House of Commons
Thursday 7 November 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—
Better Bus Areas
Last year we announced our intention to establish a small number of new better bus areas, within which bus subsidy would be devolved to the local authority to invest in bus improvement measures in partnership with local operators. The Department has made good progress with five new better bus areas having been announced this year. These are in Sheffield, York, the west of England—the area centred around Bath and Bristol—Merseyside and Nottingham.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the speed with which this new scheme has been rolled out, but may I urge him to ensure we have fair and firm targeting, particularly on remote rural areas? I have a number of villages in my constituency that have no bus service at all, and many that do have very little provision.
Earlier this year we announced that current levels of Government support for buses will be maintained until at least 2016, and we have also ring-fenced a portion of bus subsidy that will be devolved to local authorities from January, providing greater security to vital local services. In addition, in 2011-12 a total of £20 million in funding was targeted to rural authorities to support those very vital community transport solutions.
What is the Minister doing to improve bus services for young people? I recently met some young people on the national citizenship scheme in my constituency, and they raised the particular problem that for them travelling around after 6 pm on unaffordable transport is almost impossible. What are the Government doing to help young people travel around in their areas?
We believe these better bus areas are a more intelligent way of supporting bus services. Rather than the crude method of a straightforward fuel subsidy, the partnership between local authorities and bus companies will encourage things such as smart ticketing, better information and bus priority schemes, which make buses more reliable for young people and for everyone else.
When will the Minister get his act together on buses? Most people in this country travel on buses. Buses are really important to our country, but the bus industry feels neglected by this Government—and why cannot I have a new innovative bus scheme in Huddersfield and Kirklees?
Despite what we heard in the last general election campaign, the Conservatives have kept the concessionary travel scheme for pensioners, along with all the other benefits for pensioners. Some 40% of money going into buses outside London is Government support and we believe we are discharging our responsibilities in that regard.
High Speed 2
There has already been widespread consultation on phase 1. In addition, there will be a consultation on the environmental statement following the deposit of the hybrid Bill and the opportunity to petition the Select Committee established as part of the hybrid Bill process. For phase 2, the route consultation is currently under way and is due to end in January 2014.
A few months ago, I and a group of people from Lichfield came to see the Secretary of State to discuss the monstrous 20-metre high viaduct planned for the HS2 crossing over Lichfield. He will know that this affects not only Lichfield, but the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) and for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), because of the height of the line. A plan for mitigation was developed together with HS2 engineers, and this has been completely ignored. When can we have some hope that there will be any mitigation for us in Staffordshire?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He rightly says that he never loses an opportunity to make clear his objection to this viaduct. It was part of a route realignment which was done initially to help mitigate some of the effects around Lichfield, but once the Bill is deposited and following Second Reading there will, of course, be an opportunity for those directly affected to petition the Select Committee.
The important thing is that there will be a connection between HS1 and HS2. That will allow direct access for trips right through Europe from places that at present do not have those connections. That is important. We believe the three trains per hour that will be able to go directly from Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds to Paris or Brussels or other European destinations is a very positive move.
As my right hon. Friend knows, the preferred route for HS2 phase 2 goes straight through the village of Hopton in my constituency, as well as Ingestre, Yarlet and Marston and close by to Great Harwood. What measures can HS2 take to mitigate the effects on these communities, either through extra tunnelling or realignment of the route?
What I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) in my original answer was that the consultation for phase 2 is still ongoing and it would be wrong of me at this stage to pre-empt it. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) will be making strong representations through the consultation process, and I will consider them in due course.
Pursuant to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), I know that the Secretary of State takes these matters very seriously, but does he agree that where mitigations are small scale, such as those proposed by my constituents in the Knox Grave Lane community, HS2 should be able to move ahead with them quickly and not give conflicting messages to the community affected? I have written to him on this matter. Will he give the letter careful consideration?
Of course I will consider any points that my hon. Friend has written to me about. Consistency in HS2’s responses on these lines that directly affect people is very important. I am disturbed to hear that inconsistent advice has been given by HS2, and I will want to look into it.
High Speed 1
I recognise the importance of domestic High Speed 1 services to the people and economies of Kent. The Department is currently negotiating a direct award with Southeastern, which operates them, in which we will consider what improvements can be made to services. We are also undertaking an evaluation study of the High Speed 1 infrastructure, which is due to report in spring next year.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. High-speed services are economically transformational for east Kent. Constituents of mine in Deal, and those in Sandwich, wish to have an all-day Javelin high-speed service. Will Ministers help to make that happen?
I know how very important the high-speed service has been to my hon. Friend’s constituents. Although high-speed rail does not run right down to Deal or Sandwich, his constituents get the benefit from HS1 as the Javelin train from St Pancras carries on to serve them. There are ongoing negotiations about the franchise extension, which we will be doing with Southeastern, and I will certainly bear his comments in mind.
In the rail investment strategy the Government are investing in more than 800 miles of electrification up to 2019. This includes lines in the north-west, north trans-Pennine, midland main line, electric spine, Great Western main line and Welsh valley areas. That is a substantial advance in electrification of the railways in this country.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. A couple of weeks ago, I launched the business case for the electrification of the Harrogate to Knaresborough rail line, which would bring more frequent and quicker services for passengers, and a great return for taxpayers from public money. Will he meet me to discuss this opportunity?
I will be delighted to meet my hon. Friend, who wastes no opportunity to raise this case for electrification with me. He has been a doughty campaigner for it. We have received a copy of the business case for the electrification of the Leeds, Harrogate and York line. The case looks promising and I am more than happy to discuss it further with him.
Plans for electrification are very welcome, but when will rolling stock be available for the electrified lines in the north, now that that there has been such a delay in the procurement for the Thameslink project?
I hope that that delay, on which there was a Public Accounts Committee report recently, will not lead to long-term delay. I am confident that once we have done the electrification the rolling stock will be ready to fulfil the needs we all want it to fulfil.
The Secretary of State will be aware that people in Cumbria very much welcome the plans for electrification of the lakes line to Windermere and the benefits that will bring to the economy and the environment. Will he also consider the electrification of the Furness line from Lancaster to Barrow, which goes through my constituency? That would link the industrial centres of Barrow and the western Lake district to the main line.
Indeed, and when I was in my hon. Friend’s constituency in the summer I was made very much aware of the desire for that line to be electrified. One great thing that has happened in the railways is that the constant request of any Secretary of State now is for more services and better services. That just shows how important the railways are now to our national life, and I will look at the case he makes.
Will the Secretary of State tell me why under the current arrangements the electrification of the route to Hull will stop at Selby, which, as I am sure he knows, is several miles short of Hull? Will he do everything he can to support the Hull trains proposal to extend the electrification to Hull?
I could point out to the hon. Lady how much of the line was electrified by the previous Labour Government in 13 years: 10 miles, as opposed to the 880 miles that we are planning to electrify as part of our commitment to the railways. She is making yet another case for further electrification of an important line and I shall certainly look at the case again in detail.
The Secretary of State will know that the welcome electrification of the midland main line will miss out the two stations in my constituency at Langley Mill and Alfreton. Will he consider the plans to complete that little section so that the whole line is electrified?
I had a meeting on Monday morning with the people operating the midland main line franchise and that particular issue was pointed out to me. We plan to electrify the whole line from St Pancras up to Sheffield, but my hon. Friend is right that part of it, which goes through his constituency, is missed out. I have no doubt that we will want to look at that as we are doing the rest of the line.
Last November, I asked the Secretary of State whether one of the intentions behind the electrification of the midland main line was to speed up journey times, in which case the line would need the new inter-city express trains and not the transfer of old rolling stock from the east coast line, which would be slower and would increase journey times. The Secretary of State could not answer me then. Can he tell me now whether the electrified midland main line will get the new rolling stock needed to speed up journey times, which is what we both want to see?
I travelled down on the line—in the cab, as it happens—on Monday morning and I saw some of the work that is going on for the planned electrification. A number of bridges are being replaced, which is necessary. That work is well under way and has started well. I will consider the questions about new rolling stock in due course when I come to consider the remaining period of the franchise.
Rail Passenger Fares
The “Rail Fares and Ticketing: Next Steps” report was published on 9 October following a wide-ranging review and public consultation. It contains a number of measures to give passengers a better, more modern, and more flexible deal on fares and to improve the current ticketing system.
My hon. Friend is right. The train operating companies set the prices for season tickets and for fares. I recognise that Swindon is a popular commuting town that benefits from the frequent services on high-speed trains to London, Wales and the west country. Nevertheless, he is right and he will have noticed the announcement from the Government restricting “flex”, which means that none of his commuters will face a fare increase of more than 3% above inflation from January 2014.
15. In the autumn, East Coast achieved the highest passenger satisfaction rates since records began, so why are the Government wasting taxpayers’ time and money privatising that successful service rather than getting to grips with the cost of living crisis and this Government’s inflation-busting rail fare price rises? (900958)
The hon. Lady will obviously have read the Brown report, which suggests that franchising is the best way to secure better deals and more investment for passengers. That is why we are continuing to franchise and are putting the east coast main line out to franchise.
I remind my hon. Friend that commuters who are reliant on coming into London to work do not have any flexibility in their work times. What ideas does he have to get a better deal for commuters, who are a captive market and who have regulated fares?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the excellent work that he did in contributing to the rail fares review. He will know that we have restricted fares to the retail prices index plus 1%, which “flex” has also reduced, so no one will pay more than 3% above RPI. He will also remember that the document suggests considering ways to provide season ticket holders with more flexible arrangements.
The Government’s fare review took 18 months and has delivered fare rises of up to 6%. That 6% is twice the rate of inflation and is cold comfort for commuters struggling as their incomes fall in real terms. Is that really the best the Minister can do for commuters struggling with the Government’s cost of living crisis?
The hon. Lady will know that the formula for regulated fares is RPI plus 1%. Unlike her Government, we have reduced flexibility to 2%. We have made that permanent, something that the Government of the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), who is shouting from the opposite Bench, did not do. She may just wish to remember this, which was in the franchise arrangement from 1 January 2011:
“the amendment to the Franchise Agreement set out in this notice of amendment shall be reversed.”
They did not scrap it; they put it in place for one year only.
A number of things were announced in that review. The fare cap was a voluntary initiative put in place by the rail industry. We have not assessed, and nor has anyone else, how many passengers will benefit from that. We have also announced a reduction in the fares “basket flex”, a trial of single-leg pricing for off-peak returns, a trial of flexible ticketing, including discounted fares in quieter periods, and a new code of practice on ticketing information.
14. Can my hon. Friend assure me that everything is being done to reduce the cost of running the railways and the inefficiencies that the previous Government left behind so that we can move towards an era of no above-inflation rises? (900957)
I am delighted to confirm to my hon. Friend that the package of measures that we have worked up will continue to bear down on the cost of running the railways. We recognise the cost of living and the implications of fare increases. That is why the Government are doing something to help commuters and anyone travelling on the railways. It is noticeable that Passenger Focus recommended the recent package that the Government put forward.
The Government support the transfer of freight from road to rail. We are investing £400 million in rail freight infrastructure for the investment period out to 2014. The rail freight grant is helping to remove more than 800,000 lorry journeys. Ultimately, rail freight needs more capacity on our network, which is why we are taking forward High Speed 2.
In Carlisle we have DRS—Direct Rail Services—a very successful rail freight company that is looking to expand. Can the Minister assure me that everything will be done to ensure that companies such as DRS are given every opportunity to expand not just their volume but their capacity?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on highlighting the work of DRS. It is indeed a very successful rail freight company. The Government are committed to the growth of the rail freight industry, and we recognise the contribution that companies such as DRS make. We are continuing to look for every opportunity to support the expansion of the freight industry and encourage transfer to rail where it is practical, economic and environmentally sustainable.
Will the Minister engage with his colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills? A number of key companies in my constituency are losing competitiveness because they cannot move their goods fast enough across the UK into mainland Europe, in particular because there are huge blockages at the top end of the M6. A little bit of joined-up thinking could radically improve Britain’s competitiveness. Will he do something about it?
Does the Minister agree that the wise decision to invest £45 million in redoubling the Kemble to Swindon railway line is a huge improvement, not just for passengers but for freight? Does this not reinforce the point that this Government invest not only in HS2, which is right, but in the existing network?
My hon. Friend is right. We have consistently made the point that we are not only investing in High Speed 2 but that we are investing £37 billion in improvements across the network. He is right to pick out that example, which illustrates exactly what the Government have been saying—that capacity is being added across the network.
The Minister will be aware that 80% of freight in Britain goes by road, both cross-channel and within Britain, and that serious modal shift from road to rail cannot take place until the railways are capable of taking lorry trailers on trains. Will he look seriously at schemes for investing in rail freight capacity capable of taking lorries on trains?
The hon. Gentleman is aware, of course, that there has been a huge increase of some 60% in rail freight over the past 10 years. The capacity that is being added will add the prospect and the potential for extra rail freight and extra transference from road to rail. If there are serious schemes, we will look at them, but they would have to justify the economic business case and provide better value than the capacity that we are adding, which will allow that transfer from road to rail.
Today the new London Gateway port receives its first ship. As my hon. Friend knows, its ambition is to transport many of the materials that come into the new port by rail freight. Will he ensure that Network Rail looks carefully at the provision of level crossings across Thurrock so that our road network is not disrupted by the increased volume of freight trains using the network?
My hon. Friend is a well-known and doughty campaigner for her constituency, which is why I have had the pleasure of visiting it several times in the past couple of years. I will of course look seriously at that and speak to Network Rail. It is essential that that new port is a success.
Passenger Focus research shows that customer satisfaction with bus journeys is high—84% of passengers are satisfied with their service. The Government set out their programme for further improving bus services in “Green Light for Better Buses”, which was published in 2012. Our proposals include reforming bus subsidy, improving competition and making buses easier to use for everyone.
As we have heard a little this morning, Members could probably talk for hours about rail fares, but what about bus fares, especially those outside London? Will the Minister tell the House what has happened to bus fares outside London on his Government’s watch, and what impact the removal of the bus service operators grant had?
Bus fares have been rising for several years above inflation, although many operators and councils across the country are working together and separately to provide good deals. The picture is variable and reflects local circumstances. We are working with the sector to see what can be achieved to make sure that buses are accessible to as many people as possible, given the social and economic importance of bus travel.
Given the major changes in the rural population over the past 100 years, which has made it increasingly difficult to provide an effective service based on the traditional mid-20th century model of rural bus services that is currently used, what research has the Department done to look at alternative 21st-century methods of providing a decent bus service in rural areas?
I have already pointed out that in 2011 and 2012 we provided a total of £20 million in additional funding for rural areas. In some rural areas which are sparsely populated, there may be alternative solutions, such as dial-a-ride, car sharing or similar schemes, which may be more appropriate for the more remote rural areas.
While the number of bus passengers falls and fares rise, this Government have stopped the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, which checked bus operators’ punctuality, doing so properly. People need to know how reliable their buses are, as will the new local transport bodies planning their services, so why are Ministers keeping consumers clueless and local transport bodies toothless?
Bus users are all too aware of reliability; they use services if they are reliable. It will be interesting to see how the policy in Liverpool, which is getting rid of bus priority schemes and bus lanes, will impact on the reliability of services and how much they are used.
Road Accident Statistics
The Department for Transport’s 2012 statistics show that the number of people killed in accidents reported to the police has decreased by 7.7%, from 1,901 in 2011 to 1,754 in 2012, the lowest figure on record, and today’s figures show further progress.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. He will be aware that 16% of all road deaths in Britain are caused by drink-driving, and that is after a 17% increase between 2011 and 2012. What are the Government doing to improve road safety by dealing with repeat drink-drivers? He will know that that is the subject of my ten-minute rule Bill, which is listed for a Second Reading on 22 November.
We have introduced measures to ensure that anyone disqualified for drink-driving twice in 10 years will be classed as a high-risk offender. High-risk offenders cannot get their licence back until doctors are satisfied that they are medically fit to drive again. The figures that my hon. Friend mentions are of concern, but they are against a trend of ever-reducing levels of fatality on our roads involving drink-driving.
The big increase in deaths related to drink-driving on the roads shows that we are not winning the battle against drink-driving. Is it not simply time to show our commitment to tackling drink-driving by introducing the recommendations of the North review and reducing the drink-driving limit?
Many countries in Europe have a lower drink-driving limit, but they also have lower penalties. I believe it would be a mistake to reduce our gold-standard penalty of disqualification for drink-driving, which could lead some people to perceive drink-driving as being on the same level as speeding or parking offences.
May I welcome the Minister to his new post? He mentioned the road casualty statistics published today. Is it not also the case that there was a 4% increase in the number of motorcyclists killed or seriously injured and a 12% increase in the number of cyclists killed or injured on our roads? The day after we heard of a further tragedy, is it not time, as we approach road safety week, for the Minister to tune into road safety himself, put the vulnerable first and introduce clear targets to cut the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads?
I in turn welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post and look forward to sparring with him across the Dispatch Box. There are certainly concerns about motorcycle deaths—motorcycles are particularly dangerous. We have targeted motorcyclists, in particular, in our Think! campaign. Of course, in some cases motorcycle deaths are very much related to the weather. In north Yorkshire, certainly, when we have a nice summer there are, sadly, an awful lot more motorcycle casualties. It is of concern that we are seeing more cycling casualties, and I have noted some of the accidents in London involving heavy lorries and cyclists. Some of that is due to the fact that there has been a big increase in the number of people cycling, but it is of concern and we are targeting our information campaigns on motorcyclists and cyclists.
The Government have allocated some £550 million to the new Stations Improvement and Access for All programmes for the period to 2014, which have led to improvements at over 500 stations. For the next control period, from 2014 to 2019, a further £200 million has been allocated to improve stations and station access in England and Wales. The Government have also allocated £20 million through the new stations fund. Four successful proposals are now being built and a fifth is under consideration.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Will he update us on the progress being made on the new and much-needed Apperley Bridge and Kirkstall stations, which are crucial to alleviating chronic congestion in my constituency? May I also lend my support to the suggestion my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) made about the electrification of the Harrogate to Knaresborough line, which would help commuters in the Horsforth area?
Apperley Bridge is part of the Leeds growth package promoted by the West Yorkshire passenger transport executive, and it has received programme entry funding from the major local transport schemes budget. The Department is expecting to receive the PTE’s submission of a business case for final approval in spring 2014. I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for the electrification of the Leeds-Horsforth-Harrogate line, although Apperley Bridge is not on that line but on the already electrified Leeds-Bradford Forster Square line.
13. In the past fortnight, East Riding of Yorkshire council has commenced a £50,000 improvement of the subways at Goole station. We want Network Rail to contribute to this improvement to make it a lot better. If I provide the Minister with details, will he help me to lobby Network Rail to get that additional funding? (900956)
My hon. Friend will be aware that funding for almost all these schemes comes through the new local growth fund, which is being used to finance transport improvements up and down the country, but of course, if he cares to provide me with the details, I am happy to meet him to discuss them.
East Coast Main Line Ltd
My officials regularly meet representatives of East Coast Main Line and Directly Operated Railways to discuss the performance of the franchise. DOR’s financial accounts are published on its website annually. On 24 October, I announced the start of the competition for a new private sector partner for InterCity East Coast and published a prospectus for the East Coast Main Line business, which included an assessment of its financial performance.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Will he confirm that while German, Dutch and French railway companies will be allowed to tender for the new franchise, a successful British company that is currently operating the franchise will not be allowed to do so?
I refer the right hon. Lady back to the time when she was a supporting member of the previous Government, when the then Secretary of State said:
“I do not believe that it would be in the public interest for us to have a nationalised train operating company indefinitely…because of our recent experience on rail franchising”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 July 2009; Vol. 712, c. 232.]
Rail franchising has led to the biggest growth in rail usage in this country that we have ever seen—up from 750 million to 1.5 billion passenger journeys. I want that improvement to continue, and that is why huge investment is going into the east coast main line.
12. The publicly run east coast main line franchise will have returned £800 million to the taxpayer by the end of this financial year, and all its profits are reinvested in the service. Why are the coalition Government privatising this successful public operator, given that the previous two private operators failed? (900955)
As I pointed out to the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), I am following the policies that have taken the rail industry from 750 million to 1.5 billion passenger journeys. I am happy to speak for the passengers and for all the people who work on the railways; it seems as though Labour Members are happy to speak just for the union barons. They can speak for the barons; I will speak for the workers, the consumers and the people who use our railways.
We have started consultations on our plans to reform the Highways Agency into a Government-owned company, backed by legislation, to achieve greater efficiency as we treble our capital spending on the strategic road network. Significant efforts have been made this year across road, rail and aviation to boost resilience and preparedness for the winter months. This week, the Highways Agency began its “Make time for winter” campaign, with practical advice for drivers. Local highways authorities are holding robust salt stocks and will enter the winter with a healthy supply.
The Government’s policy on rail fares will offer scant consolation to my constituents, who not only have to travel on unbearably overcrowded trains into central London but in the past two years have been asked to pay £100 more for their annual season ticket. What guarantee can the Secretary of State give that above-inflation increases in rail fares will be matched by a comparable increase in capacity?
There is a problem, but we are investing record amounts in the rail industry. Over the next five years, Network Rail will invest some £38 billion in the railway network. Those are very significant investments that are bringing on new rolling stock and better capacity and efficiency to try to help people who are suffering. I do accept, particularly where there is overcrowding, that we need to try to do more to help those consumers.
T2. The electrification of the midland main line through Kettering is extremely welcome, but the immediate consequence for Kettering residents is the complete closure of the Pytchley Road bridge as it is changed to accommodate the new overhead wires. That means that the main access route into Kettering from the south will be completely closed for three months over the Christmas period. Will the Secretary of State ensure that Network Rail completes this job on time by the end of February 2014? (900974)
I well understand the concerns raised by my hon. Friend. This is one of the problems when major work is done on the railways. As he may have heard earlier, I travelled in the cab of one of those trains on Monday to see some of the work that is already ongoing in preparation for the electrification of the whole line. There will be some disruption—that is unavoidable. Nottingham station was closed for five weeks over the summer, but the whole job was done on time and it actually came in £5 million below budget.
T3. The Secretary of State will be aware that there has been significant disruption on the east coast main line because of infrastructure failure. I think we have now had three Mondays on which there has been significant disruption, and a fortnight ago 30,000 passengers were stranded, some for five or six hours, while repairs were carried out. The east coast main line was electrified on the cheap—many engineers tell us that, and there has been severe disruption. Can we do something about it, please? (900975)
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. It relates to what we are doing with HS2 to increase capacity in the longer term, although that is not the short-term answer he wants. I was disturbed to read the reports about the delays on the line, and I will talk to Network Rail to see if there is anything we can do.
T4. The high speed of High Speed 2 will depend on the high technology of a new generation of civil engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and many others. May I challenge a member of the ministerial Front Bench to come upstairs with me, after Question Time, to the Bloodhound supersonic car simulator to see whether they can beat the very creditable speed of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and learn about what the product is doing to inspire a new generation of children about the opportunities for British engineering? (900976)
I am delighted to accept that invitation, particularly because on Sunday I took part in the oldest motoring event in the world, driving from London to Brighton in six hours. The speed of the Bloodhound will be a great experience, I am sure.
T7. I am basically supportive of HS2 proposals, although I am becoming increasingly concerned about the project the more I read the specific detail of regional benefits. Will the Secretary of State assure me that Liverpool will get a spur to increase capacity and ensure greater connectivity with our ports so that the whole city region can benefit? (900980)
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman seems to be having second thoughts. The mayor of Liverpool is certainly not having second thoughts and is a big supporter of the project. The truth is that once the high-speed line goes to Manchester, it will then go on to Liverpool. That will be very important for Liverpool, but it will also get the benefits from phase 1. Parts of Kent that are not served by the line benefit from the capacity and the trains.
T5. I am extremely grateful to have got here, having been stuck outside Clapham Junction station. May I seek assurances from the Department that it will work closely with major transport infrastructure such as Gatwick airport and those who operate the M23 and the London to Brighton rail line to ensure that there is winter preparedness? (900978)
We continue to invest in third rail heating, to ensure the reliability of our rail services. Gatwick airport has the advantage over Heathrow, in that it has capacity to put snow ploughs on the runway without disrupting flights in the same way. As I said in my evidence to the Transport Committee only a week or so ago, we have good winter resilience, with more snow ploughs and more salt, and we are confident that the Highways Agency and local authorities can keep the roads clear.
In Tyne and Wear, a consultation process is currently under way on introducing quality contracts for local bus services. Does the Minister agree that bus companies should be investing in local services rather than wasting vast sums on misleading and scaremongering attacks?
We continue to keep the option of quality contracts open to local authorities. In the spirit of localism, it is their decision if they want to use them. I think that the better bus contract is a better model, but if local authorities want to follow the model that is used in London, they may do so.
T6. The Secretary of State has been very kind to the East Riding in respect of pinch-point funding. I urge him to extend his kindness to the other side of the Humber and support the pinch-point funding bids from North Lincolnshire council, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and I are very supportive, and in particular the bid that relates to Humberside airport. (900979)
Although the reduction in road accident fatalities is warmly to be welcomed, what plans does the Department have to make cycling safer, given the increase in cycling fatalities not only in London, but beyond, which has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden)? When will the Secretary of State encourage the creation of segregated cycle paths?
We all want local authority highways agencies to give greater consideration to cycling. After meeting British Cycling a few weeks ago, I instructed the Highways Agency that all the highways schemes that it comes forward with must be cycle-proofed. There are some irresponsible drivers and some irresponsible cyclists. We all have a responsibility to get the message across to everybody: “Be careful on our roads.”
T8. How can the Secretary of State reassure the people of Bristol, who want enhanced branch lines, that having HS2 for London and the north will not mean that the south-west is left out? Will he look positively at bids to reopen the Henbury loop line in north Bristol? (900982)
The development of HS2 does not mean that the people of Bristol and the south-west will be left out. HS2 is part of a bigger boost to our transport system and will make up less than a quarter of the transport investment in the next Parliament. I am always interested in talking to my hon. Friends about the schemes that they are promoting in their constituencies and I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss her scheme in greater detail.
Does the Minister agree that as we approach the Christmas period, more use should be made of the media, and television in particular, to underline the zero-tolerance message on drink-driving? Will he consider running such a campaign in conjunction with all the regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
We regularly publicise the issue of drink-driving, particularly in the run-up to Christmas, and will continue to do so. I do not know whether the problem is worse in Northern Ireland than elsewhere, but I am sure that the devolved Government will push the same line as us.
According to a report by the transport consultants, Atkins, enhancements to capacity, line speed and service quality on the great eastern main line could bring an extra £3.7 billion into the economy. Will the Minister confirm that the recommendations of the East Anglia rail prospectus, which is backed by MPs from across the region, will be progressed at the earliest possible opportunity?
I congratulate those who put a considerable amount of work and effort into unifying the stakeholders in East Anglia and producing that excellent document. It contains a huge number of recommendations. I will continue to engage with MPs and others to ensure that we complete the process, that their voices are heard and that we understand the benefits of the recommendations.
The A67, which runs through my constituency between Darlington and Barnard Castle, is a major bus route. It recently suffered from a major landslip at Carlbury banks, which is severely disrupting bus services. Will a Minister meet my hon. Friends the Members for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) and me to see whether any funding can be made available from the pinch-point fund?
I was in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency last Friday for the start of work on the new Hitachi site, which will build new trains for the east coast and Great Western lines. I am sorry to hear about the problems that he is having with part of his highways network. We will be happy to talk to him in due course.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the M25, which spans my constituency from junction 23 to junction 25, has had a serious spike in fatal accidents, which included the tragic deaths of three people and two young girls during the course of one week. Will he urgently investigate the causes of those accidents, which might include the road management measures during the road expansion works, and let me know what he finds as soon as possible?
My hon. Friend has already written to me about this issue, and brought my attention to those appalling incidents that caused the death of those people, and the families who were affected, as well as incredible disruption to his area. I want a full investigation into whether the points he has raised had any bearings on those accidents.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for Aberdeen North, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Palace of Westminster
I shall answer for the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso).
Last year the House of Commons Commission invited the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) to join two Members of the House of Lords as an informal consultation group for the pre-feasibility study on the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. That group is not a decision-making body; its purpose is to ensure that the programme team has a good understanding of the range of Members’ views and requirements, and that that is reflected in the final formal proposals.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer. I am not sure whether he said that there are Members of the House of Commons on that advisory body, as I could not quite hear. If there are not, would it be possible to include them? I have strong opinions on this issue as, I am sure, do many other Members of the House. I would like an assurance that the House will be consulted and kept up to date on progress.
There are already two Members of the House of Commons on the informal committee, and there may be a third. There are currently three Members of the House of Lords. The hon. Lady is right and it is crucial that Members are kept advised. That will be done through the normal channels, and all relevant committees will be advised. If she is interested—I know her commitment to this issue—and would like to meet the project manager, that would be perfectly possible.
What is the latest estimate for the cost of restoring and renewing the Palace of Westminster? If the cheapest and quickest option is to close the place down and do it in one go, is that a route the hon. Gentleman would be kind enough to advance?
I am sorry I did not catch the question, but no decisions have been made except to appoint advisers and consultants who will advise on the options. Those options will be considered in the next Parliament, and the final decision will be taken by both Houses. There will be an immense amount of consultation and, of course, interest from Members of both Houses.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
Written Parliamentary Questions
My office collates departmental performance information for ordinary and named day parliamentary questions, which I submit for each Session to the Procedure Committee. I provided data on the last Session to that Committee in July, and those are available on the parliamentary website.
The hon. Lady will be aware from information on the parliamentary website of the relative position of Departments, including the Department for Education. The Procedure Committee held evidence-taking sessions with the Secretary of State and the permanent secretary, and the Chair of the Procedure Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), has written to that Department. The context of that correspondence was that performance was poor but had improved in recent weeks. I stress that over the past Session, more Departments have increased their performance in responding to written questions than have deteriorated. It was possible, however, for the Department with the largest number of such questions—the Department of Health—to achieve a 99% response rate.
The Government are committed, wherever possible, to publishing draft legislation for pre-legislative scrutiny. We published 17 draft Bills or sets of draft measures in the last Session, which is more than any other Government in any Session.
Following last week’s announcement of a pause in proceedings on the reviled gagging Bill and the previous pause in the equally reviled Health and Social Care Bill, can the Leader of the House confirm whether this form of legislative coitus interruptus is becoming his preferred form of parliamentary planned parenthood?
Clearly it is not. As I have stated, we have a very good track record with the largest number of Bills in pre-legislative scrutiny of any Government in any Session. In relation to what has happened in the Lords, they wanted more time and that is exactly what the Government have provided.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that pre-legislative scrutiny allows consultation while legislation is more easily amended, and allows politicians and stakeholders to give their opinions? Will he commend the work of the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee, a joint Committee with the House of Lords, on the Deregulation Bill, which I have the honour to serve on?
I will certainly do that. Pre-legislative scrutiny is a very positive opportunity for stakeholders to contribute. As I stated, the Government have been very positive in providing those opportunities to a large number of stakeholders in no fewer than 17 draft Bills.
In the light of the completely unconvincing answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) by the Deputy Leader of the House, will he explain exactly how he plans to make use of this wonderful new parliamentary invention, the pause stage, to respond to widespread concerns about the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny of the provisions in the gagging Bill?
I am not quite sure what the hon. Lady means by “the gagging Bill”. If she is referring to the transparency Bill, she will be aware that the lobbying aspect did have pre-legislative scrutiny, and she should be aware that the Government have responded, for instance, to Select Committee reports on this subject and engaged with a very large number of organisations that have a strong interest in this Bill.
Private Members’ Bills
The Government are considering the recommendations contained in the report published by the Procedure Committee on 2 September and will respond shortly.
Will the Deputy Leader of the House join me in congratulating the Procedure Committee on an excellent report and consider implementing its recommendations for the timetabling of private Members’ Bills so that Back Benchers voices will be properly heard in this place?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on pursuing these matters as vigorously as he does in relation to private Members’ Bills. I am afraid that I am not in a position today to tell him that the Government have responded, but I can tell him that we will respond very shortly to the Procedure Committee’s report, and indeed it contains some sound and strong recommendations that I am sure we will want to consider carefully.
Is it not the case that if 100 MPs turn up for a closure motion on a Friday they can ensure the progress of any Bill, which is not a great number out of 650 if it has such widespread support? Hon. Members should not expect to turn up with some well-meaning claptrap and expect it to be nodded through just because it is a Friday.
Yes, my hon. Friend is right that the use of a closure motion and, indeed, timetabling is possible for private Members’ Bills, but it is also worth pointing out that the Procedure Committee has said in its report that it is not its intention to facilitate the passage of Bills into law, and that it should not be easy to see a private Member’s Bill become law.
Does the Deputy Leader of the House agree that regardless of the procedures used to deal with private Members’ Bills, such a Bill is extremely unlikely to reach the statute book unless it has the express or at least tacit approval of the Government?
I can assure my hon. Friend that there have been examples in the past—my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House secured a private Member’s Bill in opposition—so there are opportunities even for Opposition Members to push private Members’ Bills through, although clearly having the support of the Government is helpful.
The delay in response to the hon. Gentleman’s query was unacceptable, as has been acknowledged. However, I can confirm that a response has now been published on the Government e-petitions site. Petitions that reach the 10,000 signature threshold should receive a response from the Government within 30 days.
I did indeed receive a response to my petition just after midnight on Tuesday morning, within hours of this oral question being published—two facts that I am sure are not remotely connected.
On a serious point, given the billions of pounds available from football on television, will the Government put pressure on the Football Association to spend more of that money on grass-roots football, especially for children, as opposed to even more outrageous wages for top professional footballers?
I am not sure that that is a question for a Deputy Leader of the House, but I will ensure that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is aware of the hon. Gentleman’s concern. I would certainly echo his suggestion, however, that we need strong investment in grass-roots football. He might be aware that the Premier League will be investing about £168 million in grass-roots football over the next three years, which is something that hon. Members on both sides of the House would want to encourage it to do.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for Aberdeen North, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
The Nexis and Factiva services, along with the online news services offered by the bidders, were assessed as part of the open procurement process carried out in 2011. The position will be reassessed in 2015, when a decision will be required on whether to extend the current contract for a further two years or retender the service
We really do need to have this issue reconsidered. When we changed from the Factiva to the Nexis service, we found that some newspapers were being reported on three days late and that we were not getting any reports from, among other newspapers, The Sun, The Times or The Sunday Times, whereas Factiva was comprehensive in its coverage. The House of Commons and the taxpayer could save money by dumping Nexis now because it provides an inadequate service for Members of Parliament. Please let us have Factiva back. At least it works.
In the current economic climate, we have to look for value for money, and when the contract was tended, the difference between the bids, which was substantial, amounted to a £500,000 saving over the life of the contract. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, however; there is a real issue with News International newspapers not being available on the service, although the Library continues to negotiate with News International. He will also be aware that some members of the Library have individual subscriptions, and these can be accessed.
Regional News Programmes
7. If the Commission will take steps to enable hon. Members to receive in their Commons offices live regional BBC and other regional television news programmes covering constituencies outside London and the south-east in place of Sky Sports channels. (900969)
My hon. Friend has been dogged in her efforts to get her local BBC news shown here, and I am delighted to tell her that work to expand and modernise the Annunciator service is currently under way with the intention of switching to a digital service, following the national digital switchover, to ensure compatibility with television services such as subtitles. The upgrade will also provide the opportunity to develop the service, and it is proposed that the channels available be expanded to include all regional BBC 1 channels, whose broadcasts include regional news programmes, and some key international channels.
At the moment, our constituents have to pay £50 a month to get Sky Sports beamed into their own homes, otherwise they have to go down the pub, so I am not sure why we have it beamed into all our offices on the parliamentary estate. I am pleased that we are finally dealing with the need of MPs with constituencies outside London and the south-east to have access to our regional TV news programmes, but when will this actually happen?
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
The ministerial code is clear that when Parliament is in session the most important announcements of Government policy should be made first to Parliament. I regularly remind my colleagues of this.
I remind the House that Monday is 11 November, Armistice day. Although the House is not sitting in the morning, many of us will be on the estate, performing our parliamentary duties. At 11 o’clock on Monday, I regard it as appropriate that we and staff working for us should join the nation in observing the two-minute silence so that we might remember those who gave their lives for their country to help preserve our democratic freedoms. Instructions will be issued to heads of House Departments so that those members of staff who wish to observe the two minute silence may do so.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be:
Monday 11 November—Second Reading of the Offender Rehabilitation Bill [Lords], followed by a debate on a reasoned opinion relating to the regulation of new psychoactive substances.
Tuesday 12 November—Opposition day [11th allotted day]. There will be a full day’s debate entitled “Abolition of the Bedroom Tax”. The debate will arise on an Opposition motion.
I would like to remind colleagues that this year Parliament week will run from 15 to 21 November. The week will launch with the annual sitting in this Chamber of the UK Youth Parliament on Friday 15 November.
The business for the week commencing 18 November will be:
Monday 18 November—Remaining stages of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, followed by a motion to approve a carry-over extension on the Energy Bill, followed by a general debate on police procedures in dealing with mental health issues. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Tuesday 19 November—Opposition day [12th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.
Wednesday 20 November—Remaining stages of the Defence Reform Bill.
Thursday 21 November—A debate on a motion relating to the finances of the House of Commons, followed by a debate on a motion relating to the implementation of new legislation on stalking. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 22 November—Private Members’ Bills.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 21 November, 5 and 12 December will be:
Thursday 21 November—Debate on the first report of the Committees on Arms Export Controls on the scrutiny of arms exports and arms control.
Thursday 5 December—Debate on the second report of the Education Select Committee on the role of school governing bodies, followed by a debate on the third report of the Education Select Committee on school sport following London 2012.
Thursday 12 December—Debate on the first report of the International Development Select Committee on global food security, followed by a debate on the second report of the International Development Select Committee on violence against women and girls.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business. I am looking forward to attending the sitting of the Youth Parliament next week. May I take this opportunity to remember the sacrifice of our armed forces as we approach Remembrance Sunday? We all wear our poppies with pride.
This morning, the Public Accounts Committee has published a devastating report on the Government’s flagship benefit reform, citing a shocking failure to manage it and predicting that the Department for Work and Pensions will have to write off a substantial part of the £425 million it has already spent. It seems that the blame game for this costly fiasco has already started. This morning we learn of a wholly improper attempt to lean on members of an independent Select Committee of this House by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and his parliamentary team to try to put the blame on the permanent secretary. Can we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about these very serious allegations?
While the majority face a cost of living crisis, it has been reported in the Daily Mirror today that the Prime Minister has cut his own household bills by nearly £400 a year while refusing to support our motion yesterday for an energy price freeze for everyone else. That tells us everything about who he is standing up for. Will the Leader of the House now confirm how much less the Prime Minister is paying on his home as a result of the top-rate tax cut?
In evidence to the Health Select Committee, the chief executive of NHS England said that the NHS was becoming
“bogged down in a morass of competition law”,
following the Government’s botched, £3 billion top-down reorganisation. Given that the Leader of the House had his fingerprints all over that one, does he agree with that analysis?
The Leader of the House must also have felt a sense of déjà vu as he was forced into a humiliating climb-down on the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill in the Lords this week. Perhaps he is trying to patent a new way of doing Bills. First Reading—outcry; Second Reading—lose the argument but stubbornly refuse to listen; go to the Lords—hit the emergency pause button and say that he will do all the things he should have done before he published the Bill in the first place. This is just like what happened on the Health and Social Care Bill. Everyone who will be affected by the lobbying Bill opposes it. Just like on the health Bill, he cannot make the case for his proposals because there is no case for them; and just like on the health Bill, he is disguising his true intentions because he knows he has no public support. Will the Leader of the House tell us how he intends to use the next six weeks to “listen, pause and reflect” on the lobbying Bill, and will he commit now to making the substantial changes that this sinister gagging Bill needs? Better still, why does he not just scrap it and start again?
We all know that the Prime Minister does not seem to like answering questions from the Opposition very much during his Wednesday outings. Yesterday, he told three of my hon. Friends that he did not have the answers to hand. He did not know the total number of people in the country on zero-hours contacts; he did not know how many of his so-called new private sector jobs involved zero-hours contracts; and he decided that the appropriate way to respond to a question about the rights of pregnant women not to be sacked was to have a cheap shot at trade union general secretaries. Is it not time we renamed Prime Minister’s questions “I’m sorry I haven’t a clue”?
This week, the Government were forced by the courts to keep the independent living fund up and running, and they lost yet another vote in the other place on the Energy Bill, despite stuffing the Chamber with their friends. They have also now lost two terror suspects: one escaped in a black cab, the other dressed as a woman. And on Monday, the Communities Secretary welcomed a report that called for sheep and cows to replace council lawnmowers. I know that I call this Government Orwellian, but I was not suggesting a production of “Animal Farm”.
Last week, we discovered that there had been a 50% rise in the number of special advisers, despite the coalition agreement promising to cut them. We also discovered that the Deputy Prime Minister had 19 special advisers, costing over £1 million a year. This week, despite the uproar, the Deputy Prime Minister decided that the best thing to do was to hire another one, to do his PR. We have had the famous five, and we have had the magnificent seven. Even the Messiah only had 12! What on earth does the Deputy Prime Minister need 20 for? Does the Leader of the House agree that the Deputy Prime Minister is not the Messiah—he’s a very naughty boy?
I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House, and I join her in remembering the fallen, as will Members right across the House, both here and in our constituencies on Sunday. Many families will remember not only those who fell but those who have served this country, including those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
The shadow Leader of the House made a point about universal credit. The Public Accounts Committee report deals with historical matters, and my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Work and Pensions have already taken steps to secure the safe and sound delivery of the programme on time and on budget. She also referred to certain reports, which I have seen. I have talked to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and I can tell the House that there is no need for a statement. I can tell her and the House that there is no truth—[Interruption.] I can tell the House now that there is no truth in the allegations about talking to members of the Public Accounts Committee. I talked to the Secretary of State and I can tell the House that.
I spoke to my good friend, the chief executive of NHS England, on the Committee corridor. As for
“a morass of competition law”,
I do not think that is true. We do not share the same view. As it happens, the Health and Social Care Act 2012 did not change the structure of competition law as it applies to the NHS, except in so far as it introduced a concurrent jurisdiction for Monitor, a health-related body, to exercise, as opposed to competition authorities doing so directly. The Health and Social Care Act has enabled us to deliver £5.5 billion-worth of savings in administration costs in this Parliament and to support the NHS in delivering, for example, 23,000 fewer administrators and 4,000 more clinicians.
On the transparency Bill, no pause is taking place—[Interruption.] I am telling Opposition Members what is happening. The order of consideration in the House of Lords is quite understandable, given that peers wanted the opportunity to consider in detail issues relating to part 2—part 1 and part 3 will be considered first, and part 2 will be considered later in December. That is perfectly sensible. We will engage fully. My noble Friend signalled an amendment in the House of Lords that relates to the structure of the registration thresholds. We will look at what is being proposed—if changes are proposed to part 2, we will look at them—but in the context of delivering through the transparency Bill, what we should all agree on, and this House agreed in principle, is that when third parties seek to influence the political system, whether it be through lobbying or through campaigning at election time, or when the trade unions are seeking to exert influence, it should be subject to proper transparency and accountability. Nobody is being gagged, but the transparency must be there. We must see how third parties influence the political system.
I did not draw up a complete list of all the points that the shadow Leader of the House raised—[Interruption.] The Deputy Leader of the House is quite right—I am not sure whether I should respond to jokes rather than to questions. In that context, the only other question was about zero-hours contracts—
Oh, yes—the special advisers. I think it is the same answer as last week. The coalition gives rise to particular requirements, and it is perfectly understandable that when two parties are in coalition there is a need for sources of independent advice for the Deputy Prime Minister. That is understandable and it will continue to be the case.
I am sure that the Leader of the House will have noticed the magnificent display in Parliament square of the flags of the British overseas territories and, indeed, of the Crown dependencies. Will he invite the Foreign Secretary to make a statement on an unusually helpful comment in and answer by the EU Commissioner, Michel Barnier, about the tax and financial status of Gibraltar, in which he confirmed that there were
“no ‘well founded’ complaints alleging Gibraltar’s failure to cooperate on tax, financial and money-laundering matters”?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that that completely debunks the propaganda put out by the Government of Spain?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I have indeed seen those flags displayed; it is good to see them. I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the character of the complaints made about Gibraltar by the Spanish Government, and the Commissioner rightly made an important point about that. Earlier this week, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe made a written statement about Gibraltar in general. In the context of working with overseas territories, the Chancellor of the Exchequer made a written ministerial statement—a welcome one—about our taxation arrangements with the Cayman Islands. That is demonstration of how we are working more positively than ever before with the British overseas territories to secure an exchange of information in respect of, and action on, tax evasion and avoidance.
Later today the Intelligence and Security Committee will hold its first public session, at which the heads of the various security agencies will speak. I welcome that, because, along with others, I have advocated such a meeting for some considerable time, but no notice of it is given on today’s Order Paper. I do not blame the Clerks, because I am sure that there are parliamentary reasons for the fact that the meeting is not listed, but will it be possible for notices to be posted around the building informing people that it will take place at—I understand—2 pm, and can the Leader of the House confirm that, although it has been suggested that tickets should be obtained beforehand, there will be no restriction on Members’ attendance?
The Order Paper does not convey the information because the Intelligence and Security Committee, although under statute a Select Committee of Parliament as designated in the Act that we passed during the last Session, is not analogous with other Select Committees of the House. There are ways in which it differs from them.
The statute says that it is a Select Committee of Parliament, but it is not analogous with parliamentary Select Committees. I understand that, Mr Speaker, and you understand it, but the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) does not understand it.
I must confess that I am not aware of the arrangements relating to the attendance of Members of Parliament at meetings of the Intelligence and Security Committee. They are a matter for the House authorities, and no doubt you, Mr Speaker, will advise the House further if necessary.
Has my right hon. Friend noted the reports of the Justice, Home Affairs and European Scrutiny Committees on the European justice and home affairs opt-ins? Is he aware that all three reports call for a debate to be held so that the Government’s hand can be strengthened in negotiations by the House having expressed its views?
Let me take this opportunity to congratulate my right hon. Friend personally on his 40 years in the House.
I have indeed seen those reports, and, as my right hon. Friend will know, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made clear our intention to enable the House to consider what the Government have proposed in relation to the opt-out and the measures in respect of which we think that it may be appropriate to opt back in, and to express its view.
May we have a debate about morality in the tax system, with particular reference to section 58 of the Finance Act 2008? Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is trying to collect tax retrospectively from some 2,200 people, including constituents of mine. Some of them will have to sell their homes. We really need to debate this issue and reconsider it.
If I may, I will ask Ministers in the Treasury to respond directly to my hon. Friend, although he will know that the subject was discussed during consideration of the Finance Act. We are careful to ensure that the instances in which legislation has a retrospective effect are minimised, and that when it does occur, it is subject to specific advice from the Law Officers about its appropriateness.
It is truly shocking if there is any truth in the allegation in today’s edition of The Times that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, or others associated with him or working for him, tried to influence the report of an independent Committee of the House. It is also of concern that, when one of the Committee members was asked to deny that he had been approached, he refused to comment. It really would be right and proper for the Secretary of State to come here and explain himself, so that we can ask him questions on behalf of the House.
Opposition Members seem to have arrived in the Chamber expecting to be able to make points without listening to the answers that I have given previously. I have had a conversation with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and there is no truth in the allegations.
May we have an early debate on local government finance? That would enable Members to reflect on the fact that, given that both sides of the House now accept the public spending limits until 2016-17, even if there is a change of Government at the next general election, there will be no more money for local government and, difficult though it may be, all local authorities are going to have to live within the funds allocated to them?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. When we came into government there was no money, as a message from the then departing Chief Secretary stated. We are trying to escape from the mess we inherited from the Labour party. In part, that depends on every bit of the public sector doing its bit. Local government has undeniably had to contribute substantially to the reduction in the deficit. It continues to do so, and does so very well as local authorities are achieving more for less and are delivering public satisfaction with many local government services, notwithstanding the substantial reductions. The Government are giving support to enable councils to address some areas of greatest need, such as supporting them in freezing their council tax. That is relieving the pressure on hard-working families. We are also supporting local government directly through the work that the NHS is going to do on joint funding for social care; £3.8 billion in additional support was announced in the latest spending round. Full details on the local government finance settlement will be published in due course, but we have made encouraging progress.
May we have a debate on the imminent reintroduction of the skip tax by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which will lead to a 2,700% increase in the cost of emptying a skip? It will lead to an increase to customers of £175 for hiring a skip, and it will force 1,500 small businesses into bankruptcy, including Mr and Mrs Tapping of Reliable Skips in my constituency. If construction and small businesses are to be the drivers of growth, how can the skip tax be right?
As a Conservative member of the Public Accounts Committee, may I begin by making it clear to Opposition Members that no pressure was exerted on any Members in respect of universal credit?
May we have a debate on technical and vocational education in Peterborough? The number of NEETs—those not in education, employment or training—is falling, the number of apprenticeships is rising and youth unemployment is dropping, but we need to drive up skills. Serendipitously, this week a very strong bid for a university technical college in Peterborough comes before Ministers. Will the Leader of the House nudge them in the right direction?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, including for his confirmation of the point I have repeatedly made now at these questions to Labour Members, who do not appear to be able to understand when they are being told a simple fact.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s reference to a UTC. We have a UTC being developed in relation to skills to support the life sciences industry in Cambridge. The possibility of a UTC in Peterborough is an interesting and important opportunity. The UTCs will help us ensure that young people have the training to support economic growth in the future. In terms of the applications, I expect my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education to announce the successful projects in January.
On Tuesday, regulations will take effect that allow the outsourcing of provision for children in care to private companies, despite a striking lack of evidence that it is good for children. The regulations also allow for a clear conflict of interest to arise, because the same private company will be allowed to place a child into care and run that placement. This is, frankly, a disaster waiting to happen. Does the Leader of the House agree that the fact that there has been virtually no scrutiny of this measure—the Government tried to push it through under a legislative reform order before they were stopped—is an extraordinary breach of our responsibility as corporate parents to these children? Given that he is so fond of pausing legislation, will he pause these regulations so we can have an urgent debate in this House about this very important matter?
I am not sure that I heard a request for a debate as such, but I will ask the relevant Minister at the Department for Education to respond to those issues. As the hon. Lady says, the state’s responsibility as a corporate parent to children has often not been discharged as well as it ought to have been. Clearly it is important that we improve the quality of the placements that we achieve for looked-after children. The Children and Families Bill made good progress through this House, when it was the subject of extensive scrutiny, and it continues to be the subject of scrutiny in the other place, with more than six days in Committee, so that gives real opportunities for the matter to be considered.
Next week marks national export week. Many businesses in Erewash are successfully exporting their products and services around the globe, so may I ask my right hon. Friend to make time available in the House over the next few weeks in which we can support this important area of UK business?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I think that everyone in the House will recognise that we have made good progress on support. Indeed, when I was talking to a company in my constituency just last week, it described the excellent support it has received in China from UK Trade & Investment. We have had great success in increasing our exports to China, India and Brazil—some of the emerging economies —but we all recognise that we need to do more. We have some great businesses, but if we were to secure an increase in the proportion of businesses, especially small businesses, that export to some of our competitors, such as Germany, it would do an enormous amount to boost our long-term recovery.
I do not know whether the Leader of the House was able to listen to today’s “Thought for the Day” by Rev. Lucy Winkett, who spoke movingly about this week’s events in the campaign for a living wage. The fact is that a living wage is very important, especially to people living in my constituency and in London. Those working in this House need a decent level of wage in order to have a reasonable life. May we have an early debate on the work of the House of Commons Commission so that we can sort out that this place should be a beacon for good employment?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the view expressed by the Prime Minister at this Dispatch Box, and by the Mayor of London and others, about the desirability of supporting a living wage. So far as I am aware—I did discuss this with the Clerk of the House—the staff employed in this House are all in receipt of at least the London living wage.
Order. People who work in the House of Commons are indeed paid the living wage. The right hon. Gentleman, the Leader of the House, is factually—[Interruption.] Order. The Leader of the House is correct in what he said. That is the beginning and the end of it.
I am sure that the whole House was shocked by the death of the young girl who was attacked by her dog earlier this week—our thoughts must be with her family. Will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent review of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, because if its provisions on dangerous dogs go through, the mother of that young girl would face up to 14 years in prison, which would be a ridiculous unintended consequence of the legislation? Will he ensure that the Bill at least involves provision on intent, or that it is changed in other ways, to ensure that the mother of that young girl, who is going through enough trauma at the moment, does not face a ridiculously long prison sentence?
My hon. Friend is right to refer to the great distress and shock that people have felt as a result of those events. Many people have called for the provisions in the Bill relating to harm caused by dangerous dogs on private premises for a long time. They have been debated in this House, but the Bill continues to be considered, so I know that Members of both Houses will consider the points he makes and the application of the Bill in any individual circumstances.
Serious accusations were made in this morning’s edition of The Times that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions tried not only to nobble a Select Committee, but to smear a civil servant. The Leader of the House has just told the House that he has spoken to the Secretary of State, so will he tell us what the Secretary of State said in response to the accusations? Would not the best way of clearing things up be for the Secretary of State to come to the House and make a statement?
Although I welcome the Government’s plans to build a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point C, Babcock, which is responsible for refitting and refurbishing our nuclear submarines at Devonport dockyard in my constituency, faces a challenge in retaining skilled nuclear engineers. May we have a statement, or perhaps a debate, on how we might avoid such skill shortages?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. When I was a member of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry some 10 years ago, we were concerned about the loss of skills and expertise in this country because of the failure to proceed with any new nuclear build. I am afraid that remedying the situation has taken until now, following the coalition Government’s steps. My hon. Friend rightly makes a wider point about the availability of skills. The sector skills organisations and, in some locations, the local enterprise partnerships will be able to work with industry to focus on enabling Government support to go directly to meet those needs.
Even those who are not particular fans of football might have seen the horrific pictures last Sunday of the Spurs goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris, being concussed on the pitch, but being forced to go back on and play. May we have an urgent debate as soon as possible on the dangers of concussion in sport so that we can provide a lead? A conference in Twickenham this afternoon is considering the subject in the context of rugby and The Mail on Sunday is running a big campaign. There is clear evidence that when people are forced to play again after being concussed, they can all too easily end up suffering from premature dementia.
I confess that I did not see that, but the hon. Gentleman makes an important point very clearly. I am not sure whether I can promise Government time for a debate, but if he is in conversation with colleagues across the House who, quite rightly, share his concern, they could seek an Adjournment debate or Back-Bench time, perhaps in Westminster Hall, to allow those important issues to be raised.
My late and courageous constituent, Private John Brackpool of the Welsh Guards, was killed while on active duty in Afghanistan in July 2009. I understand that the Australian military offers visits to the place where loved ones fell in Afghanistan, and I would be grateful for a statement from the Defence Secretary on whether the Ministry of Defence could offer a similar scheme for British families.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The Ministry of Defence is committed to giving the families of service personnel all the support it can, especially when they tragically lose a loved one on operations. The most recent loss of a soldier from 3rd Battalion The Mercian Regiment provides us with a painful reminder of the sacrifices our armed services personnel make. The Ministry of Defence is sensitive to requests from families who wish to visit the place where their sons and daughters have died while on operation in Afghanistan. However, its overriding responsibility is one of safety, both for those visiting and for our service personnel. Afghanistan, as the House will know, remains a dangerous environment, and the Ministry of Defence has a responsibility to ensure that those who are escorted are not exposed to unnecessary risk, and that doing that does not expose service personnel to additional risk.
The House’s Select Committee system has proven itself time and again to be a cornerstone of our democracy. Given today’s serious allegations in The Times that some of its impartiality and independence might have been compromised, why will the Leader of the House not allow the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to come to the House and tell Members and the public what he has told the Leader of the House, and to reassure us that that independence will be defended at all costs?
I was unable to be in the Chamber for Transport questions this morning but, if I had been, I would have asked for a debate about extending the cycle routes that the Secretary of State has announced through the national parks and joining them up so that more people can use them, especially if the routes go through a world heritage site. That would bring tourism into my constituency and enable cyclists to commute into Derby on safe routes.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point that I suspect my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will be familiar with and sympathetic to, given his constituency interest. I will draw the further point relating to transport to his attention, and he might like to respond to my hon. Friend.
May we have a statement about what is happening with the Chilcot inquiry? It seems like an age since it was established and took its evidence, and we learn today that there has been a further blockage in obtaining correspondence between Tony Blair and George Bush from the Cabinet Secretary. Surely the Chilcot inquiry should get everything that it requires so that we can get to the bottom of why we went into that disastrous illegal war?
I regret that I am not in a position to comment about that. I have read about this in the newspapers, but that is literally all I know about whether information is being sought by the Chilcot inquiry. I will talk to my colleagues and see whether we can update the House on the timetable although, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, it is not in the hands of the Government as such.
May we have a debate on geography? As I sat through Transport questions, I heard about wonderful investments in the north, the midlands and across the country, but I did not hear one word about anything west of Swindon or south of Bristol. There is a real fear that the Department for Transport does not know where the west country is. If the Secretary of State wants to assure me that he does, he can announce improvements on the A303, the electrification of the Great Western line and the re-opening of Langport and Somerton stations, and then I will be satisfied.
I did hear the Secretary of State respond to a question about Bristol, but not beyond Bristol. I am entirely familiar with the geography of the south-west, having lived in Exeter for four years. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the rail investment programme, which is not just HS2—as he said, HS2 represents just a quarter of the investment during the next Parliament. Many projects in the programme were never proceeded with under the previous Government, but will have a positive impact on many parts of the country. If there is anything in particular that my colleagues can say to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) about this matter, I will ask them to do so.
It has always struck me that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is an honourable man so, notwithstanding the assurances given by the Leader of the House, I would have thought that he would want to come to the House and deal with these matters directly.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is indeed an honourable man and a man of integrity. I am happy to confirm to the House that the allegations are not true and there is no reason for him to come to make a statement. We make statements to the House to update it on something that has happened, not something that has not happened.