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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 517: debated on Thursday 28 October 2010

Transport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Severn Bridges (Tolls)

1. What recent representations he has received on the method of payment of tolls on the Severn bridges; and if he will make a statement. (19912)

The Department for Transport has recently received representations from the Wales Office about the method of payment on the Severn bridges. The Secretary of State has met the Deputy First Minister, and payment methods at the Severn crossings were discussed.

The facility enabling people to pay with credit and debit cards—for which I was grateful—was introduced in time for the Ryder cup, only to be whisked away again the minute the event was over. That has caused confusion. My constituents would like to pay by modern methods, which is fair enough. Can the Minister assure me that an end to the situation is in sight?

I can. I know that a long-running campaign has been conducted by a number of Members.

As the hon. Lady says, the system was introduced for the Ryder cup. We considered it important to meet the deadline, given the significance of the event. The temporary scheme has been withdrawn for the moment, but is due to be back in operation on Friday next week. That gives us a chance to do some more work in order to make it more efficient, but there will be further work to make it more efficient still. We hope to introduce a system in the new year that will not require PINs. The temporary system does require them, and that causes delays and adds to congestion.

Rail Network

Recent estimates by the Office of Rail Regulation suggest that the UK railway has costs up to 40% higher than comparable European railways. To secure a fair deal for passengers and taxpayers in the medium term, we must get the cost base of the railway under control. The Rail Value for Money study led by Sir Roy McNulty will report in the spring, and the Government will then respond to its recommendations.

We have recently completed a consultation on passenger rail franchising, and will publish our response in due course.

The East Suffolk line has a vital role to play in helping to bring jobs to the east Suffolk and Waveney area. Can the Minister confirm that that will be taken into account when investment decisions are made?

I think that my hon. Friend is referring to the so-called Beccles loop, a scheme currently being developed by Network Rail whose implementation is planned for December 2012. Network Rail is expecting a £1 million contribution from Suffolk county council. Subject to that, funds are available for the scheme, and it is expected to proceed on schedule.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to major rail infrastructure projects between our major cities, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the long-term sustainability of our rail network can be enhanced by smaller projects such as the completion of the east-west rail link between Bletchley and Oxford?

I entirely agree. When I surveyed the proposed route of the high-speed railway a few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to examine the alignment of the proposed link. We will shortly begin discussions about the programme of enhancements that the Government wish to secure for the next railway control period, which will begin in 2014-15, and I am sure that the project mentioned by my hon. Friend will be one of those that will be considered carefully.

The Rossendale to Manchester rail link is vital to economic development in Rossendale. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet representatives of the East Lancashire heritage railway board to explore ways of upgrading this heritage line to a commuter link?

I agree that good transport links with Manchester are vital to the regeneration and economic success of my hon. Friend’s area. I know that the local authorities in the area, together with Greater Manchester passenger transport executive, have been working on a scheme, for which the local sustainable transport fund that we have announced—or, alternatively, the regional growth fund—may be a potential source of funds. However, I or one of my colleagues would be happy to meet my hon. Friend.

With regard to the economic sustainability of the rail network, particularly in my constituency of Lincoln, does my right hon. Friend believe that it would be helpful and desirable for Network Rail to act more reasonably and wisely in its economic modelling, and to reconsider its proposal to close the level crossings in our city, including the one that dissects the high street, for over 40 minutes in every daylight hour, a proposal that will decimate my constituency’s economy and the wider economy of Lincolnshire?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I am aware of the impact that the level crossing in Lincoln has on the life of the town. Indeed, I have a similar situation in my constituency. There is an issue about the way scarce and valuable time on level crossings is divided between the railway and the road user. That must be informed by some proper cost-benefit analysis. The good news is that some new barrier technology is under assessment, which might help us, through a technical solution, to reduce the amount of barrier-down time necessary.

If the railways are to be economically sustainable, passengers have to be able to get through the stations and on to the trains, and many disabled people still cannot access large numbers of stations and trains are still inaccessible. The Government have decided to abolish the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee. What process will be put in place instead to ensure that the good work that has been done to improve access is not lost and that we do not go backwards?

I welcome the hon. Lady's question. The decision to abolish the DPTAC was taken because disability issues have been mainstreamed into the Department's assessment processes and disability factors are brought into the advanced planning of programmes at all stages. As she will know, there is a rolling programme of improving access at stations, which Network Rail is funded to deliver. That programme will continue through this control period and into the next.

I speak regularly to businesses in Wirral, which tell me that they benefit greatly from the improvements to the west coast main line driven forward by the previous Government, but they are extremely fearful of ticket prices going up by RPI plus 3%—excruciating rises at this fragile economic time. What can the Minister say in response to those concerns?

As I said in my opening remarks, we have a problem with the cost base of our railway and in the medium term there is no doubt that the challenge for us is to get that cost base under control, so that we can ease the pressure on passengers and at the same time ease the pressure on taxpayers. However, in the short term, the decision that had to be taken was simple: do we go ahead with investment in additional rail vehicles to ease overcrowding and improve the passenger experience or do we not? We have taken the decision that investing for the long term is the right answer for the United Kingdom economy.

It is good to be facing the right hon. Gentleman across the Dispatch Box for our first Transport questions. He again spent the last week all over the media, from “Newsnight” to “The Daily Politics”, pretending to be Chief Secretary to the Treasury, so I apologise to him for dragging him back to his day job. Why did he tell The Times that fares would rise by 10% over the spending review period when commuters are actually facing a hike in fares of 30% plus?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place. Perhaps I cannot tell her and her sister apart and that is why I was responding to the shadow Chief Secretary earlier this week. She refers to a quote. On my arithmetic, RPI plus 3% for the last three years of the spending review period, with RPI plus 1% for next year equates to a 10% real-terms increase in the regulated average fare over the period of the spending review.

I have the quote in front of me. The right hon. Gentleman used a figure. He said this; it is in quotation marks, so he can tell me if he was wrongly quoted:

“If you are paying £1,000 for your season ticket now, it could cost you £1,100 at the end of the period”.

That is not saying that it is a real-terms increase of 10%. That is saying that it is an increase of 10% in total. His Government's own Office for Budget Responsibility predicts inflation of at least 3.2% from 2012. That will mean a rise of at least 6.2% a year, meaning that by 2014, fares will rise by over 30%. I would have expected better standards of arithmetic from someone who would rather be in the Treasury.

Let me try the right hon. Gentleman on another question. Why has he scrapped the cap on individual fares that we introduced? Does he understand that that will mean many fares rising by more than the 3% above inflation that he has allowed? Therefore, for the sake of hard-pressed rail users, who are already struggling thanks to other measures that the Government are taking, will he now abandon that stealth tax on commuters?

I think Members will understand that what matters is the real-terms increase in fares, and that is what I was referring to.

The hon. Lady asked about the average fare cap. She talks as if in the past rail companies were restricted on individual fares. That is not the case. There was always a basket approach until this year—strangely enough, a general election year. For this year only, the previous Government announced that that system would be abolished and that companies would be limited on individual fares. We have gone back to the basket system because it provides the freedom to respond.

It is not a stealth tax because companies are only allowed to increase regulated fares by a weighted average of 1% above RPI in the coming year across all the regulated fare pool.

Local Transport Funding

3. What assessment he has made of the likely effects on local transport schemes of the implementation of the proposed reduction in funding for local government resource grants. (19914)

The majority of transport resource funding will now be paid through formula grant. It is for local authorities to decide how that funding is spent according to their priorities. As the Secretary of State mentioned a few moments ago, I am also establishing a local sustainable transport fund to help local authorities support economic growth and reduce carbon emissions.

I thank the Minister for that answer. The Government’s growth strategy is based on wildly over-optimistic predictions for private sector job creation. How does the Minister think a 28% cut in local government transport funding, the end to ring-fencing across local government funding in general and putting on ice the bus rapid transit scheme will help a city like Bristol, which is plagued by congestion and a lack of transport infrastructure?

I hardly know where to start with that question. The fact is that 300,000 jobs have been created in the private sector in the last three months. It does not help the economy if Members talk it down as the hon. Lady does. It is also not true that the bus rapid transit system in Bristol has been put on ice. The section from Ashton Vale to Temple Meads in Bristol city centre is in the development pool and the south Bristol link phases 1 and 2 are in the pre-qualification pool. I hope very much that Bristol city council will work on those schemes in conjunction with my Department.

Given this week’s disappointing news for south Devon of the Kingskerswell bypass being put into the pool rather than being approved after a 50-year campaign for it, might the local authority be able to reduce the cost of it by taking advantage of tax increment financing and regional growth funding? Will local councils be able to use them to help meet the costs of such important road schemes?

I know that my hon. Friend is very keen on this scheme, and that he and other local Members have campaigned strongly in favour of it. We are certainly open to innovative ideas to find alternative funding, whether through the regional growth fund or the incremental system to which he referred, and I look forward to examining those options with his local county council.

In recent years a combination of local schemes and national action has resulted in a very significant reduction in the number of people killed or seriously injured on our roads. Has any assessment been made of the implications of the cut in local funding for the lives of people on our roads?

The hon. Lady has considerable knowledge of transport issues as a result of her role on the Transport Committee, and I think she understands that what the Government are doing is freeing up local councils to spend their own money rather than determining the number of grant streams centrally. There have been 26 grant streams for transport funding for local authorities, but that will be reduced to four. That will enable local authorities to prioritise matters in their own areas, as they should do as democratically elected bodies.

The A160 scheme has enjoyed the support of local government in north Lincolnshire, but it has now been delayed until 2015. Will the Minister meet me and a cross-party delegation of local MPs to discuss this important scheme in more detail?

It is my practice always to accede to requests for meetings from Members of Parliament, so I will ask my office to fix that up.

Bus Service Operators Grant

4. What his policy is on the future of the bus service operators grant; and if he will make a statement. (19915)

13. What assessment he has made of the likely effects on socially excluded groups of the proposed reduction in bus service operators grant. (19924)

From 2012-13, the rate at which bus service operators grant is paid will be reduced by 20%. Our assessment is that this level of reduction will, overall, have a low impact on socially excluded groups. I spoke to the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK, which represents the bus industry, following the Chancellor’s announcement on 20 October. It was hopeful that, in general, this reduction could be absorbed without fares having to rise.

That is absolute nonsense. The pensioners and the poor people of this country did not create the banking crisis, so why are the Government making them pay with cuts such as this, which will inevitably mean rises in fares and reductions in services?

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that he heard the answer I gave, which was that I have spoken to the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK, which represents the bus industry, and it was hopeful that the reduction in the bus service operators grant was marginal and could be absorbed without fares having to rise. I also draw to his attention the fact that the Government have protected the concessionary fares arrangements.

My constituent, David Gordon, has told me that he values his bus service, which has improved considerably in recent years, very highly, but he is worried about its future. Many others depend on the buses to get to work or to search for work across Teesside and beyond. Can the Minister reassure Mr Gordon that bus services really will be protected and that those seeking work and other excluded groups will be able to follow the advice of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and get on a bus in their area to look for work?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Tees Valley bus network’s improvement scheme is going ahead. The Government have confirmed that only recently, so I hope he will welcome that particular suggestion. It is our intention to get more people on to buses, and we are working with local authorities and the bus industry to achieve that—for example, by the roll-out of smart ticketing. So, yes, his constituents will be able to get on a bus; in fact, there will be even more buses than previously.

How does the Minister propose that the local sustainable transport fund will fill the boots of resource grants, with the funding reduced now, especially in counties such as Leicestershire?

The local sustainable transport fund is a fund of £560 million during the rest of this Parliament. By anybody’s standards, that is an enormous sum to spend on prioritising local transport, cycling, walking, bus services—if that is what local authorities want to do—bus lanes and other such traffic management matters. I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that commitment by the Government; it is an enormous sum for those particular objectives.

I thank the Department for responding so quickly to my named day questions, although I do not consider “I will answer this question shortly” to be much of a reply. On the bus service operators grant, the Minister has said:

“The benefits of that grant are clear: it ensures that the bus network remains as broad as possible, while keeping fares lower and bringing more people on to public transport, with the obvious benefits of reducing congestion…in our towns and cities.”—[Official Report, 29 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 842.]

Given his swingeing 20% cut to the grant, why will he not now accept that fares are likely to go up, passenger numbers will decrease and congestion will worsen?

First, the stories in the press throughout recent months have been suggesting that the bus service operators grant will be abolished, but they have clearly been completely off tack. Indeed, the cut to the grant has been less than the average for the Department, in recognition of the importance of bus services to local people. I come back to the point made by the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK, which, after all, represents the bus industry and so, with due respect, perhaps knows more about buses than the hon. Gentleman might do. It has said that, in general, the reduction can be absorbed without fares having to rise; that is the view of the industry.

Swindon to Kemble Rail Line

6. What plans he has for the future of the Swindon to Kemble rail line; and if he will make a statement. (19917)

The Government recognise that redoubling the railway between Swindon and Kemble could generate important passenger benefits and improve resilience by providing a diversionary route for the Great Western main line to Wales. Unfortunately, the need to address the deficit means that we are not able to commit Government funding to this project at present, but it remains our aspiration to take it forward in the future.

I thank the Minister for that response, but my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) and I have been campaigning on this issue and on the issue of improving the A417/419 road. The absence of either of those schemes impedes travel between Gloucestershire and London, and that is detrimental to Gloucestershire’s economy. Will she revisit both those schemes as soon as possible?

I am very much aware of the campaign that my hon. Friend has run, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds and other local MPs, such as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood). I have met a number of MPs to discuss this project and we recognise that it is a good scheme. Important work is being done through the Grip 4 study, which is due to conclude shortly. We hope that we will be able to fund this scheme, but at the moment the deficit—the significant crisis in the public finances—that we have inherited means that we cannot take forward all the good schemes that are on the table. There is no doubt, however, that this scheme will be a serious contender when we assess these schemes again in relation to the next railway control period.

High Speed 2 Project

7. If his Department will fund (a) tunnelling and culverting work and (b) other mitigation work arising from the construction of any future rail line as part of the High Speed 2 project. (19918)

The coalition Government take very seriously the potential impact of a high-speed rail line on line-side communities and property owners. HS2 Ltd’s current preferred route utilises a range of mitigation techniques, including tunnelling and culverting where appropriate, practical and economically justifiable.

On page 174 of the HS2 proposals, the report states:

“It is difficult to analyse exactly where the benefits of HS2 would accrue.”

HS2 is a project that will clearly be expensive in construction costs, mitigation costs and the costs of compensation. Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that next year’s consultation will include a consultation on the principle of HS2 and on whether the same amount or even less money spent on the existing rail infrastructure could produce similar or even better results?

I can assure my hon. Friend that the option of spending money on enhancing existing rail infrastructure to provide the capacity and the additional connectivity that a high-speed railway will provide has been examined in detail and has been found not to be a practical option. The consultation next year starts from the premise that the Government believe that a high-speed rail network will be in the United Kingdom’s interest, but it will consult on issues to do with the design of that network, the route and the details of the proposals for the London to Birmingham link.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the potentially very important role for Stratford International as a stop for through services from High Speed 1 to High Speed 2. Given the prospect of competitive services on the channel tunnel rail link and developments in east London, as well as the success of the O2 dome and so on, does he agree that there is a growing economic imperative for international trains to stop at Stratford?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, Eurostar services are operated by a commercial company that makes decisions on the basis of its commercial best interest. I think the answer that he should be looking for is more competition and more operators on the line. I am very pleased to hear that Deutsche Bahn intends to start operating services through the tunnel to London. The more operators there are, the more likely they are to seek additional niche markets and to provide additional station stops.

Road Safety (Nottinghamshire)

The Highways Agency has recently received a number of representations on safety on the A1 at Elkesley in Nottinghamshire. These have been made by the local authority, Elkesley parish council and members of the public. In particular, these concerns were raised by local residents and parish councillors to the Highways Agency at Elkesley memorial hall in September.

They have been raised for the last 30 years. There was an agreement going ahead before the election, from the previous Government, for the Elkesley bridge, which is a place where many people have died tragically at the most dangerous crossover on the A1. There was a major collision just this summer. Is this vital scheme, recognised as a priority by the Department for Transport, going to go ahead in this Parliament—yes or no?

It is a little bit unfortunate to blame us for not having taken it forward in six months when the hon. Gentleman’s party had 13 years to take the road forward. I do not underestimate the importance of safety. The statistics that I have been given, in fact, suggest that there have been no fatal, one serious and nine slight personal injuries between January 2007 and December 2009. If there is further information, I shall certainly consider that.

As part of the programme to reduce the budget deficit, we are clearly looking at how we spend our money on minor schemes. The initial prioritisation process for all the minor schemes in the country will be undertaken over the next few weeks by the Highways Agency and an announcement will be made on whether the public inquiry for this improvement scheme will proceed.

Highway Infrastructure (Funding)

9. What recent representations he has received on his Department’s proposed funding for highway infrastructure; and if he will make a statement. (19920)

We have received a number of representations from hon. Members and members of the public regarding investment in major road schemes since the spending review commenced in June. In terms of specific representations, we have received 25 from hon. Members and 73 from members of the public. In addition, I have held meetings with a number of key stakeholders during which the spending review was discussed.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Will he take a further representation from me here and now to review the cancellation of the A1 scheme from Leeming to Barton? It goes to the heart of the economy in the north of England, supporting my constituency and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and it is key to the economic growth of north Yorkshire. Will he reconsider the cancellation of that scheme?

As I said when I made my statement on Tuesday, we have sought to take some hard decisions, and some of the schemes that were being taken forward by the Highways Agency had no realistic prospect of being funded in this spending review period or the next one. In those circumstances, I have taken the view that it would be wrong to continue to spend money on development of a scheme which is unlikely to be built in the foreseeable future, and therefore the scheme had to be cancelled. I am sorry to have to disappoint my hon. Friend.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State and the Chancellor for their support for the Mersey Gateway. However, construction can start only if funding is in place and we know when that will be released. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman the same question that I asked him on Tuesday? Subject to agreement on funding in January, as per his report, can he tell us if construction will begin before 2015? In other words, will the money be released to allow construction to begin before 2015?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the money will be released for construction to begin before 2015. Of course, this is a local authority-led project, so the local authority will ultimately determine how quickly the project can proceed, but both the capital allocation sum that we have made available and the private finance initiative credits will be released for use before 2015.

I know that many Members in the Chamber and drivers across the country are disappointed with the announcements that the Secretary of State made on Tuesday, but surely sending his Minister with responsibility for roads to Russia this week was a little steep. Is it not the case that for many of the yet unconfirmed schemes, local authorities are being asked to shoulder more of the burden at a time when they are facing a 28% cut in their funding? Does not the right hon. Gentleman feel a little like a car dealer who says to his customer, “You can drive away with any vehicle you choose,” before slashing the tyres of every single car in the showroom?

I suppose the simple answer is no. The hon. Gentleman might be interested that the Minister with responsibility for roads has gone to St Petersburg to join in an international conference on road safety. With reference to the local authority schemes in the development pool that I announced on Tuesday, what we have said is that local authorities need to look at ways of improving the benefit-to-cost ratios of the projects that they are promoting. In some cases, that will involve getting in third-party contributions, particularly developer contributions. Some authorities may wish to increase their own contributions. All authorities should be able to reduce cost.

M1-M6 Junction

11. What proposals for improvements to the M1-M6 junction he is considering; and if he will make a statement. (19922)

I refer my hon. Friend to the oral statement made by the Secretary of State for Transport to the House on 26 October, and the supporting documentation. The preferred option for improving the junction is the proposal announced in February 2009 to provide free-flowing traffic links between the A14, the M1 and the M6.

Does my hon. Friend agree that that is one of the most dangerous junctions and one of the most important junctions on the motorway network? When does she expect the works there to be completed, and what other projects do the Government have to improve the M1 and M6 motorways?

I agree that that is a very important junction on our strategic road network. That is one of the reasons why we have prioritised funding for the project at a time of intense pressure on the public finances because of the deficit that we inherited. I also agree that road safety is an important issue in this case. The Highways Agency is working hard to manage and mitigate the road safety impact of the current junction, but we believe that the scheme will provide additional long-term road safety benefits. The scheme is not likely to be able to be progressed before 2015, but we are working on a revised timetable, with a view to construction beginning some time after that period.

Another important junction that has congestion problems and very poor design is junction 13 on the M60 at my Worsley constituency, but instead of doing something about junction design and improving the safety and other aspects there, Ministers have pushed forward with a white elephant of a scheme to add another lane to the motorway at that point. I and my constituents have objected to that from the start. The additional lane will blight the lives of people who live near the motorway. Given that they cannot push ahead with the good schemes that Members have put forward this morning, I urge Ministers to cancel that stupid white elephant of a scheme, think again and use the scarce public resources where they are better utilised.

I refer the hon. Lady to the statement that the Secretary of State made earlier this week on the difficult decisions that we have made to prioritise investment in the most significant traffic bottlenecks on our road network. However, she will be well aware that before all those projects proceed to completion, they must pass through the appropriate planning appraisal programme, and full consideration will be given to the local community’s views as part of that important process.

No, no. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I thought that he was seeking to come in on Question 11, which is where we were. I am afraid that we cannot go to Question 17.

Disabled People (Transport Access)

14. What recent assessment he has made of the likely effects of the outcome of the spending review on projects to improve the accessibility of the transport network to disabled people. (19925)

As part of fulfilling the Government’s commitment to promoting equality, my Department has undertaken a robust analysis of its spending proposals and an assessment of the likely effects on the accessibility of the transport network. This work included considering the equalities impacts of proposals on projects that would improve the accessibility of the transport network to disabled people.

What assurances can the Minister offer that the reductions in the transport expenditure budget outlined in the comprehensive spending review the other week will not impact on accessibility for disabled passengers?

First, the Government have prioritised transport expenditure in recognition of the fact that it is very important in helping to grow the economy and in cutting carbon emissions.

Secondly, within that process, there are continuing programmes such as the access for all programme at railway stations, and we are considering how we deal with EU legislation and with other disability issues, which are a key part of my portfolio. I can assure the hon. Lady that the issue will not be lost. Indeed, she may want to know that next week I am meeting a number of groups, such as the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Scope, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and so on to ensure that I am fully appraised of their views on the issue.

Topical Questions

Since I last answered Transport questions, I have agreed the Department’s settlement with the Treasury. The settlement that we have achieved shows the Government’s commitment to investment in infrastructure and in transport infrastructure, in particular. The announcements that have been made, and that will be made over the next few weeks, will support economic growth and job creation.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the historical importance of the River Mersey as the lifeblood of the city of Liverpool, the wider sub-region and beyond. Therefore, following the Prime Minister’s call for sustainable economic growth, will the Minister meet Merseyside MPs and the leader of the city council to re-examine the economic evidence for a turnaround facility on the banks of our world famous, UNESCO-recognised and iconic waterfront?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is talking about a cruise liner terminal and turnaround facility. Cruise liner ports are operated primarily by private sector companies. Public money has been invested in the facility on the Mersey, and that public money was invested on the explicit understanding that it would not be used for turnaround. If it were, issues of state aid and unfair advantage would be raised. I am happy to discuss the matter with the hon. Gentleman, but I hope that he understands that there are European Union competition and legal issues around the matter.

T5. I recently met the Consular Corps of London, which made it clear to me, in no uncertain terms, that there is a problem at our ports and airports with human trafficking, with people being admitted to this country on clearly forged passports. I wonder what the Secretary of State can say about that, and whether he can talk to the Home Office about it. (19937)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As he will know, inward border controls are primarily a matter for the UK Border Agency, and I shall make sure that his comments are drawn to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends in that Department.

T2. Bus services are a vital part of Newcastle’s economic infrastructure, and, despite the huge cuts to bus subsidies and to local government grants, the Minister is “hopeful” that bus fares will not rise and that bus services will not be cut. Unfortunately, the people of Newcastle cannot get to work on the Minister’s hopes. If fares do rise or if services are cut, what will the Minister do?

(19933)

I am afraid that the hon. Lady’s question contains a number of hypothetical assumptions that are not borne out by reality. It is not my hope, but the hope and the view expressed to me by the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK, which represents the main five bus operators, so I do not think that the terrible scenario she paints will come to fruition. People might also want to use the Tyne and Wear metro, in which the Government are investing £500 million over the next 11 years.

Although we are expecting rail fares to rise only by 10% over four years in real terms, will Ministers look into changing the basis for the cap calculation from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index—because, after all, what is fair for pensioners ought to be fair enough for profit-making rail companies?

The decision on rail fares has been difficult, but we have had to make it as part of the tough decisions needed to tackle the deficit. Of course we will keep under review the way that the system works, and I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the issue.

T3. Constituents of mine travel on the Ebbw Valley rail line from Cardiff to Islwyn, but they cannot travel to Newport because there are major engineering works at the Gaer junction. Has the Minister had any discussions with the First Minister about providing money for those engineering works so that my constituents can travel to work from Islwyn to Newport? (19935)

I have not discussed that specific issue with the Welsh Assembly Government, but I am happy to do so.

East Dunbartonshire cycle co-operative does excellent work and has enthused hundreds of people into taking up cycling through a local cycle festival, maps, cycle clubs and even a Guinness world record attempt at the number of cycle bells that can be rung simultaneously. This shows what can be done with a group of committed volunteers and a bit of grant funding, but how can we ensure that cycling promotion is not just left to volunteer champions but is done more systematically wherever people live in the country?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. She will know that we value cycling; it was set out in the coalition agreement that it is a priority for us in the Transport Department. It has a major role to play in tackling the reduction of carbon emissions in the short term through behavioural change. We have guaranteed that Bikeability will carry on and, as I said earlier, there is a pot of money—£560 million—in the local sustainable transport fund, much of which I am sure will be directed towards activities related to cycling.

T4. The Chancellor announced with a fanfare in the comprehensive spending review the modernisation and electrification of a number of lines up and down the country. Can the Secretary of State tell us when the electrification work on the Preston to Blackpool line will commence and when it will be completed? (19936)

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise date now, but I am happy to talk to Network Rail about where that particular project lies in its current programme and get back to him.

The Wharfedale and Airedale lines are two of the most congested railway lines in the country, and additional carriages are essential to alleviate that congestion. I am well aware that funds are limited, but will the Secretary of State prioritise additional carriages on those two lines, as that is essential for economic activity in the area, which I know is the Government’s priority?

I said when I made my statement on Tuesday that a further announcement would shortly be made about rail investment. That announcement will include the provision of additional rail cars to relieve overcrowding. I am afraid that my hon. Friend will have to wait for a few more days until that statement is made.

On the rail network and fare increases, is the Minister aware that the proposed formula increase outlined in the CSR—that is, RPI plus three—will mean a cumulative increase of approximately 33.5% by 2015? That means, on the Newcastle to London line, an increase up to £500 for first class and £350 for second class—

Order. May I remind Members, both Back Benchers and Front Benchers, because I think they have forgotten, that topical questions and answers are supposed to be shorter? I think the Minister has got the thrust of the question, although the hon. Gentleman is certainly not the only offender, by any means.

I can do no better than refer the hon. Gentleman to my earlier exchange with the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman.

May I ask the Minister for special consideration for communities in the south-east that had RPI plus three imposed on them by the previous Labour Government in 2006?

I am well aware of the concerns of users of the Southeastern franchise who have been asked to pay RPI plus three over the past few years. That was linked to investment in rolling stock, and the rest of the country will move on to RPI plus three to even out the perceived inequality from the year after next.

On Tuesday, the Secretary of State seemed to think me most ungrateful because I did not thank him for the tram extensions. I am sorry to disappoint him, but the people of Nottingham South sent me here to do things, not just to say thanks. Does he accept that the tram on its own will not solve the problems, particularly for freight traffic, caused by congestion on the A453? It really is vital that the widening scheme goes ahead.

I hear what the hon. Lady says. I repeat what I said on Tuesday: Nottingham has got a good deal out of the announcements that have been made over the past week or so. The A453 scheme remains in the development pool, which means that we will take it forward with further work. An announcement will be made during the course of 2011 on which of those schemes will be funded.

I welcome the reply of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) in connection with the delay to the A160 upgrade on the access road into Immingham docks. The Under-Secretary will be aware that the delay puts increasing pressure on the town of Immingham, and that the A18/A180 link road was given the amber light on Tuesday. Will he agree to meet me and the local authority to discuss how we can bring the work forward?

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s legitimate point about that connection, and I am happy to meet him—perhaps it might be helpful if that happened at the same time as the other meeting that I agreed to earlier.

In a letter to me, the Under-Secretary confirmed the good news about the Switch island to Thornton relief road, but he used the phrase “increased local contributions”. Can the Secretary of State tell me now what he expects those contributions to be?

I believe that the letter the hon. Gentleman refers to talks about the need for discussion to be held with local authorities on the cost of schemes and local contributions. As I said on Tuesday, when we are spending taxpayers’ money, we have an absolute duty to ensure that we have explored every opportunity to minimise the taxpayer contribution and the cost. That is what we will do, but he has approval for the scheme and it will go ahead. We will engage with his local authority to ensure that it is as efficient as possible.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Supporting People Programmes

1. What recent representations she has received on the likely effect on women victims of domestic violence of reductions in funding to Supporting People programmes. (19942)

We have received no such representations. However, we have been meeting a number of organisations that provide support to women who are victims of domestic violence, and most recently my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities met the chief executive of Refuge to discuss exactly that issue. I am pleased to be able to tell the right hon. Lady that following widespread consultation with the voluntary sector, the Government have committed to providing £6.5 billion to the Supporting People programme over the next four years.

That is, of course, a real-terms cut in the supported housing programme. Women’s refuges also get their money through housing benefit and, at present, they are allowed to charge rates above the local housing cap, and therefore access more benefit than the cap would allow. Will that exemption continue, given the decisions that have been taken to impose that housing cap across all areas of the country?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her concern in relation to support for refuges. We will consult on welfare reform proposals more widely, and that issue can certainly be considered. In relation to the support that refuges provide for victims of domestic violence, I am pleased to tell her that this Government have been able to extend until the end of this financial year the pilot period of the sojourner project dealing with victims who have no recourse to public funds. That is another matter on which we are considering longer-term solutions to ensure that refuges can provide support for the women who need their services.

Will the Minister ensure that all domestic violence centres have access under one roof to welfare, housing and the criminal justice system so that the victim can access them at one single point as is the case at the Croydon family justice centre?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the very good model at the family justice centre in Croydon, which is based on an experience that was developed in New York. I was pleased to visit a centre in New York a couple of months ago and see the benefits there. The Croydon model is a very good one, but it will not necessarily fit all areas. In more rural communities, for example, a single point might not be the answer. Some very good work has been done by Cherwell district council on how to ensure that there is inter-agency working in rural areas where a single physical centre is not always the answer.

May I press the Minister on her answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), as there is considerable concern about this issue? The Supporting People budget is being cut by 11% and the ring-fencing is being removed so that refuges and supported housing will have to take their chances among competing areas while local council budgets are being cut by more than 25%. The Minister has not explained what will happen to housing benefit support for those women who are going into refuges and who are badly in need of support and protection. I do not think her answer was sufficient, and I ask her to consider this further and provide the House with some reassurance. She will know that there is great concern that the spending review is already hitting women twice as hard as men. Will she stand up for women who may be affected by domestic violence and will she guarantee that there will be no reduction in help and support for women who badly need it?

I welcome the right hon. Lady to her position. She held the same position before the leadership elections within the Labour party, but I welcome her again now she has been reappointed. I am sure that we will have a number of interesting exchanges on this issue and I hope that we will work co-operatively on many areas of women’s issues and equality, as is right and appropriate.

The right hon. Lady asks about ring-fencing and the Supporting People funding, but the decision to remove that ring-fencing was first taken by the Labour Government because it has not been ring-fenced since 2009. On the question that the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) asked, a White Paper will be produced before the welfare reform Bill. It will be possible for people to make representations on specific issues such as the impact of housing benefit changes on refuges and for those representations to be taken into account.

Human Trafficking

2. What discussions she has had with her EU counterparts on the co-ordination of member states’ action against human trafficking of women. (19943)

Policy responsibility for human trafficking rests with my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration. There have been no ministerial discussions with other EU member states on human trafficking. The UK plays an active role in combating this horrendous crime and will co-ordinate activities with our European partners where it is in the UK’s interests to do so.

Nothing undermines the dignity of women more than human trafficking and this modern-day slavery. Article 10 of the EU directive on trafficking requires all member states to provide necessary medical treatment to trafficking survivors. When will Britain set an example and sign the EU directive?

We have decided not to opt in to the European directive at the moment, but we are keeping a watching brief. When it is implemented, we might well decide to do so, but we are already doing most of the things required by the directive to a good standard and we do not want to be inhibited by introducing laws in this country. Several things that we do already would need transposing into legislation, but we do not need to make legislation to prove to the Commissioners what we are doing already.

May I urge the Minister not to opt in to the EU directive? I know that human trafficking is one of the Prime Minister’s priorities, but before we opt in we must consider whether we can do things better; I urge caution in this matter.

The question is about co-ordination. By which mechanism can the origin, transition and destination countries get together to deal with the problem of human trafficking?

We do that already without legislation. We have been very involved in Europe in terms of trafficking. Human trafficking is a key area under the Stockholm programme, which sets out the EU justice and home affairs priorities. We also helped to shape the draft EU trafficking directive and helped with the first Schengen evaluation on human trafficking. We are working closely with European colleagues. Quite frankly, it is better that we work in the countries of origin, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, so that we stop trafficking at source by working with the Serious Organised Crime Agency, after which we should work at our borders and then in-country.

Custodial Sentences (Women)

3. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on the number of women given custodial sentences. (19945)

The Government are committed to diverting women who do not pose a risk to the public from custody, and to tackling women’s offending. I met the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), who has responsibility for prisons and probation, on 28 July to discuss the community options available to the judiciary, and we agreed to work together on the issue. We noted that the women’s prison population has now reached a plateau. We are jointly supporting a holistic approach to diverting women from custody.

The Minister will be aware of the Corston report, which said that women who pose no threat to the public should not go to prison, owing principally to the attendant issues for children and the next generation, yet in the past decade, the number of women going to prison has increased by 100%, which is four times faster than the number of men going to prison. That cannot be right. What will we do to reverse that legacy?

The coalition is committed to diverting women away from crime and tackling women’s offending. We are taking a number of measures on alternatives to custody. There is a £10 million fund for women-only projects that is run by the voluntary sector and that supports community services. The bail accommodation support scheme means that we can support and mentor women on remand outside so that they do not have to go into the prison system. It is important that we move forward on this issue, because as my hon. Friend says, the knock-on consequences of short sentences for women are totally unacceptable and unproductive.

May I urge my hon. Friend to go a little further on the Corston report, which also recommends that we put women in small local centres to tackle the multiple problems that cause them to reoffend, so reducing the number of women in prison? The previous Labour Government said lots of warm words about the report, but did nothing. What will this Government do?

The Government broadly support all the Corston recommendations and have looked very closely at the recommendation to create another special sort of accommodation. However, we are committed to women not going to prison at all. We are looking at approved accommodation in the community where women can have a good balance between surveillance and support. The ambition is not to need the centres recommended in the Corston report, but keeping women out of prison is paramount.

Women and Work Sector Skills Pathway Initiative

4. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on the effectiveness of the women and work sector skills pathway initiative. (19946)

That initiative is part of a broad range of action to improve equality in the workplace, an issue on which my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities and I have had a number of discussions with colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The forthcoming skills strategy will set out our approach to improving skills for everyone.

Will the Minister tell the House what the Government are doing to help women to get jobs in sectors in which they are currently under-represented?

We are taking a number of steps to ensure that we encourage women in areas in which they are not currently as highly represented, such as funding the UK Resource Centre for women in science, engineering and technology. The Government are, of course, committed to an additional 75,000 apprenticeship places by the end of the spending review period, and I am sure that we will do all we can to ensure that women take places in areas where they are not properly represented at the moment.

Gender Pay Gap

In 2009, the gap between the median hourly earnings of men and women working full time was 12.2%. Including men and women working part time raises this figure to 22%. Those estimates are updated on an annual basis and the Office for National Statistics will provide estimates for 2010 in November. The Government are committed to promoting equal pay and taking a range of measures to end discrimination in the workplace.

I recently enjoyed watching the film “Made in Dagenham” and it struck me that it is now 40 years since the Equal Pay Act was enacted. Will the Secretary of State update us on what she plans to do to narrow the pay gap between men and women?

I had the opportunity of meeting four of the women who were campaigners in Dagenham, and they are as feisty today as they were 40 years ago. We need to address several issues when considering the gender pay gap. It is appalling that we still have such a gap 40 years later, but it is not simply about a legislative approach. Extending the right to request flexible working to all, introducing flexible parental leave and encouraging a wider range of choices in career options, especially for girls and young women, will all play their part in ending the gender pay gap.

I represent an area with the widest gender pay gap, where women earn only two thirds as much as men. I am especially concerned about the effects of the comprehensive spending review, including the number of women who will be made unemployed by the decisions taken and the cuts to housing benefit. What will the Government do about the gender income gap, not just the gender pay gap?

The hon. Lady raises the issue of the comprehensive spending review. Of course, we have had to introduce these measures as a result of decisions taken by the last Labour Government, which she supported, which have left this country in a parlous financial condition and meant that we have had to address this significant deficit. As a Government, we have been looking at equality impact assessments of the decisions in the spending review. It is interesting to note that when the Opposition spokeswoman on these matters was Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the then Labour Government did precisely zero equality impact assessments. They made no proper assessment of the equality impact of their decisions.

Flexible Parental Leave

The Government are committed to encouraging shared parenting and making the workplace more family friendly. We will launch a consultation in due course on the design of a new system of flexible shared parental leave.

There is a Brussels-inspired proposal to hike maternity pay to full pay for the first 20 weeks at a cost of £2.5 billion, according to the British Chambers of Commerce, which would be unaffordable for the British taxpayer and for small and medium-sized businesses. Given that we already have one of the best maternity rights regimes in Europe, will the Secretary of State tell Brussels where to get off and begin to repatriate employment and social legislation back to this place?

I share my hon. Friend’s disappointment at the outcome of the first reading vote in the European Parliament. The measures that have been put forward are highly regressive and we do not support them. They would cost the UK at least £2.4 billion a year.

It is desirable for fathers to be able to play a much larger role in the lives of their young children. However, the Government also need to take into account and support very small businesses, which may face pressures on their work force if key personnel have flexible time off. What discussions has the Minister had with the business community on the implementation of flexible parental leave?

As my hon. Friend may be aware, one in seven working people now has a caring responsibility and the issue of balancing work and family life is of growing importance. The Government are committed to a strong culture of regulatory restraint so, in looking at the introduction of shared parental leave, we will consult fully with businesses, small, medium and large.