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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
24 May 2018
Volume 641

House of Commons

Thursday 24 May 2018

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Transport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Leaving the EU: Rail Industry

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1. What assessment he has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the rail industry. [905544]

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3. What assessment he has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the rail industry. [905547]

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The Government’s rail sector report was published in December and included an analysis of the rail industry. We keep our analysis under constant review. Our future relationship with the EU on rail will be a matter for the negotiations. Both the UK and the EU have greatly benefited from investment in each other’s rail markets. We want that to continue as the UK leaves the EU.

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The Secretary of State will be aware that passengers in Scotland have been protected from the impact of fare increases as a result of the Scottish Government’s cap of RPI minus 1%. Will he not take a leaf out of the Scottish Government’s book to ensure that passengers are not hit in their pockets as the result of his Government’s inability to provide even basic certainty over Brexit?

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I am not sure quite what that has to do with our future relationship with the EU, but I want the rate of increase of rail fares to come down. The biggest barrier to that is the Labour party’s and the trade unions’ insistence that the RPI measure has to be at the heart of every pay increase in the rail industry. The industry collectively needs to move to RPI, but the training manuals for the unions that back the Labour party insist that it is unacceptable to negotiate on anything except an RPI increase.

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The Government often cite EU regulations on state aid as a constraint on their agency. Can we therefore look forward, after Brexit, to innovative new approaches to the public ownership of the railways, or will the Secretary of State continue to sell rail services to the state-owned companies of other EU countries?

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We have a diverse rail market, with investment from the UK and international investment. I hope very much that after Brexit we will not become a country that does not welcome international investment. We are an outward-facing global nation, and I hope that will continue.

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In the Secretary of State’s assessment of the rail industry post Brexit, did he include the vital nature of securing resilience in the coastal railway at Dawlish, given the link to Falmouth docks and the freight services that bring in exports?

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I want to reiterate that this is an absolutely crucial project for our railways. Network Rail is currently doing preparatory work for the very necessary improvements at Dawlish. I have given an absolute commitment that those works will go ahead. I regard this project, to make sure a proper resilient railway for the future is delivered to the south-west, as the most important infrastructure project in the country. It is one thing having a railway that is not quite up to date; it is quite another having a railway that gets cut off. We will not let that happen.

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The east coast main line will be very important following our departure from Europe. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that smaller operators, such as ScotRail, have a say in what happens to rail?

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It is really important that we protect the interests of passenger and freight operators. I have been clear that the new board leading the integration and development of the London North Eastern Railway will have representatives whose job is to protect the interests of smaller operators.

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EU rules clearly did not prevent the Government from taking the east coast franchise off Stagecoach last week, which shows their power to remove a franchise from a failing operator is not hampered by them. Given that this week we managed to pass 300 cancellations on the Lakes line in Cumbria since the beginning of April, and the enormous and catastrophic impact that is having on commuters, tourists and GCSE students trying to get to their exams, will the Secretary of State listen to the exasperated travellers of Cumbria and intervene to strip Northern of both its Furness and Lakes franchises—and do it today?

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Let us be clear: the situation with Northern has been unacceptable. As I said yesterday, I will this morning chair a conference call with the Northern leaders. This is the most devolved franchise. It is a partnership between Northern leaders and the Department for Transport, but it is not solely led by the Department. None the less, it is no less important to me that we get this situation resolved. I am very clear that this problem has arisen for two prime reasons: the problems with electrification Network Rail is carrying out on the line through Bolton and the failure of Network Rail to deliver a finalised timetable in time. When the hon. Gentleman talks about the need to strip the franchise and renationalise, he is shooting at the wrong target. This is a Network Rail failure and it must not happen again.

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We know that since rail privatisation the Secretary of State thinks magic money appears from nowhere with no risk to the taxpayer, but that is not the case. When it comes to infrastructure, the UK relied on £35 billion of loans from the European Investment Bank between 2011 and 2015. Where will that money come from for rail infrastructure post Brexit?

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We are a substantial net contributor to the European Union, so the money given to the UK from different European funds actually originates in the UK. We will be able to spend our money in the way we see fit. We are of course spending record amounts of money on rail infrastructure to develop what needs to be a better, expanded and more resilient rail network.

Digital Railway Strategy

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2. What steps he is taking to implement the digital railway strategy. [905546]

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4. What steps he is taking to implement the digital railway strategy. [905549]

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Two weeks ago, Mark Carne, the chief executive of Network Rail, and I launched the company’s digital railway strategy in York, where we announced that the industry should make plans for all future renewals to be digital or digital-ready. I have already approved funding to develop digital schemes in Moorgate and the south-east, and in particular, I have set out plans for the new TransPennine route. The £2.9 billion modernisation, starting around this time next year, will be Britain’s first, principal inter-city digital railway, and very necessary it is.

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Later this month, the priced option for the Island line in my constituency will be presented. I will be writing next week in support of that priced option. Can the Minister assure me that the Government understands the importance of the Island line to the Island and the importance of investment in it—in track, railway and stations such as Ryde Pier Head, which is on the pier, and Ryde Esplanade, which is a key gateway? Is he aware of my strong support for a feasibility study into extending the Island line south and west?

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I must tell the hon. Gentleman that one of his constituents, not very far from here, has been listening intently to his question.

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I know indeed, Mr Speaker—in fact, he used to be a constituent of mine and is now benefiting from the wonderful environment that is the Isle of Wight. My hon. Friend has been an excellent champion for it since his election. I can assure him that the Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), and I will be taking careful note of the plans as they come through, and we will work with him to try to find the best way to ensure that his constituents have the best service that it is possible to deliver to them in future.

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I call Tom Tugendhat—where is the fella? He has obviously beetled out of the Chamber. It is a pity that the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling is not here, but we will bear up stoically and try to manage without him.

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18. Following the collapse of the east coast main line franchise, will the Secretary of State make a firm commitment to Virgin’s previous pledge to deliver additional train services between Lincoln and London in 2019? They are essential for our local businesses. [905565]

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Let me be very clear: it is my intention that the commitments to new services made in the Virgin Trains franchise are delivered. The hon. Lady will know, as I have told the House before, that there is an issue and has been for some while around the timing of some of those services because of problems with infrastructure improvements. I am putting Network Rail under as much pressure as possible to deliver those as quickly as possible. I give her and all Members who are waiting for these new services an assurance that I will make sure that they are delivered.

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Can the Secretary of State tell me how the roll-out of the digital strategy, which is in itself a good thing, on my local lines is going to stop me receiving tweets like the one I received this morning? It said:

“Chaos for 4th day on SE lines—trains cancelled, late, diverted, not stopping, short formation & angry passengers”.

How is the strategy going to help that?

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There are benefits of digital technology, but the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that this is a difficult week on the railways, as I have explained. It has happened because of the late delivery of the timetable. This is the second time that it has happened in six months. I have already had discussions with Network Rail about this. It must not happen again. What the digital railway will do is create a railway that can run more trains more reliably. It gets rid of the risk of traditional signal failures, which are a big part of the frustrations that many commuters face, and I want to see, over the next few years, our stopping replacing old-fashioned traffic-light signals and using digital technology instead.

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A digital railway is vital for improving capacity in the far south-west but will not necessarily improve journey speeds. If our journey times are to be long, they at least need to be productive, so can I ask the Secretary of State to commit to working with colleagues at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to improve our mobile and wi-fi signals to remove all the notspots in the far south-west, especially on rail journeys to Plymouth?

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Sometimes, we disagree across the Chamber, but on this one I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are looking at the best options to do this. I think that we should be getting mobile operators to put up more masts down the route, and particularly as we move to a 5G network, I want to see that 5G network up and down the railway—and not just for passengers; it helps the digital railway as well. On this one, I am absolutely with him.

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What is it?

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I commend my right hon. Friend on his very good question. The transition to digital technology basically means that in future, rather than having a red-amber-green signal by the trackside, the signalling is done automatically from the cab of a train. Each train will know how far it is to the train in front. It is therefore possible to manage the network more efficiently, to run trains safely closer to each other and to deliver more capacity for passengers.

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It all sounds very sophisticated, although it is a bit above my pay grade, I am bound to say.

Bus Services

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5. What steps his Department is taking to support local bus services. [905550]

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14. What steps his Department is taking to improve the provision of bus services throughout the country. [905559]

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The bus market outside London is deregulated, and decisions regarding service provision are primarily a commercial matter for bus operators. Decisions on subsidised bus services are a matter for individual English local authorities, in the light of their own spending priorities. The Government paid out some £250 million last year to support bus services in England through the bus subsidy operators grant. The Bus Services Act 2017 introduced new powers for local authorities and operators to work together to improve local bus services and increase passenger numbers.

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Arriva has cut the bus service in Hartburn on which my constituents rely, replacing a doorstep service with what is now a 20-minute walk for older people. I have written to the Tees Valley combined authority about it, but what is the Government’s position on communities that are isolated by public transport cuts?

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The hon. Gentleman has raised a valid point, but local authorities are responsible for providing local bus services, and we expect them to work with local operators, Members of Parliament and local communities to do that. Of the £250 million grant that I mentioned earlier, £40 million is paid directly to local authorities to improve bus services in their areas, including the service to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. I believe that the Department paid £88,000 last year to Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council, which I am sure he will welcome.

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Over the past four years, Greater Manchester has lost 8 million miles of bus routes, largely owing to the chronic underfunding of local government. Councils are forced to freeze funds, while costs rocket. Does the Minister accept that unless local government funding is increased, mayors and transport authorities will not be able to use the new powers in the Bus Services Act to full effect?

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That is an interesting question. The Government have provided plenty of support for bus services in Manchester—[Interruption.] I will continue, Mr Speaker.

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Apologies for the noise.

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Not at all.

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It was the hooting of a bus horn.

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It happened because I was about to mention two very important packages of funding.

The Department contributed just over £32 million towards the £43.2 million Manchester cross city bus package, which was completed in 2017. Now we need another little beat of the drum, because there is another huge sum coming up. The Greater Manchester combined authority received a guaranteed allocation of £243 million from the £1.7 billion transforming cities fund to improve public transport. If the hon. Gentleman is still not satisfied, I suggest that he talk to the Mayor.

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I can only imagine that it was a noise of approval. Who knows? It may be a divisible proposition, but there we go.

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One very important aspect of bus services is the role played by community services, particularly in rural areas. There is great concern about the consultation that the Department are currently undertaking. When can we expect some final announcements?

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The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), is overseeing the consultation, and he will make an announcement before the summer. The Department understands the importance of community transport services, which not only tackle isolation but enable people who would not otherwise have access to transport to keep appointments. I understand their importance particularly well, because I represent a rural constituency. The Department is very concerned about the issue, and we will do what we can to help.

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For the first time in decades, the people of Cornwall are enjoying brand-new buses on our roads. They offer facilities that people used to think were available only in big cities, such as contactless payment, on-board wi-fi and charging points, and they have been delivered thanks to a partnership between First Kernow, the operator, and Cornwall Council. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the new buses; would she like to come to Cornwall to see them; and does she agree that their delivery demonstrates what can be done, even in rural communities, when local authorities use the powers available to them and work with the private sector?

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I welcome the invitation to Cornwall—my summer holiday seems to have been sorted out—and I welcome the new First Kernow buses. I also welcome the fact that the local authority in my hon. Friend’s constituency has worked with the private operator and with the Member of Parliament. That shows that if people and organisations work together, they can put bus services together, even in rural communities.

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Since 2010, bus budgets have been slashed by a third and over 2,500 routes have been withdrawn entirely. The Government recognise that franchising boosts patronage and improves services, which is why franchising was extended to the metro mayoralties. Why then in the midst of a bus crisis is the Minister refusing these same powers to councils across the rest of the country?

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Packages for buses are at an all-time high, and I would ask why the mayors who already have the powers have not taken them up. The policy at the moment applies to London and the Mayors of Manchester and Liverpool, so I suggest the hon. Gentleman ask his own Labour Mayor of London why he has not taken these powers up.

Strategic Road Network

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6. What recent steps he has taken to improve the strategic road network. [905551]

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Projects up and down the country are being delivered through the Government’s £15 billion investment in our strategic roads, our motorways and main A roads. I salute my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), who had a fanfare a few minutes ago, and I think the reason for that was that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State officially opened the £400 million A1 upgrade from Leeming to Barton last week, so there is now a continuous motorway link between Newcastle and London for the first time in this country’s history.

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The A5 through Warwickshire and Leicestershire is an important strategic route throughout the midlands and is a valuable relief road in the event of hold-ups on the M6, which can happen from time to time. It is however mostly single carriageway, and with significant amounts of development proposed along the route, will the Minister ensure that detailed work can start urgently to improve both safety and capacity?

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As my hon. Friend will know, we discussed this in a Westminster Hall debate in February and I have seen him and colleagues recently. It is a very important matter; we are aware of the strategic importance of the A5. We already have work in prospect between Dodwells and the Longshoot junction and we will continue to look closely at the matter.

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Substantial congestion exists on the M60, M62 and M56 around Greater Manchester, but Highways England’s investment plans start north-east of this area. Given the very significant economic regeneration plans for south-west Manchester including at the airport, the new HS2 station and New Carrington in my constituency, which the Minister has visited, does he agree that Highways England must now attend to the investment that that will require in the south-west quarter of this motorway network?

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I take on board the hon. Lady’s point, but the point I would make in response is that, over the next three years, Highways England will be investing and, by the end of that period, at a rate roughly three times more than the rate the Government inherited in 2010. Therefore, unprecedented levels of investment are going in. The hon. Lady is welcome to write to me or meet me if she wants to discuss this issue further.

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I welcome the improvements to the A1 to Newcastle, but there is great demand for improvements to the part of the A1 north of Newcastle to the border and my constituency. Can the Minister update the House on improvements to that part of the road to Berwick-upon-Tweed and the border with Scotland?

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A series of potential schemes are in place and they are moving forward to different forms of announcement or development, but I would be happy to send my hon. Friend a more detailed update.

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Can the Minister explain to me why Highways England refused to take any interest in the provision of an alternative for the Orwell bridge on the A14, which is a vital strategic link that is often closed?

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The hon. Gentleman and I have met and we have met Highways England to discuss this, and I think it is overstating the matter to say there is no interest at all, but we continue to look at the issue.

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Drivers who hog the middle lane of motorways has always been a problem, but as traffic volumes increase the impact will be even greater. This problem makes the roads dangerous for other drivers and slows down traffic. What can be done about this?

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There is guidance on this already, as my hon. Friend will know. I am not sure whether it is reflected in the road safety statistics, but I am happy to look at that.

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Owing to the sheer scale of the damage the proposed A27 project will do to ancient woodland and the South Downs national park, let alone the eventual impact on air pollution caused by induced capacity, 10 of Britain’s leading environmental groups have written to the Secretary of State to highlight how his proposals contravene his own national policy statement for national networks. So has he changed his definition of “irreversible damage” or will he urgently review this scheme?

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As the hon. Lady will know, many of those ancient woodlands were planted only in the past couple of decades, so I am not sure that she has quite made her point.

GWR Franchise

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7. What plans he has for the operation of trains in the Thames valley after the end of the Great Western rail franchise. [905552]

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The current Great Western franchise ends on 31 March 2020. In November 2017, the Department started its consultation on the future of services. Department for Transport officials are currently evaluating options for the specification of the franchise from April 2020, and throughout the 2020s, with the aim of issuing the specification later this year.

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It is a tale of two railways in Ealing and Action. This week I have heard praise for not-for-profit TfL rail services, whose users rate its reliability, but also complaints about GWR services, which are based on profitability, that have been cancelled without recompense. Will the Minister at the first opportunity take the Thames Valley franchise back into public ownership and scrap the crackpot idea to split it further? That would do us all a favour—the Exchequer and not just shareholders—before he is forced to do so when it flops.

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I fear that the hon. Lady is under a misapprehension as to the nature of the TfL contractual arrangements on that line, but she will be pleased to know that we are transferring services to TfL, including those from Paddington to Hayes and Harlington, and Heathrow Connect.

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When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announces the successor to the GWR franchise, will he ensure that the Cotswold line and the Kemble to Swindon line have an increased number of services and increased punctuality, so that the large amount of money that the taxpayer has put into Network Rail to redouble those services is properly utilised?

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My hon. Friend is a strong champion for services on the Cotswold line. We will certainly take into account his advocacy for it.

Disabled Rail Passengers

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8. What recent steps he has taken to improve accessibility for disabled rail passengers. [905553]

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15. What recent steps he has taken to improve accessibility for disabled rail passengers. [905562]

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The Government will publish an inclusive transport strategy later this year. I assure my hon. Friends that I and the Department believe that disabled people should have the same access to transport as anyone else and be able to travel easily, confidently and without extra cost. All train fleets operating passenger services will meet modern accessibility standards by 1 January 2020. Further funding for the Access for All stations programme will be made available for 2019 to 2024.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Clearly, there is a desperate need for a lift at both Stanmore and Canons Park stations. That is the responsibility of the Labour Mayor of London, who has failed to deliver. Also, Harrow and Wealdstone station is in my constituency, and the local authority’s civic centre is part of the “Heart of Harrow” regeneration scheme. The station does not have disabled access or step-free access, even though it has an overground, underground and Network Rail interchange. How can we get suitable access to that station?

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My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Transport for London manages transport services in the capital and is responsible for implementing the Mayor of London’s transport strategy, so Stanmore and Canons Park underground stations are his responsibility. I hope he is following today’s proceedings and will deliver for disabled and able-bodied passengers in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Of course, Harrow and Wealdstone station falls under the Access for All stations programme, and bidding for funding will open shortly. I urge my hon. Friend to get in touch with his local authority, which can work with the transport operating companies and put together the best possible bid to secure funding.

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Now that the Minister has confirmed that the Government will continue the Access for All scheme, which has improved accessibility across many of this country’s railway stations, can she advise us on how can we get the Cumbrian coastal railways included in future funding bids?

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My hon. Friend is a great champion for her constituency, so she will no doubt help the local authority and transport operating company to put together the best possible bid. The Access for All programme will provide step-free access to stations across the country, and I know how popular it is across the House. It will be open for bidding shortly. Stations will need to be nominated by the transport operating company, based on chosen criteria. Annual footfall and the local incidence of disability will be taken into account, as well as priorities such as industry and local factors such as proximity to hospitals and availability of third-party funding.

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The Secretary of State has already slashed £50 million from the Access for All fund, and now Govia Thameslink Railways’ new staff guidance says,

“do not attempt to place persons of reduced mobility on a train if there is a possibility of delaying the service”

and that they should

“move from the train as quickly as possible”

someone having a seizure. That is not only completely wrong medical advice, but directly discriminates against disabled people. Why has the Minister not intervened, and why has GTR been allowed to get away with this direct disability discrimination?

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Since 2006, about 200 stations have been made step-free and 75% of rail journeys are now step-free through stations. Funding has been made available and will continue to be made available. One of the biggest issues we have in getting people who are disabled to use public transport is confidence, so we need to let them know that we have accessible stations. Now I will respond to the point about GTR. There was one line in the document—

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It is so discriminatory.

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Will the hon. Lady give me a minute to respond? It was not the best use of language, and I can update the House and say that my officials have spoken to GTR and raised concerns about that line and the language used in the leaflet. The leaflet is good overall, but the hon. Lady is right to point out that one particular line was not appropriate, and it will be revised.

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Order. Forgive me; these are very informative answers, but we have a lot of questions to get through, so we need short answers and short questions.

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Disabled passengers in the Lawrence Hill area of my constituency are not being served with step-free access, although they have been promised it for some years. They have to get a train upline and then another downline on the other side before they can get to Temple Meads to get a mainline train. Will the Minister meet me and Councillor Margaret Hickman to discuss this urgently?

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Of course I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to talk about accessibility in her constituency. As I mentioned earlier, Access for All funding is available for train stations; if she were alluding to a tube station, that would be another situation altogether. As she is talking about a train station, I am more than happy to meet her.

Transport Police Merger: Scotland

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9. What recent discussions he has held with the Scottish Government on the proposed merger of the British Transport police Scottish division with Police Scotland. [905554]

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Officials have been working closely and effectively with the Scottish Government, the two police forces and the two police authorities, through a joint programme board established to oversee arrangements for delivering the transfer of the British Transport police’s functions in Scotland. We want to see a smooth transition to the new arrangements that ensures the safety and security of rail passengers and staff, and recognises and protects the UK’s interests.

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Earlier this month, BTP Federation chair Nigel Goodband said:

“It is appalling that the Scottish Government constantly reminds us that one of its three aims in full integration is accountability to the people of Scotland. British Transport police officers and staff…are people of Scotland. They are proud Scots; they are proud to be in the British Transport Police and proud of living in Scotland.”

He continued:

“They have said to me that they feel abandoned…by their Government. That is pretty disgusting. It is alarming that they feel that way.”

Does the Minister agree that that quote proves that the SNP Scottish Government are letting down hard-working and dedicated BTP officers and staff in Scotland and that their interests and the interests of the public they proudly protect would be better served by maintaining the way that the BTP operates in Scotland, rather than breaking up a force that serves Scotland and the United Kingdom well?

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I certainly understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. It is in both Governments’ mutual interest to make the new arrangements work. The Government are very focused on protecting UK interests generally, including those of passengers, officers and staff, and that is why we are working closely with the Scottish Government, the police forces and the police authorities.

Heathrow: Third Runway

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10. What estimate he has made of the cost to the public purse of the construction and operation of a third runway at Heathrow. [905555]

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The Government have always been clear that any scheme for additional airport capacity should be financed by the private sector. The Airports Commission concluded that this was a viable way forward. As set out in the revised draft airports national policy statement, independent financial advisers have undertaken further work and agreed that expansion of Heathrow can be carried out without public finance.

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I thank the Secretary of State for the answer. The report by the Select Committee on Transport on the airports national policy statement said that the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant should be treated

“with equivalent recognition as the Immigration Removal Centres and that the replacement of its facilities be accounted for in the DCO process.”

Will the Secretary of State confirm that his Department has assessed any infrastructure upgrade needed, such as that to roads and powerlines, to accommodate the relocation, and will those costs be met by the taxpayer?

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First, I extend my thanks to the Select Committee, which has produced a thoughtful report. We will be responding to the report in detail very shortly; indeed, my officials are speaking to the Chair of the Committee to make sure she is fully up to speed with how we are handling all this.

Of course it is essential that appropriate provision is made for the energy from waste plant, and I think that provision should be funded by the airport as part of its work. I do not see why the taxpayer should bear the cost. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) that the plant and other facilities, and the communities around the airport, are very much on my Department’s mind as we take these matters forward.

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The Transport Committee report on the national policy statement found that the Heathrow north-west runway proposal has little, if any, advantage over other schemes, or even over doing nothing at all, for passenger growth or for the number and frequency of long-haul routes, and that the proposal would actually cut international links for non-London regions and would have little economic benefit to the UK, so are the Government pushing ahead with this hugely expensive and environmentally damaging project?

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When I am ready to update the House, I will of course come back to do so in person. The Committee recommended that the Government progress with their work, and it made a number of very helpful and constructive suggestions about elements to be included within that work. I remain absolutely of the view that airport expansion is necessary for the economy of this country. The important thing is that we deliver it in the best possible way for local communities.

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May I suggest to the Secretary of State that a much cheaper and more practicable alternative to the Heathrow third runway would be to use the considerable spare capacity and long runway at Birmingham airport by electrifying and upgrading the Chiltern railway line and linking it to Crossrail? This would provide for a fast, direct, non-stop shuttle service between central London and Birmingham airport and would help to solve the south-east airport capacity problem. Will he give serious consideration to this proposal?

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Of course the arrival of HS2, with projected future growth in passenger numbers at our airports, will provide an alternative and will provide for a bit of competition between airports, which is no bad thing. The hon. Gentleman is right about that, but I do not think it is either one or the other.

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Order. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) has had to be away for a period. We have missed him, and I think I speak for colleagues in warmly welcoming him back to the Chamber.

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That is very kind, Mr Speaker. Thank you very much indeed.

Can the Secretary of State confirm whether he will be revising the airports national policy statement in light of the 25 recommendations from the Transport Committee?

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The hon. Gentleman and I sometimes spar vigorously across the Chamber, but I echo your words to him, Mr Speaker.

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I do not think it is appropriate to talk about our response to the Select Committee report before our response is published, which will happen shortly. I simply give him the assurance that we are taking the recommendations very seriously. I certainly want to see many of the recommendations embedded in our planning as these matters go forward.

Fishing Vessel Safety

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11. What steps he is taking to improve fishing vessel safety. [905556]

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Fishing safety remains a priority, and we are making improvements through education and legislation. New codes of practice set higher standards and will soon include stability requirements. Globally, the International Maritime Organisation’s maritime safety committee will this week discuss the safe operation of fishing vessels operating in the polar regions in the context of the Cape Town agreement.

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As everybody who has taken a vessel of any size to sea at any time will know, the International Maritime Organisation is critical to worldwide efforts to ensure safety at sea. The IMO is in fact the only UN agency to be based in the United Kingdom, so what assurances can the Minister give the House that Britain will continue to play an important role in the IMO in the years ahead?

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I can give my hon. Friend the fullest assurance. Shipping is an international industry, and the UK strongly believes it should be regulated at an international level by the IMO. My officials and I recently played a leading role at the marine environment protection committee, where we secured the landmark agreement on phasing out greenhouse gas emissions. The UK takes great pride in being the host Government of the IMO, which is based just across the Thames, and we will continue to maintain our active role within the organisation’s work for the foreseeable future.

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One of the biggest problems facing fishing vessel safety is boats going to sea undermanned because they cannot get enough crew. Will the Minister use her offices to make a proper assessment of that and pass on her findings to the Home Office to inform its consideration of the opportunities for getting more crew from non-European economic area countries?

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Trying to encourage recruit and retain people to work in the fishing, port and shipping sector is a priority for the Department. We know how difficult it is to attract people that are not already in contact with fishing, ports and ships. We are doing what we can to try to encourage people to think of shipping, fishing and working in ports as jobs going forward. We have set up a number of initiatives, especially this year, through the Year of Engineering, to try to get young people interested in being employed in fishing, ports and shipping, and we will share that information with any Department that wishes to see it.

Train Timetable: Hitchin and Harpenden

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12. What steps his Department is taking to respond to rail passenger concerns on the introduction of the new timetable for peak-time services in Hitchin and Harpenden. [905557]

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The new Thameslink timetable started on Sunday. It brings more frequent and better connected journeys for passengers across London and the south-east. As part of this, rail passengers at Hitchin and Harpenden now have a more regular train service throughout the day than they did previously. The Government, along with the rail industry, are monitoring performance of the new timetable, as well as passenger feedback.

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On Monday, the first day of the timetable for commuters, 24% of Hitchin’s services were cancelled and more than 50% were delayed. Please will the Minister reassure me and my constituents that the Department will do everything it can to force Govia Thameslink to improve its performance drastically or be stripped of its franchise?

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We are grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing all the issues facing his constituency to our attention, and we look forward to working closely with him in the coming weeks. This week’s timetable changes are the first phase of a totally recast timetable, which will deliver, in time, the full benefits of the £7 billion Thameslink programme.

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The new timetable produces winners and losers across the country. Yesterday, the University of Nottingham told me that

“connectivity to London and to the world is crucial to Nottingham attracting jobs, talent and visitors that will drive the future of our economy. We are concerned that the timetable changes will hinder these ambitions.”

That is a clear indictment of the changes forced on East Midlands Trains’ services by this Department in order to accommodate the new Thameslink timetable. What have this Government got against the east midlands that means that, yet again, we are getting a raw deal?

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The May 2018 timetable change will see about 90% of our services change. It is perhaps the single biggest timetable change in the country’s history and it will bring an extra 1,300 train services across our network. This is a very significant operational challenge. We recognise the disruption that is temporarily occurring in various places, and we are working carefully with train operators to reduce it as rapidly as possible.

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Let me follow up on that question from my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood). Last month, the Secretary of State promised quicker and better train services to Sheffield. As a result of these Thameslink changes, East Midlands Trains says that priority is being given to these new trains on Thameslink services over trains to Sheffield. As a result, peak-time trains to Sheffield are now six to eight minutes slower than they were under the previous timetable—they are slower than they were 10 years ago. Have the Secretary of State’s promises of a month ago already been ditched?

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The midlands main line changes and efficiency improvements take place in a rolling way up to 2020, which is when the significant benefits to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency will start to flow through.

Road Repairs

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13. What funds he has recently made available for the repair of local roads. [905558]

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The Department for Transport is providing just over £6 billion to local highway authorities in England, outside London, for highways maintenance funding from 2015 up to 2021. Of course, my hon. Friend will be aware of the £296 million pothole action fund.

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I welcome the prospect of upgrades to main roads in west Oxfordshire, financed through the housing infrastructure fund and the growth deal, but what are Ministers doing to ensure that small rural roads in areas such as west Oxfordshire, which often bear the brunt of winter damage, are not neglected and are also maintained to a high standard?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that point, especially in the light of the recent very bad bouts of weather we have had, which have particularly affected local roads. Until then, it was true that the A and B roads were improving over time but that that leaves out the C and the U roads. A more strategic approach needs to be taken to that, and I am planning to do that in the months to come.

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We have got a brand new road in my constituency and it is supposed to have a vital bus link on it between Hengrove and Long Ashton, but the West of England metro mayor refuses to use his devolved powers to help make it happen. What is the purpose of devolving powers to a metro mayor if he will not use them?

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The purpose is to allow him to be held locally accountable by the people who elected him.

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The proposal to put a weight limit on the North bridge in Oundle is causing great concern, not only to residents but to businesses and bus service users. I have written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the matter. Will he undertake to see what can be done to make sure that the repairs are carried out as soon as possible?

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As my hon. Friend will know, the North bridge in Oundle falls under the responsibility of Northamptonshire County Council as the highway authority. Since 2015-16, the Department has provided the council with £72 million of local highways maintenance finance, including £12 million this year. That can be used to help to strengthen bridges. It is entirely for the council to determine how that funding is deployed.

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North Lincolnshire’s roads and pavements are pitted with potholes. Given what the Minister has just said, should North Lincolnshire Council not be doing a better job of tackling this issue?

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Of course, these are matters for local authorities in each case, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out. Our job is to take a more strategic view of the overall picture, which is what I have said we are planning to do.

Leaving the EU: Ports

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16. What steps he has taken to prepare UK ports for when the UK leaves the EU. [905563]

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The UK ports sector is in an excellent position to facilitate growth in trade, both from the EU and from other countries, when we leave the EU. Indeed, many of the port operators have exciting plans to do so. Many UK ports have recently invested vigorously in capacity, to handle the largest container ships and to adapt to changing patterns of energy generation. We are seeing investment at crucial ports such as Dover, where the western docks are being developed to enable better use of capacity at the eastern docks to handle ferry traffic.

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Teesport in my constituency is going from strength to strength. It handles 5,000 vessels a year and more than 40 million tonnes of cargo. It is a gateway to the world, but especially to Europe, our largest trading partner. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that Brexit will not result in trading barriers and customs checks, or in lorries queuing down the A66?

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The Prime Minister has been absolutely clear that this country is committed to frictionless borders. Teesport is doing a great job; I saw some of the firms that operate at the port only recently. That is one reason why I have announced the study into the potential reopening of the Skipton to Colne railway line, because one thing we lack for ports such as Teesport and, indeed, Liverpool, is better freight connections across the Pennines. Every time I talk to the port operators, that is top of their list.

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One of the Brexit myths is taking control of borders, yet the Secretary of State continues to say that there will be no further checks on transport at ports. Is that just because he does not have a clue about how the Government can put in place a system that allows checks to be made but does not cause carnage on the roads round about the ports?

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No, I am afraid it is because the hon. Gentleman does not understand how ports operate today. It is not necessary to stop every lorry at a border—indeed, every lorry is not stopped at the border—to have a free flow of trade. Countries inside the European Union and countries that have no connection with the European Union manage to operate a free flow through ports and across borders, and that is what we will do after we leave.

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I call Clive Efford.

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rose—

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The hon. Gentleman looks a tad befuddled.

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I was expecting Questions 17 and 18, Mr Speaker.

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The answer—I always like to provide information to satisfy colleagues—is that Question 17 was withdrawn and the person who had Question 18 came in on an earlier question.

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Thank you for enlightening me, Mr Speaker.

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It is very good of the hon. Gentleman to drop in on us; we are deeply obliged to him.

South Eastern Rail Franchise

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19. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on passenger safety of the terms of the new south-eastern rail franchise which require some travellers to change trains at Lewisham station. [905566]

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The hon. Gentleman will be aware that Lewisham is already a fully accessible station. In terms of the total numbers of passengers required to interchange, analysis by Department officials suggests that it may decrease in the next franchise.

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Having been through all the upheaval of the London Bridge refurbishment, my constituents now face fewer choices of London destinations under the new franchise, which means they have to change at Lewisham. The additional development right on top of Lewisham station is going to cause a great deal of congestion there. Will the Minister carry out a safety assessment at Lewisham station to make sure that it is safe for passengers who change at the station in future?

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As I said, officials believe that we will see a decrease in the numbers of passengers interchanging at Lewisham station in the next franchise period. It is currently an accessible station, although I recognise that its existing design means that it can get crowded at peak times, as the hon. Gentleman said. In recognition of that, the invitation to tender incentivises bidders to consider investment to improve the flow of passengers at Lewisham. Bidders will be required to spend no less than £6.5 million on station improvements, and Lewisham is one candidate for that spend.

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rose—

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I am bound to say that Lewisham station is a very considerable distance from Blaenau Gwent, which the hon. Gentleman represents, but perhaps he has a connection with south-east London of which I am unaware and about which I am shortly to be enlightened. Who knows? I call Mr Nick Smith.

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Rail accessibility is an important topic, so will the £430 million saved by not electrifying the Cardiff to Swansea line still be spent in Wales?

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Very naughty indeed!

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At the time the announcement on electrification was made, we made it clear that we would be looking at a number of schemes to invest in infrastructure and enhancements in Cardiff and Swansea. Those discussions are currently under way.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [905567]

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Before I answer my hon. Friend’s question, it might be appropriate for the whole House to express our thanks to all of the transport workers who were involved in the planning and delivery of a smooth journey to and from Windsor last weekend for the royal wedding. It was a very smooth operation and it went gratifyingly well on what was a fantastic day for the country.

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Drivers on the Jubilee and District lines are threatening all-out strikes on 6 and 14 June, bringing misery to literally millions of Londoners. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning this action, which will put the passengers and commuters of London in a desperate plight, and call on the Mayor of London to intervene to stop this strike?

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In my view, there is never a justification for industrial action causing that degree of disruption to the lives of individual passengers and of other workers. It is not fair on them; it is the wrong thing to do. Disputes should be solved through means other than strike actions on our public transport system. However, I do remember being informed on regular occasions by the Mayor of London, when we had the troubles on Southern, that he would be much better at coping with these things because there would never be a strike on his watch. He has already broken that one, because he has had them already. It looks like he will have some more.

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This week’s timetabling debacle is characteristic of all that is wrong with the railway. The Secretary of State told the press yesterday, and not this House, that Northern Rail issues were his top priority and that he would improve train driver rostering and driver recruitment to improve things, but he cannot simply tinker with rosters and pick new train drivers off a shelf. Does he not realise that it takes a year to train a driver and that roster changes have to be worked through, with the workforce, well ahead of their introduction?

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First of all, the hon. Gentleman has not been following things too closely, because my recollection is that when I was in this House yesterday afternoon I expressly talked about the issues with the timetabling.

Secondly, Northern does not have a shortage in overall terms of drivers. The problem has been caused by the operational difficulties that resulted from, first, Network Rail’s failure to deliver the electrification to the schedule that was expected on the line to Bolton, and, secondly, from Network Rail’s failure to finalise timetables in time. That has been the prime reason for disruption, which was not helped, I might add, by an unnecessary work to rule by one of the unions.

What has happened has been unacceptable for passengers, but I also remind the hon. Gentleman that this is the most devolved franchise in England. The management of the franchise is shared by my Department and northern leaders through Rail North, so it is not simply a question of my Department. I will be working now to see whether Rail North together has done enough of a job in monitoring these problems.

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I do not wish to be unkind to the Secretary of State, and he has certainly given us very full information, but let me say this. I gently chided the Minister next to him, the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), for a mildly lengthy reply to one question, but he seems determined to outdo her. It is not a competition. Their replies are extremely informative, and I thank them for that, but we do not have unlimited time, although I do try to extend the envelope.

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Northern Rail issues may be the Secretary of State’s top priority, but what about the long-suffering passengers on Thameslink and Southern? This is the fault not of 400 hard-working timetablers, but of train companies that do not have enough drivers with the right knowledge in the right places at the right time. Is it not the case that these train companies have had years to prepare for this and that this Secretary of State simply trashes the hard-working men and women across the industry who strive to deliver rail improvements? He simply throws them under the bus.

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If I am not mistaken, the hon. Gentleman has just trashed the hard-working men and women of the train companies, who are trying to do a decent job for passengers; he cannot have it both ways. I am afraid that this is a problem with Network Rail, and I have said that it cannot happen again. We have now had the late delivery of the timetable twice in six months. It is not what I would have expected to happen at this moment in time, with such a big, complex change. None the less, it is happening because we are running vastly more trains to more destinations. New trains have been running this week, and there are people getting on trains this week who have a seat for the first time in four years. That is a good thing.

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T3. May I impress on Ministers the urgency of upgrades, including redoubling, to the Cotswold line? Will Ministers commit to working with me to ensure that west Oxfordshire sees those upgrades, which it so badly needs? [905570]

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I am certainly aware of stakeholders’ desire for faster and more frequent services along the North Cotswold line between Worcester, Oxford and London. We will continue to provide advice to Lord Faulkner’s taskforce as it develops its proposals.

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T2. The whole House welcomes the fact that the Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Bill has received Royal Assent. Will the Minister confirm when this important legislation will come into force in Northern Ireland? [905569]

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The hon. Gentleman is right to welcome this legislation. The misuse of lasers can have very serious consequences, and offenders should face tough penalties for endangering the lives of others. The new offences in relation to maritime and aviation will come into force on 10 July across the entire United Kingdom. As road and rail are devolved to Northern Ireland, these elements of the Act will require a legislative consent motion to be approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly when it returns.

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T6. With increasing house building near the strategic road networks on the edge of Northampton, what steps is the Department taking to finish the second phase of the north-west ring road? [905574]

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As part of the local growth deal, the Government have already provided nearly £8 million of funding for the construction of phase 1 of the Northampton north-west relief road. We work closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that investment in this infrastructure and others helps to unlock new homes and create workable, sustainable communities.

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T4. The Minister will have seen the major story in The Times yesterday, highlighting the problems of licensing and cross-border working in the taxi and private hire industry, and the concerns around public safety. Regrettably, my private Member’s Bill—the Licensing of Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Safeguarding and Road Safety) Bill—was talked out a few weeks ago. Will the Minister now give the public an assurance that the Government will come forward urgently with legislation to address these concerns? [905571]

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The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I also read the story, which was very alarming. He knows that licensing authorities are responsible for ensuring that taxi drivers are fit and proper, renewing licences and doing criminal record checks. He will also be aware that there is a task and finish group looking at taxis. I am waiting for that group to present its report to me. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am looking at the issue very closely, as the safety of passengers is a big priority for me.

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T7. What recent estimates has the Minister made of the jobs created by High Speed 2? What estimate has been made of the economic benefit to each part of the United Kingdom? [905575]

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I like every opportunity to talk about HS2 and the benefits that it will bring across the country. It is forecast to support about 25,000 new construction jobs and 2,000 apprenticeships during the construction of phase 1 and 2, as well as 3,000 operations and maintenance jobs once the services are running. Economic growth as a result of HS2 is estimated to support the creation of up to 100,000 jobs. HS2 will provide better connectivity to Scotland. This will enable businesses to create new opportunities and people to have better choices of jobs, as well as creating extra capacity for freight.

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T5. International evidence supports road safety targets; we know that they work. The European Commission’s new mobility package proposes a target of halving road deaths and serious injuries by 2030. We know that this Government like targets to throw people out of the country, but what is the Minister’s position on targets to save the lives of UK citizens? [905573]

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The answer to that question, as the hon. Lady will know, is that there is no correlation between having targets at the national level and the success of a road safety strategy. Many countries that do not have targets have had thoroughly successful road safety strategies. There are many parts of our public realm in which targets can be set by the authorities involved, and we welcome them when they are set.

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A week ago today, the Government announced funding of £83 million for improvements to the north Devon link road. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Indeed—hear, hear. I thank the Minister for that decision. Will he join me in congratulating Devon County Council on the brilliant bid that has got this funding?

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I am really grateful to Devon County Council for the work it has done. I am also very grateful to my hon. Friend for the arguments that he has brought forward about why this should be a priority. It is a sign of this Government’s commitment to the south-west of this country, where we are delivering actual projects that are really essential to local infrastructure and that are long, long overdue.

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T8. This week we were expecting the tender document for the east midlands rail franchise. It has not been forthcoming. When can we expect it, and will it promote investment in the service, including improved services on evenings and weekends? [905576]

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We are just finalising this. I do not know if we have made an announcement on when it is going to come out, but it will come out very shortly. The midland main line is going through the biggest modernisation programme since the 1870s. The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) referred to the question of timetable changes. There have been a number of difficult timetable changes, both in the London area and further up the line. However, this is all paving the way. When this route is completed properly in 2020, when we will have new trains, the railway will be much better than it has been for a century.

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What consideration has been given to breaking off the North Cotswold line into a stand-alone franchise once the GWR franchise comes to an end?

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My hon. Friend has raised this with the Department and with me on a number of occasions, and we continue to look at it. It seems, though, that a stand-alone, North Cotswold-line-only franchise would potentially be too small to be sustainable in its own right, as it would be only a small fraction of the size of what is currently the smallest franchise in the network.

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Following up on the earlier question about the consultation on community transport licensing, North Norfolk Community Transport has already lost contracts worth half its income during the consultation period because it cannot win any more business due to the fear that hangs over the sector. What steps will the Government take to guarantee the future of these vital community transport links? We fear losing this one.

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As the right hon. Gentleman will know, we have published guidance making it perfectly clear that local authorities would be acting prematurely if they withdrew or curtailed funding through grants before further guidance, which, as my ministerial colleague has said, we expect to give before the summer.

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It is very good of the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) to drop in on us. We have missed the hon. Gentleman, who was, I think, attending to important business elsewhere, but is now in the bosom of the Chamber. Let’s hear the fella.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your indulgence—you have been very kind indeed.

However, one thing that has been less kind to us, sadly, is the timetable changes on GTR and Southeastern. Many people in the constituency I have the privilege to represent, and indeed many in neighbouring areas, are commenting on the lack of capacity taking people into London in the morning and home at night to West Malling, Kings Hill and other places on the Maidstone East line. What will the Government be doing to increase capacity to get in and out of London for these valuable people?

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I can assure my hon. Friend that there has not been a change to capacity on the Maidstone East line. Some trains on the new timetable are faster and some are slower, but in overall terms the services will continue to deliver for passengers. Right now, as I explained to the House a little while back, we clearly have initial problems with the new timetable. This is the biggest logistical change that the railways have made for a very long time. My Department is working very closely with all those involved to try to get this sorted out as quickly as possible. But this is all about delivering more services, longer trains and new destinations across the south-east, and once it is bedded in, I think that passengers in his constituency and elsewhere will see the benefits.

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Will the Secretary of State update the House on his invitation for proposals on a southern rail link to Heathrow? This is of great interest to families and businesses in my constituency, with the potential for a direct rail link from Waterloo to Heathrow via Feltham.

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That is very timely, because after this Question Time session I am going to meet a number of organisations that are interested in participating in this project. As the hon. Lady knows, we are going to deliver a massive improvement to service access around Heathrow. Western access will be delivered through the control period 6 process, and I aim for southern access to be a privately funded project. This has enormous potential to link not just Waterloo to Heathrow but to link parts of the south-west network through Heathrow on to Paddington.

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As my right hon. Friend will know, 2018 is the Year of Engineering. As my local contribution to that, I am organising an engineering showcase in Basildon town centre on 14 July. Will he encourage other Members to consider doing a similar thing in their own constituency? May I also invite him to come and join us to celebrate all the fantastic engineering going on in Basildon?

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I am really grateful to my hon. Friend for the work he is doing as our ambassador for the Year of Engineering. He is a tower of strength in making this a successful year. We have hundreds of firms involved around the country, and I encourage other Members to take advantage of what he is doing and to lay on an event for new students in their constituency this autumn, as I will. This is a great opportunity to unite the whole House in saying that engineering is a great profession and we need more young people to go into it.

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Approximately two months ago, I asked the Secretary of State for a meeting with the Newton people who, because of HS2, are going to see more than 30 houses knocked down in their small village. Has the meeting been arranged yet?

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I know that HS2 Ltd has put in place community managers who are meeting communities up and down the line. HS2 Ltd is also hosting regular meetings here in Parliament, at which Members can make representations on behalf of their constituents. We must not forget that HS2 will bring more than £92 billion of benefit across the whole country. HS2 Ltd is available here in Parliament and also in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, if he so wishes.

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The Secretary of State agreed the meeting.

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Well, the hon. Gentleman can always table a question asking when the meeting will be. That is a hint.

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It was a fortnight ago when he agreed.

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I note that, and I think that it will be on the record.

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I do not think the hon. Gentleman’s office has been in touch.

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I am sure the matter will be sorted out erelong; I very much hope it will.

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Network Rail is responsible for Ayr railway station in my constituency, which has important links with Stranraer and Glasgow. The functionality and passenger safety at that station is under threat due to the derelict state of the nearby Station Hotel, which is privately owned. May I urge my right hon. Friend to encourage Network Rail to seriously engage with the owners of that hotel and the local council, to avoid a catastrophic event at Ayr railway station?

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First, there is no question but that we are very happy to have a meeting between Ministers and the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner). If his office gets in touch, we will sort that.

On my hon. Friend’s question, I would like to find out a bit more detail, because clearly we would like to ensure that that problem does not exist. If he provides a bit more detail to myself or my hon. Friend the rail Minister, we will get on to the case.

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The recent court case that found the collection of tolls at the Mersey crossing unlawful has afforded Ministers an opportunity to pause and review the operation of those tolls, which are hated across my region. Will they take that opportunity and review the tolls?

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As the hon. Gentleman will know, the road has been extraordinarily successful and is a great example of a piece of newly funded infrastructure. That issue is primarily for Halton Borough Council, but we are following the situation closely.

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Residents in Uplawmoor are currently campaigning against proposed airspace changes at Glasgow airport. I very much welcome the Department’s decision to move that process on to the new Civil Aviation Authority guidelines, but does the Secretary of State agree that it is vital that airports carry out meaningful consultation with affected communities and do not try to bamboozle and bludgeon them into submission with technical jargon that they cannot understand?

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I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The management of airspace and flight paths is extraordinarily sensitive for local communities. Airports that engage well have a much easier time, and those that do not engage properly pay a price. I agree that community engagement is really important.

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When the east coast railway franchise is once again open to bids, will the bidding process include a prosperity weighting clause, in keeping with proposals for some defence contracts?

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When we form the London North Eastern Railway in its final form, as I have said, it will not be a conventional franchise bidding process. It will move to a completely new approach, as I set out in my statement earlier this month, and we will bring more details to the House about the shape of that in due course.

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I know the Secretary of State shares my excitement about the fact that in July we will see the first new Hitachi trains on a booked service west of Taunton. Will he update us about the wider progress being made with the new Great Western franchise, particularly about the idea that it may be split?

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I have now got back the responses to the consultation, and I am carefully considering my response to them. I give my hon. Friend an assurance that I have a fairly clear message from the people who responded, and I will take that view very carefully into account in how I take this forward.

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When will the Government stand up for small towns in the shires of this country? While the cities get new trains and powers over bus services, the small towns in the heartlands, such as Lancashire, get nothing. This Government do not seem to care about small towns.

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It is nice to finish with a degree of hokum from the Opposition. Lancashire has benefited, for example, from the Heysham relief road—connecting two smaller centres in a way that is absolutely vital if we are to unlock parts of the economy—and, starting later this year, all the small towns in Lancashire are getting new trains. Once we have bedded in the timetable and overcome these infuriating problems, the Northern Rail franchise will deliver more services in Lancashire—and, indeed, in Copeland, where my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), who has now gone, had the pleasure last weekend of travelling on the west Cumbria line’s first Sunday service in decades.

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That is very useful to know. Thank you.

Marks & Spencer

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy if he will make a statement on the implications of the decision of Marks & Spencer to close 14 branches across the United Kingdom.

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I welcome the chance to address the House on this matter. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her chairmanship of the all-party group on textile and fashion, and I commiserate with her on the fact that one of the stores that will be closing is in her constituency.

Who among us is not touched by the hand of M&S? I counted up this morning, and I am in fact wearing three items of M&S clothing—I will not declare what they are. Indeed, my breakfast this morning entirely comprised items bought at the Gatwick M&S after a late-night flight. By the way, I defy anyone in the House not to say that they have at least one item of clothing in their wardrobe from that fine retailer. This is, however, a worrying time.

As the hon. Lady said, Marks & Spencer made an announcement on Tuesday about 14 of its UK stores. This is part of a well-advertised plan to reshape its estates and, essentially, to reshape its stores to compete, given the very big challenges of many online retailers in the country. Five of the stores will close this year or early next year, and all colleagues at those locations will be offered redeployment to other stores. Nine other stores have been proposed for closure, and Marks & Spencer has entered a period of consultation on the redeployment of staff in those stores. All of us will of course recognise that this is a worrying time for the over 600 staff members currently going through that process. I know that there will be concern among Members on both sides of the House about this issue. The Government—the Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus—will of course stand by, should support be required, to work with the company.

There have been a number of announcements in the retail sector recently—negative and also positive in terms of job creation. We should all recognise the incredible contribution of this sector to the UK economy—it was almost £95 billion in 2016—and this Government’s ongoing support for the sector. We have announced measures worth more than £2 billion over the next five years to cut business rates, with a positive change to the indexation of business rates.

Only this March, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), set up the Retail Sector Council, which is determined to drive up this sector’s productivity and ensure that it is fit to face future challenges. Sitting on the sector council are retailers—large and small; online and offline; in town and out of town—and the unions are of course very much a part of that process. The object of the council is for the Government and industry to work together to drive up productivity, and also to secure our fantastic retail sector’s future health and direction. We are working together on the requirements to make sure that productivity and economic growth in this sector can continue for many years to come.

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I must just say—I probably do not have to, but I will do so anyway—that I share the Minister’s enthusiasm for Marks & Spencer, which is a most admirable institution. What she said about almost every Member having an item or more from Marks is incontrovertible.

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I thank the Minister for her response.

Over the past few years, there has been a cascade of commercial announcements from well-known companies saying that iconic retail high street stores need to close if they are to cut costs: British Home Stores, Mothercare, Toys R Us, the Royal Bank of Scotland and now Marks & Spencer. As chair of the all-party group on textile and fashion, I know that the market is changing, but retail companies need to strike a balance between remaining competitive and understanding the wider implications of closing landmark stores. Marks & Spencer’s proposed store closures—14 imminently, and more than 100 in the next few years—will not only result in thousands of potential job losses, but could devastate our local town centres. It is well known that when anchor stores close, the surrounding subsidiary stores feel the impact of reduced footfall, meaning that many close as well.

Are our high streets to become ghost towns? My constituency has already felt the effects of BHS closures, and we expect to lose 67 jobs if the Marks & Spencer closes. Has the Department made any assessment of the impact of the proposed closures on local economies in Scotland and across the UK? What is the impact on disabled people who find it difficult to travel to outskirt retail parks to shop? Since the report by Mary Portas on saving the high street that the Government commissioned in 2011, how many of its recommendations have been implemented? Finally, will the Minister agree to meet jointly with the all-party group, MPs affected and representatives from Marks & Spencer to facilitate further consultation on these proposals, and to consider desperately needed plans to save our high streets?

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The hon. Lady raises some valid points—there is an M&S food shop in my Devizes constituency—and is right that attractive stores bring in footfall from which subsidiary stores benefit. Of course, the Government have taken forward many plans to support the high street, which is part of the reason for the rate changes. Local councils, which might be responsible for setting parking policy, rely on parking receipts to fund other transport services, but if those rates are remitted straight back to Westminster, their desire to create a more attractive parking and retail culture might be diminished, which is why it is important that our rate localisation policy proceeds. I hope that the Scottish National party will support it.

The hon. Lady asked whether an assessment had been made. There are ongoing assessments. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Burton, who sends his apologies for not being present, would be the person to take that meeting. I would not like to speak on behalf of his diary, but I shall make sure that the hon. Lady’s representations are put to him. He is working tirelessly on this issue across Government even while our retail sector continues to thrive and grow. As she will know from her work on the all-party group, there have been several important announcements in the last few weeks: Amazon has announced the creation of 400 jobs; Lidl has announced the creation of 40 new stores; and ASOS, an amazing online store employing thousands of people in call centre and support capacities, has seen its sales grow by 30% this year—it is becoming a truly global brand.

There is definitely a rotation in the way in which we all shop. I am sure that we all now buy many more of our unmentionable items online—sometimes we even buy them in stores—but the hon. Lady makes some valid points. We should all think hard about what we can do as individuals, particularly to support our local authorities, which are often responsible for planning, decision making, rates setting and parking decisions, all of which can have a material impact on the high street experience.

I will take away the hon. Lady’s request and make sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary responds to her. I assure her that the reason for setting up the Retail Sector Council—it includes all sorts of retailers, from farm shops to large online companies, and of course the vital Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, which is providing so much support to workers in the industry—is to make sure that these conversations can be had on a cross-Government basis, and that policy making can be joined-up.

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I must declare an interest: I am wearing a Marks & Spencer suit, although I do not want to give the House the impression that I am the fashion icon for Marks & Spencer.

Does the Minister agree that it is not all bad? Marks & Spencer has opened a massive store at Rushden Lakes in my constituency. It is hugely successful and employs lots of people. The store is a mixture of retail and leisure. It might just be that times are changing and Marks & Spencer is changing with them.

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In relation to the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s inquiry I say simply this: so am I, and neither do I.

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Perhaps there will be a competition at the end of these proceedings to judge who wears M&S best—I am declining all responsibility for that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) makes an important point. Companies such as Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and other major retailers have embraced this change and worked out how to be fit for the future. Sadly, in other companies—BHS, for example—the corporate management and the level of responsibility that were taken did not prepare the chain adequately for that change, meaning that many jobs were lost. Addressing that is partly the responsibility of the Retail Sector Council.

I appreciate that changes to jobs can be worrying for the more than 600 staff involved, but it is great that one of our iconic British retail chains is prepared to embrace the future, invest, and ensure that it can continue selling us the things that all of us—old and young—would like to buy. I will declare a final interest: I have about 12 Marks & Spencer jackets. They are the perfect combination of cheap and bright, meaning that I could catch your eye, Mr Speaker, when I was standing on the Back Benches.

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Truly the Minister is a woman of the people.

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My suit is from an independent retailer in my constituency, not from M&S.

The Press Association reported last month that 21,000 retail jobs were at risk in the first three months of the year, with administrations at Maplin and Toys R Us, and store closures at New Look, House of Fraser and Carpetright. We now learn that M&S is to close 14 branches this year, and 100 stores by 2022. As we express our fond memories of M&S, may we remember that 872 members of staff will lose their jobs? We need some sobriety in the proceedings here.

High street retailers struggle to compete against out-of-town and online shopping, given their lower cost base, and that is not helped by the long-term squeeze on incomes under this Government. The Government have their much-trumpeted industrial strategy, but where is the retail sector deal? How do they propose to help the affected communities and high streets? The Government must go much further on business rates because the changes simply have not cut through to make the difference needed by high street retailers. What conversations have the Minister and her colleagues had this year with trade unions that represent retail workers?

Unless the Government are prepared to step in to secure a level playing field between our high streets, and online and out-of-town retailers, more shops will close, more high streets will lose key big-name brands, more communities will lose out, and more workers will lose their jobs. The Marks & Spencer closures show that leaving market forces to their own devices is simply not working, and the Government must ensure that there is a fair market in retail for the good of businesses, workers, communities and our high streets.

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The hon. Gentleman and I are in violent agreement. That is why the establishment of the Retail Sector Council, which absolutely involves store worker representatives, is vital. A series of financial measures has been taken forward. The Government have given almost £20 million to towns funding initiatives such as the Great British High Street. We have established the Future High Streets Forum, which is chaired by the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), and that also involves retailers. More than £2 billion of measures were introduced in the autumn Budget to cut business rates, including the 100% small business rate relief that is so vital to independent retailers.

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It is not working.

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The hon. Gentleman says that, but he bought his suit from an independent retailer, which will no doubt have benefited from that—[Interruption.] He should have bought more suits there, Mr Speaker.

One point that has not been raised is that there is an unfairness in the current structure of online and offline retailing because of the way in which retailers pay VAT. That is an issue for us all, and it is why online prices can be much lower. We are therefore bringing forward a review into the wider taxation of the digital economy to ensure that international corporation tax rules are fair, and that sellers that operate across online and offline marketplaces pay an appropriate amount of value added tax.

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I assure my right hon. Friend that she is indeed a fashion icon in her M&S outfits.

This sad announcement by M&S, particularly for the people who work there, puts further pressure on our high streets, on top of the correct announcement on betting regulations and the trend towards online shopping. Will my right hon. Friend redouble her efforts, and that of her Department, to ensure the vitality and diversity of our high streets up and down the land?

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Most assuredly. Working with high streets in my constituency, as I am sure many right hon. and hon. Members do, I know there is a huge power in having a vibrant high street sector with lots of shops and big anchor tenants, and perhaps also, as a way of driving footfall, shops where people pick up their online packages. Our high streets are part of our incredibly vibrant history. Many of us represent small market towns where the high street is a hugely important part of the local economy. Let us not forget that they employ hundreds of thousands of people right across the country.

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All this is terrible news for our local retailers and for businesses on our local high streets. We have lost a staggering number of businesses over the past two or three years. It is terrible news for the employees and their families, and for our local economy. In my constituency, we will lose about 90 employees, which will have a devastating impact. Is it due to a combination of the Government’s austerity and the clicks versus bricks regarding VAT rates, which we have just spoken about? I know that the Government were planning a consultation on VAT. Will the Minister update us on where we are with that consultation? Is there any possibility, as I asked the Chancellor some time ago, of reducing VAT for our high streets to give local shops and high street retailers a fighting chance against online retailers?

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The hon. Gentleman anticipates the review I hope we can all support. I will ensure that my hon. Friends in the Treasury bring it forward as soon as possible. I do have to push back slightly. The hon. Gentleman is right and wrong. He is right that we are buying less stuff. In fact, there is the phrase “peak stuff”, which suggests that the younger folks among us no longer go shopping for pleasure, but prefer to do other things with their time—mostly involving their phones, as best I can tell from my own kids. There is the view that the acquisition of products and services is on the decline globally. I believe the vacancy rate for shops in great cities such as New York is now in double digit figures, which is very surprising and reflects a global trend.

We should welcome the fact that in this country real wages are now going up and increasing ahead of inflation. People are getting more money in their pockets. The Government’s actions in cutting taxes by over £1,000 for over 3 million people and in continuing to invest in high streets, allowing both money and choice, has meant that spending has held up reasonably well—in particular, since the Brexit referendum, which was supposed to deliver the death knell to shopping in this country. That has not happened. We are seeing a change in the way people spend, but it is vital we recognise the importance of this sector as part of our industrial strategy going forward. Industrial strategy, by the way, does not just mean smokestack industries. It means retail industries and creative industries—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) should welcome the fact that we have a sector council up and running and should look closely at the steps it suggests the Government need to take.

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Speaking as a former Marks & Spencer supplier and current Marks & Spencer customer, the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) highlighted the importance of an anchor store to a town’s retail offer and the social importance of the high street. I entirely agreed with her question. Will my right hon. Friend remain vigilant on, or at least sensitive to, the impact of business rates for physical retailers as compared to internet retailers? Will she monitor that carefully, because we want to ensure a level playing field for the social benefit we have been talking about?

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I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. We have tolerated that difference for too long. It is right to have a fair allocation of VAT between both channels.

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It cannot be fair for our high street retailers to have to compete with online companies that offshore themselves for tax purposes and often use the most exploitative employment practices, such as minimum hours contracts. The Government have to act more urgently to deal with this problem. Does the Minister really think that if an employee loses their job at Marks & Spencer and goes to work for a company like Amazon, they will be given the same rate of pay?

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The hon. Gentleman flags up the reason that the Government commissioned the Taylor review on the future of good work: clearly, the workplace is changing. The expectation, and it has been pleasing to hear Marks & Spencer talk about this, is that it will do everything it can to redeploy its workforce, particularly into stores nearby that might be transitioning to food. I have been very struck on my forays into M&S by its incredible investment in its workforce—its commitment to increasing diversity and to providing good jobs over the long term—and we must all work to make sure that those jobs continue.

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I declare an interest as a former supplier to Marks & Spencer, and I am still involved in—but not paid by—the company that supplies Marks & Spencer. It is one of the most innovative retailers. It trains its staff, as other people have mentioned, and is a huge supporter of the British food industry. However, north-eastern Scotland has had to withstand 50% of the business rates increase, so I ask the Minister— [Interruption.] I ask her whether that increase in business rates can be justified and to be very conscious that business rates are damaging the high street, particularly as we are seeing in Scotland—[Interruption.]

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Mr Speaker, you can tell by the vigorous debate on this point the importance of having local government and national Government—[Interruption.]

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Order. There are very unseemly exchanges between Scottish National party Members and Government Back Benchers. All should be united in wanting to listen to the reply from the Minister of State.

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This vigorous exchange points to the responsibility that we all bear—Westminster, national and local governments—for supporting our high streets and not using short-term measures, particularly tax-raising measures, that might further drive out the precious high street stores that we are all so interested in protecting.

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Will the Minister tell us whether the closures will affect any Marks & Spencer hospital branches? If she is meeting the company, will she raise the scandal of the higher prices in these shops than in high street shops? When I met the company over two years ago, it flatly refused to match the promise of WHSmith by ending premium prices in hospitals. I hope that the Minister agrees that this is absolutely exploitative and must stop.

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The hon. Lady raises a fantastic point. We were all so shocked to see that practice; it seemed to be a terrible example of predatory pricing. My understanding is that no hospital shops are closing, but I will certainly ensure that the issue is raised by the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths). This practice must end.

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Regrettably, Marks & Spencer chose to leave Rugby town centre a couple of years ago, but the good news is that it relocated to a much larger edge-of-town site at Elliot’s Field and is able to offer a much more extensive range. Does the Minister agree that this announcement means that it is important for retailers to work with developers and local authorities to continue to enhance and improve the retail experience?

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I absolutely do. The work that so many do on an unsung basis in our neighbourhood planning process should take into account these issues: how do we create vibrant centres where people want to live, work and travel to, and which mean we have a very vibrant high street sector? If you will indulge me for one minute, Mr Speaker, Marks & Spencer has been a leading company in its drive for zero-emissions activity. It was one of the first companies in the sector to set up such a plan. It has done amazing work with its supply chain and stores to reduce carbon emissions and sell sustainable products. I really do applaud it for that.

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This is a very worrying time for Marks & Spencer’s employees. I was therefore very pleased to be able to support my excellent store in Sutton by buying this suit there a month or so ago. While I agree with the Minister that people’s purchasing habits are changing, does she agree that inevitably, the report from Mark Carney that household incomes are now £900 lower than had been predicted before the EU referendum will have had an impact on Marks & Spencer? Does she also agree that if “max fac” is introduced, a £32.50 charge for every shipment, given that Marks & Spencer operates in 23 out of 28 EU countries, will also have a significant impact on it and the retail business generally?

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I am not going to comment on hypotheticals, both pre and post Brexit, in terms of the impact on the economy. However, the right hon. Gentleman points out the absolute requirement both to satisfy the referendum result, in terms of leaving the European Union, and to ensure that we have as close and as frictionless a trading relationship as possible, so that we do not see food prices or the prices of goods and services going up for these very integrated operators in the UK.

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I commend the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for raising the issue of accessibility to the high street. I have witnessed the closure of shops in the high streets in my constituency and the movement away from high streets towards out-of-town parks, and I think we should try to stop that.

Companies in my constituency are paying some of the highest business rates in Europe, and, obviously, Scotland’s business growth is below that of the rest of the United Kingdom. May I ask the Minister to work with me and with other colleagues—on a cross-party basis, if needs be—and with the devolved Administrations to increase business growth in Scotland, so that we can at least match the rest of the United Kingdom?

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Absolutely.

My hon. Friend referred to disability access, and I think we still need to do more about that. We must bear in mind that it is not enough for companies simply to relocate out of town if people need cars or some other form of transport to get there.

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High streets throughout the country will be the poorer for this decision. Retail closures are coming thick and fast now. May I press the Minister on one point? When will we see a change in VAT rules that will help our local shops?

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As my hon. Friend—for he is a friend—knows, it is an unwise Minister who pre-empts a Treasury announcement, so I will not be tempted. But I think that we should focus on the fact that through such actions we can end up with a thriving great British company that is able to compete in the 21st century and to maintain its stores. We have seen too many great British names go under, partly because their managements did not make the right decisions and did not think enough about their staff in the long term.

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I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for securing the urgent question. The closure of the store in East Kilbride will also affect communities in my constituency such as Waterfoot and Eaglesham, where some of its staff live.

One of the problems with high street policy is that it involves a complicated mix of local government, devolved government and Westminster government, with often competing priorities. Will the industrial strategy present an opportunity for some combined thinking, so that we can develop good national policies that will ensure that our high streets can thrive?

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My hon. Friend has made clear exactly why the industrial strategy—which, as I have said, sounds a bit “smokestacky”—is actually focused on industries such as retail and hospitality, in which we know we must increase productivity and in which so many hundreds of thousands of staff, many of them women, are employed. That is why the sector council was set up. It has existed for only six weeks, but it has already had several very productive sessions. Ultimately, this is why the move to local industrial strategies, working with local enterprise partnerships and devolved Administrations—[Interruption.] Goodness me. Members are very shouty across the Chamber today. We have already had a discussion about politeness.

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As I said a few moments ago, there is too much shouting between Conservative Back Benchers and members of the Scottish National party. The Minister must be heard. If Members want to squabble, they should not squabble when a Minister, a shadow Minister or anyone else is on his or her feet. Let us hear the answers.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will endeavour to be brief.

It is vital for us to develop the national industrial strategy and to make it local, ensuring that mayors, devolved Administrations, local councils and local enterprise partnerships are involved in these decisions.

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As we know, the retail sector predominantly employs women. What can the Government do to support them during this process and to ensure that they are not disproportionately affected by the closures?

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The hon. Gentleman is right—retail is very much a female employment sector, often because women are working part time—but he and I should celebrate the fact that there are more women in work than at any time since records began and that the gender pay gap is at its lowest-ever level.

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The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) made some very valid points, but let us be clear about one thing: M&S is changing its business model in response to changing customer needs, behaviour and desires, and it has survived since 1884 precisely because it continues to do that. Revenues are up—let us not paint a picture of gloom and doom—but profits are challenged, so what is happening is perfectly fair and reasonable. Does the Minister agree that we must ensure that there is a level playing field between online and offline on the high street?

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Does the Minister—for whom I have the greatest respect—accept that small towns have been hardest hit by these and previous closures and that central and local government policy is partly responsible? In Accrington, for example, hundreds of jobs have been lost, either as a result of council redundancies or because the Government have relocated public services to bigger towns or cities. Hundreds of well-paid workers have been taken out of town centres, and that has affected retailers such as Marks & Spencer.

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Our two constituencies share similar characteristics. There is a very complex mix. People’s working and commuting patterns are changing, and their mobility is different. The hon. Gentleman has his brand-new trains coming, which might encourage more people to out-commute from the market towns. There is a complex series of problems, and they cannot all be solved in Westminster; they need national Governments, local governments, local economic partnerships and industry working together, and the great thing about the industrial strategy is that it is the first time that I can remember that industry and the Government have sat down and defined what they need to do to drive up their productivity, to make sure there are good jobs in these sectors, both in central towns and smaller towns for the future.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in the internet age, car parking charges in town centres make it more difficult for retailers both large and small and that local authorities might wish to reconsider them?

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As my hon. Friend knows, that is a difficult issue because local authorities rely on that revenue stream to fund other services, including buses in my constituency, and that is why the localisation of the rates, allowing local authorities to have more revenue from driving up activity in the high street and therefore rates revenue from the high streets, cannot come soon enough.

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I thank the Minister for her response to the urgent question. What consideration has been given to possible management and staff takeovers—such as by establishing co-operatives—of individual shops marked for closure? What discussions has the Minister had with Marks & Sparks in relation to that, and what help can the Minister and the Government give to help that happen?

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There has been close contact with Marks & Spencer at Government level to understand what is happening. There is also now a period of serious consultation between the company, unions and staff affected in those stores to make sure there is the best possible outcome for all.

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Kettering’s Marks & Spencer shop is one of the 14 whose closure has been announced, and this is very bad news for local shoppers in Kettering who use the store and in particular for the 58 employees. The decision is even more bemusing given that Kettering sits in one of the fastest growing areas in the UK, with new houses going up all the time and the population increasing at a rapid rate. Will the Minister ensure that large retailers like Marks & Spencer are fully apprised of housing growth plans, because they might be making their decisions on incorrect information?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point and I will certainly make sure the Department ensures those pieces of information are shared, and of course a consultation is now under way—that was announced yesterday—with the stores affected and there might be new pieces of information that have not been thought about that should be used.

Business of the House

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Will the Leader of the House give us the forthcoming business?

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The business for the week commencing 4 June will include:

Monday 4 June—Second Reading of the Ivory Bill.

Tuesday 5 June—Second Reading of the Non-Domestic Rating (Nursery Grounds) Bill, followed by general debate on NATO.

Wednesday 6 June—There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 7 June—Debate on a motion on ending tuberculosis followed by general debate on early elections, human rights and the political situation in Turkey. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 8 June—The House will not be sitting.

I am delighted to announce that the Ivory Bill will have its Second Reading on the first day back after recess. When I was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, protecting the world’s much loved elephants was a big priority for me, and I am sure many will share this enthusiasm and welcome the introduction of this Bill.

With regards to important Brexit legislation, I am confident I will be able to update the House on these Bills shortly, in the usual way. I will make sure the House can make swift progress in a matter of weeks, not months, in preparing for our new relationship with our friends and neighbours in the EU.

This week we have heard incredibly moving accounts given by courageous survivors and their families at the Grenfell inquiry. We are committed to getting to the bottom of this tragedy and achieving justice for the victims.

This week has also marked a year since the Manchester Arena terrorist attack. The attack on innocent and vulnerable people was appalling and we stand with them in our determination to never let terrorism succeed.

Finally, may I take this opportunity to wish everyone a restful Whitsun recess?

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May I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the forthcoming business and for her statement? I say to her gently, however, that by making a statement she eats into the time for right hon. and hon. Members to ask questions, so perhaps she should provide statements at the end, when she is the last person to speak.

The forthcoming business is very light and no Lords amendments are expected for when the House next sits—[Interruption.] I will take longer if Government Members keep chuntering. Will the Leader of the House confirm what the Government Chief Whip said to the 1922 committee, namely that the European Union (Withdrawal Bill) will be back on 11 June? It seems that the respected journalist Faisal Islam is announcing House business: he has tweeted about the withdrawal Bill, the trade Bill and the customs Bill, and that there will be a debate on 11 June. Will the Leader of the House confirm whether he is the new virtual Leader of the House? Will the trade Bill and customs Bill, which should by now have passed Report stage and Third Reading, be debated on 11 June? I am asking the Leader of the House rather than Faisal Islam. Will she confirm whether any of the Bills relating to Europe will be debated in this place—she obviously cannot talk about the other place—before the European Council meeting scheduled for 28 and 29 June?

It is unprecedented to treat Parliament in this way, with business being announced in the media, not in the House. Surely Democratic Unionist party Members do not want to prop up a Government who treat Parliament in such a way—short-termist, limping from one week to the next.

Brexit is so important. We need to take time to consider the proposals, in the best interests of the country. However, yesterday’s session of the Treasury Committee heard that the Government still have not worked out the customs arrangements. It is no wonder that the Tory party has to have a loyalty scheme to try to attract young people. This is about the interests of young people and the future of this country.

Where are the hon. Members for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and for Stone (Sir William Cash)?

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I’m here!

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They have been calling for parliamentary sovereignty, but why have we not heard in this House when we will debate the Bills? [Interruption.] I will take longer.

What about a debate on the fact that the number of French, Belgian and Dutch companies registered 48%, 38% and 52% fewer businesses respectively in 2016-17 than in the previous year, and that there was a 90% collapse in foreign investment in the UK last year compared with 2016?

If the Government are too afraid to debate any Bill with the letters “EU” in it, how about heeding the words of the Prime Minister:

“to make Britain a country that works for everyone and not just the privileged few”;

or, to put it the other way—the way we put it—for the many, not the few? Perhaps, therefore, we could have a debate on the report by Professor Peter Dwyer of the University York, who tracked claimants over five years and said:

“The outcomes from sanctions are almost universally negative.”

Or what about a debate on the social injustice of the growing number of homeless people being fined, given criminal convictions or even being imprisoned? A judge said:

“I will be sending a man to prison for asking for food when he was hungry”.

Or what about a debate on “Still Dying on the Inside”, a report by the charity Inquest? Most women who go to prison—84% of them—do so for non-violent offences, and two thirds of women in prison are mothers of dependent children. Where is the Government’s commitment to social justice?

And what about the head of Motability, whose salary is more than 10 times that of the Prime Minister? He can afford to buy a top of the range car, but I have had to write to him about constituents who have had their cars taken away, and some of them cannot even walk while waiting for their assessments. He has had support from the Government through tax breaks.

We have had the chaotic situation of the Government standing to support the Opposition in the application made by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) for an emergency Standing Order No. 24 debate on his constituency boundaries Bill, when all that was needed was a money resolution. The hon. Member for North East Somerset said that the quote I gave from “Erskine May” did not apply to private Members’ Bills, but I have taken advice and found that it applies both to Government Bills and to private Members’ Bills. Indeed, the Standing Orders that he himself mentioned apply to both.

I want to raise another House matter, raised last week by the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), about the post office counter in Members’ Lobby. Will the Leader of the House use her best offices to talk to the Chair of the Administration Committee to ensure that Members are consulted about the closure of that counter, because they have not been. It is very useful to have it there, particularly if there are queues in Central Lobby.

Finally, will the Leader of the House confirm, following the wonderful wedding last week and the performance by the gospel choir, that the Prime Minister is now singing that Ben E. King classic, “Stand by Me”? I, too, wish everyone a happy Whitsun break.

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“Dear Pot… Yours, Kettle” springs to mind. The hon. Lady asked me to be swifter in making the business statement and then said that she would waffle on for ever—and she did.

The hon. Lady asks about the business that was discussed, and I made it very clear that I aim to bring back the very important Brexit legislation within weeks. She will know that in this place discussions take place and the business is announced through very long-standing conventions through the usual channels, and that is indeed the case on this occasion. There has been no announcement to any committee through any private meeting. There has not been any announcement.

Secondly, the hon. Lady asks about the customs arrangements, and she will be aware that the discussions are ongoing. The Government have been very clear that we are seeking the best possible deal for the United Kingdom and for our EU friends and neighbours as we leave the European Union. That we will continue to do. It means that we are constantly considering the best alternatives with the best information that is available at the time. We will continue to do that, because, rather than playing politics with it, trying to score points day in, day out and undermining the will of the people, the Government are determined to ensure that we get the best possible deal that we can.

The hon. Lady asks about the economy, and she suggests that it is struggling, so she might like to welcome the fact that employment is up to another record high, unemployment is down to a 40-year low, real wages are rising, and UK exports rose by nearly 10% in the last year to a new record high. She might like to welcome the fact that the highest growth in investment spending in the G7 last year came to the United Kingdom. She might like to welcome the fact that our day-to-day spending is in surplus for the first time in 16 years, and certainly since her Government were in power in 2001 and 2002. She might also like to welcome the lowest net borrowing in over a decade. I am sure that she will not welcome any of those things, but what we on this side of the House focus on is giving more people the security of a job and a pay packet to give themselves and their families a better life.

Also, the hon. Lady talks about inequality and how unfair life is, and she might like to welcome the national living wage, introduced by this Government. Last month, we increased the national living wage by 4.4%—inflation busting and the equivalent of an annual pay rise of more than £2,000 for a full-time worker since its introduction. She might like to welcome the fact that basic rate taxpayers are £1,000 better off than in 2010 as a direct result of our changes to the personal tax-free allowance. She might also like to welcome the fact that the basic state pension is now more than £1,450 a year higher than it was in 2010. But as I say, I do not expect the hon. Lady to welcome the real improvements in people’s lives under a Conservative Government that balances the need to keep the economy in good shape with the ability to pay for public services.

The hon. Lady asks about the legislative programme. What I can say to her is that 31 Bills have been introduced so far, 17 of which have been sent for Royal Assent. Hundreds of statutory instruments have been passed by each House. Seven draft Bills have been published and there are six Brexit Bills before Parliament at this time. That is not by any means a small legislative programme. Perhaps the hon. Lady simply has not noticed.

As for the post office counter, as I said last week to my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), I am delighted to take up the issue of the its opening times. I have already asked the chief executive of the House authorities to respond to Members who want to raise the issue and to ensure that when services to Members are under question, consultation takes place with all Members. I hope that I have answered all the hon. Lady’s lengthy questions.

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May we have a debate on how the independent complaints procedure for this House is progressing?

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My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that Members continue to work very hard cross-party on building an independent complaints procedure that will genuinely change the culture in this place for the better, making sure that everybody, right across the Palace of Westminster—whoever they are and whatever job they do—will be treated with the courtesy, dignity and respect which is their due.

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I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for the next sitting week. I very much endorse and support her comments on Manchester and Grenfell.

This has been the week in which clueless fantasy finally caught up with hard reality, as we have found that the Government’s “unicorn and rainbow” technological solution to the border in Ireland will cost £20 billion— £7 billion more than we paid into the EU in 2016—and the leave guru Dominic Cummings has said that the

“wiring of power in Downing Street is systemically dysfunctional”

and that there are no “real preparations” for leaving the EU. May we have a proper, realistic statement on where we are with Brexit, free of any of the delusional fantasy we are usually served up? Can we have a sense of how much this chaotic cluelessness will cost us?

There is nothing in the business statement about the return of the repeal Bill from the House of Lords. When should we expect to see the Bill? Can we have a categorical assurance that the Leader of the House will not simply lump all the Lords amendments together into one package to try to curtail debate and voting? These are important measures that we have to consider probably for the first time. Can we have a categorical assurance that this Government will not revert to type and try to close down debate, scrutiny and votes?

Yesterday was quite encouraging: we had two votes on Opposition motions. We are now seeing a little more Government engagement with Opposition day debates, which is all down to the threat of withdrawing ministerial salaries and releasing Cabinet papers, but can we not just go back to where we were, when the Opposition tabled motions for debate and then the House voted? Why do we have to go through all this rigmarole just to get this Government to vote?

Lastly, Mr Speaker, I wish you and all the staff of the House a very happy and relaxing Whitsun recess. We all look forward to coming back for a proper debate on the Lords amendments to the repeal Bill.

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I always enjoy the hon. Gentleman’s passion for these matters, which is extremely welcome. I am sure he will have listened very carefully when I said we will be bringing the withdrawal Bill back to this place within weeks, certainly soon after the short Whitsun recess, and of course we will debate the Bill at length, as we have done all the way through its passage. As a very honourable gentleman, I am sure he would recognise that this House and the other place have debated the Bill, and all Brexit and non-Brexit legislation, at enormous length.

The Government have clearly been listening—there has been a huge amount of change to those Bills—and we will continue to do so. The withdrawal Bill is now in a much better place than it was. We have listened very carefully to all views on both sides of the Chamber, and we will continue to do so. I urge the hon. Gentleman to accept the fact that this business must be carried out in a carefully considered way, but it will be brought back as soon as possible.

The hon. Gentleman asks for more votes, and I encourage all hon. Members to seek controversy wherever possible—that is what leads to votes. It is a great pleasure for the Government when the Opposition choose to support their legislation, as the Opposition have in many Second Reading debates—it supports the narrative that we are all working together to make this country a better place. Voting is not necessarily, of itself, a good thing. It is when there is controversy, when we disagree, that we need to vote. Voting is not the be-all and end-all in this place, and there is a lot to be said for making progress on important business such as the Tenant Fees Bill, the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill, counter-terrorism legislation and so on, on which we can all agree. That is what people want to see this Parliament doing, and I am proud to say we often do that.

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Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the restoration of the much loved, at least by me, traditional Easter, Whitsun, Summer and Christmas Adjournment debates? If these debates were held in future in Government time, for a full day on the last day before we rise, it would give colleagues the certainty that they would have the opportunity to raise issues of local and national importance.

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My hon. Friend is a much loved attendee of the pre-recess Adjournment debate. His interventions on topics such as phone scams, endometriosis and, of course, the city status of Southend are vital. We must always take every opportunity to welcome all of his interventions about Southend and its long-serving elected representatives, and I am sure the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee will give great consideration to my hon. Friend’s representations.

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With reference to the earlier exchanges on Marks & Spencer, and to assuage your undoubted curiosity, Mr Speaker: boxer shorts and socks.

You will have noted from the Order Paper that there are two Select Committee statements this afternoon, and this device is becoming increasingly popular. We have had five applications for Select Committee statements today, but we need to limit them because they do impinge on the debates on important issues to be aired in the afternoon. The Great Exhibition of the North, which Members know I witter on about a lot, will begin four weeks tomorrow, on 22 June. People travelling to Newcastle and Gateshead from other parts of the three northern regions will be depending on TransPennine Express, CrossCountry, trains on the east coast line and Northern rail to get them there. Let us hope that the Government, with those franchise holders, will make sure that those trains are running much more efficiently than they currently are, in order to get people to and from the Great Exhibition of the North in Newcastle and Gateshead. It is vital to the success of that venture that people can actually get between Newcastle and Gateshead from the three northern regions.

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In response to the hon. Gentleman’s mention of Marks & Spencer and boxer shorts, I am tempted to say “knickers”, but I am not sure whether you would rule it out of order, Mr Speaker. So, moving swiftly on, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on finding the opportunity again to mention the Great Exhibition of the North and I wish him huge success with it. I absolutely share his desire to see many people attend it and make it a great success.

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Mindful of today’s urgent question, Members from across the House will be alarmed at the prospect of a merger between giant supermarkets Sainsbury’s and Asda. Such a merger would disadvantage their suppliers—the farmers, growers and food firms in my constituency and elsewhere—and consumers, as choice would be reduced. T. S. Eliot said:

“Footfalls echo in the memory”.

The footfall in our towns and cities will be a distant memory if these corporate giants are allowed to dominate and snuff out the particularity and variety of independent traders, so will the Leader of the House ask my dear friend the Business Secretary to come here to tell us what he and the Competition and Markets Authority intend to do to stop this worst kind of virtual monopoly, crony capitalism? There can be a different kind of Britain, but only if the Government and this Parliament fight for it.

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My right hon. Friend is raising a very important point. People have different views on the benefits or otherwise of a merger of this type, but I know we are all keen to see thriving high streets and decent choice, as well as value for money, when it comes to supermarkets. He will be aware that Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions will take place on 12 June, and I suggest that he takes this matter up directly with Ministers then.

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I was delighted last year when the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs adopted my private Member’s Bill on animal cruelty and announced at his party conference that he would be increasing the maximum sentence for animal cruelty from six months to five years. The draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill was published in December and the consultation closed in January, but we have had absolutely nothing since. My constituents, who have witnessed some horrific incidents of animal cruelty, and many campaigners all around the country are desperate to know: where on earth is the Bill?

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First, may I congratulate the hon. Lady on her work on this issue? It is vital that we do more to protect animals from cruelty. She will be aware that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made statements about his intention to introduce a Bill in due course. I cannot give her specific information on that, but the next DEFRA questions is on Thursday 7 June, when she might like to take up the matter with Ministers.

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May we have a debate on wasting police time? There has been a great deal of it about recently.

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I am not sure of the specific context in which my right hon. Friend raises this point, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department certainly made a great point yesterday of appreciating the police for all the amazing work that they do. We all owe them a great debt of gratitude. It was good to see him setting a new tone with the police—one in which we are going to look to work very carefully with them on solving some of the big challenges that we face as a society.

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Recent estimates are that every year in the UK more than 15,000 babies are born damaged by alcohol consumed during pregnancy, condemning them to lifelong difficulties. Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, for example, has been found to affect more than 50% of those in prison; that is just one tragic manifestation of its scourges. Will the Leader of the House press the case with her Government colleagues for comprehensive legislation to address this appalling blight on the lives of so many thousands of our citizens—both to prevent its occurrence and to provide proper care and support for FASD sufferers?

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise what is a harrowing situation for so many babies and their parents. Foetal alcohol syndrome is appalling and absolutely shocking, and the fact that it affects so many babies is really terrible. In the first instance, I encourage the hon. Gentleman to seek an Adjournment debate so that he can share his views directly with Ministers.

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Speeding cyclists on rural roads in the New Forest are putting residents and other pedestrians at risk, simply because they cannot be bothered to fit a bell on their bikes so that they can warn pedestrians of their approach. When I wrote to a Transport Minister about this issue 18 months ago, he replied:

“Through rule 66 of the Highway code we recommend that a bell is fitted to a bicycle and used as necessary. Under current regulations the cyclist is not compelled to keep the bell fitted after the bicycle has been purchased. We have no plans to make bells compulsory as this would be difficult to enforce.”

May we have a statement from the Government about that rather insipid reply, so that my constituents, such as Margaret Verdon JP, can go about their business without fear of being mown down by silent road cyclists?

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I might be tempted to say that this is a bit of a ding-dong, but the issue of cycling and its danger to pedestrians is very real. I have had an appalling case in which the child of constituents of mine was killed by a cyclist who had mounted the pavement. It is a very serious issue and I sincerely encourage my hon. Friend to seek an Adjournment debate; although there is an amusing element, the issue has had severe consequences in some cases.

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As the Leader of the House has advised us that Brexit Bills will come before the House in the coming weeks, I am of the view that that may mean in June, so will she please advise as to where we are on the introduction of proxy voting?

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I believe the hon. Lady is referring to the proposal for proxy voting while on baby leave. I was pleased to see the Procedure Committee report on the sorts of considerations that it felt, having taken evidence, we would need to bear in mind were the House minded to introduce proxy voting. The shadow Leader of the House and I met just this week and discussed this issue. We agreed that we would both seek views, through the usual channels, on how best to proceed. I absolutely assure all right hon. and hon. Members that I mean to make swift progress on the matter.

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My constituents and I value our accident and emergency at Cheltenham General Hospital and we want to see 24/7 services restored, but despite my having put in for Adjournment and Westminster Hall debates for many months to ventilate the issue of recruitment pressures, which is sometimes advanced, no debate has been provided. Does my right hon. Friend have any advice on how I might get this important issue before the House?

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My hon. Friend has been assiduous in raising this issue. He has, in fact, raised it with me on a number of occasions and, indeed, in the House. He will be aware that there have been a number of opportunities to debate health matters more generally, including in yesterday’s Opposition day debate, and there is always the possibility of the next Health questions. Nevertheless, he will need to look to you, Mr Speaker, for an Adjournment debate should he wish to put the issues for his constituents more directly to Ministers.

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Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 1267 in the name of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)? It marks Dementia Awareness Week.

[That this House supports Dementia Awareness Week which runs from 21 to 28 May 2018; thanks all of the charities which work to support dementia patients and their families and who raise awareness; recognises the hard work and endeavours that they make to bring about a change to the quality of life with their families; and calls on the Government to assist and support research and development to find a cure for those with dementia.]

There is hardly a family in the country that is not touched by this terrible illness. Might we give consideration to having an annual debate on the subject?

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The hon. Gentleman raises an incredibly important point. He may be aware that this week, in fact, Cabinet Members received training on dementia awareness and how to behave in a more helpful way to those with dementia. He is absolutely right that there are so many people suffering from this awful disease now. As the chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society explained to us, what is very important is to help people to live well with dementia.

I encourage all right hon. and hon. Members to seek dementia-awareness training so that we can all contribute. In response to his specific request for a debate, perhaps the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee might look favourably on something cross-party so that we can all share ideas on this subject.

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The shadow Leader of the House was a little bit grumpy this morning, which is very unusual for her. To suggest that I have not been banging on about parliamentary sovereignty is a little unfair. The excellent Leader of the House also bangs on for the House with the Government, and she does that very well. The Opposition have asked for time to debate the amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. I wholeheartedly support that. Shall we test the sincerity of the Opposition by removing the moment of interruption from the debate, so that we can talk all through the night if we want to?

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I am grateful, of course, to my hon. Friend for his support for careful debate of all matters pertaining to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. I assure him that we will indeed be giving plenty of time to this place to be able to debate the amendments when the Bill comes back to this House, which, as I have said, will be in the next few weeks.

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Will the Leader of the House confirm whether there will be an opportunity—before the business announced by Faisal Islam on 11 June—for a debate on the increasing risk of no deal, the £900 drop in household incomes to which Mr Mark Carney referred, the difficulty in securing a trade deal with a protectionist United States and the importance of securing a final say on the deal?

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I will not bother with most of the assertions of the right hon. Gentleman, which are simply wrong. The one assertion that I will bother with, because it is very important, is that Faisal Islam does not announce the business of this House. The business of the House has not been announced by anyone at all; it is announced by me on a Thursday.

I have given assurances to the House that I will announce the business and that the withdrawal Bill will come back to this place in the next few weeks. Hon. Members who actually care about the scheduling of complex and competing demands for time in this Chamber will realise that, actually, precise scheduling requires great care and attention and that urgent things do crop up from time to time. Nevertheless, I have given an undertaking: the EU (Withdrawal) Bill will be back in this place within weeks. Nobody has announced anything else to anybody else.

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There have been many comments about Brexit legislation coming back to this place. May I put in a plea from my constituents who have been asking me, “When are we getting on with this legislation?” They are saying that they want it to come before us as soon as possible. I am pleased that the speculation says that it will be next month, because, as 58% of local voters in my constituency voted for Brexit, they want me to get on with voting down those Lords amendments that came from the unelected place.

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I completely agree with my hon. Friend; he is right to mention many of our constituents’ desire to see us getting on with putting the EU withdrawal Bill into a position whereby we can leave the European Union with a good, strong, free and fair relationship with our EU friends and neighbours. That is exactly what the Government are focused on, and I absolutely assure him that we are getting on with it.

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Can we have a debate about absolutely anything—it does not matter what—as long as we actually have a proper vote at the end of it that tests the Government’s position? The only votes that we are having at the moment are those proposed by the Opposition, and the Government are running scared of those as well. If the Government are too divided or too frit to push through a legislative programme, do they fancy getting off the pot and letting somebody else have a go?

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What a completely extraordinary thing for the hon. Gentleman to say! We had two votes yesterday, and the Government won both. As I explained to the shadow Leader of the House, the Government have put forward a huge number of Bills; 17 have already gone for Royal Assent. If the Opposition choose not to vote on them—or, indeed, if we vote on them and the Government win—these are the normal processes of government. Things are proceeding apace. It is extraordinary for the hon. Gentleman to suggest otherwise.

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Please can we have a debate on the positive impact of business on local communities? In addition to the economic benefits, there are social benefits, which I have seen locally given that so many businesses in Harrogate and Knaresborough are putting something back, including Harrogate Water’s work with the Keep Britain Tidy campaign. I have also seen it nationally, as charities such as Business in the Community work with so many companies. If we have a debate, we can discuss how businesses and communities are much stronger together.

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I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that business can have a hugely positive impact on the local community. I am aware that Harrogate Water is doing exactly that with Keep Britain Tidy. I am particularly pleased to hear about the company’s work in cutting plastic waste, which my hon. Friend knows the Government are determined to tackle. The Government have been supporting the creation of community business through the £1.8 million Bright Ideas Fund, which aims to create a national network of 80 or more enterprising, community-led organisations.

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The fourth report of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, published at the end of April 2017, gave the Government until the end of last year to engage with Libya to negotiate compensation for UK victims of IRA bombs that used Gaddafi-supplied Semtex or to initiate a domestic solution. Can we have a statement from the Foreign Office outlining what progress has been made?

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The hon. Gentleman will obviously want to raise that matter at the next Foreign Office questions. If he would like me to pursue something that he had the expectation of having already received, he can write to me after business questions and I will take it up with the Foreign Office on his behalf.

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Research recently carried out in Wales has found that the introduction of fines for parents who take their children out of school for a family holiday has had no impact whatever on the level of school truancy, yet this policy continues to damage the tourist industry, is unfair on those who work in tourism, and often damages the relationship between families and schools. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement from the Secretary of State for Education reviewing this policy across England and considering whether it is time to drop this policy?

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My hon. Friend is quite right to raise this matter, which I know he cares deeply about. It is a priority to reduce overall school absence as part of the Government’s ambition to create a world-class education system. In 2013 the Government amended legislation so that a leave of absence could be authorised by maintained schools in exceptional circumstances. I encourage my hon. Friend to seek an Adjournment debate or perhaps a Westminster Hall debate to discuss this issue in more detail, because I am sure that many Members will want to discuss the research that he cited in his question.

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New research by the York Health Economics Consortium has found that scrapping prescription charges for people with Parkinson’s and inflammatory bowel disease will save the NHS more than £20 million a year. Can the Leader of the House please ask Health Ministers to meet representatives of the Prescription Charges Coalition to discuss this important information?

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The hon. Lady raises a very important point. She will be aware that there are a number of exemptions for prescription charges for different diseases. She may well want to raise this at the next oral Health questions or to seek an Adjournment debate so that she can take it up directly with Ministers.

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On the back of my weekly surgery last Friday, may we have a debate in Government time on the mindset that leads people to fly-tip and litter? I personally cannot get my head around it, and I think that Members in this House and beyond would appreciate an opportunity to debate it, not least because we waste over £1 billion a year on cleaning this up that could be better spent on our public services.

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I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is absolutely amazing that people who fly-tip seem to care not at all for the impact of their behaviour. Right across the country, in all opinion polls on what people care about, littering and fly-tipping are right up there among the areas that bother them the most. I certainly share his concern about this, and I encourage him to raise it at DEFRA questions on 7 June to see what more can be done about it.

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I have been contacted by many constituents who have experienced issues when applying for 30 hours’ free childcare, and have experienced problems with this myself. Further, nurseries in my constituency are facing closure due to inadequate funding of the scheme. When can we have a debate about this supposed flagship Government policy, which is clearly not fit for purpose?

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I am genuinely surprised that the hon. Lady raises this as a problem. She will be aware that we are spending about £6 billion every year on childcare support by 2020—a record amount of support—and investing £1 billion a year to deliver 30 hours of free childcare to needy children, with over 290,000 children benefiting from that last term. If she wants to raise this at Education questions, that would be very welcome, but no previous Government have done more than this one to help families deal with the cost of childcare.

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Rugby is delivering new houses, with work under way on 16 sites, including in Houlton, where 6,200 new homes will be provided. This is all adding to demand for local health services. While a number of new facilities, including orthopaedic services, have recently opened at our local Hospital of St Cross, the majority of patients have to make a journey to University Hospital Coventry. May we have a debate on how health services can be expanded and developed as a local population increases?

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My hon. Friend raises a very important matter that affects all of us where we have expanding populations in our areas. He will be aware that clinical commissioning groups are responsible for the planning and commissioning of healthcare services for their local area, including the commissioning of hospitals. Where the local population expands over the course of a year, that is factored into the allocation formula so that the funding is adjusted as a result. The clinical commissioning group should then be providing sufficient services to meet the needs of the local population. If he wants to discuss the specific needs in his area, he should seek an Adjournment debate so that he can raise it directly with Health Ministers.

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May we have an important debate on regeneration plans for new towns? We could have something similar to a city deal specifically to address the needs of new towns. Since the closure of development corporations, focus on our new towns has diminished. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on new towns, I feel that regeneration funding is needed for my constituency but also for new towns right across the United Kingdom.

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I am pleased that the hon. Lady has raised this issue. Of course, we are all supportive across this place of the need for new housing for everybody to be able to have a home of their own. That does mean new building, and, in some cases, new towns. It is therefore absolutely right that we provide the right levels of infrastructure and development to meet the needs of those new communities. I encourage her to seek an Adjournment debate so that she can raise the specifics of the new town proposed in her area.

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The debacle over business rates and who has responsibility for them continues. I have been able to establish that both the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Treasury have responsibility, yet neither seems to have responsibility for the review promised in the 2017 Budget. Can we have a debate about business rates and how they are seriously damaging our high streets at the moment?

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I am sympathetic with the hon. Lady. We are all aware of cases in our constituencies of business rates proving extremely difficult for local high street shops, retailers, pubs and so on. It is very challenging. She will be aware that a significant number of measures have been put in place to try to relieve the burden of business rates, but I encourage her to seek a Backbench Business debate so that all Members can share their views and experiences.

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Further to the earlier exchanges in Transport questions on disabled access to stations and safety at Lewisham station, I have been contacted by my constituent Caroline Walsh. She is a disabled person who uses a wheelchair, and she wants to invite the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson) to join her on the peak-time journey that she will have to undertake once the new franchise comes in and she is forced to change at Lewisham. Can we have a debate in Government time on disabled access to our railway services?

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I hope that the hon. Gentleman took the opportunity to raise that at Transport questions, which preceded this. He raises a significant and important point. We are all used to feeling like sheep when we jump on a commuter train. That can be very difficult for people who have disabilities, and where access is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them, that is unacceptable. I encourage him to seek a debate, perhaps in Westminster Hall, so that he can raise that issue directly with Ministers, who I know are focused on alleviating the problem, and share his views on what more can be done.

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Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating the pupils at Chorlton High School in my constituency on their Incorporated Society of Musicians Trust for excellent GCSE results? I am regularly contacted by parents who are worried about the narrowing of the school curriculum, and particularly the squeezing out of creative subjects. Can we have a debate in Government time on creativity in the school curriculum?

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I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating the school in his constituency. It is always great to hear and so motivating for young people when a school receives an award for the excellence of its results. We should all celebrate that. He is right to talk about the need to promote creativity. The United Kingdom produces extraordinarily creative industries, and it is important that young people are encouraged to take part and to create their own abilities in this area. He might like to seek an Adjournment debate, so that he can raise directly with Ministers what more can be done.

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The Department for Work and Pensions recently announced the closure of its offices in Merthyr Tydfil, which will have a massively serious impact on the town centre economy. That is also happening in other areas of Wales and the UK. Can we have a debate on the Government policy of removing jobs where more jobs are needed, not fewer, so that the Government can understand the implications of their actions for town centres such as the one in my constituency?