House of Commons
Thursday 23 February 2012
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before questions
The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House two messages from Her Majesty the Queen:
I have received your humble Address praying that I should appoint John Rhodes Horam to be an Electoral Commissioner in place of Baroness Browning with effect from 1 March 2012 for the period ending on 30 September 2014. I will comply with your request.
I have received your humble address praying that I should appoint Professor Sir Andrew Likierman to the office of chair of the National Audit Office. I will comply with your request.
I have a short statement to make. Members will be aware of reports of a serious incident in the House last night. I have been informed by the Serjeant at Arms that the hon. Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce) has been detained in police custody. The matter is being investigated. I take this matter very seriously, as do the House authorities. I ask that no further reference should be made to these reports in the Chamber today.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
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.
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?
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—
Shipping (Armed Guards)
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
The review of brown tourist signs is ongoing, and we expect to publish revised guidelines in the summer of 2012.
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.
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.
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?
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)
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.
What actions is the Minister taking to improve access to ports outside the south-east?
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.
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
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?
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.]
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)
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.
Transport Scheme Funding
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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)
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)
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.
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.
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—
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 27 February will be as follows:
Monday 27 February—Estimates day [4th allotted day]. There will be debates on funding for the Olympics and Paralympics, and on the Forensic Science Service.
Further details will be given in the Official Report.
[The details are as follows: Funding for the Olympics and Paralympics: Oral evidence taken before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on 14 and 21 December 2010, HC 689 I and II, 17 May 2011, HC 689-III, 15 November 2011, HC 689-IV, and 24 January 2012, HC 689-V; Forensic Science Service: 7th report from the Science and Technology Committee of Session 2010-12, HC 855; Government response—The Forensic Science Service, Cm 8215.]
Tuesday 28 February— Estimates day [5th allotted day]. There will be debates on transport and the economy and on preparations for the Rio plus 20 summit.
Further details will be given in the Official Report.
[The details are as follows: Transport and the Economy: 3rd report from the Transport Committee of Session 2010-12, HC 473; Government Response—4th special report from the Transport Committee of Session 2010-12, HC 962; Preparations for the Rio+20 summit: 8th report from the Environmental Audit committee of Session 2010-12, HC 1026; Government response—5th special report from the Environmental Audit Committee of Session 2010-12, HC 1737.]
At 10 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.
Wednesday 29 February—Second Reading of the Water Industry (Financial Assistance) Bill, followed by proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill.
Thursday 1 March—Motion relating to CPI/RPI pensions uprating, followed by a general debate on Welsh affairs. The subject for these debates has been nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
The provisional business for the week commencing 5 March will include:
Monday 5 March— Opposition day [un-allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 1, 8 and 15 March 2012 will be:
Thursday 1 March—Debate on rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy.
Thursday 8 March—Debate on the common agricultural policy after 2013.
Thursday 15 March—Debate on the effectiveness of UK Trade & Investment.
I thank the Leader of the House for his statement.
Every time that I have raised the question of the Health and Social Care Bill, the right hon. Gentleman has claimed that he supports it, and I was beginning to worry that he might actually be a true believer in it. So I was delighted to read that Downing street sources had fingered him as one of the Cabinet’s heroic three who had briefed Conservative Home about their opposition to the Bill. May I welcome him to a just cause? He joins the company of patients, doctors, nurses, midwives, royal colleges and health managers—in fact, he joins just about anyone who has anything to do with the NHS. These are all the people who were locked out of No. 10 when the Prime Minister held his self-styled “summit” on Monday, which was just another public relations stunt from a Prime Minister who thinks that that is what his job is about. A year ago, the Prime Minister said he had to listen to those in the NHS, but now he shuts the door on them if they dare to disagree with him.
Yesterday, the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), explaining all this away, said that we should ignore the views of the royal college because general practitioners had been opposed to Labour’s 1948 Bill founding the NHS. That was not the best argument for a Conservative MP to advance, because if Labour had listened to the Conservatives then, there would be no NHS today. The Conservative party was wrong then and it is wrong now, so will the Government see sense, listen to even the Leader of the House and drop the Health and Social Care Bill.
Fifteen Liberal Democrats signed early-day motion 2659, which states:
[That this House expects the Government to respect the ruling by the Information Commissioner and to publish the risk register associated with the Health and Social Care Bill reforms in advance of Report Stage in the House of Lords in order to ensure that it informs that debate.]
Yesterday, there was an almost identically worded motion on the Order Paper, but astonishingly only four Liberal Democrats joined us to vote for it—the rest abandoned their principles and shamefully scurried through the Government Lobby or sat on their hands. This week, Russian scientists announced they had grown an extinct plant from seeds frozen in the permafrost for the past 30,000 years. Liberal Democrats have clearly decided to put their principles into a similar deep freeze. Let me tell them that they are kidding themselves if they think they can store them away until the next election.
There are rumours going around that the Deputy Prime Minister, who astonishingly did not turn up to vote last night, is encouraging Liberal Democrats in the Lords to wreck the Health and Social Care Bill. So will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on coalition unity, to give Liberal Democrats a chance to make up their minds on whether they are in the Government or not? They cannot be a bit of both.
The House was grateful to the Leader of the House for announcing the forthcoming parliamentary calendar. The Government are planning for the House to rise on Tuesday 27 March, Tuesday 17 July, Tuesday 18 September and Tuesday 13 November. In total, two thirds of the days on which the House has risen since the election have been Tuesdays. Will the Leader of the House now find time for a debate on why the Government are so keen for the House to rise on Tuesdays? The Prime Minister operates a lock-out policy at No. 10 for his health critics, he cannot stand criticism, he gets rattled at the Dispatch Box and now it looks very much like he is running away from Prime Minister’s questions at every opportunity.
Today, Royal Bank of Scotland has announced that its losses doubled last year. There have been 3,500 job cuts and front-line bank staff have been offered a 1% pay rise. With ordinary families struggling, can it be acceptable that RBS is planning to pay £400 million in bonuses to top bankers—from a state-owned bank? Is that the Government’s definition of “We’re all in this together”?
I am pro-fairness, not anti-business.
The House was conveniently in recess when last week’s appalling unemployment figures came out, and when the next figures are due the Prime Minister is out of the country. The Prime Minister runs away from engaging with health critics, he cannot face talking about the economy and he has no solution to the unemployment crisis. So will the Leader of the House now find time for a debate on the economy so the Government can explain their failing economic policies?
This is a Government led by a Prime Minister who dodges Prime Minister’s questions and a Deputy Prime Minister who spends most of his time attacking the Government of which he is a member. Their disastrous economic policy has resulted in unemployment at its highest level for a generation and their health policy is opposed by just about everyone who works in or cares about the NHS. No wonder recesses cannot come fast enough for the Government.
I was waiting for the question about the business, but it did not come.
May I begin by disappointing the hon. Lady? There was no truth in the rumours to which she referred at the beginning of her remarks. I have supported the Health and Social Care Bill publicly and privately and continue to do so. Once again, she asked us to drop the Bill. Does she really want us to drop clauses 22 and 25, which put in law for the first time a duty on the NHS to tackle health inequality? Does she want that dropped? Does she want clause 116 dropped, which will prevent discrimination in favour of private health companies over the NHS the first Bill to do so? Does she want to abolish part 1, which is all about integrating health and social care? Does she want to stop local authorities dealing with public health? The Opposition want to stop all sensible reforms and to drop our extra £12.5 billion investment.
On yesterday’s debate, I am delighted that Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament listened to the argument made by Members on the Government Benches and decided, on reflection, to oppose the Labour party’s motion. I gently remind the hon. Lady that I seem to remember an early-day motion in the last Parliament that was signed by a large number of Back-Bench Labour MPs. When it was debated in the House, they miraculously had the same sort of Pauline conversion and decided to support the Government, so she should be slightly more careful about the examples that she chooses. On the cohesion of the Government, I would say that this is a more cohesive Government than the Blair-Brown Government of which she was a member.
So far as Prime Minister’s questions are concerned, I have checked the figures and can tell the hon. Lady and the House that the number of Prime Minister’s questions per sitting day has risen in this Session compared with the last Session under the previous Administration. I say to the hon. Lady that the current Prime Minister is turning up for Prime Minister’s questions more often than his predecessor. His predecessor—[Interruption.]
The previous Prime Minister was absent from Prime Minister’s questions twice as often as the current Prime Minister has been and my right hon. Friend, who relishes his performances in the House, has made proportionately more statements to the House than his predecessor and has been at the Dispatch Box for well over 30 hours in so doing.
I remind the hon. Lady that, between 2001 and 2007, bank bonuses went up from £3.1 billion to £11.5 billion at a time when the banks were engaged in irresponsible lending and buying securities that turned out to be worthless. In 2009, the Labour party signed off £1.3 billion-worth of bonuses for Royal Bank of Scotland. That compares with the figure of below £400 million that was approved today, so that was also an unfortunate subject for her to raise.
Finally, on the economy, the International Monetary Fund has forecast the UK to grow twice as fast as Germany and three times as fast as France this year. After the Budget, we will have four days of debate on the economy, which Government Members look forward to with relish.
The Minister for Europe has placed a letter in the House of Commons Library, which is addressed by the permanent representative of the UK representation to the EU to the secretary-general of the Council of the European Union, and raises the question of the legality of the treaty on stability, co-ordination and governance, which was signed on 30 January. It states that the United Kingdom
“must reserve our position on the proposed treaty and its use of the institutions”.
In the circumstances, and given that I and others have raised the fact that there are serious questions about the nature and lawfulness of that treaty, and given that the Government appear to share the concerns on that issue, will the Leader of the House agree to have a debate in Government time for at least three hours next week to discuss the nature and lawfulness of that treaty?
I understand the concern that my hon. Friend has expressed. I have just announced the business for next week and, sadly, there is not an opportunity to raise the specific issue to which he has referred. I cannot guarantee to find time in the near future for his request, but there may be other opportunities for him to raise European business on the Floor of the House, as he has done on many occasions in recent weeks. Of course, there is also the opportunity of debates in Westminster Hall or through the Backbench Business Committee in this Chamber.
Will the Leader of the House take this opportunity to announce to the House that instead of having a pre-recess Adjournment debate on 27 March, the debate will be on assisted dying? Will he also reassure the House that this is going to be an exception rather than a rule? We intend to preserve the pre-recess Adjournment debate but we thought that this issue was of such importance that we wanted to give Members and those outside time to organise for it.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. There is no need for me to make the announcement because she has just done so. It is up to the Backbench Business Committee to reconfigure the days that we have allocated to it and there is no obligation on the Committee to adhere to the pattern of days adopted by previous Governments. She has the flexibility and I understand the strength of feeling on both sides of the House regarding the motion she has mentioned. I am sure that a debate on that issue is an intelligent use of time.
Given the number of people who travel abroad for cosmetic operations, may we have a debate on the merit of taking out private insurance to cover the cost of any post-operative care, which people often hope the NHS will pick up at great expense?
I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but I am sure that she would not want to suggest that those who come back to this country, having been let down by treatment overseas, should be denied access to NHS treatment. If she is suggesting that people should insure themselves against such costs, that is a sensible and prudent suggestion, which I am sure my hon. Friends will want to take on board.
Will the Leader of the House tell us which Minister is responsible for the north-east region? Across Departments, whether we are talking about Transport, Communities and Local Government or the Department for Work and Pensions—there is a very long list—cuts in the north-east are much deeper than elsewhere. Of course, we can raise these issues individually with Ministers but when can we have a strategic overview of such issues? This has been particularly problematic since the abolition of the Regional Select Committees.
I am amazed that the hon. Lady mentions the Regional Select Committees which were, frankly, a fiasco. They were poorly attended and that is why we wound them up. There are opportunities for the House to debate regional issues such as London or the south-west in Westminster Hall; that would be an appropriate forum for her to pursue her concerns.
RBS has announced pay increases for investment bankers, big losses and no dividends for taxpayers yet again. May we have an early debate on measures to break the bank up, promote better management and get some money back for taxpayers?
The Leader of the House may be aware that I have twice raised the issue of wind farms being built in close proximity to people’s homes. In Scotland there is a rule about how close wind farms can be to homes, but the Department I have raised the matter with has refused on both occasions to think about that. If wind farms are so perfect, why are there none in the backyards of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government? As a bonus, why are there not half a dozen at Highgrove?
The hon. Gentleman is right that, as the Localism Bill went through Parliament, the Government resisted an embargo on wind farm development within a certain distance from residential units, and we have resisted it subsequently. I will raise his concerns with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Whether to approve applications for wind farms at the exciting locations the hon. Gentleman mentions is a matter for the local authorities. I am sure that they would take on board the support for them that he has just enunciated.
May we have a debate on making better use of our natural resources? Is the Leader of the House aware that later this year the country could be in the ridiculous situation of having some areas suffer drought while others are awash with water? Is it not time we had a national water grid?
My right hon. Friend will have an opportunity to raise that matter next Thursday. I remind him that in December we published the water White Paper, which sets out a more resilient approach to the water shortages he refers to. Next Wednesday we will debate a Bill that will enable investment in water infrastructure, particularly in London, in order to improve the quality of water and the reliability of supply.
With regard to the Health and Social Care Bill and future debates, is the Leader of the House aware that watching the Prime Minister trying to defend the Bill yesterday reminded some of us who were present at the time of Mrs Thatcher, as she then was, trying to defend the poll tax?
We should heed the words of the Institute of Directors, which today urged us to stop the gloom and doom about the economy. As confidence is so important to economic revival, will my right hon. Friend ask the Chancellor to make a statement on the really positive parts of our economy, such as agriculture, food and drink in Cornwall, which delivers more than 30% of local employment?
My hon. Friend is right to sound a note of optimism and remind us of the e-mail from the Institute of Directors, which I received just before I came in, cautioning against doom and gloom, and I am delighted to hear about what is happening in her constituency. The recovery that we all want to see will be assisted by the retention of low borrowing costs, and our whole economic strategy is engaged in ensuring that that remains the case to underpin investment and take the pressure off household incomes.
Has the right hon. Gentleman seen early-day motion 2742, which I and a number of other hon. Members have signed?
[That this House condemns the illegal and oppressive employment practices of Impact Security Solutions in Ormskirk and in particular its abrupt dismissal of a constituent of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton in violation of his contract of employment and despite his alleged conduct having been committed by other employees, against whom no action has been taken; condemns, further, the foul language used against this employee by a member of management, together with the bullying and pressure inflicted on him; calls on Impact Security Solutions immediately to reinstate this employee with full recompense for lost pay; further calls on the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to investigate this company’s employment practices; and further calls on the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to investigate the validity of the business practices of this company.]
The motion relates to the employment practices of Impact Security Solutions, a disgraceful firm that has been victimising a constituent of mine oppressively and illegally. Will the right hon. Gentleman condemn this disgraceful company and ask the Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions and for Business, Innovation and Skills to investigate its activities to see whether it is behaving lawfully in any way?
I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. I do not know whether this relates to the point of order he raised earlier in the week, which I was in my place to hear. Of course, I condemn harassment, victimisation and illegal activity wherever it occurs and will certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my ministerial colleagues and invite them to reply.
May we have a debate on the Olympics, not on sporting matters, but on other matters related to the games, including the souvenirs, a large number of which are being sourced overseas? There are reports that the opening and closing ceremonies will exclude the traditional folk culture of the nations and the regions. Also, the railway line between Stratford and Liverpool Street station is in a state of dereliction, as I have informed the Leader of the House before, and is a negative showcase. An overarching approach is needed. Otherwise, this will be very negative for visitors to this country.
If I understand my hon. Friend’s bid, he wants the opening ceremony of the Olympics to make specific reference to Colchester and its culture. Was that the thrust of his remarks? In which case, I say to him that we could all make similar bids on behalf of our constituencies. I am sure that the opening ceremony will do justice to the whole country, including Colchester, and that when he sees it he will be delighted.
My constituent, Jacqueline Smith, a mother of three, received a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions informing her that she must increase her weekly work hours from 16 to 24 or lose her working tax credits, which are worth £3,000 a year. Her husband is unable to work because he is the full-time carer of his elderly mother. Alongside her husband’s carer’s allowance of £55 a week, Jacqueline’s wages and working tax credits are what her family depend on. Her employer is simply unable to offer the increase in hours that she needs to keep her working tax credits. May we please have an urgent debate on why the Government are punishing families such as Jacqueline’s, who are doing the decent thing and looking after elderly relatives, by cutting their tax credits?
I understand that the hon. Lady raised a comparable issue a few moments ago in Women and Equalities questions. I hope that she will have an opportunity to raise this matter at the next Work and Pensions questions. It is our intention to help the Jacqueline Smiths of this world. For example, we have made changes to eligibility for child care for working women and introduced a number of other measures to help people in that position. However, I will make some inquiries about that specific case and ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to write to the hon. Lady.
May I point out to my right hon. Friend that the debate requested by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) on the non-EU treaty is urgent for next week, because the final text of the treaty will be agreed at an EU summit at the end of next week? Unless we have the debate next week, its purpose will be rather less.
I am sorry to give my hon. Friend a disappointing response, but it is the same one I gave my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash). The Government are not planning to have a debate on the matter next week, and I would be misleading him if I said that I will plan the timetable in order to facilitate it.
I am sure that the Leader of the House agrees that, with leadership, determination and imagination, we could do something about the scandal of youth unemployment. I mean young people at 16, post-16, post-18 and the scandal of young unemployed graduates. Surely the House, on a cross-party basis, could do something in a debate that could lead to action on this national scandal.
I agree that the qualities to which the hon. Gentleman refers can make an impact. We have actually had debates on youth unemployment, and I pay credit to the Opposition for choosing them for some of their Supply day debates. He will know that the Work programme is helping over 3 million people. We recently introduced the youth contract, wage incentives for 160,000 jobs, and 250,000 extra work experience places to help those aged between 18 and 21. All those measures are offering better value than the future jobs fund. I would welcome further opportunities to debate these issues, perhaps in the context of the Budget.
I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, will be aware of the Government’s efforts to promote exports, and no industry is better at doing that than the music industry. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Adele on winning her Grammy awards and call for an urgent debate on how music contributes to our great export growth?
I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Adele on her many achievements and share her disappointment that Adele’s speech was cut short by those she called “the suits”. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the music industry is an important export industry and that we should do what we can to encourage it. I will take her intervention as a bid for appropriate assistance from the Chancellor of the Exchequer as he prepares his Budget.
Members keep commenting on the fact that the hon. Lady was there, but in fairness it ought to be pointed out that she is a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, if memory serves, so it is not a particularly staggering revelation that the House has just been given.
At Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, in response to a question from the hon. Member for Dundee West (Jim McGovern) about the Royal Marine Reserve headquarters in Dundee, the Prime Minister said that
“there is no intention to cut the number of Royal Marine reservists in Scotland. Indeed…we actually need more people to join the reserves.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2012; Vol. 540, c. 873.]
The facts rather contradict that, however. The Greenock and Inverness detachments have been shut, and we understand that the intention is to cull the number of regulars who serve in the Royal Marine Reserve. Given the difficulty and the confusion, may we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence specifically on the Royal Marine and Royal Naval Reserves so that the Government’s intentions are clear?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern and was in the Chamber during that exchange. I shall certainly ask the Secretary of State for Defence to reply to him and to respond to the issue that he has raised, although I start from the premise that what the Prime Minister says is always right.
Given the view of the late and much lamented journalist, Marie Colvin, that the outrageous atrocities being committed by the Assad regime on its own people were among the worst that she had seen in her long and distinguished career as a war correspondent, allied to the position of the US, which is now considering additional measures, may we have a debate about Syria?
I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Marie Colvin, who went to the most dangerous places in the world to expose the most appalling regimes and to describe what was happening to ordinary people, who were the victims of those regimes. It is a tragic loss, and we send our sympathy to her relatives and friends.
My hon. Friend may have listened to the exchange with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on the “Today” programme, when he outlined the approach that we are taking to Syria, the conference that is taking place in Tunis tomorrow, the stepping-up of emergency aid for Homs and other cities, the shaping of new sanctions to cut off funding to the military regime and the supporting of the Syrian opposition to set out a credible and inclusive alternative political vision. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to keep the House informed as to progress.
I was really heartened three weeks ago when the Leader of the House told me that he wanted to support an international women’s day debate, but I am really disappointed today that he has not announced one. Please may we have a debate on 8 March, on international women’s day, about women?
I am sorry that the brief moment of optimism in the hon. Lady’s life has been shattered, but the responsibility for choosing the subjects on the dates that are allocated to the Backbench Business Committee rests with the Backbench Business Committee. It is no longer a matter for the Government to find time for a debate on international women’s day; that responsibility has been transferred to the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) and the Committee. It has total responsibility for choosing the subjects for debate on international women’s day.
In little more than two months, voters in some of our major cities will have the opportunity to vote in referendums on whether to have an elected mayor. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate so that those of us who favour such a move can argue the case, and the case for extending the role of elected mayors and allowing electors elsewhere to trigger referendums?
I cannot offer an opportunity for an immediate debate, but there has been an opportunity, as the relevant orders have passed through the House, for hon. Members to participate if not in the Chamber, then elsewhere. I am a keen supporter of elected mayors. I hope that where referendums take place people will support them, and I am heartened by the support of my hon. Friend for this innovation.
Given that William Hill is now offering odds of 5:4 on the first child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge being born in 2012, what progress has been made in respect of a royal succession Bill? As the Leader of the House knows, I offered my ten-minute rule Bill as the vehicle for the change agreed by the Prime Minister at the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference. When will such legislation come before the House?
I confess to the right hon. Gentleman that I have not been following the odds quite as closely as he has. He did introduce a private Member’s Bill, and I understand that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), at the Department with responsibility for political and constitutional reform, wrote to him explaining why, sadly, we could not use his Bill as a vehicle for the royal succession Bill. But it is on the Government’s agenda, and we will make announcements in due course.
I do not know whether the Leader of the House is having a bad day or what, but he suggested that the Backbench Business Committee has not awarded 8 March to a debate about international women’s day. The problem is that the Committee has been given no further days for such awards, so to suggest that we have not awarded a debate to a day that we have not been given is slightly misleading—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Not misleading in any way whatsoever, just difficult to understand.
The Government have undertaken to allocate roughly one day per week to the Backbench Business Committee. If we look at the allocations since the first debate that the Committee arranged, we find that we have allocated 0.97 days per week, so it is not the case that the Government are not honouring their obligation to the Committee, and we hope to go on offering days to it for the remainder of the Session. It is up to the Committee then to decide what to do with the days that are allocated.
My constituent Mike Allen has devised and successfully sold his patented portable snow and ice-clearing system, a de-icing unit called Thaw-Tec, to Network Rail, Eurotunnel and Asda, but Network Rail is now trying to copy his design. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister are aware of that, but may we have a debate on the Floor of the House about the importance of patented designs to small and medium-sized enterprises, and their protection? [Interruption.]
My hon. Friends behind me say that what is needed is a good lawyer, and a number of them may be offering their services. I say seriously to the hon. Gentleman, however, that of course I will pursue the dialogue that he has mentioned with my ministerial colleagues, but it might be the subject for an Adjournment debate or a debate in Westminster Hall.
May we have a debate about the practice of directory services companies that divert people from the numbers that they have requested, as I found out when I dialled 118 118 the other day to ask for the excellent Heads of the Valleys driver training school in Gilwern, where I passed my HGV test 20 years ago, and was told to ring the AA instead?
There are some questions that I am asked at business questions to which a response is almost impossible. I am sorry to hear of my hon. Friend’s experience, and I will contact whichever Minister has responsibility, possibly somebody at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and ask them to write to him rather than to ring him up.
May we have an early debate about the health of the high street? The Leader of the House will know that yesterday Peacocks announced the closure of 244 stores, including the one in Flint in my constituency. That will lead not only to 3,100 job losses, but to a big hole in the high street. We need to reflect on how we can promote the health of the high street.