House of Commons
Thursday 19 December 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—
East Coast Mainline Company Ltd
My officials meet with East Coast and Directly Operated Railways on a regular basis to discuss the performance of the franchise. DOR’s financial accounts are published on its website on an annual basis.
As this is the last Question Time before Christmas, I would like to take this opportunity to wish you, Mr Speaker, and the Secretary of State and his team, a merry Christmas.
I declare an interest: I am a member of the RMT parliamentary group—unremunerated. The Secretary of State will be aware that the East Coast service has delivered record levels of passenger satisfaction, returned £800 million to the taxpayer and seen almost half of fares frozen, due in no small part to the staff, who have worked so hard. The best Christmas present for them would be to cancel the privatisation. Will the Secretary of State meet me and a small delegation to listen to their concerns about the application of TUPE regulations if the sell-off goes ahead?
Either I or the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), will be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman and some of his colleagues, but I just point out to him, as I have done frequently, that the last Labour Secretary of State for Transport 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 of rail franchising”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 July 2009; Vol. 712, c. 232.]
Those recent improvements in rail franchising have resulted in passenger journey numbers in this country going up from 750 million to 1.5 billion and people using our railways a lot more, with a huge amount of investment guaranteed by this Government.
It would be churlish not to wish you a merry Christmas, Mr Speaker.
Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the management and the work force of East Coast Mainline on their achievements? Has he any information on journeys lost or delayed since the ratio of diesel to electric trains has changed?
Off the top of my head, I am afraid I do not have that specific fact and figure, but I will certainly write to my hon. Friend. I would like to thank all those, not just on the east coast main line but on all the other train services, who are doing everything they can over the seasonal period to make sure people get to their destinations.
Does the Secretary of State not realise that the staff and management of East Coast rescued that service after a second private sector franchise collapsed? They are concerned that their job security at the headquarters at York is being put at risk again, so will the Secretary of State come to York with me to meet the staff to explain his plans?
I have used East Coast trains on a number of occasions and have talked to the staff operating the service. The hon. Gentleman should just wait and see which companies come forward, and he may find he gets a much enhanced service over the coming years—and I very much hope he will do so.
May I also wish you the compliments of the season, Mr Speaker, and thank all the staff of the House for keeping us safe throughout the year?
People struggling with the Government’s cost of living crisis are carefully planning their budgets for Christmas and next year. They need and deserve to know how much their season tickets will cost from 2 January. Why is East Coast the only train company to have published its fare increases for next year?
The hon. Lady might just have welcomed the fact that for the first time in 10 years we have got rid of above-inflation rail ticket price increases. I would have thought that she might welcome that, because I am very proud that for the first time in 10 years this coalition Government have held rail fare increases down in line with the retail prices index.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the autumn statement but it is his decision not to remove the “flex” on fares, which means some commuter tickets could still rise by 5.1% next year. In 13 days people will buy their annual season tickets, yet they have no idea how much they will cost. That is completely unacceptable. Is not the example set by East Coast another reason that it should be kept as a public sector comparator?
The simple fact is that the reduction in rail fares announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the autumn statement has been widely welcomed by various organisations including Transport 2000, and I am very proud that we have managed to do something. The hon. Lady mentions the “flex”. We have reduced the extent to which the “flex” can be exercised, which the last Government never did.
Railway Branch Lines
It is for local authorities, working with local enterprise partnerships, to determine whether investment in a local branch line is the best way to meet local transport needs. Local enterprise partnerships have been invited to bid for the local growth fund, and we encourage them to bid for funds to invest in transport schemes.
The Minister knows that I have long campaigned to reopen the Henbury loop line. There are advanced plans for a large stadium development as well as significant housing in the area that the Henbury loop would serve. Does the Minister not think that such large infrastructure projects could have a massively positive impact on the business case for such a line?
I am well aware of my hon. Friend’s long-standing campaign. She would not expect me to comment on a specific scheme, but stadium developments such as those are exactly the sort of thing that local enterprise partnerships and local authorities will want to look at. I met representatives of the West of England LEP on 22 November, and I am aware of phase 2 of its MetroWest scheme. It has been allocated £44.9 million for improvements in the six-year period to 2021.
May I draw to the Minister’s attention the bizarre situation that has arisen in respect of the Todmorden curve in east Lancashire? After years of campaigning, work on the curve has been completed at a cost of £8 million, and we all welcome that. It will facilitate a service from Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley through Rochdale to Manchester Victoria, which is excellent. The problem is that there are no trains. Will the Minister agree to intervene on this matter, and to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones)?
The right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that I have already been lobbied on this matter by a number of other Lancashire MPs. He will of course recognise the huge amount of investment that is going into the railway network. I recognise the issues involved in this case, and I have already intervened. I expect to have good news for him on rolling stock next year, but I would nevertheless be delighted to meet him and other hon. Members.
The branch line from Kettering to Corby that was introduced a few years ago has been hugely welcome, but a negative knock-on effect is that the service on the main line going north from Kettering has been cut from a half-hourly service to an hourly service. Now that line speeds on the midland main line have increased, will the Minister put pressure on East Midlands Trains to reintroduce a half-hourly service going north from Kettering on that line?
I have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend has said. He will obviously want to recognise the huge amount of investment that is going into the railway network, including £70 million around Kettering. I will look closely at his request in the context of the franchise renegotiations.
A lot of work has been done locally to assess the possibility of reopening the Halton curve, which would improve the links between Merseyside and Liverpool and all the way down to Shropshire, as well as across to north Wales. Will the Minister do all he can to expedite that project, which would benefit Merseyside, Cheshire and Wales?
Again, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise the huge amount of investment that is going into the railways under this Government. We recognise the benefit of that. It is for Network Rail to prioritise these matters, along with the local train operators and the local authorities. Should he want to write to me about this particular scheme, I would be happy to look into it in more detail.
High Speed 2
The most recent cost estimate for both phases of the project is £42.6 billion and £7.5 billion for rolling stock. This includes a contingency of £14.4 billion for construction costs and £1.7 billion for rolling stock. The project currently assumes that the cost of HS2 is to be funded by the public purse. However, my Department is exploring the scope to draw in third-party funding to lessen the cost exposure to the taxpayer.
Mr Speaker, I wish you and the Secretary of State a very happy Christmas. The Secretary of State could of course give both our constituencies an early Christmas present by cancelling HS2, but I do not suppose that that is on the drawing board. If everything in the garden is so rosy with regard to the finances, why does he feel it necessary to continue to suppress the Major Projects Authority reports on the risks associated with the project? Suppressing those reports does not send out a very good message to people about the project, whether they are for it or against it. In the absence of any response to my questions about this from the Cabinet Office Minister, will the Secretary of State tell the House what his intentions are with regard to the reports? Will he confirm or deny that he is continuing to try to prevent their publication?
The one thing that HS2 is not short of is reports from various committees, either of this House or across the wider spectrum. The simple fact is that the report my right hon. Friend refers to is one direct to Ministers, and it is not usual to publish such reports. That report is two years old and it gave an amber/red—I think that is in the public domain—but the latest report has given an amber, which shows that even the Major Projects Authority recognises that we have made major strides forward.
Mr Speaker, happy Christmas. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State seems to be in a “Bah, humbug!” sort of mood today. May I encourage him not only to lighten up a bit, but to lighten up all of us who want investment in housing, hospitals, health and schools by scrapping this expensive extravagance and joining the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, who this morning has said that London is “draining the life” out of the regions of this country and that HS2 will speed up that process?
I do not know about needing to lighten up—I think the hon. Gentleman should look in a mirror. The simple point is that we are not short at all of investment in the railways. In the next five years—its next control period—Network Rail will invest £38 billion in the current railway system. It is vital that we get connectivity between our major cities. I have to say that some of the biggest supporters of HS2 are the northern leaders. If they thought it was going to do damage to their areas, they would not be overwhelmingly supporting it in the way that they are.
One gets ready for a lot of things in preparing for questions, but I am going to have to disappoint my hon. Friend, because I do not have readily available details on that particular line of questioning on HS2. I will most certainly look at the points he raises, but I point out to him that it is the wider investment in the whole of the United Kingdom’s transport infrastructure that we can rightly be proud of. I was very pleased to be in his constituency when a new mode of financing road repairs was used for his constituents.
The Secretary of State did not say in the list of estimated costs what has been allocated for biodiversity offsetting, for the replacement of ancient woodland and for addressing all the other environmental damage that HS2 will cause. What element of the budget has been set aside for that?
That has all been taken into account. Indeed, one reason for the increase in cost that I announced to the House some time ago was some of the measures that we have taken, after representations, on tunnelling. I take the environmental costs seriously, as I know does the new chairman of HS2 Ltd, Sir David Higgins. I point out to the hon. Gentleman the amount of money that was made available for environmental improvements along the route of HS1, but I will write to him in more detail.
The Government have committed funding to electrify more than 880—
My apologies, Mr Speaker. With permission, I would like to group Questions 4 and 8. So excited was I about electrification that I wanted to mention that the Government have committed funding to electrify more than 880 miles of railway by 2019. Last week, we announced the Wigan-Bolton electrification, and a joint taskforce is being set up to explore where next we can look for rail electrification in the north of England.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Last week, a taskforce was launched to examine electrification in the north. In those proposals, we are examining Chester-Crewe and Chester-Warrington. There is a huge amount of enthusiasm in Chester in support of these plans. How can members of the public put their views forward to the Minister and to the taskforce?
Local Members of Parliament will be invited to be members of that taskforce, so undoubtedly my hon. Friend will be able to represent his constituents directly, but the taskforce will, I am sure, want to accept representations from local people as to the benefits of electrification for them.
In Hull, we need rail electrification not least because of the vast number of visitors that we will want to come to the city while Hull is city of culture 2017. Given that, as I understand it, the taskforce set up to look at the proposal for Selby to Hull electrification will not report for 12 months, does that not rule out rail electrification for 2017? Will the Minister meet a delegation from Hull to discuss this matter?
I understand the hon. Lady’s aspirations, given that Hull is the city of culture in 2017. It sounded like her Christmas present list being reeled off. The previous Government played Scrooge and electrified only 9 miles, whereas this Government are playing Santa and electrifying almost 900 miles. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady. She is right: that taskforce is looking at lines for electrification post-2019.
I am delighted that the Leeds and Harrogate line through Horsforth is to be considered for electrification, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) for the work that he has done on that. In sounding a bit like Oliver, please, sir, can I have some more? The Calder Vale line between Leeds and Bradford through New Pudsey is an important line between those cities and desperately needs electrification. I would be grateful if the taskforce could look at that too.
Can the Minister explain how accountability for extending rail electrification could be affected by the basic change in the status of Network Rail announced by the Government earlier this week?
High Speed 2
Investment in HS2 will deliver widespread connectivity improvements, grow markets and increase opportunities to trade. Our assessment of the benefits to businesses is £53.8 billion over a 60-year period. Further analysis by KPMG suggests that the wider economic effects could be far greater.
I most certainly do agree with my hon. Friend. One of the most important points about HS2 is that there is not just one single reason for it. There are reasons of capacity, connectivity and, yes, investing in brand-new trains which will get us to our cities in the north faster than at present.
A characteristic of HS2 is that there will be widespread economic benefits to areas such as the city region in Sheffield, with very specific high costs to certain individuals, such as my constituents on Greasbro road, who will lose their homes. Will the Secretary of State look again at whether it is reasonable compensation in these circumstances simply to offer market value plus 10%? Should we not do a little more to help those people who bear the cost for the wider economic benefit of everyone else?
I would point out that, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, we are in a consultation process on the Birmingham to Leeds and Birmingham to Manchester schemes, so it might be inappropriate for me to say now that those particular routes are confirmed, but I will bear in mind what he says. We are out to consultation on the whole question of compensation in relation to phase 1, and I will bear his remarks in mind for phase 2 as well.
13. Does my right hon. Friend accept that he was a bit reticent in his original answer, in that when referring to the KPMG report, he failed to tell the House that the benefits from 2036 to the community will be £15 billion a year, and that 70% of the benefits of HS2 will be outside London? Does one not have to be a fairly Neanderthal individual not to bear in mind the benefits that that will bring to the nation, particularly the midlands and the north of England? (901734)
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for all his work in helping me with these projects. He is right about the benefits. The Jubilee line extension did not have a very good benefit-cost ratio, but if it had not been built, neither would all the developments at Canary Wharf, so there is a lot to be said for the wider economic benefits we will get from this new railway line.
If the proposals for HS2 are to survive, there needs to be that wider economic impact right across the UK. Is there anything in the Secretary of State’s diary indicating that he might have an opportunity to discuss that in the near future with either the Scottish Government or the two main local authorities, Edinburgh city council and Glasgow city council?
The leader of Glasgow city council joined others in presenting a letter to the Prime Minister stating how important HS2 was, and I was delighted to meet him on that occasion. The Scottish Justice Minister has written to me on another matter and requested that I meet him, so I might be able to arrange to meet the leaders of both city councils at the same time.
The Government are continuing to fund station improvements and upgrades through four programmes: the national stations improvement programme, the Access for All programme, the new stations fund and the station commercial project facility. In addition, we are funding improvements at several major stations. Network Rail is funded by the Government through each control period to maintain and renew station assets, and its performance on station conditions is monitored by the Office of Rail Regulation.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. For too long under the previous Government very little was done to improve Gloucester station. Under this Government’s scheme we have had welcome improvements, including lifts for the elderly and disabled, and yesterday Network Rail confirmed that for the first time ever a canopy will be installed over our platform bridge. I am grateful for that Christmas good news. However, there is more to be done. Will the Secretary of State please confirm that the Government will continue to invest in our stations and will welcome well-argued cases for improvements in overall city centre regeneration schemes?
My hon. Friend is right that the Access for All programme provided a footbridge and two lifts at Gloucester station, costing £1.7 million. That is a small but important way in which we can help some of the older stations to be maintained and to be available for all people to access. We are seeing a major regeneration of our stations. Some of our major stations are now destinations in their own right. St Pancras station, for example, used to be a place where people did not want to spend more than five minutes, but it is now a destination in its own right.
I am due to meet the Secretary of State’s colleagues in the new year to discuss Finsbury Park station. Can he assure me that his Department is intervening to ensure that both Network Rail and Transport for London invest enough money in that dangerously overcrowded station to ensure that it is fit for purpose and good for the future, rather than overcrowded and out of date, which it is at the moment?
I will obviously ask for a report on the points the hon. Gentleman has made. I am in regular contact with Transport for London and the Mayor of London, who continually make the case for greater investment in London. I have to try to balance that with the requests for station improvements from the rest of the country. The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point about the station he has referred to.
In July I asked for Ministers’ support to hasten the installation of lifts at Chippenham station. Now that the coalition Government have provided funding for an additional 80 services a week from that station and Wiltshire council has finally granted planning permission, when can we hope that Network Rail will be able to make step-free access at Chippenham station a reality?
May I take this opportunity to wish you, Mr Speaker, and the whole House a very merry Christmas? Following his announcement this week, will the Secretary of State launch a full consultation on Network Rail’s future debt and governance structures to ensure best value for the taxpayer and full accountability to passengers?
I am keen that Network Rail should continue to get the levels of investment that we have set aside for it and that nothing should put a question mark over that. I think that the hon. Lady needs to have a conversation with the shadow Chancellor, who today announced that the Labour party will be having a zero-based look at all that funding. I can say from this Dispatch Box that I can secure the funding for Network Rail, but I do not think that the hon. Lady can say that for her party.
Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres
I am sure that the whole House would want to join me in paying tribute to the professionalism of the coastguards, who in a very busy summer dealt with 25% more incidents this year than last. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency certainly recognises that it has more coastguard vacancies than it would like, but the hon. Lady should be aware that it has managed to recruit 58 new coastguards. A further recruitment campaign is under way, and every effort is being made to fill every vacancy.
I thank the Minister for his answer and associate myself with what he says about the work of those in coastguard stations. He will be aware of the concerns that I have been raising about maritime safety off the west coast of Scotland following the closure of Clyde coastguard station. In the summer, which, as he pointed out, is the busiest time, staffing was at unsafe levels on 142 out of 184 shifts. Will he meet me and colleagues again to discuss what is being done, particularly in relation to the west coast of Scotland?
The hon. Lady will want to recognise, of course, that I met her and colleagues in July. I promised at that stage that I would meet her again later in the year, so I am happy to meet that obligation. I point out, though, that 58 coastguards have been recruited since that time. As we have now been able to secure a deal with the Treasury, we expect retention rates of coastguards applying for new posts to go up in January. She will be aware, as I have replied to her to this effect several times, that specific arrangements are in place to ensure safety on the west coast of Scotland. However, I reiterate that I am happy to meet her and colleagues.
Merry Christmas to you, Mr Speaker, and thanks to the Minister for praising the coastguard services; I entirely associate myself with that. But, oh dear, can he not see what a sorry tale of complacency and badly executed change this coastguard saga is? Does he feel happy with vacancies up by over 250% since 2010, poor morale, recruitment and transfer rates, a critical Select Committee report, and coastguard centres at Liverpool, Humber and Belfast all over a third below safe staffing levels? With more closures in the new year, will he get his Department cracking with an urgent action plan to ensure proper staffing levels so that our coastguards and those who live on our coastlines can feel safe and secure?
There is no complacency at all on the part of the Government—and the hon. Gentleman’s question sounded like a Christmas cracker joke. He will know that since the announcement of the deal, which has been welcomed by the Public and Commercial Services Union, there have been a number of expressions of interest about coastguard vacancies. The retention rate is likely to go up in January. We have recruited 58 new coastguards. Specific arrangements are in place at all co-ordination centres to ensure safety and doubling of shifts. There is nothing to suggest that the timetable has been delayed, and the plan is going ahead as announced in this House in November 2011.
The Government have always made it clear that airports such as Birmingham, which are international airports in their own right, make a vital contribution to regional and local economic growth and connectivity. Forecasts indicate capacity for significant further growth at the airport, including more point-to-point destinations.
I thank the Minister for that answer, because I agree with him. Could he see his way clear to supporting any expansion at Birmingham airport, particularly as a hub is, as he said, vital to the west midlands economy? Perhaps he could meet a small delegation to discuss how he can help.
Birmingham airport is forecast to carry 9 million passengers this year, and that could further increase given the proposal to extend the runway. It is set to become a hub in its own right, not fed by feeder flights but by our wonderful new north-south railway, which will provide connections by high-speed rail to the major cities of our country.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that the construction of HS2 is likely to bring Birmingham airport within 36 minutes of central London, compared with an average time of 47 minutes from Stansted airport? Does not this cast an interesting light on the airport capacity debate?
Does my hon. Friend agree with Andy Street, chairman of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull local enterprise partnership, that the expansion of airports in the south-east will in no way damage the expansion and financial prospects of Birmingham airport and that the two can work together?
The Department’s priorities are, of course, to ensure successful delivery of the £6 billion Thameslink programme, to maintain and enhance service quality for passengers while the Thameslink works are going on, and to bear down on the overall costs of running the industry.
I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. Lewisham commuters are very keen to reap direct benefits from the new franchise and infrastructure programme through increased train frequency and capacity. Many people share the aspiration of having four trains per hour on the Catford loop. Can the service specification for the new franchise be changed at this late stage, and could such a service be accommodated without detriment to other Lewisham services?
The Thameslink programme will be completed in 2018 and will, as the hon. Lady knows, provide a minimum of two trains per hour all day to stations on the Catford loop. That will be supplemented by additional standards and services under the Southeastern franchise, at least in peak periods. The detailed specification for those additional services will be determined nearer the time.
Millions of people will be travelling long distances to see family and friends over the coming days. All key transport operators have contingency plans in place to deal with disruption if the weather deteriorates. As in previous winters, the Government are monitoring road salt supplies on a regular basis. The current stocks are robust, totalling 1.7 million tonnes
As we head into Christmas, I would also like to take this opportunity to highlight the anti-drink-drive campaign that we launched earlier this month. It reminds drivers of the snowballing consequences that can await those who get behind the wheel after drinking, including job loss, a criminal record and prison. Our message this Christmas is simple: if you’re going to drink, don’t drive.
May I take this opportunity, Mr Speaker, on behalf of all my colleagues, to wish you and all the members of staff a merry Christmas and a contented new year?
Labour-run Lancashire county council is purporting to cut its subsidised bus routes by 50%, which means that most of the villages and outlying council estates in Lancaster will have no buses in the evenings or on Sundays. Is it not about time for a serious review of the need to maintain vital bus services for rural and difficult-to-reach areas?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a very important point. The truth is that, while we have seen a huge amount of growth in the railways, more people are using buses every single day, particularly in rural areas and rural communities, which rely on bus services. My hon. Friend raises important issues and his ideas certainly merit further consideration.
T2. As we are on the subject of Christmas largesse, could the Secretary of State explain why the Airports Commission, as part of its costing for extra capacity at Heathrow, gave the airport an extraordinary present by excluding the cost both of the rail link to HS2 and of motorway enhancement around Heathrow but included such surface access costs in its assessment of the alternative in the Thames Gateway? (901699)
I am not responsible for the Airports Commission report—it is an independent report—but I will certainly draw the right hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of Sir Howard Davies so that he can consider whether his report properly reflects all the arguments.
T3. The London Cycling Campaign’s safer lorries, safer cycling initiative has measures for improving safety for cyclists. Will the Department commit to working across Government to ensure that all of our contractors and our supply chain sign up to this initiative? (901700)
We must certainly continue to improve the safety of cyclists, which, despite recent negative publicity in London, has improved markedly over the past decade. As I made clear in my recent evidence to the Transport Committee, we need to co-ordinate how lorries on the streets of London are designed and used, but there is no single magic bullet. The fact that we have doubled spending on cycling in this Parliament compared with the last one shows that we are committed not only to increasing the number of people who cycle, but to improving the safety of cyclists.
T8. Will the Minister look into the situation in the west midlands, particularly in Coventry, where pensioners’ free rail passes seem to be under some sort of threat, and will he discuss that with Ministers from the Department for Communities and Local Government? (901706)
T4. Happy Christmas, Mr Speaker.May I support the earlier call for Birmingham International station to be renamed Birmingham Airport, but will the Secretary of State work with me to ensure that that happens now, even before HS2 is built? (901701)
Further to the response to the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), many of my constituents killed by lorries have died at junctions, including some at the notorious Bow roundabout. Will the Minister look into the number of heavy goods vehicles that have exemptions from safety mechanisms, particularly for just-in-time deliveries, such as skip lorries, and will he pledge to tackle this scourge of London streets?
The issue certainly focuses on skip, refuse collection and construction lorries. I have noticed that many of those I see on the streets of London as I cycle there have such mechanisms fitted. We also need to look at other types of vehicle, including the batch concrete mixers that are currently outside the regulations.
T5. Mr Speaker, may I wish you and the staff of the House a happy Christmas?Following the Secretary of State’s very kind meeting with the two constituency Members of Parliament to discuss the missing link on the A417/A419 between the M4 to the M5, he asked us to establish local consensus, and we have started to do so. This week, Cotswold district council unanimously passed a motion supporting the brown route. The local enterprise partnerships are beginning to come on board, as are Members of Parliament from the wider area. Will the Minister say whether his Department is looking into the feasibility of the link? (901702)
Following my meeting with my hon. Friend and my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), I am pleased that he is moving in the right direction with that consensus, and I will certainly work with him to see whether we can get the long-term answer that he desires.
Tragically, it is not just in London that cyclists have been killed in accidents involving HGVs; there were two cases not so long ago in Edinburgh. Will the Minister ensure that his focus is not just concentrated on London, but looks at what can be done across the country, particularly in Scotland, where although spending is devolved, such legislation is still a reserved matter? Will he ensure that he works with the Scottish Government to ensure a similar focus on preventing the deaths of cyclists caused by HGVs?
Yes, certainly. We recently announced our six cycling cities, where imaginative ideas are being brought forward. I am sure that we will work with the devolved Administration north of the border, as part of the United Kingdom, to make sure that we share best practice where we can.
T6. Bournemouth continues to delight in the town’s football club’s promotion to the championship—a mere stepping stone on the way to the premiership, no doubt. The slip road from the A38 to the stadium functions well, but there is no access back on to the dual carriageway. Now that a school is to be built in the same area, may I ask the Minister to look down the back of the sofa and see whether some pinchpoint funding could be found for this urgent infrastructure project? (901704)
I know that my hon. Friend was disappointed that the scheme in Bournemouth was not included in the recent tranche of 25 pinchpoint jam-busting schemes. When Bournemouth is promoted to the premiership, it will be even more important that disappointed away fans do not have to go into Bournemouth on their way home, as the Cherries continue to advance through the tables.
One of my biggest postbags in recent weeks has been from a campaign called “time to cross”, which is a campaign on behalf of pedestrians—the vast majority of people travel on foot. What are the Government doing to support that campaign and to ensure safety for us all, but particularly for the young and the old?
Highways authorities use the speed of 1.2 metres per second for people crossing the road, although we understand that many elderly or disabled people may need longer. It is possible for local authorities to extend the time. The use of puffin crossings, rather than pelican crossings, allows sensors to be fitted that allow people more time. In parts of London, the use of countdowns on lights has also helped.
T7. The Secretary of State made it clear yesterday that he hopes that Birmingham airport can expand. Currently, the 15-mile journey between Tamworth and the airport takes 45 minutes by rail. Does he therefore agree that infrastructure projects such as the Whitacre rail link, which would reduce the journey time to 18 minutes, could be beneficial to my constituents and the airport? (901705)
My hon. Friend is right that good service access is essential for airports. He is right to point out that the Secretary of State said on Tuesday that we regard Birmingham and Manchester not as regional airports but as important national airports in their own right. I am happy to look at the Whitacre link proposals. I encourage my hon. Friend to continue to discuss the development of the business case with the local enterprise partnership and Centro, so that it can be brought forward.
I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that point. I would point out that we are spending a huge amount of money on train services that link into the north. The northern hub will bring a substantial improvement. Huge improvements are also going on at Manchester Victoria station.
T9. Sir David Higgins takes up his job as the head of HS2 in January with instructions to bring the costs of HS2 down. Will the Secretary of State promise that any reductions or savings will definitely not come from the compensation for people whose lives are affected by HS2 or from the costs of protecting and restoring our precious environment? (901707)
As I said earlier, one of the reasons the costs have increased, which my right hon. Friend often attacks, is that we have gone to extra lengths to protect the environment. There will be a huge amount of tunnelling in her constituency, which will cost more money. Sir David Higgins is a well respected engineer and has been a leader of great projects in our country, including the Olympics, which were delivered on time and below budget. I am sure that when he takes up this post, he will bring that expertise to the job.
Will the Transport team look at two places where we could link the north-west of England with north Wales? The first is the Halton curve, which my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) mentioned, and the second is the Wrexham-Bidston line. Like Scrooge, I am not asking for those things for Christmas past or Christmas present, but perhaps, in the spirit of Christmas, the Secretary of State could look at those issues for Christmas future?
The right hon. Gentleman will have heard my reply to the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) and the response that the Secretary of State gave to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) about the Wrexham line. We are looking into those matters and I have said that I am happy to meet the hon. Member for Halton. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will want to join him.
The proposed public service obligation on the economically vital Newquay to London Gatwick route will run for four years, but funding might be in place for only two years. What assurance can the Minister give that funding will be in place for the duration of the public service obligation on that route?
I suspect that the hon. Gentleman should have directed that question to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who made an announcement on that matter recently. As Newquay is more than three hours from London and has a current operator, it is a potential applicant that would almost certainly be seen in a positive light.
Electrification is very welcome, but it is creating mayhem in my constituency, with cuts to services and terrible overcrowding. The Prime Minister told The Bolton News:
“I will go away and look into it.”
However, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), has washed his hands of the issue and said:
“It is for Network Rail and operators”
to solve the problem. Who is right and who will provide more rolling stock for my constituents?
If one is quoting the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State or any other Minister, it is usual to assume that the Prime Minister is right. I will look at the case. The hon. Lady is right that we cannot make such major improvements without causing inconvenience. However, at the end of the day we will get a far, far better railway. I am pleased that we are investing in the electrification of the railways, which the last Government singularly failed to do.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
Merry Christmas, Mr Speaker. The recesses proposed for next year, including the one in November, reflect the need to balance the requirements of Government and Back-Bench business with the reasonable expectations of Members regarding constituency business and spending time with their families.
The rationale for having a few days in November was to prepare for the Queen’s Speech. Now that that has been moved to earlier in the year, and given that there are no school holidays in November, will the Deputy Leader of the House think again? A lot of people perceive that that time could be better used for pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills that come before the House that are not well drafted, and to ensure that the Prime Minister is here on a Wednesday to answer Prime Minister’s questions.
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. I am sure she is aware that the recess dates are proposed by the Government after extensive discussion, and are agreed by the House. I did not notice any opposition to the November recess when the House agreed the recesses, although I do not know whether she raised concerns at the time with her own party managers. She will be pleased to know that the Prime Minister is in the House more frequently, particularly for oral statements, than was his predecessor.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. The House will sit for roughly 150 days, which the Procedure Committee believes is appropriate. I cannot give an exact figure because we cannot predict whether there will be the opportunity or need to recall Parliament.
Instead of having a November recess, why not get rid of the ludicrous September recall, bring the party conferences forward to earlier in September, and have a straight run through to Christmas? Would that not save a lot of money and make a lot more sense?
I am sure Members of the House would like to consider that proposal, but the introduction of the September sitting was to avoid the long gap between the end of July and October when the House returns. Members, I hope, will agree it is useful to have that opportunity for the House to meet, because there may be important matters that we want to discuss in September.
May I endorse what the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) has just said? Would it make sense to start planning now not for next year but for the year after, so that if we considered a change in date parties would be able to change their conference arrangements?
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
May I take this opportunity to wish you, Mr Speaker, and all the staff who serve us so well a very merry Christmas?
On Monday the Commission agreed to lay an administration estimate of £201.3 million for 2014-15. The estimate originally agreed for 2010-11 was £231 million. After adjustments for transfers and so forth, that is equivalent to a 17% reduction in real terms. Savings of £15.3 million are being delivered this year and next through a number of initiatives.
Happy Christmas, Mr Speaker, and I thank the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) for the work that the House of Commons Commission is doing in rightly reducing costs. The other side of costs are benefits. Has the Commission analysed the benefits of the House of Commons? There are not only tangible benefits that additional visitors and tourism bring to the local and London-wide economy, but intangible benefits such as education for our school children and showing the values of a parliamentary democracy to the world.
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have seen, the first ever written statement from the representative of the Commission was made on Tuesday last, announcing the contract for an outside company to consider options for the future of the building. It would be preferable to wait until those conclusions, delivered professionally, allow us to make a proper judgment.
9. I regret to say to the hon. Gentleman that I have lost all confidence in the House of Commons Commission. I thought the Commission’s job was to allow and facilitate Members in this House to do their job properly and serve their constituents efficiently. We do not expect the House of Commons Commission to be incompetent bean counters. I find every day that my job of serving my constituents in this place gets harder and harder due to the incompetence of the House of Commons Commission. I would like them all to resign and for commissioners to be elected by this House, so they can facilitate our doing a job for the people we represent. (901717)
May I wish the hon. Gentleman a very merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous new year? I can speak only for myself, but I am a doctor of business administration, a fellow of the Institute of Hospitality, a fellow of the Tourism Society and have been a fellow of the Institute of Directors. I therefore regard myself as having some qualifications that I can bring to the task in hand. My fellow commissioners have a wide range of experience across many disciplines. I have to say, observing the management of this House, that a tough challenge is being met with professionalism and resolve by the team. The Commission does, in my humble judgment, an outstanding job in overseeing it.
Factiva News Services
The position has not changed since the answer given to the hon. Gentleman on 7 November. The current online news service will be reassessed in 2015, when a decision is required on whether to extend the current contract for a further two years, or to retender the service.
May I wish you, Mr Speaker, and the Clerks a happy Christmas?
I was really excited by the answer given to me on 7 November, saying that I should
“be aware that some members of the Library have individual subscriptions”—[Official Report, 7 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 413.]
to Factiva, which is a far better service than Nexis, and that they would therefore be able to help me. Well, it so happened that I actually wanted to get something from The Times, so I phoned up the Library and they said, “Oh no, we can’t forward you anything from it—it breaks the contract.” I asked, “Well, could you scan it in?” “Oh no, we can’t do that—it’ll break the contract.” In the end I said, “Well, go to get the ruddy newspaper, photocopy it and send it through the internal post,” which they did. I am afraid that, for the first time in my life, I have to agree with the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman).
I thank the hon. Gentleman for notice of his likely supplementary, which he answers for me. The Library has a small number of individual subscriptions for The Times online so that it can assist Members in tracing articles. I appreciate the hon. Member’s sense of frustration and I have asked a member of the Library staff to contact him to explore how the service might be improved without infringing the House’s legal and contractual obligations.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill
The transparency Bill completed its Committee stage in the House of Lords yesterday. In recent weeks, Ministers have met nearly 50 organisations to discuss how the non-party campaigning provisions might affect them, while exchanging correspondence with many more. We are grateful to all those groups who have made a valuable contribution to the Government’s consideration of this issue. The Bill will return to the House at some point in the new year, following the Report stage and Third Reading in the Lords.
This is the latest pause brought about by huge public unrest over a controversial Bill. Does the Deputy Leader of the House accept that he made a mistake in not providing for pre-legislative scrutiny before pushing this controversial Bill through the House?
The Government reorganised the debate in the Lords to enable discussion of part 2, on non-party campaigning, to take place later, thereby providing an opportunity to engage fully with organisations. I hope the hon. Lady agrees that the fact that the Government recently met 50 organisations to discuss the matter and previously, when the Bill was in the House of Commons, engaged extensively with organisations shows that there has been comprehensive consultation.
This Bill will impede dramatically the ability of charities and many other voluntary groups to comment and campaign on issues relating to Government policy. What further opportunities will the Government allow in the other place and in this House for further scrutiny before flawed legislation causes great damage to our democracy?
I am afraid we have not received any representations. Of course, the Government gave Labour that opportunity, and given that its leader expressed an interest in dealing with the issue of Labour and funding, I am disappointed that he did not take up that opportunity.
I do not know whether the hon. Lady has been following the debate in the House of Lords, but having listened to organisations the Government clearly indicated they would respond to the issue of registration thresholds, which was of concern to smaller organisations and charities, and there might be other things, too, such as a review of the Bill after implementation and measures we could take to assist organisations worried about the reporting requirements.
The ministerial code is clear: when Parliament is in Session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance to Parliament. I regularly remind my colleagues of this.
As the hon. Lady and the House will know, informing the House by means of a written statement is perfectly in order. As the Speaker himself said on 25 January last year, doing so is
“a legitimate vehicle for informing the House of ministerial decisions”.—[Official Report, 25 January 2012; Vol. 539, c. 302.]
Does the Leader of the House agree with the recommendation in the first report of Session 2010-11 issued by the Procedure Committee that rather than the Government regulating themselves by means of the ministerial code, a protocol on ministerial statements should be put in place to be enforced by this House?
I wish my hon. Friend a merry Christmas, too. He is an assiduous attendee at business questions. Let us look at the numbers. In the last Session, we made about 94 oral statements, which was a ratio of 0.6 per sitting. In the course of this Session, from memory—I will correct it if I am wrong—we are running at 0.7 oral statements per sitting.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy
The announcement made on 27 November that you, Mr Speaker, intended to set up the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy is entirely in keeping with the House of Commons Commission’s objective of encouraging public participation in the parliamentary process. The Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy will encourage involvement by all.
What steps will be taken by the House of Commons Commission to ensure that the Speaker’s Commission does not overlap with the work of the outreach service and the remits of the Procedure Committee, the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform and the Administration Committee?
All those very important issues will indeed be covered by the Committees of the House and I fully anticipate that at its inaugural meeting the Speaker’s Commission would look at exactly how best to maximise the work of all the bodies the hon. Lady has mentioned. We see it as being entirely complementary and not in competition.
I was delighted to be asked by you, Mr Speaker, to serve on the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy, which will, we hope, meet for the first time in January. I urge hon. Members to contact us with any of their thoughts. In the early days, we are planning to do some crowd-sourcing of what we should consider and I ask the hon. Gentleman to let us know any thoughts he has. Will he be willing to meet us in the new year?
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 6 January 2014 is as follows:
Monday 6 January—Remaining stages of the Water Bill.
Tuesday 7 January—Remaining stages of the Mesothelioma Bill [Lords].
Wednesday 8 January— Opposition day [16th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 9 January—General debate on rural communities, followed by general debate on inter-city rail investment. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 10 January—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 13 January will include:
Monday 13 January—Second Reading of the European Union (Approvals) Bill [Lords].
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 23 January 2014 will be:
Thursday 23 January—A debate on the fourth report of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on the FCO’s human rights work in 2012, followed by a debate on the second report of the Select Committee on International Development on violence against women and girls.
I would also like to inform colleagues that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced that the date of the Budget statement will be Wednesday 19 March 2014.
May I take this opportunity, Mr Speaker, to wish you and all right hon. and hon. Members a very merry Christmas? On behalf of the whole House, I should especially also like to thank all the staff of the House, who have kept the House and us running smoothly—the Doorkeepers, the Clerks, the cleaners, the officers and all those working in the House Service. We wish a happy and peaceful Christmas to one and all.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for the first week back in the new year.
It has been reported that the Prime Minister told the 1922 committee yesterday that he is ready to take the extremely rare step of using the Parliament Acts to ensure that a Back-Bench private Member’s Bill makes it on to the statute book. Does the Leader of the House know whether the Liberal Democrat part of the Government supports that plan and could it proceed without the Liberal Democrats?
The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill returned to the other place this week after the Leader of the House’s six-week panic pause, but despite an on-the-record promise that the Government would use the pause to complete wide consultation and try to address the concerns of charities and campaigners, the Bill remains unamended and there is little evidence that the Government have listened to anyone at all. Will the Leader of the House tell us what he has been up to for the last six weeks, and why he is continuing to ignore the broad coalition of charities and campaigners who are telling him that this bad Bill will have a chilling effect on our democratic debate? May I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman spend his Christmas break pausing, listening, reflecting and improving his approach to legislation?
Talking of legislation in a rush, the first thing we discuss on our return in the new year will be the Water Bill. Will the Leader of the House clarify what has happened to the Government’s proposed plans to crack down on rising water bills, and will he explain why none has been included in the legislation? Does he agree with the Opposition view that we should create a national affordability scheme, ensuring access to a social tariff for all? Given that, so far, only three of the 20 water companies have created a social tariff for those who struggle to pay, does he agree that a weakly worded letter to water companies from the Secretary of State is simply not good enough when people are struggling with a cost of living crisis this Christmas?
At this time of year, there is nothing better than sitting in front of the fire with a good read. This year, my recommended stocking filler is the Conservative party’s 2014 “campaign toolkit”. Rather than 50 shades of grey, there are apparently only three shades of grey approved for use in Tory literature. Strangely, there are only three approved photos of the Prime Minister, too. I assume that that is to prevent anyone accidentally using a photo of his second cousin nine generations removed—Catherine the Great, to whom he bears such an eerie resemblance! Catherine the Great was an enlightened despot who became less enlightened and more despotic the older she got, so perhaps the family traits do not just end with appearance.
On page 12, under the revealing title “Out of date visual identity”, we learn that blue sky has been banished because sunshine no longer rules the day. It was not just sunshine that the Tories confined to history in 2013—it was the Prime Minister’s hollow claim to be a moderniser. He used to tell us that we were “all in it together”, but this year we got a tax cut for millionaires while real wages fell by more than £360. He used to tell us that he would fight for a new politics, but all we have had is Lynton Crosby and his politics of fear and smear. The Prime Minister used to tell us he was a compassionate Conservative, but he gave us the bedroom tax, the closure of hundreds of Sure Start centres and yesterday his MPs laughed and jeered as we debated the record numbers of people forced to turn to food banks to feed themselves and their families in Tory Britain. Does the Leader of the House agree with me that no matter how many PR makeovers they indulge in, the Tories will never change?
Given that this is our last sitting day before the Christmas recess, I want to take the opportunity to wish all right hon. and hon. Members and their families, all of the House staff and their families, you and your family, Mr Speaker, a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.
I have been considering what it would be like if the Cabinet had Christmas dinner together. First of all, everyone would be late because they had spent their journey arguing about the route and U-turning so often that they were driving round in circles. The turkey would be half-cooked, like their policies, and the Leader of the House would have to call for a pause halfway through the meal. The Prime Minister’s lapdog, the Deputy Prime Minister, would be encouraged to learn that election promises are for life, not just for Christmas. Perhaps the joke in the Christmas crackers would simply read, “Vote Lib Dem”.
I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for her response to the business statement and, in particular, for her Christmas good wishes to Members and House staff. She only slightly raided the Christmas crackers in advance with her comments today.
The hon. Lady asked about the private Member’s Bill relating to the EU referendum, which is in the House of Lords. The issue would arise only if the Lords were not to pass it, and my hope is that their Lordships will recognise the support that the Bill attracted from this House. From memory, I think that there was a majority of some 200 in favour of Third Reading in the House of Commons. I think that that should serve as an indication to the House of Lords of the positive sentiment that was attached to the proposal for an EU referendum when it left this House.
The hon. Lady asked about the transparency Bill. Clearly she has not taken on board how often the House of Lords considers legislation. Their Lordships frequently deal with the Committee stages of Bills, but in this case neither the Government nor others who had tabled amendments pressed those amendments to a vote, because they wanted to discuss some issues on Report in the context of Government amendments. My right hon. and noble Friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness made it clear to the House of Lords that a wide-ranging consultation had indeed taken place, and emphasised the benefit that will, I know, be apparent when the Lords consider the Bill on Report.
The hon. Lady also asked about the Water Bill, which, as she said, we will debate when we return in the new year. I look forward to that debate, because I think it will show that we can increase benefits to consumers in two main ways: by giving them access to more competition in the water industry, and by giving those who are at risk of flooding access to a continuing and secure scheme for the delivery of flood insurance. As for the question of tariffs, the hon. Lady should bear in mind the work that the regulator is doing with the water companies to try to ensure that, in the next period of regulation, they deliver the best possible benefits and value for money to consumers. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change supports that work.
I am sad to have to tell the hon. Lady that I am not responsible at this Dispatch Box for what the Conservative party has put in its 2014 “campaign toolkit”. [Interruption.] I may not be sad, but if the hon. Lady is really going to read that on Christmas Day, I fear that she is rather sad. I confess that I shall not be reading it. I should add that when the hon. Lady reached the point of comparing the Prime Minister to Catherine the Great, I felt that it was a case of “more desperate than despot”.
In this season of good will, I think that I should conclude with good news. Growth in the economy is 1.5% higher than it was a year ago, and retail sales are up. We are net exporters of cars, and the automotive industry produced more cars in the first 11 months of this year than it did in the previous 12. Manufacturing and services are up. Moreover, 2.7 million people have been taken out of income tax altogether, and every basic rate taxpayer can look forward to a benefit of at least £700 after next April. Fuel duty has been frozen, unemployment is down, and employment in the private sector is up by more than 1.6 million. There are fewer workless households than at any time since records began. That, I think, is a source of good cheer for Christmas present and hope for Christmas future—and I am afraid that, for the Opposition, it means no return to their Christmas past.
May we have a debate on what the Government can do to protect people—especially the elderly and disabled—who are disadvantaged by having no access to, or ability to use, the internet in order to obtain the best prices for financial, insurance and other services?
Let me add another item to my hon. Friend’s list. Access to NHS services for those who do not have internet access is also very important. It was certainly very important to me when, as Secretary of State for Health, I was involved in the delivery of patient choice and information through NHS Choices.
We will do all that we can to protect vulnerable people by helping those who are offline to gain access to online services. We will increase access to the internet, improve digital skills, and ensure that people are aware of the benefits that going online can bring. A new cross-Government digital inclusion team has been established in the Cabinet Office as part of the Government Digital Service with the aim of driving forward the digital inclusion agenda, and we plan to publish a digital inclusion strategy early in the spring. Given my hon. Friend’s interest in these matters, he may wish to meet the Cabinet Office team to explain how he feels his constituents could benefit from the strategy.
May I wish you, Mr Speaker, and all hon. and right hon. Members a very merry Christmas?
When we return in the new year, the Backbench Business Committee will be taking part in a pilot scheme allocating a 90-minute Westminster Hall slot—which is currently allocated by you, Mr Speaker—every Tuesday from 9.30 until 11 am. Will the Leader of the House help me to advertise this to as many hon. and right hon. Members as possible?
On behalf of my Select Committee, may I thank you, Mr Speaker, and the whole House and the staff and everybody else for all their work this year?
I thank the Leader of the House for bringing forward the Water Bill on the first day back. There is currently an omission in the Bill, however, concerning something that many constituencies have suffered from: the surface water run-off going into combined sewers. Will my right hon. Friend explain why we have not had a clear business week to allow us to table amendments in the usual way? You will be pleased to know, Mr Speaker, that the Select Committee has tabled amendments, but we have not been able to do as thorough a job as we might otherwise have done.
May we have an urgent statement on EU membership and immigration, but this time can we have it from the person at the Dispatch Box who is actually pulling the strings of the Conservative party and setting the agenda, which can only be Nigel Farage?
I think the hon. Gentleman is living in some kind of fantasy world. I can assure him that Nigel Farage is not pulling the strings. If I may revert to being a constituency Member of Parliament for this purpose, I take particular pleasure in the fact that before the last county council elections there was one UKIP county councillor in South Cambridgeshire and after it there were none.
During 13 years of Labour misrule, things got worse and worse. Under this coalition, things have got better and better. Under Labour England lost 21 times to Australia and lost five series, despite what the shadow Leader said last week. Under this coalition Government, we have won more than we have lost, and we have won two series. Is not the truth that the only way we are going to regain the Ashes is by having a Tory Government?
I have to admire my hon. Friend’s optimism in trying to derive a good story out of the English team’s performance in Australia, and I hope he will be proved right in the fullness of time, in the same way as in the fullness of time we have always discovered that unemployment is higher when a Labour Government leave office than when they take office. Under this coalition Government employment has increased and unemployment has decreased.
Merry Christmas to you, Mr Speaker.
Yesterday Commissioner Potocnik released the clean air programme for Europe. It announced tightening of the NOx and SOx—nitrous oxides and sulphur oxides— regulations for air quality, quite against what the Government had assumed, which was that they were going to be relaxed. May we have a debate on this matter in Government time, given that the Government are now facing serious infraction proceedings, to ensure we have the air quality in this country that we need?
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that there will be questions to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the Thursday after the House returns. He might wish to raise that important and interesting matter at that time, and I will ask the Secretary of State to respond to him.
I have spoken to the Leader of the House on several occasions about my concerns over the environmental statement on HS2 that has been issued by the Department for Transport. The fact that it is tens of thousands of pages long is putting great strain on our environmental organisations, because the Department has given them only eight weeks over the Christmas period in which to respond to it. Furthermore, the memory sticks containing those tens of thousands of pages had to be recalled because of omissions and errors, and new ones had to be issued. Will the Leader of the House allow a debate on the possibility of extending the consultation period immediately?[Official Report, 6 January 2014, Vol. 573, c. 2MC.]
I know how assiduously my right hon. Friend is pursuing the interests of her constituents in relation to this matter. I am not in a position to extend the period as she requests, not least because the 56-day consultation period for the environmental statement that precedes the production of a report by the person appointed by the House was determined not by the Department for Transport but by the House, by means of orders made in June relating to changes in the Standing Orders covering hybrid Bills.
May I draw the Leader of the House’s attention to the business in Westminster Hall on 23 January? He has set down only half the afternoon for a debate on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office report on human rights. That is completely inadequate for a debate on human rights around the whole world, the UK’s role in upholding them and the Foreign Office’s responsibility for them. It is simply not proper to try to debate all that in one and a half hours; we need at least a full afternoon or a debate in this Chamber.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the time in Westminster Hall on that Thursday was allocated on the initiative of the Liaison Committee. If that debate were to show that there was a demand among Members for additional debating time, it would be open to him and other Members collectively to go to the Backbench Business Committee and to seek to secure a further debate.
May we have a debate about the increase in the number of apprenticeships and the fall in unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, under this Government? In my constituency, the number of apprenticeships has increased from 420 in 2009-10 to more than 1,000 last year. At the same time, the claimant count has fallen from 3.2% to 2.4% and, for 18 to 24-year-olds, from 7.1% to 4.4%.
None of us is remotely content with the level of youth unemployment, but, happily, the latest figures have shown that the level has been reduced by 19,000 on the quarter. The youth claimant count has gone down 106,000 since the election, and the number of young people not in employment, education or training is at its lowest for a decade. My hon. Friend is right to say that apprenticeships are terribly important from this point of view, with 1.5 million starts since the election. It is our objective that they, together with work experience and the new traineeships, will ensure that all young people acquire qualifications and experience through education, work, apprenticeships or traineeships.
Rail overcrowding is so acute in my constituency that Northern Rail is laying on buses to take passengers by road when they cannot get on the trains, and I know of at least one constituent who has been hospitalised after being overcome in the crush. Please may we have an urgent statement and debate on the Government’s plans for diesel and electric rolling stock in the north of England?
The hon. Lady has just missed Transport questions—[Hon. Members: “She was here.”] I beg her pardon. I did not mean that she was not here. I meant that she did not get her question in—[Hon. Members: “She did.”] Oh, I apologise. If she has asked that question, she has, from a business point of view, already had a chance to raise it. [Hon. Members: “She wants a better answer.”] My answer would be to draw her attention to the unprecedented £38 billion of investment that is being provided through Network Rail, which is increasing capacity on the railway system across the country.
We have already had a question about broadband, but I wonder whether I may ask the Leader of the House about it too. We had an announcement last week about broadband throughout the UK and the extra money that is being made available. This issue affects every constituency, throughout the UK. Because we still have anomalies in cities, towns and rural areas, may we have time in this Chamber to allow Members to discuss the problems in their constituencies relating to the roll-out of broadband throughout the UK?
I suggest to my hon. Friend that, given the widespread interest among Members in the roll-out of broadband across the country, this may be a subject that he and other Members collectively wish to approach the Backbench Business Committee about? I thought last week’s announcements were very positive. With Connecting Cambridgeshire, in my constituency, we are looking forward to having 98% superfast broadband coverage by the end of 2015, and that is very encouraging.
May we have an urgent statement on Government secrecy, given that they are still refusing to release the document they commissioned on food banks, that they will not give any information on the financial position of the NHS trusts, and that they are refusing to release the Shrewsbury documents, citing “national security”? What happened to transparency?
This is the most open and transparent Government ever. We are publishing more data about more of the activities of government than has ever been the case. We are not only publishing what is available, but, increasingly, we are making sure that we genuinely audit the outcomes of what we are doing and publish those results.
May I wish you and your family a very merry Christmas, Mr Speaker? This weekend, I attended the deployed service families Christmas party in Plymouth, and may I take the opportunity to wish them all a very merry Christmas, too? I was reminded that stepchildren of service families are not treated in the same way as blood relatives or adopted children, and they often have to deal with some of the emotional issues that many of their stepbrothers and stepsisters also have to deal with, especially at this time. May we have a debate on the involvement of stepfamilies in the armed forces?
My hon. Friend will be interested to know that the definition of a child of service personnel is
“a legitimate or legitimated child or step-child”
of a service family who is below the age of 18. Under departmental regulations both are treated equally. If he has a specific example of unfair treatment that he wishes to raise, the best thing would be to raise it directly with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who is responsible for defence personnel, welfare and veterans. I know that she will be happy to look into any matter that he raises.
May I not only extend the season’s greetings to you, Mr Speaker, the Leader of the House, hon. Members and House staff, but pay tribute to our emergency services for the work they do over this period and the work they have done all year? On those services, the Leader of the House will have heard my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) ask in Transport questions about the under-resourcing of coastguards and marine safety. Is it not time that we debated the issue in this House, following the debacle in 2010-11, so that we can deal with that under-resourcing? Marine safety is far too important to be left to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury.
I did indeed hear that question, and I heard the reply from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), and his explanation of how this programme was being rolled out in the way that was anticipated from 2011. I know how carefully the hon. Gentleman looks after the interests of his constituents, and I will take the opportunity to speak to my hon. Friend to see whether he can provide any further information.
May we have a debate on the oversight and support given to free schools? I very much regret that on Friday last week an Education Minister in the other place announced a withdrawal of funding from the Discovery New school in my constituency, despite the fact that a new management team had just been put in place and there was a new head teacher. May we also have a statement from my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary?
I am sure my hon. Friend knows, as do other hon. Members, that the vast majority of free schools are performing well, with three quarters of them rated good or outstanding. But he also knows that where there is failure, we will not hesitate to intervene and take action. Children must be given the education they need and deserve, no matter what type of school they attend. Since Discovery New school was placed in special measures by Ofsted in May, the Department monitored progress closely. The trust had not provided evidence that it was making the changes required to secure the long-term future of the school. As my hon. Friend said, my noble Friend Lord Nash did notify the trust that the Department would terminate its funding agreement. If I may, I will speak to my noble Friend and make sure that he has an opportunity to speak directly to my hon. Friend about the circumstances for the children. The children will be looked after as a consequence of this, but in relation to the business of the House, if my hon. Friend has any continuing concerns, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be responding to questions on Monday 6 January.
This Christmas children from the Central African Republic right through to the middle east will die in refugee camps. Will the Leader of the House allow us Government time to discuss their response to this humanitarian crisis?
The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and ministerial colleagues have been at the Dispatch Box rightly updating the House on humanitarian support. I think we can take pride in the fact that this country is the most generous and active donor of humanitarian aid to those in need as a consequence of the conflict in Syria, but I will continue to keep in close contact with my hon. Friends at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office so that the House is updated.
May we have an urgent debate on relations between the Israelis and Palestinians in the west bank? Although we all wish the talks in America every success, there are serious issues about Palestinian olive groves being cut down and very badly polluted by sewage and industrial waste.
My hon. Friend knows that the Government share his concerns about the difficulties facing Palestinian olive growers. This is a particularly sensitive issue, given that olive trees are a national symbol and the sole source of income for many Palestinian farmers. We continue to express our concerns to the Israeli Government about this and about the destruction and damage to Palestinian property, including olive trees, whether it is by the authorities or by extremist settlers. The context is, of course, the enduring tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we are doing everything we can as a Government to support efforts, including by the US Government, to achieve a lasting two-state solution.
May I wish you, Mr Speaker, a merry Christmas?
May we have a debate on the impact of VAT on tourism products and the local economy? In Northern Ireland, VAT on tourism is 20%. We have a land border with the Republic of Ireland, where VAT on tourism has continued to be 9%. That has placed us at an unfair competitive disadvantage.
The hon. Lady will know that my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland are very aware of the importance of the tax relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. I will of course raise these issues with them. She will understand how difficult it is in the EU context ever to reduce VAT rates, but that does not mean that that is the only potential source of tax competition.
The Leader of the House said he wanted to end the year on a happy note; I would like to start next year on a happy note. May we have a debate on the success in getting the unemployment figures down? In my constituency, the figure is 385 lower than it was a year ago and 35 lower than it was in October this year.
I would be delighted if we had such an opportunity early in the new year. I cannot promise it immediately, but I hope that it will arise. My hon. Friend is quite right. The most recently published data show that in the east midlands, for example, the number of people unemployed has fallen by some 6,000. In many regions there have been similar substantial decreases in unemployment, which is very encouraging, and at the same time vacancies continue at a record level.
A constituent of mine contacted me this week to tell me that his daughter, an agency worker at the passport office in Durham, will be made redundant in the new year when her job and others will be transferred to India. It is a tragedy not only for her, but for the region, as every job in the north-east is precious. May we have a debate on the scandal of Government and Government agency jobs being transferred overseas?
I will of course, because of the personal circumstances of the hon. Lady’s constituent, raise that with Home Office Ministers and ask them to respond to her directly. If she has any additional information, I would be happy to include it in the query. On the general point, it is encouraging that the most recent data show a reduction in unemployment in the north-east.
Merry Christmas, Mr Speaker, and happy Gita Jayanti. Yesterday we launched the all-party parliamentary group for British Hindus in a packed Committee Room 14—there was literally standing room only—as hundred of Hindus from across the country came together for what was possibly the biggest ever launch of an all-party group. May we have a debate in Government time on the enormous contribution made by the 1.6 million British Hindus to the economy, the stability of our society and the fabric of Great Britain?
I am glad my hon. Friend has had an opportunity to raise that. I am sure that many Members across the House share his evident pleasure at the establishment of the all-party group and the fact that so many Hindus from across the country came here to celebrate it. I cannot promise a debate at the moment—he will understand the pressure on legislative time. As a member of the Backbench Business Committee, he will understand how precious its time is, too, but it might be able to give the matter the necessary priority in due course.
May we have a debate on the House’s recesses? We talked earlier about September sittings. Is it not ludicrous that we come back for two weeks and then have the party conferences for three weeks before coming back again? May we have a debate on moving the party conferences to the early part of September so that the House can have a clear run through? And merry Christmas!
I have always thought that the party conferences could perfectly well take place at weekends. I cannot for the life of me see why we have to go away from our main place of work for that rather self-indulgent exercise. But I would not want to express any views that could be considered to be controversial.