The Secretary of State was asked—
We have made life easier in several ways for people who pay to use crossings: cashless, free flow charging at Dartford; credit card payments at the Severn crossings; and the new Mersey gateway bridge will benefit from cashless tolling. The idea that the five tag systems work together is an interesting one, but I have not received representations from those who represent hauliers and others.
Well, I shall make representations now. Some 40,000 people have M6 tag cards, but these cannot be used on any other crossing, and that seems madness to me. There was an attempt some years ago to get Transport for London and others to allow roaming of these tag cards, so will the Minister play a proactive part in trying to ensure that we have commonality among tag systems?
“Proactive” is my second name. My hon. Friend always brings originality to this Chamber and this is an interesting and original idea, which I would be more than happy to discuss with him. As I say, I have not received formal representations, but his representations are enough for me and I am more than happy to meet him.
In the changes the Minister was just extolling, he only touched on the recent ones at the Dartford river crossing. How does he justify raising the charge by 25% and the whacking £105 fine if someone forgets? How much are those fines estimated to raise during the next year? How much will the scheme cost to administer and, by the way, how will he ensure that foreign drivers pay the charge?
Unusually, the right hon. Gentleman is being rather critical and negative, and it is not in his character to be so. The changes we are making at Dartford are important and forward-looking and they are succeeding. He is right about ensuring that all who need to pay do pay, and the progress report I can give the House today is that the changes introduced just a few days ago are on schedule, on time and in tune with the wishes of local people, who will get discounts, as he will know. By paying in advance, people will also pay less.
Following the welcome introduction of free flow tolling and the Dart charge, a number of my constituents have experienced problems accessing the residents’ discount and transferring from the old system to the new. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on whether these are isolated incidents or whether there is a systemic problem?
I take your advice particularly seriously, Mr Speaker, as you know, but I did not want anyone to think that modernity was a foreign place for me, so I was adopting a little Americanism.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the interests of his constituents, as he always does so forcefully. As these questions need to have a real and direct purpose, I shall set up a special line for my hon. Friend so he can feed into the system any concerns his constituents have. It will be a conduit by which he can articulate their needs and worries so that we can get this absolutely right.
The Government have an ambitious strategy for tackling congestion and improving the performance of our roads. Our road investment strategy sets out plans to invest no less than £15 billion to enhance strategic roads between 2015 and 2021. The investment plan includes upgrading the M5 from Droitwich to Worcester South, expanding junction 6, improving capacity at junctions 5 and 7, and upgrading the section between junction 4a and junction 6 to smart motorway. These improvements will support growth in housing and jobs in South Worcestershire, address safety issues at the junctions and lead to improved journey times and reliability.
Like motorists in the north and east of Worcester, I am delighted to see the investment in junction 6 of the M5, which will de-bottleneck traffic and unlock a huge amount of growth in our city. However, the southern link is a huge concern to motorists in the south and west of Worcester. May I urge the Minister to engage closely with me, my neighbouring MPs and Worcester county council on the case for full dualling of the southern link, including the Carrington bridge?
Barely a night goes by when I do not dream about the Powick roundabout and the Carrington bridge, as my hon. Friend knows, and I shall certainly continue the dialogue that he described. I think it would be useful to have a meeting with him and other local people, including county councillors, to decide what can be done in this local scheme. It would, of course, be a matter for local discretion, but none the less, if we can play a part in helping, we will.
The other week, my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and I drove the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), across the Pennines from Sheffield towards Manchester. I did not think he could understand how bad the Woodhead pass was, and why people willingly drove over it, until we took him back over the Snake pass. A few crawler lanes on the Woodhead might be a short-term sticking-plaster, but in the end it is a tunnel under the Pennines—after all, they are only 2,000 feet high—that is the real long-term answer. When is the review of such a project likely to start, who is likely to conduct it, and when, realistically, could work actually start if the go-ahead is given?
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the issues around the Snake pass. I know there are safety concerns there, and I have obviously used the road myself. He knows that this Government have at their very heart the idea of a northern powerhouse. We are championing the interests of the north of England, perhaps to a greater degree than any previous Government. To that end, I shall look at all the specific questions that the hon. Gentleman asks on timing, on detail and on planning, and I shall be more than happy to address them directly with him.
Will my right hon. Friend direct his attention to junction 8 on the M11, the second name of which might be “Congestion”? Is he aware that the decision to site the motorway services area at the junction that is the main entrance to Stansted airport has been the cause of that and is now, apparently, being seen as a block to any plans for the housing that is needed in the area?
This is not the first time that my right hon. Friend has raised this matter. Indeed, since I became a Transport Minister, I have spent a good deal of my life answering his perfectly proper and assiduous inquiries and representations on behalf of his constituents on transport-related affairs. He is right that there is a history of congestion in that area, and I would be more than happy to look at it and take his advice and guidance on the matter.
Back in September, the Public Accounts Committee described the Government’s approach to local road maintenance, which, as we know, is a major cause of congestion, as “ludicrous”. Now, despite the rather bashful claims that the Minister has made today about Monday’s road announcement, I have not actually heard members of the PAC queuing up to say that they have changed their mind. Does that not tell him something?
While I focus—understandably, I hope—on the major changes that we are making as a result of this unprecedented road investment strategy, this extraordinarily bold and long-term vision, the hon. Gentleman is right that local roads matter too. That is why we are spending just short of £1 billion a year, and why we have planned to resurface 80% of the roads in the whole country. All roads, in the end, are local, aren’t they, and local roads will not be neglected under this Administration.
East Coast Main Line
My officials meet East Coast and Directly Operated Railways on a regular basis to discuss the performance of the franchise. DOR’s financial accounts are published on its website on an annual basis.
When the Secretary of State announced the reckless and ideologically driven privatisation of this beloved and excellently performing public sector service, he made a commitment on the frequency of services from Newcastle, but not their cost, so will he tell me now whether prices will go down or be frozen, or will they go up for the profits of Stagecoach and at the expense of my constituents?
As I announced last week on a very successful bid as far as Virgin-Stagecoach were concerned, they will reduce the costs on some of the most expensive tickets on that route. I would also point out that the Virgin-Stagecoach bid includes £140 million of investment, including £21 million on presentation and performance enhancements to the current fleet; £20 million on enhancements to the new intercity express programme fleet; and a £4 million fund for customer stakeholder improvement, among many, many more enhancements. If there was any party that reflected dogma last week, it was the Labour party.
My constituents will welcome the improved performance on the east coast main line, but in order to access services on the main line, they have to travel on the TransPennine network. Does my right hon. Friend have any information about future services on that line?
My hon. Friend, along with the Grimsby and Scunthorpe Telegraph, has led an interesting campaign. I am pleased to say that after consideration of the responses to our consultation on the Northern and TransPennine Express franchise, we have decided to retain the Cleethorpes services within the TPE franchise. The forthcoming invitation to tender for the TPE franchise will specify that direct services between Cleethorpes and Manchester airport should continue. I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) have both been at the forefront of this campaign, and I am very pleased to announce today that it has been successful.
Polling shows that a majority of the public oppose the Government’s plans to privatise the east coast main line, and people in their thousands are signing the petition launched by Labour this week. Given that the east coast service has achieved the top customer satisfaction rating for a long-distance rail operator and improved performance, and given that the public sector operator will have returned over £1 billion to the Exchequer before privatisation, why is Directly Operated Railways not even allowed to bid for the contract? When will the Secretary of State finally listen to the travelling public and call a halt to this privatisation?
I welcomed the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box last week when I answered his urgent question, but as this is his first Transport questions, I again welcome him to his post. I have to tell him how interested I was in the interview that he gave to the Daily Mirror on Tuesday, in which he said:
“I want to be a Transport Secretary not a train-spotter . . . there have been too many train-spotters in the job.”
Anybody in this job is not a train-spotter but is interested in what happens to the motorist, the passenger and the cyclist, and should not distinguish between them.
I come back to the point that I made last week. The tendering process has given great rewards to those areas, and will bring more services and better facilities to passengers on that route. I followed the route that the Labour Government followed for 13 years. When the last Labour Transport Secretary brought in DOR, he said that it would be a short-term solution.
I welcome the franchise announcements, which see major improvements across the network. In respect of the east coast main line, however, there are some local concerns in York about the future franchise headquarters. For generations York has been the beating heart of the east coast main line, so will the Secretary of State or the Minister responsible for rail, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), agree to look at what can be done to ensure that the headquarters stay in York?
I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. The lease is up on the premises where the headquarters are currently located. I want the new franchise company to consider where its headquarters will be, but one of the announcements was that there would be training facilities in London, Derby and York to train people to operate that service. York will always be a very important part of the service.
Network Rail (Control Period 5 Investment)
Between 2014 and 2019 Network Rail will spend over £38 billion on running and expanding the British rail network. The Office of Rail Regulation’s recent assessment of Network Rail’s performance against the control period 5 delivery targets is that the company has not made the progress expected in some areas. The ORR has asked Network Rail to provide plans to demonstrate how it will bring about improvements and will hold the company to account for its delivery, as will I.
I thank the Minister for that interesting reply. The current CP5 plan includes electrification of the Leeds-Manchester TransPennine services, which is a great benefit to many of my constituents, but how will we get the benefits of electrification to more people, to put right the historical lack of progress that saw just 9 miles electrified in 13 years under the previous Government?
My hon. Friend serves on the wider taskforce that I set up to look into electrification in the north. I believe the taskforce is meeting today and I await its report. It is looking at 72 routes, some of which are freight routes. My hon. Friend rightly points to the massive expansion in rail electrification that will take place over the CP 5 period, which is widely welcomed across the rail industry and across the House.
One North brings together local authorities right across the north to look at transport needs—road and rail. Does the current structure allow such integrated thinking to go ahead, whether in the current control period or the next, so that we can plan for people’s transport needs looking at road and rail together?
I completely agree with the hon. Lady about the prospects for looking across the piece at not only rail but roads, which is indeed one of the things that One North is looking at. I hope that we shall have its interim report by the end of March. It looks not only at what we have set out in relation to HS3, but at other interconnectivities between the northern powerhouse.
The next time my right hon. Friend is on the fast train to his Derbyshire constituency and sails through Kettering station without stopping, would he be kind enough to reflect on the fact that, with improved line speeds and electrification to the Midland main line, it might be possible to reinstate a half-hourly service northward from Kettering, which was lost under the previous Government?
I am very interested in the points my hon. Friend makes, one of which relates to the whole question of capacity on the railways. That is one of the principal reasons for developing HS2. He is right that ultimately that will allow more opportunities to provide more local services, as well as the services he wants for his constituents.
Listening to the Chancellor yesterday, you might have thought that he had announced major new investment for the railways, but as we all know, the devil is in the detail. He told the north that he would replace the ancient and unpopular Pacer carriages with modern trains, but the green book says that bidders would only be “encouraged” to buy new trains. Yet another study for the south-west was announced, shunting the issue further down the line. He also promised to put the “great” back into the Great Eastern main line, but not a penny of new investment was announced for East Anglia’s railways. Is it not the case that across the country this Government are taking passengers for a ride? [Laughter.]
It’s the way they tell ’em! That is from a party that over 13 years, as the Prime Minister reminded us, electrified only 13 miles of track—I think he inadvertently misled the House, because I understand that is was only 9 miles. We have put forward the most ambitious plans for the railways. The only people who seem not to want to praise that, or even acknowledge it, are those on the Opposition Front Bench.
HS2 Skills Academy
In September the Government announced that the high-speed rail college will be co-located in Birmingham and Doncaster. Work is now under way with the local authorities concerned to get the college up and running. Our goal is for students to be admitted in the academic year 2017-18, which incidentally will coincide with the start of construction.
HS2 is already engaging with schools and colleges. For example, in November it attended the Skills Show for the first time. We need 10,000 people in engineering just to cope with the demand for skills in the existing rail investment strategy, and we need another 25,000 to deliver HS2.
It is all very well helping young people with the HS2 skills academy, but it will be on the backs of the people whose properties are blighted by the project. The Minister need only read Melissa Kite’s moving article in The Spectator on the plight of her elderly parents. There is still no final compensation package, after five years, and HS2 officials are trying to beat home owners down on the independent valuations of their properties. It is shaming that we have still not settled compensation matters after five years. When is the Minister going to sort out this shambles?
The need-to-sell scheme will be operating in the new year, and we are currently consulting on it. I must point out that part of the skills agenda is investment in skills for tunnelling. We are engaging in unprecedented levels of tunnelling to limit environmental impacts. The skills college will be a hub-and-spoke arrangement, and we are looking for colleges that can teach environmental skills to engage with it so that we can deliver on our promise of no net biodiversity loss.
The Government have an ambitious strategy for tackling congestion and improving the performance of our roads. As I have said, the road investment strategy sets out plans to invest £15 billion to enhance strategic roads between 2015 and 2021. The investment plan includes 15 schemes in Yorkshire and the north-east. In addition, as my right hon. Friend will know, East Riding has secured £4.4 million from the local growth fund for the Bridlington integrated transport plan phase 2.
Will my right hon. Friend take a further step towards securing his reputation as a radical politician by dealing with avoidable congestion? Is he aware that thousands of motorists travelling at non-rush hour times often find themselves stuck in a traffic jam at traffic lights for no reason whatsoever? Why cannot some of these traffic lights be turned off, as is done in other countries?
Among my right hon. Friend’s many distinctions is his chairmanship of the all-party historic vehicles group, of which I am merely a humble member. He will recognise that the kind of innovation—the kind of radicalism—that he suggests is always close to the heart of this Government and this Ministry. We do not have plans to do what he says, but I will certainly consider it. There are 15 schemes in Yorkshire and the north-east. Was it Pound who said that a genius can recognise 10 things but an ordinary man can recognise only one? I can recognise 15.
The use of the hard shoulder as an extra lane on motorways at peak times has been shown to be successful in improving safety and reducing congestion. However, using the hard shoulder outside peak times will lead to a greater number of accidents, and the police have warned that it should not be done. Will the Minister look again at this policy and ensure that we do not see more deaths and serious incidents on our motorways as a result of using hard shoulders outside peak times when they are not needed?
The hon. Lady is right to recognise that smart motorways are partly about using the capacity of the hard shoulder as an important way of easing congestion. She is right, too, that safety has to be a prime consideration in all such matters, so we will look at the evidence. If the evidence suggests that we need to alter policy, we will, but my judgment is that so far it does not show that this behaviour is dangerous.
The Secretary of State, in particular, will know how important the Shipley eastern bypass is in relieving congestion and stimulating economic activity in my constituency. The Government have given a considerable amount of money to the combined Labour west Yorkshire authorities for transport infrastructure schemes to relieve congestion. What steps will his Department take to make those Labour councils make sure that all parts of west Yorkshire benefit, not just their Labour heartlands?
My hon. Friend is right that when one looks at infrastructural spending one needs to do so on a consensual basis. For example, both Front-Bench teams will be working together on the Infrastructure Bill to make sure, irrespective of party, that it provides a foundation for the future. It is absolutely right that when we look at these things we should cut across narrow party divides.
One of the best ways of tackling road congestion is to have proper inter-modal integration. The Minister might know that the M60-M67 junction interchange at Denton is not just one of the most dangerous in the country but one of the most congested, and currently subject to pinch-point infrastructure works. Next to it is Denton station, which has the most pathetic rail service in the country, with just one train, in one direction only, once a week. Will he bang heads together at Northern Trains, Network Rail and Transport for Greater Manchester so that we can have a proper train service from Denton into Manchester, as that will be crucial as part of the northern hub work?
Not for the first time, Mr Speaker, you took the words out of my mouth. The hon. Gentleman suggests that, as far as rail in his constituency is concerned, you can get there but you cannot get back. He is absolutely right to say that we should look at such things in an integrated way, and this is not the first time he has raised the issue: he has raised it a number of times in the Chamber. If he looks at the plans we announced earlier this week, he will see that, in relation to rail, ports and roads, we are working on the sort of integration he describes, to make sure that all modes of transport fit.
Rail North Electrification Taskforce
A wide range of electrification schemes is being considered by the taskforce of northern MPs and council leaders set up to explore the priorities for future electrification in the north. The taskforce expects to provide me with an interim report in February 2015 setting out its recommended priorities for scheme development in future rail funding control periods from 2019.
The electrification of the Crewe-Chester line and beyond into north Wales has gained the support of local businesses, local councils, local MPs and even the Welsh Assembly, and the results of the report are eagerly awaited. How can members of the public also make sure that their views are heard?
Many Opposition Members are fond of the Secretary of State, but this morning he has been unusually full of bluster about the northern powerhouse and rail electrification. Will he not admit the truth that the botched privatisation that carved up the franchising between Railtrack and the operators was ruinous, and that nothing will happen in our rail system until we get rid of that botched privatisation?
I was informed that the hon. Gentleman sent out some interesting tweets when he was last on the east coast main line, saying it had been a disaster since it had been privatised, when actually it was being run by direct operators at the time. As far as blustering is concerned, I think the hon. Gentleman blusters too much. He is jealous of the success and work we are putting in to the northern powerhouse and to improving not only our railways but our roads right across the country.
May I thank the Secretary of State for his earlier reply regarding direct services from Cleethorpes through Barnetby and from Scunthorpe to Manchester? That is really important. We are not ungrateful, but may I now push him on the electrification of the south Humber line? We know it is a complex project because of the amount of trade used on the route, but could some research be done on it?
I am glad that I have pleased my hon. Friend on one particular subject, on which he and my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) led a successful campaign. On electrification, we are now starting work on what will be in the next control period and I will take what my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) has just said as part of those representations.
If Tees valley and its mighty industries are to play their full role in the much vaunted northern powerhouse, it is essential that the electrification of the east coast line from Northallerton to Middlesbrough and on to Tees port—the UK’s second largest exporting port—be prioritised. Will the Secretary of State ensure that that section of line is included in the forthcoming schedule?
FirstGroup (Great Western Main Line)
Officials hold meetings with First Great Western every four weeks to discuss franchise performance. Ministers and officials regularly meet senior figures from across the industry at a range of forums to discuss current issues, including performance. We have made it clear that we expect the industry to do its utmost to deliver the level of performance for which it is funded.
Will the Secretary of State ensure that the new Great Western main line franchise takes into account the very real present overcrowding problems in south-east Wales, and ensure that the operator provides an adequate number of carriages to service demand now and on future forecasts?
One of the things that I have done with that franchise is to make arrangements and instruct the operator, as it is doing, to convert first-class carriages into standard-class carriages. That will increase capacity a little on the line. The line has been very successful overall. In 2010-11, the number of passengers using the franchise was 90.5 million; on the latest figures available, for 2013-14, the number was 99.7 million. We are seeing such a rise across the whole rail franchise sector.
The Secretary of State was kind enough to meet me and nine other MPs to discuss improvements to our part of this franchise. My last two journeys from Chippenham to London began with me seated on the floor of the carriage—on one of them, alongside a young woman and her crutches. Does he accept that it will take not only converted buffet cars but additional services to meet the demand on the line?
I agree with my hon. Friend to a degree. We are seeing that right across the whole railway sector, and I am very proud of it: such revolutionary performance has been brought about by franchising and the imagination of franchising. It is rather disappointing that a party that used franchising for 13 years now condemns it.
The Government recognised the detrimental effect that the proposed port services regulation in its original form would have had on the UK ports industry. At the Transport Council in October, we succeeded in our main negotiating aim of ensuring that the Council text was amended to protect our ports industry by limiting its application and by taking better account of the interests of already competitive ports such as ours.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In our thriving ports sector, everyone—businesses, unions, thousands of employees—are fearful of the regulation because it threatens competitiveness and workers’ rights and protections. Given that his Department was so badly mauled in the European Committee in September that the Minister had to abandon his motion, why are we still waiting for concrete results? Despite his pledges, the Government got no support for blocking port regulations in Europe in October. If the Government did such a good job in October, why has he failed to bring his motion back to the House, as he promised?
In the deal we got in October, we got our ports excluded from the majority of this unwelcome, unnecessary and undesirable regulation, and on other matters not included in that exemption we agreed that this House should make the decision. I call that achievement a victory, and the hon. Gentleman would be well advised to welcome it.
On Monday 17 November I announced £25 million to support community transport providers, and that fund will provide hundreds of new minibuses to community transport operators in rural and isolated areas. Those groups help keep rural communities alive and independent, and it is vital to do all we can to support local voluntary operators in those areas.
Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made a number of announcements—indeed, he was criticised by some for putting too much in those announcements. As the hon. Lady will remember, I provided the money to move that scheme up to the next stage on the guide to rail investment process some time ago, and I await the outcome of that work.
Rail journeys have increased from 750 million to 1.6 billion and jobs on the railway are increasing, yet all Labour can do is start saying that somehow jobs will be cut. More services will be operating on that line than ever before, and that will mean more jobs.
We are keen for local authorities to take over civil enforcement of their parking, but I know that the situation in my hon. Friend’s constituency is not as simple as in other parts of the country. I would be delighted to meet him and discuss the issue further.
Outside London more than 40% of money going into bus services comes from the Government one way or another, but many local bus services are under pressure because of the pressure placed on local authorities. A new station at James Cook hospital means that people who use the rail line from Whitby in my constituency, or Middlesbrough in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, can access the hospital by train, which was not the case previously.
It is for local authorities to determine whether a new station at Stonehouse on the Gloucester to Bristol line is the best way to meet local transport needs. It is for them to demonstrate the business case for securing it, but I am more than happy to work with my hon. Friend and to facilitate communications between him and Network Rail to see whether a solution can be reached.
I understand that Northumberland county council intends to undertake a more detailed study into the reopening of the line. I will be interested to see the results when it is completed. In the meantime, I can confirm that the next northern franchise will be required to co-operate with the development of the project. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman if he wishes.
My hon. Friend will know that the service to Skipton will continue at today’s levels. I can confirm that the changes to the east coast main line will not put that in jeopardy. As he will also know, those changes on that important line will bring more journeys, more opportunities and more investment.
Last month, a child was hit by a car outside Flixton junior school in my constituency. Parents are worried about our children’s safety—more so—because Trafford council plans to withdraw 31 school road crossing patrols in the borough, including 23 in my constituency. Will the Minister join me in condemning the local authority’s short-sighted decision and urge it to put our children’s safety first?
Obviously, the safety of our children outside school is paramount, which is why, for example, we have made it easier for local authorities to introduce 20 mph limits. I am pleased that we have retained the use of cameras for enforcement of parking restrictions on those zigzag lines. Spending on the type of patrol the hon. Lady mentions is a matter for local authorities. I am sure they will consider their priorities in that regard.
Sections of the M27 in my constituency—the busiest motorway per mile in the country—are so noisy that local residents are unable to open their windows in the stifling summers that climate change has brought us, and that affects their health and sanity. My constituency continues to wait for resurfacing, so will the Minister please investigate the provision of effective noise barriers to save my residents’ health and sanity?
Yes, this issue is rightly raised by a number of hon. Members. We have taken action to reduce noise on some key roads and I hear what he says about the M27. There will be money for extensive resurfacing—we are talking about resurfacing 80% of the nation’s roads—and I will look at his case in that spirit.
Is the Secretary of State aware that the rail investment in Cheshire is between Wrexham and Chester, where the Labour Welsh Government are redoubling the single track line created by the Tories in the 1980s? Will he therefore commit to supporting investment in rail infrastructure in north Wales in the same way that the UK Government have invested in south Wales?
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Commission on Digital Democracy
Mr Speaker, the specifics of the work of your commission are not directly the responsibility of the House of Commons Commission. However, I understand that work is at an advanced stage, and that it is planning to publish its report on 21 January.
Eighteen-year-old Rachael Farrington from Cheshire has established the successful “Voting Counts” website and social media campaign, which intends to engage young people with politics and encourage them to vote. How is the Commission working with young e-activists like Rachael to encourage young people to get involved with parliamentary democracy?
I congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituent on her work. It sounds absolutely fascinating. All I can tell him, as far as the Commission is concerned, is that the commissioners heard evidence on this matter and it will be reflected in its report. However, it is not for me to anticipate that. In addition to the more traditional evidence sessions, the commissioners met a wide range of people in a number of towns and cities in the United Kingdom.
Is there not a fear that any introduction of electronic voting, which is partly what we are talking about, could give rise to abuses? Would it not be more sensible to stick with the system we have now on the basis that if it is not broken, don’t fix it?
I have to again point out that the House of Commons Commission is not actually responsible for this matter, so as its spokesman I cannot comment on it. However, I know that Mr Speaker, whose commission it is, has heard what has been said and I am sure that it will be taken into account.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy is looking at innovative ways of engaging with the public on democracy, including e-voting and other matters? Does he not think that we should consider such important ways forward in conjunction with consideration of how the public regard voting and democracy in the present day?
My hon. Friend makes an exceptionally good point which I may personally support. However, as the spokesman for the Commission, I have to refer to the answer I have already given and say that I am sure his words have been heard by those who need to hear them.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
Ministerial Announcements (Guidance)
The ministerial code is clear. When Parliament is in Session the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance to Parliament, and I regularly remind my colleagues of this.
I thank the Leader of the House for his answer. He said the ministerial code is clear. That seems strange to me, because the statement we heard from the Chancellor yesterday had a familiar ring to it—I had read most of it in the Sunday papers. Will he clarify again whether the ministerial code should be observed rather than ignored?
Well of course it should be observed, but I think the hon. Gentleman chooses a rather poor example for his argument. There was a great deal in the Chancellor’s statement yesterday that came as a complete surprise to this House and to the wider world, both in the economic forecasts of the Office for Budget Responsibility and in the many specific measures. The autumn statement truly showed that announcements are being made in Parliament.
I am not sure how much that would add to my fearsome reputation, although I am always happy to attempt to add to such a thing. We have not had any shortage of capacity to make oral statements here on the Floor of the House. I think there have been 38 statements in this Session so far and we have always been able to accommodate them. If we ever get to the point where they could not be accommodated, we should look at the point my hon. Friend makes.
May I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin)? Has the situation not gone so far now that everything in the autumn statement should be announced through the press? At least then we would have a chance to debate it all in advance, rather than it being used by the Chancellor to pull a rabbit out of the hat in a political sense by announcing it in the House in that very unfair way?
Opposition Members cannot have it both ways. Well, they can try to have it both ways—we have heard both arguments from those on the Opposition Back Benches. That perhaps shows that everything relating to the autumn statement was presented in the correct way. As someone who served as Leader of the Opposition when Alastair Campbell was advising the Government of Tony Blair, I do not need any lectures from anybody about announcements being made in the press rather than elsewhere.
The Office of the Leader of the House of Commons provides guidance to all Departments on the practice of answering parliamentary questions. The guidance advises Departments that Members should receive a substantive response to their named day question on the date specified and should endeavour to answer ordinary written questions within a working week of being tabled.
The Government’s official guidance on written questions requires answers to be both accurate and truthful, and not highly politicised. Yet written answers recently received from a number of Ministers, most notably a Minister of State from the Cabinet Office, have been of a party political character. Will the Leader of the House ensure that his ministerial colleagues are aware of the proper processes to be followed when answering questions?
If the hon. Lady has issues about the speed with which questions are being answered or their content, that is clearly a matter she can raise with the Procedure Committee. It is best that she provides the background information, but if she wants to provide me with the examples she has mentioned, I would be happy to follow them up with the relevant Secretaries of the State.
May I follow up that point and remind the House that in recent months the Procedure Committee has invited two Secretaries of the State and their permanent secretaries to appear before it to explain their lack of performance? If Members of any party have any concerns about the content or timeliness of their answers, they should bring the matter to the attention of the Procedure Committee.
I am grateful for that point of clarification or information. When Departments want to respond promptly, they can do so. I have frequently quoted the ability of the Department of Health, for example, to respond to 99% of questions within the appropriate time scales, and I am now happy to be able to refer to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which has been able to respond to 100% of them within the appropriate time scales.
One of the Secretaries of State dragged to the Procedure Committee was from the Ministry of Justice, which provides one of the worst examples of Ministers dodging their responsibilities and parliamentary scrutiny. Under the current Lord Chancellor, fewer than one in five questions was answered on time in the last Session. That is because, as he has admitted, his own special advisers are vetting every answer. Do we not need more substance and less spin from Ministers?
I was very pleased to speak in the UK Youth Parliament’s debate in this Chamber on 14 November. The level of debate was extremely high, and I have ensured that all relevant Ministers have been made aware of the contributions that took place.
Mr Eddie Fenwick, the Member of the Youth Parliament for Newark, sends his thanks to the Leader of the House and Mr Speaker. He hugely enjoyed the day. One topic debated was the franchise and whether 16 and 17-year-olds such as Mr Fenwick should have the right to vote. Perhaps surprisingly, polls suggest that 16 and 17-year-olds do not want to vote because they feel they do not have the confidence to address the issues. Would my right hon. Friend consider providing a debate on raising the quality of political education in this country to increase confidence among young people?
I send my regards to Mr Fenwick and everybody who took part in the Youth Parliament debate, which was an extremely encouraging spectacle, concerning the level of education and commitment of young people to political debate in this country. There are strongly held views for and against lowering the voting age to 16—including among young people, as my hon. Friend says—but I continue to encourage every possible effort to raise the level of political education and discussion, including this week at the 25th A-level politics annual student conference, which a couple of thousand students attended and I addressed.
Without youth workers, there would be no election of, or support for, members of the Youth Parliament, so will the right hon. Gentleman make representations to the Cabinet Office against the destruction of youth services nationally, so that this great fantastic institution of the UK Youth Parliament can continue?
I am sure that this great innovation will continue, because it has real momentum, and young people are fascinated by it. Hundreds of thousands took part in the decisions about which motions should be debated. Local authorities have an important role in supporting the Youth Parliament, and it is important that they continue that support in whatever way they can.
Let me again place on record my thanks to all the staff who made that day so successful. I wonder whether you, Mr Speaker, have discussed with the Leader of the House the possibility of extending the opportunity for young people to speak, perhaps in another Chamber such as Westminster Hall. It has been suggested that we might afford them slightly more time in which to deal with the issues that they feel are so important.
I join my hon. Friend in placing on record the thanks of—I think—all Members to the staff of the House, who did a great deal to make the Youth Parliament possible. It is worth considering the idea of extending the time available to them by enabling some of them to sit in other parts of the House, and I am sure that we can look into that together, Mr Speaker.
The Government are committed to publishing draft clauses based on the Smith commission report by 25 January 2015. I will report to the House in due course on further progress in relation to the devolution of powers within the United Kingdom, and on the consequences for England.
As the House considers the report, there will be much talk about how combined city authorities can become the vehicles for devolution in England. That will make it increasingly necessary for authorities to come together in the west midlands, where there is still no agreement. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the position of shire counties and rural areas is fully taken into account, so that everyone in England has an opportunity to benefit?
That is an extremely important point, and, as a north Yorkshire Member of Parliament, I am certainly very conscious of it. There is a huge opportunity for local authorities to take up the challenge that has been taken up by Manchester, and to reach the same agreement with the Chancellor. However, this does not only involve metropolitan areas or conurbations; there are also major opportunities for county councils and rural authorities in general to make such plans, and we should encourage them to do so.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on delivering the Smith commission’s conclusions into legislation, but does he share my worry that the voice of rural communities such as North Yorkshire county council, and indeed the moneys for transport infrastructure and other projects, may well be adversely affected if the plans for the city region and the northern powerhouse go ahead in the form that I fear that they may take?
It is of course important for the whole concept of the northern powerhouse to work for people throughout the north of England and for rural as well as urban areas to benefit from it. Given the locations of our constituencies, my hon. Friend and I will both be very insistent that that should happen. It is certainly possible for the whole of the north to benefit from the uplift in prosperity, skills, transport infrastructure and superfast broadband, because the Government have put together a stronger set of measures for the north of England than any other Government in recent decades.
I am sure my right hon. Friend is well aware that my constituents are very keen on English votes for English laws. How will he implement that, and how does the Smith commission recommend that it—as well as devo-max in Scotland—should be implemented in a way that will not lead to a break-up of the Union?
The Government will shortly publish a Command Paper setting out the options for what have become known as English votes for English laws, as well as plans for further decentralisation within England. I hope to publish it before Christmas, and will seek to make a statement in the House, following which we shall all be able to consider together how to proceed with those plans.
May I ask the Leader of the House how far he intends to take the logic of English votes for English laws, given that with the devolution to Greater Manchester I will no longer be able to vote, as a Greater Manchester MP, on many of those issues, but will be able to vote on those same issues in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency?
I have invited the Opposition to present their own proposals, but they have refused to take part in any discussions with the Cabinet Committee. I wrote last week to the deputy leader of the Labour party to ask it to present its proposals that we could publish in the Command Paper I have just been talking about. I have not yet had any positive response to that. The hon. Gentleman might want to encourage that response. It is very important of course that whatever solution we arrive at is fair to all parts of the United Kingdom, but that includes being fair to the voters of England as well as to the rest of the UK.