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Commons Chamber

Volume 530: debated on Thursday 23 June 2011

House of Commons

Thursday 23 June 2011

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


I regularly receive representations from the aviation industry and other stakeholders on a range of issues relating to UK airports.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. He may be aware that some have suggested a congestion levy on south-east airports to fund a discount on air passenger duty in regional airports. What assessment has he made of the competitiveness of south-east airports in view of this ludicrous suggestion?

I think my hon. Friend’s question betrays the fact that he has already made his own assessment. I believe that this suggestion was made in a response by regional airports to a consultation on APD conducted by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. No doubt the Chancellor will respond to those suggestions in due course.

I think it is an excellent suggestion. There is huge capacity in the regional airports and since there has been complete freedom to fly anywhere in Europe, it has been difficult for Governments to use that capacity. Does the Secretary of State have any ideas how that extra capacity in regional airports can be used to the benefit of the UK economy?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: there is significant capacity in our regional airport runways. We have to recognise that the demand for aviation growth in the UK is not just an aggregate demand—it has a certain geographical distribution—but I am keen that the regional airports play a role in meeting that demand. I believe that the high-speed rail project will help them to do so.

As part of the review, will the Secretary of State discuss with the Treasury the viability of having an APD holiday for new long-haul routes from regional airports to improve their competitiveness with south-east airports and airports on the continent?

As I said, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has conducted a consultation on the future of APD and he has made it clear that any changes to the system would have to be broadly revenue-neutral. I do not know whether my hon. Friend submitted his suggestion during the course of the consultation, but if not, I am sure that the Chancellor would be prepared to take it as a late entry.

Does not the Secretary of State agree that the competitiveness of Belfast airports is gravely impinged by the fact that APD is levied at £120 for a return on business-class long-haul flights from Belfast, while 90 miles down the road in Dublin, it is €3 going down to zero. Clearly, as far as Northern Ireland is concerned, there is a strong case for looking at the issue of APD.

Once again, I am certain that the right hon. Gentleman will have submitted his views to the Chancellor in the consultation to which I just referred.

Britain’s business community finds it incredible that the Government have no intention of bringing forward a proper strategy for aviation and UK airports for the next two years. Opposition Members believe that any expansion in aviation must be sustainable, but is it not nonsense for the Government to rule out any expansion in the south-east, regardless of whether or not it can be demonstrated to be sustainable. Is not the chief executive of London First right when she warns that this failure is

“damaging our economy and enhancing that of our EU rivals”?

The hon. Lady is right that we have a big challenge in relation to aviation growth in the south-east. What I did not hear her do was repeat Labour’s policy to build a third runway at Heathrow airport. Perhaps at some stage she could tell the House whether that remains Labour’s policy. The coalition Government cancelled the third runway at Heathrow because of the unacceptable environmental burden that it imposed, but we are committed to developing a new and sustainable aviation strategy that will allow the growth of aviation in the UK—but only when it meets its environmental obligations.

Motorway Speed Limits

My ministerial colleagues and I have received a variety of representations, including via the red tape challenge to the highways regulations, on the subject of varying the motorway speed limit. The issue raises interesting aspects of our current behaviour, and we will continue to look at it.

The maximum motorway speed limit in several European countries, including France, Italy and Germany, is currently greater than 80 mph. In order to help deliver the economic benefit of reduced journey time, will my hon. Friend consider increasing the motorway speed limit to 80 mph?

The existing limit has been in place since the ’60s. We will weigh up safety and environmental aspects against enforcement—although we all know that 70 mph is not being enforced—and how increasing the speed limit to 80 mph would help the country to grow in infrastructure. We will look at the balance in those areas.

In assessing the impact on safety of increasing motorway speed limits, does the Minister agree that another potential consequence will be our ability to meet our carbon dioxide emission targets? Has he received any representations from his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change who, as we know, is something of an expert on these matters?

I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, who had my job before me, but he should have listened to the answer I gave a few moments ago before reading out his prepared question. We will balance the environmental aspects against the safety aspects, and also take into account the legislative process and whether or not we can get Britain moving better.

May I press the Minister a little further? What analysis has he done of the extra fuel usage and CO2 emissions that would result from increasing the speed limit from 70 to 80?

The hon. Gentleman should also have listened to what I said. I did not say that we had conducted the consultation; I said we would balance various aspects during the consultation, and I am sure he would like to take part in that consultation and in our discussion about what is the right balance.

Urban Traffic

We are providing local authorities with the right tools and the freedom to use them effectively. Our £560 million local sustainable transport fund will contribute to local schemes that support growth and reduce carbon.

Last week, in answer to a written question that I tabled on street works, the Minister stated that an independent report had found that legislation was “fit for purpose” but local authority practice needed to improve. He can certainly say that again! He only has to step outside this building to see the chaos caused by nearby street works that continue for week after week with no work actually being done, and that pattern is repeated across London and the rest of urban Britain. What is he going to do to create a sense of urgency about freeing up the roads—and, as a start, will he get Boris to focus on his day job and start sorting out London’s roads?

All of us have considerable sympathy for those who encounter street works, which are a nuisance to motorists and pedestrians alike, and which cause congestion and adversely affect business. We are keen to take steps to improve matters, including by developing regulations to allow targeted lane rental schemes, cutting red tape from the private scheme approval process, and considering utility works overrun charges.

Swindon to Kemble Railway

Network Rail has commenced design work, and I expect implementation to start in 2012-13, with completion by 2014-15 ahead of electrification works on the Great Western main line in 2016-17.

Does the Minister agree that this is an example of intelligent investment to promote economic growth? It will be great news for Gloucestershire, and stands in complete contrast to the failure of the last Labour Government to provide any support of this kind to the railway system.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He and many of his colleagues in the House have fought a hard campaign for redoubling, and I am delighted that the coalition can deliver that. In addition, the introduction of intercity express programme trains should lead to reductions in journey times and to frequent services, which will benefit the economy in his constituency and surrounding areas.

My right hon. Friend will know that local businesses, local MPs—including me—and the local authority in Swindon would like to see the development of a branch station on the Kemble line at Sparcells. What advice and encouragement can she give to me and to local agencies on the development of that station?

My hon. Friend has also fought a hard campaign to improve rail services in his area. My advice in respect of that project would be to continue to engage closely with the local authority, which has the leading role in taking forward and funding such projects, and to engage closely with Network Rail and the train operator to see what might be logistically feasible to consider in the future.

Humber Bridge

The second phase of the Humber bridge review was launched on 14 June, and we are now in the process of meeting stakeholders to gather views and ideas. As part of that process, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury and I intend to meet interested Members, including the hon. Gentleman.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Humber bridge tolls are essentially a tax on local people and local businesses. Is it right that at this time, with this review still going on, there should be an 11% hike in those taxes?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, of course, but the fact of the matter is that the Humber Bridge Board applied for an increase. I decided unilaterally to have a public inquiry, where people’s representations could be heard. The inspector came back with a clear recommendation in support of the board’s application for an increase, and there is no reason for Ministers to take a contrary view. What I would say, however, is that there has been no increase in the toll since 2006.

Notwithstanding the decision of the Humber Bridge Board this week to implement the recommended increase from 1 October—just six or seven weeks before we anticipate the review being completed—does the Minister agree that, irrespective of the outcome regarding the tolls, the governance of the bridge clearly needs revising so that residents and the local community have a clear spokesman? At the moment, councillors are almost forbidden from taking part.

I sympathise with the point that my hon. Friend is making. The governors’ arrangements for the bridge are part of the review that we are undertaking. We inherited an unsustainable position from the previous Government in relation to the bridge. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury and I are very concerned about this and we are determined to make progress if we can on this matter and others.

In the general election, the Liberal Democrats ran a “Ditch the Humber Bridge Debt” campaign. In the light of the Minister’s decision to endorse the 11% increase, should he not think again? Is this not another example of the Lib Dems’ promises in the manifesto being broken now they are in government?

I think that what the hon. Lady wanted to say was that we have decided, since the election, to offer a reduced interest rate on the Humber Bridge Board’s debt, which will save the board £48 million in interest payments over the next five years.

High Speed 2

I launched the national consultation on high speed rail on 28 February. It will close at midnight on 29 July and decisions will follow by December. The Government consider that a high-speed rail network between London and Birmingham and onward to Manchester and Leeds would drive economic growth and prosperity as well as providing vital new capacity on the west coast corridor.

Does the Secretary of State also agree that HS2 could bridge the wealth divide that exists between the north and the south?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes the point very clearly. I believe that it is not possible for Britain to maintain its prosperity in the 21st century in an increasingly competitive global economy unless we can close the growth gap between north and south. Governments for the past 50 or 60 years have wrestled with this challenge and we have not succeeded yet. This approach of investing in strategic infrastructure is the last best chance to achieve that.

Does the Secretary of State share my view that developing the eastern leg of the “Y”, which will link the great core cities of Nottingham, Sheffield and Leeds, has a very strong business case and should be prioritised?

I agree that it has a very strong business case and it will be part of the “Y” network, but the logic of building this project is that we have to do the complex engineering challenge of getting out of London through tunnels—the difficult bit of the project—first. In engineering terms, once we are out of the tunnels, it is pretty much plain sailing to complete the remainder of the construction.

Will the Minister please give thought to the people of the west country who have some of the slowest rail links with London and some of the most expensive fares? Rather than extra, speedy lines north, we would like some speedy and efficient lines south-west.

I am delighted to be able to tell my hon. Friend that electrification of the Great Western main line and the introduction of the IEP rolling stock will improve services in terms of speed, reliability, comfort and capacity on services between London and the west country.


7. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the Crossrail programme provides adequate toilet facilities at stations and on its rolling stock. (61512)

Provision of adequate and accessible facilities is an important consideration for many passengers. The majority of Crossrail stations will have toilet facilities. Since this will be a high frequency metro service, with most passengers travelling relatively short distances, we have no current plans to provide toilets on Crossrail trains.

Crossrail is currently building a huge new station at Farringdon, which we welcome. However, will the Minister join me in urging Crossrail to build some toilets at Farringdon station? As Councillor Charalambous so eloquently put it:

“They are causing years of inconvenience to local residents and businesses—this is the least they can do. At the end of the day,”


“piss against everything around here—inevitably they’ll be pissing in their stations and they won’t like it.”

I am sure the hon. Lady will be aware that the redevelopment of Farringdon station involves Crossrail and Thameslink. It is going to be an exceptionally busy and important station after that and there will be toilet facilities. It is intended that those facilities will be provided in the London underground aspect as part of the Thameslink upgrade, so Crossrail passengers are likely to have access to facilities nearby as part of the London underground upgrade.

When it comes to providing toilets, and indeed the whole rolling stock, will the Minister assure me that there will be a level playing field so that there is a fair chance that rolling stock can be constructed in Derby in the UK, rather than in Germany as in the announcement last week?

It is vitally important that all procurement processes are entirely fair to suppliers, including Bombardier.

National Air Traffic Services

8. What proportion of its stake in NATS Ltd the Government plan to sell; and if he will make a statement. (61513)

I recently launched a call for evidence on whether the Government need to retain a shareholding in NATS in order to meet our aviation policy objectives. The results will inform decisions on whether to sell all, part or none of the Government’s shareholding in the company. I expect to update the House once we have considered the responses to the call for evidence.

Do I take it from that reply that the Secretary of State is considering a complete sell-off of the Government’s interest in NATS? Will he also tell us what consultations he is having with the staff and the airline group about their views on the matter?

The call for evidence has gone to stakeholders in and around the company and the air traffic sector. We asked what the implications would be of selling all, part or none of our shareholding. We are open-minded and conscious of the fact that there could be strategic implications, and we want to understand from the people who work in the industry what those strategic implications might be before making any decision.

First Great Western

9. What recent discussions he has had with FirstGroup on the future of the First Great Western rail franchise; and if he will make a statement. (61514)

Department for Transport Ministers and officials meet franchised train operators and their owners regularly. These discussions have included the decision which has been announced by First Great Western to exit the franchise in March 2013.

On the electrification of the Great Western line, what action is being taken to ensure that the new franchisee works with Network Rail so that there is minimum customer disruption during that period?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that that element is an important part of the forward programme that is occurring.

When the First Great Western franchise is retendered, would the Minister consider allowing a provision to allow sufficient capital investment to improve the car parking at Kemble, which is already at capacity?

We are reviewing the full franchise process, led by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. As part of the franchise consideration, we are looking at longer franchises that may include that sort of issue in due course.

Given the circumstances in which FirstGroup decided to relinquish the contract, how will the Minister address new franchises so that both the interests of the taxpayer and the welfare of passengers are heeded?

That is an important and quite correct question, because the present franchise held by First Great Western was undoubtedly skewed towards the operator and away from the fare payer and the taxpayer. It is not a franchise that, frankly, the Government would want replicated. The whole process of franchise renewal is designed to eliminate that sort of unfair franchise.

I certainly endorse the Minister’s most recent remarks. Residents in Melksham in my constituency will want to do a lot better from the new franchise than they did from the last one. Will he tell us when the public will have an opportunity to contribute to a consultation on the draft specification for the new Great Western franchise?

I assure my hon. Friend that that matter has been fully taken on board. There will be a full consultation, including with residents of his constituency.

FirstGroup also manages First Capital Connect, the franchisee operating the Thameslink route. As that franchisee has consistently low scores on customer performance, will the Minister give an assurance that the franchise will not automatically be extended in 2015 but that we will have an opportunity to put it out to tender once again?

No decision has been made on that matter, although clearly there are franchise terms to be adhered to by the franchise holder, and requirements in law that must be adhered to by them and the Department. Performance is an important matter for the railway and it is something I take seriously, as does my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. I am aware of the concerns that have been expressed by passengers on the hon. Gentleman’s line and I shall be meeting railway operatives later today to discuss performance on the railway, including on his line.

Accessible Travel Information

10. If he will bring forward proposals to ensure the provision of accessible public travel information for blind and partially sighted people. (61515)

The Department is committed to improving accessible transport information that is available to enable people to plan their full journey. For example, the development of a journey planner for spectators going to the Olympics has provided an important new opportunity to achieve high standards of accessible information.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but has he had any discussions with the railway operators, particularly in relation to the implications of cuts in the staffing of railway stations for people with disabilities?

Matters relating to individual stations are, of course, ultimately ones for the franchise holder, but we have offered financial support for new information systems at more than 170 railway stations since 2006 and audio-visual passenger systems have been mandatory for all new rail vehicles since 1998.

I received a visit from my constituent, Lionel Broughton, on this matter with regard to buses. My local bus company, Stagecoach, has said that it will look at introducing visual and voice announcements on its fleet. Can the Minister do anything to give the industry a nudge?

I am delighted to say that I wrote to the Confederation of Passenger Transport, which represents the main bus operators, on 23 May, to give exactly that nudge.

Rail Fares

A distributional analysis of the impact of rail fare increases was conducted during the spending review and used to inform Department for Transport and Treasury decisions on spending review outcomes.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Is she aware of research by Passenger Focus that shows that people who buy their tickets from ticket machines pay far more expensive fares than if they used one of the staffed ticket offices? The McNulty report calls for the closure of half of all our staffed railway offices. Will she decide to reject those proposals to ensure, among many other reasons, that people get the cheapest fares they can?

The industry needs to do a lot better on its ticket machines and to ensure that passengers are properly informed about the ticket choices available. We will continue to challenge the industry to do that through our fares review and the White Paper on the future of the rail industry which we intend to publish in November.

Given the Government’s decision to increase rail fares by 3% above inflation for each of the next three years, many commuters will have to spend a fifth of their household income—more than their mortgage or rent—just to get to work. Incidentally, that would be equivalent to the Minister of State having to pay almost £20,000 a year. Instead of asking commuters to plug the hole caused by the transport budget being cut too far and too fast, will she think again?

We faced the largest peacetime deficit that we have ever faced. To continue with the biggest programme of rail upgrades in modern history, we unfortunately must ask passengers to make a contribution. The blame lies fairly and squarely with the previous Government for leaving us with a deficit and letting the cost of the railways spiral out of control.

Cambridge and King’s Lynn Rail Line

12. What assessment his Department has made of the potential benefit to the economy of upgrading the railway line between Cambridge and King’s Lynn. (61517)

Our current plans envisage that passengers on the fen line could benefit from new intercity express trains from 2018. That would offer improved passenger accommodation and a shorter journey time to London, subject to a satisfactory outcome to contractual negotiations with Agility Trains and timetabling arrangements that will be finalised with the future franchisee.

With the area’s economic growth and the fact that passenger numbers between Downham Market and Cambridge have increased by 150% in the past 10 years, does the Minister agree that expanding the fen line northwards should be a key consideration in Network Rail’s next phased upgrade?

My hon. Friend has campaigned strongly to improve services on the fen line. I pay tribute to her and the other local MPs who take this seriously. She is absolutely right that passenger numbers have been increasing. This has been a real success story. I would certainly encourage her and her constituents to engage with Network Rail, as it looks to the next railway control period to see what infrastructure improvements might be deliverable within affordability constraints.

Low-carbon Vehicles

The Government have made provision of over £400 million for measures to promote the uptake of ultra-low-carbon vehicle technologies. These measures include support for consumer incentives, the development of recharging infrastructure and a programme of research, development and demonstration work. Low-emission vehicles also benefit from tax advantages.

A convenient network of publicly available charging points is essential if we are to encourage the uptake of electric cars, so I welcome the £1.45 million of Government funding for Transport Scotland to build 375 charging points across the central belt of Scotland, but I was concerned at BBC media reports last month suggesting that the UK in general is behind schedule in getting these charging points in place. Will the Secretary of State give us an update on progress on charging points?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question and I agree that we need to understand the way in which the public expect to use public charging points, in order to understand how we can best roll out the electric vehicle programme. Early evidence from other countries has produced some results that might not have been intuitive before the demonstration projects. It is true that the total number of charging posts that are rolled out will be less than was originally envisaged, because in a number of cases promoters of the plugged-in places schemes have determined that multi-headed charging posts are the best way forward. That accounts for some of the discrepancy in numbers to which I think the hon. Lady is referring.

Will the Minister consider maintaining the duty differential for sustainable biofuels? This has played an important role in creating green jobs, which are now threatened by the removal of the differential in April 2012.

As my hon. Friend knows, the differential plays an important role in bringing forward sustainable biofuels. In particular, the re-use of used oils is an important source of sustainable fuels. However, all matters relating to duty are for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to consider and, when the current arrangements expire in 2012, he will consider whether to renew them and on what basis.

Public Transport (2012 Olympics)

15. What recent discussions he has had with the Mayor of London on public transport provision during the London 2012 Olympics. (61521)

I have lead accountability in Government for transport preparations for the 2012 Olympic games. Ministers and departmental officials regularly meet and correspond with the Mayor of London and Transport for London officials on a variety of London transport issues, including those in relation to the 2012 Olympics. The Mayor of London also attends the regular meetings of the Cabinet Sub-Committee overseeing preparations for the Olympics, of which I am a member.

Not all the events are taking place in London. Bournemouth is still coming to terms with losing the bid for the beach volleyball to Horse Guards Parade. However, Weymouth is delighted to be hosting the sailing events. Will the Secretary of State outline what improvements to transport will take place for 2012 in that area?

I agree that on the face of it Bournemouth has a better beach than Horse Guards Parade, but there we are. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the transport challenges around the other venues. Plans to improve transport access to Weymouth during the Olympic games include temporary traffic management and a £5.7 million scheme to improve the Canford Bottom roundabout, which will include the installation of 70 additional traffic lights to control traffic flow. During this summer, the Highways Agency will be trialling the use of its traffic officers on the route between London and Weymouth as an additional means to manage traffic flows.


The spending review announcement in October 2010 listed the A63 Castle street improvement scheme for potential construction in future spending review periods, subject to the statutory process.

The Labour council has had productive talks with Associated British Ports and Siemens this week, but is it not about time the Government became enthusiastic about the massive investment in my constituency and considered bringing forward plans to improve the A63? We are desperate for that.

The Government are very enthusiastic as well, and there have been discussions with colleagues in the area and the Secretary of State in past days. We have to accept the financial mess that the previous Administration left us in, but we will do everything we can. If there are huge investments going in, perhaps the investors would also like to invest in that infrastructure, as is the case in other parts of the country.

The Humber local economic partnership recently submitted a bid for an enterprise zone based around both sides of the Humber—the green port in Hull and the Able UK site on the south Humber gateway. The A63 will be key to linking that. What discussions has my hon. Friend had with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills about the enterprise zone? Will he work in a joined-up way across Government to progress the A63 development?

We work across Government on all such projects. We accept that enterprise zones will bring in more investment and growth, which is what we need to get out of the financial mess that we are in. I am sure that we will meet other Ministers and work forwards, but we have to go through the statutory process first.

London Underground

17. Whether he plans to bring forward proposals to prevent unplanned industrial action on London Underground. (61523)

Existing legislation requires trade unions contemplating industrial action to ballot their membership and give due notice to the employer. The Government encourage both London Underground and the trade unions representing its employees to resolve disputes as quickly as possible through negotiation.

Given the huge disruption that strikes on the underground cause for my constituents and for London’s economy, is it not about time that there was a no-strike agreement on this vital public service, preferably negotiated with the union, but failing that through Government legislation?

Of course, I am well aware of the Mayor’s ambitions to get a no-strike agreement, which I think would be very positive if he could negotiate it with the unions. With regard to changing strike law, the Government are not rushing to any kind of confrontation with the unions, but Mr Crow and his colleagues at the RMT must recognise that the more irresponsibly they behave, holding London to ransom, the more they strengthen the argument of those who want a change in strike law.

Topical Questions

Since I last answered departmental questions, Sir Roy McNulty has published his report on improving value for money on our railways, which I have committed to responding to by publishing detailed proposals for the future of the railways before the end of the year. I have published a new strategic framework for road safety and announced the outcome of the competition to build carriages for the Thameslink programme. Today my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has launched a consultation on proposals to reform the air travel organiser’s licence holiday protection scheme. I have also dealt with the consequences of the Grimsvotn volcano eruption, which is a good deal easier to say than Eyjafjallajokull and, I am pleased to say, caused a good deal less disruption.

Trafford Park in my constituency is home to many international businesses and makes a crucial contribution to UK manufacturing and exports. Excellent rail links are essential to its success. In planning for High Speed 2, what is being done to ensure that it and the wider regional rail network are fully integrated?

I would make two points to the hon. Lady. First, High Speed 2 will release significant amounts of capacity on the west coast main line, which will be available for different types of service, including freight. Secondly, we are clear that high-speed rail is not an alternative to investment in our conventional railways. Once people arrive at the high-speed destinations they will still need to get to their local destinations across the region, so we have to reinforce the regional rail networks as part and parcel of the programme of rail investment.

T3. I recently had the pleasure of meeting the parish council in the village of South Kyme in my constituency, which brought to my attention the loss of the village’s only bus service. Many constituents have reported to me the loss of bus services, which are incredibly important for rural communities. What support can the Department lend to re-establish that service and ensure that those that exist remain? (61528)

As my hon. and learned Friend will recognise, the provision of bus services is primarily a matter for either commercial operators or local councils through tendered services, but we are cognisant of the importance of such services in rural areas and so have provided £10 million extra for community transport initiatives, and the local sustainable transport fund of £560 million allows investment in bus services in rural areas.

This morning the Transport Committee asked the Government to withdraw their modernisation proposals for the coastguard and consult on revised plans. Its report is very clear:

“The evidence we have received raises serious concerns that safety will be jeopardised if these proposals proceed.”

Despite failing to do so before now, will the Secretary of State finally listen to coastguards up and down the country and abandon his dangerous and reckless plan to close more than half of Britain’s coastguard stations?

We welcome the Committee’s report. If the hon. Lady looks at it carefully, she will see that it actually says that the status quo is not acceptable and that coastguard stations need to close. The process we inherited from the previous Administration had been sitting on their desks for years. We said right at the start of the process that we would listen and come up with proposals after consulting. It is a shame that they did not do the same.

T4. Will the Minister meet me to discuss performance issues on the Medway valley line, which runs through my constituency? (61529)

I would be entirely happy to do that. It is important that all rail passengers have access to reliable services. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and I are very focused on that issue and would be happy to meet my hon. Friend.

Is the Secretary of State aware that words such as “rebalancing our economy to promote private sector jobs and skilled manufacturing” ring very hollow in Derby, where 3,000 such jobs are now at risk as a result of a decision to build Thameslink trains in Germany? I understand that the Government reviewed and reconfirmed the contract after the election, but I understand also that the Secretary of State still has the power to call in the process and to invite the bidders to re-tender. Can he confirm that he will now do so?

I understand the disappointment felt by Bombardier and, indeed, the anxiety felt by the people of Derby about that decision, but before the right hon. Lady delivers me a finger-wagging lecture perhaps I can remind her of a couple of points. Her Government designed and initiated the procurement process, and some Members may remember that they used to call it Thameslink 2000. We inherited it 16 years late and £600 million over budget, and it fell to us effectively to open the envelope. The procurement was carried out under the terms of the EU directive, and the Siemens bid offered the best value for money on the criteria for appraisal set out in the original competition that the previous Government launched. We have to comply with EU law, and I do not have the power that she suggests I have.

I firmly believe that free trade and open markets are the best way for us to proceed, but I believe also in the concept of the level playing field, and there is a case for looking at the way in which some of our neighbours and competitors operate the EU procurement directive, because it seems quite astonishing that, complying with that directive as we do, they have managed to achieve very high percentage penetrations of French-built trains on the French railway and of German-built trains on the German railway.

T6. As my right hon. Friend has just said, the previous Government tied the hands of this Government on such decisions, including the Thameslink contract, which, as he is aware, affects my constituency. What can we do to ensure that British business does not lose out as a result of this false economy of going for cheap foreign contracts that leave us picking up the domestic dole bill? (61531)

I understand the concern of people in Crewe as well, of course, but we must not fall into a trap. The Siemens bid clearly offered the best value for money, and we must not lose sight of that fact. The wider issue of how we operate the procurement directive, and of how we work with the UK supply chain in industries such as rolling stock construction, is something that we need to review, and I am in discussions with my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary about how we do that.

T5. I recently met a group of my constituents from Hunter Lodge in Wigan, who told me that they are unable to travel together on train services throughout the country because most companies will carry only one wheelchair user at a time. Does the Minister agree that, 16 years after the landmark Disability Discrimination Act 1995, it is entirely unacceptable that that appalling situation should continue? What is he therefore doing to put pressure on train companies to ensure that the situation does not continue? (61530)

I entirely sympathise with the hon. Lady’s point about disabled people having difficulty accessing some trains. There is a long-standing arrangement by which trains are expected to become compliant by 2020, and we are sticking to that and putting pressure on the train companies to accelerate it wherever possible. In addition, we are spending a good deal of money on access for all at railway stations in order to ensure that stations themselves are properly accessible to all people who want to use them.

T7. Can the Minister provide an assurance that the granting of a short-term, two-and-a-half year contract for the Greater Anglia rail franchise will not delay planning for the reintroduction of a through service from Liverpool Street to Lowestoft? (61532)

The issue of a short franchise will not have an impact one way or another on those decisions, so I can give my hon. Friend an assurance on that. I cannot guarantee that future franchises will necessarily reintroduce through services, so it will be very important, with him, to work with bidders for the next franchise to find out what they consider viable and commercially viable. I can assure him, however, that the Government’s commitment to delivering the Beccles loop will provide more frequent services and, I hope, a significant economic benefit to his constituents.

Commuters in Lewisham repeatedly express to me their anger about having to pay ever increasing rail fares for ever more overcrowded train services. What discussions has the Minister had recently with the Mayor of London to impress on him that train services are as important, if not more so, than his beloved bikes?

I can assure the hon. Lady that this Government are placing a high priority on tackling overcrowding on our railways. In more or less every spending squeeze there has ever been, the first thing that gets axed is transport upgrade projects. We have committed significant funds to the Mayor of London to upgrade London’s transport systems, and we are committing significant funds across the rest of the country to support investment in our railways to relieve overcrowding. It is a high priority for us and for the Mayor.

T8. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to mitigate the effects of foreign hauliers who use their advantage of being able to buy fuel more cheaply on the continent to undercut British companies? (61533)

We have a commitment to bringing in lorry road user charging to level the playing field. It is important, however, that we do not penalise our own truckers with whatever scheme we bring in. We are in ongoing negotiations with the Treasury and we are committed to introducing a scheme in this Parliament.

The Secretary of State will no doubt have seen the reports in yesterday’s newspapers about Willie Walsh of British Airways having suggested that as a consequence of the fact that a third runway will not be built in the south-east at Heathrow, he will increase BA’s business in Madrid. Is that not rather ironic?

I am pleased to see that British Airways, along with BAA, now accepts the finality of the coalition Government’s decision that we will not allow the building of a third runway at Heathrow airport. However, that is not the end of the matter. We have to provide for aviation growth in the south-east of England, and in the UK as a whole, in order to meet the needs of a growing economy in future. That is why we have launched a scoping document and will bring forward a new sustainable aviation policy by the end of next year.

T9. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what progress has been made on the reopening of the Todmorden curve, which will provide a faster rail route between East Lancashire and Manchester? (61534)

I am very much aware of the potential benefits of that project in helping to regenerate an area that is heavily dependent on public sector jobs. For precisely those reasons, it would be an impressive candidate for funding from the regional growth fund. I understand that the local authorities are working on that at the moment. I pay tribute to the work done by those in Burnley and on Lancashire county council on getting the project moving. My officials stand ready, and are indeed working with the local authorities, to see how we might be able to help to take things forward. This is primarily a local matter, but there is the real prospect of a successful RGF bid.

Eddington identified congestion as a major and growing cost to the economy. Across Europe, towns and cities have light rail systems, which alleviate congestion. When are the Government going to put real political will and resource behind developing light rail systems across Britain?

I am happy to say that we have done a great deal for light rail in the time since the general election, including authorising extensions to the systems in Nottingham, Manchester and Birmingham. I have authorised a tram trial project in Sheffield and commissioned a report internally on value for money in light rail, and that report is now on my desk. We recognise the values of light rail and we are taking it forward in a real way.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Parental Leave

1. What assessment she has made of the effects on women workers of proposed reforms of parental leave. (61535)

7. What assessment she has made of the effects on women workers of proposed reforms of parental leave. (61543)

Our proposals for a new system of parental leave will protect mothers’ rights while giving families more choice and flexibility over how they can share their work and caring responsibilities. The proposals mean that working mothers will be better able to keep in touch with their employer, and they will also aid career progression for working mothers and help to tackle pregnancy discrimination.

One of the key problems faced by working mothers is the gender pay gap, which is a shocking thing. Will these reforms help to reduce the gender pay gap?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I think that the reforms will reduce the gender pay gap, because the division of caring responsibilities between parents is one of the underlying issues. The current arrangements for parental leave reflect an expectation that the mother will stay at home and care for the children. Those arrangements urgently need reform. Although we will use a range of approaches to reduce the gender pay gap, this is an important element.

In the light of the Prime Minister’s speech about the importance of men taking responsibility and a more active role in the upbringing of their children, is it not time for a much more flexible system, which encourages and allows them to do that?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That is precisely what our flexible parental leave proposals, on which we are consulting, will do. Crucially, they will not only allow the father and mother to share parental leave, but will enable them to take time off together in the early stages following the child’s birth, if that is what they want. It will be possible for fathers to be much more involved in the very early stage of their child’s life.

Homophobia (Sport)

We are encouraging every club, team, player and fan to sign up to our new charter, “Tackling Homophobia and Transphobia in Sport”, and to work with us to put an end to homophobia and transphobia in sport. We are working with the top sports national bodies, Sport England and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games to tackle this issue. I am pleased to say that yesterday the Prime Minister hosted a reception in No. 10 to celebrate the good work that is under way to drive homophobia and transphobia out of sport.

Given our wish to get a lot of young people involved in sport, and with the Olympics happening next year, does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to break down homophobic attitudes among young people in particular and to ensure that young people can fully participate in sport? What will the Government do to facilitate that?

I agree with my hon. Friend that that is important. We want sport to be welcoming for everyone. Spectators and participants should feel that there is no barrier for them, and should not feel concerned about the sort of comments they might hear. It is important that young people are taught and shown the way forward. I think that our charter will help to do that.

We need to work on homophobia particularly in relation to football. Over time, football has not done enough to deal with this issue. Sadly, the terraces of football clubs are too often places where homophobic and transphobic comments are made. I am pleased to say that the Football Association was represented at the reception at No. 10 yesterday. Too often in the past there has been a reluctance among the football authorities to deal with this issue and frankly it is time that football got its house in order.

I wholeheartedly endorse what the Minister for Women and Equalities has said about football. It is a great sadness that there has been only one out gay footballer, and he ended up committing suicide partly because of the reaction. Has the Minister come across the charity Diversity Role Models? It plays an important role in taking gay and lesbian people from many walks of life into schools, so that young people can see that the homophobic bullying to which they might have been subjected is not the right way forward.

I am not aware of that organisation, but I am happy for the hon. Gentleman to send me details about it. It is important that we use every opportunity to ensure that young people get the right messages, and that they do not just stand on the terraces or participate in sport and get the wrong messages. One problem, as the hon. Gentleman said, is that only a few key sports people have come out across a number of sports.

Rugby has a better record than football. I hope that we can have a situation in which gay sports players feel that they can come out.

I welcome what the Minister said in relation to the Olympics and tackling homophobia. Have the Government thought about how the Olympics can be used to encourage participating countries to tackle homophobia in their home countries?

The Olympic games present an important opportunity for a clear message to be sent across the world. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games has already produced a pin badge which, as well as the London 2012 logo, features a rainbow flag illustrating its commitment to tackling homophobia and transphobia in sport. It is considering what else it can do.

We should send that message from the Olympic games to other countries, but we should do more, and I am pleased to say that Ministers have agreed to raise lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual issues with other Governments whenever possible during overseas visits. The Minister for Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), did just that during her recent trip to India and Nepal.

Disability Hate Crimes

The Government are committed to better recording of hate crimes, and important progress has already been made. Since April, police forces have been formally collecting data on disability hate crime for the first time. We are working with key voluntary sector partners, including disabled people’s organisations such as Voice UK and RADAR, to encourage more reporting of hate crimes, and I think that that will make a significant contribution.

In the light of tragic cases such as that of Fiona Pilkington, and the publication this week of Mencap’s “Don’t Stand By” report, does the Minister agree that police forces must identify the key challenges to the tackling of disability hate crime, and must use the data that they collect to improve the fight against that appalling abuse?

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important for us to learn lessons. I welcome Mencap’s report, and was delighted to attend its launch earlier this week.

The police face a number of challenges, including not just data collection but the need to show leadership, to show that they are making the issue a priority, and to ensure that the right training is provided. I pay tribute to organisations such as Breakthrough UK in Manchester and BSafe Blackpool, with whose representatives I have discussed the issue at length.

Has the Minister discussed with the Secretary of State for Justice whether the proposal in his Bill for the duties relating to all hate crimes to be wrapped up into a general duty will enable the current focus on individual groups to be retained?

The hon. Lady has raised an important question. The first stage in the overall process involves our ensuring that we are aware of the magnitude of the problem, and it is therefore important that, since April, hate crimes have for the first time been recorded. As the hon. Lady suggests, we must ensure that we have access to a breakdown of the figures, and I will ensure that the appropriate people in the appropriate Ministry are aware of our feelings in that regard.

As you know, Mr Speaker, I had hoped to ask a supplementary question about the impact on women of charges for learning English as a second language. I am disappointed that the Secretary of State, who has overall responsibility across Government for the women and equalities agenda, has decided that how that affects women is not an issue for her. I wonder whether she is considering only Home Office matters, but in any event this is a Home Office matter.

Mencap’s “Stand By Me” report makes a clear demand for specialist policing. It reveals straightforwardly that police authorities with specialist police resources deal with disability hate crime more effectively than other authorities. Given that the Home Secretary is cutting the police force by removing 10,000 officers, what action will the Minister take to ensure that every police area has a specialist resource that is trained and able to deal with the issue?

As the hon. Lady will know, Cabinet Office guidance on parliamentary questions governs what questions are answered in this Question Time.

It is important for us to take account of individual areas in the country and the needs that may arise there. The position is different in each police authority area, and local police constables and chief police constables should be able to take account of that. However, the police alone do not provide the answer. Disabled people’s organisations have an important role to play in helping to ensure that disabled people feel that they have an opportunity to report crimes accurately, and I pay tribute to those organisations for the work that they are doing in that regard.

Until recently there has been no formal collection of data on disability hate crime. We are committed to promoting better recording of it, and from April this year forces started collecting the relevant data. When the statistics are published next summer we will have a clearer picture of local patterns and trends, which will help the police target their resources in the most effective way.

The Minister will know that following the publication of the Mencap report on Monday, there are some positive suggestions about how we can encourage further reporting of hate crime. Will she agree to have a discussion with the Association of Chief Police Officers to consider what I know from experience are very difficult issues?

I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will be relieved to know that we are already having such conversations with ACPO. It is very important that those discussions include disabled people and the organisations that represent them, because they have an important role to play.

I welcome the Minister’s comments on reporting, but how can we give disability organisations and disabled people themselves the confidence to report crime? What work can take place on that?

I reiterate the role that user-led organisations can have, such as the one in Blackpool, BSafe, that I visited with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). Such organisations can have a real effect by giving people the confidence to report. If they have the right systems in place—we are helping RADAR develop those systems—third-party reporting can be effective as well.

As schools already report any incidents of hatred against disabled people, will the Minister work with the Department for Education to ensure that the trends reported in schools are carried over to Home Office figures? Will the two Departments work together so that if there is a problem of hatred against disabled people in schools, the Home Office is aware of it and will work with schools to address it?

I was surprised to discover that the data have not been collected, so that trends cannot be found. I welcome the Government’s commitment to collecting those data. May I suggest, however, that the Government also consider the catalyst of the crime that is reported, particularly as a number of disabled people say that they have been spat at in the street or called scroungers because of some of the headlines that have been in the newspapers?

After 13 years of the previous Administration, it is a shame that speedier action was not taken on that. I am glad that the coalition Government have taken action so quickly.

The hon. Lady is right to say that we are dealing with the symptoms, not the causes, of the problem. That is why we are putting a great deal of effort and energy into ensuring that there are positive images of disabled people. We have a consultation at the moment on how to involve more disabled people in political life. Having disabled people at the centre of decision making will help to change people’s attitudes.

Rape Prosecutions

6. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on steps to increase the rate of prosecution for rape. (61542)

Rape prosecution is regularly discussed at ministerial level through the inter-ministerial group on violence against women. It is completely unacceptable that so many women and men are victims of this abhorrent crime. We have taken action to support rape victims and improve prosecutions by training specialist rape prosecutors in all areas, providing £1.72 million of funding a year for independent sexual violence advisers who support victims through the criminal justice system, and putting funding for rape support centres on a stable footing.

Around 5,000 people each year are arrested on suspicion of rape and not charged. Some have gone on to commit further offences and been convicted as a result of being on the DNA database. The Prime Minister was not able to answer this question yesterday, so perhaps the Minister will today. Why does she think it is right to get rid of the DNA of those arrested for but not charged with rape?

Mainly because they are innocent. The Government start from the principle that someone who is arrested for, or charged with, a criminal offence but not subsequently convicted is innocent. Unlike the last Government, we will not hold the DNA of 1 million innocent people indefinitely. While they were busy filling the database with the DNA of innocent people, they absolutely failed to collect the DNA of the guilty, who were liable and had been convicted, and who might very well offend again.

My hon. Friend has written that nine out of 10 rapes go unreported, and that 38% of serious sexual assault victims tell no one about their experience. Reported rape is just the tip of the iceberg. I know that we are putting £10.5 million into rape centres, but what can we do to encourage victims to walk through their doors in the first place?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She is quite right that reported rape is the tip of the iceberg. The funding—stable funding, unlike under the previous Government—to support rape centres right across the country is one thing we can do. We are also filling in the gaps: we will have centres in Hereford, Trafford, Devon and Dorset this year, and more work is being done to identify other areas so that coverage goes right across the country. The police have a job to do too, in the work that they do to send out a message loud—

Order. I am trying to help the House and to facilitate Back Benchers, but we must have short questions and short answers.

I am sorry that the Home Secretary chose not to answer that question, because it was raised in Prime Minister’s questions and it is a serious issue. The answer from the Minister for Equalities to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) was deeply unsatisfactory. She is keeping on the database the DNA of people who have been charged but not convicted. However, she is refusing to keep the DNA of those who are arrested but not charged. In those 5,000 cases, the police have decided that there is enough evidence to pass a case to the Crown Prosecution Service, but the CPS has decided not to charge.

We know that, for a series of reasons, rape is notoriously difficult to charge and convict, and we know that there is evidence among those 5,000 cases of people who have committed serious offences and who will go on to offend again. Under the Minister’s rules, the DNA of John Warboys would not have been kept. Will the Minister now think again and do something serious to increase rape prosecutions?

What the right hon. Lady has said is not accurate. When someone is arrested, there are circumstances under which the DNA can be retained. I shall run through those very briefly. DNA can be retained if the victim of the alleged offence is under 18; if the victim of the alleged offence is a vulnerable adult; if the victim of the alleged offence is in a close relationship with the subject; and, to answer her point precisely, if the police consider that retention is necessary to safeguard the public.

Business of the House

The business for next week will be:

Monday 27 June—A debate on House of Lords reform.

Tuesday 28 June—Remaining stages of the Finance (No.3) Bill (day one).

Wednesday 29 June—Second Reading of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.

Thursday 30 June—A motion to bring in a resolution, on which a Bill is to be brought in, followed by a motion to approve a regulatory reform order relating to Epping Forest.

The provisional business for the week commencing 4 July will include:

Monday 4 July—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance (No.3) Bill (day two).

Tuesday 5 July—Opposition day (19th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 6 July—Estimates day (3rd allotted day). There will be debates on the Prevent strategy, and on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Further details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: The Prevent strategy: 6th Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee of Session 2009-10, HC 65, “Preventing Violent Extremism”.

Afghanistan and Pakistan: 4th Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee of Session 2010-12, HC 514, “The UKs foreign policy approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan; and the Government’s response, CM 8064.]

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

Thursday 7 July—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for Thursday 30 June 2011 will be:

Thursday 30 June—A debate on co-operatives and mutuality in the economy.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that reply.

On tonight’s vote on stopping the use of wild animals in circuses, will the Leader of the House reassure us that the Government are not whipping their vote? Would it not be ironic if the whip were used to defeat the ban so that people can go on cracking a whip at circus animals?

It is learning disability week, and yesterday I met a group from Leeds who had come to tell MPs that they face discrimination every day. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that any idea that disabled people should be paid less than the minimum wage would be outrageous discrimination, and may we have a statement condemning it?

Following your comments on Tuesday, Mr Speaker, about the Government holding press conferences on major policy announcements before they come to the House to answer questions from MPs, will the Leader of the House now make time available for the Procedure Committee’s proposals on ministerial statements to be debated? The Committee’s idea that Ministers would be forced to make a formal apology on the Floor of the House for breaching the rules might concentrate the Government’s mind.

Last week I asked the Leader of the House about reconsidering the strategic defence review. Yesterday the Prime Minister came to the House and let slip that he is doing so already, although he had not previously told anyone, least of all the House of Commons. In the Prime Minister’s own words:

“We have had a review of the national security and defence review over the past year”—[Official Report, 22 June 2011; Vol. 530, c. 315.]

When can we expect a statement on the outcome of the review?

This week the climate change Secretary attacked right-wing ideologues and deregulation zealots for putting environmental regulations, including those in climate change and national parks legislation, on a list of so-called red tape that might be scrapped. We wish the Secretary of State well in his fight to save the regulations, but has the Leader of the House had any indication that the Cabinet Secretary’s right-wing, zealous Cabinet colleagues—presumably they were who he was talking about—have asked to make a statement by way of right of reply to this grave charge? If not, may we at least be given a list of their names so that we can keep score?

On the subject of zealots, may we have a statement from the Prime Minister on how he has got on since PMQs yesterday in his desperate attempts to prevent Tory MEPs from voting against a 30% reduction in emissions—which is, after all, a coalition policy—in the European Parliament today? This is a real test of his authority, and if he fails it his claim to be leading the greenest Government ever will be in tatters.

May I offer the Leader of the House an apology? I fear that my comments on weekly bin collections may have inadvertently contributed to a widening of the rift between the Environment Secretary and the Communities Secretary over whose turn it is to take the rubbish out. The Daily Telegraph today reported:

“Cabinet pair ‘at daggers drawn’ after bitter bin collection feud.”

It seems that the right hon. Lady hung up on the right hon. Gentleman, and the pair are thought not to have spoken since. A colleague said:

“The whole thing is fairly unpleasant. . .”

So may we have a statement on why this fragile coalition inside the Conservative party now seems to be falling apart?

After all the policy changes, pauses, rethinks, repudiations, and U-turns in the past few weeks—by the way, I congratulate the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website on its honesty for yesterday announcing changes to the BBC World Service with the headline

“Massive U-turn on BBC World Service funding”—

did the Leader of the House see the conclusion drawn by one unhappy Conservative MP who this week said:

“It’s not worth going out on a limb for something if it may be abandoned when the tabloids or the Lib Dems kick up”?

Pity the loyal Back Benchers: they are keen to help, eager to please and want to back their Government, but they now have absolutely no idea, with all this prime ministerial hokey cokey, whether policies that are in this week might be policies that are out next week, or at the very least shaken all about. May we therefore have a statement reassuring them that if they do take the plunge and voice support for the Government, they will not be left high and dry as so many of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet colleagues have found themselves in recent weeks? Finally, does this collective loss of nerve by the Government not show just how right was the Treasury mandarin who last week complained:

“They just don’t seem to have thought any of this stuff through”?

Sir Humphrey could not have put it better himself.

We hear that the shadow Leader of the House’s bid to lead his party goes from strength to strength. I can report that following my comments last week, even The Independent has been tempted into a flutter:

“I’d put £50 on Hilary Benn. He’s not an automatic embarrassment. His performance as shadow Leader is widely admired. And there’s the hereditary principle working in his favour.”

With friends like those, what is holding—[Interruption.]

As the sixth baronet, I am in favour of the hereditary principle.

Let me turn to the shadow Leader of the House’s questions. I note in passing that he asked very few questions about next week’s business. None the less, on the motion dealing with circus animals, we are tackling a problem that he singularly failed to tackle during his time in government.

The Government are perfectly entitled to defend their position in the House and in a Division.

As for shadow Leader of the House’s question about disabled people and the minimum wage, the suggestion made was outrageous. It is not Government policy, and I agree with what he said about it.

We would welcome a debate on ministerial statements. It is for the Backbench Business Committee to find time to debate the proposals of the Procedure Committee. This Government have made roughly one third more ministerial statements a day than the outgoing Administration, and we are more than anxious to keep the House fully informed. There will not be another SDSR, as the Prime Minister made clear, and there is not a review of it.

As for the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about zealots, which I believe were reported in the press, the comments and criticisms within the coalition Government are, from time to time, made by members of two different parties, whereas in the previous Government much more offensive comments were made about Ministers in the same party, so I am not sure that he should raise the issue on the Floor on the House.

So far as MEPs are concerned, the coalition’s policy is wholly unaffected by what happens in the European Parliament. The coalition Government’s commitment to reducing CO2 emissions and climate change remains unaffected.

As for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman welcomes the additional £2.2 million for the Arabic service, for which there was support among Members on both sides of the House. In the context of a budget for the World Service of some £250 million, it is difficult to describe that as a mammoth U-turn. It is a sensible and welcome change in response to pressure from the House.

So far as rethinking Government policies is concerned, I wonder how long it will be before the right hon. Gentleman’s party reconsiders the shadow Chancellor’s view on a reduction in VAT, which it seems was introduced without any consultation with his colleagues.

Would my right hon. Friend consider it appropriate to hold a debate in Government time on the future of the Commonwealth? We are approaching an important Heads of Government conference in the autumn and, more imminently, the centennial conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association here in London.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s work as chairman of the CPA in organising an important conference at the end of next month. I am glad that a number of my ministerial colleagues will speak at the conference, which I hope will be a great success. I would be misleading him, however, if I said that I could find time between now and the summer recess for a debate on the Commonwealth, but I hope that there might be an opportunity to raise the issue in Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions or perhaps to seek a debate in Westminster Hall.

I am sorry to go on about this, but the Leader of the House gives me absolutely no option. The Government are not sticking to their promise of allocating one day a week as Back-Bench time. At the moment, we are running at about one day a month, and I am sure that the problem cannot possibly be the subjects that we are choosing to debate on the Floor of the House, so will he please again consider allocating one set, regular, non-Thursday slot as Back-Bench time?

Let me reassure the hon. Lady, whose work as Chair of the Backbench Business Committee I admire, that we will stick to our promise that there will be 35 days in the Session, plus injury time because this Session is longer. We cannot offer one day every week, and a large number of days at the beginning of the Session were devoted to general debates. We might be able to catch up towards the end of the Session, but at the moment I am under enormous pressure to provide adequate time to debate Government measures, and she has a whole day today to debate Back-Bench business. I reassure her that we will honour the agreement of 35 days per Session, plus injury time because this Session is longer than normal.

Order. A further 38 right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. As always, I should like to accommodate them, but I remind the House that two debates are taking place today under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee, both of which are well subscribed. Brevity from Back Benchers and Front Benchers alike is therefore of the essence.

Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that he was unable to announce today a debate on the armed forces? Is he aware that the Backbench Business Committee—through no fault of its Chair, I have to say—has refused my request for a debate on the armed forces, although we have not had one since September last year, in favour of a request to debate eight or 28 circus animals? That is an important subject that would be appropriate for a debate in Westminster Hall, but I understand that that already happened a couple of weeks ago.

I understand where my right hon. Friend, who is Chair of the Defence Select Committee, is coming from, but under the Wright Committee proposals the four days per Session that were allocated for defence have been put into the pot, which is now owned by the Backbench Business Committee. It is therefore up to the Backbench Business Committee to decide how to allocate those days, and I think that his comments were addressed as much to the Committee as they were to me.

On parliamentary accountability, or the lack of it, why did the Secretary of State for Defence table a written statement today on the cost of the military operation in Libya, rather than making an oral statement at the Dispatch Box? Is it not unfortunate that we get our information either from the media or from written statements, and that the Minister responsible does not come here to explain and justify his actions and to answer questions accordingly?

The hon. Gentleman says that the Government have not made a statement, but he is holding in his hand the Government’s statement. As I said a few moments ago, the record of this Government on making statements is better than the record of the Government whom he supported.

Following the schools Minister’s welcome announcement this morning that grammar schools such as those in my constituency will be allowed to expand, may we have a debate on grammar schools and their positive impact on social mobility?

Again, my hon. Friend’s request might have been heard by the Backbench Business Committee. The policy of the coalition Government is that, where grammar schools exist, they should be allowed to expand. We are not, however, in favour of starting them in areas that do not have them. I personally would welcome such a debate, and I hope that that can be arranged through the Backbench Business Committee or possibly on the Adjournment.

The Leader of the House will know that the base interest rate is 0.5%. Is he aware that my constituents and others up and down the land are paying 19.1% interest on their credit cards? The failure of the credit card industry to lower its rates in line with the base rate has ripped off our constituents by £500 million. When may we have a debate on the way in which interest rates are ripping off consumers and small businesses?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern at the gap between the base rate and the rate charged by credit card companies and other lending organisations. There will be an opportunity to raise this matter of consumer protection in questions to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, as well as in Treasury questions. Alternatively, the hon. Gentleman could apply for a debate on the Adjournment.

May we have a statement next week from the Leader of the House on why the Government are rowing back on their commitment to provide a day a week for Back-Bench business? It is no good for him to suggest that Members refer their requests to the Backbench Business Committee if the Government are not giving us any days. May I suggest that it is his job to resist pressure from the Executive for debates?

I am under enormous pressure from both sides of the House to provide adequate time to debate Government legislation. We have accommodated two days for the Report stages of a number of Bills because we think it important that the House has adequate time for such debates. If my hon. Friend looks at the Standing Orders, he will see that the commitment was to 35 days per Session, not to one day a week. As I said to the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), we will abide by our commitment. I must also point out that there would be no Backbench Business Committee at all, were it not for the coalition Government introducing one.

There is a Focus store in Consett in my constituency, as I am sure there are in many others. I have been contacted by Kingfisher, the parent company, which wants to take over the store and all its staff, but it has been advised that it will not get a decision from the Office of Fair Trading until September. That will be too late for my constituents, who will be made redundant by the Focus receiver on 18 July. The redundancy payments and welfare benefits represent a massive cost that does not need to be incurred. May we have a statement on what action the Government will take to speed up the OFT’s decision?

Of course I understand the concern that the hon. Lady expresses on behalf of her constituents, and I will contact the OFT today to remind it of her concern and ask it for an urgent response.

Local communities in my constituency have been left devastated after the Planning Inspectorate imposed Traveller sites on various communities, based on the outdated planning policies of the previous Government. A Government consultation is taking place on the planning circulars. May we have a debate, so that Members can influence that consultation?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. It sounds as though that decision was reached under the existing rules on Traveller sites. Our view is that the rules are not fit for purpose, so we are consulting on an alternative set of proposals. The consultation closes on 6 July, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will respond to it. I cannot promise her a debate on the subject she raises, but the Localism Bill is now in another place, where there might be an opportunity to debate proposals on Traveller sites.

Is the Leader of the House aware that hundreds of Derbyshire constituents are up in arms at the prospect of there not being an oral statement about the railway contract that went to Siemens in Germany, rather than to Bombardier in Derby? Why are this Government not acting like the Government in Germany, where about 90% of the contracts stay in Germany? About 100% of such contracts stay in France. And do not tell me it is because of what the last Government did; this Government are supposed to be doing something else. I never voted for the free movement of capital and labour, unlike the Leader of the House and thousands of others. Stop rolling over to the EU!

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was in Transport questions a few moments ago when that subject was raised.

If he was listening, he would have heard that the terms of the tender were set by the Government who, from time to time, he supported. His point about Ministers not being able to defend the proposition is wholly untrue; we defended it a few moments ago.

The Local Government Boundary Commission’s review of Daventry district has united all political parties locally and a huge number of the parishes against the proposals. Few if any of the views expressed in the consultation period have been taken into account, and I am being asked to pray against the measure when it is placed before the House after the summer. Will the Leader of the House advise me on the parliamentary routes available to me to get the Local Government Boundary Commission to listen to the views of my constituents?

The short answer is no, but I will write to my hon. Friend outlining the procedures available to him to pursue this important matter.

May we have an urgent statement on the newly leaked plans to close seven of the eight HMRC offices in Wales, leading to a possible 1,000 redundancies and affecting the quality not only of the service in Wales generally but in particular of the service through the medium of Welsh provided in Porthmadog?

Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, which I will convey to the appropriate Minister and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman as soon as he can.

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate on the apprenticeships programme, in the light of today’s excellent news about apprenticeship numbers? We should all be delighted that there are 114,000 more apprenticeships in the year, which will provide real opportunities for our young people.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and I commend to the House the written ministerial statement from the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning. There will be some 25,000 more apprenticeship places as a result of the steps we have taken, and we see that as an important part of the road to recovery and dealing with the high youth unemployment that we inherited.

Ahead of the visit by the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, may we have a debate on human rights in China? We welcome the release yesterday on conditional bail of Ai Weiwei, but the Nobel peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo is still banged up in the Chinese communist gulag. When the Prime Minister meets his opposite number here in London, will he say in public that Liu Xiaobo should be freed? He did not do so in China, which I think was contemptible, but now that the Chinese Premier is coming to English democratic territory, will he tell him to his face to release Liu Xiaobo?

I welcome the release to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. I give him the assurance that my right hon. Friends will raise with the Chinese delegation the important issue of human rights, and I am sure that they will do so diplomatically and effectively.

On a recent visit to an RAF station, it was highlighted to me that junior rank servicemen living in single room accommodation in blocks of more than 40 still have to pay the full television licence, even when serving abroad. With Armed Forces day approaching, could we have a statement from the relevant Minister to see whether we could review that situation?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. There will be an opportunity to question Defence Ministers on 4 July, when he might have an opportunity to raise the matter during topical questions.

I am also in favour of the hereditary principle because, just like the right hon. Gentleman, I come from a very long line of parents. I know he reads the Daily Mirror. Has he seen today’s report that Cardiff has been listed in National Geographic magazine as one of the top 10 alternative places to visit this summer? May we have a debate on tourism and the importance of promoting and publicising our wonderful cities like Cardiff?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman risks setting up a bidding war between every Member who believes that his or her constituency is the best one to visit for holidays, but he has achieved his objective by putting his views on the record.