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9 Jun 2010 : Column 26WH—continued

11.13 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) on securing a debate on the important topic of transport in the south Devon area. I am aware that he has campaigned tirelessly for transport improvements in Torbay and the surrounding area since his election to Parliament in 1997. If I may make a partisan point, it is good to see him back in the House.

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I also very much welcome the hon. Members for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) and for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) to their places in this House. I note that all three Members spoke with one voice today, which I suppose is a demonstration of coalition politics in action.

As the coalition agreement makes clear, we believe that a modern transport infrastructure is important for a dynamic and entrepreneurial economy. We are determined to make the transport sector greener and more sustainable, with tougher emissions standards and support for new transport technologies. The coalition agreement also makes clear that tackling climate change is one of the biggest challenges that we face and that a wide range of levers will need to be used to cut carbon emissions. Transport policy will clearly have a major role to play, given that carbon emissions from transport are still rising.

With that in mind, the Department for Transport is committed to reforming how decisions are made on which transport schemes to prioritise around the country, not least so that the benefits of low-carbon proposals are fully recognised. Of course, particularly given the current fiscal constraints, we need to ensure that any new transport infrastructure is affordable and offers value for money. Those two issues-the reform of how decisions are made and the review of all planned Government expenditure-mean that today I will not be able to be as helpful to my hon. Friend as I would like to be.

I turn specifically to the issues affecting south Devon. As my hon. Friend will know, the area is currently served by two main roads running south-west from Exeter: the A38, for which the Highways Agency is mainly responsible, and the A380, which is the responsibility of Devon county council. The area is also served by the railway line that he referred to, which runs between Exeter, Newton Abbot and Paignton, and between Newton Abbot and Plymouth. Both the lines to Paignton and Plymouth have daily services running to London, Bristol, the midlands and the north, as well as local services to Exeter and beyond, which also stop at a number of other smaller stations.

My hon. Friend asked me about the status of Torquay and Paignton rail stations. The Department for Transport does not classify stations as "mainline" or otherwise. However, Network Rail classes both Torquay and Paignton as category C stations-that is, they are important feeder stations-and further definition is included in the station champions' "Better Rail Stations" report.

I know that my hon. Friend has been very active in campaigning for more through trains between Torbay and London Paddington, and I am delighted to confirm that, from December 2010, one additional through service each way will be provided on that route. The current service provides for a 7.30 am train to arrive at Exeter at 10.12 am. The new service will provide an earlier fast train service to Exeter and Torbay, with arrival at Exeter at 9.30 am and at Paignton at 10.6 am. The aim of this new early train service is to strengthen business links between the west country and London. It will also help to boost tourism, which I know is an issue that my hon. Friend takes very seriously indeed.

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Anne Marie Morris: Although speed is clearly crucial for my constituents, through whose area this railway passes as it runs down the coast, we absolutely need this railway for tourism. There has been a lot of concern in the constituency that the money to support the line, which I know is one of the most expensive lines in the country to maintain, will not be forthcoming. I would be grateful if the Minister considered the issue of tourism, and therefore the impact on the local economy, when he makes decisions about money being invested in that particular railway line.

Norman Baker: I should say that decisions on rail investment are not for me to make in my particular portfolio. However, I can say that the Government are entirely seized of the importance of tourism to the south-west and that that factor will be taken into account in making any decisions about transport infrastructure and any other issues relating to Government investment.

The new train service that I referred to will allow business passengers to travel from London and do a full day's business in Torbay, as well as cater for people on holiday who prefer not to change trains, which was the point that the hon. Member for Newton Abbot made.

Rolling stock was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay. As far as that is concerned, the Department for Transport has recently signed a deed of amendment with First Great Western. That ensures that there will be ongoing funding for 30 vehicles that would otherwise cease to be funded by First Great Western itself. I hope that he will accept that that is good news for the rolling stock for the area.

The Government want to see rail prosper and we certainly value the rail links to the south-west. We do not have individual strategies for each part of the country, but the strategy for the network as a whole is set out in the Department for Transport's high level output specification document. It is focused on improvements in safety and performance, and, crucially, on providing more capacity.

We made it clear in the coalition agreement that we will grant longer rail franchises, giving train operators more incentive to invest in better services, rolling stock, stations and perhaps even enhancements to the network. We want a better deal for passengers, with fair pricing for rail travel and the rail regulator as a powerful passenger champion. We also want to see Network Rail being made more accountable to its customers, both the train companies and-frankly-ultimately the public at large.

Given the upcoming spending review, we are unable to commit today to any further immediate improvements to rail services elsewhere in the south Devon area. However, we will monitor the current usage of rail services and re-evaluate them in the light of the emerging financial situation.

My hon. Friend is also concerned about the road network. I acknowledge the importance that he and others attach to the A380 Kingskerswell bypass scheme, also known as the south Devon link road, and his strong view that it is key to supporting the regeneration of Torbay and the surrounding area. I also note the scheme's long history; it goes back to 1951, which is, I think, before either of us was born.

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The scheme's promoters-Devon and Torbay county councils, with the support of the other councils to which hon. Members have referred-have made the case for the bypass to the Department. As my hon. Friend acknowledged, progress is well advanced. The view expressed is that the A380 is an important link to south Devon and that the congestion between Penn Inn and Kerswell Gardens affects the business and commercial needs of Torbay throughout the year, as well as the tourist trade in summer.

I understand that the promoters have developed the scheme in recent years on the strength of the priority given to it by the previous Government within their regional funding allocation process. However, any new Government will naturally have their own views on which major schemes should be supported by Government funding, and I am afraid that we will need to consider the scheme in the light of the tough spending review to come. After the public inquiry in July 2009, as my hon. Friend knows, an inspector's report on the scheme orders was submitted to the Secretary of State for a decision. Given the current uncertainty about funding, we must consider such decisions carefully and will be making a statement on the subject shortly.

It should also be acknowledged that considerable opposition exists alongside the local and regional support for the scheme, as my hon. Friend acknowledged. I am sure that he is aware that several well-organised campaign groups have expressed opposition, including the Campaign for Better Transport, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Kingskerswell Alliance, which is made up of residents of Newton Abbot and Kingskerswell. Those groups believe that Devon and Torbay should be considering more sustainable alternatives that have less impact on the environment.

Mr Sanders: Can my hon. Friend mention one road-building scheme that has had no objections at all?

Norman Baker: I am not aware of any, but it is only fair in a debate of this nature to reflect the comments both for and against the scheme received by the Department, as I hope I am doing. There are strong views on the scheme, and it is important to listen to both sides of the argument, as I am sure my hon. Friend, as a fair man, would acknowledge.

In addition to those issues, we must also consider the wider funding position and what it means for the affordability of a £130 million road scheme. As we are all aware, the current fiscal situation means that we must consider carefully future funding decisions on all transport schemes across England and Wales.

My hon. Friend asked what mechanism is being used to assess which projects should receive funding. As I
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mentioned, the Government have committed in the coalition agreement to review how decisions are made on which transport projects will be prioritised. We are at the start of that process. Until that is complete and the spending review is concluded, we will not be making any funding approval decisions. I made that point clear in a recent letter to Nick Bye, mayor of Torbay, who wrote to me about the Kingskerswell bypass.

The hon. Member for Totnes asked how many projects are being reviewed and what their total value is. The Government are reviewing all funding approvals made by the previous Government from 1 January 2010, and we hope to conclude that review soon. Additionally, all schemes granted conditional approval or programme entry by the previous Government will be reviewed as part of the spending review. There are 42 such schemes, and the total requested Department for Transport contribution is about £1.5 billion. However, those schemes will not necessarily be given priority over schemes that have not received any previous funding approval. Pending further discussions with our Treasury colleagues, we are not in a position to say how much the Department will want to cut from the total. That is what the spending review is for. However, no one should assume that schemes prioritised under the previous Government's regional funding allocation process will be funded to the previous published levels.

Finally, in response to my hon. Friend's question about prioritising schemes that are more advanced, as is this particular road scheme, I am afraid that, for the reasons that I have given, the Department can offer no guarantees. However, I can confirm that priority will be given to projects that align with the Government's priorities and are affordable.

I understand fully my hon. Friend's desire for a positive decision on the funding for the Kingskerswell bypass, not least because of how much time has passed since 1951. However, the sad fact is that many other local authorities around the country are in a similar position, wondering what the future holds for their planned transport schemes. I hope that he will acknowledge that the Government need to consider all funding commitments carefully.

As with all other major local transport schemes, the Department can offer no particular assurances at this point regarding future funding, but I give my hon. Friend my personal assurance that, as part of our wider spending review, I will consider carefully the case for the funding of the Kingskerswell bypass and take into account the comments made today by him and hon. Members from nearby constituencies.

11.24 am

Sitting suspended.

9 Jun 2010 : Column 31WH

Child Poverty

4 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Despite the current economic uncertainty, Britain remains one of the wealthiest nations on earth. It is therefore to the lasting shame of successive Governments that our country has one of the worst levels of child poverty in the developed world and one of the worst in Europe, with poverty rates worse even than those of the former communist countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania-a point I have already made in an intervention on the Prime Minister.

According to the charity Barnardo's, in the UK there are 2.8 million children living in poverty before housing costs are taken into account, which I gather is the previous Government's preferred measure. However, Barnardo's tells me that that figure soars to 3.9 million after housing costs are taken into account, according to the 2007-08 "Households Below Average Income" report, published last year by the Department for Work and Pensions. I was shocked by the following disturbing extract from the "Hard Times" report published by Save the Children in 2006:

What should the new Government do now? Well, here is one thought that Barnardo's has put to me:

Save the Children told me:

Putting to one side the obvious reasons why a civilised society should not tolerate child poverty, Save the Children then makes the financial case for ending it:

I therefore invite the Minister to have a meeting with Save the Children, Barnardo's and the other charities that do so much work to help children, to discuss what needs to be done. Working together, as a big coalition of people with shared interests, makes sense. It would make further sense if there were a permanent standing committee, for example, involving Government and those organisations, to help with formulating policies and strategies, in the spirit of joined-up government across all Departments. I also seek a pledge from the Minister this afternoon that there will be no delay and no dilution of the provisions set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010, including measures on the poverty reduction target and setting up the child poverty commission, which are a matter of urgency.

Child poverty issues are usually even worse for households with one or more children with a disability, and for single-parent families. Today, I shall combine strong criticism primarily of the last Labour Government with a reminder to the Conservative party that the situation has not arisen in the past 13 years but was inherited
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from when it was last in office. Successive Governments should hang their heads in shame. Generations of young people have been let down.

My message to the new coalition Government is this: quite simply, we must do better. Abolition of child poverty in the lifetime of the present Government must be the target. Whatever the economic issues facing the country, it simply cannot be right in a civilised society to have children living in conditions that are deemed to be below the official poverty line.

I recognise that this is all relative. What is described as poverty in the UK is not the poverty that can be found in third-world countries or in the slums of some overseas cities, where obscene wealth and grinding poverty are physically close to each other but worlds apart in terms of quality of life and life expectancy.

That said, I was deeply shocked by a poster I saw in a church in Colchester last month. It prompted me to table early-day motion 39, which states:

And this is Britain in the second decade of the third millennium.

Much was expected of new Labour in tackling child poverty. I do not doubt for a minute that it had sincere intentions, but the stark reality is that it failed, and failed big-time. I cannot speak of child poverty at first hand. I grew up in a family environment in which I did not want for food, clothing or housing. My wife and I were able to provide for our four children. I am now a grandfather and grateful that my two grandsons and my infant granddaughter do not experience the child poverty that so many children experience. However, I have been involved in political life in my home town for 40 years or so, and have experience of working on a local newspaper; and as every MP can vouch through work in his or her advice bureau, we know child poverty when we see it.

As word spread that I had secured the debate, I received considerable background briefing from different organisations concerned with tackling child poverty. That so many exist is proof of the seriousness of the situation. I cannot possibly in 15 minutes do justice to what they told me, but I hope I will be able to convey the importance of their concerns. I place on the record my thanks to those that have contacted me: Barnardo's, Save the Children, the Children's Society, the National Childminding Association and the Child Poverty Action Group.

The Children's Society told me about the good childhood inquiry, the report of which was published last year. I shall quote one telling comment from its briefing to me:

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