House of Commons
Thursday 18 October 2012
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Colne-Skipton Rail Link
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?
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,”
“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.
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?
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?
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?
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)
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.
Rail Capacity (London/Brimsdown)
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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 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?
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?
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
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
Light Rail Projects (Health and Safety)
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.
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?
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.
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?
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)
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.
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.
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.
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
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)
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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
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.
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.
Rising energy prices are a cause for concern in these difficult times, particularly for those vulnerable consumers who struggle to meet their bills. I am profoundly concerned and disappointed to hear of the recent energy price rises, and I will be seeking to discuss them with the relevant suppliers as a matter of urgency.
My Department has already taken a number of different actions to assist consumers with their bills. Programmes such as the carbon emissions reduction target, Warm Front, the green deal and the energy company obligation will make homes more energy efficient. In addition, the warm home discount will provide no less than £1.1 billion of support up to 2015 to help 2 million low-income and vulnerable households annually.
Following the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday, I am pleased to confirm that we will be bringing forward legislation to help energy consumers to get the best deal. We have already regulated, we have plans to improve competition and simplify tariffs in the retail market process, and we will improve liquidity and competition in the wholesale market, through the Energy Bill, in weeks rather than months. A number of options are being considered. For example, the voluntary agreement with energy suppliers announced in April secured a number of measures which will be evaluated to see whether we should make the legislation binding. This is a complicated area, and we will have discussions with the industry, consumer groups and the regulator in order to work through the detail.
As I was saying, the Prime Minister threw energy policy into confusion yesterday, causing chaos in the energy industry and leaving his own Ministers at a loss over what Government energy policy actually is. It is no wonder that the Secretary of State has avoided coming to the House today to explain a policy that he knew nothing about until yesterday.
As energy bills have gone up by over £200 in the last two years, the public deserve an answer. Switching has fallen to its lowest level ever, and in recent days three of the big energy companies have announced another round of price hikes this winter, so it was not surprising that there was a great deal of interest when the Prime Minister told the House yesterday that
“we will be legislating so that energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers”.—[Official Report, 17 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 316.]
But now it appears that energy companies will not be forced to put all customers on cheaper tariffs after all.
Let me ask the Minister three straightforward questions. First, did he know about the announcement before it was made yesterday, or was the Prime Minister making it up as he went along? Secondly, can he confirm today whether the Government will be legislating to force the energy companies to put all their customers on the cheapest tariff—not through a voluntary agreement or through sending a letter once a year, but, as the Prime Minister said, legislating to make the energy companies put all their customers on the lowest tariff? Is that their policy or not? Thirdly, if that is their policy, will the Minister explain how it will work and when it will be implemented? If not, will he explain what the Prime Minister meant and tell us when he will return to the House to put the record straight?
We all mis-speak from time to time, and the Prime Minister was under a lot of pressure yesterday, but for the Government to spend a day pretending to have a policy that they have no intention of implementing is no way to run the country. It is like something out of “The Thick Of It”. In the past year, I have made the case for a radical reform of Britain’s energy market. The millions of families and pensioners who are worried about how they will heat their homes deserve better than policy made on the hoof, and the House needs answers.
You know, Mr Speaker, that it is not my habit to be excessively partisan in this House, and the British people will judge how to define “excessive” in the light of the fact that in 13 years the Labour party did so little to plan for our energy future. The right hon. Lady, who was a Minister when that party was in government, dithered and delayed and deferred key decisions about energy policy and investment, which has left us in the situation we face today. It is not so with this Government, who will bring forward the Energy Bill to reform markets, increase competition and secure investment, which should have been done years ago.
Let me answer the right hon. Lady’s questions very directly. She asked whether I knew what the Prime Minister was considering. Of course we understand what the Prime Minister was considering, as we have been debating and discussing the provisions of the Energy Bill for months. The draft Bill has been carefully scrutinised by the Select Committee—the excellent Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, if I may say so—while the Opposition have made their views known, the industry is in constant dialogue with the Government on these matters and consumer groups are regularly consulted, so of course all these matters have been discussed and considered over the months.
With an alarming misunderstanding—or, at least a supposed misunderstanding—of parliamentary process, the right hon. Lady then asked how this policy would work and how would it be implemented. She will know that this Government take the Energy Bill so seriously that we are determined that it should have proper scrutiny in this House. During that scrutiny, we will of course discuss how these things will work and how they will be implemented. That is a fundamental part of the process by which legislation passes through this Parliament.
The right hon. Lady asked for an affirmation of our determination to tackle the issue of tariffs. Had she had the good fortune to be at the Conservative party conference, she would have heard me on a number of occasions articulating, with some style, the case for lower tariffs as a means of reducing demand and placing an emphasis on demand- side measures that the previous Government failed to do for almost their entire stewardship of the energy brief.
The answer is yes, we will use the Energy Bill to get people lower tariffs. There are, of course, different options to be considered in that process, but those options will be discussed with the industry and with consumer groups. More than that, they will be effective in a way for which only this Government—and I am bound to say, this Minister—are renowned. If I may say so, I have brought fresh energy to this brief, and I am determined that this Bill will be a landmark piece of legislation in the interests of the British people, delivering lower energy prices for businesses and households across the country.
Order. A sizeable number of hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, and I am keen to accommodate that interest. I remind the House, however, that business questions are to follow and that thereafter there are to be two relatively well subscribed debates to take place under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. Brevity is therefore of the essence from Back-Bench and Front-Bench Members alike. I trust that the Minister of State, who has just addressed the House with the eloquence of Demosthenes, will tailor the length of his responses accordingly.
Does this not turn on a very short compass? Will my hon. Friend confirm that the difference is that he intends within 13 weeks to bring forward legislation to ensure that consumers have the lowest possible electricity prices, whereas the Opposition had 13 years in government in which they did absolutely nothing to help consumers with electricity prices?
If you were to wander through the corridors of the big six energy companies today, Mr. Speaker, you would hear the sound of low tariffs being ripped up and thrown in the bin. How, through legislation, can the Minister seriously make it an option for the lowest tariff offered to be low and affordable, rather than being set by the energy companies to suit their profit margins?
The hon. Lady is right—as she so often is, by the way—to suggest that we need a robust relationship with the energy companies. Of course they are partners in this process, but none the less we will take the necessary steps to ensure that the people get the best possible deal, for we are the people’s party and the people’s Government.
Having just experienced the horrors of trying to switch tariffs myself, I know that a lot more work still needs to be done to make it much easier. I commend North Lincolnshire council, which is looking at having its front-line staff in the Link centres trained to advise people on how to switch, but what we really need is for the energy companies to take that on board and offer the training that is necessary.
These proposals did not feature anywhere in the draft Energy Bill, the White Paper, the technical updates or the impact assessments, so I assume that DECC staff have been working hard on the new idea this morning. Can the Minister guarantee that when he has worked out how to do this, it will not impede the progress of the Energy Bill and its delivery to the House?
The hon. Gentleman is a great expert on these matters, and he is a member of the Select Committee that scrutinised the Bill so carefully. One of the first things that I did when I became the Energy Minister was to meet the Chairman of that Committee to consider the suggestions that it had made about the Bill. I do not think that that will slow things down, but it will certainly ensure that we get things right. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s continuing diligence in these matters.
I regret the fact that my hon. Friend has had this pit dug for him. Do I understand from his reply to the urgent question that this is not a firm policy proposal, but merely an item that is currently under consideration—if I may use his own language?
I think that the Prime Minister was crystal clear yesterday. [Laughter.] The Opposition are often behind the curve. We believed in one nation when they had not heard of Disraeli. The truth is that the Prime Minister was very clear. This is a policy intent, which will be delivered through the necessary mechanisms. Luckily, the Energy Bill is to be presented to the House, and that will allow proper scrutiny and consideration by Opposition Members and others.
This morning my constituent Anthony Noel contacted me to say that his energy bills had risen by more than 11% in the last year, so I welcome the remarks made by the Prime Minister yesterday. I understand that the Government will be inviting the six main energy companies to engage in a round-table discussion of the policy. Can the Minister confirm that?
At a time when families are struggling to pay their fuel bills and fuel companies are making billions of pounds of profit, why does the Minister not stop coming forward with gimmicks, and introduce effective regulation that will control those companies?
Does the Minister agree that although the shadow Minister speaks of an energy policy, the previous Government simply did not have one? They took none of the big decisions, such as on new nuclear build, which is why we are over-reliant on expensive imports today.
Let me be even more generous. There is always a tension involved in taking big strategic decisions in a democratic polity, because of the imperatives that we face day to day, week to week. However, that cannot legitimise a failure to take decisions that were in the national interest and for the common good. Those strategic decisions, given their scale and time scale, need to be framed around meaningful legislation that establishes a robust relationship between those with commercial interests and those missioned, as we are, to defend the national interest. That is precisely what we will do, in weeks not months, and at its heart will be a landmark piece of legislation which I will guide through this House.
We all know that the Minister is eloquent in the art of obfuscation, but will he set aside the flim-flam just for the moment and answer a straightforward question: was he aware that the Prime Minister was going to make this announcement—yes or no?
The Prime Minister, as the hon. Gentleman knows, comes to this House weekly to be scrutinised by this House. Does he give me notice of every answer and does he get notice of every question? Of course the answer is no. If the hon. Gentleman is asking me whether we were considering these matters—whether I was considering them and whether the Secretary of State was considering them—and whether they were being debated as part of the consideration of the Energy Bill following the scrutiny by the Select Committee and others, the answer is a definitive yes.
In meetings I have had this week, major green investors were already complaining about perceived political noise around green investment. Does the Minister agree that if uncertainty is the enemy of investment, surprises such as yesterday’s are even more unhelpful?
The fundamental objective of the strategy I outlined is to bring clarity. Clarity is the prerequisite of certainty, certainty is the prerequisite of confidence and confidence is the prerequisite of investment. That, in a nutshell, is where the failure of the previous Administration lies.
As this moment in time, 80% of people are paying too much for their energy because of confusion and unfair tariffs. Last year alone, 70 more tariffs were introduced, making a total of more than 400. What are the Government actually doing to make things more transparent for consumers?
As I mentioned, transparency and what I described as accessibility or explicability are crucial—the hon. Gentleman is right about that. People need to know how they can get the best deals. We have done a lot of work on that, but we need to do a lot more. We need a simplification of the process, and that has been debated in this House for a considerable time. He makes a good point, which was also made earlier, and we will be drawing it to the close attention of the energy companies and considering it as we develop our own thinking.
While many households in Pendle are worried about being able to afford their energy bills this winter, millions of pounds available through the Government’s Warm Front scheme go unclaimed. The same applies for the warm home discount, which, as the Minister said, alone represents more than £1.1 billion of support for the poorest households. If these proposals to give people the lowest energy tariff are going to be done through people’s energy bills, may I ask that we take the opportunity also to improve the information contained in those bills about those two important schemes?
My hon. Friend will know that one of the features of the energy marketplace in recent years has been a concentration of the number of companies involved. That was not predicted at the time of privatisation; people expected a more plural market, and the competition and downward price pressure that that brings. While the number of companies has shrunk, the number of tariffs has simultaneously grown, by, I understand, something like four-hundredfold. That is not sensible. Whatever the intention, it is leading to a degree of confusion which I think is unhelpful. Better information on bills and a simplification of tariffs, targeted in a way that allows people to get the best possible arrangement, are an absolute priority.
Many of my constituents have no access to broadband, particularly those who are elderly, and many pay by pre-payment cards. Will the Minister be the people’s champion today by guaranteeing that those people will have the lowest tariff?
Yes, the answer to that question is that we need to do that in a range of ways. Sometimes the mechanisms used do not reach the very people whom one wants to help most. I do believe in the redistribution of advantage; perhaps in that sense I take a rather more forward position than the Labour party.
The Minister has said that there are more than 400 tariffs at the moment. How many will there be after he legislates?