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Mr. Sarwar : Outlawing incitement to religious hatred is long overdue. It is imperative that we extend protection to prevent hatred being stirred up against people on the basis of their religious beliefs, or lack of religious beliefs, as well as their race. An extension of the law is needed to tackle the activities of extremists who have targeted people because of their religious beliefs.
The Bill will close the unacceptable loophole whereby mono-ethnic faith groups such as Jews or Sikhs have legal redress against those who stir up religious hatred against them, but multi-ethnic faith groups such as Muslims, Christians and Hindus do not. That loophole has been exploited by far-right groups, who use religious terms to target victims whom they previously targeted using racial terms. The new provision allows the authorities to take action against such racist extremists, who have distributed material listing a range of insulting and highly inflammatory reasons for hating Muslims. For example, it was suggested that Muslims are a threat to the British people and liable to molest women, and should therefore be made to leave the UK. If those statements are not an incitement to hate Muslims, then what is?
I am pleased that the new law will allow the authorities to pursue extremists in faith groups who make repeated threatening statements stirring followers to look for ways to make trouble for unbelievers. Extremist British Muslim groups who incite religious hatred against other groups will face justice, as they should. Extremists are few in number and completely unrepresentative of the communities whom they claim to represent. The majority of the British people, including British Muslims, are peaceful and law abiding, and would not stir up hatred against others because they do not share their religious beliefs.
Critics of the provision argue that it seeks to protect people's beliefs and to restrict freedom of speech. That is simply not the case. It does not limit the freedom to criticise religious beliefs and practices or to engage in robust argument about those or to tell jokes. The new law is consistent with, and will operate in the light of, the guarantees afforded by the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. The convention clearly establishes the need to balance the right to freedom of speech with respect for the rights and freedoms of others. The protection of free speech afforded by the convention is an adequate safeguard over and above the tests that any action under the new law will have to fulfil.
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There is a further safeguard, in that the Attorney-General's consent will be required for all prosecutions to protect against frivolous or vexatious actions. Furthermore, the proposed and existing offences carry a high threshold to protect freedom of speech. Words, behaviour or material must be threatening, abusive or insulting and intended or likely to stir up hatred. The hatred has to be targeted at a group, not at beliefs or ideologies. Hatred goes beyond ridicule, prejudice, dislike, contempt, anger or offence.
The proposal has the support of eminent equality and human rights lawyers such as Geoffrey Bindman and Robin Alien QC. It is also supported by the Law Society, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Association of Chief Police Officers.
It being six and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, Mr. Deputy Speaker proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [3 February].
That the Licensing Act 2003 (Fees) Regulations 2005 (S.I., 2005, No. 79), dated 20th January 2005, the Financing of Maintained Schools (England) Regulations 2004 (S.I., 2004, No. 3130), dated 9th December 2004 and the LEA Budget, Schools Budget and Individual Schools Budget (England) Regulations 2004 (S.I., 2004, No. 3131), dated 9th December 2004 be referred to Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation. [Mr. Heppell.]
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce a subject that is of deep concern to my constituents and others who use the major train stations of Maidenhead and Twyford and the branch line stations of Cookham, Furze Platt and Wargrave in my constituency. I said that it was a matter of great concern to my constituents but it also causes them considerable disquiet anddare I say itdistress because of the impact that the introduction of the new timetable in December 2004 has had on the services and their lives. I shall explain that to the Minister shortly.
It is sad to have to introduce this subject. For many years, my constituents and others who use the stations have benefited from a good rail service. Many fast and semi-fast services to and from Paddington were, by and large, reliable. I shall not pretend that they were perfect. At times, passengers experienced delays and frustrations. However, the rail service was good, yet, in the past couple of months, it has deteriorated significantly. The previous service was run by Thames Trains, which was, paradoxically, one of the few train operating companies that did not require a public subsidy. First Great Western is in a rather different position.
A year ago, there was a good service. Today, the picture is different: significant delays, longer journeys, fewer trains, fewer fast and semi-fast services, fewer carriages and significant, if not dangerous overcrowding in peak hours. That applies not only to my constituents who travel from Maidenhead and Twyford to Paddington, or, indeed, Reading, but to those who travel from London to Maidenhead to work. It is not only my constituents who suffer. The subject also exercises my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) and, as I know from an earlier conversation with her, the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). There are fewer services to Slough and the journeys are taking longer. I understand that, when the hon. Member for Slough was at the station this morning, commuters were keen to make their points to her about the serious problems that they were suffering. I had the same experience at stations in my constituency. Commuters were angry, frustrated and wanted to ensure that their view was being presented because of the sharp deterioration in the service that they have suffered in recent months.
I shall not read out all of the nearly 700 e-mails that I have received about the train services to Maidenhead and Twyford, but I shall quote just a few, to show the Minister the strength of feeling on this issue. Anu Shama wrote in an e-mail to First Great Western:
"The bottom line is, we are suffering every day . . . our previous Thames Trains service was extremely reliable and I had no issues with them for the last 67 years. Your management team has ruined a perfectly run train service".
"standing room only on leaving Maidenhead, cattle-truck conditions from Slough onwards. Desperate customers fight to board train at Southall. I remain bitterly disappointed and stressed at the current level of service you are offering customers from Maidenhead and Slough."
The train delays and the new timetable are having a real impact on people's lives. They find that they are constantly late for work, for example. My constituent, Thalia Kenton, has described the problems of those who are trying to deal with child care and suffering from the train services at the same time. She explained:
"I am a working mother who rushes daily to work from 09.1516.30 in London and my timings are key as my children are in nursery and cannot be dropped any earlier than 08.00 or fetched any later than 18.00."
"I do not believe that First Great Western Link has adequately considered the impact of this timetable change, as it is hugely important for the economy of Maidenhead and to the people who live and work there."
Hutchison 3G, which now employs some 1,400 people on its site in Maidenhead, deliberately sited its building close to the railway station so that it could support the sustainability agenda by encouraging people to use public transport. It says:
"One of the key factors in locating our offices in Maidenhead were the excellent train links that this provided for our employees, many of whom live in London, and for our business associates who regularly travel to Maidenhead for meetings . . . The effects of this change will make retention of our London based employees more difficult and increase the amount of time taken for our employees and business associates to travel to and from meetings and their homes."
Why has all this come about? It cannot be that very few people use these services. Indeed, in response to a question that I put to the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), he replied on 19 January that, in the
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nine months from April to December last year, there were more than 2,300,000 passenger journeys to and from Maidenhead, and more than 760,000 passenger journeys to and from Twyford. No, the Strategic Rail Authority made a decision to merge the franchises of First Great Western and Thames Trains into a single franchise, to put the emphasis on increasing the punctuality of long-distance services, and to move the commuter services from Maidenhead and Twyford from the fast line to the slow line. This has resulted in the creation of a timetable that has reduced the number of fast and semi-fast services to and from Paddington, and many journeys are now significantly slower than they used to be.
First Great Western Link, in its response to many people on this issue, is very clear about the role of the Strategic Rail Authority in this decision. It stated that any train operator bidding for the franchise would have had to deliver the same objectives. These included:
"To reduce the number of services running in this area, (although at the same time increasing capacity on the remaining services). This is in line with the Strategic Rail Authority's view that less trains on this congested network would increase punctuality."
I have to tell the Minister that having fewer trains on this network has not increased punctuality; it has severely reduced punctuality. There are significant delays for passengers, and, moreover, longer journey times have been created. The Strategic Rail Authority's decision has not had the impact that it was intended to have.
First Great Western and, at the time when it announced the timetable changes, the Strategic Rail Authority, seem to have had a rather different opinion. It is very galling for my constituents to suffer such a deterioration in rail service while hearing on local radio, and seeing in advertisements and flyers from First Great Western, that the service is of benefit to customers and has improved. In December 2003, when the Strategic Rail Authority announced the timetable changes, it headed the announcement "Franchise Decision Means Big Improvements". It then listed a number of improvements that were all to services for Reading and the west.
Some increases in peak journey times, indeed. It means that the service is now not providing those semi-fast services through to Paddington, but is causing considerable difficulty to commuters whoas I said earlierare late for appointments and meetings, unable to juggle their child-care arrangements with their travelling arrangements, and suffering not only a severely reduced service but a very unpleasant experience on many trains owing to the present overcrowding.
Sadly, the Government have also taken the view that there is overall benefit in the new timetable. When I asked the Minister of State what response the
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Department for Transport had made to representations regarding the timetable changes, he replied
"The Department's response to representations related to the December 2004 timetable changes is that they deliver wider benefits through improvements to punctuality across the First Great Western and First Great Western Link franchises."[Official Report, 24 January 2005; Vol. 430, c. 37W.]
I reiterate to the Minister that that is not what is happening to my constituents and those who travel to my constituency from elsewhere. They are not seeing benefits and improvements; all they are seeing is a reduced and deteriorating service.
Where can we go from here? I urge the Minister to consider three stagesthree sets of decisions that can be made. First, I hope that First Great Western will continue to look at the timetable, make immediate further changes to the timetable that is currently operating, and increase the number of carriages on some of the trains, not just so that services can be improved in terms of time but so that the dangerous levels of overcrowding from which many are suffering can be reduced. That is the immediate need.
Secondly, the Minister will know that later this week Network Rail will hold its timetabling conference, which will set the timetable not for later in the summer but for 2006that is, from December 2005 to December 2006. That timetable needs to make the changes that are needed to ensure that we return to the level of service that we experienced when Thames Trains was in charge. We certainly need services to be returned to the fast line rather than being shunted on to the slow line if we are to see the service that people need and deserve from an economically vibrant part of the country and an important economic hub in the south-eastnamely an important part of the Thames valley.
This is the third aspect that I want the Minister to consider. The current franchise runs out in April 2006. Later this year, decisions will be made about the franchisee for the 10-year period after that. There is a slight difficulty over that process. It is being started by the Strategic Rail Authoritywhich, of course, is being abolished by the Governmentand will be finished by the Department for Transport. I urge the Department to ensure that the franchise specification for these services returns us to the level of service that was available to my constituents before First Great Western took over the merged franchise in April 2004. Only a return to that level of service will ensure that my constituents in Maidenhead, Twyford, Cookham, Wargrave and Furze Platt and others who use those services will be able to enjoy the sort of service that is needed. That will ensure not only that they can carry on with their lives working in London, Reading or round about, but that we can retain the economic vibrancy of that important part of the Thames valley.
I urge the Minister to look seriously at the issues that I have raised. This is not simply about one or two people grumbling that their trains are late. It is a significant issue for my constituents and others. They have seen a severe reduction in service.
The Government want people to be able to enjoy a better work-life balance. They want sustainability and to encourage people on to public transport. All those agendas are being reversed through the action of the Strategic Rail Authority in merging the franchise, in
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requiring fewer trains to be put on and in putting trains for commuters on the slow lines. People are now getting into their cars rather than using the trains. That is not what the Government want. It is not what I want. I want a good level of rail service to Maidenhead, Twyford and the other stations in my constituency. I urge the Minister to look seriously at taking the action that is necessary through the agencies available to the Government to ensure that the timetable for 2006 is better and that the franchise arrangements return us to the level of service that Maidenhead, Twyford and the rest of my constituency not only need but deserve.
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