Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 559: debated on Thursday 28 February 2013

House of Commons

Thursday 28 February 2013

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Railway Stations

1. How many new railway stations have been opened since privatisation; and how many further stations are planned in the future. (145050)

Since May 1996, 56 stations in England and Wales have been opened. Local authorities, passenger transport executives, devolved bodies and Transport for London lead on the planning and promotion of stations. We are aware of about 40 stations which are being considered for opening by these bodies in England and Wales.

The mayor of Bristol has recently announced ambitious plans that would include the reopening of Corsham station, a project for which many of us have campaigned for many years, ably led for much of his 31 years as a councillor by Councillor Peter Davis. Does the Secretary of State agree that if we are to get people off the roads and on to trains, we must do all that we can to make the mayor’s vision of a reopened Corsham station a reality?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing to my attention the excellent work that has been done by Councillor Davis in his constituency for a very long time. I am also aware of my hon. Friend’s campaigning efforts in relation to stations in his area. He will be aware that bids are being considered under the new stations fund, and I hope to make an announcement shortly.

I have been informed that the microphones are not working. I am sure that the Minister will make himself heard.

Why are the Government not more committed to railway infrastructure? According to the National Audit Office in the 2010 spending review, they cut planned spending on rail by £1,287 million.

This Government are very committed to infrastructure, as demonstrated by our investment plans for electrification and other rail projects. We have committed to doing more in five years than the Labour Government did in 13. We have a very ambitious programme. There are 808 recommendations.

As a result of this investment programme, my constituents can now travel from a beautiful new station in Uckfield to the increasingly impressive station at London Bridge. Will my right hon. Friend look again at the availability of diesel rolling stock, so my constituents can have the same comfort on their journeys as they have at the stations?

Of course I am always prepared to listen to representations made by my hon. Friend on matters such as rolling stock. The new station at Uckfield is indeed fantastic, and I am aware that there is a huge amount going on at London Bridge.

20. The stations that my constituents in south-east London would like to see opened are a Bakerloo line station at Lewisham and a docklands light railway station at Catford. Those, of course, would also require major extensions to existing lines. Will the Minister tell me what planning if any is being carried out by his Department and Transport for London about the longer-term strategic transport needs in this part of London? (145069)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I can reassure her that all these matters are being looked at closely by Boris Johnson, Transport for London and the Greater London Authority.

High Speed Rail

In January this year, I announced my initial route and station options for phase 2, from Birmingham to Leeds and Birmingham to Manchester. I intend to launch the consultation this year, earlier than previously planned. I have also set out my intention to secure the authority for departmental expenditure on HS2 phase 2 by way of a paving Bill, when parliamentary time is available.

I am delighted that the Government have pledged to deliver HS2. Can my right hon. Friend give a further commitment to ensure that the financial benefits flowing from the pre-construction phase will be felt along the length of the line, particularly among firms in west Yorkshire, which are ready, willing and very able to assist?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Last week I made a trip to the north-east talking to a number of companies. I am aware that many companies up there and in other places along the route are interested in, and prepared to be involved, in all phases of HS2. It is a beneficial project for the whole United Kingdom and I can assure my hon. Friend that we will be looking at ways to involve British business in all aspects of the HS2 programme.

16. The updated case for HS2 involves significant downgrading of provision and a collapse of existing services to Stoke-on-Trent so that Milton Keynes can have its high-speed service. How does this help rebalance the economy and why is my constituency being disadvantaged by HS2? (145065)

Two weeks ago, I met representatives from Stoke, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Stafford. I welcome all views, and we will take a final decision on the route after the full consultation. The hon. Gentleman should be a bit more enthusiastic about such things.

If HS2 goes ahead, it will do significant damage to our Buckinghamshire constituencies and the Chilterns designated area of outstanding natural beauty. We need the best environmental protection. Will the Secretary of State undertake to consider carefully this document I have with me? It is the Buckinghamshire mitigation plan, which has been painstakingly produced and endorsed by all our councils in Buckinghamshire, our business leaders and organisations, and it is intended to form the basis of a constructive and positive outlook for HS2.

I had better be careful how I answer my right hon. Friend. I will study the document she has given to me and ask for it to be studied by officials in my Department. We will do all we can to minimise damage in her area.

The Opposition firmly support HS2, but we want it delivered. It is therefore worrying that the Government’s mid-term review referred not to enacting, but to “carrying forward legislation”, even though the Secretary of State’s departmental plan continues to claim Royal Assent will be secured by May 2015. Will he confirm that, with all the dither and delay, botched consultations and judicial reviews, the hybrid Bill is still on track to secure Royal Assent in this Parliament?

This Government will have achieved far more in five years to build high-speed rail in this country than the previous Government did in 13. All I would say is that we are still on target to meet our aims by the end of this year. As to its progress once it is before Parliament, I really cannot say any more at this stage.

The Secretary of State has introduced some confusion, because we are meant to have two Bills. One is paving legislation, which we have not seen and we do not know what it does, and the second is the hybrid Bill that he said would be completed in this Parliament. He should be clear what Bills he will introduce and when. Which Bill will he introduce: a measure simply to give the impression of action or the hybrid Bill that we need if this vital scheme is ever to be built?

I am pleased to have the Opposition’s support in bringing HS2 to fruition. The simple point is that a paving Bill will deal with certain financial responsibilities. I am happy to discuss the details further with her. The hybrid Bill—the measure that seeks planning approval—is still on course to be introduced by the end of the year.

Speed Limits

In January 2013 the Department for Transport launched new guidance for local authorities on setting local speed limits, including guidance to help them assess the full costs and benefits of proposed speed limit changes. We have also taken steps to make it easier for councils to introduce 20 mph limits and zones where they believe this is appropriate.

Many of my constituents would like to see 20 mph speed limits, particularly near schools and in sensitive areas. Will the Minister explain what is being done to adapt the localism agenda and give local authorities in Northamptonshire and elsewhere the devolved power in this respect?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support and that of his constituents for what the coalition Government is doing. Following on from the document “Signing the Way”, which I launched in October 2011, we have provided every English authority with a traffic sign authorisation to use speed limit repeater signs in place of physical measures in 20 mph zones, and that will reduce the costs for local authorities in Northamptonshire and elsewhere. This authorisation also enables local authorities to place advisory part-time 20 mph speed limit signs in the vicinity of schools without the need for central Government approval. Councils can also now use roundels on the road to replace some upright signs.

Many of us involved in transport safety welcome the ability to have 20 mph limits, but if they are not done in the context of targets for national performance, they will come to nothing in terms of reducing terrible road casualties, which are rising steadily in this country. Most other progressive transport safety countries have targets and they work. Why is the Minister abandoning them?

If I may say so, the important thing is the measures we take to make roads safer, rather than the arbitrary targets that the hon. Gentleman seeks to introduce. The Secretary of State has made plain, since his appointment to office, the significant importance that he attaches to road safety, and that runs through the Department.

A previous coalition Secretary of State suggested that an increase in 20 mph zones could be a trade-off with 80 mph limits on some of our motorways. Doing a U-turn at 80 mph would be crazy and dangerous; may I invite the Minister to do a U-turn here safely, and formally announce that the coalition will not proceed with 80 mph trials?

I have heard the hon. Gentleman’s point. The matters about 80 mph are being carefully evaluated and the Secretary of State will make a statement on that in due course.

Great Western Rail Franchise

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently announced that we would not continue with the paused Great Western competition. He also confirmed that the Department would enter negotiations with First Great Western to secure arrangements for a further two and a half years, to September 2015. These negotiations are now in progress.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that under the original tender document there was much concern in Cornwall about the potential for the number of through services to be reduced, and that there are local ambitions to expand the use of the branch lines. Can he assure the House that those services will at the very least be protected at the current levels for the next couple of years?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and I am delighted to be able to tell him that during the period of the extension we will maintain today’s number of daily through services from London to Cornwall. The Truro to Falmouth service will remain at today’s levels and will no longer have to be funded by Cornwall county council, but through the high-level output specification intervention. The option for additional services on the St Ives to Penzance branch from May 2014, subject to rolling stock availability, will be carried forward in this period.

My Reading East constituents, many of whom commute into London using the Great Western route, continually raise issues of service and cost of travel. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the voices of the regular passengers will be listened to during the franchising process and that the interests and service needs of passengers will be fully reflected in the final franchising contract?

Again, I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. As the House will know, he has done tremendous work fighting for his constituents through the work he did securing funding for the improvements to Reading station and the London-Heathrow spur for the Great Western line. I reassure him that when the Secretary of State makes his announcement in the spring about the future progress of the franchising programme, all franchises will be extremely mindful of the needs of passengers, including those on the Reading line, as we approach any successor franchise arrangements, and we are committed to working with the industry to reduce costs and to take into account the needs and requirements of passengers.

Passengers in the Bristol area are desperate to see an improvement to services on the Great Western line, particularly with regard to the issue of overcrowding. If people have paid for a seat, they should not expect to have to stand on an almost daily basis. Can the Minister assure me that the issue of capacity will be addressed in the franchise negotiations, and that there will be extra rolling stock on the line?

Yes, I would like to give some assurance to the hon. Lady. When franchises come up for the next stage of the process, we want to ensure that all passenger requirements, as well as the ability of companies to provide a first-class service to passengers, are considered fully.

The problem is that ever since the merger of Thames trains with First Great Western to form that franchise, the interests of commuters using the Great Western line have not sufficiently been addressed. We have the most crowded trains. In Slough, the service is slower than it used to be and there are fewer fast trains. What can the Minister do in the next two and a half years to improve the service for commuters on this line?

I can tell the hon. Lady that we are certainly looking at that and will continue do so, although I do not imagine that she was making those points in this House when the franchise was put together by her Government.

Is there not now a wonderful opportunity in this impasse to make sure any future franchise will ensure that the second-largest urban conurbation in the far south-west will retain direct rail services to London?

The hon. Gentleman has raised this issue on a number of occasions, and I understand fully why he does so. This is certainly an issue that can be considered when any future franchise bid is being prepared.

Road Building

The Government are investing £3.3 billion in major schemes, with £0.9 billion announced at spending review 10 to complete the existing eight schemes, seven of which have been completed. At spending round 10, £1.4 billion was announced for 14 new schemes to start by 2015, and that is 100% on schedule. The autumn statements of 2011 and 2012 announced a further £655 million and £395 million for new schemes.

My hon. Friend will be aware that Harlow needs desperately a new junction on the M11, which will unlock 3,000 new jobs in the town. The scheme is now backed by Harlow council and Essex council, which say that it is the No. 1 priority for the region. Will the Minister meet me, the council and the local enterprise partnership to look seriously at the plans, especially as they will be funded by developer contributions?

My hon. Friend is a well-known and renowned campaigner on behalf of his constituency, and he makes the case again today. I am sure he is working with the relevant local authority, the local enterprise partnership and the enterprise zone to drive up and ensure that the business case is complete. I am, of course, happy to meet him and discuss the proposal.

Clyde Coastguard Station

Clyde maritime rescue co-ordination centre was closed on 18 December 2012. The sea and coastal areas that were formerly the responsibility of Clyde are now being covered by the centres at Stornoway and Belfast. There has been no change to front-line services. The professional coastguard officers at those centres are maintaining the provision of a search and rescue co-ordination service to the highest standards, and those are the standards that the public rightly demand and expect.

The Minister will be aware that the staffing levels at Clyde fell below risk-assessed levels on a number of occasions in the lead-up to the closure. We found out this week that the staffing levels at Belfast, which has taken over its work, fell below risk-assessed levels on 28 days and 55 nights in December and January. Will the Minister agree to meet me and other interested MPs, given the genuine concerns about the safety of the west coast of Scotland, huge cuts to staffing and the loss of local knowledge?

First, let me say that there has been no loss of local knowledge. The pairing arrangements that were put in place show that, as does the incident at Loch Fyne. There were 40 occasions in December and 43 in January when the Belfast staffing numbers were below the risk assessment level, but the hon. Lady will know that that was obviously mitigated by the ability of the Stornoway station to take that up. I am happy to meet her to discuss those matters.

As my hon. Friend knows, the main concern when the Clyde coastguard station was closed was to ensure that local knowledge was transferred to staff at Belfast and Stornoway. What monitoring has been carried out to ensure that that knowledge was transferred?

Since the closure at Clyde, local geographical knowledge has been retained and improved, principally in the new management structure of the volunteer coastguard rescue service. Strong relationships and the working arrangements prior to the closure ensured that knowledge was transferred. Of course my hon. Friend will be aware of the new, improved mapping technology that is being put in place at the new co-ordination centres.

A number of hon. Members have raised the issue of Clyde, and I share the concerns about having the appropriate number of staff available, staff morale in the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the application of local knowledge to saving lives under the new structure. When the Minister looks at the specific situation of Clyde, will he also look at any possible ramifications for other coastguard closures?

I give the assurance, as I gave the hon. Lady’s Select Committee, that we will ensure that local knowledge is transferred post-closure through the pairing arrangements that are in place prior to a closure. I intend to ensure that if there are any lessons to be learned, we learn them so that that local knowledge is passed on.

Stansted Airport

I have no immediate plans to meet the new owners of Stansted airport, as the sale has not yet been completed. However, I have no doubt that effective working relationships established between my Department and the airport will continue under its new owners, and I look forward to meeting the management team at an appropriate time in the future.

What assurances can my right hon. Friend give to Manchester Airports Group, which will shortly be taking charge at Stansted, about improved train journey times from Liverpool Street to the airport, over and above the welcome but insufficient addition of the third track between Tottenham Hale and Angel Road?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the acknowledgement that the third track will make a difference to the areas he mentioned. Obviously, we are always willing to discuss with airport operators how best to improve infrastructure connections, and I will be more than happy to do that once the new ownership arrangements are finally in place.

I thank the Minister for his response about Stansted airport. Obviously the sale of any airport in the United Kingdom, for example, Belfast international airport alongside Stansted airport, would cause uncertainty to the workers. Will he confirm that the sale of any airport in the United Kingdom, be it Stansted or Belfast international, would be a matter that the Government would look after for the workers?

Let me address the issue of Stansted airport. I am pleased that the Stansted sale has taken place, as it brings competition into the airport system, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) has supported and advocated that for some time. As for the hon. Gentleman’s point about wider airports, obviously every case has to be looked at individually by the proper authorities.

New Railway Stations

In the last two years, funding has been allocated for six new stations on the rail network in England, either from the major local transport schemes budget or the local sustainable transport fund. In addition, in July 2012 we announced a new stations fund to help local authorities implement schemes in England and Wales that are ready to proceed.

I am very grateful for that reply and excited about the potential of the new stations fund. The Minister will be aware of long-standing plans for a Worcestershire parkway station and the strong support for that from our county council, residents and businesses. Will he take account of the compelling case for investment in that project and continue to encourage train operating companies to examine how they could increase passenger numbers by stopping there?

I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that we have been working closely with Worcestershire county council as it develops its plans for a new parkway station. I understand that the council has submitted a bid for funding from the new stations fund for a station on the Worcester-Oxford line. That was one of 14 bids received within the deadline and it will of course be carefully evaluated.

In September 2011, the then Secretary of State confirmed that the leasehold ownership of stations would be transferred to the train operators. That will obviously make a big difference to regular train users and, in my part of the world, to tourists as well. As this is Wales tourism week, will the Minister update the House on how he is getting on with that?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for that initiative. He might know that the Greater Anglia franchise, which commenced in February 2011, transferred the leasehold of the stations concerned to the new franchisee, Abellio. The approach was also included in the now-cancelled inter-city west coast franchise, as well as the Essex Thameside franchise competition, which is now under way. The arrangements in other franchises are being considered as part of the ongoing development work, but we certainly think that this direction of travel is worth supporting.

The Minister might be aware of the ceremony that was held yesterday evening to mark the completion of the construction of the station box at Woolwich on the Crossrail line, and its handover from Berkeley Homes to Crossrail. He might also be aware that agreement has not yet been reached on the detailed funding arrangements for the fit-out. Will he ensure that his Department works closely with the Greater London authority, Transport for London, Berkeley Homes and all the other relevant parties to ensure that agreement is reached quickly, so that this important station can be completed?

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that that remains a priority for the Department. We are working closely with the relevant parties to which he refers with a view to reaching completion as soon as possible.

Will the Minister clarify how much funding for new stations has been made available over recent years in the south-east of England compared with the north-west of England, and will he support increased investment in new stations, specifically in Merseyside and, even more specifically, along the Wrexham to Bidston line that passes through my constituency?

I think the hon. Lady should be very pleased with the level of transport investment that the Government has committed to, particularly rail investment. In the north-west area, for example, the northern hub is being funded in its entirety. We are also seeing investment in new and reopened lines such as the Oxford-Bedford line, in redoubled lines such as the Swindon-Kemble line, and in new stations across the country—including in Teesside, Warwickshire, west Yorkshire and Coventry—six of which have already been opened. We have seen investment right across England that will proceed right through Network Rail’s current plan, and I hope that she will welcome that.

Quality Bus Contracts

The bus quality contract provision is one of the tools available to local transport authorities that wish to have more say over the way in which bus services are run. Two integrated transport authorities, in Tyne and Wear and West Yorkshire, have consulted informally on their plans for quality contract schemes, and I await developments with interest. In the meantime, I am concentrating on the benefits that partnership working between local authorities and bus companies can bring to bus services for passengers. On Tuesday, I announced that Sheffield would become the first better bus area and published guidance to help other places to bid for the same status.

Sir Brian Souter has said that he would rather take poison than enter a quality contract. Is it not the reality that bus operators would rather maximise their profits than look after the interests of the travelling public? Should not the priority be to improve bus services, rather than to put more money into the pockets of the bus operators?

Running a company well is a way of helping bus passengers. If a company does not look after its passengers, its services will suffer as a consequence, so I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s premise. Brian Souter has contributed a great deal to the development of bus services in this country, and that fact should be widely recognised by all. The hon. Gentleman should also recognise that legislation is on the statute book, and that Brian Souter is subject to that legislation, as is everybody else in this country.

With bus fares rising at twice the rate of inflation, why have the Government rigged the rules for the better bus area funding against transport authorities that adopt a quality contract, so that they can set bus fares, as has happened in London? Instead of always caving in to the private bus companies, why does the Minister not stand up for passengers for once?

Again, I do not accept the premise of the question. The Department for Transport has been championing the needs of bus passengers very firmly since this Government took office. We have introduced a whole range of new funding streams, as well as better bus areas, money for the smart card roll-out and the fourth round of the green bus fund. We have also made huge investments in bus corridors in Manchester, Bristol and elsewhere. This is all designed to help passengers, so I am afraid that the hon. Lady’s premise is simply wrong. In regard to better bus areas and quality contracts, I advise her to study the guidance that I issued earlier this week.

East Coast Main Line

11. When the Government plan to announce the timetable for bids for the franchise to run rail services on the east coast main line. (145060)

A further announcement about the franchising programme will be made in the spring by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, setting out the timetable for future franchise competitions.

My constituents and others who need to use east coast rail services twice faced hiatus when two private operators collapsed. The public sector operator, East Coast, currently running the services contributed twice as much money to the Treasury in its last year than its predecessor National Express did in 2008-09. Before the Government announce their franchising schedule will they look at the feasibility of running a public sector franchise on the east coast for a period to compare like for like with a private franchise on the west coast to resolve the issue?

However charming the hon. Gentleman is, I am afraid that he is not going to tease out of me in advance what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will announce on future timetabling in the spring this year. That would be completely inappropriate, and I know the hon. Gentleman, an experienced parliamentarian, will fully understand that.

I welcome the plans for the new franchise on the east coast main line and hope that they will include the reinstatement of the direct service between King’s Cross and Cleethorpes. Ministers will be aware, however, that the biggest problem facing my constituents at the moment is gaining access to any service on the east coast main line due to the landslip between Scunthorpe and Doncaster. First TransPennine is looking at alternative routes for its service to Manchester, but access to London and the south is extremely difficult. Will Ministers use their influence to ensure that East Midlands Trains improves its service to Newark North Gate in the interim?

I fully appreciate the problems that my hon. Friend’s and other hon. Members’ constituents face due to this unfortunate act of nature. As my hon. Friend will be aware, all is being done by all the relevant authorities and train operators to seek to minimise the disruption to passengers during this difficult time and to expedite the repair and restoration of the track. I fear that it is going to take some time because of the sheer scale of the problem. I fully take on board my hon. Friend’s point and will pass his comments to Network Rail and the rail operators to see what more can possibly be done to try to alleviate the problems.

Topical Questions

At the end of January, I was pleased to be able to announce to the House the preferred route for phase 2 of HS2. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform Britain’s connectivity, capacity and competitiveness. Last year, we announced the creation of a £20 million new station fund to be used to open new stations in England and Wales. I launched the competition in January, and I very much hope to make an announcement by the end of March on which stations have been successful. We have also received a large number of bids for the £170 million local pinch-point funds, the applications for which closed last week. We hope to make an announcement shortly.

Will the Secretary of State update the House on any talks he has had with the transport Minister in Wales about the electrification of the Wrexham-Bidston line? When does he finally hope to make progress and when can we finally have a station that serves the Deeside industrial estate?

I am due to meet the Minister in Wales shortly to discuss a number of issues. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s point will be one of the particular issues we discuss. We have made major announcements about electrification in Wales. I realise that it affects south Wales, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will think it a move in the right direction.

T2. Lincoln finally has one daily direct service to London despite being promised seven up-and-down daily links at the 2010 general election. Will the Minister assure me that when the new franchise is put out to tender, my constituents will see an expansion of direct daily services and weekend services, as we are well aware of the need for our expanding city to enjoy as many rail links to the capital as other cities across our nation? (145072)

My hon. Friend now serves on the Select Committee, and will therefore be well able to keep an eye on these matters. We are always being asked for extra services, but I assure him that I am well aware of the case for Lincoln, especially in the light of the important celebrations that will take place next year. I will certainly consider it, and will judge it in the context of all the other opportunities that we have, and requests that we receive, for the provision of extra services.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, following the interconnection between High Speed 1 and High Speed 2, we will need a greater capacity and three trains per hour?

At least the right hon. Gentleman is consistent. As I have said on several occasions, I will consider what he has said and try to ensure that we provide that connectivity. There is also the question of trains running directly from Old Oak Common to the continent, which we will need to judge as we judge all other matters relating to high-speed rail.

T3. Rail passengers trying to book the cheapest fares are faced with a bewilderingly complex system. I hope that the fares and ticketing review will result in a much more simple, straightforward system. Can my hon. Friend tell me what progress is being made towards that? (145074)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that point. We are determined that, as a result of the fares and ticketing review, people will be able to buy the tickets for the journeys that they want at the lowest price for those journeys, rather than paying over the odds, which I am afraid they sometimes do today.

Was an upgrade of the current midland main line service considered as a cheaper, faster and far less destructive alternative to the building of a new London to Leeds HS2 route? If not, why not?

As I announced in my statement on the subject, HS2 is also about capacity. We are upgrading the line to which the hon. Lady referred, and I hope that its electrification during the period between 2014 and 2019 will benefit her constituents.

T4. There are several large haulage companies in and around my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that the HGV Road Users Levy Bill, which is due to receive Royal Assent, constitutes an important step towards the provision of a level playing field for British hauliers, and is long overdue? (145076)

I do agree with my hon. Friend. This will be the first occasion on which the United Kingdom has charged those who come from overseas for their use of our roads. The levy will help to maintain the competitive position of UK hauliers, and to maintain the UK’s roads. There was a long-standing desire in the House for the legislation to be passed, and I am delighted that we were able to secure its passage.

Two years ago, the UK Government announced that they would spend £50 million on the provision of new stock on the Caledonian sleeper to Scotland, and that the Scottish Government would match that with a further £50 million. It now appears that only £50 million will be made available, rather than £100 million, and that it will be spent partly on improving existing stock and partly on upgrading other railway lines in Scotland. What has happened to the funds that were promised by the UK and Scottish Governments?

I have considerable sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s point. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) keeps quiet, she will hear my answer. It is the same answer that I gave to the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy) when he raised the issue. We provided the money so that it could be invested in that service, but the Scottish Government decided, in the short term, not to invest in it. We hope that they will divert the money back to the improvements for which it was intended.

T5. Next month EasyJet will start to provide regular scheduled services between London Gatwick and Moscow. Obviously that is welcome in that it will forge greater trade links, but the visa requirements are extremely bureaucratic and stringent, both for Russian business men visiting this country and for British business men visiting Russia. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he will speak to the Home Secretary and the Business Secretary and try to resolve the issue? (145078)

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. As he knows, my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary are primarily responsible for such matters, and I will certainly discuss with Ministers in their Departments what can be done to improve the situation.

Following the well-documented problems with the west coast main line refranchising, a lot of concerns have been raised about Department for Transport decisions that may have left it less able to deal with refranchising as efficiently as we would all like. When will consultation begin on the refranchising of the Northern and Trans- Pennine Express franchises, both of which are extremely important to my constituents?

As was said earlier, I intend to make a statement about franchising in the light of the Brown inquiry findings, and I hope to make that statement soon.

T6. On Thursday 23 November I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State if he had been able to make an assessment of the impact of the floods in the south-west on Plymouth’s economy. My right hon. Friend replied saying it was far too early to make such an assessment. What progress has he been able to make on this, and on fixing the railway line between Exeter and Plymouth? (145079)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the way in which he properly and consistently raises this point. He attended a meeting in the House with the chief executive and other senior people from Network Rail and also from FirstGroup, which I organised. It gave my hon. Friend and other colleagues the opportunity to put these questions to them. I shall visit my hon. Friend’s constituency later this year, and we will be talking more directly about these issues.

If the Minister, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), refers to the text of the answer to Question 18, he will be aware of the scandal surrounding wheel-clamping and the involvement of criminal elements which led to its banning. There are now concerns that these undesirables are moving across into ticket parking control. Already 300 companies will have direct or indirect access to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency database. What steps is he taking to prevent abuse, and will abusers be denied access very quickly?

A range of comprehensive measures is in place to prevent the abuse of the DVLA database. Parking companies cannot obtain data from the DVLA unless they are members of an appropriate accredited trade association and abide by its code of practice. In this role, the British Parking Association audits its members annually, and the DVLA also undertakes regular inspections. When necessary, the DVLA takes direct action to suspend facilities to request vehicle keeper data. In 2012, the DVLA suspended 21 parking companies from receiving that information.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that landowners along the proposed High Speed 2 route are well within their rights to refuse access to consultants from HS2 Ltd who want to survey their properties and land? Will he assure me that the paving Bill will not be used to remove those rights from landowners and home owners, but will simply be used to regularise the expenditure on HS2, which has not yet been authorised by Parliament?

When we present the paving Bill, my right hon. Friend will be able to see its contents. I have not yet secured the parliamentary time to be able to present it, but I very much hope to be able to do so— I say that as I look at Members who have far more influence in this matter than I do these days. At the beginning of questions, my right hon. Friend presented to me a substantial document setting out some of the improvements she would like. In order to put them in place, we will need access to some of the land.

On the welcome electrification of the midland main line, I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that one of the objectives is to reduce journey times, so will he confirm that the rolling stock on the newly electrified line will be the new intercity express trains that can complete the journey more quickly? The alternative is a cascade of existing rolling stock from other lines, but, because they are heavier with slower acceleration, we could find that we have longer journey times despite having spent a lot of money on electrification.

The hon. Gentleman and I share a close interest in this line as it serves both of our constituencies. I hear the representations he makes, but I am very pleased that we have been able to put the electrification of the line into the plan for 2014-19.

My constituents living in the east of Enfield are delighted with the support from the STAR—Stratford-Tottenham-Angel Road—investment programme, supported by the Government, which includes a third rail track, thus providing a more reliable service than the one commuters have suffered under for far too long. Will the Minister also lend his encouragement to the continuation of investment along this line, so the full London Enfield-Stansted corridor can realise its economic potential?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for the coalition Government’s massive investment in rail. We had a useful meeting with the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), about my hon. Friend’s constituency issue. To answer his specific point, we are expecting to continue investing on the Liverpool Street-Enfield-Cambridge corridor, and on all other corridors where growth is forecast. I am pleased we have been able to offer a package that makes further investment in the Enfield route possible.

House of Commons Commission

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

Food Products

1. What discussions the Commission has had with the Food Standards Agency on products served at catering outlets in the House of Commons. (145139)

The Commission has no direct discussions with the Food Standards Agency on products served in its outlets. However, the House’s catering service continues to be vigilant and to act in line with FSA recommendations. The catering service is also in communication with its accredited suppliers, trade associations, the trade press and an independent food safety service about any potential problems in the food supply chain.

Consumers, whether they are in the House of Commons or on the high street, expect integrity in their food supply. Will the hon. Gentleman continue that contact with suppliers so that they look at their suppliers to ensure that this House has integrity of supply?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that request and can certainly give him that assurance. The recent case of some products being withdrawn happened precisely because the supplier, Brakes, made contact with us as part of that dialogue. I am delighted to say that they are all back in service, having been found to have had no problems.

I thank my hon. Friend for the work he and the Commission are doing in this regard. May I also request that we consider the traceability issue and use this as an opportunity to take prime beef from north Yorkshire, as that would be music to the ears of my constituents?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, but I have to say that there will be stiff competition from the prime beef from the north of Scotland.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Written Ministerial Statements

3. If he will introduce a procedure to inform all hon. Members when written ministerial statements deemed to be too commercially sensitive to be listed in the Order Paper are published. (145141)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that all written ministerial statements issued to the House are listed on the Order Paper.

That is not quite true, is it? A few weeks ago, a written ministerial statement about the extension of the First Great Western rail franchise was not listed in the Order Paper because it was deemed to be too market sensitive. I had an exchange with the Leader of the House about that matter at business questions. Should not some sort of guidelines be brought in to ensure that, when that occurs, Departments inform Members directly as soon as that information becomes available rather than our having to learn about it through the press or through the superior knowledge of the Leader of the House?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is incorrect. I have in front of me the Order Paper for the day to which he refers and that written ministerial statement is listed.

The Government have form on not keeping the House fully informed and in an electronic age, surely it is not beyond the wit of even this Government to find a way of ensuring that Members’ rights and the rights of this House are fully recognised.

Clearly, the Government are keen to make use of technology and would be very open to the idea of using it to provide written ministerial statements as early as possible. We would be very interested in pursuing that.

This is an outrageous slur from the Opposition. This Government make everyone aware as soon as possible: we need only buy the newspapers or put on the television and we know in advance. Is this not an outrageous slur?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has regularly reminded Ministers, including members of the Cabinet, that it is important that they come to the House to make ministerial statements here first.

House of Commons Commission

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


4. What estimate the Commission has made of the number of apprentices employed by the House service and its primary contractors and their subcontractors. (145142)

I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave to him in writing on 17 January, which said that both the catering service and the Parliamentary Estates Directorate were considering options for apprenticeship schemes. In addition, discussions with a number of major contractors, such as Royal Mail, suggest that they operate apprenticeship schemes within their larger businesses. The Department of Facilities is aware of three apprentices employed by a large contractor working on the parliamentary estate and the director general of facilities would be happy to discuss this further with the hon. Gentleman.

Will my hon. Friend make sure that the House of Commons does everything possible to employ more apprentices, and will he link up with the parliamentary apprentice school, which I have set up with the charity New Deal of the Mind that helps provide apprentices for MPs’ offices so that we can perhaps supply apprentices for the House of Commons Administration and around the House of Commons?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion, and I am sure that we will want to act on it. I pay tribute to Mr Speaker’s scheme for internships and the other schemes of this order, all of which help to get young people into employment from diverse backgrounds throughout the House.

May I push the hon. Gentleman? I do not want to be rude to him, but that was a bit of a pathetic response. The House employs a lot of people. We should demand of the supply chain to this House not only good pure food but that our suppliers employ a fair number of apprentices. I have often criticised the management of the House. It is not sharp enough. More apprentices, and let us have them now please.

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. However, there are difficulties, namely, that most of the procurement that takes place in the House is subject to regulations, particularly European contracting regulations, which mean that one may express desires, but one is not always able to impose. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the House authorities are committed to providing apprenticeships, paid internships, and encouragement for young people from all backgrounds into good employment wherever they can.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Number of Sitting Days

5. What comparative assessment he has made of the annual number of sitting days of the House and that of other parliaments around the world. (145143)

Based on statistics from the Society of Clerks at the Table in the Commonwealth, United States Congress and European Parliament—an unimpeachable source—the House of Commons sits for more days and for longer than most comparable Parliaments.

The important thing is not the number of days that a Parliament sits but how effectively that time is used. Does the Leader of House believe that the success in this House of the scheduling of debates by the Backbench Business Committee is likely to be a model copied by other Parliaments around the world?

I agree with my hon. Friend. We are unique in this place in having established a Backbench Business Committee which puts a substantial proportion of the time of the House at the disposal of Back-Bench Members without being controlled by the respective Front-Bench teams. That is terrifically important. I was struck when I visited the Scottish Parliament last week that, although there is time for Members’ debates, it is at the behest of the business managers. As a business manager, I might see advantage in that, but the House of Commons has resolved to give Back Benchers a substantial amount of time, and that is a welcome reform led by my predecessor.

House of Commons Commission

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

House of Commons Library (Books Borrowed)

The three books most frequently borrowed from the House of Commons Library between 7 May 2010 and 14 February 2013 were “How Parliament Works” by Robert Rogers and Rhodri Walters, borrowed 44 times, Erksine May’s “A Treatise upon the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament”, edited by the Clerk of the House, borrowed 33 times, and in third place “A Journey” by Tony Blair, borrowed 31 times.

There is no surprise that the most popular book borrowed is a well-written and informative read, but does he share my disappointment at the lack of progress on a new and updated edition? Perhaps the Commission could consider some ways of encouraging progress. I understand that the rack has fallen out of fashionable use, but perhaps a spell clerking the Administration Committee or even the Travel Office consumer panel might encourage progress?

I am sure that both of those posts would be warmly welcomed by all conscientious Clerks, but the serious point that the hon. Gentleman makes that colleagues are using works that are possibly in need of updating will I am sure have been heard by those who may be responsible for it.

Order. I should inform the House that the present Clerk of the House presented me with a signed copy of the sixth edition of his well-thumbed tome upon my election to the Chair. I hope that the House will feel that I have gained greatly from reading it cover to cover.

Food and Drink Subsidy

7. What progress the Commission has made on reducing the subsidy on food and drink served in the House. [Official Report, 9 May 2013, Vol. 563, c. 1-2MC.] (145145)

The cost of the catering service is expected to have been reduced by £1.1 million over the past three years. It stood at £5.9 million in 2010-11 and £5.1 million in 2011-12. The forecast cost for the current financial year is £4.8 million. The current aim is to reduce the cost further so that by 2015 it should be reduced by £3 million, roughly half of what it was at the start of the Parliament.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s answer, but recent media reports that the subsidy for Parliament’s 19 restaurants, nine bars and the coffee shop has actually increased over the past year were met with dismay from many of our constituents across the country. In addition to what he has said today about reducing the cost of the House catering facilities, I urge him to look at moving even faster on the issue to ensure that all subsidy is removed as soon as possible.

We are certainly seeking to reduce the cost wherever possible, but there have been changes in the way we operate that make turnover more difficult. I point out that the key gross profit, or kitchen profit, made by the House’s outlets is fully comparable to what we would expect to find in industry. It is the other costs, caused largely by our sitting arrangements and the staffing required for that, that put us over into subsidy. That is the area currently being tackled by the business improvement plan.

Should we not always think of the 12,000 or more passholders beyond the number of Members of Parliament, most of whom are on lower salaries, and consider that it is perfectly in order to have an element of subsidy? Those passholders include journalists who work in the House. Therefore, in trying to be prudent about bringing down the cost of the catering service, we should bear in mind that in many places of work it is quite normal to have an element of subsidy.

My right hon. Friend makes a valuable point. It is worth noting that the gross profit, or kitchen profit, made in the dining rooms is at the high end of the scale and extremely comparable to high street restaurants. The subsidy is needed far more in the canteens, which are enjoyed by passholders on far more modest salaries.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Private Members’ Bills

I have been a Member of the House for nearly 21 years, but my name has never been drawn in the ballot for private Members’ Bills, and those whose names are drawn rarely get their legislation through the House. Will the Deputy Leader of the House look at amending the Standing Orders to give more Back-Bench Members the opportunity to get legislation on the statute book?

Whether to change the Standing Orders would, of course, be a matter for the House, but I point out to the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight) and his predecessor have both been successful in securing private Members’ Bills while in opposition. Indeed, in the previous Session four private Members’ Bills made it to the statute book, and they were not hand-out Bills, and in this Session three private Members’ Bills have been secured in legislation, and we expect a further three to do so.

Does the Deputy Leader of the House agree that it is essential that all legislation, whether it stems from the Government or private Members, should be properly scrutinised and that we should not go down the route, as some people would have us do, of simply nodding through well-meaning legislation without proper or effective scrutiny?

It is clear that the Government have put a heavy emphasis on the scrutiny of Bills, for example through pre-legislative scrutiny and the other mechanisms we are using with pilots to ensure that legislation in this House gets the appropriate consideration.

House of Commons Commission

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

Parliamentary Estate (Wi-fi)

9. What recent progress has been made on improvements to wi-fi on the parliamentary estate that will enable the use of internet radios in offices. (145147)

Internet radio can be accessed over the parliamentary network from computers and mobile devices. Wi-fi is already available in many Members’ offices, and the remainder will have access by the end of next month. Dedicated wi-fi internet radio devices are not supported on the parliamentary infrastructure.

When away from one’s constituency it is very important to be able to access news. I set great store by listening to BBC Humberside’s news source, but it would be very helpful to be able to access it through the system on the estate. Will that be possible at the end of next month? When are we likely to be able to access regional live TV, which is also very useful for Members in keeping in touch with what is going on in their constituencies?

My understanding is that wi-fi internet radio devices are not accessible via the parliamentary infrastructure because only authorised parliamentary computing devices can be connected to it. However, I have taken note of the points that the hon. Lady has made, and I concur; I would love to be able to listen to Highland and Moray Firth radio. I will therefore, if I may, take it up with the relevant officials and come back to her with a fuller reply in writing.

Business of the House

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 4 March—Remaining stages of the Justice and Security Bill [Lords] (day 1).

Tuesday 5 March—Estimates day (2nd allotted day). There will be a debate on the budget and structure of the Ministry of Justice, followed by a debate on financing of new housing supply.

Wednesday 6 March—Estimates day (3rd allotted day). There will be a debate on universal credit, followed by a debate on regulation of medical imports in the EU and UK.

At 7 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates. Further details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: There will be a debate on Universal Credit, Third Report of Work and Pensions Committee 2012-13 (HC 576) Government response, February 2013 (CM 8537)].

Thursday 7 March—Proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipations and Adjustments) Bill, followed by conclusion of remaining stages of the Justice and Security Bill [Lords].

The provisional business for the following week will include:

Monday 11 March—Second Reading of the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill.

Tuesday 12 March—Opposition day (19th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 13 March—Remaining stages of the Crime and Courts Bill [Lords].

Thursday 14 March—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 7 March will be:

Thursday 7 March—Debate on the Scottish Affairs Committee report on the referendum on separation for Scotland: terminating Trident—days or decades?

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business.

Today would have been the 67th birthday of Robin Cook. He is remembered, among many things, for his formidable mind and for the reform and modernisation of the Commons that he delivered when he was Leader of the House.

I want to congratulate the Patronage Secretary, the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who was first elected on this day in 1974. I wonder whether he agrees that there are some clear parallels between the run-up to that election and now: economic turmoil, a Conservative Government in crisis, and an Education Secretary with an eye to the main chance. There is even an NUM—a national union of Ministers to resist further cuts in their Departments. We wish them well.

It is three months since Lord Justice Leveson published his report. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is vital that we make sure that what happened to the Dowlers, the McCanns and countless other victims of press intrusion can never happen again? The debate that we had in this place before Christmas and the amendments attached to the Defamation Bill in the other place demonstrate clearly that parliamentarians from across all parties and across both Houses support the implementation of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations. Since the Bill has now completed all its stages in the other place, when does the Leader of the House expect it to be back in this House?

The Government have been caught out trying to privatise the NHS by stealth. The NHS competition regulations create a system of compulsory competitive tendering for all NHS services. This is in breach of direct assurances given during the passage of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, not least by the Leader of the House himself. While the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister appear happy to unleash a free market free-for-all in the NHS, the Liberal Democrat Health Minister, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), is not. On Tuesday in Health questions, he criticised the regulations, which can neither be amended nor easily withdrawn. Given the huge level of concern, will the Leader of the House arrange for us to debate the statutory instrument on the Floor of the House and not upstairs in Committee?

“Channel 4 News” has published disturbing revelations about alleged cases of sexual harassment in the Liberal Democrats. While the party hierarchy have buried their heads in the sand, the victims are being let down. Next Friday is international women’s day, so will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent debate in Government time on sexual harassment of women and the culture of silence that all too often surrounds it?

The Leader of the House has announced that the Second Reading of the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill is scheduled for 11 March, but the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards is not due to issue its second report until later this year, after the conclusion of the Commons Committee stage, which means that the House is expected to scrutinise a Bill that is only half written. That shows contempt for the Commons, so will the Leader of the House assure us that the Committee stage will not begin before the commission has reported?

Last week we learned that the part-time Chancellor was missing £1 billion from his 4G auction receipts. He was so desperate to fiddle the figures that, as usual, he put party politics before economics. We also learned that Britain has lost its triple A credit rating. Let us remind ourselves of what the Chancellor promised in the Conservative manifesto:

“We will safeguard Britain’s credit rating”.

He also said that it would be a benchmark against which the British public could

“judge the economic success or failure of the next government.”

This is more than just a humiliation for our downgraded Chancellor—he has failed a test he set for himself. Even now, however, he is too stubborn to admit his mistakes, so the British people are paying the price for this downgraded Chancellor’s failed economic strategy. Businesses, families and pensioners feel it every day, while in April 13,000 millionaires will get a six-figure tax cut. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Chancellor to begin his Budget statement with an apology?

I was shocked to see the Prime Minister hugging five hoodies in Downing street last week, until I realised it was a photo op with the chart-topping group, One Direction, for Comic Relief. This week, however, band member Harry Styles has declared himself a Labour man. He apparently styles his outfits on those of Harold Wilson and Michael Foot. Harry and I know that there is only one direction in which this Government are heading and it is the wrong one. Perhaps the Prime Minister should have instead met with hip hop artist, Plan B.

I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House, particularly for her tribute to my distinguished predecessors. Robin Cook was a notable Leader of the House for the reforms that he brought in. Indeed, I am sure, as time goes by, that the contribution of the current Patronage Secretary will be seen as such, not least because, as our discussions in business questions show, the Backbench Business Committee has improved dramatically Members’ access to the Floor of the House to debate current issues.

The hon. Lady raised a number of matters. On the principles of the Leveson report, she will know that only a few days ago the Conservative party published proposals for a royal charter to implement them. That is subject to cross-party discussions and I urge them to proceed and come to a successful conclusion. I share the view of my noble friend Lord McNally, who made it clear on Third Reading of the Defamation Bill that, while the so-called Puttnam amendment was amended further at that stage, the amendment is still unacceptable. On that basis, I hope that an agreement will be reached that will enable us to proceed with the Bill without that amendment and to deal with Leveson properly.

It is not unknown for us to debate the regulations for public procurement in the NHS. The hon. Lady will know that it is possible for Opposition business managers to seek access to such a debate through the usual channels, and I encourage her to do so. On the substance of the issue, however, she is not right. The Prime Minister was quite right yesterday and let me reiterate what he said. If we did not have these regulations, normal procurement law and competition rules would apply. The former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), knows perfectly well that the principal rules for co-operation and competition would have applied in the same way before the last election. If he and the hon. Lady look at the regulations properly, which of course I have, they will see that it is possible to proceed without a competition on a single tender basis. The regulations, for the first time, create a structure that allows for “any qualified provider”. That is exactly what was said during the passage of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 and what is stated in the Act. There is no change in policy. The regulations enable commissioners to go for whoever is best placed to improve the quality of the services, meet the needs of people who use the services and improve efficiency, including through an “any qualified provider” route rather than a competitive tendering route.

The hon. Lady asked about a debate on international women’s day. I have announced the business and it does not allow us to have such a debate on that day; the House is not sitting on 8 March and the business does not allow for such a debate on 7 March. However, there is an Opposition day on the following week and the Backbench Business Committee has always been receptive to Back-Bench Members who apply for such debates, as was demonstrated in the well-attended and well-structured debate that took place the week before last.

The hon. Lady asked about the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made it clear that before Second Reading—not before Committee stage, as was previously intended—the Government will publish the principal draft regulations associated with the Bill. She asked about the timing of the Committee stage. She knows perfectly well that it is our intention on Second Reading to table a carry-over motion so that we can consider carefully what is the appropriate timing for the Committee stage.

I thought that the most important sign-up to a political party this week was to the Conservative party on the part of Marta Andreasen, a UK Independence party MEP. That demonstrates that across this country people are recognising that the Prime Minister’s speech on the future of our relationship with the European Union was, as she said, a “game changer”.

I apologise that we have not been able to give the hon. Lady and her colleagues time for an Opposition day debate next week as we are making progress with legislation. When she does have that opportunity the week after next, there are many matters for her to choose from: the increase in employment last year, with the fastest rate of new employment growth in the private sector since the 1980s; the reduction of more than 80% in the number of people waiting for NHS operations for more than a year and the waits that patients have to experience in Wales under a Labour Government, which the shadow Secretary of State for Health might want to debate; and, in the Home Office context, the reduction in crime figures or the reduction in net migration to this country of a third since the last election, which was announced this morning. This is a coalition Government delivering on our promises.

Given that one of the world’s worst-kept secrets is that Commonwealth day falls on 11 March and that Commonwealth Parliaments are being encouraged to mark that day with a debate on a Commonwealth theme, how can it be that this House is being given no opportunity to debate the Commonwealth, the proposed charter or connected matters?

I have discussed this matter with a number of colleagues and have encouraged them to approach the Backbench Business Committee. I am not aware of whether they have done so. Of course, I have announced the business for 11 March, so I do not think that we can accommodate such a debate on that day. However, a number of Parliaments are debating the Commonwealth at some time close to that day. I encourage my right hon. Friend and others to continue to approach the Backbench Business Committee on that matter.

Following the question from the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) about Commonwealth day, the Backbench Business Committee approached the Government to ask whether they would open Westminster Hall on a Monday afternoon to facilitate such a debate, but the Government refused. In the light of that, may I ask the Leader of the House whether the Backbench Business Committee’s full allocation of time will be received from the Government before the end of the Session? By our calculations we have two provisional days booked in and nothing more on the horizon, which falls at least one day short. So far, we have 13 important and urgent Back-Bench debates that need scheduling.

As the House will know, the Standing Orders provide for Westminster Hall to be opened on a Monday only for particular purposes, and I did not think it appropriate for us to seek to depart from that in this instance. The hon. Lady asked about the time available for the Backbench Business Committee, and taking today’s debate into account it will have scheduled 25 and a half days’ debate in this Session. The Standing Orders provide for 27 days in this Session, and I am confident that we will meet and exceed that.

As the Leader of the House will know, last week I raised the urgency of holding a debate in Government time on the Francis report. I discussed the matter with the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, and she entirely agrees with me, and others, who believe it is becoming a disgrace that we are not holding a debate on that vital issue. There is also the question of Sir David Nicholson and whether he should resign. Will the Leader of the House please speak to the Prime Minister and ensure that we have that debate as a matter of urgency in Government time on the Floor of the House?

As my hon. Friend knows, it is the Government’s intention to have a debate on that issue. He will also know, however, that on 15 January he and his colleagues went to the Backbench Business Committee to ask for time for a debate, but it has not been scheduled. We must remember that as a general proposition this House resolved that the Backbench Business Committee should take responsibility for a wide range of debates, including general debates. If we start to re-import an expectation that the Government will provide time for such debates, it will by extension be impossible to allocate the same amount of time to the Backbench Business Committee. We will have a debate on the Francis report and discuss between ourselves how that is to be accomplished at the appropriate moment. I continue to make the general point of principle that the Backbench Business Committee exists in part to enable the House to debate current important issues, as it did with Hillsborough, for example.

May we have a debate in Government time on the fact that we are supposedly “all in it together”, so that we can contrast the return of the curse of fuel poverty that is affecting many of our constituents with the handover of some £10 million to the outgoing chief executive of British Gas, the £1.3 billion to shareholders, and the fact that so much is being done to make life more difficult for the people we represent?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the House supported in legislation the establishment of the green deal, which will make an enormous difference to many people. Many companies in the energy sector are providing discounts on energy bills to something approaching 2 million households, and over the winter the Government are supporting many people with winter fuel payments. In addition, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Energy Bill has just been considered in Committee, and when it returns to the House it will provide an opportunity to debate many of the issues surrounding fuel and energy prices, and energy poverty.

On a day when the Royal Bank of Scotland announced a further £5 billion of losses, it is pertinent to call for a debate on the ongoing losses—currently around £20 billion —being suffered by the taxpayer as a result of the previous Government’s handling of the bank bail-outs in 2008. Mr Michael Cohrs, a member of the Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee, stated recently that the previous Government probably overpaid for their stakes in RBS and Lloyds Banking Group. Interestingly, the then chairman of Lloyds Banking Group, Sir Victor Blank, subsequently made a £10,000 donation to the Labour party.

The House will have noted that I announced in the provisional business for the week after next the Second Reading of the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill, which will allow hon. Members an opportunity to debate the issues my hon. Friend raises. In addition, the shadow Chancellor, who was the City Minister responsible at the time of a banking collapse, will perhaps have the opportunity to explain and apologise to the people of this country.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement to be made by the appropriate Minister on the scandalous treatment by Tesco of more than 400 workers in a high-unemployment area in Bolsover? Tesco is transferring those workers 170 miles down south, which is a complete contradiction of the regional policy of sending jobs up to the north. Tesco has been there for only a few years. Will the Leader of the House ensure that all the assistance that Tesco got to set up its distribution factory—all the money it received from development agencies, Europe, central Government and local government—is paid back? Does he agree that that scandalous treatment shows that Tesco stinks worse than the horsemeat it has been selling?

The commercial decisions of Tesco are not a matter for me. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) is in his place. I am sure that he, like the hon. Gentleman, has issues to raise regarding the decisions that Tesco has made. However, they are commercial matters for the companies concerned.

May we have a statement from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on what it is doing to prevent identity fraud? I have recently received complaints from a constituent that his address has been used on two separate occasions in the registration of new companies without his knowledge or permission. The Government should not be complicit in any form of identity theft.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I will speak to my hon. Friends at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to secure a response to it. In so far as the Government have regulations and require people to be on databases, it is important that the information is valid and reliable.

The Leader of the House has mentioned the immigration figures. He will know that today the chief inspector of the UK Border Agency has published a report showing that, last year, 300 people entered Birmingham airport without proper checks. May we have an urgent statement from the Home Secretary on how that was allowed to happen? May we also have an assurance that anyone entering this country has undergone the full border checks that are required?

The right hon. Gentleman rightly says that the chief inspector published a report on Birmingham airport. Regrettably, it included the fact that, over a number of occasions, 278 passengers came through the primary control point when the biometric chip-reading facility had been deactivated. As the report acknowledges, that is one of a number of checks that UK Border Force officers conduct to verify identity. All criminal and immigration checks remained in place and action has already been taken to ensure that that cannot happen again. All contingency staff deployed to the border were fully trained to enable them to undertake the necessary security checks.

Before the half-term recess, we had a debate on violence against women and girls. According to the Ministry of Justice, men and boys are twice as likely to be victims of violent crime as women and girls. As you know, Mr Speaker, I am a big fan of equality—I believe you once referred to me as “a troglodyte” in one such debate in the previous Parliament. Therefore, in the interests of equality, may we have a debate on violence against men and boys?

In the interests of equality, I advise my hon. Friend to approach the Backbench Business Committee in the same way that hon. Members who secured the debate on violence against women and girls did.

May I return to the Health and Social Care Act 2012? I remind the Leader of the House that the then Health Minister, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), assured the Bill Committee that there was no intention to impose compulsory competitive tendering. Those assurances were repeated by the Leader of the House and by Earl Howe in the other place. Will the Leader of the House arrange not only for the regulations to be debated on the Floor of the House, but for us to have a debate on ministerial standards and accountability, so that we can discuss how those assurances came to be given by Ministers when something completely different has happened in the regulations?

I will not repeat what I have said before, but I have to say to the hon. Lady that the regulations are entirely consistent with commitments and statements made by Ministers during the passage of the Health and Social Care Act 2012.

One of my constituents was recently knocked over and killed crossing Heybridge road in Hadley in my constituency. He was nine years old. Can we have an urgent debate on the need for West Mercia police and Telford and Wrekin council to listen to the concerns of residents of both Leegomery and Hadley about speeding traffic in those residential areas?

I am sure that the House shares my hon. Friend’s regret about the tragic circumstances that he describes. We have just had Transport questions, and he will know how strongly Ministers in that Department feel about the need to improve our record on road safety, good as it may already be. Local authorities can play a part in that, and I will of course ask my hon. Friends if they can add anything to enable him to approach his local authority in that way.

If the Leader of the House had been in another part of the House this morning, he could have heard the Children’s Commissioner tell a group of us interested in children’s issues that we have the worst outcomes for child health in Europe. With the plague of obesity and lack of exercise, and the evidence that the likelihood of any young person going to any green spaces in our country has halved in a generation, may we have an early debate on children’s access to the countryside?

I am sorry that I did not have an opportunity to hear the Children’s Commissioner: I would have appreciated doing so. It will not have escaped the hon. Gentleman’s notice that in January last year, knowing that we had poor child health statistics relative to other highly developed countries, I asked a team led by the medical director at Alder Hey and other distinguished clinicians and representatives in that area to form a taskforce, which reported last year. On that basis, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) last week announced further measures to take that forward as part of a strategy to improve children’s health.

Given the changes to A-levels announced by the Department for Education in November 2012, can we have a Minister come to the Dispatch Box to advise on how the Government intend to prevent students who started their A-level courses in September 2012 from being adversely affected by the changes midway through their course?

My hon. Friend will be aware that Education Ministers will be here on Monday to answer questions. He will also know that the decision to remove the January exams was taken by Ofqual, following strong support during its regulatory consultation on A-level reform. That consultation highlighted concerns that modular exams and a high frequency of re-sit opportunities led to teaching to the test and a culture of re-sits. Removing the January exam will limit the number of re-sit opportunities and help to address those concerns, but it will impact on those students who began their course in September 2012.

Party politics aside, all our constituents and local businesses are angry at and frustrated by the contemptuous way in which the bankers and energy companies are treating us. Could we therefore have a debate on how best we could give protection to consumers in our constituencies? Our Select Committees do an excellent job in scrutinising these industries but lack any effective powers. Is that something that the Leader of the House would be prepared to consider?

I say to the hon. Gentleman—equally, party politics aside—that we are not powerless in this House. We are discussing an Energy Bill that will require energy companies to give their customers access to the lowest possible tariffs. The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards is currently looking at the question of standards in banking and the way in which customers are treated by the banking industry. We are not powerless and the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill and the Energy Bill can be instrumental in giving consumers a better offer in relation to these industries.

I congratulate the Government on their recent decision to stop backing World Bank and IMF loans to Argentina, because Buenos Aires has an appalling record of defaulting on international loans. Unbelievably, the country is still a member of the G20 despite its appalling economic record and how it behaves internationally. Can we have a debate on how G20 membership is decided?

My hon. Friend may wish to raise that issue with Foreign Office Ministers on Tuesday, but I appreciate what he has to say about World Bank loans to Argentina. The G20 is an informal organisation with no formal criteria for membership, and that has remained unchanged since it was first established. Any change to G20 membership, or the introduction of criteria for membership, would require consensus agreement by its members. Currently, there are no plans to revisit either.

Can we have a debate on bankers’ bonuses? I understand that the Government are opposing the EU proposal to limit them without shareholder permission to the salary of the banker concerned. According to Wiktionary, a bonus is extra pay due to good performance. A bonus that is in excess of an entire salary is not extra pay due to good performance. Is it not just pure, unadulterated, sheer, naked greed?

I completely understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but he has to recognise that, as he will have noticed from how many people have responded to the proposal agreed between the Commission and Parliament, it runs the risk of converting what properly should be a bonus into something that is consolidated into people’s salaries. That would lead to additional fixed rather than variable costs in the banking industry. We have to focus on ensuring that the industry is competitive and that bonuses are genuine, and not end up with an artificial situation that makes the industry more costly and less competitive.

The local authority in the Vale of Glamorgan has recently been considering plans to close three schools. Two are among the best in Wales, and one is one of the most improved in the area. Unfortunately, the final decision lies with the local authority. Thankfully, it has been forced by parents to back down. Can we have a debate on free schools, which empower parents to take control of the future of these establishments? Such a debate would also inform and educate people across other parts of the UK.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend—and I am sure his constituents will be too for the support he gives them in this respect. He will be frustrated that the Labour Government in Wales are not adopting reforms analogous to those being pursued in England by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education. My right hon. Friend will be at the Dispatch Box on Monday and, although it is not his ministerial responsibility, I am sure he would share with Members in this House the view that if the Welsh Labour Government followed some of the precepts of academies and free schools, it would be much to the advantage of parents and pupils.

It is 10 years since the start of the conflict in Darfur, which led to the slaughter of 300,000 Darfuris. Will the Leader of the House consider holding a debate on human rights in Sudan? Is he aware that this morning 98 politicians from the UK, United States and Australia signed an open letter to their Foreign Ministers asking for urgent leadership in the Security Council to ensure that we do not see a repeat of that violence and a man-made famine in southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and he does it well. He will have an opportunity to raise the issue again with Foreign Office Ministers on Tuesday. He will find that my hon. Friends in the Government share his concern to ensure that we continue to keep up the pressure on Sudan to respect human rights and to maintain a level of peace in that country.

Head teachers in my constituency have told me that they have been able to use the pupil premium money to help some of the most disadvantaged pupils in their schools. Can we have a debate about the success of the pupil premium policy and ensure that schools have the freedom to make decisions on how to allocate the pupil premium budget without pressure from trade unions or local authorities trying to resist?

My hon. Friend shares my view that the £2.5 billion now in the pupil premium is making a dramatic difference, particularly for schools that have a responsibility to try to secure the best education for some of the most disadvantaged pupils—that is terrifically important. From having talked to head teachers, I know that of particular importance to them are the freedoms we have given them in a range of respects, especially the freedom to use those resources in the best interests of the school as a whole.

Early on 15 February, there was a major fire in Rochdale at what was the world’s biggest asbestos factory, the now derelict Turner Brothers mill. Firefighters spent five hours battling the blaze, and concerns have been raised that no air monitoring took place. Will the Government make a statement that promises the people of Rochdale that this matter will be investigated, that the site will be secured, and that all laws to protect our environment and public health will be fully enforced?

I confess that I was not aware of the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes, but they are obviously very important for his constituency and beyond. I will therefore talk to colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in respect of the Environment Agency and colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions in relation to the Health and Safety Executive to see whether they can respond to his points.

You may recall, Mr Speaker, that a month ago I asked the Leader of the House a question about the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. No organisation, charity or business would allow its finance department to budget for a cost per employee of about £10,000 per annum to process each individual claim. What does he think of IPSA senior management’s bullying tactics and threats, subsequent to my raising these issues, to try to silence me regarding their spiralling costs? Does he think that the chief executive should show some backbone and meet me—he has refused to do so for more than two and a half years —instead of attempting to smear the names of Members of Parliament by false innuendo and subterfuge?

Order. I appreciate the sincerity with which that point has been raised, and it is a matter of concern to the House, but I am afraid that it is not a business question. The hon. Gentleman should have requested a statement or a debate, but it absolutely was not a business question, as I have just been reminded by the Clerk Assistant. The Leader of the House may wish to say something, but Members really must play by the rules and not invent them as they go along.

I completely understand, Mr Speaker. If it is helpful to the House, I will of course be happy to meet my hon. Friend and, as a member of your Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, I would be glad to take forward any issues he has.

May we have an urgent debate on the proper use of employment statistics? The Leader of the House mentioned the number of people in employment, but of course what actually matters is the employment rate. Earlier this week, the Chancellor was dismissive of my raising problems of underemployment; he referred to the number of hours worked, but it is the rate of underemployment that matters. Ministers can try to ignore the problem if they wish, but that will not convince constituents of mine who can get only a zero-hours or 10-hours contract when what they actually want is a full-time, permanent job.

I was present at the time and I am sure the Chancellor was correct in saying that the number of hours worked has increased. The key points are of course that the number of people in work is up and is now 29.73 million, and that the employment rate is 71.5%. Rather than trying to make a point in the way she does, the hon. Lady should celebrate the fact that since the election employment in the private sector has risen by over 1 million and, as a consequence, last year’s employment increase was the fastest rate of private sector growth in employment since the 1980s.

Following on from the question from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), has my right hon. Friend seen my early-day motion 1116 on Tesco?

[That this House notes with huge regret and disappointment the planned closure of the Tesco distribution plant at Harlow; further notes the contribution that many Harlow workers have made to its success and the strong customer base that they have served throughout the Eastern region, as well as tens of thousands of families in Harlow town itself; accepts that Tesco has pledged that all workers will be offered positions elsewhere including the new Dagenham site; urges that pay and conditions remain the same or better for staff who have been affected; thanks the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers for its efforts on negotiating on behalf of Tesco employees; and calls on Tesco to do everything possible to look after its many hundred loyal and committed staff at the Harlow depot.]

May we have an urgent debate about workers’ pay and conditions? Hundreds of Harlow workers are losing their jobs because the Tesco distribution centre is closing. Will my right hon. Friend write to the Business Secretary to ensure that workers who are given jobs elsewhere retain their pay and conditions?

I will, of course, as my hon. Friend requests, talk to my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary, not least to ensure that we do everything we can to support workers in Harlow, Bolsover and elsewhere.

Media reports are suggesting that the Government are pushing ahead at great pace with the privatisation of Royal Mail. Given that the House has not debated the issue since the passing of the Postal Services Act 2011, may we have an urgent debate or a statement on the Government’s proposals for the privatisation of that much-cherished national institution?

As the hon. Gentleman suggests in his question, the House has resolved what should happen, and it is now a question of carrying that forward. He will of course have an opportunity to ask questions of Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills shortly. I do not have the date—

The Government are doing excellent work on women’s issues, from equal pay audits, to women on boards domestically, to putting women and girls front and centre in international development. May I encourage calls for a debate to celebrate international women’s day and the brilliant work that this Government are doing on women’s issues?