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29 Jan 2008 : Column 18WH—continued

However, in quoting from some of the media coverage—hon. Members will see that my grievance against the media is a constant theme of many of my contributions in this place—the right hon. Gentleman said that, given the age of the infrastructure, it is surprising that so many services run on time. I paraphrase; I am not sure which newspaper he was quoting from. There is an assumption, and a danger, that Members will copy or cite that example. There is an assumption that Britain’s infrastructure cannot be described in any other terms than to use the adjective “crumbling”. That is simply not the case, certainly not when it comes to the railway
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infrastructure, given the huge amounts of investment that have been made and the huge amount of successful work carried out by Network Rail on renewals on the railway network. We are a long, long way away from even a few years ago, during the Railtrack times, and certainly from the 1970s, 1960s and 1950s, when, as the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) correctly said, Governments of both parties were responsible for ignoring and crippling the railway infrastructure with cuts in investment.

We are a long, long way away from that situation now and I just want to put it on record, because it is not said often enough, that, as far as railway carriages themselves are concerned, we have the youngest fleet in the whole of Europe. Yes, there are examples and comparisons that we can give that allegedly put the British railway service in a worse light than many of our European counterparts, but simply in terms of the age of our rolling stock infrastructure we have the newest, youngest fleet of any of the major developed countries in Europe. That is something that we should be proud of and it is something that we should ask all of our colleagues in all parts of the House to recognise, because that is a success story, and we should stop talking down the railway industry as though it is some kind of third world or banana republic failing system, because that is absolutely the opposite of the reality.

The right hon. Gentleman also said—I do not know if these were his own words or a quote from The Daily Telegraph—that Network Rail was “keeping demand in check”. That is similar to the accusation that the Government are trying to price people off the railways; if that is actually the case, we are doing a terrible job of it, given that 40 per cent. more people are now using the railways than was the case 10 years ago. I understand why these political criticisms are made, but there is not a single shred of evidence to suggest that any major line anywhere in the country is showing a decrease over the last 10 years in the number of people using it or is predicted to show a reduction in demand over the next five to seven years. On the whole, therefore, although I respect the view that the right hon. Gentleman expressed, he painted quite an inaccurate picture of Network Rail and its operations.

The right hon. Gentleman talked—inevitably, but understandably—about his concerns on fare increases, as did his hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech). He said that passengers should reasonably expect fares to rise by less than inflation. Once again, to provide some clarity, the Government have said explicitly, in our White Paper, that the current regulation of fares—in other words, those fares that are regulated by the Government—will continue to be regulated by the existing policy of inflation plus 1 per cent. during the rest of the current control period, which ends in 2009, right up until the end of the next control period, which ends in 2014.

Of course, that will cause some challenge to some of our media detractors, who, year on year, sometimes month on month, like to announce front page news that there will be “inflation-busting fare rises”. If one wishes to put it that way, there have been inflation-busting fare rises since 2004, when this policy was introduced and
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we institutionalised regulated fare increases to be inflation plus 1 per cent. That policy will remain until the end of the next control period.

That policy is justified, given the under-investment in the railways that I acknowledge has happened under Governments of both parties since the end of the second world war. We have seen significant increases in investment since 1997—I do not think that any party in the House would query or challenge me on the fact that we have seen record investment in the railway industry since 1997—but that money has to come from somewhere. I know that it is turning into a bit of a cliché, but there are only two sources of revenue for the railway industry; the taxpayer and the fare payer. We have made a deliberate political decision that the balance should shift towards the fare payer in the next control period. The taxpayer will be expected to continue, and will continue, contributing a huge amount of investment, but it is only fair that the travelling public should make a contribution.

On the development of our high-level output specification, the Government faced the difficult question of where to allocate funds over the next control period. The £15 billion that is available for spending on the railways is an historically large amount, and we have decided to use £10 billion of that explicitly to increase capacity on the railways. Different political parties can disagree with our conclusions on that, and different priorities demand our attention—electrification, high-speed lines and the reopening of old lines have all been mentioned—but we have taken the deliberately political decision to make extra capacity our priority. The right hon. Gentleman may believe that some of the £10 billion that is to be used to increase capacity should be used further to subsidise currently unregulated fares, and that is of course a perfectly legitimate political position to take, but it is not one that I share, because that would not be a good use of public money. The demands on infrastructure and rolling stock are so great that the priority should be to spend the money on the 1,300 new carriages that are due for delivery in the next control period.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the new Arriva CrossCountry franchise and the cutting back of services. Let me make it clear that the Department does not specify levels of catering on any of our franchises. I never received so many approaches from fellow MPs from all parties as I did when the GNER franchise was handed back. They were concerned about the future of the excellent buffet services that had been available on the GNER service, which were a luxury that I suspect they particularly enjoyed. However, I had to disappoint them by making it clear that we had never specified the level of catering on GNER and that we did not intend to specify the level for the new franchise. Similarly, we did not specify the level of catering on the new CrossCountry franchise. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the hot buffet service, but the hot food service on other franchises, including Virgin West Coast, is available only at seat in first class, so the problems that he said affect the new CrossCountry franchise are quite prevalent in other parts of the railway industry. That is not necessarily an excuse, but nor is this something that affects Arriva alone.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about customer information, which is incredibly important. He is right that the current fare structure and the system for getting information about the cheapest available fares is completely
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unfit for purpose. We are working closely on the issue in partnership with the Association of Train Operating Companies. In October, the industry will produce the new fares structure that we have been working on with it. That structure will streamline all existing tickets into four main types. There will also be a new price promise, and we are working with all the train-operating companies to get their unanimous agreement on it. Essentially, that will mean that if a passenger buys a ticket and then discovers that they could have got a better value ticket for the same journey, the train-operating company will reimburse them for the difference. That does not happen at the moment. If we can reach an agreement with all the train-operating companies by October on implementing that process, it will be a major boost to the travelling public.

Mr. Leech: Will the Minister confirm whether that will include tickets that are bought on the train? Obviously, passengers on the train can pay only the full-price standard or first-class fare.

Mr. Harris: I ask the hon. Gentleman to wait until we make the announcement in October. I hope that there will be a clean slate in terms of the whole fare structure, the way in which customers buy tickets and the way in which they are reimbursed and protected, so that when confusion arises and people end up buying the wrong product, they are given appropriate reimbursement. The hon. Gentleman may well be right, but I do not want to pre-empt any of the discussions between the DFT and the train-operating companies.

Mr. Leech: My party would support the opportunity for people to buy the cheapest available tickets both on and off the train. I hope that the Minister will take that on board and raise it in his discussions with the train-operating companies.

Mr. Harris: I shall certainly pass the hon. Gentleman’s remarks to the team of negotiators who are working with the DFT and the train-operating companies.

Stephen Hammond: Will the Minister clarify whether the four fares that will be put in place will all be dealt with under the regulated fare regime?

Mr. Harris: Some will, some will not. The fares are titled off-peak, super off-peak, anytime and advance. The fare regulation system will not be changing, and we do not expect to extend regulation beyond the types of ticket that we currently regulate, for the reasons that I set out. However, we shall try to ensure that it is clear to the travelling public which fares are regulated and which continue to be unregulated.

In the few minutes that I have left, I want to deal specifically with the right hon. Gentleman’s comments.
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He claimed that the Secretary of State had dismissed high-speed lines, although he later clarified what he meant by that. It is true that, in the high-level output specification in the White Paper that we published in July, we did not make a commitment to build high-speed lines in the next control period. However, I refer him to the excellent report submitted to the Department last year by Rod Eddington. He concluded that connectivity, which is sometimes used to justify building high-speed lines, is not a strong enough argument to justify the expenditure involved. He noted that most large urban populations are reasonably well connected and that travel times are not particularly impractical. However, he also said that meeting capacity demands between the major urban centres over the next decade will create demand for new corridors and that high-speed lines might be a solution. He also made it clear that new motorways might be a solution, although the Liberal Democrats might not be particularly comfortable with that.

We are talking, however, about big decisions, which involve big money, and the Government will make those decisions in due course. It would be wrong to say that the Department will be ignoring the issue until our announcement in 2012, because we will be doing a lot of work between now and then on whether high-speed lines will give value for money and are an appropriate response to the capacity demands that will beset us in the early part of the decade after next. It would be wrong to say that the Secretary of State has dismissed the case for high-speed lines; there are ongoing discussions about the issue within the Government, and it is still on the table. However, we will not commit to anything for the next control period.

I understand the excitement that was caused by the opening of St. Pancras and High Speed 1, which gave a tremendous boost to the image of Britain’s railway services, but it would be wrong to start coming up with public policy on the back of the hype. Regardless of the right hon. Gentleman’s admonition that large projects can be paid for over many years, we are still talking about very real money—£30 billion over 10 years—and it will have to come from somebody’s budget. We shall therefore take the necessary decisions in due course, although I accept that that is never quick enough for most people in the railway industry. None the less, the decisions will be taken, and we shall take our time about that because there is no need to reach a decision earlier than 2012. I am therefore confident that we will come to the right decision either for or against high-speed lines.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the Union, and it is a pity that no Scottish National party Member has seen fit to be present for this debate. He is right that we are one country, and high-speed lines would provide, if not necessarily the economic boost that he spoke about, a very physical representation of the Union between Scotland and England.

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Teenage Pregnancies

11 am

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I shall begin with three brief stories. The first comes from my constituency last Friday, when I spoke to various older ladies about their experiences of teenage pregnancy and how they thought that it affected other people’s lives. One lady, in her late 40s, said to me touchingly, “I had a baby at the age of 16 and I absolutely love my kids, but it meant that I lost my childhood, education and most of my opportunities in life. I have rebuilt my life now, but I really wish that I had left it until later.” That happens to an awful lot of young mums in my constituency.

The second story was told to me by a teacher at Treorchy comprehensive. She was talking to one of the girls in her class, who was by no means stupid—in fact, she was quite clever—but who was having difficulties at home. She did not seem to be trying hard for her GCSEs and the teacher said to her, “Why don’t you try a bit harder, because this is really important for your future?”, and the girl replied, “Well, miss, there’s not much point, because I’m going to get pregnant next year”. The teacher asked, “What do you mean you’re going to get pregnant next year? You haven’t even got a boyfriend”, to which the girl replied, “It doesn’t really matter who the boy is; I’m going to get pregnant next year.” The teacher said to me, “The sad thing is that that is exactly what happened.” The girl got pregnant at 16 and left her education before completing her GCSEs.

The third story is about a 15-year-old constituent of mine, who has had her first baby—she is even thinking about having a second—and who said to me, “Well, the thing is I was doing really badly at school. I was being picked on and bullied. All the other girls hated me, and I didn’t have any friends. And at home it was miserable.” She told me all sorts of things with which I shall not delay the Chamber this morning. She said, “I just thought that if I had a baby, I would have a purpose in life, somebody to love and somebody to love me.” She will probably be quite a good mum—she is a lovely young woman. And of course many teenage mums turn out to be fabulous mums, against the odds, and often are so determined and capable that they can rebuild their lives.

None the less, I believe that teenage pregnancy is one of the biggest and most difficult problems facing constituencies such as mine. The map of teenage pregnancy in Britain is the map of poverty and deprivation. Last week, I put together some statistics, which, for the first time, were done by constituency, rather than by local authority. They show that the map is a consistent line of the poorest communities in this country. Britain, as a whole, has a poor record. We have the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe. It is not just slightly higher than other countries—it is five times higher than in Holland, three times higher than in France and double the figure in Germany. In fact, only one country in the world has a higher figure than ours—the United States of America.

Some might say, “Why does that matter? It is always lovely to see a new baby, and with a young mum able to give the child all the care that she can”. In truth, it is bad for both the girl and the child. It is more than likely that the girl will never finish her education, get any
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qualifications or get work, and she is more likely to live a life on benefits and to suffer from significant mental health problems during the early years of her baby’s life. As one young boy in the Rhondda told me, “A life on benefits still means that you’re poor.”

There are problems for the children as well. The baby is likely to weigh much less at birth than those born to more mature girls. As a result, and because teenage mums are less likely to breastfeed, the children are more likely to have medical problems as they go through life. The pressures on teenage mums are such that quite a lot of their children do not end up receiving a full set of vaccinations or the medical support that they need during the first two years of life, which can result in further problems later on. Quite depressingly, a very high percentage of the daughters of teenage mums become teenage mums themselves. As wealth is inherited, so, all too often, is poverty.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): As the person who holds the unenviable title of Member for the constituency at the top of the list for teenage pregnancy, I really appreciate my hon. Friend raising this debate and his courage in talking about the problem. He mentioned the intergenerational nature of teenage pregnancy. Does he accept that, marvellous though the work being done for pregnant women and young mums is, early intervention is the key to breaking the intergenerational cycle? For example, is he aware of the work that we are doing in Nottingham to create a change in culture? It aims to ensure that people receive the right pre and post-natal care, as well as intensive health visits. We are also developing the programme on the social and emotional aspects of learning at primary and secondary schools, and ultimately, as part of the early intervention package—

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. As well as being early, interventions should be brief.

Chris Bryant: Notwithstanding your comments, Mr. Taylor, my hon. Friend was making a very important point about the need for all the different agencies to work together, which has very much been the thrust of the Government’s message over the past 10 years. Incidentally, I pay tribute to the Government for having spotted this as a significant issue, and for having sought to bring every measure to bear to tackle it. The difficulty for us is that other countries started to tackle the causes much earlier and were able to cut teenage pregnancy rates dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s. However, it has taken us much longer. We have cut them by 12 per cent. in the past few years, but that is not enough.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): It seems that a very mechanical approach is being taken to this serious issue. Would it not be better to involve local groups in order to achieve more successful and relevant results in local communities, rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach, which clearly does not work in areas such as the Rhondda and the Isle of Wight?

Chris Bryant: Actually, I think that in some areas we do need to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, because we should not be sending out mixed messages to young people—a part of the problem that I shall come to a little later. Also, the problem presents itself in different
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ways in different communities. For instance, as many youngsters in the Rhondda have pointed out to me, a youngster in Cardiff might find it very easy to access a sexual health advice clinic with anonymity and to buy contraceptives in the local branch of Boots, but in the Rhondda, it is almost certain that the woman behind the counter—it will be a woman—will know their mother. Youngsters are more intimidated in some areas than in others when trying to access contraception. Furthermore, of course, in rural areas advice centres might be so widely dispersed that access is difficult. Local authorities and the various agencies need to work together to find practical and workable solutions.

The Government have rightly pointed out that single people acting as champions on behalf of voluntary and public sector organisations can make a significant difference. Interestingly, in some areas teenage pregnancy rates have risen over the past 10 years—quite dramatically in certain places—but in others they have fallen dramatically. In one area, the figure has risen by 40 per cent., but in several others it has fallen by that much.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): I echo my hon. Friend’s comments. The situation that he describes in his constituency applies to some wards in mine. He talks about percentages. Last Friday, I raised this problem with people at Salford primary care trust, who pointed out that the data on teenage pregnancy are two or more years out of date. If a health body adopts measures, it must be an issue. Will he impress on the Minister that, if the Office for National Statistics provided health bodies and others with more up-to-date data, we could observe more readily the trends and whether the action being taken is having a good effect?

Chris Bryant: There are some things on which I want to press the Minister, but that is not one, oddly, because there is a real difficulty in working out the teenage pregnancy rate, which is the most significant issue that we must tackle. The rate must be predicated on the number of live births—obviously, nine months after the pregnancy starts—minus the number of legal abortions. That is how the statistics are worked out, so there will always be some drag on them. The truth is that what happens in any one constituency does not matter, although in the Rhondda in 2006 there were 101 teenage pregnancies, and in Kensington and Chelsea there were just 11, despite more people living in the latter than in the former. The issue is not the absolute figures but the trend, which needs to move much more resolutely downward.

Teenage pregnancy is also a problem because it affects the most vulnerable in society. The most distressing statistic that I came across—I shall not bore Members with many statistics—is that 50 per cent. of teenage girls in care will become a teenage mum either while in care or within 18 months of leaving it. The state already takes care of those people, but they are the most vulnerable. If we cannot put things right with that group of young girls, we will have difficulty with others.

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