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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
05 July 2018
Volume 644

House of Commons

Thursday 5 July 2018

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Transport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Road Investment Strategy

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1. Which road schemes he plans to allocate funding to as part of the second Road Investment Strategy. [906262]

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The Department is considering evidence about the strategic road network gathered by Highways England and stakeholders over the past two years, alongside responses to the consultation that took place over the winter. The Department will be announcing the decisions about which new enhancements will be included in the second road investment strategy in 2019.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. On the A417 missing link scheme Swindon to Gloucester, can he confirm that it is the Government’s intention that a preferred route will be announced in the first quarter of next year, followed by the development consent order process, followed hopefully by RIS2 funding, and with an intention to commence in the early 2020s to build this much-needed road where there has been a fatality recently?

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This road is both dangerous and highly congested. Highways England has been carrying out a consultation on improving the missing link near the Air Balloon pub, as my hon. Friend will know, and I have recently met him and colleagues. Once the responses have been analysed there will be further consultation ahead of the preferred route announcement. We certainly hope there will be a PRA early in 2019.

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I am sure the Minister is aware that road links between Sheffield and Manchester are as bad as between any two major cities in Europe, and I invite him to join me to demonstrate that fact, as one of his predecessors did. Will he confirm that even if construction work will not start in the next funding period, at least design work will start on the promised scheme to link the two cities together?

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I can make no such confirmation; the hon. Gentleman knows the structure of RIS2, and we will make the announcement in 2019, but I will be delighted to have further conversations with him about the scheme in question.

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I listened very carefully to what the Minister said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown). The A417 missing link road scheme is important to all Members of Parliament for, and the county of, Gloucestershire, so I welcome what the Minister said and urge him to follow through on his commitments to my hon. Friend, and remind him that we will all be watching and waiting to make sure he follows through on the commitments he has made at the Dispatch Box.

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I am always grateful for reminders of the importance of parliamentary accountability, and I take that cue. My right hon. Friend will recall that this is not an inexpensive scheme. We are hoping to bring it to birth, and have given it a very strong commitment and continue to do so, and we are looking for a PRA early in 2019, as I have said.

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Haydock island in my constituency is where junction 23 of the M6 meets the East Lancs road and very busy local roads. The system has been reconfigured but still is not working, and my constituents, residents and local businesses are suffering. Will the Minister meet me and local representatives to ensure we can improve it by including it in the next scheme in 2019?

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If that scheme has been placed into the RIS2 consultation it will presently be a matter for consultation with officials. I am happy to have a meeting with the hon. Gentleman, but not in any sense that puts the formal process of consultation and deliberation at risk.

Transport Infrastructure

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2. What steps he is taking to invest in transport infrastructure. [906263]

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The Government are investing record sums to deliver the transport infrastructure that Britain needs. The Department for Transport’s annual capital spending will more than double over this decade, from £8 billion in 2009-10 to £17 billion in 2019-20. This money will deliver our ambitious five-year investment plan for the rail and strategic road networks, take forward delivery of High Speed 2, and help improve air quality.

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First, I am going to use my position to wish all staff in the NHS a very happy 70th birthday.

The Secretary of State makes the classic mistake of thinking infrastructure is just steel and concrete, but the airspace routes above the UK were designed in the ’60s and simply cannot cope with the 2.3 million planes that use them every year. The NATS air traffic centre at Prestwick has invested in the technology to allow more direct planning and shorter routes and to save fuel and reduce noise. When will the Government actually reform the airspace?

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I echo the hon. Lady’s comments about the NHS: I am looking forward this afternoon to travelling out with my local ambulance service to see the work of NHS staff, which, as she rightly says, is first rate.

As you will be aware, Mr Speaker, we have already launched the process of airspace reform in this country. We are currently depending on technology that is decades old; it is not now fit for purpose and we need to move to a world that is controlled by state-of-the-art digital technology. That will create the capacity we need, and a rolling programme is planned for the coming years of modernisation of our airspace across the UK.

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A second entrance at Putney station would not only ease congestion, but would finally give connectivity with East Putney tube station. This project is supported financially by Wandsworth Council. Can the Secretary of State, following our recent meeting, look carefully at what support his Department can give this scheme so it can finally get the go-ahead?

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I regard that scheme as a quick win that could make a real difference to passengers. I have asked my officials to consider it carefully, and I will carry on talking about it with my right hon. Friend. I am sympathetic towards the potential benefits of creating a better interchange between the underground and the mainline railway in her constituency.

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The Transport Secretary mentioned technology. Since the Government have devolved funding for speed cameras to local police forces, cameras have been switched off due to policing cuts. Will the Government reconsider that? There have been some severe accidents on the A449 Stafford Road in my constituency, including a fatality, and we need new speed cameras on that route.

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I will absolutely take a look at that issue. We try to devolve responsibility for such things, but I will look carefully at that. We should always be mindful of stretches of road where there have been fatalities.

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I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State for his interest in the Shipley eastern bypass and for coming to visit my constituency to see the route at first hand. Will he update me, the House and my constituents on the progress being made towards finally introducing a bypass?

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My officials are currently considering what it would take to move the project forwards, and I have had discussions with the combined authority. The potential route sits alongside a growth area in West Yorkshire, so I am personally taking an interest in the scheme, which is now subject to careful assessment.

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In recent weeks we have seen endless delays, cancellations across the north and a report from the Select Committee on Transport that confirmed a bias against northern regions in rail investment decisions, and we now hear reports that the trans-Pennine electrification will be scrapped altogether. Will the Secretary of State now respond properly to the One North campaign and commit to giving Transport for the North the full powers and funding it needs to deliver the necessary changes?

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I am afraid that this is a total misnomer. First, the part of the country that will receive the highest Government spending per head on transport over the next five years is the north-west. Spending is higher per head of population across the north than it is in the south. Secondly, as I have already announced, we will start the £3 billion trans-Pennine upgrade next spring, which will substantially rebuild the railway line between Manchester, Leeds and York and deliver much better services to passengers. It is long overdue.

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Network Rail plays a key role in delivering rail infrastructure investment projects both north and south of the border. Given that many of the Secretary of State’s colleagues think that Network Rail is too big, that he often gives it a kicking himself and that the Scottish Government have responsibility for the strategic delivery of rail north of the border, will he at last take steps to devolve Network Rail fully to the Scottish Government?

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The hon. Gentleman keeps arguing for that, but it was not recommended by the commission that examined what powers the Scottish Government should have. My advice to the Scottish Government is to try to use the powers they have well rather than ask for more.

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I urge my right hon. Friend to look favourably upon applications for investment in smaller schemes on de-trunked roads, such as the A350 and the C13 in my constituency. They are vital arteries for growing the economy in Dorset and, indeed, the wider south-west.

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De-trunked roads are an important priority for me. We are shaping our plans to introduce the major road network and to start making funds available for things such as bypasses on roads that were de-trunked 20 or 30 years ago and where there is a pressing need for improvement.

Heathrow Expansion: Landing Charges

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3. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of increased landing charges at Heathrow Airport on the financial viability of the proposed expansion of that airport. [906264]

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I have been absolutely clear that expansion will be privately financed, and the Government have taken independent expert advice which demonstrated that expansion is capable of being financed without Government support. I have been clear that airport charges must be controlled, which is why I set out in 2016 that expansion should be delivered with airport charges remaining as close as possible to current levels. It is the Civil Aviation Authority’s job to enforce that, and I am certain that it will do so.

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The Airports Commission has indicated that landing charges would have to rise by around 70% per passenger, and British Airways has warned that any such increase would make many routes from Heathrow no longer commercially viable. Would that not have significant consequences for regional connections and/or increase ticket prices for passengers?

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We have of course been working to ensure that the cost of the original scheme was brought down in order to avoid a 70% rise in landing charges, but I have been clear that the requirement to set aside around 15% of slots for regional connections is non-negotiable and fixed. It will not be possible to change those slots to long-haul destinations because they are an essential part of the reform.

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When will the flightpaths be published?

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I expect that we will complete plans for airspace modernisation over the coming months. There will be a rolling programme in the early 2020s, and I expect details of that plan to be made clear, probably in 2019.

M65 Extension

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4. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of extending the M65 from Colne to Keighley. [906265]

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Highways England has gathered evidence about the performance of the strategic road network, and future pressures on it, to inform the decisions we have taken as part of the second road investment strategy. This process of evidence gathering and public consultation has taken into consideration the idea of extending the M65.

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The Secretary of State has invested in the idea of a rail link between Liverpool and Hull, connecting the east and west through the central low Pennines. Do the Government accept that a road link would be complementary? It would go through deprived communities and provide a huge economic uplift. Do the Government recognise that this is the great northern powerhouse project?

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As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we are already investing £1.5 billion in road systems in the north-west. Of course the M65 is, in a way, a legendary road because it ends in a carpark, and no one thinks that is a satisfactory arrangement. I would welcome a further conversation with him about this, but the situation is far from straightforward.

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Will Ministers also look favourably on restoring a rail link between Keighley and Colne by restoring the Skipton to Colne rail link, starting in the Government Chief Whip’s constituency? Will they look carefully at the feasibility study that is under way?

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That is something we will certainly be looking at carefully.

Leaving the EU: Ports

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5. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on the level of transport-related activity at ports of the UK leaving the EU. [906266]

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UK ports are adaptive and market-oriented. They are ready to facilitate growth in trade when we leave the EU. Over the medium and longer-term, patterns of maritime and inland traffic may be affected by the trade agreements we reach with the EU and with countries elsewhere. It is too early to predict in detail what those patterns will be, but ports nationwide are prepared for all likely eventualities.

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The stunningly picturesque river port of Fowey is a magnet for visitors by both land and sea, but it is also a busy commercial port that ships the world’s finest china clay around the world. How will the Department’s recently published port connectivity study assist small river ports like Fowey?

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As we plan infrastructure improvements over the coming years, I want us to look at how we best connect, in the most effective way possible, the ports upon which our country depends, both large and small. Of course, my hon. Friend will be aware that we are already demonstrating our commitment to improving the road network in his area, with the planned completion of the new link road up to the A30.

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The Government have moved from saying they want trade with the EU post Brexit to be tariff-free to saying that they want it to be as tariff-free as possible. In which sectors of the economy and industry does the Secretary of State think it will be acceptable for there to be tariffs?

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In relation to ports.

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As the hon. Lady will be aware, this is not really a transport matter. Our ports will be ready, and our plans for how we manage our borders will be ready for all eventualities, but I want, I believe and I expect that we will have a sensible agreement with the European Union that avoids the charging of tariffs. That is certainly what the EU wants, and it is what we want.

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My Inverclyde constituency has a thriving port at Greenock, with cruise ships and container ships docking on a daily basis. Can the Secretary of State assure me that the systems, including IT systems, that will be required post Brexit are well on their way to completion so that ports such as Greenock will not be adversely affected by the UK leaving the European Union?

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The answer is yes but, of course, most of our ports are well used to dealing with traffic from both inside and outside the European Union. Those handling freight move it through extremely quickly and effectively, and they have great expertise in doing so. I am very optimistic that our ports will do a great job in the post-Brexit world.

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In his opening remarks the Secretary of State said it is too early to predict the effects on transport at ports. That is ridiculous, considering that we will leave the EU in March 2019. Half of his Cabinet is arguing for a no-deal Brexit, so it is coming at us really fast. We already know it is predicted that an extra two minutes of checks at Dover would result in 30-mile tailbacks, so what is he doing to put in place IT systems and border infrastructure systems that allow joined-up, continued free movement?

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The Government and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are doing extensive work for all eventualities. As I have previously said in the House, we do not intend to impose any form of hard border in Dover. It would be logistically impossible to do so, and therefore any flow of customs through Dover in the post-Brexit world will have to be managed in an online, electronic way. It is not possible to create fixed systems at Dover.

Transport Infrastructure

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6. What assessment he has made of the effect of operationally efficient transport infrastructure on levels of productivity. [906267]

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Transport infrastructure has an important role to play in helping to increase our productivity. That is why we have set out to more than double our capital investment in transport over the decade to 2020, and why it is a central part of our industrial strategy.

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Many of my constituents in Chichester and the surrounding area lose hours and hours each week sitting in traffic on the A27. That has a knock-on negative impact on productivity, the local economy and the environment. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that road investment decisions for areas such as Chichester, which are already over capacity, are prioritised in the road infrastructure investments for 2020 to 2025?

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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has been doing a fantastic job of trying to get the A27 project back on track. I am absolutely aware of its importance to her constituency and to the south coast. It is important that the community in Chichester reaches a consensus about the right option, and of course I then want to see the project go ahead.

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The Secretary of State knows the effect on productivity in places such as Yorkshire and my constituency. On the 70th anniversary of the NHS, when we wish all those workers a very good day, is it not a fact that many of them are struggling to get to work because of his policies and his lack of sense of direction on transport infrastructure?

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Actually it is this Government who are investing in rail and are providing new trains right across the north; who have just opened the last stretch of motorway-grade road between London and Newcastle; who are investing money in smart motorways; and who are putting money into Leeds, to ensure better connectivity there, and into towns and cities around the north. I wish Opposition Members would start to talk up the north and the improvements that are happening, rather than talking it down and pretending nothing is happening.

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I have a wonderful piece of transport infrastructure in my constituency called Blackpool airport. Will the Secretary of State tell me what steps will be taken to ensure that with a third runway at Heathrow, we will see improved connectivity to my part of the north-west?

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This is why I am committed to saying that the 15% of slots set aside for regional connections are set in stone. We are not going to see those suddenly disappear from 15% to 10% to 5%, with routes diverted elsewhere. The expansion of Heathrow is a really important part of delivering improvements right around the United Kingdom, and I am committed to making sure that happens.[Official Report, 12 July 2018, Vol. 644, c. 8MC.]

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This summer, my constituents who commute by rail have had to put with up with delays, cancellations and ineffective bus services as a result of work on the great western main line, and we now learn that equipment is rusting in the Severn tunnel. Although the infrastructure investment is welcome, will the Minister ensure that this is not an excuse for train operating companies to provide a reduced quality service? Will he also ensure that there is no more disruption than there needs to be?

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This is one of the great conundrums. We are spending money around the country and it is impossible to deliver investment without some disruption. I absolutely would not accept a train company using that as an opportunity to do things that are not right for passengers, but we have to accept that if we are going to modernise different parts of our road and rail infrastructure, some disruptive consequences are inevitable, however much we might wish that was not the case.

E10 Fuel

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8. What representations he has received on the introduction of provisions relating to E10 fuel since the consultation on the alternative fuels infrastructure directive. [906270]

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The Department absolutely recognises, as the Government do, the importance of clean air, and established a working group with the fuel industry and others in November 2017 to look at issues relating to the potential introduction of E10 fuel. This group has also considered the new fuel labelling requirements introduced by the alternative fuels infrastructure directive. We intend to consult on proposals later this year and, in some cases, potentially very soon.

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The forthcoming mandatory changes to pump labelling are the perfect opportunity to consider introducing E10. Will the Minister confirm that there will be a question in that consultation that allows people to respond on introducing E10 in the future?

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I can certainly confirm that we will be consulting shortly on E10 and that we are looking closely at the issue of fuel labelling, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, has to be addressed relatively quickly.

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Does the Minister accept that what is really needed is an overall, measured, strategic approach to the propulsion mix for vehicles? That will rightly include E10, but it will also include diesel. What has been so damaging to that industry has been the Government’s war on diesel, which has been hugely damaging to our automotive sector, as well as our engine manufacturing.

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I can only salute the right hon. Gentleman’s expertise in crowbarring a question about diesel into exchanges about E10. We are taking a strategic approach. We introduced changes to the renewable transport fuel obligation earlier this year. We have changed the status of the crop cap. We are pushing for the increased use of waste-based biofuels, and we are supporting the introduction of higher-performance fuels in other sectors of the transport world.

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The right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) did mention diesel, which is a fuel, so I am not sure that a crowbar was altogether required. It is a matter of terminological preference, I think.

A12: Gallows Corner Roundabout

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9. If he will take steps to ensure the improvement of safety at the Gallows Corner roundabout on the A12. [906271]

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As my hon. Friend will know, the A12 in London is managed by Transport for London as part of its route network. The Department for Transport consultation on proposals for the creation of a major road network was launched in December and included an indicative network of the expected future major roads. That included the A12 and A127 at Gallows Corner. We aim to publish a consultation response this summer. The roads forming the final major roads network will be confirmed by the end of 2018.

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The Minister will be aware that the Gallows Corner flyover at the A127-A12 junction is a very congested accident hotspot. The hopelessly inadequate response from TfL and the Mayor of London should be dealt with by the national Government. Will money from the national highways budget be used so that the Government can step in to help us to resolve this ongoing problem?

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My hon. Friend has regularly and properly raised this issue. It is a matter for TfL, but I am happy to have a further conversation with him about how we can look into it.

Road Congestion

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10. What plans he has to reduce road congestion. [906272]

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My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Government are in the middle of a £23 billion programme of investment to upgrade our strategic road network. We are also investing money in pinch points, with an additional £220 million going to tackle them last year. Throughout the country, that money is being used for smaller local projects such as junction improvements that can really make a difference to traffic flows.

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Is my right hon. Friend aware that some councils cause avoidable congestion themselves by the use of unnecessary and poorly-phased traffic lights? Will he encourage local authorities to audit their traffic-light usage to see whether some can be switched off? Will he also encourage the greater use of traffic-sensitive traffic lights?

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I agree with both those points. Traffic lights play an important part in the management of traffic flows, but if they are synchronised in the wrong way or used in the wrong way, they can make things worse, rather than better. I absolutely join my right hon. Friend in sending to councils the message that they should keep traffic-light usage under constant review.

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The chaos on Northern rail is apparent, but even had there not been the timetabling problems, the Northern rail and trans-Pennine franchises were let on a no-growth basis. Does the Secretary of State now realise that it was a mistake to let rail franchises on a no-growth basis and that it led to road congestion?

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That was an extraordinarily interesting question, but we were supposed to be talking about road congestion.

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I did mention road congestion, Mr Speaker.

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Oh, did you? I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon. I heard a reference to rail electrification.

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I was pointing out that particular franchises led to road congestion.

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Ah, causality, no less.

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Precisely.

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It is simply not true that the Northern franchise was let on a no-growth basis, although it was under the Labour party when it was in power. One reason why we have had the timetable problems, apart from the delay to the electrification—the investment that we are putting into the railway line from Manchester to Blackpool—is that we were in May introducing hundreds of new services, additional services and longer trains throughout the Northern rail region. That is hardly a zero-growth franchise.

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One thing is clear to me: if the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) encounters road congestion, his antidote to it is to pursue what might be called an indirect route.

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One thing that would reduce road congestion is, of course, getting people out of their cars and on to their bikes. We very much welcome the upgrade of the A358 in Taunton, but does the Secretary of State agree that whatever route is chosen by Highways England, the provision of adequate cycling infrastructure should very much be part of upgrades?

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I always hope that when a new road is put in place, provision will be made for other users—cyclists and pedestrians—alongside that road, particularly in respect of a major road like the A358. That new road will of course mean that there is substantial additional capacity on the old road, which will become much less congested, but I am sure that Highways England will be looking carefully into how it can make provision for all road users.

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The A38 from Exeter to Plymouth closes too often owing to accidents and congestion. Will the Secretary of State look favourably on funding bids from Plymouth City Council and Tory-run Devon County Council to upgrade this road, address accident blackspots and start the much needed process of extending the M5 from Exeter to Plymouth?

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I am obviously aware of the pressures on the A38 and, indeed, of the pressures on roads north and west from Plymouth. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) who, last week, made a very strong argument to me when I visited Cornwall for improvements to the west of Plymouth. That is something that we are looking at very carefully.

Rail Disruption: Passenger Compensation

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11. What steps he is taking to ensure the provision of compensation to passengers affected by recent rail disruption. [906273]

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Recent disruption on the rail service has been unacceptable and the Government have been clear that passengers will be appropriately compensated. Transport for the North has agreed that the special compensation should cover weekly, monthly and annual season ticket holders on the worst affected northern routes who experienced severe disruption before and after the May timetable change.

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Well, that all sounds very good in principle, but owing to weeks of chaos, cancellations and delays, my constituent, Alex Hodgson, has had to use a significant proportion of his annual leave. He is still being passed between departments at TransPennine Express and has now been offered the equivalent of £1 a day compensation. Despite assurances from the Secretary of State, he and other constituents feel let down and ignored. What will the Minister do about it?

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Transport for the North has set out high-level details of the scheme, which will enable passengers who have season tickets to be compensated for up to one month’s cash compensation where they have suffered severe disruption. That is in addition to the normal compensation schemes available to passengers through the delay repay mechanism.

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Passengers are experiencing significant delays travelling from west to east on TransPennine Express services, owing to cancellations and other delays. Will the Minister do everything that he can to persuade TransPennine Express to improve these services and to offer proper compensation? Season ticket holders in Yorkshire are getting one week’s compensation, whereas those in the north-west are getting one month’s compensation. That does not seem fair.

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Transport for the North has determined that passengers on the most severely affected routes, principally on Northern services, will get four weeks’ cash compensation, as my hon. Friend rightly said, and those on the less severely affected routes, which happen to be in Yorkshire, will receive one week’s cash compensation. That is a matter for Transport for the North.

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The National Audit Office revealed that the Minister’s Department has allowed Govia Thameslink Railway to buy out its liabilities for poor performance through to September 2018. The Public Accounts Committee has concluded that the threat to strip GTR of its franchise is not a credible one. What can he do to protect passengers from a continuation of the current appalling performance if the 15 July interim timetable fails to bring stability?

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Rail operating companies will be held responsible for that portion of performance for which they are responsible and accountable, and that is now under way. The Secretary of State has set in train a hard review of GTR, and at the end of that hard review, all appropriate options will be on the table and available to the Secretary of State and to the whole Government.

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It was a Labour Government who established the NHS, and today we thank all who have served in it since.

Following the Secretary of State’s statement on the timetable chaos to the House on 4 June, he said in his response to the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) that, with regard to compensation, the train operating companies

“will have to meet the cost of that.”—[Official Report, 4 June 2018; Vol. 642, c. 59.]

That is so untrue. It is Network Rail that will be funding the compensation. Last year alone, it paid out £482 million through schedules 4 and 8. Does the Minister agree that, while the operating companies write the cheques, it is the state that pays?

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The Secretary of State has always been clear that we will review where responsibility lies, and the rail industry will be responsible for undertaking that appropriate compensation to make sure that passengers have the right redress. As Members will be aware, the rail industry is partly in public control through Network Rail and partly run by private operators. Each will pay its fair share.

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Astonishing. Network Rail paying compensation means that this is coming from the public, so, in effect, passengers will be funding their own compensation for delayed and cancelled trains, for missing exams, for being sacked from their jobs or for lost business revenue—passengers paying their own compensation. How much has the Minister budgeted for to pay compensation for the Secretary of State’s decision to press ahead with this rail timetable chaos, or will he instead cut more Network Rail projects to pay for it?

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As I have already said, the compensation involves four weeks’ cash compensation for passengers on the most severely disrupted routes on Northern services and one week’s compensation further afield in Yorkshire. Similarly, GTR announced yesterday a comparable package of special compensation for passengers on the most affected Thameslink and Great Northern routes.

Rail Services: Congleton

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12. What progress has been made on improving rail services in Congleton constituency. [906274]

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As part of the improvements to Northern Rail services, there are more frequent, hourly Sunday stopping services from Stoke to Manchester via Macclesfield. Congleton station will benefit from full waiting room refurbishment, new seating, customer information systems, new and improved signage and new ticket vending machines.

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I thank the Secretary of State for that reply—and all that in the north. It is encouraging that, after years of local campaigning by my constituents, a strategic outline business case has been developed for enhancing the mid-Cheshire rail line, including reopening Middlewich railway station in that growing town. What assurance can the Secretary of State give me that funding is available for this vital development work?

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There are two routes in the north that I feel particularly keen to look at seriously reopening. One is the line from Skipton to Colne. The other is the line that passes through Middlewich in my hon. Friend’s constituency that, in my view, should be a commuter railway into Manchester. Transport for the North has been working on the options, and I am committed to ensuring that we take that work forward.

Passenger Rail Usage

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13. What recent assessment he has made of trends in passenger rail usage. [906275]

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16. What recent assessment he has made of trends in passenger rail usage. [906280]

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With two decades of almost unbroken growth, we have seen rail passenger journeys more than double since the mid-1990s. For the first time since 2009-10, statistics from the Office of Rail and Road show a small decline in rail journeys over the past year, although passenger kilometres have continued to increase.

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Rail passenger usage is falling. Is it any wonder that my constituents in Cardiff Central are giving up on using the trains, when a standard return rail ticket to London for a morning meeting costs £235? With that money, they could fly from our Welsh Labour Government-owned Cardiff airport to Barcelona and back three times and still have change for a taxi home.

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The Government are conscious of the cost of fares to the travelling public. For that reason, we have ensured that fares have risen at a lower rate than they did under the last Labour Government. The causes of the decline in season ticket numbers are complex. Although the statistics show a fall in journeys made using season tickets, there has been an increase in journeys made using other ticket types over the past year. Factors such as strikes, station closures and weather have had an impact on season ticket use.

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After years of campaigning, my constituents in Neston were delighted when they heard that the new Borderlands franchise would include a half-hourly service on the Wrexham to Bidston line. However, that joy was tempered somewhat with the news that the new service might not stop at every station. Given that a frequent and reliable service is vital for the residents of Neston, will the Minister join me in writing to his Welsh counterpart to impress on him the need for this service to stop at every station?

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I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he engage the Welsh Government in Wales, who have primary responsibility for specifications to that service.

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Given growing demand for rail travel from Kettering, will the Rail Minister ensure that there is more capacity on local train services under the new midland main line franchise?

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I would be delighted to engage with my hon. Friend on that question. We are investing substantially in midlands services and ensuring that new trains provide extra capacity and reduced journey times.

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The most recent assessment must be that passenger rail usage is down, because people cannot get into London today. Can the Minister tell us why that is?

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Yes, I can tell my right hon. Friend why that is. There has been a major signalling outage on the Brighton main line service, which has affected services throughout the network. Although this is the responsibility of Network Rail, the situation has affected services substantially on the Brighton main line. That is why we are investing £300 million in this route, with work starting in the coming months.

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The concept of a signalling outage was previously unknown to me, but I suppose that it merely reinforces one in the knowledge that one learns something new every day.

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What will they think of next?

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One wonders.

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May I take this opportunity to convey my very best wishes to the NHS—the greatest social achievement in British history—and also to convey my best wishes and a happy birthday to my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell)?

Quite clearly from yesterday’s PMQs, the Prime Minister is clueless about the sharp decline in bus ridership that her Government have presided over. I hope that the Secretary of State has a better analysis of the collapse in rail passenger usage—although I am not holding my breath. Can he explain last month’s figures from the Office of Rail and Road that show the biggest fall in passenger journeys since privatisation? Is he not alarmed that there were 2 million fewer journeys on GTR year on year and millions fewer journeys on South Western Railway?

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As I said, the decline in passenger journeys is a relatively recent phenomenon. Passenger kilometres continue to grow. It is difficult to determine exactly why we have this decline in season tickets, but we believe that it is due to factors such as strikes and recent station closures. In areas outside of London where there have not been those factors, we have not seen similar declines in passenger journeys.

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Poor, very poor. The fact that the Minister is not more alarmed by this sorry state of affairs will be of great concern to millions of long-suffering passengers. It has never been clearer that there is something very seriously wrong with the railways on his watch, with franchising failure, timetabling chaos, broken promises on investment and people shifting from rail to road. He says that he does not run the trains—which is self-evident, by the way—but, for goodness’ sake, does he not realise that he has to step in and get a grip before our great railway hits the buffers?

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Labour’s policies of nationalisation would be no panacea for the challenges we face. Indeed, those challenges spring to a very large extent from the publicly owned parts of the rail industry—namely, Network Rail, the part that is in state control. We see passenger interests as best served by bringing together in partnership the very best of the public and private sectors, as the Secretary of State set out in his strategic vision for rail last November.

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A sentence perhaps—Mr Dan Carden.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Northern powerhouse rail would transform rail journeys for passengers in Liverpool, with journey times to Manchester cut to 20 minutes, but it simply cannot happen without the electrification of the trans-Pennine line. So instead of playing party politics with the numbers, does the Minister not realise that his Government will be judged on the major infrastructure projects that they complete?

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We are just completing the £1 billion investment in the great north rail project, which included significant electrification of the Liverpool to Manchester route. We are now about to embark on the next control period for rail, in which we will spend £2.9 billion on the trans-Pennine route upgrade. This is the single largest enhancement programme across the entire country, representing a third of all such spending.

Rail Network: Devon and Cornwall

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14. If he will make an assessment of the role of the rail network in Devon and Cornwall in supporting the economy of the south-west. [906276]

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The rail network plays a vital part in supporting our economy across the country, including in Devon and Cornwall. That is why we are investing more than £400 million in the rail network in the south-west. This includes a fleet of brand-new trains for services to Devon and Cornwall.

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I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware from our recent discussions that there is real disquiet in Devon and Cornwall about the references to it in recent consultation about the future of the CrossCountry franchise. Can he reassure me that there is no intention of ending vital direct services from key locations such as Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol to the heart of south Devon’s English riviera?

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As I said to my hon. Friend when we discussed this issue a few days ago, the south-west is a vital part of our rail network. I am looking forward to discussing these issues with him further, as well as with the Peninsula Rail Task Force, which I hope to meet next week when I am in Cornwall discussing rail issues. The CrossCountry franchise offers passengers the ability to travel to Birmingham and on to the north-east and Scotland, or they can change at stations en route to connect on to trains that take them to other parts of the country.

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The Minister just mentioned the Peninsula Rail Task Force. In the Government’s response to the recommendations in February, they said:

“we will look at improving connectivity between the Peninsula, Bristol and beyond”.

However, as we have just heard, that does not sound like it is happening, particularly with the CrossCountry franchise. Can the Minister explain what is meant by “improving connectivity”?

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No decisions have been taken on any options for the next franchise. This consultation is a way for us to gather the views of the travelling public and of Members of the House, so that we have the best-informed choice of possible options when we take those decisions.

A19: Collisions

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15. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the number of collisions on the A19 in the North East. [906279]

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On a point of information, the NHS was brought into policy by William Beveridge, a Liberal, and it was framed in law in a White Paper by Sir Henry Willink, a Conservative. It is therefore—[Interruption.] It ill becomes the Labour party on the 70th birthday to make a party political issue of the national health service.

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Order. I indulged the Minister, who is an historian and a philosopher, and these are matters of argument. If I may say so, Mr McDonald, you are almost unfailingly a good-natured person. You are, in addition, one of the most excitable denizens of the House. I do not know whether you rejoice in that status or regard it as an accolade, but there it is.

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I am grateful, Mr Speaker. I think I can calm the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) by giving my answer to the question asked.

Highways England’s 2017 regional safety report assessed the safety performance of all the routes in the Yorkshire and north-east region, including the A19. The A19 is performing well compared with other routes of its type, but Highways England is not complacent, and a number of further studies and safety improvement schemes are planned.

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Happy 70th anniversary to the NHS—an institution that was opposed every step of the way by the Tories when the Labour party brought it in. Can I bring the Minister’s attention to the “Safe A19” campaign run by my local newspapers, the Shields Gazette and the Sunderland Echo, and supported by myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris)? It is of no surprise to anybody that the number of incidents and accidents on that road is linked to the fact that roads in the north get half the amount of investment as roads in the south-east. What is the Minister doing to protect the people of the north-east?

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As the hon. Gentleman will know, we take all issues of safety very seriously, and the same is true in the case of the A19. I have visited the A19 and seen schemes at work. We have further work planned on it, always with safety in mind.

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The Transport Select Committee—

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The hon. Gentleman should ask his Question 17. [Interruption.] I could have linked it, I suppose, but I did not.

Transport Expenditure: London and the North-east

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17. If he will take steps to close the gap in transport expenditure per capita between London and the north-east. [906281]

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The Government are committed to investing in infrastructure to support regional growth, and that is why we are addressing under-investment in the north with the biggest investment programme for a generation. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s analysis shows that between 2018 and 2021, central Government transport spend per head is in fact highest in the north-west.

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The Transport Select Committee has found that a disproportionate amount of transport funding is being spent in the capital, at the expense of the regions. What steps will the Minister take to close the gap and to specifically address issues highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr Hepburn), including the “Safe A19” campaign, the Seaton Lane A19 junction improvement and ensuring that east Durham gets a rail halt at Horden?

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The Government are investing substantial sums in the north—£13 billion in the five years to 2020—and in the next control period for rail, we will invest £2.9 billion on the trans-Pennine upgrade alone. The hon. Gentleman, I am afraid, is factually wrong to say that Government investment per head in London and the south exceeds that of similar investment in the north. IPA analysis shows that for the three years to 2021, the north will receive £1,039 per head, which is £10 more than similar figures for the south of England.[Official Report, 9 July 2018, Vol. 644, c. 4MC.]

Oxford to Cambridge Expressway

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18. When he plans to make a decision on the preferred route for the Oxford to Cambridge expressway. [906282]

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We expect to make a decision on the preferred corridor for the Oxford to Cambridge expressway this summer. There then has to be further work on the detailed route within that corridor.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Given that any of these routes will have an enormous impact on both communities and the environment, does he not share my concern that the public have not been consulted at all?

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No roads can be built without public consultation. We are working out in broad measure which route a corridor might follow, so that we can then do detailed consultation with the public.

Bus Routes: England and Wales

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19. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the number of bus routes in England and Wales. [906283]

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Whether for commuting to work or seeing friends and family, buses play an important role in keeping communities connected, with 4.4 billion passenger journeys a year. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of live local bus services registered increased by 14% in England and by 6% in Wales.

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My constituents have had to face a 480% rise in the cost of their children’s bus passes in the past five years. The No. 14 bus connecting Canterbury to rural east Kent villages was cut in September, and replaced by only a twice-daily bus service. This is just one of the cuts proposed by Kent County Council. What steps is the Minister taking to protect much needed rural bus routes from being cut by cash-strapped local authorities?

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Local authorities receive a substantial amount of money from central Government to support bus services. The Government paid out some £250 million last year to support bus services in England. Kent County Council receives over £1 million per year, and Canterbury City Council receives over £83,000 per year. The hon. Lady mentioned bus fares. They rose almost three times faster every year under Labour than under the Conservatives, with local bus fares across Great Britain rising by an average of 1.9% each year in real terms. Bus fares go up under Labour.

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rose—

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The hon. Gentleman from the Opposition Front Bench needs to be very brief, because time is against us, but we are happy to hear from the fella.

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May I, too, wish the NHS a very happy birthday?

Nearly 500 bus routes have been cut every year under this Government, snatching away a lifeline from elderly, disabled and young people, as well as from rural communities, yet the Government seem unaware of the impact of these cuts. I have to say that the Prime Minster floundered yesterday, and sought to blame local authorities. Does the Minister share that view, or does she accept the undeniable truth that her Government have totally mismanaged bus provision in this country?

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Bus passes for the most vulnerable, older and disabled people are being supported by this Government with £1 billion, enabling 10 million people up and down this country to travel for free. As you may be aware, Mr Speaker, this is Catch the Bus Week, so the hon. Gentleman could have said something about bus services to encourage people to jump on the bus. There are good case studies up and down the country. In Liverpool, for example, young people are taking buses 142% more than they did in the previous three years. In Bristol, bus patronage has gone up by 42%, and in South Gloucestershire by 38%. There are good case histories of places up and down this country where bus patronage is going up.

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I appreciate the fact that the hon. Lady has mentioned Catch the Bus Week. Rural communities have been hit particularly hard by the crisis in our bus services. Interestingly, we have visited Northamptonshire—bankrupt Tory Northamptonshire, I should say—which has one of the worst track records for cutting services. What would the Minister say to the resident I met yesterday, who told me there is no bus to take her child to school and that an older daughter has been unable to take up her preferred job option because there is no bus service?

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Bus service provision is the responsibility of local authorities. About £800 million of funding is made available for concessionary bus fares, and £40 million is given directly to local authorities to support journeys that might not otherwise be profitable. As I mentioned earlier, there are local authorities working hand in hand with bus companies to make sure services are viable and attractive. May I just mention one? In Brighton and Hove, bus patronage has gone up by 22% since 2009-10.

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The Minister is a treasure trove of previously unearthed information, for which we are extremely grateful.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [906287]

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May I take this opportunity to thank Members on both sides of the House for the support they gave last week to the vote on the expansion of Heathrow airport? I think that sent a powerful message about the future of our country. The support came from the Government side of the House, the Opposition, the parties in Northern Ireland and Scottish Conservatives, and it was a resounding vote for the country’s future.

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Although Greater Anglia and the Government both say that they want 15 minutes to be the trigger period for passenger compensation, travellers from Ipswich are still unable to claim any compensation until their trains are more than 30 minutes late. Given the number of failed trains, failing overhead wires, failing rails, failing points and failing signals, when will the Secretary of State rectify this anomaly and ensure that my constituents can claim the compensation that is readily available to passengers in the rest of the country?

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The move across the country to repayment after a 15-minute delay is being phased in with new franchises that will start over the coming years. I say to passengers in East Anglia that every single train there is being replaced with a brand new one. That will improve performance, stop the blight of broken down old trains, and mean a much better travelling experience.

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T4. As I have said to Ministers previously, urgent repair works are required on the North bridge at Oundle to avoid a weight limit being introduced that would badly affect those who use the bus services, businesses, and the community more generally. What Government support is available to get such work done urgently, particularly in exceptional financial circumstances such as those currently faced by Northamptonshire? [906291]

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My hon. Friend has been a tireless campaigner on this issue, and I absolutely recognise his point. This is, in law, a matter for local government. We have provided them with some funding, and I would be delighted to have a further conversation with my hon. Friend about other ways in which we could consider the situation.

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T3. In a deregulated bus system, local authorities have no control over routes and fares, and the amount of money for tendered services is being cut by 45%. How can the Prime Minister justify her statement that local authorities should be improving bus services? Will the Secretary of State give the Prime Minister a lesson in how the bus service system works? [906289]

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What I will do is give a lesson to Labour Mayors about the reforms that we put in place in the last Parliament, which gave them franchising powers. The hon. Gentleman might like to ask the Mayor of Greater Manchester why his promise on bus franchising is years away from happening—the last estimate I heard was that it might just about be completed by 2023, which is way after his first term of office, and way after he made that commitment.

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T9. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government have no intention of allowing direct flights between the United Kingdom and the northern part of Cyprus? [906296]

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Let me be clear: all Members of the House would like to see a long-term solution to the issues on the island of Cyprus. This country will continue to work with our friends in Cyprus to try to achieve that goal, but our policies on flights have not changed.

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T5. The east coast franchise is now run with the part publicly-owned London North Eastern Railway, and it is a major transport operation in Scotland. Despite that, the UK Government have not allowed any Scottish Government representation on the board. Will the Secretary of State rethink that, and commit to ensuring that the Scottish Government are represented on that vital piece of infrastructure? [906292]

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The London North Eastern Railway started operations on 24 June. We are in the process of establishing the east coast partnership board, and we will ensure independent representation on that board. We are in consultation with stakeholders across the length and breadth of the line to ensure that their views are taken into account in the management of that new operation.

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In Redditch there are only two electric vehicle charging points, but nearby Coventry has 25. Redditchians are just as keen as Coventrians to take advantage of electric cars. What are the Government doing to help them?

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My hon. Friend is right to focus on charging points. We have a large charging point network, and we are rapidly expanding it. As she knows, we have just announced a local charging infrastructure fund of £400 million. A lot of work is being done with local authorities, and I encourage her to work with us to develop further charging points in her area.

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T6. Today’s Financial Times carries a warning from the British Retail Consortium about the fear of food rotting at ports as a result of a no-deal Brexit. What is the Secretary of State doing about that, and how will he ensure that our ports are not left in chaos? [906293]

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As I keep saying clearly, we do not intend to put in place measures that would create long incoming queues at our ports. Our ports successfully support inward trade from around the world, and in the post-Brexit world we have no intention of changing that.

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Andrew Jones—I call Mr Jones.

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You normally call me Andrew Jones, Mr Speaker.

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I did say Andrew Jones.

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I beg your pardon.

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Know thyself, man. Well done.

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Thank you. May I first welcome today’s announcement of an HS2 depot in Leeds, which is welcome news for the northern powerhouse? The A59 at Kex Gill is an important trans-Pennine route, and its closure is impacting on residents and businesses in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss what support the Government can provide to North Yorkshire County Council to carry out works on that site, including its potential re-routing?

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I say gently to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) that one of his most endearing qualities is his gentleness and modesty. However, he should not be quite so modest—he is, after all, a distinguished former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for buses, and that was a motivational factor in my calling him to ask a supplementary at Transport questions.

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I, too, share my hon. Friend’s delight at the news about the HS2 depot. I would be delighted to meet my distinguished former colleague.

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T7. Can the Secretary of State explain how the decision to award the Wales & Borders franchise is made solely by the Welsh Government? This is a main commuter route for my constituents into Manchester and Warrington, but we have no say over it. Is it not ludicrous that decisions about English rail passenger services are being made exclusively in Wales? [906294]

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We have taken care—this is a genuine issue—to ensure that the Welsh Government, while they control the letting of the franchise, do not have the power to degrade services within England. That is very important. The Department holds clear responsibilities for making sure the Welsh do not take decisions that adversely affect the English.

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Heathrow flights are capped at 480,000 flights a year. That was set as a condition of the 2001 terminal 5 planning consent. Will the Secretary of State confirm that there are no plans to override the existing cap for existing runways?

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I have had no requests to do so.

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T8. Many of my constituents have had to endure a consistently poor and wholly unacceptable train service from GTR-Great Northern since the new timetable was introduced on 20 May. Does the Minister agree that the time has come to end the franchise for GTR-Great Northern and allow the Mayor of London to take over the running of the service, so that my constituents can get into London to work, study and get on with their lives without travelling being such an ordeal? [906295]

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The service on GTR’s Thameslink services has indeed been unacceptable. A hard review is under way, which will give the Secretary of State all options when it concludes. With respect to the size of that franchise, the Secretary of State has also indicated that he is open to breaking it up once the Thameslink programme is in place and when that franchise comes to an end in 2021. He has had discussions with the Mayor of London about some services moving to Transport for London.

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We are approaching the summer and traffic will be driving down the M20. I am sure that you, like me, Mr Speaker, will wish to have a speedy exit towards the coast. Will the Minister explain what he is doing on the smart motorways programme on the M20 to ensure not just that it works but that communities are protected from noise?

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I am very glad my hon. Friend mentions noise, because that is a topic of great interest to us. We are actively exploring whether we can bring to local concerns about noise-capturing the same kind of concerns we are bringing to the structure of the highway.

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Delays, non-accessible platforms, cancelled trains, failed investment—would the Secretary of State like me to add broken promises of electrification to the list of issues with the trans-Pennine route for my constituents?

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We have already modernised the line from Liverpool to Manchester and we are about to start a £3 billion modernisation of the railway line from Manchester to Leeds to York, so I make no apology to the people of the north for the fact that we are spending £3 billion on upgrading their railway line when the Labour party, when it was in office, did absolutely nothing.

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As we reach the halfway point through the Year of Engineering, will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking all those who have joined the campaign so far and encourage those who have yet to get on board to join up and make 2018 the success I know it can be?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question, especially as he is the ambassador for the Year of Engineering. We are working with 1,400 companies up and down the country to create 1 million interactions to encourage young people to take STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—and become engineers of the future.

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There are some excellent new businesses housed in railway arches on the Gateshead side of the High Level bridge, such as Block and Bottle, Arch Sixteen Café and the Station East Public House, but Network Rail is about to sell off the leasehold for 5,500 arches around the country. Will the Secretary of State meet me and the representatives group, Guardians of the Arches, to discuss proposals that will not ramp up rents for these new businesses and businesses around the country?

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Network Rail is in the process of managing its estate to ensure it contributes towards housing and commercial development where that is sensible. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman and the campaign group he mentions.

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Will the Minister update the House on what her Department is doing to investigate the use of distributed ledger technology, such as blockchain, in the maritime sector?

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My hon. Friend, as you may be aware, Mr Speaker, is an intellect in blockchain, having published a report yesterday on unlocking blockchain. My officials explore new technologies such as blockchain, which may help to improve maritime trade. We have recently contributed to “Are You Decentralised Yet?”, a paper for the Transport Systems Catapult, analysing blockchain technologies and how they can benefit maritime.

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A few weeks ago, the Secretary of State for Transport said that he would be meeting the people from Newton in Bolsover regarding HS2 and the alternative to knocking down 30 houses. Will he repeat that at the Dispatch Box, in view of the altercation that took place at the last Transport questions? We do not want another broken promise, do we?

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I am not quite sure exactly what meeting the hon. Gentleman is talking about. Meetings take place between HS2 and the community engagement officers up and down the route. I believe that a meeting is already taking place, but this gives me an opportunity to remind Members from across the House of the importance of HS2, as well as the 100,000 jobs that it brings with it and that it connects eight of our 10 great cities.

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Earlier this year, a joint feasibility study conducted by South Gloucestershire Council and Highways England into a new M4 junction 18A recommended a western option at Emersons Green be adopted rather than an ill-thought-out eastern option that would cut through green-belt land. For the sake of local residents, will the Secretary of State now rule out this eastern option, which nobody supports and which now needs to be erased entirely?

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As my hon. Friend will know, this topic is under active consideration and consultation at the moment.

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I call Mr Jim Shannon—a short sentence, I feel sure.

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It certainly will be, Mr Speaker. Accessibility on bus routes is important for disabled people; in particular, what has been done to help wheelchair users to access buses?

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Splendid.

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That very important question enables me to remind the sector and bus drivers that wheelchair spaces on buses are first and foremost for the use of wheelchair users, and other passengers must respect that.

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On the NHS’s 70th birthday, can I give you the present of a spare badge, Mr Speaker? It is for the NHS, to which my family have dedicated their entire working life.

On the subject of trains, will my right hon. Friend look at extending the delay-repay system to cover the circumstances when our very popular trains are so crowded that people cannot actually get on to them, just until our new trains arrive with the extra seats?

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We do hold train operating companies to account for capacity in our monthly review of how they are performing under the terms of their franchise agreement, and remedial plans are put in place to address overcrowding when that is found to exist.

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I have written to the Secretary of State about my constituent who had no access to a toilet on a bus replacement service or at any of the stops along the route between Salford and Preston. She is a pregnant woman, and she was forced to wet herself and then sit on the floor of the train from Preston to Glasgow because it was overcrowded and delayed. Does the Secretary of State believe that she should be compensated for that indignity?

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The inclusive transport strategy, which is due to be published, will look at issues around accessibility and toilets, especially looking at changing rooms and how we can make that information more available at the appropriate time when toilets are not functioning.

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I declare my interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council. Now that Kettering Borough Council and Northamptonshire County Council have resolved their differences over how a new decriminalised parking system might operate, will the roads Minister issue the order to enable this to happen?

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I will certainly have a further conversation with my hon. Friend about the question he raises.

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Oh very well, it is always good to encourage a new young Member at the start of his parliamentary career. I call Mr Barry Sheerman.

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The Secretary of State knows very well that millions of our people are being poisoned by the filthy emissions from buses, trucks and cars. When is he going to do something about it?

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Before I respond to that question, I just say to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) that I had been under the impression that the meeting was already organised. If that is not the case, I will make sure that it is.

On clean transport, this is a central part of the Government’s strategy. It is why we are spending money on supporting low-emission bus vehicles and on encouraging people to buy low-emission vehicles. When we publish our Road to Zero strategy shortly, we will be setting out more of our plans to create a greener vehicle fleet on our roads.

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Order. Just before I call the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) to put his urgent question, I should remind the House—I hope it is a question of reminding the House of something of which it is already conscious—that we have very considerable pressure on the parliamentary timetable today. There is of course the business question, and there are two ministerial statements, but I have also to have regard to the level of interest in the debate on proxy voting. This urgent question will therefore not run for longer than 20 minutes. The Front Benchers must stick to time; otherwise, I am afraid they will have to be sat down. After the expiry of that 20 minutes, that’s it—we will move on to the next business.

Universal Credit

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(Urgent Question): Will the Secretary of State please use this opportunity to apologise for the three instances where she has dissembled on the National Audit Office report on universal credit?

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Order. That is rather naughty of the right hon. Gentleman. I will say that it was an innocent error, but he is an immensely experienced Member of this House whom we all treat with great respect. The proper form in these cases is simply to read out the urgent question that is listed, not to invest the question with a degree of rhetorical licence. Anyway, I think it was probably innocent.

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Innocent.

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Very well. We will let him off this occasion.

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I had information that the question was on the letter that I received yesterday, so that is obviously where we will be going: the letter that I received yesterday. Opening the letter was a comment about a meeting that the Comptroller and Auditor General had asked to have with me. He had written to me on 27 June. Our Department got back at the end of the week and that meeting will be on Monday. There was possibly an inference from that that I had not accepted a meeting or that there was not going to be one. That was not the case, and it is diarised for Monday.

The next bit was about the information we had received, and accurate up-to-date information being shared with the Department. We agreed that information had been shared up to 6 June, but when we signed off the factual information contained within the report, we raised concerns about the context and conclusions drawn from that information and where we went from there.

That goes on to the impact of the recent changes. We looked at the impact of the changes we brought through: waiting days being abolished on 14 February, the housing benefit run-on on 11 April, and advance payments on 3 January. As I said in my apology yesterday, the impact of those changes is still being felt and the definition therefore cannot be that it has been fully taken into account by the NAO. They also talked about slowing down the process, which we always agreed with. This is about the test and learn process, and we will learn as we go along. That is what we agree with, too. The Comptroller and Auditor General also said in his letter:

“I’m also afraid that your statement in response to my report claiming Universal Credit is working had not been proven.”

That is where we differ on the conclusions. While the NAO had the same factual information either way, we came to very different conclusions because the impact of the changes we brought in at the end of that period is still being felt.

So that is where I would like to leave it—[Interruption.]

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At the end of the letter it says that

“the Department cannot measure the exact number of additional people in employment ”.

We agree with that. We cannot measure the exact number of people in employment, but we knew that there was a plausible range—which we had had support on—of people going into employment. We also know that employment is increasing. Those were the key pertinent points from the letter, and obviously included with my apology yesterday for the phrasing of the words I got wrong—which I fully accept, which is why I came to the House—I will end that bit of the statement there.

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We are grateful for the Secretary of State’s apology—again—for one aspect of her behaviour where the Comptroller and Auditor General criticised her for dissembling. There were two others. First, she told the House that the Comptroller and Auditor General had advised her to roll out faster, whereas he told her to pause so that vulnerable claimants would not be hit further. Secondly, that universal credit is working is not proven, as she said, with 40% of claimants finding themselves in financial difficulty, 25% unable to make a claim online, and 20% overall, but two thirds of disabled claimants, not being paid on time and in full, hence the demand of the Comptroller and Auditor General, a big regulator in this country, for her to pause the universal credit programme.

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We need to separate two parts of this. One bit is where I came myself to the House to apologise for using the wrong words. I used the words “faster rate” and “speeded up” on the premise that the report had said there was no practical alternative but to continue with universal credit and that there had been a regrettable slowing down. My interpretation of that was incorrect, which is why I came to the House yesterday and apologised for my words. We should separate that from the impact of the changes. I said—and I stand by this—that the impact of the changes could not have been felt because it was still being rolled out and those impacts were still being felt and therefore could not have been taken into account. We need to separate where I used the incorrect words, for which I came to the House to apologise, from the impacts of the changes and therefore the conclusions that can be drawn.

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While my right hon. Friend has apologised, could she confirm that the Labour party has yet to apologise for its misleading statements—[Interruption.]

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I am sorry but questions must be about the policy of the Government, not about other people not apologising for other things. [Interruption.] Order. I do not need any help in these matters. I do have some experience. The hon. Lady is a most assiduous Member, but this is an exploration of Government policy and ministerial accountability to the House. It is not about the Opposition. Sorry, but that is the position.

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rose—

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No, the hon. Lady has already had one bite at the cherry. Let us have a masterclass from Sir Desmond Swayne.

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Mr Speaker, if you complain to me that I am being too slow, am I unreasonable in assuming that you want me to go faster?

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I thank my right hon. Friend for the way he said that. That was my interpretation of what I read throughout the report. I therefore apologised when I checked on the words I had used—my interpretation, not the exact words in the report. I would say, however, on the subject of apologies, that I am more than happy to say, “Can I check on those words? Did I get them right? Did I get them wrong?” I then followed through: “What was the right process?” How did I do it? Nobody asked or told me to come to the House. I actually checked the words and came to the House.

Other people, it is true, have questioned and queried—even the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). Sometimes I think we are blessed in this House that the Opposition never get anything wrong, and other MPs do not get anything wrong. Whereas I am more than happy to come and apologise if I do, it seems that sometimes other people are not so happy to come forward and apologise. Perhaps what I did that was surprising to the House was to come of my volition and apologise for my words that were wrong.

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The Secretary of State should be ashamed that she has been forced to come to the House again. Yesterday the Comptroller and Auditor General took the extraordinary step of writing an open letter to her pointing out that she had misrepresented the National Audit Office report on numerous occasions. He did so after she had failed to meet him, and she did not have the courtesy to do so before this point.

The NAO report is damning of the Government’s flagship social security policy, but, instead of responding to its findings, the Secretary of State misled the House over them. The report said that universal credit is not meeting the aims set for it, and that currently there is no evidence that it ever will. Why and how did the Secretary of State come to say falsely—on two separate occasions in Parliament—that the report had said that the roll-out of universal credit should be speeded up, that the report was out of date as it did not take account of changes made by the Government in the Budget, and that universal credit was working? How can these statements be inadvertent slips of the tongue?

In response to a point of order, the Secretary of State said that she had

“meant to say that the NAO had said that there was no practical alternative to continuing with universal credit.”—[Official Report, 4 July 2018; Vol. 644, c. 321.]

That is quite different from saying that it should be speeded up. In fact, the report states clearly that the Government should

“ensure that the programme does not expand before business-as-usual operations can cope with higher claimant volumes”.

Has the Secretary of State ever read the NAO report? If she has, how can she have drawn the conclusions that she has?

The Secretary of State has failed to apologise in relation to the other two key points made by the Comptroller and Auditor General in his letter. Will she now do so? If she misread the report so badly, this brings into question her competence and her judgment. If she read the report and chose to misrepresent its findings, she has clearly broken the ministerial code. Either way, she should resign.

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Let me start from the top again. I did not fail to meet the Comptroller and Auditor General. As I have said, the letter came in on 27 June, which was last Wednesday; our office got back to him at the end of the week, and I am seeing him on Monday. So that was not correct.

As I have said, I came to the House and apologised for my interpretation of what was there and the words that I had used. My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), who is no longer in the Chamber, referred to how something could be interpreted.

As I also explained, we agreed on the factual information all the way through, but it is a question of how you interpret that information, with the judgments, the summaries and the context. It was on that basis that we said, “We do not agree. We do not agree on how the findings come out together.” As I said, the effects of the significant changes that the Government had introduced this year cannot have been fully taken into account, because they are still being rolled out.

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I thank the Secretary of State for her apology. Like a number of other Members, I was very disappointed that the NAO report did not take account of the changes that the Department brought in on the basis of the recommendations made by the Select Committee. Will the Secretary of State confirm that she will continue to adapt and improve universal credit as new ideas and new evidence emerge?

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My hon. Friend is right. That is one of the key points, because this is one of the biggest changes in benefits. We always said that the slow roll-out would reflect the changes needed. Even within the last couple of weeks, I have made significant changes yet again. Whether they involved kinship carers, 18 to 21-year-olds and housing benefit or severe disability premiums, I made those changes after listening to people. Again, the impacts will not have taken effect yet because they are still being rolled out.

I agree that sometimes we have to do a “mea culpa”, hands up, as I did yesterday. I had the wrong words, I apologised to the House, and the apology was accepted by the House. Equally, I am more than happy and prepared when colleagues on either side of the House say, “Could you look at this? Can we look at it a bit more? Could you change this?”, and have made significant changes to this policy since I became Secretary of State.

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The Secretary of State appears to be willing to mislead Parliament and to get into a fight with the National Audit Office in order to protect her failing universal credit policy, but what she and none of her colleagues will admit is that the NAO report blows a hole as wide as the Clyde through everything the Tories have been saying on universal credit. The NAO felt forced into writing an open letter to put this matter straight, and I understand that this is Sir Amyas Morse’s first such letter in over a decade in service. This is an absolutely shameful state of affairs. We can all accept honest error, but the Comptroller and Auditor General points out in his letter that a number of the statements that the Secretary of State has made are without evidence, are not correct and are not proven.

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Thank you.

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This is not about phrasing, as the Secretary of State has said, because speeding up is not the same as pausing. Did she actually read the National Audit Office report before her recent attendance in the House? And—

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Thank you. [Interruption.] Order. I am a little disconcerted to see the SNP Front-Bench spokesman gesticulating at me as if to say, “What’s going on?” Forgive me, but I did say to the House very clearly that—[Interruption.] Order. It is no good shaking your head, I say to the hon. Lady, who is an extremely dextrous and committed Member of this House. She had a minute; she consumed her minute and I then move on. That is the right thing to do.

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We looked at the business case and looked through the conclusions, and for the £2 billion invested, there will be a £34 billion benefit to the UK economy over the next 10 years. We also foresee an increase in employment of 200,000. We believe that that is within the plausible range.

People want evidence, and we can give evidence about the changes this Government have brought through when we talk about getting people into work. We know we have got over 3.2 million people into work and we know we have got 600,000 disabled people into work in the last few years. At the time, we heard the assertions from Opposition Members. Labour said that 1 million more people would be unemployed if we pursued our policies—our changes to benefit and what else we did. That was never proved to be the case, yet I have never asked Labour to apologise for its misleading figures.

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Order. I do want to accommodate a few more questioners and we must work on that basis.

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Jobcentre staff across my constituency where universal credit has already been fully rolled out inform me that claimants are more likely to get into work as a result of being on universal credit. Is that a trend across the country, because that would mean it is really good that we are rolling it out, at whatever speed that might be?

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That is what is coming out from the data we are gathering about what real people are saying about how universal credit impacts on their lives. My hon. Friend is right to say that people are getting into work faster, staying in work longer, and looking for work. For those in work, the data shows that on average people are earning an extra £600 a year. Those are the positive effects of this benefit change.

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I am staggered and disappointed that in answer to the urgent question we have a Secretary of State who is still arguing over the detail of a report. This is an important constitutional issue. The National Audit Office is the independent watchdog of Government spending. In this case, the Secretary of State has come to the House twice and there has been an unprecedented letter from the Comptroller and Auditor General. I have had two letters from the permanent secretary adding information on what was an agreed report on 8 June. Just for the record, will the Secretary of State declare clearly in the House today that she has full confidence in the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General?

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What I would say is: they do their job. He came forward—[Interruption.] We need to separate this out. We said that we shared information. We agreed on that factual information. What we said is that we had made significant changes at the latter end of that period when information was collected, and therefore the impact of that could not have been felt. Obviously, I am meeting the Comptroller and Auditor General next week. That is what is important.

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I commend the Secretary of State’s work in the Department—she has shown a great commitment to improving the lives of people across the country. Does she agree that the Department’s decision to take an incremental approach to the development of universal credit is exactly the right approach, and that we must cut through all this political nonsense and focus on the delivery of universal credit?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. Like most other people here, I came into politics to help people into work, probably because when I grew up in Liverpool in the ’80s it was a difficult place to grow up and lots of people were not in work. To be in this position of being able to help people to get a job is what I want. It is disconcerting and upsetting that people sometimes, just for the sheer sake of opposing, want to change good measures that are helping over 3.2 million people into work. Those are the facts; that is what we know. Conservative Members are trying to improve people’s lives.

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At Monday’s Question Time, I asked the Secretary of State two questions. On Question 5, when I asked whether she would accept the National Audit Office report’s recommendation that universal credit should not be rolled out further, she said:

“The NAO made clear quite the opposite”.—[Official Report, 2 July 2018; Vol. 644, c. 8.]

It did not. At topical questions, I asked her to reconsider. I quoted the NAO report, but she stuck to her position. On both occasions, she told the House something that she knew was not correct. Will she apologise to me and to the House, and will she accept the NAO’s recommendation that the roll-out should be stopped now?

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When I answered the right hon. Gentleman’s questions, I said that the National Audit Office had said that there was no practical alternative to continuing with universal credit—that was how I answered. I will pay the right hon. Gentleman a compliment. It was due to his persistence that after I left the House I went back and said, “I’ve used these words.” I know that this is about the impact, and I know that what I said was substantially correct, but I wanted to double check. So I double checked whether I had used the wrong words, and it was after that that I made the apology, because my interpretation, although it was right, was not based on the exact words. That is what I came to apologise for. However, I stand by the fact that the impact of our changes could not have been felt and, as the NAO said, there is no practical alternative but to continue through and the slowness with which this has gone is regrettable.

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When I visited Stockport jobcentre and met its work coaches, I found an enthusiastic group of people who are keen to make a difference to people’s lives. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating them and all jobcentre workers across the country who are so enthusiastic about transforming lives and making a difference?

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Everybody wants to improve people’s lives. That is what we are all here to do, and that is what our work coaches do day in, day out. I hope that you will bear with me, Mr Speaker, if I refer to a letter I received. A lone parent wrote saying, “I was frightened to go into the jobcentre from what I had heard. Eight years ago, I was in the jobcentre, and the system did not work for me, so I was relieved and happy that I now have a job. Universal credit is working.” Since then, I have been collecting all those letters, because so many people—claimants and work coaches—are saying that this system is so much better than the one before.

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I suspect that the Secretary of State decided that she had to come to the House to apologise when she received the unprecedented open letter from the Comptroller and Auditor General pointing out that she had used—let us say—not correct assertions on three occasions about a report that her own officials had agreed. Will she now finally admit that she has got things very wrong on this, actually accept the National Audit Office’s conclusions, and show some respect to the NAO?

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If I may correct the hon. Lady, it was not to do with the letter. She incorrectly says that I came after the letter, but I asked whether I had got anything wrong and I checked things out myself. Nobody asked me or told me to come to House; I came here of my own volition. What I do not agree with—we stand by this—are the conclusions of the report in its entirety.

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Will my right hon. Friend confirm that universal credit simplifies the benefits system, helps to get more people back into work, and better targets financial help at those people who need it?

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I am happy to provide clarification: universal credit does simplify the system. It also provides the individual with more help to get a job. We know that people are getting into work quicker, staying in jobs longer, looking for work for longer and, on average, increasing their income at the end of the year by £600. That is what it is about: helping people to get on in life.

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On this occasion, Mr Lloyd, perhaps a sentence.

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That is always a challenge, Mr Speaker, but I will try.

Regrettably, I believe that the Secretary of State gave only a partial apology, because she did not take account of the fact that her own Department confirmed to the NAO on 6 June that its report was based on the most accurate and up-to-date information, yet the other day she indicated that the NAO report could be out of date. I think that that is unacceptable.

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Again, if I may correct the hon. Gentleman, we had agreed that that information was coming forward. What we have said is that the changes this Government have made were done in January, February and April, and therefore those changes could not be taken fully into account—those impacts are still being felt—because the period of checking was from last year to April of this year.

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Like my right hon. Friend, I grew up in Liverpool in the 1980s and have a particular sensitivity to the problems caused by unemployment. Both the jobcentres that serve my constituents are fully supportive of the roll-out of universal credit, so will she maintain her focus on rolling out universal credit as the best way to help people into work and to help people in work?

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I did not know my hon. Friend also spent his formative years in Liverpool. There are so many Conservative Members who spent their formative years and grew up in Liverpool. [Interruption.] I smile because there are so many of us even in this Department.

My hon. Friend is quite right. This is what we are about: getting more people into work, which we have done—and significantly so. Now we are reaching out to help even more people, significantly so.

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For eight years Parliament’s only reliable information about the status of universal credit has come from the National Audit Office. Ministers have consistently responded with denials and cover-up statements that, as the Secretary of State has acknowledged this week, were simply untrue. Might her apology herald a new openness about the very real problems with the universal credit project?

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for mentioning my openness and the fact that I was willing, by myself, to come and apologise for using the wrong words. People who know me will always say about me that I am open, that I am straight and that I say it as it is, which I will do. Equally, if we need to make more changes, which I have done from the moment I got here—I did not seek leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal because I did not feel it would have been right; and I looked at the position of kinship carers and did not think it was right, so we changed it, as we did for the 18-to-21 group—I am more than happy to change things when we can, if we can.

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The NAO report notes that jobcentre staff have said that universal credit systems have “improved significantly” since they were first introduced. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking Sedgemoor District Council and other councils among the first tranche to adopt universal credit for the quality of the feedback they have given, which has allowed those improvements to be delivered?

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I thank my hon. Friend, because nobody can do this in isolation or by themselves. We need the local councils to be on board, we need the housing associations to be on board and we need MPs to be on board—we need everybody supporting the most vulnerable. I thank him for that comment, and he is quite correct.

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Does the Secretary of State agree with the National Audit Office that universal credit is moving people into debt and that the first debt is rent arrears? Claimants are not getting their rent paid and housing providers find out that a person is on universal credit only when they are in arrears. Is that not a reason why universal credit should be paused?

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Some of the key changes that were done during this year were the advances to provide extra support if people were in need of extra money and the two-week run-on in housing benefit. So we learnt, changed and adapted. Those things have been brought in, but only this year. Therefore, again, their impacts cannot have been felt. But we listened, we learnt, we altered and we have done.

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Order. I allowed some injury time on two accounts. The first was that I had to intervene a number of times in regularising the debate. The second was that I wanted to facilitate a reasonable number of questions, so I ran the urgent question for half an hour, rather than for 20 minutes. I am sorry that some colleagues are disappointed, but I think that was a reasonable treatment of the issue. I gather that the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) has a point of order that directly flows from the urgent question, and if he puts it extremely briefly, I will hear it, although I offer no guarantee of any response.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Given that the Secretary of State said that she had afforded her apology to the House on the basis of the interventions I made and my two questions on Monday, is it in order for her not to write to me, as the Member concerned, to tell me that she was making a statement and/or that she was correcting the record from Monday?

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Nothing disorderly has happened. It is perfectly in order for the Secretary of State not to write to the right hon. Gentleman. In retrospect, it might have been wise for her to do so, but the past is the past and, to be fair, it is not for me to arbitrate on the merits or demerits of policy or even, outside the Chamber, of conduct. Suffice it to say that the Secretary of State did approach me and offered to come to the House yesterday, which she did. [Interruption.] She approached me the day before yesterday about coming here yesterday. She has come here today and we have had a half-hour exchange, which seems to me to be very reasonable. We must now move on to the next business.

Business of the House

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

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The business for next week will include:

Monday 9 July—Consideration of a business of the House motion, followed by proceedings on the Northern Ireland Budget (No. 2) Bill, followed by a motion to approve a money resolution on the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill.

Tuesday 10 July—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Non-Domestic Rating (Nursery Grounds) Bill, followed by motion to approve Standing Orders relating to the European Statutory Instruments Committee, followed by Opposition day (unallotted half day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats, subject to be announced, followed by a debate on a motion relating to the appointment of external members to the House of Commons Commission.

Wednesday 11 July—Opposition day (16th allotted day). There will be a debate entitled “Build it in Britain shipbuilding”, followed by a debate on blue light emergency services. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Thursday 12 July—Debate on a motion on the practice of forced adoption in the UK, followed by general debate on lessons from the collapse of Carillion. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 13 July—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 16 July will include:

Monday 16 July—Remaining stages of the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill.

Tuesday 17 July—Remaining stages of the Trade Bill.

Wednesday 18 July—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill, followed by Opposition day (15th allotted half day, part 2). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 19 July—Debate on a motion on the independent complaints and grievance policy, followed by business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 20 July—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 23 July will include:

Monday 23 July—General debate, subject to be announced.

Tuesday 24 July—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

I am delighted to wish the NHS a very happy 70th birthday. We are building an NHS for the future, ensuring it will be there for all of our children and grandchildren, just as it has been there for us. Today, we thank all the nurses and doctors, and all of our hard-working NHS staff for the extraordinary work they do, helping more people to live longer, healthier lives.

I am sure that everyone will want to join me in sending our best wishes to all who are taking part in the Pride celebrations in London this weekend.

Although I am a bit suspicious that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) may be practising his Swedish, I am hopeful that the whole House will join me in wishing England the very best of luck in their quarter final against Sweden on Saturday.

Finally, I am immensely proud that in my own constituency this weekend is the world-famous British grand prix at Silverstone. I wish all the teams and drivers the very best.

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I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business, which I think takes us up to the recess, and for the two Opposition days. I suppose it is too cheeky and too early to ask for the Easter recess dates, but perhaps the Leader of the House could say when the next Queen’s Speech will be.

Given that Defence Question Time was moved, without the courtesy of letting business managers know, from its slot after the NATO summit and the publication of the modernising defence programme reports, may we have a debate on the summit and the reports? Or should we ring the Secretary of State for Defence so that he can ask Siri?

We now have a third option for the post-Brexit arrangement, although there was no clue in the Prime Minister’s statement on Monday as to what it is and how it will work. It will be an interesting house party tomorrow—I assume the Leader of the House will also be there—and they may end up playing Cluedo. It will be a Cabinet Minister, in the dining room, with the White Paper. [Interruption.] Those who have played it will know. Presumably, one side will take Sharpies to redact it and the other side will take highlighters to accept the good parts.

Yet again, the House is the last to know about the business. On Monday, a journalist tweeted about the publication of the White Paper, saying that

“it looks like the White Paper has been pencilled in for July 12th, the very day that Donald Trump arrives in the UK.”

Again, the courtesies to the House are not being followed. None of the Opposition business managers knew when the White Paper was going to be published. Will the Leader of the House confirm when it will be published and may we have a statement on it? Might I suggest the 23 July, when it seems there is a spare slot for a general debate? It would be possible to debate the White Paper then.

It is not clear how this third way will affect the Irish border and what will happen in respect of alignment. The Prime Minister is yet to visit the border; perhaps the away-day party could go there en masse. I met a farmer at the farmers market in Parliament last week, and he told me that his farm straddles the north and the Republic; what will happen to him? The Prime Minister said on Monday:

“In a no-deal situation, it will of course be up to the United Kingdom to determine what it does in relation to the border in Northern Ireland.”—[Official Report, 2 July 2018; Vol. 644, c. 59.]

That is not correct: there is more than one party on either side of the border and more than one party in the negotiations.

The Leader of the House congratulated the NHS on its 70th anniversary, and we do, too. It was the courage of Nye Bevan and the determination of a Labour Government that saw the birth of the NHS, which has completely transformed social justice in this country.

Why did the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care not come to the House to give a list of the 17 operations that are to be cancelled? I am sure that Members have read that list. I have had carpal tunnel syndrome—what would have happened to me? Would I not have been allowed to have that operation? Would I have had to ask for it? The Secretary of State is hiding behind the head of NHS England. May we have a statement from him on another step to privatisation and to explain the reasons why those 17 operations are on that list? Perhaps he could extend the consultation period over the summer.

While the Conservatives are dining at the Hurlingham Club, the country is falling apart on their watch. I am not going to go over the urgent question on universal credit, but suffice it to say that, as the National Audit Office said, the Government’s flagship universal credit programme has not delivered value for money, and it is impossible to know whether it will help to get people off benefits and into work. We need a proper debate so that we can find out who said what to whom and who understood what about the report. We need that debate, so may we have it as soon as possible?

What about a debate on the Public Accounts Committee report that said:

“After seven years of government funding reductions totalling nearly 50% and rising demand for services, local authorities are under real strain. Key services that support vulnerable people, such as social care and housing, are now under enormous pressure.”

Funding cuts have reduced public services such as libraries, waste collection and bus services. Our high streets are dying. Marks & Spencer and Poundworld are leaving Walsall town centre. High street names are either closing stores, or they are in administration.

What about students? Again, I raise the plight of our poor students. The House of Commons Library provided my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) with some analysis that showed that the Government are causing more debt to students because of their use of the retail price index to apply interest to their student loans. Switching to CPI would result in £16,000 less interest being added over 30 years. We need a statement on what the Government will do to alleviate this debt.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) told me that there will be a memorial event in the Piper Alpha memorial garden in Hazelhead park on Friday evening. It is the 30th anniversary of the Piper Alpha explosion. The names of the 167 people who died in that explosion will be read out. Frank Doran, the former Labour MP for Aberdeen North, was assiduous in fighting for improved safety standards in the North sea.

I want to thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing the Library to use Speaker’s House last Monday. There was a fantastic celebration of 200 years of the Library, and fantastic memorabilia were on display. I thank Penny Young and all her staff for the fabulous work that they put in there. I also thank other Members of the House: EqualiTeas has recorded 107,000 people taking part and 3,000 tea parties—that is an average of 4.5 tea parties per constituency. The pack was brilliant. David Clark, the head of education and engagement, and his team of Michelle, Rob, Beryl, Emma and Charles should be congratulated. It is an excellent and inspiring way to engage the public in celebrating Parliament and equality.

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I start by absolutely agreeing with the hon. Lady that the EqualiTeas effort has been fantastic. We are all thoroughly enjoying it. I very much enjoyed cutting the first cake, which had this wonderful teapot on the top. It is wonderful to think of those very smartly dressed ladies 100 years ago primly having tea, but plotting on how to get the vote. It shows what can be done when we really try.

I also join the hon. Lady in commemorating the awful Piper Alpha disaster. It is right that we should remember it. I remember going on to a North sea oil rig when I was Energy Minister and realising how very vulnerable I was, so I absolutely join with her in that commemoration. She asked about future dates, and, of course, I will bring them forward as soon as I can. She also asked about defence questions being moved with Home Office questions. I sincerely apologise if she felt that there was any attempt to mislead in any way. The new oral questions rota was issued more than a fortnight ago, which I do consider is sufficient time for hon. Members to familiarise themselves with it. It was felt to be important that Defence Ministers were able to attend the opening day of the Farnborough air show, which is a very important day in the calendar for the Defence Department.

The hon. Lady asked about the Cabinet away-day. I can tell her that I am very much looking forward to it. I do not think there will be time for Cluedo, but I expect that there will be some very interesting discussions. The White Paper she mentioned will, of course, be brought forward just as soon as it can be. The Prime Minister has said before the summer recess; that is not too long to go. The hon. Lady asked about the Irish border. I also do not think that we will have time to go to the Irish border during the course of the day tomorrow. It was a good suggestion, but, possibly, without our broomsticks we might struggle to get there in time. None the less, she raises very important points about Northern Ireland and the Republic. It is vital that we keep to our red line of not allowing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and that remains absolutely the Government’s position.

The hon. Lady asked about universal credit. As she knows, we have just had an urgent question on that topic, so I do not propose to spend a lot of time on it other than to say that universal credit is intended to be a much simpler and more effective benefit. It does work for people. The Leader of the Opposition likes to use examples, so let me say that Nayim from Lancashire has said, “Universal credit gave me the flexibility to take on additional hours without the stress of thinking that this might stop my benefit straight away.” Roberta from Yorkshire, who had mental health issues, is now in work and loving it, and says, “My work coach helped turn my life around. He tailored his support to my situation and thanks to him I have found my dream job.” Real people’s lives are being improved by universal credit, and that is absolutely the point of it.

The hon. Lady said that local authorities are under strain. She will appreciate that this Government have sought since 2010 to get to a point where our economy is again living within its means and is succeeding. Just last week, BAE Systems won a £20 billion contract to build nine top warships for Australia. A business survey shows that we remain the No. 1 destination for foreign direct investment in Europe. Tech businesses attracted nearly $8 billion of funding last year—double the amount received in 2016. Employment is up to another record high, real wages are growing and the OECD is upgrading our growth forecast. What further evidence does the hon. Lady need to see that it is this Government who are taking the steps necessary to turn around our economy, and ensure that we can survive and thrive?

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Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the inequalities of the provision of personal independence payments for blind people? There seems to be a disparity in the age at which the payments can be made.

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My hon. Friend is mentioning an important and serious question, and mentions disparities about the age at which payments can be made to blind people. I assure him that new claims for PIP are available for claimants aged between 16 and 64, regardless of their health condition or disability. Where a claimant is in receipt of PIP, they can continue to receive it after the age of 65, providing that they continue to meet the eligibility criteria.

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I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week, and join in with the 70th birthday wishes to our amazing national health service. I am particularly proud that in Scotland we have the best performing NHS in the whole United Kingdom. I also note what the shadow Leader of the House said about the Piper Alpha disaster 30 years ago today; it is an event that we should remember.

To the Leader of the House, “Heja Sverige!” We were brought up in the ’60s and ’70s in Scotland at the height of Jimmy Hill-ism, and it is really hard to love the English football team because of that particular experience.

I do not know whether the Leader of the House is down as an “accept” at the Chequers get-together tomorrow, but I have a sneaking suspicion about which side she is on in this great Cabinet battle of Brexit. It is now open warfare, with the Brexiteers lining up to rubbish the latest delusional proposal. I am just wondering whether the House will get the opportunity to debate this fantastical “third way” solution that the Prime Minister is promoting before the EU27 once again reject it out of hand.

Surely it is now time for electronic voting. I understand that some of my Conservative friends got just a wee bit upset on Tuesday evening about having to vote on our estimates process. Apparently, just doing their job got in the way of being able to cheer on the English national football team. Apparently it was all the fault of us nasty Scots Nats for daring to vote in a parliamentary democracy. How dare we? Well, salvation is on its way and there is a solution available for my footy-fixated Tory friends: stop wandering round and round aimlessly for 20 minutes in a headcount in stuffed Division Lobbies, introduce some modern voting facilities and come into the 21st century. That would save England having to be eliminated on penalties so that Conservative Members can continue to do their business in this Parliament.

Lastly, this Tory dark money scandal is simply not going away. We now know the address of the murky Scottish Unionist Association Trust and we know its trustees, but we still do not know how it got its money, where that money was invested and why it was not properly registered with the Electoral Commission. It stinks to high heaven and the Scottish Tories are going to have to come clean some time very soon.

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I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that the side that I am on—at Chequers or anywhere—is the side of the United Kingdom. May I gently ask the hon. Gentleman whose side he is on? That is the question that he and his colleagues need to answer.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman’s question about electronic voting, I would observe that Scottish National party Members certainly should not be playing in the World cup due to the slowness of the 33 of them going through the Lobby—they showed no ability to sprint. It is entirely in order for them to vote at all times, as was pointed out on the day. Nevertheless, the Serjeant at Arms having to go twice into the Lobby to find out what was causing such a delay in the 33 of them staggering through prevented not only those in the Chamber who wanted to watch the football from doing so, but the Doorkeepers and the many other staff who support us. It was just plain mean to do that.

In response to the hon. Gentleman’s point about donations, I can tell him that the Scottish Conservative party has recorded all donations in line with the law.

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The current legal framework on referendums was based on two reports—the Nairn commission report on the conduct of referendums in 1996 and the report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1998. The rules on referendums have not been updated for 20 years. Will the Leader of the House consider giving us a debate on the rules on referendums, particularly in the light of the fact that on Monday the report of the Independent Commission on Referendums, which I have been pleased to play a part in, is coming out? It was put together by the UCL constitution unit under the leadership of Meg Russell. We will have an opportunity to look at some of the suggestions on updating the rules on referendums, particularly with regard to social media and all the reports of people interfering with the process. I hope that she will take this request seriously and that we can have a detailed debate on the potential new rules that we could have surrounding this important part of our democracy.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for her contribution to that debate. I certainly look forward to seeing the report. She may wish to raise her specific issue at Electoral Commission questions next Thursday.

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I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business right up until the recess on 24 July. I can let the House know that we have already pre-determined that on 19 July the business nominated by the Backbench Business Committee will be the first anniversary of the tobacco control plan and smoking policy. I suspect that our determination of the business for 24 July will come this Tuesday. I hope that the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) will be happy with the outcome of that.

Yesterday in Prime Minister’s questions, my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) invited the Prime Minister to Newcastle for the great exhibition of the north. Of course, that is in both Newcastle and Gateshead, so I would like to extend that invitation to all Members to visit Newcastle and Gateshead for the great exhibition of the north. On the Gateshead side of the river, they can visit the Baltic Centre, the Sage Gateshead and the By the River Brew Co., all of which can be accessed via the Gateshead Millennium bridge—so welcome to Gateshead as well.

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As ever, we all love to celebrate the great exhibition of the north and seize the opportunities to visit when we can. I am certainly looking into whether I could possibly get there; I would very much like to do so.

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My constituents are currently being denied their legal rights to inspect the accounts of their local authority. Taunton Deane Borough Council’s spending data is currently a whole year out of date. My constituents have only a 30-day period in which to inspect the accounts. The council has blamed—believe it or not—a computer error. I am afraid that this is outrageous. The chief executive and the leader are wholly responsible, but the Government do have a duty on this. May we please have a debate in Government time on the ability of local councils to fulfil their statutory obligations to my constituents and many others?

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My hon. Friend raises a very important and detailed point. I recommend that he raise it directly with Ministers or at Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government questions on 23 July.

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The national lottery is not fit for purpose. How can it be right that, in the same year, Ashfield gets £900,000, while a city constituency a few miles down the road gets £64 million? May we have a debate in Government time on how to ensure that our former coalfield communities get their fair share from the lottery?

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I would like to pay tribute to all those who buy lottery tickets and to the amazing achievements of the lottery in supporting good causes around the country. The hon. Lady makes an important point, and I suggest she seek an Adjournment debate, so that she can raise that matter.

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Sylvia Plath, speaking of her beloved son, said:

“There is no guile or warp in him. May he keep so.”

In our time, our children are being warped by online gambling. The Gambling Commission reports that 25,000 children in Britain are problem gamblers and that a number of online gambling vehicles are predatory, using techniques to make children spend. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a Minister to make a statement or perhaps even hold a debate, to ensure that we take seriously this great menace? Graham Greene said:

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”

We can condemn our children to a future that is bitter and bleak, or we can craft a future that is joyful, hopeful and wonderful.

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The right hon. Gentleman’s book learning is legendary, as is his willingness generously to share it with us.

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this appalling situation. I have seen myself with my own kids that when young children are playing a game, they are encouraged not to use actual money, because they do not have any, but to get addicted to the idea of buying some extra beads or something else to enable them to play that game even better. I have experience of that, and I share his grave concern. He will be aware that Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Ministers are determined to keep children safe online and are doing all they can to tackle the issue. He may wish to seek a Backbench Business debate to look at what more can be done to protect young children.

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In the southern part of Syria at this moment, over a quarter of a million civilians are being bombed and attacked by Russia’s air force and the Assad regime. Is it not time we had another debate in this House on the crimes that are going on in Syria and the failure of the international community, including this country, to do anything about it?

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The hon. Gentleman is quite right that this is an ongoing catastrophe. The conflict is now in its eighth year, and the UN estimates that more than 400,000 people have been killed and over half the population has been displaced. He is right to raise that, and he may well wish to take it up with Defence Ministers on Monday during oral questions. The UK can be very proud that we are the second largest bilateral donor to the humanitarian response in Syria. We have now committed more than £2.7 billion to the Syria crisis since 2012, which is our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis.

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On pages 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20 of today’s Order Paper, there are more than 60 private Members’ Bills listed for Friday from 20 right hon. and hon. Members. The vast majority of those Bills will be objected to by a senior Whip on Friday. Can we have, for transparency’s sake, a statement tomorrow morning listing all the Bills that the senior Whip will object to on Friday, so that the House knows which ones to concentrate on?

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My hon. Friend will know that the Government have always maintained the view that private Members’ Bills serve a very important function. They are an invaluable opportunity for Members to promote legislation on the causes they support. The Government have been keen to support a number of private Members’ Bills—I will not go into them now—and there are some excellent ones coming forward. I can also tell him that the number of private Members’ Bills passed under the Government in the 2010 Parliament was 31, versus only 22 in the 2005 Parliament. This Government have a very good record of supporting and enabling Back-Bench business to get on to the statute book.

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I think that it is widely recognised across the House that, in the past few months, there has been a rise in violent crime, particularly in London. The police are stretched to the limit and are using reserve powers repeatedly, particularly in my constituency, where section 60 powers have been used a lot. I know that we recently had a debate on crime, but the Security Minister really needs to come to the House to make a statement on the situation that London is now in.

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue of serious violence. It is a grave concern, particularly, as he points out, in urban areas. Our serious violence strategy is focused on steering young people away from crime and putting in place measures to tackle the root causes. He will be aware that, with our Offensive Weapons Bill, we are seeking to make it much harder for people to gain access to the dangerous weapons that fuel the problem with violence we are experiencing at the moment.

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May we have a statement early next week from the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government arising from his statement to the Local Government Association conference this week, where he said he had

“no intention of forcing reorganisation on local government where it isn’t wanted or needed”?

As you know, Mr Speaker, reorganisation is neither wanted nor needed in Christchurch, where 17,676 people voted against it in a local referendum. If the Secretary of State came to the House to make a statement, it would give him an opportunity to withdraw the opposition he continues to make in the High Court to Christchurch’s case against the Government. If the Government now withdraw their opposition to Christchurch, we could all live happily.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this constituency issue again. He will be aware that Housing, Communities and Local Government questions will take place on Monday 23 July, and that is obviously a question that is best directed straight to the Secretary of State.

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Mr Speaker, some years ago, you and I visited southern Sudan. When the country of South Sudan obtained independence, we hoped it would have a better future. Sadly, a crisis of biblical proportions is going on there, with famine, warfare and everything else. Will the Leader of the House call an urgent debate on South Sudan, so that we can raise the implications of the latest failure of the peace talks, with all its repercussions?

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The hon. Gentleman refers to another humanitarian crisis in a part of the world that the UK is strongly seeking to support and in which the UK is endeavouring to find peaceful ways forward. I encourage him to seek an Adjournment debate so that he can discuss progress directly with a Foreign Office Minister.

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I am delighted to inform the House that Erewash has topped the Which? magazine food hygiene survey, with 97% of medium and high-risk food retailers now compliant. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a significant achievement both for the food inspection and enforcement team at Erewash Borough Council and for local food retailers in my constituency? Will she consider holding a debate in Government time to highlight the important contribution that the food sector makes to our high streets?

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I am very pleased to congratulate Erewash on this achievement. It is fantastic for my hon. Friend’s local council, but also for local food retailers. She is right to point out that local authorities across the UK are responsible for regulating food businesses to make sure that the food we eat is safe. She is also right that the sector makes a huge contribution to our high streets, and I encourage her to apply for a Westminster Hall debate or an Adjournment debate to raise further the contribution it makes.

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May we have a debate on ministerial accountability? Many of my constituents who claim universal credit or other benefits but innocently get it wrong are sanctioned. Why do they think there is one rule for the Minister responsible for this and another rule for them?

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I again say that universal credit is designed to be a better, much simpler benefit that enables more people to get into work. The Department for Work and Pensions has sought to listen to all the views expressed on both sides of the House over many months and to ensure wherever we can that we improve the service to claimants to make the experience for them much better. We will continue to listen to the experience and feedback and to improve the system so that it helps more people to get back into work.

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Headteachers in my constituency and representatives from Anglia Ruskin University have raised multiple concerns about unconditional offers being given to students, irrespective of their A-level results. They believe that such offers manipulate student choices and leave students ill-equipped to cope with rigorous undergraduate programmes. May we have a Back-Bench debate to explore that issue further?

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My hon. Friend raises an important and serious issue, and the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation has been clear about the need for rigorous standards. Universities and the entire higher education sector should do all they can to encourage a diverse range of people to access the higher education system, and my hon. Friend might wish to raise her specific point through an Adjournment debate.

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The welcome Gilligan report on cycling came out this week and included recommendations for major investment in Oxford. May we please have a debate on that important issue?

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I know how important cycling infrastructure is to the hon. Lady’s constituency, and the Government welcome Andrew Gilligan’s report for the National Infrastructure Commission on that subject. We want cycling and walking to become the natural choice of transport for people of all ages and backgrounds, particularly in urban areas, and we are determined to make it safer and easier. I would recommend that the hon. Lady apply for an Adjournment debate, but I understand she has already done so.

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The whole country has rightly been celebrating three Tottenham players putting four penalties past an Arsenal goalkeeper this week. May I draw the House’s attention to the fact that the European Parliament is today debating the EU copyright directive, which will have incredible implications for internet users and also protect artists’ copyright? Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate in the House on that issue, which is of the utmost importance to our future?

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Would you like to confirm your delight at the performance of those Spurs players, Mr Speaker? Not sure. On my hon. Friend’s substantive question, that is indeed an important topic, and having heard from the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, I suspect there will be the opportunity to raise such a matter for debate in the pre-recess Adjournment debate.

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On 10 May, I asked the Leader of the House, on behalf of my constituent, Heather Cameron, for a debate on pensions. Heather Cameron is in the Gallery today, so may I ask the right hon. Lady whether there will be time before the summer recess for a binding vote to secure justice for those women born in the 1950s who have been robbed of their state pensions?

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The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I have just read out the business up to the summer recess. There will be opportunities for Adjournment debates and Westminster Hall debates in the usual way, and I encourage him to seek such a debate. I also encourage him to bear in mind that the Government have already sought to minimise the impact of these measures on the personal pensions of women born during the 1950s.

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May we have a debate on the NHS? As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the NHS, Moray has received a bitter blow. NHS Grampian has said that maternity services at Dr Gray’s Hospital in Elgin will be downgraded for up to 18 months, so hundreds of pregnant women will have to travel to Aberdeen or Inverness to give birth, rather than do so locally in Moray. Does my right hon. Friend agree with local campaigns, such as the Keep MUM campaign, which says that the proposals raise grave concerns about the safety of pregnant women, babies and sick children?

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My hon. Friend is right, of course, to raise the importance of having local, good-quality care for pregnant mums, and the opportunity for women to deliver their babies safely and close to home is key. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his determination to campaign for such things in his constituency, and I wish him and the Keep MUM campaign every success.

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This week marks the 40th anniversary of when my secretary, Linda Spencer, first came to work at the House of Commons. I would like to thank Linda for all her hard work on my behalf and that of former colleagues, Gisela Stuart and the late John Fraser. Does the Leader of the House think she might find time for a short debate in which we can pay tribute to the hard work of all the staff—cleaners, catering staff, secretaries, researchers, admin workers, doormen and women, Hansard reporters, Clerks, librarians, maintenance workers, and police and security staff—because without their hard work, we could not possibly carry out our duties on behalf of our constituents?

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Order. I just say to the hon. Gentleman that I am very much aware of this matter and that a letter from me will be winging its way to Linda Spencer today.

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I join you, Mr Speaker, in paying tribute to her for her many long years of service. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the fact that all the support staff right across the Palace of Westminster enable us to do our work and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. I encourage him to make his points more fully