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8 May 2007 : Column 20WH—continued

10.44 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) for initiating this debate and giving me my first opportunity to speak in the House on this part of my remit. There have been many debates in this Chamber on the rail side of my remit, and I hope that today’s debate will finish with a more consensual and friendly mood than some of those previous debates have.

I shall begin by referring to comments that have already been made. My hon. Friend talked eloquently about the case for improved rail-cycle integration. He mentioned the need for wheeling ramps at stations. I trust his judgment that that would be a relatively cheap innovation at stations. I understand his cynicism in anticipating a negative response from Network Rail. I intend to seek a response from the company and shall keep him and other Members present informed of it. I accept that such ramps seem a fairly straightforward—and, I hope, cheap—solution to the problem that my hon. Friend raised.

However, my hon. Friend equated the need for capacity to carry cycles on trains with the needs of wheelchair users and parents with prams. I hope that he will forgive me if I suggest that that argument is difficult to make for various reasons. I would not say to a wheelchair user that he or she had the choice of whether to bring their wheelchair on a train. However, it is arguable, although not in every case, that those taking their bikes on a train do so as a matter of choice. I do not mean that as a point of principle or policy, but I hope that my hon. Friend will at least recognise that the circumstances are different and not immediately comparable.

Martin Linton: I do not say that the two sets of circumstances are socially or morally equivalent, merely that there is an equivalence. Often disabled people do not catch a train if they are not confident that they can get their wheelchairs on. Parents of young children will not catch a train unless they can be certain of getting the buggy on it. It is also true that many who want to cycle to the station, take their bikes on the train and cycle to work will leave their bikes at home if they cannot be certain that there will be a place for them on the train. There is an equivalence in that sense: each of those groups is dependent on space on the train to be able to make their journeys.

Mr. Harris: I agree with my hon. Friend’s point and am grateful for that clarification.


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Emily Thornberry: Is my hon. Friend aware that the mobility of some people is restricted, given that they find it difficult to walk and easier to get around if they can use a mixture of train and bike? They can cycle further than they could ever walk. I appreciate that such people are a tiny minority, but bikes are a mobility aid for them.

Mr. Harris: That is why I deliberately qualified my comments and said that someone who cycled would not in every case necessarily have the option of not cycling.

Like the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea talked about the need for a national, uniform policy on cycle-rail integration. My hon. Friend said that for a start all TOCs should be forced to accommodate at least 10 bikes—per train, I imagine. I shall come back to that. He also talked about the need for a cycle-rail forum. I assume from that that he is to a certain extent unhappy with the work being done by Cycling England, with the train operating companies, on behalf of the Department for Transport. I am very satisfied with how Cycling England is operating and shall be happy to comment later on the progress that it has made.

I am delighted that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) is present. I regularly see him coming up Millbank on his bike of a morning as I pass in my ministerial car; that is more a confession than anything else. The right hon. Gentleman said that the paradox was that I seemed to have more control over train operating companies than my predecessor had over British railways when they were nationalised. As a former Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Gentleman is informed about many areas of rail policy, but I caution him not to believe everything he reads in Conservative central office press releases. The influence that I have over train operating companies is certainly far less than that which Rail Ministers—or indeed Sports Ministers—had over British Rail in 1975.

The right hon. Gentleman talked of the need for a cycle challenge fund. Many of the outputs that he would anticipate from such an innovation are already being achieved through the cycling demonstrating towns that Cycling England is promoting. I am happy to say more about that later.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) has talked extremely passionately on the subject, not only in the House but to me over coffee in Portcullis House on a number of occasions, and I listen carefully to what she says as she is extremely knowledgeable: she is not only a cycle user but chair of the all-party group on cycling. I look forward to joining her and other colleagues on the annual Westminster cycle run, which I think will be next month. She mentioned that Southeastern Trains has decided to ban all cyclists from its trains during the Tour de France. That was raised with me on Friday by a member of the Cyclists’ Touring Club. I understand that that is not actually the case and that Southeastern Trains—I am prepared to be corrected—was approached by the organisers and asked to lift its existing restrictions on cyclists, and that it refused to accede to that request. Without commenting on that
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decision, I suggest that that is not the same as introducing a new ban on all cycles during the Tour de France.

My hon. Friend might want to clarify the point, but she criticised First Capital Connect for installing new bike parking at stations that already had CCTV coverage. She suggested that perhaps the Department for Transport should have specified the locations for the new cycle parking and went on to express concern about the increase in bike crime. I do not have an in-depth knowledge of First Capital Connect’s policy, but it seems sensible that if any train operating company is going to try to combat the increase in cycle crime and cycle theft, it should install new cycle parking where it is most secure. It seems that the best place would be in areas that were already covered by CCTV.

Emily Thornberry: I agree absolutely, and I agree that simply installing a cycle rack is not sufficient. My concern was that the contract with the Department seemed somewhat random: the company was given a lump sum of money and told to introduce a certain number of cycle parking places and it was left to it to decide what standard of parking to have and at which stations to introduce it. That was the point that I was making—the contract did not appear to have been agreed in any strategic way. It could be criticised as a case of simply, “Let’s tick that box; we have provided that amount of cycle parking.”

Mr. Harris: I understand my hon. Friend’s point. I am more comfortable allowing train operating companies to make their own operational decisions about where cycle parking is best placed. I have nowhere near the depth of knowledge that First Capital Connect does, for example, about the level of demand for cycle parking at any of its stations. I accept that my hon. Friend’s concern is genuine.

My hon. Friend asked about the HLOS—the high level output specification, for the uninitiated—which will be announced in July. The HLOS is specifically about high level outputs, so it will not talk in detail about policy to support the amount of money that the Government will spend over 2008-14. However, alongside the HLOS we will publish a 30-year rail strategy, which will discuss some of the issues about rail and cycle integration about which my hon. Friend is concerned.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) talked about the design of new rolling stock, and of course the Department is involved in the design and delivery of the new inter-city express programme. It is at a very early stage at this point, but I will take what he has said back with me. He talked about bikes on buses, and I am afraid that I will not be able to illuminate him very much on that point. I am delighted that the bus driver was able to bend the rules—I suspect that he was bending the bus at the same time. My hon. Friend mentioned that he had been at the theatre, and I am intrigued to know which theatres in central London have bike parking. That seems an excellent innovation.

The hon. Member for Rochdale inadvertently misinterpreted the comments of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, I think. I do not think that
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the right hon. Gentleman suggested that in 32 years nothing has changed, which is what the hon. Gentleman thought that he said. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman was being far more post-ironic.

The hon. Gentleman suggested, as other hon. Members have, a uniform policy on cycling. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea suggested the same thing. We have 20 or more rolling stock companies, a number of different types of rolling stock—inter-city, commuter and everything in between—different capacity challenges at different parts of the network and different areas are served, whether they are urban, suburban or rural. It would therefore be incredibly difficult, even if the Government were so-minded, to impose a standard access policy for cycle-rail integration throughout the network. I shall have to disappoint colleagues from both sides of the House—the Government do not plan to enforce a uniform policy—

Paul Rowen: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Harris: I have four minutes left, and so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I try to make some progress.

The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) talked about local transport plans and safe cycle routes to stations. The Government encourage train operating companies to work closely with highways authorities to ensure that that is exactly what happens.

I know from my postbag at the Department, as Minister for both cycling and rail, that many cyclists are passionate about the subject and we are working hard to try to integrate such modes of transport. I want to take the opportunity to confirm our overall cycling policy. Let me first establish what that policy is, because that will help to put our bike and rail policy into context.

Many people have an interest in cycling whether they cycle now or not. Most of us have cycled at some time—since becoming the Minister with responsibility for cycling, as the hon. Member for Rochdale said, I have been seen on a bike on a number of occasions. I am not sure that I would go quite as far as to say that I am a cyclist, but I have certainly been seen on a bike. As you can see from my badge, Mrs. Humble, I successfully passed my stage 3 Bikeability course a number of weeks
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ago. I encourage all hon. Members to do so, particularly the hon. Member for Wimbledon—of course, he is not the cycling spokesperson for his party, but perhaps he will encourage his shadow colleagues to take it up. I am more than happy to organise that for him and to arrange for the media coverage.

The Government want to encourage people to cycle more, but how do we turn non-cyclists into people who will consider using a bicycle for short journeys? The basic advantages of cycling are clear and have been set out in the debate: convenience, health, cost, the effect on the environment and enjoyment. Put simply, cycling contributes to a better quality of life and, importantly, improves one’s fitness and health while one simply undertakes regular commuting—it involves no expensive fees or trips to the gym.

The Government are committed to reversing the decline in the number of cycling trips—40 per cent. of all trips are under 2 miles, and in many cases they could be cycled, particularly in the case of trips to school and work. Good work is being done in London, where Transport for London reports an 83 per cent. increase in the number of cyclists. I want, too, to pay tribute to the Evening Standard campaign. Whatever criticisms the Evening Standard has of TFL, and those issues are worth debating, TFL has done a tremendous amount in the past few years to provide that step change—to use a pedestrian-friendly phrase—to encourage more people to get on their bikes. It is good that we are now in a political environment where a politician can say to people, “Get on your bikes”, without being lambasted for it.

Good work is also being carried out by Hull, York, Bristol and Brighton. Brighton is of course one of our six cycling demonstration towns. If we are to attract people out of their cars and on to two wheels, we have to make cycling as safe, easy and as convenient as possible. That also applies to bike and rail journeys. That is why we have given Cycling England—our delivery and advisory body on cycling—a remit to see how we might better integrate bike and rail journeys. It will report later this year, and I am sure that we all look forward to seeing that report.

Some cycle commuters use their bike for only part of their journey to work, combining the bike with public transport, which mostly means a bike and rail journey. Such journeys are important as they allow the bike to be used as part of a longer journey—

Mrs. Joan Humble (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to our next debate.


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India (Caste System)

11 am

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of caste and human rights in India with the Minister, who I hope will share many of my observations and thoughts. I say from the outset that I speak first and foremost as a friend of India, with huge affection and respect for its people, culture and history and a profound sense of optimism and excitement about its future and emerging role on the global stage.

I have had the privilege to visit this amazing country on numerous occasions, including a 10-day visit there last year with the Conservative parliamentary friends of India during which we benefited from wonderful hospitality from the Ministry of External Affairs and the Confederation of Indian Industry. I have previously spoken in the House about the importance of our relationship and trade with India and the need for the UK to do far more to capture a greater share of India’s enormous increase in foreign trade.

I speak in a spirit of friendship and respect, but true friendship does not mean shying away from difficult issues, and caste-based discrimination is one such issue. What moved me to seek the debate was a trip to India in February with David Griffiths of the human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide. The purpose of the visit was to consider the issue of untouchability and to see what challenges and barriers Dalit communities face. Dalits are the so-called “untouchables”—the 170 million people who fall outside the four main Hindu caste groups.

I went in February with a critical mind, keen to separate the challenges common to many developing countries in south Asia from specific examples of discrimination or human rights violations resulting directly from caste-based identity. During my short trip I was presented with an enormous array of evidence of persistent, systemic human rights abuse on the basis of caste, which results in the life chances of Dalits being severely curtailed. It is a practice that goes back perhaps 3,000 years and continues in many forms in the world’s largest democracy, whose constitution and body of law does not just outlaw discrimination on the basis of caste but contains specific legislation to protect scheduled castes and tribes.

Where does one start? I should like to start in Khairlanji, a village in the state of Maharashtra. On 29 September last year the wife, daughter and two sons of Bhaiyalal Bhotmange, from that village, were dragged from their home and lynched in full view of neighbours and other villagers. After they were bludgeoned to death by a mob, their mutilated bodies were dumped in a nearby canal. There was strong evidence to suggest that the female family members had been gang raped and suffered extreme sexual violence before being murdered. That was never proved because of the inadequacy of the police response.

At the heart of that horrific case was a village property dispute fuelled by a toxic mix of caste-based jealousy and prejudice. The Bhotmange family was one of just three Dalit families in a village dominated by a higher caste. The attack on the family cannot be explained away as a typical village feud, and the negligent police response cannot be explained away as mere bungling.
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Caste goes to the very heart of that horrific and troubling case. The police took several hours to respond to the initial call by the father of the family, who reported his family as missing and reported a suspected murder. Their initial investigation was wholly inadequate. They arrived three hours later, at 10 o’clock at night, dismissed the claim and demanded a fee of 500 rupees for coming to the village. Despite the report of missing persons, no search was undertaken, resulting in the loss of what might have been crucial evidence including that of gang rape.

The following day, officers at the local police stations refused to register a case, and the incident received full recognition only when the body of the teenage daughter was recovered from the canal. Despite seeing evidence of an attack in the home, police dismissed the allegations as rumour. On the following day, when Mr. Bhotmange attempted to file a first information report at the local police station, the inspector initially refused to do so.

The Khairlanji killings and the woeful response by the local police and judiciary led to violent protests by Dalit activists, and in the past eight months the case has received significant international attention from the media and human rights groups. It has thrown a spotlight on an issue that many Indians feel uncomfortable talking about. On my visit to India in February, with the permission of the local police, I was taken to Khairlanji by a group of Buddhist activists who had helped to disseminate information about the massacre in the days afterwards. I later met Mr. Bhotmange, who is now living under police protection and fears that justice will never be served on those who murdered his family. Recent reports that I have read in the press about the progress of the trial do not fill international observers with confidence that all those complicit in the massacre at the end of last September will be punished appropriately. The case has become massively important.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that one of the great problems is that although caste discrimination is wrong under Indian law and there is theoretically complete protection for people, in reality there is no access to justice through either the police or the judicial system because few people are prepared to represent victims of caste discrimination? The authorities do not get the whole message all the way through, so it remains unsaid and unreported. It is a vile system.

Mr. Crabb: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and echo his sentiments. The problem is the huge gulf between the text of the legal documents that provide theoretical protection for Dalits and the implementation on the ground, which is wholly inadequate, particularly in rural areas.

I encourage the Minister to raise the Khairlanji case with the Indian Government and inquire about the progress of the trial. Of course I understand the sensitivities of inquiring into judicial proceedings in another country, but will he affirm that it is a case of international concern that he will raise at his next meeting with the Indian high commissioner?


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