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Commons Chamber

Volume 649: debated on Thursday 22 November 2018

House of Commons

Thursday 22 November 2018

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Train Services in the North

1. What steps he is taking to increase the (a) reliability and (b) number of train services in the north. (907763)

We are now running significantly more services on Northern than we were prior to May, but I am aware that there are continuing performance issues, particularly this month. In September, with Transport for the North, which jointly manages this franchise with my Department, I appointed leading industry figure Richard George to co-ordinate the efforts of the train operators and Network Rail to improve the reliability of services in the north. Richard is also working with industry and TfN to examine the significant increase in services which the operators committed to in December 2019. It is essential that these changes are realistic and deliverable, given the need for rail operators to provide a reliable service to passengers.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but he is showing a bit of a tin ear to the lived experience of my constituents. One of them took six hours to travel the 75 miles between Wakefield and Scarborough, which, with a good wind, I could have achieved on a bicycle in the same amount of time. Why has capital investment in the north fallen—as the Institute for Public Policy Research has shown—when the need for investment in our services has never been higher?

I would make two points. First, the IPPR keeps using misleading comparators. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority figures, which are the official figures prepared for the Government, have already shown that, per capita, the north is currently receiving and will over the coming years be receiving more expenditure per head of population than the south.

Of course, in the north—the hon. Lady’s area—the flagship programme for the next five years on rail, the trans-Pennine upgrade, is the most substantial anywhere in the country. Her constituency is also benefiting from increased services on the route to Knottingley.

I accept that there have been some real issues with the TransPennine Express on the route to Scarborough. Those are things that need to be addressed. There are performance issues that are not good enough. It is not a question of having a tin ear. We are actively working to try to improve things on a network that is delivering more services, rather than fewer, and in which substantial investment is happening. One of the frustrations is that the timetable problems in the north this year were triggered by an investment programme that was delayed.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we get a full picture of this? Will he ensure that we see what new trains were being made available in the north between 1997 and 2010, and between 2010 and let us say 2020, so that we can see the investment that is going on by the Government in the north?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point and I pay tribute to him for ensuring the investment programme that is currently taking place. The reality is that, in that decade, there were no new trains in the north and no investment: the Labour party let a standstill franchise on the northern rail network. It is this Government who are renewing every single train in the north of England and it is long overdue.

The Secretary of State goes back to the timetable changes, but currently one in four Northern trains are delayed or cancelled and nearly one in three TransPennine trains are delayed or cancelled. Is not it time that he took control and took these franchises back, so that we can have a proper rail service in the north of England?

That is precisely why I say that I am not satisfied with the current performance issues. That is why we have appointed Richard George to understand why the service is not performing adequately. It is of course hampered by the fact that some of the performance issues recently have been caused by the elderly Pacer trains, which are being phased out, starting in the coming weeks. However, we need to do everything we can and we will continue to do everything we can, in partnership with Transport for the North, to identify the ways of getting performance up. It is not simply a question of changing ownership of the franchise or control of the franchise. There is not a magic team down the corridor waiting to step in and make this work better. We have got to make it work better.

As we have heard, TransPennine passengers to and from Scarborough have had to endure a summer of delays. Indeed, because of drivers’ hours, many trains have been terminated at York, leaving passengers waiting an hour for the following service, if it is not also delayed. Although there has been some improvement, when are we likely to see a return to normality?

I absolutely sympathise with people in Scarborough. Of course, we are introducing additional services to Scarborough in the coming months, so that there will be a Northern service there as well. The work that Richard George is doing to look at why these performance issues are happening is similar to the work we did with Chris Gibb on Southern, which has led to an improvement in performance on that network, and I am absolutely clear that we have to deal with the issues that he highlights.

Let us get to the real north, which is Scotland. Overall, the Abellio ScotRail franchise is the best performing large franchisee, but 50% of delays and cancellations are attributable to Network Rail. The Secretary of State is being obstinate with us, but will he not consider devolution of Network Rail to allow the Scottish Government to take full responsibility? It would generate savings, which would also help to offset the £400 million shortfall from his Government.

The hon. Gentleman makes that argument regularly, but the devolution of Network Rail was not recommended in the report produced on devolution in Scotland. Given the SNP’s less-than-good record in running other services in Scotland, it escapes me why he thinks that devolving Network Rail would make a difference to train services in Scotland.

As usual, the Secretary of State shows his full knowledge of Scotland. He will be aware that the rail industry review panel includes Tom Harris, a former rail Minister, who has written a report that calls for the devolution of Network Rail to Scotland. I wrote a letter to the Secretary of State on 15 October but he has not responded. Will he now confirm that he has not restricted the terms of reference for the rail industry review panel, and that if they recommend devolution of Network Rail to Scotland, he will act on that?

I have not set any limits on that approach. I have asked the panel to consider the question of devolution, as well as how we can improve the workings of the railways. It is no secret that in my view we need a more joined-up railway to meet the challenges of a system that is under intense pressure. The Government are investing record amounts in infrastructure upgrades, including spending money in Scotland, and that is in addition to using the Barnett formula, which is the norm for the allocation of funds to Scotland. We have a railway that is bursting at the seams, and it needs to work better if it is to deal with the pressures on it.

Since the announcement of the northern powerhouse agenda, transport spend per person has risen by twice as much in London as it has in the north. New analysis of Treasury figures published this week shows the gap widening, with an increase in spend of £326 per person in the capital, just £146 per person in the north, and the amount even falling in Yorkshire—more than in any other region—resulting in poor reliability and capacity. Why such under-investment?

I am the Secretary of State who has planned over the next five years for 50% of the rail enhancement budget that the Government are putting in place to be spent in the north—on upgrading the east coast main line, on the trans-Pennine upgrade and on other schemes that will make a real difference. When Labour Members were in government they did none of that, so you will forgive me, Mr Speaker, if I take no lessons from the Labour party about investment in transport in the north. We are getting on with delivering it.

South Western Railway and National Rail Review

2. What steps his Department has taken to implement the recommendations of the independent review of South Western Railway and National Rail. (907765)

The South Western Railway performance review was published on 10 September 2018. It was independently chaired by Sir Michael Holden, and SWR and Network Rail are already working to implement its conclusions. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the former rail Minister met representatives from South Western Railway and the Network Rail Wessex route on 24 October to review their progress in implementing the performance review. They are on track to complete delivery of all the recommendations in that review, a number of which are already complete, and all short-term recommendations will be complete by the end of this year.

May I welcome my hon. Friend’s return to the Front Bench? Although my constituents will welcome the review, they are furious about the terrible disruption across South Western Railway on “mayhem Monday” this week, with seemingly no contingency plans and diabolical communication. Will my hon. Friend ensure that South Western Railway and Network Rail are held to account and made to learn lessons from this week’s mess, especially given the planned Network Rail engineering works this Sunday?

That incident was utterly unacceptable—there is no question about that—and I am not surprised that my hon. Friend’s constituents are furious about it. The Secretary of State spoke to Andrew Haines, chief executive of Network Rail, at 7 o’clock on Monday morning, and he made clear his dissatisfaction with the incident and demanded action. Network Rail has started an independent investigation to look at how the work was planned and delivered, and how the resulting disruption was managed. It has already made management changes, and new leadership on the Wessex route will start next week. South Western Railway also has lessons to learn, and it must review its communications with its customers. That part is critical and it failed on Monday. It must do far better.

Welcome back, but—I have had some pretty miserable experiences on that train line, but they are as nothing compared with how ghastly it must be to be rail Minister. Does my hon. Friend think that that might have contributed to his predecessor’s resignation?

That question is flawed, Mr Speaker. There is nothing ghastly at all about being the rail Minister, and I cannot understand where my right hon. Friend is coming from. I think the reasons for my predecessor’s departure are already documented elsewhere.

The Minister’s portfolio grows by the day. He previously served the House and the nation with distinction as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for buses, so from bus to rail really is an impressive CV, it has to be said. [Laughter.] Well, it is.

Train Timetable Changes

We recognise the appalling disruption that some passengers experienced following the May timetable introduction. We have to be very clear that this cannot be repeated. The final Glaister report, providing recommendations on future changes that can be made to prevent disruption at timetable changes, will be published shortly. We are also working closely with the rail industry to provide a seriously enhanced level of assurance on planned timetable changes in December 2018 and May 2019.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, contrary to the impression that he gave in this letter, the Department for Transport did have a significant role in the timetabling fiasco? In fact, according to the Office of Rail and Road interim report, the DFT’s decision to phase in the introduction of Thameslink stretched resources badly. Does he agree that one of the most damning comments in that report is that the industry placed engineering requirements ahead of serving passengers? How will he ensure that in future the DFT accepts full responsibility for its failures and the industry prioritises passengers over rails and rolling stock?

The latter point is extremely important. It is not good enough to have Network Rail too focused on engineering and not focused enough on passengers. It is one of the problems in the rail industry and why we have already started to work towards a more joined-up railway through an alliance structure. As I said with the announcement of the rail review, that is an essential part of delivering the much more substantial change that is necessary, given what happened this summer.

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that it is not just timetable changes that are important, although they have been improved on lines from London to Stafford, but the number of coaches on the trains? On the London Northwestern railway—the LNWR—we are seeing very good services, but the trains are too short, with four carriages, instead of eight. Will he have a look at that?

I will certainly have a look and the rail Minister will be happy to talk to my hon. Friend about that. We are supporting a programme of substantial investment in new rolling stock all around the country, which will benefit passengers. New coaches will be arriving on the LNWR franchise, but we could certainly have a discussion about where they are serving.

In the last timetable changes, on the midland main line, Stagecoach was forced to lengthen the journey times of peak time trains from Sheffield to London to accommodate more Thameslink commuter trains. Is it true that the Department for Transport has told Stagecoach it cannot revisit that in the next timetable changes because of the shambles last time and the nervousness that has created in the Department?

We would dispute that we have done anything to disadvantage Sheffield to help Govia Thameslink Railway. We are of course doing a massive upgrade programme on the midland main line. I pay tribute to all those involved in the recent Derby station remodelling. Many projects have gone badly wrong; that did not. It was handled very well. Further improvements are happening up and down that line, as part of the biggest modernisation programme on that route since Victorian times. That work will continue. We will do everything to make sure, if we can, that the timetable remains as intact as possible as those changes happen.

I do not wish to disappoint the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely), but he does have Question 9, which will be reached and is grouped, so it is mildly inconvenient to call him any earlier than that. We are keeping him waiting, but it will be worth waiting for, I feel sure.

Is there any advice that the Secretary of State can give to the Welsh Transport Minister? Changes to the franchise and timetable changes have resulted this week in the chief operating officer coming out with a statement saying that too many trains have been cancelled, delayed or have arrived late, with fewer carriages than normal—and that is under a Labour Government.

My hon. Friend puts his finger on the nub of the issue. The Labour party says, “If we just wave our magic wand, it will all be fine.” The reality is that we have a deeply congested railway facing big operational challenges. We are investing substantial amounts in it but—he points out the situation in Wales—there are no magic solutions anywhere in the country, under any Government.

The Secretary of State can duck and dive but the fact is that there is a lack of strategic leadership in his Department. What we found in Huddersfield is that, overnight, they cancelled the link between Huddersfield and Wakefield Westgate, so people cannot get a main line train unless they go to Leeds—and nobody in Huddersfield would want to go to Leeds at any time. The fact of the matter is that we want good strategy and policies that stop people living in chaos and not being able to get to work or go on holiday.

What the hon. Gentleman needs are policies that invest money in rail in the north to deliver—as I know is happening at his station—new trains to replace long out-of-date trains and provide more services for passengers. That is what we are aiming to do and what we are doing.

Local Roads

The Department for Transport is providing over £6.6 billion to local highway authorities in England between 2015 and 2021 to improve the condition of local roads. That includes a £296 million pothole action fund and the additional £420 million for local highways maintenance announced in Budget 2018.

Many councils now use technology to enable residents to report road-related problems. Will my hon. Friend encourage the greater use of digital apps and technology tools to make councils more accountable for the road issues in their area?

I am well aware of my hon. Friend’s interest in technology and the potential ways in which it can improve productivity. He is absolutely right, and I encourage all councils to use technology better as far as possible for residents to report road-related problems. As he will be aware, they do so in Hampshire, where the county council uses an online reporting tool, but the Department has also done work to support this, not least through assistance to Cycling UK to revamp its pothole reporting website.

I hope that the Minister will find £60 million for County Durham. In the meantime, new estates are being built without proper roads. Instead of overseeing this 21st-century squalor, will he talk to his colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to require the planning rules to be changed so that roads are built to adoptable standards?

The hon. Lady will be surprised to know that there is a housing infrastructure fund that is in part precisely designed to facilitate the relationship between road building and new housing, and of course, that is what it is doing.

It is not so much the condition of local roads but the amount of obstructions on them, from double parking to kerbside parking to parking in bus and cycle lanes. Rather than waiting for traffic management orders, which can be quite binary, to come into place, would it not be better for the Department to issue guidance on the definition of “obstruction”, so that more local authorities can deal with it in a flexible way that means that motorists are not being penalised in an unreasonable manner?

Gosh, I am going to resist the temptation to bring in the casuists to discuss the question of how obstruction is to be defined, but I direct my hon. Friend, without giving too much of a sneak preview, to the work that we have done—announced today in a written ministerial statement—on the cycling and walking safety report, which includes enforcement against parking in mandatory cycle lanes for precisely the reasons that he indicates.

This week is Road Safety Week, yet investment on minor roads has fallen by 40% since 2010 and the number of potholes is rapidly increasing, leaving 17% of local roads in England in poor condition, according to the Asphalt Industry Alliance. The Department’s own figures show that there have been 13 deaths and 192 cyclists seriously injured since 2010 on roads that have a defective road surface. In this week of all weeks, how can the Government defend their record on maintaining local roads?

I am not sure where to begin with that. If the hon. Gentleman looks carefully at the work of the RAC Foundation, he will discover that, in relative terms, the number of potholes on our roads spiked between the years 2005 and 2010 and has been coming down slowly but steadily, more or less, ever since.

Is the Minister in all sincerity denying the evidence of the Asphalt Industry Alliance, which carried out a detailed survey of local authorities, which showed that there is a backlog of a minimum of £9 billion of work on potholes?

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman might want to look at a wider range of sources than just the Asphalt Industry Alliance for his information about the use of asphalt in filling potholes, but the issue is a serious one. He will know that I have made clear my interest not merely in an in-year road settlement of £420 million for potholes, which the Government have just passed and which is highly welcome, but in a more strategic approach to local roads funding over the next five years.

Engineering: Girls and People from Ethnic Backgrounds

5. What steps his Department is taking to encourage more girls and people from ethnic backgrounds to pursue a career in engineering. (907768)

My Department launched the Year of Engineering to increase the number and diversity of engineers across the UK and to address the engineering skills gap. I am indebted to my hon. Friend for his tireless work as he criss-crossed the country, working with 1,400 partners to help us to deliver 1 million experiences to young people in his role as ambassador, or envoy, for the Year of Engineering, focusing particularly on girls and people from ethnic-minority backgrounds.

Over the past year, I have been greatly encouraged by the reaction that I have seen from young people as they come into direct contact with inspiring engineers from all backgrounds. Does my hon. Friend share my commitment to finding a way to carry on the good work of the Year of Engineering, so that we can continue to push the message that engineering is open to everyone, regardless of background, ethnicity and gender?

Absolutely. We are building on the legacy of this year, working with organisations ranging from Siemens, FIFA and Apple to the Science Museum, and we are committed to building on that work so that even more young people understand and appreciate the success of a career in engineering.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) on the success of the Year of Engineering in promoting engineering as a fantastic career for everyone, but engineering is not just for one year; it is forever. Will the Minister follow Labour’s example and produce a diversity charter for the transport sector, so that the numerous initiatives—which are all very good in their own way—can be brought together, and we can see concrete progress and, most importantly, measure it?

The Year of Engineering has been a collaborative project involving more than 1,400 firms and partners. One of their objectives was to reach out to communities that may not have had experience of engineering. We have had some successes: young people in primary schools are thinking about engineering as a career, as are older students. We will work with our partners and see what more we can do, building on the work that we have done this year.

I had an opportunity to visit Northern Ireland with the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), and we thank him for coming. Northern Ireland has seen a 5% rise in female engineering students in the past two years. Does the Minister intend to target children in key stage 3, to initiate a passion for engineering in the early stages of secondary school applications?

Absolutely. We fully appreciate that girls in particular can close their minds to engineering at quite an early stage, at primary school. We want to work with young students throughout their school lives to ensure that they realise that it is a good career, and one that is open to them.


6. What recent discussions his Department has had with Southeastern on (a) timetabling and (b) performance standards. (907769)

The franchise agreement between the Department and train operators includes key performance benchmarks. The Department monitors each train operator against those levels, and that includes regular meetings with their senior management team at which performance figures are scrutinised and challenged. A range of enforcement mechanisms are available to the Department in the event of non-compliance.

Given their experience in recent years, many of my constituents are looking to the next operator of the Southeastern franchise to significantly improve timetabling performance. With that end in mind, will the Minister—whom I warmly welcome to his post—confirm that the Department still expects to announce the winning bidder this month and reassure passengers that the start of the new franchise will not be delayed?

The level of performance management in that area is 91.2%, which is high across our railways. I will write to the hon. Gentleman with full details of the answer that he has requested.

I congratulate the Minister on taking up his post. My constituents could be forgiven for thinking that new Rail Ministers turn up more frequently than Southeastern trains.

Public performance measures are currently below their 2010 level. They are running below their target and are not due to reach it until 2025. Does that not show that privatisation is not working for my constituents, and it is time that Southeastern was brought under public control and the Mayor of London?

I would just highlight to the hon. Gentleman that the railways are carrying significantly more passengers. On his privatisation point, privatisation has turned around our railways: after decades of decline under British Rail, we have seen passenger numbers grow from 750 million to 1.7 billion. We have one of the most intensively used, fastest growing and safest railways in Europe. Privatisation is the answer.

East Coast Main Line Route Study

7. What decisions on railway investment he plans to make as a result of the recent east coast main line route study. (907771)

The Department is investing up to £780 million to upgrade the east coast main line from 2019. The works are to be completed in the early 2020s and will enable faster, more frequent journeys with more seats. Building upon those works, the east coast main line route study has identified a broad range of investment choices. We are working closely with Transport for the North, Network Rail and High Speed 2 Ltd to assess which enhancements should be taken forward.

In 1990, British Rail ran an express train from King’s Cross to Edinburgh with track cleared of other traffic in 3 hours and 30 minutes, including a two-minute stop at Newcastle. This was less time than planned for HS2, and with some additional four-tracking and two rail flyovers, the east coast main line could run regular 140 mph services in such times, and with the existing stock. Will Ministers look positively at such investment, as first proposed long ago by British Rail?

The key point to make is that we are carrying significantly more passengers on the east coast main line, and this investment will enable it to deliver faster and more frequent journeys with more seats between London and Edinburgh.

I welcome the Minister back to the Dispatch Box. He will know from his previous time in the Department of my campaign for better train services into northern Lincolnshire, particularly a direct service from King’s Cross. May I invite him to visit northern Lincolnshire and to travel by train—a wonderful experience—and meet the major businesses in the area who have joined my campaign?

I always enjoy my visits to north Lincolnshire and will happily take up my hon. Friend’s invitation.

As the Minister will be aware, the east coast main line goes through my constituency of East Lothian. Can he confirm that, following this review, the stations at East Linton and Reston in my neighbouring constituency are still on task to be reopened?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is already in discussions on this very issue, and we will get back to the hon. Gentleman with detailed answers.

Cycling and Walking

The Department will today publish a response to its recent call for evidence on improving cycling and walking safety. This will set out a vision and a two-year plan of action, with some 50 actions. It will also include a summary of the many steps the Government have taken to encourage cycling and walking and the significant additional funding that has been made available under the cycling and walking investment strategy.

When will there potentially be a new round of funding to support new and upgraded cycle routes such as the planned cycle route in West Wight between Newport, Yarmouth and Freshwater, which will significantly improve our cycling offer on the island?

The Government have made available £1.2 billion under the cycling and walking investment strategy, and that has been supplemented by a range of other funds since then, including the local growth fund. Further funding is to be made available through the highways infrastructure fund and the future high-street funding programme just announced in the Budget. Further funding from 2020-21 onwards will be a matter for the spending review.

Some 5% of my constituents cycle to work, which is double the national average. However, CrashMap shows the number of accidents between my home and Parliament Square and that has frightened me off taking the plunge. In addition, today is our third day in a row of poor air quality alerts. Will the Minister please tell me, in road safety week, what we are doing to tackle the scourge of poor vision and behaviour of construction and delivery lorries and the problem of air quality, which are, literally, a deadly combination?

We are addressing these issues with the utmost seriousness. Today, we are publishing a cycling and walking safety review, with 50 actions designed to pull together a whole suite of Government policies and set in motion further work specifically designed to improve not merely cycling and walking safety, but also air quality and the fight on issues of health and obesity, and to improve access to high streets and economic productivity, all of which go to many of the general points the hon. Lady raises.

Following the success of the Tour of Britain in 2016, the Cheshire East Council leader called Congleton

“The heart of cycling in Cheshire East”,

and town councillor Suzie Akers Smith, who is mayor of Congleton this year, in our 700th year of having a mayor, made cycling her flagship project. Yet despite leading the development of a cycling masterplan for Congleton in 2016, more than two years later, after a number of funding applications and more than 400 meetings, Councillor Akers Smith has been unable to make any progress to obtain material substantive support for her project. Will the Minister meet me and the mayor to discuss this?

I am delighted to hear that Congleton has been declared the centre of cycling in Cheshire East, and I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the problem in more detail.

Air Travel: Disabled People

The Government recognise and are addressing the needs of disabled passengers who choose to travel by air. This forms an important part of the new aviation strategy, which we are developing, and the inclusive transport strategy, which I published in July. The Government are considering what more can be done to ensure that disabled passengers have equal access to air travel and the confidence to travel independently. We will consult on options in a Green Paper, due to be published by the end of the year.

I welcome the Government’s work. Tomorrow, my private Member’s Bill is due for its Second Reading. It sets out steps to improve the experience for disabled passengers, from car parking to getting on and off planes and, crucially, reducing damage to wheelchairs. Do I have the Government’s support for my Bill and my efforts overall to ensure that air travel is more accessible for everyone?

My hon. Friend’s Bill raises vital issues. I commend her for all her campaigning work and thank her for the opportunity to meet her and her constituents to discuss the matter. It is crucial that disabled air passengers are able to travel in comfort and with dignity, and independently if they wish. That is why we will continue to work with the Civil Aviation Authority to secure improvements throughout the industry.

There have been many reports recently of disabled people suffering poor service when travelling by plane, yet we still await publication of the aviation strategy, which might offer some reassurance to disabled air passengers. Why has the strategy not been published? When will it be published?

The aviation strategy is due to be published, but the hon. Gentleman will have had sight of the inclusive transport strategy, which covers many elements of work to be done by the Civil Aviation Authority to ensure that accessibility, dignity and independent travel are delivered for passengers with disability as they are for passengers without disability.

Disabled access is equally important in our rail stations across the United Kingdom, which is why the Access for All scheme that my hon. Friend has commissioned is fantastic. I know that Montrose station in my constituency has already benefited. When will the next round of funding be released for the bids sent in?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. That is very kind of you. The Access for All fund has £300 million, and we had more than 300 applications. Decisions on the stations that will be able to receive that extra funding will be made early next year.

Bus Journeys

Local bus passenger journeys account for about 59% of all journeys made on public transport. The number of local bus passenger journeys in England fell by 1.5% to just over 4 billion in the year ending March 2017. The Bus Services Act 2017 introduced new powers for authorities and operators to work together to improve local bus services and grow passenger numbers.

Evidence shows that regulating buses improves services and bus patronage, so why are the Government siding with the bus companies rather than passengers by refusing to give councils such as Manchester’s powers to take back control of local buses?

The hon. Gentleman seems confused. When you wait for a bus, three come along at once: over £13 million of bus service operators grant has been made available to Manchester; the transforming cities fund has given the mayoral authority £312 million to drive up intercity connectivity; and, moreover, the Mayor has the authority to ask for franchising, but he has not—I suggest that the hon. Gentleman and his Mayor just jump on the bus and ask for it.

Late-running and cancelled buses cause just as much misery for people as late-running and cancelled trains. We talk a lot in this Chamber about the trains, but it is also happening on the buses at the moment. The Transport Committee has heard about the problems in Bristol, and there is misery on the buses in Cambridge. What assessment has the Minister made of bus punctuality, particularly the effect of bus driver shortages?

I have been following the Select Committee inquiry very closely. It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman mentions Bristol, because bus passenger numbers have gone up by 42%. He raises a valid point, because punctuality, the timing of bus arrivals and departures, and journey times are key to increasing bus patronage, which is why we are increasing funding to make sure that information is available.

Since 2010, bus funding has been almost halved, fares have been increased by over 50% and thousands of routes have been cut, shrinking the network to its smallest size in decades. Does the Minister agree with the United Nations assessment of Tory transport policy:

“Abandoning people to the private market in relation to a service that affects every dimension of their basic well-being is incompatible with human rights requirements.”?

I would rather stick to the facts. We make over £1 billion of funding available for concessionary bus passes every year, and we continue to be committed to that. Some £250 million is paid to support bus services up and down the country. There is no denying that there are challenges in some parts of the country. However, the hon. Gentleman forgets to note that bus patronage is up by 42% in Bristol, up by 38% in South Gloucestershire and up by 31% in Central Bedfordshire. There are services that are working right, and local authorities are working with bus providers to make sure that up-to-date information is available.

Just as Conservative Members ridicule complaints about the state of our roads, the Government have dismissed the UN report as political. Let me tell the Minister that the decision to axe vital public services to fund tax cuts for millionaires, now that is political. Now the Prime Minister has declared that austerity is over, will the Minister commit to reversing these cruel and harmful cuts that are denying people their human rights?

I am afraid that Labour Front Benchers have run out of anything positive to say about any part of our transport infrastructure, even to support buses across the country. As I said, there is £1 billion of funding for concessionary bus travel. We are making franchising available to those mayoral authorities that wish to take it up, but they refuse to do so. [Interruption.] I do not know whether this is just going to go back and forth, but the fact is that we are putting funding into bus services, making sure they are greener, making sure that more information is available and making sure that more people can catch a bus.

TOCs: Derogations from Franchise Obligations

14. What criteria his Department uses to assess train operating company requests for derogations from franchise obligations. (907779)

A derogation is a deferral of a contracted obligation. Requests for derogations are assessed by considering the operator’s reasoning on why delivering as contracted is not possible and the impact of the proposed deferral. Derogations will not be agreed if requested retrospectively.

I am grateful to the rail Minister, who will know that, in its 2017 franchise award, CrossCountry’s intercity service was required to make two additional stops a day in the city of Gloucester, once the Network Rail works at Filton Bank are completed at the end of this year. Will the Minister celebrate his return to the Department for Transport by saying when this derogation will come to an end and when the operator will deliver those two additional services a day?

My hon. Friend is a long-standing campaigner on this issue. He is right to say that we want to see the services in the franchise resumed. The derogation was granted in March, and I know he has met my predecessor to discuss this issue. The works at Filton Bank are progressing, but this is a complex project. It is firmly on my radar, but perhaps I may ask him to meet me so that we can review the project and I can update him.

A19: Safety Improvements

Since 2011, Highways England has delivered safety improvements at many locations on the A19, and more are planned or are under way. For example, works to improve safety at Sheraton have commenced and are expected to complete by spring 2019. A safety review was undertaken along the A19 from Dishforth to the Tyne tunnel in summer 2018, in order to inform further interventions.

The Minister will be aware that this week is Road Safety Week, and my two local newspapers, The Shields Gazette and the Sunderland Echo, are running a “Safe A19” campaign, backed by the local MPs. Bearing in mind that the Department’s safer roads fund was underspent by £75 million last year, will he commit funds to the A19 to alleviate local concerns?

I am grateful for the question. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the study of the A19’s safety has already been completed and is being analysed at the moment. The £75 million to which he refers was not underspent; the whole fund was used for the 50 schemes that were applied for and was fully discharged for that.

Free Ports

16. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits of creating free ports in the UK. (907781)

The Government have been clear that they are open to ideas that deliver economic advantages in the UK. Section 100A of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 provides the legal basis for the designation of free zones by the Treasury and will continue to do so following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Applying for designation as a free zone will be a commercial decision to be taken by private port operators.

We are in uncharted waters as regards Brexit, and the danger is that Scottish exporters will not be able to access their European markets in the same way as they have done pre-Brexit. Does the Minister agree that this is the time to advantage ports such as Rosyth in my constituency and make sure that we have a strong ports sector in the future? Free ports would add into the benefits associated with doing that.

The cost and benefits of free port status will depend on the final outcome of the Brexit negotiations, but we in the Department are preparing for all outcomes. The hon. Gentleman will know that I will continue to work as hard as I can to ensure that our ports sector is promoted, and continues to be efficient and as competitive as possible.

Strategic Road Network

The Government have a massive investment programme taking place in our strategic road network, where we have just announced £25.3 billion for Highways England for the next road investment period. We are also committed to a substantial investment in the major road network, the next tier down of roads, and indeed in large local major roads, where some important connecting projects are needed around the country.

The A6 in Kibworth in my constituency has a major problem with air quality and congestion every morning. Will the Secretary of State look closely, as part of plans for the major route network, at proposals from Leicestershire to solve that serious problem?

I hope the major road network fund will enable us to deal with problems such as the one my hon. Friend has identified. The A6 is one of the roads I expect to be eligible for that funding. I am pleased that we are moving ahead with that and particularly pleased with the first schemes we announced. We are doing what the Labour party never did, which is looking after Barrow-in-Furness and finally get rid of the Grizebeck bottleneck on the A595. That is the kind of thing Conservatives do for the north and Labour never did.

Leaving the EU: Aviation Sector

19. What recent assessment he has made of the potential effect on the viability of the aviation sector of the UK leaving the EU. (907784)

The UK Government and European Commission have agreed in principle that the two sides should negotiate a comprehensive air transport agreement, and the Department is working closely with the aviation sector to ensure its requirements are factored into the negotiations.

The draft withdrawal agreement will have done little to alleviate the uncertainty of the aviation industry, and with the post-Brexit relationship yet to be negotiated and the risk of no deal increasing, can the Minister confirm whether the aviation agreement talks, which the Secretary of State earlier this month said were ready to start, have now begun? When does the Minister expect them to be concluded?

The hon. Gentleman is a keen student of Adam Smith and he will therefore know that free trade is constantly something that both sides will benefit from and will seek to derive gain. The conversations that he mentions continue and both sides have a strong interest in reaching a deal. That should be no cause for surprise, because the President of the European Council said on 7 March:

“I am determined to avoid that particularly absurd consequence of Brexit that is the disruption of flights between the UK and the EU”,

and he was right.

Less than a month ago, the Secretary of State told the aviation conference that it was theoretically possible that the European Aviation Safety Agency could refuse or delay the certification of UK-certified planes. Now we have even less time before we leave the EU, so can the Minister offer any more certainty to the aviation sector?

I can do no better than to remind the hon. Gentleman of the notice that was published on 13 November which said specifically that there would be reciprocity in operations between the UK and the EU in the air transport sector, that aviation safety certificates would remain valid for a period of time, and that passengers and cabin luggage from the UK would not need to be rescreened. This all points to the likelihood of a perfectly good, sensible and comprehensive agreement.

Will the Minister tell us whether Airbus, which is critical for Bristol jobs, and the other manufacturing industries in its supply chain will be able to maintain planes and move parts between the UK and the EU exactly as before if there is no deal?

As the hon. Lady knows, we expect there to be a deal and there is every reason for there to be a deal. Contingency arrangements are already in place, and I would direct her to the technical notices that have been published on this topic.

Crossrail: Mayor of London

The Secretary of State has regular discussions with the Mayor of London covering a variety of subjects, including progress on delivering Crossrail.

There have been reports in the media that Transport for London’s finances are in trouble. Crossrail reaches out into my constituency, with stations at Brentwood and Shenfield. Is the Minister concerned by these reports, and will this affect the delivery of Crossrail?

TfL’s finances are a matter for the Mayor of London, and Crossrail is a 100%-owned subsidiary of TfL. It is becoming clearer how the Mayor’s policies are causing long-term problems with TfL’s finances, but the Government will continue to work with TfL as joint sponsors to oversee Crossrail’s delivery of the new railway as soon as possible.

What discussions has my hon. Friend had with the Mayor of London about the funding that the Department for Transport provides to London for Crossrail?

I know that the conversations involving the Secretary of State are extensive. I have not personally had any yet, as this is day 6, but I intend to pick up on those conversations in order to support my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Order. Just before we come to topical questions, I want to advise the House of a change in the order of business. After topical questions, we were due to have an urgent question on Bombardier, followed by the business question. In fact, what is now going to happen is that after topical questions we will have the business question, and after that there will be a ministerial statement on Bombardier. I have agreed to a request for such a change to be made. The rationale for it is not something that I need to go into now, but I am advising the House so that colleagues can make their preparations accordingly.

Topical Questions

I shall start with some good news for the south-west. A couple of months ago, I announced that we would be extending the current public service obligation on flights from Newquay to Gatwick. I also spoke at the Dispatch Box about the potential benefits for Newquay airport and the south-west of a direct link to Heathrow, once Heathrow expands. I am pleased to say that that link is going to happen sooner, and that it will be starting in the spring of next year, supported by the Government. I think that it will provide a really good boost to business in the south-west, providing it with connections to important destinations around the world.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. The A27 in Chichester is at capacity and that is restricting economic growth. The local councils have approved their local plan review, which is now out for public consultation and, as is required to pass the process, it includes minor improvements to the road. The strategic solution, however, is the only viable answer to the problems with the A27. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that it is still the Department’s intention to fund major road improvements around Chichester in the recently increased road investment strategy 2—RIS2—budget?

I know how important this is to my hon. Friend and to many of her constituents. She will know that the divisions of opinion in the local community have put the project back by a number of years. I do not want to give her undue cause for optimism about its position in the queue, because it was certainly a setback when the local authority decided to reject Highways England’s plans, but it remains the view of the Government and Highways England that improvements in the area around her constituency will be necessary in the future.

T2. In my recent community consultation, I heard growing concerns about bus services and prices, particularly from young people. Sheffield fares are as high as £3 for journeys of little more than a mile and a half. Throughout the country we have seen a 12-year low in the number of bus journeys. The spiral of decline started with Tory deregulation in the 1980s, but since 2010 bus budgets across England and Wales have been cut by 45%. When are the Government going to recognise that we need a new approach? (907790)

Bus patronage is different up and down the country. Those local authorities that work closely with their bus operators and use technology and concessionary fares appropriately see an increase in bus patronage. I mentioned earlier the areas in which patronage is going up—it is up 22% in Brighton and Hove—and there are areas throughout the country where younger people are jumping on buses, too. It is about making it work better, collectively; it is not just about money—even though there is more than £1 billion for concessionary fares and we have invested £250 million in bus services.

T3. Disruption on the M20, M26 and all roads in Kent is having a serious impact on the county’s economy. Schools are reporting that as many as 15% of students are getting in late, and businesses are already preparing for shift working in case their employees cannot get to work. That will cost serious time and serious money. A combination of works on the M26 and overnight closures on the M20 not ending until 6 am are causing the problems. My hon. Friends the Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) and for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) and I have already written to Highways England for answers. Will the Minister explain to residents, schools and businesses in Kent just what he, Highways England and Kent County Council are doing to keep Kent moving? (907791)

My hon. Friend will know, because we have met on many occasions and discussed this matter in the Chamber, that the Department is very focused on concerns in the south-east. Highways England is carrying out works on the M20 smart motorway scheme between junctions 3 and 5. That work is about relieving congestion and improving journeys. Of course, some disruption is inevitable—that goes with major programmes of road investment—but I will ask Highways England to investigate the effect of the current roadworks, and in particular the timing of the overnight closures on the M20.

If the Government really are serious about Northern Powerhouse Rail, will they commit to giving it precedence over Crossrail 2? Will they also commit to starting with the route from Hull to Leeds, as that part of the track has had very little investment over the years?

We remain absolutely committed to Northern Powerhouse Rail. I have been clear that the two projects—Crossrail 2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail—must march in lockstep. The hon. Lady will be aware that we have just provided an additional £40 million for the continuing development of Northern Powerhouse Rail. Transport for the North is working on the business case right now. We provided for passive provision for Northern Powerhouse Rail in the structure of HS2, so the necessary junctions will be there. We are very committed to the project.

T4. Following the massive reductions in bus services in parts of Stoke-on-Trent, does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential to take action to strengthen the local bus market to improve services in the city? (907794)

Absolutely. The Bus Services Act 2017 introduced a number of new tools to help local authorities to improve local bus services, including through partnership working and franchising. Stoke-on-Trent City Council has not yet engaged with my Department about using the new powers available, but we are working together to develop its proposals for the transforming cities fund. I was delighted that the council successfully applied for a share of the £1.7 billion fund.

Crime is soaring on the railways. It is up a fifth in the past year, and that is fuelled by a spike in sexual offences, which are up 16%, and violent crimes, which are up 26%. The highest increases are in areas where trains operate without guards—just one symptom of our broken franchise model. The guards in the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers are striking for passenger safety on Northern rail. Why will Ministers not follow the evidence and end the expansion of driver-only operation?

The problem is that even in areas where there is an offer to the RMT that guards will remain on the trains, they are still on strike. This strike is not about safety—the national safety regulator for the railways has said that it is nothing to do with safety. We are trying to deliver a better railway, and the reality is that if guards are not standing at the back of trains waiting to press a button, they are better able to look after passengers. It is also worth saying that on the new trains that are being introduced by this Government right across the country, the introduction of closed circuit television will make a real difference to safety. May I also pay tribute to the work of the British Transport police? They do an excellent job in trying to protect passengers on the railways.

T5. Will the Minister inform the House what progress is being made on creating apprentices in the transport sector? (907796)

There has been good progress, but we are committed to doing more. Leading transport employers are committed to providing quality apprenticeships, and more than 5,000 apprenticeships have been created in road and rail since 2016. In 2017-18 alone, we have seen a 22% on-year increase. Employers have committed to 10,000 apprenticeships with Heathrow expansion and 8,000 in express delivery. Training places for maritime cadets will rise to 1,200 each year over the next seven years, and we have seen 1,300 apprenticeship starts in road freight, but we are committed to doing more.

We have known for five decades that there were 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, but the number in Gateshead now far outstrips that—potholes I am talking about. When will we get some resources to the local authorities to mend the holes in our roads and to give drivers much-need alleviation from the problem?

I absolutely understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. As I have already pointed out, the spike in potholes, to which he refers, originally occurred between 2005 and 2010. He asks when, and the answer is in the previous Budget where a specific £420 million in-year contribution was made. I do not have the numbers to hand, but if I did I have no doubt that I would find that multiple millions of pounds have been spent in his highway authority locally on potholes as a direct result of that funding announcement.

T6. Following our summer of severe service disruption that saw Northern rail cancel more than 12,000 services, will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss how we can ensure that it does not happen next year? More importantly, though, can we also discuss the building of the South Fylde line, which will see the doubling of the service from once an hour to every half an hour, as it will be a huge boost to the Fylde coast? (907797)

We have been very clear that disruption following the introduction of the May timetable was entirely unacceptable. I would, of course, be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss his proposals and the work that is under way to ensure that we minimise the risk of disruption for future timetable changes.

Ministers will be aware of the work that is being carried out by Bridgend County Borough Council, me and my Assembly Member to try to close the Pencoed level crossing following safety concerns. Network Rail is now agreeing to regular meetings to try to progress the closure. It tells me that it needs more funding from the Department for Transport. Wales Office officials have now agreed to attend these three-monthly meetings to be able to progress the closure and improve infrastructure. Will Ministers now agree to their officials attending these meetings so that we can make some progress on closing this dangerous level crossing?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I have to say that I am not immediately familiar with that particular level crossing, but I will, of course, look into it and get back to him with the answer.

Order. The hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) is in a category of her own. She is the only hon. Member standing who has thus far not asked a question this morning. I know that colleagues will agree, in a spirit of equality, that their own need is secondary to hers.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the review into non-statutory property schemes for High Speed 2, and why did it fail to deliver a bespoke package for Long Eaton, which has been promised by Ministers on more than one occasion?

My hon. Friend and I have had many discussions about Long Eaton. I am very keen to make sure that we have done the right thing by the different people affected by the proposed railway line through Long Eaton, whether it is the businesses affected or the people who live in the railway cottages. If there are things that we are not yet doing, I suggest that she and I sit down and go through it again.

It costs me more to get a bus a few stops up the West Road in Newcastle than to cross the whole of London. It costs more to get a bus from Newcastle to Amble—30 miles—than to get a bus from London to Newcastle—290 miles. Can we have a comparative study of the cost of bus travel in Newcastle under a Tory Government and in London under a Labour Mayor?

Managing bus fares and having transparency on bus fares will further encourage bus patronage. Those bus companies that make bus fares available and public will always see an increase in bus patronage. We are working with the bus sector to do what we can to make sure that this information is available, just as it can be available on journey times and at stops, too.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement and the Department for Transport’s ongoing commitment to connecting Cornwall. What assessment has he made in light of today’s announcement on Heathrow of the potential for exports from Cornish businesses and for inbound tourism, and of their effect on the Cornish economy?

Improving transport connections for the south-west is essential, and it is one of the parts of the country that needs those improved transport links. A range of things are happening: the number of local trains within Devon and Cornwall is increasing, new trains are now serving that route, and road improvements have taken place. Now, there will be a better link for business into Heathrow airport. This is all part of making sure that we deliver on our promises for better transport in the south-west.

Business of the House

The business for next week will be:

Monday 26 November—A general debate on the 100-year anniversary of the Royal Air Force.

Tuesday 27 November—Second Reading of the Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 28 November—Remaining stages of the Offensive Weapons Bill.

Thursday 29 November—A general debate on improving education standards.

Friday 30 November—The House will not be sitting.

This week marks the centenary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, which first allowed women in the UK to become MPs. Since then, 489 women have been elected to Parliament, compared with more than 4,500 men. Clearly, we have a way to go to achieve a 50:50 Parliament, but I was encouraged to see so many enthusiastic women come to Westminster yesterday, including some of my constituents, as part of the Ask Her to Stand campaign.

This week is also Road Safety Week, an initiative to inspire thousands of schools, organisations and communities to take action on road safety and promote life-saving messages. I was pleased to provide time for debate on this vital issue earlier this month.

I thank the Leader of the House for the short business statement. Again, the date for the Easter recess has not been fixed. I remind the Leader of the House that Easter is on 21 April, so it cannot be beyond the Government’s capability to work out the recess dates around that. Will she also say what the position is on the sitting days for consideration of private Members’ Bills?

There is nothing but a general debate on two of the days next week. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Prime Minister will make a statement following the special summit of the EU on 25 November, whether it has been postponed or not, as I understand that the Prime Minister is also meeting Jean-Claude Juncker?

I want to correct the record. Last week’s Official Report makes ghastly reading. The Leader of the House said that she wanted to see some evidence, but obviously she was not in the Chamber—she was discussing the deal at No. 10—when a number of points of order were raised about when Parliament would be told about the deal. There was genuine disbelief from hon. Members of all parties that there was a suggestion of a press conference at 9 pm. When I raised that in a point of order, a journalist emailed saying, “We need to have our dinner—why are you saying 9? We have been told that the deal will be announced at 7.” That is one piece of evidence. The second is that the Government ended the business early so that there was no opportunity for the Prime Minister to come to the House and make a statement that day. There were no discussions through the usual channels about the Prime Minister making a statement to the House first. I read the ministerial code into the record last week and it clearly says that important statements must be made in the House first. We are not a vassal Parliament with an overbearing, non-accountable Executive.

Last week, I also asked the Leader of the House about the provision of the legal advice on the proposed withdrawal agreement. That does not have a 12-week deadline. In her evidence to the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs on Monday, she said that the Government will seek to do that whenever possible while not undermining either the law or long-standing constitutional conventions. We are not asking for legal advice every day. We are just asking for the legal advice on this most important issue that confronts our country—these are extraordinary circumstances. The House has resolved on a Humble Address calling for the advice to be published. We do not want a position statement; we want the advice to be published.

Curiously, the Leader of the House seems to want to abide by some conventions but not others. Will she abide by the convention of collective Cabinet responsibility? The Cabinet agreed the deal last Wednesday, but by the weekend the Leader of the House and the gang of five were meeting to say that they were going to make amendments to the agreement. May I ask how that is going? Will the Leader of the House be abiding by the convention of Cabinet responsibility, or will the gang of five be tabling lashings of amendments?

I ask that because the Procedure Committee’s eighth report of Session 2017-19, “Motions under section 13(1) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018”, calls for a bespoke business of the House order and amendments to the motion to be decided on first. Will the Leader of the House confirm whether the Government have responded to the Procedure Committee’s report, and if not, when they will respond? On that note, will she say when the meaningful vote on the deal will take place, and whether we are going to have a debate before the vote?

On the home front, the Government conceded on our amendments to the Finance Bill. The Opposition made a powerful case, which was clearly so compelling that the Government accepted our amendments. Given that those proposals were in our manifesto, there is a serious point to be raised: are the Opposition in a confidence and supply agreement with the Government? Should the Government not step aside and either let the Opposition govern or have a general election?

The Leader of the House mentioned two general debates. Could we have a debate on the visit to the United Kingdom by Philip Alston, the United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights? His report is very succinct. If we have a debate, we can hear what the Government have to say about it, and other parties can also put their views.

The London Eye was finally lit up in suffragette colours yesterday. Hon. Members—men and women from across the House—went to the Terrace as we celebrated the centenary of some women getting the vote. Let us remember that on the Opposition side, our parliamentary party is made up of 45% women. That is more than all the other parties put together. [Interruption.] Our positive action—[Interruption.] Let me just finish. So our positive action—[Interruption.] Ooh, very sensitive! Our positive action is like a pyramid; we have a solid base. We, too, had two female leaders, and I can say to the House that they were not acting—they were doing it for real. However, it is good to celebrate a House that represents the full diversity of our country.

Finally, I want to send Harry Leslie Smith our good wishes for a speedy recovery. Harry is a political commentator and outspoken campaigner against austerity and the privatisation of the NHS. He is a former RAF pilot and a veteran of the second world war. He is in hospital, and we wish him a speedy recovery.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for going through a smörgåsbord of different subjects, as she always does.

On Easter recesses, we have talked about this a great deal. I have gently pointed out to the hon. Lady, on every occasion, that her party’s Government, when in office, were extremely tardy in announcing Easter recess dates. I, on the other hand, have been pleased to announce Christmas recess dates and February recess dates, and I will announce Easter recess dates in due course. She will appreciate that there is some quite serious business to be got through in this place before we recess for Easter.

The hon. Lady asks about private Members’ Bills. She will be aware, no doubt, that I have tabled a motion to provide the House with an additional three sitting Fridays, and that this motion has been objected to. I am keen for the House to have more days to debate private Members’ Bills, and I will bring another motion back very soon.

On the PM’s statement, as always, the Prime Minister makes a statement to the House as soon as she is able to, particularly after EU Council matters, and particularly at the present time when she fully respects that this House needs to know exactly what is going on with regard to the UK leaving the European Union. Frankly, I am sorry, but I just did not understand what the hon. Lady was suggesting needed correcting in the record. The Prime Minister came to the House last week as soon as she was able to. There was no sense in which the Government finished the business early. The House finished the business early—it was nothing to do with the Government.

The hon. Lady asks about legal advice with reference to the Humble Address that her party put forward. As I have said, there is a legitimate desire in Parliament from Members of all parties to understand the legal implications of the deal once it is finalised. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has agreed that the Government will make available to all Members of the House a full, reasoned position statement laying out the Government’s legal position on the withdrawal agreement, and that the Attorney General will assist further by making an oral statement and taking questions in the normal way. We have always said that Parliament will have the appropriate information ahead of the vote on the final deal.

The hon. Lady asks about the gang of five. There is no gang of five, and there never was. She might think that everything she reads in the papers is true, but on the Government side of the House nobody is that naive, including when it comes to Cabinet leaks and journalists’ suppositions. She asks about the Procedure Committee report. As she knows, I take all Select Committee reports very seriously. I have seen the Procedure Committee’s report—it makes some interesting suggestions and fully acknowledges the need for a clear answer to be given to the Government on whether the House agrees to the Government proceeding with the withdrawal agreement as it stands—and we will respond in good time.

The hon. Lady asks about the meaningful vote. Again, the meaningful vote will be approved through the responsibility of the House of Commons alone. She will appreciate that the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 confirmed that Parliament would have the ultimate role in delivering the will of the people. Once the deal is agreed, it will be put to Parliament, and MPs will have the decision on whether to back it or reject it, but people should not be under any illusion that the EU would be prepared to start all over again and negotiate a different deal. It is very important, therefore, that we end up with a straightforward approval of the deal.

The hon. Lady talks about the Finance Bill. As the Minister made clear, it was agreed that the Opposition amendments were seeking clarification on Government manifesto commitments, and it was considered entirely reasonable to seek further information.

Finally, the hon. Lady talks about the achievement of the Labour party in having more women MPs. I should point out that the Conservative party is extremely proud to have had two female Prime Ministers who have presided over this country at times of great stress and have shown their determination and commitment. All women and men across the House should be proud of the achievements of women.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on changing practices in how we buy and sell goods? There is little doubt that the impact of online shopping has produced a disconnect between shops and customers, so I think we need a strategy and taskforce—but not one led by some dodgy entrepreneur.

As ever, my hon. Friend raises an important point. In March, we established the industry-led Retail Sector Council to bring Government and industry together and boost the sector’s productivity. The council last met on 12 November and has agreed its priority work for the next two years. In addition, we announced measures in the Budget as part of an action plan to support the sustainable transformation of our high streets, including a £675 million future high streets fund.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the rather paltry business for next week. I know we say this every week, but what a week! Norman Lamont famously said of the equally disastrous and chaotic Major Government that

“they give the impression of being in office but not in power”.

This Government do not even give the impression of being in office, far less of being in power. First, they refuse to vote on Opposition day motions; now they just refuse to vote.

With the DUP plug well and truly pulled, they have started to realise the reality of minority government and that they can no longer be assured of getting anything through the House. The only thing likely to save them is Labour’s indiscipline and failure to get its vote out. It is the only party that can look a gift horse in the rear end. We managed to get two amendments to the Finance Bill through on Tuesday, which is more than we achieved in the preceding 20 years, so three cheers for zombie government! Can we have a debate on parliamentary democracy so that we can learn the Government’s position on the basic concept of voting?

We have had a welcome dose of reality from the new Work and Pensions Secretary, who revealed that this binary choice of a bad deal or no deal would not happen when she said that the House of Commons would not accept no deal. Then there is the Chief Secretary to the Treasury saying there might be no Brexit. Then there is the calzone collective’s own options for Brexit. Everybody knows that the Prime Minister’s deal will not get through the House, and everybody and their auntie knows that the House will never accept a no deal Brexit, so will the Leader of the House finally confirm that this “devil or the deep blue sea” option is over and that the House will choose the option it wants?

Lastly, I very much welcome the Tay cities deal, which was signed off in my constituency this morning, bringing in £150 million of UK Government spending and £200 million of Scottish Government spending. It will be transformative for Tayside, with investment going into a number of fantastic projects right across the region. I am sure the Leader of the House will want to welcome that great example of cross-Parliament co-operation and working together.

May I first announce to the House that the Prime Minister will be making a statement to the House later today?

I would like to answer the hon. Gentleman’s fine set of questions. I am delighted to hear him admit that the only achievement of the Scottish nationalists in all the time that they have been sitting in this House is two amendments to the Finance Bill, seeking some further information. I am not sure that the people of Scotland will feel that they are worth the effort. My Conservative colleagues who represent seats in Scotland are doing rather better; perhaps we could hear more about that as business questions progresses.

The hon. Gentleman asked what my view is of us leaving the European Union. I can tell him that I agreed with the Prime Minister when she said yesterday that we will be leaving the European Union on 29 March 2019. I sit on the committee that is looking at day-one readiness in all eventualities. Preparations are far advanced for no deal. We absolutely intend to get a deal that Parliament can support, but we will definitely be leaving the European Union in March 2019.

Finally, I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is delighted about the Tay cities deal, which brings investment from the UK Government, the Scottish Government and business and is welcome right around the United Kingdom.

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee is currently doing an inquiry into leasehold properties. What emerged from our sitting on Monday was the scandal of certain housing developers selling their properties’ freehold to finance companies without even offering the freehold to the leaseholder. Of course, they all say that it is within the law. Can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government on what action he will take to close this disgraceful loophole that prevents leaseholders from being enabled to purchase their freehold?

Many Members will have great sympathy with what my hon. Friend talks about. We need to do more to protect the rights of people who own their own homes and find that the freehold is sold from underneath them. The Secretary of State is looking carefully at that, and I encourage my hon. Friend to ask a written question, to get a direct answer.

I note that the Government have tabled general debates on Monday and Thursday next week, as well as a general debate on the armed forces covenant this afternoon. It is now five weeks since the Backbench Business Committee had any time in this Chamber, and we are not likely to get any more for at least another fortnight. If the Government’s intention at the start of this two-year Session was to have the 27 days of Backbench time in the first year and none in the second, it is a great shame that the Committee was not informed of that intention at the outset.

It seems as though the Committee and Back Benchers are not being allocated a fair amount of time to air their concerns. Many hundreds—and I mean hundreds—of Back Benchers have signed up to debates we have on a list that are as yet unheard. Back Benchers are being served badly by the timetabling of business by this Government. While general debates on Government matters are very important, the Backbench Business Committee was established to meet a problem that was recognised by the House, and it is not now being facilitated by time from the Government to do so.

I absolutely understand the hon. Gentleman’s desire to ensure that his Committee has time in the Chamber in which to schedule its business. Last week—unfortunately, he was not here—I offered to meet him to discuss the specifics of what he is keen to see tabled. I am glad he recognises that a significant number of Back-Bench days have been provided so far in this Session. I am extremely sympathetic, and I am happy to meet him directly.

My post office is proposing to relocate the counters from its main branch to a WH Smith shop in a covered mall where there is no free, accessible disabled parking. Royal Mail owns the site where its counters currently are, but it says it is not planning to close its sorting office or its operation there. May we have a debate on the validity of, and allegations of falseness about, the post office consultation, as many people believe that its move is already a done deal?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, which has been raised in the Chamber during business questions before. I can say to him that combining a post office with a successful retailer is a proven model. Over 97% of the network already operates in this way. The Government have invested nearly £2 billion in the Post Office for the period 2010 to 2018 to maintain and modernise the branch network, which is good news for post office users. He may be aware that the public consultation on the proposals for Crawley post office runs until 12 December. The post office is welcoming customer views on areas such as accessibility, as well as wider community issues, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will be providing evidence to it.

On the evening before bonfire night, I spent an eight-hour shift with West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service. Acting firefighter Sherriff was very impressed with its professionalism, but was also struck by the severe impacts that the cuts have had on its service. May we have a debate on the funding awarded to our wonderful fire and rescue services?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on spending time with firefighters. I have also done that, and it is a real opportunity to see their priorities at first hand. I want to congratulate them all on their commitment to keeping people safe. She will be aware that we have questions to Home Office Ministers on 3 December, and she may want to raise the issue of cuts directly with them.

Scotland is already the highest-taxed part of the United Kingdom, but unless the SNP Scottish Government follow the lead of the Chancellor and bring more middle income earners out of the 40p tax rate, this gap is going to grow even wider. I am already hearing from employers on the Scottish borders that this issue is making the recruitment and retention of staff all the more difficult. May we have a debate on the implications of the higher taxation in Scotland on recruitment, employment and business opportunity?

I am glad my hon. Friend acknowledges that the Budget was very good news for middle income earners, with the Chancellor announcing both a rise in the tax-free personal allowance and a higher-rate threshold increase. This puts money back in the pockets of hard-working individuals and families, and supports our strong economy. My hon. Friend raises a very serious point about border businesses and those subject to Scotland’s higher taxes. Although this is a devolved matter for the Scottish Government, I hope that SNP Members are listening very carefully, because they do not want to see Scotland’s economy less competitive than that on the other side of the border.

Yesterday, I met members of the Youth Parliament to discuss their campaign on knife crime and how we can work together to ensure that tackling knife crime with a public health approach is debated in this House. Over 1 million young people voted in the Youth Parliament’s recent ballot, so I am pretty sure that they would not struggle to get the signatures to secure a debate here. However, it is important that this is debated in Government time, and I am sure the Leader of the House absolutely agrees with me. Just for the eighth time, I am asking: when will this be debated here?

I commend the hon. Lady for her commitment to this issue. She will be aware that those 1 million young people could, and I thoroughly recommend that they do, raise a petition to give their particular views to Parliament. As she will know, the Government have set up a serious violence taskforce, which is seeking to invest in measures to prevent young people getting into a life of crime, violence and gang membership. The Government are doing a huge amount. I am sympathetic to the hon. Lady’s desire for a debate on this subject, and I am looking into that, as well as writing to the Home Office on her behalf.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the people of Crickhowell on winning the title of “UK’s best high street” in last week’s Great British High Street awards? Will she accept an invitation to visit Brecon and Radnorshire to see that excellence for herself, and will she allow time for a debate on how we can revitalise our high streets in the UK and follow Crickhowell’s example?

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Crickhowell on its excellent award. I was there in January this year with my family—we stayed at the fantastic Bear Hotel—and I agree that it is a superb high street. These awards shine a light on the good work being done in high street communities across the UK, and I congratulate all the other winning high streets that were recognised by those awards.

May we have an early debate on atrial fibrillation, which means an irregular pulse? If someone has an irregular pulse—as many Members of the House will have—they have a much higher likelihood of having a stroke. Up and down the country, GPs are failing to diagnose, failing to test, and even when they recognise the condition, they are prescribing aspirins that, if they do anything, do harm. Four new wonderful anticoagulant drugs can relieve people’s stress and this condition, and they could be a real life changer. May we have an early debate on the significant failure of UK GPs to prescribe the right drugs?

As he often does, the hon. Gentleman raises an important point that affects people lives. I have a family member who suffers from this condition, and the hon. Gentleman is right to raise it. Health questions is on Tuesday, and I encourage him to ask Ministers directly what more can be done.

About an hour ago, partners from different levels of Government signed the Tay cities deal, which means £150 million of UK Government money coming to the region, over £65 million of which will go to the county of Perth and Kinross, which I share with the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). That is fantastic news, but the city deal process involves many different partners and layers of Government. May we have a debate to discuss how we can improve the process for the future, so that all levels of Government in all parts of the UK benefit?

People across the UK are delighted at the investment going into the Tay cities deal, which will provide a real boost for people and businesses in that area. I am always delighted to hear from colleagues across the House about ways to improve negotiations on city deals, and I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend, or encourage him to seek a meeting directly with a Treasury Minister to discuss the process.

Popular counterfeit products can contain less than half the internal components required to run safely, leaving people at risk of serious injury or property damage. With that in mind, and with Christmas fast approaching, may we have a debate on the steps that the Government are taking to disrupt counterfeiters, dismantle their infrastructure, and protect UK businesses and citizens from fake goods?

The hon. Lady raises a good point—as she says, particularly in the run-up to Christmas it is important to protect consumers from buying counterfeit goods. I encourage her to seek a Westminster Hall debate so that hon. Members can share their constituents’ experiences and ideas about how we can do better.

I recently met the family of Asia Bibi, who has been persecuted for her faith and whose life is in grave danger. One hundred and twenty five parliamentarians from across the House, including Lords Spiritual, have written to the Prime Minister asking the Government to do the right thing morally in granting asylum to that persecuted family. May we have an urgent statement and/or debate in Government time on religious freedom, and on the Government living up to their British values of standing up for the rule of law, justice, and helping those who are persecuted?

My hon. Friend raises a vital issue about avoiding the persecution of people for their religious faith. He is absolutely right to do that and I know all hon. Members are concerned about the fate of Asia Bibi in particular. I can tell him that we have Church Commissioners questions next Thursday, and Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions the following week. He might want to raise the matter directly with Ministers then.

Is the Leader of the House aware of the report published today on managed migration to universal credit by the Work and Pensions Committee, which shows that the vast majority of people will move on to universal credit not within the managed migration system, as was promised to this House when the cuts were put in place, but without any transitional protection whatever? They are set to lose thousands of pounds immediately. Will she ask the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to look at this seriously and make an urgent statement to the House?

What I can say to the hon. Lady is that there are lots of rumours about universal credit. The Government have listened very carefully to concerns and have continuously improved universal credit. The Government have increased advances to 100% of a full monthly payment so that those who need it can get access to that money on day one, scrapped the seven days’ waiting and introduced a two-week overlap of housing benefit payments—all of which Labour voted against. In the Budget, the Chancellor announced that we will increase the amount that someone can earn before their universal credit is reduced and we have given all self-employed people 12 months to get their business off the ground. So I do think that the Government have listened very carefully. Universal credit is significantly better than the legacy benefits it replaces. It makes it easier and better for people to get into work, which is better for them, for their families and for our economy.

Paragraph 56 of the Procedure Committee’s recent report recommends that a Business of the House motion is published five sitting days in advance of the debate on the meaningful vote, that a full day’s debate be allowed for that, and that that should take place no fewer than two days in advance of the meaningful vote. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on her response to that, given that if the debate on the meaningful vote is to start on 3 December, the Business of the House motion should have been published yesterday?

My hon. Friend raises a matter that is of great significance at the present time to the House. What I can say to him is that the Government’s goal is to secure certainty and clarity for the public after two years of negotiations. I have seen the Procedure Committee report and the Government are considering its recommendations carefully, although it will be for Parliament to debate and determine the procedure that will apply for the vote.

That is absolutely true. It is also true, of course, that the Government have made clear their commitment to an amendable motion. The Leader of the House has said that a number of times in the Chamber and the point has been made by the Prime Minister as well. I know there has been no movement from that position at all. An amendable motion will be put to the House. I think it is important to be clear about that.

May we have a debate on the importance of British food and drink? Instead of Peroni and pizza, would it not be better if the infamous five group had something like Somerset cider, cheddar cheese and Jacob’s crackers?

I sincerely hope the hon. Gentleman is not alluding to the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) when he makes his comment about Jacob’s. I absolutely share his enthusiasm for the UK food and drink sector. Right across the UK, we have superb brands and superb food producers. I think we would all share in the desire to do more to promote UK goods overseas.

Mr Speaker, as you are well aware, repetition is not a novelty in this place. I, too, would like to welcome the Tay cities deal, which was announced this morning, with £150 million for the Tayside region. The UK Government have invested an extra £1.1 billion in Scottish city deals. Will my right hon. Friend agree to a debate on how important it is for the UK Government and the Scottish Government to work together for the betterment of areas such as my constituency of Angus?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is vital for the Scottish Government and UK Government to work together closely for the success of the entire United Kingdom. We on the Government Benches always seek to consult widely and collaborate with the Scottish Government in our desire to see the strengthening of the United Kingdom. I am very pleased and proud that we have such a good group of Scottish Conservatives who are always willing to put the interests of the United Kingdom and Scotland together.

In the Leader of the House’s opening remarks, she mentioned the #AskHerToStand events yesterday, and she may be aware that I raised a point of order with Mr Speaker in relation to a report from three years ago that asked that the Standing Orders of the House either be gender-neutral or do not use the male pronoun. The report is some three years old. I know that you are supportive of the change, Mr Speaker. I accept that the Leader of the House was not in her position when that came forward, but she is a champion of equality and women’s rights in this Chamber, so will she either adopt that report from three years ago or, if there is a new report from the Procedure Committee—which I will be pushing for next week—calling for new Standing Orders to be published, agree to those in full so that we genuinely have a House that allows women to take seats in it?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising his point of order the other day. I heard part of it, but I will now go away and look carefully at what he said, and give consideration to his suggestion.

There are some fantastic opportunities for smaller businesses to export right around the world when we leave the EU, so will the Leader of the House agree to a debate in Government time on the export opportunities for the many smaller manufacturers in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent from the new trade deals that we hope to pursue?

My hon. Friend is a great champion for his constituency, and I absolutely agree with him that there will be great opportunities for all businesses in the United Kingdom as we leave the European Union and are able to seek free trade deals across the world. I encourage him perhaps to seek an Adjournment debate so that he can discuss, particularly with Ministers in the Department for International Trade, precisely what the impact could be for Stoke-on-Trent and his constituency.

As well as the centenary of women’s suffrage, this week is also the centenary of the Education (Scotland) Act 1918, which is celebrated in early-day motion 735.

[That this House recognises that 2018 marks the centenary of the 1918 Education (Scotland) Act, which established in law the principle of state funding for Catholic schools in Scotland; notes the range of celebrations planned by the Scottish Catholic education community to mark the ongoing collaboration between Church and State; believes that the arrangements put in place by the Act represent a unique and successful partnership, that continues to serve the people of Scotland well; further believes that the anniversary year will provide an opportunity to rejoice in the academic, cultural, civic and social achievements of pupils who have attended Catholic schools in the last one hundred years, and is a chance to mark publicly the ways in which Catholic schools are not just good for Catholics, but good for Scotland; believes that the positive contribution of Catholic schools to Scottish society is well documented; notes the continuing support of government and all of the main political parties is encouraging for the future of denominational schools; further notes that during 2018 schools, families, parishes and local communities across Scotland will reflect on the past, the present and the future of Catholic Schools, using the theme, Catholic Schools: Good For Scotland as a way to highlight the contribution Catholic schools make to wider society; and notes that by working with elected members from local authorities, and the UK and Scottish Parliaments, the Catholic Education Community aims to show that this distinctive collaboration for the governance of schools continues to reflect the diverse, inclusive and progressive nature of Scotland.]

We were joined yesterday by the Archbishops of Glasgow and of St Andrews and Edinburgh here in Parliament. Can we have a debate or a statement on Catholic education in Scotland, and does the Leader of the House agree that Catholic schools are good for Scotland?

I congratulate all Scottish MPs on the anniversary that they are celebrating. There is a debate on education next Thursday, and the hon. Gentleman might well like to raise this issue there.

The Leader of the House has been phenomenal in her work to try to tackle bullying and harassment in this place, and I am sure that she was more appalled than anyone by the recent decision in the other place. What more can my right hon. Friend do to give people confidence to come forward with their issues and that they will not see them blocked by the use of petty parliamentary procedure?

I am glad that my hon. Friend raised this issue. I want to make it clear that I am personally disgusted by what took place in the other place. It is not right that this matter should be allowed to rest, and I know that colleagues in the other place are taking it very seriously. I and the members of the former steering group on the complaints procedure strongly agree with Lord McFall of Alcluith when he said that he was “deeply disappointed” with the decision of the House of Lords to send the report into the conduct of Lord Lester back to the Privileges and Conduct Committee. In particular, the former steering group sympathises with the complainant at what must be a very difficult time for her. This is, however, a matter for the House of Lords, and I note that Lord McFall has made it clear that the Committee will consider the decision of the House and will look to present a further report to the House that will fully explain the Committee’s position.