The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Nick Clegg): A range of views have been expressed to me, in correspondence and discussion, on the Government's proposals to create fewer and more equally sized constituencies. In addition, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill had five days of debate on the Floor of the House for its Committee stage.
The Deputy Prime Minister: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. It is one of the founding principles of any democracy that votes should be valued in the same way, wherever they are cast. Over the years, all sorts of anomalies have developed, such that different people's votes are simply not worth the same in elections to this place. That surely cannot be right, and it is worth reminding those Opposition Members who object to the rationale that it was one of the founding tenets of the Chartists-one of the predecessor movements to the Labour party-that all votes should be of equal value.
Andrew Bridgen: Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that, for Members of this place to have an effective relationship with local authorities, it is important that emphasis should be placed on keeping parliamentary constituencies as coterminous as possible after the boundary review?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I certainly agree that, where possible, if not in all cases, the building blocks for the boundary review should follow ward boundaries. It would be foolish to reinvent the wheel in that respect. That is why we are proceeding on the basis that ward boundaries will indeed continue to serve as the building blocks for the boundary reviews.
Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): In order to force through the gerrymandering of Parliament before the next general election, which the Deputy Prime Minister is trying to do, will he be able to get those 50 friends from among his Tory and Liberal colleagues packed into the House of Lords by next week or the week after? When is he planning to make that announcement?
The Deputy Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we will be publishing a Bill early in the new year, which we are drafting at the moment on a cross-party basis, to reform the other place. In the meantime, in keeping with traditions that were also pursued by his Government, appointments will be made as a proportion of and in line with the results of the general election.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): It is estimated that 200,000 people will be forced out of major metropolitan areas as a result of the Government's niggardly proposals on welfare reform, which will turn London into Paris, with the poor consigned to the outer ring. That is the equivalent of three parliamentary constituencies, according to the Deputy Prime Minister's desiccated calculating machine of a Bill. Would it not be iniquitous if, on top of being socially engineered and sociologically cleansed out of London, the poor were also disfranchised by his Bill? How does he propose to make electoral provision for those displaced people?
The Deputy Prime Minister: We all indulge in a bit of hyperbole, but I have to say to the hon. Gentleman quite seriously that to refer to "cleansing" will be deeply offensive to people who have witnessed ethnic cleansing in other parts of the world. It is an outrageous way of describing-
The Deputy Prime Minister: No. We are saying that it is perfectly reasonable for the Government to say that they will not hand out more in housing benefit than those who go out to work, pay their taxes and play by the rules would pay when looking for housing themselves. We are simply suggesting that there should be a cap for family homes with four bedrooms of £400 a week. That is £21,000 a year. Does the hon. Gentleman really think it is wrong that the state should not subsidise people to the tune of more than £21,000, when people cannot afford to live privately in those areas? I do not think so.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced to this House in June that he would chair a cross-party Committee that would set out the Government's proposals which they will bring forward in a draft Bill early next year. We hope that a Joint Committee of both Houses will be able to scrutinise it in due course.
Mr Harper: I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The Government have made it very clear that we think those who make our laws should be elected. Thinking back to the previous question, it is worth saying that of the peers created since this Government came to office, more of them are Labour than represent the coalition parties.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): Will the Minister explain why he is proceeding with a cross-party, consensual approach to reforming the House of Lords, as is right and proper, yet rushing through other major changes to parliamentary democracy and the way in which we run this country without such usual cross-party consensus and support?
Mr Harper: I certainly do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we are rushing things through. We have had five days of debate on the Floor of the House and we have another two days on Report next week. Labour Members-albeit not the right hon. Gentleman-voted against our programme motion, which gave the House more time. I simply do not agree with him on this. We have set out our proposals and we hope that this House and the other place will agree with them in due course.
Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): The country has been waiting 100 years to elect the Lords. Once the Minister's plans become law, how long will it take to achieve the Government's intended proportion of elected Members in the upper Chamber?
Mr Harper: My hon. Friend puts his finger on an issue that the cross-party Committee is taking seriously and on which I am sure the Joint Committee will have a view: the length of, and procedure for, the transitional period. It is not an easy process. I look forward to the debate once we have published our draft Bill.
Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab):
We support the Minister's plans to make constitutional and political reform the Government's centrepiece, as long as it is for the right reasons and is effective. Will he confirm that, at the same time as rushing through legislation to remove 50 elected Members from this House-all the evidence suggests that most of them will be Labour MPs-this Government are rushing through plans to appoint
50 more unelected peers to the other place, most of whom will be Conservative and Liberal Democrat? Can the hon. Gentleman understand why most observers think that this is partisan and political manoeuvring?
On House of Lords reform, as I said in my previous answer, the Government will create some new peers in due course-the Prime Minister has made that clear-in the same way that the previous Government did. Since the election, 29 Labour peers have been created, in the resignation honours list of the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), but only 27 coalition peers. The Government have no plans to pack the upper House; the Government do not have a majority in the other place; we will take our legislation through there by arguing the merits of the case and hoping to persuade a majority.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Given that most people would react with horror at the prospect of doubling the number of elected MPs, why does my hon. Friend think so many on both sides of the House are fanatically in favour of turning the upper House into a carbon copy of this Chamber, which might either rubber-stamp or oppose its findings, while excluding the experts who do such a good job in revising our legislation?
Mr Harper: I know my hon. Friend's views on this subject, but he is simply not right. One issue that the cross-party Committee is thinking about very carefully is exactly how to ensure that the reformed second Chamber is not a carbon copy of this place-that would clearly not be sensible. Although we think that Members should be elected, we will look at a range of ways of ensuring that the House of Lords can do its job properly as a revising Chamber, without duplicating the role of this House, which will remain the primary House of Parliament.
Natascha Engel: My question was one of definition. In what way is a vote at 16 in a referendum different from a vote at 16 in a general election? If there is no difference, why did the Liberal Democrats, who support votes at 16, whip and vote against lowering the voting age in the referendum on parliamentary voting reform?
The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Lady is right that there are differences of view in this Government, as there were in the previous Government, about the merits or not of moving to votes at 16. On the issue of whether such a move should apply only to the referendum and not to other votes, the feeling, not unreasonably, was that the matter needs to be looked at in the round. If we are to take a decision in this House, it should be taken on the principle, across all elections and votes, and not just the referendum.
Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): A recent Demos report established that, in the past decade, 16 and 17-year-olds contributed £500 million in tax to the UK Exchequer, that 4,500 of them serve in the British armed forces, and that they are now capable of being company directors. Given that, what possible reason is there for excluding them from voting in referendums or elections?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I happen to be a supporter of votes at 16 but we are open about the fact that there are differences of view in this Government. That is why the matter is not included in our coalition agreement. The previous Labour Government also had no consensus on the matter, and I assume that that is why the hon. Gentleman's party never brought such a proposal forward when it was in government.
Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon) (Con): Given that in the past three general elections it is likely that less than a third of 18 to 25-year-olds bothered to turn out to vote, and given that more of that age group vote for contestants in "The X Factor" than for candidates in general elections or likely referendums, will the Government turn their face against the ridiculous proposal to reduce the voting age to 16, until such time as slightly older people have shown a greater commitment to British democracy?
The Deputy Prime Minister: Whether people are entitled to vote should not in principle depend on whether they exercise that right. One can accept the principle that people should be entitled to vote at certain ages, without making that entitlement contingent on their exercising it.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that there is something slightly irrational about those who, in the previous Parliament, thought that we should increase the age at which people are allowed to smoke from 16 to 18, but who now think that 16-year-olds have the right level of responsibility for the voting age to be reduced from 18 to 16?
The Deputy Prime Minister:
I was not going to turn to the sensitive issue, at least in my household, of smoking. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman
that on this issue, as on so many others, the Labour party seems wholly inconsistent. It was silent- [Interruption.] They were silent on votes at 16 when in government, and now they are arch campaigners for a change that they never delivered when they had the chance to do so. [Interruption.]
The Deputy Prime Minister: As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on the full range of Government policy and initiatives, and within Government I take direct responsibility for this Government's programme of political and constitutional reform.
Andrew Stephenson: Although I welcome the coalition's commitment to introduce individual voter registration, many Members across the House remain concerned about on-demand postal and proxy votes, which we still feel are too open to abuse. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to look at the possibility of reintroducing restrictions to those entitled to register for postal votes?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that any incidence of fraud in our elections, particularly postal vote fraud-there seems, at least, unacceptable evidence that that has been happening around the country-needs to be dealt with. How we do that is quite complex, and the kind of controls we put in place are still under consideration. We will consider our options and take measures forward as soon as we can.
Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham) (Lab): As Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Gentleman takes and shares ministerial responsibility for the Government's spending decisions. Will he confirm that as a result of those spending decisions as many as 500,000 jobs will go in the private sector, in addition to the 490,000 that will be lost in the public sector?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I will confirm that all the statistics on possible job losses are derived from the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, which has said that at the end of the spending round there may be 490,000 fewer posts in the public sector. That is still 200,000 more than the number of people who were employed in the sector when the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) and Tony Blair took power in 1997. Separately, the Office for Budget Responsibility has predicted that more than 2 million jobs will be created in the private sector.
Surely the Deputy Prime Minister must recognise that, even before the cuts resulting from his spending decisions bite, it is hard for unemployed people when five of them are chasing every job vacancy. Why, then, are his Government planning to punish unemployed people who have been searching for a job for more than
a year by cutting their housing benefit by 10%? That is a deeply unfair policy. Will the Deputy Prime Minister review it?
The Deputy Prime Minister: What we will seek to do in the coming months and years is increase the incentives to work. That is the centrepiece of our Government policies. That is why we have raised the income tax personal allowance, exempting nearly 900,000 people on low pay from income tax; that is why, over time, we will introduce a universal credit; and that is why we will implement the reform of our welfare system which, although much talked about in previous years, has never been put into practice.
T3.  Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement during his recent visit to the United Nations that United Kingdom funds for malaria would increase to £500 million a year by 2014. Given that the Government rightly concentrate on outcomes rather than inputs, what outcomes does my right hon. Friend expect to result from the more than tripling of malaria funds by that date?
The Deputy Prime Minister: Like the hon. Gentleman, I think that it is witness to this country's commitment to the poor in other parts of the world that, even in difficult times when we are having to make difficult savings elsewhere in public spending, we are honouring our commitment to the developing world to allocate 0.7% of national wealth to development aid from 2013.
The specific answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that the increase in spending to £500 million per year by 2014 will reduce the number of malaria deaths by at least 50% by 2015 in at least 10 high-burden countries.
T2.  John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Will the Deputy Prime Minister now answer the question asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman)? He is about to cut the housing benefits of some of the poorest households in Britain by 10%. Why will he not reconsider, given that we are experiencing some of the most trying economic circumstances of the past 30 years?
The Deputy Prime Minister: As I said earlier, what we are trying to do in respect of housing, as in respect of all other areas of public spending in the welfare system, is increase the incentives to work. Something has gone seriously wrong with a housing benefit system that has more than doubled in recent years, from £10 billion to £21 billion, and has locked many people into long-term dependency. It has not created incentives to work, or incentives for house builders to build more affordable homes. We plan to increase capital investment in house building, reform housing benefit, and build up to 400,000 affordable homes over the coming decade.
T5.  Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con):
Given that several major public sector trade unions are threatening public action over some of the announcements in last week's comprehensive spending review, and given continued attempts by unions to block some of the reforms that the coalition Government are trying to introduce, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is
time to reduce the trade unions' irresponsible influence on British party politics, and to draw up proposals to reform trade union funding of political parties?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I imagine that the hon. Gentleman's views would be particularly unpopular with the new leader of the Labour party, who secured his position only because of the block and duplicate votes of trade union members.
I hope that, in the coming weeks and months, we will not pitch the country into confrontation between the Government and the trade unions. I believe that-this, incidentally, has applied to local authorities up and down the country under the control of different political parties-there is a means by which we can work co-operatively with trade unions to make the savings that we need to make as a nation, and reduce to the bare minimum the number of job losses that might be incurred in the process.
T4.  Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): The Deputy Prime Minister need not be concerned that I am going to ask him for a meeting at the end of this question, as I am still waiting for a meeting that he agreed to hold with me during an answer at Prime Minister's questions on 21 July-and, frankly, I am not holding my breath.In my constituency of Gateshead one of the greatest factors in continuing health inequalities and shorter life expectancy among some of the poorest communities is the prevalence of smoking. Does the Deputy Prime Minister at all regret promoting smoking by saying it would be his greatest single luxury if he were stranded on a desert island?
T8.  Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): The coalition programme for government calls for a commission to be established to look into the West Lothian question. Please will the Deputy Prime Minister update the House on the establishment of that commission?
The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, who has responsibility for constitutional affairs, will lead on that and he will announce our intention to set up a commission on the long-standing knotty problem of the West Lothian question by the end of the year.
T6.  Mrs Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): What support are local authorities such as Calderdale in my constituency being given to ensure that as many people as possible are on the electoral register?
The Deputy Prime Minister:
The principal innovation we are seeking to introduce is to allow electoral registration officers to compare their databases of who is and is not on the register with other publicly available databases.
We are piloting that in a number of areas, and we hope it will enable officers to see who is not on the electoral register but is on other databases so that they can then, possibly literally, go and knock on their door and say, "You're on one database but not the other; have you thought of getting on to the electoral register?" I know there has been a lot of polemic around this issue, but I hope we will be able to work on a cross-party basis. Many Members will know from their own areas of the best innovations in getting people on to the register. I am actively looking at ways in which we can create a cross-party forum where we can compare best practice to get more and still more people on to the register.
T9.  Dr Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that having an open and frank discussion about the British voting system as part of the alternative vote referendum is an excellent way to help re-establish faith and trust in British politics?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I certainly hope so. It will be the first nationwide referendum we have had since the early 1970s, and we should be open about the fact that, including in this Government, we do not agree on the best outcome. However, we all agree that it should be for the people to choose. That is why I urge those Members who are dragging their feet somewhat in allowing the proposed legislation to pass its various stages in this House and the other place to realise that we should try not only to subject it to the necessary scrutiny, but above all allow the people outside this House to have their say and so help restore some public trust in what we do.
T7.  John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): We have heard what the right hon. Gentleman has to say about the local housing allowance and how it affects people, but what has he got to say to the 49,000 people who will be made homeless thanks to what he is about to do? Will he say sorry?
The Deputy Prime Minister: By allowing rents for new tenants, but not existing tenants, to be set closer to market rates-and by the way, rents for existing- [Interruption.] Rents for existing tenants went up by about 15% under the Labour Government. We are saying that we need to give registered social landlords an incentive to build new affordable homes-the building of which was at lamentably low levels under the previous Government-while all the time, of course, compensating those tenants through the housing benefit system. As I said earlier, we also think it is right for the Government to say that there needs to be some kind of limit for those people who are on housing benefit, and it seems fair for that limit to be set roughly at the level at which people who are going out to work would be looking for rented property in the private sector.
T10.  Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham) (Con):
The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware of Labour's catastrophic defeat in Tower Hamlets last week at the hands of the Ken Livingstone-backed independent candidate, but will he examine the issue of electoral fraud, because serious allegations of it were made at the local elections in May and again last week? Some 18 postal votes came from one four-bedroom house
and eight postal votes came from a maisonette above a shop, and more than 5,000 new names were added to the roll just before the deadline. Will-
The Deputy Prime Minister: Where there are incidents and allegations of serious electoral fraud they need to be reported to the police. These are very serious matters; these are potentially criminal offences, and they need to be investigated by the police. So if there is evidence, it needs to be passed to the police as soon as possible.
"We will resist, vote against, campaign against, any lifting of that cap"
The Deputy Prime Minister: Of course I regret-who would not regret?-making a promise and signing a pledge, as happened in this case, that we have now found that we are unable to keep. Of course I wish that the proposal for a graduate tax put forward now by the hon. Gentleman's leader, which comes from a party that introduced tuition fees having previously said that it would not do so, would work and that it was an alternative that we could implement. We looked at it very carefully-it has also been proposed by the National Union of Students-but it is not workable and it is not fair. What we will be doing shortly, when we come forward with our response to the Browne report, is install new measures that will ensure that the way in which students go to university is fairer and less punitive on those who are disadvantaged than the system that we inherited from the Labour party.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): An important part of political reform is changing the way we do politics-for example, to make it more accessible to under-represented groups such as parents of young children. It is surely ridiculous that in this House one can take a sword into the Lobby but not a newborn child. Will the Deputy Prime Minister ensure that the recommendations on that and other issues in the Speaker's Conference report are acted on, and acted on swiftly?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I certainly agree that we should be acting on the-broadly speaking-excellent recommendations from the Speaker's Conference. As for my hon. Friend's proposal of allowing babies and young children into the Chamber or the Lobby, I cannot readily see a Government position or an amendment to the coalition agreement on that; it will be a matter for the House. However, I certainly agree-I say this with some feeling, as a father of three young children-that it is very difficult for mothers and fathers to combine having young children with life in politics, not least because of the idiosyncratic way in which we organise ourselves in this House. We need to provide all the support we can to allow parents to be good parents, but good MPs as well.
The Attorney-General (Mr Dominic Grieve): The policy of the Crown Prosecution Service is to consider the extent to which the suspects who might be victims of trafficking were compelled to undertake the unlawful activity alleged. That is compatible with our common law defence of duress. Where there is clear evidence of duress, the case should be discontinued on evidential grounds. Where it is not clear whether the suspect was acting under duress, consideration will be given to whether the suspect was in a coerced situation. In such circumstances, there will be a strong public interest to stop the prosecution.
Grahame M. Morris: Will the Attorney-General explain the coalition Government's strategy to contain the growing criminal and completely abhorrent practice of human trafficking, particularly with regard to the trafficking of prostitutes and press reports that human traffickers aim to exploit opportunities presented by the 2012 Olympic games and the large number of people coming to London for them?
The Attorney-General: The Crown Prosecution Service works closely with the police and other related organisations to try to improve its ability to prosecute human trafficking cases. It has, for example, only very recently sent a senior prosecutor to Vietnam to discuss the issue of child trafficking into this country from that country. In addition, we are adherent to the EU directive on trafficking, which we ratified and implemented. It provided that all member states should, in accordance with the basic principles of its legal system, provide for the possibility, as I have just said, of not imposing penalties on victims for their involvement in unlawful activities. One of the reasons for that is to facilitate their coming forward so that a prosecution of the traffickers can take place.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): How does the Attorney-General square that statement with the fact that the Court of Appeal recently released three young women from prison who had been trafficked into this country and forced into prostitution but were prosecuted by the CPS against the advice of the police and the POPPY project?
The Attorney-General: It is difficult for me to comment on an individual case, although if my hon. Friend wishes to draw the particular circumstances to my attention I am more than happy to write to him about it. As I said a moment ago, the policy of the CPS and the principles it follows under the code of Crown prosecutors put the public interest at the forefront of a prosecution. Where the public interest is thought not to require a prosecution, no prosecution will be brought.
The Solicitor-General (Mr Edward Garnier): The Crown Prosecution Service's violence against women strategy was published in June 2008. The assessment of the benefits of the strategy on prosecutions for violence against women will be published in the autumn of 2011. Annual reports are also published.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: I thank the Solicitor-General for that response. I am sure that he will be aware that Durham CPS piloted the use of specialist services such as domestic violence courts and multi-agency risk assessment conferences to determine appropriate interventions in domestic violence cases. What reassurance can he give the House that those specialist services that have been so successful will continue?
The Solicitor-General: May I thank the hon. Lady for visiting her CPS office on 1 October? Her visit was most welcome and I hope that other Members of Parliament will take the same opportunity to visit their local CPS. I can give her the assurance that she seeks. The CPS, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and I take the aspect of the criminal law that she has just addressed extremely seriously and we will ensure that both the CPS and the wider criminal justice system bear down on reducing the number of offences against women.
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): According to CPS data, between 2008 and 2009 12% of cases were unsuccessful in the category "violence against women" due to victim-related issues. What are we doing to address that?
The Solicitor-General: To be fair to the previous Government, they introduced the slogan and policy of "no witness, no justice". One of the most important things that we can do is to ensure that victims of domestic violence are encouraged, protected, persuaded and assisted in taking their evidence to court so that the criminal justice system can deal with those who mete out violence towards them. There is no excuse for violent people attacking others and there is particularly no excuse for the criminal justice system to ignore women within the domestic scene who are beaten up by others.
Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): As the shadow Solicitor-General, I look forward to working with the Law Officers, particularly in supporting the CPS in its hugely important role of ensuring an independent operation, in advising the police and in ensuring that perpetrators of crime are brought to justice. However, in light of the comments made by the Director of Public Prosecutions over the weekend to the effect that budget cuts to the CPS
"pose the biggest challenge in its history"
"The ultimate losers from these plans for the CPS to slash its budget are the vulnerable clients in need of help dealing with housing, mental health and domestic violence",
what steps will the Law Officers take to ensure that the CPS has sufficient resources to continue to secure prosecutions for domestic violence and to ensure that cuts are not just a risky gamble with delivering justice for vulnerable groups?
Mr Speaker: Order. The train of my thought is that I would like to make some progress down the Order Paper because other Members are waiting to ask questions. We will hear the Solicitor-General's answer pronto.
The Solicitor-General: I assure the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) that the Government and the Law Officers' Department are extremely concerned to ensure that the issues about which she has just addressed the House are properly catered for within the criminal justice system and by the Law Officers.
The Attorney-General: By working in partnership across the public and private sectors, the National Fraud Strategic Authority has contributed towards improving our understanding of the scale and nature of the fraud challenge, as well as making a significant contribution to improving our response to that challenge. It has produced the most comprehensive estimate yet of the annual cost of fraud to the United Kingdom at £30.5 billion, a significant part of which is against the public sector. It has launched Action Fraud, the national fraud reporting centre, which has provided advice and guidance to more than 100,000 people since April, many of whom have been victims of online crime. As part of the comprehensive spending review, the Government have provided ring-fenced funding for the NFSA to continue its work.
Alun Michael: I am grateful to the Attorney-General for that encouraging reply. Within the figures that he has mentioned, internet-related fraud ranges from very large institutional losses to large numbers of low-level attacks. Does he agree that it is important to keep up the pressure on both those fronts, so that ordinary people can be confident about being safe online?
The Attorney-General: I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I know that he chairs the e-crime reduction partnership, which was itself established by EURIM, and I welcome the fact that he has taken an interest in the subject. I assure him that the NFA will welcome his input and that of others on how it should take its work, which we value, forward. As I have mentioned, it has identified a global figure for the level of fraud, but it has also broken it down. Public sector fraud, for example, is estimated at some £17 billion, while identity fraud is estimated at some £2.7 billion.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): If Google and Hotmail are deemed to be less secure, what recommendation can the Government make to advise ordinary people who use those accounts to make them more secure and more aware of the potential for fraud?
The Attorney-General: First, the NFSA can supply information on how people can protect themselves against fraud, and it regularly does so. Secondly, as my hon. Friend will know, the Government have announced an extra £650 million for cyber-security, which will be used to look at how hacking, getting into people's internet accounts and acquiring people's identities can be properly countered.
The Solicitor-General: In July this year, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and I released information on unduly lenient sentences in cases for 2009, the latest year for which figures are available. The figures show that of 311 sentences considered by the Law Officers, 108 were referred and heard by the Court of Appeal, of which 71 sentences were increased by the Court. The decision whether to refer cases often generates a good deal of media or public interest, but no representations were received by the Attorney-General's office as a direct consequence of the publication of that information.
Gareth Johnson: Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that nothing undermines victims of crime more than unduly lenient sentences? Unfortunately, not all unduly lenient sentences can be appealed against. Will he therefore consider increasing the number of offences where such sentences can be appealed against?
The Solicitor-General: As my hon. Friend realises, the statutory scheme comes under the Criminal Justice Act 1988, which provides us with the rubric that we must follow. We are limited by that statute, but if he thinks that particular crimes or sentences need to be looked at so that that law can be adjusted, I advise him to write to the Ministry of Justice.
Andrew Bingham: The unduly lenient sentences scheme covers some but not all offences. In helping me to explain the situation to my constituents in High Peak, will my hon. and learned Friend explain why the scheme is limited to certain offences?
The Solicitor-General: The short answer is because that is what the statute says. It is confusing that there is a limitation on sentences that we can ask the Court of Appeal to consider. Cases that are triable on indictment only and cases that are triable either way are listed in the Statutory Instrument that followed the main statute. I am happy to have a discussion later with my hon. Friend to see whether we can help his constituents understand that rather complicated area of law.
Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): The details that emerged during the recent trial of Bolton, Griffin and Marshall in Manchester were truly appalling, but their case could not be referred to the Court of Appeal because they were convicted only of lesser offences. May I encourage the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General to consider carefully the merits of extending the list of eligible offences to include a wider range of violent offences?
The Solicitor-General: My right hon. and learned Friend and I are always happy to consider suggestions of that nature, but the legislation would have to be amended by the Secretary of State for Justice and his team. Another point to bear in mind is that members of the public often contact us outside the 28-day limit and we cannot consider sentences, even if they are, in theory, reparable, if they are brought to our attention after 28 days.
Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): Is the Solicitor-General concerned about the plans of the Ministry of Justice to reduce prison numbers and does he think it will result in more claims regarding unduly lenient sentences being presented to his Department?
6. Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): What discussions he has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on steps to increase the proportion of prosecutions for offences of human trafficking which result in conviction. 
The Attorney-General: I have had no recent discussions with the CPS regarding the effectiveness of prosecution policy in human trafficking cases, but the CPS has comprehensive guidance for prosecutors to ensure that decisions in human trafficking cases are taken in line with the principles in the code for Crown prosecutors, taking account of the particular factors that are relevant in such cases. However, if my hon. Friend has specific concerns, I invite him to write to me. I have regular meetings with the DPP during which we discuss a range of issues and this topic can and will be included when necessary.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend get together the CPS, the police and the judiciary to see
what we can do to increase the lamentably low number of convictions that we are currently securing for human trafficking?
The Attorney-General: I certainly share my hon. Friend's desire to see the number of prosecutions increase. Of course, the CPS is ultimately a referral organisation-it takes the cases that are offered to it. There is some comfort in the latest figures: there is an indication that in the first six months of this year since April there were 17 prosecutions for trafficking under the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, compared with only 19 in the previous 12-month period, and similar figures can be found for prosecutions under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. However, I will bear the matter in mind. There is already a lot of close working between the CPS, the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. Of course, these matters are also discussed when necessary with the judiciary.
Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): Does the Attorney-General recognise that in cases in which victims of trafficking are afforded better protection, such as safe accommodation, they are more willing to come to court as witnesses? If he recognises that, will he work with his colleagues across Government to make sure that victims of trafficking are encouraged to come forward as witnesses and therefore increase the prosecution rate?
The Attorney-General: As I hope I indicated in my answer to the first question, those are precisely the sort of criteria put forward to encourage people to come forward without fearing that they will suffer consequences in doing so. For those reasons, I assure the hon. Lady that this is a priority issue. As human trafficking is regarded as a very serious offence, every effort will be made to encourage victims to come forward.
1. Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): What recent representations the Church Commissioners have received on the criteria for the appointment of bishops in the Church of England; and if he will make a statement. 
Natascha Engel: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer. The Archbishop of Canterbury has recently written a newspaper article saying that it is okay to be a gay bishop as long as one is celibate. Where does the Church of England stand on people in civil partnerships? If they are celibate, are they okay to be bishops too?
Tony Baldry: There is no Church of England rule that prevents a celibate person in a civil partnership from being considered for appointment as a bishop. The issue is whether someone in that position could act as a focus for unity in a diocese. That would have to be considered by those responsible for making any episcopal appointment.
Tony Baldry: The Churches, and I suspect all charities, are extremely grateful for gift aid. However, the administrative complexity, and particularly the need to keep paper gift aid declarations on file, causes great difficulty.
Richard Graham: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Churchgoers all over my constituency of Gloucester, both of the Church of England, which spends more than £1 billion a year maintaining a community presence across the city and all over our country, and of other Churches would welcome the introduction of a gift aid "light" scheme, meaning light in administrative burden for smaller charities. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be a good idea, and would Her Majesty's Treasury support it?
Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. The plans being developed in Gloucester are extremely good ideas and we should like to encourage Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs to move to a more streamlined system with an option for an online filing and accounting system. That would save time and money, not just for the Churches and charities but for HMRC.
Mr David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds) (Con): Last year, gift aid that went to St Edmundsbury cathedral was 25% lower than the aid it received from the listed places of worship grant scheme. I am delighted that the Government have extended that scheme from March 2011, but could my hon. Friend tell me what steps will be taken to publicise that scheme much more widely, so that more of our English church heritage can be preserved?
Tony Baldry: It is extremely good news that Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have extended the scheme; that is very welcome. I think the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who raise money for the repair and refurbishment of churches up and down the country are very conscious of the VAT scheme on listed buildings and churches. My hon. Friend can rest assured that every diocese will be making sure that it is publicised in every parish.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman has acknowledged the importance of the gift aid scheme. Last week the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, in a reply to a question in this Chamber, indicated that some £4.5 million comes off the gift aid scheme. What discussions has the hon. Gentleman had with the Churches to ensure that the gift aid scheme can be increased, to ensure that they can then use that money for the work that they do?
Tony Baldry: The difficulty with the gift aid scheme at the present moment is that churches and parishes have to maintain enormous numbers of paper records, just in case there is any spot check from HMRC. It involves thousands of volunteer hours just to do so, and it would be perfectly possible to do it as effectively online, much more simply. That would be in everyone's interests, not least those of HMRC. The Church and, I am sure, other charities will continue to pursue that with ministerial colleagues in the Treasury and with the Treasury itself.
Tony Baldry: The Church Commissioners are committed to managing our assets in a way that reflects the Church's teaching and values and take advice on ethical investment policies from the Church's ethical investment advisory group.
Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. The Church Commissioners seek positively to encourage responsible corporate practice by the businesses in which we invest. We are signatories to the United Nations principles for responsible investment. We vote our shares in line with the importance we attach to good corporate governance. We continuously discuss environmental, social and governance issues with our investment managers, and if ever we should have a concern about corporate practice in a company in which we invest, we engage with that company to seek to influence its corporate behaviour at board level.
Tony Baldry: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we would not invest in companies that we thought were shady. For example, we disinvested from Vedanta Resources plc recently because of its treatment of tribal communities in India. There are a number of US companies that we have made a conscious decision not to invest in because of their involvement in cluster munitions systems. Wherever possible, if we think that someone is behaving in a shady way, we would hope to influence through engagement, and engagement as a potential investor takes the Church Commissioners into discussion with the boards of some of the world's biggest companies.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that, when the Church is considering the use of its property investments, it has a charitable duty of care to the voluntary groups that may depend on the use of those properties?
Tony Baldry: Yes, of course, and I think that the Church will need to work out ways in which we can use Church property much more actively to engage with voluntary and community groups, as part of the big society initiative, which the Church has always supported and continues to support.
4. Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): What assessment the Public Accounts Commission has made of the adequacy of the National Audit Office's resources to audit whether UK aid to other countries is spent in accordance with the Government's development policies. 
Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I hope that this is not too much like a Tweedledum and Tweedledee show, but I have been asked to reply to my hon. Friend's question on behalf of the Commission. The answer is, of course, that is it up to the Comptroller and Auditor General, acting and deciding independently, to determine the amount of resources that he needs to carry out audits. I can tell my hon. Friend, however, that the resources devoted by the Comptroller and Auditor General to audit the work of the Department for International Development is proportionate to its budget allocations and that, since January 2009, either audit contractors employed by the National Audit Office or audit office staff have visited DFID operations in half the Department's 22 priority areas.
I, seriously, am concerned that the National Audit Office does not spend enough time with auditors in the field in developing countries to check that our aid is used appropriately and on the outcome of that spending, and, indeed, to safeguard against fraud. I ask my hon. Friend to ask the Comptroller and Auditor General to prepare a report on how the British aid budget is audited. Given that the budget is rising, the Comptroller and Auditor General should perhaps put more resources into it, and will he let us know whether he considers that he has sufficient money to do the job?
Austin Mitchell: I can tell my hon. Friend that I have never been so close to such a large volume, which, being slightly deaf, is a great advantage. However, again, this is a matter for the Comptroller and Auditor General to decide independently. I will certainly undertake to convey my hon. Friend's views to the Comptroller and Auditor General via the Audit Commission, to raise the matter with it and to ask for a greater allocation in this area.
Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon) (Con): The Electoral Commission informs me that, in March 2010, it published data based on returns from 351 electoral registration officers showing that, in Great Britain, a total of 67 prosecutions were initiated in relation to a failure to provide information in response to the 2009 annual canvass. The commission does not hold data on the outcomes of those prosecutions. No such prosecutions were initiated in Northern Ireland in the same year.
Mr Streeter: The primary responsibility to decide whether to prosecute lies with electoral registration officers, and the hon. Gentleman may want to discuss this issue with the EROs in his community. The Electoral Commission does, of course, issue guidance to EROs and monitors their performance, and it will continue to do so.
6. Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): What recent representations the Church Commissioners have made to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on VAT relief on the repair of church buildings after March 2011. 
As one of Cornwall's most visited landmarks, Truro cathedral inspires thousands of people each year with its architecture, music and faith. The cathedral's future relies on a £4 million investment in a vision to restore and redevelop it. The savings in VAT will be significant. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking volunteers up and down the country who, like those in my constituency, give their time and talent freely to fundraise for their places of worship?
Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. For all the churches and cathedrals in this country, there are hundreds of thousands of volunteers giving hours and hours of voluntary time to maintain the fabric of our very important heritage to hand on to future generations. We should all be extremely grateful to them.
Dr Huppert: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is a massive asymmetry between the treatment of those who become partners pre-ordination and post-ordination? If the Church expects such partners to play an active role, it should try to ensure that those who join their partner post-ordination get at least equivalent training.
"When things go wrong it's rather tame
To find we are ourselves to blame.
It gets the trouble over quicker
To go and blame things on the Vicar."
Every clergyman deserves our full support for what they do in the community, and their spouses-whether pre-ordination or post-ordination-deserve our support, because they are often on the front line of helping parishioners in the community. I very much hope that if any clergy spouse does not feel that she is getting full support, she will get in touch with me and I will make jolly sure that her diocesan bishops and others ensure that she gets the support that she deserves.
9. Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham) (Con): What recent assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the effectiveness of mechanisms to increase voter registration of and turnout by UK citizens who are resident abroad. 
Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon) (Con): The Electoral Commission runs campaigns to promote voter registration among British citizens living abroad. The Commission informs me that the campaign in the run-up to the 2010 general election resulted in more than 40,000 overseas voter registration forms being downloaded from its website. In its report on the 2010 general election, the Commission said that the election timetable leaves insufficient time for overseas voters to receive and return their postal votes, and recommended that the Government should undertake a thorough review of the timetable for UK general elections.
Greg Hands: May I remind my hon. Friend what happened in the Polish elections of November 2007? Poland set up a number of polling stations in this country for its citizens to participate in their elections. Could we consider doing the same at British embassies or consulates abroad? The impression that I had in Hammersmith was of thousands of Poles queuing up at Ravenscourt Park to vote. It is something that we could quite reasonably copy.
Mr Streeter: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the suggestion. We have looked at using British embassies abroad as places where expats can go and vote. There did not seem to be a great deal of interest when the suggestion was put forward by the Electoral Commission, but given the persistence with which my hon. Friend puts his case, we will consider it again.
Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) if he will make a statement on what the Government are doing to halt the dangerous situation in prospect in London of industrial action by firefighters over the bonfire period.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): As the hon. Gentleman knows from his own long experience of the fire service, the management of industrial disputes in the fire and rescue service is a matter for the fire and rescue authority concerned. The London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority holds the statutory duty to have plans in place to deal with such disruption. London has met this requirement by putting in place a contingency arrangement through a contract with a company, AssetCo.
I am retaining a close interest in the situation and I am in regular contact with the interested parties. I have emphasised that this dispute should be settled through negotiation. I understand that discussions are continuing, and I urge all concerned to find a solution to this disruptive action.
It is not the role of Government to intervene in the details of these negotiations. However, I would like to put on record my alarm and distress at the intimidation and bullying on the picket lines against AssetCo staff. At any time, abuse and violence against any front-line public servant, be they ambulance staff, firefighters or police officers, is never justified. I am shocked that it would appear that some trade union militants are now attempting to intimidate those providing an emergency service.
I have also made it clear that I find the threat of industrial action over the bonfire night period disgraceful. It is made worse by the fact that in this most diverse of cities, it will also be Diwali. When Londoners will be trying to enjoy those events, I am sorry that it seems that the Fire Brigades Union will be working actively to maximise the risk to them. Not only is the safety of families being put at risk, but the union is crudely attempting to put pressure on community groups to cancel their firework celebrations. I really am sorry to have to say that such behaviour is reckless and cynical and does no credit to the fire service. The service has great traditions, and I am sorry that they have been let down in this manner. The public will not think it a responsible way of conducting industrial action in the 21st century. They will see it for what it is: old-fashioned militant muscle-flexing.
I agree that no one wants to see the strikes, but the House should remember that when such strikes take place, the firefighters' loved ones are in as much danger as the rest of their community. No one takes these decisions lightly, and as the hon. Gentleman knows, I know, because I have been there.
What is Mayor Johnson doing to try to resolve the dispute? Can the Minister confirm that new shift patterns have been agreed in other parts of the country after negotiation by the Fire Brigades Union with chief fire officers and local councils, and can he tell us why he thinks London is different? Does he think that the use of dismissal notices is an appropriate way to conduct negotiations? And, will he seek to ensure that Mayor Johnson and ACAS get involved to defuse the situation?
The threat of strike action on 5 November, Guy Fawkes night and Diwali has caught everyone's attention and been criticised by all, but the next strike is planned for Monday 1 November, in six days' time. Can the Minister assure us that his senior advisers and officials will do all that they can to get the key players first into the same building, then into the same room, and will keep them there until an agreement is hammered out? The public want to see the situation sorted. They want to see a real effort by the Government, the Mayor, the fire authority and the union. They want a resolution, and they want to see fire crews on duty, protecting us as they always do, not on picket lines.
Robert Neill: As I said in my first response, the statutory duty to provide fire and rescue services and proper contingency arrangements lies with the fire and rescue authority, in this case the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, which is of course appointed by and answerable to the Mayor of London. The Mayor has issued a statement today in which he expresses his confidence that appropriate contingency arrangements are in place, and I trust him and the fire authority to deal with that.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that any dispute that reaches this stage is very regrettable. However, it is worth bearing in mind, first, that there have been changes to shift patterns elsewhere in the country; secondly, that there have been protracted negotiations over many years in relation to the London situation; thirdly, that although dismissal notices have been used, the fire authority intends to offer to re-employ all its staff on fresh contracts, so nobody need lose jobs or pay; and finally, and perhaps significantly, the fire authority chairman has pointed out how the employers' side offered and suggested a meeting of the national negotiators on that very day, 5 November. Instead of accepting that offer, the union, I very much regret to say, chose to call a strike for that day.
Any strike by the fire service is obviously a very serious matter and one that the public will understandably and justifiably be concerned about. We understand that concern, and our position is absolutely clear. Bonfire night is one of the busiest periods in the year for the fire service and will in all likelihood be even busier this year, as Diwali falls on the same date. Whatever the issues surrounding the proposed new shift patterns and contracts, a strike by the fire service on bonfire night would potentially put Londoners at risk. It is not supported by the public, and it does not have our support either. The public will rightly expect both sides in this dispute to do everything that they can to avoid an unnecessary strike. We urge both sides to sit down and talk to each other to reach an agreement as soon as possible.
Further to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), may I tell the Minister that he has our support in seeking a resolution to this dispute as soon as possible? What discussions has he had with the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, the Fire Brigades Union and the Mayor of London to encourage all parties to come together to reach an agreement?
Robert Neill: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support and for those observations and I am sure that everyone will welcome the condemnation implicit in his statements of some of the behaviour that we saw. He is right to say that there is scope to decide when a strike takes place and choosing 5 November was especially inappropriate in the circumstances. I hope that his condemnation of that decision will extend to a condemnation of the intimidation of those people who sought to provide cover in London on Saturday.
I have made it clear from the beginning that I hope that this will be settled by negotiation because it is best dealt with at a local level. I do not believe that Ministers intervening in the detail of that negotiation would be appropriate, but we have made it clear that our officials are in contact with the parties. The chief fire and rescue adviser has kept me apprised of all the developments throughout the recent deterioration in the circumstances and will continue to do so. Of course, he continues to receive information from all the interested parties.
Things need not happen this way, and I take it from the hon. Gentleman's words that the Opposition do not wish things to happen this way. I hope that we can say that both sides of the House conclude that this is not a mature way to deal with a dispute that involves a critical service. I hope that we can achieve a resolution and, above all, I hope that we will not see Londoners put at risk on an especially high-risk day. That would be a regrettable bit of brinkmanship, and that is why I have used the strong language that I have-it reflects the views of the public on the way in which they have been used in this matter.
Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): Voters in my constituency are looking forward to celebrating Diwali and Guy Fawkes night on 5 November. Does my hon. Friend agree that five years is long enough to negotiate shift roster patterns? Is it not time that we considered reviewing whether no-strike arrangements should be introduced for the fire service nationally?
Having said to the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) that I do not think that it is appropriate for the Government to be involved in the detailed negotiations, which are best dealt with between the employers and employees, I shall not respond any differently to my hon. Friend. However, I understand the point that he makes, and it is worth reminding people that this is not something that has happened out of the blue. There has been a long build-up to this and there is a sense of frustration. I do not think that the Government have any plans to change the overall framework of industrial relations, but I want to ensure that we encourage the parties concerned to reach a resolution. My priority is to ensure that appropriate contingency arrangements are in place to keep Londoners safe in the event of this happening-and I am sure that
that is the case. We must also ensure that we review those contingency arrangements and keep them up to date across the country as a whole.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Does the Minister agree-he is a fairly reasonable man-that it was reckless of the London fire commissioner to serve the notices to make people redundant? Does the Minister realise that this is not now about shift patterns? Most of the firemen and women whom I met on the picket lines when I went to talk to them in my constituency at the weekend are happy to discuss that issue, but they want the threat of redundancy-which has been brought in, but not for a very long time-to be withdrawn. Can the Minister intervene with the commission and the chairman of the LFEPA to get those threats withdrawn, to get round the table and to get this settled before next Monday?
Robert Neill: Two points arise from the hon. Lady's question. First, it is scarcely appropriate, if we believe in trusting locally elected representatives, for Ministers to seek to micro-manage the negotiations. The people involved, at the London level, on both sides of the dispute are mature and experienced people, and I hope that they will be best placed to resolve it. Secondly, the issue of the dismissal notices sometimes arises in industrial relations disputes. It has not happened in the context of the fire brigade before, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) observed, this situation did not arise suddenly, but at the end of a protracted five-year negotiation. I am not saying what tactics the parties should use, but the lengthy context has to be borne in mind.
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): As somebody who has in their constituency the London fire brigade headquarters, three fire stations and a fire training centre, and who has met both management and the unions in the past fortnight, may I ask that the message be passed on, first, that most fire officers are really keen that there be a resolution, because they do not want to go on strike, and secondly that on the shift patterns, there is not much objective distance between the management and the unions? It should be capable of resolution. I want to add my voice to those who say that there is a way forward by negotiation rather than this clearly unwanted industrial action, which would affect the whole city.
Robert Neill: I agree with my hon. Friend. It is perhaps significant that the management side adjusted its offer and was prepared to change, to some degree, the extent of the alteration of the hours to reflect earlier discussions. I hope that that will be the spirit in which the negotiations are taken forward.
Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): Over the weekend, there was a fire in Enfield in which a house burned to the ground, and there are serious suggestions that the stand-in fire officers who turned up pointed their hose in the wrong direction. Will the Minister say more about the contingency arrangements, and will he also say what his assessment is of fire services in London, given the 13% cut in the spending review?
I have been acquainted with the reports on the Enfield incident. The chief fire and rescue adviser liaised with the commissioner on that matter. Sadly, I
have also been acquainted with reports-in some cases, documented on camera-of the harassment that the crews endeavouring to provide cover had to suffer. They had to do a job under extremely difficult-frankly, unacceptably difficult-circumstances. We want to ensure the best possible standards of cover, and we condemn anyone who seeks to undermine the cover that people attempt to provide. I am satisfied that the London fire brigade-I know it well, as does the right hon. Gentleman-operates to the highest professional standards and will do its level best, despite the difficulties, to make arrangements available. Those arrangements are made via the contract with AssetCo, which is a company with considerable experience in the fire service field, and involve the provision of services using up-to-date fire brigade equipment and persons trained to use that equipment.
Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham) (Con): I know that the Minister shares my concern about reports from the BBC and elsewhere about engines being stopped by picket lines during last Saturday's strike. Will he reassure us again that the Government will do all they can to support emergency crews who do want to work, and to stop any intimidation and harassment?
Robert Neill: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It cannot be acceptable, whatever the situation or dispute, for fire engines attending to a call to be forced to pull over to the side of the road by people who have pursued them on motorbikes, in cars and sometimes in black taxi cabs, for their water tanks to be emptied to render them useless, and for equipment to be removed, and nor is it acceptable for threatening text messages to be sent to people trying to work. That is utterly unacceptable behaviour, and I am sure that every Member finds it revolting. Of course, the Government will do all they can. I know that the fire commissioner is liaising with the police commissioner. The police endeavour to give appropriate support, but of course, given the nature of things, their resources are stretched as well. I am confident, however, that the Metropolitan police will give all appropriate support to those who are working to carry out a statutory duty.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Does the Minister not understand the anger of firefighters-who have kept this city safe for so long, and whom we all rely on and applaud when they put fires out and make places safe-when they are sent dismissal notices and are told that they have to accept a new contract without any negotiation, and when we have a Mayor who refuses to meet them and a Minister who is apparently not even prepared to meet the Mayor to discuss a resolution? Can the Minister not use this opportunity today to send a message to the Mayor and the chair of the fire authority to meet the union now, and come to an agreement that does not involve the wholesale dismissal of loyal public sector workers who have kept this city safe for so long?
The context of my response has already been set out. It is quite clear that the dismissal notices, which are not issued lightly, came only at the end of negotiations that have gone on for something like five years. I am not going to start lecturing the Mayor of
London on how to conduct matters, particularly when the management side on the fire authority has suggested that there should be negotiations through the recognised national negotiating body on 5 November. I would have hoped that the union would take up that offer, but instead it chose to call a strike. Perhaps the best people to advise, therefore, are those in the union, who should be asked why they are not taking up the offer and getting round the table on 5 November, rather than walking out.
Robert Neill: I do not think that there is any evidence to suggest that the contingency resources will fail. The important thing is to ensure that no impediment is put in the way of those operating the contingency resources, to ensure that they do just that. Under the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, the legal duty to ensure that those resources are in place rests with the fire authority, to which we offer advice and assistance in carrying out that duty. The London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority has chosen to meet those statutory requirements through the contract that it has. It has operated satisfactorily, despite the difficultly on Saturday, and I am sure that the authority is refining its operation in the event that it should be necessary on a future occasion.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Only a few months ago, I came to this House with the families of FBU members who had given their lives to save members of the public. The FBU does not take industrial action lightly, and it is taking it only because unacceptable statements have been made, such as statements about five years of negotiations. Negotiations started two months ago, and then unprecedentedly, as the Minister said, all FBU members in London were threatened with the sack if they did not sign up to new contracts. The situation now is that the Mayor refuses to intervene, while the leader of the authority-whom the Audit Commission has described as confrontational, and his colleagues describe as, at times, hysterical in his approach to the issues-is aggravating the situation. Therefore, I believe that it now behoves the Minister to intervene to save us from the dispute and to bring both sides together to ensure a negotiated settlement; otherwise lives will be put at risk not by the FBU, but by this Government and their representatives on the fire authority.
Robert Neill: Ultimately, I am afraid, the risk to life is caused by those who chose to strike on that particular date. I am afraid that I just cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's proposition that what has happened comes outside that context. I do not believe that such decisions are taken lightly, but I have to say-and I say it again-that I regret that the FBU has made such a serious misjudgment on the timing and calling of the strike. I repeat: discussions have been going on for upwards of five years to try to resolve the matter-they have been on-off-and I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is misinformed to say that what has happened has been suddenly plucked out of the air, in isolation.
I do not intend to lecture the statutorily responsible bodies, which are democratically elected and accountable, on how they carry out their job, particularly when they
have made an offer to negotiate that has apparently been rejected on the very day that they could have been sitting round the table. The best thing that the hon. Gentleman could do is use his good offices and contacts in the union to persuade them to get back round the table on 5 November, and if not hopefully before that.
Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): The Minister will know that I have championed the cause of firefighters in my constituency. As a member of the all-party fire safety and rescue group, I want to ask him about the cynical decision to hold a strike on bonfire night, when the number of incidents is sometimes double or triple what it usually is. Will he work with the Opposition to bring forward emergency legislation to stop the strike on bonfire night?
Robert Neill: With every respect to my hon. Friend, whose interest in the matter I acknowledge, I do not think that the introduction of emergency legislation will help to resolve a difficult scenario. We need to ensure that we make some serious progress. However, I want to take this opportunity to say that I stand second to none in my respect and admiration for the fire service and for the men and women who work it up. I have been involved with it, in the various forms of my public life, for the best part of 25 years, which is why I am so saddened that the leadership of the union has so badly misjudged the timing of this dispute and let down the brave men and women among its membership.
Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): Is it not clear that the lamentable settlement that the Minister achieved in the spending review will result in cutbacks not just in London but across the rest of the country, and that that will lead to disagreements and disputes fanning out everywhere? For instance, is he happy about reports that the number of fire engine appliances in Nottinghamshire is to go down from36 to 30?
The attempt by the hon. Gentleman to distract us from the immediate situation in London by
making reference to the spending review does him little credit and is frankly unworthy of the seriousness of the situation. This dispute was in existence long before the spending review took place, and I hope that he will concentrate on resolving it. We can have debates about the spending review in more appropriate circumstances.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I speak as a former member of the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority and as only the second graduate of the parliamentary firefighters scheme. I congratulate the Minister on his robust line, which better represents the public than the hard-left leadership of the Fire Brigades Union. Is it not a fact that the previous Labour Administration allowed the Fireguard resilience planning programme to fail? Will my hon. Friend give the House an undertaking that he will work with the Chief Fire Officers Association and other key stakeholders to ensure that resilience planning is in place, particularly in the run-up to the Olympics, so that we can be prepared for any further industrial action and other eventualities?
Robert Neill: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his interest and expertise in these matters. He is right to say that Fireguard did not succeed; that leaves a limited number of options available to us. It is also fair to say that, since becoming a Minister, I have made it my business to keep in contact with all the principal players, including the Chief Fire Officers Association and the union, whose general secretary and assistant secretary I have met on a number of occasions. I want to put it on record that my door remains open to them as much as to anyone else.
The Audit Commission recently reported on resilience, and it is important that we should never be complacent about it. That applies right across the country. The chief fire and rescue adviser, together with officials in the Department, continue to keep in touch with the fire authorities to ensure that we review and maximise the resilience arrangements that are available to the fire and rescue authorities.
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Philip Hammond): With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government's investment plans for our transport networks. During the course of my remarks, hon. Members might find it helpful to refer to the documents that I placed in the Library of the House and the Vote Office a few minutes ago.
As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor explained last week, the decisions that we have taken to cut waste, end lower-priority programmes and reform the welfare system allow us to invest in Britain's long-term economic growth and to prioritise transport infrastructure to support that growth. We have already announced a green light for Crossrail and for tube upgrades, plans for investment in low-carbon vehicles and recharging infrastructure, and work on a high-speed rail network. Work is continuing on the evaluation of additional investment in major rail projects, and I expect to be able to make an announcement to the House on that in the next few weeks.
Today, I can confirm a programme of investment in our crucial strategic road network, managed by the Highways Agency, and in our local transport networks. We will continue to invest in capital maintenance, spending £5.9 billion over the next four years on unglamorous but important works to maintain the integrity of the network, both strategic and local.
We have also allocated more than £180 million over the four-year period for high-value minor enhancements to the strategic road network. We are taking action to reduce the cost of proposed Highways Agency schemes by re-specifying, renegotiating with suppliers and improving governance and control. Thanks to those decisions, I can confirm that funds will be available for sustainable upgrades to the strategic network to tackle congestion hotspots, delivering network-wide benefits that provide very high returns on investment.
I can confirm today that the eight Highways Agency major schemes currently under way will be funded to completion and open to the public in the next two years. I can also announce today funding for 14 new projects, including the schemes announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor last week, to commence on site by April 2015. These are: the A11 Fiveways dualling; the M4 and M5 junction north of Bristol; the M6 between junctions 5 and 8 in Birmingham; the M62 between junctions 25 and 30 near Leeds; three schemes on the M1 between Derbyshire and Wakefield from junctions 28 to 31, 32 to 35A and 39 to 42; four schemes around Manchester from junctions 8 to 12 and from 12 to 15 on the M60; junctions 18 to 20 on the M62 and from Knutsford to Bowdon on the A556; improvement of the A23 between Handcross and Warninglid; the completion of the upgrading of the M25 with a managed motorway scheme for peak time hard-shoulder running between junctions 23 and 27 and between junctions 5 and 7. Those essential investments will cut congestion, improve journey times and, most importantly, support economic growth. Every pound we spend on these schemes will generate on average £6 of benefits.
I can also confirm that work will continue on developing a further set of Highways Agency schemes ready to start in the next spending review period if funds become available. A detailed list is included in the documents I referred to earlier. There is also one last group of four current Highways Agency schemes that will be reviewed to see if they still represent value for money and can be progressed for the next spending review period.
Important as strategic roads are to the national economy, many of the highest value-for-money proposals are those that address the needs of the local road and public transport infrastructure that supports the economies of our cities, towns and rural areas. That is why, last week, we announced our commitment to completing major local projects worth more than £600 million-including measures to improve access to Weymouth in time for the Olympics and acceleration of work on the Tees Valley bus network, and, I can confirm, the intention to invest up to £350 million to complete the upgrade of the Tyne and Wear metro.
We have also announced our intention to proceed with private finance initiative schemes to extend the Nottingham tram network and deliver sustained improvements in highways maintenance in Sheffield, Hounslow and the Isle of Wight. My Department will work urgently with the four local authorities concerned to ensure that we can deliver these schemes within the available funding.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor also announced last week that we will invest more than £900 million over the next four years on new local authority major schemes: including a new bridge over the Mersey at Runcorn, partly funded by tolls; improving access to Leeds station; and extending the Midland Metro tram line from Snow Hill to New Street through Birmingham city centre.
I can confirm today that a further seven major local authority projects have also been given the green light, subject to planning and other approvals. They are: a new bus interchange and associated transport improvements in Mansfield; a new bypass, which will take traffic away from communities in Sefton; an integrated package of sustainable transport improvements in Ipswich; major improvements to the M5 at junction 29 east of Exeter, providing access to new housing and employment areas; a bypass to the north of Lancaster, improving connections between the port of Heysham and the M6; improvements on the A57 east of the M1 junction 31, near Todwick; and a new northern distributor road in Taunton to provide additional cross-town capacity and access to areas of brownfield land.
Those schemes, worth about £300 million in total, have been selected from a pool of projects with proven business cases. They are listed as supported schemes and shaded green in the list to which I referred earlier. Our duty, however, is to ensure that every pound that is spent is essential. Even with those priority schemes, I expect the local authority promoters to work with my Department to ensure that every opportunity for cost saving has been taken and every source of alternative contributions has been fully explored before funding is confirmed in January next year.
Although the House will welcome the decisions, Members on both sides of the House will want to know how we propose to handle the remaining schemes. The £600 million plus remaining for additional new projects, after the
announcements already made, demonstrates the importance that we attach to local authority major schemes, but it will not be enough to fund all the schemes proposed by local authorities. In the list that I have placed in the Library, I have included all currently submitted schemes, including three that previously had conditional approval and that we will now seek to progress to full approval, showing how we propose to categorise each of them.
For 22 schemes, for which my Department has completed a value-for-money assessment in the past four years, we will invite best and final funding bids from the development pool-the schemes shaded amber in the list. Promoters will be challenged by my Department to consider the scope of the scheme, its cost, lower-cost alternatives and their ability to contribute more locally. Those who can make the best case are the most likely to receive funding, which will be confirmed by the end of 2011.
Further analysis will be carried out on another 34 schemes, for which the Department does not currently have an up-to-date assessment, to determine whether they can go forward to join the development pool and bid for a share of the £600 million plus of funds available. Those schemes are shaded blue on the list. A decision will be made by January 2011.
This competitive process will ensure that the greatest possible number of schemes, with the best value for money, will be able to proceed, facilitating economic growth and creating jobs across the country. Under regional funding allocations, regional and local bodies were encouraged by the previous Government to identify a large number of schemes for longer-term prioritisation. Many of those were in the early stages of development, with no business cases submitted to the Department for Transport before the cut-off that we announced on 10 June this year.
In the longer term, I want such decisions on local transport priorities to be taken out of Whitehall and placed in the hands of local people. My Department will work with the emerging local enterprise partnerships and local authorities to identify the best approach to local decision making on future transport priorities.
I have set out our decisions and what they mean for our strategic and local transport networks. The measures will help to deliver long-term, sustainable and affordable economic growth in this country. The difficult choices made by the Government have allowed us to invest in the future. I commend the statement to the House.
Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab): May I begin by thanking the right hon. Gentleman for sending my office a copy of his statement in advance? Helpfully, he also placed a copy of the document to which he has been referring in the Vote Office. On my way in, I saw what looked like a bus queue there, because the document was late-a bit like some buses. None the less, it is better late than never. Members on both sides of the House will be grateful to have had sight, at least before he began his statement, of a copy of the document showing what has happened to the schemes.
This is the first time that the right hon. Gentleman and I have faced each other across the Dispatch Box, and I look forward to further such exchanges. We have at least one thing in common: he does not want to be in his current job because he would rather be the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and I do not want to be in my
job, because I would rather be in his job-in a Labour Government of course. We will see which one of us gets what we want first.
I welcome the confirmation of the projects that the Secretary of State listed in his statement. They were planned by the last Government, and I am pleased that he has recognised the need for that vital investment to be protected. Let me say at the outset that we have pledged to be a responsible Opposition, and that when I agree with the Secretary of State, I will support him and work with him. Transport is critical to our national interest, and investment in infrastructure is vital to our construction industry and the rebalancing of our economy from financial to real engineering. To the extent that we can find common ground, I certainly intend to ensure that we work together.
As a north-west Member of Parliament, I especially welcome the confirmation of much of the funding that the last Government agreed for the second Mersey crossing between Runcorn and Widnes and the electrification of rail lines between Lime Street, Manchester, Preston and Blackpool, which will mean more reliable, greener services with more capacity and reduced journey times. Those projects are vital to the regional economy, and it is absolutely right for them to proceed.
While Members on both sides of the House will welcome the commitments made today to a wide range of important transport infrastructure projects, the statement raises a number of questions. The main purpose of the schemes is to tackle congestion, yet at the same time the Secretary of State has announced hikes in rail fares that may well drive people on to the roads. Indeed, I believe that they will. Does the Secretary of State accept that lifting the cap on regulated rail fares and allowing them to rise to 3% above inflation from one year to the next will further squeeze hard-working people who commute? Many have already been hit by cuts, including cuts in child benefit, and they are about to face a increase in the VAT rate to 20%, an increase in employees' national insurance contributions, and, if they are in the public sector, an increase of 3% in their pension contributions. Just how much more can commuters be expected to take?
Does the Secretary of State accept that, according to the assumptions on inflation by the Office for Budget Responsibility, the increase means that commuter fares will rise by 33.6% by 2015? That will simply drive people off the railways and back on to our already congested roads. His predecessor as spokesperson in opposition, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers)-who is present-said that a 3% rise in fares would be enough to
"price people off the railways".-[ Official Report, 17 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 149.]
"If you are paying £1000 for your season ticket now, it could cost you £1100 at the end of the period".
I know that, as he told The Times, the Secretary of State loves his Jaguar-I love Jaguars as well, especially as they are built in my constituency-but let me tell him that a season ticket from Weybridge to London costs
£2,272 today, and that, as a result of these fare rises, it could cost £3,035 by 2015. Someone who aspires to be Chief Secretary to the Treasury should be able to tell that that increase is much more than 10%.
How many of the schemes that the Secretary of State has announced today will, under the revised plans, be completed later than was originally intended? What percentage of the cost of those schemes will now be covered by the current spending review, and how many will see their completion delayed until the next? What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the economic impact of the delays on jobs, growth and competitiveness? How many of the schemes have been approved on the basis of the original proposals that he inherited, and which of them have been scaled back? What are the implications of that for each scheme?
What consultation has been carried out with local government and local communities about any changes to the schemes? What percentage and amount have been moved from Government expenditure to PFI? Has the Secretary of State completed any assessment of the impact of the reduction in transport capital expenditure on our wider transport networks? What assessment has he made of the impact on our road network, and likely increases in congestion, of the significant increases in train fares and the cuts in local bus services that the comprehensive spending review set out? What assurance can he give us that these schemes will lead to high-quality manufacturing jobs in the United Kingdom, with contracts being secured by British industry?
Finally, does the Secretary of State agree that it was quite wrong of him to spin his comprehensive spending review settlement as a huge victory? Is not the reality that he over-spun his settlement? I have here an analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies of the impact of the CSR on Government Departments. Helpfully, it has listed Departments as winners and losers, and I am sorry to have to tell the Secretary of State that the IFS says he is a loser.
The impression given by the Secretary of State is that cuts in his budget have no impact on capital investment. However, on top of the 21% reduction in resource spending, there is to be an 11% cut in spending on capital. That is 11% less spent on vital infrastructure, so it is quite wrong for the right hon. Gentleman to suggest that he has somehow secured a great victory or that spending is not being cut. No doubt we will have many more exchanges across the Dispatch Box, not least when the right hon. Gentleman announces his rail investment proposals.
The Labour party aspires to have an integrated transport policy. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can in future have an integrated transport statement and tell us about all the investment on the same day.
Mr Hammond: I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and welcome her to the Dispatch Box. I welcome the tone of her initial remarks at least; I am sorry it degenerated a bit towards the end. I am also sorry to have to tell her that I cannot write as quickly as she can ask questions so I am not sure that I took them all down, but I will try to deal with some of the issues she raised.
On the departmental settlement, frankly I think it is a bit rich for the hon. Lady to say that an 11% reduction in transport capital expenditure is a disastrous settlement, because when her Government were in office they were planning a 50% cut in total public capital expenditure. In the comprehensive spending review, the Government had to take difficult decisions about what to prioritise. The Department for Transport faced the smallest reduction in capital expenditure of any Department and it now has the second largest capital budget in the Government. I would have thought that the hon. Lady would welcome that as a way of protecting transport infrastructure investment.
The hon. Lady asked about rail fares, and although today's statement is not primarily about railways I am happy to deal with that issue. Of course I would have preferred not to raise the cap on regulated fare increases, but we faced a choice between going ahead with the investment in additional capacity to reduce overcrowding and improve the attractiveness of the railways to passengers or increasing fares, and I took the decision that the right long-term solution was to increase fares for a period of three years. But let me be clear: I agree with the hon. Lady that fares cannot increase indefinitely, and the medium-term solution to the challenge on our railways has to be getting the cost base down so that the railways are affordable for both passengers and the taxpayer, who supports the railways through subsidy.
The hon. Lady asked whether the schemes announced today would be completed later than originally planned. Most of these schemes did not have a specific timetable, but I can tell her this: over the next four years transport investment will be greater in cash terms than it was over the last four years, so we are not talking about some massive rescheduling of the programme.
The hon. Lady asked about consultation with local government. All the local authority schemes I mentioned today were, of course, proposed by local authority sponsors, and there is constant dialogue between local authorities and my Department. In line with Mr Speaker's recommendations, we have made this statement first to the House of Commons, but local authorities will be informed during the course of today of what I have said about their schemes, and we will now engage in intensive dialogue with them as we take these proposals forward.
We believe that investment in highway infrastructure and local transport schemes is crucial to making the UK an attractive place for manufacturing investment, both indigenous and inward. As the hon. Lady knows, I cannot promise her that the jobs created directly by this investment will go to UK providers because the schemes will be subject to the European procurement directive rules and will have to be tendered in an open and transparent way, but I am sure that our announcements today will support the revival of the UK manufacturing base, which is critical to this country's future.
Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): While I welcome, after years of dithering by the last Administration, a decision on the extension of the tram network in Nottingham-one of the routes passes through my constituency-please will the Secretary of State look at Nottingham city council's plans for a workplace parking levy? I also ask him to consider the effect of that levy on jobs in my constituency. Boots employs more than 7,500 people at the Beeston site. The workplace parking levy will threaten jobs throughout greater Nottingham.
Mr Hammond: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her remarks. I know that the Nottingham tramway is not universally popular and that the workplace parking levy is even less so. However, if we are serious about a localism agenda, we will find that sometimes, perhaps often, the things that elected local authorities choose to do on behalf of local residents are not always in accordance with our own preferences and priorities. That is in the nature of localism, and I embrace it.
Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the positive parts of the statement, but there are major problems relating to the very important strategic schemes currently funded and identified through regional allocations. Does the Secretary of State agree with his statement to the Select Committee on Transport that structures wider than local economic partnerships would be necessary to examine such schemes in the future? Does he still maintain that this will bring more localism, given that we are told that future schemes of this nature will be funded partly through the regional growth fund and that decisions on that fund are to be taken entirely nationally?
Mr Hammond: I am glad that the hon. Lady has raised the issue of the regional growth fund. It is important to reiterate that that fund will be open to transport projects; they will be able to bid for funding from it. However, that is not in substitution for the very significant allocations that I have announced today-it is in addition. I hope that some of the smaller local authority schemes, in particular, may be worked up as bids to the regional growth fund.
The hon. Lady talks about local enterprise partnerships. As I said in my statement, my objective is to move to a system that more clearly allows local communities and local authorities to determine how the funding allocated to their area should be spent. The previous Government introduced the regional funding allocation system. The mechanisms through which that was intermediated are now to be abolished, along with the regional structure of government. What I said to the Select Committee and repeat today is that my Department will carefully examine the LEPs as they come into being. Of course they are a bottom-up structure, rather than a top-down one, so different LEPs will look different. We will need to see how they are organised and whether they are on a sufficiently strategic scale to be allocated transport funding individually or whether we might ask them to form strategic alliances with other LEPs as a basis for transport funding over relevant geographical areas.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. May I just inform hon. Members that a large number of you want to get in, so by asking a short question to the Minister and receiving a short answer you will help each other enormously in ensuring that all the points are made? I call Martin Horwood.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD):
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I also thank the Secretary of State for the advance notice of his statement that was given to me? I welcome the overall investment that he has announced today, his commitment to local decision making and, specifically, the investment in road
maintenance, rail, light rail, trams and locally integrated transport schemes. I am sure that those will be welcomed across the country. As a Gloucestershire Member- I am sure that he will have expected me to say this-I regret that the redoubling of the Swindon to Kemble line has not been included in any of the documents, despite being a highly economic and economically very important scheme. May I ask him whether or not that is precisely the kind of scheme that in future local communities will be able to express as a priority under the localism agenda that he has talked about, and whether or not he agrees with me-
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I say to the hon. Gentleman that I have only just advised the House that hon. Members could help each other by being brief. I would be grateful if the Minister would now answer.
Mr Hammond: The Swindon to Kemble project, which my hon. Friend mentions, was uniquely the only Network Rail scheme brought forward under the regional funding allocation system. It had not submitted a business case to the Department before the cut-off date of 10 June, but it is the type of scheme that might be put forward in a future locally prioritised funding process. Alternatively, it might be submitted as a proposal for control period 5 in the Network Rail settlement from 2015.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State provide some clarification of the Prime Minister's comments at the CBI yesterday-reported in today's media-where he seemed to give a commitment to building the Thames gateway bridge, which, as the Secretary of State will be aware, was abandoned by Mayor Boris when he was first elected? That seems to suggest a lack of communication between City Hall and No. 10. People in south-east London are demanding that something be done about the daily congestion that builds up at the Blackwall tunnel. If the Secretary of State is in communication with the Mayor, will he consider that option since many local people are demanding that something be done about that daily nightmare?
Mr Hammond: I have not seen my right hon. Friend's speech, but I suspect that he was referring to the statement made last week about the Dartford crossing, where we have made the tough decision to increase charges. We have also made a commitment that the crossing will not be sold, as the previous Government proposed, and that we will work up proposals for additional capacity crossing the Thames at or in the region of that area.
Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): I welcome the upgrading of the Blackpool tramway and the many other infrastructure improvements in the north-west that will remove barriers to economic growth. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the work of the Northern Way, which has provided such an excellent evidence base to help with the quality of transport policy making in the north? What role does he see the Northern Way playing as we go forward in ensuring that we have excellent quality data on which to judge policy?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The Northern Way has produced some extremely valuable work that has informed a number of
the decisions that have been taken and I look forward to its continuing to contribute to the debate.
Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): May I tell the Secretary of State that the Coventry and Warwickshire travel-to-work area runs on a north-south axis and, despite the congested state of the roads and the existence of a railway, a fraction of 1% of the journeys take place by rail? That is why the Coventry to Nuneaton rail upgrade is so important. It seems that he has put us in the waiting room for the waiting room and that we have only until January, to save the scheme at all. I have no doubt that if the Coventry and Warwickshire local enterprise partnership was up and running, that would be the top priority for it, but will the Secretary of State advise us how on earth, when that LEP is not even in existence yet, we can impress on his Department the importance of this scheme and get it into a state for approval before January? I would like some advice.
Mr Hammond: To clarify, the scheme to which the right hon. Gentleman refers is one in the pool of projects submitted to the Department before the cut-off date that we announced in June, but it has not yet been appraised by the Department. The Department will now make a rapid assessment of the scheme-the right hon. Gentleman asserts that it is extremely high value for money, but I can tell him that the promoter of every single scheme that I have come across asserts that their scheme is high value for money. A number of these schemes will then be accelerated into the development pool so that we can do further work on them with the promoters during 2011 with a view to allocating funding at the end of 2011. I would say to the right hon. Gentleman, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), that if a rail scheme is not successful in this funding process, it will of course be possible for it to be put forward as a proposal for the next control period of Network Rail's capital enhancement settlement.
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): For years, Yorkshire and the Humber has had some of the lowest per capita transport funding in the country, so I welcome the investment in Yorkshire and the Humber today and specifically the two schemes in the Humber area-the A63 Castle street and the A161-that are likely candidates for funding into the future. May I ask the Secretary of State whether he will take into account when making a final decision the massive investment that is going into the ports on both the north and south banks of the Humber? Will he also give us any further details of when a final decision will be taken on whether those schemes will be funded?
Mr Hammond: Transport funding in Yorkshire and the Humber is now about average, although I accept the comments that my hon. Friend has made about historical levels of funding. The two schemes to which he referred will not be funded during the current spending review period but they will continue to be worked on as schemes for funding in a future spending review period, as and when funding becomes available. The appraisal model that the Department uses will take account of the effects that he talks about and the external benefits that can be delivered.
Mr Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): In reassessing the M54-M6 toll road, will the Secretary of State take into account travel times? Over the years, travel times between London and Scotland have seemed to be increasing. Will he take that factor into account?
Mr Hammond: Travel times and potential journey savings are one of the key factors that the current model takes into account. The M54-M6 toll link is in the group of schemes that will be reassessed, because the Department needs to reassure itself that the value-for-money case for the scheme still applies.
Ben Gummer (Ipswich) (Con): I am delighted that funding for "Ipswich-Transport Fit for the 21st Century" is being brought forward, a decision on which the previous Administration dithered, and I thank the Secretary of State for having regard to my many letters to him on the matter. Will he describe in greater detail the hurdles over which the county council now needs to leap to achieve funding in January?
Mr Hammond: The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), will be in Ipswich tomorrow to examine the scheme, when there will no doubt be an opportunity to discuss those issues with the promoters. Of course, the promoters will need to obtain any necessary planning and other statutory consents to allow schemes to go ahead. We will engage with the local authority promoters to ensure that any unnecessary cost has been squeezed out of the scheme and that every opportunity to secure supporting non-public-source funding has been explored and exhausted. By doing that, we will ensure that the total pool of schemes that we can support is as large as possible and that the economic benefits to the economy as a whole are as great as possible. We will undertake that work with the local authority promoters as a matter of urgency.
Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for receiving a delegation from Coventry on the Nuneaton to Coventry line, which is better known as the NUCKLE project. Further to the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), the scheme has been around for several years, and I appreciate the fact that it is still in the running. Even under the previous Government-we had a go at them-officials kept knocking the scheme back for a variety of reasons. Will the Secretary of State assure me that the scheme will get a fair wind this time round?
Mr Hammond: I assure the hon. Gentleman that all schemes will be objectively appraised and that I do not always take the word of my officials; I ask to see the underlying data and business case, and I shall continue to do so.
Mr Don Foster (Bath) (LD):
The Bath transportation package is now in the development grouping. Some aspects of the scheme are unacceptable to many people, including me, but I stress to the Secretary of State that modest Government support would deliver in Bath £2.5 billion of public investment, the largest brownfield development site outside London, 7,000 new jobs and
2,500 new homes. When he is judging what constitutes the best case for success, will he assure me that he will include the potential for economic growth?
Mr Hammond: Indeed I can. As I made clear in my statement, potential for economic growth is one of the key priorities in allocating funding. I am also aware that many schemes do not have 100% support for the currently proposed solution in the communities that they serve. Where there are ideas about how a scheme might be differently presented and how costs might be taken out in order to make a scheme more attractive and thus significantly more likely to secure funding, the Department will be interested to hear about them in the course of the process.
Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): The Secretary of State says that he wants to move to local decision making, but I can tell him that local people, local authorities, local MPs on both sides of the House and local businesses all want the A453 widening to go ahead, and we produced a dossier to him to explain why. Does he accept that his decision to shelve the scheme until at least 2015 will be a kick in the teeth for our regional economy, local businesses and the job creation we so clearly need?
Mr Hammond: Dear, dear! I must be going deaf, because I did not hear the hon. Lady mention the Nottingham tramway or the ring-road improvement. Far from being a kick in the teeth for Nottingham, this very carefully made decision prioritises the projects with the highest value for money. Whether she likes it or not, the ring road showed a much higher return per pound of taxpayers' money-
Mr Hammond: The hon. Gentleman says that, but it runs through his constituency; there is no pleasing some people. The ring road showed a much higher return per pound of taxpayers' money spent than did the A453 scheme. However, the A453 scheme is in the development pool and we will continue to work on it. As the hon. Lady will know, the scheme has some powerful advocates who regularly make the case for it to me.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I applaud the criteria by which the Secretary of State has chosen to decide which projects should go ahead, but on the basis of sustainability, affordability, economic growth, cutting congestion and, I add, road safety, for what reason has the A1 Leeming to Barton project been cancelled? It was widely expected that it would go ahead to increase road safety, reduce road deaths and increase economic growth, and it is a major national road artery.
Decisions on the cancellation of Highways Agency schemes were made after very careful analysis of the business cases and a realistic appraisal of the likely envelope of funding not only in this spending review period but in the next one and the one beyond. It would be very easy to stand here and say that nothing is cancelled, but I do not want to encourage further spending on schemes that have no realistic prospect of going forward within the next 10 years, as that money could be spent on live schemes and getting work done
rather than on people sitting in Highways Agency offices designing and redesigning schemes that will never happen. We have had to take some tough decisions, but I am quite confident that we have taken the right ones.
Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): Rochdale interchange, which is more commonly known, in Rochdale at least, as Rochdale bus station, is still in the amber list of schemes. The Secretary of State will be aware that it has cross-party support across Rochdale, but is he aware of its importance to the redevelopment of Rochdale town centre?
Mr Hammond: I am aware of the importance that the local authority and local people attach to the scheme. I am sure that in defining it as Rochdale interchange they were seeking to talk up its importance. Might I suggest that they call it Rochdale international interchange to raise its game a little further?
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): As the Secretary of State has already recognised that the A1 is a road of national strategic importance and as the design work to dual two of its worst sections has already been done, can that scheme be brought forward in one of the future spending rounds?
Mr Hammond: I am afraid that that scheme is some way off at the moment. At a point in the future that we will define in due course we will reopen the programme entry system so that new proposals can be made by local authorities or by the Highways Agency for future consideration, but I repeat that I do not want to have hundreds of schemes with thousands of civil servants working on them and no realistic prospect of getting on site.
Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab): The Sunderland strategic transport corridor, which includes the new bridge over the River Wear, will be crucial in bringing jobs to Sunderland and securing the economic regeneration of the region. What reassurance can the Secretary of State offer to the people of Sunderland that those important factors will be considered given that he accepts that the scheme offers value for money?
Mr Hammond: I can give the hon. Lady the assurance that the factors she mentions are indeed taken into account in the model. As I hope I made clear this afternoon, the whole aim of the Government in focusing on supporting infrastructure investment, and particularly transport investment, at a time when public expenditure is under extreme pressure, is to use transport infrastructure investment as a way of stimulating economic development and of coaxing it into areas that most need it. I recognise Sunderland's claim, but as the hon. Lady will understand, this project is one of many in the development pool, so applicants will have to sharpen their pencil, think through their scheme and put their best proposal forward; then we will make a decision.