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Greater Western and Thameslink Rail Franchises

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): I am announcing today that First Group has been awarded contracts to run the Greater Western and Thameslink/GN (Great Northern) franchises. Both contracts will commence on 1 April next year.

The contracts have been awarded following a rigorous, competitive and independent bidding process. Both are tough and will deliver value for money for the taxpayer and an improved service for passengers.

The contract my Department has signed for the Greater Western franchise commits First Group to operate the services from London to the South West and South Wales.

Many of the concerns raised following my Department's consultation on the Invitation to Tender on the Franchise have been addressed. In particular it commits First Group to retain the overnight sleeper between London and Penzance and retains the half hourly off peak service between London and Cardiff.

In excess of £200 million of private sector investment will be made within the early years of the franchise. This will contribute towards a complete re-design of the high speed fleet. Together with the new timetable this will increase the number of standard class seats on trains between London and Reading in the morning and evening peak periods by more than 20 per cent. and 30 per cent. respectively.

It will also fund a programme of station enhancements, including better customer information systems, passenger security measures including CCTV and 1,700 new car parking spaces. Additional revenue protection staff and community support officers will also be provided.

The contract is for 10 years, with the final three years dependent on achieving tough service performance targets.

On the Thameslink/GN franchise First Group has been contracted to run services from Brighton, through London and on to Bedford, and from London to Cambridge and Peterborough.

The timing and capacity of services to Bedford will be improved. Over £40 million of private sector investment will be made in the first three years. This will help improve the reliability and quality of the rolling stock, enhance stations and provide 600 additional car parking spaces.

The franchise is for up to nine years. At the end of the fourth year the franchise will automatically continue for two years if performance improvement targets are met. Subject to my Department's agreement the franchise can then continue for up to three further years. This flexibility is necessary to facilitate work on the Thameslink 2000 Programme which was subject to a public inquiry under the Transport and Works Act.

On both franchises First Group expects to deliver continuous improvement in service performance. In addition, it is contracted to provide premiums of
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£1,131 million for the Greater Western Franchise and £808 million for the Thameslink/GN franchise. This is funding that will be put to good use and reinvested back into the railways to help ensure rail services continue to improve.

Cross London Rail Links Ltd.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): I am today making an additional £100 million available for the further development of Crossrail. This money will be used by Cross London Rail Links (CLRL)—the company held jointly by the Department and TfL to assist them with promotion of the Crossrail Bill—to provide proper support to the project as we take the Crossrail hybrid Bill through Parliament over this period. It will also allow CLRL, working with the Department and TfL, to do necessary research and planning before the Crossrail scheme can enter its next phase of development.

The case for Crossrail is clear and the Government have long said that they are committed to the scheme. This is a further sign of that commitment. This is a complex long-term project but important features are being determined at this stage. Money spent properly now will see its reward later in a better planned, better designed and therefore better value for money final scheme. But that does not mean that resource is unlimited. The grants I am announcing today will allow CLRL to make a start on a detailed programme of work for the development of Crossrail. My Department will continue to monitor expenditure on the project, so as to ensure best value as the Bill continues through Parliament.

These grants will be paid to CLRL by my Department under section 6 of the Railways Act 2005.


Employment and Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): The Employment and Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council was held on 8 and 9 December in Brussels. Employment and social policy issues were taken on 8 December. Health and Consumer Affairs were taken on the 9 December. The Council was chaired by my right hon. Friend Secretary of State for Work and Pensions apart from the agenda item on the working time directive which was chaired by my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I represented the UK seat apart from the working time directive agenda item when my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry took that role.

The first item was a presidency report from the informal meeting of Heads of State and Government, Hampton Court, 27 October. The presidency recalled that Hampton Court, in endorsing the Commission's paper on "European Values in the Globalised World", had agreed a coherent framework for future thinking on
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social justice, globalisation and demography. The Employment and Social Policy Council would take the lead on following up work on demographic change.

A policy debate on "Demography and Human Capital" revealed a high degree of consensus on the broad approach. Discussions covered labour market participation, the need to extend working lives, reconciling work and family life, increasing momentum towards gender equality in access to employment, regulated immigration mitigating effects of demographic change and free movement within the EU being achieved before third country immigration. The Commission agreed that all the areas identified by Member States were important, and must be coordinated into a coherent overall strategy. The presidency concluded that Council would return to this issue during discussions on the joint implementation report in the new year.

The Chairman of the Employment Committee (EMCO) outlined the key conclusions from the Examination of national reform programmes. These are the annual reports on each member state's progress towards achieving the Lisbon goals which outline their focused policy objectives. The Council noted EMCO's report, and the presidency concluded that EMCO's findings would be useful to the Commission in its preparation of the joint implementation report, and in preparations for the spring Council.

Council reached agreement on two dossiers: a partial political agreement on a decision of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a Community Programme for Employment and Social Solidarity—(PROGRESS) which involved agreement on all parts of the programme without budgetary implications; and, political agreement on a common position on the gender recast directive which aims to simplify, modernise and improve existing EU law on equal treatment between men and women. The presidency advised that the European Parliament had confirmed its undertaking not to adopt any amendments in second reading if the Council adopted the common position on the basis of the text negotiated in the informal discussions.

The Commissioner introduced the proposed directive on portability of occupational pensions, which seeks to facilitate the acquisition, transfer and protection of occupational pension rights, with the aim of reducing barriers to worker mobility. The presidency gave some feedback from exchanges in Council working groups: a number of issues would need to be addressed before the dossier was ready to be discussed at ministerial level.

There was a lengthy debate on the directive of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Directive 2003/88/EC concerning certain aspects of the organisation of working time; the presidency prepared revised texts for discussion and the Council almost reached agreement on a package which retained the opt out and solved the doctors' on call issue. However, despite intense negotiation, concerns about clarifying that the limits in the directive applying per worker rather
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than per job/contract meant this agreement could not finally be reached. The presidency agreed to reflect on the best way forward.

Under "Any Other Business", the Council noted reports from the presidency on the 10-year anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action—which reviews annually gender equality issues, and presidency conferences on health and safety, corporate social responsibility, and social inclusion. Council also noted a report from Luxembourg on the four European meeting of persons in a situation of poverty, and two information items from the Commission, on the biennial report on disability, and on a memorandum of understanding between the Commission and China on employment and social affairs.
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Crown Prosecution Service: Overall Performance Assessment

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Mike O'Brien): HMCPS Inspectorate has today published the outcome of phases 1 to 5 of their programme of "Overall Performance Assessments of CPS Areas". Reports have been published covering 22 of the 42 CPS Areas. Of the 22 Areas, 2 were rated as excellent, 10 as good, 7 as fair and 3 as being poor.

Copies of the reports relating to the area which serves their constituency have been sent to relevant Members of Parliament and are also being placed in the Library.