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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 527: debated on Thursday 5 May 2011


The Secretary of State was asked—

M1 Fire

1. What assessment he has made of the effect on his Department's budget of repairs required to the M1 following the recent fire. (54153)

I want to praise the effective firefighting by Green Watch of the London fire brigade, particularly led by Mill Hill fire station, at the incident on the M1. I also want to praise the Highways Agency and Connect Plus for doing so much work underneath the bridge, which I saw myself.

That section of the M1 is under a managed contract agreement with Connect Plus. The contract indicates that there is a repair and insurance responsibility to the contractor, and no costs will be borne by the Department for Transport.

The incident occurred over the busiest weekend at Wembley stadium, where the FA cup semi-finals were taking place. It affected three of the teams quite severely—although it did not affect Manchester United fans from Surrey very much. [Laughter.] Members got it in the end. It also caused traffic congestion on the M40 and throughout my constituency. What action will the Minister take to ensure that across the country there is appropriate storage under motorways in future?

For most of that weekend I was underneath the bridge once the fire was finished and while remedial work was done to install 250 tonnes of steel to secure the bridge so that it could be reopened. The Secretary of Sate has already announced a review of what works can be done and what can be stored under bridges. When that review reports in the next few weeks, we will look carefully at its findings.

After 17 years of using the M1 between Rotherham and London, I know that it is always under repair on one stretch or another. Is part of the problem that the M1 is used as a suburban rat-run around the big conurbations? Might we not consider introducing a motorway vignette, so that people who use the motorways pay a little extra, we help reduce the deficit and we discourage the urban-dwellers around the M1 from using it as an ordinary road?

In 13 years of a Labour Government, they rejected plans for doing that, and so have this Government. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman can blame the M1 for a fire that was underneath it, which reached a temperature of up to 1,000 degrees and buckled the reinforcement bars. The Highways Agency and Connect Plus did a fantastic job. It is sad that there was so much disruption, but they did the work as fast as they could.

I associate myself with the Minister's comments about the Mill Hill firefighters, who worked so hard at the location and in helping local residents. For many years, the councillor for the Hale ward on Barnet council, Councillor Hugh Rayner, has been supporting local residents on Ellesmere avenue in their calls for the scrapyard to be moved from its site under the M1. Does the Minister agree that while we should not act in a knee-jerk fashion and remove all businesses from under railways and motorway arches, we need to look carefully at what activities can be undertaken safely underneath motorways, and take action to ensure that inappropriate uses are eliminated?

It was a pleasure to meet my hon. Friend at the incident and at the site and it was a real pleasure to see the councillor responsible as well as the representative of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. I also visited and praised Green Watch at the station.

It is important that the review looks carefully at what can and cannot be done under railway arches and roads. Different railway arches can have different structures. Once the review is forthcoming, we will look at it very carefully.


Crossrail is at a relatively early stage of construction and the cost will be finalised over time. However, at this stage, we expect that the project will cost no more than £14.5 billion.

I understand that the Government have cut £1 billion from the Crossrail project, which will mean that its opening will be delayed until 2018, and that only part of the route will be open. Will the Minister confirm for me today when the whole of the planned route will be open and which bits will not be open in 2018? When will I be able to travel from Stratford to Heathrow?

There will be a phased opening of services from 2018. We have lengthened the delivery time following an engineering-led review, which did a great job in reducing the cost of the project while still enabling the full benefits to be delivered according to the original scope. We shall make an announcement in due course on the timetable for the phasing in of services from 2018.

I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party Crossrail group. My constituents in Ilford will benefit enormously as a result of the improvements brought about because three stations in my constituency are on the Crossrail route. However, there is considerable disappointment on Redbridge council at the fact that, as a result of the cost-cutting exercise, the plans to remodel and rebuild Ilford station will not go ahead. The Minister has been invited to meet Redbridge council and visit the area. Is she likely to come to Redbridge in the near future to discuss that with my council?

I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has always done on Crossrail. The whole House will welcome confirmation that Crossrail has gone ahead; despite all the scare stories from Labour in opposition, the coalition is pressing ahead with it. We have made some savings on some stations. The plans for their redevelopment are less ambitious than they were, but they will still perform all the transport functions that were included in the plans’ original scope. Crossrail and the Department for Transport remain happy to work with local authorities to facilitate extra improvements that local authorities might want to fund and deliver to regenerate the surrounding area.

Dartford-Thurrock Crossing (Tolls)

4. When he plans to announce his consultation on the level of tolls on the Dartford-Thurrock crossing; and if he will make a statement. (54157)

I hope shortly to announce and publish the consultation which I know my hon. Friend is waiting for on the revision of the road user charging regime for the Dartford river crossing.

I thank the Minister for his reply. A few months ago, he announced his intention to remove the barriers at the Dartford crossing. My constituents would like the tolls removed altogether, of course, but we recognise the need to maintain revenue. The barrier removal will reduce congestion significantly. When he brings forward his proposals, will he include plans to make sure that foreign lorries are charged for using the crossing? Haulage is a big constituency interest for me, and my hauliers are at a competitive disadvantage compared with European suppliers.

I fully understand the concern that if we go to free-flow tolling in Dartford, or any other part of the country, everybody who uses the road should pay, including foreign truckers and foreign vehicles. Some 20% of trucks that go through Dartford are foreign-registered, so we are very conscious of the issue and will make sure that we work on it.

Rail Franchising

The Government published “Reforming Rail Franchising: response to consultation and policy statement” on 19 January this year. In it we set out, among other things, our commitment to longer franchises, less prescriptive service requirements, and the transfer of stations to train operators. The Department is now considering, within the framework, the detailed invitation to tender for the intercity west coast franchise.

Since the Adjournment debate on South West Trains, I have received thousands of letters and e-mails from long-suffering passengers around the country who are having to put up with suburban trains on mainline routes. Is it not time that we had minimum standards of comfort set out in rail franchise agreements, and should not companies that ignore such concerns not have their franchises renewed?

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s campaign on that point, but the simple fact is that on many of our suburban railways, particularly those going into London, we have limited capacity. Trains are already at maximum length, and the number of train paths is already at the maximum capacity of the railway. Taking out seats to make them larger, which I think is my hon. Friend’s point, would simply mean more commuters standing, and those commuters who join the train closer to London are vehemently against that, so the Government have no plans at the moment to specify the size or configuration of seats in commuter trains.

Will the Secretary of State expand for us on the benefits that he expects passengers to get from changed patterns of franchising? In particular, will they benefit passengers in Wiltshire, especially those who would like to travel on the proposed trans-Wilts railway, which would improve considerably our north-south travel patterns in the county?

As my hon. Friend will have anticipated, I specifically had passengers in Wiltshire in mind when we designed our franchising proposals. The key thing is to drive down the cost of our railways. We have to make them more efficient, and we have to close the productivity gap between them and competitive railways in Europe to relieve the pressure on both the taxpayer and the fare payer. The changed franchise specifications will give train operators incentives to drive down costs—something that, frankly, they have not been incentivised to do under the current system.

The Secretary of State made a point about less prescriptive service requirements, but will he give a guarantee that stations such as Runcorn mainline station and Widnes station in my constituency, which have seen a significant increase in passengers in the past five years, will not, as a result of his reform of franchising, have a reduction in the number of stopping trains?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, and our intention is to maintain services while creating sufficient flexibility at the margin to allow franchisees to operate their businesses in a way that makes them more efficient. That is a complex balancing act. Nobody wants train services to be reduced as a consequence, but if we are absolutely prescriptive about the timetable, down to officials detailing the precise time of every train stop at every station, the scope for improving the efficiency of our railways will be severely limited. It is a balancing act, and we are determined to get it right.

Is not the point, certainly on intercity franchises, that the concentration is on improving journey times for long distances, which has an adverse effect on small commutes, for example from Chester-le-Street in my constituency to central Newcastle, which is only a 10-minute commute, but is a well-used service? As a result of the way in which franchises are structured, fewer trains are stopping to carry commuters on that vital route.

The hon. Gentleman is right. We need to get the balance right between long-distance intercity services, where stops disadvantage long-distance travellers, and short-range commuter services. In many cases, it is not appropriate for long-distance intercity trains to have a service pattern that is organised around the local commuter travelling pattern. We need local commuter trains to deliver that.

These are complex issues. Our view is that train operators are best placed to deliver services to their users in a system that incentivises them to deliver the services that passengers want. That system has not existed hitherto under the revenue-sharing arrangements in which the Government collect most of the additional revenue taken at the fare box by the train operator. Putting those incentives back in place will deliver better services and greater efficiency.

Will the new rail franchising arrangements enable the Secretary of State to take steps to ensure that fares do not rise at the huge rates that we have seen recently, but begin to level off? Will he also make sure that it is simpler and easier for people to understand what they ought to pay for a particular trip?

The hon. Gentleman makes two good points. First, the fare system is incredibly complex and, secondly, passengers face high fare levels—we fully appreciate that. The only way in which we can tackle high fare levels is to make the railway more efficient. We are determined to do so, and we will receive and publish shortly the report by Sir Roy McNulty on value for money on the railways, which will make proposals to achieve that objective.

I am glad that the issue of fares has come up, because on 9 March the Secretary of State attended a presentation on the findings of the rail value-for-money review, which he will publish later this month. I have a leaked copy, which includes a recommendation that in future rail franchises should have

“more freedom to set fares”.

Does he stand by what he told the House on 27 January, when he said that the objective of the review was

“to reduce the burden on both the taxpayer and the fare payer”?—[Official Report, 27 January 2011; Vol. 522, c. 426.]

Yes, absolutely—that is the key objective of the McNulty review. The hon. Lady will know, if she wants to look at this objectively, that we have severe crunch-points on our rail system, where the current pattern of fares is driving perverse behaviour. The 18.59 train north from Euston on a Friday evening is virtually empty, but the 19.01 train is packed, with people standing, and the police preventing others from joining the train for safety reasons, and that is because of the way in which the fare structure works. We must be able to use the pattern of fares to address crowding, and to avoid the perverse incentives that have been created.

Can the Secretary of State explain some quotes in the document that suggest that he will allow franchisees to do what they want with fares? For example, the document states that he needs

“to consider in letting future franchises: more freedom to set fares”

and should

“encourage TOCs to take a more commercial approach to fare setting”.

There are other such quotes in the document, which seems to suggest that he will allow train operating companies to charge whatever they want.

The hon. Lady is confusing herself. The document from which she has quoted is, I think, Sir Roy McNulty’s presentation to the seminar to which she referred. It is not a Government document.

Would my right hon. Friend explain why passengers in the Greater Anglia franchise area face the possibility of having three different train operators within 18 months, which is likely to cause confusion to them and to staff? The only beneficiaries would appear to be the companies that supply the paint to change the carriages.

The decision was taken to let a short management contract for the East Anglia franchise because it is our intention to let a longer-term contract and we wanted the opportunity to incorporate the findings of the McNulty review into the franchise specification before doing so.

UK Airports

7. What improvements his Department is seeking to achieve in respect of the passenger experience at UK airports. (54160)

The south-east airports taskforce is looking at ways to improve efficiency, tackle queues and reduce delays at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. It is due to report in July.

I commend the Secretary of State and the Minister for their active and robust campaign to improve the passenger experience. I think that it has improved in recent months, particularly at Heathrow, but I polled my constituents and many of them disagree. Greg Taylor said:

“Compared to Asian airports…Heathrow is a disgrace”,

and James Max complained about

“bad baggage reclaim…expensive food and parking…poor public transport”.

How can my constituents get more involved in the process of improving the experience at Heathrow and other airports?

My hon. Friend is right to give credit to Heathrow for real improvements over recent years. Although terminal 5 started pretty badly, it is now a high-quality facility, and the airport will be investing in a major redevelopment of other terminals, hopefully to bring them up to the same standards. But more needs to be done, which is why we will modernise the airport regulatory framework to put passengers at the heart of the system, to give the Civil Aviation Authority the power to intervene where airports fail their passengers, and to incentivise the sort of investment in improvement, to baggage handling and terminals, for example, that his constituents clearly want. We are also introducing a new consumer panel at the CAA to improve passengers’ ability to influence the regulation of the airport.

Uninsured Driving

The Government have already introduced the continuous insurance enforcement scheme that will come into force in late June, which says simply that everyone who intends to drive a vehicle on the road must be insured and that a vehicle must have a valid statutory off-road notification if there is no intent to drive.

Uninsured drivers are the scourge of our roads, adding to the insurance premium of the law-abiding motorist. With a fixed-penalty sanction against uninsured drivers of £200 and an average motor insurance policy premium of £892, rising to £2,431 for young drivers, is it not time to consider increasing the fixed-penalty fine to ensure that it is proportionate to the cost of motor insurance, to incentivise those who think that it is right to drive uninsured?

It is estimated that 1.5 million people drive without insurance, which is a huge cost burden to those who do insure, and there is strong evidence that those who are uninsured are likely to commit other driving and criminal offences. However, I assure my hon. Friend that we are looking closely at that.

One of the biggest incentives to drive illegally is the premium imposed by insurance companies. There are various schemes to try to reduce those costs, particularly for young drivers who are a problem in this regard. GPS can measure journey times, the hours of the day when people travel, and who else is in the car. Is the Department in negotiation with insurance companies to progress such schemes so that young people can afford insurance premiums and avoid driving without insurance?

Yes, we have frequent discussions with the insurance industry, but I must stress that being insured is not a choice; it is a legal requirement. We are trying to drive down the cost, which is partly the result of uninsured drivers driving up the cost of those who are insured, creating a perverse incentive, and partly the result of fraud, which is a massive issue that the Select Committee considered and to which I gave evidence. We are working with the insurance industry on some of the measures referred to by the hon. Gentleman. It is also important when requesting an insurance quote to tell the truth, for example about the number of points on one’s driving record, so that the insurance is not invalid when a claim is made.

I am sure that the Minister will want to commend the automatic number plate recognition scheme, which the police use effectively in west Yorkshire to catch people driving without insurance. However, does he agree that their efforts are undermined by the courts which give derisory fines to people caught driving without insurance? The fines that they give mean that, for many people, crime does pay.

ANPR is a huge move forward in how we catch more people who drive without insurance. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), we are looking at the issue and working with other Departments to ensure that the punishment fits the crime.

Uninsured drivers contribute significantly to the number of crashes, deaths and serious injuries on the roads. When will we see the long-awaited road safety framework document, and will it address that issue? Does the Department intend to continue publishing targets for the reduction of deaths and serious injuries on our roads?

The hon. Gentleman used to have the job that I have the honour of doing these days, and he knows full well that the Government will publish the road safety strategy as soon as we can; he will have to wait for what is in it. He made a point about targets. If we are not careful, if we set targets the easy option is always the way forward. We have the safest roads in the world and we intend to keep them that way, but we are not going to set arbitrary targets and just say, “We have met that target, so we can ignore the harder option.”

High Speed 2

We are part-way through a programme of 30 public roadshows along the line of the proposed London to west midlands route, and we have held regional seminars across the country. The programme was suspended for the duration of the election purdah period, but will resume next week. The consultation process finishes on 29 July, and I expect to announce the Government’s response later this year.

Today I will be heading back to my constituency for the final afternoon of campaigning, and many colleagues will be heading back to theirs. I will be travelling on the excellent Chiltern line service from Marylebone. However, many constituents are concerned that high-speed rail will lead to a loss of conventional rail services, as has been the experience in other countries with high-speed rail networks. What assurances can the Secretary of State give that the Department for Transport is taking those concerns seriously and what impact will there be on such highly popular local networks?

As I look around the Chamber, it seems to me that one or two Members may have travelled back for the final afternoon of canvassing and campaigning already.

My hon. Friend could not be more wrong. One of the huge benefits of building a new, dedicated high-speed line will be the released capacity on the existing conventional lines—the east coast main line, the west coast main line and the midlands main line. Those lines will be capable of being reconfigured to deliver better longer-distance and short-distance commuting services and more freight paths for freight trains, taking more freight off the road and getting it on to rail. That is one of the big wins of a dedicated high-speed line.

Does the Secretary of State agree that there needs to be a full high-speed interconnection between High Speed 1 and High Speed 2 from the start? What are his plans for those interconnections?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that the published plans include a link from Old Oak Common via a tunnel round to the north of St Pancras station, connecting directly to the High Speed 1 line. It will be possible to run trains from the midlands and the north of England, directly through that tunnel, to the High Speed 1 network and onwards to the channel tunnel.


On 24 March, we wrote to all local highway authorities informing them of their share of an additional £200 million, which we have made available for repairing damage to their road networks following the severe winter weather at the end of last year. The funding was paid to authorities on Monday 28 March this year.

I thank the Minister for his reply and for the generous grant of £2 million recently received by my local authority of Cheshire East. However, the council has a £100 million shortfall in planned maintenance of its highways network, and it is unable to commit funding to upgrade junction 17 of the M6, which is in my constituency and frequently causes major traffic problems. Can the Minister offer any help to the local authority as it tries to address the problem with partner organisations?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her welcome for the extra funds made available. It is worth putting on record that we have committed £3 billion for highway maintenance over a four-year period in addition to the £200 million that was announced this year, so despite the difficult economic circumstances, we are prioritising moneys for highway maintenance. I am not aware of the particular junction, but if my hon. Friend writes to me with further details I will happily get a reply to her on the matter.

If the main excuse given by failing authorities is that they are short of resources, will the Minister consider instructing them to stop installing speed humps and to use the tarmac they save to fill in the potholes?

That is a novel and interesting suggestion, but I do not think it is the job of Transport Ministers to direct local councils how to spend their money.

Barking/Gospel Oak Line (Electrification)

We are committed to further electrification of the railways. However, electrifying Gospel Oak to Barking is not currently a strategic priority as a number of other schemes have stronger and more developed business cases.

May I persuade the Minister that it is a priority and that the matter is of national as well as London importance? The Barking to Gospel Oak line is the only part of the London overground network that is not electrified, therefore running trains on it with diesel power is more expensive. Secondly, because the line is on a major freight route from the east coast, there has to be a change from electrified haulage to locomotive trains on that section. It would be of great benefit, both nationally and in London, if the line were electrified. Will the Minister look at it again and will she meet the secret group of Barking to Gospel Oak line MPs who would, I am sure, support the points I am making?

I am happy to meet the group, as the hon. Gentleman asks. The problem is that electrification would be expensive, because tunnels, bridges and viaducts are close to habitation, and the passenger benefits would be quite limited because the route is already running brand-new diesel trains. The performance benefits—journey-time improvements—delivered by electrification would be limited. The combination of high cost and limited passenger benefits means that the scheme is well behind others, such as the midland main line, the Great Western line and the Wales valley lines in terms of best value for taxpayers’ money.

May I unveil myself as a member of the secret group of North London line supporters? I look forward to the Minister meeting us. I hope she will meet us on the line itself, so that she can experience some of the problems that my constituents face—we promise not to make her wear an invisibility cloak—and so that she can understand some of the challenges we face in London because the line is not electrified. Problems with the freight line affect homes in Waltham Forest and other parts of north-east London, so I hope she will accept our invitation. We look forward to showing her our patch of north-east London.

Meeting on the line itself might be a little difficult.

On the freight points, the problem is that freight trains use many parts of the network that are not electrified, which is why the majority of freight trains are diesel. There is a real possibility that even if the line were electrified, the freight trains running over it would still mainly be diesel. I am afraid that the freight issues do not address the business case problems. We have limited funds; unfortunately, we have to make difficult decisions on priorities and although I am happy to listen to representations from the group, for the moment I continue to believe that other schemes have priority because they have a better business case.

2012 Olympics (Transport Network)

12. What discussions he has had with the Mayor of London on the operation of the transport network in London during the London 2012 Olympics. (54171)

I have lead accountability within Government for transport preparations for the London 2012 Olympics. I am a member of the Cabinet sub-committee on the Olympics, which meets regularly and is also attended by the Mayor of London and representatives of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games and the Olympic Delivery Authority.

My officials and I have regular discussions with the Mayor and his officials in the Greater London authority and Transport for London on transport during the Olympics. Transport for London works closely with the ODA, which has statutory responsibility for transport planning for the games.

As the Secretary of State mentioned, a number of organisations are involved in the planning and delivery of a successful transport network for the games—LOCOG, the ODA, the Mayor of London and Transport for London. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what efforts have been made to co-ordinate planning across those groups to ensure that we can manage the huge numbers of athletes and spectators? Does he feel that appropriate measures have been put in place to keep London moving during that critical time?

As I have already described, there is a mechanism for bringing all those groups together through the Cabinet Olympic sub-committee, which is very effective. During the games, the Transport for London control room in central London will be the main control room for managing the transport networks.

The required measures are being put in place, but my hon. Friend is right to say that it will be challenging to manage down background demand for travel in London to allow sufficient capacity for the games family—the athletes, spectators and sponsors—to travel around. That is a big challenge, which we will face in the next 12 months—I am under no illusions about the size of it.

Topical Questions

Since the previous departmental questions, I have published a scoping document about our planned development of a sustainable aviation policy. I have allocated £200 million for pothole repairs to individual local authorities, and announced the allocation of 20 additional rail carriages for commuter routes serving the Leeds area. We have also announced the go-ahead for the long-awaited Swindon to Kemble track redoubling, and the Ordsall chord in Manchester, linking Victoria and Piccadilly stations.

Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning as obscene and irresponsible the proposed six days of tube strikes by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers next month over only two individual employees? Will he also condemn Labour’s candidate for London Mayor, who has signally failed to condemn the action, and, indeed, his deputy, who even appears at RMT protest meetings?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that the series of strikes is highly irresponsible. As I said last night, no one in the Government is spoiling for a fight with the unions, but the unions appear to be spoiling for a fight with London. I say to the RMT and other unions that that sort of irresponsible strike action, when an alternative, proper remedy—an ongoing employment tribunal—is available, only strengthens the hand of those, including the Mayor, who call for tougher industrial relations laws.

As the Secretary of State will know, today marks the closing of the consultation on his plans to axe more than half the UK’s coastguard stations, leaving just three offering 24-hour cover. Yet, in a letter to me this week, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency stated that the consultation,

“will be reopened in the Summer”.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the consultation closes today, as the letter says, “for the first time”? Given that it is increasingly clear that the policy is a shambles, why does he not just abandon the ill-thought-through proposals, which will leave our coastline a more dangerous place?

What a wonderful piece of opportunism. I can confirm that the consultation closes today. Of course, the previous Administration originally made the proposals to modernise the coastguard. We have listened carefully to the representations, and some very sensible representations have been made about how the reconfiguration might be managed to protect more of the local location of services. Once the consultation is closed, we will publish a summary of the findings and make our response to it.

T4. Will the Minister meet me as soon as possible to discuss the reinstatement of the Maidstone East to City of London service? (54176)

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter. I have given the issue careful consideration, but she will know that changes to the franchise, which require extra subsidy, would be difficult to approve in the current fiscal climate.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that there is strong cross-party support in the House, not only for British manufacturing in general, but in particular for the sole remaining British train maker, which eagerly awaits the award of the contract for the Thameslink line? What is the timing for that?

We expect to make some announcements on that contract imminently. Towards the end the year, we expect to draw towards contractual close. We will make further announcements in due course.

T5. In Rugby, a significant number of vehicles on our roads have been brought into the country by foreign workers, and they remain registered in their home countries. When I raised the matter with the Minister, he advised me that such vehicles can be used for six months in a 12-month period, or until the visitor takes up residence. However, there is currently no database for tracking such vehicles as they enter and leave the UK. That means that the owners of many vehicles use UK roads without contributing to the costs of maintaining them. Will the Minister consider a review to rectify that? (54178)

I am well aware of this issue, and I thank my hon. Friend for raising it. I corresponded with him recently on the matter. All vehicles on all roads in the UK should be safe, whether they are UK-registered or foreign-registered, and if they are not, they will be clamped and removed from the road. However, a database is an issue and something we are considering.

T3. Does the Secretary of State realise that his earlier answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) will have raised deep concerns in parts of the north-west, not least in Warrington, which is hugely dependent on its transport links to boost and develop its economy? Is he prepared to give an assurance to the House that any new franchise arrangements will not reduce the number of intercity trains stopping at Warrington Bank Quay? Yes or no? (54175)

I do not want to say, “Calm down”, but I would like to say that I am sorry if I have set a hare running. I was trying to say to the hon. Member for Halton that we are very much aware of the risk that making franchises less prescriptive could lead to reductions in train services, and we are not prepared to accept that, so I can assure the hon. Lady that under the new west coast franchise, the same number of station stops at Warrington Bank Quay will occur as under the present timetable.

I warmly welcome the creation of the sustainable local transport fund. I hope that the Minister is aware of the exciting trans-Wilts rail proposal, of which we heard earlier, developed by the community rail partnership, which has demonstrated the strong support of local businesses and MPs. Can he confirm that he would welcome a bid from Wiltshire council to that fund, and that it would be given serious consideration?

I am pleased with the number of bids we have received so far for the first tranche of the local sustainable transport fund. A number of imaginative bids have come in. There is a further bidding round, however, and I would welcome any suggestions that could improve the co-ordination of transport across modes.

Does the Minister agree that referral fees and the whole claims management industry drive up the cost of motor insurance? Will the Government be doing anything to regulate this industry?

The Government have no plans to increase the regulation on the industry, which is already severely regulated. The Transport Select Committee has considered the matter carefully. Ambulance chasers, as I referred to them in the Select Committee—some parts of the industry did not like that—are a fact and are driving up costs. Claims must be proportionate. Everybody injured on the roads should be able to claim, if it was not their fault, but there should not be an industry out there trying to make disproportionate claims against other insurers.

Wycombe air park will be subject to various security requirements in connection with the Olympics. I learned this week that those arrangements will threaten the survival of Booker gliding club. Will the Minister meet me to try to find a way forward for that valued resource?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this important issue. We are very much aware of concerns about the imposition of airspace restrictions in relation to the Olympics. We believe that restrictions are essential to maintain security for such an important event, but we are always prepared to consider refinements to see whether we can respond to concerns expressed.

Will the Secretary of State commit, as the previous Labour Government did, to legislate for a high-speed rail line all the way to the north, and in so doing convince the sceptics that the Government have a credible economic policy that would benefit all the regions?

As I have said many times at the Dispatch Box, the Government’s programme is for a Y-shaped network that will take the high-speed railway all the way to Manchester and Leeds. I am aware of the scepticism among some Members and others outside the House about our commitment to that programme. I have discussed this matter with Members of all parties interested in securing this programme, and I have given a commitment to find a way of getting into the first hybrid Bill a commitment to the Y-shaped network sufficient to reassure those Members. However, it simply is not practical from a parliamentary point of view to have a single hybrid Bill dealing with the whole line, so it will have to be done as two hybrid Bills. We will ensure that the first Bill contains a commitment sufficient to satisfy the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends.

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that a meaningful consultation will take place with rail user groups before any of the existing rail franchises are renewed? I am thinking in particular of Southeastern, which has just had its current franchise extended by two years, despite an appalling performance record on the north Kent coastal line and repeated customer complaints.

When we issue new franchises, we carry out a detailed consultation process. We will be doing that when the current Southeastern franchise finishes. No consultation was carried out in relation to the continuation review, because this was a contractual term of the franchise that was agreed by the previous Government, which meant that an automatic extension was granted if targets were met by Southeastern. Those targets were met; we had no choice—the extension had to go ahead. In those circumstances, a consultation was not appropriate.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Hate Crime

Hate crime is an issue that the Government take extremely seriously. Until recently, many crimes were not recorded centrally, making it difficult to assess trends. That is why the coalition programme for government included a commitment to better recording of hate crime against disabled, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Police forces started formally collecting the relevant data in April, and from the summer of 2012 we will have the complete picture of statistics, which will show the pattern of local trends in hate crime and help the police to target their resources more effectively.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive response. I wonder whether she could say what the Government intend to do about the under-reporting of hate crime, which is a big issue.

Yes, there is significant under-reporting. One of the actions that the Government have been taking is to work with key voluntary sector partners to encourage greater reporting. That includes, for example, the development of third-party reporting centres, because a great number of people do not report hate crime as they believe that it is not serious enough and they do not want to go directly to the police. Third-party centres will be able to pass reports on to the police.

On the Minister’s last point, I agree with her that there is a serious problem of under-reporting. Last year 11,000 racist or homophobic hate crimes were reported; I suspect that many thousands more were not. Will she talk to the Metropolitan police about increasing its resources specifically for an advertising campaign to report hate crime, so that young people in schools and in communities that do not normally associate with the police are made aware that they can get help, relief and justice for hate crimes committed in this city?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the importance of getting that message out. I am happy to talk with the Metropolitan police, as there is indeed a great deal of under-reporting. There are certain sectors that lack knowledge or understanding of how or where to make reports. The police have set up a website called True Vision—just google “hate crime” and “how to report”—because the internet makes hate crime much easier to report where there is that lack of accessibility.

Disabled People (Equality)

2. What recent steps she has taken to advance equality for people with disabilities; and if she will make a statement. (54181)

Most of the Equality Act 2010 came into force last October. It contains additional protections for disabled people, providing a strong framework for equality. However, this issue is not just about legislation; it is about improving attitudes too. We are addressing it through, for example, our work on the 2012 games legacy commitment, the introduction of the right to control and proposals for additional support for disabled people who want to take up elected office, as well as by removing the barriers that disabled people, including veterans, face in accessing the services and support that they need.

The hon. Lady will therefore be aware of the disabilities faced by many veterans, both young and old. Can she tell the House what discussions she has had with the veterans Minister about ensuring that those brave men and women are not put at any disadvantage because of disabilities that are the result of their service to this country?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has a long-standing interest in this issue, and he is not afraid to speak out on it. We recognise the problems that veterans and their families face. That is why we have set up a covenant taskforce to find innovative solutions to the problems facing former service personnel and their families. That, coupled with the existing benefits available for veterans—including the war pensions scheme and the armed forces compensation scheme, as well as those benefits that are available to the broader public—will help in recognising what he rightly says is the great debt of gratitude that we owe to that important group of people.

Is it not an absolute farce that the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is given taxpayers’ money to go round lecturing the rest of the country about equal pay for people with disabilities, itself pays non-disabled people more than people with disabilities?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. It is vital that disabled people have a level playing field when it comes to pay and conditions, and I am sure that we will want to look into the point that he has raised.

The Minister will be aware that, next week, members of the hardest hit coalition will be lobbying their MPs. Richard Hawkes, the chief executive of the disability charity Scope, has said:

“The government has not delivered on its promise to support disabled people into work, penalising those on ESA and jobseekers’ allowance who have worked and paid national insurance in the past and who now cannot rely on getting the support they need when they need it, in an increasingly difficult employment market. Disabled people and their families do not have ‘broad shoulders’, so why are they bearing the brunt of these cuts?”

Does she think that cutting the support to help disabled people to find work will promote equality for disabled people?

I think I need to take issue with the hon. Lady’s statement about the number of disabled people who are getting into work. More people now have access to schemes such as access to work, which provides invaluable support for disabled people to get into employment, and the Government have already launched the Work Choice programme, which gives specific support to severely disabled people. That, coupled with the work by the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on the Work programme, represents an admirable package of support for disabled people, although we will of course strive to do better.

Civil Partnership

Earlier this year, we announced our intention to remove the ban in England and Wales on civil partnership registrations being held on religious premises. A consultation document seeking views on the practical changes needed to implement that provision was published on 31 March. We believe that this voluntary provision is a positive step forward for same-sex couples and for religious freedom.

Does the Minister agree that, when it comes to equality before the law, there can be no such thing as “almost equal”? Bearing that in mind, what further steps will the Government take to end the inequality in marriage and civil partnership rights between straight and homosexual couples?

Yes, I agree that “equal rights” means “equal rights”, not “similar rights” or “nearly but not quite as good” rights. Having listened to stakeholders, it is clear that there is a genuine desire among many of them to move forward to equality between marriage and civil partnerships. Over the summer we shall start a discussion with all those with an interest in the matter on how legislation can develop.

New Businesses

The Government are committed to increasing the number of women and men setting up businesses. If women set up businesses at the same rate as men in the UK, we would have 150,000 new business start-ups each year. We are encouraging the establishment of small businesses through excellent initiatives such as the new enterprise allowance, which will provide mentors and financial support to help the unemployed to become self-employed.

A constituent of mine has told me that she has built up a successful small business, working round her caring responsibilities over a number of years, but that she found the step to taking on an employee very daunting, given the complexity of regulation and legislation involved. Is there more that we can do to help people in that situation?

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point about the benefits and flexibility for women of establishing a business or being self-employed. She also makes an important point about getting rid of red tape and bureaucracy, which are barriers to people who are either growing their businesses or setting them up in the first place. That is why the Government have launched the red tape website, which enables people to challenge regulations. The Equality Act 2010 appears on the website. It is not the Government’s intention to abolish the Equality Act. We are putting it in place, but we want to hear from businesses how we can do regulation better to ensure that they can improve their businesses and employ more people.

I know that the right hon. Lady shares my concern about the lack of women at the top of business. Will she do as Lord Davies recommended, and insist that companies disclose annually how many women are on their boards in senior executive positions, and how many women are employed throughout the whole organisation?

I am grateful to Lord Davies for his report and his excellent proposals. We are working with business to ensure that that will be done, particularly encouraging larger businesses to set the trend so that it can then cascade down to others. I have written to my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary to ask how we can get the same message out to private as well as public sector companies. I am pleased to say that the Home Office is setting a good example in that of the four non-executive directors on its supervisory board, two are female.

Does the Minister agree that better, bolder and more ambitious career advice for our girls when they are at school and university could help bring on more female entrepreneurs?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. It is necessary to look at the career advice given to girls to ensure that they are aware of all the opportunities open to them. That will help to increase their ambition about the sort of careers they can go for, and it is also important in respect of equal pay to let them know the financial consequences of the career decisions they make.

The right hon. Lady will know that the regional development agencies did some excellent work across the country, helping women to support and start their own businesses, but those agencies are now being abolished. Women and small businesses are also being hit by the cuts to child care tax credits, cuts to Sure Start places and child benefit, while a Netmums survey found that one in five mums say they will have to give up work as a result of what is happening to the child care tax credits alone; many are extremely angry as a result. Women are also being hit twice as hard by the Government’s tax and benefit changes. Has she raised these concerns and this anger from women with the Prime Minister—or did he just tell her to “calm down, dear”, too?

On that last comment, I have no intention of suggesting that the right hon. Lady should calm down on this matter. She makes a point about what the Prime Minister said, but when I heard it, I immediately thought of Michael Winner. Sometimes I just think Opposition Members need to get a bit of a sense of humour. On the issue of women and the regional development agencies, we are abolishing the latter for extremely good reasons and putting in place local enterprise partnerships, which will ensure that opportunities are opened up for all businesses at local level. Through initiatives such as the desire to extend the right to flexible working and flexible parental leave, we are going a great deal further than the last Government in ensuring that there are opportunities for women in the workplace.


The Government’s aim is to achieve lasting growth in employment by tackling the deficit that we inherited from the last Labour Government, improving the competitiveness of the economy and encouraging the growth of new business. We aim to ensure that women are well placed to take advantage of the jobs created by a successful economy through universal credit and the Work programme. We are also reforming the welfare system to ensure that work pays and that women are provided with the support they need to fulfil their potential.

Let us see whether we can get an answer to the question asked earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). Does the Minister believe that cutting the child care element of the working tax credit will make it easier or harder for women to gain employment and stay at work?

The hon. Lady will be aware of the decision by her Government to increase the child care element of the tax credit from 70% to 80% in April 2006. What is now clear to everybody is that that was a decision this country could not afford. We have already made it clear that with the universal credit, we have an opportunity to ensure that child care support gets to those who need it most. We will invest at least the same amount of money in child care as under the current system and we will aim to provide support for those making their first moves into work. I am sure that the hon. Lady, like me, wants to ensure that women who have taken time out to have a family can have access to child care to get back into work, if working fewer than 16 hours. I am sure she would like to support that.

Does the Minister recognise that decisions made by local councils such as the Tory one in Derby to close Sure Start projects is another example of where women are losing out and finding their opportunities for employment much diminished?

Like the right hon. Lady, I am a huge supporter of Sure Start. The Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), has ensured that funds are available to maintain the network of Sure Start centres. That is certainly happening in my county of Hampshire, where savings are being made in the management structures behind the front-line services, and I urge all councils to take a similar approach.

State Pensions

8. What recent assessment she has made of the potential effect on women of the proposal to introduce a flat-rate state pension. (54187)

9. What recent assessment she has made of the potential effect on women of the proposal to introduce a flat-rate state pension. (54188)

We are consulting on two options for reform to make the state pension system simpler and fairer for those—including many women—who have historically experienced poor pension outcomes. We will publish a full assessment of impacts when more detailed proposals for reform are published.

Many of my constituents, particularly female constituents, have raised concerns about the proposals. Will the Minister explain how the funding has been planned?

We are spending the budget that was already planned for state pension expenditure in what we consider to be a better way. There will be a simpler system, which will reward saving and be fairer to women in particular. Some of those with the highest earnings who would have received higher earnings-related pensions will ultimately receive smaller pensions than they would have otherwise, but we think that the system will be fairer and simpler.

I too have received correspondence from several constituents about the proposed changes in the state retirement age. What assurances can the Minister give that their concerns will be listened to, and that the Government will take all possible steps to ensure that women are not disadvantaged?

We are already listening to representations. Although more rapid equalisation inevitably affects women more than men, it affects men as well through the impact on the state pension credit age. However, I can encourage the hon. Gentleman by telling him that the new single state pension, if we proceed with it, will be of particular benefit to women, including those affected by the change in the state pension age.

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the question of fairness. However, people are living longer, and in a state pension system in which no money is put aside to pay for pensions, someone must find that money. We do not believe that it would be fair for all the cost to fall on today’s workers and today’s firms. There is a balance to be struck.

Pensions (Gender-Reassigned Women)

10. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on the payment of pensions to gender-reassigned women. (54189)

In order to meet our obligations under European Union law, a specialist team is being set up to determine equal treatment claims in line with the Court of Appeal’s decision on the payment of pensions to gender-reassigned women.

The Minister will be well aware of the case of my constituent Bernadette Rogers, who, with the help of both her former and her current Member of Parliament, has been fighting the anomaly in the system for quite a long time. Will he agree to meet me, and her, to try to sort the problem out once and for all?

My hon. Friend and his predecessor, Lord Boswell, have been very assiduous in taking up the case of Bernadette Rogers. I discussed her case with officials earlier this week.

I am always happy to meet hon. Friends, but we believe that we can resolve Ms Rogers’s case in the very near future. I will write to my hon. Friend shortly giving the final details of how that is done, and if he and Ms Rogers are not happy with that response, I shall be happy to meet him at that point.