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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 540: debated on Thursday 23 February 2012


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What recent assessment she has made of aviation capacity in the south-east; and if she will make a statement. (95946)

The Department for Transport’s latest estimates of airport capacity are included in “UK Aviation Forecasts 2011”. These assume that no new runways are built in the UK but, where there is no explicit planning prohibition, airports develop as necessary to utilise their current potential runway capacity. Details of the capacity assumptions used are in table 2.6 of the published report, which is available on the Department’s website.

In November the Chancellor published his national infrastructure plan, committing the Government to exploring

“all the options for maintaining the UK’s aviation hub status, with the exception of a third runway at Heathrow.”

Just a month later, the Minister of State, who has responsibility for aviation, said that the Government would refuse permission for additional runways at Gatwick and Stansted, and in January the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), described suggestions of a new airport in the London area as “irresponsible environmentally” and made clear his opposition. Was the Chancellor wrong to say that all the options other than the third runway will be considered? Which alternative solutions are Ministers genuinely willing to consider?

To be clear, the commitment in the coalition agreement still stands, but we recognise that maintaining a competitive international hub airport is incredibly important, which is why we have agreed to publish a call for evidence alongside the new aviation policy framework in March.

May I urge the Secretary of State in considering aircraft capacity to look first at the possibilities of expanding existing airports east of London, rather than building new ones, and at how the lower Thames crossing could assist with infrastructure?

My hon. Friend is right to point out two things. First, we need to look at our transport system as a whole. It is about getting around, and that can involve not only aviation but railways and roads. Secondly, the matter of the hub airport is incredibly important. It is also a medium to long-term issue. We received more than 600 responses to our original scoping document. We are considering those and will take some of them forward in the strategy document we will publish in March.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, with Heathrow supporting more than 100,000 jobs in west London, the future of Heathrow and its competitiveness needs to remain at the heart of our national aviation strategy?

The hon. Lady is right that Heathrow has an incredibly important role to play in aviation, not just for London and its economy but nationally, and of course for the many regional airports with connecting flights that hub into Heathrow and have passengers who then travel onwards. We are absolutely aware of that, and it is one reason we need to take a responsible approach to looking at the future of aviation in our country.

If we are not going to build an additional runway at Heathrow but want London to maintain its international competitiveness, is there really no alternative but to build a new airport in the estuary east of London? Should not the Government show to that issue the same commitment that they are showing to high-speed rail?

My hon. Friend, for whom I have a huge amount of respect, demonstrates why we need to have a measured approach to the issue, and he is right to point out that we now have cross-party consensus on the fact that there should not be a third runway at Heathrow. The final point that I make to him, however, is that we need to realise that capacity and connectivity are not exactly one and the same thing. We absolutely need to ensure that we have the connectivity for our aviation sector not only nationally but, in particular, at the hub airport, and in many respects that is absolutely the most important thing—to make sure that we stay competitive.

Given that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) has exposed the Government’s dilemma on aviation capacity, in that they say they want to explore all options but, as she reports, have ruled out all options, and given also the report in today’s Financial Times that Ken Livingstone is against Boris island in order, as he says, to protect east London’s environment and to defend the west London economy, why has the Secretary of State not responded to the offer of my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) of cross-party talks to explore the possibility of a national aviation plan?

Rail Fares

2. How her Department will calculate the level of rail fares for services between Scotland and England in January (a) 2013 and (b) 2014. (95947)

The cap on regulated fares is calculated according to the formulae in franchise agreements. The current planning assumption, as set out in the 2010 spending review, is that the cap will increase by RPI plus 3% in January 2013 and in January 2014 for operators franchised by the Department for Transport. However, no final decision has been made.

It is good to see the Minister in her place today, and I am sure that the whole House wishes her a speedy and full recovery from her accident.

As well as the RPI plus 3% increase proposed by the Government here, the Scottish Government are proposing RPI plus 3% increases in rail fares in Scotland and the potential removal of sleeper services and of cross-border services north of Edinburgh, so my constituents and many people in Scotland face a double whammy. How can we expect people to continue to move on to the railways when we are putting such obstacles in their way?

The hon. Gentleman raises very important issues, and the concerns that he expresses are one reason the Chancellor secured the funding to ensure that the 2012 increase would be just RPI plus 1%. We recognise, however, that it is vital that we get the cost of running the railways down, because that is the long-term, sustainable way to respond to passengers’ concerns about the level of fares.

I, too, welcome the right hon. Lady back to her place.

Last month The Daily Telegraph was briefed that future fare rises are “not set in stone” and are “under constant review.” Will the Minister of State therefore tell the House whether she still intends to allow train companies to hike fares by as much as 8% above inflation in 2013 and in 2014, and has she taken any decisions about fare rises in the years after that?

As I said in my opening answer on this question, the current assumption is based on RPI plus 3%, but we will keep those matters under review, as we did in relation to 2012, to see whether further funding can be secured to opt for a different approach. In reality, however, it is crucial that we get the costs of running the railways down—costs that spiralled during the Labour Government. They failed to respond to the problem and were severely criticised by their own Labour-dominated Select Committee at the time for not doing anything serious about rail fares. We are going to get the cost of the railways down so that we get better value for money for passengers.

The Minister seems to be saying one thing to the train companies and another to passengers. I have with me the invitation to tender for the west coast main line, which promises bidders that they can increase fares by up to 8% above inflation next year, by up to 8% above inflation the year after that and, then, by up to 6% above inflation every year for the rest of the entire 15-year franchise. So it seems that the decision has been taken. When is the Minister of State going to stand up to those vested interests and stand up for passengers?

The shadow Secretary of State has resorted to the same old stuff about the fares basket flexibility that the leader of her party got completely wrong at Prime Minister’s questions. It was a fares basket flexibility that Labour suspended for one year and we introduced, and the Labour Administration in Cardiff are still using that flexibility. It is entirely disingenuous for the shadow Secretary of State to get up and talk about—

Order. We do not use the word “disingenuous” in the Chamber, and I am sure that the Minister of State is happy to withdraw it. We are extremely grateful for her answer.

Shipping (Armed Guards)

3. Whether she plans to consult on draft legislative proposals on use and regulation of armed guards on ships. (95948)

The Government are not currently putting forward any legislative proposals for the use and regulation of armed guards. The possession of firearms is already regulated by the Home Office under the Firearms Act 1968. We have issued UK-flagged shipping guidance, and we intend to bring forward further work in the near future.

I thank the Minister for his answer and welcome the announcement that armed guards can now be used in the protection of UK ships in areas affected by piracy. He will be aware, however, that the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee has described the Government’s interim guidance as “thin on detail”, while ship owners have called for regulation to clarify the use of armed guards. When do the Government intend to bring forward clearer guidance or regulation on this issue?

The protection of the UK fishing fleet is a very important issue, especially given the piracy situation off Somalia. This is not a new development; armed guards were on British flagged ships long before we came into power. The issue was ignored, wrongly, by the previous Administration. We therefore made a conscious decision on whether we ignored it, wrongly, under UK law, or did something about it. Guidance was introduced, although I agree with the Select Committee that it needs to be firmed up. At the moment, we do not need legislation, but if we do, we will bring it forward.

That is very difficult to do because no British-flagged ship under armed guard has been taken by pirates, who have attempted to do so but have not succeeded. That is an indication of why it was right and proper for us to move forward on this. There has recently been a decline in attacks. That is partly to do with the excellent work that NATO and our European colleagues are doing with the Royal Navy, partly to do with armed guards, and partly to do with best practice; a lot of it is to do with the weather, as well. We keep a very close eye on this, because it has a significant effect on our shipping as well as on the shipping of other European Union member states.

Brown Tourist Signs

I thank the roads Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), for all that he has done to sort out the brown sign debacle at Masham in my constituency. However, given that we have had quotes of £184,000 for two brown signs, will the Secretary of State look carefully as part of the review at why the signs cost so much?

We have challenged the costs that were originally proposed, and they will be substantially lower. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to the roads Minister for working so closely with the Highways Agency to reach what should be a good solution to improving the brown signs for Masham, and I hope that we will be able to reach a successful conclusion shortly.

Will there be some consistency on brown signs around the country? During the previous Government’s period in office, the Highways Agency removed all three signs welcoming people to Britain’s oldest recorded town. Can the Secretary of State assure us that we will have our signs reinstated?

I think that the roads Minister will be meeting the hon. Gentleman in the next few weeks. We are committed to seeing how we can make better use of brown signs not only to guide motorists to their destinations but to make sure that we in the Department of Transport play our role in helping the tourist industry to do well in this country.

Trailers (Height)

I recognise that this is an important issue for UK hauliers, and I am pressing for a solution that protects our national interests. I raised my concerns with European Commission officials at the second Asia-Europe meeting of Transport Ministers in China in October. We are engaging fully with the European Commission on this issue, which concerns our hauliers greatly.

The haulage industry is important to the country as a whole and to my constituency in particular. It has worked hard to maximise efficiency by making use of all the space in larger, streamlined containers. Lloyd Fraser Group in my constituency, which distributes Mr Kipling cakes among other things, is anxious to ensure that the negotiations allow it to remain competitive. Will the Minister give that reassurance?

I wonder whether I need to declare an interest in Mr Kipling’s cakes. We must utilise our roads in the best possible way. If lorries are under the weight limit, 4 metre-plus trailers are of significant importance. This issue has been raised by the Austrians. I do not see why it should affect British hauliers in the UK.

This is a serious question. It is not just about the height of the vehicles, but about their cabs. These vehicles are killing pedestrians and cyclists in our towns and countryside. The industry knows that cabs should be changed either on the continent or on this side of the channel. These vehicles are killing our people and the design should change.

The hon. Gentleman raises an enormously important issue. However, the question was about the height of trailers. I accept that there are other issues and I am more than happy to meet cycling representatives and the industry, as I do on a regular basis. He raises a serious issue, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the height of trailers.

Flights (Scotland)

6. What assessment she has made of the effect on services to Scotland of the bid by International Airlines Group to acquire BMI. (95953)

The Department has made no such assessment. The proposed sale is a commercial matter between BMI’s owner and the prospective purchaser. Any competition issues arising from the proposed sale will be subject to the appropriate EU and UK competition authorities.

BMI’s withdrawal of its flights from Heathrow to Glasgow last year left British Airways as the sole operator. Since then, average fares have increased by 34% and the number of flights on the route has decreased by 50%, affecting 1.8 million passengers and more than 300,000 small and medium-sized enterprises. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that Scottish businesses and the wider public are given access to a much more open, fair and competitive market?

It is difficult for me, as a Minister, to comment on the specific deal, as that is a matter for the competition authorities. It is worth bearing in mind that Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow have 60,000 such flights a year, so there is excellent connectivity as things stand. It is important that in our discussions with the European Commission on its airports package we ensure that it is aware of the importance of regional connectivity. We will look into that in our aviation framework document. Our plans for High Speed 2 will deliver a three and a half hour journey time between Scottish destinations and London, which will provide an attractive alternative to aviation.

BMI’s headquarters is at Castle Donington in my constituency. Many of my constituents are very concerned about their employment prospects at the company. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress of the proposed takeover by International Airlines Group?

My understanding is that the directorate-general for competition at the European Commission has been informed, and that the Office of Fair Trading is in contact with the parties and the Commission on the proposed sale.

That was a very feeble answer from the Minister of State. Does she realise what British Airways is doing at the moment? To give an example, a 9.15 pm flight that I was supposed to take left at 10.36, after two other flights to City airport had been cancelled. It arrived after the Heathrow Express had left and I got home at 1.15 in the morning. That is what BA is doing now. This is not a question of competition. I want the Minister to tell the EU that it is not acceptable to the people of Scotland for BA to take over the BMI franchise. It will do what it is doing now and destroy the service from Edinburgh to this city.

It is not the role of Ministers to make decisions on these deals. There are legal rules that put in place the role of independent competition authorities in deciding these questions. Of course the Government take seriously the importance of regional connectivity. That is one reason for our pressing ahead with HS2 and our Y-shaped network to Leeds and Manchester, which will deliver a three and a half hour journey time to Scotland, providing an excellent addition to current connectivity.

Freight Containers (Rail Network)

7. What plans she has to ensure the rail network serving ports can carry modern freight containers. (95954)

Our policy is to continue to develop the strategic freight network to drive UK economic growth and support the expansion of our maritime trade.

I welcome the public investment to upgrade the rail connection from Teesport to the east coast main line by the end of this year. However, there is still no suitable east-west rail crossing for modern containers anywhere between the midlands and Scotland. Will the Minister also address that problem?

The Government have a major programme of improving the capacity of our rail network to take freight, particularly the 9 feet 6 inches high cube containers that are such an important a part of international trade. That is why the railway control period up to 2014 will see about £350 million spent on upgrading the network. A crucial part of that is improving links to ports, for example between Southampton and the west coast line and on the Felixstowe-Nuneaton line. That will provide major benefits on carbon emissions, road safety and relieving congestion on our roads.

The hon. Lady will have heard of the proposals being taken forward to improve gauge clearance to Teesport, and we are working on a number of other schemes and projects to improve rail freight connectivity with our major ports. Despite the deficit and the pressing need to reduce spending, our work on the strategic freight network has continued, and we propose to continue it in future.

Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to quantify what extra capacity there will be for freight transport on the classic rail network following High Speed 2?

HS2 has done some major studies on that. I do not have the numbers in front of me, but it is clear that one of the major benefits of HS2 will be to free up paths on the existing north-south network for freight, and indeed for other passenger services, relieving the current congestion problems.

Local Bus Services

8. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of changes in funding for local bus services on staying-on rates in education for 16 and 17-year-olds. (95955)

I have made no specific assessment. It is for local decision makers to assess the impact of their decisions, consulting with their communities. Local authorities are required to include arrangements for transport provision and charges for 16 to 19-year-olds in full-time education in local transport policies. The Department for Education is also providing a £180 million bursary fund to support 16 to 19-year-olds who are experiencing real financial barriers to participating in education.

Abby Hilton, a young constituent of mine, came to me last week and told of me her concern that her younger sister cannot follow in her footsteps to Winstanley college due to the rise in bus fares and the loss of education maintenance allowance. What assessment has been done of the cumulative impact of those two policies?

I have been in regular contact with my colleagues at the Department for Education and the Confederation of Passenger Transport for some months now. Local members of the Youth Parliament in East Sussex have been to make a presentation to the Bus Partnership Forum, which I chair, and I have indicated to the CPT the need to work with the Department to address the issue.

Does the Minister agree that forward-thinking principals of further education colleges are using their bursaries to think of innovative community transport-based solutions, to ensure that young people who find that their bus service has disappeared can still get to college safely, securely and cheaply and continue their education?

I agree with my hon. Friend. There is certainly a role for community transport, which is why we have provided an extra £20 million over the past few months for investment in it. We have also encouraged the bus companies themselves to recognise that there is a potential future market in the age group in question.

Earlier this month, Barnardo’s revealed research showing the hardship experienced by young people trying to stay on in education. Its chief executive, Anne Marie Carrie, said that it was

“an absolute disgrace that some students are now being forced to skip meals in order to afford the bus to college.”

Bus companies tell us that, as a result of the Minister’s cuts to the bus service operators grant, they cannot afford to offer a concessionary fare scheme for those students. Will he now review the decision to cut BSOG, to provide affordable transport for those young people?

It is fair to say that the previous Government’s research showed that only one in 10 young people receiving EMA said that it was the deciding factor—

I do not know that it is rubbish; it is Labour’s research that I am referring to.

On the issue of moving forward on concessionary fares, I do not know whether the Labour party is pledging a new spending commitment, but its own research shows that £740 million would be required for the concession that it is advocating—a few days after the shadow Secretary of State announced that she would have a more responsible attitude to finance. [Interruption.]

Order. Before I call Dr Huppert, I say to the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) that it is not very good form to heckle, but to heckle when sitting in the Chamber fiddling with a BlackBerry is just rank discourteous. It is so blindingly obvious.

Liberal Democrat councillors on Cambridgeshire county council have proposed a fully funded scheme that would provide free public transport for 16 to 19-year-olds who are seeking education, employment or training. Would the Minister support such a scheme and encourage Cambridgeshire and other councils to look carefully at such ideas?

I certainly would support such a scheme and I welcome that initiative. The reality is that some councils provide support for young people to get to education better than other councils provide it. The matter is largely one for local authorities. Good practice is out there and should be replicated wherever possible.

Railway Companies (Executive Pay)

9. What steps she plans to take to limit the bonuses and overall remuneration of executive directors of privately owned but publicly subsidised railway companies. (95957)

Bonuses at shareholder-owned private sector companies are a matter for their remuneration committees and shareholders. I very much welcome the decision by the Network Rail’s executive directors to forgo this year’s annual bonuses.

I ask the Secretary of State to think further on that. Of the six private companies that receive enormous subsidies from the taxpayer for running rail franchises, only one publishes information on the remuneration of its directors—the highest paid director receives £344,000 a year. Will she consider publishing, in an anonymised form if necessary, the salaries of all directors and staff of companies that receive money from the taxpayer when those salaries are higher, say, than her own?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting suggestion. The Government are looking across the board at how we can introduce corporate governance rules that lead to a more responsible approach by companies, and that give shareholders the ability to hold their executive to account more effectively. Transparency is a key part of the Government’s agenda too, so I shall reflect on what he says.

I encourage the Secretary of State to come to visit the new Network Rail headquarters in Milton Keynes, not because I want her to interfere in remuneration—that is best left to the company—but so that she can celebrate the 1,000 new jobs that have been created there.

I would be delighted to visit Milton Keynes. Network Rail is doing a huge amount of work on skills and apprenticeships. We should reflect on that and celebrate it.

Transport Scheme Funding

10. Which transport schemes will be funded by both her Department and the regional growth fund. (95958)

One transport project secured funding from both the Department and the regional growth fund—the low emission transport and sustainable manufacturing north-east bid from Gateshead college, which was successful in round 2 of the regional growth fund. The project was awarded £6.3 million as part of a £45.6 million package that includes £3 million from the Government’s “Plugged-in Places” programme. Both funding streams support the development of high-quality transport technology for low-emission vehicles.

The Labour Welsh Government are funding the building of a relief road to Wrexham industrial estate to facilitate growth and to help create jobs. Unfortunately, the Government on the Cheshire side of the border are blocking good access. The project, which is extremely important, could help to facilitate growth, should the Government believe in that. Can the regional growth fund help?

The regional growth fund has been very well received and is producing jobs in areas of high unemployment and from where the public sector is withdrawing to some extent. The fund is important and it has been successful. My Department is investing heavily in infrastructure, but I will look into the specific matter to which the hon. Gentleman refers. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), will reply to the hon. Gentleman.

Does the Minister agree that local government, too, has a responsibility to promote transport projects, particularly those that will help to promote economic growth?

I entirely agree. We inherited a substantial pipeline of schemes from the previous Government. I am happy to say that as a consequence of this Government’s decision to invest in transport infrastructure and recognise the value of that to employment, we have given substantial sums of money to local government to progress a large number of major local schemes.


11. How much of the local sustainable transport fund and the funding for the growth strategy for cycling and walking will be spent on cycle safety in the next financial year. (95959)

During 2012-13, £11 million will be spent on Bikeability and £8 million will be spent through the growth strategy on off-road infrastructure for cyclists. Funding to local authorities for cycling through successful local sustainable transport fund projects is at least £15 million in the forthcoming year. Approximately 40% of the measures funded relate to infrastructure or training, both of which will help cycle safety.

With the recent deaths of several cyclists in south Lakeland, especially along the A590 and A591, which are managed by the Highways Agency, what can the Government do to improve safety for cyclists in rural areas and especially on those roads?

I am obviously conscious that any death involving a cyclist on the roads is one too many. It is fair to put these matters in context, however. The number of cyclists killed on the roads has declined by 40%, or thereabouts, over the past 15 years. My hon. Friend is right, though, to raise the particular issue of the A590 and the A591, which is a county road. I have asked the Highways Agency and Cumbria county council to work together on this matter and to let me know what steps they intend to take to improve cycle safety there.

Drink-drive Rehabilitation Scheme

12. What assessment she has made of the likely effect of proposed changes to the drink-drive rehabilitation scheme. (95960)

The consultation document, “New Approval Arrangements for Drink-Drive Rehabilitation Courses”, published in November 2011, contained an initial impact assessment outlining the costs and benefits of the proposals.

Does the Minister accept that there is real concern among those interested in reducing reoffending, including the Justices’ Clerks’ Society, which provides legal advice to magistrates, that introducing multiple providers in an area will lead to a price-driven race to the bottom, with a consequent impact on reoffending rates? Would not a better solution be to have competitive tendering for a single provider in an area to ensure quality and effectiveness of the services?

This matter has been raised with me privately in the past couple of days by several hon. Members in exactly the way the hon. Gentleman asked his question. I will be looking at the matter. The principle of drink-drive rehabilitation schemes is important. Evidence shows that those who take the schemes are more than two and a half times less likely to reoffend—or at least to be caught reoffending; we do not actually know whether they are reoffending, of course. However, we will consider his point.

Topical Questions

It has been a busy time, and over the last period we have taken important steps to improve the experience of passengers and motorists, through measures to improve customer service in garages while keeping the annual MOT test; tackling with the industry the unacceptable hikes that people face in the cost of insuring their car; providing a fairer deal for British hauliers through a lorry road user charge; and boosting capacity on the west coast main line, with more than 100 extra carriages under the new franchise. Furthermore, through the Civil Aviation Bill, we are putting passengers at the heart of how our major airports are run and giving more protection to holidaymakers by extending the air travel organisers’ licence scheme.

How is it possible for a company to win a competitive tender to provide a bus service but to cease operating it within months, claiming that it is unviable, and causing great concern to those in villages dependent on the service and, presumably, extra expense to Dorset county council given that this service must be restored? What advice can the Secretary of State give?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that question. She will be aware that all local bus operators must have an operators’ licence, which indicates financial standing at the time that the operator was licensed by a traffic commissioner. Local transport authorities can check with the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency whether operators hold a current licence. I am not aware of any barrier to a local transport authority ensuring, through its procurement process, whether the current financial status of a bus operator is sound, but I shall ask my officials to explore the matter further with the county council.

T4. Will the Secretary of State explain why the latest proposals for a new high-speed rail service will see journey times to Liverpool increase compared with earlier plans, and will she accept that people in Liverpool will be rightly suspicious about why they are being left in the slow lane by this Tory-led Government? (95969)

I will be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss this issue because I can assure him and his constituents that people in Liverpool are absolutely not being left in the slow lane. They will benefit from the improvements in times on the west coast main line. I am happy to talk with him about phase 2 and how we can, I hope, ensure that Liverpool benefits, as one of the cities that will not be on the line but will be in the region served by it.

T2. In the light of research from the continent showing that high-speed rail has an adverse effect on the economy of towns and cities not on the networks, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of High Speed 2 on the north-east of England? (95967)

We looked closely at the wider economic impacts. In fact, looking at high-speed rail’s impact in other countries, such as France, one sees that there has been a broader regional benefit. I am determined to work not only with the cities where high-speed rail will stop but with the broader regions served to ensure that we make the most of the huge opportunity that I think high-speed rail presents.

T5. Lorries are involved in 19% of cyclist fatalities. Does the Minister support the call by The Times cycling campaign to require lorries entering city centres to have sensors and mirrors by law to reduce cycling fatalities? (95970)

This is an important piece of work that needs to be done. We are looking closely at how sensors and mirrors will work, and working with our European partners on mirrors in particular. Sensors are a big issue, and only the other day I met the family of someone who had been killed by a lorry driver turning left at a red light. The conclusion of that discussion was that sensors would not necessarily have helped in that case. In other cases, if the sensor is set off by bollards or traffic lights, and so on, drivers will ignore the beeping and not do what they should, which is to see whether there is a cyclist. However, we are looking closely at this issue, and we will work closely with everybody in this House and in the cycling fraternity to ensure that we make it as safe as possible for cyclists.

T3. The Department will soon receive a bid to the sustainable local transport fund from Wiltshire council to support services on the Wiltshire TransWilts community rail partnership. Will the Minister give the bid full consideration? Far from being the rural branch service that one might expect from current service levels, the line connects all the major economic centres of Wiltshire with Swindon, and indeed three mainline railways. (95968)

I am aware that my hon. Friend is a champion of the line, and we are certainly interested in proposals that integrate rail with other services. I cannot, of course, anticipate the assessment of the bid, but I look forward to receiving the bid, and I recognise and note his support for the scheme.

T6. I recently met the roads Minister, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), along with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), to discuss the much needed improvements on the A63 and Castle street in Hull. I wonder whether he can give the House, and me in particular, an assurance that pre-construction funding will be announced soon. (95971)

In the autumn statement we announced extra funding for road projects and for projects where we could literally press the button to allow growth to take place. In what I thought was a very amicable meeting with the hon. Gentleman and his colleague, we said that we were looking at new programmes. We are very aware of the effects of the road in question on local infrastructure, particularly the port, and as we go forward we will work with him and the local authority up there to see whether the project can go ahead.

T8. HS2 will shape the economic geography of the country for decades. Will my right hon. Friend meet colleagues and me to discuss the importance of a stop on HS2 in the north Staffordshire/south Cheshire area, which contains the 10th largest conurbation in the country? (95973)

I would be very happy to do so. My hon. Friend is quite right, on behalf of the community he represents, to want to look at how high-speed rail can benefit that community, and I am happy to have those discussions with him.

T7. First, let me thank the Secretary of State for the response from her Minister, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), to my letter about people pulling horse boxes over seven and a half tonnes, which we have found prevents people who go to gymkhanas with their children, for example, in a larger vehicle from being able to do so, because they cannot fit in a rest period. Can she give me any idea of how long it will take for the derogation that she is seeking from the EU to allow people to carry more than one or two horses to gymkhanas in the summer? (95972)

Although I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an exact timeline, I can assure him that we are working hard on this matter, and he was quite right to raise it in the first place.

T9. I am sure that Ministers all welcome The Times campaign for safer cycling. What steps does the Department think it can take to ensure that cyclists join motorists in taking responsibility for ensuring their own safety while cycling—for example, by ensuring that their bicycles have bells attached and that they are not listening to music while cycling? (95974)

It is the responsibility of everybody on the highway to ensure that they are aware of what their situation is, alert to what is going on around them—particularly if they are cyclists—and, at the same time, visible to other road users. At the same time, however, they need to be protected as well.

The Secretary of State will know that there is great interest in the city of Derby in the decision that she has to make about the procurement of eVoyager trains for Cross Country. Can she update the House on that?

I believe we are making good progress, and the right hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that I am meeting Bombardier later today.

In order to upgrade the service to half-hourly on the Fen line and the Norwich-Cambridge line, there needs to be an upgrade at the Ely North junction. Network Rail has conducted an economic study that suggests that this will have a positive benefit, and the Department for Transport wants to specify it in the next franchise. May I ask what progress has been made to move forward on this investment?

I know that my hon. Friend is a strong campaigner for improvements to the rail lines that serve her constituency. This is something that we are looking at carefully. We have asked Network Rail to do important work on deciding how we might improve the frequency of the services in the way that she wishes to see, and whether the infrastructure needed to deliver that is within the budgets that have already been allocated to Network Rail. We will also look at what we might be able to do in the next control period, as part of our high-level output specification—HLOS—statement, which we will publish in the summer.

Will the Minister update the House on the Department’s attitude the electrification of the midland main line? There is widespread concern that, because of HS2 and other pressures, the electrification will not go ahead for quite some time. It would, however, provide a huge boost to the east midlands economy and to cities such as Leicester.

Leicester and the communities around it have been running a very good campaign on this issue. The Government have made it clear that we see the progressive electrification of the rail network as an important part of our transport and environmental policy. The electrification of the midland main line has been prioritised by the industry in its initial industry plan, which will form an important part of the decisions that we have to make on what will be funded in the next railway control period. We will give further details in our HLOS statement in July.

Given the recent disappointing Christmas drink-drive statistics, is it now time to revisit the decision not to accept the North review’s recommendation to reduce the drink-drive limit?

I was not as disappointed by the Christmas drink-drive campaign as the hon. Gentleman was. Any drink-driving is wrong, and it should not happen, but we targeted specific areas—namely, those who drink excessively and younger drivers—and that campaign was successful. We will continue to push to ensure that people understand that they should not drink and drive, and that if they do they will be prosecuted.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—


1. What recent assessment she has made of the contribution of women to the economy; and if she will make a statement. (95935)

Women’s role in the economy is obviously very important. Making better use of women’s skills is good for the economy and good for women. That is why we are introducing universal credit to help to make work pay—including an extra £300 million for child care. We are also supporting women’s enterprise, encouraging greater transparency on gender equality, and working with business to ensure that more women reach the boardrooms of our leading companies.

From the Minister’s answer, one would not realise that since she has been in that role of women’s unemployment has risen by 27%. Given that the majority of retail workers are women, and that retail companies are now reducing the hours that they offer to paid workers and substituting them with unpaid workers, what conversations has she had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on protecting women in the retail sector?

First, I must tell the hon. Lady that there are tens of thousands more women in employment today than there were when her party left government in 2010. On the issue of retailers, we have an excellent work experience scheme that is giving young people very good opportunities for work experience, on a voluntary basis, which will help them to get into the workplace. I think that it is time for the hon. Lady to stop talking retailers down. A career in retailing can be an extremely good career. There are many people at the top of retailing who started their working life on the shop floor, and retailers have often led the way in providing flexible working opportunities for women.

According to the Department’s own figures, women have the lowest representation among engineering professionals, information and communication technology professionals, architects, town planners and surveyors. What is being done to tackle that issue?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely valid point. I have always had a particular bee in my bonnet about encouraging women to take up careers in engineering. We are trying to ensure that women are given proper information about such opportunities, by refocusing and recasting the careers advice that is given to young people and, indeed, to people of all ages throughout their careers. In that way, we want to open up opportunities to young people, including young women, so that they do not feel that they are simply being pushed down what one might call the traditional, stereotyped routes.

This week I was contacted about a mother who is working 22 hours in a local shop. She cannot get the extra regular hours she wants, although she has tried hard—she cannot find alternative work, but at least she has a job, is contributing to the economy and is supporting her family. Her husband has lost his job and is struggling to get a new one because he has had a stroke. In six weeks’ time the Government will take away the working tax credit from her family, and they could lose over £3,000. They will not be able to pay their mortgage; they will be better off if she gives up work; they will be better off if the family splits up. This is going to happen in April. Does the Home Secretary support this policy, which will hit thousands of working women, and what advice would she give to that mother now?

The right hon. Lady raises a very particular case, but the issue is about the welfare—[Interruption.] Perhaps Opposition Members could wait for me to finish my sentence before they try to interrupt. The right hon. Lady has raised a particular case, but the issue is about welfare reform and the particular welfare reforms that this Government are putting through. I know that the Opposition find it difficult to decide where they position themselves on welfare reform, but it is necessary for us to reform the welfare system. Crucially, what we will do—and it will be of benefit to women—is introduce the universal credit, which will make work pay. I applaud people who want to get into the workplace in order to provide for themselves and their families, so it is important to ensure that the benefit system makes work pay. That is why we are introducing universal credit and making it easier under it for people to work fewer than 16 hours and still have access to child care support.

Female Genital Mutilation

2. What steps the Government are taking to identify and safeguard girls at risk of being taken out of the UK to undergo female genital mutilation. (95936)

I thank and commend my hon. Friend for her work on this subject, and congratulate her on her effective leadership of the all-party parliamentary group on female genital mutilation. The Government’s approach to ending female genital mutilation is set out in our “Call to End Violence Against Women and Girls”. We have published guidance for all front-line professions; we are raising awareness among children; and we are supporting front-line practitioners.

I thank the Minister for her response and for her support for the all-party group. Will she urge officials, particularly those working on the UK’s borders, to play their full part in enforcing the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003?

UK border staff already play an important role in our strategy to prevent FGM. As I indicated, we have already produced the guidelines; I will undertake to make sure that the relevant staff read them.

Is not statutory personal, social, health and economic education in schools an important way of equipping our young women to know what their rights are in this area?

I believe the hon. Lady asked me about PSHE at the last parliamentary questions. PSHE exists for a number of reasons and it is under review by the Department for Education. We are raising children’s awareness of these issues and we jointly produced a film, which is being distributed.

Disability Hate Crimes

No one should fear abuse for who they are, and tackling hate crime against disabled people is an issue that this Government take very seriously. We are improving the recording of such crimes, and working with the voluntary partners to encourage more victims to come forward. We will publish the Government’s new action plan on hate crime shortly.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer, but what specific measures are the Government taking to encourage victims to come forward so that we can finally stamp out this atrocious crime?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to want to know the specifics, as under-reporting is a real concern in this area. That is why we continue to work with the police and the voluntary sector, including with organisations such as Radar, which has designed initiatives to increase the reporting of hate crime through third-party reporting organisations. I urge my hon. Friend and other hon. Members to take this opportunity to look at the guidance on hate crime that we issued yesterday to see how they can help to drive awareness of this issue in their own constituencies.

The Minister will be aware that the recent report from the Work and Pensions Select Committee on the transition from disability living allowance to personal independence payment has made it clear yet again that some statements made by the Department have themselves encouraged a negative view of people with disabilities. What steps is she taking to ensure that anything coming out from the Department cannot be misinterpreted in that way?

I agree with the hon. Lady. Anything that fuels hostility or harassment is absolutely unacceptable. I believe that for too long the benefits system itself has trapped people in a life of welfare dependency, and that if we are to tackle this issue effectively, it must be subjected to a radical overhaul. Perhaps it is those who are reluctant to accept such a change in the benefits system, which has trapped 5 million people on out-of-work benefits, who are standing in the way of what is needed.

Is the Minister aware that according to the findings of research conducted by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, published in The Independent yesterday, 80% of young disabled people do not believe that the police will act on their concerns about disability hate crime? Will she undertake to talk to the Home Secretary about the matter, to ensure that police authorities and, soon, elected police and crime commissioners take the matter seriously?

My hon. Friend is right: that is an excellent piece of research. We are focusing on helping voluntary sector partners, including Radar to do more to enable disabled people to report to third sector organisations so that they can gain the access to justice that they need.


The Government are helping women to move into employment, including self-employment, through the Work programme and our business mentoring scheme. We are also improving careers advice and training, and encouraging more women to enter apprenticeships. The action that we are taking to increase flexibility in the workplace and to support child care costs will help to provide more opportunities for women.

As the Minister will know, women contribute significantly to the employment base in my constituency, but there are serious problems on the horizon, first as a result of lost local government jobs and secondly because of the hugely increasing demand for, and cost of, child care. What will the Government do about those serious problems?

The hon. Gentleman has raised some important points. Yes, it can be very difficult for women in the workplace at present, although, as we heard earlier, there are 50,000 more women in work than there were a year ago.

Child care can present a significant barrier to a return to employment. We will be spending some £300 million under the universal credit scheme to give more women who are working shorter hours access to child care, and, as already been announced, we are increasing early years education funding to some £760 million to give all three-to-four-year-olds 15 hours of education a week. Those are some practical measures that we are taking to help the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, and other women throughout the country, to return to work.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the specific difficulties of women who want to return to work after having a family? What help are we giving such women, particularly those who wish to work part time for a period?

My hon. Friend is right: it can be difficult for women to return to the workplace. Programmes such as the Work programme can make a real difference by ensuring that women, and indeed anyone who wants to return to work, have the skills that will get them jobs. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), is extending the work experience scheme so that women have a solid foundation of experience to include in their CVs, which will help them to obtain work in the long term.

The Olympic Delivery Authority has set an excellent example by securing construction jobs on the Olympics site for more than 1,000 women. What lessons will the Minister take from that in terms of using Government procurement to ensure that women have a fair chance of obtaining jobs, and better-paid jobs?

We need to ensure that women have broad horizons when it comes to obtaining jobs in, for instance, engineering and construction. Through programmes such as the Work programme, we can give people opportunities to gain experience that can make a real difference to their ability to secure jobs, because they can bring that experience into play during job interviews.

Income Tax

The Government are committed to supporting working women. We have increased the personal income tax allowance in successive Budgets, so that anyone earning below £8,105 in 2012-13 will pay no income tax whatsoever. Those changes will take 1.1 million low-income people out of tax altogether, and more than half of them will be women.

I strongly support the coalition Government policy of raising the tax threshold to help people on low and middle incomes, which, of course, particularly helps women, who are more likely to work part-time. Would not more women benefit if the Government went further and faster towards raising the threshold to £10,000, and will my right hon. Friend encourage her Treasury colleagues to make that a priority in the forthcoming Budget?

My hon. Friend is tempting me to go down a route that would be straying on to the role of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Decisions on the way in which we will achieve that coalition commitment will be taken in future Budgets.

Domestic and Family Violence

The Government’s approach to tackling domestic and family violence is set out in our strategy to end violence against women and girls and the supporting action plan. This action plan includes 88 different actions for a wide range of Government Departments and our external partners, many of which have already been delivered. A refreshed action plan will be published on 8 March 2012.

A recent report by Professor Sylvia Walby shows that Women’s Aid is daily having to turn away almost one in 10 women seeking refuge because of the substantial cuts in national budgets. Warm words achieve nothing. What is the Minister going to do about this?

The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that has been raised before. The Supporting People budget is £6.5 billion. It is the largest budget and it has been cut by only 1%, so if Women’s Aid is facing a bigger cut, local authorities need to hear loud and clear what the Home Secretary and I have said. We have ring-fenced £28 million of central funding to send out a loud and clear message to local authorities not to cut funding. Furthermore, the national helplines are still being funded by central Government.

Honour-based violence is linked to domestic violence, and I am sure the Minister is aware of a recent report stating that there were more than 2,800 incidents of honour-based violence in our country last year. What steps are we taking to deal with this horrendous practice?

The Government condemn this awful practice. We are committed to tackling honour-based violence and the action plan to end violence against women and girls sets out our approach. It includes working with partners to identify what more can be done. Next week I will be in New York to attend the commission on the status of women, where I will speak on forced marriage for Plan UK.

Aylesbury women’s centre is closing its domestic violence service; two out of six of the Imkaan refuges that provide specialist help for black and minority ethnic women are closing; Trafford Women’s Aid is losing half its council funding for the refuge; Devon domestic violence and abuse services are losing half their staff; in Northumbria, the counselling service, paid for by the police, at the sexual assault referral centre has been stopped; and our women’s safety commission has found countless examples across the country of services that protect women being disproportionately hit, putting women’s safety at risk. The Government cannot palm the blame on to local authorities. Will the Minister take her responsibility for women’s safety seriously and urgently conduct a national audit of the support available for women and girls at risk of violence, to make sure their protection is not being removed?

If we were not dealing with the greatest deficit in peacetime Britain, we may not have had to do anything. As I said to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), the Supporting People budget of £6.5 billion has been cut by only 1%. The matters the hon. Lady raises are local matters and we have made the situation perfectly clear and sent out a message to local government not to make the voluntary sector a soft target. When the hon. Lady publishes her report, I trust she will send it to all local authorities.