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Commons Chamber

Volume 575: debated on Thursday 6 February 2014

House of Commons

Thursday 6 February 2014

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Transport Services (Yorkshire and London)

1. What the average spend per head of population on transport services was in (a) Yorkshire and (b) London in the last 12 months. (902413)

The Treasury estimates that identifiable public expenditure on transport in 2012-13, the most recent year for which full figures are available, was £246 per head in Yorkshire and the Humber and £545 per head in London.

When it comes to statistics, I tend to trust the Institute for Public Policy Research and the House of Commons Library more than I do the Department. The last time IPPR North looked at the figures on infrastructure spending, it was approximately £2,500 per capita in London and £500 in the north-east. Infrastructure investment is desperately needed outside London. Why can the Secretary of State not make a commitment? He has his heart in the north. Why does he not do something about it?

The hon. Gentleman can use whichever statistics and figures he wishes to. I, too, have asked for other figures. In 2009-10, the spend for Yorkshire and the Humber was £283 per head and £754 per head in London. I am pleased that under this Government transport spending in the north has gone up from 38% to 45%. It is important to make the point that the Kings Cross station development and the Alexandra Palace to Finsbury Park six-tracking are allocated to London spending, but the benefits will be enjoyed by all east coast main line users. It is not always possible to put the value of spending down to certain parts of the country.

We have seen good progress on rail investment, particularly in the north. What impact does the Secretary of State think HS2 will have on the local economy in Yorkshire?

HS2 is vital for the long-term capacity of the rail network. We have seen a massive increase in patronage, both in passengers and freight, and I welcome that. If we are to see that continue to grow, we have to increase capacity.

The spend in London reflects the importance of transport to London. Even as we speak, millions of Londoners are struggling to work because of the dispute. We know that the majority of Londoners do not want every ticket office closed down. What is the Secretary of State doing to make the Mayor of London negotiate with the RMT?

The other day I heard the leader of the RMT say that his holiday last week was planned 11 months ago. Presumably, when he called the strike date, he knew when his holiday was. The least he could have done was to abandon his holiday before the strike action and be in the country, ready to negotiate. I am waiting for the hon. Lady and other Opposition Members to condemn this outrageous strike action, which is causing nothing but misery to millions of people who work in London. They should condemn it, as I do.

The spend on transport services in Yorkshire and London must also include the compensation paid to people adversely affected by services such as HS2. When are the Government going to pull their finger out and announce the compensation package for my constituents and others affected up and down the country, and let them know what they can expect to get for their properties, which are being rendered worthless by this scheme?

My right hon. Friend knows that I take the issue of compensation incredibly seriously. We promised to consult again on this and we have done that. I will attempt to come forward with the conclusions of that consultation as soon as possible. I am in no doubt about the problems faced by many people on the proposed route, and I take those responsibilities very seriously indeed.

Is it not a fact that it takes two sides to create industrial action? The problem with the Tory Front Bench is that they dare not attack Boris Johnson for not conducting talks, because half of the Tory MPs want Boris Johnson to be their next leader. That is the reason.

I will try to stay in order, Mr Speaker. The hon. Gentleman says it takes two to talk, but if one of the main leaders is out of the country the week before—Rio Bob, I think we should call him—then it is difficult to have those conversations.

The main cheerleader for HS2 in the midlands has consistently been the Birmingham chamber of commerce. We now discover it received £14,400 from HS2 for the period between September 2013 and August 2014 in so-called patronage fees. It has always been my understanding that patrons provide funding, not receive payment as an inducement. Will my right hon. Friend point out what other organisations have received similar patronage fees from HS2 for supporting this project?

What matters is that HS2 is of fundamental importance not just to Birmingham, but to Manchester and all our other northern cities. It is a very important project that deserves the support of the House, but I understand that people who have the route going through their constituencies have big problems, and I will always meet colleagues to discuss them.

Rail Network (Wi-fi)

I fully recognise the importance of good mobile services for passengers on board trains. We have met the rail industry and secured its agreement to roll out improvements to mobile services across the rail network, starting this year. We expect significant improvements across key routes, starting with comprehensive coverage achieved by 2019. Network Rail and train operators are working jointly to fund and deliver the improvements based on collaborations with mobile network operators.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that my constituents have trains that are running with adequate seating so that people can use the wi-fi?

I will say something in topical questions about the appalling situation faced by Devon and Cornwall MPs as regards the rail service in their areas. I fully accept what my hon. Friend says. I met her and other Members last night to discuss the situation and its effect on their constituencies, and I will be saying a little more later on.

While good wi-fi is important for rail travellers, the trains need to be running in the first place, so I will invite the Secretary of State, if he does not mind, to say a little more about what he is doing to ensure that this vital main line into the south-west is reopened as quickly as possible, and about what he will do in the long-term to help deal with the vulnerability of the line at Dawlish?

I am trying to keep in order by sticking to the issue of wi-fi, but I well understand the concerns of the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members who came to see me last night, with Robin Gisby, the managing director of Network Rail, to talk about the situation at Dawlish and how it has basically cut off services to Devon and Cornwall. I have not yet had the full engineering report, because it has not been possible to get it, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I am working with Network Rail to restore the service as quickly as possible and to carry out a more vigorous review of some of the alternatives available.

As the Clerk Assistant has just pointed out to me, Members’ approach to Question 2 might best be described as “broadband”.

On the same theme, it is important to recognise that to have a resilient wi-fi service on our rail service, we need to have a resilient rail service. In view of the Secretary of State’s earlier reply, does he not accept that if we are to invest properly in a resilient service down to Penzance, in my constituency, we need to ensure that there is funding comparable to the money being spent on HS2 and other services?

I will be asking for further work to be done on the question of resilience in the south-west, as I indicated to the hon. Gentleman in the meeting last night. Over the next five years, between 2014 and 2019, Network Rail will be spending £38 billion on the existing railway network. There is, therefore, no shortage of understanding from the Government of the importance of rail services across the whole country. As far as services in Devon and Cornwall are concerned, I also take those responsibilities incredibly seriously.

The introduction of wi-fi on First Great Western is undoubtedly good news for passengers, but given that the Government’s incompetent franchise extension negotiations have lost the taxpayer £100 million in premium payments this year, is this not the most expensive internet upgrade in history?

I am not sure what that has to do with the internet upgrade. Obviously, when a new franchise contract, or short-term contract, is leased, various matters are taken into account, including the age and replacement of rolling stock. If the Labour party is not committed to that, I wonder what Labour Members would say to Bombardier, which today won a rolling stock contract that will be very important to Derby and Derbyshire. Would they say that they were opposed to it?

Disabled Access (Stations)

The Equality Act 2010 requires station operators to address the needs of disabled travellers. So far, 153 station access projects have been authorised, of which 38 are on site and the remainder have already been completed.

The policy of East Midlands Trains, which runs trains through Kidsgrove station in my constituency, is that

“if you want to travel to and from stations which are inaccessible, you can do so at no extra cost.”

But would it not make far more sense for the Government to approve the plans for disabled access at Kidsgrove in April? This is a real cost-of-living issue. It would be much cheaper for the Government to do that, and much better for disabled people.

The Government have announced the provision of a further £100 million to extend the scheme to 2019. In order to qualify, stations must meet three important criteria. We expect to announce 53 projects in April that have been approved under the scheme.

May I urge the Minister to ensure, when he announces those projects, that Alfreton station, which is in my constituency, is included? Disabled access to both platforms is long overdue, and it really should be provided in the next year.

The criteria that we apply when assessing stations for the purposes of the scheme are the footfall—if that is the right word to use—of disabled people at stations, the level of use, and the number of disabled people in the area.

Just one in five railway stations is fully accessible to disabled passengers, but from 2014 the Minister is cutting funds for the Access for All programme from £43 million a year to £25 million. His Department has said that involving disabled organisations in decisions about which stations should have priority

“would add little value to the process”.

How can people with disabilities have any trust that the Government are on their side?

We are continuing the scheme that was initiated by the last Government. By 2015, 75% of journeys will be step-free, as opposed to 50% in 2006.

Motorway Safety

Motorways are the safest roads in the country. The Highways Agency network carries 32.7% of all traffic, but accounts for only 6.8% of those killed or seriously injured. Hard-shoulder running on smart motorways is delivering further improvements.

Does the Minister not accept that opening a stretch of hard shoulder permanently, while reducing the amount of signage and the number of emergency refuge areas on our managed motorways, is an example of the Government giving reduced costs a higher priority than road safety?

The hon. Gentleman has got it completely wrong. I know that this seems counter-intuitive, but 8% of fatalities take place on the hard shoulders of existing motorways, although only a very small proportion of traffic is on them. Hard-shoulder running, managed motorways and smart motorways have been a great success, and have reduced the number of accidents on those sections of the motorway by 50%.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the standard of safety on motorways is very high, but he and I would both benefit from improved safety on the A64. Will he update the House on the progress that is being made with better road improvements, less congestion and the easing of traffic on the A64 between York and Scarborough?

I suppose that I should declare an interest, as the Member of Parliament for Scarborough.

We have tripled spending on road projects since we came to power, which will mean that roads such as the A64 are likely to have a much better chance of improving. In the short term, I am interested to note that a trial that is taking place on the A9 in Scotland, where the speed limit for lorries is being increased from 40 to 50 mph. We hope that will reduce the number of nasty accidents caused by people overtaking in dangerous places.

Indeed. There is a degree of ingenuity about the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) with which I am very familiar.

13. The great British pub is well sited in many places, but I suggest that junction 2 of the M40—or, indeed, any other motorway junction—is not one of them. Organisations such as Brake are firmly against the siting of a pub there, and a survey from the RAC has now shown that two thirds of the British public are against it as well. Will the Minister please look into this issue? It is nonsense to have a pub at a motorway service station. (902425)

I understand that the pub in that particular case is at a motorway service area that is served by other roads as well as the motorway, and these decisions are a matter for local authorities. Every pub in the country is served by a road, and it is up to drivers to act responsibly and ensure that they do not drink and drive.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that expecting the police to enforce the proposed new offence of smoking in cars with children present will divert them away from other duties, which could have a direct impact on motorway safety?

That is probably a matter for the Secretary of State for Health. There will be a free vote on Monday on that subject, and I will certainly be voting to ban smoking in cars where children are present, having had to sit in the back of the car at a young age feeling green and carsick while my father was puffing away.

Bus Services

Decisions about the provision of bus services outside London are a matter for commercial bus operators and local authorities, who are best placed to identify the transport needs in their areas. Ministers and officials are in regular contact with bus sector stakeholders such as local authorities and the Confederation of Passenger Transport about developments in the bus market. My noble Friend Baroness Kramer will also chair the next meeting of the Bus Partnership Forum this week, bringing together all those with an interest in the provision of bus services.

First, may I put it on record that my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) and I very much welcome the Crossrail announcement, which will secure the long-term future of rail manufacturing in Derby? My question is about buses, however. The Minister will be aware that Government figures show that, as a result of Government cuts, there has been a 17% reduction in the number of supported bus services in this country. Will it not render meaningless the Prime Minister’s commitment to securing the pensioners bus pass if there are no buses for pensioners to use in the first place?

Local authorities have certainly had to make some difficult decisions, but the fact remains that 44% of the money that goes to bus companies comes, in one way or another, from the taxpayer. We should look carefully at the working of the bus service operators grant, which is a fuel subsidy, because it seems to be a very blunt tool to support services that are under threat, particularly in rural areas.

Many bus services in my area have been cut altogether, and some of those that are left are of poor quality. Will the Minister help my constituents by encouraging the Vehicle and Operator Service Agency to investigate why the Centrebus service between Raunds and Thrapston frequently either fails to arrive or breaks down?

I will certainly be happy to do that. I also recommend that the operator Stagecoach should go to Scarborough and order a new fleet of buses, made in my constituency, to solve that problem.

At a time when Lancashire county council is making further piecemeal reductions to my local bus network, will Ministers urge local authorities and private sector bus companies to involve passengers far more in the design of local networks, to ensure that the buses go to the locations that passengers actually want them to go to?

A number of local authorities up and down the country are looking at intelligent ways of addressing that problem, including utilising dial-a-ride and community buses more. People tend to defend the status quo, but it is often the case that alternative solutions can be more acceptable, particularly to older people who travel during the daytime.

Does not bus availability also include bus accessibility? With fares going up and the number of services going down, are Ministers not making disabled passengers second-class citizens by ducking out of enforcing new European standards that require bus operators to give their staff disability awareness training, as rail operators have to do? The Transport Select Committee, disability charities and tens of thousands of disabled people think that the Government should sign up to that new standard. A month ago, the Minister promised in Westminster Hall that his Department would review the training opt-out in March. Will he now tell disabled passengers whether he will give them that support—yes or no?

As I made clear during the Westminster Hall debate, a large number of bus operators are doing this voluntarily, and we certainly support a voluntary approach, rather than regulation.

HS2 Skills Academy

In January, the Government announced their intention to set up a new college to train the next generation of world-class engineers to work on the construction of High Speed 2. My Department is working with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and HS2 Ltd to develop the proposals, which are currently at an early stage.

My right hon. Friend will know of the proud manufacturing heritage in the Humber—in east Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire. May I suggest that he ensures that any such skills academy is located in the Humber, and that a perfect location would be in Scunthorpe, which was recently awarded a university technical college?

I am pleased about the awarding of the UTC in my hon. Friend’s area, and he doubtless campaigned for it vigorously. I know that he will continue the campaign to get the HS2 skills college. I have had a number of requests from various hon. Members as to where this college should be located.

As an ex-apprentice, I am very passionate about the idea of creating more apprenticeships, and this project presents an ideal opportunity. Labour is committed to creating one apprenticeship for every £1 million spent. Will the Government do likewise?

What is important is the way in which we have massively increased the number of apprenticeships. Part of today’s announcement about Bombardier means that there will be an increase in apprenticeships in that area, and I am looking at every possible avenue to encourage apprenticeships.

Again, may I congratulate Ministers on the brilliant result of Bombardier getting the Crossrail deal and the 80 apprentices that that contract will bring? Would it not make complete sense for this academy to be based in Derby?

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), there will be a number of applications for the location of this academy. I join my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) in congratulating Bombardier, which won this Crossrail contract against some stiff competition. It just shows that Bombardier can win competitions for rolling stock and that the Government are committed to providing that rolling stock, too.

What assessment was made of the capacity and expertise of existing further education colleges before the decision was made to spend £20 million of scarce public money on a new academy?

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman seems not to be bidding; there will be one fewer venue to consider as a result of that sort of intervention. It is not often I hear people complaining about the Government investing in higher education and the future of our engineering skills. I am very proud we are doing it—it will be £20 million well spent.

Rail Passengers

We are driving efficiencies through our franchising programme and franchise management, and by encouraging co-operation across the industry. Working with the regulator, we have cut Network Rail’s costs by 40% since 2004, and it has a further efficiency target of just under 20% by 2019. We have also shown our commitment to giving value for money this year by capping the average regulated fare rise at the retail prices index only. That is the first time this has happened in 10 years.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and I welcome all the measures to which he has referred. Last year, South West Trains paid the Department for Transport the highest premium per passenger kilometre of any operator but had the fourth highest level of overcrowding in London and the south-east. So what more can be done to deliver better value for money for passengers on South West Trains?

I fully accept the points about my hon. Friend’s constituents, and one thing we have been doing is increasing the availability of rolling stock. A number of new trains are on order which will serve his constituents, and I hope that that will bring some relief to the overcrowding. He rightly says that a number of commuters live in his area, and there are problems in providing the peak-hour trains for everybody who wants to travel then. That is why I want to see further encouragements to spread the morning rush hour.

Value for money for passengers travelling down to the south-west has always been an issue, but with the destruction of the rail line there is growing concern that the need to spend money following this climate problem will fall to passengers and they will find themselves picking up the bill. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Prime Minister’s promise made yesterday, which can be found at column 269 of Hansard, will be honoured and that the Government will take their share of the burden?

I am glad that the hon. Lady could join me at the meeting last night with Network Rail, and I am grateful to all the colleagues who attended at short notice. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will make a statement later this morning and give further details of the help that we will make available to those areas. No one can have seen the pictures of Dawlish yesterday without having tremendous sympathy or realising the scale of the problems that we have to overcome.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that passengers from my constituency on the West Anglia line could be more readily persuaded that there will be value for money if there were an early promise of new, not hand-me-down, rolling stock to replace the elderly type 317s on which they mostly have to rely?

I know that my right hon. Friend continues to make this case—he made it to me when I was in his constituency not many months ago—and I will bear in mind what he says. We are investing huge amounts in new rolling stock, including the new intercity express trains, the new trains for Crossrail and the other rolling stock orders that we have placed, which will benefit the travelling public.

15. The efficiency of the underground railway in London is the reason, we are told, why the changes will be made. While my constituents welcome the increased hours that the underground is likely to be open, they are concerned that it will mean fewer staff on duty overall. I have written to Transport for London to ask how many staff will be on duty, for example, at Angel, Islington at 3 am, but it has been unable to tell me. Will the Secretary of State help? Would he allow his teenage children on the underground at 3 am? Does he think that would be safe? (902428)

The hon. Lady says that her constituents rely on the underground, but I have yet to hear any Opposition Member condemn the strike action that is causing suffering to many millions of people in London and surrounding areas. It is all very well calling for extra capacity on the railways and the underground, but if strike action means that people cannot use them, it is ineffective.

Transport Infrastructure (Kettering)

8. What recent progress has been made on (a) Highways Agency works to widen the A14 between junctions 7 and 9 and (b) Network Rail’s reconstruction of the Pytchley Road road bridge over the Midland main line in Kettering. (902420)

I am sure my hon. Friend will welcome the news that works to widen this section of the A14 around Kettering are under way. Widening the eastbound carriageway has begun and is due to be completed in approximately four months’ time. Work will then follow on the westbound carriageway.

Network Rail installed the new Pytchley Road bridge deck over the Midland main line over the Christmas period and is now reconstructing the road over it. This work is on programme for completion by the end of February.

I welcome the Government’s direct investment in the transport infrastructure in Kettering, but can I point out to the Minister that while residents will welcome the works once completed, they are causing a huge amount of traffic disruption to residents in Kettering? There is concern that both projects are being undertaken at the same time. Can I seek his guarantee that the work on the Pytchley Road bridge will be completed on time at the end of this month?

I can certainly give him that assurance. The Pytchley Road bridge is part of the electrification that we are carrying out on the railways. We have already announced 800 miles of electrification, compared with 9 miles under the previous Government. The decision was taken to do the two works simultaneously, and we are using the same traffic management company to try to ensure that we co-ordinate the disruption that sadly always happens when that type of work is done.

Rolling Stock

I would draw the House’s attention to my statement this morning about the preferred bidder for the £1 billion Crossrail rolling stock and depot contract. Combined with IEP and Thameslink, more than 3,100 new carriages will be in service by the end of 2019. In addition, through the franchising programme we expect the market to deliver additional rolling stock solutions, building on the possibilities created by the rail investment strategy’s electrification projects and capacity increases.

The Government need to be applauded for investing £8 million in the reopening of the Todmorden curve railway line between Todmorden and Burnley, which is due for completion in May. Will the Secretary of State update us on whether any progress has been made with Northern Rail on the procurement of a further diesel train so that the service can start before December?

I well understand the points my hon. Friend makes. I know that Northern Rail has been working on how best to deliver those services, including the provision for rolling stock. A small number of diesel trains from within the current northern fleet may become available for use on this service from December 2014 when the electric trains are due to start operating on some services between Liverpool and Manchester, but I know and understand my hon. Friend’s desire to get a service up and running sooner. I will personally look into what can be made available.

New rolling stock will be required on the very welcome new line planned from the Great Western main line into Heathrow, which was announced today. Will the Minister take action to speed up the delivery of that line? If we wait until 2021 to deliver that line, some of the businesses in the Thames valley which have been hanging on for western access to Heathrow might leave the country. Can he do more to speed it up?

We are investing record amounts in the rail industry. I will certainly look into the point the hon. Lady makes, but it is one of many demands as far as rail services are concerned.

18. Will the Secretary of State join me again in welcoming the fantastic order won by Bombardier, but could we also encourage Bombardier to use its local supply chain industry, because we have a centre of excellence in Derby for engineering and knock-on industries and it would be very good if it could spread the load and invest in the local area? (902432)

I very much agree with my hon. Friend and I know she will be delighted at today’s announcement. It is worth pointing out that in Derby we have got not only Bombardier but Rolls-Royce and Toyota and just over in Staffordshire—but I almost regard it as Derbyshire—JCB, all providing an engineering centre of excellence. It is true that some 71% of this new contract will be based on small and medium-sized industries in this country. I forgot to say that JCB is also in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler).

Bus and Train Fares

10. What assessment he has made of the effects of rising bus and train fares on the cost of living and the cost of travelling to work. (902422)

The fares that passengers pay are crucial to funding bus and rail operations. In rail, they contribute towards the major investment programme we are undertaking. I recognise concerns passengers have about impacts of fares on household budgets, which is why for the first time in a decade average regulated rail fares have been capped at inflation. Outside London, bus services are deregulated and fares are mainly a matter for the commercial judgment of bus operators.

Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that single people under the age of 35 are being hit particularly hard by the cost of living crisis and are at the greatest risk of having extremely low incomes. Does the Department recognise that high fares make it even more difficult for them to find work and stay in work, particularly if it is only part-time work, which is increasingly what is on offer to them these days?

I am surprised the hon. Lady did not welcome the fact that we have capped rail fares at inflation for the first time in a decade, and I also note she was not whingeing on in the same way when, for example, council tax doubled under the last Labour Government, and every year the fuel duty escalator loaded expense on people who buy petrol, and we had above-inflation fare rises every time.

Topical Questions

I am sure the whole House will want to join me in expressing sympathy for those who have been affected by the extreme weather conditions. An urgent priority is the railway at Dawlish. Colleagues will have seen the images of the devastating impact the weather has had on the railway there. I met members of all parties of Devon and Cornwall yesterday evening alongside Network Rail. The immediate priority is to assess the damage and develop a plan for getting the line back into service as soon as possible, but I am acutely conscious of the need to develop a long-term solution for the resilience of the railway network in the south-west and I have asked for a report to me on the options for addressing this problem.

The Calder valley line was recently excluded from the list of northern lines to be electrified. Will the Secretary of State look again at this and back my and the Halifax Courier’s campaign to get this line electrified as soon as possible?

I met an all-party group on rail electrification a few weeks ago and discussed the matters that the hon. Lady has just relayed. I fully accept that there is a lot of pressure on us to extend electrification. I am proud that we have set a target for Network Rail of 850 miles in the next control period. I am certain that other cases will be made. Let me stress to her that our target of 850 miles is 841 miles more than the previous Government achieved in 13 years.

T2. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating c2c on transforming what used to be known as the misery line, from Fenchurch Street to Southend, to the cheerful line, thus meaning that it should have its franchise renewed? By contrast, Greater Anglia railways must have the most clapped-out, dirtiest rolling stock in the world. (902444)

Whenever I hear my hon. Friend’s voice behind me in the House, it always cheers me up. The transformation of the line into Fenchurch Street is largely the result of investment by Network Rail and the Department for Transport in both infrastructure and the rolling stock. The bids for Essex Thameside are currently being evaluated, and the Department will seek to announce a preferred bidder shortly.

Freak weather is rapidly becoming the new norm in our country, and I understand the difficulties that the Secretary of State has in giving a time scale for the Dawlish repairs, given that further bad weather is forecast for Saturday. None the less, every week the line is closed is costing the regional economy tens of millions of pounds. Will he keep the House updated and look urgently and strategically across the whole rail network, including at Wales, the north-east and Scotland, to see how we can make it more resilient against future storms?

In answer to the hon. Lady’s question, I simply say yes. That must be the first time that anyone has been able to do that.

T3. There is no doubt in my mind that the west country is the most important part of the country. At the moment, not only do we have problems with the main rail down through Dawlish and Exeter, but we need to upgrade the Exeter to Waterloo line. We also need that second arterial road route, the A30-A303, to ensure that we get access to the west country (902445)

I can tell my hon. Friend that the A30-A303 corridor is one of the six strategic routes into which we are trying to get some investment. It is a very important route, and, as we have seen from the vulnerability of the rail line, it is one on which we need to concentrate. I am aware that there are some environmental issues in the Stonehenge area and the Blackdown hills, so we need to be sensitive in the way that we deliver the improvements.

T4. I know that the Secretary of State gets on well with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who is encouraging muscular localism and local referendums. Will he do the same in those communities, the big cities, where no one has been consulted about the value for money and the impact of High Speed 2? (902446)

There have been many opportunities to raise the issue of HS2. I am pleased that the paving Bill received the overwhelming support of the House of Commons, and I regard that as an important referendum in itself.

T5. While joining in the welcome for the Crossrail award to Bombardier this morning, may I invite the Secretary of State to my constituency to see the real harm caused by the level of noise from the A38 to people living far too close to that road? (902447)

As I drive through my hon. Friend’s constituency on a regular basis, I am more than delighted to come and talk to him and his constituents about some of the problems that noise creates for them as a result of the traffic on the A38.

T7. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the granting of planning permission for the expansion of Luton airport? It will help the Government with their capacity problem in the south-east and do so without the extension of any existing runway or the building of a new one. (902450)

Regional airports, or local international airports as I like to call them, have an important part to play in delivering the air connectivity that we need, so I am pleased to hear that news.

T6. The future of electrification in the north will be looked at by a joint committee of experts to recommend future routes for electrification in the north of England. Will the Secretary of State advise us when that joint committee will be set up so that those of us who are rooting for the Caldervale line to be electrified can participate?


The Government are transforming rail travel for passengers across the north and are investing heavily in the electrification of the network and in the £500 million northern hub capacity scheme. In parallel with that new commitment, we announced the establishment of a joint taskforce to explore where to go next with electrification in the north. The taskforce has been asked to ensure that eight named routes are considered, but it is free to consider the case for any route in the north, including the Caldervale line.

Although, obviously, I am disappointed that Hitachi was not successful in winning the Crossrail bid, I am pleased for the people of Derby and think that it is good news for British jobs. I am sure that the House is aware that although all the bidders are foreign-owned, two are based in the UK: Hitachi in Newton Aycliffe in my constituency and Bombardier in Derby. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what processes are in place to ensure that the winning bidder will fulfil its contractual obligations?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, because he was very much involved when Hitachi won the intercity express programme order, there is a standstill period of an extra 10 days. What I announced along with the Mayor of London this morning was the preferred bidder. That process has to be gone through and it is right that it should be gone through. It all goes to show that Hitachi is investing in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I was up there a few weeks ago, and Hitachi has a huge order and is determined to win more, not only in the United Kingdom but across Europe.

The only direct trains from Shipley to King's Cross are at 6.36 and 7.17 in the morning and the only direct train back is at 6.33 in the evening—all at peak times. When the east coast line is refranchised, may we have more direct trains to Shipley and at off-peak times so that my constituents can benefit from lower fares?

As my hon. Friend knows, the invitations to tender for services on the east coast line are being dealt with by the Department. I am sure that the people who monitor these sessions will take on board his recommendation.

A while ago, a lorry caught fire on a motorway in my constituency. It was carrying ammunition, including Sidewinder missiles. Will the Minister consider approaching those who transport very dangerous materials, including chemicals, to suggest transferring those journeys from motorways to rail, where the chances of a catastrophe are greatly reduced?

The Department takes the transportation of dangerous goods very seriously. As a former road tanker driver, I understand many of the hazards. As we build the high-speed rail network and electrify more services, there will be more capacity on the existing classic line for freight services such as those to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Guide Dogs, Whizz-Kidz and Living Streets, among others, have supported a campaign I have been running with Claire Connon, a prospective 2016 Paralympian, to fix our pavements. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that footways can be used by people in wheelchairs, people with mobility issues, people who are partially sighted, people with pushchairs and everyone else who wants to make use of them?

It is vital that we roll out as much accessibility in the countryside as possible. I know that organisations such as the Country Land and Business Association benevolent trust have given grant aid for such schemes. I think we should roll out as far as possible any schemes to allow more people access to footways and to ensure that disabled people have the same rights as everybody else to enjoy the countryside.

Of all the major northern towns, Hull is the only one with no proposal to electrify its main railway line. That means that First Hull Trains’ proposal to electrify the line from Selby to Hull is an essential upgrade, especially bearing in mind 2017. Will the Minister commit to working with Network Rail and First Hull Trains to ensure that we have that for 2017?

We are certainly very interested in the suggestions made by First Hull Trains. I occasionally use that line myself and we will certainly consider that bid for electrification alongside others.

Although I greatly welcome today’s commitment to get our line open as soon as possible, does the Secretary of State agree that it is vital that we send out the message that Cornwall is still open for business? Will he therefore lay out plans for alternative bus services to replace the train services?

Yes, we will be considering a number of those issues and I hope shortly to be able to inform my hon. Friend and others from that area of the measures that we want to put in place. She is absolutely right that Devon and Cornwall are fantastic places to go. There have been some rough connection problems, and we have to sort them out, but Devon and Cornwall will still be a great destination for both Easter and half term.

House of Commons Commission

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

Members Services

1. What steps he is taking to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the services available to hon. Members. (902433)

The Commission has a policy of continuous improvement, which helps to drive both efficiency and effectiveness. The fundamental principle adopted by the Commission has been that any cost reductions should not adversely affect the ability of the House and its Members to carry out their parliamentary functions. The House is on track to reduce its budget by 17% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2014-15, and this discipline has been a spur to innovation and moving to new and better ways of doing things. In many ways, the House is now more rather than less effective.

May I profoundly disagree with the 17% cut? We are sent here to serve our constituents. This cut in budgets means that we are less and less able to do our job properly at every level. We know that, and the staff, whose morale is at rock bottom, know it too. It is about time the House of Commons Commission got the message that something is rotten in the state and that we have to do something about it soon.

May I say in all humility to the hon. Gentleman that the facts simply do not bear out his assertions? For example, sickness absence, which in most businesses is an extremely good measure of the morale of the work force, is at its lowest since we began recording in 2008-09. May I also say that the Finance and Services Committee at its meeting this week received the quarterly out-turn for the third quarter, and a number of the major Departments that operate Member services have budget left to spend and are likely not to use their budgets in-year? That is a result of effective delivery of services and there is no absence of money for parliamentary scrutiny.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the decision of the House to change its sitting hours has had a negative impact on catering, access to the Palace for constituency parties, and the ready availability of meeting rooms for the many groups that seek them?

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point. He, as Chair of the Administration Committee, has done a great deal of work with his Committee on this matter to ensure that the services provided are of the highest quality and, wherever possible, open to our constituents as well as to Members.

Heating Bills

This is a timely question, as a campaign has recently been launched to encourage all users of the estate, including hon. Members, to reduce energy use. All new estate projects are assessed for opportunities to improve energy efficiency in the Palace. Improvements are being made to temperature control and the efficiency of heating systems. There has been a successful pilot of roof insulation and a programme to refurbish windows is under way. Thermostatic radiator valves and occupancy sensors that shut down after a set period have been fitted in a number of areas across the estate.

We must all put up our hands and admit to our individual responsibility for contributing to the hot air generated in this place, but will the House of Commons Commission undertake a study of the financial savings for each degree that the thermostat was turned down?

My hon. Friend makes a very sensible suggestion, which I will certainly take away and find out the answer to, and do my utmost to implement.

Is it especially expensive to heat the Terrace marquee? I recently received a letter from a constituent about an event that I had agreed to sponsor for the Westminster Education Forum, which showed that it was charging people £45 plus VAT for the privilege of attending an event at this House of Commons. Is that acceptable, and is that a direct consequence of the current efforts to turn this place into a convention centre?

The hon. Gentleman asks about the heating in the Terrace marquee. I do not have an answer to hand; if I may, I will write to him with the correct answer.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Written Parliamentary Questions

4. What recent assessment he has made of Departments' performance in answering written parliamentary questions. (902436)

My office collates departmental performance information for ordinary and named day parliamentary questions for each Session, which are submitted to the Procedure Committee. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons provided data relating to the last Session to that Committee in July 2013. Those data are available on the parliamentary website.

I have received particularly poor responses to recent written questions to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister on whether they would raise human rights issues during business trips abroad. For example, the Prime Minister took more than two weeks to reply to named day questions, with no holding answer. Does the Deputy Leader of the House think that it is wrong of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, in particular, to show such contempt for Members who are simply seeking to find out what they do when they go abroad at public expense?

I certainly agree that it is possible to achieve a very high quality of response. For instance, the Department of Health achieves a 99% response rate. If the hon. Lady would like to send me the details of the questions she refers to, I would be happy to look into the matter.

As a member of the Procedure Committee, perhaps I can help the Deputy Leader of the House. Will he use this opportunity to remind right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House that if they are unhappy with a reply to a written question, because of a delay or the content, they can submit it to the Committee and we will look into and chase up those questions?

Indeed; I am very happy to encourage Members to do that. The Procedure Committee looks at this matter in detail. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, if there are specific concerns about how Departments handle their replies, they are required to explain to the Procedure Committee why they have been unable to respond promptly.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House look particularly at the performance of the Department for Communities and Local Government, and will he deprecate the consistent attempt to reveal as little information as possible in answers to parliamentary questions? I will gladly furnish him with some recent questions that I have had “answered” in a fashion.

I am happy to convey the hon. Gentleman’s concerns to the Department. He might want to know that one of our responsibilities in the Leader of the House’s office is to ensure that best practice in responding to questions is circulated. For instance, we have encouraged Departments not to respond to questions by providing links to websites. We are requiring them to provide the hard figures to make it easier for Members to assess the response.

Does the Deputy Leader of the House agree that we would have fewer parliamentary questions if we had more time to debate important issues, such as the Immigration Bill? One great thing that the coalition Government promised was a business of the House committee, so when will we get it?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is slightly off the mark, in relation to handling responses to written parliamentary questions, but I am sure that his concern will have been noted in the appropriate places.

If it is to do its job of scrutinising the Executive efficiently, Parliament must be able to rely on timely answers from Government Departments. After the Procedure Committee highlighted last year’s atrocious performance, the Leader of the House committed the Government to establishing a new electronic system for Departments across Whitehall to improve responses. Can the Deputy Leader of the House tell us whether that is now in place and whether we can expect to see an improvement in response times when the Procedure Committee publishes an update next week? Will he set out what he will do if there are Departments that have failed to improve their performance and if some have deteriorated?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. She might not be aware that over the past Session there has been an improvement: more Departments have been improving their responses than have been deteriorating. I certainly agree that the electronic system will ensure that Members get a better response and that there will be much less dependence on paperwork circulating throughout the system. I have just seen the progress that has been made in that system and am confident that when it is implemented Members will be very pleased with it and that it will save substantial sums of money.

House of Commons Commission

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

Parliament (Temporary Relocation)

5. What consideration is being given to a temporary relocation of Parliament to enable refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster. (902437)

I announced in a written statement on 17 December 2013 that the contract had been awarded for an independent appraisal of the options for restoring and renewing the palace, in co-operation with the House of Lords. A temporary relocation of Parliament is one of the options being analysed. Other options include a phased programme of less disruptive interventions or a partial relocation. No decisions on the matter are expected in this Parliament, and certainly not before the report is received.

I fear that once again we are kicking an issue into the long grass. Sadly, we have lost the opportunity to relocate to east London now that the Olympic park is soon to reopen. Would not a relocation to somewhere such as, say, Birmingham, in the centre of the country—[Interruption.] It could be Birmingham or any other city that Members may wish to suggest. Would that not only speed up the improvement of this place but modernise ways of working and change the culture of this place once and for all?

Confident in the Union of the United Kingdom, I would of course offer Inverness as a place we might all like to go to, which would save the taxpayer a considerable amount in travel expenses. The really important thing is to get this right. The independent options appraisal will ensure that we have a true understanding of the scale of the problem and the different costs of different solutions. I suggest to all Members that we wait to see what the outcome of that is and then make a decision based on fact and best value for the taxpayer.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Voluntary Sector

6. What recent discussions he has had with the voluntary sector on the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. (902438)

The Government met nearly 50 organisations to discuss the provisions of the Act before it received Royal Assent. Those discussions led to a number of changes being made to the then Bill to reduce the burden on smaller third parties who campaign at elections, to ease the transition to the new regime, and to clarify the rules.

Notwithstanding the unseemly haste to rush this legislation to Royal Assent last week, many voluntary sector organisations have deep misgivings about the effect it will have on the way that they operate. Will the Minister show equal haste in committing to post-legislative scrutiny of the legislation so that the House can assess the damaging impact that it will have on our charities?

We have surely now reached the time when the hon. Gentleman and other Labour Members should accept that the Act does not do what he has claimed. He may not be aware that the National Council for Voluntary Organisations recently said:

“We are grateful that the government has listened to the concerns charities have raised in recent months…The”


“provides a much more sensible balance…between creating accountability and transparency in elections while still allowing for charities and others to speak up on issues of concern.”

Pre-legislative Scrutiny

The Government are committed, wherever possible, to publishing legislation in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny. We published 17 draft Bills or sets of draft measures in the previous Session, which is more than the previous Government did in any Session.

I thank the Leader of the House. It is clear that there have been some benefits. The recent Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill ended up with a lot of provisions that were recommended on pre-legislative scrutiny, although the process would have been faster if they had been included straight away. Does he agree that the principle should be that, unless there are exceptional reasons, all Bills should go through some sort of pre-legislative scrutiny?

We endeavour to publish legislation in draft, but it is not always possible. My hon. Friend and the House will understand that, for example, at the start of a Parliament, or sometimes for reasons of policy, measures have to be brought in at a pace that does not permit the kind of pre-legislative scrutiny that we would generally seek. Let me point out that only this week we debated the Deregulation Bill on Second Reading, and that was scrutinised in draft form; and in the previous week, the Consumer Rights Bill came to the House, and that had had substantial pre-legislative scrutiny. I commend to the House how we are continuing to engage in that.

House of Commons Commission

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

Food Waste

8. What assessment he has made of the amount of food waste from catering outlets on the Parliamentary Estate. (902440)

Food waste from prepared dishes in the House of Commons catering outlets, as measured as a percentage against sales, is 3%. This is well below the national average for the catering industry, which is 5%. The Sustainable Restaurant Association has rated the House of Commons as a good-practice organisation in respect of food waste. We take a variety of measures to monitor and reduce the amount of food waste from catering outlets. There are plans to extend composting of food waste, which is already undertaken in the Palace in relation to other outlets.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and for the progress that is being made. Does he agree that, as staff in the catering service see this challenge day in, day out, it would be wise for the Commission to invite them to make their own suggestions on reducing food waste?

It has been my experience that staff suggestions are always worth looking at, but the real challenge is the 21% waste from domestic fridges—that is the real scandal.

That was a splendidly pithy reply, which allows us briefly to get on to the important matter of vermin infestation.

Vermin Infestation

Recent representations have been received from hon. Members about mice in Norman Shaw South. Measures taken include sealing gaps and fitting bristle strips to office doors. Leaflets have been distributed to alert occupants to the measures being taken and provide practical advice to alleviate the problem. I encourage hon. Members to follow that advice, which includes not leaving sandwiches on their desks.

According to recent media reports, mutant super rats are taking over the Commons and it is costing £6,000 per month for vermin control measures on the parliamentary estate. Surely the traditional use of cats would be more effective and cheaper.

My sympathies are entirely with the hon. Lady. I have a perfectly vicious cat in Thurso which is keeping the rodent population down. There are serious problems in relation to people who are allergic to cats and the diseases they carry. After extensive research, it is believed that there is no rat problem inside the House of Commons—at least, not of the four-legged variety.

As I am sure you are aware, Mr Speaker, we have been offered a rescue cat or two from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. I fear I might be allergic to mice and rats—of the two and four-legged variety—so will my hon. Friend consider that very generous offer?

Business of the House

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 10 February—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Children and Families Bill, followed by a debate on a reasoned opinion relating to the presumption of innocence and EU law.

Tuesday 11 February—Opposition day [20th allotted day]. There will be a full day’s debate entitled “Fairness and Inequality” on a motion in the name of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalist Party.

Wednesday 12 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.

Thursday 13 February—A debate on a motion relating to the Normington report on reform of the Police Federation, followed by a general debate on the all-party parliamentary group on cancer report on cancer priorities in the NHS.

The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 14 February—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 24 February will include:

Monday 24 February—Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 24 February will be:

Monday 24 February—General debate on an e-petition relating to holiday companies charging extra in school holidays.

I thank the Leader of the House for his business statement, but it was yet again so devoid of actual Government business that he may as well have let me or the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee do it. In the past four weeks, more than 60% of our time has been taken up by non-Government business, because this is a zombie coalition staggering around with no discernible purpose. Is that all we can expect for the next 15 months?

This Government have not just given up on legislating; they have given up on listening to Parliament, too. My calculations show that, on top of the three votes this Government have lost on their own business, they have ignored dozens of votes on Back-Bench business because they did not like the outcome. Last month, the House voted by 125 to two to set up a commission to study the effects of social security cuts on poverty; nothing has been done since. In 2012, we voted to stop the badger cull; the plans to roll out the cull are still in place. In 2013, the House voted to make sex and relationship education in our schools compulsory; that has not been done. Will the Leader of the House tell us what he thinks the purpose of Parliament is, if the Government just pick and choose which votes they are going to act on?

The Prime Minister confirmed yesterday that he plans to stage a debate and vote on repealing the ban on fox hunting, but it is not in the current business. Will the Leader of the House tell me how that debate will be structured, when it will actually happen and whether he will now rule out the option of using a statutory instrument to make the ban unenforceable, an idea which is being actively canvassed by the pro-fox-hunting lobby?

This week, the Education Secretary sacked the chair of Ofsted, despite praising her “great knowledge and insight”. I am sure it is no coincidence that the man tipped to replace her has donated more than £100,000 to the Conservative party. A pattern seems to be emerging: the new chair of Natural England—a Tory donor; the new chair of the Care Quality Commission—a former Tory chief executive; the new chair of Monitor—a Tory ex-Minister; and, of course, the new head of the Prime Minister’s appointments board is also a former Tory staff member. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement from the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General about the strange correlation revealed between favours to the Tory party and quango jobs? While he is at it, will he now commit to publishing the full list of Tory donors who have been wined and dined anonymously at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s official residence?

When the Education Secretary is not at loggerheads with his own Minister for Schools, or doing the lines you gave him yesterday, Mr Speaker, he is apparently fighting with “The Blob”. I must admit that it took me a while to work out that he was not setting up a jogging club for Cabinet Ministers so that they could all join the Prime Minister in trotting around St James’s park. I wonder whether the Education Secretary has taken to naming other Cabinet Ministers after cult films. After the Chief Secretary to the Treasury commented that he would let the Tories lower the top rate of tax to 40p over his dead body, his cult film would be “Night of the Living Dead”. The Home Secretary’s would naturally be “Aliens”, and the Work and Pensions Secretary’s would be “Nosferatu the Vampire”. I have found a perfect one for the Liberal Democrats—Ray Steckler’s 1964 monster classic, “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies”.

I understand that the Deputy Prime Minister is looking for a new communications director, after the current post holder decided to leave after three months. She may have had a wealth of experience in dealing with high-profile clients across the globe, but everybody eventually realises that there are just certain things they cannot polish. I understand that the Liberal Democrat HR team has had to redraft the job description for the re-appointment. It now reads: “Must have extensive experience in crisis management.”

This week has shown that the Tory party has let the modernising mask slip. It capitulated in the face of its Back Benchers on the Immigration Bill. There was not a single woman on the Front Bench during Prime Minister’s questions. [Interruption.] It has clearly got a rota in use today, and we will see how long that lasts. Even the Prime Minister’s personal endorsements could not save two pro-European MPs from being deselected by their local Conservative associations. The Tory Tea party is baying for blood, and the Prime Minister is too weak to face it down. As Labour starts the journey to an historic reform that will open up our structures, the contrast could not be clearer between a Labour leader with the confidence to deliver real change in his party and a Prime Minister who is on the run from his own Back Benchers.

I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House, but her principal comment was that no Government business is being brought forward. I have looked again at the business that I have just announced, and three of the five days in the Chamber involve Government business: consideration of Lords amendments to the Children and Families Bill, the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill—a further Bill introduced just yesterday—and debates on the police grant and local government finance reports. I cannot see what she is complaining about.

Frankly, to reiterate what the shadow Leader of the House and other hon. Members are perhaps ignoring, the time allocation for debates to the Opposition and the Backbench Business Committee is a proper use of the time of this House; it is not simply that this House debates only Government legislation and that that is all that matters, which would be absurd. If we listened to the shadow Leader of the House, all those days would be taken away and allocated to Government business. That is not what this House has decided to do. When my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary was Leader of the House earlier in this Parliament, he brought in a measure, with the agreement of the House, to allocate substantial time to the Backbench Business Committee, and rightly so.

I have not announced a debate or a vote on fox hunting. What the Prime Minister said yesterday was absolutely right, but we have not been able to schedule such a debate at this stage.

The hon. Lady asked about the position of Baroness Morgan as the chair of Ofsted, which is not really a business matter as such. I find what she said slightly astonishing. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education appointed Baroness Morgan as the chair of Ofsted. Her term of office is expiring. I do not understand what the question is about. It is perfectly within the rights of Ministers, when a vacancy emerges, to refresh or change the leadership of public bodies.

I point the hon. Lady to the figures on the political activity that has been signalled by those who are appointed to public appointments. In 2012-13, 3.3% of those people declared Conservative political activity, 3% declared Labour activity, 1% declared Liberal Democrat activity and 1.7% declared other political activity. [Interruption.] Yes, properly declared. I refer the hon. Lady to the figures for the last Parliament. Under the last Government, the figures repeatedly show that there were four times as many declarations of Labour political activity as Conservative political activity. The bias took place under the last Government, not under this Government.

The hon. Lady told us something about films. I am not sure what that was all about. To relate it to the business, I am sure that she will have noted that whatever films she wants people to see, whether as analogies for Cabinet Ministers or anybody else, they will have enhanced opportunities under the Deregulation Bill to see them in local venues and film clubs. That is a jolly good thing.

I note that the shadow Leader of the House did not request a debate on the maintenance of essential services in the face of unjustified and unnecessary strike action by trade union leaders. We did not hear about that from the hon. Lady, nor did we hear about it from the Leader of the Opposition when he came to the Dispatch Box yesterday, yet millions of people in London are being unnecessarily inconvenienced and are having great difficulty in getting about and doing their normal business. There is no need for such a strike. The Lady should have come to the Dispatch Box and agreed that there was no need for such a strike.

Equally, the shadow Leader of the House did not request a further debate on the relationship between trade unions’ political funds and political parties. Why is that? It is because that matter has been put off until 2020. So much for the efforts of the Leader of Opposition in that regard.

The shadow Leader of the House did not mention the desirability of a debate on recent economic measures, either. I think that we should take every possible opportunity to debate the Government’s long-term economic plan. Almost daily, there is further evidence of the success of that plan, whether it is exports going up, news on manufacturing confidence or the increased number of jobs. The news today about Bombardier is clearly very welcome. We are cutting the deficit, cutting income tax and freezing fuel duty. We are seeing more jobs in the economy. We are capping welfare, reducing immigration and promoting better schools and skills for the future. All those things will give the people of this country the peace of mind and security that they need for the future.

Finally, I am delighted that the shadow Leader of the House raised the issue of women in politics and, in particular, in this House. Speaking not as Leader of the House for a moment, but as a Conservative, I am proud that it is my party that had the first sitting woman Member of Parliament; that it is my party that gave votes to all women 85 years ago; that Emmeline Pankhurst was a Conservative activist; and that it was the Conservative party that gave this country its first woman Prime Minister.

As Sri Lanka comes before the United Nations in connection with alleged human rights abuses at the end of the civil war, does the Leader of the House share my concern about the increasing persecution of the Christian Church in Sri Lanka, which has a long, proud history, and particularly the persecution of the nonconformist Church there?

My hon. Friend will recall the steps that the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary took during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting to raise issues relating to human rights in Sri Lanka with the Government there. That gave unprecedented exposure to those issues, which was important. I know that many Members of the House are concerned about the position of Christians in many countries across the world, and I will again raise that issue with my hon. Friends in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as I know how concerned they are, and ask them to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard).

When will the House have the opportunity to debate and vote on changes to e-petitions, and will that debate also include a proposal for establishing a new petitions committee?

I cannot promise a debate at the moment, although I hope one may come forward soon. As I have already made clear to the House, the e-petition system run by the Government has been a great success and is linked to the Backbench Business Committee and the timetabling of debates. In the business I just announced we saw how an e-petition rapidly hit the 100,000 mark on the subject of extra charging for holidays during the school holidays, and that will be debated in Westminster Hall. There is, however, much wider scope and an opportunity for the House to consider and respond to petitions and allocate time for debate if the current e-petition system can be owned by both the Government and Parliament working together. I hope we can secure consensus on that soon, and give the House an opportunity to give its stamp of approval to that.

Unite’s members at the Faslane naval base in my constituency have voted for strike action over the Babcock offer of a 1% pay increase. According to Unite, Babcock claims that the Ministry of Defence says that it must stick to public sector pay restrictions, but that does not seem to apply at other dockyards. May we have a statement on that from the Defence Secretary?

I will, of course, ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to respond to my hon. Friend on that issue. He will know that the MOD is in negotiations with Babcock over the maritime support delivery framework contract, but that does not imply direct involvement in the pay offer, and its relationship with its staff is a matter for Babcock. I hope my hon. Friend agrees that a threat of industrial action is never an appropriate response to such matters, and everybody should be committed to the safe, secure and effective running of Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde.

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen early-day motion 1041, which stands in my name and those of other hon. Members, and concerns the persecution by the branch of Asda in Longsight in my constituency?

[That this House expresses its disgust with and condemnation of the employment practices of Asda, in particular with regard to its treatment of a staff member at its branch in Longsight, Manchester; notes that this staff member was suspended for nearly two years on bogus allegations and has now, after this protracted and biased process, been unfairly dismissed; suspects that racism is involved in the persecution of this constituent of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton; asserts that Asda has breached its own policies and procedures, confidentiality and data protection; further asserts that Asda has made false statements, has been involved in collusion over statements, has breached the ACAS code of practice, has made its decision with no valid evidence in support and has taken hearsay as being fact; and condemns these nasty bullies who believe they can get away with anything simply because they are immensely wealthy.]

A constituent of mine who was employed by Asda was suspended on bogus charges. After nearly two years he has now been dismissed, with Asda breaking every single employment rule it would be possible to break, never mind the fact that my constituent is a member of an ethnic minority. May I add to you, Mr Speaker, that when I raised this matter with Asda, it wrote to me saying that it would report me to you for raising it? I therefore report myself to you for standing up for a constituent against these wealthy and powerful bullies.

The politest thing I can say is that Asda is not thereby demonstrating a very firm grasp of the parliamentary procedures that we operate in this place.

I have seen the right hon. Gentleman’s early-day motion. I know he would not expect me to comment on the circumstances of his constituent in this case, but it is perfectly proper for him to raise the issue. Even if these are not matters for which we in Government or Parliament are directly responsible, it is our responsibility, and his, to represent our constituents. I hope that those concerned will respond, including responding positively to him.

Everyone has been deeply moved by the sight of what is happening in Somerset and the south-west of England, with people being displaced from their homes, possibly for some considerable time. Also, we must note the generosity of both the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Westminster. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices and those of the Second Church Commissioner to work with the Church of England and local churches to consider whether it would be appropriate to set up a relief fund so that members of the public and Members of this House who wish to contribute may do so? The model I would suggest is that used by the Archbishop of York when we had a similar flood event, though not quite on the same scale, in Yorkshire and the Humber region in the 2000s.

My hon. Friend rightly refers to the distress that communities are experiencing. We have to understand that it is not only potentially very serious for them, but it can be of long standing. It is not just about the response to these flooding events: recovery can take a great deal of time and require a lot of support. Clearly, we in Government will do everything we possibly can, but there is, as she rightly says, evidence of how people in this country want to help those in distress. Back in 2007 the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Lichfield put together through the Church Urban Fund a significant relief effort for those who had been affected. I am sure we could use the good offices of our right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) with others to see whether the Bishops of, for example, Bath and Wells, Exeter and Truro might think of doing something of a similar character.

I am sorry to prolong the response, Mr Speaker, but may I reiterate what I said last week? We in this House value very much what my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) does as Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and on behalf of her constituents. Speaking entirely personally, may I say in that regard that I very much regret the decision that was taken by Thirsk and Malton constituency association last week?

May we have a debate in Government time in the run-up to the Budget on air passenger duty and the effects this is having on regional airports and, more important, on the economies of the regions of the UK?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that in the run-up to the Budget these are properly matters for the Chancellor of the Exchequer who, I know, in the run-up to the Budget is always willing to listen to hon. Members’ representations on the Budget. This is a debate that we have had in the House, but it may well be something that we debate again.

May we have a debate on the quality and availability of information to Members of this House before they are asked to make serious decisions? I refer to two things, particularly the concealment of the Major Projects Authority reports on HS2, and the fact that the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills have now appointed Golder Associates, who will produce a report for this House immediately after the close of the consultation on the environmental statement, which is 50,000 pages long. I gather that to date, with still almost a month to run, there are 10,000 responses that have to be analysed. The assessors will have to boil those down and present them to the House, which will give Members only 14 days, possibly, to look at them before the Second Reading of the HS2 hybrid Bill in this place. Will the Leader of the House look at how we can possibly ask Members to make important decisions and vote on Second Readings that are irrevocable when they do not have all the information on the risks involved and the whole project?

My right hon. Friend will know that the Standing Orders Committee in this House and in the House of Lords looked at the timing on consultation. The result of that was that the time for receipt of responses to the consultation was moved to, from memory, 27 February in recognition of the fact that people should have time to look at what is clearly a great volume of information. I remind my right hon. Friend that it is the responsibility of this House to ensure that the proper assessment is made of those responses to the consultation before our Second Reading. We have not announced the timetable for Second Reading. It is in any case, as the House will understand, a decision in principle on Second Reading, and through the hybrid Bill procedure there will be detailed examination of the Bill that follows.

Order. May I remind the House that there is a very important statement on flooding to follow and thereafter two debates under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee, the first of which is exceptionally heavily subscribed? There is, therefore, a premium upon brevity, which I am sure will now be exemplified by Mr Sheridan.

May I bring to the attention of the Leader of the House early-day motion 1046?

[That this House expresses serious concern at the anti-trade union behaviour of INEOS at its petrochemical plant in Grangemouth where it has dismissed Mark Lyon, the UK Vice-President of Unite The Union for carrying out his responsibilities as the elected convener of Unite The Union at the Grangemouth complex; notes that INEOS refuses to accept the Unite shops stewards elected by the workforce to represent them and is acting against the International Labour Organization (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work 1998, particularly ILO Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise 1948, and ILO Convention 98 on The Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining, 1949; further notes that INEOS is acting in contravention of the rights set out by the UK Government on the website sections on Trade union membership: your employment rights and the role of your trade union rep; is concerned that INEOS is in line to receive £9 million in grants from the Scottish Government and has applied for loan guarantee fund support from the UK Government of £150 million; calls on the Government to make it clear to INEOS that actions in breach of ILO conventions and in contradiction of UK law on the rights of employees to be represented by a trade union and to take part in trade union activities is not acceptable in the UK in the 21st century; and further calls for the reinstatement of Mark Lyon and a negotiated settlement of points of difference between INEOS and trades unionists in its employment.]

Despite the best efforts of the UK Government, the Scottish Government, the local community and the work force of INEOS at Grangemouth, senior management at the plant are behaving like industrial thugs, sacking yet again the Unite convener Mark Lyon on trumped-up charges. As we have given this company £150 million of taxpayers’ money, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to come to this House to explain why this kind of behaviour from senior management is being tolerated?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing my attention to the early-day motion, which, as it happens, I have read. I do not think it would be appropriate for the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to come to the Dispatch Box on this matter, but, given the events surrounding the threat to the plant at Grangemouth, I hope that we see positive engagement between the company and the trade union.

The Government still have a significant stake in Royal Mail, so will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on how the privatised Royal Mail is doing when it comes to securing new customers and not losing the contracts it has? The experience of Polestar, a printing company in my constituency, is that, far from doing all they can do to keep customers, middle-ranking officials are hellbent on handing Royal Mail business to competitors.

If my hon. Friend has specific issues relating to the business he should, in addition to raising them with me, raise them with the chief executive of the company itself. It is important to recognise that we have created a whole new opportunity for Royal Mail to improve its services through access to private investment. I think that that will be transformative for Royal Mail. The fact that its share price has risen relative to its issue price is, I think, a reflection of the market sentiment that this is a business with an increasingly prosperous future.

I enjoyed the interesting commentary from the Leader of the House on women’s history, but perhaps he would like to deal in the here and now and provide Government time for a debate on the position of women in the economy: the growing gender pay gap, the rising cost of child care and women’s long-term unemployment. Perhaps we could deal with those issues rather than have a history lesson.

I would be very happy if we were to have such a debate. It would give us an opportunity to highlight the fact that there are more women in jobs than ever before; we are giving parents access to good and affordable child care; we are creating, as I know from my previous responsibilities at the Department of Health, more than 1,000 extra health visitor posts to support women in the initial months after they have given birth; we are increasing the number of midwives to ensure that women have the right care they need during childbirth; and in this Parliament we are making the most positive and comprehensive reform of pensions, including pension entitlements, particularly in respect of the state pension, that give women access to the security of the single-tier pension, which is very important for their peace of mind in older age.

Greater devolution is being passed to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. This has resulted in places like Carlisle looking on enviously at the devolved powers and responsibilities granted to them. Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate on the future of local government in England, so that places like Carlisle can have the opportunity to see greater powers and responsibilities devolved to them?

I agree with my hon. Friend that this is an important matter. He will have noted the debate on local government finance reports on Wednesday next week, which provides the opportunity for Members to raise issues relating to local government. We can put the matter in a positive context not only through what has been achieved under the Localism Act 2011, but, more recently, through the ability of local authorities to retain business rate revenue and generate growth in their areas, and to benefit from that through the new homes bonus and growth bonuses. The devolution of the generation of growth and resources in local government in England mirrors what is happening in the national Governments of Scotland and Wales.

In passing, may I say how good it is to see a bit more diversity on the Government Front Bench? It is just a shame that three of the four Members on the Front Bench not required to be there have silent roles—perhaps it is time the Leader of the House put in a word for their promotion so that they can speak.

I am a great champion of university technical colleges—there is one in my constituency—but is it not time we had a debate about the hurdles they face as a result of the age of recruitment being 14 and the sudden speed at which they are being opened? It is time a Minister came to the House to talk in detail about this matter and to answer questions on the roll-out of this policy.

I cannot promise a debate immediately. In defence of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, I point out that one is here for the statement to follow, which I hope we will reach shortly, and the others, as Whips, are frequently on the Bench—and rightly so—in order to discharge their responsibilities.

In response to the hon. Lady’s question, I will ask the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to respond to her directly. I know she is interested in these issues.

May we have a debate to put the spotlight on the success of the rural economy, which is flourishing in my constituency? We have some good examples of small businesses being established, including by women, which we need to salute too.

My hon. Friend is right. The continuing generation of new businesses in rural areas—made possible not least by our planning reforms—has been important for the rural economy. It is important, too, that we continue to deliver access to fast broadband in rural areas, which I know is important to rural businesses, as it gives them the opportunity to run an international business from what would otherwise be thought a distant location.

The Treasury has confirmed that 3.4 million people with an annual income of less than £7,225 each paid an average of £113 in national insurance contributions in 2011-12. Perversely, because class 1 NICs are collected weekly, someone on a fixed 20-hour contract on the national minimum wage does not pay NICs, whereas someone on a zero-hours contract with varying hours but earning the same annually does. May we have a debate on weekly calculated NICs and how we can make the system fairer for working people?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, after the Budget we conventionally introduce the Finance Bill, which affords an opportunity to debate these issues. He could also have raised the matter in the recent debate on the National Insurance Contributions Bill—I do not know whether he did. However, he should not have neglected to say that these are precisely the low earners who have benefited most from the Government’s increase in the personal allowance, which has taken 3 million out of income tax altogether.

I have asked the Leader of the House over and over again—more than 10 times—for a debate on the Francis report. It was debated this morning on the “Today” programme. The Nuffield report, which has just come out, contains a foreword by Francis saying it is time that the regulator’s system-based culture was changed. I have a list of all the occasions this month when business has collapsed in the House, yet the Leader of the House keeps saying there is no time to debate the report. Will he please ensure that the House has a chance to discuss it properly?

I sympathise with my hon. Friend’s frustration, and I hope we can debate the Francis report soon. It is a year today since it was published, and since then much has been done, including the introduction of accountability under the new inspection regime and the new chief inspectors of hospitals, social care and primary care. A tremendous effort has been made to instil a culture of openness and candour in the NHS, to focus on safety and to create an understanding that quality of outcome is the overriding priority. I agree with what Robert Francis said in the Nuffield report foreword:

“The vast majority of front-line staff, who are consistently hard-working, conscientious and compassionate, have to understand that criticism of poor and unacceptable practice is not aimed at them but is part of a struggle to support everything they”—

and indeed we—

“stand for”

in the NHS. My hon. Friend raises a valid point about business. I hope that all we are doing and all that needs to be done will be the subject of a debate ere long.

Will the Leader of the House listen to the demands for a debate on women’s employment? Doe he agree that we need more women in highly paid, powerful, entrepreneurial jobs? Is it not through crowdfunding, social impact investment and social entrepreneurialism that many women secure those important jobs? May we have an early debate—before the Budget—so that we can improve the tax treatment of people who invest in social enterprises?

I would welcome a debate on employment, and, indeed, on social enterprises. I cannot promise such a debate immediately, but I know that the House would appreciate it.

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that, according to the latest data, the number of unemployed women has fallen by 61,000 to 1 million, or 6.7%. The number of women in employment rose by 104,000, or 0.3 percentage points, in the last quarter. More than half a million more women have become employed since the general election.

A constituent of mine runs a rural business which depends on internet access to Government agricultural schemes, and next week is the busiest week of his year. However, he has been without internet access for nearly six weeks, since 28 December, when the problem was reported to TalkTalk, his provider. Despite numerous calls to both TalkTalk and BT, nothing has been done. Only BT Openreach can fix the problem, but that organisation is not on the phone. Can the Leader of the House advise me on how my constituent can get urgent attention so that his line fault can be fixed, short of going to the main road and flagging down an Openreach van?

I can tell my hon. Friend that, on more than one occasion in my constituency, flagging down an Openreach engineer’s van is exactly what my constituents have done.

I know that my hon. Friend will raise this issue with BT herself, but, exceptionally, I shall refer our exchange to BT and ask it to respond directly to her. Under the programme for extending superfast broadband access, contracts are now rolling out across the country, and we are trying to make that happen as quickly as possible. However, we need to ensure that we achieve not just notional access to superfast broadband, but reliable, good-quality access. I entirely take my hon. Friend’s point.

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the sad and tragic case of Colin Worton, who, as a soldier serving in Northern Ireland in 1983, was wrongly arrested and charged with a sectarian murder? He was subsequently released without conviction, but owing to the reputational damage that has followed him since, he has been unable to work. Would it be appropriate for us to have a debate about the case, and to see what recompense can be given to that former serving soldier?

It might be suitable for a case of that kind to be raised in an Adjournment debate, and the hon. Gentleman may wish to apply for such a debate. However, I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), will be only too happy to talk to him about the case.

May we have a debate on the impact and application of the excellent “assets of community value” scheme, a very welcome measure that was introduced in the Localism Act 2011? It is clear that some councils—including, I am afraid, Leeds city council—are deliberately turning down applications on the basis that they do not believe that the community could have a bid. Surely that is against the spirit of this important legislation.

It is important for the new right that has been given to communities to be exercised positively. The Government are funding a support programme to help communities to make use of the right to bid for assets of community value, which includes expert advice on grant funding for the development of business plans. As my hon. Friend knows, this is a matter for local councils, but he has rightly raised it on behalf of his constituents because he wants assets of community value to be recognised, and I hope that his local council will listen to what he has to say about assets of community value in his constituency.

The Leader of the House will know the importance of energy-intensive industries to our manufacturing base. Will he therefore arrange for an urgent debate to examine the causes of the delay in the Government obtaining agreement from the European Commission to get compensation for industries for the indirect costs of the carbon floor price, and in particular to examine the concern that the Government are going to cave in over the backdating of that compensation?