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Commons Chamber

Volume 543: debated on Thursday 19 April 2012

House of Commons

Thursday 19 April 2012

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Transport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Bus Fares

1. What assessment she has made of recent trends in the level of bus fares in England; and if she will make a statement. (103764)

As I set out in the recent paper “Green Light for Better Buses”, bus fares outside London fell by 4% in real terms between March 2009 and March 2011—the most recent figures available. Bus fares are set by local bus companies or in some cases by local councils, so they vary across the country.

In my constituency, bus fares have jumped by a minimum of 10p since the Government subsidy cut. A basic return journey from Saltburn to Guisborough is now £5.10 for an 8-mile journey. Will the Minister explain why on ConservativeHome this week, a Lib Dem special adviser argued for means-testing free bus passes, as well increasing the age at which a pensioner would receive that bus pass? Are we to take it that that is now Government policy?

I have no idea what the hon. Gentleman is referring to. That is not Government policy and it is not Lib Dem policy either. I am sorry that he seeks to make a political point about something as serious as bus fares. I hope he will take some comfort from the answer I gave, which was that bus fares have fallen in real terms by 4%—unlike under the previous Government, when between 1997 and 2009, bus fares increased by 24%.

Is my hon. Friend aware that in addition to the free off-peak bus pass, Milton Keynes council has introduced a discounted peak bus fare for pensioners?

I was not aware of that development, but I am interested to hear of it. It is becoming clear that under the new localism and devolution proposals advanced by the Government, different approaches are being adopted by local government. Some councils are responding sensibly and creatively to their new freedoms, while others are responding less well.

Inside London, bus fares have gone up under Boris Johnson. This is a tax on people’s jobs, as constituents like mine who have to travel long distances to work now have to face this additional daily cost. Ken Livingstone, the Labour candidate for the mayoral elections, has identified a recurring £330 million sum in Transport for London’s budget; should that not go back to those hard-working people through a reduction in their daily bus fares?

These matters are devolved in London. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not get involved in some sort of beauty contest between Boris and Ken.

Bus Services

Bus services are an important part of our plans to help create growth and cut carbon, and they provide a lifeline to essential services for many people. The recent paper, “Green Light for Better Buses” sets out a comprehensive and balanced set of measures to help local authorities play their part in providing better, greener and more innovative bus services—new funding, better regulations, revised guidance and reformed subsidy arrangements. These proposals have been carefully formulated to attract more people on to buses, to ensure better value for the taxpayer and to give local transport authorities more influence over their local bus networks.

South Staffordshire district council and Staffordshire county council are shortly to launch South Staffordshire Connect, which will provide local transport for people to get to bus routes in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is the type of initiative that we need to promote right across the country?

I do agree. That is the sort of initiative that I am pleased to see some councils adopting, given the freedom that the Government are providing. Buses are a lifeline for people who do not have access to a car. I would be delighted to help my hon. Friend launch this scheme on 13 June.

One of the biggest problems with the bus cuts is their impact on young people. This week, I received an e-mail from a young constituent saying that back in 2010, his bus fare to school was £7.50, but it has now become, in his words, “a huge £12”. Cuts to local authorities and bus grants are having a disproportionate effect on young people, so what are the Government doing to help young people by ensuring that they have access to affordable transport?

I accept that there is an issue for young people, which is why I have taken steps to ensure that young people came along to talk to the operators and local authorities at the bus forum I hold on a six-monthly basis. It is also why I discussed the matter with the Confederation of Passenger Transport, which is now taking steps to try to get a better deal for young people. I have had discussions with the confederation about that very matter.

The Minister will be aware of a recent report from scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which estimated that combustion exhausts cause 5,000 premature deaths in the UK each year. What steps is he taking to make sure that local bus provision is with more efficient buses, and that old buses are retrofitted to improve air quality standards?

I am happy to say that we have recently announced the winners of the third round of the green bus fund. Because of our prudent financial management as a Department, we were able to increase it from £20 million to £31 million. We have also provided money to retrofit buses in London to deal with the air pollution problem there. That is a demonstration of the fact that we are committed to bus travel—both to help create growth and to cut carbon.

The Minister’s new funding pots are like an attempt to use sticking plasters to cover a gaping wound—the wound inflicted by his decision to cut support for buses by half a billion pounds, which has resulted in not improved but disappearing services. “The picture is bleak.” Those are not my words, but the words of the boss of Arriva. Page after page reveals the effect of the Government’s cuts: “frequency reduced”, “evening and Sunday service withdrawn”, “cancelled owing to lack of funding”. Why does the Minister not admit that his policies have been a disaster for bus users?

I will not admit it because it is entirely untrue. In fact, those policies have been a success. Recent figures from local authorities show that the average bus mileage is relatively unchanged, which suggests that there have not been the cuts that the Opposition are so keen to talk up. The industry itself has congratulated the Government on their new bus policy, as, indeed, have local authorities. Perhaps the hon. Lady should pay more attention to what the industry and users say, which, by and large, is supportive of what the Government are doing.

According to the Department’s own figures, traffic volumes will increase by 40% by 2035. Is not the simple, plain fact of the matter that unless we ensure that more people travel on buses, the country will be gridlocked?

It is true that we must have a balanced transport policy, and part of that involves maximising the use of public transport. That is why we have invested more in rail travel than any Government since Victorian times, and why we are now investing massively in buses as well. For instance, £70 million has been invested in better bus areas, £41 million in the green bus fund, £560 million in the local sustainable transport fund, £20 million in community bus services, and £15 million in smart ticketing technology. If I go on much longer, Mr Speaker, you will tell me to curtail my remarks.

Bus Services (Competition Commission Report)

3. If she will ensure that her response to the Competition Commission's recommendations on the market for local buses is published by May 2012. (103766)

You wait ages for a question on buses, and then three come along at the same time.

The Government’s response to the recommendations from the Competition Commission’s report on the supply of local bus services in the UK—excluding Northern Ireland and London—was published on 26 March.

I must explain that I tabled my question three days before the Minister responded to the report.

I am mainly interested in rural bus services. As the Minister knows, there are bus wars on the lucrative routes between towns, and greatly reduced or no services in the more isolated rural communities where elderly and young people depend on buses. What is he doing to ensure that services are more balanced in rural constituencies such as mine—and, when he talks to the commission, will he refer it to the Plain English Campaign, which would help the average bus user to understand what is in its excellent report?

There were a lot of questions there.

I entirely accept that buses provide a lifeline for people in rural areas. That is why we intend to devolve funding for the bus service operators grant to local authorities for tendered services, which will give them more control over those services, and why we have taken steps to fund community transport with two tranches of £10 million to help rural areas. Following the commission’s recommendations, we are taking steps to deal with bus wars by ensuring that there is a code of conduct for operators, enforced by the traffic commissioner.

The commission’s report highlights various ways in which local bus markets are not working well enough throughout the United Kingdom and should be improved, but bus operators must be given enough time to prepare for the necessary changes. May I encourage my hon. Friend not to make the same mistake as the Scottish National party Government in Scotland, who have given operators just three months in which to prepare for major structural changes in funding and a 17.5% cut in the bus service operators grant? That is causing chaos in bus services in East Dunbartonshire and elsewhere.

The industry tells me that it is very concerned about what is happening in Scotland and Wales. It is concerned about the short notice given by the Scottish Government, and about the even shorter notice given by the Welsh Assembly Government. We, on the other hand, gave 18 months’ notice of changes in the bus service operators grant. Representatives of the industry said at the time that, in view of the notice given and the type of BSOG changes involved, they expected to be able to deal with those changes without affecting services markedly.

Statements made by the hon. Gentleman before he was a Minister suggest that he must have been constrained in his enthusiasm for quality contracts by his Conservative colleagues in Government. If he cannot help local authorities to pursue such contracts, will he consider introducing a new bus regulator to deal with market failure—an Ofbus?

The option for councils to pursue quality contracts remains on the statute book, although I think that any pragmatic council would choose to try to deal with bus companies in a collaborative way before reaching for the nuclear option. Some of the problems mentioned by the hon. Gentleman will be dealt with by our responses to the Competition Commission’s recommendations, which pick up some of the unsatisfactory behaviour of bus companies.

Roadworks

We are consulting on plans to make it easier for local authorities to introduce roadworks permit schemes allowing them to control and co-ordinate works better. We have made regulations to allow “pioneer” lane rental schemes, and we are increasing the charges that local authorities can impose where works overrun time limits.

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer, as roadworks can be extremely frustrating for all motorists. Will he therefore do all he can to ensure that utility companies take a co-ordinated approach and that, wherever possible, they avoid undertaking roadworks during rush-hour periods?

Utility companies have the powers to carry out roadworks, but it is very important that they work with local authorities and finish on time. We intend to increase the fine for not finishing on time to £5,000 a day for the first three days, and to £10,000 a day for every day thereafter. I fully understand my hon. Friend’s frustration about works being briefly started and then stopped before being resumed again a few days later. We need to address that.

Is not the best way to tackle congestion both at roadworks and everywhere else simply to get more people on their bikes? As a result of The Times campaign, we now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to boost cycling in Britain. There is now media support, cross-party support in this House and huge public support. Instead of just being given a list of all the measures on cycling that the Government are taking, we need fresh thinking and new ideas, and investment shifted to cycling from other areas of transport spending. We must take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to boost cycling in Britain.

Cycling is very popular in this country, and becoming even more so. The Government support The Times campaign. I have met many of those involved, and we support most of the things The Times has called for. The sort of roadworks my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) was talking about would not be affected by such cycling measures, however. We are trying to make sure that utility companies do not dig up the roads and then leave them open without having finished the works.

High Speed 2

The Government expect that phase 1 of HS2, linking London and Birmingham, will support about 40,000 jobs. That figure includes 9,000 jobs during construction, 1,500 permanent jobs in operating the railway, and opportunities for up to 30,000 jobs in the regeneration and development areas located around stations. Phase 2, connecting Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, will support a substantial number of jobs in those northern conurbations. A more detailed assessment is already under way as part of the sustainability appraisal for phase 2.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. In order to reinforce the true value of HS2, will the Government give serious consideration to the expansion of Birmingham airport into a UK hub airport? That would create jobs in the west midlands, while also offering a viable and realistic solution to airspace capacity problems.

I recognise that Birmingham airport has a crucial role to play and, as my hon. Friend will be aware, the Birmingham interchange station will enable it to be much better connected than it is at present. Birmingham airport already has planning approval for a runway extension, which should allow for the operation of airline services to more long-haul destinations. Even in the short term, there is a real opportunity for Birmingham airport to expand.

May I urge the Secretary of State to readjust her priorities? In terms of job creation—and, indeed, almost any other objective—the true priority should be to create a modern, fast and safe transport network in this country, and especially across the northern regions. Will she make that her top priority, above any prestige scheme?

I do not think there needs to be an either/or choice. We need to improve our transport system in the short and medium terms and plan for the longer term, which is what we are doing through HS2. I am committed to making sure our great northern cities are well connected. There is investment in the TransPennine Express, and there has been an announcement on the northern hub. A huge amount of investment is going in to ensure that those communities are better connected than they ever were in the past.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on her brave decision on HS2. May I remind her, however, that the west coast main line will, perhaps, reach full capacity by 2022, and therefore urge her to bring forward the start of HS2 in order to ensure an earlier completion date?

My hon. Friend is right to say that these huge infrastructure projects take time to come to fruition, and we are cracking on as fast as we can. We are also committed to making sure that we get this one right, which means taking a very structured approach to how we develop our proposals. In the meantime, I assure him that I take great care over his local services. He came to see me recently about Northampton station, and he made a compelling case.

When High Speed 2 eventually reaches Edinburgh, passengers getting off there will have a difficulty because under Network Rail’s current plans the taxi rank is to be moved outside the station. Will the Secretary of State ensure that passengers will still be able to switch to taxis with ease at Edinburgh Waverley station?

Obviously, security issues are also involved, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I have already met representatives of the Scottish Government to discuss the longer-term plans that we have for improving the journey times between Scotland and the rest of the country. There are some exciting proposals that we can bring forward. I am very much looking forward to continuing those discussions over the coming weeks and months, and I very much hope that he will be involved in those discussions and thoughts, as they develop.

Midland Main Line

6. What progress she has made on the electrification of the midland main line; and if she will make a statement. (103769)

The Government are reviewing the business case for electrification of the midland main line, and we will consider this very carefully when we make our decisions in the summer on rail investments in the next rail control period from 2014 to 2019.

I thank the Minister for her answer and for her response to Monday’s Adjournment debate, which again showed the wide support among hon. Members on both sides of the House for improvements to the midland main line. She knows that electrification alone will not deliver the improved journey times, and that the £150 million needed for the further track improvements, particularly at Market Harborough, Leicester and Derby, will make the difference, for a relatively modest investment. Does she therefore agree that we need to cut corners on the track and to do so on the budget would be a false economy?

I very much agree that Monday’s debate was excellent. Although the hour was late, the attendance was strong, with a huge number of hon. Members demonstrating their support for a project that does have a good business case; electrification will be expected to pay for itself over the appraisal period. We will consider the other upgrades that the hon. Gentleman would like to happen. We do not think that their business case is likely to be as strong, but those projects will be examined carefully, too, alongside all the other competing priorities, including projects such as the northern hub.

16. I thank the Minister for her constructive comments and response to the Adjournment debate that I led on Monday evening. Given the remarks she made just now, she is obviously aware of the cross-party support in the House for the upgrade and electrification works. I hope that she is also aware of the support outside, including from all the local enterprise partnerships and councils affected. Is there any further information that any of us campaigning for the electrification and upgrade of the midland main line could provide to her or her office before her decision is made? (103779)

My hon. Friend has been running a great campaign on this issue, alongside many other honourable colleagues. As she says, support has been demonstrated by a lot of the other stakeholders and, of course, by the Derby Telegraph, fine institution that it is. We are confident that we have the information we need, working with Network Rail, and we will be looking further at that in the run-up to these decisions. Of course we take this issue very seriously, because we are committed to electrification of the rail network; we are committed to about 800 miles of it, with about 130 miles of it on stream with TransPennine electrification, whereas the Labour Government only managed less than 10 miles of it.

May I tell the Minister that this project also has huge support from the fine institution that is the Leicester Mercury? She has referred to the strength of feeling expressed in Monday evening’s debate. This project has huge cross-party support and support in the business community, although there is concern in some quarters that, because of HS2, we will not get the money for it. Given that the population and the conurbations that this line serves are likely to expand greatly over the next few years, the sooner she can give us a firm commitment on this, the better.

I am delighted that the Leicester Mercury is also on side, too. As the Secretary of State has made clear, we believe that it is important to invest in and upgrade our current rail network, as well as prepare for the challenges of the future with HS2. But it is only because this Government have made a decision to prioritise investment in transport, despite the deficit that we inherited from our predecessors, that we are having this conversation at all and it is the only reason that electrification of the midland main line is a real possibility.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the project is tremendous value for money, because it will take pressure off the east and west coast main lines? With the prospect of a 60-minute journey from Leicester to London, there will be more demand on the line, so the cross-party support is genuine.

I agree that electrification has general benefits, many of which would materialise if electrification on the midland main line were to go ahead. It will depend on whether it is affordable and on the assessment of competing priorities, which are also supported by communities in other parts of the country. We will take all economic issues and environmental benefits into account.

Fuel Costs

I have regular meetings with ministerial colleagues on a range of economic issues. The Government are very aware of the impact that high fuel prices have on people who rely on their cars. In the Budget last year, the Chancellor cut fuel duty by 1p per litre and it is now 10p per litre lower than it would have been under the previous Government’s plans. Between 2011 and 2013, as a result of that change, the Government will put £4.5 billion back into the pockets of motorists.

I should say that I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but the problem is that the tax on fuel is not just the excise. There is also a thing called VAT which has not been taken into account in the equation. In her regular meetings with the Chancellor, will the Secretary of State suggest to him that they change the formula for the price of fuel, given that VAT plays a fairly significant part in that and the problem is now at a critical stage in my constituency? People are writing to me to say that they can no longer travel to work and that they are considering giving up their employment.

We want motoring to remain affordable and, in fact, this Government are working very hard to ensure that that remains the case. We must also ensure that we take the decisions that can get our public finances back into order. We must do that if we are to continue to be able to invest in infrastructure such as transport. One needs only to come to Transport questions to see how important the issue is to many constituencies and communities, so I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are trying to strike the right balance. We have taken action as a Government and will continue to review the situation.

Will my right hon. Friend put pressure on the big oil companies to reduce prices at the pump when the international oil price falls? Will she also do everything she can to increase competition and reduce the stranglehold of the four big oil companies on the smaller independent petrol retailers?

We want to see competition in this arena and we also want to ensure that when our Government puts through fuel duty cuts, as we did last year, they get passed on. The evidence shows that they do, but I believe that my hon. Friend is right to highlight the situation, which we should continue to monitor. I can only reiterate to him—I know that he has campaigned hard and successfully on this in the past—that we will do whatever we can to try to ensure that motoring remains affordable.

19. At a time when record petrol prices are hitting families and businesses very hard, does the Secretary of State at least agree that it would definitely help those struggling businesses and families if the Government reduced VAT on fuel to what it was before the Government increased it to 20%? (103782)

As I think the hon. Gentleman will know, it is not possible to reduce VAT on fuel without reducing it on standard rated items across the board. I hope that he will welcome the steps we have taken in his local area to make it more affordable for people to travel over the Humber bridge, but his proposition that we can reduce VAT on fuel without reducing it on everything else is wrong. If we did, we would have a huge hole in our public finances that would undermine our investment for public services.

Is the Transport Secretary aware that Ryedale has the highest fuel pump prices in the country and that filling up the car costs more than the weekly grocery bill? Will she support my campaign for a rural fuel duty discount for the specific parts of Ryedale and Hambleton that are affected by the high cost of tax on fuel?

I want to ensure that motoring is affordable for everybody. I think my hon. Friend’s question perhaps relates more to Treasury questions than to Transport questions and I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has introduced and put in place plans to pilot such a rural fuel duty discount. I am sure that she will make her case to him on whether it could, in time, be extended to her community, too.

Rail Fares

No specific assessment has been made of the effect on jobseekers by my Department. The Department for Work and Pensions has a scheme in place to assist jobseekers. Jobcentre Plus issues a discount card to eligible jobseekers to help them travel more cheaply on train services to job interviews and for vocational training. The card offers a 50% discount on a wide variety of fares including London travelcards.

A previous Conservative Secretary of State advised people to get on their bike to find work; it seems that the Department for Transport has taken that advice to heart given the rapid increases in rail fares, particularly over the next two years. Can the Minister confirm that the Government will now allow train companies to increase fares by as much as 8% above inflation over the next two years, and will she at least consider limiting the cost for those people in constituencies such as mine for whom this is very difficult?

This Government are determined to get the costs of running the railways down. We have a plan for delivering that—a plan that has been opposed by Labour Members, who have provided no ideas themselves on how we deal with this problem. We are determined to deliver better value for money for passengers. That is why we are going to get the cost of running the railways down.

Jobseekers and workers from my constituency travel regularly by train to London and elsewhere in the south-east and the wider introduction of smart ticketing should help to reduce their travel costs. Can the Minister update the House on plans to extend smart ticketing across the south-east, funding for which was announced in the Chancellor’s autumn statement?

We believe that introducing smart ticketing across more of our national network is a very important way to improve services for passengers to make ticket-buying easier and more convenient and also as a way to assist our efforts to get better value for money for passengers and in terms of reducing the costs of running the railways. That is why we have allocated funding to projects to deliver smart ticketing in the south-east and why we are funding the interaction of ITSO with Oyster in London. We are determined that the sort of benefits that people have enjoyed with Oyster in London for many years can start to be enjoyed across a wide range of services across the national network.

The Government’s plans for the future of the rail service include the statement that Ministers wish to withdraw or reduce rail subsidies. What impact would this have on rail fares?

What we want to do is get the cost of running the railways down so we take the pressure off fares and off the taxpayers’ subsidy. We need to be fair to both the groups that fund the railways and it is vital that we go forward with our programme to give better value for money and eliminate the inefficiency in the railways that arose under Labour’s term of office. In its term of office, fares rose and inefficiency increased dramatically in the railways.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Opposition said they would cap train fares this year by the retail prices index plus 1%, but where Labour is in control, in Wales, it has maintained the 5% flex element. Is this not just another case of the Opposition saying one thing but doing another?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We cannot believe a word Labour says on fares. The Leader of the Opposition stood at the Dispatch Box and said that the fares basket flexibility was an outrage, yet the Labour Administration in Cardiff are still using it. When it comes to Ken Livingstone, we cannot believe a word he says either on fares.

Does the Minister understand that many people who are out of work do not have easy access to the internet and rely on the help and advice of staff to ensure they get the cheapest fare, which is not always clearly advertised or available at ticket machines? Can the Minister confirm whether it is Ministers or train companies who are responsible for the decision to close many of these vital ticket offices?

The hon. Lady should give me an example of these closures, because I have to say they are not happening. No decisions have been made on possible changes to the way that ticket offices are regulated and we are going to be looking at this issue as part of our efforts to drive efficiency in the railways, but before any decisions are taken we will think very carefully about the impact on all rail users, including the disabled, those who are jobless and those with visual impairments. This is a very important issue to get right and part of the way we will deal with it is by expanding the smart ticketing and alternative ticket-buying opportunities we have discussed this morning.

That is an interesting answer. The Minister seems to be out of touch with what is happening in her own Department. I have here a leaked e-mail, dated just two weeks ago, from the civil servant responsible for the rail fares and ticketing review. It says that

“the Minister has already decided to approve some ticket office closures (it’s just not been announced yet…)…there will be more of those in future.”

What is worse, she then admits that Ministers plan to pin the blame for the closures on the train companies, saying,

“your way of slipping in there that the initiative comes from TOCs not us is very neat”.

Will the Minister now own up and admit that she has already given the green light to these closures, which passengers will find not “very neat” but very inconvenient and very expensive?

The shadow Secretary of State refers to the proposal from London Midland, which is being considered but on which no final decision has been made.

Local Transport Schemes (Funding)

9. What discussions her Department has had with local authorities on the devolution of funding for major local transport schemes. (103772)

My Department has held discussions with a number of local authorities before and during the consultation period on the devolution of funding for local major transport schemes. The formal consultation exercise closed on 2 April and we are now reviewing the responses. We will publish our firm proposals later in the year.

Does the Minister agree that devolving funding for major local transport schemes, such as improvements to the A47 in Norfolk, will give local communities more say on what they need, particularly by using local enterprise partnerships and bringing together businesses and local authorities with a clear understanding and focus on what is needed to achieve economic growth from infrastructure investment?

Yes, we agree that it is a good idea that local communities have more say in such matters, as my hon. Friend says. I am happy to say that my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), will shortly invite him, other local MPs and interested parties to discuss relative priorities for the A47.

Northumberland county council is again considering the reopening of the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne rail passenger link, which is essential for economic recovery and growth in south-east Northumberland. Will the Minister agree to meet me and other interested parties to discuss how we make sure that this necessity becomes a reality?

We have the biggest rail investment programme since Victorian times, but we are always looking for schemes that are sensible and help local economies. I or the Minister of State will be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues.

Topical Questions

Last month we published the rail Command Paper setting out how we will reduce the cost of running our railways so that we can end the era of above-inflation fare rises for passengers. We have also kicked off the consultations on how best to bring fares and ticketing on the railways into the 21st century and to give local communities more power over local services. We also, as we have already discussed, set out our bus strategy, including new funding for low carbon buses and smart ticketing. Users of the Humber bridge have finally begun to benefit from the lower tolls that this Government have introduced.

When my right hon. Friend announced HS2, she assured the House that a fair property and blight deal would address any blight caused by HS2 and reassure property owners. Many people in my constituency have been trying to sell their home for up to two years but are without access to a compensation scheme. What can I say to them to reassure them? Will she reconsider the prospects for a property bond, which would be the only way of ensuring that the property market works normally?

I assure my hon. Friend that I recognise the impact that plans for High Speed 2 are already having on individuals, communities and businesses along the line of route. That is why we will shortly consult on a package of measures that will help property owners. It is an important step for the Government and enables those affected or interested to respond to the consultation and help shape Government policy. She talked about a bond-based property purchase scheme. I assure her that I am committed to making sure that the package is fair.

The minutes of the Whitehall meeting between Addison Lee chairman John Griffin and the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), now the Secretary of State for Defence, on 13 October last year record that the then Transport Secretary said that

“he was interested to listen to the views of someone in the industry”

about opportunities to bid for plum Government chauffeur contracts. Given the cash for access scandal hanging over her Government, will the Secretary of State say whether she or her predecessor had any other private hire firms on the sofa pitching for business? Or do people get that chance only if they pay enough to become a premier league donor to the Tory party?

If the hon. Gentleman’s proposal is that one should not be able to speak to any organisation that gives money to one’s party, it will certainly free up a lot of time in the Labour party’s diary. Labour Members could cut out all those union meetings. The bottom line is that this Government and my predecessor and I have always approached all our meetings with absolute propriety, and that is the case on this matter, too.

T4. The Minister will be aware from her answers to my written parliamentary questions that the Labour party spent no money and completed no track work for the northern hub during its time in government. I am sure that the House welcomes the Ordsall Chord as the down payment on the northern hub, but can she assist those in the Chamber who might be frustrated by the lack of progress on how the new infrastructure projects, such as electrification, impact on the delivery of the northern hub? (103853)

It is right that the Government are making considerable progress on the northern hub, in contrast to our predecessors—not just the Ordsall Chord but north trans-Pennine electrification, improving the Hope Valley line and other improvements that will benefit Manchester, Sheffield, Bolton, Preston, Rochdale, Halifax and Bradford. I acknowledge that there is more to do, and the remaining elements of the northern hub will be carefully and seriously considered when we make our decisions on the next high-level output specification railway control period.

T2. I apologise for raising again the issue that I raised last month without getting an answer. Two years ago the Government inherited an in-principle agreement from the previous Government for the tram train pilot scheme in Sheffield. The scheme is not about rolling out multi-billion pound expansion across the country at this stage. A simple pilot could determine whether what works in other countries works here. When will we have a starting date? (103851)

We are very supportive of the concept of a tram train pilot, and I am in regular discussions with officials in the Department, Network Rail and colleagues elsewhere in Government such as the Treasury. We have to get this right because it is an important project. We have to get the specification right to ensure that it works. We inherited a position where not much work had been done, and we had to start from a very low base, but we are making progress and I hope to make a further statement shortly.

T6. Officials in the Department are considering the Greater Bristol metro rail campaign’s four-track bid for high-level operating strategy funds. Does the Minister agree that, if successful, the four-track system at Filton bank would unlock an essential local railway line for more regular local trains serving popular residential and business locations? (103855)

I am very aware of the project and I recognise its benefits, and officials at the Department for Transport are working with Network Rail and the local authorities concerned. It looks to have a fairly positive business case and we will consider this alongside all the others put forward this morning that could be funded in railway control period 5.

T3. Will the local transport Minister give us an assurance today that, despite Government Members’ statements, there will be no planned changes to the concessionary fares scheme? (103852)

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has kicked me upstairs to the House of Lords, but I will try to give him an answer. There are no planned changes to the concessionary fares regime. It is in place and will be in place for the rest of this Parliament, and we are determined to ensure that pensioners benefit entirely from the arrangement.

T7. Last summer, Network Rail closed the barrow crossing at Downham Market station and said it would consult local residents and councillors about the new crossing. A few weeks ago, I heard that a new crossing is to be built by July this year with no consultation with local councillors and residents. Will the Secretary of State look into this and secure a meeting with David Higgins for me and local councillors so that Network Rail can be held to account? (103856)

I will follow up the issues that my hon. Friend raises. I know that Network Rail has been keen to do what it can to improve level crossing safety, but I recognise the concerns that she raises today and we will have them followed up and make sure that a meeting happens.

T5. Is the Minister aware of the problems being caused to passengers travelling from Liverpool by rail to London on Saturday 10 May for the FA cup final at Wembley with no prospect of a return train until two days later? Will the Minister get the relevant authorities, Virgin, Network Rail and the Football Association, round the table and bang their heads together until common sense prevails? (103854)

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that I have already been on the case. The underlying problem that we are trying to solve is the fact that the FA cup was planned to start at 3 o’clock but will now start later at 5.15 pm. I have spoken with Sir David Higgins of Network Rail and Virgin, and with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport about the timing of the FA cup. It is difficult to change the Network Rail work, which is really important for maintenance and safety and has been planned for 18 months, but Virgin has said that it plans to put on longer trains on the Sunday to ensure that fans have a good opportunity to get back. We all recognise that when the FA cup starts at 5.15 pm and generally the last train back to Liverpool is at 8.10 pm it will always be a stretch for fans to get there.

T9. I am all for improvements in public transport, but the tram works in Broxtowe are causing widespread disruption to residents, and last weekend the Wilkinson store in Beeston closed, with no alternative premises. Does the Minister agree that when deciding routes, wherever they are in the country, it is imperative to work with local people and local businesses? (103858)

I agree with that general proposition and am aware of my hon. Friend’s concern about the extension to the Nottingham tram route. Ultimately, especially these days, when we are looking to devolve more decision making to local authorities, it is for them to decide the best way forward, and I am sorry that she feels that the local authority has not taken account of all shades of opinion.

T8. Do Ministers accept that when railway stations are left without staff, the travelling public, particularly women, feel insecure using them? Will they give an absolute guarantee that staff will not be taken out of stations when that would put the public at any kind of risk? (103857)

In deciding the rules on ticket offices, it will of course be important to consider carefully how best to deploy staff in a way that keeps passengers safe and secure, so the issues the hon. Gentleman raises will be an important part of our thinking before we decide whether any changes need to be made.

T10. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the staff of Virgin Atlantic, Gatwick Airport Ltd and the South East Coast ambulance service for their professionalism when assisting passengers following the emergency landing of flight VS27 earlier this week? (103859)

Yes, I will. I echo my hon. Friend’s thanks and praise for the staff of both companies and members of the emergency services who responded to the emergency landing at Gatwick on Monday. It is obviously too early to speculate on what exactly caused the incident, but it is now being investigated by the Department’s air accidents investigation branch.

Current electrification schemes for a better railway agreed under the previous Government will hopefully yield lessons on how to improve engineering processes and should make electrification of the midland main line and the important scheme for the Wrexham to Bidston line, which runs through my constituency, a better prospect. What early lessons has the Department learned on how to improve engineering for electrification?

Sir David Higgins has come up with some great ideas exactly along the lines the hon. Lady mentions, which could considerably reduce the cost of delivering electrification. However, it is still expensive and still has to be affordable, so we will have to look at priorities.

Has the Secretary of State now calculated the cost associated with increasing the motorway speed limit to 80 mph and the increased number of casualties expected as a result of such a measure?

We would quantify the pros and cons of any move to 80 mph as part of the consultation we would publish, and obviously an impact statement would also be needed. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we want to reach an informed conclusion on this policy area and will announce our next steps shortly.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Unemployment

The Government are supporting women to move into employment through the Work programme and into self-employment through our business mentoring scheme. Over 10,000 mentors have now registered, 40% of whom are women. We are also encouraging more women to enter apprenticeships, and the latest figures show that record numbers of women have started their training.

Does the Minister believe that when the Prime Minister addresses his hand-picked audience in Dumfries this afternoon he will say anything about the 20% increase in female unemployment in Dumfries and Galloway in the past year, and about what a waste of talent, skills and experience it is?

I am well aware of the need to help women into the workplace, which is why we are putting in place a number of programmes that do that. The Work programme will give tailored and much more individual assistance to people to get them into the workplace. The hon. Gentleman quotes the figure for those who are unemployed in his constituency. Obviously, unemployment is a matter of concern, but I gently remind him that under the previous Government unemployment among women rose by 24%.

Will the Minister explain why the Government said yesterday they were encouraged by employment figures showing that women’s unemployment is still increasing, that unemployment among women has risen at twice the rate of men’s unemployment and that, over the past year alone, women have lost a further 100,000 jobs?

The labour market is still difficult. We understand that. That is why we are providing support specifically for women. I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the fact that there are 61,000 more women in work today than in May 2010. I would have hoped that, unlike the Leader of the Opposition, who failed to do so yesterday, the hon. Gentleman welcomed the overall fall in unemployment that took place yesterday.

At the end of last year, the Minister announced the creation of the women’s business council. Will she assure the House that the council will advise the Government on how they can maximise the contribution of women to the UK?

I have indeed set up the women’s business council. I have announced that its chair will be Ruby McGregor-Smith, the chief executive of Mitie, with whom I have had very constructive discussions. She wants to bring forward a programme for delivery that will improve the pipeline for women in the business environment and increase their contribution to the economy.

My right hon. Friend has reminded the House that female unemployment rose by 24% under the previous Government. Does she agree that our Government are taking robust action through the Work programme and the youth contract to remedy the problem for both men and women?

I thank my hon. Friend for reminding us of that figure. There are usually about 400,000 job vacancies in the economy. It is important that we help women to take up those vacancies. That is why the youth contract and the Work programme are so important in delivering the support that individuals need to overcome whatever problems they have in getting into the workplace.

Unemployment among women has been rising for more than two years since the election and since the economy first started to grow again. Unemployment among women was up by 8,000 in the last quarter and 100,000 more women are unemployed than a year ago. The increase in unemployment over the past 12 months has been three times higher than the drop in inactivity. With women’s jobs still being hit hard by Government policies, does the right hon. Lady agree that in asking the House to welcome yesterday’s unemployment figures, she and the Prime Minister are again demonstrating their blind spot about what is happening to women, to women’s lives and to women’s jobs across the country?

No, the right hon. Lady is wrong. It is, of course, a concern that so many women are unemployed. That is why the Government are taking very necessary action to help women into the workplace and to set up their own businesses. As I said in response to an earlier question, 61,000 more women are now employed than in May 2010. We are providing real support to women, and that will continue through the changes that we make by introducing universal credit, the changes that will make it easier to access child care and various other proposals that we have put forward. However, our concern about women’s unemployment does not mean that we cannot welcome an overall fall in unemployment when it takes place. I would have thought that, as a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Lady would do that.

Just a quarter of the 3.2 million self-employed people in this country are women, and at the end of last year the Hertz report presented worrying evidence that banks are discriminating against female entrepreneurs, charging them higher loan rates or being less likely to offer them finance than their male counterparts. I know that the Government have made it clear that they will examine the issue further, but will the Minister update the House on the progress of that and on what they intend to do about the problem?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue. One reason we have specifically recruited business mentors to work with women who want to set up their own business is that access to finance is often much harder for them. My hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities has had some constructive discussions with Noreena Hertz, on which we will be able to report soon.

Child Care

4. What assessment she has made of the effect on women's employment of providing support for child care. (103788)

6. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on the role of child care for working mothers. (103790)

The Government fully recognise the importance of child care in helping parents—not just mothers—to move into or stay in work. Under universal credit, we will for the first time extend help with child care costs to those working under 16 hours, benefiting some 80,000 families who previously had no such support.

Since the Government cut the rate of support for child care a year ago, 44,000 fewer people have claimed support, women’s unemployment is now at its highest for 25 years and 50,000 more women are economically inactive than before the cut was made. Is it not now clear that cutting support for child care is a false economy?

We have announced that under universal credit we will support an extra 80,000 families with child care, and that we are doubling the number of two-year-olds getting free nursery care. If the right hon. Gentleman is asking us to reconsider his Government’s policy of increasing support for child care to some 80%, perhaps he will explain where he will find the £600 million that the Daycare Trust feels it would cost to implement the policy.

This month, 212,000 couples face losing their working tax credit if they cannot find more working hours. Many parents will be forced to give up work, and they may be forced to give up their child care places as a result. What will the Government do to monitor the impact of the changes to family support on the child care market, to ensure that when women can return to work they will not be left struggling to find a child care place?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it is important that there is a supply of child care places. I am sure he knows that there is a duty on local authorities to ensure sufficiency of supply, and I remind him that with the new local authority early intervention grant, there is money to ensure the necessary supply for just the families he is talking about.

Does my hon. Friend agree that removing the minimum hours rule for child care support, so that all families receiving universal credit will be eligible for financial help, will mean that families on low incomes will receive more help and support to keep them in work?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The best way out of poverty for most families is work, and helping women in particular to stay close to the labour market when their children are young is an excellent way of helping to ensure that they can continue to progress in their work and support their families.

Affordable and quality child care is essential to allow women to enter or stay in the work force. What additional investment are the Government putting into child care to ensure that women can make that choice if they wish?

My hon. Friend raises the important point of the affordability of child care. It was disappointing that under the previous Administration, child care costs went up by some 60%. We are trying to ensure that there is practical help for families. We are already investing some £2 billion in child care through the child care tax credit and the early education grants, and through universal credit there will be an extra £300 million to provide 80,000 extra families with child care support that they did not have before.

Same-sex Marriages

The Government believe that if a couple love each other and want to commit to a life together, they should have the option of a civil marriage regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. We published a formal consultation on 15 March, which considers how to enable same-sex couples to have a civil marriage. The consultation runs until 14 June. That timetable would enable us to make any legislative changes before the end of this Parliament. Our current priority is the consultation, and we want to hear from all those with an interest in this matter.

I personally support the proposal to allow gay marriage in civil ceremonies. I am concerned, and constituents and local clergy have also expressed the concern, that, by redefining marriage, we may—may—expose churches and other religious institutions to legal challenge and force them to marry gay couples under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010. Will the Minister give a clear assurance that our churches will not end up in the dock in Strasbourg?

I thank my hon. Friend for his support for equal marriage. When we consider proposed legislation, we will ensure that there is no risk of successful legal challenge against religious organisations that do not marry same-sex couples. It would not be religious organisations, but the United Kingdom Government in the dock in Strasbourg. We respect and understand the concerns of religious organisations, and we want to work closely with them to give them that reassurance. Just as we were able to reassure Members of this House and the House of Lords about civil partnerships being registered on religious premises to the point where they felt that they could let that pass, we will do the same in this case.

Has the Minister spoken to the Archbishop of Wales following his address, in which he said that he believes that the Church should welcome long-term, committed relationships between gay people? Can she perhaps engage people such as him in the debate to deal with some of the, I am afraid, prejudice, which some of us have faced in our inboxes?

I have not spoken to him personally, but I recognise that voices have been raised from the religious community in support of that view, and that some religious leaders express the more moderate and quite common view that same-sex marriage is to be welcomed.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, I, too, am moving towards supporting many of the proposals in the Minister’s consultation paper, but I am puzzled by one aspect. Under her proposals, why should gay couples have the choice of something called gay marriage or gay civil partnership in a register office, whereas heterosexual couples must, by law, only be married?

My hon. Friend raises an issue that is in the consultation paper. We recognise that people will wish to ask a range of questions. For example, issues have been raised about humanist weddings, straight civil partnerships, civil marriage on religious premises and religious marriage on religious premises for same-sex couples. It was clear in the lead-up to the proposal becoming part of the Government programme that the priority—and the glaring discrimination—is the inability of same-sex couples to have the same rights to civil marriage as other people.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government do not intend to redefine religious marriage, but that they intend to extend equal marriage to civil and religious ceremonies?

I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification. That is exactly the case: we are not touching religious marriage or redefining marriage. Religious people may continue to believe that marriage can be only between a man and a woman. That is not the state’s view. We do not take the Orwellian view that

“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”.

Age Discrimination

I discuss age discrimination, as appropriate, with my ministerial colleagues, and my officials hold discussions with industry bodies and others. Earlier this month, the Government endorsed an insurance industry agreement to make motor and travel insurance more accessible to older customers through “signposting” arrangements.

I remember serving on the Committee that considered the Equality Bill with the Minister, and that she was keen to push forward the age discrimination provisions. What has happened in the two years since the Bill received Royal Assent? She has been a Minister, yet the age discrimination legislation has not been implemented.

I have not changed one bit my view that we should push that through. Our consultation proposed a ban on age discrimination in health and social care, and that there should be no exceptions to that, unlike other issues. It is an important lever, and the delay has come about because we want to make sure we get it right. We have consulted on the exceptions, and we are taking our time on them to ensure that we get it right. We will come forward as soon as we have made a decision, and I am sure that that will be soon.

Will the Minister welcome the statistic in the most recent employment figures showing the growing number of women over 50 entering the labour market? They are clearly overcoming age discrimination.

It was good to read that female employment for over-50s has increased by nearly 200,000 in the past 12 months. I understand that most of those jobs are due to business start-ups, which the Government are keen to encourage.

Are not many of those older women trying to enter the labour market because they realise they do not have the pension provision they had hoped for and that they need to stay in employment for longer, as Nick Pearce, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, has shown? They are choosing self-employment because it is clear that there are not enough jobs available to them.

At the same time, the gender pay gap is increasing with age. The Equality and Human Rights Commission says that at age 40, the gap between women and men is 27%, compared with an overall full-time gap of 15.5%. Rather than being complacent and saying that older women are choosing to set up new businesses, should the Minister not take active steps to tackle the toxic combination of ageism and sexism that is hitting older women?

This Government are taking many steps to support women. It would be far more benevolent if the Opposition welcomed an increase in female employment. I do not think women are over the hill at 50; it is shame the hon. Lady does.

Abu Qatada

Yesterday, the European Court of Human Rights informed the Government that, late on Tuesday evening, Abu Qatada applied for a referral of the judgment in his case to the Court’s Grand Chamber. He did so on the grounds that he would be at risk of torture if he returned to Jordan. The British courts and the European Court have found that, because of the assurances we have received from the Jordanian Government, there is no such risk.

The Government are clear that Qatada has no right to refer the case to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, since the three-month deadline to do so lapsed at midnight on Monday. Article 43 of the European convention on human rights explains that a request for referral to the Grand Chamber must be made:

“Within a period of three months from the date of the judgement of the Chamber”.

The letter that communicated the European Court’s judgement, dated 17 January, confirmed that, saying that

“any request for the referral of this judgement to the Grand Chamber must be duly reasoned and reach the Registry within three months of today’s date.”

Therefore, the deadline was midnight, Monday 16 April.

Because the European Court has no automatic mechanism to rule out an application for a referral based on the deadline, Qatada’s application will be considered by a panel of five judges from the Grand Chamber. They will take into account the deadline, as set out in article 43 of the convention, as part of their consideration. The Government have written to the European Court to make clear our case that the application should be rejected because it is out of time.

The Government believe that the case should be heard instead in the Special Immigration Appeals Commission court, as I outlined in the House of Commons on Tuesday. However, until the panel of the Grand Chamber makes its decision, a Rule 39 injunction preventing the deportation of Abu Qatada remains in place. That means that the deportation process and any potential SIAC appeal is put on hold, but we will resume the process as soon as the injunction is lifted. In the meantime, we will continue to build our case, based on the assurances and information we have received from the Jordanian Government. Abu Qatada remains in detention, and the Government will resist vigorously any application he might make to be released on bail.

As I said in the House of Commons on Tuesday, despite the progress we have made, the process of deporting Qatada is likely to take many months. The fact that he is trying to delay that process by applying for a referral to the Grand Chamber after the deadline has passed, and after he has heard our case in SIAC, is evidence of the strength of our arguments, the weakness of his, and the likelihood of our eventual success in removing him from Britain for good.

On Tuesday, the Home Secretary told us that the deportation of Abu Qatada was under way; on Wednesday, it stopped. On Tuesday, she told us there would be no appeal to the Grand Chamber; on Wednesday, an appeal was under way. Yesterday, the Home Office said the appeal deadline was Monday night, but European Court officials said it was Tuesday night. So on the Tuesday night deadline, while Abu Qatada was appealing to European Court judges, the Home Secretary, who thought the deadline was Monday night, was partying with “X Factor” judges. [Interruption.] When the Home Secretary is accused of not knowing what day of the week it is, confusion and chaos have turned into farce. [Interruption.]

Order. The right hon. Lady has a right to be heard. Has she concluded her remarks, or does she wish to continue?

The right hon. Lady must be heard. There are strong feelings on this matter but opinions will be heard. If the exchanges are longer as a result, so be it, but Members must hear what one another has to say.

This farce has serious consequences: additional delays, a greater risk that Abu Qatada will be put out on bail and a risk he will sue the Government. Did the Home Office get specific assurances from the European Court that the deadline was Monday night? If so, will it publish them? If not, why not? Why did it not pick up the phone to sort it out? The Home Office was told by journalists on Monday, nearly 24 hours before Abu Qatada was arrested, that European Court officials were saying that the deadline was Tuesday. Did it do anything about it?

I hope that the Home Secretary’s interpretation is right, but at best there is uncertainty, and several eminent lawyers now say that they agree with the European Court. So why take the risk? What was the harm in waiting until Wednesday? Why create a legal loophole for Abu Qatada’s lawyers to exploit? We all want Abu Qatada deported as soon as possible, under the rule of law, and kept off the streets in the meantime, but both those things are now less likely because of her actions. On Tuesday, I warned that there was a troubling level of confusion around this case, but even I did not imagine that the confusion was this great. When will she sort this out?

The shadow Home Secretary tells us that she wants Abu Qatada deported, but I am beginning to wonder whether she really does. [Interruption.]

Order. Let us lower the temperature. I said that the shadow Home Secretary must be heard, and precisely the same principle applies to the Home Secretary. Let us hear what she has to say. [Interruption.] Order. Then I will allow a full opportunity, if necessary, for questions to follow.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Let me repeat what I said in my first answer. We have always been clear that despite the progress we have made, the process of deporting Abu Qatada is likely to take many months. It should hardly come as a surprise to anybody that he intended to apply delaying tactics—[Interruption.] I repeat that it should hardly come as a surprise to anybody that Abu Qatada has chosen to use delaying tactics. After all, he has been doing this since 2001. The fact that he applied to the Grand Chamber for referral after the deadline had passed and after he had heard our case in SIAC shows the strength of our arguments and of our work in putting together assurances from the Grand Chamber.

I answered the question about dates in my first answer, but I will return to the matter because the right hon. Lady referred to it again. Article 43 of the convention makes it clear that a request for referral to the Grand Chamber must be made

“Within a period of three months from the date of the judgment of the Chamber”.

I shall read out the European Court’s own guidance:

“the period of three months within which referral may be requested starts to run on the date of the delivery of the judgment, irrespective of whether the party concerned may have learned about it at a later stage. It expires three calendar months later and is not interrupted by bank holidays or periods of judicial recess. The request for referral should reach the Registry of the Court before the expiry of the above-mentioned period.”

We are talking about a simple mathematical question. The European Court’s judgment was on 17 January. The period of three months within which we were allowed to refer ended at midnight on 16 April. The right hon. Lady asked why we did not just call the European Court and check. Of course, the Government have been in contact with the Court throughout this period, and it was always clear that we were working to the Monday deadline.

The shadow Home Secretary quoted a source in the European Court, but if she had listened to what I said in my first answer, she would know that the only people at the European Court who can adjudicate on this matter are the judges on the panel of the Grand Chamber. Article 43 is very clear. She may want to listen to unofficial sources, but I suggest that she reads the text of the convention.

The shadow Home Secretary also chose to attack me today for acting too quickly in this matter. On Tuesday she attacked me for acting too slowly in this matter. She is all over the place. The truth is that because of the work that we have done, we have the assurances and information that we need from the Jordanian Government to comply with the January ruling of the European Court. Once we can get the case back to the British courts, we will resume that process, so that we can put Abu Qatada on a plane and get him out of our country for good. That is something that the shadow Home Secretary should support.

Finally, perhaps the shadow Home Secretary can answer the question that was not answered on Tuesday. While we are talking about deportation and extradition, why is the Labour party campaigning to stop the extradition of a known terror suspect to the United States?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the conclusion of the great majority of people in this country who have been listening to this argument over the months is that Britain should withdraw its legal processes from the jurisdiction of the European Court?

What I agree with is that we should make every effort to reform the European Court, which is precisely what is being done today at the Brighton conference, and what will be done over the next two days, by my right hon. and learned Friends the Attorney-General and the shadow Justice Secretary.

I am having a greater struggle today to be magnanimous than I had on Tuesday. Although the Home Secretary might accept that it is no surprise that Abu Qatada will take any measure to make a monkey out of the Home Secretary and the Home Office, was it a surprise to her to learn that a question of ambiguity about the date was raised with the Home Office on Monday? Specifically, was she told and what did she do about it?

I have made it clear that the deadline was on Monday 16 April. That is the view that we have put to the European Court. As I have also said in my earlier responses, of course the Government were talking to the European Court throughout the three months, and we were doing so on the basis that the deadline was 16 April.

Does the Home Secretary agree not only that the most recent development in the Abu Qatada case underlines the absolute necessity of securing reforms at Brighton to curtail the number of minor cases going to the Court and to improve its efficiency, but that the Court’s position as the defender of fundamental human rights for 800 million people must stand?

The Government have been absolutely clear in our view of the importance of maintaining human rights and, obviously, of having appropriate mechanisms to ensure that that is done. My right hon. Friend is right that we need to reform the European Court. One of the key issues that we have taken up as a Government is the efficiency of the Court. Another issue that we are taking up is subsidiarity and the relationship between decisions taken by national courts and the work of the European Court.

In my experience as Home Secretary, the louder the cheers from behind, the deeper the mire the Home Secretary was in. [Laughter.] In my view, any ambiguity about the date should have meant that the announcement was made on Wednesday, rather than Tuesday. If the Home Secretary is right about her dates, I will be very pleased about that. If she is wrong, will she accept that she must take responsibility, not one of her officials?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for sharing with us his experience of when he was Home Secretary. The Government are clear about when the deadline was, but as I also made clear earlier, this is a judgment that will be made by the panel of the Grand Chamber, which is the final arbiter of what the deadline was. Indeed, it is open to the judges on the Grand Chamber to decide that even if the deadline has been passed, they will accept a referral under their discretion. They will decide whether they accept that.

The right hon. Gentleman’s final point is absolutely valid. I of course take responsibility for decisions that I have taken. This is not a question of what officials have done; I take full responsibility.

Should we not put this into some sort of context? Mr Abu Qatada was first arrested in 2002, and was then released and re-arrested on two separate occasions over an eight-year period. His case has been the subject of multiple appeals to courts in this country under the European convention on human rights, which the previous Government incorporated into British law in 1998, amidst great fanfare, and which is very much at the root of these problems.

My hon. Friend is right to bring us back to the core issue at stake. The fact is that, for the past 11 years, this country has been trying to deport Abu Qatada to Jordan. As far as I, the Government, the British public and, I hope, the whole House are concerned, that is what should happen to him. On Tuesday, when the Government had their first opportunity to take action to resume that deportation, that is exactly what we did.

Nobody doubts the efforts that the Home Secretary has made on this issue. I think that, if she had half a chance, she would like to be handcuffed to Abu Qatada on a plane to Jordan in order to deposit him in Amman. What concerns me, however, is the fact that a north London firm of legal aid solicitors has been able to outwit the very expensive silks of the Home Office. She mentioned article 43. If she looks at the cases of Praha v. the Czech Republic and Otto v. Germany, she will see that the time limit begins the next day. I am also worried about the 15 other cases that she referred to on Tuesday. Will she look at those cases and ensure that proper legal advice has been taken and that deadlines have been met? When she comes before the Select Committee next Tuesday, it would be good if she could give us the answers to those questions.

I repeat to the right hon. Gentleman what I said in response to an earlier question. The arbiters of whether a request for a referral put in by Abu Qatada should be accepted—whether in response to a deadline or, as we believe, outside the deadline—or whether discretion should be applied to accept it outside the deadline are not a north London firm of lawyers but the five judges who will be sitting on the panel of the Grand Chamber of the European Court.

The Home Secretary is trying her best—there is no question about that—but unfortunately it is not working. The root causes of this problem are the questions of what the rule of law is, whose rule of law is applicable and who interprets it. Those questions should be decided in this House. We should withdraw from the European convention, repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and get the matter straight because the people of this country demand it.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which I think is fairly similar to previous questions that he has asked me on this issue. Let me assure him that I take this issue extremely seriously and I am absolutely clear that we want to deport Abu Qatada. However, I also made it absolutely clear in the House earlier this week that the Government must operate within the rule of law, and that a number of legal avenues would be available to Abu Qatada. It is no surprise that he is using delaying tactics to try to delay his deportation from this country. It is right to say that we need to reform the European Court of Human Rights, and that is exactly the work that is being undertaken by my right hon. and learned Friends the Justice Secretary—I think I inadvertently referred to him earlier as the shadow Justice Secretary; I beg his pardon—and the Attorney-General.

Speaking from personal experience, repeat questions are not an entirely novel phenomenon in the House of Commons.

I am beginning to think that the Home Secretary has form here. She has previously accused the European Court of Human Rights of rejecting a deportation because someone had a cat, and she is giving assurances today despite the cases of Otto and Praha, which make it quite clear that she has wrongly interpreted the deadline. My suspicion is that she is playing with this very serious case in order to whip up hostility to the European Court of Human Rights, which is an important protector of human rights in Britain.

I think that the hon. Lady will be able to tell from some of the comments that have been made today that there is no need to whip up feeling about the European Court of Human Rights. May I correct her on two points that she made in her question? First, she said that I had made a claim about the European Court of Human Rights in a deportation case relating to a cat; I did not. That concerned a case in the UK courts. She also referred to the cases of Praha and Otto, to which the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) referred earlier. Those two cases are not about a referral to the Grand Chamber. Perhaps she should look at them more closely.

Would the Home Secretary like to challenge Opposition Members who are now shouting their criticism to say whether they would support the abolition of the Human Rights Act 1998 and withdraw from the European convention, which has led to this mess in the first place? [Interruption.]

My hon. Friend tempts me down a road that I suspect it would not be wise to go down, but he had one or two sedentary responses from the Opposition. I repeat that it is the Government’s view that we should reform the European Court, and that is precisely what we are working to do.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the British Government’s case is strong, that Abu Qatada’s case is weak and a delaying tactic, and that the British people will be appalled by the delay while the European Court investigates the case again, because they think that action should be taken now? If it is not taken, we want reform of the Court.

My hon. Friend is quite right. I fully appreciate that the public will be concerned by the delaying tactic that is being employed. I warned the House earlier this week—and, indeed, warned people more generally—that the process of deportation could take many months and that legal avenues were open to Abu Qatada to pursue, and that is of course what has happened. In response to my hon. Friend’s first point, the Government’s case is strong. It is educational to look at what happened on Tuesday. At the beginning of the SIAC hearing, Abu Qatada’s lawyers indicated that they were going to take the matter through the UK courts. It was only after they heard our case and the judgment that was brought down on Abu Qatada by Justice Mitting that they decided to attempt this referral.

Journalists are reporting today that they have checked with the European Court, and that it was the Court’s opinion that the three-month period started to be measured from the day after the domestic decision, which was the 17th. That was reported to the Home Office. Was it brought to the attention of the Secretary of State? Did her officials ever put before her the decision whether to go forward on 17 April or 18 April? This is an important question: did her officials ever give her the option of delaying for 24 hours in order to be safe according to the European Court’s position?

The position of the Government has always been absolutely clear—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] The position that we have been working on is that the deadline was Monday 16 April. The hon. Gentleman’s question is based on an incorrect premise, and if he had listened to the answers that I gave earlier, he would realise that. His claim is that, had the action been delayed by a day, no referral could have been made by Abu Qatada. I have made it clear, however, that it is a matter for the discretion of the panel of judges of the Grand Chamber whether to accept a referral within the deadline or outside it.

I offer the Home Secretary my support, but is it not the case that the reform of the European Court of Human Rights could take many years? Is it not time that we had a Supreme Court that really was supreme, and should we not introduce a British Bill of Rights sooner rather than later?

As my hon. Friend will know, the Government have set up a commission to look at a British Bill of Rights, which will report in due course. The Government will look at the commission’s recommendations. As I said earlier in my response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), the reforms to the European Court that we are considering include the question of subsidiarity. It is greatly to the credit of my fellow Ministers who have been working on this that we have been able to get as far as we have, and I have every expectation of positive decisions coming out of the conference that is taking place in Brighton.

Adding incompetent and dangerous advice on petrol and jerry cans a couple of weeks ago to this episode, our constituents are beginning to wonder whether this Government could organise a convivial social evening in the nearest brewery. Will the Home Secretary now publish the advice—not just on the question of three months, but on when exactly the clock starts ticking to calculate those three months, which lies at the heart of this latest episode? Will she also clarify the control regime under which Abu Qatada will be kept in the meantime? Will it be tighter than her proposed terrorism prevention and investigation measures, and if it is a tighter regime, why is it appropriate for him and not for the other terrorist suspects to whom she is planning to grant the freedom of the capital city?

I have answered questions about the European Court, the treaty and the advice and guidance given by the European Court on the dates. On the right hon. Gentleman’s final point, Abu Qatada is in detention at the moment. If he and his lawyers apply for him to be let him out on bail, we will vigorously oppose it. It is the case, of course, that he had been on bail prior to his arrest on Tuesday. The bail conditions on which he was held were among the most stringent ever applied to anybody here in the United Kingdom. Those bail conditions were tighter than the control order regime that I know the right hon. Gentleman supported.

Further to the Home Secretary’s answer to the Father of the House, the fact is that the Brighton conference process is designed to weed out trivial cases. It would not affect a serious case like this one. If one believes in the European Court of Human Rights, that Court should deal with this case. I think we all have to be honest and the Home Secretary has to be honest about it. Is she personally prepared to argue for the supremacy of this Parliament, which would mean that we must repeal the human rights legislation and create a British Bill of Rights?

My hon. Friend will recall that I have made my own views on the Human Rights Act absolutely clear. The Conservative party, of course, went into the last election saying that we would bring in a Bill of Rights. The Government have established a commission to look at the whole issue of a British Bill of Rights. I suggest that my hon. Friend waits for that commission to report.

Did the Home Secretary—at any time and from any quarter—receive advice to delay the re-arrest of Abu Qatada by 24 hours? That is a very simple question, demanding a yes or no answer.

I have made it clear that the Government’s view is that the deadline finished on 16 April. I repeat that Opposition Members who think that we would somehow be in a different position if Abu Qatada’s arrest had been delayed for 24 hours need to be careful, as the European Court is able to exercise discretion about the deadline and it could accept a referral outside that deadline.

The Home Secretary must not delay in getting this scumbag and his murderous mates on a plane out of this country. In so doing, will she send a metaphorical two fingers to the ECHR?

As I have already made clear, this case has been going on for 11 years. At the first opportunity this Government had to take action to resume the deportation of Abu Qatada, we took that action, and when the processes of the European Court are complete, we will take that action again and resume his deportation because, with the assurances we have received from the Jordanian Government, we have a strong case. Our aim, like everybody else’s, is to deport Abu Qatada.

Does not this whole situation clearly demonstrate why, following the Brighton conference and given our chairmanship of the European Council, we must see significant reform? If significant reform is not achieved for any reason, should we not move far more quickly to adopt a UK Bill of Rights instead of the convention?

As I said earlier, I believe that there is every prospect of us being able to move forward on reform of the European Court of Human Rights as a result of the work being done by the Justice Secretary and the Attorney-General. On that basis, I look forward to the outcome of the Brighton conference.

The Home Secretary is not helping her case by wriggling and wriggling and wriggling on the question put to her. Did she receive any advice on the ambiguity surrounding the 24 hours?

Let me say to all hon. Members who are intending to repeat this question that I have already answered it. [Hon. Members: “No you have not.”] The Government’s position is absolutely clear—the deadline was on Monday 16 April. The only arbiters, however, and the only people who can decide on the deadline and on whether to accept a referral are the judges sitting on the panel of the Grand Chamber. They will give us their determination in due course.

Does the Home Secretary agree that Abu Qatada and his lawyers are doing nothing more or less than attempting to belittle and thwart the British judicial system—an attempt to terrorise just as surely as is laying a bomb or firing a bullet? If so, how will this be reflected at the Brighton conference?

I agree with my hon. Friend that this is an attempt by Abu Qatada and his lawyers to delay the action we have taken. It is, as I said, educational— and, I believe, very significant—that Abu Qatada’s lawyers did not make a referral or attempt to make a referral until they had seen the strength of our case in SIAC on Tuesday after we had arrested him and taken him before the courts. It is, of course, essential to ensure that we continue with the deportation, and we will do so as soon as this process in the European Court is completed.

The Home Secretary said this is a simple matter. If, then, in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, it becomes clear that the Home Secretary did have advice from officials that there was some ambiguity, will she resign?

It is a simple matter because the deadline was Monday 16 April and the decision will be taken by the judges in the Grand Chamber of the European Court. What is also a simple matter is the fact that it is this Government who got the assurances from Jordan that will enable us to resume the deportation of Abu Qatada. That is what we want to see and what the British public want to see.

I wonder whether the Home Secretary would agree that the European Court of Human Rights is putting this nation in a position in which we could be perceived as a safe haven for foreign criminals who want to avoid justice from outside the EU, and that the only way to avoid that is to establish a Bill of Rights for the UK.

I made the Government’s position clear when I mentioned the commission on the Bill of Rights. I said here on Tuesday, and will repeat it today, that there has been concern about the ability of other European countries to deport people more quickly than we can. I have thus already initiated work to look at the processes— and the legal structures and systems—that happen in France and Italy, for example, to see whether we could learn anything from them and whether legislative changes could be made to give us the ability more quickly to deport people who are a threat to our national security.

I listened carefully to the Home Secretary on Tuesday and I have listened to her answers today, and it is absolutely clear from her evasive answers that she did receive advice about the ambiguity of the 24 hours—yet she went ahead with the media circus of this arrest. Does she accept that people will be extremely angry if Abu Qatada now gets bail?

The Government will vigorously oppose any application that Abu Qatada makes for bail. We have been clear throughout that we believe he should be in detention. That is where he is today. I have been clear, and am happy to repeat, that the deadline was Monday 16 April, but that the decision as to whether his application for a referral will be accepted is for the panel of the Grand Chamber. That has been made clear by me here and by the European Court.

Would my right hon. Friend invite the Grand Chamber to consider the human rights of my constituents to live out their lives free of the sort of activities that might be carried out by Abu Qatada and the 15 other individuals awaiting deportation on similar grounds?

As my hon. Friend knows, we are very clear about wanting to ensure that we can deport people who are a threat to our national security, as in the case of Abu Qatada. That is why we have worked so hard with the Jordanian Government to obtain the assurances that we need, which have given us the strong case that we have: the strong case that was presented at the SIAC hearing on Tuesday and was, I believe, recognised as a strong case from the UK Government. When we have completed the process with the European Court, we will resume the deportation process. I assure my hon. Friend that I am very clear about the need to take account of the rights of British citizens, and that the duty of the Home Office, which is all about keeping people safe, is always foremost in our thoughts.

In response to a question from the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the Home Secretary said that the cases that he had cited in connection with the definition of the time limit were not relevant to this case. Will she tell us whether she relied on any case precedent in making her decision on the definition of the deadline, and, if she did not, why she did not opt for a precautionary response?

Of course we have looked at the definition of the deadline as used by the European Court. We have looked at the treaty definition of the deadline as used by the European Court, which I have quoted to the House, and I think that that treaty definition makes the position absolutely clear.

Does my right hon. Friend share my disbelief that there is no administrative mechanism at the ECHR to establish the simple question of whether an application is out of time, which means that we and the taxpayer will have to wait up to two months for the ECHR to establish that simple point before we can proceed with the deportation of Abu Qatada? Will the Government raise the matter at Brighton, and get on with this aspect of reform of the ECHR as soon as possible?

My hon. Friend has made an extremely valuable point. I have found that many people here in the UK consider it astonishing that there is no simple mechanism for setting a clear deadline and then striking out any applications that fall outside that deadline. What is absolutely clear is that the panel of the Grand Chamber has discretion to accept applications made outside the deadline, and to determine what that deadline was.

In view of the xenophobia and hysteria on the Tory Benches, why does the Home Secretary not have the courage to say that it is a lie that the European Court of Human Rights is in the business of trying to protect terrorists—last week’s decision contradicts that—and is it not a great advance for Europe that there is such a court in the first place?

We have made it clear that we are abiding by the rule of law. We have abided by the decisions made by the European Court. We now believe that we have the assurances that we need in order to be able to challenge the Court’s decision in relation to article 6, which was the ground on which it prevented the deportation of Abu Qatada. We believe that the right way of dealing with the issue of his deportation was to gain those assurances from the Jordanian Government. Obviously we will await the European Court’s decision on whether to accept the application for a referral.

Given that Abu Qatada would almost certainly have appealed against any decision by the British courts and taken that appeal all the way back to the European Court of Human Rights, does his present appeal not give Government lawyers an opportunity to seek the Court’s de