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Commons Chamber

Volume 519: debated on Thursday 2 December 2010

House of Commons

Thursday 2 December 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


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.


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.


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.

Winter Weather

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport to update the House on the Government’s response to the severe winter weather.

Last year, the country experienced the most prolonged period of cold weather for 30 years. Weather conditions meant that the cost to the economy and the disruption to the public was significant and unacceptable. The Government took urgent action during the summer so that the country would be in a more resilient position this winter. We have studied the recommendations in David Quarmby’s review of last winter’s transport disruption, which was established by my predecessor and which I published in October.

We have taken action to address the points raised in the review. Salt stocks are at a much higher level than at this time last year and a national strategic salt reserve now exists for the first time to support local authorities whose individual stocks run out. Some 250,000 tonnes of salt have been ordered for that reserve, which will be managed by the Highways Agency, and more than 100,000 tonnes are already in place. In addition, the Highways Agency has 225,000 tonnes of operational stock for use on its own strategic road network and at the end of November local authorities had approximately 1 million tonnes of salt stock. The Highways Agency has ordered a further 60,000 tonnes and Scotland has separately stockpiled 30,000 tonnes.

Recommendations were also made in the Quarmby report about the measures that local highway authorities needed to take to keep our road network moving in the event of snow and ice this winter. In the past few days, there has been unusually heavy and persistent snow, in much greater quantities than were experienced earlier this year, down much of the eastern side of the country. The great majority of the strategic transport network has been kept open this week, but road and rail services in the areas worst affected by snow have been seriously disrupted. Highways authorities are working to keep roads open, but delays have been caused by broken-down vehicles and minor accidents. It is clear that abandoned and broken-down vehicles preventing access for gritters and in some cases preventing access to highway depots were major factors in yesterday’s situation.

Most airports in England are keeping services running, but Gatwick has been directly affected by the worst of the snow conditions in England and remains closed today. One hundred thousand tonnes of snow have been cleared at Gatwick during the past 24 hours, and 80 full-time equivalent personnel and 47 snow-clearing machines are in operation at the airport. Many eastern rail services and Southern rail and Eurostar services have also suffered disruption and delay. Network Rail and train operators are working together to deliver as many services as possible. Night-time ghost trains have been run wherever possible, but build-up of ice on third rails across the Southeastern and Southern networks has led to loss of power and trains being stranded, causing severe delays and cancellations.

We are not alone; our northern European neighbours, and even Switzerland, are similarly affected—Geneva airport was closed for 36 hours. The Government fully recognise the frustration of the travelling public, and we are doing everything we can to keep Britain moving. Given that much of the country is being hit by severe weather unusually early this year, I have asked David Quarmby to conduct an urgent audit of highways authorities’ and transport operators’ performance in implementing the recommendations in his report, and to consider any further steps that might need to be taken.

I want to make it clear that I am asking David Quarmby to address the question not of whether we expect disruption when we have weather of such severity, but of whether there is anything that could or should have been done that has not been done. I expect to receive his report before the House rises for Christmas, and I will make a statement on his immediate findings at that time.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his response, but does not the fact that he has responded rather than the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who is in his place, show that the Government have no co-ordinated response to the problems created by the severe weather conditions? Will the Secretary of State tell the House who, if anyone, in Government is co-ordinating ministerial colleagues? As he said, the severe winter weather is creating huge problems: 1,500 schools are closed today, disrupting children’s education and preventing parents from getting to work; local authorities are reporting concerns about deliveries of grit; and ambulance services and hospitals are reporting cancellations of services. It is clear, therefore, that the problems are not confined to transport, but affect vulnerable people and the running of vital public services.

People were trapped in their cars, on trains and at isolated stations for many hours during the night, and many others are cut off in their homes, raising concerns about food deliveries and fuel supplies. Will the Secretary of State therefore tell us not just what he is doing, but what the Secretary of State for Education is doing on the schools situation, what the Secretary of State for Health is doing to keep hospitals running, and what the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is doing to ensure that local authorities have what they need? Finally, can the Transport Secretary tell us whether there are any plans to convene Cobra today to help co-ordinate the Government’s response to the severe winter weather? That certainly needs to happen.

The list of problems that the hon. Lady read out are overwhelmingly related to the difficulties in the transport system. There is a long-established principle that the Department with lead responsibility for the problem co-ordinates across Government, and the Department for Transport has taken the lead in responding to this situation so far.

The hon. Lady said that local authorities are having difficulty obtaining supplies of grit, but my Department has not been contacted by any local authority with such difficulties. We have more than 100,000 tonnes of grit available in the Highways Agency’s strategic stockpile ready to be made available to local authorities if they request it. The hon. Lady asked whether Cobra was planning to meet. The situation is being kept under continuous review, and if it is appropriate to convene a meeting of Cobra later today, that meeting will be convened.

Why was the A5 in the midlands partly closed? Will the Secretary of State please write to me about that? Does he recognise that the A5 is a national highway? This is not a county matter.

Most of the strategic road network across the country has been kept open, and most of it is open today. Some strategic roads have been closed, particularly on higher ground, either because of exceptionally heavy and drifting snow or because they have been blocked by accidents or abandoned vehicles. Individual decisions will have been made by the Highways Agency or, in some cases, by the police. I will write to my hon. Friend and tell him precisely the reason for the A5 closure.

I am afraid that the Secretary of State is demonstrating a remarkable—indeed, breathtaking—degree of complacency. Unfortunately, he is not filling the House with any confidence that he is dealing with his responsibilities adequately. He may recall that, on the publication of the interim report on winter resilience in July, he said:

“For two winters in a row, severe weather has caused significant disruption for transport in this country. The cost to the economy and the disruption to the public has been significant, and there has been a level of dissatisfaction and confusion about the response by Government at both local and national level. This is unacceptable and must be resolved before the next winter season.”—[Official Report, 26 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 72WS.]

Is he really arguing that it has now been resolved?

Earlier today, during Transport questions, the Secretary of State said not only that the final and interim reports on winter resilience had been studied and not only that action had been taken—which he has just said again—but that the reports’ recommendations had been implemented. He appeared to row back from that statement in his response to the urgent question. Will he make clear in what way the 17 recommendations in the interim report and the 11 further recommendations in the final report have been implemented? Has the salt cell been activated, and, if not, can he tell us why not? Have the 250,000 tonnes of salt actually been stockpiled? The Secretary of State said that the salt had been ordered, and then said that there were 100,000 tonnes in the stockpile. The report which he told us earlier had been implemented called for a stockpile of 250,000 tonnes. Can he make the position a bit clearer?

This winter weather was forecast well in advance. It is not as if it suddenly came on us. The Met Office gave us plenty of warning. Does the Secretary of State believe that a grit audit is an adequate response from the Government to the current suffering of motorists forced to sleep freezing in their cars, of train passengers dropped off at stations with no way of being rescued, and of half the population who struggled to get to work and had to turn up late yesterday? Does he believe that the complacent attitude that he has demonstrated today is anywhere near good enough from people who purport to be the Government of this nation?

Order. I know that the Secretary of State always attempts to respond very comprehensively, but may I appeal to him to do so briefly as well? These are principally Back-Bench occasions; many Members wish to contribute, and brevity is the order of the day.

I shall attempt to be brief, Mr Speaker, but the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) asked me a good many questions.

I can assure the hon. Lady that there is no complacency whatsoever. I recognise the absolute frustration and, indeed, anger of many people who have been stranded and had their journeys and their lives disrupted over the past 48 hours. Let me repeat, however, that the question is not whether a foot of snow and double-digit negative temperatures create disruption. They will create disruption; they will always create disruption. The question is whether we should or could have done anything differently, and that is what I have asked David Quarmby to consider. As soon as we have the answers to all the very sensible questions asked by the hon. Lady, I will report back to the House.

When it comes to trains and buses, passengers find the weather frustrating, but even more frustrating is often the complete lack of information while they are standing on a cold platform or waiting at a draughty bus stop. What can the Secretary of State do to make sure that senior executives in those largely private companies ensure that information gets to the customers as speedily as possible?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A major part of the problem that we experienced yesterday was lack of information flow. Some train operators have already supplied BlackBerrys to on-train crews so that they can be given real-time updates to advise passengers of what is going on. We must take that process further. The least we ought to be able to do for passengers if they find their journeys disrupted is to give them accurate information about what is going on.

The Secretary of State called for a review, but what is he doing to ensure that he can get up-to-date information enabling him to act with urgency? What is the role of regional Government offices in working with local authorities to give him a full and up-to-date picture of what is going on?

To be clear, I have asked David Quarmby to audit the implementation of the measures that he recommended in his report. Those were not simply about grit. There are recommendations covering a range of areas and modes of transport. We are getting information—not quite in real time, but by 9 o’clock this morning we had a full situation report on rail services and the condition of the strategic road network across the country. The information about what is happening on individual local authorities’ roads is a little more patchy. That issue needs looking at, because the condition of local authority roads can have a knock-on effect on the condition of the strategic road network.

Does the Secretary of State agree that in a country with a generally temperate climate, such things will happen from time to time, that it would be disproportionate to spend too much money preventing them, and that even this Government cannot control the weather?

My hon. Friend is of course right. The Highways Agency has invested more than £100 million in new equipment for dealing with snow on the strategic highway network, as well as building a large strategic reserve of salt and grit. As I said earlier, clearly the question is not whether we can eliminate disruption when we get such snowfall in the UK. There will always be disruption. The question is whether there are sensible and proportionate measures that we could and should take which will minimise that disruption.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), may I turn the Minister’s attention to the airports? The airports in the south-east are closed today, yet the public are given no information about the alternatives. The airport authorities knew a week ago that the present weather conditions would happen. Why are we in such a situation in the south-east of England?

The hon. Gentleman says that the airports in the south of England are closed, but as of a few minutes ago, when I came into the Chamber, that was not my information. My information was that Gatwick was closed, but Heathrow was operating, albeit with delays. The problem, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is that airports have to operate with a primary focus on safety, and when heavy snow is falling it is not possible to operate the runways safely. I gave the figures earlier for the amount of clearance that occurred at Gatwick yesterday. Vast amounts of snow were moved off the runways and taxiways, but the airport is still not able to operate. If there is any measure that could or should have been taken over the past few days that would have kept Gatwick airport open, that is what we need to focus on, but even Geneva airport has been closed this week.

All train services into my constituency are currently cancelled. Bearing in mind that the same routes serve the strategically important port of Immingham, through which much of the country’s coal is imported for power stations, can the Secretary of State assure me that improvements will be made to the services?

I cannot give my hon. Friend any immediate assurance that improvements will be possible on that line. I understand that the problem in that case is drifting snow, and it will take some time to clear the line and reopen it. I can tell him and the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has told me that he is confident that coal supplies are adequate and that we need see no interruptions to power supplies as a result of the present cold snap.

May I please have some clarification from the Secretary of State? He said earlier that 100,000 tonnes of salt are available in the strategic supply, yet the review recommended that 250,000 tonnes should be in place by the start of the winter season. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he has not fulfilled that recommendation?

That is one of the questions that the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) asked from the Front Bench. Let me give the exact figures. Local authorities have just under 1 million tonnes of stock for their own use. The Highways Agency has 225,000 tonnes of stock for its own use, and in addition it has ordered 250,000 tonnes for a strategic stockpile, of which 107,000 tonnes have been delivered. The remainder is expected to be delivered over the next six weeks. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood says that we have not met the target. It was never intended that the 250,000 tonnes would be used up in the first week of winter. It is going to be perfectly satisfactory to have the 250,000 tonnes delivered progressively during the course of December and into early January. Much of the salt is imported by sea from very distant locations, and we expect to have it all on the ground by early January.

My right hon. Friend will have noted that the tube system is working relatively well today, but he will also have seen that on Monday there was strike action on what was a very cold day, which caused massive disruption. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning those who look to pile on the misery by announcing three-day tube strikes, and those like Ken Livingstone who seek to support these strikes?

Unlike the Leader of the Opposition, I do believe there is such a thing as an irresponsible strike.

When the right hon. Gentleman speaks to Mr Quarmby, will he make sure that his review looks not only at strategic routes but at the gritting of local and side roads? Last winter, many of my constituents were trapped in their homes. They were told that that was because the emphasis was on main routes. If they live on hills, for instance, they cannot get out of their homes. Local roads and side roads—and pavements as well—are just as important as some of the big strategic routes.

I wonder about the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to localism. David Quarmby will be looking at the performance of local authorities, but it is for local authorities to decide on their gritting plan, and most local authorities will not choose to grit every residential side road and every footway. That is a decision for them, and it is for local communities to hold local authorities to account for those decisions. Our job is to make sure that local authorities are doing what they are committed to do on the strategic road network.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating all those who, despite the weather, have battled into work to keep our public services open and to negate the effect that this sort of weather can have on our economy?

I will indeed. It is very tempting at 6.30 am to look out of the window and decide to turn over and forget about it, so those who have battled with the elements and the disruption on the transport system to keep our public services going should be congratulated.

How much of the Highways Agency budget has been, and will be, spent on procuring salt, grit and potash from British suppliers such as Boulby potash mine in my constituency, as opposed to overseas suppliers which the Secretary of State mentioned earlier?

The point I think the hon. Gentleman is trying to make is simply not valid. The problem last year was that domestic suppliers could not keep up with demand. Local authorities ran down their stocks, in some cases to nil, and during the summer they needed to rebuild those stocks. To have had the Highways Agency trying to build a strategic stockpile in competition with them would have been deeply unhelpful. We took the decision to import the large part of the strategic stockpile, even though that means paying very considerably higher prices, so that local authorities could restock and the strategic stockpile could be built in parallel.

Will the Secretary of State talk to his departmental colleagues, and also to the Prime Minister, about emphasising to people the importance of checking on their neighbours? I acknowledge the work that has been done on ensuring that there is grit, and we have learned the lessons of last winter, but it is essential that we do not forget our communities locally.

My hon. Friend reminds the House of a very important message. We have talked about people struggling to get to work and wrestling with the transport network, but many people, often the elderly, are stuck in their homes and they may be getting into difficulty—they may be unable to shop, for instance. It is very important that we keep delivering the message that those who are able to get out should check on their neighbours and see if there is anything they can do to help.

The Secretary of State said in his statement that the Department for Transport was taking the lead among Departments, yet in that statement there was not one word about what he or any of his Ministers are doing about this crisis. Is not the reality that he is asleep on the job, and when is he going to get a grip?

The reality is that the problem on the ground is essentially transport-focused at this stage. Problems in other areas such as the health service are directly related to transport issues, so the Department for Transport has to take the lead. That is what we are doing. We are regularly meeting and communicating with the Highways Agency, train operators and airport operators to monitor the situation; we are doing so on an hourly basis. If it is necessary to convene a meeting of Cobra later today, we will do so.

Is it not right that we congratulate and encourage those people who are currently hard at work up and down the country clearing snow, and is it not also right that good neighbours should be encouraged to clear pavements outside their own homes?

On my hon. Friend’s last point, I remind the House that the Government published a code of practice on snow clearing on pavements. Members will remember that during the similar events of last winter earlier this year there was some suggestion that individuals were wary of clearing snow from pavements for fear that accidents caused on that stretch of pavement might lead to legal action. I hope we have dealt with that issue.

On the topic of getting a grip, has the Secretary of State heard anything from local authorities about neighbourhood gritting barns having been filled this year because of the terrible winter we had last year?

That is, of course, a matter for local authorities. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that one of the big problems with strategically placed roadside bins is that the grit local authorities put in them is often removed without authorisation by people wanting to use it on their private properties. That has been a persistent problem for local authorities.

The Secretary of State may have heard the report on the “Today” programme about the dozens of lorry drivers who have spent two nights in the Methodist hall in South Anston in my constituency. The road they are stranded on is the A57. That section of it is a major link road between the A1 and the M1 in south Yorkshire. Can the Transport Secretary urgently find out why it has been allowed to get into a state of such chaos?

I will check specifically on the situation on the A57 and write to the right hon. Gentleman later today, but I can tell him that generally across the strategic road network, where major problems have occurred the cause has been jack-knifed, broken-down or abandoned vehicles blocking the road so that gritters and snow ploughs cannot get through. In some cases, the problem has been exacerbated by lorry drivers driving in an uncleared third lane of the motorway, often leading to accidents and jack-knifings.

Many of my constituents in Walthamstow experienced severe difficulties getting into work during last winter’s snow, and I do not share the confidence in the tube system of the hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), because I experienced problems this morning. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Mayor of London about how to keep the capital city moving?

The Highways Agency and the rail directorate within the Department for Transport are in constant contact with Transport for London. TfL has responsibility for strategic roads in London and needs to operate continuously in conjunction with the Highways Agency. My understanding is that the service on the tube network has been pretty good over the last two days. There may be isolated incidents such as that to which the hon. Lady has referred, but on the whole the service has been good.

The Secretary of State really must get a grip on this situation. For my constituents, Southeastern Trains provides the main route into London as we do not have access to the London underground. We have no trains running on the service through Eltham this morning, yet people are standing on the platforms and the station concourse because they do not know what is going on. What is the Secretary of State doing to make sure that train operating companies are giving up-to-date information to people who might mistakenly be standing on cold platforms waiting for trains that are never going to turn up?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the lack of information is inexcusable. The Office of Rail Regulation said this morning that it will have its inspectors out on the Southeastern and Southern networks, looking at the information that is being provided and making sure that operators are meeting their obligations under their franchise contracts, and if they are not they will be dealt with according to the provisions in those franchise contracts.

Abandoned cars and accidents add to the chaos. I understand that once the temperature goes below minus 7°, the tyres that we use on our cars are no longer appropriate and safe. Is the Secretary of State having discussions with car manufacturers and automobile organisations about encouraging people to change over to winter tyres, as they do on the continent?

We have looked at the issue, and in fact David Quarmby addressed it. The use of winter tyres—snow tyres or even studded tyres—and snow chains is appropriate where people drive for long periods through the winter on compacted snow; it is not appropriate in the situation, as in the UK, where snow is on the ground for relatively short periods. Winter tyres wear out very quickly on normal road surfaces and cause significant damage to those surfaces, so they would not be appropriate in the UK situation.

Order. There is heavy pressure on time, so we must now move on to business questions, in the use of which, of course, the ingenuity of colleagues is legendary.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 6 December will include:

Monday 6 December—Opposition Day [8th allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled “The Unfair Distribution and Impact of Cuts to Local Government Funding”.

Tuesday 7 December—Second Reading of the European Union Bill.

Wednesday 8 December—Estimates Day [1st allotted day]. There will be a debate on police funding for 2011-12 and the Department for International Development’s assistance to Zimbabwe. Further details for the second of these debates will be given in the Official Report.

[The information is as follows: Department for International Development’s assistance to Zimbabwe (8th Report from the International Development Committee of Session 2009-10, HC 252); Government Response—Cmd 7899.]

At 7 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Thursday 9 December—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill, followed by a motion to approve resolution on increasing the higher amount which is to be applied under the Higher Education Act 2004, and a motion relating to the draft Higher Education (Basic Amount) (England) Regulations.

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

Monday 13 December—Second Reading of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill.

Tuesday 14 December—Consideration of Lords Amendments, followed by remaining stages of the Terrorist-Asset Freezing Bill [Lords], followed by consideration of Lords Amendments.

Wednesday 15 December—Second Reading of a Bill.

Thursday 16 December—Motion relating to park homes, followed by a general debate to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 16 December will be:

Thursday 16 December—A debate on drugs policy.

I thank the Leader of the House for his answer. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why the programme motion on the European Union Bill published today plans to give the House only four days for Committee consideration and remaining stages? It is a major constitutional Bill, and the time proposed is wholly inadequate, especially when compared with other recent European Bills. I am sure that many Government Members share our view, so will the Leader think again?

On the plan almost to treble tuition fees, we have just had it confirmed that the vote will be next week, so when will we see the text of the proposals? Of course, the question that everybody wants to ask is, how will Liberal Democrat MPs vote?

That brings me to the Deputy Prime Minister, who has continued to hawk his guilty conscience around the television studios. I must tell you, Mr Speaker, that I have not checked overnight to see whether he has given an interview to Kazakhstan state television, but last week he suggested that, after carefully considering all the arguments and weighing up the pros and cons of the proposals, the outcome might well be that Liberal Democrat MPs decide, in a show of resolute unity, to abstain—in other words, to sit on the fence, the traditional resting place throughout the ages of Liberal Democrats faced with a difficult decision.

What a stroke of genius! Why did the Deputy Prime Minister not make a statement to confirm that earlier in the week when he had the chance? Think of the plaudits he would have won from students throughout the country for making a pledge of principled abstention; think of the difficulties he would have avoided; think of the money that would have been saved on all those plane fares to Kazakhstan and back—because the Deputy Prime Minister had to be hustled out of the country to be protected from being asked over and over again, “How are you going to vote?” It is going to be a very expensive betrayal all round.

When the Leader of the House gets on the phone to Astana, will he also ask the Deputy Prime Minister to explain why back in the summer he told the House that an £80 million loan to Sheffield Forgemasters was completely unaffordable, whereas now we are told that a loan of several billion pounds to the Irish banks is affordable? May we have a statement clearing up that minor contradiction?

Last week, the Prime Minister, during his doomed attempt to defend the cuts in school sport partnerships, told us to trust the judgment of head teachers. So, what about the judgment of 60 head teachers from throughout England who, in a letter, describe the decision to scrap the scheme with no consultation as “ignorant”, “destructive”, “contradictory”, “self-defeating” and “unjustified”? I think we could say that they are pretty unhappy, so does the Leader of the House have any news for us about an apology from the Prime Minister for having disgracefully attacked the partnerships and called them a failure? When will the Prime Minister make a statement about the U-turn on which he is clearly now working, much to the discomfort of his hapless Education Secretary?

When the Prime Minister comes to the House, will he explain another U-turn that he has made? Before the election, he said that any Minister who came to him with proposals for cuts in front-line services would be “sent packing”. Yet, that is exactly what we now see, with cuts in front-line policing from the Home Secretary, cuts in school sport from the Education Secretary and cuts to local services from the Communities and Local Government Secretary. When can we expect the Prime Minister to live up to his word, or is it just the promises that he casually made that have been sent on their way?

Finally, talking of sending people packing, and following Lord Young’s unhappy experience, I note that last week the Prime Minister was forced to denounce Mr Howard Flight, even before the ermine had touched his shoulders. May we have a statement from the Prime Minister on the criteria he uses for appointing, first, advisers and, secondly, peers? Given the rate at which they are saying things that are unacceptable, he does not seem to be exercising very good judgment.

May I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on that performance, which was far more impressive than the Leader of the Opposition’s yesterday? Given the impeccable Labour pedigree of the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), may I say that he is the only Opposition Member who can say with pride that he is a son not of Gordon, but of Tony?

Turning to the questions that the right hon. Gentleman poses, I have to say that four days on the Floor of the House is a generous allocation of time for the Bill to which he refers, so long as the House uses it intelligently and does not resort to the sort of tactics that we saw during previous constitutional Bills, parts of which were taken on the Floor of the House.

Turning to the right hon. Gentleman’s second question on higher education, I have to say that he is in no position at all to talk about unity. Yesterday, in an article in the Evening Standard, the Leader of the Opposition reiterated his long-term policy aim, saying that he wanted a “fairer graduate tax system.” Here is what the shadow Chancellor thinks about that:

“We had the argument about the graduate tax. I just cannot understand why going back there is anything other than a kind of sop to the left.”

And the former Transport Secretary said of the same policy:

“The trouble is, it can’t be done”.

On the specific question that the right hon. Member for Leeds Central poses, we expect to table the motion for the higher cap in the next day or two, and in good time for the debate. The statutory instrument relating to raising the lower cap has already been laid and is on page 1928 of the Order Paper.

We have debated the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters on several occasions, and when we introduce the legislation the House will have an opportunity to debate the loan to Ireland.

There was an apology on school sports, and it came from the shadow Education Secretary about the policy that he bequeathed us. In the debate on Tuesday, he said:

“I am not arguing that it is perfect. Of course it could probably be made more efficient”.—[Official Report, 30 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 709.]

That is exactly what the Government are doing. We are delivering school sports differently from the previous Government, not pursuing their centralised PE and sport strategy. We will redeploy resources and people to put a new emphasis on competitive sport.

Neither the right hon. Gentleman nor any other Opposition Member will have any credibility whatsoever until they tell the House and the country how they would have delivered the cuts they had pencilled in before the election. They have totally failed to fill in the blanks ever since.

Finally, on peers, I am sure that my noble Friend-to-be, Lord Flight, will make a useful contribution in the other place. Given time, I could do some research and find out what contributions have been made by Members appointed to the other place by the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) of comparable value to those of Howard Flight.

Order. Given the level of interest and the pressure on time, I appeal to colleagues to ask single, short questions and to the Leader of the House to offer his characteristically succinct replies.

I always used to think that my right hon. Friend was a progressive, but I am beginning to have my doubts. Is he aware that as long ago as 2008, this House was promised a debate in Government time on the electronic petitioning of Parliament? It is now nearly 2011 and we are still waiting. When, oh when, can we debate e-petitions?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and to the Procedure Committee for their work on electronic petitions. He will know that there is a commitment in the coalition agreement to take the issue forward. I hope that my office will be in touch with his Select Committee shortly to indicate how we plan to bridge the gap between House and country by taking forward the agenda of petitions. The commitment is that when a petition reaches 100,000, it will become eligible for a debate in this House. I am anxious to make progress on that agenda.

Following on from the point of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight) on e-petitions, will the Leader of the House confirm that the Prime Minister is cancelling his No. 10 Downing street e-petitions site? If so, will he take heed of the right hon. Gentleman’s advice and speed up the process of holding that debate in the House?

The hon. Gentleman is right that the No. 10 e-petitions site has been taken down, but we envisage carrying forward the ability to petition on the Directgov site.

May we have a debate in Government time on equality of opportunity in public expenditure? This week, the Welsh Assembly announced that no Welsh student would pay increased tuition fees. Why is that policy and facility not open to my constituents’ children, given that English taxpayers are largely financing such Welsh largesse?

I understand the aggravation expressed by my hon. Friend’s constituents, but the situation he describes is a logical outcome of the policy of devolution, and of giving the Assembly of Wales and the Parliament in Scotland autonomy over issues that were previously reserved to this House.

Is the Leader of the House aware that the Backbench Business Committee is conducting an experiment with the pre-Christmas recess Adjournment debate on 21 December? It is doing so in response to the frustration expressed by many Back Benchers, who would like a substantive response to the many issues that they raise in such debates. Will he join me in encouraging hon. Members to apply to the Table Office for the new 10-minute departmental slots by the deadline of 3 pm on Monday 13 December? That will enable the Committee to create departmental groupings so that hon. Members, not least the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess), will receive a ministerial response to the many and varied issues they raise.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her public service announcement. She is right to draw attention to the different regime, which is on the Order Paper, proposed for the pre-Christmas Adjournment debate. That will pose an intellectual challenge to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess), who manages to raise about 30 subjects in a five-minute speech, because he will have to choose one of them. As always, I welcome the way in which the Backbench Business Committee is using the space it has to develop new ways of tackling issues and to provide the House with fresh opportunities to debate matters. I am sure that hon. Members will respond to her invitation to put in for subjects.

Many people would find it an unappealing prospect to spend an evening in the hot shopping environment of Hamley’s, heaving with excitable children and their stressed parents in the Christmas rush. It is certainly no place for Arctic animals, but, shockingly, Hamley’s has advertised in-store displays of live reindeer and penguins. May we have a debate on how animal welfare should be for life, and not forgotten at Christmas?

Having spent some time in Hamley’s shopping for things for children, I understand the pressure on those who go through that ordeal. I will raise with the appropriate Minister the issue of animal welfare that the hon. Lady touched on to see whether there has been a breach of regulations.

May we have an urgent statement on the meeting that took place this week between the Defence Minister and President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka? We understand that it was supposed to be a private meeting, but throughout the meeting, of course, the Defence Minister remained the Defence Minister. Bearing in mind that we are pressing for an inquiry into war crimes in Sri Lanka, may we have a statement on that meeting?