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House of Commons

Tuesday 20 November 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


National Australia Group Europe Bill [Lords]

Read the Third time, and passed.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Women in Public Life

1. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): What steps his Department is taking to encourage more women to stand for election to office. [13551]

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): We have introduced the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill to enable political parties to use positive measures to reduce inequality in the numbers of men and women elected. We are also reforming government to make it a more attractive option to able people of all backgrounds, including women, through improving the hours and working environments at all levels. However, political parties have a vital role to play in encouraging women to come forward as candidates, and I hope that the Government's work in that area acts as a spur to parties wishing to achieve a better gender balance in their representatives.

Dr. Starkey: The Minister will be aware that the level of women's representation on local councils varies widely, from 51 per cent. on Cotswold council to 5 per cent. on the Isle of Anglesey council. Is he aware of any research on why the variation is so great and on what barriers exist to increasing women's participation on local councils? If there is no such research, will his Department commission it and then act upon it?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend has rightly highlighted the problem of inadequate representation of women on many local authorities. Some 27 per cent. of all councillors are women, which is a better figure than this House, but it is still far below the proportion one would expect, given that women constitute about 50 per cent. of the population. Research has been undertaken by several bodies, including the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Fawcett Society, the Improvement and

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Development Agency, the Local Government Association and the constitution unit at University college, London, on reasons why women are under-represented at different levels in government. Several conclusions flow from that research, one of which is the selection processes to which I have already referred. The Government are committed to carrying forward positive measures, as set out in the legislation I have already mentioned, to make it possible for more women to be elected and play an effective role in government at all levels.

Rail Services (East Midlands)

2. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): What investment is planned in new east midlands local rail services in the next 10 years. [13552]

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): The extension of the Midland Mainline franchise to 2008 provides for a £240 million investment package that will benefit passengers in the east midlands. The Strategic Rail Authority's forthcoming strategic plan will set out its plans for enhancing the network to deliver key rail targets in the 10-year plan.

David Taylor: Given the early success of the rail passenger partnership scheme in adding routes, services and stations on to the rail network, does the Minister believe that the recently revised criteria will allow more effective revenue and capital support to be given to schemes such as the national forest line through north-west Leicestershire? Will he visit our area so that he can have a look at the road congestion and community inaccessibility that projects such as that could start to tackle?

Mr. Spellar: My hon. Friend is right to say that the rail passenger partnership scheme has been successful, and some £45 million has already been approved for 31 schemes. However, he is also correct to say that the SRA has reconsidered the criteria and recently announced some improvements. I can confirm that from the end of the year, both capital and revenue support will be available. The limit for fast-track applications will also be increased from £100,000 to £250,000. Revised guidance reflecting those changes will be issued shortly.

With regard to my hon. Friend's invitation to visit his constituency, I receive several such invitations and I will be more than pleased for my office to liaise with him to see whether we can arrange a visit so that he can show me the problems that he wants us to address and, I hope, reach a successful conclusion.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Does not the Minister recognise that, while many of us on both sides of the House who take an interest in rail issues have worked with rail development groups to encourage investment in the east midlands and throughout the country, the Secretary of State's decision to pull the plug on Railtrack has severely damaged the prospects for rail investment? Does the Minister accept that what the House and the country now need are the civil servants' minutes—especially those of Treasury civil servants—of the meetings with the Secretary of State so that we can assess what the Secretary of State has said?

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Mr. Spellar: That contribution, from an hon. Member who represents a Surrey constituency, indicates the level of trivia to which the Opposition have descended, instead of being interested in the real issues of travel that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) was rightly addressing.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling): Will my right hon. Friend talk to Railtrack about improving the western approach to Nottingham station? That improvement is essential if the local rail services are to be developed by making use of the old colliery lines in constituencies such as mine in Gedling.

Mr. Spellar: I am pleased that my hon. Friend, unlike the Opposition, is addressing rail issues in the east midlands. I was able to see what was happening in Nottingham during a recent visit, when I had discussions with the local council. I know that the matter is being progressed.

London Underground

3. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): What discussions he has had with the Mayor of London and his transport commissioner about arrangements for monitoring investment in the London Underground; and if he will make a statement. [13554]

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): We regularly meet the Mayor of London and his transport commissioner to discuss a range of matters to do with transport in London.

Harry Cohen: Have the Government lost control of the public-private partnership contracts for the tube? In a letter to me, the transport commissioner said that they were immensely lengthy and involved a web of complex formulas. He described it as a dangerous game, and said that, as happened with Railtrack, the formulas would have to be renegotiated and restructured completely. He added that that process would cost a great deal—more than would be the case if they were right at the outset. Surely, given such dire warnings, the Government will not go ahead with those contracts?

Mr. Spellar: The contracts will deliver considerable investment in the tube, and considerable improvements for the travelling public. In addition, the Government and London Underground are engaged in robust negotiations with the bidders. It is an interesting reversal to see that the Opposition seem to be against the private infrastructure companies, which have considerable expertise. My hon. Friend should look at the considerable success achieved as a result of private sector involvement on the Northern line. That has delivered real benefits for passengers in terms of both comfort and reliability.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Will the Minister explain how the performance formula will work? How will the infrastructure companies be rewarded or penalised according to performance? The formula baffles

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the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) and the transport commissioner, and it most surely baffles me. I hope that the Minister is wiser.

Mr. Spellar: Discussions are taking place between London Underground and the infrastructure companies. They are working together to achieve a formula that will ensure that proper performance is rewarded. There will be penalties for failure, and rewards for delivery. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would have welcomed such incentivisation. The parties involved must get the negotiations right to ensure that the companies deliver for the travelling public. At the end of the process, the schemes will be evaluated to ensure that they deliver value for money. If they do, they will go ahead. That is good news for the travelling public—and for taxpayers, who will get value for money.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): May I draw the Minister's attention to a few facts? Since the Government came to power, the number of cancelled peak-time trains has reached record levels. There have been 23 million customer hours lost in the past 12 months. Absenteeism among London Underground staff is at its highest level for five years. In addition, the annual service charges that London Underground will have to pay to the private—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is far too long.

Mr. Spellar: I do not accept all the figures set out by the hon. Gentleman but, given all the problems that he has described, I am surprised that he wants to leave the system as it is.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): On 8 December 1999, the Deputy Prime Minister said that the PPP on London Underground would

Things seem to have changed a little since then. The PPP contract is complex and no one understands it, and London Underground is having to meet interest rate costs of an extra £10 million a year. The Minister has just praised the contracts that have been drawn up, but they involve bonuses worth £90 million to the contractors, regardless of whether there is an improvement in the tube. What has gone wrong since 1999—besides the dead hand of the Secretary of State?

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman will have to wait for the final outcome of the negotiations and the package that will be put together. We will evaluate whether that represents value for money. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the extra £13 billion investment, which will ensure that we have a tube for this century. It will also ensure London's position as a world financial centre and capital. That is what we are doing, and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman continues to carp about it.

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