House of Commons
Thursday 28 April 2016
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Drones (Safety Risks)
Drones have great potential, but it is important that they are used safely. There are already tough penalties in place for negligent drone use, including up to five years’ imprisonment for endangering an aircraft. The Department continues to work with the British Airline Pilots Association and the Civil Aviation Authority to assess the safety risks of drones.
Should not the Government heed the warning of Heathrow and, instead of taking their rather complacent position, realise not only the potential for catastrophes as a result of vandals or careless people using drones, but the dreadful possibility of terrorists using drones against stores of flammable material or nuclear power stations? Already, drones are being used to take mobile phones and drugs into Wandsworth prison. Should not the Government wake up and realise that this new menace is a potential great threat, and take precautions to reduce universal access to drones?
There is no complacency whatever from the Government on the use of drones. As I have said, there is a prison sentence available, and obviously I will keep the situation under review. It is also important to find out the facts behind certain incidents. It is now thought that the incident reported on 17 April was not a drone incident.
Could the Secretary of State update the House on the state of investment in our roads in the north-east, particularly the A1?
There are growing concerns about drone incidents that threaten public safety. It is not very clear whether the problem lies with the regulations themselves or with the enforcement of those regulations. Will the Secretary of State look at those issues?
Yes, I certainly will. Earlier this week I met BALPA—the meeting had been planned before the incident on 17 April—to discuss that issue as well as the problems that laser pen use is causing for civil aviation in this country. I will certainly keep those things under review and do further work, along with BALPA, the industry and the CAA, on drones and drone use.
Will my right hon. Friend assure me that all regulations and guidance on drones and air safety will apply and be communicated to airports outside London, such as East Midlands airport in my constituency, to ensure that we have a consistent air safety policy across the country?
I hear what the Transport Secretary is saying about his engagement with airports, but this is also an issue for stadiums, railway stations and other places where the public gather in huge numbers. What discussions has he had with the widest possible range of stakeholders, including local authorities, on the use of drones?
I am grateful for that—even if it was not much of an answer, to be entirely honest. The Secretary of State also briefly touched on another very important issue relating to the threat that laser pens pose to airports across the United Kingdom. BALPA has called for all but the lowest-strength laser pens to be banned. What is his response to that?
As I informed the House a few moments ago, I met BALPA earlier this week. It has come forward with issues about laser pens. There is a bigger problem with laser pens, and much more evidence about the way in which they have been used. It is illegal to shine them in someone’s eyes, and there have been more prosecutions, but I am willing to take further action once we have reached agreement on the best way forward.
Mr Speaker, you may recall that this time last month, I asked the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), when, after three years of working groups, we would be told what the Government were going to do about the danger of drones to civil aircraft. His answer, you will recall, left us none the wiser.
This week, things became even vaguer when the Minister appeared to say in a written answer that he is not even going to consult on anything until the European Aviation Safety Agency has decided what to do. That is all happening at a time of reports that drones might have hit a civil aircraft, and of drones being banned over London altogether when President Obama was in town. Other countries have already brought in registration schemes and other initiatives, so when are we going to see some clear proposals from the Government, without having to wait for a US President to come to town?
Part of the point was made by the hon. Gentleman in his question when he said, “it might have been”. Governments do not legislate on what might be; they act on what the dangers are. As I have said, we are in discussions with the airline pilots’ union BALPA, as well as the CAA, about the right way to develop this. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that all drones should be banned completely, I should point out that the Labour party never thought about when it was in office.
Disruption Payment Scheme (Train Services)
The framework and the amount of schedule 8 compensation are set by the Office of Rail and Road, which is conducting a review into this issue at the moment. The Department has provided input into the consultation, and the right hon. Lady is welcome to raise her concerns directly with the regulator.
I know that the Minister has concerns about schedule 8 payments, as do I. It is scandalous that train operators make millions from rail delays at the expense of passengers suffering from a poor standard of service. What immediate steps might the Government take to give power to the regulator to ensure that any net profits made by train operators from unplanned delays and cancellation caused by Network Rail go towards improving rail passenger services across the country, particularly in the light of the very low levels of passenger satisfaction?
The right hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) have raised this matter with me eloquently on several occasions. I know that those things are part of the considerations of the current review. The right hon. Lady and I are as one on the view that the rail industry has to do more to improve the current compensation payments, which are rather generous in absolute terms but are not well advertised or well claimed, and I am looking forward to introducing the policy to reduce the delay repay threshold to 15 minutes. Ultimately, our goal should be to get the trains running on time so that passengers do not have to claim compensation. That is what underpins the Government’s record investment in the railway.
Constituents of mine wishing to get back to Bexhill and Battle after 9 o’clock on a Monday or Tuesday night are having to undertake a large portion of their journey by replacement bus, and we have just found out that that will carry on for the rest of the year. I declare an interest because that impacts on me on a Monday evening, but my intentions, as ever, are purely altruistic when I ask the Minister whether she would meet me to try to find out whether Network Rail can conduct this engineering work during the night.
Passengers are, of course, completely inadequately compensated for delays, and I welcome the support that the Minister is giving to my campaign to halve the delay repay timings. Would she also support my campaign to sack Southern, which has proved itself completely incapable of running a railway service and should have its services handed over to Transport for London?
I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman is supporting the Conservative party’s manifesto commitment to reduce delay repay to 15 minutes. It is lovely that at least some shreds of that coalition co-operation are still in action. He and I have discussed the Southern franchise many times. It is difficult. There are record levels of engineering work taking place on the line, and we are doing all we can, as he knows, to ensure that passengers suffer the least disruption possible and get the compensation to which they are entitled when their trains do not run on time.
Schedule 8 compensation is not making its way to my travelling public. Eddy Leviten regularly contacts me from Acton main line station, where there are no staff, no way of buying a ticket, no indicator board and only two trains an hour. Travelling from Acton main line station, which is only one stop from Paddington, should not be a case of taking your life in your hands and leaping into the unknown.
I am not going to give the House a boring diatribe about the purpose of schedule 8. [Interruption.] I know hon. Members would all be fascinated. The point of schedule 8 is slightly different from the point about compensation paid to passengers under the delay repay scheme or the national conditions of carriage. It is absolutely right that we should bring forward proposals. For the hon. Lady, a compensation threshold that kicks in at 30 minutes is probably not worth a lot, but one that starts at 15 minutes may be valuable. Ultimately, however, the hon. Lady’s constituents have a far greater choice of transport than many other people in this country, and that is why we are investing in the railway—north, south, east and west.
Some 80% of passengers entitled to a refund when their train is cancelled or delayed make no claim, largely because train operating companies make claiming too difficult. To improve passenger compensation arrangements, the Office of Rail and Road recommended that the provisions of the Consumer Rights Act 2015 should apply to rail. This month, however, the Government have further delayed introducing that by another year. Why should train operating companies have such beneficial compensation arrangements, while the Government intervene to delay giving passengers their right to compensation?
The question that comes to mind is: why did the hon. Gentleman’s Government do nothing about this for 13 years? It took a Conservative Government—[Interruption.] I encourage the hon. Gentleman to stay focused on the facts. Delay repay compensation levels have increased eightfold over the past five years, but there is far more to do. The actual amount of compensation available is more generous in this country than in almost any other country in Europe, but I want to reassure him about the CRA exemption. The industry had argued for a permanent exemption, which I found completely unacceptable. We have given the industry time to adjust to make sure it gets this right.
A30 and A303 Upgrade
The road investment strategy announced the upgrade of all remaining sections of the A303 between the M3 and A358 to dual carriageway standard, together with the upgrading of the A358 in Somerset from the M5 at Taunton to the A303 at Ilminster. Highways England is making good progress, and three major schemes are planned to begin construction by April 2020.
I thank our excellent roads Minister for clearly stating the improvements from Stonehenge to Ilminster and through to Taunton, which are very welcome, but there is a stretch from Ilminster to Honiton that actually needs a little more improvement. We have got the co-operation of the Blackdown Hills AONB partnership, and we could actually get a 60-mile road through to Honiton, and on to Exeter, to make sure we have a second arterial route to Devon and on into Cornwall. I would like an update from our excellent Minister.
The first road investment strategy did include some smaller scale improvements to that section of the road to improve safety and journey quality. However, it is a very challenging area in which to make improvements: it is a protected landscape and a very beautiful area, as my hon. Friend showed me when he drove me along the routes last summer and I heard at first hand the opportunity presented by such investment. We have started the second road investment strategy process, and Highways England is developing route strategies to inform that process. I will obviously take account of my hon. Friend’s contribution in the process, and I will make sure that Highways England liaises with him locally.
I welcome the upgrade of the A303, particularly where it joins the A358 and links from the A30. However, at the recent Neroche annual parish meeting, which I attended, it was suggested that the preferred options would be submitted to the Government by 2018 and there was a certain mithering in the audience about whether the Government would actually go ahead and build the road. Will the Minister confirm that this will take place by 2020, as it is so crucial for the wider south-west, not just Taunton Deane?
I can understand why there is local cynicism, because the scheme was cancelled by former Governments, but let me provide some reassurance. We are looking at consultations starting next year, the development consent order process in 2018 and the start of work in early 2020, so I am happy to provide the reassurance that my hon. Friend wants.
Heathrow Expansion (Transport Infrastructure Costs)
The Airports Commission assessed the surface access requirements of each short-listed airport proposal as part of its work published in July 2015, and it estimated that there would be a cost of up to £5 billion for surface access works in relation to the Heathrow north-west runway.
There are clearly widely differing estimates of the capital costs of building an additional runway at Heathrow, but what is not in dispute is that building an additional runway there will cost significantly more than building one at Gatwick. If the Government decide to go ahead with expanding Heathrow, who will pay the difference—the airline passenger or the taxpayer?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that some of the estimates for surface access differ widely, even by the standards of some economists. One must bear in mind that the three sets of figures include different things over different timescales, the main ones being the work required exclusively for airport capacity, where the airport would be expected to make a major contribution; the projects that support airport capacity, but have wider benefits; and those in the Transport for London figures, which are needed in respect of wider population and economic growth during the next 20 to 30 years.
Do the Government accept the Airport Commission figure, which is £5 billion, the £2 billion from Heathrow or the £18 billion from TfL? Is this not just more of the 30 years of disinformation we have had out of Heathrow? When are the Government going to come to a decision, make their view clear and stop delaying matters just because of elections?
If the hon. Gentleman had been paying attention to what I just said, he would know that I explained that those figures relate to different things over different timescales. On the decision, perhaps he could wait until my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) poses her question to the Secretary of State.
The Government have committed £600 million in this Parliament to support the uptake of electric vehicles. The UK has the largest network of rapid charging points in Europe, with a total of more than 11,000 public chargepoints. We will be announcing further details of the next phase of plans to expand the UK’s charging network later this year.
I thank the Minister for that response. I had a meeting a few weeks ago with Nissan, one of the vehicle manufacturers here in the UK. Nissan set out clearly the significant changes there have been in electric cars, with better acceleration and power, and longer battery life. We need charging points where people are: in the high street, in garages and in shopping centres. That is the way forward—to make them accessible in the places where the people and electric cars are. Does the Minister agree?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there is a much wider range of vehicles, many of which are built in the United Kingdom. We have seen a big increase; last year, more ultra-low-emission vehicles were registered in the UK than in the previous four years combined. I am very pleased that Ulster was one of the UK’s eight plugged-in places, which received £19 million of funding from the Office of Low Emissions Vehicles.
As the Minister will know, work has finally started on the new Ilkeston train station, where I am sure there will be at least one charging point for electric cars. It is vital that this major new investment brings as much benefit to our town as possible. With that in mind, will he back my campaign to establish a new electric bus route to link the station to the town centre, and will he look into how his Department might contribute to that project?
I can tell my hon. Friend that great advances are being made not only with electric cars but with electric buses. I was at the Wrightbus factory in Ulster recently, where buses that will go all day are on a charge. Those vehicles would be perfect for the sort of project that she suggests.
Not just physical but intellectual infrastructure is required to support the electric vehicle industry, not least because the extreme voltages are extremely dangerous to people who do not know what they are doing and because the engines are entirely different from petrol and diesel engines. Has the Minister seen the campaign by the Institute for the Motor Industry for a proper accreditation, training and licensing system to spread knowledge about electric vehicles, and might his Department be able to support it?
It is certainly important that the people who work on these vehicles are adequately trained. But I would caution the hon. Gentleman about suggesting that electric vehicles are more dangerous than the alternatives; anyone who has seen a petrol tank catch fire will realise that electric vehicles are intrinsically very safe.
Airport Expansion (South East)
A number of important decisions on airport capacity were taken by the Government in December, including to accept the case for expansion in the south-east. However, we must take time to get the decision right on a preferred scheme. The Government are further considering the environmental impacts, and the best possible measures to mitigate the impacts of expansion.
On 24 March, as chair of the all-party group on Heathrow and the wider economy, I wrote to the Secretary of State with 64 questions about his Department’s work in that area. Unfortunately, I have received answers to none of those questions. Will he accept that it is essential to address important questions on noise, air quality and deliverability before he makes this decision, so as to give confidence in the decision-making process?
When that decision is made, I will be accountable to the House for why certain decisions were taken. In a letter from my hon. Friend that I did reply to, I pointed out that it would not be appropriate for me to provide a running commentary until the Government have come to a final decision. When we do that, we will be fully accountable for the decisions and recommendations that we make.
Is the Minister at least a little ashamed of the fact that a major inquiry under Howard Davies has made its recommendations, but nothing has happened? At the same time, we are putting all our national treasure into High Speed 2, but by the time that arrives in 2033 we will find that the driverless car has made it totally redundant.
I will take no lectures from a man who supported a Government who saw our position on the infrastructure league tables move from 7th, when Labour entered government in 1997, to 33rd by the time it left government in 2010. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says that it was all his fault—those were his words and not mine.
More than 700 businesses have chosen to locate their headquarters in Buckinghamshire, not least because of the proximity of that excellent local airport, Heathrow. Far from building on the previous question, it is fair to point out that whereas HS2 brings absolutely no net economic benefit to Buckinghamshire, Heathrow does. It is a long time since Howard Davies reported. Will the Secretary of State get a wiggle on?
You have chastised a few people this morning, Mr Speaker, for making tendentious links with airports and HS2. My right hon. Friend refers to Heathrow as her local airport—I have not heard it described like that before, but in her case it is a good description and her constituents are well connected to that airport. I want other parts of the country to have the same opportunities that London is getting in its good transport connections.
It is not, Mr Speaker, but this decision could impact on Scottish airports.
To return to the Secretary of State’s earlier comments, I think that the Government should provide a running commentary on what they are doing about this important decision. Will he state clearly what additional work is being done to refine considerations on air quality and noise? When will that work be completed, and what else needs to be done for the Government to come to a decision?
9. What steps he is taking to promote low-carbon transport. (904745)
The Government are committed to delivering the emissions reductions needed to meet our climate change targets. That includes promoting the uptake of low-emission vehicles, reducing emissions from the road freight sector, and encouraging sustainable choices such as walking and cycling.
A quarter of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transport emissions, which the Government have pledged to cut. Will the Minister follow the example of the Scottish Government, who are committed to investing £62.5 million to create low-carbon infrastructure?
I will take no lessons from the Scottish Government on low-carbon infrastructure. We have some very tough targets—for example, for the electrification programme on our railways—which we are determined to meet. We will set our fifth carbon budget later this year and publish our emissions reduction plan shortly afterwards.
The Treasury is an enthusiastic backer of the cycle to work scheme, and I know that many people have taken it up and that many companies can make sure their employees get information about it. It is a great scheme that gets a lot of people on to two wheels and reduces not only carbon dioxide emissions but other pollutants that cars produce.
The most low-carbon forms of transport are cycling and walking. Extraordinarily, the Government chose to release the long-awaited “Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy” on Easter Sunday, although I can understand why the Minister did not want people to notice it, because while it is long on aspiration it is rather short on investment. Cycling UK has produced a detailed breakdown and concludes that by 2020-21 the amount of money spent on cycling outside London will be just 72p per head. How far does he think that the CWIS can go on 72p?
I think we should hang on a minute. When we came to power in 2010, we were spending £2 per head, but by the end of the coalition we were spending £6 per head, which is a very good record of investment in cycling. In the spending review, the Chancellor confirmed more than £300 million for cycling over the next five years, and many of the decisions on cycling are made by local authorities, some of which, at least, are still run by the Labour party.
I think that was an admission of a dramatic cut to cycling, but let us move on to walking. As we approach walk to work week, which I am sure we will all be doing, it is interesting that the strategy contains no measurable targets for walking at all. When I pressed the Minister in written questions, he sidestepped the issue and claimed that the strategy contained two “objectives” for walking. Why do we have to wait until 2025 to have any measurable targets?
We are determined to increase levels of walking—children walking to school and people walking as part of their everyday lives—and I know that many people understand the importance of walking not only to improving our transport infrastructure but to contributing to cleaner air in our cities.
Train Station Ticket Offices (Disabled Access)
As my right hon. Friend knows, rail travel in this country is booming. A vital part of that growth is ensuring that rail is accessible to all, including passengers with disabilities, at every stage of their journey. The statistics suggest that disabled people are using the railways in ever greater numbers. In fact, the number of disabled persons railcards in circulation has risen by 12% year on year—a growth rate that far outstrips that for passengers without disabilities.
The concourse at Birmingham International train station in my constituency is to be improved to provide better access for the disabled, but will the Minister put pressure on the Chiltern line, where the carriages are much higher than the platforms? Would it not be possible to replicate what Transport for London does, at Westminster station, for example, by elevating a section of the platform?
My right hon. Friend raises the valuable point that there has to be a joined-up approach—we need operators and Network Rail to work together. I will look at the issue she raises about the station, but she should be aware that any improvement works carried out at a station in the UK have to comply with UK disability standards.
I am grateful to the Minister for her reply earlier, but given that Network Rail has financial issues and that £50 million is being taken out of the Access for All scheme, will the Minister explain what pressure she can put on Network Rail to make sure that stations that are not accessible to disabled people, such as Reddish North in my constituency, are upgraded, so that everybody can have access to a good rail service?
I am afraid that many of this country’s stations date from Victorian times when this was not even an issue. We are very proud of the Access for All scheme. Almost half a billion pounds has been spent, and money will continue to be spent, with the prioritisation of stations based on footfall and other such criteria. I would be more than happy to see whether anything can be done at the station the hon. Gentleman mentions, but we have to make sure that the money is spent in areas where most people are travelling. For me, this is absolutely part of railways for the future: it is vital for people with disabilities to be able to access their trains, and rolling stock will be fully disability compliant by 2020.
I recognise the very important role that regional airports play in providing domestic and international connections and the vital contribution they make to the growth of regional economies. UK airports operate in the private sector, and it is for them to determine levels of investment and to attract airlines to operate from them.
Inward tourism is a major industry in Ayrshire, whether it be for golf and sailing or the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory. My local airport, Prestwick, has 660,000 passengers a year, but no connection to London—and, on the basis of discussions I have heard in this place, there is no sign of a connection to London. Will the Minister consider developing a strategy to support regional airports with connectivity in the short and medium term to bring more inward tourists?
The hon. Lady talks about connections and connectivity into London. This is one of the reasons the Davies commission was established. When we look at expansion in the south-east, we need to bear regional connectivity very much in mind. We must provide some reassurance to those who want further services from regional airports into London that they will have that opportunity.
I am reliably informed that Cornwall Airport Newquay is now the fastest-growing regional airport in the country. I thank the aviation Minister for his support in helping us to open up a new route from Newquay to Leeds Bradford. It will be essential to have regional air connectivity in place to make sure that, as our economy grows, the benefits are felt right across the country. Will the Secretary of State please confirm that the regional air connectivity fund will continue to be available to help smaller regional airports to open up new routes?
I am very glad that the route mentioned by my hon. Friend did qualify for the regional air connectivity fund. It is there and continues to be available. I believe it has made an important difference. The route my hon. Friend mentioned is certainly one that I have used on a number of occasions when travelling to his and other Cornwall constituencies.
The Minister will know that London Luton airport is undergoing a substantial and welcome expansion, but there is also enormous spare capacity at Birmingham airport. Birmingham could make a significant contribution to the air travel needs of London and the south-east with a simple and inexpensive upgrade in electrification of the railway line through Leamington Spa and Banbury, linking Birmingham airport directly to Crossrail and thus to central London and Heathrow, with a fast, non-stop, one-hour service. Will the Minister undertake to look at this proposal seriously?
The hon. Gentleman is always making the case for traditional railway links, although I know he is not so keen on high-speed links. I certainly commend what is happening at Luton airport. A few months ago I saw the regeneration work going on there, which is proving important for the wider area as well.
Local Major Transport Projects (Funding)
This Department is providing over £7 billion for the local growth fund, which will fund over 500 local transport projects by the end of the Parliament. As part of that fund, we have launched a new £475 million fund for transformational local transport schemes that are too large for the main allocations, and we have invited local enterprise partnerships to bid by July.
The construction of a 20-year awaited bypass for Middlewich would not only alleviate local congestion but open up employment land and thus support the regional economy by helping to create jobs. Will the Minister meet me and Cheshire East Council representatives to discuss the merits of a funding application for this project?
I would be happy to have that meeting, particularly if my hon. Friend involves the local enterprise partnership, as LEPs are central to putting these bids together. These types of investments are important for the local regional economy and some of the councillors’ own objectives might be relevant.
Will the Minister look very carefully at the plans that are being forwarded by the Mersey Dee Alliance for a direct strategic rail link to Manchester airport? Such a link would have a dual benefit, speeding traffic to the airport while taking cars off the M56.
That is just the sort of project that Transport for the North will be looking at. As aviation Minister, I understand the importance of good surface connectivity to airports to ensure that they can continue to grow, and Manchester airport, with its £1 billion investment programme, is an example for others to follow.
The Government have given considerable amounts of money to the Labour-dominated West Yorkshire combined authority, which spends most of the money in the Labour heartlands, ignoring the needs of areas such as mine. A Shipley eastern bypass, for instance, is vital to my local economy. How can the Minister ensure that the Government’s money is spent in areas like Shipley as well as in the Labour heartlands? If he cannot persuade the Government to act, will he directly fund the bypass that my constituents so desperately need?
One of the important changes that have taken place since our move from regional development agencies to local enterprise partnerships is a tendency to give more consideration to business and economic matters than to some local political objectives. I think that that is a great change, and I hope that, as a consequence, there is far less pork-barrel politics in Yorkshire.
A number of major transport projects are mentioned in “The Northern Powerhouse”, but west Cumbria seems to have been omitted. Will the Government look into how we can improve our transport links, and, in particular, will they give consideration to the nuclear developments that are taking place in the region?
We recognise that all parts of our country, including the peripheral areas, benefit from transport investment. The good news is that this Government understand the importance of infrastructure investment, unlike previous Governments who did not see it as such a priority.
DVSA (Driving and Theory Tests)
My noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State in the other place, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, has been having discussions with the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency about trialling changes in the practical driving test to make it more reflective of modern driving conditions, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has recently had discussions with the DVSA about future provision of the UK driving theory test.
I have received a number of complaints from driving instructors and pupils about significant delays in the provision of dates for tests at the Bletchley centre in my constituency. The DVSA has said that it is investing more resources, but this remains an issue. May I ask the Minister to take it up with the new chief executive, as a matter of urgency?
Demand for driving tests has been increasing rapidly. It has increased by more than 50% since 2013-14, and we expect the trend to continue. We are seeing the same pattern in relation to HGV tests. The DVSA has responded by bringing in more examiners and improving its forecasting model to match resource better with demand, as well as redeploying examiners from shorter-wait centres to those with longer waiting times. As for the specific issue of the Bletchley centre, I should be happy to take it up with the new chief executive.
Cycling (Rural Areas)
14. What plans the Government has to encourage cycling in rural areas. (904752)
On 27 March—during the Easter break, when people had plenty of time to read it—we published the draft “Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy.” We want everyone in the country, including people in rural areas, to have access to safe, attractive cycling routes. Local authorities have a detailed understanding of their roads, and are well placed to decide how best to provide for cyclists on them.
Safe and attractive cycling routes are important, but a number of constituents who are keen cyclists have written to me about the problem of potholes, of which I have personal experience—and a scar to prove it, although I do not intend to show my hon. Friend where it is. Will he join me in welcoming the £28.4 million that Lincolnshire County Council will receive this year for highways maintenance, and will he also encourage highways officers in Lincolnshire to continue to do what they can to reduce the risk posed by these dangerous potholes?
Lincolnshire is a wonderful county for cycling, not least because it is relatively flat. The Government have allocated substantial funds for the repair of potholes, but I would encourage local authorities to concentrate on how effectively they are using that money. There is some good new technology out there which will mean that potholes can not only be repaired but stay repaired. We often hear stories about potholes being temporarily repaired and then opening up again very quickly.
Rail Electrification (North of England)
We have electrified five times as many miles of track in the last six years as the previous Labour Government did in 13 years, and almost all that work has been in the north of England. I call that good progress.
Can the Minister explain why the privately financed £100 million Hull to Selby rail electrification scheme has been stuck in the Department for Transport for nearly two years, while her Department is announcing schemes such as the one involving £27 billion for Crossrail 2 between Hertfordshire and Surbiton? If she is really serious about the northern powerhouse, why can she not get a wriggle on and get this privately financed scheme to happen?
I think that that is Humberside for a wiggle, Mr Speaker. Rail North and I completely share the hon. Lady’s enthusiasm for faster and better rail journeys for her constituents, which is why the new franchise that we let last year will give her constituents brand-new trains—bye-bye, Pacers!—more services and more direct connections. Hull is getting £1.4 million for its station in time for the city to take pride of place as the UK city of culture 2017. She should be pleased with that record.
We have continued to deliver on issues that affect the motorist, following the findings last year that defeat devices were fitted to Volkswagen vehicles. I instructed the Vehicle Certification Agency to test 37 different vehicle types in the UK over a period of six months to ensure that similar devices were not present on other models. The tests confirmed that they were not, but they did confirm that existing lab tests designed to ensure that emission limits were being met were inadequate. That is why we have been at the forefront of securing tough new Europe-wide real-driving emissions tests. We have also announced further funding to help with the problem of potholes across the country.
I recently completed a blindfolded walk with that excellent charity Guide Dogs to try to understand the challenges faced by visually impaired people, and I am greatly supportive of its campaign to improve access for guide dog owners and their dogs. It is not right that they should be often refused access to businesses and services because their dog is with them. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that taxi and private hire vehicle drivers receive adequate disability awareness training, given that a large number of guide dog owners are still being turned away from those vital transport services?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her question, and I entirely agree with the point she makes. Taxis and private hire vehicles are essential for many disabled people, and drivers are required to make reasonable adjustments for disabled passengers. It is also a criminal offence to refuse carriage to an assistance dog. Failure to comply with that requirement can result in prosecution and a fine on conviction of up to £1,000. A driver was recently fined £1,546 for refusing access to a guide dog; that figure included legal costs as well as the fine. That message needs to go out right across the industry, and we will draw it to the attention of the licensing authorities.
On Monday, the Minister of State said that Volkswagen had not yet fixed any cars in this country. NOx emissions pose a serious health risk to drivers, and indeed to everyone. As he acknowledged, we now know that all manufacturers produce diesel models that pollute above approved limits. How will he address the problem of higher NOx emissions across all models, and will he take urgent action to ensure that when it comes to Volkswagen, the UK is not left at the back of the queue?
We certainly will, and the Minister of State and I have been dealing with the matter. Before I get to the hon. Lady’s attacking us for not doing enough, she needs to remember who started the dash for diesel. Gordon Brown reduced the duty on low sulphur by 3p in his 2001 Budget—just before a general election—which increased diesel car registrations in Great Britain from 3.45 million, or 13% of the UK fleet, to 8.2 million, or 28% of the fleet.
That decision was of course based on the science at the time. As the Secretary of State knows, American VW owners may be entitled to up to $5,000 in compensation, while the owners of the 1.2 million VW vehicles in this country are not receiving a penny. Last week, the No. 10 press machine assured us that the Secretary of State had pressed VW specifically on the discrepancy in compensation. However, the Minister of State said on Monday that compensation was a matter for the courts, not Ministers. This is a matter of basic fairness, so when will the Secretary of State step up a gear and fight for a decent compensation deal for UK VW drivers?
I have made it clear in the meetings that I have had, as has my hon. Friend the Minister of State in his conversations, with not only Volkswagen but other motor manufacturers, that we take this subject seriously. We want to see action. When the hon. Lady responded to my point about the huge increase in diesel cars in this country, I am glad that she said that the decision was based on the evidence at the time; that shows that the proper research was not done.
T2. The Minister will be aware that the House of Lords recently completed a review of the impact of the Equality Act 2010 on disabled people. A large part of the review focused on the accessibility of taxis and private hire vehicles. Will the Minister update the House on what action the Department will take as a consequence of the review? (904729)
I can indeed update the House. The Government are committed to ensuring that disabled people have the same access to transport services and opportunities to travel as everybody else in society. We plan to commence sections 165 and 167 of the Equality Act by the end of this year. I was pleased to see that raised in the Lord review, as I have been working on it for some time. Drivers will be required to provide assistance to wheelchair users, and to refrain from charging extra.
T7. Will the Minister take the trouble to come to the north- east and take the train from Nunthorpe, Middlesbrough, to Newcastle? Using an ancient Pacer train, it takes almost 90 minutes. The journey might be quicker by bicycle. If we had had a new train every time it was announced that the old ones would be replaced, we would have a whole fleet of them. If the Minister came and got a wiggle on, that might speeds things up a bit. (904736)
I think I need a bit of mentoring in the dialect being used this morning. I accept that the last Labour Government did nothing to improve the system in their 13 years. I am glad to say that new trains will be operating on that line by 2020 as a result of a decision that I took, which was to override the advice, and to instruct the permanent secretary that the Pacers would be phased out, and that we would have new trains on the line. I am very proud of that decision.
T3. Every time I come across Network Rail, it seems to have a great deal of power, but to be utterly unaccountable to central Government. As we are seeing in Lincolnshire, that power can be used to frustrate growth infrastructure schemes that have the support of local authorities. What can the Minister do to ensure that Network Rail does not act to stop schemes that are in the best interests of local people and supported by local authorities? (904730)
The best schemes are those that are strongly supported by local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and local businesses. Network Rail is in a new phase in which route responsibility will be devolved, and it will work to a set of investment plans that are agreed, based on important bottom-up analysis.
Over the past 10 years, destinations and routes from Scotland have doubled, but flights to London have fallen by more than a third. Not only do we need starter routes, such as the Inverness to Heathrow route that we will have next week, but we need to up the frequency of these routes and guarantee them, as that would allow them to bed in and become fully established. Will the Minister establish a point-to-point public service obligation, including specific regional hub airports, and do all he can to create PSOs for airports such as Skye in my constituency?
We absolutely understand the importance of PSOs and of aviation, particularly for island communities. I am pleased that we have seen such a successful uptake of many of these routes, a number of which have been started without needing subsidies because of the buoyancy of the economy and the aviation sector.
T4. The slogan of CrossCountry trains is “Going that bit further”; my constituents would be delighted if it did exactly that and instructed more than three out of 63 trains a day on the inter-city service between Birmingham and Bristol to stop at the city of Gloucester. Will the Minister with responsibility for rail confirm whether the Department will require CrossCountry to restore decent commuter services from Gloucester on that line as part of its franchise extension? (904731)
Nobody could be more assiduous in calling for those service requirements than my hon. Friend, but we must not have services to cities such as Cheltenham lost as a result of a change that he is requiring. I can confirm that discussions are ongoing. We have asked CrossCountry to report on the best way to deliver the services that he is talking about, and I am looking forward to discussing that with him shortly.
Despite the Secretary of State’s pride in the Pacer announcements, there remains huge under-investment in transport in the north, compared with London in particular; the ratio is 24:1. Ministers are now saying that they are going to cut the subsidy to the Northern franchise by up to 85%. Does he really think it adds to the credibility of the northern powerhouse if it takes half a day to cross it, in trains that are better suited to a railway museum than a railway system?
I would sometimes like to offer Opposition politicians another briefing about what these new franchises are going to deliver. It sounds a bit like “The Generation Game”, but thanks to my Government, the hon. Lady’s constituents will be rid of those outdated trains, and will get many more services of a much better quality; that will be delivered at less cost to the taxpayer. Only a Labour politician could argue for worse services and more subsidy.
T5. We have been very positive about the new Northern rail franchise. However, there are throngs of people who want to get from Leeds to Goole but cannot do that at the moment; there may even be some who wish to get from Goole to Leeds. The situation is the same on the Brigg to Sheffield line. Both lines are very under-utilised, so what opportunities are there under the new franchising agreements to get those improved services? Will the Minister come and ride the train with us? (904732)
What my hon. Friend wants and what he gets are two entirely different things, Mr Speaker. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for talking about the need to improve capacity on the networks, and I am very interested to hear of all the people who wish to travel between Goole and Leeds. The new rail franchise for the north will provide a tremendous increase in capacity and a lot of new routes, and we will see whether his argument stands up.
The hon. Gentleman is far more familiar with Retford station than I am, but this is certainly something that would be considered by the local growth fund. I suggest that he goes through the necessary procedures to encourage his local enterprise partnership to apply for that funding.
T6. The Roadmaster velocity patcher can fill 300 potholes in a day, and Lincolnshire has got one—but we would like more. What help can the Minister offer my county council in getting more? Will he consider incentivising councils to work together so that we can increase the nationwide fleet of these fantastic machines? (904735)
I am aware of the Roadmaster velocity patcher, and the Government certainly support the use of innovative and efficient methods to maintain our local highways. We have provided a budget of more than £6 billion for highways maintenance, plus there is the pothole action fund. We have introduced incentive elements to the highways maintenance fund, which includes an element of collaboration. I should like to see local authorities working with their neighbours right across the country in exactly the way that my hon. Friend describes.
What are the Government doing to stem the flow of job losses among British qualified seafarers? In particular, will the Minister with responsibility for shipping have a look at how some of our regulation operates here? My constituents tell me that the operation of the certificates of equivalent competency, for example, are putting them at a disadvantage compared with seafarers from other parts of the world.
We certainly have the best-qualified seamen in the world, due in no small part to the tonnage tax scheme and the SMarT—support for maritime training—funding of £15 million a year. It is of concern if less-qualified people are taking jobs. I know that there are particular problems in the North sea with regard to jobs being cut. I would be pleased to meet the right hon. Gentleman to talk about the matter in more detail.
Will my hon. Friend reassure me that the Department is training apprentices and investing in apprentice-training programmes, so that the country can continue to have the skills and expertise to keep on with our world-leading transport infrastructure programme and improvements?
I can indeed give my hon. Friend that assurance. The transport infrastructure skills strategy sets targets for delivering apprenticeships throughout the supply chain, and will deliver them via procurement contracts. One apprenticeship will be created for every £3 million to £5 million of contract value, or for 2.5% of the workforce per year, depending on the contract type. Apprenticeships are right at the heart of our skills agenda.
I freely admit that I want the Secretary of State, and I hope that I get him. He has visited Bullsmoor Lane in my constituency, and he knows that it is being used as a slip road off the M25. It is a residential area with a very serious accident record. There is a lot of freight coming into north London and using the road as a route to central London. May I ask him in good faith to meet me and two of the leading resident representatives to discuss this very, very serious issue, and to find a satisfactory way forward?
Well, sometimes we get what we want, Mr Speaker. I am more than happy to meet the right hon. Lady on this. There does seem to be some confusion over whether it is a matter for Transport for London or for Highways England. That is no answer to the people who are suffering from the problems. It is a very difficult area to deal with, because of all the residential implications, but we will have that meeting.
I do not really care who answers my question. From the Minister’s description earlier, the local major transport projects fund could have been tailor-made for the Carrington bridge and the Worcester southern link project, which the finest minds at the Worcestershire LEP are preparing a bid for. May I say to the Secretary of State and his team that there should be no wiggle room for the Government in approving this project?
I visited—probably almost a year ago to the day—the bridge to which my hon. Friend referred. I cannot quite remember what was going on at the time. I viewed it from a site that was opened by his father some 30 years previously. The point that he makes about it being a suitable scheme for the local majors fund is certainly one that should be considered, and I urge the LEP and the local authority to ensure that they put in an application for it to be considered.
Will the Secretary of State work with the new Labour—obviously—Mayor of London to ensure the effective development of the HS2 Crossrail interchange at Old Oak? In particular, will he revisit the deal he made with the current Mayor of London in 2014, which means that no development—commercial or housing—can take place on the site unless there is a very extensive movement of the lines almost immediately after they open at great public expense?
Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I take no election for granted and I will meet whoever is the Mayor of London, but I very much hope it is my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), who will be able to work much better with the Government than the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan). With reference to development around Old Oak Common, that site will be a major transport hub in the United Kingdom, so it is very important to get the infrastructure right.
The Department has responsibility for delivering a number of local and national transport infrastructure projects, so will the Secretary of State undertake to write into every funding agreement that at every opportunity we will procure British steel for the construction of those projects?
I am happy to say that we have made a number of changes to our procurement process to reflect exactly the point that my hon. Friend makes. Wherever we can, we should support our own industry. That must be on a competitive basis, but there is a special case for British steel and about 98% of the steel that Network Rail purchases is British.
Trade Union Bill (Discussions)
(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if he will instruct his adviser on ministerial interests to launch an inquiry as to whether discussions between Ministers and officials and representatives of trade unions or the Labour party concerning amendments to the Trade Union Bill constitute a breach of the ministerial code of conduct. I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.
The Cabinet Office has advised me that there is no breach of the ministerial code and nothing for the Prime Minister’s adviser on ministerial interests to investigate.
The Trade Union Bill is now in ping-pong and, as is customary at such times, Ministers have held regular discussions with shadow Ministers to discuss possible compromises that would secure passage of the Bill and delivery of the commitments made in the Conservative party’s manifesto. On the basis of the amendments passed by this House yesterday evening, I can reassure my hon. Friend that we are well on the way to securing all our manifesto commitments—ballot thresholds for strikes, reforms to the role of the certification officer, a tightening-up of rules around facility time, action to stop intimidation of non-striking workers, and the introduction of a transparent opt-in process for union members’ contributions to political funds.
The question of compulsory opt-in to trade unions’ political funds was one of the most contentious, especially in the House of Lords. Noble Lords referred the clauses in the Bill to a special Select Committee under the chairmanship of Lord Burns. Following the Select Committee’s report, the House of Lords voted by a large majority to accept an amendment to restrict the opt-in to new members and to exclude existing trade union members.
My hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that I hold regular meetings with trade union leaders and the general secretary of the TUC, not just in relation to the Bill, but in relation to other responsibilities of mine, including our support for the excellent work of Unionlearn.
Trade union support for the campaign to remain in the European Union is not new and should not come as a surprise to anyone. The TUC declared its support for the campaign in February. The GMB union did the same on 22 February, Unite on 14 March and Unison on 13 April.
We all remember the Prime Minister foretelling that the next great scandal would be a lobbying scandal, and here it is. Trade union leaders have been complaining that they are unable to campaign effectively for a remain vote in the EU referendum while the Government’s Trade Union Bill has been threatening trade unions and their funding. The Bill would have implemented a Conservative manifesto commitment to
“legislate to ensure trade unions use a transparent opt-in process for union subscriptions”.
As a result of the amendment being accepted, a 19-year-old who has just started a job and is a member of a trade union will now never be asked by a trade union whether he wants his political fund subscriptions to be taken out of his pay packet.
The Prime Minister told the House of Commons on 15 July last year:
“There is a very simple principle here: giving money to a party should be an act of free will. Money should not be taken out of people’s pay packets without them being told about it properly”—[Official Report, 15 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 885.]
and he likened that to mis-selling. On 16 March, the Minister in the other place described the Labour amendment, which the Government have now accepted, as a “wrecking amendment”. Yesterday, the Minister made a wholly unexpected concession when he announced his decision to abandon opposition to the change in the Bill.
It is now being reported on Channel 4 News and in today’s papers that those unexpected concessions are linked to a £1.7 million donation that trade unions might make from their political funds, which are now much larger than they would have been, to the Labour remain campaign, Labour In For Britain. Until recently, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) was trying to raise £75,000 for a few leaflets, balloons and badges; now the campaign is getting £1.7 million. It has been confirmed to me by more than two independent sources that No. 10 instructed those concessions to be made after discussions with trade union representatives. That being true would amount to the sale of Government policy for cash and political favours.
Lest there be any doubt about the impropriety of this deal, Her Majesty’s Opposition should ask themselves this question: what would they be saying if this Government had altered a Bill in order to give extra money to the Conservative party or to the Conservatives’ remain campaign, Conservatives In? My hon. Friend the Minister should ask himself this question: what would have been the reaction if a Labour Government had changed a Bill in order to favour the Labour party’s ability to support the Government on some controversial policy and in order to give the Labour party money? This stinks—it reeks the same as cash for questions. This shows that this Government really are at the rotten heart of the European Union.
The seven principles of public life require public office holders to
“avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence…their work.”
The ministerial code states:
“Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises”,
or appears to arise,
“between their public duties and their private interests”.
In this matter, the Labour party constitutes one of their private interests.
Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister instruct his adviser on ministerial interests, Sir Alex Allan, to launch an investigation? If my hon. Friend the Minister and the Cabinet Office are right, he has nothing to fear from such an investigation.
May I start by saying that I have the greatest respect for the passion and commitment, which have lasted for not just years but decades, that my hon. Friend has brought to the cause he advocates with such vigour—that we leave the European Union? I have nothing but total respect for that passion and commitment.
I just want gently to correct my hon. Friend on a few points of fact, because he focused so much on the important question he raised that a number of the things he suggested about the current mechanism for union members’ subscriptions to the political fund were not absolutely correct.
The first point to make is that it is not the case that somebody who has recently joined a trade union, and to whom the new requirement for an opt-in will therefore not apply, will never be asked whether they want to pay into the political levy—very far from it. There is a long-standing legal requirement that they are offered an opt-out from that political levy and that that is communicated clearly to them. That opt-out is not just a one-time thing; it is not something they are offered only when they join—it is something they can exercise at any time, and they need to be reminded of it regularly.
The other thing to say is that, while estimates from different unions vary, the overall estimate is that roughly 13% to 14% of all trade union members joined in the last year. I am not going to suggest that all trade union members will have needed to opt in to the political fund over this Parliament, but a substantial proportion will have.
I am afraid my hon. Friend is also not correct to say that we are talking about a Labour amendment. The amendment was moved by Lord Burns—somebody for whom I know my hon. Friend has the greatest respect, as a fearsomely independent former permanent secretary. The amendment flowed out of a Committee in which there was some very fearsome representation of all parties. It was clearly inspired by Lord Burns’s argument that it is not reasonable to ask people who have signed up to an arrangement in good faith then to have to sign up again through a different process simply because we have changed the law later on. I did not agree with that argument, and nor did we in this House, but what happened often happens when the House of Lords feels very, very strongly on an issue, when there is a very, very large majority against the Government’s position, and when an Independent Member of the House of Lords has moved an amendment that has secured support not just from the official Opposition and from the Liberal Democrats but from a huge number of Cross Benchers—and not just from Cross Benchers but some very significant members of our own party.
I urge my hon. Friend to look at the people who spoke in the debate and voted, or very assertively chose not to vote, in support of the Government’s position. They included not just Lord Cormack and Lord Balfe but Lord Forsyth, who supports the same campaign on the European Union that my hon. Friend has supported and who, both privately and publicly, said that he thought it was a profound error for us to pursue a compulsory opt-in for all existing members. So it is not right to say that it was just a Labour position.
My hon. Friend suggested that it was inappropriate for the Government to do anything in terms of making changes to legislation to further private interests, and of course he is right. However, it is not right, and not even in the passion of the moment is it fair, to categorise the official policy of Her Majesty’s Government in that way. We support the proposition that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union. He disagrees, honourably and valiantly, but it is not a private interest—it is Government policy.
It is very good to have this further opportunity to re-emphasise our implacable opposition to the execrable Trade Union Bill, which is entirely unnecessary, bad for workers, and bad for businesses. As the Minister said, the Lords set up a cross-party Committee chaired by Lord Burns to look at the unworkable proposals on trade union political funds and party political funding. That Committee came up with a series of Salisbury-convention-compliant recommendations that were voted for by an overwhelming majority of peers from all parties and from none.
Will the Minister confirm that he recently met Lord Burns, who made clear the strength of feeling in the other place on this matter? Will he also confirm that he has received overwhelming representations from all quarters, including the trade unions? By the way, it is hardly surprising, given that this is the Trade Union Bill, that he should receive representations from the unions. Is it not the case that all these various representations made it clear that the proposals on political funding were unworkable and breached the long-established convention that major changes to the funding of a political party should happen only by agreement?
It would appear, at least partially that the Minister listened—well done—but he should have listened earlier, and he needs to keep listening. Will he therefore have a few more meetings with trade unions, which have made entirely reasonable proposals on e-balloting and facility time that still remain in the Bill? There is still time for him to think again.
I can confirm that, as the hon. Gentleman said, earlier this week I held a meeting, at my request, with Lord Burns in which I discussed with him an amendment to the Bill that we had put down and were intending to move. That amendment would still have applied the compulsory opt-in to existing members of trade unions but would have built a longer period of transition for trade unions to implement it and would also have changed the arrangements on the requirement for renewal of their opt-in to align it with the political fund ballots that need to take place every 10 years.
I had hoped that Lord Burns would feel, if not enthusiastic about that compromise, at least able to indicate that he would not actively oppose it when the Bill went back to the upper House in the next stage of ping-pong. Lord Burns, who is a man for whom I have huge admiration and a great deal of liking, was very clear to me that that was not an acceptable compromise and that not only would he not support it, but he would actively propose the reinstatement of his amendment, which excluded existing members.
Lord Burns made it very clear that his judgment was not so much a political one—it was certainly not particularly inspired by questions about the balance of party funding. It was simply based on his experience in the financial services industry, where he said it was very unfair to ask people to sign up to new things when they have already expressed an opinion on that very same question by a means that was previously legal. He said that that applied in this case; he thought that it was wrong and he could not support it. We then reflected on Lord Burns’s position and tabled the amendments that we passed last night.
As for the comments made by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) about the rest of the Bill, I want to be very clear with him and other Labour Members: this Bill is going to dramatically improve the state of employment relations and the state of industrial action. At the moment, a trade union, including various education trade unions, can hold a strike three years after a ballot has been passed with a turnout of less than 20% of their members and close more than 1,000 colleges. That is currently legal. When the Bill—which will pass through this House with the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin); I anticipate that the noble Lords will pass it next week—receives Royal Assent, it will no longer be possible to inflict on hard-working parents the closure of a school in the middle of the week on the basis of a tiny turnout secured several years ago. That is why I am proud of this Bill and why my hon. Friend can be proud of it: we have secured our manifesto commitments for all working people.
The Minister, regrettably, has been diverted from the path of procedural virtue as a result of the cheeky inquiries of the Opposition Front Bencher. We cannot now have a Third Reading of the Trade Union Bill. We must focus narrowly instead on the matter of the urgent question, which I know will be done faithfully by Dr Liam Fox.
Given this change to the Trade Union Bill, and following on from our abandonment of our manifesto commitments on immigration by not renegotiating free movement, will my hon. Friend tell us which of our election commitments we will not now abandon in trying to seek a remain vote?
Your cautionary tone is ringing in my ears, Mr Speaker, so I will answer my right hon. Friend’s question by narrowly focusing on the measures in the Bill that demonstrate, as I said at the start of my answer, that we have genuinely secured everything that was in our manifesto. This point came up in my discussion with Lord Burns, who really knows a thing or two about legislative drafting. Having read and re-read the precise words in our manifesto about the commitment to introduce a transparent opt-in for the political fund, he said that he was absolutely confident and very clear that the amendment that he tabled, which was passed in the other place and which we have now accepted, fulfilled that manifesto commitment in full; and not only that, but that the further introduction of the opt-in to apply to existing members was not given cover by the Salisbury convention, and that he would make that very plain in his speech in the upper House, if we were to try to restore that position. I mean no criticism of those who wrote our manifesto—it is a wonderful document that will live through the ages—but their wording was not so precisely established as to secure that additional application of the opt-in to existing members of trade unions.
We in the Scottish National party reiterate our complete opposition to the Trade Union Bill. Can the Minister confirm that it would be strange, on a piece of legislation that affects 6 million workers, for a Government not to consult bodies that represent those 6 million workers? Can he also confirm that the Government were considering concessions as far back as 26 January, when a memorandum in his name was leaked to many media outlets? Can he confirm what ongoing discussions he is having with devolved institutions, which still have major problems with the Bill and its extent as it relates to facility time and other issues?
The hon. Gentleman made a valuable contribution to our deliberations at all stages, but perhaps especially in Committee. I seem to remember that his criticism was both vocal and incisive on almost every measure in the Bill. Of course, he is right. Not only do we hold discussions with institutions in society about which we are legislating—I think it would be a little unfair if we did not—but we actually invited them to give evidence to the Committee. One of the most terrifying sights that I have seen in a long time was the general secretary of Unite, the general secretary of the GMB, the general secretary of Unison and the general secretary of the TUC all sitting in a row giving evidence to that Committee. Of course it was right to do that.
The hon. Gentleman is also right to say that we have consulted the devolved Administrations. I have had a number of conversations by phone and in person with Ministers in the devolved Governments, who have expressed some concern about whether all the provisions in the Bill should properly apply to them, although we are absolutely confident that all the provisions in the Bill relate to reserved matters and therefore apply to everyone and every trade union in the United Kingdom.
I chaired the Trade Union Bill Committee, and therefore I am not going to comment on the Trade Union Bill, but may I make a general House of Commons and constitutional point? There would be concern if, as part of the ping-pong process, any Government at any time made concessions on a Bill as a result of something that had nothing to do with that Bill. My hon. Friend is an honourable man, and I am sure that he can confirm that no Government of which he was a part would ever do that.
I think I have explained pretty clearly what the process was. I speak for myself in simply saying that when I met the immovable force of Lord Burns, I decided that perhaps discretion was the better part of valour. That is not to say that Ministers do not have discussions on all sorts of issues with all sorts of people in society. It is the Government’s policy to support the remain campaign. The previous general secretary of the TUC is a board member of Stronger In and has been for months. The trade unions that I have listed made their positions very clear long before the Bill came back to this House or, indeed, the opt-in was considered in the upper House. I gently say to my hon. and right hon. Friends that not every compromise is a conspiracy.
Now that the Government, according to the barmy idea that is being propagated this morning by the right wing of the Tory party, are seemingly prepared to give way on different subjects, can I ask the Minister: what is the price for dropping this lousy, rotten Trade Union Bill altogether? I will try to get it.
I hope that the Minister will understand why people are asking these questions when we read from a senior political journalist in The Telegraph the following words:
“Last night a union source said bosses had always been clear that it would be ‘difficult’ to spend significant amounts on the campaign to keep Britain in the union while fighting against the Trade Union Bill. But they revealed that unions will now step up their campaigning and funding efforts in light of the concessions”,
Can he confirm right now that this journalist is absolutely wrong, that her sources are incorrect and that no such trade took place?
I am afraid that I will just have to repeat what I have already said. There is a natural process towards the end of a parliamentary Session in which concessions are made on Bills to secure their timely passage. What trade unions decide to do about their long-standing commitment to back the remain campaign is entirely a matter for them.
I think this is a very rare occurrence of the Government actually listening to Members of Parliament both in the upper House and in this House. I welcome that, and it is the right thing to do. It is right that the Government should meet trade unions—of course they should. The legislation is an attack on trade unions and does nothing whatsoever for employee-employer relations. It is a wrecking piece of legislation, and any concessions can only improve the Bill. I hope we can have more concessions in the short time left for the Bill’s passage.
The right hon. Lady is far too kind to me. I did not want to listen at all. I am afraid I simply acknowledged that, faced by an array of forces—it is not just led by Lord Burns, but includes most of the Cross Benchers, all the Liberal Democrats, all the members of Labour party and very influential Conservative peers, such as Lord Forsyth, Lord Deben, Lord Balfe and Lord Cormack—neophytes in this game like me perhaps need to concede defeat.
As the grandson of a trade union shop steward who went on to become a Conservative activist and whose son made it to the other place, I can say to the Minister that he has had correspondence on this issue from Government Members raising the concerns of their constituents who also happen to be trade unionists. May I thank him for listening in relation to that correspondence and paying attention to it? It is a profoundly Conservative principle not just to get through the business in our manifesto, but to engage with the other place to improve it.
My hon. Friend’s father did not just make it to other place, but made it into the Cabinet and was a very significant performer in the area of employment law and industrial relations, so we have much to learn from his work. My hon. Friend is right. I hope it is not breaking a confidence to say that I have had conversations with other Members of the House who were deeply concerned about this specific provision. I should not mention their names, but they include very significant—in fact, leading—supporters of the campaign to leave the European Union.
May I join my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) in congratulating the Minister on the way in which he has handled the Bill? Again, is it not the case that the Minister has had conversations with many people from all parts of the House, including on the Government Benches, both in the Commons and in the other place, about their concerns and that many of those concerns have now been addressed without any concessions at all being made to us?
I can confirm that, and none was more important than my hon. Friend, who had some very serious concerns. He did exactly the right thing: he came to see me privately about them as we were deliberating in the House. He tabled an amendment on Report, which he did not move because I had reassured him that we would look at closely as the Bill progressed. Yesterday, when he was not in the Chamber, I specifically mentioned that he had been influential in our decision ultimately not to press ahead with the measure that would have removed the check-off arrangement for trade unions in the public sector.
I declare an interest as someone who has paid the political fund levy since 1969, and is a former president of Unison and a member of the TUC general council. I assure the House that the trade unions are quite clear that they do not want the Bill at all. When the Government were pushing this Bill they were reminded that even Winston Churchill spoke against what they are trying to do. I will also say very clearly that, whatever gossip people are hearing, there is no doubt that the trade unions would have funded the Labour party’s remain campaign, because they realise that the people who the Prime Minister of this country described as swivel-eyed loonies and the other right-wing reactionaries who would deregulate this nation will be worse for working people. Whatever the outcome of the Bill, and even if it had not been changed at all, I am convinced that the trade unions would have been in that position on behalf of their members, putting their money where their mouth is.
This is a shabby political episode. The Government have been caught diluting trade union legislation to persuade the trade unions to come on board with the campaign to stay in the European Union. Is it not clear that the Government, big business, the big banks, the BBC and now the big trade unions are all ganging up on the British people to try to persuade them to stay in the European Union?
Nothing pains me more than to have angered my hon. Friend, as I clearly have. I have huge liking and respect for him; whenever he asks me to visit his constituency I drop everything to come, because I just think he is a great man. But I reject what he has said. Unlike in any other case, perhaps in this case he is blinded a little by his passion for the issue. I simply point out that all he need do is look at the front pages and editorial pages of every single newspaper that is traditionally seen as a Conservative supporter to see that there is a balance of opinion in this debate and his arguments are being well represented.
Given the impact the Bill will have on workers’ rights across the whole of the United Kingdom, what discussions has the Minister had with the devolved Administrations since the Lords amendments?
This is a very simple issue, on which the Minister could give a very straightforward answer. The allegation is that the Trade Union Bill was watered down for the benefit of the trade unions on the understanding that they would then make a considerable donation to the campaign to stay in the European Union. Will the Minister give us a clear denial, with the authority of the Dispatch Box, that any such discussions took place with Ministers or officials, and that in no way whatever was the watering down of the Bill done with any mention of funding from trade unions for the EU remain campaign? It is very simple for him to deny it if it is not true.
I aspire—and probably always will—to be as straightforward as my hon. Friend. I have been very clear: we went through a process of negotiation, not just with shadow Ministers but with members of other parties and none in the other House. We have secured a package that, I have to say, I do not believe any hon. Member on the Government Benches would have predicted; when we introduced the Bill, no one would have predicted that we would have secured as much of it as swiftly and as easily as we have, because it was probably the most politically controversial Bill in our original Queen’s Speech. As for decisions by trade unions to back the campaign for which they had already declared long before yesterday’s consideration of the amendments to the Bill, the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) spoke very clearly when he said that the trade unions would have supported the campaign wholeheartedly and full-throatedly anyway, because they believe that it is in their interests and the interests of their members to do so.
I do not think that there was anything so grubby as a deal, but if an agreement was reached I congratulate the Opposition Chief Whip on showing how politics can be done. May I urge the Minister now to ask the private sector to follow the leadership of the trade unions and contact their employees to make the case for Europe and the terrible threats to jobs, investment and growth if we leave a single market of 500 million consumers?
I am not sure, Mr Speaker, whether you would count that question or my likely answer as directly relevant, but I will venture on until you stop me. It is clear that the overwhelming majority of businesses, small and large, have many beefs about the European Union—I do, too—but ultimately think that it is in our interests to stay. I agree with the hon. Gentleman to this extent, that I think all of us should be doing all we can, whether financially or in other ways, to encourage the people we represent to see that their interests are best protected by staying in.
The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) who asked this urgent question speaks passionately on behalf of his own union, which is the general and municipal union of Brexit bigots. [Hon. Members: “Order!”] It is extraordinary that he asked for the adviser on ministerial interests to be woken from his slumber—that adviser has been virtually unemployed since he was appointed, after the previous holder of the office, Sir Philip Mawer, resigned because he believed that he should have been called in to investigate the conduct of the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), who gained absolution through resignation. As Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, why on earth is the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex not demanding an inquiry into the two Ministers who gave £3 million to Kids Company in the face of advice from civil servants, three days before it collapsed? It is because the office of the adviser has been degraded and politicised. [Interruption.]
Order. Calm down. Calm. The benefit of yoga, even for Ministers, should not be underestimated. Let me intercede briefly because there were calls of “Order” when the hon. Gentleman used a word about Members on the Government Back Benches. I did not intervene because I judge that to be a matter of taste. There is no imputation of dishonour and—I mean this in no unkind spirit—the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), and other likeminded souls, are perfectly capable of looking after themselves. Their honour has not been impugned in any way, and that is why I did not intervene. The remark stands, and the Minister must reply.
There are no bigots on the Government side of the House, least of all my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), or any hon. Friend who disagrees with me on this subject. The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) does himself no credit by hurling that kind of playschool abuse across the Chamber. He is a disgrace, the comment was a disgrace, and he should withdraw it.
Order. The Minister is entitled to his view, but I hope the House will not take offence if I say that I will judge whether a remark needs to be withdrawn. With great force and eloquence the Minister has offered his view, and I respect him for that, but we will leave it there.
I confess to a sense of bemusement at this urgent question, which seems to be little more than a contrived confluence of the pet prejudices of right-wing Tories, namely trade unions and the European Union. That said, I restate my absolute opposition to this Bill. Will the Minister confirm that trade unions remain a part of civil society and have an absolute right to make representations to the Government on behalf of their members, irrespective of what right-wing Conservative Back Benchers might wish?
Of course I confirm that, but the position governing strike action, the proper regulation of trade union activities with regard to finances and membership, and the position on picketing and intimidation of non-striking workers, were not acceptable until this Bill was introduced, and they will remain not acceptable until the Bill has secured Royal Assent. Of course I accept that trade unions have an important role in society, but they needed and will benefit from this reform. I put on record my gratitude to all my hon. Friends, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex, for their support for the Bill.
Today is International Workers Memorial Day, which serves as a poignant reminder of why we need good and strong trade unions in our society. I also think it right that the trade union movement is opposed to many of the measures in the Bill, which is an attack on how it operates on behalf of its members. On the substantive point of the urgent question, the Bill is not yet legislation and has not been enacted. Surely the fact that a Labour-affiliated trade union has decided to donate some of its Labour-affiliated political fund to a Labour-supported campaign is perfectly within the law.
Points of order really come after statements. The hon. Gentleman has had a good run, and he should be patient. I am sure his point of order can be heard later, if it is sufficiently important to warrant either his staying in the Chamber or his returning to it.
Business of the House
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 2 May—The House will not be sitting. It is the May Day bank holiday.
Tuesday 3 May—I remind the House that we will be sitting Monday hours, not Tuesday hours. We will be debating a motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution relating to the Housing and Planning Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Housing and Planning Bill.
Wednesday 4 May—Opposition day debate (un-allotted half day). There will be a half-day debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by debate on a motion relating to education funding in London. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Thursday 5 May—General debate on the contribution of faith organisations to the voluntary sector in local communities. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 6 May—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 9 May will include:
Monday 9 May—Debate on a motion on Government Departments outside London. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee, followed by consideration of Lords amendments.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall on Monday 9 will be:
Monday 9 May—Debate on an e-petition relating to the Government’s EU referendum leaflet.
Ed Balls! Do we actually have a Government at all? They are all over the place. We all thought that the referendum was a simple question of “EU—in or out?” but this week it got much more complicated, as we learned it was also about “ECHR—in or out?” The Home Secretary is an “in, out”, but the Lord Chancellor is an “out, in”. The Chancellor is an “in, in”, along with the Attorney General and the Solicitor General, but the Leader of the House is an “out, out”. As for me, I am out for in, but that is more of a gay pro-EU kind of thing.
The Health Secretary says he is in his last big job in politics—hurrah!—and I hear that with an impending reshuffle several Ministers have been scouring the jobs market. I have even heard rumours of new government postings to overseas territories being planned. Boris is off to St Helena to cultivate his Napoleon complex and Whitto to the Falklands, and for the Health Secretary there is Inaccessible Island, in the south Atlantic, which is probably where the junior doctors want to send him anyway.
As for the Leader of the House—this is very exciting news—I gather that he is 33:1 to be the next Chancellor of the Exchequer and 80:1 to be the next Tory leader, but I have a much better idea. On this day in 1789, as I am sure Members know, Fletcher Christian mutinied on the Bounty. Christian ended up on Pitcairn Island, which is 9,000 miles from here. I can just imagine the Leader of the House as the governor of Pitcairn, dressed in his white linen shorts, his solar topee and his white socks and sandals, lording it over all 56 inhabitants. If he wants, I can put in a word with the Prime Minister for him—because I see that the Prime Minister is trying to advance my career.
Can we have a debate on irresponsible politics? I suspect the Leader of the House might never have heard of Arfon Jones, but he tweeted:
“I think we should have a protest where thousands of us send emails containing the words bomb+terrorist+Iran. That should keep GCHQ quiet.”
Now Arfon might be a stupid crank, but he is also the Plaid Cymru candidate for North Wales police and crime commissioner.
Can we have a statement from the Home Secretary on the deeply worrying breakdown of the e-borders system on 14 and 15 June last year? We need to know, first: have there been other breakdowns? Were full warnings index checks implemented and, above all, why did the Home Secretary cover this up for so long? The Leader of the House says that we should leave the EU so we can control our borders, but surely the lesson we should learn is that the greatest threat to our borders is, frankly, Tory incompetence.
The Leader of the House says that we should consider Lords amendments to the Housing and Planning Bill on Tuesday. As I walked into Parliament this morning, the police were moving on two homeless people who have been sleeping on the doorstep of this parliamentary palace for the last week. Under the Tories, rough sleeping has doubled and funding for those sleeping rough has halved. We believe that this Bill will make the housing crisis in London even worse. So will this Government ensure, for heaven’s sake, that for every single social housing unit sold off, at least another is built in its place?
On 29 November 2012, the Prime Minister said of the Leveson inquiry that there would be
“a second part to investigate wrongdoing in the press and the police”.—[Official Report, 29 November 2012; Vol. 554, c. 446.]
I listened to the Home Secretary very carefully yesterday. She made an excellent statement, but she also said:
“We have always said that a decision on Leveson 2 will be made when all the investigations have been completed.”—[Official Report, 27 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 1441.]
Well, that is not right. Up until now, the Government position and the Prime Minister’s position has always been that Leveson 2 will start—not might start—as soon as the police and prosecuting authorities have finished their work.
Surely, one of the many lessons we must learn from Hillsborough is that when the relationship between the police and the press gets too close, it corrupts them both. After all, some have argued that the law of libel means there is no need for a strong independent press regulator, but the 96 people whose reputation was dragged through the mud by the police, The Sun and The Spectator could not sue for libel, could they? So surely we need Leveson 2 now more than ever.
As Passover ends on Saturday, let me say again as clearly as I possibly can that anti-Semitism is wrong—full stop, end of story. I am sick and tired of people trying to explain it away—and, yes, I am talking to you, Ken Livingstone. Of course the illegal settlements are wrong and the Palestinians deserve a better deal. Of course, too, rocket attacks on Jewish kibbutzim are wrong, and Hamas and Hezbollah must acknowledge the right of Israel to exist. I was taught to judge people not according to the colour of their skin, their race, their religion, their gender or their sexuality, but according to the strength of their character.
Frankly, it is no better when a senior politician looks at the President of the United States and sees only the colour of his skin and his “part-Kenyan ancestry” or when the Tory candidate for the Mayor of London runs a deliberately racially charged campaign against his Labour opponent. It is profoundly irresponsible, and it offends the fundamental decency of the British people. I hope I speak for all Members when I say that racism and racial prejudice are simply not welcome in our political system or our political parties.
I shall come back to that issue in a few moments, but I of course share most of the sentiments that the hon. Gentleman has just raised. Let me deal with other issues first.
I start by wishing you, Mr Speaker, and the shadow Leader of the House a very happy Ed Balls day. I never thought they would come to miss him as much as they apparently do.
I was asked about the European convention on human rights. The hon. Gentleman spoke about in-out policies and out-in policies, but what he did not talk about was all-over-the-place policies, which is the Labour party’s position on this issue. Labour Members do not want prisoners to have the vote, but they do not want to change our human rights laws. They should be smart enough to realise that those two positions are completely incompatible.
The hon. Gentleman raised the matter of the Health Secretary’s comment about his last big job in government. What we would remind the hon. Gentleman of is the fact that he does not see his job as his last big job in government, as the Prime Minister wisely reminded us yesterday. The hon. Gentleman spoke of odds on jobs for the future, but I suspect that the odds on his becoming Speaker of this House are longer than the odds on my becoming manager of Liverpool football club.
On the subject of Liverpool football club and the hon. Gentleman’s comments on Hillsborough, I would like to say a couple of things. First, when we were in opposition, I served as a shadow Minister for Liverpool, and I have enormous regard for that city, its people and their resilience. I would like to pay a personal tribute to all the Hillsborough families and all the people in Liverpool who supported them through their long years of struggle. They achieved justice this week.
I also wish to pay a personal tribute to the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham). I thought that what he said in the House yesterday was incredibly moving. It was a fine moment in our parliamentary history, and the right hon. Gentleman deserves enormous credit for what he has done.
The shadow Leader of the House talked about Leveson 2. Let me simply remind him of the Government’s position, which is that we will not move forward until the cases are complete. That is the right thing to do, and we will continue to stick to our position. The hon. Gentleman also made a point about Arfon Jones. Yes, I do know who he is, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the views he has expressed are objectionable. It is my sincere hope that he is not elected as police and crime commissioner in that part of north Wales.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the e-borders programme was supposed to arrive and be put into effect when Labour was in power, but that did not happen, because Labour failed to deliver it. When Labour Members talk to us about what we have done in government, they should bear in mind that they were in power for 13 years, and that they started by dismantling the exit checks at our borders and then completely failed to provide an alternative.
The hon. Gentleman talked about homelessness. Let me just remind him of his party’s record in government. In 13 years, the Labour Government built fewer council houses than we built during the first Parliament in which we were in office.
Let me now return to the question of anti-Semitism, and pay a personal tribute to the hon. Gentleman. When it comes to this issue, his has been a voice of reason, sanity and common sense in the Labour party, and he deserves credit for that. However, I wish that all his colleagues saw things in the same way. What he said about Ken Livingstone was absolutely right. Ken Livingstone’s comments yesterday, suggesting that the matters that were at the heart of yesterday’s controversy were not anti-Semitic, were disgraceful. I do not understand —as, indeed, many Labour Members do not understand—how Ken Livingstone can still be a member of the Labour party today. He should be suspended from the party for the things that he said. I also think, however, that there has been some naivety on the Labour Benches this morning.
The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) said on the “Today” programme that she regarded these events as “trial by Twitter”, and likened what had happened to the tweeting of a picture of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) on a zip wire. It is clear that she does not fully understand the gravity of the situation. We heard wise words from the shadow Leader of the House, and I respect him for them, although I profoundly disagree with what he said about my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. He made a powerful point, and, in this regard, he is a beacon of sense in his party; but where is the sense on the rest of the Labour Benches in respect of what is a deeply, deeply serious matter?
A number of my constituents have been victims of what appears to be a financial scam, and Humberside police have referred them to Action Fraud. The contact that they have had with Action Fraud is minimal, and they are very dissatisfied. Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the work of Action Fraud?
My hon. Friend has made an important point, and I pay tribute to him for raising this issue in the House. We are, of course, aware that a range of different scams are taking place throughout our society, and that the victims are often vulnerable people. The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills will be here next week, and I hope that my hon. Friend will take advantage of the opportunity to ensure that the issue is on his radar as well.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business.
Let us forget about Ed Balls day. Today is International Workers Memorial day, when we remember all those who have been killed in the workplace. The slogan for this day is “Remember the dead—fight for the living”. I think that those words are very apt, given that we are currently considering the Trade Union Bill.
Will the Government not simply do the right thing, and accept the unaccompanied child refugees who are currently languishing in a variety of refugee camps in southern Europe? When even the bleeding hearts on the Daily Mail are calling for the Government to accept these wretched children, surely the time has come for even this, the most callous of Governments, to reconsider their position and do the right thing. They will have their chance, for it seems that on 9 May, the Lords amendment will return to the House of Commons. Will the Government look on it positively, and, for the sake of the country and all its people—even the right-wing press—will they do the right thing by these children?
When I was growing up in Scotland, a little announcement was sometimes made during previews of the television programmes that people would see on their analogue sets: “not for viewers in Scotland”. It occurred to me that we could resurrect that announcement and apply it to Prime Minister’s Question Time, because most of the last two sessions have dealt exclusively with the academisation of English schools: not for viewers in Scotland, and not for viewers in most other parts of the United Kingdom. The Leader of the Opposition can raise whatever issues he wants—it is up to him to do that—but perhaps the time has now come to review Prime Minister’s questions to see whether we could make them more inclusive for everyone throughout the United Kingdom, particularly as we now seem to have two Labour parties as well. Perhaps the Leader of the House will support that call.
May we have a debate on the Government’s commitments on defence spending in the Clyde shipyards? I remember only too well some of the things that were said during the independence referendum. I particularly remember a leaflet that went round—it was