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Commons Chamber

Volume 580: debated on Thursday 8 May 2014

House of Commons

Thursday 8 May 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—

Taxi and Private Hire Industry

1. What representations he has received on his proposed reforms to the regulation of the taxi and private hire industry. (903888)

The Department undertook a targeted consultation in January with the intention of seeking immediate reactions to three proposed taxi and private hire vehicle measures, for inclusion in the Deregulation Bill. Our position on the measures is clear: they are liberalising, cost-saving steps that will benefit many thousands of small businesses and customers throughout the country.

I must tell the Minister that drivers in Sheffield have expressed grave concern to me about his proposals. They fear that these rushed changes, which will allow minicab operators to subcontract bookings to other operators in a different district, could result in drivers working hundreds of miles away from their home licensing authority, and that our licensing authority in Sheffield would be unable to carry out effective enforcement. Does the Minister share those drivers’ fear that the changes will put the public’s safety at risk?

No, I do not. In fact, I believe that the changes will give the public a better service. For example, if someone rings a private hire vehicle company and all its vehicles—or, perhaps, all its disabled-access vehicles—are occupied, it will be able to call on another company from across the border to fill the gap. People will get the service that they want, and I do not believe that safety will be compromised at all.

Will the Minister reflect on the fact that if his proposals are implemented, someone who gets into a minicab will not know whether it has come from the company that he or she telephoned, will not be able to assume that the person driving it is licensed to do so, and will not even be able to assume that the car itself has been passed as okay to carry passengers in his or her own town or city? Expert opinion after expert opinion has warned the Minister that all this could put passengers’ safety at risk. Why does he feel that he knows better than anyone else?

I do not accept those criticisms. The fact that a company is registered across the border in another local authority area does not mean that it will not meet the standards that apply in that local authority area. This is about more flexibility and a better service for people using private hire vehicles.

East-West Route

2. What consideration he has given to extending the proposed east-west route from Oxford to Bristol or Cardiff. (903891)

Passenger train services that could use the east-west route could be extended to Bristol. However, additional capacity on parts of the Great Western main line is likely to be required to accommodate the additional services.

I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. Before long, we shall start to look at the specifications for the next Great Western franchise, and services along that route could stop at a reopened Corsham station. Given the importance of our ambitions for Corsham in the strategic economic plan, how should we go about including those services in the next franchise?

I am well aware of my hon. Friend’s aspiration to reopen Corsham station, which closed in 1962, even before the Beeching cuts. We are reopening 45 miles of the Oxford to Bedford line, and I believe that the long-term aspiration is to extend it to Peterborough, which would possibly include reopening Corsham station. However, when it comes to aspirations, I think we are looking at the next decade.

New Rolling Stock

In the coming years, passengers will see significant increases in the amount of rolling stock on the railways, thanks to the Government’s investment. More than 3,100 new carriages will be in service by the end of 2019, including new rolling stock serving the Thameslink commuter routes north and south of London, new Crossrail trains from Reading through London to Essex and Kent, and new intercity express programme trains serving the east coast, Wales and the south-west.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the biggest investment in our railways since the Victorian era, but may I beg him to spend just a little of that money on some new rolling stock for the Derby to Crewe line? People are currently unable to get on to trains to travel to Uttoxeter race course before the race meetings start, and we are seeing crowds struggling to get on to trains after the meetings have finished. Just a little of that money would be welcome in Uttoxeter.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning a line that goes through my constituency. As one who has regularly caught the train from Crewe to Derby, I understand the point that he is making. It is, of course, up to East Midlands Trains to look at the way in which the line is serviced, but I hope that we shall see an upgrade in the not-too-distant future.

What plans has the Secretary of State to modernise rolling stock in the north-west, especially on the South Fylde line, in conjunction with station modernisation?

One question asked of me quite regularly is what has been the biggest change since I was first appointed to the Department for Transport 25 years ago, and I have to say to my hon. Friend that one of the biggest changes is the demand for more and more rail services. I am more than happy to meet him to discuss the particular services in his constituency and how we can best meet the increasing demand we are seeing right across the country for railway services.

Investment in rail is welcome, but what new steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that when individual lines are electrified, appropriate rolling stock is available immediately?

The Chairman of the Select Committee on Transport makes an important point about the commitment the Government are making to electrification. I will not remind her of the figures on electrification over the 13 years that her party were in government—it was some 10 miles, I think. We are planning to do 880 miles in this programme of rail electrification and modernisation, and she is absolutely right to say that we have got to make sure we get the rolling stock in line and in order as well.

Does the Secretary of State agree that there is great potential for the rolling stock for High Speed 2 to be built by Hitachi in my constituency in the north-east of the England, creating hundreds of direct jobs and thousands in the supply chain, and is he aware that Hitachi built the original bullet train almost 50 years ago?

I am indeed aware of what Hitachi is doing in the north-east and I very much welcome the Hitachi foreign investment into the north-east and its decision to base its world headquarters here in London. It is a great sign of confidence in the way that the Government are attracting inward investment into this country. Of course the hon. Gentleman is right about the investment opportunities that HS2 offers, not just in terms of rolling stock but right across the whole railway piece. There will of course be a competition and I have no doubt that it will be matched by Bombardier and other companies.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that although deep cleaning and refurbishment of rolling stock is important, there is a pressing need for new rolling stock on the commuter line from Chelmsford to Liverpool Street, and can he tell the House whether having new rolling stock could be a condition of the long-term franchise from 2016?

I hear the representations my right hon. Friend makes to me now, and has made to me on many occasions privately, about the desire for new rolling stock on that line. It will be something I will want to consider when we look at the franchising agreements we will put forward.

The £5 billion project to electrify the Great Western main line has been hit by flooding, bats on bridges and lengthy road closures which have crippled businesses in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. What guarantees can the Secretary of State offer the House that the electrification work will be completed by 2017 when those new intercity express trains will be ready to run?

The points the hon. Lady makes about forward orders and the fact that that new rolling stock is due to come on board by 2017 with the electrification of that line are very important. I have every confidence that Network Rail will rise to the challenge to deliver what it has set out to deliver in the rail investment strategy. Quite often attacks are made on Network Rail, but I think we can all stand back and think of the remarkable way in which it managed to re-establish the line through Dawlish and the work it did working almost 24/7.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but it was his Department’s mismanagement of the Thameslink rolling stock contract that meant it took two full years to close the deal with Siemens. That project will finish three years late in 2018 and our colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee said last October:

“We are sceptical that the programme will be delivered by 2018 given the delays in awarding the contract for new trains”.

On Thameslink we could have new track but no trains, and on the Great Western line we could have new trains but no track to run them on. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that this is no way to run a railway?

I simply say to the hon. Lady that this Government have announced the biggest investment programme in the railway industry that we have seen in this country and I am very proud of that. Of course there will always be problems. I think the Thameslink programme was actually Thameslink 2000 so it has overrun—that is certainly true—but at the end of the day we are going to get a far, far better commuter service for all the people in the areas served by that line.

Successive Governments have short-changed East Anglia. As somebody who uses the rail service from Colchester to London Liverpool Street, I ask the Secretary of State, on behalf of my commuters, to include Greater Anglia in his roll-call of those companies that will get new rolling stock.

I hear the hon. Gentleman’s representations. The simple fact is that we are seeing massive investment in rolling stock, and there are demands for even greater such investment, but that has to be balanced with the investment that we are seeing on the tracks. As I have said, we are embarking on a new round of spending on the railways, with some £38.5 billion by Network Rail plus the investment in rolling stock as well.

Rolling Stock (North of England)

The Department has recently agreed terms with Northern Rail for the introduction of electric trains between Liverpool and Manchester. Northern Rail will be able to transfer additional diesel carriages on to trains operating on other busy routes in order to relieve the crowding further. TransPennine Express has seen capacity increase with the introduction of the new Class 350 trains.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the rolling stock on Tyne and Wear metro is undergoing refurbishment, but that is little consolation to the residents of Washington who do not even have a station. Nexus has recently outlined plans for three stations in Washington as part of an extension to the metro network, and the North East local enterprise partnership has agreed to undertake the business case. Will the Secretary of State commit his officials to working closely with both parties to ensure that the business case is as strong and compelling as it can be?

I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. The Newcastle metro has been running for some time and is now undergoing a desperately needed upgrade. There is no doubt in my mind that the original metro regenerated areas that had been in serious decline. We are always looking at ways in which we can best expand those services. I am more than happy for those conversations to take place.

The daily commute of many of my Saddleworth constituents is akin to that of sardines travelling in a can. On top of that, we now know that some of Northern Rail’s diesel stock may be transferred to TransPennine Express to supplement the gap left by the TPE stock transfer to the Chiltern Railways. What guarantee will the Secretary of State give my constituents that that transfer will not happen?

What we have set out to do is match, where we possibly can, the growing passenger capacity with the availability of the railway network. As I have pointed out, a huge amount of new rolling stock is coming on line in the next few years. I therefore hope that we will be able to relieve some of the initial problems that the hon. Lady has mentioned.

I hope the Secretary of State will agree that Northern Rail has some of the worst rolling stock in the country on its lines, and I hope that that is something he will address. I hope he will also agree that the Airedale and Wharfedale lines are some of the most congested on the railway network and that they need additional capacity. What is he doing to provide better and longer trains on those lines?

I think I have just been setting out in the answers we have given the huge amount of investment that we are making in the new rolling stock that are coming on to our railways. I hope my hon. Friend’s frustration will not continue in the longer term.

Given the loss of nine trains already to the south of England, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that more trains cannot be taken from TransPennine Express or Northern Rail during the direct award period before the franchise is re-let in 2016?

I understand very much the case that the hon. Lady makes for the services in Bolton, and I am keen to see those services improved and increased. As a result of the huge amount of money we are spending on investment in the railway sector, her constituents will get a far better railway in the future than they had under the previous Government.

A14 and Weekley-Warkton Bypass

6. If the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport will visit the sites of the proposed junction 10A on the A14 and the proposed Weekley-Warkton bypass, and meet representatives of Kettering borough council to discuss those proposals on 23 May 2014. [R] (903896)

I thank the Minister for his positive response. Thousands of new houses are being built in and around Kettering, so these two projects, which will cost a total of £60 million, are vital not only to unlock £1 billion of economic development under the Treasury Green Book rules but to prevent the town of Kettering from grinding to a halt because of all the extra traffic.

I think that my hon. Friend found out that I was due to be in Corby that day to open a new road, so I will be able to combine the two visits. This is a £40 million to £50 million scheme to which we have no policy objections, but as it will unlock potential development for up to 5,000 houses and improve access to the business and energy parks, I think that it is only fair that those who stand to gain—that is, the developers and the local authority, through the new homes bonus—should pay some of the costs.

When the Minister is in north Northamptonshire, will he ensure that his visit to Kettering does not eat into the time he has with us to celebrate the opening of the new Kettering to Corby link road? In my dealings with the Minister I have found him to be an even-handed and fair-minded man, so will he acknowledge that because of the lead-in, this project is very much a result of the work of the previous Labour Government and of Phil Hope, the then MP for Corby?

I would just add that this Government have tripled investment in roads, whereas I seem to remember that in 1997, when the Blair Government came to power, there was a moratorium on building roads. I look forward to coming to Corby. I think I will be calling in at Newark on the way home.

A1 (Dualling)

7. What progress his Department has made on its study of proposals to dual the remaining single carriageway sections of the A1. (903897)

The A1 north of Newcastle study is one of six studies to identify and fund solutions to a number of notorious and long-standing hot spots on the road network. The next working group takes place on 21 May to discuss the evidence review stage, after which the study will consider the potential investment options before making its recommendations later this year.

Since the Chief Secretary to the Treasury made a firm commitment a year ago and the Transport Secretary has given the scheme his strong personal support, can he get a move on? At the moment, with all these studies, it feels a bit like being stuck in slow-moving traffic on the A1.

I think we are making progress. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned in his question the fact that the Chief Secretary is involved. If the Chief Secretary and the Transport Secretary are of one mind on this, I very much hope that we will be able to make some progress.

What accounts for the delay between the tentative announcement of yet another study and the setting up of the study? What is left to be studied of this much-studied question? Will the Transport Secretary confirm to the House that the study is but a prelude to the commencement of the actual work?

I think I will look at the wording of that when I see it in Hansard. This is an important road and a lot of work has already gone on to widen the A1, as well as a lot of work that is being undertaken at present. We are now talking about the area north of Newcastle and it is important that when the works are being carried out, measures are put in place to deal with the environmental consequences and the objections that people might raise.

Waterloo to Weymouth Line

8. What steps his Department is taking to improve journey times and passenger capacity on the Waterloo to Weymouth rail line. (903898)

There are no specific improvements to journey times and passenger capacity currently planned on the Waterloo to Weymouth line. However, the rail investment strategy requires additional capacity into Waterloo to meet extra demand of 9,700 passengers in the morning peak period by 2018. This could benefit the Weymouth line.

I thank my hon. Friend for that rather disappointing response. Will he explain why we are going to spend a fortune in taxpayers’ money speeding up the journey times between London and Birmingham when those journeys are already 50% faster than those between Southampton and London?

In every part of the country that I travel to, I am told that there are capacity constraints, but there is no simple solution to the problem. I am aware that the journey time from Christchurch into London is two hours and 10 minutes, which is longer than my journey from York to King’s Cross. Of course, the problem is often that faster services have fewer stops. For example, the fastest train on this line does not stop at Christchurch.

More people now travel through Waterloo in three hours every morning than through Heathrow in an entire day, but train services to the south coast remain painfully slow, as has been mentioned. Will the Secretary of State commit to looking into ways by which travel times, particularly to Portsmouth, can be reduced and services speeded up, because it is affecting business investment in our region?

As additional capacity is provided at Waterloo, which is the busiest station in the country with almost 100 million passengers per year, that will allow more flexibility further afield, but this is part of the problem of addressing the tremendous increase in passenger ridership that has occurred since privatisation.

HS2 Skills Academy

In January, the Government announced its intention to set up a new high speed rail college to boost the development of railway and engineering skills across the UK. In March, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills launched a consultation to identify the location for the new main site. Responses are currently being assessed and we intend to make an announcement of the preferred site later this year. The college is expected to open in 2017.

Does the Secretary of State agree with me, though, that to show the country that HS2 is also about rebalancing the economy, it is vital that the academy is built either in the midlands—please—or even further north?

We saw at yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Question Time a number of bids, not least from my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), who is not allowed to ask me a question today on this issue. So the bids are coming from far and wide, and I am very pleased about that.

12. May we make a bid for the new skills academy to be located in the west midlands, preferably in the Coventry area? The Government promised to publish a jobs and skills strategy for high-speed rail last July. It is almost a year and nothing has been produced. Can the Secretary of State give us a date when it will be published? (903903)

Let me deal with whether the academy should be in Coventry in the west midlands. Of course, the west midlands is a very large area. From Coventry to Wolverhampton to Birmingham, all those areas are making bids for the college and I am very pleased about that. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) is saying that Stoke-on-Trent is in the west midlands. It is in the west midlands government area, but I am talking about the old west midlands metropolitan areas, which he may sort of remember.

The skills academy is vital so that we ensure that HS2 is built by skilled British workers. Notwithstanding the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) and the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), where better to build the skills academy in the geographical heart of the country, at the centre of this project, than in Nuneaton?

I had a very interesting visit with my hon. Friend when I went to Nuneaton station, when he made the case for a number of extra services that he would like to see calling there. I understand his bid for the academy. I am slightly worried as I am not sure what we will talk about on HS2 when we have made a decision on the location of the academy

One thing I think we will talk about is the review of connections between HS2 and the continent, which the Secretary of State announced almost two months ago. When does he envisage that review being complete?

I hope to be able to update the House further on those proposals later this year and on the work that the Department is doing, which is at the moment being led by Sir David Higgins.

Is the Secretary of State aware, though, that if the station goes ahead in the east midlands at Toton, businesses will relocate from the centre of Derby and Nottingham around the Toton area, and also a new conurbation will be built, which will effectively join up Derby and Nottingham and denude both their city centres?

I am not sure that I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. We need to ensure that development takes place in the whole area around where the new stations are going to be, and that there are infrastructure interconnections with those areas. But it is fair to say that, on the second part of the route—from Birmingham to Manchester and from Birmingham to Leeds—we are out to consultation, and those consultations are being considered at the moment.

I agree that the HS2 skills academy should be located at the centre of the project, which is right on Curzon street, on the east side of Birmingham. Is there any more information that the Secretary of State would require to convince him that that is the right location?

A number of people are making bids and the hon. Lady is but one of them. She is absolutely right about the importance of Curzon street in this project, which I think will be of great benefit to Birmingham. I look forward to discussing these proposals further with Sir Albert Bore, who is leader of Birmingham city council.

HS2 is obviously critical to my constituency’s development and also to the national interest. As the newest Member in this place—just—may I ask the Secretary of State to explain to me, in order to assist my development, where the Prime Minister and his AWOL colleagues were for those vital votes in the House last week?

Once the hon. Gentleman is in the House—it does not matter how long he has been here—he has the equal authority of any other Member. He is trying to play on the fact that he is the newest Member of the House, but he is treated the same way as any other Member as regards questions. He did remind me that the proposed route for HS2 would go directly under his house, so he does have a direct interest. There has never been any doubt about the Prime Minister’s commitment to this project. Indeed, his name is on the Bill. The only person who had doubts about the project was the shadow Chancellor, and I was very glad to see that he voted for the Bill last week.

Spare Parts (Rail Network)

Rolling stock spares are a matter for the train operators. They are required to have arrangements in place to maintain their leased trains so that they can deliver the performance level defined in their franchise agreement. I am aware of the specific problem of replacement wheels on my hon. Friend’s line.

Services on the Felixstowe to Ipswich line were disrupted for a number of reasons, one of which was the lack of availability of wheel sets around the entire network. I recognise that this is a matter for the rail companies to sort out themselves, but I hope that the Department can have a word with strategic partners, including with leasing companies and manufacturers.

Abellio Greater Anglia is well aware of the problem and has given us assurances that it is on top of it. The bad weather not only caused flood damage to some units, but caused a number of cases where brakes locked up and caused flats on the wheels so, instead of being able to re-profile the wheels perhaps six times during their life at 150,000-mile intervals, some of them were damaged beyond repair, which meant that there was a short-term shortage of those components.

Another important part of the rail infrastructure is the overhead wire system. When will the Minister take action to ensure the improvement of overhead wires on the east coast main line to avoid disruptions to services, of which I am sure he is well aware, given his journeys to London?

As somebody who uses the east coast main line regularly, I am aware that we have regular problems with overhead lines. If a line is brought down by a fast moving train, it can take some considerable time to repair. That is in marked contrast to the performance of High Speed 1, where we had no disruption, despite the bad weather over the winter, and we can expect similar very high levels of performance from High Speed 2.

Pedestrian Crossings

13. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the amount of time allowed for pedestrians to use pedestrian crossings. (903905)

Local councils are responsible for setting pedestrian crossing timings with reference to the guidance walking speed of 1.2 metres per second. The Department is conducting a review of traffic signing legislation, and once that is complete will consider the need to update the guidance.

Having rushed across many roads to get here in time for this question, I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he carry out that review as quickly as possible? The legislation has not been looked at since the 1950s and a recent review suggested that three quarters of elderly people struggle to cross the road before the signals change. Will he please look into the matter urgently?

I certainly will. We are reviewing the situation. The green man is an invitation to cross. When the green man is extinguished, there is still time to cross. The updated puffin crossings have movement detectors, which allow extra time to be given. We are looking at other types of crossing as well, which will further improve the situation.


In the 2014 Budget, the Government announced a £200 million pothole fund for the financial year 2014-15. Some £168 million is being made available to councils in England, including up to £10 million for London. This is enough to fix over 3 million potholes. The fund is a competition, and bidding guidance was published on 24 April detailing how local authorities can submit their bids to the Department for Transport by 22 May. This is in addition to the £4.7 billion that we are providing for local road maintenance in this Parliament.

Medway council has filled nearly 4,000 potholes in just over 10 months, so it will welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement. However, Medway has also been affected by the emergence of sinkholes, including one at Rainham Mark grammar school. What are the Government doing to address the emergence of sinkholes across the country?

I am aware that a number of sinkholes appeared across the country during this year’s severe winter weather, including those that my hon. Friend has mentioned. The Government have been working, and will continue to work, with the British Geological Survey on sinkholes. It is important that any lessons learnt are shared with local authorities and other transport operators to ensure that our infrastructure has greater resilience against future severe weather events.

Residents in the Queensbury, Northwick Park and Preston wards in my constituency would be very grateful if part of the remaining £50 million from the fund could make its way to the potholes in their wards. They would be even more pleased if those roads with extensive potholes could have a complete surface repair, because they are fed up with seeing potholes repaired one year and then having to be re-repaired the next winter. The money should be spent on solving the problem comprehensively, not addressing it in a piecemeal fashion.

I agree entirely. Some councils have shown excellent ways of doing that through a holistic approach, and I commend them for that. I was in Northampton recently to see what the local council has done there. It has taken on board the point the hon. Gentleman makes. I hope that other authorities will do likewise.


The Crossrail project is progressing well. Over 20 miles of tunnels under London have now been completed, which is 78% of all the tunnelling. While focus is being maintained on delivering the infrastructure, work is now well under way on the operational phases, making Crossrail a fully operational railway. Crossrail is on course to be delivered by the scheduled opening date of December 2018 for the central section, with full services commencing in 2019.

I am grateful to the Government for recently correcting the terrible error of the previous Government, who would have stopped Crossrail at Maidenhead, rather than Reading. The local enterprise partnership and local businesses support my view that unlocking Crossrail’s full potential will require some semi-fast services, rather than the slow metro service currently proposed from Reading into London. Will my right hon. Friend support Thames Valley Berkshire LEP, local businesses and me by doing everything he can to deliver the economic boost that the right Crossrail will bring to Reading and the Thames valley region?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments on this massive project, which is important both for London and for the outlying areas. I will be more than happy to discuss it with him as we develop the programme and the timetables.

Topical Questions

The House will recall that five weeks ago the HGV user levy came into force. I am pleased to say that in that short period the levy has generated £7.6 million in revenue from overseas hauliers and achieved a mainland payment compliance rate of 96%. Thanks to the actions of this Government, foreign hauliers are at last paying for their use of British roads.

Driver distraction is a major cause of death and serious injury on our roads, and it has been the focus of a leading campaign by the charity Brake. What are the Government doing to work with such organisations to tackle driver distraction? By way of a digression, I was given the “parliamentarian of the year” award by Brake for campaigning on road safety.

I have known of Brake’s work for many years, as one of its founding members was the relative of a victim who died in my constituency. I think that the whole question of driver distraction is important. I am still amazed by the number of people who use mobile phones while driving. In August 2013 the Government increased the penalty for using a mobile phone while driving from £60 to £100. I will look at the matter and review it in due course.

The hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) deserves the hearty congratulations of the House, and I feel sure that the award is prominently displayed in his home.

The Government are blocking an EU directive that bus drivers should have disability awareness training. In January, the Minister promised me a review in March, but in response to a later question he seemed to back off that promise. With my letter on this to his Lords colleague at the end of March still unanswered, when will the Government keep his promise to the House and stop letting disabled people down?

I will certainly ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives a reply to his letter. I am somewhat surprised that he has not had one already, but I will find out what has gone wrong. As we discussed in Westminster Hall recently, the voluntary approach is working very well with over 75% of drivers having this sort of training, which is important to ensure that disabled people have equal access to all forms of transport.

T3. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has had the opportunity to travel on the M1 between Leeds and Sheffield recently. It is a pig of a journey due to a 17-mile stretch of roadworks with a 50 mph enforced speed limit. I recognise the need for those roadworks, but is there any reason why they cannot be done in stages to improve the experience for motorists? (903920)

I have indeed travelled on that section of the M1 and it does seem to go on for ever. However, I am assured by the Highways Agency that doing the work in this way will incur a time saving of two thirds compared with doing it in stages. When we do such work, which includes replacement of steel central barriers with concrete ones, it improves repair time and over the long term will certainly improve road performance.

T2. East Coast’s current operator, Directly Operated Railways, was barred from bidding for the east coast franchise. The Secretary of State presumably welcomes the bid from Eurostar-Keolis, which is largely owned by French state railways. Is it not time to change policy and to allow Directly Operated Railways to bid for franchises? (903919)

There are a number of reasons why it would not be right to allow that to happen, not least because it would be funded directly through the taxpayer. That would put Directly Operated Railways at a great disadvantage compared with other companies in the private sector. The east coast and west coast franchises cannot be compared as they are very different, not least because, at the moment, East Coast runs 155 services a day compared with the 324 services on the west coast line.

T4. The proposed Congleton link road will help to boost the economy across the east Cheshire region, relieving not only local town congestion, but that along the M6, both of which are frequently described as chronic. It will also improve access to and from Crewe station. Will the Minister consider making Government funding available to fund this vital link road project? (903921)

I understand that the Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership has submitted a bid for local growth fund funding to support the Congleton link road as part of its strategic economic plan. We are currently assessing the plans and bids submitted by every LEP in England and we hope to be able to make an announcement in July.

T5. Mr Shah and other wheelchair users in my constituency will be disappointed by the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) in relation to the disability awareness training for bus drivers under EU regulation 181/2011. They tell me that drivers simply say, “Sorry mate, the lift is not working” or “the ramp is not working.” Sometimes they drive by with their thumb down and ignore them. Only 28% of drivers have received such training. When will the Minister get on and act on the regulation? (903922)

I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that his assiduity is not in question, but his ability to distinguish between a substantive and a topical question in terms of length perhaps is.

We feel we should take the voluntary route, but I certainly understand the problem. Indeed, one of my noble Friends at the other end of the corridor told me that they sometimes have to put somebody outside to flag down a taxi so that a disabled Member of the other place can then get into it. It is not just about training and awareness; it is about the attitude of taxi drivers, which cannot be instilled through training.

T6. From Gargrave to Embsay and from Masham to Ripon, communities across Skipton and Ripon are concerned about cuts to rural bus services. What more can Ministers do to work with the most rural parts of our communities on buses? Will they look very favourably at North Yorkshire county council’s bid to the sustainable transport fund, which closes later this month? (903923)

As a North Yorkshire Member myself, I am aware of some of the changes to rural bus services that are affecting my constituents as well as my hon. Friend’s. The fact remains that, outside London, 44% of the fare box that goes to bus operators is provided through various subsidies. We need to be more intelligent in targeting the services that people, particularly pensioners, use in rural areas.

Earlier this morning in Westminster, the Freight Transport Association launched its excellent 2014 logistics report. One policy area success that has eluded successive Governments is in the promotion of coastal shipping. What are the Government doing in this regard?

I have not yet had time to read the report as it was published only this morning. The way in which coastal shipping works and links with the rail network is very important, and we need to develop it even further. I had a very interesting meeting yesterday with one operator who is drawing directly from ports into Drax power station.

T7. My right hon. Friend will know that many of the 8,000 miles of roads in Devon are blighted by potholes. Will he therefore join me in congratulating Devon county council on its online pothole advisory system and the efficient way in which it is tackling the problem? May I also press him to consider very seriously Devon county council’s bid for some of the additional funds that were announced in the Budget? (903924)

Indeed. Before the year-end, we allocated extra money to local authorities that they were encouraged to spend on potholes and to show how they had spent it. That will have a bearing on how we allocate the future fund for local authorities that the Chancellor made available in the Budget.

Does the Secretary of State share my profound concern that roadside recovery operators working on our motorways have been instructed that they must continue to work when they have asked for a lane closure, even for safety reasons, but the Highways Agency has refused that closure? This is putting people’s lives at risk. Will he order an urgent inquiry and put an immediate stop to this dangerous practice?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter. It is the first time it has been brought to my attention, and I will certainly have a conversation with the Highways Agency. Our smart motorways schemes make it much easier to close lanes and move traffic, so it should not be a problem on those sections of road. I will get back to the hon. Gentleman with the reply I receive.

T8. The railway line from my constituency to London is probably the worst in the country for regularity, speed and reliability. May I urge the Secretary of State to persuade Network Rail and First Great Western to take this Cinderella line to the ball at last? (903925)

If my hon. Friend was here at the start of questions, he will have heard a number of Members call for better services in their areas. I think the line that he mentions does get substantial investment as a result of the intercity express programme, and I therefore hope he will get the better services he wants.

Further to his earlier answer, will the Secretary of State update us on links from HS2 to the continent before or after the summer recess?

T10. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the welcome news about the heavy goods vehicle levy shows that this was a long overdue reform that will create a level playing field for UK hauliers? (903927)

The levy has made a remarkable difference. It sends a positive message to foreign hauliers that if they come to this country they have to make a contribution to the cost of maintaining the road network. I am very pleased that we have been able to do this. It has been warmly welcomed by the freight industry in this country.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Welsh Language

Diolch—thank you. Members can use Welsh in the proceedings of the House in short extracts, but a translation for the benefit of non-Welsh speakers should be provided. The House agreed in 2001 to the recommendation of the Select Committee on Procedure that witnesses before Select Committees should be able to give evidence in Welsh.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. On the civil service, Welsh-language legislation applies to every aspect of the work of the House, so will he reassure me that every Department is committed to working in a way that fully recognises its legal obligations in compliance with the Welsh Language Act 1993?

I commend the hon. Gentleman for the work he does in promoting the Welsh language. I know that he recently held an important Westminster Hall debate on Welsh identity and, of course, the language played an important part in that debate. The Government are indeed committed to the Welsh language and are fully committed to providing Government services in the Welsh language where there is demand for them.

The use of the Welsh language is still treated as though it is secondary to that of English, inevitably. Sensible arrangements can be made. Other Parliaments deal with half a dozen languages. Should we not look to the Welsh parliamentary party to do the same work it did brilliantly 18 years ago and suggest practical arrangements of reasonable value that will allow anyone who wishes to make a speech in the Welsh language in this Chamber or elsewhere when Welsh business is being discussed to do so?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I have set out ways in which Welsh is provided for in Select Committees. The impact assessment for the Wales Bill was also translated into Welsh, so action is being taken where it can be.

Diolch yn fawr iawn. I support the comments of the hon. Members for Newport West (Paul Flynn) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies). About half of those who took part in yesterday’s Welsh Grand Committee debate on the Budget were fluent, first-language Welsh speakers. Surely the sittings of the Welsh Affairs Committee and the Welsh Grand Committee should be held bilingually, thereby making Welsh an official language of this Parliament, the same as English and Norman French.

I certainly welcome opportunities for debates on the subject of Wales and, of course, the Wales Bill has provided such an opportunity. I am also very pleased that in the past the Backbench Business Committee has been able to provide time to debate Welsh matters, and I hope that will continue.

House of Commons Commission

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

Dining Room Hire Charges

2. How much money the Commission estimates will be received for the financial year 2014-15 as a result of the introduction of room hire charges for all the dining rooms in the House; and if he will make a statement. (903909)

I will answer on behalf of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso). On the catering services budget for 2014-15, the target is to achieve room hire sales of £873,000, comprising £258,000 from the introduction of third-party banqueting events and £615,000 from Member-funded and Member-sponsored events.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer. This is the first time in my 17 years in the House that I have been moved to ask a question in House of Commons Commission questions. Tonight I will host, on behalf of the all-party group on racing and bloodstock industries, a charity dinner in the House in aid of the Injured Jockeys Fund. The room hire charge, however, will be more than £3,000, which will have to come out of the money we would otherwise provide to the charity. I have raised the issue with the Chairman of the Administration Committee and understand that room hire charges are being looked at, but may I ask for help on the matter, particularly with regard to charity events?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. The difficulty is that this whole process was started because of the budget requirements following the serious cuts faced by the House authorities. The rates charged are based on benchmarking from a whole selection of other organisations that provide such facilities. The figure paid at present is 25% below the benchmark. In addition, significant reductions are available right across the board, including for charities. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the organisation to which he refers will take advantage of that. The Administration Committee is constantly reviewing the whole process.

These charges are seriously inhibiting the work of many hon. Members who work with all-party groups, which often do not represent wealthy interests. May I make a plea that we do not turn this place into a conference centre and that we look again at the charges and the impact they are having on the work of Members of this House?

I can only answer by referring to what I said to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson). The Administration Committee has this matter under constant review, and it is on the agenda for its next meeting.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Written Questions and Answers (Processing)

3. What steps he is taking to support the House in rationalising the processing of written questions and answers and in improving the service to hon. Members. (903910)

The Government are supporting the project being undertaken by the House to enable the electronic exchange of parliamentary questions and answers between Members and answering bodies. All Departments are fully engaged in the roll-out of this exciting project, and my office has successfully transferred to the live system.

Will the Leader of the House tell us what effect the project will have on savings for the House and on the convenience of Members?

I expect the new system to save significant sums in this Parliament and across Departments, including by reducing the costs of publishing questions and answers. The new system will also improve reporting and transparency for Members and the public, through providing dedicated webpages for written answers.

Will the Leader of the House tell the House which Department is the quickest at answering questions, which Department is the slowest and how the former might tutor the latter?

My hon. Friend will recall that we do not measure the average time taken to answer questions, but on the extent to which Departments meet the required standard, my recollection—I do not have the figures in front of me—is that the Office of the Leader of the House most consistently meets it. I might add that although the Department of Health had the largest number of questions, it was the second most successful in meeting the required standard. As for the poorest, my recollection is that although the Department for Education has made some modest improvement, it continues to strive to do better.

House of Commons Commission

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

Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy

4. What discussions the Commission has had on the provision of support for the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. (903911)

The Commission discussed the work of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy, including the provision of support, at its meeting on 20 January.

When you announced your Commission, Mr Speaker, you said that it would be

“unpredictable, potentially anarchic, and even quite fun.”

I welcome the news about the support that will be given, but will the hon. Gentleman assure me that it will not in any way restrain the unpredictability, anarchy and fun that are essential for a readable report?

I must tell the hon. Gentleman that I am not part of the process, so I am not sure what fun is to be had. The project is certainly important. It is moving forward and will make a substantial improvement to the way in which this place works.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Parliamentary Questions (Ministry of Justice)

5. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on the time taken by that Department to answer written parliamentary questions. (903912)

On 10 March, I submitted to the Ministry of Justice a named day parliamentary question for written answer that—nine weeks later—is yet to be answered. On 26 March, some two weeks after the answer was due, I submitted a chase-up question to inquire when the original question would be answered. To date, neither of those questions has been answered. What is worse, my assistant in Westminster has telephoned the Department weekly, and each and every time he has been told that an answer is being finalised. I am concerned about the time taken for such questions to be answered. It makes it impossible for Members to hold the Executive to account, and it is a discourtesy to my constituents if Ministers simply do not answer these questions.

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s question. Like other large Departments, the Ministry of Justice receives a very large number of questions, and given the complex nature of its business a thorough response can take time. However, I agree that in the case of his particular question, it is simply not good enough: there needs to be a response. I know that the Secretary of State for Justice will want to take on board the hon. Gentleman’s complaint, and that he will in future ensure that Members receive timely answers setting out the information they need.

I am very disappointed that the Deputy Leader of the House is not prepared to take up this case, and I hope that he will now promise to do so. The Procedure Committee’s report on the Government’s answering of written questions makes for very uncomfortable reading for many of his colleagues. Only the Department for Culture, Media and Sport had a greater deterioration in performance than the Ministry of Justice during the last Session. Further to the previous exchange, will he clarify whether the Ministry of Justice is covering up information or is just completely incompetent?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not listen to the answer that I gave to the last question. We have taken up the issue and I have indicated strongly that the Secretary of State for Justice needs to ensure that there is a response. The Secretary of State for Justice does not have the worst performing Department. I am sure that it is a matter of the Department ensuring that a detailed response to the question is provided, rather than the cover-up that the hon. Gentleman implies.

Parliamentary Questions (Use of Library)

6. If he will ensure that Ministers place documents in the Library in accordance with their answers to parliamentary questions. (903913)

This is a matter for individual Departments. However, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Office of the Leader of the House provides best practice guidance on answering parliamentary questions to all Departments, which states that if reference is made to documents in response to a parliamentary question, copies of the documents must be placed in the Library.

On a number of occasions, I have received answers to parliamentary questions that say that information has been placed in the Library, only to find that it has not been placed there and that it does not arrive until quite a while later. Before we get into naming and shaming Ministers and Departments, will the Deputy Leader of the House take steps to ensure that that poor practice does not happen again?

I agree that if an answer to a parliamentary question refers to information being deposited in the Library, that should happen in a timely manner. I would be happy to remind Departments of the requirements and to take up any cases on behalf of the hon. Gentleman, should he wish to give me the details. We tried to identify the question to which he was referring. If he provides that information, we will follow it up.

Much as I hate agreeing with the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), he is absolutely right on this occasion. The worst of it is that the Leader of the House is about—I have a sneaking suspicion—to let all Ministers off the hook, because the moment he prorogues early, all the questions lapse and no Minister has to do anything. I urge him not to prorogue until the day before the Queen’s Speech, so that Ministers have plenty of time to get all their answers in order.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that I am certain that all Departments will do everything they can to ensure that questions are responded to before Prorogation.

Scrutiny of the Government

As a result of the changes that have been introduced in this Parliament, such as the election of Select Committee Chairs, the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee and more generous approaches to permitting urgent questions and allocating time for debating legislation, the ability of the House to scrutinise the Government has been much enhanced.

I asked the question because that is my view also. I was very taken by the letter that you read out, Mr Speaker, from the Clerk of the House, for whom I have the greatest respect. He said that the House is

“a more effective scrutineer of the executive, and more topical, relevant and independent-minded”

than he has ever known it in his 42 years of service, so we must be doing something right.

I agree with my hon. Friend. I trust that it will not be interpreted as engaging the Clerk in the debate to say that I hope that Members throughout the House agree that what he said is absolutely true. It is important for such scrutiny to take place. I hope in the debate this afternoon to enhance the ability of this House to demonstrate to the public, whom we serve, that we not only debate the matters that are relevant to them, but use the opportunities that we have to hold the Executive to account.

However much the processes and procedures of the House have been improved, the Government seem to be trying to subvert them by having extremely long recesses. My understanding from the Table Office is that Westminster Hall will not sit again until 17 June. If, as we all expect, the Leader of the House is about to announce that we will rise on 14 or 15 May, it will mean that for more than a month we will have no opportunity to scrutinise Departments in detail. Will he at least agree to bring forward the Westminster Hall debates to 10 June?

The hon. Lady slightly anticipates what would more properly be a business question. At this stage, we tend to have Prorogation and the Queen’s Speech at this time of year rather than November, so they come together with the traditional Easter and Whitsun recesses. That creates a change in the structure of the calendar rather than necessarily an overall reduction in time spent in debate.

Initiation of Legislation (Local Authorities)

9. What scope there is for local authorities to initiate legislation in Parliament; and if he will make a statement. (903917)

Under the rules of the House, local authorities may initiate legislation by way of private Bills, which may make specific provision for their local authority area only, as opposed to amending the general law of the land. There have been six such private Bills before Parliament this Session.

Given the great initiatives of the 19th century to reform towns and cities around the country and recent initiatives such as Liverpool’s push for smoke-free public places and Canterbury’s action on street traders, and as we have a zombie Parliament, in which the coalition can agree no business, will the Leader of the House invite local areas to come forward with initiatives for their communities?

First, of course we do not have a zombie Parliament: we are about to have a Queen’s Speech that will set out a detailed programme of government. The Government do not have any plans to review the procedure that the hon. Gentleman mentioned for private Bills, but we would be open to considering other ways in which such business could be transacted.

Business of the House

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 12 May—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Care Bill [Lords], followed by remaining stages of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill (day 1).

Tuesday 13 May—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by remaining stages of the Consumer Rights Bill (day 1), followed by motion relating to the Standards Committee report on all-party parliamentary groups, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Wednesday 14 May—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by remaining stages of the Deregulation Bill (day 1), followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Thursday 15 May—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Friday 16 May—The House will not be sitting.

I thank the Leader of the House for what looks to be the last business statement before the end of this Session. Will he confirm that the House now looks likely to prorogue more than a week before the recess date that he originally announced?

The horrific kidnap of nearly 300 schoolgirls by a terrorist group in Nigeria has rightly been condemned by leaders across the international community. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement from the Foreign Secretary so that he can tell us what support the UK Government are offering to help locate and rescue these young women?

On Tuesday, the Business Secretary told the House that he will not “rule out intervention” on Pfizer’s attempted takeover of AstraZeneca, which may threaten UK jobs in the strategically important pharmaceutical sector, but the Prime Minister seems to be a cheerleader for it. At Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, he failed to tell the House whether he would work with the Opposition to deliver a public interest test. That would need only secondary legislation, so perhaps the Leader of the House could tell us now: will the Government work with us to introduce such a test quickly so that the UK can safeguard its strategic interests in this sector, which is so crucial both to our research and development and our science base? Will he arrange for the Business Secretary to come to the House so that he can tell us exactly what the Government’s position now is on this crucial issue?

Coalition chaos on AstraZeneca is just the tip of the iceberg according to a report published yesterday by the Institute for Government. It warns that the Government are in danger of seizing up altogether as the election approaches. Some of us think that they already have. There are now credible complaints that civil service impartiality is being compromised by the partisan and inappropriate demands for policy advice from warring coalition parties. To provide reassurance and transparency, will the Leader of the House tell us whether he supports the Institute for Government’s sensible calls for the publication of civil service engagement rules for this final year so that we can have both clarity and oversight of the Government’s behaviour? Does he also agree with the institute that:

“The access that the two coalition parties will have to the civil service in the pre-election period strengthens the case for offering more extensive civil service support to the Opposition”?

The Government’s habit of believing that policy delivery ends with sending out the press release just gets worse. In November 2011, the Department for Work and Pensions said:

“Over one million people will be claiming Universal Credit by April 2014”.

But when April 2014 arrived, fewer than 4,000 people were on a pale imitation of the proposed regime.

In July 2007, the current Leader of the House said in a press release that there would be no top-down reorganisations of the NHS, but four years into this Government, what do we have? We have a disastrous and expensive top-down reorganisation of the NHS. This week, we have learned that the much trumpeted NHS better care fund has been delayed, after a Whitehall review declared that it would not work, would not help balance the budget and would not bring about the promised revolution in patient care. Is not the truth that the better care fund was a knee-jerk reaction to Labour’s policy on the integration of health and social care, and that the Government’s own legislation is standing in the way of proper integration? Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement from the Health Secretary so that he can urgently clarify the status of the better care fund?

There are now just two weeks to go until the local and European elections. The Conservative party has frantically been trying to paint the Leader of the Opposition as a mixture of Karl Marx and Hugo Chávez, the UK Independence party has been hiring eastern Europeans to deliver its anti-immigration leaflets, and the Deputy Prime Minister appears to have resorted to backing a report that calls for the legalisation of cannabis. I suppose mind-altering drugs are the only thing that might persuade people to vote for him. At his campaign launch on Monday, he was reduced to pleading with his activists to shout from the rooftops about Liberal Democrat achievements. I think they might be safer on the roof than they would be on the doorstep.

What about those Liberal Democrat achievements? The Deputy Prime Minister promised to scrap tuition fees, but he trebled them. He promised he would not raise VAT, but he raised it. He promised fair taxes, but he gave tax breaks to millionaires while everyone else pays more. This week, scientists have discovered a new dinosaur with a very long nose, and they have named it Pinocchio rex. I think maybe they should just have called it Nick.

I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for her response. She will be aware that only once business is concluded can we be certain of the precise timing of Prorogation, so as is customary, Prorogation will be announced once all the Government’s business required in this Session has been secured.

The hon. Lady was right to ask about Nigeria, and she will have heard what the Prime Minister said about that. We are all shocked by what has been happening there, including the kidnapping of the girls and the other terrorist attacks. As the hon. Lady will know, the Foreign Secretary has been in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova this week, but I will of course talk to the Foreign Office about how we might take an opportunity to update the House not only on his visit this week but on the steps that he has taken on Nigeria, including the contacts that he has had with the Nigerian Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister’s discussion with the President of Nigeria, which was scheduled to take place yesterday afternoon.

One point in the Institute for Government’s report is about making progress in this final year. As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House said in Question Time, we cannot anticipate the Queen’s Speech, but I can assure the House that there will be a full programme of legislative business for it to consider.

I would remind the House of the sheer scale of the legislative achievement that has been accomplished in this Session. Opposition Members had the opportunity to support much of it, such as legislation on same-sex marriage; on shared parental leave; on the establishment of single-tier pensions; on reforms to speed up adoption; on giving children in care new time limits on their care proceedings, to reduce delays; on introducing special, additional measures for children with special educational needs, including care plans; on establishing the principles of High Speed 2 and the Select Committee on the Bill; on electricity market reform and investment in our energy infrastructure; on investment in the water industry; and on protection for householders seeking insurance against flooding.

The Opposition did not seem quite so keen on some things, of course, such as the employment allowance, which will give 1.25 million businesses and charities the benefit of £2,000 off their employer’s national insurance bill. There is also banking reform; criminal justice; the reform of antisocial behaviour law; and those who leave prison having served fewer than 12 months will receive supervision to reduce reoffending. I think that in any year, any Government could be proud of the scale of the legislative achievements undertaken.

You know how loth I am, Mr Speaker, to engage in any kind of partisan activity at the Dispatch Box, so I will not engage in electioneering. I will just say that the parties of the coalition Government can go into the local and European elections not least on the strength of our long-term economic plan working. We are seeing some of the best growth figures, and indeed forecasts for the United Kingdom to be among the strongest growing economies in the developed world. We debate many things about Europe, but we all know that to be a strong country we need a strong economy. That is what this coalition Government are delivering through our long-term economic plan.

The hon. Lady asked about the Pfizer-AstraZeneca merger, and she will have heard what the Prime Minister said in response to the Leader of the Opposition. She asked for a statement; the Business Secretary was at the Dispatch Box just 48 hours ago to answer questions from the House. I think he did so very clearly. He made clear a number of things, including the point that Pfizer has not as yet made a formal bid, and that from the Government’s point of view there is open-handed neutrality. We have engaged with both companies to establish their positions and what their commitments may be. If there are further developments, I know that the Business Secretary will engage the House. I have substantial constituency interests in relation to both Pfizer and AstraZeneca. The shadow Leader of the House will therefore understand that I am not party inside Government to discussions relating directly to Pfizer and AstraZeneca, and I am not able to go beyond what my friends have said at the Dispatch Box.

I thank the Leader of the House for his statement on forthcoming business. He will know that the Procedure Committee has a report on private Members’ Bills waiting to be reviewed by the House, and I look forward to debating that with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who will represent a sort of Darth Vader of dark forces in that area. May I suggest to the Leader of the House that next Tuesday might be a good time for that titanic struggle and battle to take place?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, although I do not necessarily endorse his views on my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who, along with other Members, has enabled us to assert with confidence that private Members’ Bills that secure the agreement of the House must jump a high bar, and rightly so. Making legislation should not be easy, although my recollection is that, subject to further debate next week in the House of Lords, five private Members’ Bills may have secured Royal Assent this Session.

We have had constructive debates with the Procedure Committee, and I would like the House to have the opportunity to debate further reforms to private Members’ Bills. As yet I do not have a time fixed for that, but I will take on board what my hon. Friend has said and consider when we can do that.

As there is now no more time available for Back-Bench business before the end of the Session, will the Leader of the House allow me to make an announcement disguised as a question, to let the House know that the Backbench Business Committee has now closed its doors until after the Queen’s Speech when our successor Committee is elected? I thank all hon. Members who have served on the Committee, and all those who have used it and brought such interesting debates before the House. I have enjoyed the representations made.

I completely agree with the hon. Lady and endorse what she says. I am pleased that in this Session we have been able to allocate more time for debates determined by the Backbench Business Committee than the Standing Orders required, just as we provided three more days for Opposition day debates than is required by the Standing Orders. The Clerk’s letter to Mr Speaker made clear the scrutiny that this House is undertaking, and the Backbench Business Committee’s progress in this Session has demonstrated an essential part of that enhanced scrutiny.

Will my right hon. Friend, in the oodles of time available, make sure that there is a Government statement next week on holiday pay? Does he know that there is much concern among employers about the interaction between European Union law and British law? It is causing confusion and leading people to believe that holiday pay will have to be based not just on basic salaries, but overtime and additional work? This is a complex issue, but at the moment the Government do not seem to have a clear policy.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. If I may, I will ask the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to reply to him, and if, as he says, there is widespread confusion on this issue, to let the House know what it can do to dispel that confusion.

In 2010, there was the highest ever level of satisfaction with the NHS. A report this week by the Care Quality Commission on hospitals in Hull shows deteriorating services and staff shortages. May we please have a debate on the cost to the NHS of the £3 billion spent on reorganisation, on the fact that that has meant deteriorating services, and on Hull not receiving a penny of the £250 million provided for A and E services over the winter?

A number of questions were wrapped into that. The latest British social attitudes survey showed a 61% satisfaction rating with the NHS. That is an increase on the previous year and the third highest figure since 1983. One of the reasons why people are satisfied with the NHS is that the service is not deteriorating. On the contrary, we have kept to our coalition agreement to increase the resources for the NHS in real terms. Those resources are being used more effectively across the NHS, including saving nearly £1.5 billion a year through the reorganisation the hon. Lady describes. That cost about £1.5 billion to implement, but will save £1.5 billion a year—more than £5 billion in the course of this Parliament.

The widespread increase in rolling stock spoken about by the Transport Secretary earlier today is welcome news for commuters, but it is creating great anxiety for my constituents who work at the Cauldwell Walk depot and manage the current rolling stock. They know that they will not manage the future rolling stock, but they do not know when that transition will take place. Despite their own best efforts and mine, parliamentary questions and requests to speak with Ministers have been met with a wall of silence because of the franchise renegotiation. This has led them to consider all possible options, including the withdrawal of their labour, something that could lead to strike action and disruption. Will my right hon. Friend advise me on what options I have in Parliament to pursue this matter further?

I can understand how strongly my hon. Friend feels about this matter and the desire of the staff at the depot to have greater clarity on their future position. I will certainly urge the future franchisee to engage with the affected work force to provide that clarity as soon as possible. He does, I am afraid, say correctly that we cannot divulge at this stage the details of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise bidders’ plans for rolling stock or maintenance. That is commercially sensitive information in a live bidding process. We currently expect all depot staff currently employed to transfer to the successor franchisee at the outset. It will then be for that operator to decide how best to manage the maintenance of the fleet. It is not yet possible to give firm assurances on the nature of depot posts. However, as I am sure he would expect, I will ensure that Ministers are happy, once an announcement has been made, to discuss this matter with him, and for other interested Members of Parliament, staff and unions to be able to engage directly with the successful bidder.

Given today’s poll demonstrating that the public believe that the NHS is deteriorating under this Government’s rule, may we have a debate on why that is, and may we have some indication of how they intend to repair the damage they have done?

What is very clear is that after the election we actually managed to eliminate many of the long waits that patients were experiencing. Approximately 180,000 people had been waiting over a year for treatment and we have reduced that figure to below 1,000. That is what people across the country are experiencing in the NHS. The NHS, with rising demand, is managing to use its resources more effectively to sustain the quality of services.

Nikki Sams was just 26 when she died of cervical cancer. Her doctor failed to spot the symptoms eight times but escaped any disciplinary action by retiring, despite having been investigated previously. May we have a statement on when the General Medical Council will get the powers it needs to change the Cohen judgment, which restricts accountability, and allow it to appeal against lenient sentences, as doctors can appeal against sentences they regard as too harsh?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I shall discuss with my colleagues in the Department of Health. My hon. Friend will recall, not least following the Law Commission report, that there are plans and legislative proposals for the further reform of health professional regulation. I will discuss with colleagues in the Department of Health what progress has been made and whether we will be able better to answer my hon. Friend’s precise questions.

I add my voice to the pleas for a statement on the assistance that the UK Government will give to the Nigerian Government to “bring back our girls”. You will know, Mr Speaker, that in northern Nigeria, only 4% of girls get an education. That is both an immediate crisis for the families and a long-term disaster in development terms. Please may we have a statement?

I will, of course, ask my colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office if they will be able to make a statement; at this stage, I cannot determine whether it will be written or oral. The hon. Lady will recall what the Prime Minister had to say yesterday not only about the outrage we feel, but about the fact that we have offered support to the Nigerian Government. As with other countries, we have officials and members of the armed services in Nigeria who would be able to help, but it is a matter for the Nigerian Government to request help and support and determine the character of the help and support that we are able to give. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, that we provide support for the education of 800,000 children—600,000 of whom are girls—in Nigeria.

Last week, an article appeared in many national newspapers in which an academic argued that the Hinkley Point deal, which is now going through the European Union to ensure that it is robust, should not be pursued. Hinkley Point is massively important to this country: it will produce a massive amount of electricity and it is needed for the security of our energy supplies. May we please have time to debate this matter, which, along with fracking, must be pushed forward if we are not to see the lights going out in the near future? The attitude taken by such academics is not helpful.

My hon. Friend will have to forgive me as I did not read the article to which he refers. From what he says, however, I completely agree with him that the rebuilding of our nuclear fleet is important to the security of energy supply in this country and to meeting our future targets for reducing carbon generation. I know that my right hon. Friend the Energy Secretary, who has kept us informed about this project in the past, would be keen to update us about it in future.

Yesterday, Monitor announced that it will be investigating the South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust regarding its referral times and governance. This comes just after a trust special briefing stating that its financial gap has gone from £5 million to between £30 million and £50 million in 12 months. May we have a debate on why that foundation trust and others have recently found themselves in such massive deficits? When can we expect the £3.8 billion better care proposals from the Government?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue; I confess that I neglected to answer the point raised by the shadow Leader of the House about the better care fund. There is no need for a statement because there has been no slippage in the better care fund. It is to be introduced from April 2015 and it was always anticipated that at this stage Ministers would receive submissions from local authorities together with their clinical commissioning groups on how they propose to use that fund for local plans. In that sense, nothing has changed. As far as the foundation trusts are concerned, it is important to recognise that Monitor is the regulator. If I may, I shall draw the hon. Gentleman’s question to the attention of Monitor’s chief executive and seek a reply about South Tees hospitals.

May we have a debate on honesty in sentencing? My Bury North constituents will be astonished and dismayed that anyone such as the convicted armed robber known as the “Skullcracker”, who had been given not just one but 13 life sentences, was being prepared for release in an open prison despite having absconded twice before and committed dozens more armed robberies while at large.

I am sure that many Members share my hon. Friend’s view, and rightly so. As he may know, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice has ordered a full review of the case to establish the circumstances of the decision to grant Mr Wheatley temporary release, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment further on it. However, we know that there is a need for reform of the temporary licensing system, which is why, in March, my right hon. Friend announced plans to scale down access to temporary licences. In future, when prisoners are let out on temporary licence, they will be tagged, more strictly risk-assessed, and tested in the community under strict conditions before being released. That will ensure that we make more effective use of release on temporary licence, and take the steps that are necessary to maintain public safety.

Three years ago, the Government announced that 261 schools would benefit from the priority schools building programme, but so far only 28 have done so. May we have a statement on the Government’s use of “prioritisation”, given that 10.7279% does not really reflect a good priority?

I am afraid that I do not recall the precise number of schools that have already benefited from the programme, but I am pretty sure that the last figure that I heard was higher than the one given by the hon. Gentleman. I will check with the Department for Education, and ensure that we are both informed of the latest figure.

I am sure that, along with other Members on both sides of the House, the hon. Gentleman welcomed the announcement a fortnight ago of a further £2 billion for the priority schools building programme. That money will enable us not only to rebuild schools and build new ones where necessary—which was made possible by the first tranche of funding—but to help schools with rebuilding or refurbishment. Over the next few years, it will make a big difference to our school estate.

May I, as a free marketeer, request a debate on the universal service obligation in the postal industry? In my constituency, TNT has been able to come in and cherry-pick some of the more lucrative parts of the postal service, thus posing a threat to the universal service obligation. Recently, when cleaning out a river in Colindale, I found a bundle of letters that someone from TNT had dumped without delivering them. Will a Minister come to the House and make a statement, so that we can ensure that competition in the postal market is fair competition?

Of course there should be fair competition, and it is the responsibility of Ofcom, as the regulator, to ensure that that is the case. Let me add, however, as one who is equally a believer in free markets, that I think my hon. Friend should welcome—and I am sure he does—the fact that, in its private sector capacity which enables it to generate private investment to support its business, Royal Mail will be increasingly able not only to meet its universal service obligations, which are unchanged, but to compete in the marketplace.

The consultation on the HS2 route is still ongoing, but last week the Prime Minister was talking about a station near Crewe—as the Secretary of State for Transport continues to do—although no such station is on the route on which consultation is taking place. The Department is talking up the viability of such a station at the expense of the general taxpayer, whereas the Stoke proposals are being worked up at the expense of Stoke ratepayers. May we have a debate, in Government time, on the subversion of consultations and the failure of Departments to follow proper procedures?

I understand that the phase 2 consultation is proceeding, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has announced that the results will be reported to the House later this year. I am sure that all the submissions are being properly taken into account in the consultation.

In this great city of London, which contains more than 10 million people, transport infrastructure and investment are incredibly important. The Mayor has agreed to allow Piccadilly line trains to stop at Turnham Green, in Chiswick, throughout the day. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State make a statement to the House about investment in the upgrading of the line, when that upgrade might take place, and whether it can happen earlier than planned so that my residents can benefit from a better service on their way to work?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue for Chiswick residents and businesses. She has been campaigning hard on it, with some success, as I understand that she has received confirmation from the Mayor of London, following consultation, that Piccadilly line trains will stop at Turnham Green when the line upgrade has taken place. This Government have provided £10 billion to Transport for London in this Parliament, supporting the biggest upgrade in the London underground for 60 years. Passengers using Turnham Green station will see real benefits, including a 24-hour service through the night on Fridays and Saturdays from later this month, and improvements to the District line in 2016 and 2018. As she asked, once the Piccadilly line has been upgraded, London Underground plans to stop trains at Turnham Green all day.

May I add my weight to the representations made by the shadow Leader of the House and other hon. Friends asking for an early statement from the Health Secretary about the future of the better care fund? I participated in a visit to look at a pilot in Greenwich in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), and there is another pilot in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns). It is important that we know about the futures of those pilots and the entire fund.

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman planned his question but did not listen to the answer I just gave. There is no change in the planning for the better care fund. In response to what he and the shadow Leader of the House said, I should point out that this Government have taken the necessary steps to further integrate health and social care delivery. We made significant resources available to local authorities, in each of the first two years of this Parliament, to support social care-health service interaction. The health and wellbeing boards are creating a powerful structural mechanism to enable that to happen, and the better care fund will put the resources behind that capacity to deliver integrated care.

On state visits and certain other occasions—although, interestingly, not during the recent Irish state visit—flags of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom and the overseas territories are flown from Parliament square and then taken down. May we have a statement from the Culture Secretary on the possibility of flags of the constituent countries of the UK and the overseas territories flying full-term from Parliament square?

The hon. Gentleman is of course a noted vexillologist, a fact that I thought I should draw to the attention of the House.

Yes, and my hon. Friend has a considerable interest in heraldry as well.

Currently the flags of the Commonwealth are flown in Parliament square for Commonwealth day. Flags also fly on the square for Europe day and UN day, and the flags of the overseas territories and the Commonwealth dependencies fly for Trooping the Colour and London state visits. Any unscheduled flag-flying outside of designated days and ceremonial occasions in Parliament square would require the approval of both Buckingham palace and the Earl Marshal. Parliament square is also managed by the Greater London authority, which schedules events throughout the year, so there might be a loss of revenue if flags are flown throughout the year and access to the square is restricted. To that extent, I am afraid there is not a simple yes-no answer, but my hon. Friend asked an interesting question to which there is, I hope, an interesting answer.

It is clear from the Leader of the House’s statement that there are really only two reasons why the Government are staggering on. One is that they passed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and the other is that not every Liberal Democrat has yet been given a knighthood, a damehood or a turn as a Government Minister. As it is so hard to kill zombies off, why does the Leader of the House not announce the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act so that we can put an end to this long night of the living dead?

On the contrary, the hon. Gentleman may have read the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee report of this week which, among other things, said the planning and certainty given by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has been very useful. When he hears the Queen’s Speech and sees the future legislative programme, he will see that this Government are using that certainty of being able to deliver a fourth Session programme very effectively.

Following reform of the common agricultural policy, farmers in my constituency are keen to know about, and have clarification on, the new greening rules. Will the Leader of the House make a statement so that farmers know what to expect and how to plan for the coming year?

I will, if I may, talk to my hon. Friends at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and see what they can say to provide the certainty that my hon. Friend and his farmers would appreciate.

The Leader of the House is obviously grappling with how to fill up the hours of the day and the days of the week. Instead of ending the Session next week, why does he not spend a week allowing as many private Members’ Bills and ten-minute rule Bills as possible to be debated? In that way, Parliament could become a real debating Chamber, enabling us to debate the issues that affect ordinary Members of this House rather than being sent into yet another recess because the Government have run out of business.

I am afraid that there is some kind of fantasy going on. Next week, I have announced three days of Government business—Report stages of three Bills. I did not notice the Labour party recognising that by the end of next week, as a consequence of commencing with more than one day on Report on three carry-over Bills, we will have had 11 Bills this Session that will have had more than one day for consideration on Report. There were only 10 Bills that had more than one day’s consideration on Report in the whole of the previous Parliament. I hope that Opposition Members will recognise that this Government are creating much better opportunities for legislative scrutiny.

A few weeks ago, a taxi driver in my constituency was subject to a violent alcohol-fuelled attack while working a night shift. Bearing in mind that last year saw a 5.8% increase in assaults on NHS workers, many of which occurred in night-shift time, can we have a debate about what further protections the Government can put in place to protect night workers so that they have a safe environment in which to carry out their business and be free from the threat of assault?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I know from my former interest in the health service that it is a matter of considerable concern to health workers that they are kept safe. Assaults on any of our public sector or emergency service workers, on whom we depend, should be treated very seriously. I cannot promise an immediate debate, but it strikes me as a subject that would merit one. Perhaps it would be helpful if my hon. Friend secured an Adjournment debate to discuss those issues.

We have already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) concerns about the way in which Government consultations are being carried out. Does the Leader of the House accept that the public place a great deal of value on the quality of Government consultations, irrespective of the nature and type of Government, and on their open-mindedness, and so on? Does he therefore share my concerns that the consultation on the future of the Land Registry and 600 jobs in Plymouth appears, from board minutes, to have been a total sham? Will he ask the Business Secretary to come to this House and make a statement?

I will ask the Business Secretary to respond to the hon. Lady. I do not share her concerns about that matter. It is important to recognise that the Land Registry continues to make greater efficiencies and progress. She will have seen the written ministerial statement made today about the targets that are being set for the Land Registry’s future activities. That is important because of the service that it provides to people in this country.