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Commons Chamber

Volume 524: debated on Thursday 10 March 2011

House of Commons

Thursday 10 March 2011

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Transport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Renewable Energy Directive

1. What recent representations he has received on the sustainability criteria in the renewable energy directive related to transport fuels; and if he will make a statement. (45274)

I have received recent representations on the renewable energy directive biofuels sustainability criteria from a number of non-governmental organisations, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. We share some of their concerns regarding the sustainability of some biofuels. For that reason, we propose to take a cautious approach, as set out in the consultation we have launched today on proposals to implement the transport elements of the directive and the associated fuel quality directive.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer. This morning I spoke with the owner of the 160-year-old haulage company, Joseph Rice, in my constituency of Gloucester, which is going into receivership. He believes that others might follow before long. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government should do what they can to help the sector, whether through incentives on biofuel or by reviewing things such as vehicle excise duty and road charges?

As my hon. Friend will know, matters relating to vehicle excise duty are for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. We believe that the future of the road freight sector depends on being able to decarbonise it, and at the moment the only viable option for decarbonisation is biofuel. Therefore, we believe that it is important that we prioritise available sustainable feedstocks for biofuels for use in sectors where no alternative viable options are available.

I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has said that there will be a consultation, because there was concern that we would rush towards implementation of the directive without people being able to discuss the related issues—but I am slightly concerned that he says that there are no sustainable alternatives to biofuels. As part of the consultation, will he seek advice on other suggestions being made by people working in this field so that we can move away from using biofuels and the subsequent impact on food crops and deforestation?

Our concerns are twofold: our approach is, of course, technology-neutral, but if alternative and sustainable solutions are suggested, we will be happy to look at them, and our focus must be on ensuring that the European Union, in its enthusiasm for biofuels, does not lose sight of the negative carbon impacts that some approaches to biofuel can have. We want to look at the whole lifecycle carbon effects of biofuel use, particularly the indirect land use effects.

I am glad that the Secretary of State has mentioned indirect land use impacts, and I welcome the statement made this morning by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), which explicitly highlighted the risks of indirect land use change as a result of imported biofuels. I ask for a joined-up approach to biofuels across Government. What discussion has the Secretary of State or his Department had with other Departments, particularly the Department for Communities and Local Government?

We have very regular discussions with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Energy and Climate Change and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Blue Badge Scheme

I have held recent meetings on blue badge reform with the British Parking Association and representatives from a range of disability groups, including Mobilise, the Joint Committee on Mobility for Disabled People and the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee. These groups have welcomed our plans to modernise the scheme.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Blue badge fraud costs £46 million a year, so can he tell the House what more can be done to combat it?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and I agree that abuse of the scheme is a serious problem that prevents those who need to access disabled parking spaces from doing so, as a fifth of all badges are improperly used. I am pleased to be able to tell him that the steps I announced recently include steps to combat fraud, including a new badge design that will be harder to alter or forge, a new administration system that will enable local authorities to check details of new badges issued anywhere in England, and new powers for local authorities to cancel or seize badges.

If the Department for Work and Pensions is seeking a 20% reduction in the entitlement to the mobility component of disability living allowance in the switch to the personal independence payment, has the Minister any estimate for the consequent reduction in blue badge eligibility?

High-speed Rail

3. What recent progress he has made on implementation of the high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham; and if he will make a statement. (45276)

The Government believe that a national high-speed rail network would promote economic growth and the diversification of the UK economy. On 28 February I launched a major public consultation on the case for such a network and on the proposed route for an initial line. The consultation will run until 29 July, and following that consultation a decision will be taken by the end of this year.

I am grateful for that answer. We understand from the consultation that some businesses which will benefit from High Speed 2 might be asked to contribute towards the cost. That might be reasonable, but as the national exhibition centre and Birmingham airport will be asked to help with the cost of the proposed interchange station, will the Government be reasonable in giving assurances about west coast main line improvements and regional aviation policy, in order to enable them to achieve the visitor and passenger numbers that they will need?

Both Birmingham airport and the national exhibition centre are extremely supportive of the High Speed 2 proposals. The consultation is predicated on the entire line being built with public money, but it also says that we think there will be opportunities for private sector development-led funding of some of the station infrastructure, and that is what we will discuss with private sector partners such as the NEC and Birmingham airport.

May I urge the Secretary of State to keep his nerve on this matter? I welcome the consultation, and our cities need high-speed links—certainly in Yorkshire and in the northern regions. May I urge him in addition to ignore some of the deniers—they are also climate change deniers—who have had letters published in the newspapers this morning?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that comment. Those who oppose the building of the line have clearly identified themselves and their direct interests in this matter. It is now for those who will stand to benefit the most, particularly in our great northern cities, to voice their support during the consultation period.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the letter today in The Daily Telegraph, signed by, among many, Lord Lawson of Blaby, who many of us felt during his time in the House was an outstanding Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Ultra-light Rail

Last year I initiated a review of light rail to establish how construction and operational costs might be reduced. The terms of reference include ultra-light rail, and the report is due shortly.

Will the Minister work with London’s Mayor and examine the viability of ultra-light rail systems, or indeed their big brother, tram systems, in connecting Croydon with Sutton?

I am very keen to make light rail more economically sensible, and that is covered by the review, which will, I hope, lead to changes that enable light rail to be extended to other areas of the country. We have done so already with the Midland Metro system and in Nottingham, and I am very happy to talk to the Mayor about what might be helpful for London.

Is there not a stark contrast between the continent of Europe, where light rail and ultra-light rail schemes are going full speed ahead, and Britain, where we cannot seem to get them to work at all? Is not the full cost of digging up and replacing all the utilities under the road loaded on to the transport schemes? Those costs should be taken out of such schemes and paid for directly by the state.

I understand that the construction costs per mile are much higher here than in other countries, and that is one reason why I initiated the review. Many representations have also been made to me about the precise matter that the hon. Gentleman raises—the cost associated with utilities—and that is a central part of the review I am undertaking.

Rail Transport (South-east)

Despite the crisis in the public finances, the Government have secured investment of more than £18 billion in rail capital projects, including Thameslink and Crossrail, which will deliver major benefits to the south-east as well as to the national economy. To protect the interests of passengers, the Department for Transport also monitors the performance of train operators under their franchise contracts.

The issue in the south-east seems to be capacity, and we cannot continue to put ever more passengers on the same lines. Does the Minister agree that an upgrade of the Brighton to Ashford line might increase capacity and improve the quality of travel for passengers, and that it would be a great addition for all residents of the south-east?

My hon. Friend has fought a long campaign on that issue, and I understand why she fights in that way for her constituents. However, the project would be expensive and, in the light of passenger usage, probably hard to justify in value-for-money terms—but I am always prepared to keep an open mind on it, as something to consider for the future. It is also the case, however, that significant capacity was introduced to the south-east in December 2009, and of course more will follow with the Crossrail and Thameslink projects.

May I ask the Minister for her Department’s thinking in respect of Southeastern’s application to vary its franchise commitment on exits and entrances to Lewisham station? Southeastern’s proposal to close the exit from platform 4 is opposed by the vast majority of my constituents who use the station, and I urge her to take their views into account when making a decision.

I have to acknowledge to the hon. Lady that that is not an application to vary the franchise that I have yet received. Of course, when such decisions are taken it is very important for the views of local stakeholders—passengers—to be properly taken into account in terms of the outcome.

My right hon. Friend was right to talk about the benefits of Thameslink, but many in south London will not enjoy the full benefits unless Network Rail timetables through trains from the Sutton loop. Will she ensure that Network Rail continues to keep that option open?

I will certainly expect Network Rail to do all it can to minimise the disruption caused for passengers by the works under way on Thameslink and forthcoming works at major London termini. I will keep my hon. Friend’s proposal in mind, and I am happy to discuss it with Network Rail. I believe that he and I are meeting to discuss this soon.

Will the Minister of State rule out breaking up our national rail infrastructure and handing those vital assets to the private sector, creating in the south-east and across the country what has been described as a series of mini-Railtracks?

The hon. Lady knows perfectly well that this Government have shown a major commitment to investment in our railways, but we expect the rail industry to rise to the challenge of reducing costs, which spiralled under her Government. For the sake of taxpayers and fare payers, the cost of running the railways needs to come down. We expect Sir Roy McNulty to come up with workable proposals for delivering that essential goal.

The whole House will have heard the Minister refuse to rule out a return to the days of Railtrack, with private profit, not safety in the interests of passengers, coming first. She is in danger of repeating the shambles of rail privatisation, so will she urge her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to think again, step back from this ideologically driven plan to fracture our rail industry further, and abandon this recipe for disaster?

The hon. Lady was a member of the Government who established the McNulty review to find out the answers to the very questions that she is asking, yet she wants me to rule out a range of options before Sir Roy McNulty has had a chance to report. This is a review that the Labour Government set up, and I think it makes sense to wait for Sir Roy’s report before making a decision.

Rail (Branch Lines)

6. What assessment he has made of the role of branch lines on the rail network in stimulating growth and employment. (45279)

The Government recognise the positive role that branch lines can play in supporting economic growth. Such lines receive substantial support from the taxpayer via the train operator subsidy and Network Rail grant. In addition, the DFT’s community rail strategy is aimed at making it easier for local communities to get involved in promoting and supporting local lines.

With the big society in mind, will the Minister of State be sympathetic to a local community in my constituency who are interested in making use of the Berkeley line to develop tourism and links between communities and to stimulate economic growth?

I am very impressed with the work being done by local volunteers and enthusiasts on that project. I know that they have applied for lottery funding. As for the logistics of getting such projects up and running, they would need to think about long-term sources of funding and discuss their plans with Network Rail and local train operators, as well as local authorities. I understand that they are considering both heritage tourist use and commuter use. It is often very difficult to combine the two, so they might want to keep their ambitions within a reasonable scope if they are to succeed.

In view of the McNulty report’s interim findings, will the Minister refuse to go ahead with a policy of saving money by a wholesale closure of branch lines, which would create a second Beeching?

There is no suggestion of doing that. The point of the McNulty review is to find a way to deliver current services—and, one hopes, more services in the future—at a lower cost to the taxpayer. It is vital that Sir Roy comes up with good proposals for doing that if we are to relieve the burden on the taxpayer and the fare payer.

Cycling

We have announced a local sustainable transport fund of £560 million over four years, which we are committed to even in these difficult times. We are also committed to funding Bikeability cycle training for the remainder of this Parliament.

Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the opening this coming weekend of the first sections of east Hampshire’s super-scenic highway for cyclists, walkers and riders, Shipwrights way, which will link in with the rail network for commuters and recreational users of the new South Downs national park?

We welcome that project, and I understand that there are proposals for an extension, for which I am sure that the local authority will bid to the local sustainable transport fund for funding.

Of course, it is not possible for me to come here from my constituency on a bike—although many of my constituents believe that I should, on the basis of the recent exposure of expenses. One area of concern is the number of potholes on the roads. What is being done about potholes, because everybody knows that they are a major problem, given the recent climatic conditions?

Local authorities are doing their best to deal with potholes. We will announce at least an additional £100 million to help local authorities to fill potholes.

Local Authority Major Transport Schemes

8. What criteria he proposes to use to determine his Department’s spending on local authority major transport schemes. (45281)

We will announce in due course the criteria for allocating the remaining funds to projects in the development pool. It is likely to be done on the basis of an appraisal of value for money, the proportion of non-Department for Transport funding, deliverability, strategic importance, and a consideration of the balance between modes and regions. It remains my objective to develop a system of capital funding allocation to sub-national areas so that in future spending review periods, priorities can be determined locally.

Harlow council and Essex county council are highly supportive of a new M11 junction near Harlow, and local housing development could help to pay for it. Will the Secretary of State look at plans for the new junction, given that the cost to the taxpayer could be minimal?

That is a matter for consideration in future local authority major scheme application rounds. As I have indicated, I hope that those will be carried out on a much more devolved basis—but I can say to my hon. Friend that any scheme that levers in private money to reduce the cost to the taxpayer, and thus improve the cost-benefit ratio that the taxpayer sees, is likely to have an advantage in any future competition.

In that context, will the Secretary of State consider the proposals for a Surrey Canal Road station in my constituency, on which I made representations to the Government last year? My local authority has put money into the design stage and the local developer, Renewal, is putting up a lot of money to ensure that the station can at least be started. I hope that the Government will support that vital piece of infrastructure.

I am happy to look at the matter, to discuss it again with the Mayor of London and to consider the points that the right hon. Lady has raised.

Free Bus Services

9. What recent representations he has received on the removal of bus service operators grant from free bus services. (45282)

I have received one letter from the Passenger Transport Executive Group and my officials have had discussions with the Confederation of Passenger Transport about the eligibility of bus service operators grant for free bus services. My hon. Friend, too, has written to me about this matter, as he knows.

An example of an important free bus service is the Cambridge city centre circular route, which goes through the pedestrianised area and provides essential access for the elderly, the disabled and those who otherwise could not get around. The route is at risk not only from the change to the bus service operators grant, but from a rather mistaken county council policy. Will the Minister consider whether support can be given to that essential service, and encourage the county council to support it?

My officials discovered last year that some bus services receiving bus service operators grant were not eligible under the regulations because they were free services. As a result, the grant had to stop being paid. My officials wrote to operators in November to tell them that, and I have subsequently received representations on the matter. I believe that there is a case for continuing to pay BSOG for at least some of those services, so I will explore whether we can change the powers in respect of free bus services. We will continue to allow the submission of bus subsidy claims for free services, pending a resolution of this matter. My officials have told Stagecoach and Cambridgeshire county council about this decision. I therefore hope that between them, they can reach an agreement to continue to run that important shuttle bus.

Does the Minister not understand that although the cuts to bus fuel subsidy may not come in until next year, cuts to bus services are happening now, thanks to the massive front-loaded 28% cut in local transport funding? In the election campaign, the Prime Minister was very clear that he would not axe the national concessionary travel scheme—but does the Minister understand that for pensioners up and down the country, there is no point in having a free bus pass if there is no bus?

Pensioners will, I hope, be pleased by the fact that the Government have guaranteed the concessionary fare scheme in its entirety as inherited from the last Government. I hope they will also be pleased that the 78% of services provided through support from the BSOG arrangements will not be affected in any way this year, and that the BSOG reduction is being phased in in a way that operators themselves say they hope will not lead to reductions in service or an increase in fares—

Speed Limits

I have not received any representations about consistency in the setting of speed limits in rural areas. The Department for Transport issues guidelines for local authorities, and it is for them to decide what speed limits are required in their area.

There is a very considerable problem in Lincolnshire, with speed limits being set at inappropriate and inconsistent levels in accordance with policies set by the county council, which many feel do not take into account the guidance to which the Minister has referred. What can he do about that, and will he undertake to meet me, and local campaigners, to discuss the matter further?

I will be more than happy to meet my hon. and learned Friend, his local authority and campaigners to discuss that issue. The guidance is there for local authorities to implement, and we will see what we can do to ensure that things are better in his area.

Rail Electrification

The Government’s policy is to support the progressive electrification of the railway. The Department for Transport will continue to consider the business case for the scheme that my hon. Friend mentions as part of the work to inform decisions in the next railway control period, beginning in 2014.

Does the Secretary of State agree that there would be huge benefits to the east midlands from the electrification of the line? Given the massive economic and housing growth predicted for the east midlands over the next few years, an early timetable for electrification of the line would be very helpful to business and planners.

My hon. Friend is right to note that there is a strong case, on the face of it, for the electrification of the midland main line. He will know that there are works currently under way on the line to improve line speeds, and I had the opportunity to view them from the cab of an East Midlands Trains service on Monday. When they are completed at the end of 2013, they will result in the journey time from London to Sheffield being reduced to less than two hours.

Does the Secretary of State accept that in the last assessment, the business case for the electrification of the midland main line was just as strong as that for the Great Western line? As he is not prepared at this stage to commit to the electrification of the line in one go, will he re-examine the possibility of introducing the new bi-modal trains on the line? On that basis there could be incremental electrification without the up-front costs coming all at once.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s question, and I am aware of the proposal that East Midlands Trains is examining to introduce bi-modal running on the line. The difference between the midland main line and the Great Western main line is that the midland main line’s future function will be affected by the decision on High Speed 2. It is right that we consider the matter as one for the next control period, in the full light of the decision on HS2 that will be taken later this year.

12. What recent representations he has received on the electrification of rail lines between Cardiff and Swansea and west of Swansea. (45285)

I have received representations calling for electrification of the Great Western main line to be extended as far west as Swansea. We have looked carefully at the arguments but I regret to tell the hon. Gentleman that there is not, at present, a viable business case for electrification of the main line between Cardiff and Swansea. I have given the House an undertaking that I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will keep the matter under review.

I regret to inform the Secretary of State that last week’s announcement went down like a lead balloon in the communities in west Wales that I represent. Later in the week, the Business Secretary made a speech saying that investment in high-speed rail and electrification was an example of how the UK Government were going to rebalance the economy. Is the message therefore that as far as the UK Government are concerned, the Welsh economy stops at Cardiff?

No, I will tell the hon. Gentleman what the message is. It is that my announcement last week will result in the journey time to Swansea being cut by 20 minutes, to two hours and 39 minutes, delivering to people in Swansea all the time-saving benefits that would be delivered were electrification to progress as far as Swansea. I am sorry to have to tell him this, but if he looks at the facts of the case, the costs to the taxpayer and the benefits to the people of Swansea, he will discover that at the present time our decision is the right one. As I have said, we will keep it under review.

I am sorry to return to this subject, but will my right hon. Friend tell the House what feasibility studies have been undertaken on how long the Severn rail tunnel will be closed when the electrification project is under way? Would alternative diversion routes, such as the Kemble to Swindon rail scheme, be useful additions when the scheme is constructed?

My hon. Friend is extremely diligent in pursuing the Swindon to Kemble rail scheme. Our proposals will require electrification through the Severn tunnel. I have not yet received a detailed proposal from Network Rail on how engineering work will be carried out, but we will be mindful of the potential for disruption.

I shall not express my disappointment with the decision again, but I would like to know this: are you going to publish the information on how you reached the financial decision? People in Swansea ought to be told what that decision was based on.

If the hon. Lady would like to see the business case analysis for electrification from Cardiff to Swansea, I am happy to make it available to her. I can tell her that it will not reinforce her case.

Satellite Navigation Systems

13. What assessment he has made of the potential for satellite navigation systems to increase the proportion of journeys undertaken by haulage companies using major routes. (45286)

No such assessment has been made by the Department. It is for hauliers to plan their routes and for satellite navigation system providers to provide the technology that ensures that hauliers use the appropriate routeing.

Last weekend I came bonnet to bonnet with a huge articulated lorry in the village of Wingham on a very small rural A road. What can we do through the sat-nav system to distinguish rural A roads from the dual carriageways that lorries should be using?

I am very aware of that problem, because it happens in my constituency as well, but there are new satellite navigation systems specifically for hauliers, which include software to ensure that hauliers stay on their routes. There is no benefit to hauliers in going down side roads, and local authorities have the powers to make weight restrictions if necessary. I will look into the problem in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Haulage companies that avoid the M62 by travelling between the M1 and Manchester via the Snake and Woodhead passes are one cause of severe congestion in the Longdendale area of my constituency. If the Minister cannot influence that through satellite navigation companies, will he bear in mind the need for some form of bypass in the Longdendale area?

It might be easier to speak to manufacturers of satellite navigation systems than to build a bypass. As I said, software specifically for hauliers is now available, which should alleviate the problem as it rolls out.

Marine and Coastguard Agency

14. If he will carry out a risk assessment of his proposals for the reorganisation of the Marine and Coastguard Agency. (45287)

The coastguard service is under consultation at the moment. A suite of documents published on 11 February are part of the consultation as we go forward. We have received more than 1,000 submissions, and it is important that the public should feel part of the consultation. We are coming towards the end of that consultation period, on 24 March, but further submissions will be allowed via a six-month extension, which I announced today.

Can the Minister explain how staff in Aberdeen or Southampton will make decisions on which search and rescue units should respond to emergencies? No matter how much training takes place at the new control centres, staff at existing centres, including Crosby, have decades of experience and know the local search and rescue staff personally, so will the Minister explain how the new control centres will improve safety?

First, Mr Speaker, may I just correct myself? The extension of the consultation is for six weeks, not six months.

All the control centres that I have visited—I was in Belfast yesterday, and I have been to Crosby—accept that we must modernise the service and go forward. The robustness and resilience of the service is not there. We have had some fantastic submissions and people have engaged with the consultation. The submission made yesterday in Belfast accepted that we need to close stations and have a resilient system. As soon as we have that we will have a better service, but we will look at all the submissions as they are made.

I welcome what the Minister has confirmed—that there will be an extension to the consultation process on the future of the coastguard service. Does the Minister agree that it is important for him to visit Falmouth coastguard during the extension period, to see at first hand the excellent work done there?

It is an extension for the receipt of submissions on the consultation. The visits will be as they were, and we should visit most of the stations. I am conscious that I have had to cancel a meeting with my hon. Friend’s constituents and the working group there, so I shall do my level best to visit Falmouth as soon as I can.

Does the Minister not accept that if we close more than half of the coastguard stations and lose 226 of the 600 current staff, local knowledge will be lost?

Local knowledge is vital, but nearly every coastguard station I have visited accepts that we have to modernise the service and that coastguard stations will be closed. As long as we accept that, we can roll forward a modern service. However, we cannot just be nimbyist and say, “Our one is okay. Nothing must close.” All the stations have accepted the need for modernisation, and we will work with the excellent, professional coastguard service to provide a 21st-century service.

Topical Questions

Since the previous Transport questions, I have launched a consultation on our proposals for high-speed rail, given the go-ahead for the £4.5 billion inter-city express programme, announced further electrification of the Great Western main line as far as Cardiff, announced £100 million-plus of additional funding to local authorities for pothole repairs and confirmed funding for a further nine local major transport schemes.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the European Aviation Safety Agency is currently consulting on flight time hours. I have been contacted by pilots living in my area who are keen that we export our high safety standards to the rest of Europe, and conclude that they will catch us up on fatigue and airline safety.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have received, as I am sure other Members have, a great deal of correspondence on this issue. We are working with the Civil Aviation Authority to ensure that the European approach remains proportionate and appropriate. I assure her that we will not agree to anything that lessens safety levels in this country.

At our previous exchange, I asked the Secretary of State about rising fuel prices, and he said:

“I am pleased to say that it is not my business to do anything about this”.—[Official Report, 27 January 2011; Vol. 522, c. 435.]

Up and down the country, motorists will think that it is precisely the business of the Transport Secretary—the clue is in the job title. We are calling on the Government to reverse the VAT hike and consider deferring the next duty rise. What has he done?

Perhaps in due course the hon. Gentleman will learn that the occasional piece of humour does not go amiss in the Chamber. It is not the responsibility of the Transport Secretary to manage world oil markets, and it is not the responsibility of the Transport Secretary to deal with VAT or fuel duty. The latter are matters for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who will no doubt allude to them in his Budget speech on 23 March.

T3. I recognise the benefits that high-speed rail will bring to Birmingham and the northern cities it services, but will my right hon. Friend outline what benefits might be brought to the wider environs, such as the black country—a part of which I represent—and any towns along the route where it does not stop? (45296)

The benefits for my hon. Friend’s constituents of high-speed rail will be twofold. First, there are the benefits that will accrue to the west midlands region in general from the high-speed railway from London to Birmingham, and the benefits to the UK economy of enhanced productivity and competitiveness as a whole. Secondly, moving passengers on to the high-speed railway and creating large amounts of additional capacity will allow our existing railway to be used more innovatively, with new passenger and freight services for the future.

T2. As the Minister will be aware, passengers travelling from Northern Ireland to London will be hit by two increases—the air passenger duty increase and the passenger landing charges being proposed at Heathrow and Gatwick. What discussions will the Minister have with the Northern Ireland Executive and other colleagues in government to ensure that there is still good access between London and Northern Ireland for business commuters? (45295)

I refer to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State: taxation is a matter for the Chancellor. I am sure that he will bear in mind the impact of decisions on air passenger duty on regional connectivity. This Government fully recognise the importance of good regional connections between London and all parts of the United Kingdom.

T5. One way to help hard-pressed rural motorists in my constituency would be to reverse some of the short-sighted Beeching decisions taken decades ago that ripped the heart out of our rural railway services. Will the Secretary of State undertake to look closely at one proposal on the table—that of the TransWilts railway, which would link Swindon, Salisbury and stops in between, and bring enormous economic benefits to the county of Wiltshire? (45298)

I know that my hon. Friend has done great work on this issue, and that there is a lot of activity locally. She will appreciate that such projects, which have primarily local benefits, need to find funding locally. It is therefore important that she should engage with the local authorities, Network Rail and the train operators to see what might be logistically feasible in getting the project off the ground.

T4. The Secretary of State has today offered my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) sight of the business case for the decision in Swansea, but we were previously promised that the full facts and everything about the case would be placed in the Library. That has not happened yet. In view of the importance of what is a major European route, including its importance to the economy of west Wales, will the Secretary of State promise to put all the details in the Library without delay? (45297)

Yes, I am happy to do so, although I should tell the right hon. Gentleman that, despite what was said at the time, the previous Government did not conduct a business case analysis of the proposal for electrification from Cardiff to Swansea.

I warmly welcome the Government’s clear commitment to take high-speed rail to Leeds, but will the Secretary of State give proper consideration in the consultation to the high-speed north proposal by Harrogate engineer Colin Elliff? The route would not go through the Chilterns, hence avoiding some of the environmental concerns there.

There will be a consultation on the line of route between Birmingham and Manchester, and between Birmingham and Leeds respectively, once line options have been developed by HS2. That consultation will take place early next year, and I look forward to my hon. Friend’s participation in it.

T6. Does the Minister intend his direction of travel to lead towards the inevitable break-up and privatisation of Network Rail, in order to appease the probably insatiable appetite of the rail operating companies? (45299)

As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said earlier, Sir Roy McNulty is conducting a review of value for money in the rail industry. One of his preliminary findings is that we need better alignment of interests between train operators and the infrastructure operator. Network Rail has responded to those recommendations, unprompted, by announcing that it will give greater autonomy to its regional route managing directors. I think that is a step in the right direction.

On 23 March, the people of Dover will vote in a referendum on whether they want a people’s port big society change in Dover. If the people vote for the big society, will the Secretary of State help to implement it?

My hon. Friend is tenacious in his work for the people of Dover. As he knows, the Minister of State is still looking at the proposals for Dover, and at this time it would be improper for me to say any more.

A few minutes ago the Secretary of State was asked a perfectly reasonable question about whether he was speaking up for motorists on the VAT increase. He was not asked whether he would implement it; he was asked for his view. Has he said anything to the Chancellor? Why does he not open his mouth about the massive rise in petrol prices? Come on, let’s hear what his view is!

How can I resist a suggestion from the hon. Gentleman to open one’s mouth? I can tell him this: I speak regularly to the Chancellor on a range of matters, and the content of those discussions will remain private.

London has rightly invested in the necessary infrastructure to ensure that the Olympics are a success, so will the Secretary of State work with the Rugby Football Union, Network Rail and local authorities to ensure that the rugby world cup in 2015 is not overlooked, and that we can have a station that is fit for the home of rugby and can meet the demands?

We will certainly be working with all those stakeholders on the preparations for the rugby world cup, and plans are already under way to lengthen platforms at Twickenham station. We are also in negotiations to add new carriages into Waterloo. We have not yet taken a decision on where they will go, but Twickenham might benefit from that. I know that there is an interesting local scheme to redevelop the station, which could generate significant local benefits, and that the local authorities and other stakeholders are working hard to try to take that forward.

At great expense, a station has been built on High Speed 1 that says “Stratford International” on the outside, even though no international trains stop there. When will this rather embarrassing state of affairs be resolved?

Operational matters on High Speed 1 are a matter for the concessionaire and for the companies operating the services. I can tell the House that Deutsche Bahn intends to start running services from Frankfurt to London in 2012, and I hope that other operators will start to run similar services. That will be good news for passengers in general, and probably good news for the right hon. Gentleman’s campaign. The more operators there are on the route, the more chance there is of getting additional services.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, but this topical questions session is always a rather shorter one, and demand has exceeded supply. We must now move on to questions to the Minister for Women and Equalities.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Human Trafficking

1. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on the support available to women trafficked to the UK. (45303)

The Government are determined to ensure that all identified victims of this terrible crime receive the support to which they are entitled. Ministers work together, including through the interdepartmental group on human trafficking, to ensure that we achieve that objective.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. Support is absolutely critical for women who have been trafficked. Will she clarify whether the new Home Office policy on human trafficking will include at least a three-month period of support, as recommended by the European Union group of experts on trafficking in human beings in its opinion of 16 April 2004?

The Council of Europe convention, to which we have signed up, sets a minimum of 30 days. I am pleased to reassure my hon. and learned Friend, however, that in this country we have a minimum 45-day extendable recovery period for accommodation, counselling or reintegration if desired.

We found that using a single contractor was extremely inflexible and led to a lack of capacity. The lack of bed capacity meant that voluntary organisations were taking in trafficked women and, because they were going all over the place, it was impossible to have proper oversight of all those who needed help and support. For that reason, we have changed the procurement process.

Women are trafficked not only to the UK but within these islands. Will the Minister and her ministerial colleagues use the auspices of the British-Irish Council to improve support for women who have been trafficked throughout these islands, as well as to improve enforcement?

We are happy to work with all the nations on this serious issue to stop women being trafficked within and without these islands.

It is the parliamentary spring, and in this country it is quite difficult to tell, but it will happen in due course.

Since my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) raised the European directive on human trafficking with the Prime Minister on 15 September, the issue has been raised at least 40 times in this Chamber alone. The final text of the directive was agreed by the European Parliament more than 12 weeks ago. How often do we need to ask the Minister about this? How long does she need before she decides that Britain will sign up to the directive?

We are undertaking proper consideration and discussion with the devolved Administrations, but I can assure the hon. Lady that it will not be that much longer.

Discrimination in Sport

2. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport on discrimination in sport on the grounds of sexual orientation. (45304)

On 14 February, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities and I hosted a round table on homophobia and transphobia in sport with my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport and the Olympics. This was attended by the national governing bodies of football, rugby union, rugby league, tennis and cricket. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and Pride Sports were also in attendance. We believe that everyone should be able to participate in sport and enjoy sport free from discrimination on account of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

We have recently seen positive role models coming out in rugby and cricket, to much support from the general public and the sports community. What steps is the Minister taking to encourage a similar welcoming atmosphere in football—the nation’s most popular sport?

I would like to put on record our congratulations to Steven Davies, the English cricketer, and Gareth Thomas, the Welsh rugby player on coming out. This is an important issue and we look forward to working with the Football Association to create an atmosphere and ambience in which footballers should feel free to come out as they wish—not just for the sake of the league and themselves, but for the sake of youngsters all over the country who should be able to play on any sports field free of any discrimination.

Parental Leave

3. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on parental leave for maternity and paternity. (45305)

The Government are committed to introducing a system of flexible parental leave that recognises the needs of businesses and parents, balancing work and family life. We will consult fully on this reform, particularly with small and medium-sized enterprises. An announcement will be made later in the spring.

How does the Minister propose to ensure that the welcome result of more flexible and more family-friendly working will not adversely affect small business?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue, which I know is important to many hon. Members. The Government have a strong culture of regulatory restraint, but we need to make sure that regulations keep pace with family life and the realities of parents needing to balance their family life with work. We are already in discussions with employers about how to ensure that the proposals we put forward will benefit businesses and families. We will make sure that the consultation informs our decision.

The Minister will know that evidence shows that women on low incomes are less likely than those on higher incomes to take their full maternity leave because they struggle to afford it. She will also know that the impact of cutting the baby element of the tax credit, the Sure Start maternity allowance and other measures will take an estimated £1,200 from young families with small children. Will she assess the impact of those cuts on mothers’ ability to take maternity leave? Does she agree that this means more new mums will feel forced to go back to work earlier than they would choose because they cannot afford either the rent or the mortgage?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. As we put forward a whole package of support for families, we will obviously do everything we can to make sure we support women on low incomes—or, indeed, parents on low incomes—to get back into work. I know that the proposals in the Welfare Reform Bill, which was debated yesterday—and particularly the way universal credit will deal with child care—will help people to be able properly to make those decisions.

Gender Pay Gap

The Office for National Statistics estimates that the median gender pay gap for full-time work for men and women was 10.2% in 2010, and the median gap comparing all men and women was 19.8%. The Government are committed to promoting equal pay, including, for example, working with employers to help them publish equality data about their work force on a voluntary basis. We will also consult shortly on proposals to include flexibility at work.

I am grateful, and the Home Secretary’s commitment to this issue is well known. Men in this place and in the country feel as angry about the gender pay gap as do women. Given that this week is the 100th anniversary of the celebration of international women’s day, will the Home Secretary confirm that if we can deal effectively with the gender pay gap, it could have a huge effect on Britain’s growth and success economically? Will she set out that commitment to bring those two policies together?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is absolutely right that where we see a gender pay gap it is often a reflection of the under-utilisation of women’s skills in the workplace, and the under-utilisation of women’s skills certainly has an impact on the economy. If we were able to ensure that women’s skills were being used at the appropriate level and that women were able to progress through to appropriate levels in companies, for example, it would indeed be positive for growth. That explains our commitment, working with Lord Davies, to see more women on company boards.

What assessment has been made of the impact of legal aid cuts, in the context of employment law cases, on the ability of women to challenge gender pay inequality through our legal system?

As the hon. Lady may know, we have been looking into the whole question of employment tribunals and pay discrimination cases. We are considering the possibility of making things easier by enabling a single decision to apply to anyone in a company rather than requiring people to go to employment tribunals on an individual basis.

Media Images of Women

6. What recent representations she has received on the regulation of airbrushed images of women in the media. (45308)

I have received representations from concerned members of the public, the advertising industry and other interested parties about the regulation of airbrushed images of women in the media. Last November I met a group of experts to discuss our shared concerns and the evidence that it had assembled on matters such as the way in which media representations of body shape can affect self-confidence and well-being. I am working with the group, with relevant industries and with the Advertising Standards Authority to identify non-legislative ways of tackling the issue.

Is the Minister aware of the petition submitted by Girlguiding UK to the Prime Minister on 4 November that called for compulsory labelling to distinguish between airbrushed and natural images? What steps will she take to ensure that consumers, especially the young, know when images have been altered?

I am aware of the Girlguiding petition. It is an excellent petition, signed by thousands of young girls. It is true that the impression given to young girls by airbrushed images has a devastating effect. We are not considering legislative processes, but following my meeting with representatives of Media Smart, a not-for-profit organisation, Media Smart is developing as part of its programme a media literacy kit for youngsters at school that will help them to become more aware that what they see is not necessarily what is real.

What impact assessment has the Minister made of the impact of airbrushed pictures of the Prime Minister on the self-confidence—

Order. I want to be helpful to the hon. Gentleman and the House. The question is about airbrushed images of women. The Prime Minister is not a woman. [Interruption.] Order. That is the end of the matter. We will leave it there.

Caring Responsibilities

One in seven working people has caring responsibilities, and many of those people are women. The Government want people to be able to balance work and family life, and the Government are committed to removing the barriers that can prevent that. We will introduce flexible parental leave, extend help with child care to the most disadvantaged, and extend the right to request flexible working.

Does the Minister agree that £10,000 a year would go a long way towards helping women with their caring responsibilities? Would she care to look into the £10,000 per annum disparity between the starting salaries of parliamentary case workers, a disproportionate number of whom are women, and parliamentary assistants? The Independent Parliamentary Salaries Authority recently refused to respond to a question about that from my office, and I should be grateful if the Minister investigated.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. It is important for transparency to apply to all pay issues. I think that this is indeed a matter for IPSA to consider, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman approach it again.

One way of making it easier for women to balance care responsibilities with work would be to achieve a better balance between men and women in relation to who does the caring. Does the Minister think that shared parental leave, which the Government consider so important, might have the additional benefit of making employers in the mould of Lord Sugar less likely to discriminate against women of childbearing age in the recruitment process, because men and women alike might take parental leave?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Shared parental leave has an important role to play in the workplace, both in reflecting the realities of modern living and in helping to ensure that the gender inequalities that the House has worked so hard to reduce are reduced even further.

During yesterday’s debate on the Welfare Reform Bill, it became clear that no more money would go into child care and that the existing money would have to go much further, especially when the Government are placing new obligations on women to find work. What will the Government do about that?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made clear in yesterday’s debate, support for child care costs will be provided as an additional element as part of the universal credit, and we will invest at least the same amount in child care as under the current system. That is important at a time of fiscal restraint. We will go further, however, and make sure we target that money at people working fewer than 16 hours —who in the past perhaps have not received as much help as they need—thus getting more people closer to the labour market.

Civil Partnerships

On 17 February, we announced our intention to implement section 202 of the Equality Act 2010, which removes the ban in England and Wales on civil partnership registrations being held on religious premises. It is a permissive provision, which means that religious organisations that do not wish to host civil partnership registrations will not be required to do so. This is a positive step for lesbian, gay and bisexual rights and for religious freedom, and I hope Members on both sides of the House will welcome it.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that there is no prospect whatever of the voluntary nature of these civil partnership registrations being turned, by the intervention of the courts, into a right, whereby the long-standing opposition from most churches, mosques and synagogues will be overridden?

I would make two points in response to my hon. Friend’s question. First, this provision was introduced as an amendment to the Equality Bill because religious organisations asked to be able to hold civil partnership ceremonies on their religious premises. It was introduced before the election and was widely supported, and we have decided to go ahead with it. To reassure my hon. Friend, however, I point out that section 202 says:

“For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in this Act places an obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnerships if they do not wish to do so.”

That is the legal background against which the provision will be introduced.

Corporate Boards

9. When she expects Lord Davies to make recommendations on the removal of barriers to women serving on corporate boards. (45311)

Lord Davies reported, with his recommendations, on 24 February. The Government have welcomed the Davies report. We are engaging with business in considering his recommendations, and we encourage regulators, investors and executive search firms to take forward those recommendations that fall to them.

In addition to the measures the Prime Minister outlined yesterday, does my right hon. Friend agree that we can learn a lot from the legislators of Denmark and Spain about smoothing the path of women on to boards and into other avenues of public life?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we must look at international experience; indeed, Lord Davies did that in putting together his report. I especially commend the Australian “If not, why not” model, which has been particularly successful in achieving a significant increase in the number of women on boards without resorting to quotas or increasing the burdens on business.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 14 March will be:

Monday 14 March—Consideration in Committee of the Scotland Bill (Day 2).

Tuesday 15 March—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Scotland Bill (Day 3).

Wednesday 16 March—Opposition Day (13th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by a motion to approve a document relating to section 6 of the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008.

Thursday 17 March—General debate on north Africa and the middle east.

Friday 18 March—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 21 March will include:

Monday 21 March—Remaining stages of the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill [Lords], followed by motion relating to Members’ salaries.

Tuesday 22 March—Remaining stages of the Scotland Bill.

Wednesday 23 March—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

Thursday 24 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 24 March 2011 will be a debate on the future of the coastguard service.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that reply. Has he seen today’s news of the killing of civilians in Zawiyal and of the arrest and torture of three BBC journalists? Will he join me in condemning that action and in expressing support for those standing up against oppression and those who are bringing us the truth in their reports? These are voices that Colonel Gaddafi is desperate to silence.

When may we expect to have a statement on Lord Hutton’s pensions report? Why will the Report stage of the Scotland Bill be on 22 March, given that the Government have made it clear they will introduce a new clause, one that was not part of the Calman recommendations and on which consultation does not close until 13 May? Should not this House consider it first?

Last week, the role of prayers at the start of our proceedings was raised, and the Leader of the House will, of course, be familiar with Matthew, chapter 25, verse 35:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in”.

While we reflect on helping those in need, may we have an urgent statement from the Communities Secretary, because it seems that his Department is supporting Westminster city council’s plan to make it an offence to feed homeless people in one part of central London? Under its proposed byelaw entitled, with an Orwellian lack of irony, “Good Rule and Government (No. 3)”, anyone found offering free refreshments—that is, soup, bread and water—to homeless people will be liable to a fine of up to £500. Westminster city council also wants to outlaw the act of lying down or sleeping in a public place. When this was first reported, many people refused point blank to believe that it was true, myself included. We thought, “This has to be a joke. Isn’t helping the homeless what the big society is meant to be all about?” But it is not a joke. It is, in fact, the shocking face of 21st-century Tories in the richest borough in the country, supported by the Communities Secretary. Their big society hides a big, nasty, spiteful stick. Does the Leader of the House agree that those who thought of this should be ashamed of themselves?

Last week, the Leader of the House was asked by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) who would take over if the Prime Minister was incapacitated. I would be surprised if it was the Foreign Secretary, but we were all rather puzzled that the Leader of the House seemed so unwilling to answer. I have with me the Government list and it is pretty clear: listed under the Prime Minister’s name is that of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) as the Deputy Prime Minister. Surely if the Prime Minister cannot act, his deputy will take over. Yet, on reflection, and after recent events, I think that every one of us in the Chamber can sympathise with the Leader of the House’s evident reluctance to say that that is the case. Does he have an answer for us today by any chance?

Has the Deputy Prime Minister given the Leader of the House an indication that he is planning to make a statement about the size of the election deposit? I ask because concerns have been expressed in the past week that losing £500 might have a big financial effect on small parties that are finding it very difficult to attract votes, such as the Liberal Democrats. Before Conservative Members laugh, I should remind them that the Tories came behind the UK Independence party in the by-election.

Finally, may we expect a statement from the Transport Secretary on whether he thinks the cost of a return rail ticket from Sheffield to Barnsley is too expensive? I ask because presumably the difficulty in raising the considerable sum of £5.40 was the reason why the Deputy Prime Minister was unable to make the 15-mile journey to support his candidate in the by-election—not that it would have done any good. Or was it because the Lib Dem candidate spoke the truth last weekend when he said that

“in towns like Barnsley, where the Lib Dems once harvested votes as a party of protest, they now attract derision as a party of government”?

How true, and how like a Liberal Democrat to tell us what he really thinks only once the ballot box has closed.

May I begin by agreeing with what the right hon. Gentleman said about the BBC journalists? I watched the BBC news last night, and what they went through was horrendous. We should never underestimate the risks that many people take in order to bring this country, and indeed the rest of the world, the truth about what is happening in countries such as Libya. I am sure that the whole House will agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said.

Lord Hutton’s report was published today and I suspect that something might be said about it in the Budget, which would be an appropriate time to respond.

The right hon. Gentleman may have seen the exchange of correspondence on the Scotland Bill between the Secretary of State for Scotland and the shadow Secretary of State, which says that in dealing with the Bill we are following a process that has been supported by the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative party leaders in Holyrood. The motion that they have promoted states that they look

“forward to considering any amendments made to the Bill with a view to debating them in a further legislative consent motion before the Bill is passed for Royal Assent.”

As regards Westminster city council, it is 20 years since the rough sleeping initiative was started—in fact, I was Housing Minister at the time. Enormous progress has been made in reaching out to rough sleepers and I applaud the successor Government for what they did to roll out that initiative and apply it to other parts of the country. The debate is ongoing about whether those who generously supply food should be encouraged to do so in buildings, where people have access to help and support and to the housing and training they need, or whether they should continue to operate in a more unstructured way. The issue is slightly more complicated than the right hon. Gentleman has just implied, but I hope that Westminster city council will work with voluntary organisations and those who are trying to help the homeless in a way that not only reaches out to people but encourages them to abandon a lifestyle that is not in their best interests and to access those who can help them into training and jobs.

I thought the issue of succession might come up again. The practice is the same now as it has been under successive Administrations: the Prime Minister remains Prime Minister at all times but arrangements appropriate at the time will be put in place as necessary. That procedure has been adopted under successive Administrations.

Finally, let me turn to the subject of by-elections. The right hon. Gentleman may want to have a look at how well his party did in the Henley by-election before he and his colleagues draw too many conclusions about the loss of deposits. I welcome the new hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and congratulate him on achieving a more respectable turnout than the shadow Leader of the House managed when he was first elected in 1999 on a turnout of 19.9%. The BBC dropped all pretence of impartiality and ran the story, “Benn limps in after dismal vote”.

Order. As usual, a large number of hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, but there are important debates to follow under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. If I am to accommodate the level of interest in this session, brevity from Back-Bench and Front-Bench Members alike is vital.

In the light of Sir Ronnie Flanagan’s remarks about the massive amount of paperwork heaped on the shoulders of the police, and given that in 2009 the previous Labour Government issued some 4,000 diktats and 6,500 pages of guidelines, may we have a debate on the Floor of the House about savings in the police force?

I hear Opposition Members shouting yes. Of course, I have announced an Opposition day and if they want to debate police matters, we are ready to debate them next Wednesday. What has struck me—I am sure that it has struck my hon. Friend too—is the number of chief constables who have come forward and identified ways in which economies can be made by sharing back-office functions and opting for joint procurement without impacting on front-line policing. As my hon. Friend knows, only 11% of police are visible and available to the public. I hope that all police authorities will look for economies that preserve the effectiveness of front-line policing and that they will do so in the back-office areas, where I believe such economies can be secured.

The Leader of the House will no doubt have scrutinised the Scotland Bill and will be aware that much of the success of that Bill relies on good, effective working relationships between this House and the Scottish Parliament. Can he not see that to proceed to consider the Bill further on 22 March, before the consultation period is over, sends the wrong message to the Scottish Parliament?

The Scottish Parliament has been advised by its Scotland Bill Committee to welcome and support the Bill, and I hope that it will do so. The procedure I outlined a few moments ago has been agreed by the three parties in the Scottish Parliament, which have written to commend that procedure.

Will the Leader of the House guarantee that if a no-fly zone is to be imposed, there will be a vote in the House of Commons? Such action would definitely be military action and not risk-free because of the established Libyan air defence systems, which might explain America’s reluctance. May we definitely have a vote before there is any military action?

A convention has developed in the House that before troops are committed, the House should have an opportunity to debate the matter. We propose to observe that convention except when there is an emergency and such action would not be appropriate. As with the Iraq war and other events, we propose to give the House the opportunity to debate the matter before troops are committed.

May we have a debate as part of the consultation on the Government’s Green Paper on special educational needs and disabilities? There is widespread concern that the cuts imposed by the coalition on local authorities will reduce the money available to parents to control budgets. If there is no money in the budgets, there is no control for parents and that will be nothing but a con trick on them. We need to have a debate in the House so we can represent our constituents’ views.

I welcome yesterday’s publication of the consultation document. The consultation will take place over four months. I emphasise that it is not a cost-cutting exercise; it is about having a much better regime for children who need support in schools and about giving parents more of a say. Crucially, it is about bringing together health, education and care in one package and, we hope, having a more user-friendly, streamlined approach than we have at the moment. I would welcome a debate on the SEN statement. That might be an appropriate issue for the Backbench Business Committee to consider or for debate in Westminster Hall. Yesterday’s announcement was warmly welcomed by those who take an interest in this issue and recognise the need for reform.

Could we have a debate on the wisdom of crowds or perhaps on the operation of the hive mind? At Tuesday’s Health questions, hon. Members managed to match the feat of 17 February in questions to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, when there were eight almost identical questions on the Order Paper. One can only wonder how many more “inspired” questions were submitted but not drawn for that day.

This is interesting territory. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has been in opposition in the House, but he will know that hon. Members are sometimes informally encouraged to table questions, which I understand is wholly within the proceedings of the House. However, I hope there might be a little more ingenuity in future in coming up with different questions, rather than the same ones.

In my constituency, 90% of all bus routes are run by Arriva. As we now have five big bus companies dominating and running two thirds of UK bus routes, may we have a debate on the Floor of the House to call on the Office of Fair Trading to reconsider the concentration of bus company dominance?

We have just had Transport questions. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to raise that issue then, but if he did not I will certainly raise it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman.

Is the Leader of the House aware that many Members would like to debate our sitting hours? Does he agree, however, that such a debate would be premature while the Select Committee on Procedure is preparing a report on the matter? Will he urge all Members, including Ministers, to complete the questionnaire that the Committee recently circulated?

I welcome the work of my right hon. Friend’s Committee. I completed my questionnaire yesterday and sent it back and I have today written to my ministerial colleagues urging them to fill it in so that a balanced response can be available to the Procedure Committee. I welcome the Committee’s work and I look forward to seeing the options that I hope will be put before the House later this year.

The Leader of the House will know that a legislative consent motion on the Scotland Bill is being considered today in the Scottish Parliament. Of course, we will have to wait to see precisely what it says, but if the Government intend to bring forward amendments to match the LCM, they will be considered on Report and cannot therefore be tabled until after 10 pm next Tuesday. If those amendments are financial ones, they would go a very long way towards informing the technical debates we are likely to have on Monday and Tuesday. Does the Leader of the House have any power to have such Government amendments published, if not tabled, quickly so that we may have a proper, considered debate on Monday and Tuesday, knowing the Government’s intentions?

We are determined to observe the conventions to make sure that the House has an opportunity, as the Bill passes through both Houses, to consider amendments necessary following the LCM. I will raise with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland the hon. Gentleman’s specific question on whether we can table amendments even if we may not be able to debate them.

May we have a debate on health care? Despite a rising health care budget, in Milton Keynes there is growing local concern that the primary care trust seems determined to cut services while protecting its own administrative function. Is it right that an organisation that will soon play no part in health care is allowed to behave in such a way?

As my hon. Friend knows, PCTs are due to be wound up, so I hope they will consider carefully whether any increased costs they may be planning are really necessary as they pass their responsibilities to GP-led commissioning organisations. I will raise the question with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and ask him to write to my hon. Friend.

With every child in Kingston upon Hull losing £70 in the funding that has been allocated, compared with a child in Kingston upon Thames who will lose £30, may we have a debate on the coalition Government’s redistribution of moneys away from the most deprived communities, and also on the fact that Lib Dem-controlled Hull city council has not protected the early years? Nor has it protected children’s centres and Sure Start.

We had a debate on local authority funding last month when we discussed the revenue support grant settlement. That was an opportunity to debate the issues. It is the contention of the coalition Government that the RSG settlement was redistributive in that it directed resources more to areas in need than to those in less need, so I reject the assertion on which the hon. Lady based her question.

There are specific commitments in the coalition agreement to establish commissions to address the West Lothian question and the Bill of Rights. When might we have a statement in the House confirming that those commissions will be established, and when will we be given a date by which they have to report?

My hon. Friend is quite right. There is a commitment in the coalition agreement to establishing a human rights commission, to see whether there are better ways to protect our rights and liberties in this country. I anticipate that an announcement will be made about that shortly. At the same time, we want to look at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and when we have the chair of the appropriate Council in November we propose to make it a top priority to make sure that subsidiarity is at the heart of the Court’s functions.

On the West Lothian question, there is a commitment to look at issues arising from Scottish devolution. An announcement about that will follow the one I have just mentioned.

The Leader of the House will, like me, acknowledge the importance of the university sector to our towns and cities and to the future of our country. Is he aware that since Lord Browne’s report on the funding of universities, and the Government’s response, there has been a breakdown of confidence in the university sector and a meltdown of confidence in what is happening in the higher education sector generally? May we have an early debate on what on earth the Government’s policy is and how it is working through the university sector?

I reject the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that there has been a breakdown in confidence in the way he outlined. As he knows, earlier this week the director of the Office for Fair Access published new guidance and his expectations of what English universities will need to do if they want to charge more than £6,000 for their full-time courses. I am sure there is constructive dialogue between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and the universities, but I will share with my right hon. Friend the concern that the hon. Gentleman has just expressed.

In a secret hearing, Fred Goodwin has obtained a super-injunction preventing him from being identified as a banker. Will the Government hold a debate, or make a statement, on freedom of speech, and whether there is one law for the rich, such as Fred Goodwin, and another for the poor, such as Lee Gilliland who has had his mental capacity removed on the basis of a report from his GP that he is not allowed to see?

I know that in a week’s time my hon. Friend will have a debate in Westminster Hall which may impinge on some of these issues. I will raise with the appropriate Minister the matter that he has just raised, but it seems to impinge on the responsibility of the courts and any Minister would be cautious about commenting on that.

The Leader of the House indicated that the Government might respond to the Hutton report in the Budget debate. Could he ask the relevant Minister to take into consideration the grotesque paradox whereby the Hutton report recommends raising the retirement age for uniformed personnel, yet a local paper, the Sandwell Chronicle, reports that West Midlands police, under Home Office diktat, are forcibly retiring Chief Superintendent Steve Dugmore, a first-class crime fighter, because rule A19 allows them to sack people after 30 years’ service? Is that not absolutely absurd and don’t they need to get their act together?

I am very happy to raise the right hon. Gentleman’s final point with the Home Secretary. On the first issue, the Hutton report made it clear that if we do not make changes we are heading for the rocks—another example of the difficulties that the coalition Government are having to deal with following the outgoing Labour Government.

Will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate on links between middle eastern dictators and our universities, following my early-day motions 1562 and 1563?

[That this House believes that there should be a real financial incentive for British universities not to accept donations from foreign dictatorships, especially regimes in the Middle East with a poor record on human rights; and therefore calls on the Government to introduce a mechanism whereby for every £1 that a university receives in donations from a totalitarian or despotic regime, such a Libya, £1 shall be withdrawn from that university in public subsidy.]

As well as the London School of Economics case, it has emerged that Durham university has done deals with the Iranian regime and that the Muslim research centre at my former university, Exeter, was funded by the Muslim Brotherhood. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if a university takes blood money it should lose an equivalent amount of public subsidy?

As I said to my hon. Friend last week, universities are autonomous organisations and accountable for what they do. I will draw his comments to the attention of my ministerial colleagues at BIS. As he knows, we will have a debate on the middle east at this time next week, when he may want to amplify his remarks.

May we have a statement on the impact of the Department of Health’s any willing provider policy on specialisms such as speech therapy? Such services transform lives, but they could be at risk in the new commissioning marketplace.

The Health and Social Care Bill is in Committee and will be coming back to the Floor of the House for Report, which may be an appropriate time for the hon. Gentleman to table amendments and secure a debate.

May we please have a debate on how we can both reduce the cost and speed up the process of removing squatters, to help hard-working home owners who discover that their properties are being illegally occupied?

We all recognise the distress that can be caused by squatters, and we understand the difficulties that many people find in regaining occupation of their own home. The Ministry of Justice is considering options for strengthening the criminal law, but is yet to reach firm conclusions.

Knife and gun crime continue to blight inner-city communities such as mine. The trial is ongoing of those accused of murdering 15-year-old Zac Olumegbon in July last year, and just 14 days ago in my constituency, Solomon Sarfo was stabbed and murdered. Will the Home Secretary come to the House to give us an update on what the Government are doing to prevent that needless loss of life in our communities? I ask because I am particularly concerned that many of the third-sector organisations working to prevent such crimes are seeing their funding withdrawn.