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Mr. Straw: I shall look into the matter. As my hon. Friend knows, there is a well-established process for scrutinising directives and regulations from the European Union. I shall raise the matter with my hon.
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Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), who chairs the European Scrutiny Committee.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): As I failed to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, during Education questions, may I ask the Leader of the House for a debate on adult education? The Government’s cuts in adult education have left Bradford college with enrolments down from 8,249 to 5,437 and the courses available down from 944 to 579. In Wharfedale in my constituency, enrolments are down from 1,813 to 915 and the courses are down from 200 to 110. I am sure that the Leader of the House understands our concern. May we have a debate to ascertain whether such cuts in adult education in all our communities throughout the country are the will of the House?

Mr. Straw: I continue to serve as a governor of one of the country’s finest further education colleges—Blackburn college—and I am not aware that our budget has been cut. Indeed, I know that the budget has increased significantly. Of course, there are pressures on, for example, some aspects of non-vocational adult education. There is an issue about choices, which we must all face if we are to improve the overall skill level of the British people. Those choices would confront any Conservative Government—more so, because they would spend less—whom the hon. Gentleman supported.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Let me revert to House of Lords reform. My concerns are not about the voting system that my right hon. Friend proposes for this House but the voting system for any elected Members of a reformed House of Lords. Will he ensure that there will be an opportunity for Members of this House to choose between different voting systems for elected Members of a reformed House of Lords? Otherwise, some of us who may want to vote for an element of election to the House of Lords might find ourselves voting against election altogether if we are not satisfied with the voting systems that will be employed.

Mr. Straw: I understand my hon. Friend’s point; it is a crucial one. Three alternative systems are outlined in the White Paper, which marks the start of this phase of the debate about the reform programme. There will have to be a huge amount of debate between now and any Bill becoming law, to pin down all the crucial aspects of the process and to ensure the widest possible consensus.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Given that the A-10 tapes showing the death of Lance Corporal Matty Hull reveal no technology secrets but only incompetence, does the Leader of the House understand the strength of public concern that the Government are showing crass hypocrisy when dealing with British servicemen and their families? On the one hand, they praise the servicemen at the Dispatch Box, while on the other, they refuse to help their grieving families when they need to get to the truth.

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Mr. Straw: I certainly salute the families concerned. I happened to see the interview with Mrs. Susan Hull last night on the BBC news, and it was one of the most dignified and moving interviews of that kind that I have ever seen. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s second point. We have been profoundly concerned about this matter. He will appreciate, not least from his own military experience, that because the evidence was in the hands of an ally from whom we had to obtain it, there were difficulties in so doing.

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend considered the new gender equality duty that will come into force in April this year, and its impact on the operation of the House of Commons—in particular, on the hours that we sit?

Mr. Straw: I have not looked specifically at that matter, but I would be happy to do so. Only recently, another female new Member told me that she preferred the current balance of hours because she found them family friendly, rather than working nine-to-five every day of the week. I am pleased to have had the opportunity—thanks to spending 18 years in opposition—to participate in the upbringing of my children, and it was the old hours that enabled me to take my children to school and to see them while my wife was working a nine-to-five day. If we had had our current hours at that time, my opportunities to bond with my children would have been far fewer. I do not wish to disagree with my hon. Friend, but there are many different opinions on this matter. It is not a question of people being either reactionary or progressive. We are all in favour of ensuring that the House is as family friendly as possible. One of the things that we have changed completely—thank God—is the practice of sitting without purpose into the small hours of the night. That is a really important change, because that practice was very disruptive. In terms of being able to balance work and family life, particularly if there is a working spouse, I personally think that we do not need to go any further with these so-called new hours.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I suspect that the Leader of the House did not realise how isolated he was on the voting system for the reform of the House of Lords until he received 100 per cent. support from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).

May I back the call for a debate on cancer services in the NHS? I am sure that we have all encountered situations in our own constituencies in which, owing to the fact that the NICE has not adjudicated on a particular drug, it is up to the primary care trust to determine whether to provide it. My constituent, Mr. Keith Ditchfield, is having to spend thousands of pounds of his own money to get a drug called Nexaver. The drug has the backing of the National Cancer Research Institute, yet the local primary care trust will not pay for it. May we have an urgent debate to ensure that we stop this postcode lottery and reinvent what was the national health service in this country?

Mr. Straw: If the hon. Gentleman is talking about reinventing the national health service as it was when it was being run by the Conservatives for 18 years, we do not want to go there. He knows very well that we had
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to have fairer systems for making judgments about the availability of treatments, and that is what NICE is there for. He will also be aware, as he shares a constituency boundary with me, that, for decades, the whole area was calling for a new general hospital to serve the whole area, and that it took a Labour Government to provide the funds for that. It is under a Labour Government that the new Blackburn royal infirmary—serving his constituents as well as mine—has opened.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May we have an urgent debate on the threatened break-up of the United Kingdom, and the subsequent cost to the taxpayer? My right hon. Friend might be aware that figures released today suggest that the cost of independence in Scotland alone would run to some £8 billion of taxpayers’ money. Does he agree that that £8 billion would be better spent on enhancing our public services and defending our country?

Mr. Straw: I certainly do. The Union works in the interests of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I am in no doubt whatever that, were it to be broken, it would, tragically, be the people of Scotland who would suffer the most, by a very long way.

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Future of Buses

[Relevant documents: The Eleventh Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2005-06, on Bus Services across the UK, HC 1317, and the Government’s response thereto, (Third Special Report, Session 2006-07, HC 298).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Kevin Brennan.]

12.25 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): To many people, buses are a lifeline. They give people access to health-care, jobs and shops, and allow them to stay in touch with family and friends. To other people, buses are a convenient option—an alternative to using their car, and an alternative that we want more people to choose.

Over the last half century, the number of people using our buses has fallen dramatically in many parts of the country. Deregulation two decades ago was supposed to reverse that, but it did not. Since 1997, the decline has slowed down, but not enough. It need not be like this. In places such as York, Cambridge and Brighton, buses are thriving because they are delivering the kind of service that people want. Passengers want local bus services to be regular, affordable, reliable, comfortable and safe. They want pleasant, well-lit bus stops giving good information, easy-to-use ticketing systems and services that link up smoothly with other transport, such as rail services. At a time when we are trying to tackle congestion and promote more environmentally friendly travel, it is vital that the public have good public transport choices.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned the environment. We have all sat behind buses that are emitting filthy diesel smoke. Is there anything that the Government can do—through either the grant system, incentives or perhaps a direct mandate—to insist that, within a fairly short period, buses have engine systems installed that do not emit carbon dioxide and that are compatible with the highest environmental standards? Will the Minister take up that challenge?

Dr. Ladyman: I will certainly respond to that point in more detail later in my speech. My right hon. Friend rightly says that we need to look at the way in which the present bus service operator grant is working, to see whether it is properly incentivising people to use cleaner engine technologies. We also need to continue to work with the European Union on the directives that cover the improvement in pollution standards for diesel engines. He has put his finger on an important issue, and it is one that the Government and industry are closely interested in and are already looking at.

The headline statistic for passenger use is striking: two out of three public transport journeys in Britain are made by bus—more than 4 billion passenger journeys a year in England alone. In some areas of the country, provision is good, with bus operators and authorities working in partnership. In others, however, it is poor. We want to see bus services work in every community, in every part of the country.

That is why, last year, the Government decided to take a long, hard look at bus services. That work was
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led by the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), who will wind up this debate. We published our conclusions in the document “Putting Passengers First; the Government’s proposals for a modernised national framework for bus services”. Those proposals are designed with one thing in mind—to give passengers a better service.

The measures that we have put forward are aimed at ensuring that the punctuality of services improves; creating better partnership working, including making what are called quality contracts—in which bus operators can bid to be the sole provider of a service in a given area—a more practical option where appropriate; and giving community transport a bigger role in providing services in areas poorly served by other transport. One further issue that we are considering is whether changes to current bus subsidies would help better to deliver the Government’s objectives on congestion, the environment and accessibility, which relates exactly to the point raised by my right hon. Friend a moment ago.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Have the Government looked at the subsidy regime in rural areas? There is a clear misuse of funds in such areas—not corruption, but misuse in the sense that we are not benefiting from the best use of the money. Is it not time for a wholesale look at some of the Spanish practices that exist? I am told, for example, that bus companies receive payment in connection with bus stops that have not been used for donkeys’ years. That needs to be brought into the open and dealt with.

Dr. Ladyman: If my hon. Friend has specific examples of what he describes as “Spanish practices” he should report them to his local authority, which is responsible for ensuring that matters are dealt with properly in the community. As for his general point, we said in our document that we wanted to know people’s views on the way in which subsidies operate. For instance, the current bus service operators grant is based on consumption of diesel. Is that the right way in which to subsidise bus transport if we want it to become more environmentally friendly, and is it robust from an accounting point of view?

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I pursue the point made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) about problems in rural areas? The Minister said that he wanted every community to benefit from bus transport. There are 120 villages in my constituency, a large number of which have no bus service at all. Some, like my own village of Witham Friary, officially have a bus service, but there is only one bus a week, and such a service is not of enormous value. How can we provide a proper public transport system with the flexibility that people need in rural areas? Have the Government a real strategy for that?

Dr. Ladyman: We want to provide improved services for every community and every type of community, but doing so cost-effectively is obviously a problem, and in rural communities it is particularly difficult. We are providing substantial subsidy around the country—
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about £2.5 billion a year in England alone—but it is up to local authorities, which know most about their communities and where the problems are, to create partnerships that can deliver services to those communities. They need not be commercial services: community transport is an option, and we have suggested ways in which that might be made more sustainable and effective. I encourage the hon. Gentleman and his council to respond to the consultation document by suggesting ways of dealing with problems in rural communities.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): We in London are particularly proud of the investment and the partnership between the Mayor and the Government, which have helped to increase bus use. Indeed, in recent years London has seen the only major modal shift towards buses in any world city.

Does my hon. Friend share our grave concern about the fact that, in their alternative budget, Conservative members of the Greater London authority propose to end free transport for those under 18, and the fact that councillors in the London borough of Ealing are expressing enthusiasm for the removal of free public transport for older people? Does he agree that the decision to invest in free transport for children and elderly people in London is one of the reasons why we have achieved such phenomenal growth in bus use in the city?

Dr. Ladyman: I entirely agree. It is not for me to comment on the specific position in London, but I was very surprised when I heard about the Conservatives’ proposals, which are in complete contrast to comments that they make in public. I thought it extraordinary that they should wish to limit bus services in that way. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend and other London Members will make their views known forcefully, possibly even in this debate.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He is being very indulgent.

So far, the Government have not responded to the suggestion that some bus companies are virtually blackmailing local authorities by saying that if they enter into the quality contracts that the Minister has recommended to us today, they will receive no co-operation from them—that is, from the private bus companies involved. In the event of legal action, will the Government undertake to indemnify local authorities against this wholly pernicious attack?

Dr. Ladyman: If there is evidence that that is happening, we will react to it very strongly. We will engage with local authorities that feel they are under such pressure to find out how best we can support them and deal with it. If a local authority decides that it is in the best interests of its local public to enter into a quality contract and wins the case, a private operator that does not go along with that decision will find itself unable to provide services and will lose out commercially. It is therefore in operators’ interests at least to co-operate in the planning of such schemes, but if my hon. Friend has specific examples we would like to hear about them, and we will certainly take them up.

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Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Ladyman: I should like to make a little more progress first.

We are also introducing separate, but perhaps related, legislation to help our most vulnerable citizens by improving access to free bus travel. From April 2008, some 11 million older and disabled people will be entitled to free off-peak local bus travel anywhere in the country. That builds on recent improvements in the scheme introduced last April which allows free off-peak bus travel in local authority areas. The improvements will enable concessionary pass holders to use buses free of charge in other local authority areas in order to use important services, and to keep in touch with friends and family who may not live just down the road.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Obviously, it is good news that England has followed the example of the Labour-led Scottish Executive in introducing a national concessionary scheme, but it does not quite cover the entire country. Although it is possible for pensioners to travel from Cornwall to Northumberland—or, under the Scottish scheme, from Berwick to Orkney—there are no cross-border arrangements. I am not suggesting that people should be able to travel from Cornwall to Orkney, but it would be quite convenient for older citizens in Newcastle to be able to travel to Edinburgh, and vice versa.

Dr. Ladyman: It would be an interesting bus that could travel from Cornwall to Orkney, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right in principle. We are discussing what we can do about the matter with the devolved Administrations.

Mr. Truswell rose—

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Ladyman: I will give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell).

Mr. Truswell: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for eventually giving way to me. May I return him to what he was saying about quality contracts? The Government obviously wish to make them a more realistic option, but the process described in “Putting Passengers First” seems unduly convoluted. Has he or his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made any assessment of how long it would take from start to finish?

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