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Topical Questions

T1. [238612] Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Today we are announcing more than £1 billion in transport spending. This includes £700 million of funding, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced yesterday would be brought forward to help stimulate the economy, together with £300 million of new Government funding to help speed up the delivery of links to some of the United Kingdom’s most important international gateways.

The £700 million will help to advance the Government’s plans to increase capacity on the motorways and other key roads, and to accelerate the delivery of improvements to rail services. The funding that has been brought forward and the schemes that can benefit include: £174 million to dual the A46 between Newark and Widmerpool; £300 million for 200 train carriages to relieve congestion on the Great Western, Northern and TransPennine rail franchises; and £300 million to introduce more managed motorway schemes to make best use of our existing motorway capacity.

In addition, £300 million of new Government funding will speed up the delivery of other key schemes, including: £30 million for improvements to the A180-A160 junction to improve access to Immingham port; £60 million to enhance traffic flow on the A12 between the M25 and Ipswich, improving access to Felixstowe and Harwich ports; £165 million for the south-east Manchester relief road to improve access to Manchester airport; and £54 million for improvements to the North London line on that important rail freight link. Delivery of some of those schemes is subject to agreeing regional funding contributions and the outcome of statutory planning processes. The combined package will help the Government to relieve congestion and reduce crowding on the railways.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that lengthy list of projects, towards the end of which he mentioned the Manchester airport eastern link road, which is vital to many industrialists in my area who export to America and the continent. Will that road, together with the proposals in the south-east Manchester multi-modal study, go ahead as a matter of urgency? My area has been starved of resources for roads. That road, and the allied roads that go with it, will be of huge benefit to a wide area. Will he assure me that the road will go ahead?

Mr. Hoon: I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a considerable interest in the road, and I am aware of the need to improve access to Manchester airport, particularly from the east. That is why the scheme is to be brought forward as a matter of urgency. As I have indicated to the House, however, it requires regional funding contributions, and those must be agreed quickly if we are to proceed with the urgency that the hon. Gentleman requires.

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T3. [238614] Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): May I ask the Minister what he is doing to encourage more people to use public transport?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): We have taken several steps, such as the introduction of the Local Transport Bill. Buses are the backbone of our public transport system, providing more than 5 billion journeys every year. We want to ensure that quality services are available across the length and breadth of the country. The Bill is important for local authorities making decisions about what best meets their needs. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred earlier to the steps being taken on railway travel.

T2. [238613] Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Swindon borough council recently announced that it is going to remove all its speed traffic cameras and spend the £300,000 that it will save on more effective safety measures. Does the Secretary of State agree that highly visible speed cameras have a real role to play in deterrence, whereas the cameras that motorists are not aware of until it is too late have no purpose other than to raise revenue?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): That decision is for Swindon to take, but I think it regrettable. There will have to be negotiations with the local police and the road safety partnership on how that will play and when that change will be brought in. We have devolved responsibility and power to local authorities to determine what road safety measures are appropriate in their area, so this is very much a matter for them. Speed cameras have clearly saved lives and prevented injuries for many years, and they still have a role to play. I hope that Swindon will change its mind.

T4. [238615] Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): Will the Minister join me in congratulating Barnsley council on working in collaboration with Stagecoach to provide free bus passes to 16 to 18-year-olds from next summer? Unfortunately, the scheme was opposed by opposition Tory and independent councillors, but does the Minister agree that the scheme will help youngsters better to access services in Barnsley, as well as work towards the Government’s green agenda?

Paul Clark: My hon. Friend highlights exactly the powers that are available to local authorities to add to the minimum concessionary schemes that have generously been introduced by the Government. By doing that in Barnsley, councillors have decided what their priorities are, and I welcome that. All hon. Members should urge their local authorities to consider the options for improving transport in their communities.

T5. [238616] Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): May I ask the Secretary of State about carbon dioxide emissions from shipping? I think that we all agree that ships are the most CO2 efficient way of moving goods around the planet, and that we must reduce CO2 emissions. He has engaged in a consultation on this issue; will he give us the nature and extent of his thinking on how that can best be achieved through shipping?

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Jim Fitzpatrick: I gave evidence to the Select Committee on Environmental Audit this morning, along with the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock). There was a good exchange between us and members of the Select Committee about how we hope to reduce shipping emissions. The Marine Environment Protection Committee of the International Maritime Organisation is convening at a meeting in July, and the United Nations framework convention on climate change will be held in Copenhagen next November. We are doing all we can through the IMO, which is the appropriate body through which to advance measures that will achieve the hon. Gentleman’s objective.

T8. [238619] Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Today is white ribbon day—the day to mark the “end male violence against women” campaign. In view of the fact that women are less likely than—[Hon. Members: “Transport questions”]. I know—this is about transport.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the hon. Lady is coming on to the safety of ladies on transport.

Fiona Mactaggart: In view of the fact that women are much less likely than men to have direct access to, and use of, a car, what is the Department doing to make sure that women who use public transport, walk or cycle, who have been shown in studies conducted by the Department to be fearful of—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Topical questions should be short and I think that the Minister has got the message.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. I agree with her that anyone using public transport should feel safe and be confident that they can be safe. That applies particularly to women. My hon. Friend is right to raise the matter as she has, and I assure her that I will take a personal interest in the sort of measures that can be taken—for example, in terms of the new rail franchises, we are considering the installation of cameras to monitor trains. Giving women—and everyone—the confidence that they can use public transport safely is a perfectly proper ambition of the Department.

T6. [238617] Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Government figures confirm that foreign heavy goods vehicles account for 3 per cent. of journeys, but for 10 per cent. of HGV accidents, resulting in approaching 40 deaths a year. Given that Fresnel mirrors have been proven to eliminate the blind spot on the passenger side of those left-hand-drive vehicles and given that the Government have also admitted that the latest EU directive will not eliminate that blind spot, why will the Government simply not make all Fresnel mirrors mandatory for incoming HGVs instead of handing them out at our ports of entry as freebies?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of Fresnel mirrors, of which we are great supporters. The evidence that we have shows that they are effective in reducing the number of side-swipe incidents and improving driver vision. We are sharing with our European colleagues the information and the data that we are collating. We are always looking to
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improve the safety of all vehicles. One hopes that the use of such mirrors will be one measure to achieve that. At the same time, we have given the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency £24 million extra funding this year to address the issue of foreign HGVs, as a higher proportion of them are in breach of road safety regulations than are UK vehicles. That funding has meant staff increases, 24/7 coverage, new testing stations and many more inspections.

T7. [238618] Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What sort of joined-up government is it when the Chancellor says how important it is to keep down the costs to the public of bank charges, energy prices, food and other purchases, yet three days previously, Transport Ministers refused to intervene when regulated fares were announced to go up 6 per cent. for everybody and unregulated fares by 11 per cent. from the new year? Where is the consistency?

Mr. Hoon: I have already set out the arrangements for fare increases and it was made very clear to the Association of Train Operating Companies that they should take account of the present economic circumstances. To that extent, the Government were clearly and consistently setting out their policy to deal with the present situation. It is important to acknowledge that some 60 per cent. of the total fares are regulated fares, so, in those circumstances, the overall rate of inflation in those fares has been retained ever since 1997.

Women and Equality

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Equality Impact Assessments

1. John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): What estimate she has made of the effect on the expenditure of public bodies of replacement of the requirement to undertake separate equality impact assessments with a requirement to undertake a single assessment. [238582]

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): The new single public sector equality duty will ensure that public bodies are fair employers and that they design and deliver public services that meet the needs of the whole community. We expect that the costs will be mitigated by the efficiency gains of integrating the existing three duties into a single new process. The new duty is just one part of the simpler, stronger and more effective legal framework that the Equality Bill will deliver.

John Mann: Will the Attorney-General’s “Race for Justice” declaration help public sector organisations, not least universities, to meet their single equality duty obligations? Does the Minister agree that there will be quite some kudos in being the first university so to do?

The Solicitor-General: I agree that a university that took that opportunity and seized that initiative would gain a good deal of kudos. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he does in the all-party parliamentary group against anti-Semitism. Although “Race for Justice” is a criminal justice declaration, it is
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infinitely adaptable. It is there to expose systematically, and help to work away and erase, discrimination. It will read across excellently to universities.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Will the Solicitor-General address the point about low-paid women, particularly those in public sector bodies such as Government Departments? Will she assure us that the single equality impact assessment will deal directly with that issue?

The Solicitor-General: An equality impact assessment was carried out when “A Framework for Fairness” was launched, and another will be carried out on the Equality Bill. I should make it clear, however, that we intend to tackle low pay for women in the public sector and also in the private sector. We have set out a number of models for how we intend first to expose it and secondly to tackle it. I believe that the hon. Lady will join cause with us, and I look forward to working with her.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I know that my hon. and learned Friend will agree that paving the way for equality carries costs, but does she also agree that we should measure the benefits as well? Should we not be especially vigilant at a time of economic difficulty when it is only too easy for things to slip, which would surely cause many more problems in the long term?

The Solicitor-General: I entirely agree, but let us be clear about one matter: in business terms, diversity is dynamic. Involving people with different life experiences and different perspectives with which to frame their talents strengthens business, as well as matching it better with its consumers. Yes, of course we must be especially vigilant at this time of pressure, but there is no dosh in discrimination.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I am keen for equality impact assessments to be effective, but I fear that in some cases they have been more about going through the motions. Can the Minister tell me what work is being done to assess the value and change that result from such assessments, and what extra resource she will provide under the new legislation to ensure that there is effectiveness, not just a tick-box approach?

The Solicitor-General: We have been examining, in specific terms, the impact that, for instance, going through a whole gender pay audit can have. Sometimes it is a process rather than an impact. That is why we have hesitated rather than going wholesale for impact assessments, assuming that they are the key to all mythologies and will put everything right. They do not necessarily do that.

We are working on this, and we consider that the watchword for the Equality Bill and for equal pay in particular is transparency. We will pin a number of proposals on to that basic bedrock as we take the Bill forward.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): It does not matter whether one duty is involved or three: public authorities, especially local authorities, must have bought into their obligation to carry out those duties. What does my hon. and learned Friend think about Aberdeen city council, which, when it found that it had
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a £50 million budget deficit in February this year, cut services for disabled people in particular without conducting a disability impact study, any kind of assessment or any consultation? That was a despicable action by a Liberal-SNP administration. Will my hon. and learned Friend ensure that other local authorities, particularly those facing cuts in their budgets, do not—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady must bear in mind that other Back Benchers want to ask questions.

The Solicitor-General: Apart from the fact that that was obviously an utterly reprehensible way in which to behave, Aberdeen city council, like others, has a duty to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people. It therefore behaved not only in a disreputable way, but almost certainly in an unlawful way. We must make it absolutely plain that that kind of discriminatory behaviour will not be tolerated as we move into a new era in which everyone starts to appreciate the importance and value that are to be attached to diversity.

Domestic Violence

2. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What further steps the Government are taking to reduce the incidence of domestic violence. [238583]

4. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What steps she is taking to tackle violence against women. [238585]

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Harriet Harman): We are continuing to back up and work with the police, prosecutors, courts and voluntary sector in their work to tackle domestic violence and we will change the law to abolish the provocation defence to homicide.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Mrs. Jennie Davies, the president of the Prestbury branch of the Women’s Institute in my constituency, has drawn my attention to the National Federation of Women’s Institutes campaign to end violence against women. What are the Government doing to develop and implement an integrated strategy to raise awareness of and prevent violence against women?

Ms Harman: I would like warmly to congratulate and pay tribute to the National Federation of Women’s Institutes on its campaign to tackle violence against women and its participation in the End Violence Against Women coalition. This morning, I spoke at a conference that it is having just down the road on that very subject. Some years ago, the Government set up inter-ministerial groups to tackle domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual offences. We have brought them all together so that we can work strategically across Government on tackling violence against women. In January, we will publish a consultation on how we make further progress.

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