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Commons Chamber

Volume 556: debated on Thursday 17 January 2013

House of Commons

Thursday 17 January 2013

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]


London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords]

Motion made, That the Bill be now considered.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Rail Fares

The average increase in regulated fares was 4.2%. An extremely small number of fares will have risen by 9.2%, but those will have been offset by reductions elsewhere. The “5% flex” policy was introduced by the previous Government.

Commuters using Hither Green station in my constituency have seen their annual season ticket rise in the past two years from £856 to £944, yet overcrowding on routes into London remains horrendous. What guarantee can the Secretary of State give my constituents that this time next year overcrowding will be less and that there will not be huge profits going to train operating companies?

One of the problems we face is that there is a huge demand and we have seen huge increases in the number of people using the railways. Matching that, the Government are pulling in huge investment. We have set out our plans for 2014 to 2019, as has Network Rail, which published its plans last week. I understand the concerns of the hon. Lady’s constituents, but I have to say that a lot of work needs to be done on investment.

If I am pressing my right hon. Friend, as indeed I am, to invest more in track capacity on the West Anglia line and to ensure that there is a purchase of new rolling stock soon, do I assist my constituents if at the same time on their behalf I ask him to peg fares, or even reduce them?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I met him this week and he made the case very strongly for extra and faster capacity for his constituents in the feed-in to Liverpool Street. He highlights the exact dilemma: people want extra investment and it has to be paid for. The Government are prepared to subsidise the railways and are doing so, but the passenger also has to pay for extra capacity and new trains.

Many of my constituents, whether they are using local or cross-border services on the west coast main line, are frequently confused by the times at which they can use their tickets. Would it not be a sensible step to print on the tickets the precise time when they can be used, so that we end confusion and people do not end up paying fines?

In some cases, those times are printed on pre-booked tickets. We are conducting a fares review, and I would like to see a much simpler ticket operating system so that people understand the fares they are being charged. The review is due to report in May, and that is one of the points I am looking at.

The franchise agreement imposed by the previous Labour Government has meant that my constituents travelling from North Thanet have faced year-on-year increases way and above the average level. It now costs a huge sum of money to travel to London from Kent. It is an appalling service. Will my right hon. Friend seek to ensure that Railtrack and Southeastern now deliver what my constituents are paying for?

I have met with my hon. Friend to discuss the service in his constituency and in the rest of Kent. He has made a number of points that I will be discussing with Network Rail in due course.

Very straightforward: will the Secretary of State categorically rule out “super peak” fares? A simple answer will do: yes or no.

As I said, the Department is undertaking a review of fares. That is not to look at a way of making fares more expensive, but to ensure that people understand how fares are delivered.

South West Rail Network (Flood Resilience)

2. What discussions he has had with Network Rail on improving the flood resilience of the south-west rail network. (137493)

I had a number of conversations with Network Rail throughout December about improving the flood resilience of the south-west rail network. I also visited works on the west coast main line on new year’s eve, where I was able to discuss the issue in person with David Higgins, Network Rail’s chief executive.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Between the end of November and the end of December, Devon and Cornwall were effectively cut off from the rest of the country by rail for two periods lasting more than a week each. That is not acceptable for rail travellers or our economy. Will he impress on Network Rail the absolutely urgency of tackling the problem at Cowley bridge in Exeter, which is the cause of most of the problems?

The situation that people in the south-west faced over that period was unacceptable. It was the result of weather that we do not see often. I have talked to many Members who have made representations to me on that, and I have asked Network Rail to give a briefing to Members from those areas. That will take place in early February, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will attend.

Further to the point by the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), the Tiverton to Exeter line is extremely low and will be affected by flooding not only this year, but in future years. A substantial job needs to be done on that particular track of rail, so I urge the Secretary of State to do as much as he can to get Network Rail to put a package in place.

I accept what my hon. Friend says and I hope that he will come to the meeting I am organising with Network Rail, which I will also attend. I am trying to break it into regions in the parts of the area served so that Members can discuss their concerns directly with Network Rail.

There are two other important areas within the south-west that raise potential problems for the resilience of rail services. One is the rail line between Exeter and Honiton, which also floods, but most crucially there is the coastal route between Exeter and Newton Abbot, which for decades has required a great deal of maintenance. We want certainty about the future of the resilience of our rail services in the south-west.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), and I are aware of the problems affecting the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and the area he represents. As I said, at the meeting with Network Rail, we will be able to discuss in detail all the problems that Members are facing and—I hope—come to some solutions.

West Coast Main Line Franchise

3. What his latest estimate is of the cost to the public purse of cancelling the award of the west coast main line franchise; and if he will make a statement. (137494)

I have stated that bidders will be remunerated in full for the reasonable costs of putting together and submitting their bids. As I reported to the Transport Committee on 10 January, I expect that figure to be in the region of £45 million.

I come from the world of industrial manufacturing, where incompetent mistakes get someone the sack. It occurs to me that in this Government no one gets the blame, while hard-working, travelling members of the public pay the price for the mistake through higher rail fares. Will the Secretary of State tell me exactly which Minister, if any, will take responsibility for his Government’s humiliation in this affair?

I think I have been very open with the House. I have made two or three statements to it about the incident involving the west coast main line, and I have commissioned two reports that have broadly been welcomed, I think, by the House. Both those who wrote the reports have given evidence to the Transport Committee, during which, Sam Laidlaw, who wrote the report on what went wrong in the Department, said that Ministers were not made aware.

I thank the Secretary of State for being so open with the House about this matter. It is an issue not just about the cost to the public purse, but about the potential for franchises to be delayed. In my constituency in Deal, we want a hard-won commuting high-speed service to be made an all-day high-speed service. Will he tell us what the impact of the delay might be?

As I said, two reports were conducted, one by Sam Laidlaw and the other by Richard Brown. I published the latter last week, and in the near future will make a statement to the House about how I intend to implement Mr Brown’s recommendations.

As the Clerk has very originally observed, the Secretary of State has brought the matter back on track. We are grateful to him.

The Laidlaw report is clear about where the blame lies for the west coast franchise fiasco—it was Ministers who decided to carry out a botched reorganisation of the Department that left no one in charge of rail, cut one third of the Department’s staff and axed external audits of procurement. Is it not a disgrace that with the well over £45 million of taxpayers’ money that the Secretary of State admits down the drain, every single one of those responsible Ministers is either still in the Cabinet or has been promoted to it?

There are many ways in which one can read the report. The hon. Lady means to put her interpretation on it, and whatever I say will not change that interpretation. It is quite clear in the report that Ministers were not made aware of some of the problems, and if they had been referred up, different actions could have been taken.

If the Secretary of State will not accept what Laidlaw says about ministerial responsibility, perhaps he will accept the verdict of the Brown review, which is also clear about where the blame lies. It was the mistaken decision by Ministers to move to longer franchises as the rule, not the exception, and experiment with this risky new policy on the most complex franchise route. Instead of repeatedly blaming civil servants, who cannot answer back, when will Ministers finally take responsibility for this staggering waste of taxpayers’ money?

I think I have been very open with the House, and I have also commissioned inquiries. Initially the hon. Lady questioned their independence. I am glad that she is now happy to abide by those reports, which were clear that, had Ministers been warned, different actions could have been taken, which is exactly what the permanent secretary said before the Select Committee on Transport.

Rolling Stock Contracts

4. What recent progress he has made on the Thameslink and Crossrail rolling stock contracts; and if he will make a statement. (137495)

We aim to reach financial close on the Thameslink rolling stock contract early this year. The Crossrail rolling stock procurement is a live procurement exercise being run by Crossrail Ltd. It is due to announce the de-selection to two bidders in spring this year, with contract award expected in spring 2014.

The Chancellor says it is essential to cut unnecessary public expenditure, but the review of the inter-city express programme by Sir Andrew Foster shows that the Thameslink rolling stock programme will cost hundreds of millions of pounds more than necessary. How can the Transport Secretary justify wasting British taxpayers’ money to create highly skilled manufacturing jobs in Germany when he could have re-run the procurement process in a matter of months, with a tender process that better ensured that this massive investment of taxpayers’ money led to manufacturing jobs in Britain? I am worried that the same thing is going to happen with—

Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that the procurement process that was adopted in this tender process was established by his Government, not this Government?

I welcome the Government’s recent announcement on new trains for the Southern railway franchise. Can the Minister confirm what this will mean for workers in Derbyshire?

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to her for the work she has done on behalf of her constituents and Bombardier. The announcement before Christmas is extremely good news for Bombardier. I also know that, like me, she will be pleased that Bombardier is among the suppliers who have bid for the new Crossrail rolling stock order. Southern Rail has commenced a competitive procurement process for 116 rolling stock vehicles, with an option for a further 140 at a later date. Train manufacturers, including Bombardier, are bidding for that as well.

Siemens was announced as the preferred bidder for Thameslink rolling stock in June 2011. The contract has still not been completed. One of the consequences is a delay in the cascading of rolling stock from Thameslink to the north. When will that cascading now take place?

I accept that there have been delays. A part of that is because this is a complex procurement process, and it obviously has to be done correctly and within the rules. In direct answer to the hon. Lady’s question, we expect the Thameslink contract to be finalised by the spring of this year, so that things can then move forward.

Colchester-London Rail Network

5. What recent assessment he has made of the potential to increase the capacity of the railway network between Colchester and London. (137496)

The Department has reviewed where capacity is required on the line between Colchester and London. We are also considering what capacity might be required in the period beyond 2019. There are plans to improve the rail service on the line between Colchester and London by providing additional infrastructure in the Chelmsford area, with a new station, possibly at Beaulieu Park, and possibly by increasing the speed of the line.

I welcome that answer. I also welcome the fact that the Government are making a record national investment in our rail network, but there is a feeling along the whole of the Greater Anglia line that there has been some neglect. Will the Minister give the House an assurance, in advance of the major investment, that in the meantime one or more passing loops will be provided?

We are determined, through record levels of infrastructure investment, to improve the quality of journeys for passengers. As someone who uses that line, however, I accept that there is room for improvement, and that has been ongoing. We have seen a total upgrading of the track, we are seeing an ongoing process of replacing the overhead cables, and stations are being refurbished, but more has to be done, and that will happen.

Road Bottlenecks

In the 2010 spending review, the Government committed £168 million for small schemes on the strategic road network. In the 2011 autumn statement, we introduced a new pinch point fund of £217 million to address the hot spots on the network. We have committed £188 million of that to deliver 65 schemes so far. In the 2012 autumn statement, that was increased to £317 million for the strategic road network, and a new £170 million pinch point fund was established for local authorities.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but the A34 in my constituency is still plagued by congestion and accidents. That causes daily misery for commuters on a personal level, and it also has a debilitating effect on the local economy. If the work force are stuck in gridlocked traffic, they are simply not being productive. Will the Minister come to Oxford West and Abingdon to meet local community and business leaders to hear their concerns at first hand?

Like my hon. Friend, I recognise that the A34 is an important, busy and strategic route. We are developing route-based strategies as a key mechanism to inform what is needed on such routes. As she says, the ability to work with the local economic partnership and to look at the benefits to the local economy are key assessment criteria. I look forward to visiting her constituency.

The House, and the whole country, will agree that one of the ways of reducing bottlenecks on the roads is to get more people on to bikes. When Ministers in the Department for Transport and the Department for Communities and Local Government consider new road schemes and other major urban developments, why cannot they agree to British Cycling’s request that the impact on cyclists should be considered at the outset of all such schemes, rather than being treated as an add-on later? If that were to happen, we could avoid problems such as those at Bow roundabout and Vauxhall Cross, which have had to be put right later at enormous cost.

I am aware that the hon. Gentleman is a keen cyclist and vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on cycling—

I am sorry—co-chairman of the group. I look forward to seeing its report, which I am sure will cover a number of those issues. He will be aware that we have committed a local sustainable transport fund of £650 million, and a number of the schemes being developed under that have exactly the cycling element that he is asking for.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s recent announcement on the improvement of the A160 into Immingham docks. The next part of the network that needs improving to provide access to the Humber bank ports and industrial areas is the A15 between Lincoln and Scunthorpe, which is in urgent need of dualling. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet a delegation of Members from the appropriate constituencies to discuss the matter?

I would be delighted to accept my hon. Friend’s request. I have been meeting a number of Members and groups from their constituencies to discuss the possibility of their qualifying for route-based strategies, and I look forward to talking to him about this matter.

Rail Electrification (Wales)

7. What recent assessment he has made of the potential benefits of electrification of railway lines into Wales. (137498)

The Welsh valley lines to Cardiff and the Great Western main line from London to Cardiff, Bridgend and Swansea will be electrified. Electrification will deliver trains that are cleaner, quieter, faster, and cheaper to operate, with more capacity for passengers. It will help to create jobs and boost growth across south Wales.

The Government were right not to scrap the last Labour Government’s plans for electrification. What work is the Minister doing now, in conjunction with the Welsh Government, to ensure that the Welsh economy gains the maximum economic benefit from this investment?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his rewriting of history and on his seeking to take the credit for what this Government have done in deciding to increase electrification. I can tell him that we are in close contact with the Welsh Government, because we are determined to help stimulate the regeneration of the Welsh valleys and the connectivity between London, Cardiff, Bridgend and Swansea. That is why we are investing this money to improve the communications. We will ensure that the deadlines laid down for this to come into operation will be met.

West Coast Main Line Franchise

8. What recent progress his Department has made on securing an operator for the west coast main line franchise. (137499)

Since the cancellation of the west coast competition, the Department has negotiated an agreement for Virgin Trains to continue running the service for up to 23 months until November 2014. This will be followed by a long-term contract.

My right hon. Friend will be pleased to hear from a regular west coast main line user that, so far, the interim service seems to be of high reliability and quality. During the original bidding process, both Virgin and First Group promised substantial longer-term improvements to the west coast main line service. Will the Secretary of State encourage future bidders to be similarly ambitious?

I assure my hon. Friend that I am grateful for his update on the service he is receiving and pleased to hear about the satisfaction he and his constituents are getting from it. We are always looking for improvements. I hope that when we come to negotiate the next longer-term contracts, a number of improvements will be included in them, but I also hope to see some improvement on this particular line before 2014.

What lessons will the Secretary of State apply to the west coast franchise from the experience of the not-for-profit east coast main line, not least in respect of the return of a £190 million dividend to taxpayers?

I am always looking to learn lessons from everything that happens on the railways. I believe that the private sector has brought tremendous growth of passenger numbers and improvements in services on the railways. Like the last Government, I am committed to seeing the east coast main line offered to franchise as well.

Road-building Projects

The Highways Agency is undertaking pilot schemes to demonstrate how four major road schemes can be delivered more quickly. So far, these have been accelerated by 18 and 21 months. We have achieved this by making widespread changes to the planning, design and construction regime.

I thank the Minister for that reply. I understand that the planning inspectorate’s report on the possible M6 link road to Heysham port around Lancaster may be on the Minister’s desk. Given that the plans for that were first sketched out in 1948, could somebody speed things up a little bit, as this will be a vital route for Lancaster, the north-west and indeed Northern Ireland?

We received the examining authority’s report and recommendation on the scheme from the planning inspectorate on 19 December. The report is being considered carefully. We are obliged under the Planning Act 2008 to decide whether to grant a development consent for the scheme by 19 March 2013. I am looking to see whether we can accelerate that even faster.

When the Minister next meets the Mayor of London, I urge him to discuss the Silvertown link between North Greenwich and Silvertown on the north side of the river. More importantly, many people are concerned about the need for public transport links along that stretch of the river, so will the Minister discuss with the Mayor the need to introduce a link for the Docklands Light Railway to come to North Greenwich, as it is essential for that to be part of the river crossing?

I regularly meet both the Mayor of London and the commissioner of transport for London. I will make sure that that subject is on the agenda the next time we meet.

In 1948, the very same county plan for Lancashire—under a Labour Government, I duly note—recommended a new A585 trunk road to improve links to both Fleetwood and the northern parts of my constituency. This remains a key local priority, but what guidance has the Department issued to the local enterprise partnerships to ensure that when decisions about regional structural priorities are taken, they are evidence based rather than based on economic fashion?

We have encouraged local enterprise partnerships to involve themselves with other local groups in order to ensure that suggestions, plans and designs for new routes take economic potential into account. Many LEPS throughout the country have taken that on board, and I trust that the one in Lancashire will do the same.

In his reply to the question from the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), the Minister referred to the autumn statement of 2011. Will he now tell us how many of the schemes that were announced at that time have so much as seen a spade in the ground? In how many instances has construction actually begun?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that 90% of the projects announced in the 2011 autumn statement are under way, and that 13 have been completed.

London Midland

10. What assessment he has made of the level of service provided by London Midland trains in the last six months; and if he will make a statement. (137501)

The Department is continually assessing London Midland’s performance, and holds monthly review meetings with its senior management. As the Secretary of State announced on 20 December 2012, London Midland’s performance between September and December breached its contractual benchmark. The Department has therefore negotiated measures with London Midland to ensure that a reliable passenger service is restored, as well as a £7 million package of benefits for passengers.

If there have been improvements, most of my constituents have not really noticed them. They have been stranded at Four Oaks—and believe me, Mr. Speaker, you would not want to be stranded at Four Oaks—hanging around for an hour and a half waiting for another London Midland train to take them back to Lichfield. How bad does it actually have to get before the Minister decides to take away the service and readvertise the contract?

I shall try not to be stuck at Four Oaks, where there is evidently a problem that limits the ability to run through trains. However, we are continuing to monitor London Midland’s performance, and if it breaches further benchmarks, we will take further action. I can say now that it is expected to make losses for the remainder of its franchise period. In my view, given that it created this mess, it is up to London Midland to sort it out on behalf of the taxpayer.

May I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that his question should relate purely to the subject of London Midland trains? [Laughter.]

If passengers are delayed on London Midland, and indeed on other lines—[Laughter]—they are entitled to compensation. However, when London Midland provides such compensation, it takes the form of paper vouchers, which, as a constituent of mine has pointed out, cannot be exchanged online. That is inconvenient, and it means that they cannot obtain the full benefit of lower fares. Will the Minister look into that when the Government review the fares system?

I am happy to say that that point has been raised by a number of Members, and that we are looking into it. People should not be discriminated against on the basis of the method that they use to buy their tickets.

Railways: Private Sector

11. What assessment his Department has made of the role of the private sector in the UK's railways. (137502)

Since privatisation, the number of passenger miles travelled has nearly doubled. Rail freight has increased by over 60%, the level of passenger satisfaction has risen by 10% in the last decade, and the level of punctuality has risen by nearly 14 %.

The delay in tendering for new longer rail franchises is holding back much-needed private sector investment in trains in East Anglia. Will the Government consider the proposals that have been drawn up to fast-track the provision of those urgently required new and upgraded trains?

The Government commissioned Lord Brown to advise on the future of franchising. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, his report has now been published, and the Government are looking at it. I understand that proposals have indeed been drawn up, and the Government will happily consider those proposals. I suggest that my hon. Friend should try to meet my right hon. Friend the Minister of State at the eastern rail summit, which will be held in the spring.

Do not the failures of the east coast and, now, the west coast franchise demonstrate that the policy of reusing a bad system is a bad one? Will the Minister please consider alternative models such as the mutualisation adopted by Welsh Water, which has led to increased private investment, efficient services, and reasonable charges for customers?

Throughout the country, privatisation and the franchising model have brought huge benefits to the system and to the rail traveller, and, as I said earlier, the level of passenger satisfaction has risen by more than 10% in the last decade.

The best way of assessing private sector rail franchises is to have a public sector comparator. Does the Minister therefore agree that we should consider retaining the east coast franchise as a public sector comparator, and look at having a local and regional service as a public sector comparator, too?

I disagree with that suggestion. The hon. Gentleman will remember that although subsidy was slightly lower when we had nationalised railways, underinvestment was a major feature of that era. Fares continued to rise and passenger satisfaction declined.

Bus Fares

The Government recognises that the price of public transport is an issue for many people, including those in non-metropolitan areas, and we are putting measures in place to keep down the cost of using the bus, including retaining the bus service operators grant and the concessionary travel entitlement, and encouraging more reasonably priced multi-operator tickets.

Following cuts imposed by this Government, Mayor Mallon in Middlesbrough is proposing to axe the teen mover scheme that helps young people afford public transport, and Redcar and Cleveland borough council has already had to scale back its similar scheme. As a result, coupled with bus fare increases, young people risk being plunged into transport poverty. Will the Minister hold discussions with his colleagues at the Departments for Education and for Communities and Local Government to ensure that young people in Middlesbrough and east Cleveland can afford to travel by public transport?

The hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention to the issue of young people and buses, and I have given considerable attention to it. I have had discussions with the industry, and there is a new website giving young people more information about bus fares and the best offers in their area. We are discussing what further steps we might take to help young people, and, indeed, I have met colleagues at the Department for Education to discuss this very issue.

Does my hon. Friend agree that community transport and concessionary fares are particularly important in rural areas? Will he therefore consider a further roll-out of the wheels to work scheme in rural areas such as Thirsk, Malton and Filey?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question, and I agree with her point. We have given two tranches of £10 million to aid community transport across England. We have also funded wheels to work schemes under the local sustainable transport fund, and will continue to do so.

The Government’s own figures show bus fares rising by double the rate of inflation, and many passengers face even higher increases; the Arriva Midlands annual saver ticket has increased by 20% this year. When will the Minister accept that his Government’s decision to cut local transport funding by 28% and to cut direct support for bus services by a fifth has increased the financial pressure on households who are already struggling to make ends meet?

I welcome the hon. Lady to the Front Bench. She may not be aware that this is not a new phenomenon. In 2009, the retail prices index fell by 0.4% and bus fares increased by 8.6%—far more than they have risen this year. Steps are being taken to cut bus fares, and the hon. Lady may be interested to know that fares are being cut by First Bus in both Sheffield and Manchester.

Topical Questions

May I take this opportunity to thank the emergency services who responded so professionally to yesterday’s helicopter crash in London, in which, sadly, two people lost their lives? The Air Accidents Investigation Branch is continuing its investigation, and I will keep the House updated on its findings.

Since I last addressed the House at Transport questions, I have published the Richard Brown independent review into franchising, which concluded that it remains a fundamentally sound model. I will make further statements on rail franchising in due course. Over the Christmas period I also announced details of a new £170 million local authority pinch point fund, targeting the most congested points on local roads, as well as the allocation of an extra £215 million to councils to maintain roads.

The cost of travelling by train and tube from the suburbs of London into central London—for example, from West Harrow in my constituency to Westminster—has increased by 25% in the last two years alone. What discussions do Ministers plan to have with the Mayor of London about ameliorating the impact of high fare rises on those whose budgets are already squeezed?

The current fare regime and price increases are exactly the same as those under the last Government, and I do not remember him complaining about them then.

T4. The new Mersey Gateway bridge will be tolled, with the risk of significant extra traffic through Warrington. The inspector at the planning inquiry stated the toll should be set no higher than that of the nearby Birkenhead tunnel. Will the Secretary of State confirm that in any evaluation of a change to the tunnel toll, he will also look at the situation of the bridge and of Warrington? (137516)

The Government have no plans to fund the reduction or abolition of tolls on the Mersey tunnels. Tolls on the new Mersey gateway bridge will be set by the Mersey gateway crossings board, an independent subsidiary of Halton borough council set up to manage the scheme. My hon. Friend knows that the indicative and maximum toll levels were agreed as part of the public inquiry, and were set out under the Transport and Works Act 1992.

T3. A couple of days ago, Carlos Tevez, the Manchester City striker, admitted to not having a valid UK driving licence. It was said that the theory test would be difficult for him as it is conducted in English. Given that many people who are legitimately and legally in the UK need to drive after the 12-month grace period, does the Department offer the theory test in other languages? If not, why not, given that in the interests of road safety it is more important that people are encouraged to take the test, rather than have them worry about whether their written English skills are up to scratch? (137515)

I can confirm that the test is offered in more languages in this country than it is in any other in Europe. I am, however, consulting on whether to reduce the number, because it is clear that a key aspect of road safety is involved: if people cannot understand the test in English, they might not be able to understand the road signs.

T5. Will my right hon. Friend continue to champion Essex commuters and ensure that the recommendations of “Once in a generation—A rail prospectus for East Anglia” are considered by his Department and implemented, so that our commuters can have outstanding rail infrastructure, bringing us into the 21st century? (137517)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and I pay tribute to the tremendous work that she, other hon. Members and local authorities in East Anglia have done in producing that excellent document, in which I was involved before becoming a Minister. She can have my assurance that we are completely committed to investing in infrastructure, not only in East Anglia and Essex but throughout the country. I look forward to meeting her, Government Members and other Members of the House to discuss that important report shortly.

T7. Bolsover district council, Chesterfield borough council, North East Derbyshire district council and Bassetlaw district council have all proposed that devolved major scheme funding should be allocated to a local transport body based on the Sheffield city region. Does the Minister agree that that is a sensible way to allocate resources in order to help regenerate the economy? (137521)

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point, although it is obviously equally important to listen to local views. My understanding is that both Derby and Derbyshire, and Nottingham and Nottinghamshire did not think it was right that they be linked with Sheffield because of different considerations in their geographical make-up and in their needs. We have decided that, in the interim, we will not link Sheffield with Derby/Derbyshire and Nottingham/Nottinghamshire, but we will leave it to the local communities to seek, in the short term, an agreement that will be mutually acceptable to all communities.

T6. My question is further to that asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) about services on London Midland trains. Staff shortages and other issues have led to an unbelievably poor service, with London Midland’s chief executive saying earlier this week that he was “embarrassed” by the service being offered. What will the Government do to ensure that London Midland improves the service it offers my constituents? (137518)

As I mentioned earlier, there have been discussions between the Department and London Midland, and they are ongoing. London Midland has taken steps to improve its rostering and to recruit more drivers to try to ensure that the very poor service that my hon. Friend’s constituents have had is not repeated this year. We continue to monitor the situation, and we will take further action if necessary.

If Britain is to see a substantial modal shift of freight from road to rail, it is vital to construct dedicated rail freight capacity capable of carrying full-sized lorry trailers on trains. Will the Government give serious consideration to practical schemes to provide such capacity?

I will always look at practical schemes that come forward. I am pleased to say that the amount of freight being carried on the railways has dramatically increased, and I very much hope that our plans in the near future will show that we want it to increase even further.

The Minister is aware of my concern about the apparent reinterpretation by the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland of the very welcome £50 million that the UK Government announced in their 2011 autumn statement for sleeper refurbishment. Will the Minister comment on his understanding of the position, and could we perhaps discuss it later in a meeting, not least in the context of the new Caledonian sleeper franchise?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question, and I know he has campaigned vigorously for improvements to that rail service. I understand that the Scottish Government decided to reroute funding allocated for improving sleeper services to capital investment in Scottish Water—a short-term measure taken, apparently, for accounting reasons. The future funding of Scottish Water will be fully adjusted to ensure the commitment to fund the sleeper improvement programme is met, although I think it is sad that there has been this delay. I would be more than happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman if he felt that would be useful.

My constituent, Mrs Hinet, suffered the tragedy of losing her daughter and grandchild. They were pedestrians who died when a car driven by an 89-year-old who had had a heart attack at the wheel mounted the pavement. There seems to be a lack of assessment of drivers such as that 89-year-old, compared with that of those who are 70. I know that regulations are in place for drivers who are over 70, but there seems to be a problem in that the deciles of the 70s and 80s are aggregated in the data. Will the Minister look at the data and how they are collected for those in their 70s and 80s and accidents on the roads?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. We have looked at that data and at some of the evidence from some incidents, particularly a number of tragic incidents such as the one he describes. The most important thing is that the current plans and regime are backed by the evidence, and I will review that. More importantly, it is a question of experience and not necessarily of the driver’s age.

To what extent does the Secretary of State plan to rely on private sector money to fund HS2? Have the Government approached or received any expressions of interest from potential funders, including any foreign sovereign wealth funds?

First and foremost, I want to get the Bill for HS2 through the House. We will make further announcements on HS2 in the near future.

Will the Secretary of State outline when the Caldervale line that runs through my constituency will get new rolling stock to replace the current Pacer units, which are unpopular, uncomfortable and outdated?

I promise the hon. Lady that I will write to her, bearing in mind the concerns she has just expressed.

Electrification of the Lakes line from Oxenholme to Windermere would probably be the least expensive and most straightforward electrification project in the network. It would also provide a massive boost for the £3 billion tourism economy in Cumbria. Will the Minister meet me, rail operators and rail users to take forward this project?

I am very happy for me or my colleague the Minister of State to meet my hon. Friend about this matter. We have a major programme of electrification, as he knows. It will not be finished when we have completed all these schemes, so we are looking forward to further schemes post the present programme.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Houses of Parliament

1. What progress the Commission expects to make in the remainder of this Session on the renovation and renewal of the Houses of Parliament. (137522)

At its October 2012 meeting, the Commission agreed to publish the report of the previous feasibility group and ask for a full independent analysis to be carried out of the various high-level options other than the option of a new building away from Westminster. The House Committee of the House of Lords reached a similar view. The results will be available in 2014 and will provide the basis for an informed decision about how exactly to proceed.

I am most grateful for that answer. Given the need for an informed decision, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is vital that all stakeholders—the public, the press, those who work here and, of course, Members of both Houses—are fully engaged in the process leading up to that decision?

Indeed. The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point and the Commission is grateful to him for the part he played in advising the study group last year, together with the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) and two Members of the House of Lords. This will be a major project that will affect us all, and good consultation with all those involved will be vital to ensuring its success. I look forward, as I am sure the Commission does, to working with the hon. Gentleman and others to ensure that that happens.

If the cheapest and quickest option for a complete renewal of the fabric of the Houses of Parliament is to close the Houses of Parliament and temporarily relocate them elsewhere, will the hon. Gentleman ensure that that option is put before the House so that Members can vote for or against it?

The purpose of the feasibility study now being undertaken is to ensure that there is accurate information, properly gathered by outside independent experts, so that all the options are based on fact, without any optimism bias. I cannot personally imagine a circumstance in which the House would not wish to express a view on what is best, but when the decision is made, after the information is available, it will be for the usual channels, whichever they are, to work out how to do that.

If we were to move out, which I would not particularly object to if it were more cost-effective, and if, for instance, we were to move to a round chamber, such as that at Church house, where would the Liberal Democrats sit? Would they sit between Labour and the Conservatives? Would they sit to the far left or to the far right, or would they sit in the bishops’ seats?

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. That is beyond my pay grade in this role, but I assure him that wherever it was it would always be the right place.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

McKay Report

2. When he expects to receive a report from the Commission on the consequences of devolution for the House of Commons. (137523)

I am delighted to hear that we will get the report in this Session of Parliament. Does the Deputy Leader of the House share my aspiration that by the end of this Parliament we will ensure that English-only legislation is voted on with a majority of English MPs?

I am aware that my hon. Friend is pursuing this matter vigorously—indeed, she made her own submission—but it is right that we wait until we have carefully considered the arguments and options in the report before taking a view. I am sure the House will want to do the same.

Before we make any further changes, the House will know that we already have two classes of Members of Parliament—those who take their seats and are properly accountable in parliamentary terms for their expenses, and those who do not take their seats and can spend representative money on party political campaigning, with no accountability. When will the Government address that issue?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. It is slightly outside the scope of the McKay commission, but he has put his concerns on the record again. I am sure it is a matter that the House will wish to consider in the future.

Following the question from the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), will the Deputy Leader of the House ensure that Members of Parliament such as me, who represent constituencies in Wales but have constituents who work in England, receive health services in England and use transport in England, also have an opportunity to vote on those matters as Members of Parliament?

Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. It is appropriate, as I said earlier, that we should wait until the report has been published. Clearly, a wide range of options is available, such as the status quo, federalism and many different approaches that many Members would want to advocate.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

House of Commons Dining Rooms

3. What use the Commission is making of price mechanisms to ensure maximum utilisation of House of Commons dining rooms on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. (137524)

The recently endorsed Catering Services business improvement plan proposes the return of a variable tariff structure in the Members Dining Room. The Administration Committee will be consulted on the details shortly. This is in response to feedback from Members who had stopped using that service following the introduction of a fixed tariff. Catering Services has a three-month rolling marketing plan that highlights offers and promotions in all the catering outlets to generate more business. This plan will include the Dining Room.

I thank my hon. Friend for that response. Last week, I dined on all three nights in the Dining Room and almost nobody else was present, but the service was fantastic because there were three servants for each person sitting down. [Hon. Members: “Servants?”] Exactly. Does my hon. Friend think that one way of engaging Members who do not use the Dining Room would be to offer them much cheaper rates when there is an opportunity for them to come along?

There is clearly a balance to be struck between attracting people in at the right price and prices being so low that they do not recover the appropriate cost. The House authorities strive to strike that balance appropriately. Work is being undertaken, particularly by the Administration Committee, but the key, driving factor is that the footfall in the Palace is dropping because of the change in hours, and I do not think any of us can do a great deal about that.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—


We have received confirmation of the Procedure Committee’s decision to undertake an inquiry into programming together with a request to set out the Government’s views. We will submit our views shortly.

Given how light the Government’s legislative programme is, does the right hon. Gentleman think that now is the time to consider whether we can debate private Members’ Bills not only on Fridays but on other days of the week, rather than having the countless pointless debates that we currently have to endure?

I am surprised that the hon. Lady considers that the Government have a light programme; that is certainly not the view on the Government Benches. The House has expressed a view on private Members’ Bills. It has thought it appropriate to leave them where they are.

When the Leader of the House and his deputy prepare their evidence, will they consider holding the Committee stage of the Bill on equal marriage on the Floor of the House?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question about a matter that has been raised before. The Government want to allow suitable scrutiny of the Bill and I am sure that the Government will provide it.

Public Reading Stages

We have conducted pilot public reading stages for the Protection of Freedoms Bill and the Small Charitable Donations Bill, and an online consultation was conducted on the draft Care and Support Bill.

Following evaluation, I have today informed the House in a written ministerial statement that public reading stages will form part of a tool kit to consider legislation on a case-by-case basis. I hope we will continue to improve public engagement in the legislative process—for example, through pre-legislative scrutiny and evidence sessions in Public Bill Committees rather than by adopting a uniform approach to legislation.

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s response and congratulate him and his predecessor on the great innovations in this Parliament to make this place more relevant to the people who sent us here. I urge that we use the new tool in our tool kit as often as we can.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, with whom I share an appreciation of my predecessor. Over the past two and a half years, the House has made considerable progress in engaging the public directly with legislation. We can do that through a number of routes. Sometimes, pre-legislative scrutiny on draft legislation or evidence sessions before Public Bill Committees are very effective, and public reading stages are a further option. We do not want to specify in relation to any particular legislation that all those things must be applied, but we have the mechanisms to engage the public more fully.

Private Members’ Bills

6. What recent consideration he has given to the procedure for private Members’ Bills; and if he will make a statement. (137527)

Hon. Members will be aware that the Procedure Committee is undertaking an inquiry into the procedure for private Members’ Bills. My hon. Friend gave evidence to the Committee yesterday and raised a number of issues relating to the timing procedures and motivation for private Members’ Bills. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will give evidence on behalf of the Government in due course.

As a tool for prompting dialogue and discussion or for the furtherance of a parliamentary campaign, private Members’ Bills are really useful, but many Members think that the way in which Friday sittings work is little short of a farce. Should programming and the tools used for Government legislation be applied to private Members’ legislation, to enable votes to take place and more legislation to be passed?

Many Members have experienced some frustrations regarding the private Members’ Bill process. I know that the hon. Gentleman has made a suggestion to the Procedure Committee along the lines of his question, but he will be aware that existing procedures of the House allow for a closure to be sought on debates and to impose time limits on speeches. He will be aware that sometimes when a Member presents a private Member’s Bill there will be other ways of ensuring that it is reflected in Government legislation, in the way that his proposed measures on children and families will be reflected in that Bill.

Government Bills (Report Stage)

7. Whether he has considered guaranteeing a minimum amount of time for the consideration of Government Bills at Report stage. (137528)

This Government recognise the value of parliamentary scrutiny of legislation. We have provided more days than the previous Administration for Report stages and, where necessary, we will provide more than one day for Report stage.

I recognise the Government’s commitment to better scrutiny of legislation, but one of the perennial frustrations, under all Governments, is that we get to Report stage and the allocated time is used up by urgent questions or statements and we end up with almost no time to do the job of the House. Will Ministers look at changing that so that we have injury time for any time lost because of earlier business?

I understand my right hon. Friend’s point. The Government have sought to address his concerns by providing more time on Report, but he might want to consider making a submission to the Procedure Committee, which is looking at programming. I am sure that the Government will want to consider his submission, along with others, when the report is published.

Sitting Hours

8. What assessment he has made of the effect of the introduction of new sitting hours on managing the business of the House. (137529)

I think the Deputy Leader of the House should make an assessment but should not listen to those who are calling for private Members’ Bills to brought into the middle of the week. Would it not be a ludicrous outcome if those who argued for our hours to move to earlier in the evening were then to vote for private Members’ Bills to be discussed after 7 o’clock so that the hours were extended from 11.30 am to 10 pm instead of running from 2.30 pm to 10 pm, which is what applied before?

Clearly, the House has made a decision in relation to sitting hours, but the Procedure Committee is looking at the matter, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s concerns will be taken on board as part of that process.

Policy Announcements

9. What recent discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on the requirements of the ministerial code relating to making policy announcements to the House before the media. (137530)

The ministerial code is clear:

“When Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament.”

I regularly remind my colleagues of this.

We know from the Government’s relaunch that they are planning to make 12 policy announcements over the next 12 weeks. Will the Leader of the House assure us that those announcements will be made first to the House of Commons, and that there will penalties if that does not happen?

I reiterate to the House and to the hon. Lady that the ministerial code is clear and that I regularly remind my colleagues of it. It is our intention and our practice that the most important announcements of Government policy be made in the first instance to Parliament. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is saying from a sedentary position that I am inaccurate. I have quoted directly the ministerial code to him and to the House.

Horsemeat (Supermarket Products)

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister if he will give a response to the finding of horsemeat in supermarket meat products.

This is a very important and extremely serious issue. Consumers should have full confidence that food is exactly what it says on the label. There are strict rules requiring products to be labelled accurately.

The Food Standards Agency is urgently investigating how a number of beef products on sale in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland were found to contain horse and pig meat. Twenty-seven beefburger products were analysed, with 10 of the 27 products, or 37%, testing positive for horse DNA and 23, or 85%, testing positive for pig DNA. In nine of the 10 beefburger samples, horse DNA was found at very low levels. In one sample from Tesco, the level of horse DNA indicated that horsemeat was present and accounted for approximately 29% of the total meat content of the burger.

Yesterday the agency met representatives from the food industry from all parts of the UK. Industry representatives confirmed the existing processes that they follow to ensure that the products that reach consumers are of the highest standard. These include quality controls in place at all stages of the food chain. They also set out the actions that they have already taken in response to this incident.

The FSA has now set out a four-point plan for its investigation, which it will implement in conjunction with Government Departments, local authorities and the food industry. The first point is to continue the urgent review of the traceability of the food products identified in the Food Safety Authority of Ireland survey. The retailers and the UK processor named in the survey have been asked to provide comprehensive information on the findings by the end of Friday 18 January.

The second point is to explore further, in conjunction with the FSAI, the methodology used for the survey, to understand more clearly the factors that may have led to the low-level cases of cross-contamination. The third is to consider, with relevant local authorities and the FSAI, whether any legal action will be appropriate following the investigation. The fourth is to work with my Department, the devolved rural affairs Departments and local authorities on a UK-wide study of food authenticity in processed meat products.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but perhaps he could have made a statement to the House yesterday, rather than have to respond to an urgent question today.

There is understandable public anger that supermarkets have been selling beefburgers and other products containing horsemeat and pig DNA. Consumers who avoid pork for religious reasons will be upset that they may have unwittingly eaten it, and eating horse is a strong cultural taboo in the United Kingdom. It is not illegal to sell horsemeat, but it is illegal not to label it correctly. Customers must have the confidence that the food they buy is correctly labelled, legal and safe.

The UK is part of a global food supply chain. The food industry lobbies vigorously for a light-touch regulatory system from Government. Testing, tracking and tracing ingredients is expensive, but not testing them will cost retailers, processors, British farmers and consumers much more.

This is not just about the supermarkets. The adulteration scandal raises serious questions for the Government to answer about how we as a nation regulate our food. First, the adulteration was detected in Ireland, not the United Kingdom. Why was it not picked up here? Will the Minister consider introducing DNA testing of meat, as happens in Ireland, to reassure consumers that they are actually getting what they pay for?

In 2010, the Minister’s Government split the responsibility for food labelling between three Government Departments: the Department of Health is responsible for dietary and nutritional labelling, and the Food Standards Agency is responsible for allergen labelling, but the 25 staff and the budget responsible for the compositional labelling has been transferred to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Is that not an absurd situation, and will the Minister now review the system that he has created for food labelling in this country? How many of those 25 staff are still employed by DEFRA on those issues, and why was no national system put in place at that time to audit labelling and composition to protect consumers from this type of fraud?

The FSA inquiry will test the robustness of supermarket audit chains. How confident is the Minister that they will meet Government standards? Has the loss of 700 trading standards officers in three years made this type of consumer fraud more widespread and less likely to be detected? Is the Minister confident that the FSA’s Meat Hygiene Service can be cut by £12 million over the comprehensive spending review period without its ability to detect breaches of the law or tackle a disease outbreak being affected? These invisible regulatory services protect our consumers and our food industry and allow the industry to export all over the world.

Horses are killed for meat in this country, but there are dozens of different types of horse passport and the system is a mess. Will the Minister look at the system for horse passports?

The coalition agreement stated:

“We will introduce honesty in food labelling so that consumers can be confident about where their food comes from and its environmental impact.”

On the evidence of the past few days, the Minister still has quite a way to go.

Let us be clear: the hon. Lady is right to say that consumers have a right to expect that the food they eat is what it says on the label. The cases that were picked up in Ireland are a serious breach of that principle. That is why we are taking the measures that we are taking.

The hon. Lady was completely wrong, however, in what she said about responsibility for labelling. Let us be absolutely clear: the responsibility for policy on labelling lies with the most appropriate Department, but the responsibility for checking the content of food lies with the Food Standards Agency—which, of course, is the responsibility of the Department of Health—and only the Food Standards Agency. It is the body charged with that responsibility.

The hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand the difference between a policy responsibility and implementation. It is precisely because of that difference that we split it—to make sure that implementation was with the body charged with that duty.

I believe that the Food Standards Agency carries out its duties in a responsible and professional way. It takes a risk-based approach to testing, based on intelligence. It is right to do so, because that is how it gets the most effective results.

The hon. Lady asked about trading standards officers. Of course these officers have a duty to their local authorities and to the people in their area in relation to the standards that traders employ in that area, but they are not a responsibility of central Government. Local government will take the decisions on what are the appropriate levels.

The hon. Lady seems to think that there is some difficulty with horse passports. I simply do not think that that is the case. I would happily set out the difference between the route for horses going to slaughter and the routes for others.

May I make one final point that is absolutely essential? It is important that neither the hon. Lady nor anyone else in this House talks down the British food industry at a time when the standards in that industry are very high. That something has been discovered in Ireland that is serious and may lead to criminal proceedings does not undermine the serious efforts that are taken by retailers, processors and producers in this country to ensure traceability and the standard of the food that is available to consumers. She should not put that at risk by making unguarded comments.

Order. Notwithstanding the importance and urgency of this matter, I remind the House that business questions are to follow and that we then have two heavily subscribed debates under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. I will not be able to call everybody as I usually wish to do, but to maximise the number of contributors, I appeal to colleagues for single, short supplementary questions and to the Minister for appropriately pithy replies.

The Minister has to answer the question why this problem was picked up not in this country but in Ireland. Will he take this opportunity to explain what the role of DEFRA is in food safety and where the cross-contamination occurred? I understood that all checks on imported meat, in which we understand the cross-contamination was found, occur at the point of entry. Will he confirm what checks are conducted on meat imports?

Let me make it very clear, as I have already said, that food safety is the responsibility of the Food Standards Agency. I have no reason to suppose that it does not do an extremely good job. We have a robust screening process with a network of food safety organisations. I see nothing to be ashamed of in the fact that we collaborate successfully with food standards agencies in other countries, because this is a European trade. The meat in question almost certainly came not from the UK but from a third country, to be processed in Ireland. It is not surprising, therefore, that the UK authorities would not have picked that up. However, we are investigating fully and there may well be criminal prosecutions as a consequence.

I have to tell the Minister that he is striking a very ill-judged tone. Where is the Secretary of State? Will these retailers be prosecuted? Was it not total folly to remove any responsibility for food safety or standards from the independent Food Standards Agency to his Department?

I have already explained that we have not done that. It is the policy on food labelling, which is considered at Agriculture Council, that is within DEFRA. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman’s other comments require a reply.

At a time when commodity prices are very high, food adulteration is likely to become a bigger problem. When we have high-priced beef and—as I understand it—low-priced horsemeat, some unscrupulous food processors are likely to take advantage. Will the Minister therefore ensure that when commodity prices are high throughout the food chain, the Food Standards Agency has responsible processes in place to ensure that adulteration cannot happen in this country, and that British food maintains its high status?

We certainly need to do that—that is one of the things that is in train. I have said that the FSA operates on the basis of intelligence—it will continue to do so, because it is important that we find where adulteration takes place. However, it is important to say that manufacturers and retailers have a responsibility to establish very clearly the provenance of the food they supply. Most retailers and processers in this country do an extremely good job of exactly that, but when the system falls down, we must investigate and take appropriate action.

People trust brands such as Tesco to have precisely sourced their supply. The Minister rightly said that it is not illegal to sell horsemeat in this country, but he also rightly said that it is illegal to sell horsemeat if it is not properly labelled as such. What steps have been taken to prosecute Tesco and others for their failure to label properly the food they were supplying to their customers?

I am so grateful to the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) for his advice.

The investigations will precede the prosecution process. That is the way we do things in this country. We investigate first and take prosecutions to court if it is appropriate to do so. I do not think—[Interruption.]

Order. I understand the strength of feeling on the matter and the considerable expertise of the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), but I would look to him ordinarily to behave in a statesman-like manner, and he fell short of the standard on that occasion. He must calm himself. Let us hear the answer.

As I was saying, if prosecutions are required, they will of course take place, either in this country or in the Republic of Ireland as appropriate. However, it is important to gather evidence before mounting a prosecution.

Although I welcome the fact that Tesco has today widely advertised an apology, does the Minister share my disgust on hearing the news yesterday that such a profitable and large British organisation could have let down consumers so very badly? Should not Tesco go way beyond that advert to rebuild trust with its customers and prove to us what it will do about this situation?

The hon. Lady makes an extremely good point. I am impressed at the speed with which Tesco has responded to what is clearly both a very embarrassing situation and a potentially damaging one. It is essential that retailers and processors rebuild trust in the products available in this country, and that the Government do whatever we can to support that. Only on that basis can we have a successful trade.

Food manufacturing is an important part of the British economy and employs a lot of people in my constituency. The shadow Secretary of State is not undermining the industry by bringing those issues to the House; she is safeguarding its future by allowing people to have confidence in it. The Minister needs to tone down the rhetoric, tell us that you are on top of this issue, and let the British public know that they can have confidence in the regulatory system for which you are responsible.

I have set out exactly what the FSA is doing in response to the immediate problem. The point I am trying to make is this: yes, this is probably an example of criminality—we must wait and see—but it has been detected and is being dealt with. It is quite wrong to extrapolate from that and say, “This is common across the whole of the food industry.” That would be a mistake, and it would undermine an important industry.

There are a finite number of abattoirs, slaughter houses and renderers both here and in the Republic of Ireland, so must it not be possible, in fairly short order, to discover where the horsemeat entered the food chain and react accordingly?

Of course, the first responsibility for that lies with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, which is carrying out investigations and we are assisting with them as far as possible. I think we will quickly identify where the meat came from and discover whether it was falsely labelled at the point of origin, which I suspect may be the case.

Is not the problem fragmentation, split responsibility, enforcement, the role of trading standards officers and cuts to local government? Has the Minister had a meeting a Cabinet level, across all Departments, to get a policy that is fit for purpose?

As I have already said, I do not accept that there is any difficulty with split responsibilities. The responsibility for food safety lies entirely with the Food Standards Agency.

In this country, there are robust rules to separate the processing of beef and horse meat. Is that not the case in Ireland?

That will be the subject of the investigations being carried out. The low-level contamination suggests that it may not have been through deliberate falsification of labelling. It may well be that it is simply cross-contamination by error, but I am sure that the Irish authorities will look carefully at this. We are co-operating with them as far as we can, and we are very eager to know the answer.

The Minister said, “It’s not my fault” and puts the blame back on the Food Standards Agency. He has already made cuts and is proposing £11 million more. Will he stop those cuts in order to protect the vulnerable people in Britain from having food they should not have?

I know that it is a convenient fiction, but I can honestly say that I am not personally responsible for having mislabelled horsemeat in the Republic of Ireland. I am confident that the FSA is doing a very good job in this country and will continue to do so.

There are suggestions that the future of the red tractor mark may be at threat. The red tractor mark guarantees the high quality of UK produce. Is this issue not a sign that we should be backing such schemes and increasing their use in the future?

Producer-led and processor-led quality assurance schemes are a valuable tool for consumers, enabling them to know exactly the provenance of what they are eating, and the welfare conditions under which the animals, in the case of meat, have been kept. That is to be recommended to the industry and the consumer.

This scandal illustrates the failure of one of our largest companies to ensure that its supply chain reflects the values it purports to uphold. I sponsored the Transparency in UK Company Supply Chains (Eradication of Slavery) Bill as a ten-minute rule Bill and my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) is the promoter of its Second Reading on Friday. It provides a tool for the companies themselves to ensure that their supply chains reflect the values they purport to uphold and do not include such criminal practices. Will the Minister talk to his colleagues in the Whips Office to ensure that the Government do not prevent the Bill going through, so that we can change this situation?

I do not honestly believe that there is any legal impediment at the moment to retailers doing a proper job of establishing the provenance of the food they serve on their shelves.

We already have strict rules, with penalties, relating to food tracing and labelling. Should we not review those penalties to provide a greater deterrence to companies?

We continue to keep our policies on labelling under review. In this case, however, it appears that it is not simply a labelling error. We are almost certainly talking about real criminality, and there are very clear laws in place to deal with such criminality.

This scandal—because that is what it is—has affected supermarket chains in this country. What investigations have been carried out of the beefburgers that go into the fast food chains, and how confident can my constituents be that they are getting a Big Mac rather than a Shergar Mac?

Those investigations are under way to ensure that if this scandal is replicated in other low-cost beefburgers, it is picked up and we take appropriate action.

Given that the FSA has responsibility for food safety, I am surprised and disappointed that a Health Minister is not at least sitting in on the Minister’s response to this urgent question. Likewise, no shadow Health Minister is present either. Will the Minister send a signal to the authorities in the Irish Republic that if there is any criminality, exemplary sentences should be handed out?

The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who has responsibility for the FSA, has apologised, because she is abroad today. That is why she is not here. Yes, we clearly want these matters to be prosecuted and dealt with with appropriate severity, and we will continue our dialogue with the Irish authorities to ensure that whatever they do is consonant with that.

I do not eat meat, but the majority of my constituents do, and I think that looking on today they will be surprised and disappointed by the tone of the Minister’s comments suggesting that those of us standing up for consumers are somehow talking down the food industry. Will he revisit the proposed cuts to the FSA’s budget to ensure that meat hygiene inspections are not compromised?

As I have explained many times, the FSA is a responsibility of the Department of Health, but I have no reason to suppose that its activities will be compromised by future budgetary constraints. I am absolutely clear—let me repeat this—that we ought to be very concerned about this matter on behalf of consumers in this country, but we also ought to recognise that it does not mean that food across the country sold by all retailers is suspect. It is not, and that is the point that I am trying to make. At such times, consumers need to be reassured that systems are in place—systems that, in fact, caught this cross-contamination in this case.

As a result of this serious incident, several supermarkets in Britain have removed a lot of products from their shelves as a precaution. Does my hon. Friend agree that this demonstrates a responsible attitude on the part of British retailers in dealing with this serious issue?

I think that the great majority of businesses in this country take an extraordinarily responsible attitude to their duties to the consumer. That is precisely the point I am trying to make. It makes it all the more important that where we find that abuse has taken place, we act urgently and effectively to prevent it from happening again.

Many of my constituents, like those of other Members, rely on brands such as the Tesco everyday value brand, because of the high price of food. Does the Minister understand that his remarks and tone today give the impression that he has been captured, stunned, trussed up and served to the nation as the Minister for the producer interest?

That is clearly not the case and is clearly not reflected in anything I have said. I have said all along that the interests of the consumer are paramount.

Is it more or less likely that this sort of food safety scandal will happen again in view of the reduction in food safety surveillance and the downgrading of food safety regulations?

As I have said, I do not think that there is a downgrading of surveillance. We take the matter extremely seriously and ensure that what we do is targeted in the most effective way in order to pick up irregularities when they occur. It is very important that people recognise that. It is also important to recognise that we had here a system picking up a defect, not ignoring it.

Earlier the Minister said that there was collaboration on these issues. Given that the Irish Food Safety Authority’s tests were undertaken in November, could he advise the House when DEFRA was informed of those tests?

DEFRA would not have been the first port of call, because this is a matter between the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the Food Standards Agency in this country. I understand that they had a dialogue earlier this week.