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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 551: debated on Thursday 18 October 2012

Transport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Colne-Skipton Rail Link

1. What assessment he has made of the potential for reintroducing the Colne to Skipton rail link. (123207)

The Department for Transport has not made an independent assessment of the economic benefits arising from reopening the Skipton to Colne line. Where local travel needs are the central objective, we look to the local authorities concerned to take the first step in evaluating benefits and prioritising available resources.

I hope the Minister has seen my early-day motion 479, setting out the work of the Skipton East Lancashire Rail Action Partnership campaign group, which is fighting for the line to be reopened. Will he meet with me and representatives of SELRAP to discuss the huge potential benefits of reopening the line?

I hope my hon. Friend is reassured when I say that I have seen and read early-day motion 479. I am more than happy to meet with him and, if he agrees, I think it would be sensible to meet with the relevant local authorities as well.

East Coast Main Line

Following the tabling of this question, I considered what the hon. Lady is asking me to do, but I have decided to follow the policy set by the previous Government, who believed in franchising.

Since 1997 we have seen Great North Eastern Railway fail and National Express fail, but now we have East Coast trains returning £187 million to the taxpayer. Why on earth would the Minister want to swap that for the unmitigated disaster of the west coast tender? Is not that free-marketism gone mad?

I draw on what the shadow Lord Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), said when he was a Transport Minister:

“The rail franchising system was examined by the National Audit Office last year, and was found to deliver good value for money”

and “steadily improving” services. He continued:

“Passenger numbers are at their highest levels since the 1940s,”

and

“punctuality is more than 90 per cent.”—[Official Report, 1 July 2009; Vol. 495, c. 425-6.]

I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said then, and I think it is the right way forward.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on continuing the policies of this Government as well as the last, but there are lessons to be learned for both the east coast and the west coast franchise. Will he ensure that the product of the east coast main line service will remain the premier service in the land?

I want all services to be good services and to serve hon. Members’ constituents, but of course we have lessons to learn—lessons from the way in which certain franchises were unable to continue under the previous Government. I made a statement to the House on Monday in which I said that we would learn those lessons. Two reviews are being undertaken, and I look forward to receiving their representations.

The Secretary of State continues to claim that privatising the east coast rail service is necessary to deliver new investment, but he knows full well that both the planned improvements for the line and the new generation of inter-city trains are being funded by the taxpayer. In the light of the west coast fiasco, will he rethink his opposition to allowing the east coast line to be run as a not-for-private-profit service, not least since, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) said, it returned £187 million to taxpayers last year—money that, from next year, will have to be split with shareholders?

The hon. Lady is rewriting history: the simple fact is that the previous Government were committed to franchising on the east coast main line—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) says he is not bothered about that any more; I shall remind him of things that he supported in the past but now attacks.

Rail Electrification

The Government are committed to an extensive rolling programme of electrification; by the end of the decade, around three quarters of passenger miles travelled in England and Wales will be on electric trains. Electrification will deliver trains that are cleaner, quieter, faster and cheaper to operate, with more capacity for passenger and freight customers.

Electrification of the great western line through Swindon and beyond will allow increased train capacity. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the need for more seats to allow more passengers to use the service in comfort will be at the heart of the greater western franchise process when it is reopened?

Indeed it will. I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned for greater capacity on that line for some time. I believe that electrification will lead to an increase of 20% in seating capacity on the line by 2018.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his job. As he will know, I welcome the go-ahead for the tram train pilot project between Sheffield and Rotherham. The trams will not be delivered until 2015 and there will probably then be a couple years of evaluation. If the scheme is successful—I am sure that it will be—rolling it out will depend on having underused heavy rail lines that are electrified. Will he bear that in mind when considering future electrification?

I will certainly bear in mind the hon. Gentleman’s comments. He has always fought hard for an improved service for his constituents and in the Sheffield area. I will look closely at what he has said.

14. Does the new Secretary of State recognise the need for electrification in the Tees valley so that we can have a metro service to connect the large conurbation together? (123222)

I take that as a bid, and it is one that I will look at in more detail. I am sure that I will hear much more about it from my hon. Friend.

We in the south Wales valleys are delighted that those lines are to be electrified, but can the Secretary of State tell us when that work will start and how much faster journey times between Treherbert, Llwynypia and Cardiff will be? If he is unable to pronounce those place names or tell us today, will he please write to me?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) for managing to get electrification for Wales into the original programme, and I am very glad that that is something that this Government will—

I know that the hon. Gentleman welcomed it. I am glad that this Government will give us something that he never managed to achieve when he was in government. I think that it will start in 2015.

18. In view of the need for strategic planning, will the Secretary of State bear in mind that everyone would like electrified railway lines and that provision should be made to give comfort to investors and for infrastructure developments? (123226)

As I said earlier, electrification brings many advantages to the rail network, so what my hon. Friend asks for will be delivered by electrification. The plans we have put forward are the most ambitious put forward by any Government.

South-west MPs met yesterday to discuss the pause in the greater western franchise. One of the concerns raised was the impact of the current ring-fenced electrification programme, which had been built into people’s bid plans. The issue was whether we would in fact see a worse service as a result of those electrification plans, as we have been unable to take the franchise bid forward and there are new timetables because of the works required for electrification.

As with any major infrastructure project, there will be delays while that is taken forward, but ultimately there will be a far better service.

Rail Capacity (London/Brimsdown)

4. What recent representations he has received on investment for a third railway track between London, Liverpool Street and Brimsdown. (123211)

My hon. Friend refers to a small scheme involving a piece of extra track in the Brimsdown area. The Mayor of London wrote to the Secretary of State this week commending the alternative, but more expensive, scheme, which would also facilitate economic regeneration.

The Minister will know that the project enjoys substantial support from Network Rail, north London boroughs and the Mayor’s office. It is crucial to the development of north London, including for potentially up to 33% of new homes, and for more than 20,000 jobs. Will he meet me to discuss support for financial frontloading with resulting payback from local authorities, developers and stakeholders? Any expression of support would be welcome.

I will of course be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and any other colleagues he feels would be appropriate.

Accepting that half a loaf is better than no bread, will my hon. Friend nevertheless acknowledge that a much more substantial scheme for improving track capacity on that line is the only way to provide commuters and passengers travelling to or from Stansted airport with the kind of service that by now should be seen as essential—and may I join the meeting?

My right hon. Friend knows that the second high-level output specification package—HLOS 2 —commits Network Rail to providing extra capacity to meet peak demand in that area. Part of that will be done by having new trains between London, Bishop’s Stortford and Cambridge, and another part is sorting out the capacity constraints south of Broxbourne, which will help his constituents. I would of course be delighted if he joined the meeting.

Railway Stations

A major programme of station improvements is under way, with several key stations, such as Birmingham New Street, being significantly enhanced. We are also continuing to fund improvements through the national stations improvement programme, the Access for All programme and the station commercial project facility. In addition, enhancements are planned at stations as part of franchise commitments.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. The new hourly service on the East Suffolk line starts on 10 December. That is welcome news, although unfortunately the stations at Beccles and Lowestoft remain in poor condition. Will the Minister encourage Network Rail to work with Greater Anglia and Suffolk county council to upgrade the two stations and ensure that the necessary line maintenance is carried out so that maximum speeds can be achieved and that the benefits of the new service can be fully realised?

Yes is the simple answer. The train operator has a commitment to refresh all its stations before 2014. It hopes that the work will include Lowestoft, Woodbridge and the stations in between and be completed before the service enhancement. The bus-rail interchange improvement at Lowestoft station will result in an improved waiting environment for users. Network Rail is also looking to develop a commercial scheme that could provide improvements at the station.

May I seek an assurance from the Minister that any future tendering process for the west coast main line will consider investment in Wolverhampton station? We have recently benefited from investment in the Wolverhampton interchange; the bus station in particular has been a real boon to Wolverhampton passengers. I am anxious that that should continue for Wolverhampton train station.

I was pleased to be able to open the new bus station in Wolverhampton, which represents a significant improvement for my hon. Friend’s area. I recognise and am sympathetic to the case that he is making. Obviously, a review of the west coast main line franchise is under way and it would be improper to speculate on that. Nevertheless, he makes a good case, which will be taken into account.

Many colleagues on both sides of the House are looking forward to railway station improvements as a result of the west coast main line franchise. All of us in the all-party group on the west coast main line, of which I am joint chair, are disappointed that we have arrived at this position. A journey for a commuter or other rail traveller involves the experience not only on the train, but at the railway station. There is also the issue of improved parking facilities at railway stations. The Government need to ensure that those issues will be included in any future franchises—and perhaps there could be a little investment from the Government themselves.

As I mentioned a moment ago, a major programme of station improvement is under way, and that is not affected by the franchise reviews. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about particular stations on the west coast, and I am sure that it will be taken into account. The franchise process will emerge stronger as a result of the reviews now taking place.

Hounslow cycling network, whose representatives I am meeting today, has been promoting the ease and safety of cycling. Will the Minister confirm what plans he has to improve the provision of cycling racks at railway stations?

That is very much part of the work undertaken in the Department through the door-to-door journeys initiative, which I have begun. In addition, I recently allocated £7 million to the cycle-rail working group to improve facilities for cyclists at stations. We look to franchise deliverers to enhance cycle provision as a consequence of franchises that are let.

Rail Electrification (Welsh Valleys Lines)

On 16 July, the Government announced the electrification of the Welsh Valleys lines and the line between Bridgend and Swansea. Under the plans, about two thirds of the population of Wales will be on an electrified train route. The cost of the projects is estimated at some £350 million and the work is expected to be undertaken between 2015 and 2019, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said.

Passenger numbers on the Ebbw Vale to Cardiff line have gone through the carriage roof. Transport infrastructure is crucial in Blaenau Gwent, which again saw unemployment rise last month. Will the Minister ensure that the Welsh Government have the funds to redouble the line and improve train frequency and will he bring forward the 2019 date for the completion of electrification, to boost our economy?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the answer that I have just given is a significant boost not only to the Welsh valleys, but to the main line from Cardiff to Swansea. It will create tremendous opportunities for regeneration for business and other passenger travel, and there will be the ancillary advantage of changes and improvements to the rolling stock once the project has been completed.

Having just received a speeding fine from South Wales police for going at 35 mph in a 30 mph zone—it was quite a shock for me this morning—the news about electrification and all the other good news that the Minister mentions greatly encourages me to use the railways in future.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend. That just goes to show that the old adage is always the best adage: “Let the train take the strain”.

Blue Badges

The Department has recently updated its non-statutory guidance for local authorities to reflect reforms to the blue badge system. One of the main issues with the scheme concerned local authority administration, which was inconsistent and inefficient. The updated guidance aims to improve consistency and to remind local authorities of the eligibility criteria set out in the regulations. Local authorities remain responsible for taking decisions about an applicant’s eligibility for a blue badge.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Many people such as me who have difficulty walking—seven months after an accident—and even more difficulty getting in and out of a car in an ordinary car parking space, look longingly at empty disabled car parking spaces and yet cannot get a temporary blue badge. What can and will the Government and local councils do to address this situation for the future?

I am very sympathetic to my hon. Friend and understand the case she makes. I have looked at the temporary issuing of badges for the sort of situation that she describes. One of the downsides would be tremendous pressure on the limited number of parking spaces available. In June this year I issued an advice note to local authorities indicating how they might deal with locally determined concessions to deal with such situations, and I suggest that she pursue the matter with Poole unitary authority.

I have two elderly constituents, both long-term blue badge holders, whose only changing condition is that they are getting older and less mobile. They were told that they had to reapply to the county council for a new blue badge. When they did so, they were assessed very briefly over the phone and told that they were no longer eligible. Does the Minister really think that mobility can be assessed by a brief phone call?

To be honest, that does sound a little bit cursory, but the assessment of eligibility criteria is a matter for local authorities, not for the Government. It is important to stress that we have not changed the eligibility criteria at all except to widen them slightly. The hon. Lady needs to pursue the point with her local council.

West Coast Main Line

8. What the cost to the public purse has been of cancelling the award of the west coast main line rail franchise to date. (123215)

Spend to date on contingency planning by Directly Operated Railways is about £1 million. The cost of reimbursing bid costs to the four bidders is estimated to be about £40 million.

I thank the Minister for his response. He used the word “estimated”. How much does he intend to pay to First Group, whose shares have fallen by 20% since this fiasco began? How can he be sure that he will be able to protect taxpayers from further and significant liability?

I referred in my answer to the estimates that I gave to the House on Monday. They are the best available estimates at the moment, and that is why I will stick by them.

Should not the Opposition be enjoined first to cast the beam out of their own eyes, so that they are better able to take out the mote from their brother’s eye? From the way they bang on about this, one would have thought that Labour in government never wasted a single penny, but the National Audit Office found that it wasted £40 million on an asylum accommodation centre in my constituency where a single sod was never turned and a brick never laid, and we never had a single apology for that.

In the light of that direction, Mr Speaker, I am not sure how to answer the question. I am responsible for what goes on at the Department of Transport, but if I moved on to the money that was wasted by the previous Government, I think I might need an Adjournment debate.

I welcome the Secretary of State and the new members of his team; I am sure that they will do a very conscientious job.

What has been the cost of the consultants and legal advisers employed by the Department in the run-up to the legal case?

I do not have the exact figures at the moment. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State answered some written questions on the matter yesterday, and a wide range of figures are available. The figures I gave in response to an earlier question are £40 million and £1 million.

Will the Secretary of State confirm what the cost would have been of proceeding with a flawed tendering process and awarding that contract? On the same basis, will he also reconsider the Thameslink rolling stock contract, to make sure that there has been no mistake with that either?

I assure my hon. Friend that I asked those questions rigorously in the Department and I have been assured that this was a wholly different process. As I have said, I am awaiting the outcome of the two inquiries that I have set up.

Will the Secretary of State admit that taxpayers are set to be stung for far more than the £40 million he is paying back to bidders for the west coast franchise, because what he has not included in that figure is the cost of paying back bidders for the suspended Great Western, Essex Thameside and Thameslink franchises? Will he now come clean to taxpayers about exactly how much of their money will be poured down the drain as a result of his franchising fiasco?

I have given the figures that are available to the House. The other contracts to which the hon. Lady refers are on hold—they have not been let.

Is it not the truth that the cost to taxpayers is likely to be tens of millions of pounds more by the time the Secretary of State has Britain’s rail services back on track? He will hand millions over to private train companies; millions will be spent running three competitions for this franchise when he should have been running only one; and millions more will be lost if companies decide to sue the Government for the losses that his Department’s incompetence have caused them. Instead of the Department for Transport’s own board investigating itself, do not taxpayers deserve a truly independent inquiry into what went wrong and who was to blame for so much of their money being poured down the drain?

When I was told about this incident and the mistakes that were made, I ordered two immediate inquiries. I wanted to get to the bottom of it as quickly as possible, and that is what I have done. I am sure that we will not be short of a number of inquiries, which will take place subsequent to the Laidlaw and Richard Brown inquiries. I expect that the Public Accounts Committee will want to look at the issue.

High Speed 2

10. What recent assessment he has made of the potential benefits of High Speed 2 to businesses in Birmingham and its surrounding areas. (123218)

HS2 will transform journey times, capacity and connectivity between the Birmingham stations and Leeds, Manchester and London, and will release substantial capacity on the existing rail network. This will help the wider west midlands area to fulfil its economic potential.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how many jobs will be involved in the construction and operation of the first phase of the railway to the midlands?

A number of opportunities will become available as a result of HS2. We expect there to be 9,000 jobs during construction and 1,500 permanent operational jobs, as well as a huge amount of regeneration in the areas served by HS2.

HS2 is important to Scotland as well as those places south of the border mentioned by the Secretary of State. Will he update us on what discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the plans for HS2 to provide benefits to Scotland as well?

I am due to meet Scottish Ministers in the not-too-distant future, and I have had one phone conversation with the First Minister. Last week I announced that we will undertake a study to take HS2 further north into Scotland.

On 7 July 2011, in a letter on transparency to all the Secretaries of State, the Prime Minister wrote:

“As you know, transparency is at the heart of our agenda for Government.”

The Department and the Cabinet Office are currently concealing information and refusing to publish the Major Projects Authority report on HS2. Will the Secretary of State now show that the Prime Minister’s words are not meaningless when it comes to HS2 and publish that report immediately?

HS2 will be the subject of a huge amount of parliamentary time as we prepare the hybrid Bill and bring it before Parliament in the next Session.

Arguably one of the benefits of HS2 is that it will create extra capacity on the conventional network. However, these services are highly unlikely to be profitable and will require extra subsidy. What calculations has the Department made about the extra cost of that subsidy and the subsequent Barnett consequentials that the Welsh Government will be entitled to?

We are some way off getting to that stage. I am dealing with a number of other figures at the moment, so I will take away the hon. Gentleman’s question and think about it a little more deeply, rather than give a rushed answer at the Dispatch Box.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the concerns of constituents up and down the route of the line who have been unable to access the exceptional hardship scheme? When will he start his consultation on fair compensation? We said that we would not allow anybody to have to pay with their own assets or in terms of their own life, and yet that has proven to not be the case.

I well understand that point and the opposition that HS2 has generated. Any major infrastructure brings about a lot of opposition. I hope to be able to publish the Government’s consultation on compensation in the not-too-distant future.

Light Rail Projects (Health and Safety)

11. What recent assessment he has made of health and safety standards for light rail projects; and if he will make a statement. (123219)

The Office of Rail Regulation has responsibility for health and safety on light rail and tramways. The Department has therefore made no formal assessment, although our recent publication, “Green Light for Light Rail”, seeks to ensure that excessive costs are driven out, while appropriate safety standards are maintained, thereby putting light rail in a stronger position from which to grow.

I thank the Minister for that answer and for his support for light rail. However, having looked at the success of light rail in other countries, particularly across the channel, compared with the costs here, we see that one problem is the imposition of high rail safety standards, which mean that light rail is over-engineered and over-expensive. What will he do to change that?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that matter, which was one reason why we produced the “Green Light for Light Rail” report. We have made progress through the two summits that I have held subsequently towards more proportionate standards for light rail, which should bring the costs down while ensuring that safety is maintained.

Careless Driving

On 14 June, the Government consulted on proposals to make careless driving a fixed penalty offence, under which drivers who commit less severe examples of the offence, such as driving too close to another vehicle, would be offered educational courses. We hope that that will reduce the instances of careless driving in the not-too-distant future.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the greatest causes of careless driving, even though it is a penalty offence, is people who use mobile phones near schools and more generally, causing accidents? Will that problem be looked into further, because it seems to be spreading?

My hon. Friend is right. The use of a mobile phone will qualify for an increased fixed penalty, if that is what the consultation decides. In more serious cases, that offence can be prosecuted with considerably greater penalties.

East Coast Main Line (Rolling Stock)

In July this year, the Government announced a £4.5 billion investment in new trains under the intercity express programme. That will include new trains to replace the existing high-speed train sets on the east coast main line.

In the eastern counties, we are very appreciative of the fast service and the excellent rolling stock up to Newark. However, when one gets beyond Newark and into Lincolnshire, one enters a time that land forgot—and, indeed, that the Department for Transport seems to have forgotten. Will the Minister assure me that, as part of the invitation to tender process, he will ensure that there is sufficient good-quality rolling stock, in particular diesel trains, so that the long-standing campaign involving me, my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) for a direct service to Cleethorpes, via Market Rasen, has some chance of success?

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I hope that I can go some way towards reassuring him by saying that the Government are committed to having 35 new trains on the east coast, which will be a combination of electric trains and bi-mode diesel and electric trains. It would be premature to say where those trains will feature on the network, but consideration will be given to the need to improve the service along the whole line.

Worthing/Lancing Bypass

16. If he will commission a feasibility study for a Worthing/Lancing bypass due to traffic congestion on the A27. (123224)

The Department has no current plans to undertake a feasibility study into proposals for a Worthing/Lancing bypass. We have been clear that the funding is currently focused on delivering schemes already in the Highways Agency’s investment programme.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position. With it, he inherits the issue of the lack of a Worthing bypass, which predates his parliamentary career and mine. Worthing is the largest town in Sussex. The major house-building programmes that are planned for my area all feed out on to the A27. The situation will only get worse. Will he come down and sit in the traffic on the A27, as have his predecessors, to see the problem for himself? Will he agree to put back on the agenda a value-for-money study of one of the busiest roads in the south-east of England that needs investment?

My hon. Friend is, as ever, generous in his remarks of welcome. His invitation is equally generous, and I do not think I can refuse it.

Topical Questions

In addition to my recent statements on franchising, last week I announced that passengers will benefit from a reduction of up to 2% in the planned rises in many train fares. That will benefit more than a quarter of a million annual season ticket holders and more weekly and monthly ticket holders. I also announced £170 million for 57 vital road schemes to boost the economy, reduce congestion and improve safety. Earlier this month the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), announced the introduction of new rules better to protect holidaymakers from losing out if their travel company fails, giving UK holidaymakers a simple, straightforward way to know what the financial protection for their holiday is.

Metro in west Yorkshire has commissioned a bus service for the upper Calder Valley, a rural community, which for the past year has been served by an incredibly unreliable and poor service. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether there is a process in place for holding a commissioner to account when they do not take action on poor performance against contracts?

I sympathise with the obviously frustrating experience that my hon. Friend’s constituents are having. I know that he has been in correspondence with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who leads on the matter in the Department. The Government have provided an extra £10 million of funding this year to help kick-start the development of community transport services in rural areas, and west Yorkshire received £385,000 of that. I am interested in hearing about the experiences of my hon. Friend’s constituents, however, and we will look into the matter.

On Tuesday the Road Safety Foundation, chaired by Lord Dubs, launched its annual report. It stated:

“Simple attention to safety engineering detail has resulted in extraordinary cuts in road deaths and serious injuries”.

Other leading countries in road safety are committed to improving the safety star rating of their national road networks. What emphasis are our Government placing on that?

We place a lot of emphasis on it. I spent a morning a few weeks ago with road traffic officers in the west midlands, looking at how they operate their managed motorways. They have had great success in reducing accidents on the M42 since it has become a managed motorway. Road safety is incredibly high on our agenda, and as I said, we have announced £170 million for relieving pinch points, which I hope will also help safety.

T2. I welcome the Government’s decision to set up a commission on aviation capacity. I hope that it will create a new, innovative solution to capacity needs and realise that a third, fourth and fifth runway at Heathrow is not the answer. May I urge my right hon. Friend to encourage the commission to report as quickly as possible? (123228)

I believe that setting up the commission was the right way to move forward. I hope to be able to announce the rest of the commission’s membership in the not-too-distant future. My hon. Friend will be able to make recommendations to the Davies commission, which will bring interim recommendations to the Government in 2013. Although some people say that it will take rather a long time, it will not take that long once it gets under way.

T3. Given the Department’s abject failure to manage the franchise process for the west coast main line, what are the Secretary of State’s views on the possibility of Transport for London being the franchising authority in future for the London parts of the south-eastern network? (123229)

I am due to meet the Mayor of London in the next few hours, and that may be one issue that he wants to bring forward to me. People will have different views about whether that would be the right way forward.

T6. When addressing the thorny issue of airport expansion, will the Minister look carefully at the huge economic benefits that can be offered at Birmingham airport? Not only is there extensive local support for expansion, but it is an excellent airport. (123232)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He makes a valid point: Birmingham is an excellent airport and I was extremely pleased to be able to present it with the airport of the year award at last Thursday’s national transport awards. On the wider issue, Birmingham, like many other regional airports, has a vital role to play in servicing its local community and pushing forward the growth agenda. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Howard Davies commission will consider the whole issue of our hub status, aviation policy and airports and no doubt Birmingham will wish to contribute to that process.

T4. The Caldervale line is in urgent need of new rolling stock as the current units are totally inadequate for the 1 million passengers who use Halifax station every year. Will the Minister inform the House when those passengers will get the new trains that they badly need? (123230)

The hon. Lady knows that the northern hub package will certainly improve opportunities for the Calder valley line between Leeds and Manchester Victoria. The high-level output specification announcement confirmed the go-ahead for the Castlefield corridor scheme. She knows that the 2012 Budget set aside a package of measures to increase line speeds and look at the rolling stock.

T7. Are there any plans in the Department to begin to look at the commercial condition and strategic future of Britain’s smaller ports, such as Fleetwood and Glasson dock in my constituency? (123233)

My hon. Friend knows that the Government’s national policy statement on ports, published in January, designated and underlined the importance of the contribution made by smaller ports. I was delighted to visit the national smaller ports conference in Windermere two weeks ago and to address it. It is, however, for Associated British Ports to promote the commercial opportunities at Fleetwood, rather than the Government.

T5. First, I congratulate Dundee youth council on its “It’s no fare” campaign, which seeks to lower bus fares for young people. Will the Minister liaise with his counterpart in Holyrood in Edinburgh to ensure that apprentices and students can get to their place of work or study for the lowest price? (123231)

I have a great deal of sympathy for that point of view and recognise that there is an issue with access to work for young people and students that needs to be dealt with. That is why I have been discussing the matter with the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK, which is the umbrella body for bus companies, and I am very happy to liaise with colleagues in the Scottish Government and others to try to take it forward.

T8. For completeness, I should declare that my wife works for Google, albeit in a capacity unrelated to this question. Google, Audi, Ford and Volvo are among the firms pioneering driverless cars, which could cut road accidents by up to 90% while freeing up time that could unleash massive productivity gains. Several US states are testing the technology. What action is the Department taking to explore the viability of that innovation in this country? [R] (123234)

The technology for driverless cars is, as my hon. Friend says, advancing very quickly. As the Secretary of State just said, our key priority is safety and I want to ensure that those systems are safe and reliable before allowing them on to UK roads. There is of course great potential for UK technology to be at the forefront of these developments and departmental officials are liaising with leading UK researchers in the field.

T9. In June, the then rail Minister told me that the Government were “making progress on the Thameslink procurement”.—[Official Report, 12 June 2012; Vol. 546, c. 67WH.]In August, The Guardian reported that the contract for new trains would be delayed until the autumn, and it is now the autumn. The delivery of new trains for Thameslink frees up electric rolling stock to move north, but any delay puts that in jeopardy. Will the Minister meet me and Merseytravel to guarantee that we will not end up with an electrified line from Manchester to Liverpool but no electric trains? (123235)

Yes. As I know the hon. Lady is aware, significant investment is being made in Thameslink—some £6 billion is being invested, £4.5 billion of which is for the infrastructure and £1.5 billion of which is for the rolling stock. I understand her concerns. My Department and I are working to ensure that the rolling stock is ready for the project and I would have the greatest pleasure in meeting the hon. Lady at her convenience.

Will the Minister confirm that Access for All funding will not be raided to pay compensation to franchise bidders and that the project to build lifts at Chippenham station is therefore still on track?

I can confirm that the Government are fully committed to Access for All funding. It is entirely separate, and will not be “raided”—the verb used by my hon. Friend. I confirm that a further £100 million over the new control period will take even more stations up to the standard that we expect.

To return to the subject of the west coast main line, when the Secretary of State made a statement on Monday, I made him aware of a figure given to me by insiders in the industry that suggested a cost of at least half a billion pounds as a result of this debacle. Has any application to the Treasury for additional contingency funding been made as a result?

British pilots in my constituency are concerned that EU proposals on pilot flight time limitations will weaken the current rules and that, as a result, flying will become less safe. Instead of lowering our standards to harmonise with the EU, should not the EU be raising its standards to harmonise with ours? Failing that, will the Department at least explore with the British Air Line Pilots Association additional safety measures to cover those areas that would otherwise see standards drop?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. As he will be aware, the Government place the highest priority on safety, both for passengers, and for those who fly and work on our airlines. We are playing a vigorous role in this Europe-wide initiative, and it is for the Civil Aviation Authority to lead. The Government will do nothing with which the CAA is not content, and we will continue to consider the issue as it moves forward.

As a directly operated railway, the east coast main line returned £187 million to the taxpayer last year. How much money will Virgin pay to the taxpayer during the period of extension to its west coast main line franchise?

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Universal Credit

1. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effects on women of the introduction of universal credit. (123197)

I have had many conversations with the Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, and others, regarding universal credit. Universal credit is designed to encourage people to work, and benefit women who find the existing system a barrier to work. It will help lone parents, who are mostly women, work a small number of hours through increased earnings disregards, and provide child care for the first time for those working under 16 hours.

I welcome the Minister for Women and Equalities, and her colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) to their new positions. [Interruption.] And—how could I forget?—my neighbour, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson).

Does the Minister accept that work needs to pay for all women, so how will she ensure that, when universal credit is introduced next year, 1 million lone parents do not lose out—as Gingerbread has suggested—on the equivalent of two-thirds of the unintended increase in the tax allowance, taking home only £70 for every £1,000 increase in the allowance, compared with £200?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree, one of the best ways we can support lone parents to get out of poverty is to help them into work. That is exactly what universal credit is trying to do—to ensure that lone parents can stay close to the labour market and, for the first time, get child care support if they work under 16 hours a week.

I congratulate the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and Minister for Women and Equalities, on her double promotion. I hope that she and her new team will enjoy the work on women and equalities.

Despite the many good intentions behind universal credit, the detail could prove worrying, particularly in cases of domestic violence. Ditching the principle that payments go to the main carer and having just a single payment to the household could make things harder in cases of financial coercion. In addition, the way that housing payments are delivered could make it difficult for refuges, which fear that they could lose around 60% of their funding. It looks as though the detail of universal credit has been designed without any consideration for those vulnerable women. Will the Minister remedy that and ensure that the Government Equalities Office looks urgently at the matter, and will she discuss the issue with her colleagues to ensure that the regulations are right?

The right hon. Lady is right to say that the detail on universal credit is vital, and she will be reassured that we have already looked at the issue in detail. We have worked with women’s aid organisations to ensure that refuges have special treatment in that respect, and we have retained powers to ensure, if absolutely necessary, that payments can be split between men and women if domestic violence is in play.

Labour Market Trends (Black and Minority Ethnic Communities)

2. What recent assessment she has made of the effects of recent labour market trends on black and minority ethnic communities. (123198)

Tackling unemployment is a priority for this Government. Our approach is to support according to individual need rather than to segregate according to ethnic group. On the matter of need, Mr Speaker, would you allow me to pay tribute to the fact that today is anti-slavery day?

Yesterday, the TUC published a report that showed that the unemployment rate among young black men stands at 50%, and that that group has experienced the sharpest rise in unemployment since the Minister’s Government came to power. Does she recognise the devastating impact that her Government’s failure to get the economy moving is having on the lives of those young men? What specific action will she take to tackle the problem?

I do not accept the accuracy of the figures the hon. Lady mentions, but I accept that the figures on young black men and employment are bad, and that they need to improve. A number of the figures given fail to classify those in full-time education, but it would be wrong to assume that someone needs additional support simply because of the colour of their skin. Notwithstanding that, the Government are giving a range of tailored support, through Jobcentre Plus, the fantastic Work programme, the Youth Contract and all our measures to get Britain working. We should not stereotype people according to ethnic groups—everyone needs help.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her responsibilities. As part of the task of ensuring that the colour of someone’s skin is no more important than the colour of their eyes or hair, will she encourage her colleagues in the Government to promote vocational qualifications and achievements in education, so that people can be chosen on their merit and qualities rather than be disqualified because of prejudice or stereotypes?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The one-size-fits-all approach to unemployment has clearly failed. We need local providers to deliver good, innovative local services. We should be pleased that, in 2010-11, the highest number of black and minority ethnic apprentices started their training. Michael Gove’s reforms will be key to that, and I very much look forward to seeing them coming to fruition.

Tax and Benefits

3. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on the effects of tax and benefit changes on women and their families. (123199)

I have had conversations with my ministerial colleagues on a range of issues. This Government are supporting women and their families, for example by extending child care support through universal credit, and by lifting 2 million of the lowest-paid workers out of income tax altogether—six out of 10 of whom are women.

Eighty per cent. of the gainers from the cut in the 50% tax rate are men. According to House of Commons research, 75% of the losers from tax and benefit changes are women. Does one nation Toryism include women?

I am not convinced that I am the best-placed person to talk about one nation Toryism, but I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the cost of the cut to the top rate of tax is dwarfed by the large amount of money that we are putting in to the tax cut for people on low incomes. Sixty per cent. of gainers from that are women.

Order. The Minister has interpreted the question liberally and democratically, as one might have expected.

Entrepreneurship

With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall answer questions 4 and 9 together. The majority women-led small and medium-sized enterprises already—

Order. I apologise for interrupting the right hon. Lady, but we cannot have Ministers grouping questions on the hoof. There was no advanced notice of this intended grouping, and therefore, I am afraid it does not apply. If a mess of the matter was made, that is regrettable, but that is the Minister’s responsibility, not mine.

Thank you for that guidance, Mr Speaker.

The majority of women-led SMEs already contribute about £50 billion annually to the UK economy. We are building on that by promoting an entrepreneurial culture in schools and by identifying female role models and mentors. We also have a range of business support and access-to-finance schemes open to all entrepreneurs, male and female.

I have recently volunteered to be a mentor for the new enterprise allowance locally, although, curiously, I have not been appointed a mentee yet—I am sure that will be coming. Will the Minister join me in urging women with business experience, including Members of Parliament, to become a mentor and help other women become entrepreneurs?

I pay tribute to the excellent work that my hon. Friend does in her constituency to support businesses. She is absolutely right that mentoring is a vital part of helping more women get involved in business. The Home Secretary announced funding of £600,000 towards to the Get Mentoring initiative last year, and to date more than 10,000 volunteer mentors have been trained, 42% of whom are female, and I announced a further £100,000 for this initiative last month.

I recently attended a fantastic event in Liverpool organised by the Women’s Organisation specifically on how women could access finance. I heard at first hand the challenges that many women face when they try build their businesses. Is the Minister concerned that, according to the Department for Work and Pensions, last year just 17% of people benefiting from a new enterprise allowance scheme were women? Does she agree that this flagship policy is failing properly to support women’s entrepreneurship?

I am sure that the hon. Lady knows that earlier this month changes were announced to the new enterprise allowance scheme, and there is now day-one access for people on jobseeker’s allowance, which will open it up to more people. Also, we are already doing extensive work on access to finance, and will be publishing our response shortly.

9. Will the Minister commit to liaising with her colleagues in the Department for Education to encourage young girls to take subjects such as business studies and economics? (123206)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that schools have an important role to play here, although I stress that it is not just about studying business studies or economics. Businesses want to ensure that the young people they are employing have the literacy and numeracy skills needed in a successful business today. I applaud the Secretary of State for Education on his work in this area.

A recent study in Northern Ireland showed that 80% of women were in part-time work, and I understand that the figures on the UK mainland are similar. Does the Minister agree that we need a strategy that allows women to fulfil their potential, when they desire it, instead of being seemingly pigeonholed into a part-time working pattern?

The important thing is that women and parents are able to balance their work and family lives. Our work on the modernisation of the workplace is important to that. I also reiterate my comments about universal credit and the ability of women to access child care support when they are working shorter hours. Some £300 million is being invested in that. That is something that was not forthcoming under a Labour Government.

Violence against Women

5. What assessment she has made of the effects of Government policies on efforts to tackle violence against women. (123201)

The Government’s approach to tackling violence is set out in our strategy to end violence against women and girls and the supporting action plan. We monitor the delivery of the strategy and the impact of wider Government policies through regular cross-Government delivery boards, stakeholder meetings and inter-ministerial groups.

The Minister will be aware that earlier this year Professor Walby prepared a report showing that no fewer than 230 women every single day were denied refuge accommodation through lack of space. Has his Department made an assessment of that report?

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important issue, because refuges can play a key role in helping women who have been the victims of domestic violence, as I have seen in my constituency. That is the case across the country, as well, so I shall certainly consider any recommendations that we can incorporate further to improve our response to this terrible crime.

7. I am not keen on witch hunts or anything like that, but what has happened with Jimmy Savile has shocked everyone. What can the Minister say about the role of the Government in protecting young children and vulnerable people, and what lessons can be learned from the whole Jimmy Savile experience? (123204)

I am sure that my hon. Friend speaks for the whole House about the shock and revulsion felt at the allegations made against Jimmy Savile. It increasingly appears that a culture of abuse took place in the past and in my cases—it is important to remember—continues to take place. We need to learn lessons from this specific case and be vigilant in understanding the threat that exists in our communities here and now.

Today is anti-slavery day. Figures show an increase in reported cases of human trafficking, but we all feel that that is still the tip of a terrible iceberg that, of course, includes women and children being trafficked into prostitution. Given that tackling these terrible cross-border crimes relies on things such as co-operation with Europol, sharing data, criminal records and expertise, and the European arrest warrant, how on anti-slavery day do Ministers justify opting out of all those things?

I strongly endorse the hon. Lady’s starting observation about what a terrible crime human trafficking is, and it is our intention as a Government to be vigilant in tackling it more effectively. That is why we are creating the National Crime Agency, which will come into effect this time next year, and the issue is already a priority for the Serious Organised Crime Agency. It is important that we co-operate with countries across Europe—and, for that matter, further afield—to ensure that we have the highest level of resilience at our borders, but also before people get to that point.

Public Company Boards

6. What steps she is taking to increase the number of women in public company boardrooms; and if she will make a statement. (123202)

The Government are working to implement a voluntary and business-led approach. We are supporting the excellent work of Lord Davies, which has resulted in an unprecedented increase in the number of women on boards. We are also putting in place a range of measures to ensure equal opportunities for women in the workplace, including help with child care, extending flexible working and introducing a new system of flexible parental leave.

Although those measures are undoubtedly welcome, can the Minister explain why we fall so woefully short of our competitors in other European countries and elsewhere? Will she reflect on how many new members of boards will be appointed as a result of those measures, bearing in mind that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) said, they should be appointed on the basis of merit and ability?

The Government’s approach is showing that encouraging businesses to take the issue seriously is paying dividends. Indeed, more than a third of new appointments to boards over the last 12 months have been women. There is certainly more to do, but that shows that the approach we are taking is the right one. In fact, we are doing well on this matter compared with many other countries. They have been looking at our approach in the Lord Davies review, often to see how they might be able to take on board some of the best practice that we have already developed, and our officials have been sharing that with officials in other countries.

The Minister is incorrect: this 1% rate of progress means that the girls are not yet born who will benefit from it. Will she look at the Australian model—both at what the Australian Prime Minister has said and at the federal Government target of 40% men, 40% women and 20% of either gender?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I certainly think that many across the House would do well to look at what the Australian Prime Minister says and at her rather excellent recent speech on the issue of equality. I disagree that quotas are the right way to proceed, and I do not recognise the figure of 1% that she mentioned. The percentage of women on boards has increased to 17% from 12% since the election, and as I have said, a third of new appointments in the last year have been women.

8. May I say what a brilliant Women and Equalities Front-Bench team we have now? I really think that the women of this country can take heart from that. Will my hon. Friend continue to hold the line against the EU’s determination to introduce a quota of 40% of women on boards? We simply cannot have quotas for women; they have got to get there under their own steam. (123205)

I can certainly give that reassurance. The approach that we are taking through the Lord Davies review—a target of 25% on boards by 2015—is showing itself to be successful. In fact, we are ahead of schedule in hitting that target. Our approach is showing itself to be successful and the right one to take, and we will resist the EU calls for quotas.

The hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) talked about the Front-Bench team today, but there are only four women in the Cabinet and 23 across Government. Does the Minister accept that the private companies out there on whose boards we want to see more women will not see a Government who are leading by example? It is simply not good enough.

Clearly a range of new women joined the Government in the latest reshuffle. There is a wealth of talent among the women MPs on the coalition Benches, and I am sure that in future that will result in additional women joining the Government.

In the spirit of equality, I certainly would not wish to exclude the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). Let us hear from him.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. Rather than having politically correct targets, is it not better for companies in the private sector to decide for themselves who are the right people to be on their boards, irrespective of gender, race or religion? Should not all such appointments be made on merit, rather than trying to meet the politically correct targets that the Minister has referred to?

It is always a delight to hear from my hon. Friend. He perhaps does not fully recognise the benefits that businesses gain from having more diversity on their boards. The fact that fewer than one in five board members are women shows that there is a wide talent pool out there that is not being drawn upon; businesses could benefit hugely from ensuring that those talents are used in their boardrooms.