House of Commons
Thursday 11 April 2019
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was asked—
Funding for Youth Services
Local authorities are responsible for funding local youth services, and over the next financial year English authorities’ funding for public services will increase, from £45.1 billion to £46.4 billion. In this role I have confirmed to the House that we are reviewing the guidance that sets out local authorities’ duty to provide appropriate local youth services. In addition, I am delighted to announce that the Government will be developing a new youth charter setting out our vision for supporting young people over the next generation and beyond.
I am a member of the all-party parliamentary group on youth affairs. Evidence submitted to our recent cross-party inquiry into youth work shows that the reduction in publicly funded youth services has led to the voluntary and community sectors being expected to fill the gap left by Government cuts. That has created an increasing reliance on short-term funding and the loss of qualified and experienced youth workers. Will the Minister commit herself to addressing urgently the crisis in long-term funding for youth services?
I thank the all-party parliamentary group on youth affairs, which has produced an excellent report on youth policy and funding. The Office for Civil Society has allocated £195 million to youth programmes, and the offer that my Department makes to enrich young people’s lives, through civil society, sport, digital and culture, is very important. The new youth charter gives us a chance to continue looking at all the issues the hon. Lady has raised.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. Local authority spending on youth services has been challenged—it is absolutely right that we accept that. However, we have great local authorities and partnerships that continue to innovate to ensure that the challenging funding landscape is addressed and that the benefits are there for children across all communities.
I do not want to berate the Minister about the lack of resources in youth services, because we know that we do not have as many resources as we used to. Will she follow what we are doing in Huddersfield? We are consulting young people and asking them what they want. Nearly all of them want a safe space where they do not have to drink alcohol, with nice coffee and wi-fi. Is it not about time we supplied young people up and down our country with the safe spaces they want?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. On a Friday evening, what young people want is to be out from the rain and away from parents, with high-speed internet access and the chance to hang out with friends—to be a teenager—and that is very welcome. I met policy officials yesterday, and we will be funding such spaces very shortly. We will update the House soon.
In the borough of Kettering there are many independently run and often volunteer-led sports clubs, amateur dramatics groups, scouts, guides and cadet forces—all sorts of organisations. Is it not true that successful and diverse youth engagement does not necessarily require direct local authority control?
I absolutely agree. It is right that we look at the local authority and community facilities that young people would like to engage with, and to reflect the community they live in. In fact, just this week we directed £90 million from dormant bank accounts to the newly established Youth Futures Foundation, which will support some of our most disadvantaged young people into employment. We will be working with all sorts of bodies to ensure that there are opportunities for all young people.
The Opposition welcome the Government’s recognition of the importance of youth services with their commitment today to a youth charter. The Minister will be aware that there is a strong economic case for investing in youth services, with Ofsted saying that cuts are “a false economy” leading to “greater pressures elsewhere”. We know that the cost of late intervention is estimated to be £17 billion a year. What concrete conversations has the Minister had with her Treasury colleagues ahead of the comprehensive spending review to ensure that the charter is not a no-cheque charter and that there is proper investment in youth services?
As the Minister for youth—that is slightly embarrassing occasionally—I think it is absolutely right to be in a position to work across Government as we head toward the spending review, to make sure that there are opportunities for our young people. With the youth endowment fund we have seen £200 million to support interventions for children and young people at risk. I absolutely agree that early intervention is right. That is why we have also pledged to review specific youth work qualifications, which were due to expire in 2020, to make sure that the youth work training curriculum is right. That is absolutely on the table.
I am aware that there is strong interest in the way that the Environment Bill relates to the protection of the historic environment. I want to make sure that the heritage agenda and the close interplay between the natural environment and the historic environment are appropriately reflected in that Bill. To that end, I have spoken to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the matter, and I will be writing to him very shortly.
I am pleased to hear that response from the Minister, because the historic and natural environment often enhance and rely on each other. In my patch, we have the lesser horseshoe bats in Arnos Vale cemetery, the Iron Age hill fort in Leigh woods, and the work being done by the Heritage Lottery Fund in Avalon marshes. The manmade structures—the built environment—enhance and, in some ways, protect the wildlife there. Will he keep us updated on the progress of those discussions?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right: these things are very closely interrelated. The Bill is specifically a natural environment Bill, but the historic environment is very closely interplayed with that. I have written to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about that. I can confirm what she says about the connection. Of course it applied recently to the inscription of the world heritage site in the Lake District.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we must do all we can to protect our great historic environment? I also wish to praise the National Trust for all the work that it does in this field, particularly in Bexleyheath where we have the Red House, a National Trust property.
Very much so. The fact of the matter is that our historic environment is important to us all. It is also a world asset—something that draws millions of people to this country. It is important to respect the environment in all its forms, and the natural environment is supported and enriched by the historic environment.
When the Minister corresponds with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will he ensure that, prior to doing so, he makes contact with the heritage divisions in England and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure that the Environment Bill, which extends across the United Kingdom, reflects our needs?
I always want to ensure that all constituent parts of the United Kingdom are involved in these matters, as they of course are in fact as well as in law. I think that I have already written to the Secretary of State—the letter will be signed today—but we will certainly bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman says.
On Monday, my Department, in conjunction with the Home Office, published the Online Harms White Paper, which sets out our plans for a new regulatory framework for online harms underpinned by an independent regulator. As part of that framework, the regulator will publish a code of practice to ensure that platforms take proportionate steps to tackle the issue of disinformation and other forms of online manipulation.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I also welcome the White Paper. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, on which I serve, took a lot of information on the threat to our democracy; the White Paper is not silent on that, but it is not very talkative about it. Will he outline what steps the Government plan to take to protect our democracy?
The hon. Lady is right: it is an important area. The Select Committee has done very good work in drawing attention to it. As I made clear on Monday in my statement to the House, we should not see the Online Harms White Paper as the only part of the Government’s response in this area; there will be other important components to it. One of those that will cover the area that she describes will be the work that the Cabinet Office is doing, which I hope we will see very shortly.
Any regulator will be effective only if it has proper sanctioning powers with teeth. With tech companies turning over billions of pounds of profits and creating untold online harm, particularly to our young people, will the Secretary of State give more information about what kind of sanctioning powers—especially financial sanctions—the regulator will have? Will he give us an idea of what he will do to make sure that companies get in line?
The hon. Lady is right that the sanctions available to the regulator will be important here. The White Paper includes a number of options. We will want to look at remedial notices and at fines, potentially comparable to General Data Protection Regulation fines, which, as she knows, are very substantial indeed. We will also want to consider individual director liability and, at the top end of the scale, internet service provider blocking for those websites that refuse to co-operate with what the regulator requires.
The rocket fuel for fake news and disinformation is the tidal wave of dark money flowing into dark ads that are targeted with psychographic precision. Vote Leave has admitted breaking the rules—cheating by pumping in way over the odds during the referendum campaign—but the Secretary of State has done nothing to ensure that we have the transparency we need ahead of a possible second referendum. Will he think again and bring in the honest ads Act we have proposed, so we can finally see who is paying for what—not least the dark ads targeted at Members of this House?
As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will recognise, it is important that the Government act collectively on this matter. As I indicated to the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), we will shortly see some work by the Cabinet Office, which will deal with some of the questions around transparency that he perfectly fairly raises. However, I hope he will also accept that this Government have given the Information Commissioner additional powers to enable her to take the sorts of actions that he would wish to see taken. Of course, it is for the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner to act in these spaces.
Nearly 3,000 public libraries in England received 195 million physical visits in 2017-18. That is more than all the visits to premier league football games, to cinemas and to English Heritage sites combined—and perhaps even more than to tennis matches, Mr Speaker. Everyone uses public libraries, and everyone is involved in the social mobility aspects of those libraries. It is crucial that we support them so that they give opportunities to improve the life chances and achieve the full potential of everyone.
Andrew Carnegie, the great Scottish-US philanthropist, once stated:
“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”
However, since 2010, 605 libraries have closed in England, Wales in Scotland, and 15 of the 34 in Warwickshire have closed. Through their cuts to revenue support grant, are this Government not deserting our communities?
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s claim. The fact is that this Government are supporting local government in its work. Local government has a responsibility under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 to maintain libraries and provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s Taking Part survey found that libraries are used by all parts of our society. They are supported by this Government and this Department.
I am aware of what is happening in Essex—my right hon. Friend wrote to me about that—and I am aware of the recent consultation by Essex County Council on proposals for its library service. DCMS is monitoring Essex County Council’s compliance with its duty. I can tell my right hon. Friend that, should DCMS receive a complaint following a final decision by the council, it will look very carefully at whether it is failing to meet its statutory duty.
Will the Minister also have a word with the people running Derbyshire County Council? They issued a statement in which they said almost every public librarian is going to lose so many hours per week. On top of that, 20 libraries in Derbyshire are due to close completely. Will he have a word with them? It is a Tory county council.
There are county councils of different colours that, clearly, are dealing with the issues the hon. Gentleman refers to. I do not accept what he says about these facts. Libraries need to be supported by all local authorities. Local authorities have a statutory duty under the 1964 Act, and the Department will continue to monitor those duties.
Music Education in Schools
The opportunity to participate in music, art and drama can be transformative for young people’s self-confidence, mental health and life chances. That is why this Government will invest £500 million in cultural education between 2016 and 2020. We are in regular discussions with colleagues at the Department for Education. The Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries and the Minister for School Standards recently co-hosted a roundtable with the music industry to discuss music education.
UK Music and the Musicians Union have recently revealed that children in households where the income is £28,000 are half as likely to learn an instrument as children in families that earn £48,000. We know, and I am sure the Secretary of State will agree, that the ability to participate in music is a gift. Will he tell us when the national plan for music will be refreshed so that students in state schools can participate in music?
The hon. Lady is right: it is important that all pupils have this opportunity. She will know that for pupils aged between five and 14, music is a part of the national curriculum. It is important that all children, whatever their backgrounds, have these opportunities. As she knows, we are working on a non-statutory-model music curriculum, in conjunction with some expert advisers, for key stages 1 to 3. We hope that that will be ready for introduction in the autumn term of this year.
“Too many politicians are being told a message that is glossy and bears little relation to the reality of what is going on.”
That is what an instrumental teacher told the Musicians Union in its recent report on music education, “The State of Play”. Music teacher training places are down from 850 to 250 per year since 2010, teaching staff are declining year on year, exam entries are down, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) said, there is a worsening class divide in learning an instrument. When will the Secretary of State drop the glossy rhetoric about the Government’s record on music education that is so out of tune with reality?
No one doubts the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to music in this House, and he is right to be so committed, but he will get no glossy rhetoric from me: what he will get is facts, so let me give him some more. My reference to £500 million-worth of investment includes £300 million in music education hubs, which have so far reached 89% of schools. He will also know that 10% of the funding allocation for those hubs is based on the number of pupils in the area eligible for free school meals, so we are doing something to ensure that this kind of education reaches the right people.
The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) is not merely committed to music; I think people should be aware that he is a distinguished member of MP4—the parliamentary rock band, no less, which has performed with considerable distinction in Speaker’s House and elsewhere. People should know that—it is very important.
In Staffordshire, Entrust Music Service and Friends of Staffordshire’s Young Musicians do an excellent job in bringing music tuition and music performance to young people, but we need to do a lot more. Will the Secretary of State meet me and others to discuss how we can ensure that the money that is going in is translated into reality, particularly for children in families on low incomes, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin)?
Of course I will happily meet my hon. Friend to discuss this. He is right—there is always more that we can do. As I said in my initial answer, it is right to look not just at music but at art and drama, too. As he will know, the Government are also taking action in those spaces to make sure that more young people who do not yet have these opportunities are given them.
DCMS invested £2.6 million to install and upgrade free wi-fi in public libraries across England. I am pleased to say that over 99% of public library buildings now provide internet access. I was delighted to visit Wakefield and see the wonderful Theatre Royal, the Hepworth gallery and the Yorkshire sculpture park.
What a treat the Minister must have had in Wakefield. I urge hon. Members to visit during our wonderful year of sculpture which will start at the end of June.
We have lost three libraries in Wakefield, and across Yorkshire and the Humber we have lost more than 530 computers. So as the jobcentres are closing, we are seeing a digital exclusion double whammy. The disabled are not able to apply for jobs and universal credit, children in temporary accommodation have nowhere to do their homework, and asylum seekers at the initial accommodation centre in Wakefield have real difficulty getting internet access to register with the Home Office. Will the Minister look at provision in Wakefield?
I am always happy to look at these matters, but of course the facts are that over 99% of public library buildings now have internet access, and we have invested over £4 million on innovative library projects to improve people’s digital skills, literacy, health and wellbeing. Many millions of pounds are going into that topic, but we will remain alive to those issues.
In that spirit, Mr Speaker, Marcel Proust said:
“There are perhaps no days of our childhood that we lived as fully as…the days we spent with a favourite book”.
Getting children into libraries is critically important not only for the health of those libraries, but for the development of our collective futures. Will the Minister, the nation’s librarian, confirm that he intends to begin a new initiative to bind schools and libraries together so that we can allow more children, particularly from disadvantaged homes, to enjoy the benefits of books?
I am very flattered by my right hon. Friend’s question, and he makes an important point. The interplay between schools and libraries is a long-lasting one. It enriches lives and we want to promote it at every possible opportunity. We do that by encouraging the wide use of libraries by all sections of society, and I am pleased to confirm that libraries are used by more people across all socioeconomic groups and parts of our society than any other cultural form. He is right to quote Proust, as of course he always is.
Leaving the EU: Creative Industries
The effect of leaving the European Union on the UK creative industries will depend on the manner of our departure. We are engaging with businesses up and down the country, including small and medium-sized enterprises, to understand their concerns and to ensure that they are aware of Government advice, and we will continue that engagement. The UK’s creative and cultural industries are respected the world over. They are an economic powerhouse, exporting services that were worth £27 billion in 2016, and we are determined to continue our support for them.
I thank the Minister for her answer. Is she aware of the scale of the concern in the Thames Valley, which is an important centre for both the IT and creative industries? When will she be able to reassure local small businesses that are thinking of relocating to the EU that the Government have a realistic plan for Brexit?
I am very aware of the businesses in the sectors that the hon. Gentleman describes—and not just in his area—and their concerns. We are doing our best to reassure them about access to capital and talent post-Brexit, and we are well aware of their concerns.
UK creatives who want their trademarks protected in the EU rely on attorneys based in EEA countries. A trademark attorney in my constituency has contacted me with concerns about the lack of clarity in the framework that will allow him to continue representing his clients after Brexit. That threatens his business. Can the Minister reassure my constituent and the £268 billion creative industries that the EU intellectual property regime will continue to apply after Brexit and, if not, what is the plan?
Many grassroots music venues such as CICIC—Creative Innovation Centre CIC—in Taunton are wonderful places for bringing forward the talent going into our creative industries, yet they are suffering because they have to pay such high business rates. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss whether they could have lower rates, like many of our retail outlets and pubs?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point indeed. She would be well advised to raise those issues with the Treasury. We are in discussions with the Treasury on those matters, but we are doing a great many other things to support grassroots music venues, including through agent of change proposals and scrapping form 696, all of which have had a beneficial effect, certainly in the London area.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that we take on those responsibilities, and he will be pleased to hear that I spend more of my time focused on the creative industries outside London and the south-east. We have national skills programmes in the north-west and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and I am sure that we shall support the creative industries in the Northern Ireland, which are doing such a fantastic job, equally.
Digital Skills: Elderly in Rural Areas
Some 75% of those in this country with no digital skills are aged 65 or above. My Department has launched the digital inclusion innovation fund, which is designed to tackle digital exclusion, particularly among older people and people with disabilities. The Government are tackling digital exclusion by giving people the skills they need through the future digital inclusion programme. To date, the programme has supported 1 million adults to develop their basic digital skills.
I can certainly reassure my hon. Friend on that. We have spent almost £2 billion on bringing superfast broadband to 96%-plus of UK premises and are continuing to deliver in rural and remote parts of the UK. We have just launched the £200 million rural gigabit connectivity programme to ensure that no areas are left behind when it comes to the roll-out of gigabit speeds, which will be of particular value to older people in Wales and other rural parts of the country.
The hon. Lady is quite right: on-demand programme services need to catch up. The Ofcom proposals were made at the end of last year and are receiving consideration by my Department. In the meantime, best practice guidance has been introduced. It is voluntary at the moment, but for example Netflix has made 100% of its content available with subtitles.
Society Lottery Reform
Society lotteries are a vital source of fundraising for charities in this country, raising £300 million for good causes in 2018. Since the consultation on society lotteries reform closed, I have held many meetings with colleagues and stakeholders who reflect all sides of the debate. That process, alongside the consultation, is shaping what I intend to be a fair, balanced and future-proof package of measures that will enable all lotteries to thrive.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know he feels passionately about the work of society lotteries in supporting important causes in his constituency and across the UK. I am delighted to say that I hope to be able to respond formally to the consultation on the points he raised by the summer recess.
Will the Minister underline the importance of ensuring that any money set aside for administration is at an acceptable level? If something pertains to be a society lottery, the majority of its money should go to its projects and not be swallowed up in administration fees.
Visitors to the UK
The UK is an incredibly attractive destination for visitors, and we scored third overall top nation in the Anholt nation brands index. London was recently rated the best destination in the world by TripAdvisor. The west end is one example of a huge hit for visitors to the UK and London, and in 2018 audiences exceeded 15.5 million and generated box office revenue of more than £765 million—both record figures.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, but if I may, I would like to bring it to a more parochial level. The sunshine coast of Clacton has a proud history as a visitor destination. We had a Butlin’s and we have glorious sands. As a rural community we have often been overlooked by Government initiatives in the past. What can my hon. Friend do to assure me that that will not be the case in the future?
The Butlin’s in Clacton is on my list, Mr Speaker. I very much appreciate rural and coastal areas and understand their value. The local county council received more than £600,000 of coastal communities funding for Clacton and the Essex coast, and this January Clacton pier received £50,000 from the same fund for the “Jolly Roger” project—[Laughter.] That is actually what it is called. That project is supported in Clacton, and we will do everything we can to continue that.
I wish to draw the House’s attention to a written ministerial statement that I am making this morning. As the House will be aware, on 10 January News UK submitted an application to vary certain conditions that were put in place in 1981 by the then Secretary of State for Trade. The proposed changes will allow The Times and The Sunday Times to share journalistic resources, subject to the agreement of each newspaper’s editor. I have reviewed the case, and I am minded to accept News UK’s application. However, in considering the proposed new undertakings as a whole, I noted that the existing governance arrangements agreed in 1981 could be clearer and more certain regarding some roles and responsibilities. I have therefore asked my officials to consider those questions further with News UK before agreeing the application, and the full detail will be set out in the written ministerial statement.
Harrow Council has raised the rents of uniformed youth groups from £300 a year to a massive £3,000 a year, which will undoubtedly lead to youth organisations closing down. At a time of rising knife crime and real concerns in the community about what young people do, does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a desperate attack on youth organisations?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. It is extremely important that youth organisations, particularly the uniformed youth organisations that he describes, have the opportunity to do their important work, which includes helping young people to stay away from knife crime. How they choose to approach that is, of course, a matter for local authorities, but my hon. Friend will know that the Government have ensured additional funding for uniformed youth organisations which, in our view, is the right thing to do.
Mr Speaker, it is great to see you looking so jolly this morning.
Yesterday, I met a young woman who racked up a crippling debt of over £100,000 using nine different credit cards in just two days while gambling online. The operators that took her bets, LeoVegas and Casumo, should be held responsible for their disgraceful conduct. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet the young gambler? Does he agree with me that it is time to ban credit card gambling? No one should go into debt to place a bet.
I have a good deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says and huge sympathy with those who find themselves in the position of the individual he describes. I will of course meet her. Indeed, I will try to meet others who have been affected by this kind of gambling. It is important that not just gambling companies but all of us take an interest in the way in which this kind of problem gambling is developing. It is very clear that those who are gambling with money they do not have find themselves very quickly in very serious trouble. He will know that the Gambling Commission is at the moment looking at the specific question of gambling on credit. That is a process we have encouraged. I look forward very much to its conclusions. The Government intend to take action on the back of what it says.
My mum was a big fan of doing the pools, an opportunity many people took. We have rightly taken decisive action. From the start of this month, the FOBT stake has been cut. We have been absolutely clear that harm around gambling is not confined to one product. We will always look at where there is harm and act where we see it. We want responsible business. I will of course meet my right hon. Friend to discuss his concerns.
I agree with what the hon. Lady says. It cannot be more important that journalists in this country and abroad have the opportunity to report what is happening. We have discussed already this morning the question of disinformation, of which there is too much. A large part of the answer to disinformation is good quality, well researched journalism produced by those who are free to do it. We must defend their rights at every opportunity.
Yes, I do agree with my hon. Friend. He will have recognised from the White Paper that what we believe will be necessary to provide for a duty of care for online companies, and for an online regulator to enforce it, is primary legislation. I look forward to his support and, I hope, support right across the House for that legislation.
The national lottery has raised over £39 billion for good causes since 1994, funding projects in every constituency throughout the UK. It is my job, as we move into the fourth licence, to ensure that it thrives for the next 25 years. The opportunity to re-engage with communities and the public is there for us. If there is a particular concern relating to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I will be happy to take it forward to the national lottery.
What steps is the Department taking to encourage consortiums of arts organisations to work together with local authorities on applications to the cultural development fund to help local culture’s potential and the visitor economy?
My hon. Friend will know that in relation to the cultural development fund, five local areas will receive a share of £20 million. We believe that that is hugely important for the reasons that she gives. We expect it to create more than 1,300 new jobs across the country and, as she rightly says, to boost tourism and inward investment.
We published our future telecoms infrastructure review last year and we are now implementing it. We are about to launch the £200 million rural gigabit programme at the end of the month, which will help rural areas. Companies are now vying with one another in competition to secure cities and towns to connect full fibre to premises.
I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he has done to push this forward while in our Department. It is absolutely vital that this works across Government, and this is what we have seen through the Prime Minister’s knife crime and serious youth violence summit. It is absolutely right that we make sure that the help for our young people is set out very clearly in the charter and that we listen to people who know what our young people want—that means young people and people working cross-Government in the sector. I will be delighted to work with my hon. Friend on this issue.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue in the Chamber. There will be a further Government statement this morning on this issue. Football cannot be used as a cloak for racism and intolerance. This is a sign that players, fans, and this Government have had enough—so stop it. It is absolutely right that players can take the right action. We should stand with them, and I look forward to saying more on this later this morning.
My hon. Friend’s constituency and many others are rich in tourism offer. The economy benefits enormously from tourism. Tourism saw its best year ever in the 2017 period and it continues to do extremely well. He and others in similar constituencies promote the rural offer of the beauty of the natural environment across the world and we will continue to do that.
I agree with the hon. Lady. The actions of those who tried to find a way around the procedures banning the things that we across this House have decided should be banned were disgraceful. What happened thereafter, as she knows, is that the regulator took immediate action and those particular products were withdrawn. I hope that that lesson will be learned by all those across the industry who are tempted to try it again.
Yes. I am grateful to my hon. Friend and, indeed, to other colleagues who wrote to me. As he knows, my view is very simple: we must get to a place where rural coverage is better than it is. All of us and the mobile network operators have an obligation to achieve that. If it cannot be done any other way, I am perfectly prepared to entertain rural roaming as a way in which it might be done.
Will the Secretary of State look favourably at the opportunities presented by 5G connectivity on the train line in Devon and Cornwall? If our train journeys are to be long, can he at least help us to make them productive?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, mobile coverage on train lines at the moment is based substantially on wi-fi coverage—about 85% of trains now have wi-fi coverage, including, I think, the GWR service from London to Penzance. However, 5G gives us the opportunity to do better. He will be aware of the technical challenges in providing the lineside equipment that we need to make the system work properly. We are investing time and effort with Network Rail to develop that technology in a test-track facility. I hope it will bear fruit.
The tourism sector deal is being closely worked on; it is something we have been working on for some time. It is extremely productive, and the tourism sector itself has been working to make it as productive as possible. It is a reflection of the value of tourism to our economy that it has been given priority in Government over many other sectors, and we are continuing to work on it to produce a result as soon as possible.
As you will know, Mr Speaker, Scotland has made a hugely disproportionate contribution to British tennis, be it the Murrays, Leon Smith or Gordon Reid—I could go on. However, Tennis Scotland has struggled to capitalise on a membership that has doubled in recent years, because Scotland, despite all the success I have just listed, and despite having 8.4% of the UK population, only receives less than 1% of the Lawn Tennis Association’s revenue funding. Does the Minister think that that is fair and equitable?
I had the pleasure recently of sharing a platform with Judy Murray and staff from the new women’s sport section of The Daily Telegraph. She spoke about the “lady in the van” tennis club that she ran around Scotland to support grassroots tennis. It is absolutely right that the governing body continues to work from the top to support those doing so much from the bottom. I am happy to speak more about that at some point and to support tennis to grow and create more Andy Murrays and, indeed, all Murrays.
I support anything to do with tennis, Mr Speaker, as you know.
I was heartened to hear the Secretary of State’s comments just now about mobile roaming. A recent survey highlighted that a third of all rural buildings have either no mobile coverage or poor coverage. At a time when we are trying to get more small and medium-sized enterprises in rural areas, when we have an increasingly elderly population and when tourism is so important, is it not a disgrace that we should have such a divide between urban and rural? I am sure the Secretary of State understands that we must address that.
Food banks are like the fourth emergency service, especially in rural areas such as mine. High Peak Foodbank has helped over 1,000 people this year, but it is no longer funded by the lottery. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the lottery’s decision on food banks and the vulnerable people who need them?
As the lotteries Minister, that is not something I am aware of. I am happy to hear more from the hon. Lady and to engage with the national lottery on this issue. We need to make sure there is appropriate funding, and it is great that the national lottery reaches into many communities, helping people broadly. I am happy to take away this issue and the challenge to look across Government and work with colleagues.
The Attorney General was asked—
CPS: Mental Health
The Crown Prosecution Service has a duty of fairness to all defendants, including people with mental health issues. In March it launched a public consultation on revised guidance for prosecutors dealing with defendants with mental health issues. It welcomes responses to the consultation to ensure that its published legal guidance gives the best possible help to prosecutors dealing with such cases.
A fair trial is one in which the defendant can follow the proceedings and advance his defence, and the CPS, as an administerer of justice, will want to ensure that that remains the case. What steps is it taking to engage with experts to ensure that defendants are best placed to have a fair trial?
My hon. Friend, who has a considerable and distinguished history with regard to the prosecution of serious offences at the Bar, will know that it is vital for experts in the field to be consulted. As part of the consultation, different criminal justice diversions are being considered for some defendants with a range of mental illnesses. I should point out that although autism and other disabilities are included in that consideration, they are not mental illnesses but lifelong conditions. I think that that distinction needs to be drawn very carefully indeed.
I had to intervene with the CPS in the case of a young man in Wakefield who suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I am happy to say that he has now received the treatment that he needed, and that the CPS was very compassionate. However, research shows that people with ADHD are disproportionately present in the criminal justice system. Will the Solicitor General work with the CPS and experts on the public health White Paper to ensure that young offenders who are disproportionately represented, and who are also likely to have higher reoffending rates, are systematically screened?
I welcome the hon. Lady’s reference to ADHD. In my professional experience, that condition, connected with communication disorder, is often very prevalent among young offenders in the criminal justice system. As part of the consultation, work will be ongoing to ensure that prosecutors have a greater awareness of the condition when they consider the merits of prosecution.
The CPS has undertaken extensive work to ensure that specialist prosecutors are fully equipped to deal with the particular complexities of such cases, and I engage with it regularly about this topic. In March the Government announced a review of how the criminal justice system responds to rape and serious sexual offences. The CPS supports the review, and is committed to working closely with the police and others to address any issues highlighted by it.
Is there any guidance for the police or the CPS on access to victims’ data? It concerns me that victims of sexual abuse and rape are being subjected to trawls of their personal data—counselling, school and work data—before the CPS considers taking up their cases.
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. A natural and anxious debate is taking place about disclosure, but I can reassure the hon. Gentleman—and, indeed, all complainants and victims of crime—that “reasonable lines of inquiry” does not mean a reckless trawl through the private lives of entirely innocent individuals. That is not a good use of resources, and it is not what we are encouraging. We need a far more targeted line of inquiry, in accordance with both the law and the code of practice.
Intimate partners and ex-partners are the largest single category of perpetrators of rape and sexual assault, which, in my experience of working with abusive men, are linked to outdated and, frankly, illegal attitudes to sex in relationships. What discussions is the Solicitor General having with his colleagues in the Department for Education about the content of the curriculum for relationships and sex education in schools?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the work that she has done on this issue in the past. She is absolutely right to talk about the input of the Department for Education. I was delighted that the House overwhelmingly passed the new regulations on personal, social, health and economic education, because they deal with relationships properly, and will help young people to understand at an early age what that means and what their responsibilities are. I will continue to have conversations with colleagues in the DFE, and also, importantly, to ensure that the myth-busting that is already being delivered by judges and prosecutors in Crown court trials continues, so that jurors—along with everyone else who is involved in the system—do not have outdated misconceptions about these appalling crimes.
My right hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. She will be glad to know that, as part of the work that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General and I have done to publish a new report on disclosure, I will be chairing a tech summit in June to deal precisely with how we can make artificial intelligence work to help with the huge challenge of trawling through that sort of data.
In cases where rape leads to pregnancy, does my hon. and learned Friend agree with the intention behind the 10-minute rule Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) to remove parental rights from fathers of children conceived through rape?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue with me. I regrettably have not had time to consider that Bill, but everyone in the House can agree that those who act criminally and break the law in a serious way should not expect to enjoy the same rights and privileges that the rest of us enjoy.
I am one of those who represents a constituency that has had this curse of the wicked grooming, mainly of young girls, by gangs—it has happened in more than a dozen cities and towns in this country. We still have not had an inquiry into the underlying causes and why this happened. The Crown Prosecution Service is under pressure to meet its responsibilities due to the lack of resources.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this deeply concerning issue. I am happy to report that there have been a number of successful prosecutions of gangs who engage in this despicable and criminal behaviour. That is as a result of a change of culture that means the victims of these crimes are taken far more seriously than they were even a few years ago. So there is progress.
The response to the call for evidence on the impact of social media on the administration of justice was published on 5 March this year. We concluded that, whereas at present social media are not having a widespread impact on the trial process, this may not remain the case if the issues identified are not addressed. The Government are responding in a number of ways, including a new gov.uk webpage to support the public in understanding how they can responsibly comment on criminal trials in social media.
I do sometimes wonder. It should be as plain as a pikestaff to anyone that the criminal trial process has to have integrity and be based on the evidence heard in court. That is why the new contempt online webpage sets out clear and accessible information for the public on what might be considered contempt. I reassure my right hon. Friend that the law officers take robust action where there is evidence of contempt.
Will the Solicitor General set out what work he is doing with Twitter, Facebook, Google and other online platforms, which is mainly where people take the law into their own hands and assume that they know what they are talking about when they refer to cases and other issues?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. He will be happy to know that I have set up a special point of contact with each of those social media companies so that if an issue is raised with my office an official can immediately contact a named person to ensure as rapid as possible a takedown of the offending material.
EU Withdrawal: Protection of Human Rights
The United Kingdom has a long tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically, and of fulfilling its international human rights obligations. The decision to leave the European Union does not change that.
The Scottish Government set out three principles for human rights protections after Brexit—non-regression from current EU rights, keeping pace with future EU rights developments, and continuing to demonstrate leadership in human rights. Does the Attorney General agree with those principles, and will he share them with his colleagues in Government?
I find myself in total agreement with what the hon. Lady has said. I will share them with my colleagues. We are not in any way going to permit our departure from the EU to detract from our firm and unshakeable commitment to human rights in this country and to the rule of law.
In that context, and given the December resolution of the House regarding publication of the Law Officers’ opinions, will my right hon. and learned Friend be good enough to tell the House whether his advice was sought on these vital matters of time extensions before critical decisions were taken, as required by the ministerial code? Will he publish that advice?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question. He knows that I am acutely conscious of his desire to have the maximum transparency upon the legal advice I give to the Government. He also knows that I am bound by a long-standing convention relating to Law Officers’ advice to disclose neither the fact nor the content of it. Within those constraints, I consider constantly to what extent I can make available to the House all the information it needs to take the important decisions that theses times require.
Whatever happens with regard to trade, the economy and so on, one of the most important elements in ensuring that we can still secure justice in this country is maintaining some form of extradition with other European Union countries. What will we do if the European arrest warrant is not available to us?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government are committed to a close and special relationship with the EU in relation to security. The question of our participation in a system relating to European arrest warrants will be close to our hearts in the negotiations that are to follow. But if we were not able to avail ourselves of what it is in the interests of both sides to agree, of course we would fall back on the 1957 extradition legislation and its provisions, and the preparations are at an advanced stage, in conjunction with the possibility that still exists of there being no deal between us.
I hope it is not indecent to point out that yesterday’s European Council was a humiliation for the Prime Minister. At a time when everyone is crying out for more coppers and school budgets are under tremendous, genuine pressure, how does it make sense to spend £100 million of British taxpayers’ money electing 73 Members to the European Parliament to serve for a maximum of five months?
To answer the question, as amended, I quite understand my right hon. Friend’s frustration. To the outsider, it does not look sensible for us to be holding European elections when the entire country is expecting us to move on, leave the European Union and fulfil the commitments of both major parties at the last general election. However, we are under a legal obligation to do so while we remain a member of the European Union. There is a single, simple answer to this question: let us ratify the withdrawal agreement and we are out.
Leaving the EU
I am extremely grateful for the question. I regularly meet ministerial colleagues to discuss important issues of common interest, including on matters relating to the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU. The hon. Lady will understand that I am unable to talk about the legal content of those discussions, but the Government’s main priority is to honour the pledges made at the time of the referendum by national politicians of all parties and fulfil its outcome. We can do that by ratifying the withdrawal agreement.
I made it clear to the hon. Lady and to the House that I am acutely conscious of the need for the House to be as fully informed as possible of all legitimate matters that it should know before taking these important decisions. At any significant event in these proceedings, I shall review that need accordingly.
Does the Attorney General agree that it is critical that any agreement ensures that our police, prosecution and judicial authorities continue to have uninterrupted access to co-operation and information sharing mechanisms under Eurojust and Europol? That access would be lost in the event of no deal but could be retained in the event of a deal.
I agree with my hon. Friend. That is one of the most important negotiating objectives in connection with our security and law partnership, and it is a matter that we are constantly bringing to the attention of the European Union. If we can ratify the withdrawal agreement, it will be one of the highest priorities.
During the Attorney General’s podcast interview with Nick Robinson last week I was delighted to hear him say that the Government would consider the option of a second European Union referendum, and yesterday the Prime Minister did not rule out that option when questioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), so can the Attorney General tell us what recent discussions the Cabinet have had about a second EU referendum?
That is a subtle enticement by the hon. and learned Lady, but I know that she knows that I am not going to tell her about what discussions the Cabinet may have had. What I can say, however, is that the current discussions with the Labour Opposition are being pursued in good faith. There are no preconditions and of course we will listen to any suggestions, whether they be about a second referendum or any other matter, to see whether we can find common ground, in the interests of the country, to leave the European Union as swiftly as possible.
The Attorney General’s recent podcast is clearly quite popular, because I have been listening to it as well, particularly his comments on the legal implications of leaving the European Union. He said that
“we have underestimated its complexity. We are unpicking 45 years of in-depth integration.”
Which of his Government colleagues did he have in mind when he made those comments?
I have been saying this since 2016, as the Hansard record will witness, and indeed most recently on 12 March. I take the view that we need to take a complex and careful view of how it is necessary for us to extricate ourselves from 45 years of legal integration. The withdrawal agreement does justice to those complexities. It settles matters at a complex level, and that is precisely why it is necessary for us to leave the European Union. I urge the hon. Gentleman to vote for it.
We know that is the Attorney General’s view, but I did not detect an answer to my question in all that, so let us try asking about something else the Attorney General has said about Brexit, namely:
“It needs a hard-headed understanding of realities.”
When the majority was lost in the snap election, there was no sense of reality when the Prime Minister should have spoken out. The Attorney General was sent on a fruitless pursuit to reopen the withdrawal agreement, which was always impossible, and four months have been spent refusing to accept the reality of not being able to get the withdrawal agreement through this House. Does the Attorney General not agree that it is the failure of the Government to accept reality that has led to the mess we are in?
No, I do not accept that. The withdrawal agreement was the product of two years of exhaustive negotiation. It settles citizens’ rights for millions of British citizens in Europe as well as for EU citizens here. It fulfils the financial obligations to the European Union. It is a complex settlement that requires to be signed before we can leave. I do not accept that it was unrealistic to attempt to get the fruits of that agreement agreed in this House. In truth, as the hon. Gentleman knows, if we are to leave the European Union it is a necessary precondition of our doing so.
East Midlands Rail Franchise
On Wednesday 10 April, it was announced that Abellio is the successful bidder to operate the east midlands rail franchise and will be responsible for delivering new trains, smart ticketing and more frequent services for passengers. Passengers in the east midlands are to get new trains, more peak-time services, reduced journey times and over £17 million of station improvements as Abellio takes over the franchise from August 2019.
Abellio will invest £600 million in trains and stations between August 2019 and 2027, while the Government continue with their £1.5 billion upgrade to the midland main line—the biggest upgrade to the line since it was completed in 1870. This is part of the Government’s £48 billion investment to modernise our railways over the next five years.
As we informed the House in yesterday’s written statement, Abellio was awarded the contract “following rigorous competition.” It was a fair, open competition and Abellio provided the best bid, in which it demonstrated that it will not only meet but exceed the Department’s specifications.
Stagecoach chose to put in a non-compliant bid, which resulted in its disqualification, in line with the terms of the published invitation to tender. That said, Stagecoach has played an important role in our railways, and we hope it will continue to do so after the conclusion of the rail review. However, it is entirely for Stagecoach and its bidding partners to explain why it decided to ignore established rules by rejecting the commercial terms on offer.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this urgent question.
The Minister did not really answer the question. Abellio has been awarded the contract as the best bidder, but the bid of the existing franchisee was not even allowed. Generally, Stagecoach has performed reasonably well on the contract, so will he explain when the requirement was first introduced that a bidder has to cover pension costs? Is this the first franchise for which the requirement has been introduced? Why was it applied?
How much, in total, are the Government trying to cover in costs through the franchising process? When were the bidders notified of the requirement—was it at the beginning of the process?—and why was no one else told about it? Are any other companies refusing to cover such costs? Are any other franchises affected? If they are, what will be the effect on competition within the franchising system? What would happen to future competitions and to the costs that the Government seek to cover if all companies refused to cover those costs?
Finally, on the bid that has been accepted, do these hybrid trains actually exist now? When will they be introduced? What will the Government do if existing rolling stock is not disability-compliant in 2020? The Government have promised improvements to the timetable, but can we be assured that, at the beginning of the new franchise, journey times will be at least as good, and at least as short, as they were before the botched timetable changes of last year?
There are a lot of questions there. First, Stagecoach has acknowledged to the Department that it had bid non-compliantly. We have received offers from other bidders in all competitions that are fully compliant in providing the required pension arrangements for railway workers so, to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question on whether this means the bid process is failing and others are refusing, clearly they are not because we have a compliant bid that won in good form.
Stagecoach is an experienced bidder and fully aware of the franchise competition rules, so it is regrettable that it submitted a non-compliant bid that breached the established rules. In doing so, Stagecoach is responsible for its own disqualification. Bidders were invited to bid on the basis of a pension deficit recovery mechanism. They knew that at the very start of the process[Official Report, 25 April 2019, Vol. 658, c. 8MC.]. Stagecoach did not accept it and made some amendments as it submitted the bid. On what would happen if all companies refuse, clearly, by definition, they are not all refusing, so the question does not apply.
We will see an entirely new fleet of trains—a full replacement fleet—come into service. Inter-city services will receive new bi-mode trains, and regional services will receive new diesel trains. The express fleet, which is the Corby-Bedford-London service, will receive new electric trains that offer significantly enhanced environmental improvements.
What is interesting in this franchise is that we will see the first trial of a hydrogen-powered train. [Hon. Members: “When?”] In terms of timing, we will see the new trains coming into service in a phased way. We hope to see the first trains coming in next year, and so on over the next three years.
The bidding process was conducted in a fair and consistent way, applying the rules of engagement equally to all bidders. We have provided feedback to those who have not been successful. The reasons are always commercially confidential. Losing bidders may publicise them if they wish, but we will not do that because they are commercially confidential. The key thing that we are seeing here is a franchise awarded in the typical way that franchises are awarded in our rail industry, delivering passenger benefits.
I am rather surprised at the late withdrawal, or barring, of Stagecoach from this franchise. It seems to have come right at the end, so it is odd that my hon. Friend is saying that somehow Stagecoach knew it was non-compliant, because if the Department knew so early that it was non-compliant, one would have thought it would have been told quite some time ago. These franchise bids are not cheap to make and they are very expensive on the company.
Will my hon. Friend be more specific, as usually is the case, about where the new trains are coming from? If they are to be in operation from next year, presumably an order is about to be made very soon. Where will that order come from? I congratulate the Government on widening state ownership of the railways, albeit that of other states.
There were a number of points in my right hon. Friend’s question. As soon as the decision was taken on this franchise, all the bidders were notified. That is entirely standard. He has a great track record of delivering improvements across our rail network. Bidders were notified, of course, across all competitions, so that they did not incur extra costs. These things are expensive to operate, so this was awarded in a fair and consistent way.
Obviously, the contract to deliver the rolling stock will be between the successful bidder and its rolling stock provider, but we expect to see significant improvement in the rolling stock, and the feedback I have had from passengers along the line and from colleagues who serve along the line is that they are looking forward to seeing the benefits that those will bring.
Clearly, the franchise system is in complete disarray. It seems that Stagecoach boss Martin Griffiths and Richard Branson have been taken completely by surprise by the announcement of the decision to disqualify Stagecoach from the discredited franchise process, seemingly for failing to provide sufficient commitments in terms of the pension scheme, bidders having been asked to bear full long-term funding risks on relevant sections of the railways pension scheme. Can the Minister inform the House about the pension commitments made by Abellio that warranted the award of the east midlands franchise and the extent to which any such commitments were distinct and more acceptable to the Department for Transport?
Is not this really payback for the east coast collapse, two years ago? The question on the airwaves today was whether this decision would propel Richard Branson back into his favourite hobby of suing Her Majesty’s Government over the awarding of contracts, which has served him so profitably over the years. What preparations has the Minister’s Department made in readiness for potential costly litigation flowing from this decision?
Why did the Department change the pension rules in the middle of the bids? On south eastern, that was only made clear after two rebids. Is not that moving the goalposts?
The real issue is that this Government, by sleight of hand, are trying to reduce their support for the railways pension scheme. They are trying to pass these costs on to the private sector. That is why both Stagecoach and Arriva defaulted on their bids for the east midlands franchise. The rail industry has a plan to reduce the deficits in its pension schemes, yet the Government have ignored that and are attempting to bulldoze through changes without consultation. That is reckless. It will concern rail workers and worsen the rail service for passengers. What discussions were there with the trade unions? Moreover, given that Keith Williams has been instructed to conduct a root-and-branch review of the operation of our railway, why has such a lengthy franchise been awarded before the Williams review reports later this year?
The announcement is accompanied by the decision to extend the franchise award on south eastern to Govia. How can it be right for that company to be given the nod to continue when it has delivered such a miserable service and completely failed its passengers? Is that not further reward for failure? Surely even this beleaguered Government can see what is staring them in the face: the franchise system is in total collapse. They need to respond to long-suffering passengers and do what the next Labour Government will do: bring track and train back together in state ownership—this state.
The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions. Is the franchising system in disarray? Of course it is not. If we look at what has happened to our railways over the past 25 years, we see unprecedented passenger growth. We now have more people travelling on our railways and more services run on our railways, and at a greater level of safety than ever before. The franchising system has been a key ingredient in that delivery. Do I think the franchising system is over? Absolutely not. I think we need to look at how it will evolve in future, and that is what the Williams review is doing. Franchising has helped get the system from A to B, reversing years of decline. We now need to see what system we will have as we take it through to the next stage.
Stagecoach knew that its bid was non-compliant—it acknowledged that to the Department. The hon. Gentleman asked about litigation. The Government are completely confident that the bid was evaluated and decided fairly. It is business as usual in the awarding of a franchise on our rail network. He asked whether the decision on the east coast main line was payback. That question is absolute nonsense. This is an entirely separate matter. The bid was won on merit by the strongest bidder. It offered the best bid, with new trains and more services, including more Sunday services and more early and late services. It was won on merit. If a company chooses to bid non-compliantly, that is its fault.
With regard to passing the costs on to the private sector, that is also nonsense, because these are private sector pension schemes. The rail operating companies have a section of the rail pension scheme. Their trustees will meet the Pensions Regulator to discuss that. Is this a question of the Government seeking to remove responsibility? No, this is a private matter and the trustees will be dealing with that in their own way.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether I have met the trade unions. I have met the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and ASLEF, and on this occasion I have written to them to highlight the award today.
Williams said in his recent speech that the franchise system in effect is already broken, and today’s announcement proves it. Abellio is hopeless. The Minister will recall an Adjournment debate he had with a number of MPs a couple of months ago—the business of the House had collapsed early so lots of us piled in. I think six or seven Members from Essex, whose constituents suffer that company every day, got up and told him, one after the other, how utterly useless that company is. We have been waiting for years for new trains from Abellio, yet still they do not turn up. It is Dutch-Japanese owned and it does not give a monkey’s about the passengers. I am sorry, but this is a massive mistake and yet another Grayling cock-up.
I do not agree with anything my right hon. Friend has just said. That Adjournment debate was very enjoyable; we had many discussions because there were so many interventions. The core of the debate, which was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), was about the introduction of the Delay Repay 15 offer for customers, which went live on 1 April and has been widely welcomed by passengers on the line. Indeed, on 1 April, I went to stations in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, and I met passengers, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association and the rail operating company, and the arrival of DR15 was widely welcomed. The key thing that people were looking for was the consistent delivery of a timetable, so the requirement to pay any form of compensation would not be necessary. That is, of course, at the heart of the Government’s CP6—control period 6—investment. We are investing £48 billion over the next five years to modernise and upgrade our railway to make sure that we can deliver the network and services that passengers rightly expect. Is Abellio a failing provider? No.
I have looked at the measures in terms of performance data and customer satisfaction. I recognise that we have had frustrations across our rail network over a number of years and that we had very poor performance last May, but I do not accept that Abellio is a failing performer. It operates 6,000 trains in the UK each day. The service is improving in all areas—[Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) is doing an awful lot of chuntering using fairly robust language, as he normally does—or as he has taken to doing recently. The point remains that we are delivering a network that is operating at the best that it has operated for a significant number of years. It has turned around decades of under-investment and underperformance. We are now seeing a network carrying more people with a higher level of safety than at any point in British history and this franchise award takes that further.
Yet again, we have not had a statement from the Department for Transport. We have to rely on media announcements and urgent questions to hold the Department to account, but when the Minister comes to the Dispatch Box, he says, “Oh, that’s a lot of questions.” That is because we are not getting information. Virgin Trains East Coast walked away from the east coast main line owing £2 billion. Many people called for Stagecoach not to be allowed to bid for other franchises, but the Department for Transport dug its heels in, saying that it could bid for franchises and then sat on the non-compliant bid for a long time. Why has the Department adopted such contradictory positions? Martin Griffiths, the Stagecoach chief executive, said:
“We are extremely concerned both at the DfT’s decision and its timing. The Department has had full knowledge of these bids for a lengthy period”.
Again, what discussions were held on pensions and how long has the Department sat on the non-compliant bid before making a decision?
What will happen with the west coast main line franchise, as we are told by the media that Virgin Trains will disappear in a year? Virgin previously won the 2012 franchise after a legal challenge, so what are the risks of further challenges from Virgin after this decision today, and will the Minister provide any legal advice that the Department has taken?
Abellio in Scotland pays the living wage. Is it part of this franchise award that all employees get the living wage? How robust are the pension protections in this Abellio franchise and how will pensions be protected in other franchises? Clearly, this is now a major issue.
Many of us have called for the Transport Secretary to resign. Now we have the irony of the Transport Secretary threatening the Prime Minister to resign over her position on Europe. Will he follow through on his threat, or will the Government take action and make the Secretary of State resign and shake up the Department?
Well, much of that was absolutely ridiculous—just complete nonsense. Let us turn back the page and remind ourselves about the idea that the Government have somehow been dragged to the Dispatch Box. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this was a contract that included a market sensitive element. There are strict procedures when a market-sensitive contract is awarded by any Government—and that includes the Scottish Government. The announcement is made first of all to the City. There was a written ministerial statement at 7 o’clock yesterday morning and by 9 o’clock there was a “Dear Colleague” letter sent out to all those Members who were affected, so what he says is simply wrong.
I have to say I cannot remember exactly the full range of questions the hon. Gentleman asked, but the key thing is that this contract has been awarded in a fair and consistent way. It is delivering significant passenger benefits, including a complete renewal of the fleet. I have already highlighted that the inter-city, regional and express services will all receive new rolling stock—new trains—and that there will be more services, more seats at peak and improved environmental performance. The benefits are clearly very significant. We should welcome them, not the opposite.
I think the hon. Gentleman got carried away with his own rhetoric when he asked whether the Secretary of State should resign. Of course not—what a load of complete nonsense. This franchise was awarded in a fair and consistent way, and it will deliver for passengers. We should celebrate that, not the opposite.
Order. I am keen to accommodate colleagues, but we have the business question to follow and thereafter another statement, and after that the Prime Minister’s statement. There is a premium upon brevity, to be exemplified by single-sentence questions, pioneered by the hon. Gentleman from Bosworth, Mr David Tredinnick—one sentence, man.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. As part of his response to the new franchisee, which will be broadly welcomed in my constituency if it really does produce new trains, better capacity and improved stations—from listening to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), I am not so sure about that—will my hon. Friend look at connectivity between Leicester and Nuneaton via Hinckley? There are also big concerns about the west coast main line.
I will of course consider my hon. Friend’s point, but we have produced an interactive map so anybody can log on and see where the benefits will fall right across the franchise area. That map is available at maps.dft.gov.uk and may provide the detail he seeks.
I hope the Minister recognises that, although East Midlands Trains staff are covered by TUPE thanks to our membership of the EU, this will be a really uncertain time for them—especially those who have worked for Stagecoach for the last 12 years. Will he first join me in thanking them for their hard work, which I know will continue for the rest of this franchise and into the next? Does he also recognise the wider anxiety that this decision has prompted among railway staff about the security of their pensions? At privatisation, his Department promised to provide a long-term guarantee for their pensions. What assurance can he give them today that that has not changed?
The hon. Lady is quite right. I happily join her in thanking those who have worked in this franchise and, indeed, in all the other franchises to make our railway system work day in, day out. It is a hard job they do, and we should recognise that, not criticise them for it.
I also recognise that, when anything changes like this, there will be a degree of uncertainty. A level of uncertainty can come when there are takeovers in any sector of business, but when franchises change there are TUPE protections, which are positive, and I entirely support that. Pensions are a key part of having a comprehensive offer for workers in every sector, and the Pensions Regulator is working with the trustees of the railways pension scheme to ensure that workers’ benefits are protected. We want that to happen. We want to see people in the sector retire with secure, stable, good pensions.
It is very welcome that we are going to have 80% more seats in the morning peak and new bi-mode trains that can benefit from the electrification to Market Harborough, but may I ask the Minister two things? First, when in the new franchise will those new trains arrive? Secondly, does he agree that if we are going to have new trains for the east midlands, they should be built in the east midlands?
My hon. Friend rightly never misses an opportunity to mention Market Harborough, of which he is a great champion. Obviously, the contract for the new trains will be placed by the new bidder, but I am always keen to see more manufacturing take place in this country. That is why we have been working to make the environment for manufacturing in this country so much better, which is one of the ingredients of the economic turnaround from the mess this Government inherited.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) on securing this very important question. A large number of people across the east midlands will share his concerns about the granting of this franchise. Stagecoach at least backed the Access for All bid for Beeston station, and it is really unfortunate that the Government have not provided the money to make sure that we have that funding.
There is real concern about rolling stock and Abellio’s ability to provide it. In short, the Minister should know that Stagecoach certainly told me that there would be no new rolling stock. As he will know, we have on this line trains that are 40 years old. There will be no new trains for at least three years. We now need to firm this up. Will he confirm that Abellio will not provide trains for at least four years, or is there any chance that it might be a shorter period?
I recognise that the east midlands franchise has been successful. However, this bid was won on merit and awarded to the strongest bidder. It was the strongest bidder irrespective of any of the compliance issues that we have been talking about today.
As regards the Access for All bid for Beeston, it was not successful in this round. I imagine that we will see further rounds of Access for All funding because it is a critical part of this. We are working to make our railway network available for as many people as possible. There is no greater champion for that than the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), who is sitting next to me. I therefore suggest that the right hon. Lady speaks to her to discuss potential future bids for Beeston.
I welcome any opportunity to improve the service through the east midlands and to get new trains. I echo the calls for those trains to be made in Derby if at all possible. Will the Minister confirm that the new contract includes a requirement for the new franchisee to bring forward a business case for the Robin Hood line extension through my constituency, for which we have been fighting for many years and will be a big step forward for my constituents?
I receive quite a number of lobbies on the Robin Hood line. I cannot provide the immediate reassurance that my hon. Friend is looking for, but I suggest that we could perhaps meet to discuss this further. I am aware that it will be of interest to many colleagues within the House.
The Public Accounts Committee has repeatedly highlighted the problems with the franchising system, and the fact that we were whittled down to a single bidder underlines that. I thank the Minister’s Department for sending me details of the franchise. The interesting point is the extension of the Govia contract, which will go on until November of this year, with an option to extend the agreement, the Secretary of State tells me, to April 2020. Does this mean that the outcome of the root-and-branch rail review will be so conclusive that he will have the time to run a new franchising project within six months?
Right. Well, that franchise is still under consideration and we will be announcing the results in due course. The point in the letter to the hon. Lady was that while that evaluation is taking place, there has been a short extension to the existing franchise to ensure that passenger services can continue to operate.
The main concerns of Kettering rail users are finding a seat on crowded peak time trains to and from London, the low frequency of services north on the main line to Leicester and the level of fares per mile being among the highest in the country. Does the winning bidder address any of those issues?
This is the very earliest of stages, so I am afraid I cannot provide all the details on that. However, I am extremely keen to see further environmental improvements on our rail network, and it is with great relish that I will be taking the first opportunity to bring a hydrogen-powered train on to the network.
The Minister paints a very glowing picture of this new franchise—it almost sounds too good to be true. As somebody who will be travelling on these trains every week, as he will not be, can he assure me that the quality of the brand-new trains that he has promised us, which will apparently be amazing, will be at least as good-quality as the ones we have now and better than Abellio usually has, or will they be of inferior quality? When will they come into the franchise, and will they be stopping more frequently between London and Belper?
The quality of the rolling stock will be upgraded. The rolling stock in this area is indeed quite old. I am fully aware that I do not travel on the line as frequently as my hon. Friend, although I am quite a regular passenger. As we replace trains across our network, we are seeing a much improved service. In this instance, there will be more seats and free wi-fi across the franchise, which should benefit her and those she serves. On stopping at Belper, I will need to do some further investigation and reply separately on that point.
The franchise system is broken. It does not work for staff or in the interests of passengers. The potential for a direct line between Grimsby and London was scuppered by alleged anti-competitiveness between franchisees. Does not the process need a complete overhaul?
I have already said how I think that franchising has been a key part of the turnaround in our rail network since privatisation. On services to Grimsby, a new Nottingham to Grimsby service, with limited extension to Cleethorpes, is part of the new franchise, and the hon. Lady should welcome it.