is green, and ensure simultaneously that we cut carbon. In addition, the Government’s localism agenda, which devolves power to local authorities, will enable us to respond more actively to the points that my hon. Friend correctly makes.

Many environmental groups were quite concerned when the Secretary of State, on first taking office, declared that he was going to end the war on motorists. That perhaps did not show quite the right set of priorities in putting environmental issues at the top of the agenda. May I urge the Minister to work with groups such as Sustrans on alternatives to motoring and on ensuring that there are green alternatives where motoring is the only option?

The Secretary of State was concerned about issues such as private sector wheel clamping, which had led to unfair treatment of motorists. That view is shared across the coalition. He is also concerned to ensure that we decarbonise road transport and achieve carbon gains from the roll-out of electric vehicles, for example. There is no difference at all between our positions on that. We have a coherent transport policy that will deliver jobs and carbon reduction.

Intercity Express Programme

6. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department’s policy of Sir Andrew Foster’s report on the intercity express programme. (10279)

My statement to the House of 6 July announced that a decision on the future of the intercity express programme would be made as part of the spending review announcement in October, and that the Government would use the intervening time to pause for reflection and a fresh, detailed analysis, including a review of the alternatives in line with Sir Andrew’s recommendations.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response, but given that the country and indeed his Department continue to suffer from significant budgetary pressures, would it not be better to cancel the IEP programme and extend the life of our InterCity 125 trains, which have performed very well over the years, so that we can continue to invest in matters such as upgrading track infrastructure and high-speed rail, which would deliver significant economic benefits?

The previous Government commissioned a report from Sir Andrew Foster, which has now been delivered. It was a detailed piece of work containing a lot of recommendations, and one of Sir Andrew’s suggestions was that we should review the possibility of an upgrade and life extension of the existing 125 fleet. That is one option that we will consider during the pause that I mentioned.

If the intercity express programme survives the comprehensive spending review, Hitachi intends to build the trains in Newton Aycliffe in my constituency, creating hundreds of jobs there and thousands in the manufacturing supply chain. It would be one of the biggest investments in the north-east since Nissan. Would the Minister be prepared to meet me and a delegation of north-east businessmen and trade unionists so that we can get the point across about how important the scheme is to the north-east of England?

I am always happy to meet Members, and I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, but I can tell him that I met the president of Hitachi recently on his visit from Tokyo, and that I have met the Japanese ambassador, and they forcefully made the same points as him. We will of course take them into account.

I should perhaps say that Hitachi is also interested in other rail projects in the UK, and we have heard very encouraging signs that the company intends to establish a serious presence in the UK as part of our future rail infrastructure development.

The Secretary of State will be aware that as a direct result of our investment, more people are using our railways than at any time since the 1940s. That is good for the environment and for tackling congestion and all its consequences. Continuing with our programme of additional rolling stock will not only lead to more jobs but be good for British manufacturing and growth. It is also a good way to continue to encourage more people to leave their cars and use our rail network. Will he aggressively lobby the Treasury for more investment in rolling stock, rather than listen to some of his hon. Friends who want cuts in additional rolling stock?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is conflating the debate on the high-level output specification rolling stock programme with that on the intercity express programme, but once again he shows a failure to recognise the reality of the situation that we have inherited from the previous Government. We have to deal with the fiscal crisis facing this country and prioritise investment in matters that will support economic growth and the decarbonisation of the economy. We will do that job effectively, and he will hear the result once the spending review is announced in October.

A64

7. What representations he has received on upgrading the A64 between York and Scarborough; and if he will make a statement. (10280)

As well as verbal representations from my hon. Friend and from my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), I have received two letters that the former has forwarded to me and two from the latter.

Having newly been elected to Rillington and Filey, I am very aware of their concerns, particularly about road safety in Rillington. Will the Under-Secretary look favourably on reviewing any potential upgrade in the long term, but take measures in the short term that will save lives at Rillington, and use the opportunity to green the economy and improve the quality of life for people all along the route?

I congratulate my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby on bringing the matter to my attention. The upgrade would cost £500 million, but the local authority has made no representations for regional funding allocations since 2006. I will look at measures as they are presented. However, while the spending review is still going on, no commitments can be made.

Flight Cancellations

8. What estimate he has made of the number of passenger flights cancelled as a result of travel agents going into administration in the latest period for which figures are available. (10281)

In the year to 31 March 2010, 29 companies licensed by the air travel organiser’s licence scheme failed. Under the ATOL scheme, managed by the Civil Aviation Authority, 2,445 passengers were able to complete their holiday and return home without charge. A further 45,114 were entitled to full refunds.

The Minister will know that 180 passengers were stranded at Glasgow airport on Friday, thanks to the collapse of Goldtrail. There were also 16,000 people stranded abroad. How does she propose to try to help those people get compensation? In some cases, they have been told that they will have to wait for at least two years before they get their money back. How can she stop those companies causing such disruption and ensure that people get home as quickly as possible?

The CAA is working hard to repatriate the people affected by the Goldtrail failure, which has caused significant anxiety and disruption to people’s holiday plans. Our officials are working hard with the CAA to ensure that that repatriation effort goes well. We are also urging the CAA to ensure that lessons are learned from XL and the long time it took to process claims. The CAA urges all those who are ATOL protected to submit the relevant documentation so that refunds can be processed as quickly as possible. In the longer term, we need a bigger reform of the way in which the system works.

Order. We cannot go into that. We are dealing with a specific question about cancellation of passenger flights, on which I thought the hon. Lady wanted to contribute. Never mind—we will move on.

East Coast Main Line

The Government intend to let a new franchise to return the operation of east coast main line rail services to the private sector. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State launched a franchising review this morning, seeking views on the most appropriate options to secure longer-term investment. In the meantime, services will continue to be provided by the East Coast Main Line Company Ltd, which the Department owns in its entirety.

The headquarters of the east coast rail service has been based in York since the 19th century because logistically it is the right place to be. Will the Secretary of State examine the case for reducing uncertainty for the key business partners of the east coast train operating company by confirming that the new franchisee, when appointed, will be required to keep the headquarters of the business in York?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s intervention on behalf of his constituents and I understand the concerns that the uncertainty will cause. However, it would be wrong, in view of the franchising consultation that my right hon. Friend the Minister has announced today, for me to start making prescriptive statements about what a future franchisee under an as yet undetermined franchising regime will be required to do.

Rail Franchising

13. What progress has been made on the Government’s review of rail franchising; and if he will make a statement. (10287)

Will the Minister confirm that the review of the Greater Anglia franchise will recognise the vital importance of the east Suffolk line from Ipswich to Lowestoft, and the need for both an hourly service along the whole line and the reintroduction of through trains to London, which are being withdrawn in December?

My hon. Friend will appreciate that it would not be wise for me to start making timetabling decisions at the Dispatch Box. However, we are determined that the franchising reform, on which we will consult in the next few weeks, will deliver improvements for passengers, improve train operators’ ability to respond flexibly to increases in passenger demand on particular routes and help deliver the private sector investment to provide vital enhancements to our railways.

Given that current legislation prevents organisations and companies that do not yet run rail franchises from bidding for them, will the Government consider changing it in their review to allow mutuals and co-operatives to bid for future franchises?

I think that that question has been dealt with already. If mutuals and co-operatives can satisfy the requirements of the franchising process, they will be permitted to bid.

I think this is the appropriate moment to ask my question, Mr Speaker. In her discussions with rail franchises and franchisees, will my right hon. Friend ask them whether they will consider bringing longer trains through stations whose platforms have not been lengthened when they have available rolling stock? That is common on the continent, but we do not do it here, and it would greatly help at overcrowded stations such as Wandsworth Town station in my constituency.

I am well aware of my hon. Friend’s strong campaigns for rail services in her constituency, and our visit to Clapham Junction railway station was particularly informative. She makes a good point about the more flexible use of capacity, and the train operators and Network Rail would certainly do well to take it on board. I suggest she raises it further with them.

Cycle Helmets

14. What recent representations he has received on a compulsory requirement on cyclists under 16 years old to wear cycle helmets. (10288)

I recently met representatives of the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust and my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), who told me in no uncertain terms that they would like wearing cycle helmets to be compulsory for children under 16.

I am sure the Minister shares my concern at the last set of figures for 2009, which show that for under-16s, serious injuries are up to 489 and that there were 16 deaths. Will the Minister give the House some information on the review of cycle helmet effectiveness that was planned for later this year? How will he make progress on striking the balance between encouraging cycling but, more importantly, encouraging child safety?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this subject up. It is ever so important that we encourage more people to take up cycling, particularly young people, but at the same time, we must not scare them off by trying to force them to wear helmets, recognising the peer pressure on them. The Department ensured straight away that all its videos, DVDs and anything it broadcasts on the internet do not feature children under 16 without a helmet. That is the sort of message we need to send. Compulsion would be almost impossible to enforce, but we need to work to educate more young people to wear helmets.

On enforcement and the increase in cycling in recent years, which is set to continue because of the previous Government’s investment, is the Minister holding discussions with his colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Home Office on policing cyclists? I am referring particularly to the minority of dangerous cyclists who get the rest of us a bad name by cycling on pavements and breaking the basic rules of the road. How will we enforce safe cycling?

Any cyclist who breaks the law and gives the former Minister a bad name needs to be brought before the courts. We see such behaviour on a regular basis, particular in urban areas and at lights, where people ignore the Road Traffic Acts. The police should enforce the rules on cyclists the same as they would on any other road user. The law needs to be used.

Airport Security

There is a large and well-integrated Sikh community in the UK. Special arrangements to take account of their headwear have existed at least since the introduction of compulsory motorcycle helmets. On 29 April, the European Union altered the rules on the searching of religious headwear at airports, and this has provoked a furious reaction from members of the Sikh community. On 25 June, I instructed UK airports that they should temporarily revert to the previous arrangements, despite the EU rules. The Sikh community has recognised this positive step and we are now working with them and with the EU to identify a suitable way forward.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend is aware of the EU’s initiative that means that turbans can be searched and, indeed, unravelled by airport security officers. Does he agree that we need an approach that protects the security of travellers, but that also fully recognises the importance of turbans to the followers of the Sikh religion?

I do indeed agree with my hon. Friend. The ultimate solution probably lies in the introduction of scanners as a primary means of security screening at our airports. At the moment, that cannot be done under EU rules. Part of my discussion with the EU is seeking to persuade it that we can resolve the particular problems of religious headwear by addressing the wider issue of adopting scanners as a primary screening method.

A14

16. When he expects to announce his Department’s decision on the planned widening by the Highways Agency of the A14 around Kettering. (10290)

All expenditure on the strategic road network is being considered under the spending review. When the outcome is known in the autumn, I hope to provide my hon. Friend with greater clarity on the future of this scheme.

This project is very important to my constituents in Kettering, so may I draw to the Minister’s attention as he makes up his mind the fact that the road is already at capacity, with 70,000 vehicles a day going round the town? That section of road is actually three roads in one—the A6, the A43 and the A14.

Not only are there 70,000 vehicles a day, but 20% are HGVs, which is 10% higher than the average in the UK. The project will cost between £86 million and £142 million. When the spending review is over, we will assess the problems that Kettering is having because of that huge amount of traffic.

Topical Questions

Since I last answered departmental questions, we have announced a new framework for the economic regulation of airports; our south-east airports taskforce has commenced work; we have announced the sale of High Speed 1; and we have launched a £15 million fund to incentivise the purchase of low-carbon buses. I have also prepared and submitted a spending review bid to the Treasury.

I thank the Minister of State for her earlier answer in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) in respect of recognising the importance of the East Suffolk line to the future prosperity of central and eastern Suffolk. Part of improving the infrastructure is a vital stretch of track called the Beccles loop, which would enable a future franchisee to run a full London to Lowestoft service. May we count on the Secretary of State’s support in pursuing the funding for that vital stretch of track?

Any future proposals for rail enhancements will be considered in the usual way in setting the output requirements for control period 5, which will define Network Rail’s investment programme from 2014 onwards.

More than 1 million Londoners are entitled to Labour’s freedom pass and more than 11 million older and disabled people in England are entitled to Labour’s concessionary bus pass. Pass holders have been made anxious by reports in the media of the submission made to the Treasury by the Secretary of State in relation to the comprehensive spending review. The CSR is three months away, so can he reassure those anxious older and disabled citizens that he has not submitted, in his job application/CSR bid, any change in the eligibility requirements for those who receive the bus pass?

The hon. Gentleman refers to two separate things. The arrangements in London are of course the responsibility of the Conservative Mayor of London, and I cannot answer for the decisions that he will make on the operation of the scheme in London. With regard to the national scheme, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have both made clear their commitment to the scheme in its current form. It is enshrined in primary legislation and we have no plans to change it.

T2. The Chancellor promised that the vulnerable would be protected from budget cuts, but I know that Ministers will be well aware that there has been much speculation about the future viability of the bus service operators grant, which is clearly essential to many marginal rural services, the sustainability of which would be called into question if that were to be in any way cut. What reassurance can Ministers give me and my constituents that those rural services, which are essential— (10295)

I recognise the importance that many attach to the bus service operators grant. The Government intend to try to increase the number of people using the bus. However, we also want to get a fair deal for the taxpayer and the passenger, and that is the direction of travel that we wish to pursue. Ensuring that people can travel by bus in my hon. Friend’s constituency and elsewhere in rural areas is important to that objective.

T7. Has the ministerial team seen the comments by the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr Yeo) in which he called for the privatisation of motorways and a widespread increase in road tolling? Will Ministers rule out such proposals for the duration of this Parliament? (10300)

The coalition Government have indeed ruled out the tolling of the existing road network for the duration of this Parliament.

T3. What are the Government going to do to make it safer for motorcyclists by improving the tests for motorcyclists? In particular, the last Government so reduced the number of test sites that we had the slightly ludicrous situation of motorcyclists who had not passed the test having to travel considerable distances on their motorbikes to take the test. So can we see some improvement in the test regime for motorcyclists? (10296)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We have announced a review into both parts of the motorcycle test, not only because of the concerns he raises, but because of some of the accidents that have taken place on tests, especially on part 1, which is off-road. We have a ludicrous situation in which some people have to travel two and a half miles with their L plates on to take the test, go off-road, fail it and then have to ride all the way back. That situation is being reviewed, and we hope to have answers in the autumn.

Will the Minister let my constituents, and those of the hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle), know what progress he has made on the Todmorden Curve rail project?

I know that the local authorities are working hard on this project and have engaged Network Rail to do some important work on it. I very much appreciate the benefits that it could deliver, particularly when tied in with development proposals, if they go ahead. I am keeping a close eye on that. The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that I cannot give him guarantees on funding at the moment because of the state of the public finances. However, I know that the local authorities are taking this very seriously.

T4. Does my right hon. Friend agree that although high- speed rail services are important to our economy, many communities along the route, whichever may be chosen, will be adversely affected, including some communities in my own constituency? Will he therefore agree to mitigate, as far as he can, the impact on those communities, and will he also agree to— (10297)

I think I can gather the balance of the question, Mr Speaker. We well understand that the national strategic and economic benefits of the high- speed rail network have to be balanced against local environmental disbenefits. Of course, the project will be designed with maximum sensitivity in mind, and I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that I will be visiting the line of the proposed route in the summer recess.

Last week, I spoke to residents in Heswall in my constituency who are most concerned to get the train to Liverpool rather than their cars. The Wrexham to Bidston electrification project is vital for that. Will the Minister explain briefly what work her officials in the Department are doing to work with Network Rail, Merseytravel and others to take this vital project forward?

We are in touch with Network Rail and Merseytravel on this issue. Indeed, I discussed it with the director general of Merseytravel only recently. The hon. Lady will appreciate that this has been worked on by the Welsh Assembly Government, and I very much hope that progress can be made on it. However, she will appreciate that, as I said previously, the crisis in the public finances that we have inherited means that I cannot give guarantees on additional funding from central Government at the moment.

T5. I see that the shipping Minister has been to Harwich and Felixstowe in the past week. I invite him to come and see the port of Dover, so that he can see at first hand how our plans can be the jewel in the crown of the big society and make Dover the jewel in the crown of the nation once again. (10298)

Will the Secretary of State respond to a letter that I received from a constituent of mine, Mr Rod East? He is 61 and has a concessionary bus pass. Plymouth city council will have to renew it in 2011 under the system it is operating. Will he please confirm his earlier statement that no changes to the concessionary bus pass will apply to Plymouth city council?

I can only repeat what I said earlier: we have no plans to change the national concessionary scheme. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have both made very clear their commitment to the national scheme.

T6. I welcome the Government’s commitment to high speed rail, particularly to encourage people to use rail instead of domestic air travel. Given the rising cost of rail compared with flying, what will the Secretary of State do to get the price mechanism right in order to get this shift from air to rail? (10299)

The High Speed 2 project will introduce a massive increase in capacity. These will be huge trains, with 1,100 seats each, and they will run at a very high frequency. Simple demand-and-supply economics should help to keep travel affordable. At the same time, after 2012, aviation will come within the European emissions trading scheme, and the carbon costs of aviation will start to be reflected in the cost of flying.

Will the Minister rule out reclassifying Network Rail as a public company, which would be a Railtrack mark 2, and commit to a not-for-dividend organisation?

We are looking at the options for reform of Network Rail. We believe that the status quo is not acceptable, because Network Rail is not accountable enough to its customers or the passengers whom they serve. As for its balance sheet status, we believe that this is a matter for national statisticians. We will make decisions on the future of Network Rail based on what is best for passengers and the taxpayer, and not—as the previous Government did—on the basis of tortuous calculations about whether things are on or off the balance sheet.

T8. One of the projects currently under review in my area is the east-west link road in Camborne and Redruth, which is a crucial element of a broader regeneration project, led by the private sector, that would create 6,000 new jobs. Does the Secretary of State agree that when it comes to prioritising transport projects after the comprehensive spending review, one of the key criteria to apply will be the impact on enterprise and jobs? (10301)

I fully understand the importance attached to that scheme in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I can confirm to him that the impact on the economy and job creation will be a factor taken into account in deciding whether to proceed with the scheme, along with the public finances and the opportunity to reduce carbon emissions.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

People Trafficking

1. If she will discuss with the Secretary of State for the Home Department proposals for border controls to identify young women entering the UK from European Economic Area countries who may have been trafficked. (10302)

I welcome my hon. Friend’s tireless work in this field. Let me also do something that I tried to do a little prematurely on a previous occasion, which is to congratulate him properly on his election as joint chair of the all-party group on human trafficking. Tackling human trafficking is a coalition priority, and the Government are currently considering how to improve our response to this terrible crime, including through the creation of a border police force. I would be happy to ensure that border controls and the protection of vulnerable groups are covered in our consultation.

Could the Minister for Women have a conversation with the excellent Home Secretary about citizens coming from the European economic area who bring in children who are not of the same name as themselves? They are waved through at the moment. Could they not be separately interviewed, to ensure that they are coming in for a proper purpose and are not being trafficked?

My hon. Friend has raised an interesting point, although I have to say that if I start speaking to myself, people might get the wrong idea. The separate interview is done in relation to non-EEA nationals, based on a risk assessment undertaken by UK Border Agency officials, and is something that has been important. We can and do interview EEA nationals. Obviously trafficking is covert, and it is often tricky to detect. Our border controls must be part of a much wider approach on the issue, but I am certainly happy to take away the suggestion that my hon. Friend has made and have a look at it.

But is it not critical to reduce the demand for sexually exploited trafficked women, which is how the organised crime behind trafficking makes a profit? What is the Minister doing to reduce the demand for the sexual exploitation of women?

I recognise that the hon. Lady has had a long-standing interest in the issue, and has fought and campaigned hard on it for some time. As she will know, her Government introduced a new offence of paying for sex with somebody who had been exploited or forced into that position, which is intended to deter men from paying for sex with those who have been exploited, a category into which those who have been trafficked would obviously fall. We are currently waiting to see how that offence plays out, in terms of its impact.

Budget Implications

2. Whether an equality impact assessment has been undertaken on the proposals in the June 2010 Budget. (10303)

5. What assessment the Government Equalities Office has undertaken of the relative effects of the June 2010 Budget on men and on women. (10306)

We have had to take tough decisions to reduce the deficit and secure the economic recovery essential to maintaining the living standards of women and families in this country in the longer term. The June Budget does that fairly, with a focus on protecting the most vulnerable in society, including low-income families. Assessing policy options in the light of tough financial constraints is not a one-off but an ongoing process. My officials are working with and talking to Departments about how to take account of equality considerations as they develop and implement the policies that will achieve budget reductions—budget reductions made necessary, I would remind the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), by Labour’s mismanagement of the economy.

I find that answer quite surprising, given that three quarters of the burden of the emergency Budget introduced by the right hon. Lady’s Government will fall on women. Will she explain in detail what assessment she has made of the impact of the Budget, and what representations she has made to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to mitigate its effects?

I think that the hon. Lady is referring to some research that the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) has undertaken. That research is partial in its assessment, because it fails to take into account a whole host of issues in the Budget, including the council tax freeze. The hon. Lady should also recognise the steps that we took in the Budget to protect people on low incomes. They include the exemption from the public sector workers’ freeze—lower-paid public sector workers are predominantly women, and they will be exempt from that pay freeze. We are also working to freeze the basic rate of income tax, to increase the personal allowance, and to remove 880,000 people from income tax altogether, the majority of whom will be women. We are very conscious of the need to look at the impact of the Budget, but I suggest that the hon. Lady needs to look at the good things in it that will help people on low incomes.

Mums, children, and women in retirement will contribute twice as much to bringing down the Budget deficit as the predominantly suited men in the square mile will pay through the banking levy. Given that the Government are so keen to stress their family-friendly credentials, does the right hon. Lady feel that that balance is fair?

The hon. Lady referred to people in retirement; I would simply remind her that it is this Government who are going to restore the earnings link for pensions. Her Government had 13 years in which to do that, but they failed to do it.

The latest figures for business start-ups estimate that men start up 150,000 more businesses than women. If the same number of women as men were setting up businesses, £7 billion would be added to the economy. What is my right hon. Friend going to do to help women set up in business?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely valuable point. She herself has an excellent record of supporting women in business, through the women’s networks that she has started. We are looking at how we can ensure that women’s entrepreneurship is encouraged, but the figures that she cited are absolutely right, and we need to ensure not only that that contribution to the economy is made but that we are not wasting the talent out there that could be put to good use for society and for the economy as a whole.

Will my right hon. Friend pay particular attention, in any work that she does in this regard, to women who are returning to work after bringing up a family, as they are in the greatest need of extra training?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important issue, and we shall certainly look into it. Before the election, we had specific proposals that were geared towards helping women who were returning to work, to ensure that they were given the necessary skills to resume their place in the work force.

Mr Speaker, I am deputising for my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who has informed you and the Secretary of State that she cannot be here today for family reasons to do with her children.

Given that 75 per cent. of the burden of the Budget will be borne by women, will the right hon. Lady tell me what is the point of her role as Minister for Women and Equalities in this very male-dominated Government if she cannot even ensure that men and women bear the burden of the Government’s deficit reduction measures equally? When she answers that question, will she clarify whether she is speaking in a personal capacity or whether she, at least, understands the constitutional concept of collective responsibility, even if the Deputy Prime Minister does not?

The figure that the hon. Lady has cited is not an official statistic; it is a figure that was derived from a piece of work that excluded analysis of significant parts of the Budget. That is why it is not a figure that I am going to recognise. Furthermore, if we had not taken those decisions in the Budget to deal with the deficit, and if we had adopted Labour’s plans to deal with it, that would have hit women even harder than our proposals. Under Labour’s proposals, expenditure on debt interest would have been higher than the expenditure on crucial public services, which are of particular importance to women.

Civil Service Recruitment

3. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on increasing recruitment to the civil service from black, Asian and other minority ethnic people. (10304)

Black, Asian and other minority ethnic representation in the civil service has been increasing steadily, and is broadly representative of the economically active population. We are committed to attracting the best talent from the widest possible pool of candidates. They have been targeted, and successful efforts have been made to render the civil service and the fast stream more diverse. My Cabinet Office colleagues are examining the range of BAME internships run by the Departments, and I expect to have discussions with them on the matter in due course.

We all welcome the Government’s announced policy on internships for under-represented minorities. How much progress has been made on that vital policy so far?

It is nice that my hon. Friend and I are together again after our time on the Greater London assembly, along with many Opposition Members.

The work relating to our commitment is still at an early stage. It is important for us to build on existing programmes. Some Whitehall Departments already run internships in the summer development programme. The Cabinet Office is examining current practice and future options, and I look forward to working with it in due course to ensure that the practice is extended to all Departments.

This year’s Budget cut the budget of the Equality and Human Rights Commission by 15%, and further cuts are expected. Does the Minister believe that the commission will be able to continue to carry out its statutory duties, and can she tell us what impact the cut will have on the initiatives to which she has referred?

There have been cuts in all budgets. The EHRC will probably concentrate on its core functions, and I expect its budget to be sufficient to enable it to deliver the equality that we all require from it.

Flexible Working

4. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on proposals to extend flexible working arrangements in the public sector. (10305)

I have had several discussions with colleagues on how we can implement our commitment to extending the right to request flexible working to all. That, of course, includes those in the public sector, which has a long and successful track record in this regard. In my Department, for example, 57% of staff work flexibly, and all vacancies are advertised as being available on a flexible basis. We will seek to share that and other good practice in the public sector more widely.

Flexible working enabled me to balance caring for my husband and children with working. Without that opportunity, I probably would not be standing here today. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s plan to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees is the most progressive measure to encourage a culture of flexible working that any Government have yet been able to promise?

Hear, hear. I am glad to learn that flexible working has been an enabler in my hon. Friend’s life, as it will be in so many other lives. Flexible working and the right to extend it to all will enable businesses to draw on all the skills and talents in the country, and on a wider pool of skill. It will improve recruitment and retention rates and increase staff morale and productivity, and we will all gain from that.

Parental Leave

I welcome my hon. Friend’s continuing interest in this issue. The Government are committed to implementing the coalition agreement pledge to promote a system of flexible parental leave. We are working closely with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which intends to present proposals later in the year.

Small businesses in my constituency and throughout the country are concerned about the coalition’s plans to change the parental leave system. However, British Chambers of Commerce has indicated to me that it would be less concerned if the Government guaranteed that this would be the only change to parental leave legislation in the current Parliament. Can my right hon. Friend tell us whether she plans to introduce the additional paternity leave regulations that are due next year?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the concerns of small businesses. We all recognise the problems that many of them have experienced in this respect. I continue to believe that flexible working and flexible parental leave will be of benefit overall and will benefit many small businesses, a number of which already operate flexibly. However, we are looking into how we can avoid constantly requiring businesses to effect innovations, and we are examining the timetabling of the additional paternity leave and flexible parental leave regulations.

Sexual Equality

7. What recent discussions she has had with her international counterparts on international standards for the treatment of openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. (10308)

Last month we published “Working for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Equality”, which included a commitment to use our international influence to encourage other countries to advance LGBT equality. I am committed to using meetings with international counterparts and any other levers open to us to tear down the barriers that still exist for LGBT people throughout Europe and around the world.

Will the Government use their influence to support the UN statement that calls on states to ensure that sexual orientation or gender identity may under no circumstance be used for discrimination or criminal proceedings?

This is such an important area in which we can use our influence and we will encourage more countries to support the UN statement on the decriminalisation of LGBT issues. We will robustly examine the human rights records of other UN member states as well.

Business of the House

The business for the week beginning 26 July will include:

Monday 26 July—Conclusion of proceedings on the Academies Bill [Lords] (Day 3).

Tuesday 27 July—The Backbench Business Committee has chosen the usual format for business in which a Member can raise any issue.

The House will not adjourn until the Speaker has signified Royal Assent. Colleagues will wish to be reminded that the House will meet at 11.30 am on Tuesday 27 July.

The business for the week commencing 6 September will include:

Monday 6 September—Second Reading of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.

Tuesday 7 September—Second Reading of the Superannuation Bill.

Wednesday 8 September—Opposition day [4th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 9 September—The House will consider a motion relating to UK armed forces in Afghanistan. The subject for this debate was nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

The provisional business for the week commencing 13 September will include:

Monday 13 September—Second Reading of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill.

Tuesday 14 September—Second Reading of the Equitable Life (Payments) Bill.

Wednesday 15 September—Motion to approve Ways and Means resolutions on which a Finance Bill will be introduced, followed by remaining stages of the Identity Documents Bill.

Thursday 16 September—General debate on the future of the UK’s armed forces. The subject for this debate was nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 9 September will be:

Thursday 9 September—A debate on future controls on legal highs.

As this is the last business questions before the summer recess, may I as usual thank the staff of the House for their hard work since the beginning of this Parliament, not least on the induction programme for new Members? I hope that the staff have a good break before we return in September.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement, which I assume is the actual business of the House as opposed to his personal view of what it ought to be. I also add my thanks to the staff of the House for all their hard work supporting us over the past 10 weeks.

As the Leader of the House said, on Monday next week we will debate the concluding stages of the Academies Bill. Against the fiasco of the abolition of over 700 Building Schools for the Future projects, the Bill has been rushed through its Commons stages. On Monday this week, the House debated the Bill on Second Reading, and the Committee stage began yesterday. That meant that Members had just over an hour after the debate had finished to consider the speeches made during it and to table amendments. Such timetabling of debate raises serious questions over the validity of the Bill, which has not been given sufficient time for scrutiny.

Mr Speaker, the Opposition Chief Whip and I have written to you about this, but I want also to urge the Leader of the House to look at this matter seriously to ensure that parliamentary scrutiny and proceedings are safeguarded.

Will the Leader of the House ensure that when the Deputy Prime Minister answers questions next Tuesday he tells us where he got the idea that the directors of Sheffield Forgemasters were refusing to dilute their shareholding and that that was a reason not to give them the loan? We now know that on 25 May a letter was sent to the Government by a major Tory donor, Andrew Cook, who started his letter:

“I am the largest donor to the Conservative party in Yorkshire and have been since David Cameron was elected leader.”

Indeed, he had given half a million pounds to the Conservative party and had provided flights worth £54,000 to the Prime Minister when he was in opposition. The letter stated that Sheffield Forgemasters management were refusing to dilute their shareholding by accepting outside equity investment. On 21 June the Prime Minister said in terms that the directors of the company were refusing to dilute their shareholding. On 22 June the Deputy Prime Minister repeated the allegation in the House.

I will not take points of order at this stage. I feel sure that the right hon. Lady is nearing the conclusion of her remarks.

We on the Opposition Benches knew all along that that allegation was not true, because it was a condition of the loan that the company look for additional outside investment. That point has now been admitted by the Deputy Prime Minister in his letter to the company of 2 July, but he still has not set the record straight in Parliament. The ministerial code says:

“It is of paramount importance that ministers should give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”

Will the Leader of the House ensure that either the Deputy Prime Minister at his questions next week or the Business Secretary in a statement will tell us the following: first, whether the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) told the Business Secretary that he had given the letter of 25 May from the Tory donor to officials; secondly, whether either the Secretary of State or the Minister of State—[Interruption.]—informed the permanent secretary that officials had been given the letter; and, thirdly, whether the Prime Minister was aware of the Andrew Cook letter and its allegations and whether the Deputy Prime Minister was aware of the letter when he repeated the allegations?

Parliament needs answers to these questions, and we need them before we rise for the summer recess. Will the Leader of the House ensure that we get them, and if he cannot get them, will he ensure that a proper inquiry is held into this matter?

The first issue was the time that we have allowed for the Academies Bill, and I am surprised that the right hon. Lady has raised that today. Last Thursday I announced the business for this week. On the Order Paper was the Academies Bill programme motion, yet she did not mention that even once in the many issues she raised with me last week. If she thinks today that the programme motion was an outrage it seems slightly strange that she failed to say so last Thursday when she had ample opportunity to talk about this week’s business.

On the second point about Sheffield Forgemasters, I—and many other Members—spent from 10.45 to 11.15 last night listening to the Adjournment debate during which all the issues that the right hon. Lady has raised were dealt with by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who made it absolutely clear that the issue has always been commercial affordability. He took numerous interventions from Opposition Members, and he dealt wholly adequately with the subject, and I am surprised that the right hon. Lady has raised it again.

Order. More than 30 hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye and I would like to accommodate as many as possible, but we have a further statement to follow and heavy pressure on time. What is required is brevity, a textbook example of which will be provided by the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell).

Will the Leader of the House join me in commending the Secretary of State for International Development on his announcement today that the pause on the development of the airport in St Helena will be lifted and that an airport will be built, thus securing the economic future of that British overseas territory and best value for the British taxpayer? Does he agree that an annual debate on British overseas territories would be of great benefit?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He refers to the written ministerial statement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development announcing his “provisional conclusion” that an airport is indeed the right solution for St Helena, that the short-term cost is more than “outweighed” by the long-term benefit and that it will promote inward investment and the development of the tourist industry. I pay tribute to the work done by my hon. Friend and by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who chairs the all-party group on St Helena. They have consistently advocated that sort of solution.

Newham is to have an estimated 1,300 fewer secondary school places, due in part to the loss of 14 Building Schools for the Future projects. I attended yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate to request that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) meet me to discuss the impact of that. Sadly, despite my numerous attempts, he refused to take my intervention. May I ask that we have a debate on this important issue on the Floor of this House? We need an opportunity not only to discuss the impact of that programme, but for the Minister to be more gracious.

As the hon. Lady said, we have just had a 90-minute debate in Westminster Hall on the Building Schools for the Future programme. I will convey her particular request for a meeting with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I know that, as a rule, he is more than happy to meet hon. Members from both sides of the House, and I am sure that he will readily agree, particularly when he reads Hansard tomorrow morning, that a meeting with the hon. Lady would be appropriate.

The Leader of the House will know how important the post office network is to many of our constituents, particularly those receiving benefits. The Department for Work and Pensions has put out for tender on the cheques received by those who cannot cope with the card account. Will he ensure that we get a statement before the recess from the DWP on the access criteria it will use in judging that, so that those people can still use the post office network to access their benefits?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I will contact the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to see whether my hon. Friend and the House can be given the relevant information before we rise on Tuesday.

The duty of the Leader of the House is to protect the interests of the House. When we have asked questions of Ministers at the Dispatch Box we have been labouring under the misapprehension that they have actually been speaking on behalf of the Government. Yesterday, we heard the statement from the Deputy Prime Minister which, it was later said, was a personal statement or a statement of Liberal Democrat policy. Will the Leader of the House make a statement about how we are to determine who is answering questions on behalf of whom on the Government Benches? While doing that, will he consider the suggestion that there should be a dress code for the Liberal Democrats? They should wear blue down one side and yellow down the other, so that when they turn the yellow side towards the Dispatch Box we know who is talking and when they turn their blue side towards it we know that they are speaking for the Tory Government. What we need to know is what—

I will not comment on the suggestion of a dress code for Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament. Ministers are accountable at this Dispatch Box for the work of their Departments, but it is not unknown for Ministers to make personal statements from this Dispatch Box. I have listened to many debates, on abortion and on other issues, where Ministers have made it clear when they are speaking about and representing their own views. I have made my own views known on many issues from this Dispatch Box, so it is not unprecedented—[Interruption.]

Order. We must have a bit of order. I want to the hear the reply from the Leader of the House. I am enjoying it.

It is not unprecedented for Ministers speaking at this Dispatch Box occasionally to make their personal views known.

For a long time, Harlow has had a major problem with rail fatalities, with eight in 2008 and one only last Thursday morning. Will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate on rail safety and consider establishing a system of special rail guards, similar to special constables, with volunteers from the local community?

We have just had Transport questions, and I do not know whether my hon. Friend was able to ask that question of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. One rail fatality is one fatality too many and I shall certainly raise with the Secretary of State for Transport the proposition that my hon. Friend has just put to the House.

Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), it is clear that at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday the Deputy Prime Minister was answering in a personal capacity. That denied the House of Commons the ability to hold the Government to account. May we have an extra PMQs in September so that we can try to get some accountability from the Government?

The Deputy Prime Minister’s views on the war in Iraq are well known and should have come as no surprise to the hon. Gentleman.

One debate that would be welcomed by many of my constituents would be on Britain’s throwaway culture and the explosion in the cost of clearing up litter in this country to the tune of more than £850 million a year—a statistic made even worse by the mess left by the previous Government.

I commend the work that Bill Bryson and the Campaign to Protect Rural England are doing to prevent the additional costs on local authorities of picking up litter. I commend the Stop the Drop campaign that they are promoting at the moment. I hope that all citizens will take their responsibilities seriously and avoid putting extra pressure on local authorities by increasing the sums that they have to spend on clearing up litter.

So, now that we can assume that personal statements can be made as opposed to other statements, was the junior Minister who answered on Forgemasters last night making a personal statement, a statement on behalf of the Business Secretary, or a statement on behalf of the Deputy Prime Minister? What we want are personal statements from the last two to tell the truth about the letters and the whole issue. Get them there at the Dispatch Box and stop this silly nonsense about personal statements.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has had time to look at Hansard for the debate on Sheffield—

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not chunter like that from a sedentary position. Let us hear the answer from the Leader of the House.

The hon. Gentleman may not have seen me, because I was sitting where the Dispatch Box might have obscured his view. He will have seen in column 532 that my hon. Friend the Minister referred to “the Government’s decision”.

Many of us would have been pleased to see the action of the bailiffs to clear the so-called village from Parliament square, but slightly dismayed to find the remnants still parked on the pavement. Does the Leader of the House agree that some time should be made available to debate robust measures to clear up the mess once and for all, so that the square is open for all to enjoy and for legitimate protest?

I commend the action that the Mayor of London has taken, supported by the courts, to enable the green to be cleared and, I hope, restored, so that it is a visual amenity and not an eyesore. Clearly there is work still to be done because the pavement is obstructed, and that is a matter for Westminster city council. I understand that a meeting took place recently between Westminster city council and the House authorities to discuss options for dealing with the encampments, but we are also considering amending the current legal framework governing protests around Parliament square and seeing how local byelaws might be strengthened.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of how much the prosperity of our regional towns and cities depends on the universities of those towns and cities? Is he aware that many vice-chancellors believe that they will have to cut thousands of teaching jobs and thousands of research jobs if this needless 25% cut goes right across the university sector?

I think that that would carry more weight if the hon. Gentleman explained to the House how the deficit that he left us might be addressed. Despite the horrendous deficit that we inherited, there are 10,000 more university places than there were last year and that is a tribute to our commitment to higher education.

Following the damaging comments and testimony of the former head of British intelligence about the Iraq war and the activities of the former Prime Minister, can we have an urgent debate on the representation of, and the confidence of the House in, the present middle east peace envoy?

If my hon. Friend is referring to the Chilcot inquiry, I think it would make sense to await the outcome of that before the House holds a debate on the issue that he has outlined.

I welcome the Department for International Development’s statement on the development of St Helena airport, as I have long argued that that makes sense in terms of value for money. Can we have a debate so that we can hear from DFID about the process that it went through to determine that making that investment now will save money in the long term? The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills might learn something from that in relation to issues such as Forgemasters.

I commend the ingenuity of the hon. Lady’s question. She will have seen the written ministerial statement setting out the reasons behind the provisional conclusion, which concerned whether an acceptable contract price was achieved and whether the risk of cost and time overruns were addressed. That is the right way to go and it represents the best value for money for the British taxpayer. Of course, that conclusion could not have been reached without the assent of the Treasury.

Notwithstanding the excellent efforts of the Combined Maritime Forces, the NATO naval force and EU NAVFOR—the European Union naval force Somalia—thousands of people remain captive in Somalia and the horn of Africa. Is it not time to have a review of and an urgent debate on the Government’s counter-piracy policy, which affects British interests?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. He could raise that issue in Tuesday’s debate on the summer Adjournment. Now that my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House knows that it might be raised, he will come equipped with a suitable reply.

Can we have a debate on the Irish economic crisis? Given that the centre-right coalition Government there introduced an emergency budget that has led to high unemployment, cuts in services and the loss of Ireland’s credit rating, such a debate would enable this centre-right coalition Government here to learn lessons.

The last time I looked at the opinion polls, the view in this country of what the centre-right coalition, as the hon. Gentleman calls it, is doing was rather favourable.

I want to reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) about benefit cheques. If that contract is taken away from the Post Office, people on several of the islands and in many rural parts of my constituency will have nowhere to cash their cheques. Many of the people who receive those cheques are among the most vulnerable in society and they will not get the same help and advice in outlets such as petrol stations as they would in a post office. I hope that we will have an urgent statement on that next week.

I think that all hon. Members will share my hon. Friend’s view about the importance of the Post Office network maintaining its viability and the implications for its viability if the scenario that he outlines takes place. I shall certainly reinforce the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine and I shall see that information is given to the House—if possible before we rise—on progress on the contract he mentions.

Thousands of Christmas Island nuclear testing veterans have waited many years for compensation. My understanding is that the Ministry of Defence has now accepted that there is a direct link between that testing in the 1950s and the cancers from which those people are now suffering. Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Defence to come to the House in September and update us regarding the compensation package?

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious issue. There will be questions to the appropriate Department on 13 September and I suggest that he seek to table a question for then, as that might be a suitable forum in which to raise the issue further.

This is my blue and, I hope, red side. May we have a statement as soon as possible on the courtesies that need not and should not be extended to leading members of the British National party, even if they have been elected under an appalling system of proportional representation? That would enable those of us who do not wish to rub shoulders with neo-Nazis at Buckingham palace garden parties to return our tickets even at the last minute.

My hon. Friend invites me to tread on delicate territory. The best response that I can give is that the responsibility for invitations to the garden party at Buckingham palace rests not with me but a higher authority.

When can we debate early-day motion 560 to praise the BBC for its unrivalled and fearless independence on the “Today” programme and to frustrate the plans of the coalition nomenclatura to shoot the messenger?

[That this House congratulates John Humphrys for his forensic questioning of the Foreign Secretary on NATO's strategy in Afghanistan, which added to the BBC's unrivalled reputation for fearless independent journalism.]

I am not aware of any plans in the coalition to curtail the editorial independence of the BBC. I pay tribute to the “Today” programme, which I listen to every morning.

Can we have a debate on the civil service compensation scheme? Although there is much agreement across the House and, indeed, among most unions on the need for reform, there remains a great deal of concern out there and it would be helpful if the House had an opportunity to discuss this issue with a Minister, particularly to underscore the importance of meaningful consultation between the unions and the Government.

My hon. Friend will have an opportunity to debate that issue, because I have announced the Second Reading of the Superannuation Bill for when we come back in September. The Administration are carrying forward the policy of the previous Administration in reducing the compensation available to civil servants who are made redundant.

Could we have a debate on the industrial relations problems in the aviation industry, particularly with British Airways? Without any recommendation from the leadership of the Unite union, BA cabin crew have now voted for a fourth time to take industrial action, which suggests that there is a serious industrial relations problem in that once proud and well-respected company. Will the Leader of the House use his good offices to get both parties together and try to get this industrial relations problem sorted out?

I very much hope that there will not be any more industrial action on the part of British Airways, as that is not in the interests of either its employees or the travelling public. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is keeping an eagle eye on those discussions, but it is primarily a matter for negotiations between the employers and employees. I am not convinced at this stage that it would be right for the Government to intervene.

I am sure that many hon. Members will have noticed that the Members’ dining rooms are frequented by mice. Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate on whether a tough Lancastrian cat could be obtained from Bleakholt animal sanctuary in Rossendale to repel those rodent invaders?

It is indeed the case that mice are seen on the parliamentary estate. I have actually seen an hon. Member feeding them out of kindness. I will pursue with the parliamentary authorities my hon. Friend’s generous offer of a cat, but there might be even more cost-effective ways of dealing with the mice than a Lancastrian cat.

Will the Leader of the House ensure that a Defence Minister comes to the House to make a statement on what steps are being taken to protect serving and former personnel from the risk of prosecution following the Deputy Prime Minister’s statement at the Dispatch Box? What steps can the House take to ensure that men and women who are doing their duty for the country are not put at risk by such statements?

I repeat what I said a few moments ago. It makes sense to await the outcome of the Chilcot inquiry before venturing into the debate on whether the war in Iraq was legal.

In view of the sudden outburst of indignation about the programming of motions, will the Leader of the House remind us when the routine programming of Bills was introduced?

The programme motion for the Academies Bill was tabled a week ago. I must say that I looked in at the opening of yesterday’s debate at six minutes past 2 and there were three Labour Back Benchers in the Chamber.

We need a statement on Forgemasters before the recess, because we need to know—perhaps the Leader of the House can give us the answers—whether the Prime Minister was aware of the letter sent by Andrew Cook. Were Liberal Democrat Ministers aware of it, or were they kept in the dark?

I am amazed that Opposition Members continue to flog this dead horse. The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford, explained in the debate yesterday what he did with the letter from Andrew Cook.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the crisis faced by many fishermen and women up and down our coast, and particularly in Suffolk Coastal? I absolutely commend the efforts of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), and of my hon. Friends the Members for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) and for Waveney (Peter Aldous), but may I press for an urgent debate on fisheries management in our country, and perhaps the repatriation of powers from the common fisheries policy?

My hon. Friend raises an issue of great importance to her constituents. May I suggest to her what I suggested to an hon. Friend earlier—that on Tuesday, she raises that important issue in the debate on the summer Adjournment? Again, my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will come equipped with a reply.

Will the Leader of the House find Government time for a debate on the Thornton relief road in my constituency? It was first mooted in 1934, and would not only boost the construction industry but provide much needed support for businesses and residents who face congestion every day in Thornton.

The hon. Gentleman asks for a debate in Government time, but I think that the issue would be best addressed in an Adjournment debate, and I suggest that he applies to Mr Speaker for one.

The last Administration used complex formulae for funding allocation to cheat rural areas of their fair share of support for education, health and other public services. They hid behind those formulae. May we have an urgent debate on the assessment of need in, and the allocation of funding to, rural areas, to ensure that they get a fair, not a skewed, share of national resources, having been so denuded by the Labour party?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. He will have seen in our proposals on health funding that in future, health resources will be distributed not by Ministers, but by an independent body. I hope that he applauds the pupil premium initiative, which will address some of the deprivation issues in rural constituencies.