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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 519: debated on Thursday 2 December 2010

Transport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Sustainable Local Transport

Our commitment to sustainable local travel is evidenced by our decision to establish a £560 million local sustainable transport fund. We will shortly set out the criteria for bidding for the fund, and we will publish a White Paper next month setting out the policy initiatives that we will take forward in supporting local authorities to deliver sustainable local travel.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. One of the biggest concerns for many people in rural constituencies such as mine is the future of local bus services. What reassurance can he give to my constituents that the particular needs of rural communities will be truly taken into account in the new funding formula?

It is not a new funding formula. The local sustainable transport fund is a fund to which local authorities can submit bids, so if they have innovative schemes to support rural bus services they will be able put in bids to the fund. The Minister for Local Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), has been working with bus companies and the Local Government Association over the past few weeks to ensure that the guidance to local authorities on the distribution of funding for concessionary fares does protect rural bus services, and he has achieved a major advance in ensuring that rural bus services are protected.

In a constituency such as mine, which consists of towns and many villages but no railway station, the local bus service is absolutely essential in ensuring that our villages remain vibrant hubs and do not become merely dormitories. Does the Minister have any plans to review the 90% law, whereby the local authority has to provide access to a bus service for only 90% of the population?

Local transport and the bus service, in particular, is essential for many people, and of course it needs to be sustainable, but does the Secretary of State agree that cuts of 20% to the bus service operators grant will not only lead to fewer bus services and higher fares, but push people back into their cars and, therefore, do nothing for sustainability?

No, I do not. The hon. Lady will recall that prior to the spending review there was a great deal of speculation that the bus service operators grant would be abolished altogether, and the bus service operators warned of significant fare increases and cuts to services if that were to happen. I am pleased to say that we were able to achieve a cut of only 20% in the BSOG, and the operators indicate to us that that should not lead to a loss of services or to significant fare increases.

South London Line

There have been no recent discussions between the Department for Transport and the Mayor of London regarding the South London line. We are aware that officials from Transport for London have been discussing their plans to mitigate the loss of the South London line service, following its replacement with the new East London line services through Southeastern.

The Secretary of State’s announcement last week about London Bridge and Thameslink is hugely welcomed by all our communities, but the one qualification, of which he is probably aware, is that it might have an adverse impact on use of the South London line. Will his Department be positive and constructive with the Mayor of London and local authorities to see whether we can resolve the one remaining piece of the jigsaw-problem, so that everybody can be 100% happy—rather than just 90% happy with a little way to go?

I am aware of the concerns about the loss of the South London line service. As my hon. Friend knows, the Mayor of London asked for the alternative proposal of a Victoria to Bellingham service to be dropped in favour of providing additional financial support to the East London line extension, but I am very happy to talk to my hon. Friend and to other hon. Members who are concerned about the matter to try to ensure the best possible provision of services within the constraints that will exist at London Bridge and Clapham Junction.

May I express my astonishment that the Secretary of State has not had a discussion with the Mayor of London about the chaos on London’s transport and, indeed, throughout the country? Will he tell the Mayor to stop swanning around in Switzerland, get back here and get a grip? When will he and the Minister get a grip on the transport chaos in this country?

The question was about the South London line and my answer was that I had not had any recent discussions with the Mayor of London on that issue. I do, of course, have regular discussions with the Mayor of London on all sorts of subjects and will continue to do so. I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman is out of touch with the mood of the British public, who are concerned to make the best possible fist of Britain’s bid for the 2018 World cup.

Cycling

We set out our commitment to sustainable local travel, including cycling, in our decision to establish a local sustainable transport fund.

The spending review made available £560 million over four years. It will be for local partnerships—local transport authorities working with their communities—to identify the right solutions for their areas in bidding for funding. Bids involving cycling will be well placed to capitalise on the objectives of the fund to help create growth and cut carbon.

The axing of the highly cost-effective body, Cycling England, wiped out the arrangement whereby money was effectively channelled into school and workplace projects that are run by charities such as Sustrans and CTC. What is the Minister’s plan B to ensure that cycling charities and campaigning groups, such as those in my constituency, can continue to work with schools and businesses to deliver cycling’s many benefits? How will he know if that plan B is working?

I am happy to say that Bikeability, one of the main schemes delivered by Cycling England, has been retained at a national level. Funding for it will be top-sliced from the local sustainable transport fund. We are in regular contact with organisations such as Sustrans to ensure that they are plugged in. I assure the hon. Lady that bids to the local sustainable transport fund will be regarded more favourably if they have involvement from voluntary community groups, such as the one that she has described.

The cycle to work scheme has involved some 400,000 people over the past decade. It was recently put in jeopardy by a ruling of Revenue and Customs. What representations will Ministers make to their Treasury colleagues to ensure that that important scheme is not jeopardised?

I am aware of the value of that scheme in encouraging cycling. I have received representations from hon. Members about the scheme, but I hope that the concerns are unfounded. I assure my hon. Friend that I wrote to the relevant Treasury Minister three or four weeks ago. I will ensure that he receives a copy of the reply.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) made a very good point about people’s concerns over the responsibilities of Cycling England being returned to the Department. The accepted wisdom is that cycling is good for health, reduces congestion and reduces emissions. There has been an explosion in cycling, partly because of the £140 million that was pledged by the previous Government for 2008 to 2011. However, there are anxieties about the future of cycling. Will the Minister be more specific about how the Government will monitor the amount of money that is available and the effectiveness of the spend, because the concern, as the hon. Lady said, is that the Department has taken its eye off the ball?

I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that the Department has not taken its eye off the ball. Cycling was mentioned as a priority in the coalition agreement and £560 million is a substantial amount of money for a local fund, by any degree. Bikeability is being retained. On monitoring, we will ensure that public money that is allocated to local authorities is well spent. Indeed, we are sponsoring a new indicator to measure the response that we get to money that is spent on cycling.

I wish that I had got on my bike to get here this morning, rather than relying on Transport for London. I am sure that all hon. Members agree that it is vital that young people learn how to cycle. Will the Minister therefore clarify what has happened to the £5 million of Bikeability funds that he claimed previously would be administered through school sport partnerships, now that those are being abolished?

There is £11 million for Bikeability in this financial year, which is available to local highways authorities and school sport partnerships. Bikeability funding will continue for the rest of the Parliament, as we have indicated. We are funding 275,000 Bikeability level 2 training places for children this year and a further £500,000 is available in bursaries for the training of cycling instructors. It is clear that our commitment to cycling is undimmed and that we have a plan in place to deliver on that.

Local Authority Transport Schemes

5. What recent discussions he has had with local authority leaders on the future of funding for major local authority transport schemes. (27884)

Officials have written to all relevant local authorities, enclosing the document “Investment in Local Major Transport Schemes”, which was made available to Members of this House on 26 October and which sets out the position on the future funding of major schemes. Detailed discussions are ongoing.

In the longer term, I have made a commitment to consider the options for a much greater devolution of capital budgets and prioritisation decisions for local major schemes and will in due course discuss the best way forward with local authorities and local enterprise partnerships once they are established.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. As he knows, there is deep concern about the decision to postpone improvements to the A453 in Nottinghamshire. There is an appetite locally, across all parties, for exploring ways to retrieve the situation, and it has been suggested that a regional growth fund bid could be made to contribute to the cost. Would the Secretary of State welcome such an approach? Will he facilitate the participation of the Highways Agency in assisting local partners to explore such a possibility?

As the hon. Lady knows, the A453 is a Highways Agency scheme and not, strictly speaking, a local authority major scheme. It is not the kind of scheme that was primarily intended to be a beneficiary of the regional growth fund.

I have written to the hon. Lady on this subject and indicated that we will be looking at Highways Agency schemes that are not currently prioritised for commencement in this spending review period, with a view to identifying those that will be accelerated as first reserves, as it were; inevitably, programmes sometimes slip and there is a requirement for additional schemes. We will be looking at that in the new year.

Would the Secretary of State be willing to meet the local authority leaders of Devon, Torbay and Teignbridge, who are united in wanting to see improvements to the A380—namely, the south Devon link road and a bypass around Kingskerswell?

I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), has already met local authority leaders in the area. If I could give my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) a piece of advice, it would be that he and his local authority colleagues need to work on the scheme with a view to getting the cost down, so that the total cost-benefit ratio improves. That will make it much more likely that the scheme will be able to be funded from central Government funds.

Unlike other spending blocs, the gap between spending in the south-east and the rest of the regions has been increasing over the past 10 years. If there is to be real investment in major schemes in our major regional cities, that gap will have to be closed. What plans does the Secretary of State have to close that gap?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government have committed themselves to a public consultation in the new year on the High Speed 2 rail scheme. They have allocated £750 million-worth of funding to take that scheme forward during the current spending review period.

That project—a strategic investment project—will more effectively close the gap between north and south and address the issues of differential economic growth rates than any other regional initiative that has been taken in the past couple of decades. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the commitment that the Government are making to that project, despite strong opposition to it in the southern half of the country.

Does the Secretary of State agree that notwithstanding the benefits of high-speed rail, the only way really to improve the north’s economic performance in the here and now is to improve connectivity within the north through projects such as the northern hub? Does he agree that that will require not just Government support, but effective regional strategic planning, which we have not seen so far?

My hon. Friend has been a passionate advocate of the northern hub since long before his election to the House. He has made the case and continues to make it powerfully. It is a very important project. Network Rail is taking forward work on the northern hub proposal with a view to considering its inclusion in the next financial control period, starting in 2014.

I agree with my hon. Friend. Projects of that nature realise their full potential only if they are properly integrated, with wider regional policies being adopted.

Road Safety

7. What assessment he has made of the effects of reductions in road safety grants and the ending of Government funding for speed cameras on the number of road traffic (a) accidents and (b) fatalities. (27888)

No assessment has been made about the effect on road accidents that may result from changes to road safety grants. The Government continue substantially to fund local transport in local authorities, including for road safety. Speed camera operations can still continue if the local authorities decide that they wish them to do so.

Frankly, I am shocked to hear the Minister say that no assessment has been made regarding the consequences of significant cuts to capital and revenue funding and the ending of specific ring-fencing for local authority road safety grants at a time when local authorities are going to be under unprecedented financial pressure. I urge the Minister to think again about the dangerous consequences of the lack of priority that the Government are giving to road safety.

Especially as an ex-fireman, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that road safety is paramount for this Government. That is why I am taking this forward in such strong ways, particularly with local authorities. It is for local authorities, not central Government, to decide what is best for their communities. Speed cameras have been beneficial in some parts of the country, but they have also been seen as cash cows. It is for local authorities to decide, and we will work with them.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to early-day motion 1084, tabled by me and co-sponsored by two former road safety Ministers, one Labour and one Conservative? The EDM welcomes a report from the RAC Foundation which confirms that each year the presence of speed cameras prevents 800 people from being killed or seriously injured. In the light of that, will the Minister give more credit to speed cameras, because they do save lives?

I pay credit to the work that my hon. Friend has done over many years on road safety. The truth of the matter is that some speed cameras do fantastic work, and some do not. In local authority areas such as Swindon, where speed cameras have been stopped altogether, there has been no indication of an increase in accidents since they have gone. It is for local authorities to decide, and we will work with them, but the public must be with them when it comes to speed cameras. The public must, whatever happens, be confident that speed cameras are there for the right reason.

The Minister has said:

“We would expect that road safety would remain a priority for local communities and that local spending would reflect that.”

The RAC calculates that speed cameras save 70 lives a year. Can the Minister tell the House how it is supposed to ensure that road safety remains a priority when his Government are cutting funding to local government by more than 30%? Is not the truth that ending Government funding for speed cameras is nothing to do with dictating priorities to local government but all about them making cuts to vital road safety measures that he does not wish to defend?

The shadow Minister is better than that; he knows full well that some speed cameras work very well and some do not. The pre-2004 speed cameras in many areas, including my own, where the money was hypothecated straight back to the local authorities, were there to raise cash, not necessarily to prevent accidents. It is up to local authorities to use the money that has been given to them by central Government for their communities. It is for them to decide, not central Government.

Thameslink

As I confirmed on 25 November, the Thameslink programme will go ahead in full. To improve delivery confidence, we will defer completion of the full programme, allowing 24 trains per hour in each direction, until 2018. This will reduce both cost and risk, particularly in respect of the reconstruction of London Bridge station. Passengers will start to see benefits from December 2011, when works at Blackfriars will be completed, and some 12-car trains will start to run from Bedford through to Brighton.

As the Secretary of State will be aware, many of my constituents are struggling to get into work this morning on the existing rolling stock. New rolling stock is therefore vital as part of the Thameslink upgrade. Would he be willing to share the time scales for delivery of such rolling stock and place the information on record in the House?

It is expected that the new Thameslink rolling stock—1,200 vehicles—will start to be delivered in 2015, and delivery should be completed by 2019.

As part of completing the Thameslink project, will my right hon. Friend ask officials to look at the cost benefit of extending the line beyond Cambridge to include areas such as Ely and Littleport on the way to King’s Lynn, because the service is planned to stop at Cambridge, yet the cost of electrification beyond there would be £60 million to £80 million out of a £5.5 billion overall cost?

There are no plans to look at further extension of the Thameslink programme during the current control period but, as my hon. Friend will know, the next Network Rail control period begins in 2014, and proposals for infrastructure enhancements to the network beyond 2014 will be looked at and evaluated over the next couple of years.

It is apparent that the Thameslink project is essential for the cascading of rolling stock to the north. Can we be assured that that rolling stock will be of good quality and not simply cast-offs from Thameslink? How will the Secretary of State’s statement about delays on Thameslink affect the north getting good-quality rolling stock to relieve overcrowding?

As the hon. Lady knows, the cascading of rolling stock from First Capital Connect’s existing operations to the north-west depends on the completion of the electrification programme in the north-west, which, as I indicated last week, is expected to be completed in 2016. By that time, rolling stock will have become available, so this does not involve any further delay. In terms of the quality of the stock, it is not, of course, new rolling stock, but it is good quality, with a significant remaining life expectancy.

Station Improvements

11. What plans he has for the future funding for the national station improvement programme and access for all grants. (27893)

We intend to proceed with funding the £150 million national stations improvement programme to modernise approximately 150 medium-sized stations in England and Wales between 2009 and 2014. Similarly, we intend to proceed with the £370 million programme to improve access at stations in England, Scotland and Wales between 2006 and 2015.

The Minister will be aware that Selby railway station in my constituency does not have a passenger lift facility—its three platforms are currently connected by a wooden footbridge. What can the Minister tell my disabled or elderly constituents who are currently unable to use one of the platforms, thereby restricting their journeys somewhat, about the funding application for a passenger lift at the station?

Selby station dates from a time when mobility was considered differently—indeed, I think it was the first station opened in Yorkshire, although presumably another was opened at the same time for trains to arrive at. I appreciate that that can present barriers to access for disabled people. Selby has already benefited from around £36,000 of small schemes funding towards automatic doors, customer information systems and non-slip flooring. Although I cannot guarantee the outcome of a future application for funding, we will give fair and full consideration to any proposal to create level access to platforms 2 and 3.

Roads (Essex)

12. What recent representations he has received on future expenditure on roads in Essex; and if he will make a statement. (27894)

Is the Minister aware of the “Save Lives Not Time” petition in my constituency? It calls for improvements to the A120 between Braintree and Marks Tey, particularly in respect of the need to reduce speed on that road, which—as he may know—is described by the Road Safety Foundation as the 10th most dangerous single carriageway in England. My constituents would welcome a commitment from the Department to work with our local community to improve that road so that lives can be saved.

I know that part of the world very well, particularly the A12 and the A120, and I know how dangerous the section of road to which my hon. Friend refers is. The Department will work with the campaign that she is working hard to pursue. My officials are listening, so they will know that they are to work with Essex county council and other officials to make that road safer.

Sustainable Local Transport

Our commitment to sustainable local travel is evidenced by our decision to establish a £560 million local sustainable transport fund. We will shortly set out the criteria for bidding for the fund and will publish a White Paper next month setting out the policy initiatives that we will take forward in supporting local authorities in delivering sustainable local travel.

Like most cycle networks in the country, ours does not best meet the needs of our local centenarians. Our ageing population very much depends on buses. Given that the bus companies are asking for subsidies and that the local authority has no money, can the Government help?

I think the local sustainable transport fund helps directly. The hon. Gentleman made a connection between elderly people and cycling. When I was in Holland, I was interested to find out that 75% of journeys by pensionable persons were taken by bike, so we have some way to go in this country. The fund, which is designed to create growth and cut carbon, is well positioned to receive bids that will enhance cycling provision in Southend and elsewhere.

The Minister is aware that there is a proposal for a national trial for a tram-train in south Yorkshire, which would help to get people out of their cars and on to public transport. When I asked the Secretary of State last week about the status of that project, I believe that he said it was on his desk pending a decision. Can the Minister now enlighten the House on whether a decision has been taken to go ahead with that nationally important pilot project?

The details of that particular scheme are still being worked out, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that discussions on it have involved me, the Secretary of State and the Transport Minister, who has responsibility for rail. Enabling tram-train to go ahead could provide an important benefit to public transport. We want to get the details right, so no firm decision has yet been taken.

Low-emission Vehicles

Decarbonisation of motor transport is one of my key priorities. The recent spending review announced that the Government have made provision of over £400 million for measures to promote the uptake of ultra-low carbon vehicle technologies. These measures include support for consumer incentives, development of recharging infrastructure, and a programme of research and development work.

When does my right hon. Friend expect that it will be an economically rational decision for most people to buy a low-emission vehicle?

I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that with the benefit of the Government’s consumer incentive of up to £5,000 a vehicle, it will be an eminently rational decision for anyone to start purchasing an electric vehicle from next February, when they appear on the UK’s roads. The cost per kilometre of running an electric vehicle that is charged overnight with cheap-rate electricity will be between 1p and 3p, which compares favourably with the price of petrol.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. Is he aware of the application that the Department of the Environment and the Department for Regional Development in Northern Ireland have submitted to the Office for Low Emission Vehicles regarding the plugged-in places vehicle initiative, which would promote an infrastructure in Northern Ireland for electric vehicle charging? What is the status of the application, and may I request that he gives it his support?

We are evaluating the bids that we have received for the second round of the plugged-in places programme and an announcement will be made in the new year.

Bus Services

15. What recent assessment he has made of the effects of the outcomes of the comprehensive spending review in respect of the bus service operators grant on local bus services and fares. (27897)

We estimate that the 20% reduction in bus service operators grant from 2012-13 would lead to a potential increase in average fares of around 1.5%. However, the bus industry is hopeful that, in general, this reduction could be absorbed without fares having to rise.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has told people to get on the bus to look for work. What does the Minister say to my constituents in Kingswood and Bransholme, which are on the outskirts of Hull, who are looking for work, but are worried that the cuts that are being implemented will lead to a reduction in the less profitable bus services, as well as higher fares for people who are struggling already?

We want to see more people on buses but, as I have indicated, the reduction in BSOG is less than the average reduction in the Department’s revenue budget, which recognises the importance of the bus network. When I spoke to the industry following the spending review announcement, it indicated that the cut was so minimal that it hoped that it could absorb it without fares having to rise, which is what we hope will happen.

Train Overcrowding

An additional 650 carriages will be delivered to the rail network between 6 May 2010 and March 2014. In addition, about 600 new carriages for the Crossrail project and up to 1,200 new carriages for the Thameslink programme will be delivered between 2015 and 2019, releasing large amounts of rolling stock for redeployment on other lines to increase capacity.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. The growth in the northern economy over the past 10 to 15 years has heralded a significant rise in rail travel. Passenger growth in my region is set to rise further still, and that is particularly the case in constituencies such as mine that lie on or near the edge of major conurbations. In light of that, and following on from his response to the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), what assessment has he made of the benefits that the northern hub could bring to the northern economy by relieving overcrowding and putting in place faster and more frequent trains?

As I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), the northern hub is an interesting and potentially valuable project. Network Rail is evaluating the project, but until we have a proper engineering scheme with a cost attached, it is clearly impossible to carry out a robust cost-benefit analysis. Once we are in a position to produce that, we will be able to examine the scheme properly for prioritisation in the control period 5 investment programme.

Is the Secretary of State aware that—with the possible exception of today—trains from Brighton to Victoria are often very overcrowded?

Yes, of course I am. The Thameslink project will deliver relief on lines across London from north to south and to Brighton, and will hopefully relieve part of the problem on the Brighton-Victoria line to which my hon. Friend refers.

Does the Secretary of State agree that electrifying the Great Western main line would be one way of increasing capacity, especially in south Wales?

I do not believe that electrification will deliver increased capacity; there is capacity on the main line now. I told the House last week that we will work with the Welsh Assembly Government to build and validate the business case for electrification of the Great Western main line into south Wales. I spoke to the Deputy First Minister late last week, and such work between officials in the two Governments is now ongoing.

Will the Minister undertake a review of overcrowding and value for money in general on commuter trains run by Southeastern to Orpington, which, uniquely in the country, has been saddled with a retail prices index regime of RPI plus 3 over recent years?

The faster rate of fare increases on Southeastern is, as my hon. Friend knows, related to the introduction of the high-speed Javelin trains, which have managed to continue running very effectively during the current period of weather disruption. We are reviewing value for money on the rail network as a whole. Sir Roy McNulty is conducting that review, and I will publish his interim findings shortly, and a final report in April next year.

Topical Questions

Since I last answered Transport Questions, I have confirmed that Thameslink will go ahead in its entirety and announced £900 million-worth of rail electrification projects and 2,100 new rail carriages. I have also announced the sale of a 30-year concession on High Speed 1 for £2.1 billion.

Since the last Transport questions, I have corrected the Minister with responsibility for roads: there have been 27 collisions at Elkesley on the A1 in the past five years. When will the Minister press the button to start this scheme, which is designed and ready to go, so that we can save lives by building the bridge at Elkesley?

The hon. Gentleman knows that road schemes are evaluated on a cost-benefit basis. Accident figures are one of the factors taken into account and built into the analysis, but we will always look at the cost-benefit analysis—the overall benefits that the scheme will bring, compared with the costs—and all schemes have to be looked at fairly and objectively in the light of the limited funding available.

T2. Prodrive is one of the most cutting-edge and significant companies in my constituency. It does excellent work on automotive engineering, including producing a new generation of Mini rally car. What are the Government going to do to make it easier for rallying to take place on roads in the UK? (27873)

Legislation dating from the 1930s restricts rallying, time trials and races on highways in the UK. An Act of Parliament would be required to change that. We are looking to deregulate the position so that if local authorities want to hold rallies, time trials or races, they should be allowed to do so.

The winter resilience review commissioned by the previous Government has produced its final report and recommendations, yet the country is in chaos, with passengers forced to sleep at stations, freezing all night on broken-down trains or getting trapped in their cars, all at a cost to the economy of up to £1.2 billion a day. Why are not the findings of the review being implemented? The public do not want the Secretary of State to announce another review by the person who has already set out the blueprint for improvements. They want him to get on and implement the recommendations and improvements. When is the Secretary of State going to get a grip?

First of all, the hon. Lady fails to recognise the scale of the weather event that is occurring. It involves a significantly bigger snowfall than the one that occurred earlier this year, which gave rise to the events that caused my predecessor to commission the review. The findings and recommendations of the review have been implemented, and I have asked David Quarmby to come back and audit their implementation so that we can see the extent to which they have been consistently implemented and whether there are any lessons that we can learn from the last few days. I hope that the hon. Lady will support that approach.

T4. Thousands of my Harlow commuters have been braving the weather to travel on the Harlow to London rail line. They have suffered a 30% increase in train overcrowding in recent years. Will the Minister look at the economic benefits of upgrading the West Anglia main line? (27875)

As my hon. Friend will know, 176 additional carriages are due to be delivered to the Greater Anglia franchise next year. That will assist with overcrowding overall. In regard to the upgrading of the line, I have said in response to other questions today that we are prepared to look at proposals for further network enhancements as possible investments for control period 5, which begins in 2014.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the answer given just a few minutes ago by the road safety Minister is probably the worst answer I have heard in this House in 31 years? Professor Richard Allsop, an acknowledged world expert on transport safety, says that 800 people will die because of the Government’s policy on speed cameras. Is the Secretary of State going to just sit there and let that happen?

No, and I completely reject the analysis. As the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), has said, speed cameras are useful additions to the road safety armoury in some locations. It is for local authorities to decide whether they wish to continue with speed camera operation. I hope that they will act responsibly and carefully in making those decisions.

T5. The Secretary of State is right to consider the introduction of automatic number plate recognition technology at the Dartford crossing to ease congestion. Given that the crossing makes some £45 million a year, would it not be better to consider the effect of how the new technology improves congestion before increasing toll charges to help fund a new crossing? (27877)

My hon. Friend has campaigning for many years to get the tolls removed from the Dartford river crossing, but we need the investment not only for vehicle recognition, so that we can have free flow coming through and the realignment of the road, but for the preliminary work for the new crossing.

In the Secretary of State’s response to the resilience review, he stated that he was dissatisfied with previous performance and the level of disruption and that it would be sorted in time for this winter. What went wrong? His response just now was not good enough. It is not good enough just to say that there has been a bit extra snow.

Let me make this clear: when we have extremely heavy snow and extremely low temperatures, there will be disruption to the transport system. The question is not about whether there is disruption. The question we now have to ask is whether anything could or should have been done that was not done. If there is anything, we will learn the lessons from that.

In the events earlier this year, the problem was that local authorities and the Highways Agency had inadequate supplies of salt and grit. We have more than adequate supplies of salt and grit and we have new equipment out on the strategic road network. Six runs per day across the strategic road network have been going on over the past 48 hours. The strategic road network, with one or two specific exceptions, is open and operating today.

T7. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House when he will be able to give further details on any impact the extension of High Speed 2 to Manchester will have on existing rail services, including those from Manchester to Euston, which make an important stop at Macclesfield? (27879)

My hon. Friend is right to observe that the introduction of HS 2 services in 2025 will of course change the nature of operations on the west coast main line. It will create additional capacity on that line and provide the opportunity for more trains that stop at more places, which is one of the demands that we regularly receive, and it will also create the opportunity for more freight paths and thus more transfer of freight from road to rail. The precise detail of service patterns will have to be decided when the franchise for west coast main line post-2025 is let.

Instead of all these reviews about the weather, why does not the Secretary of State get on the phone to the Tory councils in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and tell them to get the gritters out?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that gritters on the strategic road network, which are operated by the Highways Agency, have been out and have been carrying out the planned number of gritting runs.

The hon. Gentleman says he is talking about villages. One thing I have asked David Quarmby to do is to consider the response of local authorities, whether they have uniformly implemented the recommendations in his review, which reported earlier this year, and what lessons have to be learned. I shall make public David Quarmby’s findings, which we expect to receive in a couple of weeks’ time.

May I urge the Secretary of State to ignore today’s report from the Select Committee on Transport on the North review in the same way as the report ignored conclusive evidence that reducing the drink-drive limit would save lives? Instead, will he bring forward proposals to reduce the drink-drive limit from 80 mg to 50 mg?

I have not seen the conclusive evidence that the hon. Gentleman speaks of, but I have seen various opinions in this area. I have not yet read the Transport Committee’s report but I have to say to him that I am a little surprised to hear him, as a member of that Committee, urging me to ignore its report and findings. Part of our democratic process is to have our debates in the Committees and to get behind their findings and reports when they are published.

Can the Secretary of State update the House on progress following the consultation on the safety at street works and road works code of practice? More than 500,000 people are working on the highways unprotected, and we need new legislation to be able to get new jobs, which could be based in areas outside the south-east.

I am happy to say that we are having discussions in the Department with relevant bodies outside, including the roadworks community, to work out how best to go forward and ensure that we get the balance right between improved safety, where that is appropriate, and not loading inappropriate costs on business.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Female Company Directors

I offer the apologies of the Minister for Women and Equalities to you, Mr Speaker, and to the House. She cannot attend questions today as she is in Brussels for a meeting of the European Union’s Justice and Home Affairs Council. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), who is responsible for disabled people, and I will endeavour to field questions.

Lord Davies has been appointed to consider how obstacles can be removed to allow more women to make it to the boardroom, and we will respond to his recommendations in due course. Measures that we are taking on positive action, flexible working and parental leave will also help address some of the barriers to progression that women face in the workplace.

Having worked with my wife, my mother and my sister at board level, I am only too aware of the value that female directors bring to a company. What steps will my hon. Friend take to redress the balance of company boards tending to be predominantly male?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Diverse organisations that reflect their customers offer better products and services as a result. In addition to appointing Lord Davies and implementing positive action, we are working with partners to encourage greater gender pay transparency. As I announced this morning, we will work with business to arrange for companies of 150 staff—not 250, as under the previous Government—to publish information that will allow people to understand their progression in the workplace.

I welcome the Government’s strategy to increase the number of women on the boards of companies. Will the Minister seriously consider international best practice, such as that of Norway, and introduce a quota?

The Government have no intention of introducing legislation permitting quotas, but we will listen to what Lord Davies says when he comes back with his recommendations and respond then.

Evidence suggests that companies with a strong female representation at board and top management level perform better than companies without. Does my hon. Friend agree that gender diversity allows companies to understand much better the needs of their customers?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. One would think that looking at the success of companies with diversity on their boards, and at the increase in their bottom-line profits, would be persuasion enough, but apparently there is much more to do.

Equality and Human Rights Commission

2. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on reform of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. (27901)

5. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on reform of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. (27904)

I discussed the reform of the Equality and Human Rights Commission with ministerial colleagues only yesterday. We want to focus on its core regulatory and human rights functions and improve its value for taxpayers’ money, and we intend to consult on our proposals early next year.

Will the Minister say why she believes a voluntary regime for the reporting of equality data will be sufficient to eliminate the persistent gender pay gap that the EHRC identified in its latest triennial review?

It will most certainly help. The voluntary approach, as introduced by Labour in the Equality Act 2010, is a very good mechanism. However, Government must not dictate to business. Business, the voluntary sector and all participants must come forward to publish details, and we will work with partners to ensure that voluntary publishing goes forward. We expect that it will, but we will not commence, amend or repeal section 78 of the Act, so the stick remains.

This is an opportunity for the EHRC to focus on its core functions. Unfortunately, when it was originally conceived and set up the previous Government seemed to lump together the previous three commissions with no real direction, no analysis of the skills that were needed and no focus. The EHRC has to become a respected national institution that focuses on its core functions, which are to ensure that people understand equalities discrimination and encourage them to use equalities legislation, and to hold to account those who do not.

One of the EHRC’s roles is to nudge us towards a more equal society, so will the Minister say what she is doing to encourage more women apprentices, as they make up only 1% of those in manufacturing industry?

I will confer with the EHRC, as the hon. Lady said that this was about it nudging people. We are working with the science, engineering and technology sectors, and with all trades, to improve that representation level, as 1% is not acceptable.

When the EHRC was established, with Liberal Democrat support, one of its key roles was to work proactively, through positive duties and working with organisations to ensure equality, so that cases of discrimination did not arise. In wishing to focus more on regulatory functions, is the hon. Lady not in danger of moving towards a situation where we only punish those who have committed acts of discrimination, rather than having a much more positive approach, as was previously supported?

No, it is a regulatory function to carry out the first of those core duties, which is to ensure that everyone in the voluntary sector and the workplace understands what equality legislation means to them and then to encourage them to use it. So we are taking a very positive approach. We hope that the end that is the enforcement arm of the regulator will never have to be used.

What recent representations has the Minister received from the EHRC about the disparity in tariffs for different types of hate crime? Disability hate crimes uniformly attract a lower tariff than hate crimes motivated by issues of sex or race.

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is right to say that certain forms of hate crime do not have the same aggravated status as others. That is being reviewed as we speak by the Ministry of Justice.

Reform of the EHRC must not be carried out because the Government are running scared of the action that the EHRC is rightly taking against the Government on the spending review. The House of Commons Library has now assessed the tax and benefit measures in the spending review and previous Budgets, and its figures show that Labour’s last two Budgets gave more help to women, whereas the spending review and the emergency Budget after the election are hitting women more than twice as hard as men. When women still earn less and own less than men, why have the Government decided that women should pay more?

The right hon. Lady has raised this issue before, and she rightly says that the EHRC is doing what it is meant to do as an independent body. It is currently on the information trail, asking for information appertaining to the comprehensive spending review. All Departments are assessing the impact on equality and this Government have acted to protect the lowest-paid public sector workers, most of whom are women, from the public sector pay freeze. We have taken the lowest earners—800,000 people, most of whom are women—out of taxation. This Government have acted to protect women.

Historical Convictions

3. If she will bring forward legislative proposals to amend the requirements for the disclosure of historical convictions for consensual homosexual intercourse for the purposes of preventing discrimination. (27902)

As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities said in her equalities speech last week, the rights and freedoms Bill will include provisions to ensure that those who were prosecuted for consensual gay sex with over-16s at a time when that was illegal may apply to have their conviction deleted from police records. As a result, they will no longer be required to disclose their conviction in any circumstances.

Does the Minister agree that one of the benefits of the change is that men with such convictions who have not previously volunteered for charities or other organisations will now be able to do so, as they will no longer have to make the disclosure in their Criminal Records Bureau checks?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is totally unfair and unjust that men who have a conviction for something that has long not been illegal should have to fear that being exposed—and exposed to partners they live with, who may not know. Such men will never again have to disclose that information. I hope very much that those gay men whom that has inhibited from volunteering will now find that inhibition removed.

Disabled People (Elections)

4. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that disabled people are able to participate in elections and referendums. (27903)

There are a number of provisions in legislation that support disabled electors to vote at elections and, by extension, referendums. In particular, local authorities have a statutory duty to carry out a full assessment of polling places at least every four years to ensure that, so far as is practical, all venues are accessible to electors who are disabled.

I am sure that the Minister would agree that there is still more that can be done—there are lots of things for a variety of disabilities—to ensure that practice is good in every aspect. In particular, will she look at clearing away the clutter of information on referendum ballot forms and election forms? That would mean that the information could be given in large-print form, as appropriate, and that the simplicity of the ballot form would be renewed.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point, because access to voting is important for everybody, and the Government are committed to ensuring that that is the case. There is significant legislation already in place to help that happen, and we will be ensuring that adequate formats are in place for all disabled people at the next referendum. In fact, we have consulted Scope on the form and design of the ballot paper to be used in the forthcoming voting referendum, so that both partially sighted people and people with learning disabilities will be able to participate.

Disabled people are still under-represented in this House and at other levels of elected office. When will the Government implement the commitment in the coalition agreement to introduce extra support for people with disabilities who want to stand for election?

As my hon. Friend says, we have made a commitment as part of our coalition document to support more disabled people who want to become MPs, councillors or elected officials. We are currently looking at the detail of how best to do that. We will put forward proposals shortly, drawing on the cross-party Speaker’s Conference evidence, which has been very useful.

Domestic Violence

On 25 November, we published the Government’s vision to end violence against women and girls. It covers a range of measures to support victims of domestic violence, such as 12-month pilots of domestic protection orders and £28 million of funding until 2015 to support specialist services, including local domestic violence advisers, national helplines and work to prevent forced marriage.

If people are arrested or convicted for speeding, or if they are caught drink-driving, they are required to attend rehabilitation training courses. I support go orders, which are a good step forward, but should there not be huge investment and a commitment to ensuring that those who are removed from their homes are also required to attend anger management courses? That is what is needed to prevent further episodes of domestic violence.

I thank the hon. Lady for that thoughtful contribution. I will certainly take it away and consider it.

The Minister will be aware of the Powys woman who has been imprisoned for retracting her rape complaint against her husband. This abused woman has been criminalised, imprisoned and separated from her children, while the man, who the authorities were satisfied had raped her and who they believed had perverted the course of justice, is free. That will terrify other rape complainants who have been abused by their partners. Such women already have to struggle for support to get out of their situation, but they can now see that asking for help may be more dangerous than staying to suffer. Will the hon. Lady institute an holistic inquiry into how such a debacle occurred, say whether her Government’s proposal to grant anonymity to men—and thus imply that woman who complain of rape are liars—is going ahead, and explain how they will secure no repetition of such a shameful case?

There is clearly an issue with women hesitating to come forward. This case and the publicity surrounding it might well have an effect on women. Obviously, I cannot comment on this case, but I am very aware of the need to encourage women to come forward if they have been the victims of rape. They should feel supported and listened to when they come forward. I will look into the case but I do not think it is my job to say today whether we will have an inquiry. However, I can inform the hon. Lady that the rape anonymity proposals have been dropped.

Comprehensive Spending Review

7. What assessment she has made of the likely effect on women of the outcome of the comprehensive spending review in the spending review period; and if she will make a statement. (27906)

The Government have published an overview of the impact of the CSR on groups who are protected by equality legislation—the first time this has been done. It shows that women make more use of public services than men. Many of the key services we are protecting, including health, social care and early-years education, will benefit women.

The figures on the impact of benefit and tax changes, including the measures that were referred to by the Minister for Equalities earlier, show that nearly two thirds of the savings on benefits and tax credits will be borne by women. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions states that services are more used by women, so what practical steps is she going to take to redress the situation, given the huge pay gap which has been mentioned today?

There are significant measures in the spending review that have clear benefits for women. We are protecting health care funding, extending early-years education, lifting 880,000 of the lowest-paid workers—the majority of whom are women—out of income tax, and increasing child tax credits for the poorest families. The majority of decisions about how Departments will live within their settlements are yet to be made and Departments will consider equalities impacts as they develop their plans. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities said earlier, the Treasury has, for the first time, reviewed the overall impact of the CSR—something that was never done under 13 years of Labour.