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Commons Chamber

Volume 547: debated on Thursday 28 June 2012

House of Commons

Thursday 28 June 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—

Concessionary Bus Travel

I believe that you, Mr Speaker, and the Opposition Front-Bench team will know that my ministerial colleague, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), is unable to be here today as he is abroad at a piracy conference—or, hopefully, an anti-piracy conference.

We have no plans to introduce means-testing to assess eligibility for concessionary bus travel for older people. The right to free bus travel for both older and disabled people is enshrined in primary legislation. In the 2010 spending review, the Government said they will protect the statutory entitlement to concessionary bus travel.

I am pleased the Minister has dropped the Deputy Prime Minister’s ridiculous idea—presumably because he can envisage situations in which a pensioner who qualifies for a pass, under a means test, gets on a bus and produces their pass, and everyone can see that they are poor enough to qualify. We would end up with better-off pensioners not getting a pass because they would be means-tested out, and the poorer pensioners not using a pass because they would be too embarrassed to do so.

I thought the hon. Gentleman might have wanted to congratulate the Government on giving £25 million to South Yorkshire yesterday, or on proceeding with the Rotherham to Sheffield tram-train trial, about which he has been so keen, and which his Government did nothing to advance over so many years.

The Deputy Prime Minister raised no such idea, and I made our position clear to the hon. Gentleman in a letter of 2 April. He is well aware of the Government’s position.

Before the election, the Prime Minister pledged to keep the free bus pass. We know the Deputy Prime Minister and his Lib Dem colleagues did not agree, and now we learn that the Work and Pensions Secretary wants it scrapped as well. Can pensioners be sure they will not face a means test in order to receive their bus pass, or is this going to be another U-turn the Chancellor has not told the Transport Secretary about?

The hon. Lady clearly does not want to take yes for an answer. I do not know how many times we have to say from the Dispatch Box that the concessionary fares arrangements will not change over the lifetime of this Parliament: end of story.

After the shambles of the last week, I am not sure that pensioners will be reassured by that commitment. After all, the Transport Secretary began the week by ruling out a U-turn on fuel duty. The fact is that pensioners are being hit now by cuts to bus services, which Age UK and the National Pensioners Convention warn are leading to concessionary bus pass holders having no buses to get on. The Government were right to respond to our call to do something for motorists, but as the Department for Transport has now admitted to under-spending its budget by £500,000—the amount needed to restore bus funding—is it not time to show a similar commitment to public transport and restore the bus cuts?

If I may say so, Mr Speaker, that question strays a long way from the tabled question about concessionary bus passes, and if I were the hon. Lady I would not have asked it, because the latest figures, out this week, show that bus passenger journeys in England increased by 0.6% between 2010-11 and 2011-12. They also show that bus fares outside London fell by 4% in real terms between March 2009 and March 2011. I think that, on this occasion, the Eagle has crash-landed.

Airport Capacity (South-East)

2. What recent assessment she has made of airport capacity in the south-east; and if she will make a statement. (114041)

It will be quite a job to follow the Minister’s last remark.

UK Aviation Forecasts 2011 provides an assessment of how demand for air travel in the UK is expected to change in the future. We will shortly launch a call for evidence to look at how we can tackle that challenge of emerging demand. Let us be clear, however: the coalition agreement stands. This Government cancelled the last Government’s plans for a third runway, and we will be sticking to that.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and I know my constituents will be grateful, too. Does she also agree that talk about expanding Heathrow so it becomes a competitive international hub is wildly misplaced? A third runway would fill up almost at once—and where would a fourth runway go, unless we were to look at possibly knocking down parts of Hounslow and Staines, which I am sure would be entirely unacceptable?

My hon. Friend raises some of the very difficult issues we have already run up against with Heathrow as a hub airport. She also points out that these discussions and decisions matter massively to residents on the ground, and she is right that the question is not just about a third runway at Heathrow—about which we have been very clear—because expanding that airport further would pose significant challenges to local communities, which should be taken extremely seriously.

Airport capacity in the south-east has been studied in great detail for the last 50 years, and there is no further information to be found. Is not the reason we are not getting a third runway the deal done between the Prime Minister and Boris Johnson to try to secure votes in west London, as a result of which the entire economy of the United Kingdom is suffering? I believe the Prime Minister wants to do a U-turn on this, and that he will do a U-turn.

I am not sure whether that was actually a question, Mr Speaker, but what I do know is that we need to approach this discussion with maturity and from a long-term perspective. Given how much this decision affects many people, not just in the industry, but on the ground, it is not good enough to have a headline-driven, pub-style debate. What I have called for now is a much longer-term debate to get some answers that are not just right in the next 10 to 15 years, but will be right for the next 50 or 60 years. I very much welcome the fact that companies such as BA and people such as Willie Walsh are now starting to step up to the plate and join that debate. I look forward to their response and those of many others to the call for evidence over the coming months.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government will stand by the whole of the coalition agreement in this area? Will she confirm that they will stand by the cancellation of the third runway at Heathrow, as she has said, will refuse additional runways at Gatwick and Stansted, and will rule out mixed mode at Heathrow?

I think I have been very clear: the coalition agreement, in its entirety, stands. That is the position.

I represent a constituency where the people on the ground are affected directly by Heathrow, and welcome the jobs and prosperity that the airport brings them. Will the Secretary of State improve access to Heathrow by investing in improved rail access to it from the west as soon as possible? It is a shovel-ready project—will she deliver it?

I know that the hon. Lady has been very passionate about that project. Indeed, a number of weeks ago I was at a reception on it organised by her and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson). We are looking at it very closely. I have to say that a Westminster Hall debate on rail-air transport links in the south-east took place earlier this week and not one Labour MP turned up to it.

Road Maintenance

The Department is providing £3 billion over four years to 2014-15 to local highway authorities in England for roads for which they are responsible. We also provided £200 million in March 2011 to repair damage caused by the 2010 winter. The Highways Agency is responsible for operating, maintaining and improving the strategic road network in England, and this financial year its maintenance budget is £755 million, excluding costs associated with private finance initiative projects.

We know that the coalition’s manoeuvre of choice is the U-turn, so can the Transport Secretary or the Minister continue in that vein by reversing the Department’s decision to cut investment in Britain’s road network by £3.5 billion?

Again, I thought that the hon. Gentleman might have welcomed the £20 million that the Department gave to Merseyside yesterday for investment in local transport projects. I thought he might also have welcomed the fact that in cash terms the Department is providing more for road maintenance over this four-year period than his Government did over the previous four years.

May I welcome my hon. Friend’s announcement? North Yorkshire has the second longest rural road network, after Lincolnshire, and the most extreme winter conditions. How can we ensure that we get a fair slice of the extra money that has been announced?

I am happy to say that North Yorkshire also qualified for funding from the Department yesterday to help the Harrogate and Knaresborough sustainable transport package. We continue to fund road maintenance through the standard arrangements from the Department, as I indicated a moment ago.

The requirement for large expenditure on road maintenance arises overwhelmingly from the heavy axle weights of lorries, so is it not sensible to look at schemes for transferring vast volumes of road freight on to rail? Will the Government look seriously at schemes for transporting lorry trailers and lorries on trains throughout Britain?

I entirely sympathise with that question. We are taking steps to improve the amount of freight that can be transported by rail. The rail Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), is busy activating that. We have improved the gauge from Southampton and the rail line from Felixstowe, and we hope to make further improvements. Of course our high-speed rail plans will free up space on the existing north-south routes.

Automotive Fuel

4. What representations she has received on plans to increase the level of ethanol in automotive fuel. (114043)

We have received representations on ethanol from a range of individuals and organisations. Ethanol can currently be blended in petrol up to 5%. I understand an industry standard for a blend of up to 10% is being developed. The Department has asked the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership to work with consumer groups, vehicle manufacturers and fuel suppliers to plan its introduction to ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place and consumers have clear information.

Is the Minister aware that the Government are absolutely right not to increase the level of ethanol above 5% until we have a better evidence base for its sustainability? Is he also aware—I declare an interest at this point—that there is evidence that ethanol levels above 5% play havoc with older vehicles’ fuel systems, including those of classic and historic vehicles? If we have to go above 5%, will he ensure that the pumps are properly labelled?

I entirely sympathise with my right hon. Friend, who makes an important point. I expect that there is a possibility that the European Commission will review the matter before January 2014, when the requirement for petrol stations to supply a 5% blend officially ends. The UK Government also have a power to require a 5% blend to be supplied beyond that point. In any case, I would expect industry to ensure that a protection grade of E5 will continue beyond that point and I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend’s point about labelling.

Transport Infrastructure Projects

5. What recent progress she has made on transport infrastructure projects announced in the autumn statement. (114044)

10. What recent progress she has made on transport infrastructure projects announced in the autumn statement. (114049)

The Government are not just fixing the disgraceful legacy of debt left to us by the Labour party but are also building for our country’s success in future—and that means investing in transport. At the autumn statement we announced £2.5 billion more in transport investment, building on the £30 billion set out in the spending review. An update on the progress made on the priority infrastructure investments identified in the 2011 national infrastructure plan was published alongside the Budget in March.

The debt plan is not going very well, because borrowing has gone up £3.9 billion this year above what it was at the equivalent stage last year. Construction output fell in April by 13% and long-term unemployment is soaring, yet many of the infrastructure plans set out by the Chancellor do not begin until later in this Parliament. Will the Secretary of State tell us what representations she has made to the Chancellor to bring forward infrastructure spending into this financial year and whether she has had any more success with that than she had with her representations on fuel duty?

I do not think this Government need to take any lectures about debt levels from the Labour party. The only problem Labour has with our debt levels is that they are not high enough. Labour Members want more debt to get us out of this debt problem, not less; no wonder they are sitting on the Opposition Benches rather than the Government Benches.

We are absolutely bringing forward transport projects. In fact, in the time that I have been in this role we have announced 42 major road schemes, many of which were sat on the stocks ready to go but had never been approved by Labour. We are getting on with them and bringing forward a number of projects, and we are cracking on with that right now.

In his autumn statement, the Chancellor announced that he would bring forward investment in the Tyne and Wear Metro—investment that was originally secured by the previous Labour Government. What he did not say was that that was an accounting sleight of hand that will not lead to one extra metre of track being refurbished or one extra job this year. Now that the Chancellor is for turning, will the Secretary of State listen to Opposition Members and bring forward real plans for infrastructure investment in the north-east to get the economy moving?

The hon. Lady raises an important point about the Metro. We are getting on with that project. As she knows, any transport project, once it gets agreement, needs to follow a number of steps before it is in a position to go ahead. We are pulling forward our investment in the Metro and I hope that the hon. Lady, as someone who represents Newcastle, will greatly welcome that.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the east-west rail consortium and the local authorities that have contributed funds that mean that the Bletchley to Oxford and Aylesbury line is in great shape?

I will. It is part of the unprecedented investment that is now going into our Victorian railway network. I believe that the scheme has the potential to make a huge difference, which is why we gave it the green light to go to the next step. I am delighted to see private investment going in alongside public investment and the involvement of local stakeholders and I think that the project will make a huge difference.

Among the projects announced in the autumn statement were the electrification of northern rail links. The Secretary of State will be aware that two of the UK’s most picturesque and economically important lines are the Lakes line to Windermere and the Furness line, which run through my constituency. Neither of them are electrified and both run the risk of losing their direct connection to Manchester airport. Will she meet a small, cross-party delegation to make sure we can fix these challenges?

I would be absolutely delighted to. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that we are getting on with electrification in a way the previous Government never did. We have already announced several hundred miles of electrification. That is one of the key things I am looking at as we finalise the high-level output specification package, which I will announce shortly. I would be very happy to meet him and his delegation to look at what that means locally and how we can make sure that we can improve his local transport system too.

It is very important that the electrification schemes go ahead according to plan, but does the Secretary of State agree that the northern hub must be funded in full to bring the £4 billion-plus investment and improvement in services across the whole of the north?

There is no doubt that the people supporting the northern hub have made a powerful case. In the past two weeks I have been in Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield and all of them have reiterated to me why this project matters so much. Like the rest of the Government I have to cut my cloth to be able to afford what we are announcing, but we have already taken some important steps on this project. I will be setting out the next steps across the railway network in the HLOS—high level output specification—statement and I have no doubt the hon. Lady will take an interest in what I have to say.

People throughout the west country have warmly welcomed the electrification of the Great Western railway line through Chippenham and Bath. They also look forward to the redoubling of the Kemble to Swindon line. Will the Secretary of State look at whether it would be useful to have interchange between that line and the historic Swindon to Cricklade line?

I would be delighted to look at that. I know my hon. Friend has raised this issue before. We are determined to improve connectivity. Looking far longer term, High Speed 2 will do that for many parts of the country and I am determined to make sure that his part of the country continues to get more investment in addition to the Great Western line investment that is already going in and the new intercity express programme trains that will also give him more capacity.

But the Secretary of State and the Chancellor need to recognise that announcing something is one thing, but actually doing something about it is completely different. The breakdown of the autumn statement total suggests that only 17% was due to be made in the last financial year. In this year, with the country back in recession, only a further 5% of the total is due to be spent. Regardless of the issues with the level of influence the right hon. Lady has with the Chancellor, can she really tell the House that she thinks this is having sufficient impact?

This Government and our decisions are having a major impact. I do not need to take any lectures or lessons from the Labour party, which had a failed aviation strategy, no rail strategy at all and made absolutely no investment on the roads compared with what we are putting in. Frankly, the brass neck of it is unbelievable. We are getting on with building our country for the future in a way that the previous Government never did. We are investing more and we will do more. I look forward to hearing him congratulate us when we do.

Cycling Safety

Last year I set up the cycling stakeholder forum, which comprises representatives from cycling groups, motoring organisations and local authorities. A sub-group has been established to look specifically at safety issues. Good progress is being made on coming up with ideas and actions to improve cycle safety. Earlier this week I announced a £15 million fund to improve safety for cyclists outside London by tackling dangerous junctions. This is in addition to the £15 million fund awarded to Transport for London in March for the same purpose.

Figures from his Department and independent analysis have shown that more cyclists are killed in collisions with heavy goods vehicles than any other kind of vehicle. Will the Secretary of State therefore stop the trial of longer HGVs that her Department has enacted and give serious consideration to the proposals from the cycling stakeholder forum for a proper plan to improve cyclist safety and to increase cycle use?

I have already referred to the cycling stakeholder forum, which met yesterday and which I attended. We are looking at safety issues very seriously, as the hon. Lady would expect. I do not think it is a question of how long lorries are. The particular issue with HGVs is about lorries turning left and catching cyclists on the inside. That is one reason why I have now given permission for all local authorities across the country to install Trixi mirrors to pick up those manoeuvres. It is also why the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), is looking at issues relating to the information available to the driver in the cab.

Road Infrastructure

The 2010 spending review committed investment of £2.3 billion for major road improvements over the next four years. We also committed to investment of £614 million towards local road projects. The 2011 autumn statement provided a further £1 billion investment for strategic roads.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Surrey pays more revenue to the Exchequer than any part of the country outside London, but it has the third-worst roads and, taking traffic volumes into account, gets the second-lowest funding of all counties for highways maintenance. What steps is she taking to repair and maintain Surrey’s roads so that the county can continue to generate high revenue for Britain?

I agree that is important. Actually, the latest statistics published by the Department suggest that Surrey road conditions are slightly higher than average. Of the 117 local authorities where we allocate highway maintenance funding, Surrey falls into the top 15 and we are providing £61 million. In addition, my hon. Friend will know that we are focused on important schemes; we are providing £24 million towards the Walton bridge scheme that is now under construction. We are willing to put in that investment, and it will make a big difference on the ground.

Roads are a very important part of any sustainable transport structure. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State turned down Halton’s bid for a sustainable transport fund, and I am in correspondence with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), on the issue. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether any other area has been asked to rework and resubmit its bid? If so, can she tell me why it has, but not Halton?

We had a rigorous process for looking at all the bids; they were considered by a panel of experts that we appointed. Some of the bids were modified in the light of the reaction of the independent panel, and we took our investment decisions on that basis.

Brown Tourist Signs

The review of brown tourist signs is making good progress and we expect to publish our findings later this year. We are currently reviewing stakeholder comments on the existing requirements so that a package of options and a recommendation can be presented to Ministers.

I am glad the Minister shares my passion for brown signs, but can he assure me that the Highways Agency will work much more closely with business before removing brown signs? The agency was reckless in removing the sign on the A1 upgrade in Masham. Would the Minister like to join me for a pint of Theakston’s or Black Sheep so that he can see the evidence for himself?

My colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), might take that pint rather than me, although I am always happy to have a pint of Theakston’s—or anything else for that matter.

I agree that early involvement with business is helpful and desirable, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon on the work he has done on the issue. I know that my colleague, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead, wrote to him about it last week, and has challenged the Highways Agency to minimise the cost of the signs, including by engaging with local contractors and interest groups such as those my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon refers to.

Motoring Costs

9. What steps she is taking to support motorists and the haulage industry; and if she will make a statement. (114048)

I have taken a number of steps to reduce motorists’ costs. We are working with the Ministry of Justice to tackle the cost of insurance fraud, including fraudulent whiplash claims. We are working with the fuel industry to ensure the transparency of fuel costs and that wholesale price reductions are passed on. We have halved the tolls on the Humber bridge. We are working with the Motorists Forum on improving garage experiences for consumers, and as well as freezing fees for MOTs, driving tests and licensing, in the logistics growth review we supported £1 billion of further investment to improve the capacity and resilience of the strategic roads network.

Thousands of hard-pressed motorists, and me, are so excited that the Government cut fuel duty this week that I lost my train of thought as another Labour tax rise was cancelled.

I thank the Secretary of State for her outspoken support and for the pressure she has put on oil companies to bear their share of responsibility for the high price of petrol and diesel at the pumps. Will she carry on putting that pressure on oil companies to ease the pressures on motorists?

I very much welcome those comments. The Government are working hard across the board, in both the Department for Transport and, of course, the Treasury, to make sure that we keep the cost of motoring as low as possible. In fact, the AA says that Tuesday’s delay to the fuel duty increase, today’s announcement, and my call for fuel price transparency have

“placed this government at the forefront of looking out for the interests of drivers, business and families.”

I really welcome that, and we will continue to work hard on behalf of motorists.

Road Congestion (Shipley)

11. If she will make an assessment of the level of congestion on roads in Shipley constituency. (114050)

The Department for Transport purchases journey time data from the Trafficmaster satellite navigation fleet tracking and traffic information service, and provides it, free, to west Yorkshire’s local authorities. The data can be used to make assessments of road congestion in their areas. It is for the local highway authority—in this case, the city of Bradford metropolitan district council—to make any such assessment.

Shipley constituency has some of the most congested roads not only in the Bradford district, but across west Yorkshire. Not least among those is the road between Baildon and Shipley. A Shipley eastern relief road would not only help local residents with that congestion but give a stimulus to economic growth across the Bradford district. What can the Minister do to ensure that that kind of scheme gets a share of the funding that his Department is giving out?

My hon. Friend is assiduous in making the case for his constituents, and I understand why he puts the case for the road he mentioned. As part of the localism agenda, we consulted earlier this year on proposals to devolve funding for major local authority schemes for the period after 2015, so it will be for the new local transport body covering west Yorkshire to decide the priorities for available funding, and of course to involve the local enterprise partnership—Leeds city region LEP. That is the direction of travel that I recommend to my hon. Friend.

The area north of Leeds and Bradford does indeed have some of the most congested roads in the country; that is a problem that is shared cross-constituency. When will we get a decision on the Leeds trolley bus scheme, which will help in that corridor?

The Secretary of State and I are actively considering that matter at the moment. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) will understand that we are talking about cutting-edge technology, as there is no such scheme already in this country, so we have to be very careful in our assessment of the proposal, but we hope to make a decision very shortly.

Rail Franchises

12. What steps her Department has taken to publicise the consultation on the combined Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise. (114051)

The Thameslink consultation was published on 24 May 2012 on the Department’s website. On the same day, I wrote to the relevant MPs and a press notice was issued. On 13 June, Department for Transport officials wrote to MPs and local councils, further publicising the consultation document and details of the upcoming consultation events.

I thank the Minister for her response. May I encourage her, the bidders, Network Rail, London TravelWatch and Passenger Focus to redouble their efforts to raise awareness of the franchise renewal process and, in particular, the implications for Sutton residents, who may find that the through-trains from which they have benefited for many years stop short of Blackfriars, cutting their access to north London and Crossrail?

My right hon. Friend will appreciate that extensive advertising budgets are a thing of the past in the age of austerity, but we will do our very best to make sure that people are aware of the consultation. We are aware of his concerns about the Wimbledon loop; my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) barely gives me a moment’s rest on the issue. Network Rail has concerns about operational issues at Blackfriars, but those are not impossible to surmount. No final decisions have been made. We will consider all the representations on the Wimbledon loop and on all relevant matters in response to the consultation.

Page 28 of the Minister’s consultation document states that future Thameslink services may serve Sevenoaks as well as Dartford and Orpington. Will the rail Minister confirm that, if those services go ahead, they will include a stop at Lewisham, and will be in addition to, and not a replacement for, existing services that run from that station?

As I have said, no final decisions have been made on what goes into the ultimate franchise; that is what the consultation is all about. I will make sure that the hon. Lady’s representations are properly considered when the consultation closes.

Now that the consultation on rail decentralisation is drawing to a close, will the Minister or the Secretary of State devolve responsibility for south-eastern suburban rail services to city hall as a matter of urgency, so that it can drive up standards on the south-eastern suburban networks in exactly the same way as it did with London Overground?

This is an important issue. We are interested in ways of devolving more decision making about our railways, so that it is closer to the local communities served, but we have to make sure that we take into account the interests of all users of relevant rail services, whether they are within or outside the London boundary. We will make an announcement in due course on the results of our consultation on the decentralisation of rail decisions.

Double-decker Trains

13. What consideration she is giving to the reintroduction of double-decker trains on the rail network. (114052)

A report prepared by Network Rail in 2007 concluded that the introduction of double-decker trains on the current UK rail network would require extensive modification to structures and stations and was not economically viable.

Although such trains operate in a number of European countries, the larger loading gauge used in continental Europe allows the use of taller, wider trains than is possible in the UK.

Other nations seem to make a success of having double-decker trains, and we used to have them on some suburban services in this country. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to ask Network Rail to think again, because lots of commuters on congested trains would want us to replicate the success of double-decker buses by having double-decker trains.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s interest in this issue, and I have looked at it. The reality, however, is that double-decker trains that were run in the past by British Rail were claustrophobic, it took a long time for passengers to get on and off, and they deployed the sort of slam-door stock that we have tried to phase out. The shape of the UK rail network, the size of the bridges, the distance between rail tracks and the distance between the tracks and the platform mean that we cannot run the large double-decker trains that work in Europe. I am afraid that there are much more cost-effective ways to expand capacity, with longer trains and more frequent services, which is what the Government are doing.

Driving Licence Renewals

If the photograph on a driver’s licence needs to be renewed, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency sends a renewal notice 56 days before the licence expires. If the licence needs to be renewed because the driver has reached the age of 70 or has a shorter-period licence due to a medical condition, the renewal notice goes out 90 days before the licence expires.

Someone close to my heart had a driving licence that expired, and did not receive such a notice. Mrs Bone is following Transport questions closely, so would it not be helpful—there must be tens of thousands of people who are driving with expired licences—to include on the licence, in clear, large print, the expiry date?

My hon. Friend makes a perfectly reasonable point. Holders of a photocard driving licence are required by law to renew the photograph on the licence every 10 years so that it remains a good likeness of the driver. I take his points on board—I absolutely do not want to see drivers caught out—and, as he is aware, we are looking more broadly at how we can make sure that our driving licence works well for motorists, not least investigating when we can begin to put the country’s flag on it for a change.

Topical Questions

T2. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. Is this topical question 2 or topical question 1, Mr Speaker? (114059)

It is still T2, but we are grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Mr Sheerman has withdrawn his question T1.

It has been a busy couple of months in the Department for Transport. We have announced our plans to work with petrol retailers to get a better deal for motorists at the pump. We have helped local authorities to unlock economic growth with our £266 million local sustainable transport fund announcement. We have set out the next steps for attracting greater investment in the strategic road network, issuing rail franchise consultations on the inter-city east coast and south-eastern franchises. With other Government Departments, we are working extremely hard to put in place the final planning and preparations to make sure that we host a fantastic Olympic and Paralympic games this summer.

I thank the Minister for the additional £20 million for Merseyside Transport. Without wishing to appear ungrateful, what is happening to the appalling rolling stock on the northern franchise, which is wholly unsuitable, particularly on the Southport-Manchester link?

There is a significant piece of work under way to look at what we can do to improve rolling stock across the network, including looking at what additional new rolling stock we need, and how the existing rolling stock can cascade to improve services for others on the line. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who is responsible for railways, is listening closely and will look into the issues that he has just raised.

I understand that the road casualty figures for 2011 were published this morning and, sadly, show the first increase since 2003 in deaths and serious injuries. Road casualty reduction targets commanded cross-party support for nearly three decades and played a big part in sending a strong message from Government about how committed they were to reducing deaths and serious injuries on our roads. Those targets were scrapped by the Secretary of State’s predecessor. Is she prepared to revisit that decision? Many in the road safety sector felt that that was a mistake, and the figures this morning tend to suggest that bringing back targets would help in the battle to reduce deaths and serious injuries.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that as far as I am concerned, one accident is too many. The figures are disappointing. We are concerned to make sure we improve our road safety record. Many of the things that we are doing, including managed motorways, can help with that. I think he is wrong to draw too many conclusions from the latest figures, because we know that we had some exceptional weather in that period. That is one of the reasons why there was such a change, but I am happy to look at what we can continue to do to work with all sorts of stakeholders to improve road safety. It is an issue that this Government take incredibly seriously.

T3. The latest figures from Sustrans show a 40 million increase in the number of cycling trips in 2011 compared with 2010—a very welcome 18% rise. I and many others, including British Cycling, welcome the funding that has been provided by the Government, particularly most recently the £15 million that has been provided towards dangerous junctions around the country, a key feature of the safer cycling campaign in The Times. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to make sure that local authorities match this money to do even more work on more junctions, rather than ducking their responsibilities when the Government step up? (114060)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for this support for our measures, which include large sums of money allocated yesterday through the local sustainable transport fund, which will also benefit cycling. The sum of £50 million will be available to local authorities on a match-funding basis. We are encouraging them to contribute, and the more they contribute, the more likely it is that they will be successful in securing money from the Government for their dangerous junctions.

T9. Following last week’s publication of the east coast franchise, does the Minister think passengers on the east coast should expect an eye-watering 8% above inflation fare increase, which my constituents travelling on the west coast main line will face in years ahead? (114066)

This Government are determined to get the cost of running the railways down. That is the way we deal with the concerns that passengers have about fares. If the Opposition think concerns about fares started in May 2010, they are living on another planet. We need reform to get the costs down so that we can respond to passengers, and it is time Labour started producing its own reform plans if it insists on rejecting ours.

T4. My right hon. Friend is aware that I have had constituents in tears in my advice surgeries who are blighted by the HS2 project and trapped in their homes, unable to sell them. Can she reassure my constituents that she is determined to make sure that no private home owner has to pay with the value of their home for the project? What update can she give us on the consultation to get a decent, fair compensation scheme in place? (114061)

I know that the High Speed 2 line is already causing uncertainty for many individuals, communities and businesses that will be affected along the route. We have introduced the exceptional hardship scheme. As my hon. Friend knows, I am about to have a meeting later today to talk to some of the key stakeholders, including herself, about their concerns. Having listened to many concerns and looked at the effectiveness of the exceptional hardship scheme, we are drawing up long-term proposals for compensation, and we will be consulting on those very shortly.

On that point, does the Secretary of State agree that one of the best ways of ending the uncertainty is to reach a quick decision? Will she confirm that the Government will introduce legislation on HS2 in the coming Parliament, and that she continues to have the full support of the Chancellor and the Prime Minister in taking forward HS2, which is so vital not just for England, but for Scotland?

The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is yes. We are planning to introduce the hybrid Bill. HS2 is vital for the long-term success of this country.

T5. Following on from that question, given the Government’s vision for a truly national high-speed rail network extending to Scotland, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s meeting with the Scottish Transport Minister. Will she continue to work very closely with the Scottish Government on the project, not least to ensure that any short-term rail improvements, such as the Edinburgh-Glasgow electrification, can be done in a way that is compatible with future high-speed rail? (114062)

I found my meeting with the Scottish Government extremely helpful, and I am keen to work with them on their plans for high-speed rail north of the border. Obviously, they will have to look at the rest of their investment plans in the meantime. That discussion is under way and we will pursue it over the coming months.

If we are to make real improvements in cycling, we must ensure that it is considered properly as part of all decisions and policies on road use, so will the Minister consider the Cycle Stakeholder Forum’s proposal to add a mandatory risk assessment and consultation on cycling to every policy review that affects road users? That would have no cost implications but would make a real difference to transport policy and would show that the Government consider cycling a key part of transport policy.

The Cycle Stakeholder Forum is producing some useful suggestions and doing some good work. The process that is under way means that all its suggestions will be properly assessed by the Department, and we will respond to those in detail later this year.

T6. Following the very welcome news that we have ended Labour’s fuel duty, may I ask the Secretary of State whether she will continue to promote the use of alternative fuels in heavy haulage lorries, as practised by Downton and Howard Tenens in my constituency? (114063)

We are very keen to do that. In fact, my hon. Friend might be aware that we have started the low-carbon truck demonstration trial, which now involves £10 million of funding for investigating how we can encourage haulage companies to operate in a lower carbon way. He mentioned the fuel duty impact. Actually, hauliers will be about £4,900 better off on average. The Labour party is interested in carping, but the reality is that we are delivering for people on the ground in a way that it never did.

The big society pervades every Government Department. What is the Secretary of State’s definition of the big society?

It is people stepping up to the plate and seeing what they can do to help their local community. We are very good at doing that in times of crisis, particularly in places such as London, but I think that we should be doing it every day of the week. That is what it is about.

T7. Helicopter flights cause significant noise disturbance for people living under flight paths and they also benefit from reduced fuel taxes. Will the Minister look at schemes such as those adopted in Paris and Los Angeles to tackle helicopter noise and also look at the unfair tax advantage that helicopter operators have? (114064)

My right hon. Friend will appreciate that fuel duty is a matter for the Chancellor. We do appreciate the irritation that helicopter noise can cause—anyone who works in this building gets irritated by them buzzing overhead so often—and will consider it as part of our consultation on a sustainable framework for UK aviation.

Like many Members, I eagerly await publication of the high-level output specification and the statement of funds next month. As matters stand, Wales would see electrification only of our rail network to Cardiff, compared with electrification of 40% of UK railways and the electrification of the Glasgow to London route in 1974. I invite the Department to make up for this historical injustice by including electrification of the valleys network, the north Wales coast line and the main line to Swansea?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are looking closely at what we can do to improve the railway system in Wales. He will have to wait for the HLOS statement itself, but I am absolutely determined to ensure that we see investment go to all parts of the country. It is a key part of what the Government want to do—rebalance the economy—and that absolutely includes Wales.

T8. The Dutch now have two thirds of their minor rural road network covered by speed restrictions of 40 mph approximately, as they found those even more effective than 20 mph approximately zones in urban areas. Will the Minister please confirm that he will take this evidence into account when drafting the forthcoming guidance on setting speed limits and set out what other measures should be taken to protect rural cyclists? (114065)

I am happy to confirm that the Department is giving local councils much more freedom in how they use the road network, including the classification of roads and the speed limits that are set. I hope that my hon. Friend will be aware of the extra freedom for 20 mph limits, in particular. Her point on 40 mph limits is well made and I will ensure that my fellow Transport Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), is made aware of her comments when he returns.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Welfare Reform (Disabled People)

2. What assessment she has made of the cumulative effect of welfare reform legislation on disabled people. (114068)

5. What assessment she has made of the cumulative effect of welfare reform legislation on disabled people. (114072)

The Government consult fully with stakeholders on the impact of policy changes and produce robust equality impact assessments, as required by the Equality Act 2010 and its predecessor, the Equality Act 2006.

I am sure the Minister will be aware of Scope’s recently published report, which labels the Government’s impact assessments as wholly inappropriate when applied to one reform at a time. Does she accept that, unless the impact of welfare reform is considered cumulatively, the human cost of her Government’s austerity measures will be completely overlooked?

I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but she knows that neither the Institute for Fiscal Studies nor the Treasury have a methodology to assess such impacts in the way she describes, but I remind her that we have impact assessments and equality assessments for every policy in order to ensure that all the changes that we make benefit the people whom we are trying to support.

The Government’s Welfare Reform Act 2012 will force families to make children with disabilities share a bedroom with their siblings, regardless of the difficulties and disruption that that may cause. Will the Minister prevail upon colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to look again at the issue before the 2012 Act is fully implemented, to show some compassion and to let disabled children have a bedroom of their own, where necessary, instead of wasting Government money pursuing a case in the Supreme Court on the issue?

The hon. Lady is right to make sure that we have the right provision to support families in our communities, particularly those with disabled people, and that is why we have made sure that local budgets and funding are available to local authorities so that they can make such discretionary payments. Every family situation is different, and we need to take those differences into account.

Can my hon. Friend tell the House whether a care component will be built into universal credit, whether it will be subject to work conditionality, whether carer’s allowance will be assessed within universal credit, and whether households in receipt of disability living allowance and personal independence payment will be subject to the benefits cap?

My hon. Friend got a lot of detail into that question, and he will know that we have looked at the issue very carefully. Disability living allowance will not be included in the benefit cap, and importantly we intend to raise the equivalent in universal credit of employment and support allowance from £32.25 today to about £77 in future, ensuring that it includes more support for those who cannot go to work.

9. When disabled people are wrongly found fit for work, it causes a great deal of distress, and of course it is costly to have unnecessary appeals. So the falling rate of successful work capability assessment appeals is welcome and shows some improvement, but three out of 10 being wrongly found fit for work is still too high a figure. What more can the Government do to improve the process, particularly in terms of applying sanctions to Atos when it gets an assessment wrong, so that we can get more decisions right first time? (114076)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to want to drive through more good decision making in that process, and we are doing so across the board by working with Atos to make sure that it adheres to the contracts we have with it, and through the changes that we are making as a result of the Harrington reports, but importantly mandatory reconsideration, which begins in April 2013 for all decisions on benefits, will ensure that more decisions are right first time.

The Government say that their welfare reforms are intended to enable more disabled people to get into work, but a case has been raised with us about a young man who is a wheelchair user, had been desperate to work, found a job but had to turn it down because he would have needed to move and could not find affordable adapted housing. Why are the Government delaying the reasonable adjustment provisions that would help such people to work?

The hon. Lady will know that we have a broad range of support available for people such as the gentleman she refers to through the access to work scheme, for which we are increasing funding by about £15 million over the spending review period, and through local housing payments, such as the one I referred to in a previous answer, in order to ensure that local authorities have the flexibility to support such individuals, so that they can get into work and stay in work.

Will my hon. Friend commend the work of disabled people’s user-led organisations, particularly the Outlook centre in Long Eaton in my constituency, which I visited last week? The parent of a service user told me that they were doing a passport renewal form for their daughter and were not happy about having to complete the children’s section of the form for her because, although she is 40 years old, she has learning difficulties. They felt that this was inappropriate. Will my hon. Friend kindly look into the matter?

We can of course look into the detail of the point that my hon. Friend raises. She is absolutely right also to highlight the very valuable work of user-led organisations such as the Outlook centre, which can provide bespoke support for families who are dealing with benefit claims or other issues to do with their loved ones’ lives. That is why we have launched a significant programme to try to expand and support more user-led organisations up and down the country in doing similar work in all our communities.

Default Retirement Age

The Government’s impact assessment estimates that after one year about 6,000 people will have continued in work as a result of removing the DRA—in other words, between 4% and 7% of employees aged 65 or over.

Does my hon. Friend agree that older workers enable knowledge and skills to be transferred from one generation to the next, and that putting a “best before” date on workers was unacceptable discrimination that this Government have justly got rid of?

My hon. Friend is right. One of the lasting legacies of this coalition will be that, after years of its being talked about, we finally abolished age discrimination in the workplace. To give him an example, research has found that McDonald’s restaurants that employ people over 60 have, on average, far higher customer satisfaction than those that do not.

Is the Minister aware that the experiences of men and women who work beyond retirement age are very different? Nearly two thirds of those who work beyond retirement age are women, and of those most—nearly two thirds—work in lower-skilled jobs, whereas, in contrast, the smaller group of men are working in higher-skilled jobs. What is he going to do about dealing with the poverty of women in old age?

The hon. Lady is right. Successive Governments have failed to deliver an adequate pension to women. That is why we are reforming the state pension, as the Prime Minister confirmed on Monday, to deliver a pension that is simple, decent and, in particular, treats women fairly for the first time.

Forced Marriage

6. What steps she has taken to ensure that the criminalisation of forced marriage does not discourage victims from bringing complaints forward. (114073)

Forced marriage is a hidden problem, and criminalising this abhorrent act will give victims the option of seeking the toughest form of justice. To ensure that victims and others are not discouraged from coming forward, civil remedies will remain available to them. We are also providing a package of support to ensure that victims know what help is available, and we are better equipping practitioners to deal with cases of forced marriage more effectively.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. However, victims will clearly be intimidated in reporting family members who are committing these crimes. What more can be done to encourage other family members and potential witnesses to report the crimes, and what more can she do to raise awareness that this practice will not be tolerated?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. We have retained the twin-track approach of the criminalised route or the civil remedy route precisely because of a concern about those who may not want to report people because of the criminalisation aspect. Raising awareness is incredibly important. That is why we are putting in place a support package, working with practitioners to help them to identify the signs that somebody might be about to be taken away for a forced marriage. We are also going to run a summer awareness campaign aimed at young people so that they understand the signs as regards not only something that might happen to themselves but what is happening to their friends, and are more willing to come forward.

Black and Minority Ethnic Communities

7. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of recent labour market trends on black and minority ethnic communities. (114074)

Tackling unemployment is a priority for this Government. Our approach is to support people according to their individual needs and circumstances rather than segregate them according to ethnicity. That is why we have introduced personalised support through the Work programme, the youth contract, and the Get Britain Working measures. The significantly increased flexibility that we have given to providers and Jobcentre Plus means that interventions can be tailored to address an individual’s specific needs.

Given, however, that 44.4% of economically active 16 to 24-year-old black people are without work, compared with just 20% of white people, is not this policy not working?

The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the number of young black men who are out of work. However, the recent press coverage gave inaccurate figures. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that less than a third of black men aged 18 to 24 are unemployed. The Government recognise that that figure is still too high, which is why we have introduced tailored and personalised support to help people get back into the labour market.

The whole House recognises the difficulty of getting certain groups of people into work. Does the Minister agree that payment by results is the way to ensure that the right level of resources is targeted at those who are hardest to help?

My hon. Friend highlights exactly the right point. Work programme providers are encouraged by payment by results, which means that when a young black man comes in, the providers will not get paid unless they remove the barriers that are prohibiting him from getting work, whether through education, training, skills or whatever else.

Is not the fact that young black men are still being hit hardest of all by the Government’s economic failure? Should not the Equalities Minister commit to publishing a full audit of what is happening to young men from different BME backgrounds and the impact that that is having? The latest figures show that unemployment among young white men has gone up by three percentage points since the election, and among young black men by 14 percentage points. There is currently no targeted support for young black men in getting apprenticeships, and the Work programme clearly is not working. Faced with this growing crisis, will Ministers now take serious action to provide the support for jobs and opportunities that young people from all backgrounds need, and consider a bankers’ bonus tax so that they can do so?

The Work programme introduces the conditions that will get young black men into work. That is something that never happened under the Labour Government. The number of people from ethnic minorities who are in work is up by 179,000 compared with 2010. Moreover, on the issue of BME apprenticeships, which the right hon. Lady raised, 2010-11 saw the highest ever percentage of BME apprentices start their training. The labour market trend for the number of people starting apprenticeships has gone up significantly in recent years, from 167,000 in 2003 to 457,200 in 2010-11. We are doing what Labour failed to do.

8. What recent discussions she has had with her ministerial colleagues on unemployment levels in black and minority ethnic communities. (114075)

Following on from what has been said, black and ethnic minority people seem to figure higher in the unemployment figures in Scotland. Has any of the Ministers present discussed this matter with any Minister in the Scottish Government?

We work closely with the Scottish Government on this issue. As I said, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer that I have given. We have put in place a Work programme that will deliver results; Labour never did.

Business of the House

The business for next week will be:

Monday 2 July—Motion to approve Ways and Means resolutions relating to the Finance Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Finance Bill (day 1).

Tuesday 3 July—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance Bill (day 2).

Wednesday 4 July—Estimates day (1st allotted day). There will be a debate on the work of the UK Border Agency, followed by a debate on UK-Turkey relations and Turkey’s regional role.

Further details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: There will be a debate on: UK-Turkey relations and Turkey’s regional role: 12th report from the Foreign Affairs Committee of Session 2010-12, HC 1567, and the Government response thereto, CM 8370.]

At 7 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to terrorism.

Thursday 5 July—Proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Bill, followed by debate on a motion relating to VAT on air ambulance fuel payments, followed by debate on a motion relating to the public administration Select Committee’s recommendation for the Prime Minister’s adviser on Ministers’ interests to be empowered to instigate his own investigations.

Friday 6 July—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 9 July will include:

Monday 9 July—Second Reading of the House of Lords Reform Bill (day 1).

Tuesday 10 July—Conclusion of Second Reading of the House of Lords Reform Bill (day 2).

Wednesday 11 July—Debate on a motion relating to the sitting hours of the House of Commons. The subject for that debate has been nominated by the Backbench Business Committee. Following that, the Chairman of Ways and Means is expected to name opposed private business for consideration.

Thursday 12 July—Motion relating to the reform of the Court of Justice of the European Union, followed by a motion on a European document relating to the EU draft budget, followed by a motion on a European document relating to EU human rights strategy.

Friday 13 July—Private Members’ Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 5 July will be a debate on PIP breast implants and regulation of cosmetic interventions, followed by a debate on adoption.

The right hon. Gentleman has announced for next week a debate on a Backbench Business Committee motion on giving the adviser on the ministerial code the power to initiate an investigation rather than waiting for the Prime Minister to ask for it, which this Prime Minister has been remarkably reluctant to do. Will the Government accept the decision of the House on this matter?

The revelations that Barclays bank engaged in “widespread” market manipulation to maximise its profits are truly shocking. There are suggestions that other banks were also involved in rigging the LIBOR and EURIBOR rates. I know the Chancellor will make a statement after business questions, but does the Leader of the House agree that such behaviour is “morally repugnant”?

Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister published the House of Lords Reform Bill. The Opposition welcome this legislation. I have always voted for an elected second Chamber and look forward to doing so again, this time with Conservative Back Benchers joining us in the Division Lobby. When the Labour Government took through legislation to remove hereditary peers—a simple six-clause Bill—there were nine days of debate. Why are the Government planning to offer little more debate on the House of Lords Reform Bill, which is a much bigger and more complex piece of legislation? The Leader of the House is fond of saying that the House is not a legislative factory. The Queen’s Speech was short of Bills; time is not a problem. Will he undertake to arrange future Government business to ensure that Members have sufficient time to scrutinise that important Bill?

I can understand Conservative MPs finding the Liberal Democrat differentiation strategy increasingly infuriating—perhaps that explains why the Prime Minister and the Education Secretary have jumped on the same bandwagon —but if the Liberal Democrats differentiate themselves from the coalition and the Conservatives do the same, where does that leave the Government? Perhaps the Education Secretary, who wants to micro-manage schools, could pose this as an exam question: if two parties come together and then differentiate themselves, what does that leave? Based on the last few weeks, the answer is a complete shambles. Will the Leader of the House arrange in future business for Liberal Democrat and Conservative Ministers to share the speaking time to give both parties ample opportunity to differentiate themselves?

We have known for months that the Chancellor is out of touch with the country, but we did not realise until recently the extent to which he is out of touch with his own ministerial colleagues. The Transport Secretary has spent weeks telling everyone that the increase in fuel duty announced in the Budget is going ahead, and on Tuesday morning on the airwaves she was absolutely clear that it would not be postponed. Later that day at 12.30 pm, Conservative Whips sent a briefing to all Tory MPs saying that freezing fuel duty would be

“hypocrisy of the worst kind”.

Two hours later, the Chancellor popped up at the Dispatch Box to announce that he will, after all, freeze fuel duty. Having humiliated the Transport Secretary, the Chancellor then forced the Economic Secretary to make her now celebrated “Newsnight” appearance to explain the latest Budget U-turn, on the grounds—to quote her words—that

“there isn’t much in the world that is certain”.

Given the disarray and panic in the Treasury bunker, the Leader of the House might struggle to give an exact figure, but how many Budget U-turns have we had to date? I wonder whether the Chancellor could write the next Budget in pencil so that we can rub it all out again when he changes his mind. The Leader of the House has announced two days of debate on the Finance Bill next week. Will he now put his reputation on the line, here and now, and tell us categorically that there will be no more U-turns on this bungling Budget? Perhaps he should just give up and vote for our amendments next week.

The Government have made the wrong choice on the economy—a double-dip recession made in Downing street, borrowing up, tax receipts down, living standards down, no plan for growth. The Government’s economic policy is running out of road. The U-turn that the Chancellor needs to make is on his failed economic strategy.

On the point about the debate on the adviser to the Prime Minister, the hon. Lady is now asking us to do what her Government consistently refused to do, which was to allow the Prime Minister’s adviser to initiate inquiries. She will have to listen to the response given by my ministerial colleague in the debate that I have just announced, which was selected by the Backbench Business Committee.

On the Barclays debacle, as the hon. Lady knows, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will make a statement, but it strikes me as a failure of the light-touch regime introduced by a previous Minister.

So far as the House of Lords is concerned, the Opposition seem to be in a total muddle. They say that they support the Bill but that they will oppose the programme motion, before they even know what it contains. I ask the hon. Lady, who I know supports reform, to listen to what her leader said in his first conference speech in 2010:

“This generation has a chance—and a huge responsibility—to change our politics. We must seize it and meet the challenge… we need to finally elect the House of Lords after talking about it for…a hundred years.”

That is what he said in 2010, yet yesterday the shadow Leader of the House of Lords said that

“it is not a priority”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 June 2012; Vol. 738, c. 237.]

The only thing that is consistent is the sheer opportunism of the Labour party on this subject.

On the usual knockabout about the coalition from the hon. Lady, I would simply say that two parties are now working together in government more harmoniously than one party did in government for 13 years.

Finally, on fuel, I admire the cool performance of the Economic Secretary in the face of some very aggressive interviewing by Jeremy Paxman. The Opposition accuse the Government of a U-turn, but let us consider their position. First, they introduced a fuel duty escalator—[Interruption.] Secondly, they asked us not to go ahead with their tax rise. Thirdly, when we do not, they complain. The alphabet does not contain a letter describing that manoeuvre.

Will my right hon. Friend please provide a debate on setting up an inquiry into the very serious allegations made against one of my predecessors, Raymond Mawby? These serious allegations, amounting to treason, need to be fully and fairly investigated, because he is not here to defend himself. It is in no one’s interest to have trial by media.

I admire what my hon. Friend has just done in defending one of her predecessors—a man with whom I served in the House from 1974 to 1983. As she said, so far only one side of the story has been put into the public domain, and it is imperative that the other side also be put forward, in the interests of the friends and family of Ray Mawby. I would like to make the appropriate inquiries to see how we might get the full story into the public domain, so that we can find out exactly what happened to him in the years to which she referred.

I convey to the House the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, who cannot be with us today owing to unavoidable personal business.

We are grateful for the time allocated to us by the Leader of the House and business managers, but it is still difficult managing demand. Having said that, we were grateful for the opportunity to suggest to him that the debate on the House’s sitting hours be on 11 July. However, we are still struggling with demand for the time allocated. Will he please reconsider the amount of time allocated to the Backbench Business Committee?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and to the Backbench Business Committee for collaborating with the usual channels in enabling the House to have a proper debate about sitting hours in the relatively near future. I take to heart what he has said about both the quantity of time and the predictability. We are committed to providing at least 27 days in the Chamber for the Backbench Business Committee, and I will use my best endeavours to give the hon. Gentleman adequate notice of time and do what I can to find more time, if possible, between now and the end of the Session, when I would expect, in any event, to have the usual pre-recess Adjournment debate.

As this week has seen the visit to London of the renowned American economist, Dr Arthur Laffer, may we please have a debate on the optimum level of taxation so that we have the opportunity to restate both the moral case and the economic case for lower taxation?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We have two days on the Finance Bill, including a debate on Third Reading, when that might be possible. I would welcome such a debate. The Prime Minister said yesterday—at this Dispatch Box, I think—that he believed in flatter, fairer taxes, which is why we have taken 2 million people out of tax altogether, reduced corporation tax and now have a lower top rate of tax to make Britain competitive with the rest of the world. I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend’s contributions on Third Reading of the Finance Bill on Tuesday.

Could we have a debate about health service reorganisation and cuts, including plans to close four of the nine accident and emergency departments in west London, where the local NHS says that without closure they will

“literally run out of money”?

The right hon. Gentleman will know these hospitals very well, as hospitals such as Hammersmith, Charing Cross, Central Mid and Ealing served his former constituents, and they are much needed by the people they serve.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I had an interest in the area he now represents. We are putting more resources into the NHS than were planned by the Labour party, but I will share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman about the proposed rationalisation to which he refers.

As co-chairman of the all-party group on carers, I ask my right hon. Friend to give an undertaking that, if the White Paper on social care is not published and a statement made on it next week, we will have both that White Paper and a statement before the rise of the House for the summer recess—not least to give right hon. and hon. Members the opportunity to study it during that recess? It would be good to see the White Paper, as I understand that it might include some enhanced rights and remedies for carers.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and take this belated opportunity to congratulate him personally on his knighthood. It is indeed our intention to publish in the very near future the White Paper and the progress report on the reform of funding. We plan to implement the recommendations of the Law Commission. I applaud my hon. Friend’s interest, and that of the group he co-chairs. We are determined to do more for carers and to drive up carers’ rights. I very much hope that when the White Paper is produced, he will be reassured by some of its proposals. As I said, we plan to bring it forward very shortly.

The Leader of the House has announced the Second Reading of the coalition’s House of Lords Reform Bill, which gets two days’ debate. At the end of Tuesday’s debate, after the question that the Bill be read a Second time has been put, is it the Government’s intention immediately to hold the vote on any programme motion?

Yes, that would be our proposition—a proposition that we have adhered to for all the legislation we have produced so far. Discussions continue through the usual channels about the content of the programme motion. I very much hope that the Opposition will enter into sensible and constructive discussions so that we can make good progress on this important piece of legislation.

What representations has the Leader of the House received from Back Benchers, or indeed from the official Opposition, on the number of days in the programme for the House of Lords Reform Bill? Just how many days are they seeking?

The particular usual channel that would handle those negotiations would be my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary, the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Mr McLoughlin). However, I note that in an exchange during yesterday’s debate on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, the Opposition were asked how many days they wanted for the Committee stage, and all that they said was “plenty”. As I have said, I hope very much that that they will enter into serious discussions so that this important legislation can complete its progress through the House in an agreed and structured way.

I know that amnesia is now afflicting so many members of the Cabinet that it is amazing that they manage to recognise one another when they meet, but the Leader of the House said earlier that the fuel escalator had been introduced by a Labour Government. It was not; it was introduced in 1993 by the Conservatives.

My question, however, is about the statutory instrument which is to be debated next Wednesday, and which deals with terrorism. So far the Home Office is refusing to tell us what it is about, and it has not been published. How can we possibly scrutinise a statutory instrument on a key matter next Wednesday if we are not even told what it is about?

May we have a debate on the exposure of UK business men to personal hazard in Serbia as a result of article 359 of the Serbian criminal code, which was condemned by a resolution of the European Parliament on 29 March and which has resulted in the incarceration without trial of my constituent Mr Nicholas Djivanovic since 28 March last year? Given Mr Djivanovic’s case, the advice must be that investors considering Serbia should proceed with extreme caution, if at all.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, and I very much hope that the consular service is giving his constituent all the support that it can. I cannot promise an early debate, but this strikes me as an appropriate subject for an Adjournment debate, or indeed, if we have one, a debate on the pre-recess Adjournment. In the meantime, I will raise my hon. Friend’s constituency case with the appropriate Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

It is now eight months since the Department of Health announced that it would provide more money for the seven private finance initiative hospitals. Eight months on, those trusts still do not know how much money they will receive. May we have an urgent statement from the Department on when the money will be allocated?

Rather than waiting for a statement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, I will write to him today and ask whether he can correspond with the hon. Gentleman and answer his question about when the resources to which he has referred will be made available.

Yesterday the Associate Parliamentary Manufacturing Group held a meeting to prepare a submission for the Heseltine review, which gives the Government an opportunity to look strategically at how it can support our country’s competitiveness. Given the importance of the review, I believe that it is also important for Members to have their say. Will the Leader of the House be able to commit himself to arranging a debate on the review in Government time and giving Members an opportunity to make clear their views on how we can increase our competitiveness?

The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill is currently going through its stages, and it may be possible to debate the issue raised by my hon. Friend when it returns to the Floor of the House.

My hon. Friend is right: the Chancellor and the Business Secretary have asked Lord Heseltine to undertake an independent review of how spending Departments and other relevant public sector bodies interact with the private sector, and then to assess their capacity to develop pro-growth policies. The review will include a benchmarking exercise comparing how we do with how other countries do, and Lord Heseltine is engaging comprehensively with all interested groups. He has said that he will publish his report in October, and it may be appropriate to hold a debate thereafter, possibly in Back-Bench business time.

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen early-day motion 274, which stands in my name?

[That this House pays tribute to Emily Rawlins, of Manchester, who has triumphed over her learning disability to become a member of the Great Britain Athletics Learning Disability Team, representing our country in Croatia, Italy, France and Sweden, and winning silver and bronze medals in the hammer; further pays tribute to her volunteering work about coping with bullying, following having been bullied herself for most of her school life, and volunteering in addition as a sports coach and at a charity shop; and hails her as a marvellous example of how courage and determination can prevail in adverse circumstances.]

Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in paying tribute to my constituent Emily Rawlins, a young woman who has overcome a learning disability and bullying to become a member of the Great Britain athletics learning disability team, and who has won silver and gold medals when representing our country in European countries? Will he do his best to ensure that this young lady, who volunteers against bullying and does a lot of other volunteering but is looking for full-time work, does not have her access to jobseeker’s allowance reduced because of the marvellous public work that she does?

I assume that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) was seeking either a statement or possibly even a full debate on that important matter.

I will raise with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions the interaction of entitlement to jobseeker’s allowance with the activity to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred. I have indeed seen early-day motion 274, and I join the right hon. Gentleman in congratulating Emily, who is, I believe, a member of Sale Harriers and who provides a great example of the ability to triumph over disability and bullying. I think that the British team won 11 medals in Sweden, which bodes very well for the imminent Paralympics.

May we have a debate on who the Government thinks should be in our prisons? Although nearly 4,000 burglars and 4,500 violent offenders with 15 or more previous convictions were not sent to prison last year, the Government’s view is that there are still far too many criminals in prison. Perhaps the Government could explain why they have agreed to allow Charles Taylor, the former Liberian President, to serve his 50-year prison sentence in this country. Surely, if we cannot afford to have British criminals sent to prison, we cannot afford to send former Liberian Presidents to prison in this country either.

My view is that some people who are not in prison should be and some people who are in prison should not be, but the issue of whether someone is given a prison sentence is primarily one for the courts rather than Parliament. We recently passed a sentencing Bill which raised the thresholds for some minimum sentences, and I am sure that that was welcomed by my hon. Friend. As for the specific case to which he referred, I will raise it with my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor.

Like many other people, I welcomed the appeal by my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor for a cut in fuel duty when he was interviewed on the “Today” programme. A few hours later, the Chancellor accepted it. That is, I think, what we mean by bipartisanship. May we now have a debate on the need to cut air passenger duty? It will cost a family in Rotherham £320 to go on holiday this summer, whereas it will cost a family in France, for example, just £38. Following the U-turn on fuel duty, may we have a U-turn on air passenger duty?

I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman was present for Transport questions, but they would have provided him with an ideal opportunity to raise the issue. [Interruption.] If he is proposing a reduction in a particular form of taxation, perhaps he would like to suggest where the money might come from.

Order. The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) has been chuntering from a sedentary position that he did not make that point at Transport questions because he was not called by me, but he was called this time, and I know that he is deeply grateful.

May we have a debate on spinal muscular atrophy, which is the number one genetic killer of infants and small children? I am sure that the Leader of the House will join me in congratulating 24 of my constituents who are cycling from Le Mans to Olney to raise funds for my three-year-old constituent Maya Czerminska to buy the special equipment that she needs. May I simply ask the Government to redouble their efforts to tackle this appalling disease?

I applaud the fundraising initiative of my hon. Friend’s constituent. The National Screening Committee is currently scoping out a review for screening for spinal muscular atrophy, and once the review has been completed, it will be put on the NSC’s website for consultation. I know that the NSC would welcome an input from my hon. Friend, and, indeed, from those who are raising funds for this worthwhile cause.

May we have a debate on the way in which we treat the staff of the House, particularly the very loyal staff on the switchboard, many of whom are my constituents and many of whom have been here for more than 20 years? They have been told that they will have to move to Southampton next May because Capita has taken over the running of the service. Can we really not look at the way in which we treat our own staff?

The hon. Lady is right to draw the House’s attention to the debt that we owe to all those who work for the House and provide such a high-quality service, often in challenging circumstances. I understand that the contract for the switchboard operation has been awarded to Capita as part of the initiative of the House of Commons Commission to reduce costs. The hon. Lady’s concern is not primarily a matter for the Government, but it is a matter for the Commission, so I will raise it with the Commission and see whether there is a role for us to play in minimising the dislocation of her constituents.

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate on the functioning of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, especially in relation to the extra funds made available to it to deal with tax avoidance and tax evasion? It appears to me that it is the media that are finding high-profile tax avoiders, while HMRC is chasing one of my constituents for small overpayments of tax credits from more than 10 years ago. I am sure that is not what the extra resources were intended for.

I am sure my hon. Friend will take up with vigour the case of his constituent who is being pursued for tax credits. We all know from our own casework that quite often tax credits are overpaid through no fault of the constituent, and then some time later HMRC asks for the money back and it is not there.

On my hon. Friend’s first point, the Government have given £900 million in extra resources to HMRC specifically to bring in more tax, and we estimate that that will bring in an extra £7 billion of revenue.

This weekend is likely to see the beginning of the end of the euro. While euro-obsessives wring their hands in anguish at the thought, some of us believe that re-establishing national currencies will be beneficial in both economic and democratic terms, yet we have not had a serious debate about life after the euro. Will the Leader of the House make time for such a debate?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has a good record on keeping the House in the picture after European Council meetings. I have to say that I do not think it would be in the interests of this country for the euro currency to come to an end, as the uncertainty and instability would be gravely damaging to British interests and British employment. However, if my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reports on the weekend conference, there may be an opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to pursue this matter with him.

May we have a debate on the operation of the parliamentary information technology system, so I can understand why we have a wi-fi system that we have to log into about every five seconds, my constituents can have a better understanding of the alleged overspending on iPad rental, and everyone can understand who is responsible for the operation of this system?

Again, that is more a matter for the Commission than the Government, but speaking from memory, I think there are plans to roll out access to wi-fi within the Palace of Westminster. At the moment it does not reach the Leader’s office. I hope that—[Laughter.] I hope that, as the reach of wi-fi spreads through the Palace of Westminster and the signal strength is improved, my hon. Friend will not be inconvenienced in the way that he clearly is at present.

On Monday, I raised the case of a constituent who has had cancer. She has been told by her doctor that she is not fit enough to go back to work, but she is being denied benefit. The Minister in question refused to meet me and said it was now policy for Ministers not to look at individual cases. I am sure the Leader of the House agrees that we must be able to represent our constituents in exceptional cases. Please will he look into this matter for me?

I will certainly pursue this matter. As far as I know, Ministers are accessible to other Members who want to raise cases. On the particular case the hon. Lady raises, I am sure the constituent is appealing against the decision to deny benefit, but I will raise this specific concern with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and see whether a meeting might be arranged.

Wednesday 4 July is “Independents day”, a campaign day supporting and promoting the independent retail sector, spearheaded in my community by the Keighley Town Centre Association. Can we have a statement on what the Government have already done to support this important sector of our economy, and what they plan to do in the future?

I welcome this important initiative, supported by Keighley, and I pay tribute to independent shops, which are often a lifeline in areas that have not been reached by the multiples. I cannot promise an early debate, but this might be an appropriate subject for an Adjournment debate or one of the longer Westminster Hall debates.

Can we urgently have a statement on the medicine supply chain problems facing patients, front-line pharmacists and dispensing doctors? After 18 months of freedom of information requests, we now know that four out of five health boards, health trusts and prescribing bodies in England and Wales are experiencing difficulties in accessing drugs for conditions including diabetes, cancer and coronary care. In our country there is a public service obligation to provide electricity to every household. We should consider putting in place a patient service obligation to make sure UK patients have access to the drugs they need.

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious issue. There has been some discontinuity in the supply chain of certain medicines—in some cases companies can get a better deal if they sell pharmaceuticals overseas. My understanding was that there was a back-up service to ensure that shortages were avoided, but I will pursue this important matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Dairy farmers in Crewe and Nantwich and elsewhere are rightly concerned about how much power the supermarket buyers have over them. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the establishment of the groceries code adjudicator, which my local farmers broadly welcome, and in particular the sanctions available to the adjudicator to make sure the supermarkets adhere to the code, thus protecting our vital dairy industry?

As my hon. Friend will know, in the Queen’s Speech we committed ourselves to introducing the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill. That Bill has now been introduced and is making its way through the other place. I hope it will come before this House before too long. The adjudicator will have strong powers to hold retailers to account if they have broken the code. He will be able to name and shame retailers and, if the Secretary of State agrees that it is necessary, to impose financial penalties.

May we have a statement or debate on the Government’s proposed changes to secondary education and the reintroduction of O-levels? This week, there was a leak to the Daily Mail and we had an Opposition day debate in which we heard a lot about aspirations but very few details. Schools in Birmingham and elsewhere have a right to know precisely what the Government are planning to do.

We had a good debate on O-levels on Tuesday, and if the hon. Lady looks at Hansard she will see that the resolution agreed by the House refers to the forthcoming consultation on the secondary school qualifications and curriculum framework. The point at which to have another debate would be once that consultation document is in the public domain. I would simply add that we inherited a situation in which far too many children were leaving primary school unable to write, read and add up properly. That was wholly unsustainable, and we have proposals to put it right.

Many Members recognise the excellent work nurses do. However, a constituent of mine who has spent more than 40 years as a nurse and nurse trainer has raised concerns about some of the basic personal care aspects of nursing training. May we have a debate on nursing training, therefore, and on how we can ensure that we have an excellent standard of nursing throughout the country?

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to drive up the standards of nursing, and I believe that there has been a move to make nursing more of a graduate profession. I cannot promise an early debate on this subject, but again it might be a suitable subject for a debate on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall. We are committed to driving up the standard of nursing training, so that nurses can provide an even higher quality service to patients.

May we have a debate on endangered species, having read this week the very sad news of the death of Lonesome George, the last giant tortoise of his kind on the Galapagos islands? Does the Leader of the House see any parallel between the plight of Lonesome George and that of the endangered Chancellor, with his tendency to hide in his shell at the first sign of trouble?

A moment ago, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was at my side. I am sure he will return—and he will certainly get support from me for his forthcoming statement. I should just say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that things are not going too well for his party. I see that Tony Blair took control of the Evening Standard yesterday, and when asked whether he wanted to become Prime Minister, he said, “Yes, sure.” I am not sure whether that is the vote of confidence in the current leadership that Labour was hoping for, or whether the reserves are lining up on the touchline.

Can we have a debate on topsy-turvy welfarism? The Sun has revealed that taxpayers are to be squeezed by the EU for tens of millions in winter fuel cash to send to pensioners who have not lived in the UK for decades. Surely it is wrong to tax pensioners and working people in my constituency to send what could be up to £90 million in benefits abroad to warm countries and tax havens across Europe.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has said that we will challenge these ridiculous rules and make sure that winter fuel payments go to those in this country. It is ludicrous that we should have to pay for more pensioners living in warmer countries than this one.