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Commons Chamber

Volume 538: debated on Thursday 12 January 2012

House of Commons

Thursday 12 January 2012

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Road Infrastructure

The Government announced in 2010 that we were investing £2.1 billion to start 14 new road schemes over this spending review period and to complete eight existing schemes. A further £1 billion of new investment was also allocated in the autumn statement to tackle areas of congestion on the strategic road network.

As the Minister will be aware, a number of other projects can have specific local economic impacts. Two such projects are the Stourport relief road and Hoo Brook link road in Wyre Forest. Will the Minister meet me and the leaders of Wyre Forest district council and Worcestershire county council to discuss how his Department might assist in the progress of those two projects?

I will be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend and those council leaders, but I think this is probably a matter for my colleague the Minister for local roads, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). If he can meet them, that will be fine, although, ultimately, these matters are for the local authorities.

Congestion on the A23 is a major problem. Will the Minister or one of his colleagues meet me to discuss what the Department, along with the Mayor of London, can do to improve conditions on that road?

I am always more than happy to meet colleagues, especially to discuss the A23, which is a much-improved road since the Hindhead link tunnel was opened. The stretch of the A23 about which my hon. Friend is concerned is mainly a matter for the Mayor, but I am more than happy to help in any way I can.

The Minister is aware of the importance to the national economy of the Dartford crossing, and he is introducing plans to increase capacity. However, to get the maximum benefit from those improvements work must be done on junctions 30 and 31 of the M25. When will the Minister publish detailed, costed plans for those improvements, which are especially important given the developments that have taken place in the Thames Gateway?

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe); I apologise for having got the constituency name wrong, but it is a long time since I stood for election in that part of the world. We are currently working on the costings for junctions 30 and 31. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the fantastic investment by DP World at the Gateway port means there will be work at junction 30, and we will publish proposals as soon as we can.

As my hon. Friend the Minister will know, I am deeply concerned about the A64 and the A237 in York. Those vital road corridors are increasingly congested and accident prone and are a major drain on our local economy. Can the Minister give me any information about any future funding for projects, and will he again meet me and a group of local MPs who share my concerns?

It looks like I shall be very busy with meetings, but I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues as we look for new road programmes for the future. He may not know that I was on the A64 to Scarborough on new year’s day and experienced some of the traffic problems on that day.

As the Minister’s constituency is near mine, he will know that we in the eastern region have terrible east-west road links. Is he carefully considering any serious schemes for improving those links?

Yes, and we are looking very closely at one of the most significant road problems we have: the A14 link across the eastern corridor. We have limited available funds, but I am very pleased that the Chancellor announced an extra £1 billion in the autumn statement. I will be happy to work with the hon. Gentleman at any time to improve the transport links in our part of the world.

Although we always like to hear of the big schemes, is the Minister aware that low-cost engineering schemes save the most lives? They are the best investment and offer the best bang for the buck. In this the United Nations decade of accident reduction, the most likely cause of death for any young man anywhere in the world is a road accident, so will we consider any innovations we might introduce on the roads through low-cost schemes?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and the fact that he mentions is a sad indictment. Boys aged between 17 and 25 are 10 times more likely to be involved in an accident than a lady of that age. Low-cost schemes are vital, and some of the very low-cost schemes, such as retro-reflective paint on roads, have moved things on a huge amount in the last 10 years. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am considering such schemes.

The Government have approved construction of the Switch island to Thornton relief road. The land is owned by a number of Government agencies, including the Forestry Commission, the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency and the Highways Agency. Will the Minister encourage his ministerial colleagues to speed up negotiations with Sefton council, so that work can start on the road?

I am working with other Departments and Ministers. This is a vitally important scheme and we will push it forward as fast as we possibly can.

Cycle infrastructure is sadly lacking across the country and that causes a number of safety problems, such as a recent tragedy at King’s Cross and many others around the country. What steps is the Minister taking to improve the quality and amount of cycle infrastructure on our roads?

Most of the roads I am responsible for are part of the national road infrastructure, and I hope there are no cyclists on that part of the infrastructure. However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: cycling is vital not only to local commuting and enjoyment but to the health of the nation. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) was listening closely to what the hon. Gentleman said.

Ticket Office Closures

2. Whether her Department has conducted an impact assessment of the proposal in the McNulty report on closure of ticket offices. (88222)

Disabled people in my constituency already have trouble accessing work and leisure opportunities in London because Erith station’s London-bound platform has no disabled lift or step-free access. They are advised by the train operating company to travel in the opposite direction for 15 minutes and then change trains. The closure of the ticket office at Erith will further disadvantage this group of people. Will the Minister consider an equality impact assessment on the proposal and reject McNulty’s plans to close ticket offices, particularly at places such as Erith, where disabled people already face a difficult journey?

In considering the recommendations of the independent McNulty report and before any decision was made on changes to future ticket office rules, it would of course be vital carefully to assess the needs of disabled communities and pensioners. That would be a very important part of any decisions made on future reform of ticket offices.

The McNulty report identified some 30% savings in real costs across the piece. If that is to be achieved by the closure of ticket offices or in other ways, what will the Minister do to ensure that that money will be passed on not to the rail companies but to the users? The line from Chippenham—the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames)—to London is among the most expensive in the world: more, mile for mile, than the cost of Concorde. We need to cut those rates, and we can do that by saving money on the infrastructure.

We have made it clear that it is vital to get the costs of running the railways down, and it is also vital that the benefits of those cost reductions be shared by both taxpayers and fare payers so that we can give both better value for money. If we can achieve savings on the scale contemplated by McNulty, we could, we hope, see the end of the era of above-inflation fare increases.

Costs impact on fares, as the Minister has just said. In London, Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] I expected a more Pavlovian response, Mr Speaker. Mayor Johnson has approved rises on average of nearly 6%, yet Labour mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] Much better, Mr Speaker. Both sides of the House appreciate the Labour candidate; I am sure he would be very reassured. Ken Livingstone says he can cut fares by between 7% and 11% because of Transport for London surpluses. Has the Minister had any discussions with Mayor Johnson about the rises?

The hon. Gentleman is completely naive in his approach to Ken Livingstone’s proposals on fares. Livingstone’s numbers simply do not add up, and his track record shows that he promises fare reductions and ends up delivering fare hikes.

Does the Minister agree that no station operator should be allowed to close ticket offices where there are any real concerns about security and safety as a result of creating an unmanned station?

Certainly, if we were to change the way ticket offices operate, we would need to look carefully at all safety and security consequences, as well as taking into account the concerns of the disabled community and pensioners. However, we do need to look at ticket offices as part of the process of reducing costs on the railways, in order to deliver the better value for money that passengers want. We need to do that because the way passengers are buying tickets is changing. Oyster in London demonstrates that there are some high-quality alternatives to the ticket queue. If we can roll those out more widely, which we plan to do with ITSO smart ticketing, that will make a difference to our approach to future decisions on ticket offices.

High Speed 2 (Scotland)

High Speed 2 would serve Scotland from phase 1, through current classic-compatible high-speed trains running on the existing network, with half an hour being taken off journey times to Scotland. Although the Department has made no specific detailed assessment of the benefits of extending high-speed lines to Scotland, I am committed to delivering a truly national high-speed rail network. Of course, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), was up there yesterday having those very discussions.

I thank the Secretary of State for her response and trust that her ministerial colleague enjoyed his time in Scotland yesterday and will be back there very soon.

I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware of the business case made by CBI Scotland and others about the benefits, including those for business across the UK, of HS2 eventually coming all the way to Scotland. Is she also aware of the concern that has been expressed in the past couple of days that the constitutional uncertainty in Scotland may make that less likely? Does she therefore agree that it is important that that issue is dealt with so that HS2 and all the economic benefits can come to Scotland, and are then followed through?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point and I completely agree with it. Like many Members in this House, I want to see a United Kingdom and one of the ways we can unite our kingdom is through high-speed rail.

Is the shadow Minister aware that on this issue we need to consider not only what the British Government can do, but what the Scottish Government can do? Is she prepared to consider allowing the Scottish Government to ensure that they can start to build the high-speed line themselves, using their own money and at no cost to English taxpayers?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not intend to relegate or demote the Secretary of State.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I do not need to allow the Scottish Government to do that; they already have the ability to get on with starting the preparatory work for a Scottish high-speed line if they want to do so.

The real benefits of high-speed rail will come from taking the line beyond Birmingham. What commitment can the Secretary of State give to extending the line to Leeds, to Manchester and then, possibly, to Scotland?

I hope that I can give the hon. Lady a firm commitment, and it is one that she will doubtless have seen in the Command Paper itself.

May I encourage the Secretary of State not to consider extending HS2 to Scotland and instead to place that investment in improving rail capacity to Plymouth and the far south-west? We are now without an airport and, as the motorway stops at Exeter, we desperately need to increase our rail connectivity to the rest of the country.

My hon. Friend raises the very important question of value for money. The Scottish Government have already said that they are willing to fund a high-speed rail link within Scotland, and of course I will make sure that I strike the right balance between developing any high-speed network further and maintaining our investment in the existing railway network.

Rail Franchises (Scotland)

5. What discussions she has had with the Scottish Government on the renewal of rail franchises for services from and to Scotland. (88225)

The Secretary of State has not yet had the opportunity to discuss rail franchising with the Scottish Government, although I have had a number of such meetings. There are also regular contacts on rail franchising between the Department for Transport and Transport Scotland at official level.

I thank the Minister for her reply. She will be aware not only of the possibility of a referendum in Scotland, but that the ScotRail franchise comes to an end in 2014. Does she agree that when deciding on a new contract the Scottish Government should consider the fact that ScotRail has had the highest level of customer complaints and a fourfold increase in overcrowding at a time when prices are rising by 6%? Will she note that the company’s boss is a leading Scottish National party supporter and contributor?

I certainly noted the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about ScotRail. I will take them on board and officials will be happy to raise them with Transport Scotland.

The west coast main line franchise, which serves the west of Scotland, is up for renewal next year. What consideration have bidders for the franchise been asked to put in place to ensure that no disturbance is caused by the construction of HS2, either at Euston or in the London area during the period of that franchise?

It will be a very important part of the planning process for the construction of HS2 that every effort is made to minimise the disruption on existing rail networks. Indeed, that is one of the reasons why building a new high-speed rail network is a better option than seeking to eke more capacity out of the existing west coast main line, given the decade of disruption that passengers suffered on that. There will be an impact on Euston, but a huge amount of effort is going to be put into ensuring that that is minimised.

High Speed 2 (Scotland)

6. What discussions she has had on the route for High Speed 2 and its possible extension to Edinburgh and Glasgow. (88226)

The former Secretary of State held discussions with Scottish Ministers regarding a potential extension of High Speed 2 to Scotland last year. As I said, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), was up there yesterday and we expect to have further discussions with the Scottish Government to identify and evaluate options for developing high-speed rail further in the future.

I hope that the Under-Secretary, who was in Scotland yesterday discussing rail issues, took the train to Scotland. The Scottish Council for Development and Industry’s recent survey of leading Scottish businesses demonstrated overwhelming support for extending high-speed rail to Scotland because of the significant economic benefits that it will bring. Will the Secretary of State now give a clear commitment that Scotland will be included in the development of the project from the earliest stage possible?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that taking the route of High Speed 2 through Heathrow will be important in achieving a modal shift for domestic passengers travelling from Glasgow and Edinburgh to London?

My hon. Friend is right and that is why the second phase of High Speed 2 will see a spur to Heathrow. It is also wise to point out that the first phase will see Birmingham airport effectively connected to High Speed 2, too.

I hope that we will see direct trains from Scotland to Paris and Brussels. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the current proposal is for only a single-track interconnection between High Speed 1 and High Speed 2 and is she open to imaginative ideas to make better use of existing capacity to allow a proper two-track link between the two future high-speed links?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that we have plans to connect those two high-speed tracks in part of the first phase and his question demonstrates the opportunities for growing that capacity in future years. I think it shows why high-speed rail is so vital to the future of not just the capacity of our rail network but our economy.

There is great interest in the east midlands about where the route of HS2 and the east midlands station will be located. Will she bring forward the timing of the first announcement of the plans so that we can all understand the potential benefits and downsides of the route?

The timelines are that we will get some initial advice on potential routes later this year, which will enable us to start having those discussions with local stakeholders and that, by 2014, we will have a preferred route on which we can formally consult. I hope that over the course of this year the sorts of discussions my hon. Friend mentions will be able to take place.

Have the discussions about extending the route to Scotland included considering bringing the fast trains through Birmingham and into the black country, an area that has the largest concentration of manufacturing companies anywhere in Europe? That measure would enable the Government to deliver on their commitment to rebalancing the economy in favour of manufacturing and would cost much less than the alterations she has made to the route to allay the concerns about farms and fields in the home counties.

The decision I announced earlier this week was my final decision on the route of phase 1, but I was in Birmingham yesterday and one thing that came across very clearly to me was the broader benefits of High Speed 2 for the whole region, including the black country. Of course, by providing more capacity, it will free up capacity on the existing rail network, which will particularly help that part of the country.

Speed Limits

I recognise the value that 20 mph speed limits can bring in some locations, particularly outside schools, but it is for local authorities to decide whether and where to implement them. Last October, I took steps to make it easier for every English local authority to introduce 20 mph zones and limits more efficiently and with less bureaucracy.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Bishopbriggs in my constituency is trying to become Scotland’s first 20 mph town and, as research shows that the risk of children being involved in an accident is reduced by two thirds in 20 mph zones, that is understandable. I congratulate the Minister on the changes he has made. Of course, that improvement does not apply in Scotland, so may I ask what discussions he has had with his Scottish counterparts about the success of the scheme? It would be excellent if the Scottish National party Government followed suit, to the benefit of towns such as Bishopbriggs and others.

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, this is a devolved matter so I have had no such discussions with Scottish colleagues. There are 2,000 20 mph schemes in England and evidence from the British Medical Journal shows a significant reduction in casualties and collisions of about 40%, a reduction in the number of children being killed or seriously injured of 50% and a reduction in casualties among cyclists of 17% where there are 20 mph limits in London. Perhaps my hon. Friend would like to pass that information back to the Scottish Government.

Many residents in my constituency, like me, support the increased use of 20 mph speed limits, but we are finding that the time over which designation takes place is still inordinately long. I know that the Government have made welcome proposals, but are there any specific observations that my hon. Friend would like to make to assist my local authority in making speedier decisions?

As I said in response to the initial question, we have made changes as part of the road signs review, “Signing the Way”, to make the introduction of such limits and zones more efficient and less bureaucratic. It is now possible to use roundels on the road rather than repeater signs, which saves money and is quicker to introduce. We are also looking at the requirements on local authorities to advertise road changes in traffic management terms.

Winter Salt Stockpiles

8. What assessment she has made of whether stockpiles of salt for winter resilience have increased since 2009. (88228)

14. What assessment she has made of whether stockpiles of salt for winter resilience have increased since 2009. (88235)

Total salt stock holdings in Great Britain at the start of December last year were just over 2.7 million tonnes, including strategic stockpiles of 539,000 tonnes. This is a significant improvement on the stock levels held in 2009 and is due to the actions that this Government have taken on winter resilience.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that very reassuring answer. Will she join me in commending local authorities such as Worcestershire that have not only increased their stocks but have also adopted new technologies such as the use of brine and GPS monitoring to make sure their reserves go much further? Is it not right that in these difficult times in preparing for cold weather councils should be innovative and creative in doing more with less?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and I very much welcome the preparations that Worcestershire county council and other local highway authorities have taken to be prepared for severe winter weather. I also commend Worcestershire for taking on board the guidance that was published through the UK Roads Liaison Group in December 2010, which related to the sorts of things he has talked about.

In addition to the measures I just outlined in relation to increasing not only the level of salt we have but our ability to get the most effective winter resilience out of that salt stock, we are investing to make sure that our rail companies are far better able to cope with bad weather. That includes making sure that we have more de-icing trains as well as better technology for existing trains to de-ice as they run. That will be particularly beneficial to my hon. Friend’s constituents.

Metal Theft

9. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on metal theft from railways and motorways. (88229)

I am in close discussions with ministerial colleagues from the Home Office and other Departments about the severe impact of metal theft on transport and more generally. We are actively discussing measures to tackle this, including amendments to legislation. We are also working with the police to establish a dedicated metal theft taskforce.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Network Rail estimates that by the end of 2011, railway passengers will have suffered half a million minutes-worth of delay as a result of metal thefts. Those delays are discouraging people from using railways and Redditch is looking to improve business links. What assurances can the Minister give to businesses in Redditch that this House will legislate to protect the UK economy from this crime?

The Home Office is the lead Department for legislation, but all Government Departments are fully seized of the need to deal with this issue as a matter of urgency. Discussions are taking place about options. This issue affects not only railways but the highway network and the coastguard service, for example. Most despicably, the theft of cable in the Vale of Glamorgan recently forced the cancellation of 80 operations.

As passengers up and down the country could tell the hon. Gentleman, performance on Britain’s rail network is getting worse and metal theft is a major factor. On the basis of the Department’s own figures, metal theft is set to cause up to 7,000 hours of delay this year. When are the Government going to act?

The Government have already acted with the measures announced by the Chancellor in his recent statement to appoint the special taskforce to which I referred. As I have mentioned, there are also ministerial discussions taking place across Departments. I assure the hon. Lady that discussions are taking place. Particular proposals are being considered and evaluated and there will be an announcement quite shortly, I hope.

The hon. Gentleman is right to recognise the importance of this issue, but passengers want to see action, not just discussion and a taskforce. With passengers facing rail fare rises of up to 11% and given that the Department calculates that this issue is costing Network Rail more than £16 million every year and a further loss of £10 million in economic cost to passengers and the economy, when will the Government listen to Network Rail, agree to legislate to tackle the illegal market in scrap, and ban cashless transactions?

Under the 13 years of the hon. Lady’s Government nothing much was done to amend the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 and we are now taking action on that front. The issue of cashless payment was referred to by my ministerial colleague the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), at Home Office questions on 12 December. He said that he was looking at dealing with a situation where cashless payments ought to be removed. As I mentioned a moment ago, discussions are very active—very live—and I hope there will be an announcement in the near future.

As chairman of the all-party group on heritage rail, may I say that this matter affects heritage railways up and down the country? They often rely on volunteers and charitable donations and I add my voice to those urging quick action on the problem.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the impact on heritage rail. With the Bluebell railway partly in my constituency, I am very well aware of the impact on individual bodies such as that, which are sometimes less able to respond financially than the public sector. I am afraid that all sections of society are being affected by selfish metal theft and it is important that we take action to deal with it.

Transport Spending (North-East)

According to the latest figures published by the Treasury, of the £10,380 million spent on transport in the UK directly by central Government in 2010, £293 million was spent in the north-east, which was broadly comparable with expenditure in the preceding years under the Labour Government. An additional £363 million was spent by local authorities, with some of the funding coming from central Government.

The Minister referred earlier to the transport spending announced in the autumn statement, but the Institute for Public Policy Research found that of that only 0.04% was spent in the north-east. The Government will be spending £2,731 per head in London compared with a mere £5 in the north-east, and we know that high-speed rail will not even get as far as Leeds until 2033, so will the Minister look at decentralising transport spending so that the north-east does not continue to be left behind?

First, we are looking at decentralising transport spending. Secondly, the proportion of expenditure in the north-east is not particularly out of line with the population there. Thirdly, the IPPR report to which the hon. Lady refers is not complete; it did not, for example, include the December announcements on local major projects and did not take into account the further £1 billion from the regional growth fund. It is not a complete analysis.

One way of improving the north-east’s share of transport expenditure would be to bring forward schemes to dual dangerous single carriageway sections of the A1 that have already been prepared by the Highways Agency. Will my hon. Friend discuss with his ministerial colleagues the urgency of bringing forward some of those schemes as soon as we can?

I am happy to say that the discussion has already taken place to some degree. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), is looking at those schemes as we speak.

Speed Limits

Mandatory variable speed limits will continue to be used as part of the management of traffic on controlled and managed motorways on the strategic road network. Three schemes will be started this year and there will be a further 10 schemes by the end of 2015.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. We heard calls earlier today for the greater use of 20 mph speed limits, but is the Minister aware that often the danger that justifies a 20 mph limit is transient, such as outside a school, where the danger is present only briefly during the school day—in the morning, at lunch time and in the afternoon? As we already have the lowest speed limits in Europe, will the Minister encourage local authorities to make greater use of variable 20 mph limits so that once the danger has passed the limit will default to 30?

That is exactly what is being looked at in the Department at the moment. On the motorway network, where variable speed limits help us to sweat the assets, where we can stick to national speed limits we shall continue to do so.

Northern Hub Railway

The Government have given the go-ahead for the construction of the Ordsall chord and the electrification of the north trans-Pennine route between Manchester and York via Leeds. These schemes will allow faster trains between the north-east, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool. Network Rail is undertaking further work on the remaining northern hub schemes. We will consider these in developing the Government’s high-level output specification for rail investment from 2014 to 2019.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we could complete all parts of the scheme it would be a tremendous demonstration of our continued commitment to further investment in the existing rail structure and to further investment in the north-west?

This is exactly the sort of issue that we will consider in preparing our HLOS statement. I recognise the crucial importance for the northern economy of improving rail connections in the north. That is why we have already given the go-ahead to such important parts of the northern hub—earlier than many expected—and we will of course look very carefully at the whole project. It certainly looks to have a good business case, but delivering it will depend on what is affordable.

Topical Questions

Earlier this week I announced to Parliament my decision on High Speed 2, giving the go-ahead to a national high-speed network that will dramatically increase capacity and reduce journey times between our cities. Over Christmas, negotiations were concluded on a £188 million deal between Southern and Bombardier which will see 130 new carriages ordered from the Derby-based manufacturer. The Minister with responsibility for roads announced a £2.7 million investment in 3D laser-scanning technology. Before Christmas, I announced funding approval for a further 21 local authority major schemes, on top of the 20 schemes announced by the Chancellor in the autumn statement. The total Department for Transport contribution for all 41 schemes will be up to £972 million.

My right hon. Friend referred to the procurement by Southern of more than 130 new carriages. Is that not fantastic news for hard-pressed commuters from my constituency and for Bombardier, its employees and its supply chain?

I absolutely agree. This is a win for everybody concerned. Southern will deploy the new vehicles on its most overcrowded services, which will be of huge benefit and relief to passengers.

Today’s excellent report from the Transport Committee highlights the scandal of dodgy whiplash claims that are hiking up insurance premiums for honest motorists. Why, just a couple of months ago, did the right hon. Lady’s colleagues reject Labour’s amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill which would have curbed whiplash claims? In light of today’s report will she reconsider that opposition?

The hon. Gentleman would be better directing his question to the Ministry of Justice, which leads for the Government in this area. I very much welcome the Select Committee’s report and the work of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) in raising the issue. The Government are already taking action to ban such things as referral fees. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will work very closely with the Ministry of Justice to see what action we can take on this issue.

T4. Last month the Department announced funding for a number of road projects, including the Loughborough inner relief road. I thank the Secretary of State for that decision, for which we have been waiting 40 years. Does she agree that road infrastructure is critical for the regeneration of towns and cities such as Loughborough? (88244)

I absolutely agree. The investment that we have been able to put into Loughborough will make a critical difference to Loughborough, not least in helping to regenerate the town centre, improving public transport access and reliability and, importantly, improving accessibility for pedestrians, cyclists and people with disabilities.

T2. I am sure that most hon. Members would agree that for many visitors to any town or city in the UK their first impression, and perhaps their last, will be of the train station. Will the Minister use her good offices to ask ScotRail, Network Rail and Dundee city council to look at improving Dundee’s train station? (88242)

As the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged, this is a devolved matter over which I have no direct power, but I am happy to raise it with ScotRail and Network Rail if he would find it helpful.

T5. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the announcements on HS2 and the longevity of the railway system in this country. May I press her to find out what steps are being taken to open up access on the west coast main line link so that passengers from Carnforth can get to London? (88245)

As my hon. Friend may be aware, high-speed rail will enable capacity on the west coast main line to double, and Network Rail is now able to review the ability to use that released capacity to provide better services for constituencies across the country, hopefully including his own.

T3. The Secretary of State will be aware that many of the rail enhancement projects in Scotland, including the Edinburgh Glasgow improvement programme and Borders Rail, are being funded by borrowing against the value of Network Rail’s regulatory asset base, which is of course a Great Britain-wide asset. Does she agree that those projects and many in the future would not happen in a separate Scotland, given that there would be no GB assets to borrow against? (88243)

That is one of many questions of this nature that a push towards an independent Scotland would raise. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise his concerns about the destabilising impact that independence would have, where none of the benefits hoped for by those who want independence would be realised, but many of the downsides would absolutely come to fruition.

T8. Road crashes are the biggest single killer of young people aged between 17 and 25 in this country today. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Cheshire safer roads partnership’s “Think, Drive, Survive” scheme, which brings officers into schools to teach young drivers about better road safety? What more can the Government do in this respect? (88248)

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that I have done that excellent scheme in Cheshire and have the certificate on the wall in my office. One of the things we can do is ensure that the test taken before someone is given a driving licence is fit for purpose and that it is not simply a case of passing a test, but of giving the skills everyone needs, particularly young people, to be able to drive and enjoy the road safely.

T6. Driver fatigue and sleepiness is a major cause of road accidents, and it is estimated that one in six lorry drivers suffers from sleep apnoea. Does the Minister have any plans to increase health checks on lorry drivers to diagnose sleep apnoea? (88246)

This is a condition that I have known about for many years, as I used to be a heavy goods vehicle driver, and it is something I am looking at now. The hon. Lady has met me and knows that we are working on this. I look forward to bringing forward proposals so that we can ensure that an industry that is already very safe is even safer in future.

Chippenham station lacks disabled access, in large part due to restrictions on modifying buildings and structures considered to be historically important—I wonder what Brunel would think of that. Does the Minister agree that such heritage concerns ought to be applied proportionately so as not to frustrate either access to the railway or, indeed, impose an unreasonable financial burden on achieving it?

I agree with that proposition. One of the problems is that the Victorian infrastructure, which is marvellous in many ways, was not built with the needs of present-day communities in mind. The full Access for All programme is continuing, and I think that it should be possible in most cases to improve access while respecting the integrity of such buildings.

T7. All parties support the proposed new Mersey Gateway crossing, but there is concern that local people will have to pay a toll to cross the bridges. I believe that they should continue to pay nothing. My big concern is that the deal that the Government have offered Halton borough council means that they will take 70% of any excess revenue from procurement savings and 85% of any excess toll revenue, which will leave the council little room for manoeuvre to discount local tolls. Will the Secretary of State please look at this again? (88247)

I think that the deal we struck with the hon. Gentleman’s local council is the right one, and one that it signed up to. It enables it to get on with the new crossing, which will provide welcome extra capacity for many people in the area.

The A47 is a vital strategic route from east to west, but in many places it is still single carriageway. Does the Minister agree that it needs to be upgraded to a national strategic route, as it was before the previous Government downgraded it?

I am very aware of the significance of that road. This is something we are looking at and will continue to look at as we develop plans for future road improvements.

T9. I continue to receive representations from constituents regarding the Government’s plans for MOT tests. What assurances can I give them that concerns about safety have been taken into account, and what plans has the Secretary of State to update us? (88249)

I will be announcing the next steps on those plans very shortly and can absolutely assure the hon. Lady that, as with any decisions I take, safety is of paramount consideration.

May I thank the roads Minister for his interest in and commitment to the £110 million expansion of the A14 around Kettering, and, given its proximity to the town of Kettering itself, urge him to include as many noise reduction measures as he can when the scheme is constructed?

I had a fantastic visit to Kettering and looked at the roads programme that is going to be developed, as well as at the town centre redevelopment, which is a huge success. We will ensure that noise reduction is part of the plan, so that the local community benefits from the new road and is not encumbered by it.

T10. In Bristol, the city council is being forced to make savings of £2 million, directly affecting its subsidy to First Bus. Routes are being cancelled, operating times are being cut and fares, which are already far too high, are still rising. What efforts are Ministers making to ensure that local bus routes remain operational and affordable? (88250)

I had thought that the hon. Lady might have written to congratulate the Government on the major investment programme in Bristol which we announced at the end of last year, with a number of schemes going ahead. She might have written to congratulate the Government also on the new “better bus area” programme, which includes an extra £50 million for buses, £20 million for more green buses and more money for community transport. So there is a lot of money going into buses, and we are doing a great deal to protect bus passengers and to improve bus services.

I know that the Minister is aware of the importance to economic growth of the Hastings to Bexhill link road, which he is now considering. Is he also aware of the enormous lengths that its promoters have gone to in order to mitigate environmental concerns, including the proposed building of dedicated tunnels for dormice that might have to cross the road?

I was not aware of the proposals relating to dormice, although I very much welcome them. I have had many representations from people in that region about the importance of the scheme. We are considering them very carefully now, and I hope that we can announce our final decision on the scheme shortly.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, although there is a welcome on both sides of the House and in the city of Derby for her decision on the Southern contract, and indeed hope for her decision on eVoyager, the real touchstone of the Government’s approach to rail procurement will be the handling of Crossrail and, in particular, whether its financing is handled as was the Thameslink project? I know she has that in mind, and I hope that she can give us a favourable answer on it today.

I am very pleased that the right hon. Lady has welcomed the deal that was struck between Southern and Bombardier. I had her in my thoughts on the day of the announcement, because I know how much difference it makes to the city that she represents. I assure her that I take incredibly seriously the negotiating process, ensuring that it is fair for all people involved including bidders such as Bombardier, and I will now work very closely over the next months and years with all people who want to bid for the important Crossrail procurement and ensure that that is fair. We have seen that when Bombardier bids for contracts, as it does, it can be successful.

Almost 50 years have passed since the 70 mph maximum speed limit was introduced, and in that time there have been significant advances in motoring technology. When does the Minister expect to announce the outcome of her review of the matter?

I shall announce it very shortly, and we are absolutely committed to striking the right balance between looking at the important issues that my hon. Friend has just raised and doing what we can to maintain and, indeed, improve motorway safety.

Will the Secretary of State reject the previous Transport Secretary’s comments that high-speed rail would be affordable only for business passengers, and will she reassure passengers that the new high-speed line will be both affordable and accessible?

I want to be absolutely clear: my predecessor was very clear that the new high-speed rail line needed to be a railway that was beneficial to all people, including of course business people who want to use it. The business case works on an assumption of standard rail fares, as we have on the current network, and I am absolutely clear in my mind that the way in which we are going to make high-speed rail successful is by having as many people use it as possible—and that means having value-for-money fares.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Tax Credits

We have had to take tough decisions to protect the economy. The UK has an unprecedented budget deficit, and spending on tax credits has become unsustainable. The savings from changes announced in the autumn statement allow us to take further steps to protect the most vulnerable, including significant increases in child care support to help women and families to get back into work.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the median income of households with children is set to fall in real terms, so does she think it fair that a family with children are set to lose £1,250 annually, whereas a family with no children are set to lose £215?

We are aware that things are difficult for families. That is why the Government are taking a number of steps to help families, such as cutting fuel duty, freezing council tax and taking more than 1 million people out of paying income tax altogether, more than half of whom will be women.

On protecting women’s income, what safeguards are in place to ensure that charging people to use the Child Support Agency does not push mums who cannot afford to pay into further hardship?

I have had a number of conversations with the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) on the arrangements for access to the Child Support Agency. I am happy to say that the Department for Work and Pensions has put arrangements in place that, I believe, will make access affordable for women. We are taking steps to ensure that, in particular, women who have been subject to domestic violence are catered for.


2. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on the effect of dieting on the health of women. (88212)

I meet ministerial colleagues regularly to discuss a range of issues, including health, dieting and the body confidence campaign. Being at a healthy weight is important in helping people to reduce the risk of serious illness. The Government are committed to helping people to reach and stay at a healthy weight.

It is January, which means that adverts in women’s magazines everywhere are promoting diets and miracle weight-loss plans. The inquiry of the all-party parliamentary group on body image has heard evidence from the Royal College of Psychiatrists that not only do 90% of diets not work, but that for people who are susceptible, dieting can trigger eating disorders. How can the Government successfully promote fitness and healthy eating patterns against the onslaught of bad advice to skip meals, cut out food groups and obsess over every calorie, with all the negative health consequences that that creates?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she and the APPG do on body image issues. It is important that the link between dieting and eating disorders is looked at closely. She rightly mentions that 95% of diets fail. As a Government, we believe that a diet is not just for Christmas but must be about one’s lifestyle. The best advice is common sense. It is to eat healthily all year round and take appropriate amounts of exercise.

Dieting and calorie counting can be positive as well as negative, as has just been pointed out. A positive development might be to have calorific information on alcoholic drinks as well as the unit count. Have the Government given any consideration to that?

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point and I will take it up with the appropriate Minister.

Given the beneficial effects of breastfeeding on weight loss and on the baby’s health, and that Britain has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates of any country in Europe, what work is the Minister doing with the Department of Health to encourage women to breastfeed their babies?

The issues around breastfeeding are very sensitive. We have to find the balance between raising the benefits that breastfeeding can bring and not making people who feel that they cannot breastfeed feel bad about it. The hon. Gentleman raises two important points about weight loss and what is best for babies. It also has benefits in relation to allergies. I work with the Department of Health on all these issues.

It has long been a Liberal Democrat policy to make personal, social and health education compulsory in schools. That could include body image classes. Does the Minister regret that the coalition Government have set their face against making PSHE compulsory?

The Government are reviewing PSHE. The hon. Lady is absolutely right about body confidence. The Media Smart programme for schools is voluntary, but it has had the greatest ever number of downloads of any such programme. We should also use the big society and have other groups going into schools. Not everything should rest on teachers’ shoulders.

Violence Against Disabled People

3. What assessment she has made of the effect of Government policies on efforts to tackle violence against disabled people. (88213)

The Government take seriously tackling hate crime against disabled people, and violence in particular. We are meeting the coalition commitment to improve the recording of such crimes and working with voluntary sector partners to encourage more victims to come forward.

Disabled people report an increase in the use of insults such as “scroungers” and “cheats” aimed at them, which reflects the language used by many media outlets when reporting the Government’s own welfare reform. What action will the Minister take to stop the Government adding to the perception that anyone on benefit is fleecing the system and is an acceptable target for such verbal attacks?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, because I agree that the use of such inflammatory language is not acceptable, and the Government will not use it at all. We believe strongly that it is the system that has trapped disabled people in a spiral of welfare dependency, and that is why the overhaul of the benefits system is such a priority. I hope that we can rely on her support for our work in that area.

May I ask the Minister to examine MAMA—“Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks”—which is a new system for reporting hate crime against Muslims, to see whether its use would be appropriate in relation to the reporting of hate crimes against people with disabilities as well?

I am sure that we can learn a great deal from many different areas about how to improve the recording of hate crime, which is still a work in progress. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the work that we are doing with organisations such as Radar to increase third-party reporting of hate crime, but I will certainly take up his suggestion.

I know that the Minister is deeply concerned about violence against disabled people, and she will be concerned by the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) raised about reports of increasing threats of violence against disabled people. She will be concerned also about the fear of many disabled groups that that is being fuelled by the tone of some of the Government’s remarks and their approach. There is a fear that certain elements of the Welfare Reform Bill, for example, have crossed a basic line of decency. In that light, will the Minister look again at the measures that the Lords voted on yesterday, and particularly at the Government’s proposal to deny young people who have been disabled since birth and who cannot work the chance of getting contributory employment and support allowance?

I thank the right hon. Lady for bringing up this issue. She is absolutely right that it is important that discussion of the Welfare Reform Bill is undertaken in an appropriate manner, although I think she is wrong in believing that the measures that we have put in the Bill are in any way adding to the problem. If we did not make the changes that are included in the Bill, which were voted on in the other place yesterday, where does she anticipate that we would make the substantial necessary savings?

Women in the Economy

Using the skills and qualifications of women who are currently out of work would deliver economic benefits of £15 billion to £20 billion a year for the UK. The actions that we are taking, for example through the Work programme and our support for women’s enterprise, will ensure that that untapped potential can be used to stimulate economic growth.

A year on from Lord Davies of Abersoch’s report on the number of women in boardrooms, minimal progress has been made. It seems amazing that men who can run boardrooms, businesses and banks so effectively are unable to introduce policies of fairness and equality. What further does the Minister think can be done to encourage organic change within businesses, banks and boardrooms and avoid a demeaning and degrading measure of quotas and shortlists?

I thank my hon. Friend for making the point that the best way to get change is not to impose a quota on a country but to encourage people to recognise the talents that exist within their companies. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) asks what is happening, and I am about to answer that, because it was one of the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) raised. Since 1 March last year, 27% of board appointments to FTSE 100 companies have been female, and we are now down to only 10 all-male boards in the FTSE 100. Progress is being made as a result of Lord Davies’s report, but of course we continue to monitor the matter and will continue to work with companies to encourage them to use the talent available from the women who are in those companies and can be appointed to their boards.

Does the Minister agree with the independent report published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies last week, which shows that on average, the Government’s decisions weaken the incentive for those with children to undertake paid work?

What I would say to the hon. Lady is that the Government are already taking steps to ensure that we can help women into the workplace, particularly in the Work programme and the work that we will be doing through business mentors to help women who wish to set up their own businesses. The most important thing that will in due course help to ensure that women can get into the workplace, by making work pay, is the introduction of the universal credit.

At the recent north-west women’s enterprise day in my constituency, 200 inspiring women who had started up their own businesses or were about to were given an excellent range of advice. What can be done to roll out that kind of scheme across the country, and in particular to encourage women to take the critical step from not just working in their businesses, but employing others and creating jobs?

I commend the women’s enterprise action that was taken in the north-west. That is a very good example of what can be done at local and regional level to ensure that we encourage women to use their full potential in the economy, which is to their benefit and that of the UK as a whole. Our introduction of business mentors is one thing that will help women not only to set up businesses, but to grow them in a way that will lead to them becoming employers.

Domestic Violence

5. What assessment she has made of the effect of Government policies on efforts to tackle domestic violence against women. (88215)

A progress review of the Government’s approach to tackling violence against women and girls was published on 25 November. It highlighted many of our achievements to date in relation to domestic violence, including, among many other measures: providing £3.3 million funding for multi-agency risk assessment conference co-ordinator and independent domestic violence adviser posts locally until 2015; introducing a requirement for multi-agency reviews after every domestic homicide; and piloting domestic violence protection orders in three police force areas.

I recently visited a Women’s Aid project in my constituency. Is the Minister aware of the crisis in accommodation for women fleeing violence? Such projects have been left with little choice but to advise vulnerable women on how to minimise harm if they are forced to sleep on the streets.

I understand, with all that is going on in this age of austerity—there is not enough money to fund everything—that there are issues around some of the funding for women, but the Home Secretary and I could not have been clearer about the priority that the Government place on tackling violence against women, by ring-fencing £28 million of funding and by sending a loud and clear message to local authorities that they should not look for soft targets.

Does the Minister agree that it is important to give priority for council housing to women who have suffered domestic violence? Will she work with the Housing and Local Government Minister to encourage councils to give them top priority?

I thank my hon. Friend, who raises an important point. If there is nowhere for a victim of domestic violence to go, post coming out of a refuge, we are not solving any of the problems. I am happy to do as she suggests.

Safe, secure accommodation is essential, as the Minister knows, for women fleeing domestic violence, and she must be aware of the concerns of providers of refuge accommodation such as Women’s Aid, which has talked of chaos in commissioning and its anxiety about the removal of the ring fence on the Supporting People grant, which means that refuges face cuts in funding of as much as 50%. Does she share my concern that the Government’s proposal to remove the support element from housing benefit payments and transfer the money to local authorities without protecting it for housing support is another nail in the coffin of a nationally funded network of refuges for women?

I would point out to the hon. Lady that the ring fence around the Supporting People budget was removed under the Labour Government, and that that £6.5 million budget has been cut by only 1%. If local authorities are not using it appropriately, I suggests she takes the matter up with them.

What action are the coalition Government taking to help victims of domestic violence who come here on spousal visas? They desperately need help but have no money and no recourse to public funds.

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. People who come on spousal visas—they are generally but not exclusively women—are left in a very vulnerable situation when they find themselves victims of domestic violence. The previous Government began the Sojourner project, which provided some breathing space for those women. We have continued and extended that project pending a long-term solution, which we are working on with the Department for Work and Pensions—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, are you coughing at me? [Laughter.] I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead.

I have never coughed at the hon. Lady, and I was not intending to start, but I am grateful for her compassionate concern for the state of my health. If she had wanted to finish the answer, she could, but she doesn’t, so she won’t.

Business of the House

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 16 January—Opposition day [un-allotted day]. There will be a debate on individual voter registration, followed by a debate on the national health service. These debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Tuesday 17 January—General debate on the future of town centres and high streets. The subject for this debate has been nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Wednesday 18 January—Consideration in Committee of the Local Government Finance Bill (day 1).

Thursday 19 January—Motion to approve European documents relating to integrated EU infrastructures, followed by motion on public bodies—scrutiny of draft orders—followed by continuation of debate on national policy statements relating to ports.

Friday 20 January—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 23 January will include:

Monday 23 January—Opposition day [un-allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Tuesday 24 January—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the Local Government Finance Bill (day 2).

Wednesday 25 January—Motion to approve a European document relating to EU criminal policy, followed by: the Chairman of Ways and Means will name opposed private business for consideration.

Thursday 26 January—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 19 and 26 January 2012 will be:

Thursday 19 January—Debate to mark Holocaust Memorial Day 2012.

Thursday 26 January—Debate on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee report on football governance.

I thank the Leader of the House for that explanation of the packed legislative programme that he has brought to the House of Commons for the start of the new year. I notice that he has not announced the date for the Queen’s Speech, despite the fact that Paul Waugh of PoliticsHome announced it on his blog last week. We wait to hear some time in the future whether he was accurate.

We learned this week that the Committee stage of the Local Government Finance Bill is being taken on the Floor of the House—virtually the only Government business to be taken on the Floor in the next couple of weeks. The House of Commons Library has confirmed that over the past 30 years, only five local government Bills have been treated in this way: the 1984 and 1985 Bills that abolished the Greater London council; the 1987 Bill on block grants and rate limitation; the 1991 Bill on rate capping; and the 1999 Labour Bill that finally restored democratic government to London. Will the Leader of the House explain what in this local government Bill requires it to have its entire Committee stage on the Floor of the House? The Government are obviously struggling to fill the Commons calendar, so in the spirit of new year bonhomie, and wanting to help the right hon. Gentleman, may I ask him whether he could make time for a debate on the Government’s mishandling of their legislative programme?

On fat cat salaries, the Prime Minister, in his new year tour of the TV studios, announced that shareholder votes on executive pay would now be binding. However, in November he announced that his idea to address exorbitant boardroom pay was to appoint more women to boards, and in October he told us that the solution was boards asking themselves, “Is this the right thing to do?” Over the past year we have had plenty of press releases from No. 10, but FTSE 100 bosses have put their own salaries up by a staggering 49%, while average earnings have gone up by just 1.4%. To prevent the Prime Minister from touring the TV studios once a month with the latest wheeze, will the Leader of the House explain to him that if he is serious about dealing with fat cat salaries we need action, not more press releases? When will we get it?

Perhaps the Leader of the House could also have a word with the Chancellor and inquire when we can expect a response from the Treasury to Will Hutton’s report on fair pay in the public sector. In June 2010 the Chancellor announced—in yet another press release—that this was an “important review” and that it would play a “crucial role” in developing Government policy. Will the Leader of the House enlighten us as to what has happened since the report was published 10 months ago?

Given the defeat that the Government suffered last night on their shocking plans to deny benefit to cancer sufferers, will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating the tiny band of Liberal Democrats who joined Labour and the “Cross Benchers” in standing up for decency and fairness? Rather than using parliamentary time in this place to reverse the three votes that the Government lost last night, may we instead have a debate on fairness, to remind the Liberal Democrats why they claim they came into politics in the first place?

The Leader of the House will understand the concern over the safety of PIP implants. The Secretary of State for Health announced yesterday a “rapid review” of the safety of people seeking cosmetic interventions. Can the Leader of the House confirm when the review will conclude, and will he assure us that the Health Secretary will make a statement to the House when it does?

The House is growing weary of rapid reviews being announced by press release. Last November, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) promised that the Government would publish by the “end of the month” proposals to clamp down on the access that lobbyists have to the Government. Since then we have had Mr Collins of Bell Pottinger boasting of the access to those at the top of Government that he can arrange for his clients, and now Mr O’Shaughnessy, one of the Prime Minister’s top aides, has signed up to another lobbying firm. What we have not had is the promised consultation. The last time the Leader of the House was asked about this, at the beginning of December, he told the House that the Government would publish proposals “in a few weeks”. Given that the consultation is now long overdue, will the Cabinet Office Minister return to the House to explain what has gone wrong? While he is at it, will he also explain the Government’s policy on freedom of information?

Before Christmas the Information Commissioner launched his first ever probe into a Government Department, because the Education Secretary and his advisers were communicating using the Education Secretary’s wife’s e-mail account. Given that the Secretary of State announced this week—not to the House—a new policy on information technology lessons in schools, perhaps the Leader of the House could arrange for his colleague to have some IT lessons himself, so that if he wants to communicate secretly with his advisers he can set up his own e-mail account, and will not need to use his wife’s.

Finally, Mr Speaker, may I wish you and all Members a happy new year? Will the Leader of the House join me in urging all Ministers to adopt a new year’s resolution to make announcements to this House first? After all, the ministerial code requires them to do so.

I begin by echoing the hon. Lady’s good wishes to you, Mr Speaker, and to the House, for a happy new year. She began in a traditional way by asking about the Queen’s Speech. I am delighted that she is looking forward to the next one, which will be packed with legislative reform from the coalition Government, and I hope that she will warmly welcome it when it arrives. She will have to contain herself for a little longer, however. The date of the Queen’s Speech will be announced in due course in the usual way. In the meantime, I have given hon. Members some certainty about the House’s sittings: I have announced them up to October this year. By contrast, my predecessor gave the House two weeks’ notice of the Easter recess in March 2010. The House now has a degree of certainty about when we shall meet, and hon. Members can plan their work-life balance accordingly.

On Parliament’s work programme, I hope that the hon. Lady is not going to denigrate the work that the House is doing. This week we had two statements on Tuesday, on the referendum in Scotland and on High Speed 2. We had a statement yesterday on breast implants, as well as two Opposition day debates; I hope that she is not going to say that those were not worth having. Later today we shall have two important debates arranged by the Backbench Business Committee. As I have said before, this place is not a legislative factory. We are not going to make the mistake that the previous Government made of introducing too much ill-considered legislation.

The hon. Lady asked why we were having the Committee stage of the Local Government Finance Bill on the Floor of the House. I have in front of me a list of 18 non-constitutional Bills that went to a Committee of the whole House between 1997 and 2010, so let us not have any nonsense about this being unprecedented.

Let me give just one example of what the previous Government did. The Digital Economy Act 2010—50 clauses and three schedules—was rushed through the House during wash-up, without consensus, on the Floor of the House. Here we have a 10-clause Bill with three schedules and we are allowing three days for Committee. I hope the House will support what we are doing, as more than 600 experts on local government will be at hand here and able to take part in the Bill’s proceedings.

On executive pay, let me remind the Opposition that they did nothing about it for 13 years. By contrast, we consulted and we will set out in our response the action we will take to tackle irresponsible directors—something Labour did not do—and we are going to require greater transparency for directors’ pay and salary. We shall give shareholders a greater say through binding votes, and allow them to block unjustified pay-offs for failure. An announcement will be made in due course by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. I will, of course, pursue the matter of fair pay and the Government’s response with the Chancellor, and find out the date of the response for which the hon. Lady asked.

There will, of course, be an opportunity for the Government to consider in this House yesterday’s votes on the Welfare Reform Bill in the other place. I make the simple point that if we do not reverse those amendments we will need to make savings from other areas. Of course the Government will look carefully at what has happened in the other place. It is worth making the point that the amendments that were carried would not have affected the position of those in the support group—the most vulnerable—whose entitlement to benefit would remain unaffected. Nor would the Government’s proposals have affected those on means-tested benefits. It is a question of getting the balance right on the extent to which applicants draw on their own resources or on the resources of taxpayers. Let me remind the hon. Lady of what the Leader of the Opposition said in his speech of 10 January:

“in these times, with less money, spending more on one thing means finding the money from somewhere else. When someone wins, someone else loses.”

She might like to remember that when we come to debate those amendments.

On yesterday’s statements by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, he announced three reviews in connection with what went wrong with the breast implants, and I know he will want to keep the House informed as those reviews make progress.

I am surprised that the hon. Lady raised the issue of lobbying. For 13 years the Labour Government did nothing about lobbying, yet she now criticises us for taking time to come up with the paper on our proposals. The consultation document will be published shortly, and there was no breach of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments rules by Mr James O’Shaughnessy.

Finally, I have announced an Opposition day on Monday, and I wonder whether the Opposition are going to compound the confusion they caused with their last one. On Tuesday their leader talked about responsibility regarding the deficit, but just hours later the Opposition voted against our modest measures for sorting out the mess in local government finance. On the very next day they tabled two motions that, far from reducing the deficit, would have increased it. They opposed every cut and promised to spend an extra £87 billion that we do not have, and they were in denial about the mess they created when they were in government. I wonder whether the time has not now come for another relaunch by the Opposition.

Order. A large number of colleagues are seeking to catch my eye, and I am keen to accommodate them. I remind the House, however, that two important debates are to take place under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee, so it is imperative to have brief questions and characteristically brief answers from the Leader of the House. I am sure that a Member who has served for 28 years will set us a good example: I call Mr David Amess.

Paul Gilson, a local fisherman, was recently fined £400,000 for bureaucratic mistakes in relation to his catch. Will the Leader of the House allow us a debate on the issues surrounding quotas for small fishing vessels?

I understand my hon. Friend’s constituent’s concern about what happened. As my hon. Friend will understand, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on a particular case. I imagine that, as with all decisions of a court, this man will have an opportunity to appeal against what happened. As I understand it, the confiscation orders are simply designed to put anyone who has profited from an illegal catch back into the position in which he or she would otherwise have been; they are not intended to be a punishment. I hope my hon. Friend will understand the constraints on Ministers when it comes to commenting on individual cases.

Would it not be more appropriate for Ministers to give serious consideration to the amendments that were carried yesterday in the House of Lords? Perhaps we could have a statement before the normal parliamentary procedure becomes involved. Does the Leader of the House not agree that to take action against cancer, bone and stroke patients is totally unacceptable? Indeed, it is sick. I heard the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on the radio today trying to justify what has occurred, but I hope that the Cabinet will give further consideration to the matter. What has been agreed to by the House of Lords should be agreed to by the Government.

As I said to the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), the Government will give serious consideration to the votes that took place in the other place yesterday. We have asked Professor Harrington to work with Macmillan to ensure that the work-related assessments are appropriate, although it should be borne in mind that the worst cancer cases would be in support groups and would therefore not be affected. Government amendments tabled to the Bill yesterday would have protected those whose condition subsequently deteriorated. Of course we will consider the matter seriously, but as I have said, if we do not make savings by means of that part of the Bill, we may have to seek compensatory savings elsewhere.

Although it is good that there is less legislation pouring through the House of Commons, we still do not have enough time to debate issues on great occasions. For instance, before the Prime Minister went off to the last European summit, all that we had was a little debate in Westminster Hall—which, admittedly, served its purpose in a way. Can the Leader of the House confirm that before the next European summit there will be a proper debate on the Floor of the House, as happens in other Parliaments, so that the Prime Minister can gauge opinion in the Chamber about his negotiating tactics?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, but he will know that as a result of the recommendations of the Wright Committee, the time that the Government had in which to arrange such debates has been transferred to the Backbench Business Committee, as has responsibility for finding time for them, and the other debates for which the Government used to find time. It is to that Committee that my hon. Friend and others should apply, because it now has the time that the Government used to have.

Is the Leader of the House aware of a growing tendency for Departments to give insubstantial answers to parliamentary questions in order to conform with the time scale? For instance, between 27 May 2010 and 9 March 2011, 53% of answers given by the Department for Transport were non-substantive, as were 41% of those given by the Ministry of Defence and 67% of those given by the Home Office. The failure to give real answers is a continuing problem, and I hope that the Leader of the House will take it up with Departments in order to ensure that Members receive proper responses to their questions.

The hon. Lady is right: the House is entitled to prompt and informative answers from Ministers in response to written questions. I do not know whether she had an opportunity to raise the issue during the Transport questions session that has just ended, but, as Leader of the House, I do take steps to ensure that my colleagues answer questions promptly. I believe I am right in saying that we publish statistics each year on the performance of Departments, and I am always prepared to take up specific cases on behalf of Members.

The Leader of the House has just announced that the first draft orders resulting from the Public Bodies Act 2011 will be considered next week. You will recall, Mr Speaker, the exchange that we had on a point of order relating to this matter before the House rose for the Christmas recess. Is the Leader of the House now able to confirm that the Select Committees concerned will be given notice before the orders are laid on the Floor of the House, and that a full 60 days will be allowed for consideration of each order by each Select Committee? Will he also make good the promise of a draft water Bill before prorogation?

I will pass on the last question, because I am not conscious of having personally given such a commitment. As for the serious issues raised by my hon. Friend in connection with the Public Bodies Act, I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House—who, I believe, will be handling the debate next Thursday—will be able to respond to them, and to inform her of the progress that we are making in moving to a new regime for consideration of the draft orders that follow from the legislation.

The Leader of the House may not want the Chamber to be seen as a “legislative factory”, but nor should it be seen as just a political wii game in which many points are scored but nothing substantial is achieved. Once the session of keepy-uppy in which the Chamber is currently engaged has ended, will it be able to give commensurate consideration to the important issues in the Welfare Reform Bill that are being subjected to serious deliberation and amendment in the other place?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that the coalition Government have sought to be more generous than the last Government in allocating time for their programme to be dealt with on the Floor of the House. We have allowed two, and in one case three, days for the Report stages of important Bills, and we intend to maintain our good record of giving the House adequate time in which to consider legislation. That commitment also extends to important amendments that have been passed in another place.

I personally welcome the fact that, unlike their predecessor, the present Government are providing the House with adequate time in which to scrutinise legislation properly. More is not necessarily better.

No doubt my right hon. Friend, as an early riser, listens to “Farming Today”, and will therefore know that a significant number of Europe-wide farm animal welfare issues are the responsibility of Ministers in the House of Commons. Will he find Government time for a general debate on those issues in the Chamber, so that they too can be considered properly?

My hon. Friend will have heard me announce two debates on Europe-related matters on the Floor of the House arising from consideration by the European Scrutiny Committee. I will take his suggestion on board, but he may wish to ask the Backbench Business Committee for a more general debate.

At the beginning of this month the Government’s new web application system for the blue badge came on line. Ministers said that it would save money and lead to easier renewals, but it has been riddled with technical problems. Applications have been delayed or sent to the wrong place, which has caused chaos and backlogs, and councils have been unable to deal with the problem because the system is under the auspices of an IT contractor for which the Department for Transport is responsible. May we have a urgent statement from the Government on what they are doing to sort out this mess—which has been caused by their own mismanagement—so that those who need blue badges can secure them as soon as possible?

The hon. Lady may have had an opportunity to raise precisely that issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport during Transport questions earlier. [Interruption.] As she was unable to do so, however, I will raise it with my right hon. Friend, and will ensure that I obtain a response. It is in everyone’s interest for those who are entitled to blue badges to be able to gain access to them without too much hassle.

A seven-year-old boy in my constituency called Zac has a very rare cancer called neuroblastoma. As a result of help from the former Labour Health Minister Ann Keen and my local primary care trust, treatment became available in Germany and was paid for by the NHS. Recently Zac needed another life-saving operation. It was decided that the operation should be carried out by the NHS in this country, but unfortunately it was cancelled twice. In desperation, Zac’s mother took him to Germany, where he had the operation yesterday. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Health next week, telling us what went wrong in this country and whether the parents’ costs will be reimbursed?

I am sure the whole House hopes that Zac makes a good recovery from the operation that took place yesterday, and I will raise the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. As my hon. Friend knows, we have made more resources available to the NHS year on year, and responsibility for funding the costs of transport from this country to Germany would normally lie with the local primary care trust. However, I will try to establish whether my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State can play a role in ensuring that the parents can maintain suitable contact with their son.

I wish to ask the Leader of the House a question about his own remit. When Labour was in power and I was chairing the European Scrutiny Committee, he seemed to support the idea of reinstating permanent membership of the General Committees that debate EU issues sent to them by the European Scrutiny Committee. I have asked him several times—and the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) has supported my request through the Committee—for the matter to be brought before the House. He has had plenty of time to arrange it, and there is plenty of room in the timetable. When will permanent membership be reinstated, so that people can learn properly about European business in General Committees?

I commend the hon. Gentleman’s work on that issue. I would like to pursue the discussion through the usual channels, and then come back to him.

Given the increasing number of schools offering A-levels, there is an increasing anomaly with VAT, in that schools do not pay it but sixth-form colleges do. The Treasury has rejected requests from the Sixth Form Colleges Forum and others to rectify that. With VAT standing at 20%, may we have a debate to explore ways to equalise the situation and be fairer to sixth-form colleges?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. There will be an opportunity on Monday to raise this issue with the Secretary of State for Education. For now, I think the appropriate answer to my hon. Friend is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is in the process of drawing up his Budget, the date of which has been announced, and I will take her request as a bid for him to consider that matter as part of his broader Budget considerations.

May I remind the Leader of the House that in this year of the jubilee and the Olympics there are diverse regions in our country, and many people in Yorkshire and Humber and the north-east and north-west get the feeling that everything is happening either in London and the south-east or in Scotland? Is it not about time that we looked at the Cinderella regions that get less investment, less focus and, now, less leadership?

Many parts of the country are benefiting from the construction work on the Olympic stadium in London; the benefits go far wider than just the south-east. I also hope the hon. Gentleman will recognise that we have introduced measures to help the regions, such as the regional economic growth fund and concessions on national insurance to certain parts of the country, as well as measures to help those parts of the country that are worst hit by unemployment. I do not agree that the leadership in our country is entirely confined to London and the south-east as there are many parts of the country with first-class leadership, and it is up to Members of Parliament who represent the regions to do what the hon. Gentleman has done: stand up in this House and fight for the areas they represent.

Last year, all in South Staffordshire celebrated the fantastic news that Jaguar Land Rover was going to build a new engine plant in my constituency, in one of the Government’s new enterprise zones. May we have a debate on how we might promote more manufacturing in the west midlands, so we can build on that success?

I am delighted to hear of the good news in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and he reminds the House that the 24 new enterprise zones will come on stream in April. They will bring a range of benefits, including access to capital allowances, business rate relief and new superfast broadband. That is a part of our strategy of rebalancing the economy by encouraging manufacturing and thereby getting a more sustainable foundation for the growth in employment that we all want.

At a recent meeting of the Sustainable Business Forum, it became clear that UK Trade & Investment had no strategy for green economic development under the local enterprise partnerships. Indeed, UKTI was not even aware that eight of the partnerships have been designated specifically for green economic development, and its website is still showing Vestas as one of the key British flagship companies in green economic development. May we have a debate in Government time about the Government’s strategy for green economic growth in this country?

The Government are indeed committed to green economic growth, and a number of the measures taken by the Department of Energy and Climate Change have been designed precisely to ensure that. I will take up the specific issue the hon. Gentleman raises about UKTI to see if anything needs to be done there, and I shall draw his point to the attention of my ministerial colleagues at both DECC and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

May we have an urgent debate on the number of roads that are not brought up to adoptable standard by developers? This is a nationwide problem. There are roads in my constituency that have been awaiting adoption for 10 years, and Taylor Wimpey is refusing to engage with the local authority. We must debate this issue, especially if we are going to increase housing development in this country.

I suspect that many other Members have also encountered precisely that problem, where residents living in recently developed estates find that the roads are still in the ownership of the developer, that they are not up to a standard that the local authority will take over, and that the developer will not bring them up to the appropriate standard. I will contact my colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government to see if there are any steps that the Government need to take to ensure private developers honour their obligations, often under section 106, so that the residents on such estates have roads of a quality to which they are entitled.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs initially promised to publish in 2010 a report on the humaneness and effective use of snaring and then, in response to a written parliamentary question, said she would release the report by the end of last year. We have still not had the report, however, which is preventing debate on this issue not only in this place, but in the Public Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament. While the Government are in an enabling mood in respect of Scotland, please will the Leader of the House press for the report to be published?

I understand the hon. Lady’s concern. There will be an opportunity next Thursday to ask the Secretary of State about that report. I will make sure that Ministers in that Department are aware of the hon. Lady’s concern and let them know that there is a strong likelihood that they will be asked about that issue in a week’s time.

May we have a debate on abortion term limits? Does the Leader of the House believe it is right that babies in this country are still being aborted because they have cleft palates or club feet?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, but I have to be frank with him: the Government do not have plans to introduce legislation to reform the law on abortion. The issue was debated at some length in the previous Parliament. However, if he wants a debate on it, he may like to approach the Backbench Business Committee, because I appreciate that strong views are held on both sides of the argument.

As the Leader of the House is having so much trouble filling parliamentary time, why has he not been able to allow the Prime Minister to fulfil his promise of having a debate and a vote on fox hunting? Might that be because the Leader of the House is not looking very hard for that time?

I suspect that if the first thing that the coalition Government had done was have a debate on fox hunting, the hon. Gentleman would have questioned our priorities. The Government have a legislative programme which is before the House, and we believe that is the appropriate priority for the House. There are three and a half years to go in this Parliament, and in due course that section of the coalition agreement will be honoured.

At Health questions this week, I asked about reports that advertisements for personal injury lawyers had started appearing in hospital accident and emergency departments. The Minister who answered rightly said that it was not appropriate for such material to appear in NHS hospitals. However, the Compensation Act 2006, introduced by the previous Labour Government, states that hospitals are authorised to deal with companies under agreement, so may we have an urgent debate about the unwelcome consequences of that Act, which I believe has added to the compensation culture in this country?

I am disturbed to hear that such advertisements are going up in hospitals in our country. As my hon. Friend says, unauthorised marketing by claims management companies is already prohibited without the approval of the management of the facility or the building, and that ban has forced a number of claims companies to modify how they advertise their services. To answer my hon. Friend’s specific question, a Command Paper on post-legislative scrutiny of the Act he mentions has been laid in Parliament today, and there is a related written ministerial statement, which he may like to look at.