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Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): In answer to an earlier question, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole), spoke about the improved information for passengers about the best fares that are available to them. Does he not agree, however, that providing the best possible fare ought to be an absolute obligation on
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train operating companies and a condition of their franchise, in order to ensure that passengers always get the best and lowest fare available?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole): We continue to work seamlessly with Passenger Focus on that issue so that we can improve the information available to passengers, to ensure that they get the best possible fare. On the specific point about whether it is possible to include such provision as a franchise requirement, perhaps my hon. Friend would like to respond to our current consultation on future franchising.

T2. [322769] Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): As a keen motorist and member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, I consider that to travel by car is a first-class experience-until one comes across an army of cones, marching for many motorway miles and restricting lanes, without contractors undertaking any work. What sanction does the Department have to ensure that heavily taxed motorists are given more consideration?

Chris Mole: I hope that the hon. Lady is not suggesting that we bring back John Major's cones hotline. I seem to recall reading recently that last time a journalist rang that number he was told that there was no one there any more. The hon. Lady should appreciate that there are a number of reasons why the perception might be that there are cones without works going on: for example, when materials are hardening- [ Interruption. ] I would have thought that the hon. Lady was capable of understanding some basic civil engineering principles. Materials such as concrete take some time to dry, and it is not a very good idea to drive cars on it while that is happening.

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is good that the House is in a good mood, but we need to make rather better progress. In addition to asking for short questions, may I say very gently to those on the Treasury Bench that there is no rule against single-sentence answers?

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): The excellent news that Nissan in Sunderland is to produce the first generation of electric cars is further evidence that the north-east is a region with a future, which deserves to be an integral part of any high-speed rail network. Has the Minister seen the report from UK Ultraspeed, in response to the High Speed 2 report, which shows that Maglev could produce a faster, greener, quieter and more cost-effective answer to the high-speed rail question? Instead of taking small steps to catch up with-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I hope that this is coming to an end. [ Interruption. ] I understand that it is Question Time, of course, but I had just made the point that we need short questions, and I think that we have got the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's question now.

Mr. Khan: I thank my hon. Friend for reminding the House that one of the benefits of a Government committed to investing in our country is that we invest in businesses in its regions as well. I am happy to look at that alternative proposal. My right hon. Friend the Secretary
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of State has looked at some of these issues, and there are concerns about energy usage, but I am happy to discuss them with my hon. Friend offline.

T4. [322771] Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): A comparatively small number of properties will be immediately and totally blighted by the high-speed rail link. Will the Minister ensure that officials get in touch with those householders-because they must know where they are-to ensure that they understand the exceptional hardship scheme, and that there is some communication between them and those who are running this project? It was quite a shock for them last week suddenly to discover that their properties may well disappear. Can the Minister take action to ensure that they are properly informed?

Mr. Khan: The hon. Gentleman raises a really good point. Only about 600 properties along the line are affected, so why cannot we contact them and let them know, in case they have not heard the news by listening to the radio, watching TV or reading the papers? Let me go away and look into that, and get back to him if there is a reason why it cannot be done.

T8. [322775] Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Will the Minister take some time in the next few days to contact Network Rail to ask it why it is continuing to pursue the policy of making redundant a number of safety workers and maintenance workers, thus damaging the professional basis of the railway system in this country-and also, many people believe, compromising the safety of the existing system?

Chris Mole: The Office of the Rail Regulator, as the economic and safety regulator for our railways, has challenged Network Rail to address, over the next control period, the disparity in the effectiveness and efficiency with which it delivers maintenance and network upgrades in comparison with similar infrastructure operators elsewhere in Europe. Network Rail is seeking to minimise the number of compulsory redundancies, but there are positive opportunities for some of those employees to find other jobs on big projects such as the upgrades to Reading station and Thameslink over the coming years.

T5. [322772] Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Will the roads Minister give a less dismissive reply to the legitimate point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) about the proliferation of road works, speed restrictions and cones on motorways, which causes intense frustration to the travelling public purely for the convenience of the operators? He is getting a reputation for avoiding responsibility for real problems. Can he now rise to the occasion and give a real answer to a real problem?

Chris Mole: The Highways Agency takes significant steps to minimise the time that road works take, and has positive incentives in place for its contractors to ensure that their road works can be completed in advance of the necessary length of time, if possible.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I thank the Minister for the investment in level access at Slough railway station. Will he look closely at the detail of the proposed scheme, to ensure that giving access to disabled people does not add to the congestion problems at the station?

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Chris Mole: The access programme for three stations in London will enable people to have much better access to the Olympics in 2012, but I am happy to discuss with my hon. Friend any detailed concerns that she has.

T6. [322773] Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Can Ministers reassure people, not just in London but elsewhere, that they, as well as other Government Departments, are taking a direct interest in the British Airways dispute? Can they provide an assurance that they will put pressure on to secure a dispute reconciliation within hours, not days or weeks?

Mr. Khan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and for the way in which he asked it. He is clearly interested in finding a resolution to the dispute, rather than raising the stakes for the sake of party political gain. Ministers continue to have dialogues with all sides to try to reach a resolution. Thousands of passengers will clearly be inconvenienced if the strike goes ahead, and I am keen to ensure that we do all we can to resolve the dispute.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Why are Ministers happy for the German state railway, Deutsche Bahn, which is not subject to takeover, to make a bid for Arriva trains, which operates services up and down the country, but not for a British state-owned company, East Coast, to make a bid to continue to run services on the east coast main line?

Mr. Khan: My hon. Friend will know that it is not for me to comment on speculation in the financial pages of the newspapers, and it would be unwise for me to do so.

T7. [322774] Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I welcome the consensus across the House on the need for high-speed rail, but can the Minister assure me that his Department and Network Rail will both remain focused on vital local rail projects such as Worcestershire Parkway in my constituency?

Mr. Khan: The hon. Gentleman is right to remind us that we need to focus on the bread-and-butter issues, and there is more chance of that happening with the Labour party in government, because investment in public transport will continue.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the role that freight could play in the new high-speed rail network?

Mr. Khan: My hon. Friend raises a really important issue. One of the advantages of High Speed 2 is that it will release capacity on the conventional lines, which can be used to move local commuters and freight much more than they currently are. That will be good for the environment, businesses and UK plc.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Do the Government accept that in my constituency there are many rural areas where there is minimal public transport or none at all, so the car, or another vehicle, is essential to people's ability to maintain an acceptable quality of life? Will Ministers make representations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to recognise the problems of motoring in rural areas?

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Mr. Khan: For almost the first time in history, I agree with almost everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. He is right that it is really important for us to understand the challenges that face those who live in rural parts of the country. It is great for them to have a bus service that the Government have subsidised in record amounts, but if the bus comes once an hour, or once a day, the car is the only other form of transport, and we need to be sensitive to that.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am afraid that all good things come to an end.

Women and Equality

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked-

Equality and Human Rights Commission

1. Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): What recent representations she has received on the recommendations in the Fifteenth Report from the Committee of Public Accounts, on the Equality and Human Rights Commission, HC 124. [322776]

2. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): What recent representations she has received on the recommendations in the Fifteenth Report from the Committee of Public Accounts, on the Equality and Human Rights Commission, HC 124. [322777]

4. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What recent representations she has received on the recommendations in the Fifteenth Report from the Committee of Public Accounts, on the Equality and Human Rights Commission, HC 124. [322779]

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Harriet Harman): Since the report was published on 4 March I have not received any representations about its recommendations. The Government's response to the report will be set out in due course, in the way that the Government respond to reports by the Public Accounts Committee, which is through a Treasury minute.

Mr. Goodwill: The Committee revealed that several staff members of the legacy commissions left through an early exit scheme, and were subsequently rehired by the new commission at a cost of £338,708. Does the Minister agree that that represents a shocking waste of taxpayers' hard-earned money?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman, and the House, will know that there is a system for monitoring the finances of non-departmental public bodies. They are subject to the scrutiny of accounting officers, and there is a framework to ensure that public money is properly spent and everything is kept in order. We are concerned for two reasons. First, we want to ensure that every pound of public money that comes from taxpayers is properly spent, wherever in the public sector it is spent. We are also concerned to ensure that the Equality and
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Human Rights Commission works well, because we-unlike his good self, no doubt, and many Opposition Members, unfortunately-are concerned about equality.

Richard Ottaway: Following on from the earlier point, is the Minister aware that the transition team, comprising 83 people employed over an 18-month period, received on average £100,000 each? Does she think that that was good value for money?

Ms Harman: As I have said, there are proper frameworks for arranging for non-departmental public bodies to spend money, which they do independently. They are not Government Departments and are subject to a framework, and to scrutiny and accountability. Obviously, we want to make sure that they spend all that money wisely, but individual payments are the responsibility of accounting officers and the chief executive, not my responsibility as Minister for Women and Equality-although obviously, we are concerned to ensure that every pound of public money is properly spent, and that the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is an important organisation, does its job properly.

Mr. Hollobone: That framework and accountability mechanism seems to have broken down, because in July 2009 the commission itself found that it was employing some 574 full-time equivalent staff when it was authorised to employ only 525. Is not that another shocking waste of public money?

Ms Harman: Where there have been concerns they have been pointed out, and the commission has taken steps to address them. That is part of the process of transparency: where public money is being spent, there is scrutiny to make sure that it is being spent in the right way, in order to meet the important public policy objective of pursuing equality. That is what is happening.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, also reported on the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It asked the Minister why she reappointed the chairman of that body without putting the appointment out to open competition. How is that transparent and accountable?

Ms Harman: As I said to the Joint Committee on Human Rights when it called me in to give evidence, the chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission had left her post. Especially because the Equality Bill was going through the House of Commons and the House of Lords, I felt that we needed continuity of leadership, and therefore that it was right to reappoint the chair and vice-chair. Obviously, we were then going to need to find new commissioners and a new chief executive, but we did not want a wholesale change of personnel in this important organisation at a critical time.

Hon. Members should look at the substance of the work that has been done by the commission. They should look at the important inquiry into sex discrimination in the financial sector; the important legal challenge to the apartheid constitution of the British National party; the work on the unfairness to agency workers in the meat packing industry; and the important evidence the commission gave on the question of the default retirement age. The question is this: are hon. Members-I exclude
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the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who asked the question, from this, because I accept his good faith-interested in discrimination against people on the ground of age, discrimination against agency workers, and discrimination against women in the financial services sector? Members from the official Opposition are having a go at the commission as a proxy for the fact that they do not like the onward march of equality.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): This is an apposite moment to come into this debate, because my charge is that the EHRC is not doing the work that it should be doing. Does the Minister agree that it should spend less time pontificating on what organisations should and should not do, and far more time using its powers and legal challenges to hold businesses and public bodies to account, and on enforcing the legislation that already exists, which it is not doing to any great degree?

Ms Harman: The commission is making sure that it plays its part in enforcing existing legislation, and works with us to help to shape future legislation. It is also making sure that it looks at all the places where inequality exists, works with all the organisations-business, trade unions and voluntary organisations-and helps individuals. I know that the hon. Lady shares my concern that where there is inequality, it needs to be tackled. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is an important part of the process for making that happen.

Domestic Violence

3. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): What steps are being taken to reduce the incidence of domestic violence against women. [322778]

The Minister of State, Government Equalities Office (Maria Eagle): Due to the introduction of specialist domestic violence courts, better multi-agency arrangements to focus on prolific perpetrators and better support for victims and families, there has been a 64 per cent. reduction in the incidence of domestic violence between 1997 and 2008-09, as measured by the British crime survey. An extra £5 million will be invested in 2010-11 to support multi-agency risk assessment conferences and independent domestic violence advisers.

Hugh Bayley: The number of cases of domestic violence reported to the police in Selby and York in the last year increased by 26 per cent., which shows the importance of establishing specialist domestic violence police services. But more reports mean more victims and children who need support. What are the Government doing to increase the funding for independent domestic abuse services and to ensure the prosecution of the perpetrators of this crime?

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