House of Commons
Thursday 28 January 2016
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Robin Fell, the acting Deputy Serjeant at Arms, is retiring at the end of this month. Colleagues, he has worked at the House of Commons as a police officer and a Doorkeeper since 1969. Owen Sweeney, the deputy Deliverer of the Vote, is also retiring after 46 years as a House employee, having worked in the Serjeant at Arms Department before moving to the Vote Office. I am sure the whole House will join me in wishing these two very long-serving members of staff the very best for their retirement, and in thanking them, as I know I do extremely personally, for their quite outstanding contributions to this House and to the public service over nearly five decades. They have helped most magnificently in contributing to the smooth running of the House. Thank you both.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
High Speed 2
May I associate myself with your remarks, Mr Speaker, to both members of staff who are retiring and wish them well in their retirement? I am sure they would be welcome to come back and observe us in a different role, if they so wished.
In November last year I confirmed plans for accelerating the construction of phase 2 from the west midlands to Crewe so that it opens in 2027, six years earlier than planned. We are developing our plans for the rest of phase 2 and I intend to make decisions on the rest of the route by the autumn at the latest.
The Secretary of State will be aware that HS2 Ltd is currently evaluating a proposal to extend the line north of Manchester to Wigan. The cost of that is around £1 billion but as yet no incremental business or economic case has been produced. Will my right hon. Friend undertake that, before a decision is taken to extend the line north of Manchester, a business case will be laid before this House so that it can be reviewed?
When we come forward with proposals, they will receive the same scrutiny as those for the earlier part of the line. I believe that high-speed rail is essential for the long-term economic future of the United Kingdom. It gives us the increased capacity that we so desperately need on our railways, and that is a whole other scheme.
Can the Secretary of State tell us how planning the route for HS2 will be linked with planned improvements for east-west rail travel—for example, Liverpool to Hull?
The hon. Lady, as Chairman of the Select Committee, is absolutely right that that is part of what needs to be done. It is part of what is being addressed by David Higgins as chairman of HS2 in his designs for the routes. Also, we wait to see what the National Infrastructure Commission led by Lord Adonis comes out with on the east-west link on HS3.
Will the Secretary of State give close consideration to how Middlewich railway station can be reopened to passengers? That would facilitate much increased use of the rail line right into Manchester from Crewe and relieve considerable congestion on the M6, which has the support not only of local residents, but of a number of surrounding Members of Parliament.
I am not sure that comes into the HS2 line route development, but I am more than happy to discuss these matters with my hon. Friend, as is the rail Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry). One of the reasons for developing a high-speed rail link is that we need to find a lot more capacity on the existing rail network, and one of the ways we do that is by providing the extra capacity that HS2 will give.
I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat). Is not it poor that there are no plans for any HS2 rail service north of Manchester, particularly to Wigan? The 530,000 people in east Lancashire will be completely disconnected from phase 2 of HS2. Will the Secretary of State look at that?
The simple fact is that from day one I see HS2 serving areas wider than just those in which it is built. When we start the service from Birmingham, it will be possible to link with conventional rail routes, rather as high-speed trains currently run from St Pancras to Ashford and then beyond. I hope that the northern parts of the United Kingdom will be served by HS2 straightaway.
When the plans were put forward in November, they included none of the proposals for mitigation in my constituency that I and my constituents had put forward. Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that those proposals will continue to be looked at throughout the passage of the Bill?
This is one of the largest and most expensive Government projects on the table. Just before Christmas the Public Accounts Committee heard from the Secretary of State’s permanent secretary about the evaluation of High Speed 1, which was two years late and was therefore not included in the evaluation for the early stages of High Speed 2. How can he convince us that he really has a grip on the costs of this project and that the House will have proper, full scrutiny of that challenge?
The hon. Lady represents a London constituency and will therefore get the benefit of Crossrail, which is a very expensive scheme—the expense is not dissimilar to that of the first part of phase 2 of HS2. We are evaluating the project very carefully indeed, and we look very closely at anything the Public Accounts Committee tells us—of course, it always tells us in hindsight; never in advance.
We welcome the decision to accelerate HS2’s construction to Crewe. However, the whole of phase 2 is crucial for the midlands and the north. We were told that Ministers would confirm the route by the end of 2014, but that target has now slipped by at least two years, prolonging blight for residents, creating uncertainty and scaring off investment. Does the Secretary of State agree that there must be no doubt about the Government’s commitment to phase 2? Does he further agree that were a Chancellor with a Cheshire constituency to terminate the route south of Manchester, that would be an abject betrayal of the northern powerhouse?
I agree with the first part of the hon. Lady’s question, but I have had no stronger support in promoting this scheme from any member of the Government than I have had from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, even though it affects his constituency. He has been very clear about the benefits it will bring not only to the north, but to the whole of the United Kingdom. To intimate that he is somehow against the scheme is wholly wrong. I said that I hoped to have the full scheme announced by the end of this year, but I left a bit of leeway in order to make announcements sooner if I possibly can, to alleviate the blight of certain areas affected, which might not be affected under the proposals now being worked on.
Transport Fuels: Renewable Sources
We are determined to achieve the target of 10% biofuel inclusion by 2020 and are working with industry and others to that end.
There has been a £400 million investment in the Vivergo Fuels plant in my constituency, supporting 4,000 jobs. Does the Minister agree that the most cost-effective way of meeting our transport emissions targets is to increase the share of bioethanol in our petrol?
I suppose I should declare an interest, as 100 tonnes of my wheat went to that plant just before Christmas to produce bioethanol. It is important that we work with not only the plant in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but the one on Teesside to ensure that the industry has a sustainable future. We must also look carefully at other knock-on effects that indirect land use change might have, as the decisions we make in Europe can affect habitats in south America or the far east, for example.
Does the Minister agree that it is absolutely essential that we get on with developing alternative fuels of a variety of kinds to power our vehicles? Without that, the levels of nitrous dioxide are causing permanent health damage to many people in this country. At Tinsley, the local authority in Sheffield has decided to move a school away from the motorway because of the levels of NO2, but residents are still living there. The city council is responsible for air quality to some degree, but in the end it is down to Government to deal with problems such as air pollution from the motorway. When are they going to act on this?
In the wake of the Volkswagen scandal, the Government are acting to ensure that diesel-powered vehicles are meeting their obligations, but our push towards electric vehicles and other novel-fuel vehicles also has a part to play. The Government are determined to improve air quality.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has mentioned electric vehicles, because Continental, which is a major player in research and development for electric car drivetrains, making them for many different manufacturers, is based in my constituency. What is the Department doing to encourage the use and development of electric cars?
The plug-in car grants have been very successful, and we have seen an increase in the take-up of electric cars. Indeed, I was recently in Milton Keynes opening a facility there to test the drivetrains and motors in electric cars. The UK is taking a lead in this technology, which is being developed here. The Nissan Leaf is a major product produced in the UK to contribute to this market.
On behalf of SNP Members, I add my thanks and best wishes to the departing staff members and wish them a happy retirement.
Good work needs to be done on new fuels, but there is a glaring omission within the Government’s work just now. Regardless of the current fuel position, there is a need to plan ahead. The Minister will know that Oslo airport has become the world’s first airport to offer sustainable jet biofuel to all airlines, and that Lufthansa Group, SAS and KLM have already signed agreements to buy it. Here, meanwhile, the aviation industry has raised concerns that the industry’s sustainable aviation agenda is not being supported by Government. Will the Minister reconsider his position and include aviation in the renewable transport fuels obligation?
In terms of the sustainability of aviation, this is an important year at the International Civil Aviation Organisation, where we should get, I hope, agreement on a market-based mechanism to combat the issue of carbon dioxide. Within the industry, both Virgin and British Airways are working on alternative fuels produced from waste products, which will help with the sustainability of aviation.
I do not think that anybody, especially in the aviation industry, is persuaded by the tortured explanations that we get on this. The aviation industry tells me that the UK Government are in policy paralysis—they are not dealing with biofuel development and they are not dealing with airport expansion. Will the Minister commit to action on a renewable transport fuels obligation for aviation?
That is not the impression I get when I meet representatives of the aviation industry. Indeed, the improvement of sustainable aviation is an industry-led initiative. I repeat that this is a very important year for the world in terms of tackling CO2 emissions from aviation. We all want to achieve a globally based mechanism, and I am determined to ensure that we play our part in negotiating it.
I really do need to press the Minister a bit further on this. Recently, British Airways postponed its GreenSky project to establish a facility to produce advanced biofuels for aviation here in the UK. While the issues involved in that are no doubt complex, will the Minister listen to the increasingly widespread warnings from those involved in aviation that inaction and lack of clear policy direction from the Government are holding back the development and use of renewable fuels in aviation, thereby missing opportunities to boost jobs and skills in these technologies and making it more difficult to meet our obligations on carbon and harmful emissions?
I can understand the hon. Gentleman’s frustration in wanting to make more progress, but I have to say that there is more than one way of killing a cat. Yes, alternative fuels may have an important role to play, but more importantly—[Interruption.] More importantly, a market-based mechanism will allow other types of technology to be developed which can then be used to offset the emissions from aviation, which will always be dependent on liquid fuels. [Interruption.]
High-speed Rail Network
I shared the platform with the Scottish Minister, Keith Brown, at the HS2 supply chain conference on 5 November in Edinburgh. We discussed the benefits that Scotland will get from HS2. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has arranged to meet Keith next week.
The Minister will recall that he was previously asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) about the potential for increased journey times north of Crewe to Scotland under the current proposals for HS2. At the time, he suggested that upgrades on the line were already under way. Therefore, will he now commit to providing the Scottish Government with a definitive timetable for those upgrades?
I can tell the hon. Lady that HS2 will deliver increased benefits to Scotland. From day one, journey times from Glasgow will be reduced from four hours 31 minutes to three hours 56 minutes. Indeed, the full Y network will benefit Scotland to the tune of £3 billion. Interestingly, she does not mention Nicola Sturgeon’s own bullet train, the Glasgow-Edinburgh scheme, which she announced as infrastructure Minister in 2012. It appears that Scotland’s First Minister has now given her bullet train the bullet.
The Government fully understand how important it is to have a reliable quality road network, which is why we are providing a record £6 billion for local highways maintenance. We have also created the pothole action fund with a budget of £250 million dedicated to delivering better journeys.
I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. I am pleased that he has agreed to come to Shrewsbury soon to look at some congestion problems in the town. May I draw his attention to the state of the roads in rural counties where there are huge numbers of potholes, a lack of pavements and significant problems? We really need more investment for those roads in rural counties.
I am looking forward to visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency on 27 May. I agree that more money is required, which is why the Government have increased the budget. Within the two initiatives that I have just highlighted, may I include the fact that we are also incentivising part of the maintenance fund so that efficient and organised councils are rewarded? That will encourage local councils to improve the maintenance regime on their highways. I urge him to work with his council so that it can benefit from that scheme to the maximum.
From this year until 2021, both the A1 and the A19 will be undergoing extensive roadworks. Although that investment is welcome, the current plans show that both roads will be upgraded at the same time, which will create total chaos on our region’s road network and bring the north-east to a total standstill. I have already written to the Secretary of State about this, and he is clearly not interested. Will he show some interest from today?
We are investing significantly in our road network. We have the Government’s first road investment strategy, with a significant overall pot of £15.2 billion. It is phased to deliver maximum benefit across our country. Of course Highways England plans such things effectively, and then works with local partners to ensure that there is minimum disruption. We should welcome the investment, as I certainly do.
19. The Institute of Advanced Motorists has praised Dorset County Council for focusing on long-term road repairs. Will the Minister join me in praising the council for using its scarce resources wisely, and ensure that vital funding continues to enable Dorset to maintain the standards of its roads? (903330)
I will indeed join my hon. Friend in praising Dorset County Council. It is great to hear that its long-term approach is paying dividends. It is that approach that we want to see across the whole network. I will write to Dorset County Council to highlight the views of this House, to pass on our congratulations, and to confirm his main point that budgets will be increasing.
Last year, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development paid £4.5 million in compensation for the damage done to vehicles by potholes. The Government allocated extra moneys to Northern Ireland to help with that problem. Will the Minister agree to allocate the same amount of money to Northern Ireland this year?
Local Transport Projects
For the avoidance of doubt, I want to put on the record that I have never actually skinned a cat. I have, however, skinned a large number of rabbits and I imagine the principles are the same.
In answer to the question, the Department is providing over £7 billion for the devolved local growth fund, which will fund over 500 local transport projects by 2020-21. This now also includes £475 million for transformational local transport schemes that are too large for the devolved allocations. We will provide further details in the spring.
I thank the Secretary of State for meeting me and my hon. Friends the Members for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), for Bath (Ben Howlett) and for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) last week to discuss our campaign for a new junction 18A on the M4. What assessment can the Minister make about the likelihood of the proposed junction? It would support job creation, as well as ensure that reducing traffic congestion in our constituencies actually happens.
I have seen examples up and down the country of such road projects unlocking growth and creating jobs in particular areas. I know it was a very fruitful meeting with the Secretary of State, who has asked Highways England to take a close look at this matter.
The National Infrastructure Commission has called for evidence on future road projects, and one such area is about connecting northern cities. Doncaster and Barnsley have put evidence in to the commission for the trans-Pennine tunnel link. Does the Minister know when the commission will report, and how soon after the report will he have a chance to make up his mind about which projects he will fund?
Such decisions will certainly be made more quickly than they were under the previous Labour Government, who did not get round to investing in infrastructure in the way that we have committed to do. The National Infrastructure Commission is looking at big ticket items or major projects that will be transformational for areas, not least in the north of England, and we are determined to push forward with our northern powerhouse project.
Following on from his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), does the Minister agree that a new junction 18A on the M4 would unlock regional growth and jobs, and enable Bath University to open its new vehicle emission testing plant at Emersons Green, which will help to reduce congestion on the windy, narrow roads in Bath and Bristol?
Is the Minister able to say whether funding will be available for a very important local transport project, which is to extend the overground line from West Croydon through to Sutton? That would enable passengers who currently have to rely on the shambolic services provided by Southern and Thameslink to use that line instead.
We have record investment both in our conventional rail network and high-speed rail and in the strategic road network, and we are also working with local enterprise partnerships and local authorities on their own local schemes. That is just the sort of scheme that we need to look at closely.
A compelling business case for the third crossing in Lowestoft was submitted to the Minister’s Department just before Christmas. I would be grateful if he advised when a bid can be submitted to the local majors fund so that we can get on and build this bridge and ensure it is completed by 2020.
At the last Transport questions, I asked the Secretary of State if he could look into the issue of excess noise coming from the M60 motorway, which has been made worse as a result of the Denton pinch point scheme. Since then, I have met officers of Highways England on site with the residents. Highways England officers have basically told me that they will not do anything, because the noise affects only eight properties. Will the Minister please meet me to discuss this matter, and will he knock some common sense into Highways England, which, quite frankly, has given me a jobsworth’s answer?
I know that particular communities around the country are affected by noise. Mitigation can often be put in place by using better road surfacing materials or noise barriers, and it may well be that something could be done in that area. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman gets in touch with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones)—he has responsibility for roads—who will no doubt be very happy to meet him.
Rail Lines: Flooding
Just days after the hon. Gentleman’s election, he will have seen for himself the impact of the transport disruption caused by this winter’s unprecedented weather conditions. I am sure he will join me in paying tribute to Network Rail’s orange army, who managed to get the west coast main line opened within four days of its being flooded with 8 feet of water. We remain absolutely committed to getting all such lines back up and able to run a full service safely as soon as possible. I am sure he would also like to join me in thanking passengers for their patience during this time.
I share the Minister’s appreciation for the staff and for the patience of passengers, but I think the point is being missed. Because money has been taken away from routine maintenance and flood defences, there has been a massive effect on our local economy. If an assessment has been carried out, surely it should be made public.
I am afraid that I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s facts, although I hate to do so at his first Transport questions. The Government have announced that overall flood spending in the next period will be £1.7 billion higher than it was in the previous period. Within the transport budget, about £900 million is dedicated to things like making sure that the banks and cuttings are safe—those things that are often the first to go when there is heavy flooding. Improving the resilience of the rail network and making sure that it is fit for a 21st-century climate are at the heart of the record level of investment that this Government are putting into the railways.[Official Report, 29 January 2016, Vol. 605, c. 3MC.]
Pursuant to that answer, will the Minister clarify what discussions have taken place with colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Energy and Climate Change to prepare rail links for the flood damage that is likely in the weeks and months ahead as a result of climate change?
I am sure that the hon. Lady will be relieved to know that all the Cobra discussions over Christmas on the immediate effects had strong transport representation. I went to Scotland and saw for myself with the SNP Minister for Transport the impact of scouring on the Lamington viaduct. That bridge has been there for over 100 years and has never been so damaged by a weather event. It is a tribute to the engineering work that is being done that the bridge will be secured and back open by 1 March. We treat such links with incredible importance.
Two years ago, the Prime Minister stood on the ruins of the Dawlish sea wall and said:
“If money needs to be spent, it will be spent; if resources are required we will provide them”.
Now, we learn that Network Rail cannot even afford to fund a report on improving the south-west’s rail lines, putting millions of pounds of investment at risk. Yesterday, the Prime Minister could not say where that money would come from. I want to give the rail Minister a chance. Will she honour her right hon. Friend’s commitment and fund that study?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who raised this question with the Prime Minister. The hon. Lady really needs to sort out her facts. The Government spent £35 million on the Dawlish repair and opened the line in record time. We are spending over £400 million on transport investment in the south-west, unlike her party, which wanted to can two major roads. I am looking carefully—[Interruption.] Perhaps she would like to listen, rather than chunter. I am looking carefully at how we can fund this very small amount of money without in any way inhibiting the overall report that we are looking forward to seeing from this very important organisation in April.
The Government believe that franchising is the best way of delivering benefits for both passengers and taxpayers. The proof of that is in the benefits we gain for passengers and taxpayers on the open market, such as new trains, new services, more frequent services and improved stations. As my hon. Friend is aware, we are currently consulting on the specifications for the next south western franchise. I hope that she and her constituents are fully engaged in the process.
Southern rail allegedly serves Fareham, Swanwick and Portchester stations in my constituency, but commuters are fed up with the cancellations and severe delays. I am glad that the Secretary of State acknowledges that the service is not good enough, but will he reassure me that the mainline west and coastway west routes will be considered as part of the future improvement plans? Will the franchise be withdrawn if no improvement is shown?
We are seeing unprecedented growth in rail traffic and transport. Importantly, the Government have matched that by increasing the investment for Network Rail over the next control period. Some of the improvement that my hon. Friend talks about needs to take place. I say to my hon. Friends, however, that there will be disruption while some of this improvement is taking place. Sometimes that will be because of the train operating companies, but sometimes it will be because of the failure of previous Governments to invest properly in the railways and upgrade them.
There is unlikely to be much UK steel used in the train contract that has just been awarded to the Spanish. What can the Government do to use franchising and other measures to ensure that their new procurement guidelines, which are a big step in the right direction, begin to have some purchase to ensure that steel content is included in such contracts?
First and foremost, I would point out to the hon. Gentleman the amount of money that is spent by Network Rail in purchasing steel from his constituency or thereabouts. That is an important movement in the right place. It would have been a bigger betrayal to the people of the north had we not said that we need new rolling stock to replace the Pacers. I am pleased that the Government will replace the Pacers. The very fact that our train builders in this country—Bombardier and Hitachi—are busy is because of the record investment the Government are putting into the railways.
For many years, commuters in Bolton West have found that the trains and carriages at rush hour are heavily overcrowded—we have about the third worst overcrowding in the country. Will the Secretary of State assure me that the new franchising will deal with that problem?
Yes, but the new franchising could lead to more passengers on that track and the problem might grow. I am very pleased with the investment taking place in and around my hon. Friend’s constituency, not least the work on the Farnworth tunnel, which will increase the capacity and availability of electric trains to eventually serve his constituency.
Will the Secretary of State learn from the Scottish Government on franchising? As well as new trains and capacity, will he get commitments for the real living wage for all staff and subcontractors, new apprenticeships, no compulsory redundancies and, importantly, an end to toilets being emptied on to railway tracks?
I trust that the Scottish Government are learning from what the UK Government have managed to achieve in the franchises we have let. A lot of the policies that are being followed by the Scottish Government are based on policies that we have implemented.
In 2011, FirstGroup, which runs Great Western, avoided paying contractual premium payments to the Treasury by choosing not to take up its option of a three-year extension, but in January 2013, the Secretary of State abandoned the competition for a new franchise and simply agreed a renewal with First until 2015, and subsequently announced a second direct award running till 2019, thereby avoiding the inconvenience of a competitive bidding process. Have not the Government made a mockery of free market franchising?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post. As I said last week in a transport debate, I hope he lasts longer than his predecessor—[Interruption.] I think there was somebody in between. The contract to which he refers did have a break clause for First, but it was negotiated by the Labour Government. Therefore, they caused that break and it was part of their contract.
I am pleased to be able to remind the hon. Gentleman of the words of the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), who I believe has an important role in the Labour party—I hope it is a very unsuccessful one in a few weeks’ time. He said that:
“one reason we are able to invest record sums in our railway service is the revenues that the franchises bring in and the premiums that they pay”.—[Official Report, 1 July 2009; Vol. 495, c. 430.]
He said that when he was in a position of responsibility: that of Transport Minister.
Trans-Pennine Rail Line
The Secretary of State, Ministers and officials meet Network Rail regularly to progress the complex and transformative upgrades that we are undertaking on the trans-Pennine line. These upgrades will deliver faster journey times and significantly more capacity by improving the track and signalling as well as electrifying the line.
Mr Speaker, may I quickly associate myself with the generous tribute you paid to those great servants of the House, but point out that you seemed to omit the time and date of the lavish retirement party you are putting on for them?
May I say to the rail Ministers that they have challenged us to speak to the facts? According to the BBC, the facts are that the trans-Pennine electrification is in severe doubt because of what is happening in the south, where electrification is four years late. New trains are arriving before the rails are ready and they are parking them up in sidings.
16. The north of England rail electrification taskforce, which the Minister chaired, recommends as its second priority Liverpool to Manchester via Warrington, with Southport and Kirkby to Salford Crescent as its third. Can he tell us when the work on those projects will take place? (903326)
Lancashire Transport Links: Flooding
This Government are determined to help families and businesses in Lancashire, including those in Rossendale and Darwen. The Department for Transport announced on 27 December 2015 that we will be providing £5 million to Lancashire County Council to help it to prioritise what local highway infrastructure must be repaired following the storms.
I congratulate the Minister and the Department on their response to the floods. Specifically, will he go away and look at the issue of private vehicular bridges crossing rivers in Rossendale and Darwen? I understand that the householders and businesses are liable for them, but in a couple of places they collapsed causing flooding upstream that has caused millions of pounds of damage. It may be that if we can find some money to help them to repair them, it will be a case of a stitch in time saves nine.
I draw the attention of the House to my declarations of interest.
The UK freight sector is absolutely dependent on areas such as Lancashire having good infrastructure. Given that Ministers have come to the House three times in recent memory to say that the storms are unprecedented, they are clearly not unprecedented. What will the Government do to ensure that our national infrastructure, which the freight sector and all of us rely on, has proper resilience and that there are proper plans for rapid repairs where necessary?
Certainly the strategic road network has been particularly resilient despite the storms, and Network Rail has been absolutely valiant in fixing problems, particularly as over the Christmas period it was engaged in a massive investment programme to upgrade the service. We must certainly learn lessons. Network Rail is on standby this week in areas where it suspects there may be problems.
Since I have the ability to count, I think I will ask for question 11.
Clearly a man who has had a double espresso this morning, Mr Speaker.
Great Northern Great Eastern Upgrade
11. What discussions he has had with Network Rail on compensation for residents affected by the upgrade of the great northern great eastern line. (903320)
I have regular discussions with Network Rail on a range of issues and this issue has not yet been raised. I am interested to hear more, because I was really proud to open the £280 million line upgrade. It has massively improved freight capacity and, potentially, passenger capacity. As part of the scope, Network Rail reduced track noise and vibration through the use of continuously welded rail.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, although I have to say I am astonished that she is unaware of this issue. I have been contacted by very large numbers of constituents who are suffering greatly increased noise and vibration following the upgrade of the line. I met Network Rail, which is adamant that it will neither mitigate those effects nor compensate residents. Will she put pressure on Network Rail and fire a rocket up it, so it actually does something to help?
I am disappointed to hear this. There was a huge amount of consultation on the scheme, including with local schoolchildren to let them know the dangers of high-speed trains running through areas. If my hon. and learned Friend would perhaps set out his concerns in more detail, I will of course raise this at my next meeting.
12. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on new emissions tests for cars. (903321)
I have held regular discussions with my ministerial colleagues on the new European emissions tests for cars. The Government strongly support the real driving emissions agreement, which is expected to significantly reduce real-world oxides of nitrogen emissions from diesel cars.
There have been several sets of negotiations. This came up at the last Transport Council I attended and I reported back to the House on its conclusions. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. This a very important subject that needs to be addressed right across the car manufacturing industry.
Road Investment Strategy
13. What steps his Department is taking to implement the Government’s road investment strategy. (903322)
Highways England’s delivery plan sets out how it will deliver the Government’s £15 billion road investment strategy. Work on site is already under way on 19 major schemes, five of which Highways England has started this financial year, as planned. I meet it on a monthly basis to monitor progress.
Residents, including myself, remain grateful for the Government’s commitment to upgrading the new A585 in my constituency, but they are keen to get a progress report on identifying the precise route and securing the landownership required to commence work in 2019. Can the Minister give us that update please?
I can indeed. Highways England is making good progress. It has been doing initial work on options and anticipates beginning engagement with stakeholders and the wider public later this year. The scheme is on track to start construction in the 2019-20 financial year, as planned, but I will ask Highways England to keep my hon. Friend informed of progress.
Will the Minister give me an assurance that the long-needed and very complicated Chickenhall link road in my constituency will be properly considered? It would deliver new jobs, less congestion and pollution, increased productivity, and access to Southampton airport, but has been decades in the waiting.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her work on this issue. I know she has put an enormous effort into it. The congestion in the Eastleigh area is a significant local problem, and I am aware of the work that Hampshire County Council is doing, but perhaps it would be helpful if we met outside here to discuss what we can do to move this project forward.
Engineering Projects: Christmas and New Year
I pay tribute to Network Rail and its hard-working orange army of more than 20,000 staff who successfully delivered £150 million of essential improvements to the network over the holiday period, as part of our record programme of investment in the railways. Planning for Easter is well advanced, and the good practice demonstrated over Christmas is being embedded in the planning process for Easter and beyond.
I am more than happy to do that. It is difficult to do these works. We tend to do them over bank holidays, when there is not so much usage on the network. I realise it inconveniences people who want to travel by train, but it is all part of a major and vital upgrade of our rail network.
Rail Infrastructure: South-west
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, as a fellow south-western MP, will be pleased that the Government have committed to investing about £400 million in rail infrastructure in the south-west. This includes re-signalling the main line from Totnes to Penzance; developing a strategic freight network; electrifying the Great Western main line; refurbishing the Cornwall sleeper; £35 million for the necessary repairs at Dawlish; a brand-new station at Newcourt, just outside his constituency; another station planned in his constituency at Marsh Barton; plus 29 new AT300 trains. The Government get the importance of rail investment in the south-west.
Of course, that electrification is into south Wales, not the south-west.
The people of the west country well remember the repeated promises from the Transport Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of billions of pounds of investment in rail in the south-west, but the Minister has just failed, once again, to confirm that the Government will commit a paltry half a million pounds for the feasibility study that Devon and Cornwall needs after the Dawlish disaster into improved resilience and rail transport times. Do not the people of the south-west rightly feel completely betrayed by the Government?
Month after month, the right hon. Gentleman comes here and seems to be in complete denial about the fact that his Government did nothing for the people of the south-west and that his party wanted to cancel the vital A358 road scheme that helps people directly in his constituency. I have already set out—but I am happy to discuss it further—that I am considering ways to find the very small amount of money required to do this one technical feasibility study, which is a tiny part of the south-west peninsula taskforce study. We expect that report to come out in April and deliver the strategic uplift the region requires.
To help my hon. Friend, would she be willing to meet me and fellow colleagues in the south-west to ensure that Network Rail and the taskforce have enough funding for the two studies into the electrification of the line through the peninsula and the reduction in journey times?
I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend, but let me gently remind him that Network Rail has already spent almost £3.5 million supporting the analysis of the resilience groups and the vital geological survey of the sea cliffs along the area. This work will be done, the Government will listen and this Government, unlike that lot on the Opposition Benches, will invest in the south-west.
This has been a very difficult time for the communities of the north of England. I have enormous sympathy for those flooded out of their homes. I am determined that we will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with local communities as they strive to return to business as usual. That is why I have commissioned the highways agencies and Network Rail to work particularly closely with the local authorities directly affected by flooding.
Unsustainable cuts by the Department for Communities and Local Government have left Lancashire County Council able to provide only statutory services across the county. This has led to an end to fare box subsidies. Some 2,400 bus routes have been cut or downgraded by this Government nationally. Why is it that this Government are leaving bus users without services?
The hon. Gentleman needs to question Labour-controlled Lancashire County Council about how it provides its services, along with those local authorities that have managed to enhance their bus services. My Department has secured funding through the bus service operators grant and will continue to do so, and will continue to support bus services across the country.
T2. Given the adverse impact that c2c timetable changes are having on the quality of commuters’ lives in Southend, and that the franchise has been renewed and the impact is now being blamed on the Government, will my right hon. Friend leave the train operators in no doubt at all that the Member of Parliament for Southend West believes that these timetable changes are simply untenable? (903300)
I well remember my hon. Friend campaigning for c2c to keep the franchise for that particular line. Obviously any changes early on in a franchise sometimes lead to difficulties, but I am concerned to work with him. c2c is improving the service. It has one of the highest reliabilities among train operators across the country and I know it is going to bring in additional rolling stock in late spring.
In last week’s Opposition day debate on the cost of public transport, Government Members seemed reluctant to say anything about buses and particularly fares, which is no great surprise, because the Department keeps hardly any information on the issue. Others tell us that fares have risen by 26% since 2010—three times as fast as wages. What does the Secretary of State think about that and when is he going to start collecting and publishing the data—or would he rather the public did not know?
Oil prices are now low, but we have not seen bus operators passing on the savings to passengers. It was very different when oil prices were going up: fares quickly went up too. What has the Secretary of State been doing to put pressure on the operators to cut fares? When is he going to start standing up for hard-pressed bus passengers?
I hope that bus fares come down as a result of falling fuel prices, but I would also point out to the hon. Gentleman that fuel prices are only one part of the industry’s costs—I think they represent about 40% of the costs. Another part is investment in new buses, which I very much welcome—I have seen many examples of that. Quite often the oil is bought in advance, but I agree with him that the bus companies should look to see whether there is room to reduce the cost of using buses.
T3. Thousands of hard-working people from Radlett, Elstree and Borehamwood rely, like me, on Thameslink to get into London every day. We are utterly despairing at the ever declining service under the new franchisee. What reassurance can the Minister give us that Govia Thameslink will be held to account for those failures and what hope can he provide for future improvements to the service? (903301)
My hon. Friend knows that I think it is inexcusable that some customers on that part of the network are not receiving the service they deserve. Interestingly, the national rail passenger survey this week said that three out of four passengers on the franchise were in fact satisfied with the service they were receiving. There are problems, which are being fixed, such as driver shortages and old trains, but Network Rail has to do better when it comes to fixing faults and communicating with passengers. It is a fact that these lines are very old and successive Governments failed to invest in them. We are all completely committed to getting all parts of the franchise back to high performance by 2018.
T6. In the light of the recent proposal to build a railway line from China to Europe with capacity for freight as well as passenger traffic, will Ministers consider what further rail investment is required to ensure that the regions and nations of Britain are effectively linked to the continent? (903305)
I recently had one of the most interesting and informative meetings with the hon. Gentleman, who has been a long-standing campaigner for lorries on freight trains. As he knows, I think the idea is appealing in concept, but it needs to be examined in a lot more detail, and a stronger economic case made. I would welcome his and others’ involvement in putting a more substantive business case before me.
T4. As a result of changes shockingly agreed by the Labour Government of 2006, the rail Minister knows that only three out of 63 trains a day operated by CrossCountry on the so-called inter-city service actually stop at the city of Gloucester. Does she agree that a significant increase in the number of trains stopping at Gloucester is a vital part of any settlement to extend the CrossCountry franchise? (903303)
There is a reason why Gloucester has elected my hon. Friend twice now, because unlike the last lot, he stands up for rail links to his constituency. He knows very well and has made the case many times that the rail link is important. The CrossCountry direct award consultation process is currently in operation. I am sure he will continue, along with the council, to make these very good representations.
T7. What discussions has the Secretary of State or the Vehicle Certification Agency had with Volkswagen to ensure that the UK taxpayer is not out of pocket for the re-testing of Volkswagen vehicles following the recent scandal? (903306)
I refer the hon. Lady to the response I gave to the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). Discussions on this particular matter are ongoing. I have taken the issue up in meetings with Volkswagen, which I believe appeared before the Transport Select Committee earlier this week.
T5. Will my right hon. Friend tell us how, with Arriva having secured the new 10-year Northern rail franchise, this will help to improve and support the Government’s northern powerhouse strategy, and, more importantly, how it will help to improve rail services in Disley in the Macclesfield constituency? (903304)
My hon. Friend should know that this franchise was last let in 2004 on a nil-growth exercise—quite the reverse of what we have done. What will happen with the new franchise is that we will see the complete removal of the outdated and unpopular Pacers by 2019; £400 million of investment in 281 brand-new air-conditioned carriages; more than 2,000 extra services provided each week, including around 400 on Sundays; space for an extra 31,000 passengers; and £45 million invested in stations. Yes, my hon. Friend’s constituents will see a major improvement.
Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles, alongside battery electric vehicles, have the potential to play an important role in decarbonising road transport. The Government began working with the industry in 2012 through the UK H2Mobility programme, developing a road map for hydrogen-based transport. It has a big role in the future.
T8. Is the Secretary of State aware that, back in the 17th century, the port of King’s Lynn was the fourth largest in the country and has been thriving ever since? Now, however, it is under severe threat from a pernicious and job-destroying European port services regulation. What are the Secretary of State and his Ministers going to do to make the EU see sense and withdraw this unwanted regulation? (903307)
I have always made it clear that this regulation is not required to fix a problem in the UK because we already have a competitive port sector with competition between ports. The general approach adopted by Council addressed many of our concerns, particularly the competitive market exemption. What is interesting is that this week, while a number of amendments were passed in the European Parliament’s transport committee, the mandate to go forward into trialogues was not given. At the moment, the regulation has run into the deep sand, and I hope it will remain there.
St Helens North is in the Mersey travel area, but thousands of my constituents commute outside it to work in Wigan, Warrington and Manchester, which means that they are effectively paying a levy on their journeys. What progress has been made towards a smart ticketing system for the north of England, which would put an end to these increasingly arbitrary travel boundaries?
Transport for the North is developing its plans for smart ticketing across the north, and the Government have provided £150 million to assist it with the project. I am a great supporter of smart ticketing, and I will be helping Transport for the North all the way.
T9. We in Nottinghamshire thank Gordon Brown for dualling the A46, but unfortunately, as was so often the way, the money ran out. The dualling ends outside Newark, and the gridlock begins. Will the Minister confirm that the dualling of the A46 from Farndon to Winthorpe is part of the Government’s plan, and that it could be brought forward in the event of slippage elsewhere? (903308)
My hon. Friend is a diligent campaigner on this issue. In October we met Councillor Blaney, a representative of his local authority.
The scheme is highly complex. The Government are committed to beginning construction in our next roads period, which means that we can start the assessment and development work now, but I am afraid I cannot tell my hon. Friend that the scheme is being brought forward.
We are approaching the second anniversary of the private finance initiative to electrify the line from Hull to Selby. Can the Minister update us on that no-brainer, which will benefit both the travelling public and the Government because it is privately financed?
As the hon. Lady knows, this is a ground-breaking way of ensuring that infrastructure is delivered, and of course we want to deliver that particular infrastructure, given Hull’s importance in the next 12 to 18 months. I shall be happy to obtain an update on the exact timing and write to her.
This morning my train to London Bridge got me in on time. Does the Minister agree that, as well as being negative when things do not work, we should adopt a positive attitude to our rail franchises when they get it right, as they do on most days?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Trains to London Bridge, and other Thameslink trains, are benefiting from a massive upgrade costing some £6.5 billion. Obviously there will be difficulties at certain stages of the line’s reconstruction, but once it is finished it will be a far superior line, and it will benefit from the new trains that will come into service in the spring.
The proposals on emissions standards that were published yesterday by the European Commission give us a real opportunity to turn a corner and get to grips with an industry that has been circumventing environmental regulations for too long. Will the Secretary of State assure us that those proposals will not become a bargaining chip in the Prime Minister’s renegotiation, resulting in watered-down outcomes?
Ten days ago a group of us visited Cairo, where everyone from the Prime Minister downwards impressed on us the devastating impact of the suspension of flights to Sharm el-Sheikh on the Egyptian economy. Has my right hon. Friend any plans to reinstate those flights so that the 1 million British visitors to Sharm el-Sheikh can resume their holidays there?
I cannot yet say when the resumption of flights might be possible, but the agreement that was reached with the Egyptian authorities in December on a joint action plan was a significant and welcome step forward. Since then we have had an ongoing presence in Sharm el-Sheikh, working with the Egyptians on the implementation of that plan, and I think that good progress is being made. I fully understand the importance to Egypt of the resumption of flights to destinations in the country.
Leeds City Council is currently consulting on road options for leaving Bradford airport, but it is ignoring the obvious solution of a rail link to the railway line, which is 1.1 miles away. Why is the council considering those options, given that they are based on flawed assumptions in a flawed report from the Department for Transport?
The importance of connectivity to our airports has long been underestimated in transport policy, and that certainly applies to the Leeds-Bradford connection. I think that we should be positive about the fact that work is being done to establish how we can improve connectivity, but I suggest that the hon. Gentleman join the campaign that is being run by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew).
I warmly welcome the prospectus offering new rail passenger services in London and the south-east. It states, on page 26, that
“Crossrail 2 would move inner suburban services onto new tracks”,
thus improving those services. However, there is no plan to try to run this enhanced metro on the current rickety two-track system, which means further delays in train services from outer suburban stations. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me about that?
The main platform at Mirfield railway station in my constituency is only accessible via very steep steps, which can make it very difficult, and sometimes impossible, for the disabled and the elderly or infirm to access the station. Will the Minister agree to meet me or perhaps visit Mirfield to see how we can facilitate much needed improvements to the station?
I am always happy to discuss these issues with the hon. Lady. She will know that more than 400 stations have significantly benefited from the investment of the Access for All scheme. Clearly there is more to do and I am very happy to have a conversation with her about that.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if he will make a statement on the Court of Appeal ruling that the bedroom tax has caused discrimination, contrary to article 14 of the European convention on human rights.
We know there are people who need extra support. That is why we are providing local authorities with discretionary housing payment funding. Local authorities are best placed to assess people’s needs in their area and identify where extra support is needed.
We have increased the amount of discretionary housing payment available. On top of the £560 million since 2011, we are providing an extra £870 million over the next five years. The people involved in these cases are receiving discretionary housing payments. That is precisely why we have discretionary housing payments, and shows that these are working.
We welcome the fact that the High Court and the Court of Appeal both ruled that the public sector equality duty had been met in respect to women. Furthermore, we have won a Court of Appeal ruling where the court ruled in our favour on the policy of the spare room subsidy. In that judgment, the court found that the discretionary housing payments were an appropriate means of support for those who are vulnerable. So this is a complex area and in terms of these two latest cases, it is a very narrow ruling.
On these cases, the High Court found in our favour and we fundamentally disagree with yesterday’s Court of Appeal ruling on the ECHR. This is not a case of people losing money, for in these cases they are in receipt of discretionary housing payments. This is about whether it is possible to define such exemptions or whether direct housing payments through local authorities give the right flexibility to help a wide range of those in need. The Court of Appeal itself has already granted us permission to appeal, and we will be appealing to the Supreme Court.
May I start by saying that I am flabbergasted by that response and I am flabbergasted that the Secretary of State, to whom I asked the question, is once more ducking his responsibilities?
We knew the bedroom tax was cruel, but we now know it is illegal, and this decisive ruling from the Court of Appeal should mark the end of this pernicious policy. The ruling could not be any clearer: the bedroom tax is unlawful and discriminatory.
The Court of Appeal considered two cases against the Secretary of State, who once again is not prepared to defend his policy: one from a victim of rape who had had a panic room installed by the police; and one from the Rutherford family, whom I know personally, and to whom I pay tribute here today both for the care they provide for their severely disabled grandson, Warren, and for the bravery they have shown in taking on the Secretary of State.
In both instances, the court ruled that the bedroom tax had caused “discrimination”. It found, moreover, that the
“admitted discrimination…has not been justified by the Secretary of State”.
So the question for the Minister—in place of the missing Secretary of State—is what does this ruling mean for the 450,000 families currently affected by the bedroom tax? If the Government are appealing to the Supreme Court, as, extraordinarily, it seems they are, can the Minister tell us on what specific grounds they are appealing? Crucially, as a matter of urgency, will the Government immediately exempt the two groups that have found to have been discriminated against from paying the bedroom tax: victims of domestic violence and the families of severely disabled children?
Can the Minister confirm there are 280 victims of domestic abuse who have had a panic room installed under the sanctuary scheme and who are affected by this policy? Can he further confirm that exempting victims of domestic abuse would only cost the Government £200,000 a year? By comparison, can he tell us how many hundreds of thousands of pounds he has already spent on legal fees defending this vile policy, and how much more he is prepared to defend? Does he have a blank cheque to defend this to the end?
Can the Minister also tell us how many families with severely disabled children are currently paying the bedroom tax? Will he inform the House what proportion of domestic violence victims and families with disabled children are in receipt of discretionary housing payments? This ruling was on two specific grounds, but will the Minister confirm that the bedroom tax is failing in every regard? He talks of discretionary housing payments, but his own Government’s report, which was dumped before Christmas, admitted that 75% of victims did not receive DHP, that three quarters of those hit by the bedroom tax were cutting back on food, that only 5% had been able to move and that 80% regularly ran out of money.
Politics is about choices, and the choice that faced the Secretary of State today was very clear. He could have come to the House and admitted that this was a rotten policy that was punishing poor people across the country, and he could have scrapped it. Instead, he is sitting on the Front Bench before going back to Caxton House to consult his lawyers in order to defend this policy against the victims of domestic violence and the parents of disabled children. We know the choice he took.
To be absolutely clear, this is about whether it is possible to find such exemptions or whether direct housing payments through local authorities give the right flexibility to help a wide range of those in need, and we will be appealing this to the Supreme Court. If we try to set strict categories, people—especially those with unique circumstances and issues—could fall just below an artificial line, meaning that they would miss out. Is it realistic to expect that here in London we could set such an exhaustive list? Direct housing payments, for which we are providing £870 million over the next five years, give flexibility that allows us to work with organisations such as the police, social services and medical professionals to provide a co-ordinated level of support underwritten by the public sector equality duty.
It is right to say that politicians face choices. When the local housing allowance was introduced into the private sector under the last Labour Government, no additional support was provided to those in the private sector who faced exactly the same challenges as those we are discussing here. Why have things changed so much now? We keep making references to taxes. What about the 1.7 million people on the social housing waiting list? What about the 241,000 people in overcrowded accommodation? The Opposition have scant regard for them, but they are the people we are speaking for, and it is right to provide flexibility and a co-ordinated approach. This is the right thing to do.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. In our casework, we all talk to families who are on housing waiting lists. There are 1.7 people on waiting lists across England and 241,000 people living in overcrowded accommodation. It is absolutely right that we are trying to match the right accommodation to people’s individual needs.
I cannot believe that we have just heard someone from the Tory Back Benches saying that this is about fairness, because that is exactly what this is about. Is it not a disgrace, given that this is the policy of the Secretary of State, that he should be sitting there whispering into the ear of his Minister? He is quite clearly out of his depth on this, as he is on so many other things. The decision in the courts follows a series of embarrassments for the Secretary of State, and there is also the matter of a United Nations investigation into the UK Government’s welfare policies. The SNP Scottish Government have committed £90 million to mitigating the effects of the bedroom tax in Scotland to stop, among other things, the threat of eviction being imposed on many through this Dickensian Tory policy. We will end the bedroom tax when we have the powers to do so. If the Secretary of State will not heed the warnings of the SNP, will he at least listen to the rulings of some of the highest courts, scrap this unfair and discriminatory tax and think again about the pursuance of these most damaging cuts to vital support for some of the most disadvantaged in society? Parliament in London did not stop this disastrous policy. Thank heavens the courts are intervening. It is little wonder that the Tories are so unpopular in Scotland. They have returned to being the nasty party that they were under Thatcher. This time under Cameron, Osborne and—
In fairness, I am the Minister who responds on housing issues in Parliament. In terms of fairness, we all talk to families on the housing waiting list. Try explaining to them why we should not make more of the accommodation available to them. We have already provided greater flexibility in Scotland through devolution to do what you wish to do with discretionary housing payments.
Clearly, we shall all wait for the Supreme Court judgment that will be delivered in due course, but two points must be clear today. Does the Minister agree that the incredible indignation expressed by the shadow Minister is blown apart by the fact that the family in question are receiving exactly the same amount of benefits as they were before the introduction of the spare bedroom subsidy? The Opposition’s opportunism is shown clearly by the fact that they took away the spare room subsidy from the much larger number of people in the private rented sector.
That is right. The people in these cases are in receipt of payment, which shows that discretionary housing payments work. It shows that, through flexibility, a co-ordinated approach is possible with the police, social services, medical professionals and other agencies.
Will the Minister wake up? This is a miserable, vindictive little policy and one that, with the ability of housing associations to sell off homes, ducks the real question, which is that we are not building appropriate housing for the people in this country. This is a diversion; get on with the real job.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) that the question of fairness is vital. So many in north Northumberland struggle to find a home. The key question is balance. We have a real issue with smaller communities. If families are to stay within their community, we cannot find a match. Will my hon. Friend the Minister consider ways to help the local authority find new systems for matching families to the right homes?
Have the Government effectively abandoned the principle of a benefits system that properly assesses people according to their needs and circumstances and pays them a benefit while those circumstances last? The answer to everything seems to be discretionary housing payments. They are discretionary, they are paid on a case-by-case basis, 75% of people paying the bedroom tax do not get them and they are time-limited. Does the Minister recognise the enormous uncertainty that that creates, and the hardship for people in very real housing need?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I have a huge amount of respect for his knowledge of local authorities. Like him, I have served on a local authority and I trust their ability to work with other agencies, which I have already mentioned. Hon. Members should remember that this is underwritten by the public sector equality duty, which ensures that all issues are considered.
Well, we have pensioners, those with disabled children who cannot share a room, foster carers, and those serving in the armed forces who are currently on deployment. Discretionary housing payments allow flexibility to take into account individual circumstances and adopt a co-ordinated approach. If we tried to come up with an exhaustive list, there would always be people who fell just below the line, and they would miss out on any support. That is unacceptable.
Unpaid family carers are not included in the list. From what I have seen, the Rutherfords look like wonderful carers for their grandson. Why should such people live in fear of losing their home—an adapted bungalow in this case? Sixty thousand carers are hit by the bedroom tax. It has always been illogical to hit people who save the state billions. Can the Minister not see that the Secretary of State should abandon this shabby little policy and recognise that carers should not be hit by this unfair charge?
Everyone in the House recognises the valuable role that carers play in society. There is an opportunity to provide discretionary housing payments when that is appropriate, but where was the hon. Lady when such a system was introduced in the private sector? Why did we not hear the argument that there should be exemptions for carers in the private sector? It is one rule then and one rule now.
Does the Minister agree that a list of strict criteria would undermine the whole point of having discretionary housing payments in the system? Does he also agree that it is interesting to hear the false anger of Labour Members, given that their party introduced this system for tenants on housing benefit in the private sector?
I thank my hon. Friend, who addresses the point that such payments allow for discretion and mean that there can be a multi-agency approach to help individuals according to their needs. People do not neatly fall into a convenient box whereby society provides support. Discretion and flexibility are needed to do the right thing.
After this embarrassment, and if the next ill-advised legal steps go against the Government, will those affected get an apology for the bedroom tax from the Government Dispatch Box?
Order. If it were, I would have ruled thus, and it was not, so I did not—we will leave it at that. I am always grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his advice, even if it is proffered from a sedentary position but, in this instance, it suffers from the material disadvantage of being wrong.
Gwynedd Council should be praised for adding extra money over and above the insufficient, arbitrary and tokenistic discretionary housing payments. Will the Government increase discretionary payments until we get the Supreme Court ruling?
We have committed the considerable amount of £870 million over this Parliament. At the halfway point of the year, most local authorities had not spent even 50% of that money. I hope that they will continue to examine ways to support those who are vulnerable, and I give credit to the hon. Lady’s local authority if it is taking extra steps.
The Financial Conduct Authority told me this week that 40% of adults in my constituency face severe debt problems, but that is because Wythenshawe and Sale East has more than 3,000 families suffering the bedroom tax, which is the highest rate in the land. Some Nehemiah-esque debt bondage is going on here. Will the Minister visit my constituency to meet people suffering the bedroom tax, and especially women in the safe spot scheme who have suffered domestic violence but are being punished by the Government’s rulings?
I meet residents all the time because as well as being a Minister I am, like the hon. Gentleman, a constituency MP. We have trebled our funding to support victims of domestic abuse to £40 million a year, and arrears in housing have actually fallen for the past four years.
Given the earlier and contradictory ruling in the case of MA and others v. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, does my hon. Friend agree that no change should be considered until the Supreme Court has made a final ruling on this matter?
In Northern Ireland 66% of Housing Executive tenants and 62% of all working-age housing benefit recipients are under-occupiers. Under the Fresh Start agreement accepted by all parties in Northern Ireland last year, it has been agreed that the moneys to offset the bedroom tax for Northern Ireland will come out of the Northern Ireland block grant. Has the Minister had any discussions with the other devolved Administrations to enable them legally to make similar decisions?
One of the main drivers of the policy was to force people to find alternative accommodation, but the majority have stayed put despite the many difficulties they face. Does this not show that not only is the policy inhumane, cruel and discriminatory, but it is a failure?
I disagree. In August 2014 16% had registered to look to move. Remember, those 1.7 million people—247,000 families—in overcrowded accommodation need people to move in order to give them the same chance as those people had. It is the right thing to do.
Some of my most moving meetings with constituents have been with those whose circumstances are unique and who are in great need of help. Does the Minister agree that it is precisely because there is discretion in the system that the Government are able to help those people?
I thank my hon. Friend for that. It is just one example of how we are supporting people. There is a 79% increase in the disability facilities grant next year, taking funding from £220 million to £394 million, which will significantly increase the 40,000 properties per year that we are helping to adapt.
The bedroom tax is the most unpopular tax since another Tory invention, the poll tax. Given the recent judgment, surely this is an opportunity for the Government to review their position. Why will they not take that opportunity and scrap the tax once and for all?
On fairness, taxpayers will think it is fair that they subsidise social housing rent so that people living in social housing pay about 30% of market rent, in some cases. They do not think it is fair that they subsidise at 30% of market rent people having spare rooms that they do not use or do not need. If, as I suspect, the Minister is unable to give a definitive list of all the cases where people may need a spare room, surely that shows that our discretionary system is the best system and one that we must continue with.
It is extraordinarily cynical for the Minister to talk about housing waiting lists when the Government are forcing the sale of council houses to subsidise the sale of housing association homes. How does he explain the fact that only 5% of people who have been affected by the bedroom tax have been able to move, but more than 10 times that number are in rent arrears?