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House of Commons

Thursday 10 November 2011

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr Speakerin the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Aviation Safety

1. Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): What the outcome was of the meeting of the European Aviation Safety Agency’s advisory group of national authorities on 25 and 26 October 2011; and if she will make a statement [79676]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Justine Greening): The meeting of the advisory group of national authorities provided an opportunity for representatives of EASA and European Union member states to exchange views on a number of safety rules currently under development. The discussion will help inform EASA’s development of the rules in that area.

Katy Clark: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. A recent survey of pilots has shown that 43% said that they had at some point fallen asleep in the cockpit, and 31% said that when they had woken up the other pilot was also sleeping. Does she agree that the proposals to increase the time pilots work to up to 13 hours, with fewer rest periods, represent a threat to public safety?

Justine Greening: First, I should say that the Civil Aviation Authority has received no reports of pilots falling asleep under the mandatory occurrence reporting scheme, but obviously we will always be guided by its views on safety, for which it has an outstanding reputation around the world. The Government have expressed our concerns about the proposed changes and continue to make them known. We will work with other countries to ensure that the final rules reflect those concerns.

Railway Stations

2. Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): What plans she has for funding of local railway stations up to 2015. [79677]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): In addition to planned improvements to local railway stations as part of franchise commitments, the Government are funding improvements through the

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national stations improvement programme, Access for All programme and the station commercial project facility. We intend to continue doing so.

Jonathan Reynolds: I thank the Minister for that answer. He will know that our local railway network in Greater Manchester is incredibly well used, but I am often struck by the poor condition of our stations, particularly the limited accessibility, as lack of step-free access at stations such as Mosley Street, Broadbottom and Newton for Hyde often forces people to travel further down the line than they would like simply to change platforms and come back on the other side. Good quality public transport should of course be available to all, so I ask the Minister to make that a priority for his Department in future.

Norman Baker: I am happy to confirm, as I mentioned a moment ago, that we are continuing with the Access for All programme. The hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that Stalybridge station in his constituency is part of that programme and that construction work is expected to start on site in June 2013 as part of a £1.8 million project.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): As you know, Mr Speaker, last night I presented a petition signed by 1,200 residents of Bradford-on-Avon hoping to keep their station’s ticket office, where footfall was over 400,000 last year. In the light of the McNulty report, will the Minister review category E stations for possible upgrade to category D, so that they would at least retain their ticket offices for part-time hours?

Norman Baker: As my hon. Friend will know, the Minister of State is involved in a fares and ticketing review. We are determined to ensure that people are able to buy tickets and access the railway network in a fair way, which might include ticket offices, better arrangements for automatic sales and access through the internet. The point he has made is a valid one and I will pass it on to the Minister of State.

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Minister recognise the importance of passenger experience in travelling and that that includes having staff at railway stations to provide safety and reassurance as well as a good service?

Norman Baker: Yes, we do. We are very interested in safety at stations for the reasons the hon. Lady rightly mentions. She will be aware of the secure stations programme. Around 90% of the railway network has been designated as having secure stations, which is well over 1,000 stations. We take that very seriously and want to ensure not only that stations are accessible physically, but that people have no fear of using the railway network so that we maximise the number of people who are able to travel by train.

Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab): Can the hon. Gentleman tell the House how many category E station ticket offices will be closed as a result of the Government’s plans for the future of the rail industry?

Norman Baker: As I mentioned a moment ago, we are looking at ticketing and fares generally as part of the review we are undertaking, but no decision has been made on the closure of any category E stations. That matter will be considered in the round to ensure that we

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retain proper access to the railway network.




The hon. Lady keeps asking, “How many?” I have just indicated that no decisions have been taken, so the answer so far is none.

Maria Eagle: I can tell the hon. Gentleman the answer: 675 stations will lose their ticket offices as a result of his plans, while another 302 will see their opening hours cut. With passengers facing up to a 13% hike in the cost of their tickets in January, does he understand that his plans to replace staff with machines will make it even harder to get the best deal and are totally out of touch with the public?

Norman Baker: It is unfortunate that the hon. Lady asks her supplementary question without listening to my answer to her first. Indeed, she seems to be reinventing her party’s railways policies. The chief executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies accused the hon. Lady’s leader of suffering from “amnesia” and of displaying—these are his words—“rank hypocrisy” when it came to Labour’s railways policy, so she ought to examine her own policy and her own history before she starts attacking the Government.

Mr Speaker: Order. A word cannot be made orderly simply by putting it into someone else’s mouth, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw it—straight away.

Norman Baker: I am happy to do so, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: We are most obliged to the Minister.

MOT Tests

3. Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the safety implications of changing the frequency of MOT tests for road vehicles. [79679]

8. Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the safety implications of changing the frequency of MOT tests for road vehicles. [79686]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Justine Greening): With permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer this question together with number 7.

In April 2011 the Department published the results of independent research commissioned to examine how vehicle defects affect accident rates, and to consider the potential road safety impact of changing the frequency of the MOT. Copies of the publication have been placed in the Library.

Mr Speaker: May I just very gently say to the Secretary of State that I think the grouping is between 3 and 8, rather than 7? But I think we know what we are talking about.

Ian Mearns: May I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role? It is a fantastic opportunity for her to think again about this proposal. The MOT Trade Forum estimates that 2,200 vehicles a day fail their MOT with defects that are regarded as dangerous and would make vehicles unroadworthy—half a million vehicles a year

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that would be unroadworthy and dangerous to the public. Will she think again about this very strange set of proposals?

Justine Greening: I appreciate both the correction from you Mr Speaker—I do not usually get my numbers wrong—and the very genuine and balanced way in which the hon. Gentleman puts his question. It is important that we have a balanced and informed debate about any changes to the MOT, and, as he will be aware, we in this country go further with our MOT than is required under EU legislation, so the proposal was looked at as part of the red tape challenge. I am considering all the issues, however, and we expect to make an announcement soon about the timing and scope of the review.

Mrs Glindon: I, too, welcome the Minister to her new post. In 2008, the Tories in opposition criticised Labour plans to reduce the frequency of MOTs, and, when the then Government dropped the policy because of the increased risk of death and many more serious accidents, a then shadow Minister said that he was glad that the policy had been

“consigned to the dustbin of history.”

So why try to recycle it now?

Justine Greening: We in this Government are looking across the board to see what we can do to get rid of unnecessary red tape and regulation, and the MOT review came up as a result of that, but, as I just said to her hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), it is important that we have an informed and balanced debate. I am considering all those points; I met the Motorists Forum yesterday; and I expect to make an announcement soon about the timing and scope of the review.

Mr Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I join in the welcome given by the House to the Secretary of State. Before she throws in the towel on this excellent proposal, will she reflect on the fact that most of those bleating about it outside the House have a vested interest and want the law kept as it is so that it generates more income for them? Will she also remind herself and the House that 97% of road accidents are caused by human error, not by vehicle defect?

Justine Greening: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Approximately 3% of accidents are a result of vehicle defects, and he is also right that many of the representations against the review have come from those whose businesses would be affected by it. I have been very clear, however, and as a new Secretary of State it is right that I consider all the points that have been made. I will make an announcement shortly.

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Before the election, an Opposition MP wrote:

“I share your concern about the potential implications of moving to the European standard of roadworthiness testing. It seems to me that the road safety and environmental costs of moving from annual to biannual testing, and extending the initial period from three to four years, may far outweigh the predicted costs savings.”

Given that the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) is now the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will the Secretary

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of State hold discussions with him in order to avoid the Government making a fundamental mistake on changes to MOT testing?

Justine Greening: I do not think I can add anything further about my approach to looking at this area, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have regular discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer across the portfolio of transport that I now look after, and I will continue to do so.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): May I add my welcome to the Secretary of State? Although she is new to the job, does she recognise that motorists and many thousands of people employed by the motoring industry have already waited more than a year while Ministers have dithered over the proposal, and that they will still be in the dark after this exchange? Let us be clear: this out-of-touch plan would allow 800,000 more dangerous-to-drive vehicles to stay on the roads for up to a year longer. Will she listen to motoring organisations, such as the AA and the RAC, and ditch the plan, which could lead to more accidents and higher costs and burdens for the responsible majority of motorists?

Justine Greening: If we are ever going to get policies right, we need to go through the right process for developing them. As has been said in the House, the hon. Gentleman’s Government looked at this area—

John Woodcock: And rejected it.

Justine Greening: He says they rejected it but, ultimately, they considered this area, too. I met the AA and, indeed, the RAC Foundation yesterday, because they are part of the motorists’ forum we have established. There was a helpful exchange and, as I have said to him, I will make an announcement once I am satisfied I know what the scope of the review should be.

Dartford Crossing Charges

4. Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): If she will make it her policy not to increase Dartford crossing charges and to introduce automatic number plate recognition technology to reduce congestion at the crossing. [79680]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): At the time of the 2010 spending review, the Department for Transport set out its policy for increasing charges at the Dartford crossing, as part of a package of improvements for short, medium and long-term improvements. That included the introduction of free-flow tolling. My answer is that the Government do not intend to change their policy.

Mr Baron: May I, therefore, suggest that the Department has got it wrong? Given that the existing crossing makes around £30 million to £40 million profit a year, surely it would be better to introduce automatic number plate recognition technology at the existing crossing first to see whether that solves the congestion problem before raising tariffs to fund a second crossing? With the new Secretary of State in place, could we please have some fresh thinking on this?

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Mike Penning: I know my hon. Friend’s views on the matter very well and that he lobbies very hard on that particular point. However, even with free-flow tolling at Dartford, the northern approach to the tunnels will still be congested, even according to the predictions we have now. The small bore tunnel has a huge restriction. We need to look at having another Thames crossing for this piece of national—I repeat, national—infrastructure.

Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): Will my hon. Friend accept that there is a persistently serious problem of peak-hour congestion, both northbound and southbound, which is costing everybody an awful lot of time and money? Why cannot we have earlier and clearer signage and much better traffic management at the point of the toll booths themselves?

Mike Penning: We are aware of the congestion at the toll, but most of that is caused by the barriers. An archaic method of collecting tolls is in place. We will introduce free-flow tolling as soon as we can. A lot of construction work needs to be done but, at the end of the day, the biggest problem is that the M25 is such a success we need to have another crossing over the Thames.

Railway Stations

5. Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): What plans she has for future funding for railway stations. [79682]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): The comprehensive spending review secured funding for a range of major station improvements to be delivered over the next few years, including Reading, Birmingham New Street, Blackfriars and London Bridge. Proposals for a number of new stations are under consideration for support from local transport funds. Further funding for station improvements over the 2014-2019 period will be considered as part of the high level output specification process. Additionally, one of the goals of our franchise reform is to encourage more train operator investment in railways including in stations.

Paul Maynard: Many hon. Members will have admired St Pancras station as an example of what a station can be and will have wished that their own nearest mainline stations lived up to that standard. I welcome the Government’s move to transfer responsibility for stations from Network Rail to franchise holders, yet the fact that many of the investments required in mainline stations cannot be recouped in the course of one single franchise period means that operators are disincentivised from making those investments. Will the Minister ensure that the final invitation to tender for the west coast main line issued in the new year addresses that anomaly?

Mrs Villiers: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I assure him that there is always space for taxpayer funding for bigger-scale station upgrades. In terms of encouraging train operators to invest in station improvements, I also agree that we need to find ways to encourage them to invest in long-term projects that may have a pay-back period beyond the end of the franchise. One of the ways we are addressing that is with longer

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franchises, but we are also working carefully on how we improve the mechanisms for delivering a residual value at the end of the franchise for just the sort of investments he wants to see.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister will have heard the report this morning about the tremendous gap between London and the south and the rest of the country. Many of us look at the wonderful Cannon Street glass palace and the work on King’s Cross, but we wonder when we are going to get that level of investment in the regions of this country, particularly in the north, and when we are going to get the smaller stations upgraded so that they are civilised places to catch a train.

Mrs Villiers: The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. It is crucial that we do all we can to close the north-south economic divide. That is part of the reason for driving forward high-speed rail. It is also partly why we are carrying out major investment in electrification in the north of England to improve stations such as Manchester Victoria, using funds such as the national station improvement programme, together with Access for All, and reforming the franchise system, as I have said, to encourage private sector investment in improving stations and improving transport connections between our northern cities. The go-ahead for the Ordsall chord is also welcome on that score.

Winter Resilience

7. Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): What steps her Department is taking in respect of winter resilience on the roads and railways. [79685]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Justine Greening): Significant efforts have been made this year across the transport sectors, including road and rail, in order to boost resilience and preparedness for winter weather. We are working closely with all key transport operators, the local government sector, salt suppliers and other key partners to ensure that our transport network keeps moving in the event of severe winter weather.

Rehman Chishti: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. However, last winter rail services from and to my constituency were severely disrupted and many commuters were left stranded with little or no information. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that my constituents receive better information about delays, disruption and cancellation?

Justine Greening: My hon. Friend is right to point out that the rail industry can raise its game. In fact, it is significantly better prepared for this winter than previous ones. Actions are being taken, through investment in rail and in carriages, to make sure that snow and ice does not stop on the tracks. There is also better investment in clearing snow and in managing the situation in terms of passenger information, which is critical. I know that that is something that his franchise operator has focused on.

Rural Bus Services

9. Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): What progress she has made on improving access to bus services in rural areas; and if she will make a statement. [79687]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): The provision of bus services in rural areas, as in urban areas, is predominantly a matter for commercial operators and for local authorities. However, I recently provided £10 million of extra funding to local councils to help to develop community transport in their areas.

Angela Smith: Does the Minister accept that the equivalent of Beeching is going on in rural bus services, made in Whitehall and about which the national Government are doing nothing other than passing the buck to local authorities?

Norman Baker: No, I do not accept that. Almost four out of five bus services are provided commercially as opposed to being subsidised by local councils. So far there have been no cuts at all to support from central Government for those services. The BSOG—bus service operators grant—cut will come in next April. The performance of local authorities up and down the country is very varied. If she looks at East Riding, which is not very far from her, she will find that the Beeching cuts to which she refers are certainly not occurring there or in many other councils. Many councils are protecting bus services; some are not.

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): The local sustainable transport fund has been a great success, but more improvements are needed in sustainable transport, including rural public transport. Will the Government consider further support in this area, which is critical for people and their ability to get around and for jobs and growth?

Norman Baker: I am happy to say that the local sustainable transport fund has been a success, providing £560 million, which is more money in the four-year period than the previous Government provided. Every single qualifying council that could have bid for money has done so. Tranche 1 is out of the door—£155 million already—and tranche 2 bids are due in shortly, as are the larger bids. As part of the growth review, the Government are looking to see what we can do to boost transport further.

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): Last week, the UK Youth Parliament voted transport costs its No. 1 issue, while the Association of Colleges has warned that falling student numbers are being

“exacerbated by the number of local authorities who have cut back or axed their student travel subsidies.”

Will he now wake up to the devastating impact his 28% cut to local transport funding is having on young people, particularly in rural areas?

Norman Baker: I am conscious of the concerns of young people because I invited some to give a presentation at the most recent bus forum that I hosted, which was attended by the major operators and local authorities. I have subsequently written to the bus companies and involved the local authorities to try to get some action to help people of that age with their particular needs for public transport access. This issue is very much on the Government’s radar.

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Foreign HGV Drivers

10. Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): What steps her Department is taking to monitor use of the road network by foreign HGV drivers. [79688]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): The Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, for which I am responsible, carried out 67,000 checks last year on foreign-registered heavy goods vehicles for compliance with roadworthiness, overloading and drivers’ hours rules. The Department regularly publishes statistics on the amount of goods transported to and from the United Kingdom by foreign-registered HGVs.

Fiona Bruce: I was recently advised by a constituent of an accident that she had on the busy stretch of the M6 between Sandbach and Knutsford, in which she was hit by a foreign lorry driver in a left-hand drive vehicle who did not see her in his mirrors as he moved into the middle lane. In virtually the same place, a family of six were tragically killed in an accident caused by a foreign lorry driver in 2008. What steps can the Government take to prevent such accidents from occurring again?

Mike Penning: I am aware of the problems that occur around the country, particularly as a former HGV driver myself, including the problems that foreign drivers have with their mirrors. That is something that we are considering with our European counterparts. However, we must realise that only 3.5% of the HGVs on British roads and 5.2% of those on our motorways are foreign. Although it is a big issue, the biggest issue is with HGV driving and the quality of driving as a whole, not just with overseas drivers.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): There would be the possibility of taking up to 5 million lorry journeys off our roads every year, provided that there was the rail capacity to take those journeys. There is a scheme to promote a dedicated freight railway line from the channel tunnel to Glasgow, linking all the main conurbations throughout Britain. Under that scheme, full-scale lorries, double stack containers and so on would go on trains. I am happy to explain the scheme to the Minister if he would be interested.

Mike Penning: My door is always open to the hon. Gentleman, as he knows. The biggest issue with rail freight is capacity. The west coast main line in particular, which runs through his part of the world and my part of the world, is at capacity levels. That is why High Speed 2 is so important.

Mr Speaker: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman feels an Adjournment debate coming on. We shall no doubt discover whether that is the case.

Train Punctuality

11. Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): What steps her Department is taking to improve the punctuality of trains. [79690]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): The Office of Rail Regulation and I have made it clear to Network Rail and train operating

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companies that current trends in performance are causing concern and that we expect industry-wide action to get performance back on target as soon as possible. The industry has agreed a plan to achieve just that.

Andrew Stephenson: The recent letter from the Office of Rail Regulation to Network Rail raises serious concerns over the delay per incident rate on the rail network, which is going up. What discussions has the Minister had with the ORR, Network Rail and the train operating companies to address that specific problem?

Norman Baker: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is a worrying trend that the delay per incident rate is increasing. I have discussed the matter with Network Rail and the train companies. It is difficult to get to the bottom of it and it appears that there is no one simple explanation. A number of steps need to be taken by Network Rail and the train companies to deal with this issue. To answer his question directly, I am meeting both parties in about an hour.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that on 6 September, Southern, a railway company that provides services to my constituency, suffered as a result of cable theft? There were no fewer than 13,837 minute delays and 232 cancellations as a consequence. What is he doing to contact Ministry of Justice and Home Office Ministers to get this business sorted out once and for all?

Norman Baker: The right hon. Lady is right to raise that issue, which is a serious problem for the railway network, as well as for the energy network and the telecoms industry. We are taking it seriously. A cross-departmental group of Ministers, on which I sit for the Department for Transport, has met twice to consider what we can do within existing powers and what further steps might be necessary in regulations or legislation to deal with this serious problem, which is having a big impact on the economy and on passengers.

Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): May I welcome the Government investment in Reading station, which will make a massive difference to punctuality across the whole network? Will the Minister express his support for a western link into Heathrow, which would offer major economic benefits for the south-west, Wales and Reading, and improved punctuality?

Norman Baker: I recognise the strong case for better access on the rail network to our major airports, including of course Heathrow, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has been particularly concerned about that. We want to improve access to Heathrow, and of course we have to ensure that any plans tie in with anything that might be done with high-speed rail.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): To follow on from the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), scrap metal theft is having a significant impact on train punctuality. Will the Minister agree to support tougher measures against the scrap metal industry to alleviate the problem?

Norman Baker: That is not ruled out. Obviously we do not want to go to the statute book as the first option, but there is a serious problem, and if Ministers are

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convinced that that option is a way to deal with metal theft, we will consider it seriously. We also have to ensure that we do not simply close down one avenue and see the stolen metal diverted somewhere else.

Road Maintenance

12. Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): What steps she is taking to repair roads. [79691]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): The Department is providing £3 billion over the four years from 2011-12 onwards to local highway authorities in England for roads for which they are responsible. On top of that, we provided an additional £200 million in March for English authorities to repair damage caused by the winter. The Highways Agency is responsible for operating, maintaining and improving the strategic road network in England, and in this financial year its budget for maintenance is £840 million, excluding costs associated with private finance initiative projects.

Mr Raab: According to a survey published by Autocar, the last Government left Surrey with the most potholes in the country, while the Federation of Small Businesses reports that poor roads cost a quarter of small businesses at least £2,500 each year. Will the Government confirm their continuing support for repairing Surrey roads through the local sustainable transport fund?

Norman Baker: I am happy to confirm that the Government are committed to doing what we can to help local authorities with road maintenance. We have a highways maintenance efficiency programme to identify best practice, which we are funding centrally. In addition, I am happy to say that in March we allocated an extra £4.1 million to Surrey county council to deal with its specific problems.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): If we have severe frost and snow again this year, will the Government again make extra money available to local authorities to deal with the problems that that would cause on our roads in the coming six months or so?

Norman Baker: We deal with circumstances as they arise, but we are putting in place measures to ensure that local authorities make the best use of the money that they have. Salt stocks are high, and as I mentioned a moment ago we are investing in steps to ensure that the highways maintenance efficiency programme gets the best value for money from what local councils spend.

Heavy Goods Vehicles

13. Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the effect on road safety of the decision to permit longer heavy goods vehicles. [79694]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): The Government’s response to the consultation on the use of longer semi-trailers includes

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a revised impact assessment. It indicates that the forthcoming trial of 1,800 trailers should result in a marginal reduction in accidents and fatalities and their associated costs.

Sheila Gilmore: Given that the original consultation document admitted that longer lorries are less safe, and in the light of the tragic circumstances of last week, which were admittedly different, do the Government not now have cause to reconsider taking any risk with safety by introducing such lorries?

Mike Penning: What happened on the M5 was a tragic incident, and our thoughts and sympathies are with the families who have lost their loved ones and the people who are still very seriously ill in hospital. No assumptions should be made until after the police inquiry is completed.

The research was undertaken by the Transport Research Laboratory, a world-leading independent body. It indicates that there will be a 1.6% reduction in road casualties.

Grayrigg Train Crash

14. Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): If she will establish a public inquiry into the Grayrigg train crash in February 2007. [79695]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): The Grayrigg derailment was thoroughly investigated by the rail accident investigation branch in its 2008 report. The accident also received detailed scrutiny during the inquest into the tragic death of Mrs Masson. Ongoing rail industry actions continue to address issues arising from Grayrigg. The Government have therefore decided not to set up a public inquiry.

Tim Farron: Our thoughts and prayers must be with the family of Mrs Margaret Masson, following the conclusion last week of the inquest into her tragic death at Grayrigg in 2007. The inquest revealed that in February 2007 alone, there were no fewer than 700 points-related failures just on the line from Motherwell to Crewe. That is 700 near misses. Does that not demonstrate the need for a much wider, nationwide inquiry, and should not the Government now resolve not to deregulate Network Rail, which would further compromise rail safety?

Mrs Villiers: The Government are determined not to compromise rail safety. We are satisfied that very important lessons must be learned from Grayrigg and previous accidents. In taking forward reform of the railways to make them more efficient, maintaining the highest levels of safety will be a vital priority we intend to keep to.

Topical Questions

T1. [79696] Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Justine Greening): In just under four weeks in this job, I have met a range of people, organisations and parliamentarians involved in the transport world. For example, I have met the Select Committee on Transport, the industry-formed Rail Delivery Group and the Motorists Forum. I have

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also addressed the Airport Operators Association and visited the Thameslink site at Blackfriars to see for myself the progress being made with that vital project.

I am clear that my key objective is to ensure that the Department for Transport plays its role in being a driver of economic growth, not just today but in the future, by helping people and goods to get from A to B, while also helping the UK’s delivery of key environmental goals.

Jack Lopresti: Officials in the Secretary of State’s Department are considering the north-west Bristol to Hengrove major scheme bid. The scheme supports the delivery of 23,000 new homes, more than 100 hectares of employment land and 150,000 square metres of offices for local businesses and industry. Does she agree that the bid fits in well with the Government’s growth agenda?

Justine Greening: I am very well aware of that bid, which was received by the Department on 9 September. It is currently being assessed alongside the other 44 schemes that have been submitted for the development pool. We hope to be in a position to announce which of those 45 schemes will receive funding later this year.

T2. [79697] Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): Despite the fact that the west midlands was hit harder during the downturn than anywhere else in the country, and that it is taking longer to recover and urgently needs action to generate jobs and growth, the railway initial industry plan identifies only two schemes in the west midlands and would result in the region receiving only £57 million of a total of £10 billion of investment. That is a complete and utter disgrace. I welcome the Secretary of State to her position, but would she be prepared to visit the west midlands to meet me, other MPs from the region and industry experts such as Centro to discuss how we can work together to tackle transport problems in the region?

Justine Greening: I am always happy to meet parliamentarians. I will ensure that as Secretary of State for Transport I am out and about around the country. I have already started doing that and I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his constituency colleagues.

T3. [79698] Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): I hope that in the Secretary of State’s induction, she has been made aware of the unsuitable suburban rolling stock used on the main line Portsmouth to London service. Is she also aware that 1970s rolling stock has been reintroduced on the Portsmouth to Brighton line? Will she meet me to discuss how we can ensure that Portsmouth passengers get the services they deserve and the services they pay for?

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): My hon. Friend and I have debated this issue before. She knows that I am reluctant for Ministers to have more hands-on involvement with the distribution of rolling stock on different lines, but I understand her concerns. My colleagues and I are of course happy to try to broker a solution, and I am

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pleased to say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this further.

T4. [79699] Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): Are Ministers aware that there is growing concern about the potential sale of British Midland International to British Airways, which could have damaging consequences for Scottish businesses and travellers? I appreciate that under the Enterprise Act 2002 this is a matter for the Office of Fair Trading, but will Ministers keep an overview and, if appropriate, report to Parliament?

Justine Greening: I have already spoken to Willie Walsh about the proposed deal, which, as the hon. Lady will be aware, has some way to go before it is finalised and before we know about the impact on connectivity. She will also be aware that a scoping document consultation has just closed. When we look at the emerging strategy for aviation, it is important to ensure that we see a United Kingdom in the sense that we should have a well connected transport policy.

T6. [79702] Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk) (Con): In Mildenhall, Brandon, Elveden and across Suffolk and East Anglia, people are thrilled that the Government are finally completing the dualling of the A11, but the questions they are now asking are when will it be finished, and when can they finally drive at an appropriate pace all the way up to Norfolk? [Official Report, 14 November 2011, Vol. 535, c. 3MC.]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): I hope those people will drive not only at an appropriate pace but at a safe pace within the law. As my hon. Friend knows, we started the project early and promised that we would be as fast as we possibly could. We hope that it will be done in early 2014, but if it can be done earlier, we certainly will do it.

T5. [79700] Alun Michael (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): Given the threat of ever higher train prices and the success of mutual solutions—for example, Glas Cymru—in reducing the burden on consumers, will the Secretary of State accept the Co-operative party’s People Rail proposals and put passengers in the driving seat?

Mrs Villiers: I am obviously always interested in ideas for improving our railways. The Government recognise the benefits of co-operative arrangements and mutualisation, and I am happy to meet the Co-operative party to discuss what it would like to do with the railways, and to see whether we can involve it in the reforms that we are taking forward.

T7. [79703] Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): As a south London MP, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will know what a success Croydon tramlink has been. The Mayor of London and Croydon council have recently worked together to buy additional trams to increase the frequency of the service. Will she work with the Mayor in the medium term to extend the benefits of the system to other parts of south London?

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): We believe that there is a good future for trams and light rail in this country, and I hope that my hon. Friend has seen the recent publication “Green Light for Light Rail”. We are happy to work with the Mayor and elected bodies up and down the country to try to progress light rail, because it has a good future and is very useful for passengers.

Mr Speaker: I call Michael Connarty. He is not here. Margaret Beckett.

Margaret Beckett (Derby South) (Lab): May I welcome the Secretary of State to her new responsibilities and assure her that her welcome will be much warmer, particularly across Derbyshire, if she makes an early decision on the eVoyager project—converting 57 vehicles from the CrossCountry fleet to dual power—and awards the contract to Bombardier?

Justine Greening: I would say two things to the right hon. Lady. First, I was in contact with Bombardier in my first three days in this role because I recognise the issues raised across the House. She is right that tenders are coming up in which Bombardier could participate, and I have no doubt, and very much hope, that it will want to bid for them. Secondly, I recognise the issues arising from the procurement process within Government, and we are working with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to consider how we can take those matters further.

T8. [79704] Karen Lumley (Redditch) (Con): Is the Secretary of State confident that councils in the west midlands have sufficient resources to address adverse weather and avoid the sort of chaos that happened in Redditch last year?

Justine Greening: We discovered last year and the year before that winter resilience is incredibly important. We have far more salt in reserve now than we did at this point last year, and we are working with local authorities up and down the country to ensure that many are better prepared and can use the salt more effectively.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): The Secretary of State will have seen the Competition Commission’s damning report on the bus wars around Newcastle. May I urge her not to leave bus transport in the north-east to market forces, but to work with local and transport authorities to ensure that the people of Newcastle have the quality of bus services that they deserve?

Justine Greening: We are still waiting for the Competition Commission’s final report, but I can assure the hon. Lady that I am well aware of the importance of bus services to local communities up and down the country, including in Newcastle, and I shall pay close attention to any strategies that we develop in the light of the commission’s report.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): Last Friday, I had the delight of sitting through the five Youth Parliament debates. They were really well-conducted and a fantastic opportunity for young people to express their views. Coming from a rural constituency, I was very pleased

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that the Youth Parliament chose transport as its campaign issue. What can the Secretary of State do to further its aim to have cheaper, better and more accessible transport?

Justine Greening: We have a range of approaches to ensure that transport is affordable and accessible to everyone, , including young people. As we have seen in London, getting young people to use public transport from an early age is one way of getting behaviour change. I am very conscious of that, and I shall be interested to see what more I can do in my role.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): What assessment has the Minister made of the impact on local newspapers of relaxing the guidelines on the statutory publishing of traffic regulation orders?

Norman Baker: Obviously, we recognise that there is a potential impact on local newspapers, but we also realise that this is perhaps an archaic way of forcing local authorities to advertise traffic regulation orders, and that it involves a significant cost, to the extent that sometimes the cost of advertising is in excess of the cost of the work carried out.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): In her review of the interval between MOT inspections, will the Secretary of State consider the mileage covered by vehicles? For the average car, which covers about 10,000 miles a year, there is a strong case for extending the interval, but many trade vehicles and company cars cover in excess of 30,000 miles, which means that they have reached 100,000 miles come the three-year first MOT test.

Justine Greening: As my hon. Friend rightly points out, there are far more issues to do with the MOT test than just its frequency. We aim to look at all those issues as part of this review, and I shall be making an announcement shortly.

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): I, too, extend my congratulations to the Secretary of State on her new role.

The Member of the European Parliament for the East Midlands, Glenis Willmott, has established that the European Union has no problem with the Thameslink contracts being retendered to incorporate socio-economic factors. The Business Secretary was on the “Today” programme this morning saying how much the Government supported the manufacturing industry. May I urge the Secretary of State to show her commitment to British manufacturing by considering retendering the Thameslink contract, which could be achieved in a matter of six to 12 months?

Justine Greening: We cannot retender that contract, not least because it would put on hold the vital work being done on the Thameslink project, which is creating, I think, 3,000 jobs. The hon. Gentleman’s point about better reflecting socio-economic factors in the procurement process is, however, a good one. That is precisely why we are looking at how we can improve the procurement process, which I should add was developed by his Government.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): The post bus carries hundreds of passengers between Foxholes and the villages to Malton, but from April the

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Royal Mail will discontinue it. How can we access the community transport fund, which we have just heard about, to ensure that this vital rural bus link continues?

Norman Baker: I have every sympathy for my hon. Friend when such situations arise. As I have said, £10 million has been given to local authorities. Her local council is in a position to take that forward and decide how best to allocate the money, so it is best that she speak to her council. However, she makes a valid point, and I am monitoring the impact of bus services in rural areas.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Business Start-ups

1. Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of the propensity of (a) men and (b) women to start new businesses. [79666]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department and Minister for Women and Equalities (Mrs Theresa May): If women in the UK set up businesses at the same rate as men, we would have 150,000 new start-ups each year. If women in the UK showed the same level of entrepreneurship as women in the United States, we would have 600,000 more women-owned businesses in the UK, which would contribute around £42 billion to our economy. It is therefore obvious that we need to make the best use of all the talents available in the economy.

Harriett Baldwin: The new enterprise allowance scheme, which is delivered through Jobcentre Plus, is an excellent innovation to help people who want to start their own businesses. Will the Minister ensure that both women and men are told about this excellent scheme?

Mrs May: Indeed. The new enterprise allowance scheme is an important scheme that has been introduced to enable people who are unemployed to set up their own businesses, and we will certainly ensure that it is made available to both women and men. I also announced last week that we would be recruiting an additional 5,000 mentors for the women’s enterprise scheme, to encourage and help women in the vital first steps of setting up their own businesses.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): Has the Minister seen today’s PricewaterhouseCoopers report, which shows that the discrepancy between north and south is being widened by Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government policies? Given that women find it difficult to get into the employment market in the first place, what steps will she take to ensure that women in Wales, the north-west, the north-east, Yorkshire and Humberside have an opportunity to get into employment?

Mrs May: It is this coalition Government who have introduced the regional growth fund, which is actively ensuring that money is available in the various regions of the United Kingdom, to help ensure growth and prosperity across the whole of the United Kingdom.

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Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): The case for encouraging women-owned businesses is clearly made. This Government have made great strides to encourage small businesses through their aspiration to ensure that 25% of Government spending on procurement goes to small businesses. Can we now consider the possibility of extending that to women-owned businesses, which would obviously have a great benefit for business and the economy?

Mrs May: My hon. Friend is right, in that the Government are actively using their procurement power to encourage small businesses and make it easier for them to apply for Government contracts. She makes an interesting point about positive action in relation to women-owned business. This is something that has been done elsewhere—for example, the United States—and we will look at the experience in those places.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Support to start businesses is all very well, but the regional growth fund is substantially smaller than the funding available from the regional development agencies, while Labour’s Aspire fund, which supported women-led businesses in obtaining finance, has been put on hold by Ministers. With cuts to help with child care costs, Sure Start services closing and family budgets under pressure, does the Minister not think that the Government need to do far more to support business and working women?

Mrs May: We have announced 5,000 mentors to help women to start up their own businesses, and we will also be establishing a women’s business council. We are doing things to help women in the workplace that go far beyond what the last Labour Government did. The right to request flexible working for all and the introduction of flexible parental leave will make a real difference to women’s lives.

Forced Marriages and Honour Killings

2. Mr Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (Con): What her policy is on reducing (a) forced marriages and (b) honour killings; and if she will make a statement. [79667]

The Minister for Equalities (Lynne Featherstone): The Government are committed to ending the abusive practices of forced marriage and honour killings, and to ensuring that victims are protected. These practices are indefensible and never acceptable. Our action plan to end violence against women and girls sets out our approach, which includes raising awareness, development of training for police and prosecutors, support for victims, and improving the international response.

Mr Carswell: How quickly will the Government move to ensure that forced marriage is made a criminal offence?

Lynne Featherstone: Up to now, this has been a civil matter under protection orders. We are making it a criminal offence to breach a civil order, and we will be consulting on the actual offence becoming a criminal one before Christmas.

Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): What discussions is the Minister having with colleagues in the Department for Education to ensure that schools spot any early signs of vulnerability to forced marriage?

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Lynne Featherstone: We have an inter-ministerial group on violence against women and girls, to which the Department for Education sends a Minister. As the hon. Lady knows, issues relating to forced marriage are principally, though not exclusively, explored within personal, social and health education. The Department for Education continues to work closely with other Departments, and it reports to us in the inter-ministerial group.

Hate Crime

3. Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): What steps she is taking to tackle hate crime. [79668]

The Minister for Equalities (Lynne Featherstone): Tackling hate crime is an issue that the Government take extremely seriously, and we are committed to doing more to support and protect victims. We are meeting the coalition commitment to improve the recording of such crimes, and working with the police and other partners to encourage more victims to come forward. We are also working with the Government’s independent advisory group to develop an action plan on tackling all forms of hate crime.

Angela Smith: Next week is anti-bullying week. What is the Minister going to do to tackle homophobic bullying in schools?

Lynne Featherstone: We take all bullying very seriously, including homophobic and transgender bullying. The Department of Health has issued new guidelines on bullying that are much more condensed and to the point. Also, Ofsted has now included behaviours in its inspection regime. The hon. Lady is right: this is an appalling form of hate crime, and we are dealing with it.

Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): One in five gay or lesbian people has experienced a homophobic attack in the past three years. As someone who experienced such an attack in the ’90s, I am aware of the fear that follows such an attack. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the excellent work being done by West Yorkshire police to engage the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender community in tackling this awful hate crime?

Lynne Featherstone: I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I am sorry to learn that he had such an experience. The statistics on hate crime are quite frightening. In 2010, there were 48,000 incidents. I would very much like to congratulate the police force in West Yorkshire. It is vital that the police take this issue seriously, because they are in a position to act when someone comes to them to report it. We must tackle hate crime and ensure that every incident is investigated.

Domestic Violence (Victim Support)

5. Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to provide support to women in the criminal justice system who have been victims of domestic violence and abuse. [79671]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): Tackling violence against women and girls is a priority for the Government, and specifically for me, as I have responsibility for women in the criminal

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justice system. The National Offender Management Service, in conjunction with Women’s Aid, has published the framework to support women offenders who have experienced domestic and sexual violence. It contains guidance for commissioners and links to resources for practitioners. Women’s Aid and the National Offender Management Service are also training prison and probation staff to pilot the Power to Change programme, which aims to help women prisoners who want to leave a violent relationship.

Nic Dakin: With the closure of courts across the land, will the Minister tell us what steps are being taken to guarantee that domestic abuse courts will remain in place?

Mr Blunt: We continue to examine the provision of court services across the country and there is an agenda to try to deliver justice much closer to neighbourhoods. Of course, dealing with domestic violence is an important part of addressing a particularly horrible crime at a community level. I have seen for myself the work done by the probation trusts, and that will go hand in hand with what needs to be done with the courts as well.

Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab): The House will be aware of the deeply disturbing cases where women have been stalked for many years by their ex-partners and have not been properly protected by the criminal justice system. Two months ago, I raised my concern and expressed the view that stalking should be made a separate criminal offence in order to provide greater protection for women. Labour has tabled an amendment to the Protection of Freedoms Bill in the House of Lords to do exactly that. Will the Government support us in our proposals to make stalking a separate offence and vote for those proposals in the Lords?

Mr Blunt: Obviously we have seen the proposals coming from the Opposition. We need to look at the evidence on how the existing legislation has or has not been used effectively and assess whether further work could be done on using existing harassment legislation properly. We are looking at the proposed amendment; during the course of the debate, we will come forward with a proper assessment and answer to it.

Corporate Boards (Female Representation)

6. Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): What steps the Government are taking to encourage corporate boards to have a more representative proportion of women. [79672]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department and Minister for Women and Equalities (Mrs Theresa May): The Government are continuing to work with business and others to ensure that the recommendations set out by Lord Davies in March this year are implemented effectively. Cranfield university presented a report to the Prime Minister three weeks ago, which showed that steady progress is being made to increase female board representation. The rate at which women are being appointed to FTSE boards has doubled and the number of all-male boards has almost halved since 2010.

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Mrs Laing: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The House will warmly welcome the enormous progress made in recent times. In particular, we welcome the Davies report, but will my right hon. Friend agree that this is not just a matter of an abstract idea about equality for the sake of equality. Lord Davies cites a report by McKinsey which states:

“Companies with more women on their boards were found to out-perform their rivals with a 42% higher return in sales, 66% higher return on invested capital and 53% higher return on equity.”

Having women involved is also good for business.

Mrs May: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. There has been progress. We know that there are now only 12 all-male boards within the FTSE 100, down from 21 in 2010. We know that women have made up an increasing percentage of the directors appointed to FTSE 100 companies since Lord Davies’s report. The point she makes is absolutely right: having women on boards is not just a women’s issue; it is about the state of the economy, and it makes good business sense.

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): But is the Minister for Women and Equalities aware that of the last 93 appointments only 21 were women, and that the Cranfield school of management has said that two thirds of companies have ignored what the Government have said. Do we not need more than a nudge and wink, and to have some more positive action?

Mrs May: I am sorry that the hon. Lady could not bring herself to welcome the progress made on this issue since Lord Davies’s report. We are adopting the approach of encouragement and working with businesses. I think that is the best way to change attitudes in the longer term. We have already seen from the work done in Australia that the significant increase in the number of women on boards can be achieved without having to go down the route of quotas.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): Given the clear benefit to the whole community of having a much more diverse corporate management in both the private and the public sectors, will my right hon. Friend look at having a common reporting date annually for the private and public sectors on the diversity of their boards? Could we follow that, in association with the House business managers, with a debate here so that we can keep the pressure up and everyone in the country can see the comparative position annually?

Mrs May: My right hon. Friend has made an interesting suggestion. He highlights the importance of transparency in encouraging action in this area. That is indeed why we have developed the “think, act, report” programme for companies to sign up to. It encourages them not just to look at what is happening on gender diversity and the gender pay gap in their workplace, but to act on it and then, crucially, report on it because we believe it is that transparency that makes a difference.

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Women Offenders

7. Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on the treatment of women offenders. [79673]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): I engage in frequent discussions with ministerial colleagues about how we should address women’s offending as part of the Government’s rehabilitation reforms. Those discussions often include either my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities or my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities. We are working across Government to tackle offenders’ mental health problems, along with the Department of Health; to get them off drugs for good; and to give them skills for work, which involves the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Our Work programme reforms will of course affect offenders leaving prisons, and in that regard we are doing very good work with the Department for Work and Pensions. In all that work, we are taking full account of the distinct needs of women.

Heidi Alexander: The Government want prisoners to work a 48-hour week, but in a recent written answer the prisons Minister confirmed that just 161 women were working in prisons in March this year. That is a disproportionately low figure given the size of the female prison population. What will the Minister do to close the gap?

Mr Blunt: Most work in prisons at the moment is effectively a programme: it is a cost centre for the Prison Service. If we are to increase the amount of work done in our prisons to any significant extent, we shall need to adopt a rather more economic and commercial approach, so that the work of offenders can generate resources to deliver services for victims of crime. We are undergoing a system change, and there are many important and difficult questions to be answered about competition and similar issues. That applies just as much to women as to men.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): The Government rightly dislike adopting targets, but has the Minister an aspiration in regard to the number of women he expects to be in prison at the end of the current Parliament?

Mr Blunt: My aspiration is, of course, zero, but although we have delivered a highly effective policy on crime and criminal justice, I am, like my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities, realistic enough to know that it is unlikely to be achieved. We will, however, work towards its achievement.

Over the past year the number of women prisoners has fallen by 1.5%, and the number of women arriving at prisons to serve sentences of less than 12 months has fallen by 10.7% .

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Hinchingbrooke Hospital

11.32 am

Liz Kendall (Leicester West) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Minister of State to make a statement on the decision to allow Circle to run Hinchingbrooke hospital.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr Simon Burns): Today, a 10-year contract was signed by Hinchingbrooke Health Care NHS Trust and Circle allowing Circle to take over management of the trust, which has struggled to be financially viable in recent years. Major service problems have persisted and, despite repeated attempts to tackle it, the trust now has the largest legacy debt as a proportion of turnover in the NHS: £39 million, which amounts to almost half the hospital’s £100 million turnover. Moreover, the Care Quality Commission has expressed concern about the fact that its stroke services are failing and its cancer services under-achieving. The local NHS accepted that major changes were needed, and early in 2007, when the previous Government were in power, established the Hinchingbrooke next steps project to identify options for securing the trust's future.

In 2008, East of England strategy health authority chose a franchise model, and in 2009 it launched a competitive procurement process to identify a preferred bidder. That was agreed with the previous Government, and the power to bring in another person or organisation to manage an NHS hospital was introduced under that Government’s National Health Service Acts 2001 and 2006 and the Health and Social Care Act 2001.

At the end of last year, following a rigorous and open competition that included NHS organisations, NHS East of England announced that Circle had the most viable plans to turn the trust around. That decision has been endorsed by the Department of Health and the Treasury following an equally rigorous approval process this year. It should be noted that it was the Labour Government who set up the initial competition, a process from which many NHS organisations dropped out, leaving only private providers in the competitive tendering frame.

Circle is an established provider of services for NHS patients, although it should be emphasised that under this contract NHS services will continue to be provided by NHS staff, from NHS buildings, and that patients will continue to have access to them as they do now. No NHS staff are leaving, and assets will remain in public ownership. Hinchingbrooke hospital will continue to deliver the same NHS services, as long as commissioners continue to purchase them, adhering to the key NHS principle of care being free at the point of use. This is not a privatisation in any shape or form. Circle will help clinicians and health care professionals improve Hinchingbrooke from the bottom up. Its plans include improvement in length of stay, rationalisation of theatre usage and improvement in back offices. Commissioning leaders, hospital consultants and Royal College of Nursing representatives in Huntingdon clearly support Circle commencing the franchise. Tony Durcan, the RCN professional officer for Cambridgeshire said:

“Circle are very impressive…I welcome working with them.”

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He went on to say that he believes the decision to work with Circle

“does secure the long-term future of Hinchingbrooke.”

If Circle achieves its forecasts, the whole of the trust’s accumulated deficit will be repaid by the end of the 10-year contract. Circle is paid from the trust’s surpluses, so if there are no surpluses Circle does not receive a fee. Furthermore, if the trust makes a deficit under Circle’s watch, Circle must fund the first £5 million. At deficits above that, the trust can terminate the contract, so Circle really must perform well.

The Government believe this is a good deal for patients and staff at Hinchingbrooke. It is a new management model being tried in the NHS for the first time, but the trust has had huge problems over the past decade, and it now has an opportunity to turn its fortunes round. The local NHS even stated that without this deal Hinchingbrooke hospital’s future would have been in doubt.

The local NHS will maintain close scrutiny of the contract. The Appointments Commission has appointed a chair and two non-executive director-designates to form a new Hinchingbrooke trust board from February 2012 that will appoint a franchise manager. The franchise manager will be responsible for day-to-day monitoring of contract performance. During the initial mobilisation stages, NHS Midlands and East will continue to oversee the franchise agreement.

Patients and the public deserve, and must get, a safe and sustainable NHS based on its core, historical principles. This contract will deliver that.

Liz Kendall: Patients, the public and NHS staff will be concerned about the implications of this unprecedented agreement not only locally in Cambridgeshire, but for the NHS across the country. Let me be clear that Opposition Members accept that there have been problems with this hospital for some time. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham)—who is currently visiting St James’s university hospital in Leeds—will set out the background to this issue and how it was dealt with by the previous Government in a statement later this morning, but it is the current Government who have made the decision to transfer the management of Hinchingbrooke to the private sector, and it is the current Government who must account for their actions.

First, I want to deal with the practicalities of the agreement. How many bids to take over the running of the hospital did the Government receive, and what criteria were used to judge them? Circle’s chief executive confirmed on the “Today” programme this morning that Circle has no experience of running emergency and maternity services, so why was the company chosen? What confidence can patients and NHS staff have in the chief executive’s claim this morning that Circle will be able to pay off Hinchingbrooke’s £40 million debt simply by cutting waste and bureaucracy when all previous attempts have failed—at the same time as, apparently, providing patients with Michelin-star meals and delivering profits for Circle’s shareholders? Can the Minister assure the House that this agreement will not, in reality, lead to staff jobs being cut and services being closed, and can he give a firm guarantee that all services currently run at Hinchingbrooke, including accident and emergency and maternity, will remain open throughout the entire period

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of the deal? Will he also set out whether the agreement requires Circle to work with other local NHS services and the council, what profits are permitted under the agreement, and how decisions will be held to account locally under it? Will he also place a copy of the agreement contract in the Library of the House?

The Minister must also today answer serious questions about the implications of this agreement for the wider NHS. He must set out whether the Government envisage any limit to the role of the private sector in the NHS. We know that Department of Health officials have been discussing the takeover of 20 other hospitals by private companies, so will the Minister tell the House how many of these hospitals will be taken over by the private sector? What steps have the Government taken to ensure the financial stability of Circle and its parent company, Circle Holdings? What will be the implications if the company goes bust, as Southern Cross did, for patients and taxpayers?

Finally, important questions need to be answered about why this company has been chosen. Given its close links to the Conservative party, there needs to be full transparency about all meetings—formal and informal—between Department of Health and Treasury Ministers and this company and any of its paid advisers. So will the Minister agree to publish full details of these meetings so that patients and NHS staff can have full confidence that the Government followed proper due process in their decisions?

Patients and the public will be deeply worried that this morning they have seen this Government’s true vision for the future of our NHS with the wholesale transfer of the management of entire hospitals to the private sector. The Health and Social Care Bill currently before Parliament not only allows that to happen but actively encourages it. Patients and NHS staff do not want this and the public have not voted for it. It is time that the Government agreed to drop their reckless NHS Bill.

Mr Burns: I am rarely speechless, but I am left speechless by the sheer effrontery of the hon. Lady. I have to remind hon. Members that this process stems from the previous Labour Government’s legislation in 2001, which was consolidated in 2006. This process started in 2007 at strategic health authority level, when she was a special adviser in the Department of Health. It continued, and the decision to move forward from a Department of Health level was taken in 2009 by the then Secretary of State for Health, who is now the shadow Secretary of State. It is often thought that shadowing a Department that one ran is helpful because one knows where the bodies are buried. The problem for the shadow Secretary of State is that not only does he know where the bodies are buried, but he was the one who buried them in the first place.

The hon. Lady asks how many bidders there were. As she will appreciate, a number of processes have taken place. There were 11 bidders at the start, the vast majority of which were private sector bidders, although there were some NHS ones—this was in 2009, under a Labour Government. The number reduced to six in December 2009, again under a Labour Government. Of those six bids, one was from an NHS body and one was from an NHS body in conjunction with the private sector. In February 2010, when I believe the right hon.

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Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) was the Secretary of State, the number reduced again, this time to five. All these bids were from the private sector, except one, which was made in conjunction with an NHS trust. In March 2010, again under a Labour Government, the number reduced to three, with one bid associated with an NHS body, and then it reduced to two, with both bidders in the private sector.

Mr Alan Campbell (Tynemouth) (Lab): When did that happen?

Mr Burns: In July last year, as part of the ongoing process started by the previous Government.

The hon. Lady also asked whether the contract and the business case would be put into the public domain. They will be published in due course although, as she will appreciate, certain commercially sensitive information will be redacted, which is only reasonable. She also asked about staffing and whether there would be redundancies. May I tell her that there will not be redundancies as a result of the operating franchise? Circle has said that it might need to redeploy and retrain some staff within the hospital, but it does not expect job losses. I reassure the hon. Lady—I think she would like this reassurance—that, as I am sure she understands, Hinchingbrooke will remain an NHS hospital, the staff will remain as NHS staff, and the services will continue, as I said in my statement, within the format of all other services provided in every other NHS hospital, which is within the format of reconfigurations, if and when. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady says I cannot guarantee that they will stay over. I can give the greatest and most honest guarantee as of now because nobody—listen carefully so that it is not got wrong—can guarantee what services a hospital will be providing in 10 or 15 years, due to different and changing circumstances.

The hon. Lady also mentioned, as a hare that she wanted to start running to frighten people, the question of the 20 hospitals within the NHS that are having financial and other problems. The fact is that in the past month or so all those hospitals have published their tripartite formal agreements with regard to the foundation trust pipeline, and I can tell her that all those are options by which to move forward, either as stand-alone bodies or possibly mergers and acquisitions with other foundation trusts within the NHS.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister of State is a resilient man. Considering that he was rendered speechless, his recovery has been both quick and complete. The House will be aware that the terms of this urgent question are narrow. I appreciate that Members may want to refer to other cases, but they must do so with reference to the specifics of the issue that has been aired from the Opposition Front Bench and by the Minister of State.

Mr Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): Is not the key point that the deal will lead to better NHS services for people who live in the area of the hospital? The Minister has reassured us today that if it does not, there will be changes.

Mr Burns: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for that measured contribution. The most important thing must be providing world-class, quality care for

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patients, not only in the Hinchingbrooke area but throughout the NHS across the country. I am confident that this deal does that, working with the NHS within the NHS, but with a management provided by Circle to do just that.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Can the Minister guarantee that the terms and conditions of current and new staff will be guaranteed by the private sector company, and that it will not go for the easy option of cutting terms and conditions?

Mr Burns: With respect, I do not think the hon. Gentleman fully understands what I have said. I said that the status of staff at the hospital will not change in any way. They will continue to be NHS-employed staff working for the NHS as they did yesterday and as they will from the day the project starts working.

Chris Ruane: So that is yes?

Mr Burns: It is, indeed.

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): Many of my constituents are affected directly by what happens at Hinchingbrooke hospital, and the service there has been hit hard over many years by some of the disastrous schemes of the previous Government—private finance initiative contracts that took money away, and money abstracted by the previous Government’s private treatment centre, where private providers were paid more than NHS rates. What we now need is improved service and stability of service. Will this now finally be provided?

Mr Burns: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I can say that this is the best chance for the hospital, which has had a very troubled history, as he knows as the constituency Member for Cambridge, because of the financial problems and governance and management problems. I am confident that this is the best way forward to establish this hospital once again on a firm footing to provide the finest health care for his constituents and those of hon. Members in the Huntingdon and Cambridgeshire area.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): I do not understand how there can be a surplus to be given to the private company. Surely every penny of taxpayers’ money should be spent on the care of patients. Does this mean that Circle will be inclined to reduce care so that it makes profits?

Mr Burns: I have to say that I am disappointed by the hon. Lady’s question.

Chris Ruane: You are very condescending.

Mr Burns: I am not. I am just being honest. If there is a loss, Circle will pick it up, up to the first £5 million. Hinchingbrooke is a struggling hospital with a deficit of £39 million. That is why we are having to take the actions that the Government that the hon. Gentleman supported instigated more than three years ago. There is a formula that gives an incentive for Circle to deliver,

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to raise the quality of care, to reduce and, we hope, over the 10-year period to remove the deficit altogether.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): When a hospital’s consultants have a financial interest in its performance, what safeguards will prevent their private interest in increasing the volume of treatments provided putting the hospital’s financial health ahead of that of the local national health service?

Mr Burns: Under the agreements that have been signed, the consultants are there to manage an NHS hospital treating NHS-only patients and to ensure the finest quality of care for the NHS. That is the safeguard.

John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): At a time when progressive reform of our NHS requires greater collaboration and integration of services, with more being done for patients beyond the hospital, cannot Ministers see that that will be much harder to achieve when Hinchingbrooke hospital and others have been handed over to a private company with a single commercial interest in maximising profits and getting more patients into the hospital? Cannot they accept that it is a privatisation and that it is wrong in principle and wrong in practice?

Mr Burns: If it is privatisation—I utterly reject the claim that it is—and if it is wrong, it was the right hon. Gentleman’s Government who gave the powers to do this in their legislation and it was his successor as shadow Health Secretary, when Secretary of State, who instigated the proceedings to bring this about. It is a little odd for the right hon. Gentleman for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), for narrow, grimy and party political reasons, to try to blame us for something that he and his party instigated.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): I congratulate the Minister on his excellent announcement. The Circle group runs a hospital in Peasedown St John in my constituency. It has a fantastic partnership model that is a good example of how public-private co-operation should exist and provides better services for my constituents than those that were there before, so the announcement is thoroughly to be welcomed.

Mr Burns: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend. I have every confidence that what has been decided today is in the best interests of getting Hinchingbrooke hospital back on its feet. I am heartened not only by his support, but by the fact that the vast majority of people living in the Huntingdon and Cambridgeshire area fully support it, as do clinicians and the NHS locally. I was particularly heartened by a rational statement of fact by the RCN’s area organiser for Cambridgeshire—he was on the negotiating board—who said that he was very impressed when dealing with Circle and was looking forward to working for it. The ultimate point is that there was a possibility two or three years ago that if nothing could be done to turn the hospital around it would have been closed, which would not have been in the interests of local people.

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): Will Circle be able to sell off any of the organisation’s assets and separate the ownership and operation of the hospital, as was the case with Southern Cross?

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Mr Burns: Under no circumstances will it be able to do that. As I keep saying to the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends, Hinchingbrooke is and will remain an NHS hospital, but a private company is providing the management. The NHS, through that management, will continue to operate the hospital.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) on securing the urgent question and allowing the Government to concede that they have adopted a Labour policy by bringing in private management. Will the Minister look at the possibility of extending what we might call a pilot to Kettering hospital?

Mr Burns: The answer is no. I do not want to disappoint my hon. Friend, but the simple answer is that Hinchingbrooke hospital, as the right hon. Member for Leigh will know, has a historical problem that the NHS tried to solve but failed. Given that the previous Government enacted powers to allow a franchise in exceptional circumstances, it is better to use that model to turn around the hospital rather than let it fail altogether. It is not a principle that we are considering extending across the NHS.

Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab): The Minister said in reply to an earlier question that there would be no forced redundancies. However, as he explained, Circle will pay off the deficit over a period of time and has an obligation to make profits for its shareholders. Can he explain how it will manage to do that while paying off the deficit?

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): Did they not understand the policy when they voted for it?

Mr Burns: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point from a sedentary position. The driving force behind the arrangement and the key criterion for Circle is the need to turn the hospital around, with regard to its quality and standard of care and its finances. The challenge for Circle is to eliminate completely the £39 million historical deficit over the 10-year period and put the day-to-day running costs of the hospital on a firm footing. I am confident that, within the framework of the agreement, that offers the best change to turn the hospital around.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on exploiting the position presented by the Opposition. Given that this is a one-off, as he has said, what is the future for the other 20 hospitals that are in a desperate financial state? Is this a blueprint for the future and can we look forward to other partnership arrangements coming forward?

Mr Burns: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the opportunity to put on the record the way forward for those 20 hospitals. This is not a blueprint or model to be used by other hospitals. It is on the statute book, as the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) knows. Where there are problems with the 20 hospitals that are seeking foundation trust status, the SHAs, departmental officials and the trusts themselves are looking at them. They have all published TFAs in the past six weeks or so with their intention for the way forward. I think that I

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am right in saying that for all of them there is a variety of options that range from a stand-alone FT bid to a possible merger or acquisition with another FT or trust. There are no TFAs for a franchise arrangement. As I have said before, this is a first and, as of now, unique model.

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): On 31 December 2010 Circle’s debt stood at £82 million. Does the Minister know what its debt is at the moment, and can he guarantee that its priority will be paying off the hospital’s debt rather than its own?

Mr Burns: I can assure the hon. Gentleman, because of the way in which the agreements have been framed, that there is an incentive and a pressure on Circle to seek to deliver on reducing and—we hope—eliminating over the 10 years the £39 million historical deficit. On the question of who has what size of a deficit, I must tell him that my concern is to remove that shackle from the neck of Hinchingbrooke hospital.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): Notwithstanding the inconsistency of the Opposition’s position, will the Minister clarify whether this marks clearly the termination of public NHS trusts as preferred providers of public NHS services?

Mr Burns: It was all going so well up until now, Mr Speaker. The hon. Gentleman, who has shown a keen interest in the progress of the Health and Social Care Bill, will know that we are concentrating on any willing provider—based on quality care, not price—rather than preferred bidder.

Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that in an Adjournment debate some five months ago, we put forward a leaked document that stated that exactly what has happened today would happen. He denied that it was happening, but obviously it has, so will he answer the question that was put to him in that debate? Is it not the case that the only way in which the company can make a profit is by stopping the provision of expensive services, such as maternity and accident and emergency services, and by creaming off other services from neighbouring hospitals?

Mr Burns: With regard to the hon. Gentleman, I have over the past few months been very restrained. In the light of his question, however, I shall now share with the House what was going on.

The hon. Gentleman is referring to the foundation trust status of his local hospital. A leaked document got into the public domain, but it was nothing to do with me or other Department of Health Ministers; it was an early draft of a tripartite formal agreement. What the hon. Gentleman did then—because he is an Opposition MP and he is entitled to do so—was to run a campaign in his area stating that the Tories were going to privatise his local hospital. I assured him from day one that that was utter rubbish, that there was no truth in it and that he should wait until the TFA was finally published. It was published recently, and of course there was no proposal in it to privatise the health service—[ Interruption. ]

Mr Speaker: Order.

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Mr Burns: Can I tell you, Mr Speaker, as a final thing—[ Interruption. ]

Mr Speaker: Order. I want to hear the final bit.

Mr Burns: The cynicism of politicians is such that when that happened, so that no face was lost, the hon. Gentleman claimed that his campaign had been so successful that it had forced me to reverse my position.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): The Minister seems to believe that the continued running of the NHS is the responsibility of the previous Government, rather than of his own Department. Does he accept that this deal is his decision and that he has radically extended the role of the private sector in our health service?

Mr Burns: I do not know who has been briefing the hon. Lady, but the lines are wrong, I am afraid. She is right that the final decision was taken by me, in this Administration, but—[ Interruption ] if she will just wait a minute, I will tell her that all we were doing was following what the previous Government set in motion. I will tell her something else: if there were a Labour Government in power and not this Conservative Government, the Labour Minister of State would be standing here today and making exactly the same points—

Liz Kendall: You don’t know that.

Mr Burns: The hon. Lady says that I do not know that, but surely she accepts that Labour politicians are consistent and would consistently follow their own policy. I am sure that they would be here doing so.

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): I encourage the Minister to carry on drinking the peppermint tea, because then he will remain calm. Hinchingbrooke hospital does not have an A and E department, so what resources will be available to those NHS hospitals that have to absorb the extra patients?

Mr Burns: I think the hon. Lady is mistaken. I am advised that Hinchingbrooke does have an A and E—

Valerie Vaz indicated dissent.

Mr Burns: The hon. Lady shakes her head, but of course she is a Member for the north-west, whereas I understand from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), who is the MP for Hinchingbrooke, that it does have an A and E. I will check and write to her immediately, and no doubt if I am right and she is wrong, she will in her charming way correct the record in due course.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the Minister and to colleagues, because everybody who wanted to question him had the chance to do so.

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Business of the House

12.3 pm

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for next week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Sir George Young): The business for the week commencing 14 November will be:

Monday 14 November—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Education Bill.

Tuesday 15 November—Motion relating to fisheries, followed by motion relating to fuel prices. The subjects for these debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

The business for the week commencing 21 November will include:

Monday 21 November—General debate on the 2010-2011 annual report from the Intelligence and Security Committee.

Tuesday 22 November—Opposition day [12th allotted day] [half day] [second part]. There will be a debate on a Democratic Unionist party motion. Subject to be announced, followed by motion to approve a European document relating to Croatia and European Union enlargement, followed by motion to approve a money resolution relating to the Daylight Savings Bill.

Wednesday 23 November—Opposition day [un-allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 24 November—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 25 November— Private Members’ Bills.

I should like to remind the House that we will meet at 11.30 am on Tuesday 15 November.

I should like also to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 1 December 2011 will be:

Thursday 1 December—A debate on “Keeping the UK moving: the impact on transport of the winter weather in December 2010”, the fifth report from the Transport Committee, followed by a debate on “Bus Services after the Spending Review”, the eighth report from the Transport Committee.

Ms Eagle: I thank the Leader of the House for that statement.

Ahead of Remembrance Sunday, it is only right that this House records its deep debt of gratitude to the brave men and women who have served and continue to serve in our armed forces. We will remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice in services up and down the country this weekend, and we will all wear our poppies with pride.

In normal circumstances, the House rises at this time of the year for practical reasons, to make way for the beginning of a new Session and the State Opening of Parliament, but even though that has been put off until next year, we are still to have a short recess now. During the summer recess, Parliament had to be recalled the day after it rose in order to deal with the phone hacking

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scandal, and then it had to be recalled a second time to deal with the riots. With no Government in Greece and contagion spreading to Italy, does the Leader of the House think that it is right for Parliament to take a break just as we face the biggest economic crisis of our lifetimes—

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): You all voted for it.

Ms Eagle: It was voted for before those events. Is the Leader of the House making contingency plans for a recall to deal with the worsening economic and political situation in Europe?

Given that the right hon. Gentleman has already helpfully announced all the recess dates for next year, will he now tell us the date of the rearranged Queen’s Speech? With crucial elections taking place countrywide on 3 May 2012, and with the Easter recess taking place between 27 March and 16 April, I am sure that he would not wish to put Her Majesty in a position where the ceremony of a State Opening runs up against election purdah. Our Head of State should not be used in a pre-election stunt by this Government, especially in her diamond jubilee year, so I hope that the right hon. Gentleman can reassure me on that important point.

The fact is that there should be a new Queen’s Speech next week, not next year. If one were happening now, the Government could start by admitting that they will have to revise their economic growth forecast down for the fourth time in 18 months, as unemployment and inflation soar and growth stalls. They ought to abandon their disastrous top-down reorganisation of our NHS and get to grips with the fiasco engulfing Britain’s border controls, and if the Chancellor had any sense he would swallow his pride and unveil a plan B to rescue our stagnating economy.

On the shambles at our borders, will the Leader of the House confirm to the House that the information given to the three inquiries that the Home Secretary has announced so far into those events will be published, so that we can get to the truth of what happened? Does he agree that that is especially important given that the former head of the border force has directly contradicted the account that the Home Secretary gave to the House and to the Home Affairs Committee?

The Rio plus 20 summit, the biggest meeting on the environment in 20 years, has been moved to avoid a clash with the diamond jubilee celebrations and to allow the attendance of all 54 Commonwealth leaders, but, despite the Prime Minister’s pre-election pledge to lead the “greenest Government ever”, we hear this week that he does not plan to attend. Does the Leader of the House agree that, by not attending, the Prime Minister is failing to show any leadership at all on climate change, despite his pre-election posturing and husky-hugging photo calls? Is it not now clear that the Government’s green credentials are being put in the bin quicker than the constituency correspondence of the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin)?

Speaking of privacy, I note that in the run-up to James Murdoch’s second appearance before the Culture Media and Sport Committee this morning, it has become clear that at least one Committee member has been

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subject to covert surveillance by News International. We know also from the comments of former members of the Committee that they were initially reluctant to pursue the phone hacking scandal with full rigour because they feared that they would be targeted in exactly the same way. Did the Prime Minister know about that when he decided to give Andy Coulson a job at the heart of Downing street? If not, why not? Given those extremely disturbing developments, which touch directly on the rights of Members of this House to pursue the truth without fear of intimidation, can we have a debate on Select Committee powers?

Sir George Young: I endorse what the hon. Lady said at the beginning of her remarks. Many of us will be at Remembrance day services on Sunday, and I am grateful to the House for enabling a portcullis to be prepared that Members of Parliament can insert in the wreath. I commend the Royal British Legion for its work in making that facility available.

On next week’s business, discussions took place through the usual channels on the Adjournment of the House on Tuesday and the House has voted on the matter. I say to the hon. Lady that if she compares the first two years of this Parliament with the first two years of the previous Parliament, she will find that we are sitting longer than our predecessor. It is also the case that we are regularly sitting in September. We sat in September last year and this year and we will do so next year, whereas we did not sit in September in the previous Parliament, so it is not the case that the House is not sitting as long as it has done.

I announced the dates of the Easter recess well in advance. We did not get the date of the 2010 Easter recess until a fortnight before it happened. The Queen’s Speech will be announced in the usual way. I hope that the hon. Lady will encourage good progress to be made in the other place with the Government’s legislative programme. I made a statement, I think, last year on the fact that the Queen’s Speech will be held in May to coincide with the fixed election dates of every five years, so that matter has already been dealt with. The Chancellor will make his statement on November 29, which will include the Office for Budget Responsibility’s updated forecast.

The hon. Lady asked about the reports referred to in yesterday’s debate. The chief inspector’s report will be made public, as the Home Secretary confirmed yesterday. The other two reports have data protection issues concerning disciplinary matters and will not be made public. On the related matters of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Leveson, it makes sense to await the outcome of the Leveson inquiry and the current DCMS report.

On Select Committee powers, we are committed to publishing a draft privilege Bill, which will be an opportunity for the House to consider issues of privilege. I anticipate that Select Committee powers will be embraced in that draft Bill.

Mr Bone: I did not support next week’s closure of Parliament, but I suggest that the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) did. Given what is happening in the eurozone and the fact that interest rates are very high for Italian bonds, it appears that the euro is on its

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last legs. If the euro collapses next week, will the Leader of the House recall Parliament so that we can debate that joyful occasion?

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend will know that the Prime Minister made a statement following the G20 meeting earlier this week. The House normally requires two days’ notice to be recalled, and as we are not sitting for only two days, I am not sure that I can respond positively to his request.

Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): The Leader of the House will not be surprised to hear that I am going to raise the matter of e-petitions again. Many e-petitions are being started by national newspapers and, as a result, are breaching the 100,000 signature threshold in under a week. The fact that e-petitions are being passed on to the Backbench Business Committee means we are becoming an e-petitions committee, rather than a Backbench Business Committee. Will he consider as a matter of urgency—preferably next week—allocating time specifically for e-petitions in Westminster Hall, to give us some breathing space until the Procedure Committee makes its recommendations in a report on how to deal with e-petitions in the long run?

Sir George Young: I believe e-petitions have been a success in building a bridge between people and Parliament and in ensuring that the House’s diet reflects the interests of those outside. I welcome what the hon. Lady’s Committee has been able to do so far in finding time to debate e-petitions and I recognise that the success of e-petitions has increased pressure on it. We are committed to a review of the Backbench Business Committee, and concurrently there is a review of the calendar of the House. That is the right context in which to visit the issue she rightly raises of the increased pressure on her Committee to find time for debates.

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Can we have a statement on the rate of interest we will be charging on the first tranche of the loan to Ireland? Some £400 million was paid to Ireland on 14 October. In an answer to a parliamentary question, I have been told that we have not yet agreed on the rate of interest, but that it will be significantly lower than it was at the time we discussed the matter in the House, earlier in the year, despite the fact the Irish Government bond rate is still well over 8%.

Sir George Young: I point out to my hon. Friend that we are debating related issues—the International Monetary Fund and the eurozone crisis—in Westminster Hall next Tuesday, when I expect a Treasury Minister to be responding. There will an opportunity for my hon. Friend to raise that question in that debate, which I am sure he will want to attend. I will ensure that the Treasury Minister is forewarned about where he is coming from.

Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): As you know, Mr Speaker, there will be presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the 28th of this month. Substantial evidence, which I have here, is emerging that a named individual, in collusion with some senior politicians

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in the DRC, is extracting billions of dollars of value, probably unlawfully. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on that subject?

Sir George Young: If there is any question of criminal activity, the appropriate authority is the police. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has taken the necessary steps to draw the matter to their attention.

Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): The Mayor of London has worked hard to champion the effect that financial services and the City have on the overall UK economy. May we have a debate on how we can help in a positive way and work with the City to create jobs and growth for the future?

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend is right to remind the House that financial services make a substantial contribution to Government revenues. With London as a financial service centre, we have a competitive advantage over many other countries. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has that matter at the front of his mind, and I suggest she awaits his statement at the end of the month.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): As hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree, some good progress has been made towards the changing structure of British Waterways and our fantastic canal network; however, discussions are ongoing on the transitional funds for the new trust. Can we be assured that there will be a debate in the House to deal with those important questions before any irrevocable decisions are taken?

Sir George Young: I understand that the matter may be subject to the Public Bodies Bill, which is still going through Parliament. I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s concern to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and seek to get the assurance he wants about the assets that are about to be transferred.

Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): May we please have a debate on the growth of academies? Nationally, under the coalition, the number of academies has grown sixfold, but in my constituency almost half the schools have become academies in just the past few months.

Sir George Young: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the sixfold increase in the number of academies since this Government came to office. Standards have increased in those schools, and in many cases, academies are linked to other schools in the same area and are driving up standards broadly. I would welcome such a debate, but I cannot promise one in the coming fortnight.

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman will know that a report issued by PricewaterhouseCoopers this morning shows that Wales and the north-east are suffering most from the economic downturn and his Government’s disastrous policies. He will also know that the regional growth fund is neither strategic nor large enough to address widening regional inequalities. Will he make time available to have a debate on what his Government are doing—or not doing—to address the growing north-south divide?

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Sir George Young: I am sure the hon. Lady does not want to be too dismissive of the regional growth fund, which is structured in such a way to assist those areas that have been overdependent on public employment for much of their job creation. We have taken other initiatives, such as enterprise zones and the investment in apprenticeships. I repeat to her what I said to an earlier questioner: how we promote growth is at the forefront of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s mind, and I urge her to await his statement at the end of the month.

Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): May we have a debate on renewable energy to discuss whether the time has come to follow the Danish model wherein local communities, which often see no direct benefit from wind farms, are compensated by developers should there be a loss of local amenities and a reduction in house prices?

Sir George Young: I will bring my hon. Friend’s suggestion to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. My hon. Friend will know that built into the planning system are incentives that encourage local people’s benefiting from some of the planning approvals awarded, particularly in the case of new development, and I will see whether that might be extended. My understanding is that in many cases there are benefits to the local community where, for example, wind energy is harnessed and that energy can be used in the first instance by local people.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Given the increasingly perilous situation surrounding Iran developing nuclear weapons, may we have an early debate on the subject, which should be attracting the attention of this House? Such a development would destabilise the middle east, and many of us are very worried about what the reaction of Israel might be.

Sir George Young: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was in the House yesterday when my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made a statement in which he spent some time on Iran. He made it clear that, while nothing should be taken off the table, in the meantime we prefer a diplomatic approach combined with adequate pressure on Iran to see whether we can try to find a stable solution to what is, I agree, a rather dangerous position.

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): Today I have written to the Leader of the House to say that the European Scrutiny Committee is deeply disturbed by the lack of formal parliamentary debate on the eurozone crisis. We have taken a unanimous decision to call on the Government to give Government time as soon as possible for a full three-hour debate on the Floor of the House. We are also calling on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to give evidence to the Committee in person. Will the Leader of the House grant that wish?

Sir George Young: The House has found time to debate matters relating to Europe: we recently had a debate on the referendum, and the Government provided a whole-day debate on the Council of Europe, so it is not the case that Europe has been entirely absent from our agenda. I have announced that there will be a

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debate on the accession of Croatia to the European Union. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend has put his request to the Backbench Business Committee. He will know from the business I have announced today that the Government are providing time for general debates—there is one today on armed forces personnel and one on security on Monday week—so I do not rule out at some point a debate along the lines he has suggested.

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): Is it not obvious to all of us that the reason the House of Commons is not going to be sitting next Wednesday and Thursday is so that the Prime Minister will not have to stand at the Dispatch Box on the day the new unemployment figures come out? If we are not here next week, I will be working hard in Dudley. I am sure the Prime Minister has already booked another one of his fancy foreign holidays. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Conservative Members might not be interested in unemployment, which is why they all voted to skive off next week, but I would much rather be here working out how we can deal with the record levels of unemployment that this Government have inflicted on Britain.

Sir George Young: The hon. Gentleman is obsessed by some conspiracy theory. The Prime Minister spent two or three hours before the Liaison Committee this week; he comes before the House regularly on Wednesdays; and he has made more statements than his predecessor. I think the person who will be most relieved that there is no sitting next Wednesday is the Leader of the Opposition. We take unemployment seriously. We had a debate yesterday, when the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), and my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning set out what we are doing to address the high level of unemployment that we inherited from the Labour Government.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): Earlier this week, I was walking down Whitehall and a piece of paper from a gentleman called Mr Livingstone was thrust into my hand. It purported that he was going to have a fares freeze on transport in London. Imagine my surprise when I got back to my office and looked at the history, only to discover that last time he promised to do that, when elected he put up fares by 10%. May we have a debate on transport in London so that innocent Londoners can be made aware of the outrageous claims of this man?

Sir George Young: I would welcome such a debate. Of course, if fares were cut, that might have a read-across to the capital programme, including Crossrail and the tube upgrades. I am sure that Londoners are far too sophisticated to be misled by the sort of piece of paper of which my hon. Friend was the recipient earlier this week.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): The “Not in my Cuppa” campaign by the World Society for the Protection of Animals was successful in defeating a mega-dairy proposal in Nocton, Lincolnshire, but we now discover that a vote by six councillors in Powys, against officers’

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advice, means that one may be built in Wales. May we have a debate on protecting animal welfare and resisting these mega-dairies?

Sir George Young: I think that that is more a matter for Ministers at the Department for Communities and Local Government or, if it is a delegated matter, for the Welsh Assembly. I will draw the hon. Gentleman’s concern to the attention of the relevant Minister, but we are anxious to devolve decisions and we believe that most of those decisions are best taken at local level rather than here in Whitehall.

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): Now that this House has voted to bring an end to the racketeering that is clamping on private land, we should not lose sight of the fact that until April next year many, often vulnerable, people will still be caught out by unscrupulous firms. May we have a statement to set out what can be done for my constituents who have had tickets issued by City Watch for cars they do not own, when they were at home, or before they arrived in the car park, or who have been clamped while administering emergency first aid to a fellow patron? Perhaps most disgracefully, the vehicles of the elderly and disabled have been towed away and they have then been issued with four-figure fines.

Sir George Young: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She will know that the Protection of Freedoms Bill, which is currently in another place, bans the clamping of vehicles on private land. In the meantime, I applaud what she is doing to protect vulnerable people from the activities of clamping authorities. I commend all Members of Parliament to do what she has done and, where appropriate, if they cannot reach a resolution with the clamping company, to raise cases with the Security Industry Authority or the British Parking Association. She reminds the House of how important it is that that Bill should reach the statute book and that such abuses should not take place again.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): May we have a debate on the child protection implications of the Government’s policy of increasing to 35 the age of those who will receive only shared accommodation housing benefit? Crisis estimates that 50% of those affected have regular contact with their children. Where are these children to sleep on overnight visits to their separated parent? Are they to sleep in their parent’s room or on the sofa in the shared accommodation? Are there to be enhanced disclosure checks on the other residents in the shared property to ensure the protection of these children? Can we debate the implications for children placed at risk by this Government policy?

Sir George Young: The hon. Lady will know that there have been some broader changes to housing benefit regulations whereby people of an older age are expected to continue to share with their parents, but I am not sure whether that is the issue she has in mind. If she is concerned about child protection, then yes of course I will raise that with relevant Ministers and make sure that we do not put children unnecessarily at risk because of the changes.