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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 532: debated on Thursday 15 September 2011

Transport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Rolling Stock Contracts

1. What assessment his Department has made of the ability of British-based train manufacturers to win contracts for rolling stock. (71828)

2. What assessment his Department has made of the ability of British-based train manufacturers to win contracts for rolling stock. (71829)

Since privatisation, Bombardier, as the only current UK-based train manufacturer, has supplied the majority of new trains across the UK main line rail and London underground networks, with a combined total of over 4,500 new carriages ordered since 1996. Going forward, there are a number of contracts that the Department would expect Bombardier to bid for, including the Crossrail project for the supply of around 600 carriages, and it is already a pre-qualified bidder. The tender for this contract is due to be issued in 2012. There are also potential future orders for the London Underground deep tube lines.

I listened to what the Secretary of State had to say and, quite frankly, I could have predicted his response. Why is he not prepared to do anything to reconsider his disastrous decision to award the Thameslink contract to a company that intends to build these trains in Germany?

I sometimes get the feeling that I am talking to a brick wall on this subject. I have said it before and I will say it again: the criteria by which the bids were to be evaluated were laid down by the Government in 2008. The criteria have to be followed, although they might not be the criteria the hon. Gentleman would like. We have made a commitment to look at the way we specify the criteria in future public procurements, but on this project it is Labour’s mess and we are landed with it.

Tom Blenkinsop: I am sorry, but the right hon. Gentleman told the Transport Select Committee that there was an option to review or restart the Thameslink procurement process at any time during the year before naming the preferred bidder. Will he now admit that that was a terrible mistake, which has put at risk Bombardier, Britain’s last train manufacturer, and thousands of British jobs down the supply chain?

The only other option available to the Secretary of State—I have to repeat myself again—would have been to cancel the Thameslink procurement completely and abandon the project. That power exists, but there is no power to alter the terms under which the competition is conducted once it has begun. That was made very clear by the representative from the European Commission and by the academic lawyers who gave evidence to the Select Committee.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that he will look to include socio-economic conditions in future procurement contracts and to give them sufficient weighting that the full economic impact of the contract can be taken into account?

The Prime Minister has agreed that the growth review should include a review of public procurement in the UK, and that work is now under way. We will look at what happens in other EU countries that are similarly constrained by EU procurement rules, and we will look at best procurement practice in large commercial companies to maintain long-term best value. We will certainly look at the opportunities provided by, and the appropriateness of, including socio-economic criteria, where appropriate.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to join me in congratulating Invensys, based in my Chippenham constituency, on winning a multi-million pound signalling contract on the Thameslink project. A world leader in train-signalling technology, Invensys has in the past experienced some difficulty in winning domestic contracts. What steps is the right hon. Gentleman taking to ensure that recognition of UK engineering talent is more commonly the rule rather than the exception?

The general rule is that we would expect to evaluate bids for contracts on their merits. Companies such as Invensys and, indeed, Bombardier have won many contracts on their merits, but we will look at whether we should, in appropriate cases, include wider socio-economic issues and factors, which some other EU member states routinely do in their public procurement processes.

Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister made a speech about the importance of investment in infrastructure. Will the Secretary of State provide some examples of how that might lead to more opportunities for UK-based train manufacturing in the short term?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. We are sensitive to the pressures that the UK train manufacturing supply chain—not just Bombardier but the component suppliers—are under, and the Department is urgently looking at some other projects that might be advanced. In particular, the industry proposed a project to modify the cross-country Voyager train fleet so that it could run under electric power, which would provide—if Bombardier were to win the contract—a substantial piece of work for the crucial design department in Derby. That is at the heart of securing the future of that business.

Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister told the right hon. Gentleman to speed up delivery of Crossrail. Will he update the House on the new completion date for the project, which will, I presume, now be earlier than December 2019, the date to which he pushed it back after the election?

The Deputy Prime Minister did not tell me to speed up the Crossrail project. The thrust of his speech was the need to ensure that committed capital funds are spent on their intended profile. The requirements to keep demand in the economy mean that we must get those vital capital programmes spent on programme, and the Crossrail project is spending on programme and will deliver the completion of the project from 2016, with full running from 2019.

So the Deputy Prime Minister was wrong—there is no plan to bring forward projects and no plan for growth. May I ask the Transport Secretary about the procurement of trains for Crossrail? After his disastrous decision to award the Thameslink train contract to a company that will build the trains in Germany, putting at risk Britain’s train manufacturing industry, he has said that he is reviewing the Crossrail contract. As he has just confirmed that Crossrail is still being delivered on his slower timetable, rather than reviewing it for six months, why does he not scrap the process and start again, and this time ensure that Bombardier has a fair chance to secure the work. Finally—

The hon. Lady is all over the place. There is nothing to scrap in relation to the Crossrail rolling stock procurement programme, because we have not started that procurement yet. We announced that we will postpone the issue of the invitation to tender until the new year, in order that consideration be given to the findings of the growth review and how public procurement in this country can best support the strategic interests of the supply chain. The broader Crossrail project, involving a major infrastructure investment—the tunnels across London—is, as the hon. Lady and anyone who travels around London knows, already under way as is manifest in the large number of big holes in the ground.

Rail Travel

Annual statistics for the year ending March 2011 published by the Office of Rail Regulation show that passenger travel rose during the year to reach an overall, all-time high of 33.6 billion passenger miles. The number of rail journeys has been rising steadily each year since privatisation with only one slight drop in the total during 2009. Since then the upward trend has resumed to reach a total of 1.4 billion journeys undertaken. Long-distance rail travel has nearly doubled since privatisation.

Will the Secretary of State put some pressure on Network Rail about the state of their stations? Whitland station, in my constituency, is now in such a deplorable state that it works against people wanting to travel on rail and against attracting tourists to our area.

Management of stations is the responsibility of train operators. Under the revised franchise programme that the Minister of State has announced, we intend to transfer leasehold ownership of stations to the franchise train operator, so that it can have a more direct, hands-on involvement. However, I will look into the specific example about which my hon. Friend asks.

The Secretary of State’s extraordinary statement that rail travel is something for rich people could be made only by one of the southern millionaires in the Cabinet. If he came to Rotherham, he would see plenty of people who are not rich, but they are now being threatened with the ticket office at Rotherham station, which is being rebuilt, being taken away. May I put it to him that many of my constituents do not do computers and need help and aid? That ticket office at Rotherham station must stay.

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point, and I agree that there will be a need for assisted channels—

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what assisted channels are. Even as the purchase of tickets, over time, is bound to become more computer based, as new technologies are deployed and more tickets are bought online, through mobile technology and so on, there will still be a need for an assisted channel, and we will ensure that there is one.

Price is clearly a major factor in determining how many people use the railways. The previous Government went for above-inflation increases each year, and we have argued for increases below inflation. The Government have gone for 3% above RPI. Does the Secretary of State accept that 8% increases in rail, and 7% increases in London transport, is simply too much for people to deal with.

The hon. Gentleman says “we”. I am not sure who the “we” is. We have decided that we will have to increase rail fares by 3% in real terms for the next three years in order to protect the major programme of investment in the rolling stock, electrification and new infrastructure that the country needs. It is a tough decision, but it is the right decision.

Heavy Goods Vehicles

4. What assessment he has made of the potential road safety implications of increasing the maximum length of heavy goods vehicles. (71831)

In March I published a feasibility study and impact assessment on longer semi-trailers, undertaken by consultants including the Transport Research Laboratory. The research, which is available in the Library, includes consideration of the potential road safety implications.

Many streets in my constituency are already unsuitable for long heavy goods vehicles, and the thought of even longer vehicles trying to get down narrow city streets will horrify many people. As the Minister knows, blanket lorry bans are not possible in many urban areas, for all sorts of reasons. May I urge him to think again, and to reject the proposal to allow even longer lorries on to totally unsuitable streets in urban and rural areas?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, but he should note that because the turning wheels of longer semi-trailers are at the back, their turning circles are much tighter than those of existing lorries. I know that because I used to drive heavy goods vehicles myself. However, I will look into the points made by the hon. Gentleman, and we will announce our proposals when the House reconvenes next month. Then at least the industry will know exactly where we are going.

Has the Minister considered the environmental impact of very long vehicles, particularly in relation to small rural roads, and the safety implications for pedestrians and cyclists of elongated public service vehicles in the form of articulated buses?

We have indeed considered the environmental impact of longer semi-trailers, and have concluded that there will be less pollution in the community. There will be fewer lorries, because the longer lorries will be able to carry more cargo than can be carried now. We considered carefully whether longer semi-trailers posed a risk to cyclists in particular, and the risk is not there.

I know that the Minister is in some pain this morning owing to a tooth abscess, and I do not want to add to his discomfort, but people—motorists, cyclists and pedestrians—are frightened by heavy goods vehicles, and longer vehicles will cause even greater anxiety. Given the 40% cut in road safety funding and the results of the Department’s own consultation, which suggest that the number of casualties may be marginally higher if longer vehicles are introduced, will the Minister ensure that the road safety element features highly in his consideration? Surely it must be at the top of his agenda.

It is very kind of my shadow opponent to worry about my abscess, but I promise him that the NHS dentist will look after it for me.

We will carefully consider the road safety implications of longer semi-trailers, but we must sweat our assets better on the roads. We are not going to introduce heavier weights, and we are not going to introduce the mega-trucks whose introduction has been proposed to us. We will look carefully at the length of trailers to ensure that more products can be taken around the country with the same weight, the same fuel and fewer emissions.

Surely the best way of improving road safety is to put all transport on to rail, but will my hon. Friend tell me how safety can be improved on roads such as the A64? What specific plans does he have in that regard?

I shall have to write to my hon. Friend about the A64. As for moving more transport on to rail, the industry rightly says that trains often take goods to the rail hubs, and trucks—which will now be the longer semi-trailers—take them from there to the distribution centres and supermarkets. When the longer vehicles are introduced, there will be fewer traffic problems, fewer lorries and more rail transport, which is what we want.

Rail Investment

5. What assessment he has made of the importance of the voice of the passenger to decisions about rail investment; and if he will make a statement. (71832)

The Government recognise the importance of passenger opinion to their decisions about rail investment. The National Passenger Survey produces a network-wide assessment of passenger views on rail travel, which is used to inform the refranchising process alongside franchise-specific consultations. Other work by Passenger Focus, the independent advocate for rail users, also provides valuable input to decision making.

When I meet Slough’s rail commuters next Tuesday, they will tell me that they are fed up about the £170 increase in their fares next year, and fed up that three of the 10 most overcrowded trains in the country serve Slough. We are to have no new carriages, the Minister is dithering about whether we will be able to use Oyster cards—which will help to relieve the position—and Crossrail, although welcome, will slow down Slough’s service. What has the Minister to say to the commuters whom I am meeting on Tuesday?

I recommend that the hon. Lady say that this Government are fully committed to a major investment programme for our railways, much of which will benefit her constituents, including electrification, the intercity express programme, the provision of new rolling stock in the future, and improving the overall reliability of the line for her constituents, with the bottleneck at Reading station being dealt with. We are taking the concerns of the hon. Lady’s constituents very seriously. We recognise the anxiety about rail fares, but we are determined to get the costs of the railways down so that we can give better value for money to passengers and taxpayers.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the latest assessment of the High Speed 2 consultation that closed in July? Will she also reassure my constituents, all of whom are rail passengers, that every single one of their views will be taken into account?

The Government take the process for designing the future of high-speed rail very seriously. All representations made to the consultation will be carefully considered and an announcement will be made later this year.

Rail Franchises

The Secretary of State has held discussions that cover franchise reform in a number of meetings with rail passenger groups, local authorities, train operators. Network Rail and others.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Does she agree that as well as encouraging investment the Government’s franchising policy must be focused on efficiency, which in the long run will ensure that inflation-busting fare increases become a thing of the past?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Our rail franchising reform has the dual purpose of promoting private sector investment and delivering better services to passengers and of reducing the cost of running the railways. As I said in answer to the previous question, that is part of the wider strategy of working with the rail industry to get costs down and provide better value for money for passengers.

Talking about leaving messes that other people have to clear up, the privatisation of the railways has been a mess ever since it was introduced. May we address the issue of the franchise for the east coast line, as the commute to and from London that it provides for my constituents is a disgrace? When they want to travel cross-Pennine, they have to use trains that should be in the York railway museum.

I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman’s assessment of the impact of privatisation. More people currently travel by rail than at any time since the 1920s, and reliability levels are high. I acknowledge that reliability on the east coast line should be better, however, and both East Coast and Network Rail are focused on that, as is my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). We do think that reliability needs to improve on the east coast line, but we also believe that, overall, privatisation of the railways has brought some tremendous benefits, including increasing passenger numbers.

Will the Minister ensure that any changes to rail franchise specifications will not necessarily involve the loss of ticket offices at local stations?

The Government will carefully consider the McNulty review recommendations, including in the context of the specifications we put in place for rail franchises. Many of the decisions about ticket offices are addressed in what is known as the ticketing settlement agreement, and we will also consider that. We need to get the balance right by modernising the system so that it reflects the fact that the many new ways of buying tickets—such as the increasing use of smarter ticketing and internet purchasing—will in future change what we require from ticket offices, while also ensuring that people have the right channels through which to buy tickets.

Concessionary Coach Travel

7. What impact assessment his Department undertook in relation to the decision to end concessionary coach travel for elderly and disabled people. (71835)

10. What consultation he has had with coach operators on the effects of the withdrawal of the coach concessionary travel scheme. (71838)

The decision to end Government funding for the half-price coach concession was announced as part of the 2010 spending review. The Government have corresponded with affected operators on the proposed change and my officials have held discussions with National Express—one of the operators affected by the phasing out of the concession. An impact assessment relating to the ending of the coach concession has been submitted to the Reducing Regulation Committee. The final assessment will be published on the Department’s website and a copy will be placed in the Library of the House.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but I suspect that he will have received, as I have, countless letters from constituents who see much more expensive coach travel coming down the line as a result of the scrapping of the scheme by October 2012. Am I right in my understanding that no public inquiry with disabled or older people’s groups has been carried out? If so, what justification can he have for scrapping the scheme without first consulting the most affected users?

Of course we assessed the proposal as part of the spending review, and I mentioned the Reducing Regulation Committee assessment a moment ago. May I suggest that the position is not quite as apocalyptic as the hon. Gentleman makes out? A year ago, after the 2010 spending review announcement, National Express said:

“We are already planning for the removal of the coach concessionary fares scheme in October 2011 and will announce new products aimed at the over 60s and disabled travellers in due course. We believe the financial impact of the scheme’s removal is manageable and will be mitigated by our own plans”.

I thank the Minister for his comments. Many elderly and disabled people in my constituency have become reliant on coach travel because of its ease of use and cost-effectiveness. If this decision results in the withdrawal of some routes, what choice does he think those vulnerable groups in my constituency will be left with, given that train travel is acknowledged to be very expensive?

First, we have retained the bus concession in its entirety when many thought that was vulnerable in the current financial circumstances—that has not been chopped in any way. Secondly, the senior citizen railcard continues to exist, and it enables those people to receive a significant discount on rail travel. Thirdly, as I have said, National Express, which is by far and away the largest coach provider, is intending to put its own scheme in place, and I am sure it will do that. I say that, first, because it makes commercial sense for National Express to do so and, secondly, because the profits on its coach division increased by 14% in the last six months.

This proposal beggars belief—only on planet Norman can this be a good idea. Does the Minister not understand that removing the concessionary coach fares—an entitlement for almost 12 million pensioners and an additional number of disabled people—will, as Age UK puts it, have a “devastating effect” on many people, who will struggle to afford their coach journeys in future? Does he not see that by cutting too far and too fast his approach is having an unfair impact on pensioners and disabled people, and increasing the chances of them being socially isolated?

That was rather over the top, if I may say so. The fact is that National Express operated its own coach concession arrangements before 2003, and it indicated last year that it believes the situation is manageable and that it intends to introduce a further concession. As I said a moment ago, the profits of the UK coach division of National Express have increased by 14%. Indeed, the profits of the National Express Group—a very successful company—have risen by 26% in the first half of this year. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the public purse should subsidise the profits of National Express, that would be an odd position for the Labour party to take.

Cycling

The Government are strongly in favour of cycling, as we said in our coalition agreement. On 5 July, I announced the allocation of £155.5 million to 37 authorities to deliver packages of measures that support economic growth and cut carbon emissions, as part of the £560 million local sustainable transport fund—many of these include cycling. I will announce the remaining allocations in summer 2012. In addition, I have established a cycling forum, which met for the first time this week. We want to get more people cycling, more safely, more often.

The Minister will undoubtedly be aware of the huge success that cycling city status has brought south Gloucestershire. Could he now seriously consider the North Fringe to Hengrove major scheme bid that his Department has received recently? The scheme will further enhance cycling provision and will boost economic growth.

I agree that the initiatives in south Gloucestershire have been successful, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on his inventiveness and ingenuity in including that question under this heading. He will understand that the project he mentions is subject to assessment under the development pool arrangements. A decision will be made later this year, but his support for the scheme is noted.

CTC reports that the biggest deterrent to cycling is fear of busy roads. What are the Government doing to improve driver training and put more emphasis on cyclists’ needs? How can the Minister ensure that dangerous or intimidating driving is made as unacceptable as drink driving?

Dangerous and intimidating driving is already subject to police enforcement, but we are taking steps to ensure that drivers are aware of cyclists on the road. A Trixi mirror pilot has been approved for London, and it is now in place and showing good results. The Under-Secretary with responsibility for road safety is very aware of this issue and is looking at driving training for HGV drivers in particular.

Rail Network (Sustainability)

Despite the deficit, the Government are investing £18 billion in the railway, supporting projects such as Crossrail, Thameslink, electrification and extra carriages on crowded routes. We are also determined to get the cost of running the railways down, and we are putting together a reform package to deliver this which will draw on the report produced by Sir Roy McNulty.

I thank the Minister for her reply. The Government have already announced improvements to the midland main line, which it is hoped will result in line speed improvements, but there is still a very strong business case for full electrification. What hope can she give me and many other MPs along the midland main line route that the Government will consider full electrification, particularly in the light of the HS2 route having being published so recently?

I can say that, yes, we will be consider whether the midland main line can be electrified as part of the work in HS2 control period 5, but we will also have to consider competing projects such as the northern hub or the electrification of the trans-Pennine route.

On train fares, may I ask the Minister for special consideration for commuters in Gillingham and Rainham and the south-east, which have had excessive RPI plus 3% increases since 2006? The Minister will know that commuters in the south-east have had excessive and unfair increases for that period.

I well understand my hon. Friend’s concerns, and he has lobbied hard on this issue. The fares are contributing to investments that have been made on the Southeastern franchise in the past and fares now and in the future will contribute to the major investment programme that the Government are delivering, but in the longer term it is vital that we get the cost of the railways down to respond to passenger concerns about value for money.

Elderly and disabled constituents of mine would like to access the rail network but are prevented from doing so by the poor station facilities. Merseytravel has had a budget cut of two thirds, which has caused delays to the installation of a lift at Formby station, to give one example. That lift is vital if elderly and disabled people are to be able to travel on the rail network at all. Will the Minister consider reversing that cut?

I will certainly look into the specific case that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned and write to him about it. I emphasise that access for all funding is continuing under this Government and is part of a major programme of upgrades that we have committed to undertake, despite grappling with a deficit that is as serious as anything in our peacetime history.

Rail Projects

Economic cases for large projects are periodically refreshed—for example, to reflect the latest economic forecasts. A robust economic case for HS2 was prepared for the recent consultation, with a benefit-cost ratio of 1:2.6. An update will be published later this year. The latest update of the Crossrail economic case was published in July 2011, with a BCR of 1:1.97. I should make it clear that the economic case is only one of the criteria used in decision making for transport infrastructure projects.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. As he made clear, the business case for HS2 is stronger than the business case for Crossrail. The HS2 business case gets even better if the link north of Birmingham is taken into account. Given that fact, will the Minister consider bringing forward the construction of HS2 in order to stimulate the economy in the same way as has been mooted for Crossrail?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for the HS2 project. Let me give him an example to reinforce his point. At the time the decision was made to build the extension to the Jubilee line, the BCR was less than 1, but I do not think that many people would argue today that we could possibly do without the Jubilee line extension. The construction profile and overall project profile for HS2 are based on the requirement to obtain parliamentary and other statutory consents and the cash-flow limitations of the Treasury’s ability to fund a project on such a scale. Unfortunately, it will not be possible to accelerate it.

I know the Secretary of State will be aware that there is widespread political and business support in my city, Sheffield, for HS2. Will he also consider how improving the connecting links to the wider city region could make the business case for HS2 even stronger?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I have said time and again that a major infrastructure project such as HS2 is not an alternative to routine investment in the rest of the rail network and that to get the maximum out of HS2 we will also need to improve the connectivity from the nodes on the HS2 railway to the surrounding areas.

Rolling Stock (Procurement)

13. What recent assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of its procurement policy for rail rolling stock. (71841)

As stated at the Select Committee on Transport on 7 September, for all future Government-led procurements—not just those for rolling stock—the Prime Minister has asked the growth review to examine the degree to which the Government can set out the requirements and the evaluation criteria with a sharper focus on the UK’s strategic interest, including a review of public procurement practice and outcomes in other EU member states and a review of current private sector best practice. The results of those reviews will inform future Government-led procurements.

I am sorry that the Secretary of State feels that he is talking to a brick wall when Members raise legitimate concerns about the impact on jobs of the Bombardier decision. I am concerned about the impact on Leicester, where many firms are part of the supply chain. What reassurance can he give those firms now that the majority of our trains will be built abroad?

The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong to say that the majority of our trains will be built abroad. One contract has been awarded to Siemens, and those trains will be built in Germany. Other contracts are in the pipeline, and Bombardier remains a very strong bidder. It has demonstrated over the last 15 years its ability to win a majority of UK train orders. From 2014 we will have a second UK-based train builder, Hitachi, in the plant that it is establishing in Newton Aycliffe, with the creation of 600 new jobs.

I very much welcome the review of how the Department implements the procurement rules. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no time like the present for a thorough review of how this country has, in the past, gold-plated EU directives and regulations?

I should emphasise to my hon. Friend that the review is not concerned simply with train procurement but is a review of public sector procurement across the board. It will look at what is happening elsewhere and whether there are things that we can do differently so that procurements initiated by this Government do not have the flaws that hon. Members are identifying in the Thameslink procurement initiated by the last Government.

Topical Questions

Since I last answered Transport questions, the consultation on high-speed rail has closed. The Department has announced £155 million of investment from the first-round allocation of the local sustainable transport fund, concluded deals to put new carriages on key commuter rail routes, set out the next stages in the Department’s rail franchising programme and launched a consultation on proposals for new lane rental schemes to cut the number of rush-hour roadworks.

Many of my constituents who are not rich but were used as guinea pigs for RPI plus 3% by the last Government have no choice but to commute by coach, getting up at 5 or 6 am to get into London. Will Ministers welcome the statement by Southeastern yesterday that it will henceforth use the flex possibility to consider elasticities so that areas where people are not well off and where there is significant competition may see lower fare increases in future?

Absolutely. We are all in favour of competition. Train operators should note what is happening in the marketplace, and where coach operators are taking their business they should use the flexibility that they have to respond.

T2. Yesterday’s unemployment figures were disastrous for Wirral and the wider Merseyside economy. Given that RPI is now over 5%, will the Secretary of State explain how his RPI plus 3% train fare hikes will help work pay for ordinary people? (71849)

Merseyrail is on a different fares framework from the rest of the country—I think that it is on RPI. We all fully recognise the concern about rail fares. The decision on RPI plus 3% has been taken to enable us to deliver a massive programme of rail upgrades, which is essential if we are to deal with passenger concerns and promote vital economic growth.

T4. Last night I drove down to my constituency and, unusually, the motorway was very clear. However, it is often the case that there are accidents on both the M3 and the M4 and it seems to take an unfeasibly long time to get the motorway reopened afterwards. Will the Department do something about that? (71851)

My hon. Friend raises a very topical point. She may know that in August we had one of the longest ever post-accident closures on the M25 very close to my own constituency, as it happens, when the motorway was closed for more than 24 hours following an accident. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), has been in discussion with the Association of Chief Police Officers, the police lead on traffic services. A working group is now operating between the Highways Agency and ACPO, which will be reporting before the end of the year. We have also allocated £3 million to invest in the latest laser scanners to allow the police to record traffic accident scenes more quickly and allow the clear-up of the motorway to progress more quickly.

T3. The Government are asking more disabled people to find work through the work capability assessment programme. Does the Minister understand that transport, and in particular cancelled station upgrades, slow replacement of rolling stock and rising prices are a significant barrier for many disabled people in Wigan and across the country? What action is he taking to address this? (71850)

We are taking a good deal of action to help disabled passengers whom we want to have full access to the transport system. Plans are going ahead to ensure that rail vehicles and buses are fully accessible, we are also continuing with the access for all programme to upgrade railway stations, and I regularly meet disabled groups to ensure that our programmes and policies are fully in line with their wishes.

T6. Can the House be given an update on yesterday’s interdepartmental meeting on the theft of metals and the review of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964? (71853)

I am grateful for that question because metal theft is an extremely serious issue for passengers on the rail network and for motorists who are now affected on motorways, and the coastguard service. This is a matter that we take very seriously, because of its impact on business apart from anything else. There was a very good meeting of Ministers from a number of Departments yesterday. We have a plan to ensure that we are using our existing powers as fully as possible, and to look at what other steps may be necessary to deal with this high level crime.

T5. Businesses have been encouraged by the announcement of a Humber enterprise zone and the Government’s commitment to finding a sustainable solution to Humber bridge tolls. Will the Secretary of State give a green light to potential investors by announcing when the upgrade to the A160 will take place? (71852)

I genuinely apologise to the hon. Gentleman. Because he was asking about the Humber bridge, I assumed that he was asking about tolls. I will write to him specifically on the A160 as soon as I return to the Department.

T7. Following the Government’s consultation on the future of the Dartford crossing, will the Minister consider extending the local person’s discount scheme to include my constituents and the wider Medway area? (71854)

I am happy to consider any representation that my hon. Friend wants to make, but our primary objective is to ensure that funds are available for an additional crossing in the future, and our approach to Dartford is to ensure that that can be affordably delivered.

T9. In awarding the Thameslink contract, did the Secretary of State take into account Siemens’ industrial relations record? Siemens’ global business strategy has been described as aggressively anti-union, and staff currently working for First Capital Connect on the existing Thameslink bid have not been reassured by the Government that their terms and conditions will be protected by the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 should they transfer to Siemens. Will he reassure those workers and the House that TUPE will apply in such circumstances? (71856)

My understanding is that TUPE will apply in such circumstances. For the record, Siemens employs 16,000 people in this country, many—indeed, I think most—are represented by the Unite union, and my understanding from the inquiries that I have made is that relationships between the union that represents them and the company are extremely good.

T8. The extension of high-speed rail to Manchester will bring huge benefits to my constituents, both in terms of jobs and growth. Will the Minister reassure the House that this line will not stop at Birmingham but will come to Leeds and Manchester, and additionally will he confirm that if we are to have a proper integrated transport plan, we should look at a rail link between Rossendale and Manchester to complement it? (71855)

Ah, the sting in the tail! My hon. Friend makes a very good point and I understand the concern that some Members representing seats in the north-west, Yorkshire and places further north have about the fact that we have to progress this project in two separate stages through two separate hybrid Bills. I have made it clear on every occasion I possibly can that the Government are committed to the whole Y network project. The benefit-to-cost ratio is based on the whole Y network, and I will do whatever I can to build into the first hybrid Bill reassurance to people and businesses in Manchester, Yorkshire and the Humber, and the north east that we will indeed complete the full Y project.

The Minister referred earlier to the access for all programme. Newton station in my constituency is in dire need of an upgrade to improve access. Will he speak to Transport Scotland to ensure that the station gets those improvements quickly?

I am not familiar with that specific case, but I will happily look into it. I will discuss the matter with officials and write to the hon. Gentleman.

T10. Daniel Upcraft and his fiancée Nicola were hit by a heavy lorry while queuing in traffic on the M25 last April. Daniel was left with very serious brain injuries and Nicola tragically lost her life. The driver of the lorry was found to have had undiagnosed sleep apnoea and the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case against him. Will the Minister please agree to meet Daniel’s mother, Carole, my constituent, who is running a campaign to raise awareness of the impact of sleep apnoea on drivers’ ability to maintain vigilance? (71857)

It would be a pleasure to meet the family, and I praise the work they are doing. This tragic loss was the result of a medical condition that is very difficult to diagnose, and we need to do a lot of work prior to diagnosis so that people are not driving with this terrible illness.

Will the Department for Transport carry out a full risk assessment before removing emergency towing vessels from the waters around the Hebrides and Orkney and Shetland?

I met the hon. Gentleman recently to discuss this. We have made an assessment. The contract ends at the end of this month. I have worked closely with all local communities and the Scottish Government to try to find out whether there is more funding. We do not have the funding for it. The present contract, which was brought in by the previous Government, is a disaster for the taxpayer and the local community. I am still willing to look at other proposals, but they will have to be brought forward quickly.

Would my right hon. Friend like to join me on one of the most beautiful and picturesque railway lines in the country, between Liskeard and Looe, to see for herself how our rural railways support coastal communities and the tourist industry?

Integrated transport authorities have effectively re-regulated buses in the larger metropolitan county areas, which has squeezed private bus companies and made the bus wars in rural areas particularly fierce. That is great for those who live on lucrative bus routes, but services to smaller rural villages have become so bad as to be non-existent in some places. What is the Minister doing to help people out in those smaller rural areas?

Local decisions are a matter for local authorities, which are elected and are in the best position to make those decisions. The hon. Lady will be aware that the Competition Commission is examining the bus market and will report later this year. We will obviously give serious consideration to its recommendations.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Female Genital Mutilation

1. What assessment she has made of the likelihood that new guidelines on prosecution of cases of female genital mutilation will increase the prospects of securing a conviction. (71818)

Before answering that question, I would like to offer the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities to you, Mr Speaker, and to the House for being unable to attend questions today; she is in the United States on ministerial business relating to counter-terrorism. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), who has responsibility for disabled people, and I will endeavour to field questions from the House.

The Government are committed to eradicating female genital mutilation. The Crown Prosecution Service’s legal guidance, which was launched last week, is an important step in preventing this horrendous practice. We hope that it will raise awareness of the issue and help prosecutors bring perpetrators to justice.

I thank the Minister for that reply. The section of the new guidelines on reluctant victims focuses very much on the difficulties of obtaining evidence and gaining victim co-operation, but for years great expertise has been brought to bear in prosecuting child sexual abuse. Could not this expertise be brought to bear in the area of FGM?

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful suggestion. It is a really important point, because I am sure that much could be learned from the real progress that has been made in investigating and prosecuting child sexual abuse cases. Where appropriate, prosecutors should make links with experts in other areas in order to build a stronger case.

I thank the Minister for her response. One midwife, Alison Hughes, is organising a conference on 21 September in Birmingham, because the situation is getting serious. She now treats up to five cases a week of women giving birth who have been mutilated, and it causes huge problems. If the Minister cannot give me an answer now, will she write to tell me whether any cases that are going to be prosecuted are in the pipeline?

This is an important issue, and I am aware of the hon. Lady’s interest and involvement in it. On the conference and cases in progress, the police investigated 58 cases in 2009-10, but none so far has come to prosecution. I do not know, as I stand here, whether there is anything in the pipeline, but the legal guidance is one of the main hopes behind making prosecutors more aware of how to take cases forward, and I am very happy to deal with her directly.

The Minister will be aware that the charity Forward published a report in 2007 which identified that 20,000 girls under 15 years old were at risk. One of its recommendations was that the issue be treated not just as a health issue, but as violence against women and girls. Will she set out what progress is being made to place the focus not only on health, but on the violence aspect?

We certainly do put the emphasis on the issue being not just about domestic violence, but about a violation of human rights. It is the most serious of offences against young women—all women—and it is part of our action plan, which includes 88 actions. The legal guidance is also part of the issue, but we are taking a range of measures.

For example, I was at the Manor Gardens centre—[Interruption.] If Mr Speaker will forgive me, I must say also that there are guidelines for front-line services, so that people on the front line can spot girls who do not come forward and ensure that we get assistance to them, support them and signpost them and work with more people who work in the community—including those who work with the FGM forum, which is a very important centre.

My Bill in 2003, which became the Female Genital Mutilation Act of the same year, came into force in 2004, but I have continually asked this question in the House: 74,000 young girls have undergone this procedure in the United Kingdom, every year the numbers are increasing instead of decreasing and other countries are able to bring prosecutions, so what is the point in having a measure on the statute book unless it improves the lives of people and does not just lie there?

I understand the right hon. Lady’s frustration. We are all frustrated, and in government we are frustrated, but we are working with the police and all relevant partners to try to ensure that prosecutions go forward. We have distributed more than 40,000 leaflets and posters, which have been circulated in schools and to health services. The guidelines are to enable prosecutors to bring cases, but clearly there are issues because, as she knows, when such acts take place in the family and are part of a—[Interruption.] I understand, but what I have seen from working with the FGM forum and across government is that those with a knowledge of the community are best placed to help us to get families to bring cases forward, and we are working with the police and the prosecution service to do so.

Flexible Working

We want people to be able to balance their work and caring responsibilities, and the Government are committed to removing the barriers to that. Over the summer, we put forward our proposals to extend to all employees the right to request flexible working, and we will respond to that consultation in due course.

Is my hon. Friend aware that, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, about one quarter of older workers would continue to work beyond retirement if they were able to work flexible hours?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The ability to work flexibly can work for many different groups of people, and that is why we believe that bringing forward measures that could give people more opportunities to do so is so important. I hope that I can count on his support.

There is some evidence that flexible working can have a positive impact on productivity. What incentives can the Government offer to employers to encourage more of them to offer that facility?

I think my hon. Friend mentions one incentive himself and makes a very good point: the flexibility itself can be an incentive for companies to take it up. But we have set up legislative opportunities to improve the situation and, importantly, non-legislative opportunities, because the very culture of companies—in particular, the culture of “presenteeism”, which unfortunately too often pervades small and large companies—can make it very difficult for employees to take up flexible working.

Many Members of the House will have personal experience of trying to juggle a career and looking after small children. What action is my hon. Friend taking to help parents of young children to return to the work force after looking after their children?

I was in that position, a few years ago now. It is a difficult transition to make. That is why we are making it a great priority to introduce a new system of flexible parental leave so that new parents can choose how to share child care between them. That, along with our reforms of the benefits system under universal credit, will help many more women in particular to stay close to the labour market.

As we have heard, flexible working can be a very good thing, but sometimes the phrase is misinterpreted by employers, and that leads to bad practices such as zero-hour contracts and unrealistic flexibility that they look for from employees instead of giving them set hours. Will the Minister guard against always using the phrase “flexible working”? We may think it is a positive thing, but some employers interpret it differently.

The hon. Lady makes an important point. They are the sorts of issues that will come out in our consultation.

The Minister will be aware that one of the biggest barriers to women returning to work is lack of child care. Women who want to work flexibly need to know that that child care will be not only available but affordable. Has she seen the report by the Daycare Trust and Save the Children, which says that the cost of child care is driving people out of work and making it impossible for them to afford that child care? What will the Government do about this? Will she ask the Chancellor to look again at the child care elements of the working tax credit?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. It can be a real problem for families to identify the right child care. That is why, under our universal credit reforms, we will continue to invest at least the same amount as is currently in place to support child care, and we are focusing on exactly how we will deliver that. I was pleased to see that colleagues in the Department for Education have extended early years free entitlement for three and four-year-olds to 15 hours. These are the sorts of measures that will make a real difference to the people the hon. Gentleman mentions.

Flexible working is vital for the economy and for families. The only thing the Government have done so far on flexible working is to stop regulations coming in that would have extended the right to request flexible working to parents of 17-year-olds. At the same time, policies on jobs and on child care are making it harder and harder, with every day that goes by, for women and parents to work. With women’s unemployment at a record high and rising, and with child care support being cut as costs rise, her Government’s own memo on women says:

“we have made bold statements or promises but haven’t delivered enough”.

The truth is that they have not delivered at all; they are making it worse. What is the Minister going to do, and when does she think that women’s unemployment will start to fall—this month, next month, next year?

Unlike the right hon. Lady’s Government when they were in power, we do not blow hot and cold on flexible working; we are committed to it. This Government absolutely take seriously the issues that are faced by women, and we have already taken a great deal of action to ensure that women are supported not only in the workplace but throughout their family life. We have increased spending on health and child tax credit, and the right to request flexible working is part of that package. We have taken 880,000 of the lowest paid workers out of income tax altogether, the majority of whom are women. The right hon. Lady needs to look at the score card of achievements that we have put in place and compare them against her own.

Violence against Women and Girls

On 8 March this year, we published our action plan on tackling violence against women and girls. We have already delivered on that in several areas, including a commitment to provide more than £38 million of Home Office and Ministry of Justice funding over four years for local specialist services to support victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Under the last Labour Government, rape crisis centres were closing at a rate of two per annum. Will the Minister confirm that this Government will never do anything to put such important services and their funding at risk?

I thank my hon. Friend for pointing that out. It is true that under the previous Government, the number of rape support centres in England and Wales fell dramatically. This Government have committed £10 million to local rape support centres over the next three years. The Ministry of Justice is working with the sexual violence sector to open 15 new centres where there are gaps in provision. The first four of those will open this year in Hereford, Trafford, Devon and Dorset. Further work is being done to identify other parts of the country where there is an acute need for such services.

One resource identified in the action plan to end violence against women and girls is participatory local budgeting. The plan states that Stockport is to have this from March 2011. However, Stockport has been doing local participatory budgeting for three years. Will the Minister clarify whether there will be additional funding, as is implied in the action plan?

My understanding is that there will be, but I will check that and write to the hon. Lady to confirm it.

The No. 10 memo describing why women do not like this Government suggests that targeted Home Office work on women, crime and confidence is required. At the time when the officials were drawing up that memo with a focus group that looks to me as though it was made up of secretaries and researchers in No. 10, I was listening to women in my constituency, who were worried about perverts harassing them on buses and on the street. What targeted Home Office work is being done to help such women?

We are working with all the police agencies and the Association of Chief Police Officers to focus on those issues, including stalking and harassment. Tackling stalking, for example, is a key priority for the Home Secretary. We have committed long-term funding to the national stalking helpline over the spending review period and we have set up a national stalking strategy group to ensure that actions on stalking are taken under the violence against women and girls action plan. That is an example of one area of work that is targeted.

Civil Partnership Ceremonies

Earlier this year, I announced our intention to implement section 202 of the Equality Act 2010 to remove the ban in England and Wales on civil partnerships being registered on religious premises. It is a voluntary measure for faith groups that want to allow that to happen. It is an important step forward for lesbian, gay and bisexual rights, and for religious freedom. We are considering the responses to the public consultation and working to bring the regulations into force by the end of this year.

Of course it is reasonable for religious premises that wish to hold civil partnerships to be able to do so. However, does the Minister agree that it is entirely inappropriate for the Government to get involved in any decision about civil partnerships being held in a particular religious venue?

I reassure my hon. Friend that I totally agree with her sentiment. The Government have made the decision to enable premises that want to host civil partnership registrations to do so. This is about religious freedom. I am absolutely clear that it is not for the Government to force any religious organisation to host civil partnership registrations if they do not wish to do so.

I hope that all churches will want to celebrate same-sex commitments. However, I am worried that the Government are introducing another anomaly. When gay people get married in a civil partnership they will be able to have religious symbols and ceremonies, but if straight couples do not want to get married in a church, but would none the less like to have religious music or symbols, they are not allowed to have them. I think that we should go for straightforward equality with gay marriage and straight marriage being exactly the same.

I have had many conversations on this issue. I know that the hon. Gentleman wants these things and we have discussed them. Right now, we are moving forward on allowing civil partnerships to be registered in religious premises. From listening to people, it is clear that there is a desire to move forward on equal marriages and partnerships. We are working with people to move that agenda forward.

Order. I apologise to colleagues but, as so often, demand has exceeded supply and we must move on.