House of Commons
Thursday 5 March 2015
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before questions
Transport for London Bill [Lords]
Consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until Monday 16 March at Seven o’clock (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Airports Commission recently completed a consultation on 3 February on its assessment of proposals for additional runway capacity. The commission is continuing to undertake further analyses on the shortlist of runway options before publishing its final report in the summer of 2015.
May I congratulate the Government on their policy on no third runway at Heathrow? Does the Secretary of State agree that the aviation industry would be best served by a solution that encourages competition; can be delivered sooner, cheaper and easier; takes into account the impact on local residents; and does not require billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money?
My hon. Friend has been very consistent in her opposition to any third or fourth runway at Heathrow, and I know she supports the expansion of other airports. I look forward to receiving the commission’s recommendations and report this summer and to my hon. Friend’s comments on it.
Have we not just wasted another five years? The coalition has delayed building new runway capacity for the south-east because the Liberal Democrats are in denial about aviation being a very important economic instrument. I think the Conservative party now gets it. Why have we had to wait another five years?
I will not take any lessons from a party that wasted 13 years in not doing anything about extra capacity. It is a bit rich of the hon. Gentleman to accuse the Government of not taking action. The truth is that all the options that are being discussed by the commission are very different from the proposals considered by the previous Government.
Has the Secretary of State asked the Airports Commission to examine the cumulative impact of any runway extension at Heathrow and how it would affect the local area if it coincided with other projects, such as the construction of HS2, the Amersham waste transfer station and the development of Newland park? What assessment has been made of the impact on the local area?
The commission is doing a comprehensive piece of work looking at all the options relating to aviation capacity in the south-east and the associated infrastructure projects that any project it suggests will affect, so I am sure it will have considered the points made by my right hon. Friend.
Notwithstanding whichever decision the Davies commission comes to, does my right hon. Friend agree that connectivity to Heathrow is now being sorted pretty efficiently through Old Oak Common and that there is no further need for the Heathrow spur should HS2 go ahead?
This may be the last time I am able to address my right hon. Friend in this Chamber. It has been a great pleasure to work with him over many years. He has made a huge contribution, not only to the House of Commons and the Conservative party, but in standing up for his constituents in Uxbridge.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that these matters need to be addressed very carefully. Of course, at the moment the whole question of HS2 is being studied by a Committee. I am not going to trespass on the valuable and important work it is doing, but my right hon. Friend makes some valid points. The importance that Old Oak Common will have to the infrastructure of this country is vast indeed, and I hope to be able to say a bit more about that shortly.
Rural Railway Stations
Officials regularly meet train operating companies where usage is a key discussion point. We are working hard with the industry to increase rural station usage. We recognise the important social role of stations in building communities, and have therefore introduced a new policy requirement to develop social and community development plans in new franchises.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Does he agree that one way we can get cars off the road and reduce congestion on our motorways and, indeed, on smaller roads is to develop rural train stations? We have one at Ashchurch for Tewkesbury, which is a very good station, but it is underused at the moment. Can we try to make such stations better used by train operating companies?
The answer to my hon. Friend’s question is yes. Ashchurch for Tewkesbury station has the potential for more use. I would welcome that, as I am sure my hon. Friend would too. For new franchises we ask operators to look at such questions in great detail. I acknowledge his comments, and no doubt Gloucestershire county council will make such points in due course.
As a result of the landslip on the Chiltern line, kiosks and shops at rural railway stations have suffered a drop of at least 50% in their revenue. Will the Secretary of State urge Network Rail to look at mitigation, such as reducing rents, during the period of disruption?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. I hope that there will be an announcement soon about the full reopening of the line. If that has not already been announced, I think it will be announced shortly. I will discuss her very good point directly with the chief executive of Network Rail. People with businesses who are renting from Network Rail have been directly affected by that landslip.
One issue with encouraging the use of Ambergate station in my constituency is the strange fare system. Even though a fare to the next station is relatively cheap, the cost of a fare to Birmingham from both stations can be very different. Is there any way that the Secretary of State can fix the fare system to get rid of its anomalies?
I know Ambergate station very well, as the line goes up to Matlock and down to Derby. There are indeed anomalies in ticket purchasing on that line, and I am only too well aware of such frustrations. My hon. Friend makes a valid point, which I certainly want to look at. There are huge opportunities in ticketing, including with the development of smart technology.
Decisions on the use of bus lanes, including any exemptions or exceptions, are for local authorities.
I am sure that the Minister will be aware that a number of local authorities still do not allow ambulances to drive in bus lanes unless they are responding to an emergency. Does he agree that if an empty taxi returning to a taxi rank can drive in a bus lane, an ambulance returning to a hospital should be able to do so?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although an ambulance can use a bus lane when responding to an emergency, it is otherwise up to a local authority to use its discretion on that matter. Indeed, local authorities such as Labour-controlled Manchester and Sheffield do not allow ambulances in bus lanes. I have written to every local authority in the country to make that point and ask them to bear it in mind when they make their local decisions.
The Minister has talked in detail about privatising buses and bus lanes, but the process needs more than warm words from the Government; it means bus lanes with strong local management and control of funding. Why will the Government not sign up to our franchising proposals to allow communities and councils to plan a network that includes the bus lanes they need? Why, instead of real localism, have this Government presided over a failed record, with bus fares up 25% and 2,000 routes cut, and a broken bus market, which lets users down, but which Labour will fix in government?
The Government have a very good record on buses. Bus companies, including the one in my constituency, have very full order books, because they are investing as never before in new buses on routes such the one north of Whitby in my constituency. We have a very good record to protect.
Greater Anglia Franchise
The procurement competition has been live since the issue of the procurement documentation on 19 February, and applications are due on 15 April. An invitation to tender will be issued in August, with tender returns due in December 2015. Any delays in the process will result in a delay to the provision of any new rolling stock or services on the line.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that a great many of my constituents expect that the successful bidder will be required, or at least incentivised, to bring in new rolling stock on the Great Eastern and West Anglia lines to replace the type 317 and 321 trains, which by now are old, uncomfortable, unreliable and inefficient?
We expect to ask bidders to provide a rolling stock strategy that meets the needs of all passengers in East Anglia, while providing a cost-effective solution. They will be in no doubt of the desire of all passengers using that route for substantially new rolling stock, and the rolling stock that my right hon. Friend rightly describes should be taken out of service in due course.
May I stress to my right hon. Friend that if there is no new rolling stock with the award of the franchise, there will be considerable disappointment among commuters and other users, and it will totally undermine all Network Rail’s improvements to the infrastructure? Current rolling stock on the commuter lines is so outdated that it has problems with acceleration and braking.
Commuters from Colchester pay some of the highest fares in the country, and successive Governments have failed significantly to improve the railway infrastructure. Does the Secretary of State agree that without implementation of the East Anglia rail manifesto, whoever wins the Greater Anglia rail franchise will find difficulty in improving the service between Colchester and London?
We have just seen the launch of the new east coast main line franchise. It is committed to reducing the cost of rail tickets, and I hope that anyone who competes for the East Anglia franchise will come forward with new ideas that will not only increase the capacity on that line and improve rolling stock, but look at the cost of tickets.
Railway Stations: Traffic
To keep up with the unprecedented growth in rail traffic across the country since privatisation, including a 5% jump in passenger rail journeys last year, the Government have committed to significant investment in improving stations across the network by 2019. That includes £160 million in Access for All schemes, £100 million in station commercial projects, and £100 million for the station improvement programme.
The Secretary of State recently had a chance to visit Gloucester and see the importance of an additional entrance and new car park at our train station, which will also be a catalyst for wider growth and regeneration. Will my hon. Friend confirm when she expects the Department’s negotiations with First Great Western on its franchise extension proposals, which include the improvements at Gloucester, to be completed?
I thank my hon. Friend for his specific and helpful recommendations about the development of Gloucester station. He is a champion for rail travellers in his constituency. The Department is currently in negotiation with First Great Western about the new directly awarded contract that will provide services for three and a half years from September 2015. We carried out a public consultation last year, and I expect to conclude negotiations this month.
The chaotic and dangerous scenes at London Bridge station come after the major disruption at Christmas. How can the Minister ensure that the whole rail sector works together to put the interests of passengers first?
Although I am a strong champion of the unprecedented investment programme going on right across the country, including the rebuilding of one of the most complicated and busiest stations in Europe, that cannot be done at the expense of passengers. I have had several conversations with the chief executive of Network Rail—most recently before questions this morning—and we are in constant contact with the station management team. It will take a joined-up approach from operators, Network Rail and the British Transport Police, and the system is feeding that service to ensure that passenger safety and comfort is not compromised. Clearly nobody wants crowded platforms—but this is not crowd control; this is passengers trying to get home after a long day at work.
Further to that point, we all want to see improvements to these stations, but the deplorable failure of Network Rail in what is, of course, a very complicated scheme in any event and the failure of the train operating companies to deliver new timetables within such constraints has led to inexcusable delays and inconvenience for my constituents. Will my hon. Friend consider giving all those people who have had to travel into London Bridge during this period compensation for the cost of their tickets to reflect the very serious conditions with which they have had to deal?
I thank my right hon. Friend, who has been an assiduous commentator and critic of the current system. Like me, he is absolutely determined that this unprecedented investment is felt by passengers. That is why the Government are spending £38 billion on passenger improvements. I completely agree that a compensation scheme is required, and we are currently looking at providing one.
Many stations in Yorkshire and the north will be affected by HS2. Has the Minister seen the startling information blogged this morning by Tom Edwards, the BBC transport correspondent, that evidence to the HS2 Committee suggests that hidden costs will raise the overall cost of the HS2 project from £50 billion to £138 billion? Are the Government misleading this country about just how much this folly of HS2 is going to cost?
I did not see the information because I was on the phone to the chief executive of Network Rail. A budget is a budget. Unlike the hon. Gentleman’s Government, this Government have a track record of bringing in major infrastructure projects such as the Olympics on budget and on time.
Travel to the west country is often massively disrupted by incidents between Reading and Paddington. Given the huge investment that has gone into Reading station, is it not possible to find alternative means of connectivity between Reading and London—Reading is virtually becoming a London station—so that people from the west country can get in and out of London perfectly easily?
The hon. Gentleman—like me, he travels on that line—will have seen the many improvements to Reading station. It is not just a beautiful new station; there has been significant remodelling of the train paths, including a flyover of the freight line to reduce disruption for passengers. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Crossrail interchange, which will go to Reading, will lift about 10% of traffic off the rail network, giving passengers going to Reading a whole series of other options for connectivity right into central London.
Rail passenger numbers have doubled compared with 20 years ago—thanks to record investment under the previous Labour Government, including in stations such as the magnificent St Pancras. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may not like it, Mr Speaker, but it is true. Government Members try to take credit for projects we began, such as Reading, but we should look at their broken promises and record of failure instead. They make the dodgy claim that they are electrifying 850 miles, but only 18 miles have been finished, while electrification costs have doubled, essential projects have been delayed and the Transport Select Committee has warned that vital schemes may never be delivered. Is it not time for a change of Government, so that passengers get the services they deserve?
It’s the way the hon. Lady tells them. It is not 850 miles of electrification, but 889 miles—as opposed to the 10 miles delivered in the previous 13 years of supposedly record economic growth. I know that the hon. Lady is a frequent traveller from Nottingham station, which has benefited, of course, from £100 million-worth of investment under this Government. We will take no lessons from her.
It says here that strategic roads play a key part in driving economic growth in my Lincolnshire constituency and elsewhere. Most of the north-south roads in Lincolnshire are the responsibility of the local highways authorities. Nevertheless, equipped with our new statutory authority to ensure that route strategies are consistent and coherent with our national road strategy, I will make certain that my Department works with them and the local enterprise partnership to deliver optimal improvements. By the way, I think a meeting between the hon. Gentleman and me might serve that purpose.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I welcome his offer to meet me and other hon. Members from northern Lincolnshire to discuss the nature of the A15, which is a significant link from the developments on the Humber port down to Lincoln. It is a neglected road. The road system south of Lincoln is good; it is this bit of road that really needs looking at. I welcome the Minister’s offer and look forward to taking him up on it.
I know the road well and I think there is a case for further improvements on the A15, A16 and A17 in Lincolnshire. Of course, the A15 is Ermine street, a Roman road. It seems to me we should be no less ambitious for our world than the Romans were for theirs.
I welcome what the Minister has to say. As he will know, the A15 is a vital road for access to the port of Immingham in my constituency, the largest port in the country. It is Government policy to improve access to ports. Will he make that a major consideration when he meets me and the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin)?
I am conscious that Humberside MPs met, I think in 2013, to discuss just these issues in the Department. I was with my hon. Friend in his constituency very recently looking at transport matters. Actually, I think the Government can do better in co-ordinating the relationship between road investment and ports and other modes of transport. I think all Governments have neglected that and we can do more. I will certainly take up what my hon. Friend suggests.
Cycling and Walking
The Government are committed to increasing walking and cycling. We have more than doubled the funding compared with the previous Administration. We added a section to the Infrastructure Act 2015 that places a commitment on Government to produce a cycling and walking investment strategy. In addition, our funding for bike and rail has put us on track to triple the number of cycle places at rail stations.
I am delighted that an excellent campaign forced Ministers to concede the cycling and walking strategy in the Infrastructure Act. When are we now going to get a strategy with proper resources and targets? When will Ministers implement the powers in part 6 of the Traffic Management Act 2004, so that councils outside London are finally able to enforce those powers against driving in cycle lanes?
I am very proud of this Government’s record. Indeed, when we discussed this with officials on the Infrastructure Act they said, “But Minister, it doesn’t need to be in there. You are doing this already.” I said, “Put it in anyway to underline that fact.” I am very proud that, while we inherited £2 a head spending on cycling, we have increased that to £6 a head and in our cycling ambition cities we are already delivering £10 a head. However, I know that driving in cycle lanes is an issue of great concern to cyclists, whose safety is paramount.
I suspect the Minister will be too busy in May to attend the Isle of Wight walking festival, but if he would like to see initiatives that really work to increase the level of cycling, and indeed tourism, may I invite him to attend the Isle of Wight cycling festival in September?
Confidence in road safety is key to increasing rates of cycling and walking, but after decades of progress, last year saw three consecutive increases in road deaths. Answers to parliamentary questions have revealed a dramatic reduction in the number of prosecutions for dangerous drink-driving and mobile offences at the wheel. With the number of traffic officers down by 23% since 2010 and apparently two years without any at all in Devon and Cornwall, whether these things are the fault of Transport Ministers, Home Office Ministers or even the Prime Minister himself, is it not the reality that the Government have failed to protect front-line policing and keep our roads safe? Is it not right for the next Labour Government to reintroduce proper targets to cut the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads?
We do have targets for the Highways Agency network, which we have control over. Other roads are the responsibility of highways agencies. When I stood at the Opposition Dispatch Box five years ago and put it to the Labour Government that we should introduce drug-driving legislation, they said it was impossible. I am proud to say that on Monday this week we gave the police the tools they need to prosecute those who put other road users in danger by drug-driving, and we now have the legislation on the statute book to do that—something that Labour said was impossible.
I note that the Minister has not been to the Isle of Wight, but has he been to Ribble Valley, where we have some of the best cycling areas and walking routes through some of the greatest beauty that one will find in England? Does he believe, like me, that if we can encourage more youngsters, in particular, to cycle and to walk, that could help with the problem of obesity, and that perhaps we could get Government, schools and local authorities working together to encourage people to have step monitors to give them some focus so that they can become healthier human beings?
I have indeed been to Ribble Valley, which is a very beautiful part of the country despite not being in Yorkshire. It is very important that we get young people on their bikes. That is why I am delighted that we have delivered 1.6 million Bikeability places, mainly to young people, and we expect a further 280,000 places between April 2015 and March 2016.
A round-table discussion was held with Transport for the North, local authorities and other interested stakeholders at the end of February 2015 regarding the scope of the northern trans-Pennine strategic study. That study will consider the possible dualling of the A69 or the A66, or both, and technical work will start in the summer of 2015.
Dualling the A69 is needed for the long-term economic plan of the true north and is supported by all the local MPs and businesses, and by a number of petitions put forward by constituents of mine and constituents in Carlisle. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) and I were able to show those to the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), last week, and I urge the Department to keep acting on them.
You know, Mr Speaker, that Ruskin said that quality is never an accident and always involves intelligent effort, and my hon. Friend’s effort has been intelligence at its very height. He is right that this road, which runs alongside Hadrian’s wall, is an important route, for the reasons he gave—for the well-being of local people and the local economy. That is well understood by this Minister and by this Government.
A27: Worthing and Lancing
Prior to the announcement of the road investment strategy in December 2014, I had the joy of touring the A27. Since then, the Highways Agency has started to realise our commitment to improve that road at Worthing and Lancing. To date, agency officers have held initial meetings with key stakeholders and begun work on the detailed traffic models required for this exciting scheme’s development.
The Minister will recall that there was dancing in the streets back in December when the Secretary of State announced the enhancements to the A27 around Arundel and Worthing. That dancing has subsided a little as the feasibility studies go on. Will he update the House on progress, on when we will hear further news about the likely work, and on the possibility of including some tolling at pinch points and flyovers, including on the old Roman bit?
It has been said, Mr Speaker, that I never disappoint, but I do sometimes surprise. I am delighted, therefore, to tell my hon. Friend that I will not merely update him on progress but can reveal that we will publish the feasibility study, a result of his efforts and our endeavour, immediately. I will let him have this report, which details exactly how we intend to move forward, shaped and informed by his efforts and those of his friends.
Rail Delays: Compensation
It is absolutely right for passengers to be compensated when their journeys are delayed. The Government have introduced tough new measures to ensure that that happens, and compensation payments across the network have increased sixfold since 2011. As the hon. Lady will know, we are introducing a 30-minute “delay repay” scheme on lines that have not already been making payments—as well as other enhanced compensation opportunities—during franchising negotiations and, when we can, during existing contracts. However, recent estimates by Passenger Focus suggest that only 12% of passengers who are delayed by 30 minutes or more go on to claim compensation. I am determined to address that, and, as operators will know, I believe that they need to do much more in this respect.
The right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), who is no longer in the Chamber, was entirely right to call for compensation for commuters who experience severe disruption because of the works at London Bridge. Overcrowding on trains from Lewisham is even more severe than normal, and is actually dangerous. How can a compensation regime that pays up only when services are delayed by 30 minutes or more be relevant to my constituents, who can barely get on to a train irrespective of whether it is late or not?
I genuinely pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who is an assiduous campaigner for commuters in her constituency. It is very refreshing when Members in all parts of the House participate fully in the cross-party summits at which we hold the industry to account.
The hon. Lady is right. There is not adequate compensation under the scheme to cover the metro-style train journeys that many of her constituents take. As she will know, some operators which have similar service patterns, such as c2c, have introduced minute-by-minute refunds—or will be doing so—but I intend to continue to work on a compensation scheme specifically for those affected by the works at London Bridge.
Great Western Franchise
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to learn that we expect to conclude negotiations with First Great Western and to finalise the second directly awarded franchise contract during this month, and expect the provision of services to start in September.
I thank the Minister for that news. When I led a group of 10 Members of Parliament from both sides of the House to meet the Secretary of State before Christmas, we urged him to include in the new franchise local services on the existing line between Oxford and Bristol. Does the Minister accept that even a service between Swindon and Bristol would be a great start in relieving overcrowding on that part of the line, and would be a vital first step towards the reopening of the station at Corsham?
The hon. Gentleman continues to make a persuasive business case for that new service. As a Nailsea girl who was lucky enough to go from Nailsea comprehensive to Oxford university, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that it would have been a great service for me. As he knows, the Secretary of State has invited Members whose constituencies are on the route to work with their local authorities and the local enterprise partnership to present a collective business case. He may be right in saying that, as a minimum, a westward service from Swindon would be helpful.
My Department has continued to operate apace as we move towards the Dissolution of Parliament. Last week we introduced the new invitation to tender for the Northern Rail and TransPennine Express services, and transferred East Coast back to the private sector. That is a major step in a franchising transformation that places passengers at the heart of services.
We also continue to invest in our roads. Fifteen strategic road schemes have been completed since 2010, and a further 16 are under way. Because local roads are equally important, we have committed £6 billion to them, up to 2021, in addition to the 27% increase in funding that has taken place since 2010. Funds for cycling have doubled since 2010, and we are committed to a new long-term investment strategy.
In my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), there has been a decades-long campaign for a new bypass at Llanymynech, which lies between the two constituencies. Will the Minister join the Welsh Government in developing a scheme for that purpose?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. Such a scheme has been identified in the draft national transport plan for Wales as contributing to access to services. We will discuss the matter further with Welsh Government officials to assess their priorities, but no one could have campaigned harder for it to be examined than my hon. Friend.
This week, following the Government’s privatisation of East Coast, Stagecoach released a trading update announcing that the privatisation would “significantly enhance” its profits. We know that the chief executive of Stagecoach, Martin Griffiths, is scraping by on £2.2 million a year—which, by the way, makes him eligible for the Government’s tax cut for millionaires, so his week is getting better and better. At the same time, Stagecoach is threatening to withdraw its buses from the north-east, simply because the local transport authority wants to do something about the fare rises and bus route cuts that have marked the Government’s failure and broken promises. When will Ministers condemn what Stagecoach is doing in the north-east? Do we not need a Government who deliver for the travelling public, not for the Stagecoach shareholders?
What we need, and what we have, is a Government who are investing record amounts of money in our transport infrastructure—far more than the last Government invested in both capital projects and revenue projects. I can only take what was said in Transport Times by the editor, David Fowler, in his latest edition this week:
“On rail franchising and speed cameras”
“seem to be going against the weight of evidence.”
We have seen a dramatic improvement in our services, provided by the private sector. The Labour party is so opposed to the private sector and everything it stands for that it wants to destroy it, on the back of our seeing one of the most successful turnarounds of the rail industry in this country.
T3. I am grateful to the Minister of State for meeting me to discuss problems at the A5 Wall island, but while he is considering it will the people’s Minister ask the Highways Agency to look at the other end of the A5, the congestion from Tamworth to the M42—congestion made worse by more traffic trying to merge on to the A5 from Pennine way? (907899)
Every meeting I have had with my hon. Friend has been a joy, as was the one yesterday. I have diagrammatic and photographic representations of the issue he raises, which I will deliver to you, Mr Speaker, and make available to Members on request. I will send officials not only to look at the matters we discussed yesterday, but to look at the matter my hon. Friend raises today, to see what can be done, but I have to say I think we should act in accordance with his recommendations, because I know he always champions his constituents’ interests.
T4. Fare evasion is obviously a serious issue for the rail industry, but I have seen a number of recent instances where train companies have over-zealously pursued minor cases against constituents who have either been given the wrong information or might have made an innocent error. What is the Minister doing with train companies such as Arriva to ensure that there is clarity for travellers and to make sure that the rules are applied reasonably? (907900)
The hon. Lady raises an important point. I recently launched a public consultation on exactly this matter, and I have urged the train companies to pursue such cases where necessary—where there is genuine fare evasion—but to be much more sensible where there are genuine mistakes. She is welcome to make her views and those of her constituents known in that consultation, and I would like to make those changes.
T5. Tactile indicator cones play a valuable role in making pedestrian crossings safer for all people, and especially those who are blind and partially sighted. Unfortunately in Wiltshire they cannot be sure of finding these cones at pedestrian crossings when they need them. Will the Government incentivise all local authorities to retrofit these tactile indicator cones to pedestrian crossings and open up our streets to everyone? (907901)
Tactile cones are probably one of the best kept secrets of our transport system. If one feels underneath the box on a pelican or puffin crossing, there is a small cone which, if held, rotates when the lights turn to green. It is very helpful for people with vision problems. They were developed by the university of Nottingham and there are 10,000 out there, and I encourage local authorities to retrofit as many as possible.
T6. In October last year the Prime Minister visited York and expressed publicly concern about congestion on the outer ring road, and in January a petition from business leaders in York asking for the dualling of the ring road was delivered to Downing street. What action has the Department taken since the petition arrived? (907902)
I had a meeting with the chief executive of North Yorkshire county council, who works closely with City of York council, on addressing the problems on the northern ring road, and I hope that any scheme that is brought forward can also mesh in with the Hopgrove roundabout project which has already been announced. If City of York council wants to help the motorist it should think back to what it did on Lendal bridge and the atrocious way it persecuted motorists using that route.
T8. I recognise this Government’s enormous investment in our railways, but I am keen to know when we might see some improvements to the London to Portsmouth line. It is still faster to get to Doncaster, which is twice as far. (907904)
My hon. Friend will know that the Portsmouth to London line is not only hugely important for her constituents but a vital artery for people who are travelling up and down through the counties. One problem has been the inability to run longer trains into Waterloo station, where the “throat” has effectively been blocked for many years. We are now investing to increase platform lengths there, to unblock some of that complexity. Also, the draft Wessex route study is being undertaken right now to determine how faster trains can be run from my hon. Friend’s constituency.
T7. I hope that the Minister will have been given notice by Baroness Kramer’s office that she is due to sign off £200 million-worth of funding for a bus rapid transit scheme in Bristol. I am very keen for the overall scheme to go ahead, but we have real concerns about one particular element of it in my constituency. Will the Minister tell me whether it is too late to seek alternatives to that element, which would ruin a wonderful community food project on my patch? (907903)
If I am correct, the hon. Lady is talking about the opposition to the M32 bus-only junction. It is not for the Government to determine the design of the scheme, which is being promoted by the local authority as it knows the area best. Local authorities should listen to the campaigns led by local Members of Parliament relating to that scheme, to see whether the concerns can be addressed, but it would be difficult to change the scheme at this late stage and I know that the hon. Lady would not want to put it in danger of not being signed off in the next few days.
T9. Ever since the Romans built the Fosse way and the Great North road through our town, road hauliers have been an integral part of Newark’s economy. However, those hauliers have had to compete with foreign competitors on an uneven playing field for too long. Will the Minister update us on the success of the HGV road user levy? (907905)
They say that Rome was not built in a day, but I was not the foreman on that particular job. I am delighted to report to the House that, despite being told when we were in opposition that we could not introduce a lorry road user charge for foreign trucks, we have done so. We predicted that it would yield £25 million in revenue, but it is on track to yield more than £45 million in the first year, levelling the playing field for hard-working British hauliers.
T10. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the Government ignored the views of the people of the north-east when they ploughed ahead with the privatisation of the east coast main line. Will they back the wishes of the people of the north-east in introducing a quality contract scheme for the operation of our bus services, so that the buses can be put into the people’s hands and taken out of the hands of profiteers? (907906)
The simple fact is that we will see fantastic benefits from the new operation on the east coast main line. We will see more services to towns that have not been served before, and more services to the north-east. One of the things I was keen to do last week, in relation to the invitation to tender and to the north-east, was to consign the Pacer trains to the rubbish heap. It is important to get rid of them, and that is something that this Government, unlike the last Government, will deliver on. The bus scheme for Newcastle and the north-east is currently before the Department, and it would be inappropriate for me to take a view on it at this time.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am glad that Machrihanish is on the shortlist to become the UK’s first spaceport. It is far from any centres of population, it has a 3-km runway and the facilities of an RAF base, and I believe that it is the ideal candidate. I hope that the Department for Transport will support Machrihanish’s case.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
House of Commons Management
The Commission has received no recent formal representations from staff in those areas on the management of the House. The staff have, however, had a number of opportunities to express their views to the management, including in the recent staff survey.
The right hon. Gentleman will know of my long campaign for the House to be not just an average or good employer but the very best exemplar of an employer. It is no secret that I want us to adopt the John Lewis model for the staff in this place, who work so hard for us. When are we going to engage those members of staff and stop employing them on short-term contracts or using agency staff on a long-term basis? Let us have secure employment and a decent way of living.
I have enjoyed throughout this Parliament the exchanges I have had with the hon. Gentleman on this matter, and the direction of travel he indicates is one that we are very much seeking to take. The recent leadership and management survey shows that on all leadership and management criteria we have improved our score over that of the civil service generally, and on nine out of 10 such criteria we have improved our score on last year’s. There have been some uncertainties, for example, on the security services, and we have done the right thing in bringing those in hand. That has reduced uncertainty and is very much in line with what he wishes. I am sure that in the next Parliament the Commission will continue in that direction.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways in which Members of this House could show their appreciation for their staff and ensure the security of their employment is by using our facilities much more heavily than they do?
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
Public Bill Committees
There were 935 sittings of Public Bill Committees in the 2005 to 2010 Parliament, and there have been 797 sittings so far in the current Parliament.
It is clear that the work rate of Public Bill Committees in this Parliament has been considerably lower than that in the previous Parliament, and I say that as a member of the Panel of Chairs. Will the Government now look at allocating more time for Public Bill Committees to consider private Members’ Bills, so that more private Members’ Bills get through the House and get Royal Assent?
First, I should perhaps correct the impression that the hon. Gentleman wants to give that this Parliament has not been busy. The 2010 to 2015 Parliament will sit for 734 days, which compares with the 718 in the 2005 to 2010 Parliament. Of course, for individual Bills there have been more Public Committee days or sittings than there were under the previous Government. I have heard what he has said about private Members’ Bills. I know that the Procedure Committee has some strong views about private Members’ Bills, and I suspect that we may have to return to the matter in the next Parliament.
The reality is that too many Bills have been leaving the House of Commons without adequate scrutiny and have to be salvaged in the other place. My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) has proposed a new stage for Commons scrutiny—the whole House scrutiny stage. Does the Deputy Leader of the House accept that we need to improve scrutiny in this place, rather than simply using the Lords to bail us out?
I do, of course, accept that in this House we need scrutiny, but the Labour party is responsible for scrutiny and what we have seen in this Parliament is that far more Bills have finished early than was the case in the previous Parliament. I am afraid that is because the Opposition are not undertaking their job of scrutiny effectively.
Changes introduced during this Parliament have increased the House’s ability to hold the Government to account. The introduction of the Backbench Business Committee, the election of Select Committee Chairs and allowing adequate time for debating legislation have all contributed to an increase in scrutiny of the Government.
As these are the last questions to the Leader of the House before my right hon. Friend leaves the House, may I just thank him personally, and on behalf of his many admirers in my constituency, for his 26 years of service to this House and to the country?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the value of the Backbench Business Committee, to which he referred, can be demonstrated by reference to the debate it gave me time for on the holding of a referendum on our membership of the European Union? Even though the motion was defeated at the time, it subsequently led to Government policy being changed, at least in the Conservative part of the coalition.
I, in return, pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to his constituents; I have never forgotten the black pudding I ate in Bury market during the last general election campaign and I look forward to still more in the future.
The Backbench Business Committee debates have often had an influence. I hope the debate he refers to will have been the precursor of a referendum on the European Union before the end of 2017, held by a Conservative Government. But other debates on issues, such as VAT on air ambulances, Hillsborough and contaminated blood, have also contributed to changes in Government policy.
Of course, up to point. My hon. Friend’s question allows me to pay tribute to him, as he is obviously referring to himself. I do pay tribute to him and would only point out that there are many, many occasions on which Government policies merit support as well.
For once in my lifetime, I agree with an intervention of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). Would not holding the Government to account be more effective if Government Members resisted the urgings of the Whips to put questions to the Prime Minister, particularly at PMQs, or to Ministers on other occasions? That does not show independence of mind and it certainly does not show the sort of accountability that is required. In some respects, it makes a mockery of Prime Minister’s questions, which is the unique way of holding the Government—and the Head of Government—to account. It should not be undermined in the way I have described.
The hon. Gentleman is speaking after two of my hon. Friends who are very skilled at resisting any orchestration by the Whips or anybody else. I do not think he can accuse them of that. I must say that I have noticed on occasions a certain degree of co-ordination—not necessarily very successful—of Prime Minister’s questions on the Opposition Benches.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
All House staff dealing with the public are expected to undertake mandatory diversity and inclusion training, and the same standards are expected from all service providers, including the Metropolitan Police Service.
On 4 February, there was an LGBT history month event here. I had complaints made to me by two people who attended the event that security guards at the Cromwell Green entrance had repeatedly addressed them as “sir”, even though they had made it quite clear that they did not wish to be addressed in that way. The Met is looking at this—I think the House of Commons Commission has referred it to the Met—but will the right hon. Gentleman make sure that they do not have to suffer such treatment in future?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for bringing that case to our attention. Indeed, as I believe she knows, this has been referred to the Metropolitan Police Service, whose staff these were. It is taking this extremely seriously and we have made it clear to the Met how seriously we take it. As far as our own staff are concerned, diversity and inclusion is a key part of the core induction and training for all visitor assistants and all staff generally. We take these matters very seriously and we are determined to make sure that this is not repeated.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
Since the launch of the Government’s e-petitions site, more than 3.7 million individuals have given their support to the 37 petitions that reached the qualifying 100,000 signature threshold for debate. The topics of 32 have been the subject of debate in the House of Commons, most as a direct result of the e-petition.
Will the Minister join me in congratulating the Procedure Committee on its work on this and other issues? Does he agree that the introduction of e-petitions has perhaps done more than anything else to start to reconnect this Parliament with the public?
Yes, I am very happy to join my right hon. Friend in congratulating the Procedure Committee on the work it has done on this issue. It is a fact that since August 2011, more than 10 million individuals have signed one or more of the 30,000 petitions initiated. I, and I hope all Members of the House, look forward to a Petitions Committee being established in the next Parliament, which will allow perhaps a wider range of petitions to come before the House and, for instance, for petitioners to come and give oral evidence to that Committee.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Parliamentary Estate: Recycling
The percentage of all waste arising from the parliamentary estate that was recycled or recovered in 2010 was 52.1%. In 2014, it was 62.8%. This shows a fairly considerable improvement; however, we are a little below what we need to be to make sure we are on track for our 2020 target.
My hon. Friend asks me a question to which I do not have an accurate answer—or, rather, to which I do not have an answer. I am sure that an accurate answer exists, but I just do not have it. I should make that distinction quite clear. However, what we do is operate to the waste hierarchy, of which I am sure he is aware. First, we try to ensure that the waste does not happen. When it does happen, we seek to recycle it in the most effective way possible. We only dispose of it if it is absolutely necessary.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
During this Parliament, reforms have been implemented to elect Chairs of Select Committees and to allow them to make statements on the Floor of the House and in Westminster Hall. That has led to a stronger mandate for Chairs of Select Committees, increased visibility of their recommendations and therefore a corresponding increase in their effectiveness.
Using his 26 years of experience of this place, will the Leader of the House agree that the election of Select Committee Chairs has been a significant development in the reform of this place and in giving power back to Back Benchers? What ideas does he have to give more power to Back Benchers in the future?
It has been a very significant reform. Indeed, it is one of the most significant reforms since the establishment in 1979 of the Select Committee system as we know it today. Both that reform in 1979 and this reform in 2010 took place under Conservative Leaders of the House of Commons. Members across the House will continue to use the increased opportunities that are now provided for greater independence for Back-Bench Members, but consideration of what procedural changes are needed for that are really now matters for the next Parliament.
I speak as a member both of the Public Administration Committee and of the European Scrutiny Committee. Does the Leader of the House accept that the effectiveness of such Committees depends more on the Government responding to their conclusions and recommendations than on what the Select Committees do?
Of course that is an important part of it. The Government do respond thoroughly to Select Committee reports and bring many recommendations to the Floor of the House. We will be announcing in Business Questions a debate on the Floor of the House on two recommendations of the European Scrutiny Committee. Of course it is important for Governments to respond constructively.
Select Committees are a highly effective way of holding Governments to account. Does the Leader of the House agree with the all-party group on women in Parliament, ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod), that, on the day we will be debating international women’s day, it is time to set up a women and equalities Select Committee, which is led by this House, to ensure that continued progress on these important matters is maintained?
The all-party group on women in Parliament made some very interesting and important recommendations that need to be considered by parties in the House as well as by the House as a whole. With regard to the specific recommendation to set up a Select Committee, it is not feasible to do so in the final few weeks of a Parliament; that is a matter for a new Parliament. Personally, I have a lot of sympathy with the idea, but it will be necessary to find a reduction elsewhere in the number of Select Committees to accommodate a new one.
Does the Leader of the House agree that sufficient time should be allowed for the pre-legislative scrutiny by Select Committees? For example, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, of which I am a member, was critical of the way in which the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was steamrollered through Parliament by the Deputy Prime Minister in 2011.
It is of course important to carry out such scrutiny whenever possible. In this Parliament, we have a good record in that regard; there has been more pre-legislative scrutiny than has happened before under any previous Parliament. There will still be scope for improvement in Parliaments to come.
Business of the House
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 9 March—Remaining stages of the Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Bill [Lords], followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Consumer Rights Bill, followed by motion to approve a European document relating to the Commission work programme 2015, followed by general debate on the forthcoming nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference. The subject for this debate was recommended by the Backbench Business Committee.
Tuesday 10 March—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Deregulation Bill, followed by motion to approve statutory instruments relating to counter-terrorism, followed by motion to approve a European document relating to subsidiarity and proportionality and the Commission’s relations with national Parliaments, followed by debate on a motion relating to school funding. The subject for this debate was recommended by the Backbench Business Committee.
Wednesday 11 March—Opposition day (19th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Democratic Unionist Party. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 12 March—Debate on a motion relating to defence spending, followed by debate on a motion relating to education regulations and faith schools. The subjects for both debates were recommended by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 13 March—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 16 March will include:
Monday 16 March—Motion to approve statutory instruments relating to counter-terrorism, followed by motion to approve the draft Drug Driving (Specified Limits) England and Wales (Amendment) Regulations 2015, followed by the Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration.
Tuesday 17 March—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Modern Slavery Bill, followed by motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to counter-terrorism, followed by debate on motions relating to the reports from the Committee on Standards on the code of conduct and on the standards system in the House of Commons, followed by business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Wednesday 18 March—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.
Thursday 19 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.
Friday 20 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the remainder of March will be:
Thursday 12 March—General debate on the relationship between police and children, followed by general debate on violence against women and girls.
Monday 16 March—General debate on a petition relating to veterans’ pensions.
Thursday 19 March—General debate on the future of local newspapers.
Monday 23 March—General debate on an e-petition relating to proposed increase in fees for nurses and midwives.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business. On Sunday, we will celebrate international women’s day. We have our pink bus, which is generating fantastic enthusiasm wherever it goes in the country, and half our candidates in target seats are women. Will the Leader of the House tell us what the Conservative party is doing to involve women properly in politics?
On Monday, we will consider Lords amendments to the Consumer Rights Bill, including proposals for a crackdown on ticket touting. Despite widespread evidence of touts fleecing the public and calls for action from across the leisure industry, the Government have spent more than a year opposing the measures and the Culture Secretary described ticket touts admiringly as “classic entrepreneurs”. Will the Leader of the House confirm that following their humiliating climbdown in the Lords the Government will support these proposals in the Commons and finally protect the public from this exploitation?
There are strong and powerful arguments in favour of plain packaging for cigarettes, but this Government have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into accepting them. First, they were for a vote on plain packaging, then when they took tobacco lobbyist Lynton Crosby in to the heart of Downing street they were suddenly against it. Now after five years of inaction, in the dying days of this Parliament, they are for it again. I note that the plain packaging regulations will finally be taken in Committee on 9 March, but why did the Leader not schedule a debate on the Floor of the House? Is it because he knows that his party is split right down the middle on this important public health measure but he does not want the public to notice?
Yesterday the Prime Minister repeatedly refused to acknowledge his complete failure to keep his “no ifs, no buts” promise on net migration, which is not in the tens of thousands that he promised but nearly 300,000 this year alone. In a desperate attempt at a diversionary tactic, he treated us to a selective list of things that he thinks he got right, while continuing to refuse to make himself available for scrutiny on any of them in a head-to-head TV debate with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.
I greatly enjoyed the Leader of the House’s speech at the Press Gallery lunch last week, decoding what he called civil service-ese and revealing that when civil servants say, “We are scaling up our response,” they actually mean, “We never expected this to happen.” So I have been doing my own decoding of the Prime Minister’s pre-election promises. When he said:
“We have absolutely no plans to raise VAT”,
what he really meant was, “ I will raise VAT when the election is safely over.” When he said, “We will not balance the books on the backs of the poor”, what he really meant was, “We will not balance the books at all.” When he said in 2009:
“I have always believed in live television debates. I think they can help enliven our democracy.”,
what he really meant was, “I will only debate with people when I’m not scared I might lose.”
In his pre-2010 election contract with the British people, the Prime Minister wrote:
“If we don’t deliver our side of the bargain, vote us out in five years’ time.”
Mr Speaker, there are only nine weeks to go.
The Liberal Democrats are no better. This week we have learned what their red line in any future coalition talks would be. Having campaigned to scrap all tuition fees during the last election, only to vote to triple them after the election, they now plan to veto Labour’s plan to cut fees by a third and increase grants for poor students. I wonder whether we could have that in writing, because then we will know for sure that they will do the exact opposite.
It is not surprising that the Lib Dem right hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) has decided that he needs to take matters into his own hands. On Tuesday he held an Adjournment debate on the plight of endangered species, and he has written about it on Politics Home. He laments:
“The facts are stark. … numbers have fallen … the poachers are highly organised. … we are in a race against time.”
Before long, the Liberal Democrats will be going the way of the woolly mammoth.
I have learned this week that the Conservative party is busy preparing for a Labour victory in May. The Chancellor has apparently hatched a long-term cunning plan to curb the regicidal instincts of the Conservative party—good luck with that—and keep the Prime Minister on as leader after 7 May even if it loses. According to one Back Bencher, “He either wins or he goes.” Once again showing his strategic prowess, the man he has chosen to assist him in this mission to avoid a leadership battle is the ever-absent Tory Chief Whip. Apparently they are going to form a protective ring around their leader and claim that he won a moral victory even if the Conservatives lose. Is this why the Chief Whip is never here, Mr Speaker? He is too busy forming a protective ring around the Prime Minister to bother to come to this Chamber. Having just listed some of their broken promises, I feel I should offer some comfort to the Conservatives. If there is one target that I am confident the Tories will not miss, it is the one on the Prime Minister’s back.
The shadow Leader may not be in a strong position this week to talk about party leaders since this is the week in which the Doncaster Free Press released its power list and revealed that the Leader of the Opposition was the fourth most influential person in Doncaster, ranking, interestingly, behind the star of One Direction who just happened to grow up in Doncaster. The right hon. Gentleman is regarded as having less influence on the town than that. We will return to these matters in a moment.
On the hon. Lady’s specific questions, she asked, rightly, about international women’s day, which we look forward to commemorating on Sunday. She referred to the pink bus that has caused so much amusement around the country and asked what the Government have been doing. We have been achieving more women in work than ever before in history—up by 839,000 since May 2010. There are more women-led businesses than ever before in the history of the country and 37% of start-up loans are now going to women. There are more women on FTSE boards than ever before in the history of the country, with no all-male boards remaining. More than half the people lifted out of income tax altogether—58% of them—are women, and the state pension reforms have particularly benefited women, who have historically done poorly under the complicated two-tier system of pensions. That is a tremendous record of achievement, which is superior to any previous Government’s record in assisting the welfare of the women of this country.
The hon. Lady mentioned students—rather bravely, in a week in which the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said that Labour’s proposed reform of tuition fees
“sounds progressive. . . Sadly, it isn’t.”
“will mainly benefit mid- to high-earning graduates who would otherwise have been repaying all or most of their loans.”
That is the position bizarrely adopted by the Labour party on which it is now condemned to fight the election.
It was brave of the hon. Lady, too, to mention migration, as it was a completely open door under the previous Government which brought millions of people to settle in this country.
Following my extensive translation of civil service-ese at the Press Gallery lunch, the hon. Lady did a translation of Prime Ministerial statements, but I have my own translation of what the Leader of the Opposition was saying yesterday when he was calling for a debate, which means, “I am desperate because the election is slipping away from me and I have nothing else to ask about at all.” That is the translation of that. When I was Leader of the Opposition in 2001, I recall asking Tony Blair for a television debate. There was not even an offer of a debate from Tony Blair, not even the pretence of a debate. There was a very clear “No debate whatsoever.” This Prime Minister is offering a debate and that is an offer that should be taken up, which was never offered by Tony Blair in similar circumstances.
Talking of debates, the hon. Lady asked about the debate on the plain packaging of cigarettes. As she knows, because of EU procedures it has been possible to lay regulations but not to make them until after 3 March. That is the reason for the timing. It is normal for such statutory instruments to be considered in a Committee after going through the scrutiny procedures and, subject to the deliberations of that Committee, it will then be possible for the whole House to vote on the outcome of that Committee’s deliberations.
I should have thought that the hon. Lady would welcome the Government’s move in the other place on ticketing. She did not ask about the economic situation in the country, but what has defined the past couple of weeks is what has happened on the economy. Today we heard that new car sales for February were up 12% on last year. This week we heard that average household incomes have returned to pre-recession levels. In the past two weeks we have seen growth in manufacturing and construction up, public sector borrowing fall, and small firms win more than a quarter of Government contracts—the highest percentage ever. That is very clear evidence as we move to the end of the Parliament that a long-term economic plan is right for this country and is working.
My right hon. Friend is known for writing bestsellers, in one of which he wrote about the history of Parliament sitting in York. One of the issues that will exercise both Houses in the next Parliament is where to sit while major works are taking place here. I hope that he will look no further than his and our main city of York for that purpose.
The suggestion is dear to the hearts of all us Yorkshiremen, although I have to tell my hon. Friend that it might not go down very well in Lancashire. If it becomes necessary for the House to move, I suspect that somewhere closer to its current location might be found. The important decisions on restoration and renewal need to be made in the next Parliament—it would not be appropriate to make them now—so I cannot give her a definitive answer.
Has the right hon. Gentleman seen my early-day motion 840 on Sejal Koyani and the London School of Business and Finance?
[That this House condemns in the strongest terms Sejal Koyani of the London School of Business and Finance, who has stolen thousands of pounds from a constituent of the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton, and has failed over a period of months to reply to letters from the right hon. Member; calls on the Home Secretary to remove any recognition from this criminal, on the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to look into these larcenous activities, and on the Metropolitan Police to investigate; and advises any potential clients to have nothing to do with these thieves.]
Behind it lurks the theft of £3,600 from my constituent, which that thief and that college promised to give back 45 days after last October. They have not got back to him or to me, despite repeated letters. They still have that stolen £3,600, which belongs to my constituent. May we have action on that in the way I request in the early-day motion as a lesson to teach those people that they cannot steal?
The right hon. Gentleman speaks up strongly for his constituent and has obviously been pursing the case assiduously, as usual. I will certainly refer his early-day motion, and the fact that he has raised the matter on the Floor of the House, to my ministerial colleagues so that they, too, can investigate.
I think that there is a good chance that I will be able to do that. I have been working on the draft Standing Orders. Whether or not there is a debate, it is very important that people are able to see the detail of what is proposed, so I will give further consideration to my right hon. Friend’s request.
Opposition Members are proud of our policy commitment not only to reduce student fees from £9,000 to £6,000, but to increase maintenance grants. However, it is unclear what the Government would do to better support students and universities. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate so that my constituents can get a better understanding of what the Government would do? Will he also make a commitment that his party will not seek to lift the fee cap?
We have delivered record numbers of students and university applications, against many predictions, following the change in the policy on tuition fees introduced early in this Parliament, so that change is standing the test of time. Of course, these matters are legitimate subjects for debate in the general election campaign. Given that there are only three weeks remaining before Dissolution, it is becoming unlikely that we will be able to have an additional debate on the subject.
The Leader of the House was rather unfair to the Leader of the Opposition; he did indeed come fourth in the Doncaster power list, but it was churlish of my right hon. Friend not to mention that he has gone up two places since last year, when he was sixth.
Last August The Times reported that the Prime Minister had promised to double magistrates’ sentencing powers from six to 12 months by the end of this Parliament, which was a very welcome announcement. Given that we are rapidly running out of time, can the Leader of the House tell us when that will be brought into effect in the last few weeks of this Parliament?
On my hon. Friend’s first point, that is a faster rate of advance than normal by the Leader of the Opposition and it means that he may be in with a chance of running Doncaster by 2018. I welcome my hon. Friend’s analysis.
I cannot give my hon. Friend a specific answer about when the Government’s commitment will take effect, but I will draw his question to the attention of my ministerial colleagues and ensure that he gets a direct reply.
The Leader of the House is well aware that a number of colleagues have raised the issue of the Chagos islands many times during business questions. When he was Foreign Secretary, he commissioned the KPMG report on the feasibility of right of return. We are waiting for a statement to be made to the House so that Ministers can be questioned and the issue debated. It was promised that the issue would be resolved before the end of this Parliament, but we have only a short time to go.
This is an important report on an important issue and the hon. Gentleman and I have often discussed it. Indeed, as Foreign Secretary I set up the new feasibility study. A very extensive and detailed report has now been produced, and my ministerial colleagues in the Foreign Office are considering it in detail. It will also need to be considered across the whole of Government. I am sure it is better to look at it in great detail than to rush to decisions about it, so I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a timetable for any announcement, but I will tell my colleagues that he is asking about it and that there is interest in it in Parliament. We will consider it within Government as rapidly as possible.
Despite the fact that I have made it plain that I am standing down at the next election, inexplicably I am getting a lot of e-mails asking me to commit to opposing things in the next Parliament, particularly the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which, strangely enough, I have not seen the details of because nobody else has—it has not been negotiated yet. For the avoidance of doubt, yet again, will the Leader of the House arrange for a Government statement—he may care to make it right now—making it clear that TTIP has nothing whatsoever to do with any risk to the future of the NHS?
It is absolutely clear that it is for local NHS commissioners to take decisions on which providers should deliver health care services in the best interests of their patients. TTIP will not change that in any respect. I can give my hon. Friend not only a Government statement, but the statement of the EU Trade Commissioner, who said on 13 September:
“Public services are always exempted—there is no problem about exemption. The argument is abused in your country for political reasons but it has no grounds.”
That should be reassuring to people around the country who might think there is some merit in the arguments put by trade unions and the Labour party, which are designed to scare people not to arrive at a good trade deal for this country.
May I draw the attention of the Government and the House to a new film drama, “A Dark Reflection”, which is about air that is contaminated by organo- phosphates entering the aircraft cabin as a result of oil breakdowns in engines, which is where the cabin air is drawn from or, from auxiliary power units or even de-icing fluids. Is it not time to have a debate about fitting air detection systems to aircraft to protect passengers and crew from aerotoxic poisoning?
That is, of course, a wholly legitimate question to ask. We have just had questions to Transport Ministers and the hon. Gentleman’s question sounded a little bit like it had been left over from that. I have no doubt that Transport Ministers will notice that he has raised the issue. I cannot offer him a debate in the remaining small number of days before the end of the Parliament, but he has now managed to raise the issue on the Floor of the House.
I have the honour of being the chairman of the all-party group on fire safety and rescue. Given that the Chief Fire Officers Association is very concerned that very few newly built schools have automatic sprinkler systems fitted, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the issue?
I am advised that the Government’s policy is that such sprinkler systems should be installed in new school buildings where there is a real and significant risk, as identified in a fire risk assessment. There will also be other situations where sprinklers are fitted because they form an integral part of the school building design and are good value for money. It is unlikely that we will be able to have a debate on the issue at this stage of the Parliament, but the House will have noted my hon. Friend’s strong interest in it and I have every confidence he will be able to return to it in the new Parliament.
May we have a statement on what constitutes “offshore”? The Health and Social Care Information Centre, the national provider of IT for health services, has apparently objected to CGI—a Canadian-owned but Bridgend-based IT company—bidding for a health IT contract on the very bizarre basis that Wales is offshore. May we have clarification? The Severn is wide, but not that wide.
Having recently purchased a property in Wales, I can confirm that it is not offshore. That can be regarded not only as a personal statement, but as an official statement from the Government. The notion of Wales being offshore seems a strange one in relation to the matter the hon. Lady raises. It would be best to pursue it directly with Health Ministers, and I will tell them she has raised it in the House.
The director of ExxonMobil Chemical, in my constituency, has written to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills about a threat to the industry caused by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to seek a further assessment of a plasticiser, a key product that has just been given a relatively clean bill of health by the appropriate European body. The director has yet to receive a reply, but the House needs an urgent statement from the Secretary of State about this threat to such an important industry in Hampshire.
The industry is very important for Hampshire and, indeed, the whole of the United Kingdom. I am sure it provides employment for many of my hon. Friend’s constituents, so he is quite right to raise the issue. I cannot give him an immediate answer, but I will refer his interest to my hon. Friends at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Although we do not have much of this Parliament left, there will be questions to the Business Secretary on 26 March. I will ensure my hon. Friend’s urgent interest is registered with BIS, and he may be able to return to it then.
The First Secretary of State has always seemed to me a pretty robust and courageous politician, so will he join me in calling for an early debate about what many people in my constituency and this country believe to be their right—to see the leaders of the great parties having a robust and courageous discussion on television so that the British people can make an informed decision? What is going on when this House remains nearly mute, after what has become almost a constitutional convention is taken away by one person—the not so courageous Prime Minister?
I do not think that constitutional conventions are set by broadcasters in this country. The hon. Gentleman, with whom I have debated so many issues over the years, was in the House throughout the time that Tony Blair was Prime Minister. When he refused to have any debates on television, I do not recall the hon. Gentleman rising to say that Tony Blair ought to reconsider his position, that such a debate was vital to the British constitution or that it was an important right of the hon. Gentleman, constituents during an election campaign. I assure him that his constituents will see a great deal of all the party leaders during the general election campaign—which can only improve the prospects of the Conservative party.
Just as time is running out on this Parliament, time is more poignantly running out on the young boys who suffer from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, such as my constituent Archie Hill, whose parents Gary and Louisa have campaigned tirelessly for a new drug called Translarna to made available for him and other sufferers. Will the Leader of the House tell us whether we have any time left during which we can bring more pressure to bear on NHS England? We have met the Prime Minister, who has written supportively, and the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), who is the Minister for life sciences; only NHS England stands in the way. How can my right hon. Friend help?
My right hon. Friend may well know that there is a clear process and timetable for this, and for rare conditions the decision to fund treatments and drugs is made by NHS England. A draft clinical commissioning policy on the use of Translarna for the treatment of DMD has been developed, and it is now being considered for funding. The consultation runs until 27 April, so it has another six or seven weeks to run. I urge my right hon. Friend and other colleagues who have raised this issue in the House to make their views known to NHS England throughout that process.
Joanna Michael, the daughter of my constituent Angela Michael, was brutally murdered in 2009. The Independent Police Complaints Commission ruled that she was failed by the police, yet the Supreme Court has ruled that a negligence claim cannot be brought against the police because they have immunity. May we have a debate with a view to changing the law so that the police are held to account in the same way as doctors, teachers and the armed forces?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about a disturbing case. I will refer it to my ministerial colleagues, and there will be further questions to Ministers at the Ministry of Justice before the Dissolution of Parliament. I will ensure that Ministers consider the matter he has raised.
It is estimated that the elephant population of the Selous reserve in Tanzania has fallen from 55,000 in 2006 to about 15,000 now. As chair of the all-party group on Tanzania and a long-term resident of that country, that greatly distresses me and hundreds of people around the world. May we have an urgent debate in this House on the factors that fuel demand for ivory, rhino horn and other illegal wildlife products?
My hon. Friend is right, and this is a deeply disturbing situation not only in Tanzania but internationally. The British Government are playing a leading role in fighting this. As Foreign Secretary, in February last year I hosted an international summit on the issue, which the President of Tanzania addressed. I now chair a taskforce on how to prevent the transportation of illegal ivory, at the request of His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge. As my hon. Friend says, it is ultimately a matter of demand in countries such as China, Vietnam and Thailand, and it is welcome that such issues are being debated with China during the visit of His Royal Highness this week.
May we debate debating? I recall that when I succeeded the right hon. Gentleman many years ago as president of the world’s most famous student debating society, he was in favour of debating—indeed, he was in favour of it as late as 2001 when he was Leader of the Opposition, as he told the House today. If we had such a debate, would we at least get one more opportunity to see the Leader of the House in full flow, showing the skill he developed all those years ago of being able to defend the indefensible—namely, the Prime Minister’s craven approach to debating head to head on television with the Leader of the Opposition?
The Prime Minister has debated every Wednesday for years with the Leader of the Opposition, and he has almost invariably come off best in those debates. The hon. Gentleman’s characterisation is not right. He and I have always been committed to debating through our background in the Oxford union, and the Prime Minister has offered the terms of a debate to broadcasters and the other parties. As I pointed out earlier, such an offer was never made to me by the Prime Minister of the day when I was Leader of the Opposition.
Domestic drones were the must-have gift last Christmas—needless to say I did not get one, although I did get a Dyson cleaner. The usage of drones is governed by the Civil Aviation Authority, and there was a near miss between a drone and an A320 last summer. May we have a debate to ensure that rules on the use of drones are fully known, so that we can guarantee the serenity and safety of residents in the United Kingdom?
I hope my hon. Friend finds his Dyson cleaner easier to control than some people find their drones. I am sure he will. This will be an important subject for consideration, but I cannot offer a debate before the Dissolution of Parliament. Important privacy and air safety issues are at stake, which I know have been considered by the Civil Aviation Authority. This activity will continue to develop, so I would be very surprised if Parliament did not consider it in the coming months—most likely, of course, in the new Parliament.
Some villages in Coedpoeth and Brymbo in my constituency face very large bills through no fault of their own because they have to fund remedial work resulting from historic lead contamination. This is an anomalous situation, as our law generally follows the principle that the polluter pays, but here there is no traceable polluter. Last year in Blanefield in Scotland, the UK Government reached a deal with the Scottish Government and the local authority jointly to fund work in a parallel situation. The Welsh Government would like a similar solution in this case. Will the Leader of the House grant an urgent debate, to be answered by a Treasury Minister, so that the UK Government can lay out a consistent position on funding criteria?
The hon. Lady raises an important issue for her constituents. I do not know what the prospects are of the consistent position she has called for emerging, but Treasury questions take place next Tuesday, 10 March, providing an early opportunity for her to raise the matter with Treasury Ministers. She will be able to pursue it with them by every other avenue. I think it unlikely that we will be able to have such a debate before Dissolution, but the hon. Lady has those opportunities to raise the issue.
My right hon. Friend will be greatly missed by the House. He has done outstanding work and left a lasting legacy on the issue of sexual violence in conflict. It is important to address issues relating to women and equalities. I ask him, perhaps as a parting gift, to urge all hon. Members to support the establishment of a Select Committee on women and equalities, so that we can carry on scrutinising these issues, holding the Government to account on them and ensuring that we make progress for women in this country and elsewhere throughout the world.
I am very grateful for my hon. Friend’s remarks, and I pay tribute to her and the work she has done on preventing sexual violence. I have seen her working in her constituency and across London on this issue, and I know her work is appreciated by other London Members. As I mentioned earlier, I have a lot of sympathy with the case for establishing an equalities Select Committee of some kind. The establishment of Select Committees will have to be decided in the new Parliament. I add that the number of other Select Committees would have to be reduced by one in order to accommodate this one.
The major supermarkets, Eurotunnel, major hauliers and others support the building of a dedicated rail freight line capable of carrying full-size lorry trailers on trains and linking all the major economic regions of Britain with each other and the channel tunnel. There is such a scheme, called the GB freight route, which could be built easily, quickly and economically and would take 5 million lorry journeys off our roads every year. This is significant for a number of Government Departments, including the Treasury, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Transport. Will the Leader of the House use his good offices to encourage Ministers from all those Departments to consult the relevant companies about advancing this scheme?
I will certainly inform my ministerial colleagues in the relevant Departments of the matter the hon. Gentleman has raised. As I said earlier, we have just had Transport Question Time, and I think I shall have to make a list for Transport Ministers of the questions left over from it and asked during business questions. I am happy to provide that service on this occasion, and the hon. Gentleman has managed to raise the matter on the Floor of the House.
This is not a transport issue, but may we have a debate in the short time left on recent changes to the rules governing community amateur sports clubs, with specific reference to rate relief thresholds? The York Railway Institute, which provides fantastic sporting facilities to many of my constituents, is under financial threat as a result of the changes. It could close or be broken up to offset them, after serving the public of York since its foundation in 1889.
The Government have given local authorities the power to offer business rate discounts beyond predefined reliefs at their discretion, including to sports clubs, to be funded 50% by central Government and 50% by local authorities. I recommend that the club discuss this with its local authority. The Treasury would expect local authorities to take full account of the funding provided by central Government for discretionary rate relief when making their decisions.
Birmingham and other midlands licence fee payers contribute £942 million to the BBC coffers, but less than £80 million of that was invested in our region last year. That is less than it manages to spend in London over 12 days. May we have a debate before the end of this Parliament on the renewal terms for the BBC charter, so we can agree some rules for fair funding and an end to our subsidising the London luvvies broadcasting corporation?
Personally, I have a good deal of sympathy with the need for the BBC to invest around the country. We had a statement just last week by the Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, so there have been recent opportunities to raise the implications of that on the Floor of the House. I am sure there will be other debates on the future of the BBC, but I cannot offer one in the remaining 14 days the House is sitting before we come to the general election campaign.
I bring good news from Kettering, where the £4 million upgrade of the maternity department at Kettering general hospital has just begun, due for completion in December. Ten babies a day, on average, are delivered at the hospital. This is part of an £18 million investment package for the hospital, which comes ahead of a potential £30 million for developing a new urgent care hub facility on the site. Will my right hon. Friend encourage our right hon. Friend the Chancellor to include in his Budget statement a paragraph making it clear that such massive investment in our local NHS hospitals is possible only because of the success of our long-term economic plan?
My hon. Friend has again brought important good news from Kettering, as he has done in recent weeks concerning the economy, employment and the success of the town, and all that is related to the success of this country. He mentions investment in the national health service, which is now conducting 1.3 million more operations, 6 million more out-patient appointments and 3.5 million more diagnostic tests than it did five years ago. His central point is important and absolutely correct: such investment is only possible with a growing economy. That is what is at stake in the coming general election.
When can we debate early-day motion 839?
[That this House is appalled at the demeaning spectacle of Prime Minister's Questions, where the Leader of the Opposition’s questions are not answered by the Prime Minister, who uses the occasions as a bully pulpit for his own chosen issues; notes the widely expressed public revulsion at this ill-mannered, pointless spectacle; and calls for its replacement by meetings where the Prime Minister will answer questions from 20 randomly-selected backbenchers in a committee room in an atmosphere of calm and dignity.]
This House was brought into further disrepute by the disgraceful behaviour of two senior Members recently, who shamed themselves and this House on the “Dispatches” programme. However, weekly the House is brought into disrepute by the spectacle of Prime Minister’s Question Time, which consists of little more than repeated tedious mantras, crude insults and answers that do not reflect the questions asked. Prime Minister John Major and Neil Kinnock made a valiant effort to reform question time, as has the present Speaker, but I believe the present format is unreformable and we have to look to a new way of presenting Prime Minister’s Question Time—in a manner that is robust, but calm and dignified.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the two right hon. Members in question have referred themselves to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. That has been the correct thing to do, and the matter will now be investigated.
On Prime Minister’s questions, I am sure that in future Parliaments—in the next Parliament—the Procedure Committee and the House as a whole can consider any suggested changes. We can always change and improve our procedures, and it is always important to have an eye on doing so. I would only add that in my experience all over the world as Foreign Secretary for most of the past five years, our Parliament and its proceedings are widely admired. Many people in countries all over the world have expressed to me the wish that they could question their Head of Government in the same way we can here in this House, and so we must not lose that central aspect of our proceedings.
Reports this week of a woman acting as a surrogate to give birth to her own son’s baby have shocked many people, not least because the procedure was reportedly carried out in a clinic licensed by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Will my right hon. Friend, as one of his final acts, find time for an urgent debate on the actions of the HFEA and the fertility clinic involved in this case? If an urgent debate is not possible, what will he do?
Given the time constraints that I have mentioned several times, an urgent debate is not possible. I do not know the details of the case my hon. Friend has raised. Nevertheless, I can understand the debate and concern about such issues, so I will inform my colleagues at the Department of Health of his interest in this matter and the fact that he has raised it, and ask them to respond to him.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the offer of a cup of tea earlier. That is the closest thing I have had to an offer of a hot date in a very long time.
May I ask the Leader of the House for a debate on the future of the Planning Inspectorate, which seems to be wantonly ignoring the views of local people and going against adopted local plans, especially, for example, in the village of West Haddon in my constituency?
There are debates on planning. In fact, there is a debate today in Westminster Hall on the national planning policy framework, so my hon. Friend may be able to raise such matters during it. I cannot otherwise offer a debate in the time available. Communities and Local Government questions will take place on 16 March—a week on Monday. There are therefore a few remaining opportunities for him to raise the issue in the House.
International Women’s Day
I beg to move,
That this House has considered International Women’s Day.
This motion in support of international women’s day also stands in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee). I should say that my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash did the heavy lifting on all this but was detained elsewhere and unable to go to the Backbench Business Committee on the day we put our bid in. I thank her, and all the right hon. and hon. Members across the House who supported our application for this important debate. It is one of the rare parliamentary moments in our calendar when, across the Chamber, there is more that unites us than divides us. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for its support in making the debate possible.
It is an enormous privilege to open this debate. It is not only here that international women’s day will be marked—more than 300 events will be held in the UK to mark the economic, political and social achievements of women across our globe. Our enduring thanks have to go to organisations such as the United Nations, Oxfam, Women for Women International, CARE International and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, which bring this event alive for thousands of people across the United Kingdom.
Each international women’s day gives us an opportunity to pause and take stock of the progress that we are making throughout the world in gaining a fundamental right: the right to be treated equally, regardless of our gender. The breadth of today’s debate is daunting, and I do not think that any one speaker can hope to cover every aspect of the important work that many Members are doing in the House, whether it is connected with domestic violence towards women, female genital mutilation, or a host of other issues that are equally important. I want to focus on two issues: the role of women in the workplace and their role in this place.
I think we have made important progress in that regard, particularly under the present Government but previously as well. For women under the age of 40, the gender pay gap has all but disappeared, and when we disaggregate the overall data, we see that progress has been made. As the hon. Gentleman says, it is worrying that the gap has not disappeared completely, but, as I am sure he knows, that has much to do with some of the choices that women are making about how they want to lead their lives, which they have an absolute right to do, and also with some of the choices that they are making early in their educational careers. We need to ensure that they are fully aware of the implications of those choices.
The right hon. Lady said that the pay gap for women aged 50 and over had increased, and suggested that that might be partly to do with choices that women make. Is the enormous increase in unemployment among members of that group, compared with the decrease in unemployment in every other cohort, a result of choices that they have made?
I think the hon. Lady misheard me. I referred to women over the age of 40, and I did not say that the gap had increased. However, she is right in one respect. I am sure that there are many reasons for the pay gap to continue, and I think that she and I share a desire for the position to change. I shall say more about that later.
As my right hon. Friend says, the Government have made real progress in not only giving more women access to child care, but helping women on lower incomes, as well as women of pensionable age. I am not suggesting to the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) that all the problems have been solved, but I think she would want to join me in ensuring that praise is given when it is due.
As I said at the beginning, I want to focus on both the workplace and this place. On a day like this, we should never forget what our forebears did to ensure that we would all be here as women Members of Parliament. There is also much to celebrate in the country more widely in respect of the role of women in our society. Over the past year, we have seen the appointment of the first woman bishop, the first female president of the Royal College of Surgeons, and—this is of particular interest to me—the first female Formula 1 driver, Susie Wolff. Many more women are breaking through and providing role models for us all, which can help to change attitudes and, importantly, raise aspirations.
Let me add one more name to that list: Fiona Woolf. I think that she deserves a particular mention. Although she was not the first female Lord Mayor of London, I believe that she did more than any other Lord Mayor to tackle the issue of gender equality in business, championing women and their contribution to the City of London, and taking that further with the City’s first Pride dinner in celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender City workers. I think we should put on record our thanks to her for all she did in that role.
I shall now focus on the role of work in women’s lives, knowing full well that other colleagues will pick up the other vital threads. Last week the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, wrote:
“In too many countries, too many legal restrictions conspire against women to be economically active”,
yet we know that the right to work is fundamental to the story of women’s equality. Christine Lagarde was prompted to say that by an IMF report which found that, despite the progress made on gender, almost 90% of countries surveyed still had legal restrictions based on gender that can stop women having the same opportunities to work as men.
While progress has been made, we should start this debate in the full knowledge that for many of our sisters around the world progress can be almost impossible to see. That is why the work of my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary is so critical in supporting our aims.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her speech and on this debate. Will she commend the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) in bringing forward his gender equality Bill for international development? It is absolutely critical that our international development programme, which our right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary so ably leads, ensures that gender equality is embedded in everything it does.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to remind me of that important Bill, because through such legislation we can ensure that Britain continues to lead the way, as we are doing in our Government policy, prioritising women and girls in overseas work, helping more than 2 million women overseas to get jobs and over 5 million girls to attend school. That sort of leadership can make a real difference.