The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What the outcome was of the meeting of the European Aviation Safety Agency’s advisory group of national authorities on 25 and 26 October 2011; and if she will make a statement (79676)
The meeting of the advisory group of national authorities provided an opportunity for representatives of EASA and European Union member states to exchange views on a number of safety rules currently under development. The discussion will help inform EASA’s development of the rules in that area.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. A recent survey of pilots has shown that 43% said that they had at some point fallen asleep in the cockpit, and 31% said that when they had woken up the other pilot was also sleeping. Does she agree that the proposals to increase the time pilots work to up to 13 hours, with fewer rest periods, represent a threat to public safety?
First, I should say that the Civil Aviation Authority has received no reports of pilots falling asleep under the mandatory occurrence reporting scheme, but obviously we will always be guided by its views on safety, for which it has an outstanding reputation around the world. The Government have expressed our concerns about the proposed changes and continue to make them known. We will work with other countries to ensure that the final rules reflect those concerns.
2. What plans she has for funding of local railway stations up to 2015. (79677)
In addition to planned improvements to local railway stations as part of franchise commitments, the Government are funding improvements through the national stations improvement programme, Access for All programme and the station commercial project facility. We intend to continue doing so.
I thank the Minister for that answer. He will know that our local railway network in Greater Manchester is incredibly well used, but I am often struck by the poor condition of our stations, particularly the limited accessibility, as lack of step-free access at stations such as Mosley Street, Broadbottom and Newton for Hyde often forces people to travel further down the line than they would like simply to change platforms and come back on the other side. Good quality public transport should of course be available to all, so I ask the Minister to make that a priority for his Department in future.
I am happy to confirm, as I mentioned a moment ago, that we are continuing with the Access for All programme. The hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that Stalybridge station in his constituency is part of that programme and that construction work is expected to start on site in June 2013 as part of a £1.8 million project.
As you know, Mr Speaker, last night I presented a petition signed by 1,200 residents of Bradford-on-Avon hoping to keep their station’s ticket office, where footfall was over 400,000 last year. In the light of the McNulty report, will the Minister review category E stations for possible upgrade to category D, so that they would at least retain their ticket offices for part-time hours?
As my hon. Friend will know, the Minister of State is involved in a fares and ticketing review. We are determined to ensure that people are able to buy tickets and access the railway network in a fair way, which might include ticket offices, better arrangements for automatic sales and access through the internet. The point he has made is a valid one and I will pass it on to the Minister of State.
Does the Minister recognise the importance of passenger experience in travelling and that that includes having staff at railway stations to provide safety and reassurance as well as a good service?
Yes, we do. We are very interested in safety at stations for the reasons the hon. Lady rightly mentions. She will be aware of the secure stations programme. Around 90% of the railway network has been designated as having secure stations, which is well over 1,000 stations. We take that very seriously and want to ensure not only that stations are accessible physically, but that people have no fear of using the railway network so that we maximise the number of people who are able to travel by train.
Can the hon. Gentleman tell the House how many category E station ticket offices will be closed as a result of the Government’s plans for the future of the rail industry?
As I mentioned a moment ago, we are looking at ticketing and fares generally as part of the review we are undertaking, but no decision has been made on the closure of any category E stations. That matter will be considered in the round to ensure that we retain proper access to the railway network. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady keeps asking, “How many?” I have just indicated that no decisions have been taken, so the answer so far is none.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman the answer: 675 stations will lose their ticket offices as a result of his plans, while another 302 will see their opening hours cut. With passengers facing up to a 13% hike in the cost of their tickets in January, does he understand that his plans to replace staff with machines will make it even harder to get the best deal and are totally out of touch with the public?
It is unfortunate that the hon. Lady asks her supplementary question without listening to my answer to her first. Indeed, she seems to be reinventing her party’s railways policies. The chief executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies accused the hon. Lady’s leader of suffering from “amnesia” and of displaying—these are his words—“rank hypocrisy” when it came to Labour’s railways policy, so she ought to examine her own policy and her own history before she starts attacking the Government.
Order. A word cannot be made orderly simply by putting it into someone else’s mouth, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw it—straight away.
I am happy to do so, Mr Speaker.
We are most obliged to the Minister.
3. What assessment she has made of the safety implications of changing the frequency of MOT tests for road vehicles. (79679)
8. What assessment she has made of the safety implications of changing the frequency of MOT tests for road vehicles. (79686)
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer this question together with number 7.
In April 2011 the Department published the results of independent research commissioned to examine how vehicle defects affect accident rates, and to consider the potential road safety impact of changing the frequency of the MOT. Copies of the publication have been placed in the Library.
May I just very gently say to the Secretary of State that I think the grouping is between 3 and 8, rather than 7? But I think we know what we are talking about.
May I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role? It is a fantastic opportunity for her to think again about this proposal. The MOT Trade Forum estimates that 2,200 vehicles a day fail their MOT with defects that are regarded as dangerous and would make vehicles unroadworthy—half a million vehicles a year that would be unroadworthy and dangerous to the public. Will she think again about this very strange set of proposals?
I appreciate both the correction from you Mr Speaker—I do not usually get my numbers wrong—and the very genuine and balanced way in which the hon. Gentleman puts his question. It is important that we have a balanced and informed debate about any changes to the MOT, and, as he will be aware, we in this country go further with our MOT than is required under EU legislation, so the proposal was looked at as part of the red tape challenge. I am considering all the issues, however, and we expect to make an announcement soon about the timing and scope of the review.
I, too, welcome the Minister to her new post. In 2008, the Tories in opposition criticised Labour plans to reduce the frequency of MOTs, and, when the then Government dropped the policy because of the increased risk of death and many more serious accidents, a then shadow Minister said that he was glad that the policy had been
“consigned to the dustbin of history.”
So why try to recycle it now?
We in this Government are looking across the board to see what we can do to get rid of unnecessary red tape and regulation, and the MOT review came up as a result of that, but, as I just said to her hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), it is important that we have an informed and balanced debate. I am considering all those points; I met the Motorists Forum yesterday; and I expect to make an announcement soon about the timing and scope of the review.
I join in the welcome given by the House to the Secretary of State. Before she throws in the towel on this excellent proposal, will she reflect on the fact that most of those bleating about it outside the House have a vested interest and want the law kept as it is so that it generates more income for them? Will she also remind herself and the House that 97% of road accidents are caused by human error, not by vehicle defect?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Approximately 3% of accidents are a result of vehicle defects, and he is also right that many of the representations against the review have come from those whose businesses would be affected by it. I have been very clear, however, and as a new Secretary of State it is right that I consider all the points that have been made. I will make an announcement shortly.
Before the election, an Opposition MP wrote:
“I share your concern about the potential implications of moving to the European standard of roadworthiness testing. It seems to me that the road safety and environmental costs of moving from annual to biannual testing, and extending the initial period from three to four years, may far outweigh the predicted costs savings.”
Given that the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) is now the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will the Secretary of State hold discussions with him in order to avoid the Government making a fundamental mistake on changes to MOT testing?
I do not think I can add anything further about my approach to looking at this area, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have regular discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer across the portfolio of transport that I now look after, and I will continue to do so.
May I add my welcome to the Secretary of State? Although she is new to the job, does she recognise that motorists and many thousands of people employed by the motoring industry have already waited more than a year while Ministers have dithered over the proposal, and that they will still be in the dark after this exchange? Let us be clear: this out-of-touch plan would allow 800,000 more dangerous-to-drive vehicles to stay on the roads for up to a year longer. Will she listen to motoring organisations, such as the AA and the RAC, and ditch the plan, which could lead to more accidents and higher costs and burdens for the responsible majority of motorists?
If we are ever going to get policies right, we need to go through the right process for developing them. As has been said in the House, the hon. Gentleman’s Government looked at this area—
And rejected it.
He says they rejected it but, ultimately, they considered this area, too. I met the AA and, indeed, the RAC Foundation yesterday, because they are part of the motorists’ forum we have established. There was a helpful exchange and, as I have said to him, I will make an announcement once I am satisfied I know what the scope of the review should be.
Dartford Crossing Charges
4. If she will make it her policy not to increase Dartford crossing charges and to introduce automatic number plate recognition technology to reduce congestion at the crossing. (79680)
At the time of the 2010 spending review, the Department for Transport set out its policy for increasing charges at the Dartford crossing, as part of a package of improvements for short, medium and long-term improvements. That included the introduction of free-flow tolling. My answer is that the Government do not intend to change their policy.
May I, therefore, suggest that the Department has got it wrong? Given that the existing crossing makes around £30 million to £40 million profit a year, surely it would be better to introduce automatic number plate recognition technology at the existing crossing first to see whether that solves the congestion problem before raising tariffs to fund a second crossing? With the new Secretary of State in place, could we please have some fresh thinking on this?
I know my hon. Friend’s views on the matter very well and that he lobbies very hard on that particular point. However, even with free-flow tolling at Dartford, the northern approach to the tunnels will still be congested, even according to the predictions we have now. The small bore tunnel has a huge restriction. We need to look at having another Thames crossing for this piece of national—I repeat, national—infrastructure.
Will my hon. Friend accept that there is a persistently serious problem of peak-hour congestion, both northbound and southbound, which is costing everybody an awful lot of time and money? Why cannot we have earlier and clearer signage and much better traffic management at the point of the toll booths themselves?
We are aware of the congestion at the toll, but most of that is caused by the barriers. An archaic method of collecting tolls is in place. We will introduce free-flow tolling as soon as we can. A lot of construction work needs to be done but, at the end of the day, the biggest problem is that the M25 is such a success we need to have another crossing over the Thames.
5. What plans she has for future funding for railway stations. (79682)
The comprehensive spending review secured funding for a range of major station improvements to be delivered over the next few years, including Reading, Birmingham New Street, Blackfriars and London Bridge. Proposals for a number of new stations are under consideration for support from local transport funds. Further funding for station improvements over the 2014-2019 period will be considered as part of the high level output specification process. Additionally, one of the goals of our franchise reform is to encourage more train operator investment in railways including in stations.
Many hon. Members will have admired St Pancras station as an example of what a station can be and will have wished that their own nearest mainline stations lived up to that standard. I welcome the Government’s move to transfer responsibility for stations from Network Rail to franchise holders, yet the fact that many of the investments required in mainline stations cannot be recouped in the course of one single franchise period means that operators are disincentivised from making those investments. Will the Minister ensure that the final invitation to tender for the west coast main line issued in the new year addresses that anomaly?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I assure him that there is always space for taxpayer funding for bigger-scale station upgrades. In terms of encouraging train operators to invest in station improvements, I also agree that we need to find ways to encourage them to invest in long-term projects that may have a pay-back period beyond the end of the franchise. One of the ways we are addressing that is with longer franchises, but we are also working carefully on how we improve the mechanisms for delivering a residual value at the end of the franchise for just the sort of investments he wants to see.
The Minister will have heard the report this morning about the tremendous gap between London and the south and the rest of the country. Many of us look at the wonderful Cannon Street glass palace and the work on King’s Cross, but we wonder when we are going to get that level of investment in the regions of this country, particularly in the north, and when we are going to get the smaller stations upgraded so that they are civilised places to catch a train.
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. It is crucial that we do all we can to close the north-south economic divide. That is part of the reason for driving forward high-speed rail. It is also partly why we are carrying out major investment in electrification in the north of England to improve stations such as Manchester Victoria, using funds such as the national station improvement programme, together with Access for All, and reforming the franchise system, as I have said, to encourage private sector investment in improving stations and improving transport connections between our northern cities. The go-ahead for the Ordsall chord is also welcome on that score.
7. What steps her Department is taking in respect of winter resilience on the roads and railways. (79685)
Significant efforts have been made this year across the transport sectors, including road and rail, in order to boost resilience and preparedness for winter weather. We are working closely with all key transport operators, the local government sector, salt suppliers and other key partners to ensure that our transport network keeps moving in the event of severe winter weather.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. However, last winter rail services from and to my constituency were severely disrupted and many commuters were left stranded with little or no information. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that my constituents receive better information about delays, disruption and cancellation?
My hon. Friend is right to point out that the rail industry can raise its game. In fact, it is significantly better prepared for this winter than previous ones. Actions are being taken, through investment in rail and in carriages, to make sure that snow and ice does not stop on the tracks. There is also better investment in clearing snow and in managing the situation in terms of passenger information, which is critical. I know that that is something that his franchise operator has focused on.
Rural Bus Services
9. What progress she has made on improving access to bus services in rural areas; and if she will make a statement. (79687)
The provision of bus services in rural areas, as in urban areas, is predominantly a matter for commercial operators and for local authorities. However, I recently provided £10 million of extra funding to local councils to help to develop community transport in their areas.
Does the Minister accept that the equivalent of Beeching is going on in rural bus services, made in Whitehall and about which the national Government are doing nothing other than passing the buck to local authorities?
No, I do not accept that. Almost four out of five bus services are provided commercially as opposed to being subsidised by local councils. So far there have been no cuts at all to support from central Government for those services. The BSOG—bus service operators grant—cut will come in next April. The performance of local authorities up and down the country is very varied. If she looks at East Riding, which is not very far from her, she will find that the Beeching cuts to which she refers are certainly not occurring there or in many other councils. Many councils are protecting bus services; some are not.
The local sustainable transport fund has been a great success, but more improvements are needed in sustainable transport, including rural public transport. Will the Government consider further support in this area, which is critical for people and their ability to get around and for jobs and growth?
I am happy to say that the local sustainable transport fund has been a success, providing £560 million, which is more money in the four-year period than the previous Government provided. Every single qualifying council that could have bid for money has done so. Tranche 1 is out of the door—£155 million already—and tranche 2 bids are due in shortly, as are the larger bids. As part of the growth review, the Government are looking to see what we can do to boost transport further.
Last week, the UK Youth Parliament voted transport costs its No. 1 issue, while the Association of Colleges has warned that falling student numbers are being
“exacerbated by the number of local authorities who have cut back or axed their student travel subsidies.”
Will he now wake up to the devastating impact his 28% cut to local transport funding is having on young people, particularly in rural areas?
I am conscious of the concerns of young people because I invited some to give a presentation at the most recent bus forum that I hosted, which was attended by the major operators and local authorities. I have subsequently written to the bus companies and involved the local authorities to try to get some action to help people of that age with their particular needs for public transport access. This issue is very much on the Government’s radar.
Foreign HGV Drivers
10. What steps her Department is taking to monitor use of the road network by foreign HGV drivers. (79688)
The Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, for which I am responsible, carried out 67,000 checks last year on foreign-registered heavy goods vehicles for compliance with roadworthiness, overloading and drivers’ hours rules. The Department regularly publishes statistics on the amount of goods transported to and from the United Kingdom by foreign-registered HGVs.
I was recently advised by a constituent of an accident that she had on the busy stretch of the M6 between Sandbach and Knutsford, in which she was hit by a foreign lorry driver in a left-hand drive vehicle who did not see her in his mirrors as he moved into the middle lane. In virtually the same place, a family of six were tragically killed in an accident caused by a foreign lorry driver in 2008. What steps can the Government take to prevent such accidents from occurring again?
I am aware of the problems that occur around the country, particularly as a former HGV driver myself, including the problems that foreign drivers have with their mirrors. That is something that we are considering with our European counterparts. However, we must realise that only 3.5% of the HGVs on British roads and 5.2% of those on our motorways are foreign. Although it is a big issue, the biggest issue is with HGV driving and the quality of driving as a whole, not just with overseas drivers.
There would be the possibility of taking up to 5 million lorry journeys off our roads every year, provided that there was the rail capacity to take those journeys. There is a scheme to promote a dedicated freight railway line from the channel tunnel to Glasgow, linking all the main conurbations throughout Britain. Under that scheme, full-scale lorries, double stack containers and so on would go on trains. I am happy to explain the scheme to the Minister if he would be interested.
My door is always open to the hon. Gentleman, as he knows. The biggest issue with rail freight is capacity. The west coast main line in particular, which runs through his part of the world and my part of the world, is at capacity levels. That is why High Speed 2 is so important.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman feels an Adjournment debate coming on. We shall no doubt discover whether that is the case.
11. What steps her Department is taking to improve the punctuality of trains. (79690)
The Office of Rail Regulation and I have made it clear to Network Rail and train operating companies that current trends in performance are causing concern and that we expect industry-wide action to get performance back on target as soon as possible. The industry has agreed a plan to achieve just that.
The recent letter from the Office of Rail Regulation to Network Rail raises serious concerns over the delay per incident rate on the rail network, which is going up. What discussions has the Minister had with the ORR, Network Rail and the train operating companies to address that specific problem?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is a worrying trend that the delay per incident rate is increasing. I have discussed the matter with Network Rail and the train companies. It is difficult to get to the bottom of it and it appears that there is no one simple explanation. A number of steps need to be taken by Network Rail and the train companies to deal with this issue. To answer his question directly, I am meeting both parties in about an hour.
Is the Minister aware that on 6 September, Southern, a railway company that provides services to my constituency, suffered as a result of cable theft? There were no fewer than 13,837 minute delays and 232 cancellations as a consequence. What is he doing to contact Ministry of Justice and Home Office Ministers to get this business sorted out once and for all?
The right hon. Lady is right to raise that issue, which is a serious problem for the railway network, as well as for the energy network and the telecoms industry. We are taking it seriously. A cross-departmental group of Ministers, on which I sit for the Department for Transport, has met twice to consider what we can do within existing powers and what further steps might be necessary in regulations or legislation to deal with this serious problem, which is having a big impact on the economy and on passengers.
May I welcome the Government investment in Reading station, which will make a massive difference to punctuality across the whole network? Will the Minister express his support for a western link into Heathrow, which would offer major economic benefits for the south-west, Wales and Reading, and improved punctuality?
I recognise the strong case for better access on the rail network to our major airports, including of course Heathrow, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has been particularly concerned about that. We want to improve access to Heathrow, and of course we have to ensure that any plans tie in with anything that might be done with high-speed rail.
To follow on from the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), scrap metal theft is having a significant impact on train punctuality. Will the Minister agree to support tougher measures against the scrap metal industry to alleviate the problem?
That is not ruled out. Obviously we do not want to go to the statute book as the first option, but there is a serious problem, and if Ministers are convinced that that option is a way to deal with metal theft, we will consider it seriously. We also have to ensure that we do not simply close down one avenue and see the stolen metal diverted somewhere else.
12. What steps she is taking to repair roads. (79691)
The Department is providing £3 billion over the four years from 2011-12 onwards to local highway authorities in England for roads for which they are responsible. On top of that, we provided an additional £200 million in March for English authorities to repair damage caused by the winter. The Highways Agency is responsible for operating, maintaining and improving the strategic road network in England, and in this financial year its budget for maintenance is £840 million, excluding costs associated with private finance initiative projects.
According to a survey published by Autocar, the last Government left Surrey with the most potholes in the country, while the Federation of Small Businesses reports that poor roads cost a quarter of small businesses at least £2,500 each year. Will the Government confirm their continuing support for repairing Surrey roads through the local sustainable transport fund?
I am happy to confirm that the Government are committed to doing what we can to help local authorities with road maintenance. We have a highways maintenance efficiency programme to identify best practice, which we are funding centrally. In addition, I am happy to say that in March we allocated an extra £4.1 million to Surrey county council to deal with its specific problems.
If we have severe frost and snow again this year, will the Government again make extra money available to local authorities to deal with the problems that that would cause on our roads in the coming six months or so?
We deal with circumstances as they arise, but we are putting in place measures to ensure that local authorities make the best use of the money that they have. Salt stocks are high, and as I mentioned a moment ago we are investing in steps to ensure that the highways maintenance efficiency programme gets the best value for money from what local councils spend.
Heavy Goods Vehicles
13. What assessment she has made of the effect on road safety of the decision to permit longer heavy goods vehicles. (79694)
The Government’s response to the consultation on the use of longer semi-trailers includes a revised impact assessment. It indicates that the forthcoming trial of 1,800 trailers should result in a marginal reduction in accidents and fatalities and their associated costs.
Given that the original consultation document admitted that longer lorries are less safe, and in the light of the tragic circumstances of last week, which were admittedly different, do the Government not now have cause to reconsider taking any risk with safety by introducing such lorries?
What happened on the M5 was a tragic incident, and our thoughts and sympathies are with the families who have lost their loved ones and the people who are still very seriously ill in hospital. No assumptions should be made until after the police inquiry is completed.
The research was undertaken by the Transport Research Laboratory, a world-leading independent body. It indicates that there will be a 1.6% reduction in road casualties.
Grayrigg Train Crash
14. If she will establish a public inquiry into the Grayrigg train crash in February 2007. (79695)
The Grayrigg derailment was thoroughly investigated by the rail accident investigation branch in its 2008 report. The accident also received detailed scrutiny during the inquest into the tragic death of Mrs Masson. Ongoing rail industry actions continue to address issues arising from Grayrigg. The Government have therefore decided not to set up a public inquiry.
Our thoughts and prayers must be with the family of Mrs Margaret Masson, following the conclusion last week of the inquest into her tragic death at Grayrigg in 2007. The inquest revealed that in February 2007 alone, there were no fewer than 700 points-related failures just on the line from Motherwell to Crewe. That is 700 near misses. Does that not demonstrate the need for a much wider, nationwide inquiry, and should not the Government now resolve not to deregulate Network Rail, which would further compromise rail safety?
The Government are determined not to compromise rail safety. We are satisfied that very important lessons must be learned from Grayrigg and previous accidents. In taking forward reform of the railways to make them more efficient, maintaining the highest levels of safety will be a vital priority we intend to keep to.
T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. (79696)
In just under four weeks in this job, I have met a range of people, organisations and parliamentarians involved in the transport world. For example, I have met the Select Committee on Transport, the industry-formed Rail Delivery Group and the Motorists Forum. I have also addressed the Airport Operators Association and visited the Thameslink site at Blackfriars to see for myself the progress being made with that vital project.
I am clear that my key objective is to ensure that the Department for Transport plays its role in being a driver of economic growth, not just today but in the future, by helping people and goods to get from A to B, while also helping the UK’s delivery of key environmental goals.
Officials in the Secretary of State’s Department are considering the north-west Bristol to Hengrove major scheme bid. The scheme supports the delivery of 23,000 new homes, more than 100 hectares of employment land and 150,000 square metres of offices for local businesses and industry. Does she agree that the bid fits in well with the Government’s growth agenda?
I am very well aware of that bid, which was received by the Department on 9 September. It is currently being assessed alongside the other 44 schemes that have been submitted for the development pool. We hope to be in a position to announce which of those 45 schemes will receive funding later this year.
T2. Despite the fact that the west midlands was hit harder during the downturn than anywhere else in the country, and that it is taking longer to recover and urgently needs action to generate jobs and growth, the railway initial industry plan identifies only two schemes in the west midlands and would result in the region receiving only £57 million of a total of £10 billion of investment. That is a complete and utter disgrace. I welcome the Secretary of State to her position, but would she be prepared to visit the west midlands to meet me, other MPs from the region and industry experts such as Centro to discuss how we can work together to tackle transport problems in the region? (79697)
I am always happy to meet parliamentarians. I will ensure that as Secretary of State for Transport I am out and about around the country. I have already started doing that and I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his constituency colleagues.
T3. I hope that in the Secretary of State’s induction, she has been made aware of the unsuitable suburban rolling stock used on the main line Portsmouth to London service. Is she also aware that 1970s rolling stock has been reintroduced on the Portsmouth to Brighton line? Will she meet me to discuss how we can ensure that Portsmouth passengers get the services they deserve and the services they pay for? (79698)
My hon. Friend and I have debated this issue before. She knows that I am reluctant for Ministers to have more hands-on involvement with the distribution of rolling stock on different lines, but I understand her concerns. My colleagues and I are of course happy to try to broker a solution, and I am pleased to say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this further.
T4. Are Ministers aware that there is growing concern about the potential sale of British Midland International to British Airways, which could have damaging consequences for Scottish businesses and travellers? I appreciate that under the Enterprise Act 2002 this is a matter for the Office of Fair Trading, but will Ministers keep an overview and, if appropriate, report to Parliament? (79699)
I have already spoken to Willie Walsh about the proposed deal, which, as the hon. Lady will be aware, has some way to go before it is finalised and before we know about the impact on connectivity. She will also be aware that a scoping document consultation has just closed. When we look at the emerging strategy for aviation, it is important to ensure that we see a United Kingdom in the sense that we should have a well connected transport policy.
T6. In Mildenhall, Brandon, Elveden and across Suffolk and East Anglia, people are thrilled that the Government are finally completing the dualling of the A11, but the questions they are now asking are when will it be finished, and when can they finally drive at an appropriate pace all the way up to Norfolk?[Official Report, 14 November 2011, Vol. 535, c. 3MC.] (79702)
I hope those people will drive not only at an appropriate pace but at a safe pace within the law. As my hon. Friend knows, we started the project early and promised that we would be as fast as we possibly could. We hope that it will be done in early 2014, but if it can be done earlier, we certainly will do it.
T5. Given the threat of ever higher train prices and the success of mutual solutions—for example, Glas Cymru—in reducing the burden on consumers, will the Secretary of State accept the Co-operative party’s People Rail proposals and put passengers in the driving seat? (79700)
I am obviously always interested in ideas for improving our railways. The Government recognise the benefits of co-operative arrangements and mutualisation, and I am happy to meet the Co-operative party to discuss what it would like to do with the railways, and to see whether we can involve it in the reforms that we are taking forward.
T7. As a south London MP, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will know what a success Croydon tramlink has been. The Mayor of London and Croydon council have recently worked together to buy additional trams to increase the frequency of the service. Will she work with the Mayor in the medium term to extend the benefits of the system to other parts of south London? (79703)
We believe that there is a good future for trams and light rail in this country, and I hope that my hon. Friend has seen the recent publication “Green Light for Light Rail”. We are happy to work with the Mayor and elected bodies up and down the country to try to progress light rail, because it has a good future and is very useful for passengers.
I call Michael Connarty. He is not here. Margaret Beckett.
May I welcome the Secretary of State to her new responsibilities and assure her that her welcome will be much warmer, particularly across Derbyshire, if she makes an early decision on the eVoyager project—converting 57 vehicles from the CrossCountry fleet to dual power—and awards the contract to Bombardier?
I would say two things to the right hon. Lady. First, I was in contact with Bombardier in my first three days in this role because I recognise the issues raised across the House. She is right that tenders are coming up in which Bombardier could participate, and I have no doubt, and very much hope, that it will want to bid for them. Secondly, I recognise the issues arising from the procurement process within Government, and we are working with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to consider how we can take those matters further.
T8. Is the Secretary of State confident that councils in the west midlands have sufficient resources to address adverse weather and avoid the sort of chaos that happened in Redditch last year? (79704)
We discovered last year and the year before that winter resilience is incredibly important. We have far more salt in reserve now than we did at this point last year, and we are working with local authorities up and down the country to ensure that many are better prepared and can use the salt more effectively.
The Secretary of State will have seen the Competition Commission’s damning report on the bus wars around Newcastle. May I urge her not to leave bus transport in the north-east to market forces, but to work with local and transport authorities to ensure that the people of Newcastle have the quality of bus services that they deserve?
We are still waiting for the Competition Commission’s final report, but I can assure the hon. Lady that I am well aware of the importance of bus services to local communities up and down the country, including in Newcastle, and I shall pay close attention to any strategies that we develop in the light of the commission’s report.
Last Friday, I had the delight of sitting through the five Youth Parliament debates. They were really well-conducted and a fantastic opportunity for young people to express their views. Coming from a rural constituency, I was very pleased that the Youth Parliament chose transport as its campaign issue. What can the Secretary of State do to further its aim to have cheaper, better and more accessible transport?
We have a range of approaches to ensure that transport is affordable and accessible to everyone, , including young people. As we have seen in London, getting young people to use public transport from an early age is one way of getting behaviour change. I am very conscious of that, and I shall be interested to see what more I can do in my role.
What assessment has the Minister made of the impact on local newspapers of relaxing the guidelines on the statutory publishing of traffic regulation orders?
Obviously, we recognise that there is a potential impact on local newspapers, but we also realise that this is perhaps an archaic way of forcing local authorities to advertise traffic regulation orders, and that it involves a significant cost, to the extent that sometimes the cost of advertising is in excess of the cost of the work carried out.
In her review of the interval between MOT inspections, will the Secretary of State consider the mileage covered by vehicles? For the average car, which covers about 10,000 miles a year, there is a strong case for extending the interval, but many trade vehicles and company cars cover in excess of 30,000 miles, which means that they have reached 100,000 miles come the three-year first MOT test.
As my hon. Friend rightly points out, there are far more issues to do with the MOT test than just its frequency. We aim to look at all those issues as part of this review, and I shall be making an announcement shortly.
I, too, extend my congratulations to the Secretary of State on her new role.
The Member of the European Parliament for the East Midlands, Glenis Willmott, has established that the European Union has no problem with the Thameslink contracts being retendered to incorporate socio-economic factors. The Business Secretary was on the “Today” programme this morning saying how much the Government supported the manufacturing industry. May I urge the Secretary of State to show her commitment to British manufacturing by considering retendering the Thameslink contract, which could be achieved in a matter of six to 12 months?
We cannot retender that contract, not least because it would put on hold the vital work being done on the Thameslink project, which is creating, I think, 3,000 jobs. The hon. Gentleman’s point about better reflecting socio-economic factors in the procurement process is, however, a good one. That is precisely why we are looking at how we can improve the procurement process, which I should add was developed by his Government.
The post bus carries hundreds of passengers between Foxholes and the villages to Malton, but from April the Royal Mail will discontinue it. How can we access the community transport fund, which we have just heard about, to ensure that this vital rural bus link continues?
I have every sympathy for my hon. Friend when such situations arise. As I have said, £10 million has been given to local authorities. Her local council is in a position to take that forward and decide how best to allocate the money, so it is best that she speak to her council. However, she makes a valid point, and I am monitoring the impact of bus services in rural areas.
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
1. What recent assessment she has made of the propensity of (a) men and (b) women to start new businesses. (79666)
If women in the UK set up businesses at the same rate as men, we would have 150,000 new start-ups each year. If women in the UK showed the same level of entrepreneurship as women in the United States, we would have 600,000 more women-owned businesses in the UK, which would contribute around £42 billion to our economy. It is therefore obvious that we need to make the best use of all the talents available in the economy.
The new enterprise allowance scheme, which is delivered through Jobcentre Plus, is an excellent innovation to help people who want to start their own businesses. Will the Minister ensure that both women and men are told about this excellent scheme?
Indeed. The new enterprise allowance scheme is an important scheme that has been introduced to enable people who are unemployed to set up their own businesses, and we will certainly ensure that it is made available to both women and men. I also announced last week that we would be recruiting an additional 5,000 mentors for the women’s enterprise scheme, to encourage and help women in the vital first steps of setting up their own businesses.
Has the Minister seen today’s PricewaterhouseCoopers report, which shows that the discrepancy between north and south is being widened by Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government policies? Given that women find it difficult to get into the employment market in the first place, what steps will she take to ensure that women in Wales, the north-west, the north-east, Yorkshire and Humberside have an opportunity to get into employment?
It is this coalition Government who have introduced the regional growth fund, which is actively ensuring that money is available in the various regions of the United Kingdom, to help ensure growth and prosperity across the whole of the United Kingdom.
The case for encouraging women-owned businesses is clearly made. This Government have made great strides to encourage small businesses through their aspiration to ensure that 25% of Government spending on procurement goes to small businesses. Can we now consider the possibility of extending that to women-owned businesses, which would obviously have a great benefit for business and the economy?
My hon. Friend is right, in that the Government are actively using their procurement power to encourage small businesses and make it easier for them to apply for Government contracts. She makes an interesting point about positive action in relation to women-owned business. This is something that has been done elsewhere—for example, the United States—and we will look at the experience in those places.
Support to start businesses is all very well, but the regional growth fund is substantially smaller than the funding available from the regional development agencies, while Labour’s Aspire fund, which supported women-led businesses in obtaining finance, has been put on hold by Ministers. With cuts to help with child care costs, Sure Start services closing and family budgets under pressure, does the Minister not think that the Government need to do far more to support business and working women?
We have announced 5,000 mentors to help women to start up their own businesses, and we will also be establishing a women’s business council. We are doing things to help women in the workplace that go far beyond what the last Labour Government did. The right to request flexible working for all and the introduction of flexible parental leave will make a real difference to women’s lives.
Forced Marriages and Honour Killings
2. What her policy is on reducing (a) forced marriages and (b) honour killings; and if she will make a statement. (79667)
The Government are committed to ending the abusive practices of forced marriage and honour killings, and to ensuring that victims are protected. These practices are indefensible and never acceptable. Our action plan to end violence against women and girls sets out our approach, which includes raising awareness, development of training for police and prosecutors, support for victims, and improving the international response.
How quickly will the Government move to ensure that forced marriage is made a criminal offence?
Up to now, this has been a civil matter under protection orders. We are making it a criminal offence to breach a civil order, and we will be consulting on the actual offence becoming a criminal one before Christmas.
What discussions is the Minister having with colleagues in the Department for Education to ensure that schools spot any early signs of vulnerability to forced marriage?
We have an inter-ministerial group on violence against women and girls, to which the Department for Education sends a Minister. As the hon. Lady knows, issues relating to forced marriage are principally, though not exclusively, explored within personal, social and health education. The Department for Education continues to work closely with other Departments, and it reports to us in the inter-ministerial group.
3. What steps she is taking to tackle hate crime. (79668)
Tackling hate crime is an issue that the Government take extremely seriously, and we are committed to doing more to support and protect victims. We are meeting the coalition commitment to improve the recording of such crimes, and working with the police and other partners to encourage more victims to come forward. We are also working with the Government’s independent advisory group to develop an action plan on tackling all forms of hate crime.
Next week is anti-bullying week. What is the Minister going to do to tackle homophobic bullying in schools?
We take all bullying very seriously, including homophobic and transgender bullying. The Department of Health has issued new guidelines on bullying that are much more condensed and to the point. Also, Ofsted has now included behaviours in its inspection regime. The hon. Lady is right: this is an appalling form of hate crime, and we are dealing with it.
One in five gay or lesbian people has experienced a homophobic attack in the past three years. As someone who experienced such an attack in the ’90s, I am aware of the fear that follows such an attack. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the excellent work being done by West Yorkshire police to engage the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender community in tackling this awful hate crime?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I am sorry to learn that he had such an experience. The statistics on hate crime are quite frightening. In 2010, there were 48,000 incidents. I would very much like to congratulate the police force in West Yorkshire. It is vital that the police take this issue seriously, because they are in a position to act when someone comes to them to report it. We must tackle hate crime and ensure that every incident is investigated.
Domestic Violence (Victim Support)
5. What steps the Government are taking to provide support to women in the criminal justice system who have been victims of domestic violence and abuse. (79671)
Tackling violence against women and girls is a priority for the Government, and specifically for me, as I have responsibility for women in the criminal justice system. The National Offender Management Service, in conjunction with Women’s Aid, has published the framework to support women offenders who have experienced domestic and sexual violence. It contains guidance for commissioners and links to resources for practitioners. Women’s Aid and the National Offender Management Service are also training prison and probation staff to pilot the Power to Change programme, which aims to help women prisoners who want to leave a violent relationship.
With the closure of courts across the land, will the Minister tell us what steps are being taken to guarantee that domestic abuse courts will remain in place?
We continue to examine the provision of court services across the country and there is an agenda to try to deliver justice much closer to neighbourhoods. Of course, dealing with domestic violence is an important part of addressing a particularly horrible crime at a community level. I have seen for myself the work done by the probation trusts, and that will go hand in hand with what needs to be done with the courts as well.
The House will be aware of the deeply disturbing cases where women have been stalked for many years by their ex-partners and have not been properly protected by the criminal justice system. Two months ago, I raised my concern and expressed the view that stalking should be made a separate criminal offence in order to provide greater protection for women. Labour has tabled an amendment to the Protection of Freedoms Bill in the House of Lords to do exactly that. Will the Government support us in our proposals to make stalking a separate offence and vote for those proposals in the Lords?
Obviously we have seen the proposals coming from the Opposition. We need to look at the evidence on how the existing legislation has or has not been used effectively and assess whether further work could be done on using existing harassment legislation properly. We are looking at the proposed amendment; during the course of the debate, we will come forward with a proper assessment and answer to it.
Corporate Boards (Female Representation)
6. What steps the Government are taking to encourage corporate boards to have a more representative proportion of women. (79672)
The Government are continuing to work with business and others to ensure that the recommendations set out by Lord Davies in March this year are implemented effectively. Cranfield university presented a report to the Prime Minister three weeks ago, which showed that steady progress is being made to increase female board representation. The rate at which women are being appointed to FTSE boards has doubled and the number of all-male boards has almost halved since 2010.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The House will warmly welcome the enormous progress made in recent times. In particular, we welcome the Davies report, but will my right hon. Friend agree that this is not just a matter of an abstract idea about equality for the sake of equality. Lord Davies cites a report by McKinsey which states:
“Companies with more women on their boards were found to out-perform their rivals with a 42% higher return in sales, 66% higher return on invested capital and 53% higher return on equity.”
Having women involved is also good for business.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. There has been progress. We know that there are now only 12 all-male boards within the FTSE 100, down from 21 in 2010. We know that women have made up an increasing percentage of the directors appointed to FTSE 100 companies since Lord Davies’s report. The point she makes is absolutely right: having women on boards is not just a women’s issue; it is about the state of the economy, and it makes good business sense.
But is the Minister for Women and Equalities aware that of the last 93 appointments only 21 were women, and that the Cranfield school of management has said that two thirds of companies have ignored what the Government have said. Do we not need more than a nudge and wink, and to have some more positive action?
I am sorry that the hon. Lady could not bring herself to welcome the progress made on this issue since Lord Davies’s report. We are adopting the approach of encouragement and working with businesses. I think that is the best way to change attitudes in the longer term. We have already seen from the work done in Australia that the significant increase in the number of women on boards can be achieved without having to go down the route of quotas.
Given the clear benefit to the whole community of having a much more diverse corporate management in both the private and the public sectors, will my right hon. Friend look at having a common reporting date annually for the private and public sectors on the diversity of their boards? Could we follow that, in association with the House business managers, with a debate here so that we can keep the pressure up and everyone in the country can see the comparative position annually?
My right hon. Friend has made an interesting suggestion. He highlights the importance of transparency in encouraging action in this area. That is indeed why we have developed the “think, act, report” programme for companies to sign up to. It encourages them not just to look at what is happening on gender diversity and the gender pay gap in their workplace, but to act on it and then, crucially, report on it because we believe it is that transparency that makes a difference.
7. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on the treatment of women offenders. (79673)
I engage in frequent discussions with ministerial colleagues about how we should address women’s offending as part of the Government’s rehabilitation reforms. Those discussions often include either my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities or my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities. We are working across Government to tackle offenders’ mental health problems, along with the Department of Health; to get them off drugs for good; and to give them skills for work, which involves the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Our Work programme reforms will of course affect offenders leaving prisons, and in that regard we are doing very good work with the Department for Work and Pensions. In all that work, we are taking full account of the distinct needs of women.
The Government want prisoners to work a 48-hour week, but in a recent written answer the prisons Minister confirmed that just 161 women were working in prisons in March this year. That is a disproportionately low figure given the size of the female prison population. What will the Minister do to close the gap?
Most work in prisons at the moment is effectively a programme: it is a cost centre for the Prison Service. If we are to increase the amount of work done in our prisons to any significant extent, we shall need to adopt a rather more economic and commercial approach, so that the work of offenders can generate resources to deliver services for victims of crime. We are undergoing a system change, and there are many important and difficult questions to be answered about competition and similar issues. That applies just as much to women as to men.
The Government rightly dislike adopting targets, but has the Minister an aspiration in regard to the number of women he expects to be in prison at the end of the current Parliament?
My aspiration is, of course, zero, but although we have delivered a highly effective policy on crime and criminal justice, I am, like my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities, realistic enough to know that it is unlikely to be achieved. We will, however, work towards its achievement.
Over the past year the number of women prisoners has fallen by 1.5%, and the number of women arriving at prisons to serve sentences of less than 12 months has fallen by 10.7% .