House of Commons
Thursday 27 January 2011
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Eighty-four per cent. of journeys are undertaken by car. Tackling car-produced carbon by fostering and supporting the decarbonisation of motoring is therefore one of the Government’s key transport priorities. The spending review announced provision of more than £400 million for measures to promote the uptake of ultra-low carbon vehicle technologies. Those include support for consumer incentives, development of recharging infrastructure and a programme of research and development.
My local pub, the Battlesteads inn, which is award winning and excellent, has an electric car-charging point. It is one of the few in Northumberland. The problem is that the ability to recharge is dependent on the north-east’s sole recharging point. When will the system be made nationwide?
As my hon. Friend knows, the north-east is one of the areas that has been selected for support in the plugged-in places pilot, so there will be a roll-out of further charging infrastructure in the north-east. The Government are currently considering the options for a national roll-out of charging infrastructure and how we mandate that. We will publish our decisions in due course.
Is the Secretary of State aware of two interesting companies in my constituency? First, ITM Power produces and develops hydrogen-powered cars, with the ability to produce hydrogen in domestic units at home. Secondly, Magnatec attaches electric motors to diesel-powered vehicles, increasing efficiency by 30%. That system has been running on buses in Denver for more than 10 years, but British buses do not seem interested in taking it up. What steps is the Secretary of State taking with the Department to encourage those firms? Would he like to visit the constituency?
In fact, yesterday, I met a firm developing innovative battery technology in Aberdeen. We are always pleased to talk to companies that are developing low-emission vehicle technology in the UK. We have deliberately made the incentives technology-neutral so that people developing new and innovative systems can get the benefit of them.
One of the quickest and cheapest ways in which to reduce vehicle emissions is through more economical driving habits, but I understand that the take-up by businesses of smarter driving training courses has been disappointing. Will the Secretary of State explore the strategies that are open to the Department to increase take-up of those courses?
As the Secretary of State knows, the Department turned down a joint private and public consortium bid, including Cardiff and Bristol councils and the Energy Saving Trust, for a network of electric car-charging points between both cities on the M4. Will he explain to the people of south Wales why he turned down that bid?
The number of bids exceeded the available resources for the second wave of plugged-in places pilot schemes. All the bids were evaluated, and those that represented the greatest value for money were allowed to proceed. The promoters of the unsuccessful bids have been debriefed by the team in the Department, so they will have a detailed understanding of why their bid, on this occasion, failed. I hope that they will be encouraged to resubmit a bid in the next wave.
Rail Industry (Reform)
Sir Roy McNulty’s rail value for money study has identified areas where significant efficiencies can be achieved. It is clear that the most pressing need is to align incentives across the industry to ensure closer working between Network Rail and the train operating companies. Our franchise reform programme is a key strand in the strategy. Those reforms, together with Sir Roy’s final recommendations, will form the basis of a long-term strategy for the industry. We are committed to publishing those proposals by November 2011.
Peak-time and season-ticket commuters from Swindon to London on the main line have had to face significant fare increases this month. Will the Government’s new rail franchising reform programme put special emphasis on the need for greater capacity and fairer rail fares?
We are committed to fair rail fares. Unfortunately, to support the rail investment programme, we have had to project faster-than-inflation increases in fares for the next three years. However, let us be clear: we have to get the cost of our railway down so that the burden on taxpayers and fare payers can be alleviated in future.
It takes 45 minutes longer to travel from London to Worcestershire along the Cotswold line now than it did in 1908. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and other representatives of the Cotswold line organisations to see how reform of the rail industry could help improve the timing and frequency of that service?
How will the Secretary of State secure better co-ordination, focusing on the interests of passengers rather than for ever dealing with the consequences of fragmentation?
The hon. Lady is hinting at the fact that, at the moment, far too much time and energy in the rail industry is spent on allocating blame for things that have happened rather than on working out how to prevent them from happening in future. We believe that aligning the financial interests of the train operators and the infrastructure operators, so that they both have a stake in positive outcomes for passengers, is the way forward. We will await Sir Roy McNulty’s final recommendations and set out our proposals for the reform of the industry on that basis.
In west Yorkshire, rail fares are set to go up by the retail prices index plus 5% from next year, which is the biggest increase in the country and 2% higher than in other areas. What will the Secretary of State do to avert those crippling hikes for people in Leeds and the rest of the region?
I cannot avoid the increases in prices to which the hon. Lady refers. They are partly driven by specific increases in rolling stock to alleviate overcrowding in the area. In the medium term, as I said in answer to the previous question, we must drive efficiency in the rail industry, and ensure that the cost base of our railway becomes comparable with those of other European countries, so that the upward pressure on fares can be alleviated.
I accept what the Secretary of State has said about the cost of the rail network, but does he nevertheless agree that the quality of passenger experience, which goes far beyond mere punctuality, should play a much greater part in the award of future railway franchises, and in their retention by train operating companies?
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State has published a consultation on franchising reform, in which she referred specifically to considering passenger satisfaction as one of the metrics. My hon. Friend will no doubt have been as delighted as I was to see the Passenger Focus survey this morning which shows that 84% of rail passengers are satisfied with the service that they receive on the railway.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s decision to continue the rail industry review that was started by the Labour Government. When Sir Roy McNulty publishes his final report in April, the Opposition will support any sensible proposals that take cost out of the industry without reducing the quality of service for passengers. However, does the Transport Secretary agree with me—and with some Conservative Back Benchers, from what I heard in earlier exchanges—that as the cost to the Government of running the railways comes down, the cost to the public of travelling by train should come down as well?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her expression of support for Sir Roy McNulty’s review and I am happy to acknowledge that that process was set in train by my predecessor. I look forward to taking the review forward on a consensual basis. Of course, the objective of driving efficiency in the railway is to reduce the burden on both the taxpayer and the fare payer. I am glad that she recognises that the only realistic way to do that is to reduce the cost base.
In view of that, does the Secretary of State understand the anger felt by hard-pressed commuters up and down the country who are facing big fare hikes—record fare rises of over 30%—over the next three years, and often worse overcrowding on services that will not really improve over that period? The initial findings of Sir Roy’s review suggested that savings of £1 billion could be found without cutting services, so will the Secretary of State now commit to sharing the benefits of those savings with passengers, and rethink his plan to impose record fare rises?
Sir Roy McNulty’s suggestion that £1 billion a year could be found refers to 2017-18. It will take some time before we get to that level of achievement, but it must remain our aspiration. In the meantime, the hon. Lady has answered her own question. Overcrowding is a key issue, and if we are to address it we must continue to invest in additional rolling stock and infrastructure on our railways, as we have committed to do. I am afraid that means that the relief that passengers seek will not come in the next couple of years, although it will come.
The Department is looking at various options for traffic signalling during quieter periods of the day and the flashing amber signal is just one of the techniques being considered among many others. However, in the interests of safety, it is important to ensure that any signalling technique provides a consistent and unambiguous message to all road users.
May I point out to the Minister that other countries operate such a system, but in a written response to me the Government stated, somewhat condescendingly:
“The British motorist would find this system confusing.”
Will the Minister consider a pilot scheme for such a system, perhaps in my constituency, which would speed journeys and reduce emissions?
As I mentioned, we are having a review of signs generally and that suggestion is being considered as part of that process. The difficulty is that the flashing amber signal already has a specific legal meaning in this country, where it is used to indicate legal precedence for pedestrians at pelican crossings. That means that we could not authorise a trial or the use of the flashing amber signal for any other application without first changing the meaning of the signal in regulations. A dual meaning might not be a very good idea.
Road Schemes (East Yorkshire)
There were three road improvement schemes in east Yorkshire under consideration at the time the spending review was announced. Of those schemes, the Beverley integrated transport scheme has been classified as in the development pool and the A164 Humber bridge to Beverley improvement scheme has been classified as in the pre-qualification pool. Both are currently subject to the prioritisation process set out in the document that was made available to Members in this House on 26 October.
The Highways Agency scheme to improve the A63 Castle street in Hull has been identified as a scheme with a positive business case for potential construction in future spending review periods.
As the Secretary of State has said, in the October announcement the upgrade of the A63 was put back until at least 2015. Since then, we have had the announcement from Siemens that it will develop the green energy industry along the Humber. In light of that announcement, will the Secretary of State think again? The A63 upgrade would have a positive impact on the economic regeneration of east Yorkshire and local businesses are really pushing for it.
I am aware of the relevance of the A63, having sat in a traffic queue on it not so long ago. The Highways Agency budget for the current spending review period has been allocated to schemes that have been approved to proceed, so there will be no more funding available during the funding review period. However, that scheme is value for money and I expect it to go forward in a future spending review period.
Congestion Charging (West London)
The removal of the western extension of the congestion charging zone is a devolved matter for the Mayor of London.
Does the Minister of State agree that one of the beneficial effects will be for those who live or try to run small businesses around the perimeter of the zone, for whom life was made very expensive? However, perhaps the biggest benefit will be for City Hall in the restoration of a reputation for proper democratic governance.
My hon. Friend has a strong record in her former capacity as a London Assembly Member for representing the views of residents on this issue, as she has in her current capacity as the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton. There are always pros and cons to be considered in relation to the impact on business of congestion charging schemes. No doubt when the Mayor made the decision on the western extension zone he will have taken on board her concerns about the impact on small businesses on the periphery and boundary of that zone.
Notwithstanding the fact that this is a devolved matter, the Department provides a great deal of resources to the Mayor of London for traffic issues. His removal of the western extension has cut £70 million annually from his revenue stream. Did the Department express any concerns at any time about the effect of that cut on funding for future transport schemes in London? The rest of us are paying higher charges and fares as a result of that hole in the Mayor’s budget.
The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): On 19 January, the Government set out a new approach to franchising, taking account of the consultation that took place last summer. We expect the reforms to deliver a railway that is more responsive to passenger needs and provides better value for taxpayer investment.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Last week, the east coast main line announced a new direct service from London to Harrogate—the first for 20 years—after some excellent local work promoting the economic case for that service. As the new franchise requirements for the east coast main line are developed, will that economic case see Harrogate-London links built into those requirements?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I have been impressed with the work done by him, the Harrogate chamber of commerce and Harrogate business interests to make the case for improved rail services between Harrogate and London. I would encourage them to continue that input when the consultation takes place on re-letting the east coast franchise. We will, of course, take those representations into account in our decisions on Harrogate services.
Given the announcement last week that the west coast main line franchise will be up for renewal, how soon does the Minister think we will see the extra carriages and, perhaps, the extra trains that we need to relieve the severe overcrowding on the line, particularly for my constituents in Lancaster?
The Government will be funding 106 extra carriages on the west coast main line, which are due to come into operation with the new franchise. Some of those carriages will be available in a new train that will be available earlier, once its testing period has been completed. At that point, it will be available for Virgin to sub-lease, if ordinary commercial terms can be agreed.
We are engaged in a consultation on the level of services and the configuration that will go into the west coast main line. We fully appreciate the importance of the services in Wales, including north Wales, and I would encourage the right hon. Gentleman to take part in the consultation. Of course, we are very much aware of passengers’ disappointment at the closure of the Wrexham and Shropshire service, and we will take that on board in the decisions that we make on the west coast line.
I believe that longer franchises, which are a key part of our reform, will provide stronger incentives for private sector investment in improving stations, rolling stock and—potentially—infrastructure. The current short franchises, through which it was difficult to get a return on significant investments of that sort, made it difficult for the private sector to maximise its investment in the railways. The rail franchising reform will therefore help to deliver the sort of improvements that the hon. Lady talks about.
As part of the consultation on the inter-city west coast main line, will the Minister consider the negative impacts of the use of power boxes and mechanical signalling on the ability of franchise holders servicing the north Wales coast to provide an enhanced level of service to my constituents?
We do not seek to micro-manage Network Rail’s decisions on signalling—we take a technologically agnostic approach to that—but we encourage it to deliver its renewals and upgrades in the most cost-effective way possible, and I am happy to pass on my hon. Friend’s points to Network Rail, so that it can take them on board in its decisions.
The demise of the Wrexham-Shropshire service is particularly sad. Local people really valued it, not just because it provided the direct link to London, but because the staff provided a superb service. Would the Minister be willing to meet MPs from all parties with constituencies along the line to discuss how we can consider not just how open-access services operate generally, but how we can put the line through Shropshire and up to north Wales back into the west coast franchise?
How will the Minister’s franchising reforms facilitate much-needed investment, both trackside and on train, in smarter signalling, such as in the world-class systems developed by Invensys in my constituency, which I would be delighted to show her, if she would be so kind as to visit Chippenham?
I shall certainly try to fit a visit to Chippenham into my diary. As I said to the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), I believe that longer franchises with more flexibility will encourage private sector investment in the railways. Longer franchises in the past for Chiltern Railways have enabled the train operator to become involved in signalling work. However, we have to acknowledge that major infrastructure works will need to continue to attract public funding, although there is no reason to believe that rail franchising reform could not assist private sector and train operator involvement in improving signalling.
I am pleased to confirm that a new offence of keeping a vehicle with no insurance is being introduced, and that supporting regulations were laid before Parliament on 11 January 2011. Enforcement of the offence is planned to commence in the spring. The scheme for continuous insurance enforcement identifies uninsured drivers by comparing the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency’s vehicles database with the motor insurance database.
I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. I am sure that he would agree that uninsured drivers are selfish in the extreme. Can he tell the House how much money will be saved for responsible drivers as a result of the changes, and will he also confirm that the police will retain the power to seize vehicles that are uninsured?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s welcome for the steps that the Government are taking. I can confirm that the police will continue to have the power to seize vehicles, and he may be interested to know that last year they seized 180,000 such vehicles. Around 1.4 million vehicles are uninsured, which costs responsible motorists around £30 extra in their premiums each year. We think that the measure will save about £6 for each motorist.
Does the Minister not recognise that insurance costs, particularly for young drivers, are reaching ridiculous levels? The AA premium index suggests that they could rise by 40% this year, which he is making worse with the rise in insurance premium tax. Given that fines are so low, will that not mean that people will sometimes be incentivised to avoid paying their insurance? What on earth will he be doing about that?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, and my Department is in discussions with the Ministry of Justice about that specific matter. However, I hope that he would also welcome the steps taken today to clamp down on uninsured drivers, who are costing motorists more money.
HGV Drivers (Diabetes)
The Department for Transport plans to publish the consultation document very soon. We welcome views from anyone interested in the proposed changes and will consider all representations before making our final decisions.
I thank the Minister for that reply. She will be aware from correspondence that my question arises from a rather long-running constituency case, which is not untypical of those of other hon. Members across the Chamber. Given that the EU directive dates back to August 2009 and that we have an utterly inconsistent position in the UK—registered diabetic heavy goods vehicle drivers from elsewhere in the European Union can drive on our roads, whereas UK-registered diabetic HGV drivers cannot—can she give some consideration as to how quickly this glaring anomaly can be cleared up?
We will certainly be working hard to get the consultation document out as quickly as possible. However, given that what is being contemplated is a relaxation of current road safety rules, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that this is not something to be undertaken lightly. We must ensure that we take the time to consider all the relevant factors to ensure that it is safe to make the change.
The consultation on proposals to reconfigure coastguard maritime rescue co-ordination centres was launched on 16 December and will run until 24 March 2011. After that all responses received will be reviewed and analysed before we make a decision. At present there is no final timetable for the decision, as the time required for analysis will depend on the volume of responses received. In our view, it is more important to make the right decision than to make a quick decision.
I have been contacted by several constituents who are concerned about the proposal to close Clyde maritime rescue co-ordination centre. They are worried that the loss of local knowledge will risk coastal safety in and around the waters of the Clyde. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment to listen carefully to those concerns about the closure of coastguard stations and, in particular, rethink the proposal to close Clyde MRCC?
Of course we will give careful consideration to all the representations made in the consultation. I should emphasise to hon. Members that we are talking about search and rescue co-ordination centres. They are not front-line delivery points; they are the centres that manage and co-ordinate the calls coming in, and task the front-line rescuers. The driver for the change is managing the work load and interlinking the centres across the country, so that they can best manage fluctuations in work load and provide a 24-hour competent service.
Indeed; I looked at precisely that point. The difference is that fire and rescue services are localised—there are different fire and rescue services around the country. Her Majesty’s Coastguard is a national service, operating as such, and the reconfiguration will provide nationally networked co-ordination centres that will deliver across the whole country.
Today’s Liverpool Echo calls into question the genuineness of the consultation on the coastguard service. If we take into account the scrapping of Nimrod, the ending of the emergency towing vessel contracts, the selling off of air-sea rescue, the prospective closure of coastguard stations and the sacking of coastguards, what assurance can the Secretary of State give to shipping, where there is real concern about the future of safety? Can he assure us that there will be no compromising of maritime safety?
It is a bit rich for the hon. Gentleman to talk about the selling off of search and rescue, when the search and rescue private finance initiative project was initiated by the Government in which he served and had been running for at least three years before the general election. On the specific point about the Liverpool coastguard co-ordination centre, Ministers looked at the proposals made by officials in the Department and judged that the decisions to be made between Belfast and Liverpool and between Stornoway and Shetland were so close that the consultation should go forward while making it clear that there was a judgment call to be made within each of those two pairs of stations. There was not a clear and definitive business case, which I think is what has given rise to the story in the Liverpool Echo to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.
My aim is to improve the entire bus journey for passengers. That means better integration between bus and rail services, better passenger information, smarter and more integrated ticketing, greener buses and better accessibility for people with reduced mobility. That will be achieved through incentives for commercial bus operators, funding local transport schemes through the local sustainable transport fund, but, above all, through operators and local transport authorities working together.
In my area, Stagecoach is blackmailing Hartlepool borough council once again by claiming that it cannot run an evening bus service without getting yet more public money. Stagecoach made £126 million profit from its bus operations last year, but seemingly cannot operate an evening service after 7 o’clock in Hartlepool. It is very clear that the current system is not working, so will the Minister bring forward proposals to re-regulate local bus services?
There is, in fact, a large range of powers available to local authorities, not least through the Local Transport Act 2008, which enables quality partnerships, and even quality contracts, to be established, so if his local authority feels that it has an unsatisfactory relationship with the bus company in question, it is open to it to look at the options available in legislation.
I hope the whole House will join me in extending condolences to the parents, family and friends of the 12-year-old boy tragically killed while crossing the A64 to catch the school bus.
On the wider question of rural buses, what assurance can my hon. Friend give to those living in rural areas that we will have a more extensive service—or at least as good a service as we have at the moment?
I echo the condolences expressed by my hon. Friend about that tragic accident.
We are conscious of the importance of rural areas, which is why the issue was flagged up in the local transport White Paper. I changed the guidance on concessionary fares to ensure that the special position of rural and long-distance routes was specifically recognised in that regard. We have been in touch with local authorities to look at innovative schemes, such as dial-a-ride and so forth, to ensure that local services, which are essential to rural areas, are maintained.
Approximately 7,000 vehicles underwent Vehicle and Operator Services Agency roadside inspections in December 2010. That was a combination of trucks and trailers, cars, buses and vans. That number comprised just over 17,000 checks of individual areas, such as checks for mechanical defects or drivers’ hours offences.
I thank the Minister for that answer. However, considering that the weather in much of December was so severe that it had a major impact on economic growth in this country and caused major disruption to the transport infrastructure, does he agree that VOSA should have a much more flexible and business-friendly attitude to conducting roadside checks, when hauliers and transport operators are struggling to supply the economy during severe weather conditions?
I sympathise with my hon. Friend’s point, and he may be happy to know that VOSA did take a pragmatic approach to enforcement during the recent unusually difficult weather. In fact, in December 2010 it carried out only 60% of the tests it carried out in 2009. It has also taken account of a number of relaxations that the Government have made to drivers’ hours regulations because of the weather, and it has had regard to the inevitable delays that such weather can cause to journeys. However, we must ensure that all journeys on our roads are safe.
The Minister will be aware that there is real concern among staff who work at VOSA that the testing transformation programme, with the move towards private sector test stations and the closure of the VOSA test station network, is privatisation by the back door. Will he tell the House why there is such a push towards private sector test stations, and will he confirm that privatisation is not on the agenda?
Since I last answered questions, I have published details of our proposed route for high-speed rail, launched the local transport White Paper, including the bidding guidance for the £560 million local sustainable transport fund, set out our proposals for reforms to the rail franchising system, which will deliver better value for money for taxpayers and better service to passengers, and announced tough new measures to tackle uninsured driving.
There are two separate lights at the end of the tunnel—[Interruption.] Neither of them is a train coming the other way. First, as my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said earlier, 106 additional Pendolino carriages for the west coast main line have been ordered and will come into service in 2012. Secondly, as the proposed HS2 line, if approved, is built it will provide massive additional capacity on the London-west midlands route, and capacity will be freed up for new high-speed, longer-distance commuter services from places such as Milton Keynes to London.
Ministers have spent weeks creating confusion over fuel prices. Will the Secretary of State say what he plans to do to help hard-pressed motorists? If he is so concerned now, will he say whether he thought it was fair to impose a VAT hike on fuel just three weeks ago?
The hon. Gentleman is a spokesman for a Government who proposed the fuel price increases that are now coming into effect, and who were planning to put VAT up, as we discovered from leaked documents before the general election. I am pleased to say that it is not my business to do anything about this, as it is a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Obviously, we welcome the positive response from the Passenger Focus survey. We are aware that there is always a need to improve provision of services on the railways, and that is one of the main reasons why we are supporting the work of the McNulty review to get costs down, to make it easier to deliver the improvements that people want.
The Department did, of course, carry out the usual equalities impact study that is required, before making the proposals. There is a hidden premise behind the hon. Gentleman’s question. Nobody increased rail fares ahead of inflation happily or gladly. The decision whether to protect the planned investment in reducing overcrowding by delivering additional rolling stock, or to scrap that programme, was a difficult one. We decided to protect investment for the medium and long term, and unfortunately that means three years of further above-inflation rail fare increases.
T4. Many of my constituents and those of other Members were severely disrupted by the effects of the weather on airports in London and elsewhere. Does the Minister agree that the Civil Aviation Authority needs more powers to assess the situation and hold airport operators to account? (36316)
My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. There was real concern about the way in which Heathrow dealt with the severe weather. That is one of the reasons for our plans to reform airport regulation, which include a new licensing system that will indeed give the CAA more powers to ensure that airports are properly prepared for winter.
The marine environment is dangerous, and we are fortunate to have Stornoway coastguard, which is based in my constituency. However, I have been told that the Government’s reorganisation proposals are not accompanied by any proper risk assessment. Is that true?
Of course the proposals have been risk-assessed. They have been around for more than two years, since before the general election, and there is a long slow-burning fuse behind them. They are now out for consultation, and the hon. Gentleman can and, I am sure, will make forcefully the case for retaining the station in Stornoway.
My hon. Friend is a staunch campaigner for further electrification. We have already announced electrification of the lines to Oxford, Newbury and Didcot, and we will shortly announce what further electrification of the Great Western line can be achieved in co-ordination with the linked inter-city express programme.
You will recall, Mr Speaker, the procedural exchange that you and I had earlier this week about the failure of the Department for Transport to answer questions about river and port pilotage. The first question has now been answered inaccurately; as for the second, the Department refuses to publish the advice that it has received. This is a fundamental matter of safety. Will the Secretary of State examine it personally and review the decision to refuse to publish the information, in order to give us confidence that our pilots are properly trained?
T6. In my constituency, an average of 27 people a year are killed or seriously injured in crashes involving young people. That includes a tragic accident over the Christmas period involving a friend of my son. Graduated driver licensing, enabling a new driver to proceed to a full licence over a period, has been shown in many countries to reduce the number of casualties in that vulnerable group. What discussions has the Secretary of State had about introducing such an approach to improving road safety in this country? (36318)
My hon. Friend will know that the United Kingdom actually has an enviable record on road safety. Many of the countries that operate graduated licensing suffer worse safety records than the UK. Our policy is to avoid additional regulation whenever possible, and we would be very concerned about imposing any regulation that reduced the mobility of young people who had acquired driving licences, because of the impact that it would have on their participation in the labour market and in further and higher education.
Apropos the disruption at Heathrow, the temperature has dropped again today. Ministers need not go abroad to find examples of the way in which airports can cope with snow. Aberdeen airport, which is also owned by BAA, managed to cope perfectly well with 2 feet of snow, while Heathrow was closed for nearly two weeks because of 2 inches of snow. What guarantee will the Government give passengers—not just those like me, but the many people who travel through Heathrow, which is one of the major hubs—that such disruption will not occur again?
We must be realistic. When the weather is as severe as that which we witnessed before Christmas, there is bound to be some disruption. I pay tribute to airports such as Aberdeen, which worked very hard to deal with it—as did Gatwick—but we must recognise that Heathrow airport faces special challenges that make it tougher to respond to such conditions. Heathrow is conducting a review, and the Department is carrying out an investigation through the South East Airports Taskforce. There may be lessons that we can learn from measures taken by other transport systems, such as the imposition of emergency timetables when severe weather seems likely to reduce capacity significantly.
T7. Some of the residential areas in Loughborough face considerable pressure on parking as a result of having houses occupied by students, each of whom brings a car to the town. Can the relevant Minister confirm that under this Government local councils, communities and universities will continue to be able to implement local solutions that suit the local needs of the town? (36319)
I am happy to give that assurance. The whole thrust of the Government is to free up councils, remove regulations and make it easier for councils to reach the correct arrangements in conjunction with their communities.
The hon. Gentleman may know that the Department has introduced a programme of rolling monitoring of insurance, where anyone whose vehicle is uninsured now has to make what is, in effect, a statutory off-road notice declaration. The police will have access to the database and will be able to monitor, in real time, whether vehicles are insured or uninsured. That will give rise to a much more effective level of enforcement.
T8. I know that the Minister is aware that Fleetwood has a railway line that has been redundant since the 1960s but which has most of its infrastructure intact. What hope can she offer my constituents that there may be a chance of reopening the line and providing much-needed regeneration to the town? (36320)
I know that my hon. Friend has championed this cause, and I enjoyed my visit to the disused rail line. Programmes such as he outlines can confer significant local benefits, but it is primarily for the local authorities to identify the funding to restore railway lines and, importantly, to identify the funding for any ongoing subsidy that is needed. Local authorities may well wish to consider those options in order to enhance economic growth in their areas.
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
I have had several discussions with ministerial colleagues on these issues. Flexibility in the workplace is good for all employees—men and women. On gender equality specifically, flexible working allows many women with caring responsibilities to continue in work. Evidence also shows that flexibility is good for business and good for society. This Government are committed to extending the right to request flexible working to all employees, and we expect to begin consulting on the details shortly.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that as we develop important policies in the area of equality we must avoid adding to the regulatory burden on small business? Will she listen carefully to the thousands of very small businesses in Britain that are concerned by some of these proposals?
My hon. Friend is a great champion of small businesses and their concerns. I hope that he will have seen from today’s announcement by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on the issue of employment tribunals that the Government understand that there is a real difference between how small businesses can cope with regulation and that burden and how a large business with a big human resources department can cope. We have already started discussions with the Federation of Small Businesses on flexible parental leave and flexible working, and we will be taking those issues forward. We are concerned to ensure that anything we do involves the least possible administrative burden for small businesses.
These measures on flexible working are welcome, but they will not be taken up if people are afraid that their employer can still dismiss them without any consequences. Today, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is announcing measures to remove protection against unfair dismissal for people who have been in jobs for less than two years. The right hon. Lady will know that women are more likely than men to be in jobs for less than two years and so, once again, they will be harder hit by these proposals. There is no sign yet of an equality impact assessment from BIS this morning. Can she tell me whether one has been done? Has BIS examined the impact on equality? What is she doing to stand up for women across the Government?
I remind the right hon. Lady that the Business Department is today issuing proposals, on which it is consulting, on the future of employment tribunals. It is important that we take action on employment tribunals, because I have discovered from my discussions with businesses that they are often wary of issues such as flexible working and the extension of flexible working, precisely because of the tribunal costs that they could incur, were those regulations to be put in place. The right hon. Lady asked what I was doing to stand up for women. We are going to extend the right to request flexible working to all, which is more than her Government did.
Trafficking (Women and Girls)
Policy responsibility for human trafficking rests with the Minister for Immigration. Combating human trafficking, including the sexual exploitation of women and girls, is a key priority for the Government. We are committed to tackling organised crime groups who profit from this human misery, and to protecting victims. Tackling organised immigration crime, including trafficking, is a high priority for the Serious Organised Crime Agency, of which the UK Human Trafficking Centre is now part.
I thank the Minister for her answer, and I appreciate that this subject also falls under the category of immigration. Given that the European Union directive on trafficking would ensure that the UK provided further protection and support for victims, does she agree that we should enter into that commitment without further delay?
We have said all along that we would look at what was happening in the European directive. The wording was decided on the 13th, and the member states are now deciding whether to opt in or not. When that has happened, we will take a look, and if there are further things that we think would be helpful, we will make a decision then.
I welcome the Government’s review of the policy on human trafficking. Will the Minister tell us whether all non-governmental organisations with an interest in this field, including the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking, are being consulted on the review?
The Minister says that her Government are making anti-trafficking a high priority. Now that the directive has been completed, is she seriously saying that she is going to wait for other states to make a decision before Britain does so? Should not we be in the lead on this issue? The directive has been supported by Members of the European Parliament of all parties represented in this House. Is it not time for her to adopt the directive? If she is not planning to do so yet, will she tell us why not?
We have to look at it and then make our decision. On 14 October, during the anti-slavery day debate, the Minister for Immigration announced a new strategy to tackle human trafficking that involved disrupting the practice in the country of origin and on the border, as well as supporting the victims. We will have to see what the EU directive adds or does not add, and we will make our decision in due course.
Corporate Boards (Women)
Lord Davies has been appointed by the Government to look at how obstacles can be removed to allow more women to make it on to corporate boards. We look forward to his recommendations for a business-led strategy, and we will respond in due course. Measures that we are taking, such as flexible working and shared parental leave, will also help to address some of the barriers to progression that women face in the workplace.
A recent Crown Prosecution Service report by Dr Catherine Hakim found that women were more likely to reach the top in business in countries such as the United States, where there are relatively few female-specific employee rights, as opposed to Scandinavian countries, which have lots of parental leave and much more job segregation. Will the Government consider putting much more emphasis on support in the workplace, rather than having a quota system, which many women find demeaning?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out that there is varied experience across the world with regard to what works in ensuring that women can get to the top. The Government have no intention of introducing legislation on quotas in this area. We will listen to what Lord Davies says, and I have been party to some of the round-table discussions that he has had. From what I have seen so far, I am sure that he will come forward with some very practical ways in which we can help to unlock the barriers to women reaching their place on corporate boards. It is this Government’s firm determination to do more to ensure that more women are on corporate boards.
Civil Partnership Ceremonies
In June 2010, the Government published “Working for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Equality”, which made a commitment to talk to interested groups about what the next step should be for civil partnerships, including on this issue. The Government have held a number of meetings on the topic with various groups, including those representing faith groups, lesbian, gay and bisexual people and the registration service. We will announce the next steps in due course.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Many religious groups are openly hostile to the concept of civil partnerships because it offends their religious doctrine. Lord Alli’s amendment in the other place would permit ceremonies within religious establishments. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government do not intend to introduce compulsion for religious organisations that do not want to have civil partnerships in their buildings?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. This was a significant part of the debate when Lord Alli’s amendment to the then Equality Bill went through in the House of Lords before the general election. It is clear in his amendment that this is a permissive power, and that is the basis on which the Government are operating. We have no intention of introducing any element of compulsion. It will be for religious groups and faith groups to decide whether they wish to take up this opportunity.
I do not think anybody wants a form of compulsion that forces churches to do anything they do not want to in this field. That is a bit of a red herring. The right hon. Lady has said that the Government are considering allowing the use of religious rituals, ceremony and symbols at civil partnerships. If she is going to do that for civil partnerships, may I urge her to do it for civil weddings? Many people do not want to get married in church but would none the less like to have some religious readings or music.
In response to the hon. Gentleman’s first comment about no compulsion, I am grateful that he supports Government policy on that issue. He is right that extending the ability to have religious elements to a civil partnership ceremony or to hold such partnership ceremonies on religious premises raises an issue about the equality with civil marriage. We are taking steps as regards the Lord Alli amendment and we will make announcements in due course.
Body Image (Media Representation)
I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend on her tireless commitment to this area of work. I, too, remain deeply worried about this issue. I have met too many people, both male and female, whose lives have been affected by negative feelings about their body shape. Recently I convened a group of experts to discuss our shared concerns and the evidence that they had assembled. I am working with them and with relevant industries to identify non-legislative ways of tackling the issue.
Girlguiding UK regularly surveys young women and girls in the country and consistently shows that girls are unhappy with the prevalence of heavily airbrushed images and the ultra-thin ideal in the media. The Committee of Advertising Practice, which sets the advertising rules, is either oblivious or complacent about this problem, however, recently stating in a letter that it has
“seen very few ads that are targeted at children which appear to have been airbrushed”,
and that it does not think that this is “a widespread practice”. Will the Minister reassure the House that she will not let the advertising industry get away with dismissing this issue?
I can assure my hon. Friend that the advertising industry is more than well aware both of her work and of the Government’s intention to work with interested partners on this issue. I am sure that Members of all parties recognise that it is a real issue for girls, women and young men in this country.
State Pension Age
I wrote to and met the Equality and Human Rights Commission during the Government’s review of the increase in state pension age to 66 to ensure that equality issues were fully considered. A full equality impact assessment was also published as part of the Government’s White Paper, which sets out the effect on women of changes to the state pension age.
Employment Law (Gender Discrimination)
We are committed to tackling discrimination in the workplace. The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful to discriminate against men or women because—the answer I have here says because of “sex at work”, but I think it means on the basis of gender—or when providing an employment service. We will shortly be launching a consultation on the coalition commitment to encouraging shared parenting from the earliest stages of pregnancy, including through a system of flexible parental leave. We want to make changes to ensure that the law better supports real families juggling work and family life and helps businesses that employ them. Some interim measures are already in place. From April this year new parents will be able to share a period of paid leave through the introduction of additional paternity leave.
I thank the Minister for that answer and those clarifications. Does she agree that making maternity leave transferable will help to eliminate anti-male discrimination in the workplace and will give couples greater choice in addressing the career-family balance together?
My hon. Friend raises the issue of work-life balance and choices for families. The introduction of flexible parental leave will do two important things. First, it will give families the choice to decide which parent stays at home to look after the child in the early stages, beyond a period that will be restricted for the mother only. Secondly, it means that, in future, employers will not know whether it will be the male or the female in front of them seeking employment who will take time off to look after a baby. I think that is an important step in dealing with discrimination. We should try to get away from gender warfare and the politics of difference, as my hon. Friend has said, but I suggest to him that labelling feminists as “obnoxious bigots” is not the way forward.
Last night’s television programme “Posh and Posher” observed that there are more male Cabinet members from one Oxford college than there are women of any background in the Cabinet. Given that, does the Minister for Women and Equalities agree with the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) that her work colleagues get a “raw deal” at work because of feminist “bigots” being unreasonable on issues such as equal pay?
I think I caught the hon. Lady’s gist in relation to membership of the Cabinet, and I simply point out that she should look at the balance in the previous Cabinet under the Labour Government. The Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that he has a commitment to ensure that a third of ministerial places are taken up by women by the end of the Parliament.
Custodial Sentences (Mothers)
No recent discussions have been held on this issue. Sentencing is entirely a matter for the courts, which take account of all the circumstances of the offender and the offence. This will include consideration of whether or not the offender is a primary carer. We have a continuing programme of work under way to divert women away from custody for those who do not pose a risk to the public. We must ensure that women who offend are successfully rehabilitated, whether they serve sentences in custody or in the community.
I thank the Minister for that response. She will be aware that, according to the Corston report, one third of custodial sentences for women go to women who are lone parents. That has severe knock-on effects for their children. What further guidelines can the Minister issue in this area?
Yes, we have taken the Corston recommendations very seriously and we are developing a strategy to ensure that the women’s estate is fit for purpose in both custodial and community settings. We are also following on with programmes to divert women away from custody: more than £10 million has been provided to deliver 44 community-based interventions for women to tackle the underlying causes of their offending as part of robust community sentencing.
Business of the House
The business of the House for next week is as follows:
Monday 31 January—Second Reading of the Health and Social Care Bill.
Tuesday 1 February—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the European Union Bill (Day 5).
Wednesday 2 February—Opposition Day [10th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on the performance of the Business, Innovation and Skills Department followed by a debate on the future of the Public Forest Estate in England. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion, followed by a motion to approve European documents relating to the Court of Auditors’ 2009 report.
Thursday 3 February—Motion relating to consumer credit regulation and debt management, followed by a general debate on reform of legal aid. The subjects for both debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 4 February—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 7 February will include:
Monday 7 February—Opposition Day [un-allotted day] [half day] [first part]. There will be a half-day debate on a Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru motion.
Tuesday 8 February—Second Reading of the Education Bill.
Wednesday 9 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.
Thursday 10 February—Motion relating to voting by prisoners. The subject for this debate was nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 11 February—Private Members’ Bills.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 10 February will be:
Thursday 10 February—A debate on onshore wind energy.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for his statement. Will he clarify what the rest of the business will be on 7 February, apart from the half-day Opposition debate he has just mentioned?
Last Friday, the then Member for Belfast West wrote to you, Mr Speaker, seeking to resign as a Member of Parliament, but as we know, such a letter has no effect, as the only way for a Member to resign is to apply for the Chiltern Hundreds. On Monday, the Treasury told the BBC that no such application had been received, and yet yesterday we were informed by the Prime Minister that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had appointed Mr Adams as Baron of the Manor of Northstead.
The Chancellor’s power effectively to disqualify a Member must be exercised correctly. It does not seem that in this case that long-standing precedent was followed, so can the Chancellor come to the House and tell us when he received a letter from Mr Adams applying for the Chiltern Hundreds or, if he received no such application, explain on what basis he appointed Mr Adams to the post previously mentioned, given that “Erskine May” states that those offices are
“given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to any Member who applies for them”?
Does the Leader of the House agree that it is time we changed these ancient ways of enabling Members to step down and moved to a simple system whereby a Member can write to you, Mr Speaker, to resign?
Last week, the Leader of the House said in answer to a question that
“this Government did something that the previous Government refused to do—we set up the Backbench Business Committee”—[Official Report, 20 January 2011; Vol. 521, c. 1025.]
I gently point out to him, in the interests of accuracy, that the decision to set up that Committee was in fact taken by the House on 4 March 2010, when we were in government and Members agreed to a motion moved by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman).
Can we have a debate on the Government’s handling of the economy? Only a few weeks ago, the Chancellor assured us that the recovery was on track. On Tuesday, we discovered that growth has in fact stalled. The Chancellor blamed the snow. It is not the wrong kind of snow; it is the wrong kind of policies. That is why the outgoing director general of the CBI, Sir Richard Lambert, this week warned that the Government have no strategy for growth and criticised Ministers for being
“careless of the damage they might do to business and to job creation”
Yesterday, George Soros said that the cuts could not be implemented without pushing the economy into a recession. Is it any wonder, therefore, that families up and down the country, who are worried about their jobs, rising prices and falling incomes, are beginning to ask themselves whether this lot know what they are doing?
Can we have a debate on the shambolic way in which the counter-terrorism review has been conducted? Last Thursday, the Immigration Minister promised that the draft emergency legislation on detention would be placed in the Library of the House. It has still not appeared. Will the Leader of the House tell his colleagues that when they promise to put something in the Library, Members expect it to be available soon? It is now all too obvious that that legislation is not ready.
In opposition, the Lib Dems criticised the Labour Government’s approach to dealing with terrorism and made another of those firm pledges—a firm pledge to scrap control orders. In the past few weeks there has been a lot of bravado briefing by the Deputy Prime Minister, promising that the orders would go, yet what was announced yesterday? Control orders by another name—with curfews replaced by “overnight residence requirements”. Liberty is very unhappy this morning, saying that control orders have been “retained and rebranded”. Why has that happened? Because the Government have rightly recognised that there is a threat to the public from which we need to be protected, and the responsibility that comes from being in government has finally dawned even on the Deputy Prime Minister.
Following the release of the extraordinary photographs showing the dismantling of the £4 billion fleet of Nimrod long-range reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft, which will then apparently be sliced up in an industrial shredder, can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence on the letter that the six former defence chiefs have sent today, describing the decision to destroy the aircraft as “perverse” and warning that it will create
“a massive gap in British security”
Finally, can we have a debate on the machinery of government? Because it is pretty clear, from what has been going on this week, that this Government are not actually very good at governing.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his points. The business for the week after next is always provisional and changes are made, so at this stage I cannot announce the business for the second half of that Monday, but it is unlikely to be Government legislation.
On the substantive issue the right hon. Gentleman raises about Gerry Adams, as the right hon. Gentleman said, Gerry Adams wrote on 20 January making it absolutely clear that he wanted to relinquish his seat and stand in the Irish general election. As Gerry Adams should have known, a Member of Parliament may not resign; there are no means by which a Member may vacate his or her seat during the lifetime of a Parliament, other than by death, disqualification or expulsion. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, therefore, in line with long-standing precedent granted Mr Adams the office of profit under the Crown of steward and bailiff of the Manor of Northstead, so we delivered Mr Gerry Adams to the required destination, although he may have used a vehicle and a route that was not of his choosing.
Yesterday, Mr Speaker, you informed the House that, owing to that appointment, Gerry Adams was thereby disqualified from membership of the House by virtue of section 1 of the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975. You also stated:
“The Chancellor of the Exchequer has exercised his responsibilities”;
“He has done so in an entirely orderly way.”—[Official Report, 26 January 2011; Vol. 522, c. 405.]
During the subsequent exchanges, Members raised the hypothetical possibility of a future Chancellor appointing a Member without a firm application for a relevant post from that Member. I find it inconceivable that such a situation would occur; it is a matter of constitutional principle that a Chancellor does not act without an unambiguous request from a Member to relinquish his or her seat. In this case, that request was a letter of resignation. In addition, there is a protection in the form of provision in the 1975 Act for a Member not to accept any office that would lead to his or her disqualification. I have to say in response to the right hon. Gentleman’s final point on the matter that this law on resignation from the House has served us well for 260 years—and the Government have no plans to change it.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s next point, I am amazed that he raises the issue of the Backbench Business Committee. The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), and I consistently raised the previous Government’s failure to enact the establishment of such a Committee, but my predecessor as Leader of the House refused to bring forward the relevant motions, so it was indeed this Government who established the Backbench Business Committee. I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman ventures into that territory.
On the economy, if only the right hon. Gentleman’s party had bequeathed to the coalition what we bequeathed to Labour in 1997, we would not face the problems that we face today. We bequeathed a golden inheritance: fast growth, falling unemployment and decreasing inflation. Let us compare that with what Labour left behind: a trillion pounds of debt for the first time ever, the largest deficit in the G20 and in our peacetime history, and the deepest and longest recession in the G20. He quoted Richard Lambert, who also said that
“the tax and spending policies of the last Government created a substantial structural deficit…That’s what made substantial spending cuts inevitable, irrespective of who won the last election.”
He went on to say that
“public finances in the UK are in a mess, to a degree that threatens our long-term economic stability.”
On counter-terrorism, the Home Secretary made a statement yesterday, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, and answered some of the questions that he has raised. The Government will subject draft emergency legislation on 28-day pre-charge detention to pre-legislative scrutiny. That is currently being drafted and will be deposited in the Library of the House shortly. I was here when my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration made the statement last week. He did not give a specific time when the draft legislation would go into the Library. We will set out the suggested approach for the scrutiny when the draft Bill has been completed, although that is, of course, a matter for the House.
The decision to cancel the Nimrod project was not taken lightly by Ministers and service chiefs. It is a consequence of the £38 billion deficit in the defence budget that we inherited from the outgoing Government. The project was nine years late and involved a cost increase of 300%. None of the nine aircraft was operational, only one was fully constructed and that one had not passed its flight tests. The cancellation will save £2 billion over 10 years. Since the Nimrod MR2 was taken out of service by the previous Government in March last year, the impact has been mitigated by the use of other military assets, including Type 22 frigates, Merlin anti-submarine helicopters and Hercules C-130 aircraft, and by working with allies and partners where appropriate.
Order. A great many right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, and I should like to accommodate them all. Single, short questions and the characteristically pithy replies of the Leader of the House will be essential if I am to have a reasonable chance of doing so.
My constituents in Oxford West and Abingdon value their library services greatly, not just for lending, but for the role that they play in their communities. I have received hundreds of letters and e-mails about the proposals to close the Summertown, Botley and Kennington libraries in my constituency. The recent Westminster Hall debate showed that there is interest in this subject from both sides of the House. Will the Leader of the House provide Government time for a debate not only on the cultural and community value of libraries, but on how we can continue to support them in the difficult economic climate bequeathed to us by the previous Government’s irresponsible fiscal policies?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There was a debate in Westminster Hall on library services on 25 January, and she might like to look at that. I spent three years at Oxford and I am afraid that I did not spend nearly as much time in the libraries as I should have.
Public libraries are a hugely valued service, which allows free access to information and services. It is important that her local authority has a strategy for any reorganisation of its library service, which takes into account the needs of local people and the views of the local Member of Parliament. As she may know, the Secretary of State has residual powers. She may wish to contact him if necessary.
The Backbench Business Committee now meets on a Tuesday at 1 o’clock. As a result, far more Back Benchers come to the Committee with ideas about what debates we should schedule. Another result is that more Back Benchers are asking us why we continue to have to schedule debates on a Thursday. Of the 13 and a half days of debates that we have held in the Chamber, one has been on a Monday, two and a half have been on Tuesdays—two of which were end-of-term debates—and 10 have been on Thursdays. Will the Leader of the House please consider giving us days in different parts of the parliamentary week? Will he also say when he will come up with an answer on how many additional days the Backbench Business Committee will be given to allocate to Members as a result of the extension of the parliamentary timetable?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for all the work that she is doing with her Committee, and I note her public service announcement about the new time for that Committee’s meeting. About one in three of the days that we have allocated have not been Thursdays. We should not devalue Thursdays—they are important days. However, I understand her request and I hope shortly to be able to make some progress and to shift the centre of gravity a little away from Thursdays. On her final point, we will be having discussions, not only on the allocation of Backbench business time, but on Opposition days and private Members’ days, to reflect the likely extended length of the Session, subject to the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill going through.
I have in my hand a piece of paper, which is the written statement on the future of the public forest estate in England. Does the Leader of the House share my disappointment, and that felt by all of us who are committed to saving the public forests, that there was not an oral statement? Will he explain why there is not to be a debate in Government time on the future of that valuable public asset?
I understand my hon. Friend’s strong feelings on the matter. The Public Bodies Bill is currently in another place, and I hope it will reach this House once the Lords have sorted themselves out. There will be an opportunity then for him to speak on that specific issue, but as I have just announced, there will also be an Opposition day debate on it next Wednesday. I hope that he has read the written ministerial statement and seen that we are ensuring that public benefit is written into the change. The Government have no plans for a widespread disposal of assets in order to raise money. We want community trusts and local organisations to take ownership of some of our valuable woods.
Instead of farcical exchanges about stewards and barons in relation to resigning from the House, would it not be better, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) has suggested, and as I did yesterday, if a simple letter of resignation were sufficient? Why should we keep a procedure simply because it has been in existence for the number of years that the Leader of the House mentioned?
For the last 13 years we had a Modernisation Committee and, to my knowledge, not once did it consider the procedure for resignation, so it clearly did not think that it was a priority. The procedure has worked perfectly well for 260 years, and given all the pressures on the House’s time, I wonder whether we should really give priority to this matter.
In Crewe and Nantwich, many families lost significant fees and deposits that they had paid to their children’s nurseries, and had major disruption to their child care arrangements, when the company running them went bust recently. May we have a debate to discuss how parents can be better protected in such circumstances rather than being left exposed both financially and in their home environment by finding themselves in a long queue of creditors?
I am very sorry to hear of the plight of those who have paid up front for child care or nursery places and then found that the provider has gone into liquidation. I shall raise the matter with ministerial colleagues at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, who have responsibility for the Insolvency Service, and I would point my hon. Friend’s constituents to the local authority’s family information service, which may be able to help find alternative places for those who have been affected.
May we have a debate on the prerogative powers of the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Given that the Leader of the House informed us earlier that there is provision in legislation to refuse appointment to an office of profit under the Crown, will he confirm that since Gerry Adams—or Baron Adams, as he is better known now—has now been disqualified, it follows that he has indeed accepted Crown office?
The right hon. Gentleman is venturing into territory that is occupied by you, Mr Speaker, and you made the announcement yesterday evening. Under the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, there is provision to refuse office. No refusal was received, so it was deemed to have been accepted.
The Leader of the House will be aware that yesterday afternoon, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe debated and voted on a report containing scathing criticism of the UK for not granting thousands of prisoners their apparent right to vote, and recommending tougher sanctions against the UK Government in respect of the implementation of decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. In view of that, will he explain what action the Government are taking to ensure that decisions concerning our judicial system will be made in Britain by British law-makers?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As I announced a few moments ago, there will be an opportunity for the House to debate the issue shortly in Backbench Business Committee time, and the relevant motion is now on the Order Paper. I have seen the report to which she refers, and it actually sets the UK apart from the other states mentioned. It calls on us to implement the judgment of the ECHR on prisoner voting, and notes that the Government have announced that they will do so. We are bound by that judgment and take our legal obligations seriously, but as I have said, we will listen very carefully to the debate in a fortnight’s time.
The wasteful destruction of the Nimrod fleet leaves a hole in national security and in the communities around RAF Kinloss, where it should be based. The Secretary of State for Defence assured me personally that the review of military bases would be concluded within weeks of all military recommendations being made at the end of February. We now learn, however, that it has been put back to the summer. That will cause untold economic uncertainty and damage to defence-dependent communities such as Moray, so may we have a full statement and a debate in Government time on the delay and on what concrete financial support the UK Government will provide immediately?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s deep concern. There will be Defence questions on Monday, at which he might have an opportunity to raise the matter. As he knows, we have concluded that RAF Kinloss and two other bases are not required by the RAF. The review to which he refers is now under way and will assess the overall needs of our armed forces, the long-term future that the bases may have and what alternative military requirements they could meet. I understand the urgency of an early decision, and I will pass that on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.
The mess in Parliament square is now the subject of part 3 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, but as that Bill cannot possibly become law before Easter, will my right hon. Friend consider asking for it to be split? Having taken advice from the Clerks, I understand that it is in order to split the Bill in Committee, so that part 3 could make its own way through both Chambers in that time.
I will put that proposition to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, whose Bill it is. My hon. Friend will know that Westminster city council is taking action, which I am sure he welcomes, to remove the tents that are out there. I understand that notices have been served, and I hope that follow-up action will be taken by the courts, and if necessary by the police.
The Leader of the House is fully aware of the deep angst on both sides of the House about yesterday’s shambles over the resignation of the former Member for Belfast West. Will he ask the Northern Ireland Office to confirm what role, if any, it played in persuading the Chancellor to take the unprecedented steps that we saw yesterday?
I reject the assertion that what happened yesterday was unprecedented. There are precedents for Members who write in to resign without specifically asking for Crown office to then be appointed, so what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor did was perfectly correct in delivering the hon. Member’s wish to resign, and he followed precedent.
In the coalition agreement, there is reference to giving Select Committees, the obvious example being the Treasury Committee, the power to approve senior appointments. There is also reference to constitutional change—in other words change to the House of Lords. Given both those points, has not the time now come for the appointment of members of the Supreme Court to have parliamentary approval? Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate on that important issue?
I understand my hon. Friend’s interest in the matter, but I believe that that would run the risk of politicising judicial appointments. He may have seen the Government’s response to the report of, I believe, the Liaison Committee. We are perfectly prepared to broaden the range of appointments that require pre-appointment approval by Select Committees, but my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor stated before the Lords Constitution Committee on 19 January that he was against such an approach in the case of the Supreme Court because of the risk of politicising judicial appointments.
This morning, the Yorkshire regional flood defence committee was told that the budget for capital works for flood protection would be reduced by 27%, as a result of which no new flood protection schemes will go ahead in Yorkshire for the foreseeable future. Both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor said that flood protection money would be protected, so may we have an urgent debate to discuss a supplementary estimate to ensure that sufficient funding is made available in Yorkshire and elsewhere?
The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to raise his concerns this time next week, at Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions. The Government have had to make some difficult decisions on public expenditure because of the situation that we inherited.
Since October, the people of Terrington St John have been forced to use a mobile surgery while a fully kitted-out GP surgery lies empty nearby. Will the Leader of the House ask for a statement from the Secretary of State for Health about how he will address the issue, which is creating distress, inconvenience and cost for local residents?
I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns, which I will share with the Secretary of State for Health. I understand that Norfolk primary care trust has reopened negotiations with the two GPs who own the now disused St John surgery building, with the clear aim of reaching a settlement which would allow the new GP practice to move in.
Whatever happened to the oral statement on the wholesale privatisation of forests? Sure we could have expected an oral statement on that matter today. Will the Leader of the House answer the questions? Is it going to be a free-for-all? Will the sleazy bankers be able to buy up large chunks? Shall we have a Fred-the-Shed Goodwin memorial park? Will the supermarkets be allowed to buy: Tesco—“Buy two forests, get one free”?
The short answer is no, no and no. It sounds as though the hon. Gentleman has not read the consultative document. It is not a statement of Government policy. Under the previous regime, the Forestry Commission disposed of some 25,000 acres without the sort of precautions that we are including in the Public Bodies Bill.
The Leader of the House is to be congratulated on introducing the motions to implement the Wright Committee reforms, such as setting up the Backbench Business Committee, which is widely agreed to be a success under the leadership of the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel). Given that success, will the right hon. Gentleman say what progress he is making on another Wright reform—creating a House business committee, so that transparency and democracy can be brought to scheduling Government business?
The House business committee was another commitment to which the previous Government refused to commit themselves. We are committed to it, and it will be introduced within three years of this Parliament. We want the current regime to run for about a year, when we will review it and then have serious discussions about how we move to stage 2 —the House business committee, which will merge my responsibilities with those of the Backbench Business Committee, so that one Committee will deal with the future business of the House.
May we have a debate on the Government’s use of Orwellian language? We have had doublespeak and newspeak, and now we have Mayspeak in the Home Secretary’s renaming as the “Freedom Bill” a measure to keep people under surveillance, and renaming curfews “overnight residence requirements”. Is it true that she is to rename electronic prisoner tags “involuntary pagers”? Frankly, we need some sort of cross-party conversation, otherwise known as a debate, about it.
The hon. Gentleman reiterates an exchange that took place yesterday when his colleagues raised those points, which the Home Secretary dealt with very adequately. She has rebalanced the competing demands of liberty and security in an intelligent way. There will be an opportunity to debate the Bill to which she referred when it is introduced. The provisions may not be in the Freedom Bill.
The people of East Anglia and hon. Members of all parties were delighted when the Government decided in the spending review to dual the remainder of the A11. This morning, there was a serious accident on the A11. Can the Leader of the House therefore find time for a debate on when the improvements will begin?
I am only sorry that my hon. Friend was not in his place an hour ago, when we had Transport questions. He might have been able to catch Mr Speaker’s eye and ask the Secretary of State that question. [Hon. Members: “He was here.”] I regret his failure to do so. I will draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport the concerns about road safety on the A11 and ask him to write to my hon. Friend.
We have already heard that defence chiefs have said that scrapping the RAF’s Nimrods leaves a massive gap in British security. I listened to the right hon. Gentleman’s reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), but will he arrange an urgent debate in Government time to discuss the scrapping of planes that are vital to our national security and the consequences for our ability to defend our country?
I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns. The decision was announced in the strategic defence and security review in October. We then had a debate in Government time on precisely the issue that she has raised. The House has therefore had an opportunity to discuss our decision on Nimrod and other assets. Around £2 billion will be saved in the next 10 years by not bringing Nimrod into service. Against the background of the challenging circumstances that the Government face, we had to make difficult decisions about the defence budget.
Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) raised the question of school funding in Worcestershire. Although, like her, I welcome the impact of the pupil premium on our county, I am concerned that research from the campaign group F40 shows Worcestershire still languishing near the bottom of the league tables for per-pupil funding. Will the Leader of the House tell me what opportunities the Government can provide to debate the need for further reform of the national funding formula?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There will be a debate on the Education Bill, which could be an opportunity to raise the matter. I have also announced that we will debate the police grant and revenue support grant settlements, which may provide another opportunity. However, I agree that the system of school funding is unfair and needs reform. We are currently considering the school funding formula to develop a clear, transparent and fairer national funding formula based on pupils’ needs.
Will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent statement on what is to replace the education maintenance allowance? Last week, the Education Secretary made several commitments about transport costs and funding for looked-after children, students with learning difficulties and young carers. I understand that Library research, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) commissioned, suggests that fulfilling all those promises could cost as much as £420 million—three quarters of the current budget and a great deal more than the discretionary fund so far proposed. The Education Secretary is raising expectations and causing great confusion. Will the Leader of the House arrange for him to come and explain himself?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education will come and explain himself on Monday week, when he answers questions. We have just had a debate on the EMA, so it would not be realistic to expect the Government to find another opportunity, and I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman will be able to raise the issue that he has just mentioned on Second Reading of the Education Bill.
In the light of the incredible assertion by the shadow Secretary of State for Education that the Government’s focus on young people getting a good GCSE in English, maths, a science, a humanity and a foreign language is elitist, will my right hon. Friend assure me that the debate on the Education Bill will give us the chance to discuss the incredible lack of faith in our young people?
The Leader of the House will recognise the good work that the staff of Remploy do throughout the United Kingdom. Will the Government give time for a debate about what they can do to help relations between staff and management, which are obviously in a bad way, and to find out why the staff have now been waiting nearly a year for last year’s pay rise?
I understand the important issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. I do not know whether he is able to go to the Backbench Business Committee next Tuesday and submit a bid for a debate on that important matter, or apply for an Adjournment debate or a debate in Westminster Hall.
In the light of the shadow Chancellor’s assertions that we should have a splurge of new borrowing and spending, may we have a debate on interest rates? Low interest rates keep my constituents in their homes and help small business keep ticking over. It is important for the House to explore whether interest rates would be raised by the Opposition’s policies.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. Our success in tackling the deficit means that the interest rate regime will be lower than it otherwise would be. If we listened to Opposition Members’ policies, there would be a real risk of interest rates increasing, and home ownership, investment—and, therefore, jobs—becoming more difficult. I would welcome such a debate.
The Leader of the House will be aware of some disquiet among Welsh farming unions and the Welsh Government about the UK Government’s position on CAP reform. Will he ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make a statement on progress on developing a negotiating position that takes account of the devolved Governments’ views?
May we have a statement from the Defence Secretary on the possibility of preserving a proportion of the withdrawn Harrier jump jets on the basis that, over 10 years, some form of conflict might arise unexpectedly, in which the versatility of those valuable aircraft would be needed?
There will be an opportunity on Monday to raise that matter with the Secretary of State for Defence. I understand that following the strategic defence and security review, the Harrier aircraft were retired from service on 15 December, and that at the moment, there are no plans to retain them as a reserve or emergency capability. The decision to retire the fleet was agreed collectively by the service chiefs. As I said, my hon. Friend will have an opportunity on Monday to share his concerns with my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary.
Will the Leader of the House arrange a statement on the replacement for the financial inclusion fund, which funds independent advice agencies to give debt advice, and which we have learned will close at the end of March? That means that the local citizens advice bureau in my borough of Trafford will be forced to reduce the number of cases that it can handle by 500. Please can we urgently be told what Ministers intend to do to ensure that good-quality debt advice can be continued?