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8.17 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I am most grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate on matters to be considered before the Christmas Adjournment--or, perhaps more apocalyptically, matters to be considered before the end of the millennium. It may be the right moment to place on the record my appreciation of the efforts of the bodies in my constituency to celebrate the millennium.

I shall not be polite about the dome--I shall be entirely consistent on that matter. I have been rude before and I shall be rude again, and I suspect that, as a result, I am not on the Christmas card list of the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I am talking about the individual community efforts that are taking place throughout the country--small-scale schemes in villages and small towns, which have much to commend them. I think of the church bell schemes--I saw some instituted in Isle Abbotts recently. I think of millennium greens. I think of the excellent work done on Jack and Jill hill--the hill that Jack and Jill went up to fetch their pail of water, in Kilmersdon in my constituency--which has now been reconstituted by the efforts of local people. All are excellent schemes.

I do not intend to spend my entire time in congratulating my constituents, tempting though that is. Instead, I shall address a serious matter, which I believe that the House should consider, and should consider time and again in the next few months. That is the very real threat that has been posed by the Government's actions to rural sub-post offices--and urban post offices because they will face the same dangers.

I do not believe that the Government have grasped the scale of the problem. They cannot have grasped the extent to which people are concerned about the threat to their local sub-post offices. They realise, if the Government do not, that half our rural sub-post offices could disappear in the next few years, as a result of Government actions. Regrettable is not a sufficient word to describe that. It would be worse than a decimation.

I am indebted to the actions of our major regional newspaper, the Western Daily Press, which has been running a vigorous campaign on the issue. If Ministers need proof of how upset people are about the issue, they need only look at the coverage in the Western Daily Press and consider the number of people who are queueing up to sign a petition in their tens--I think hundreds--of thousands. People are even demanding a petition in their sub-post office, if there is not already one there, so that they may add their name to the list.

I had a valuable meeting with the postmasters and postmistresses from the smaller post offices in my constituency. It took place at 2 o'clock on a Saturday

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afternoon when most of them were trying to run their businesses. My constituency is large--it can take an hour and a quarter to drive from the far end of it to Frome where the meeting was held--but, despite all that, the postmasters and postmistresses were there in number. The majority were represented and they were unanimous in their view. Every one of them saw the Government's plans as a threat to their businesses over the next few years.

I do not dispute that the Government's proposals for automation will unlock potential in sub-post offices. I want that to happen and I want such post offices to extend the range of services that they provide. However, the Government's plans for the payments of benefits and pensions and for the changeover to automated credit transfer will have a simultaneous and opposite effect. It represents a real threat to those businesses. I am told that up to 35 per cent. of the turnover of the post offices in my constituency comes from the payment of pensions and benefits and that, in urban areas, that figure can rise even higher. However, post offices will lose not just that business, which they undertake on an agency basis, but the added business that goes with it. When people come into a post office to collect their pensions, they do their shopping or pick up a newspaper; they do other business.

Postmasters and postmistresses also see a second threat--a threat to the value of their businesses. Those of them who are thinking of retiring and believe that they have served the community for long enough find it almost impossible to dispose of their businesses in the present climate and with the uncertainty that lies ahead. It is difficult to produce a realistic business plan. If someone wants to buy a post office, he cannot produce a realistic business plan that will satisfy the banks enough to lend him money. They do not know what sort of business will be there in future.

The continuation of such businesses, the loss of jobs and, most of all, the loss of community facilities are real issues. Villages have lost so many things in recent years. Many villages do not have a village shop, post office or pub. However, the Government's proposal is a further threat to village life and it will encourage villages to become dormitories and museums rather than the living communities that we want them to be.

Coupled with the difficulties to the businesses themselves are the difficulties that will be posed to the many people who collect their pensions or benefits from post offices. Pensioners are an important group in that respect, but they are not the only people in that position. Those with disabilities and young mothers who do not have transport of their own may find that the post office is an essential resource if they are to lead their normal lives. They will be placed in an almost impossible position if, at some stage in the future, they cannot use post offices to collect their pensions or benefits.

The answer often given is that such people should use bank accounts. However, there are several problems with forcing people to have bank accounts. First, there is the question whether the clearing banks would be prepared to accept their business. People on low incomes are very often not considered to be good credit risks by banks and credit is often determined by the postcode of where one happens to reside. I foresee real problems. We could end up with the Government having to pay the banks to take the business rather than paying post offices to continue the business that they carry out.

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People on low incomes can ill afford the charges on bank accounts. Perhaps Ministers have forgotten the problems in living from hand to mouth and managing a very small budget over a month rather than over a week. It is intensely difficult for people to manage in those circumstances, as any citizens advice bureau and any Member who has held a surgery knows. However, the Government's proposal would take away a facility that enables people to budget more easily.

Transport is another problem. Many people cannot get to a bank. They are airily told that they can use an automated telling machine. However, in some areas of my constituency, the nearest automated telling machine is 30 miles away. How on earth are people supposed to use that? How on earth are they supposed to find the public transport, which does not exist, to get them to a bank, which does not exist, so that they can withdraw the money that is rightfully theirs?

There are also societal problems. Post offices provide a much wider resource than simply paying over money or selling a jar of coffee. They perform a social function that is critical in these days when people are often terribly isolated and find it difficult to meet others. The post office is the place where they meet, do business and can find a friend or a contact who they know will be on their side and who will assist them when they need help.

The Government's suggestion is based on making savings to the social security budget. No one in the House would deny the desirability of making savings on that budget if the money can be used elsewhere. However, those savings should not be made at the expense of people or of individual or community interests.

If the Minister agrees that the post office network is valuable--I believe that it is invaluable--will he tell us how the Government will sustain it to the point that it can benefit from automation? It is no good saying that there will be jam tomorrow if post offices go out of business today. How will the Government help those who rely on post offices for their pensions and benefits? We have heard much about the social exclusion unit, and this job, above all others, is one for that unit. It should provide a strategy to deal with a problem before it is created by a Government who, in this instance, have taken the wrong turning.

8.27 pm

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree): I associate myself fully with the remarks of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). I am sure that I would not be alone among Labour Members in expressing that view.

I wish to raise two issues that have been brought to my attention by my constituents. The first is the position of slaughterhouses within the rural economy. Over many years, the number of small slaughterhouses serving their own localities has sharply declined. That decline has been hastened by the expression--quite rightly--of new concerns about hygiene and animal welfare. It is proper that such issues should be at the forefront of our minds. However, large operations find it much easier than small family-run businesses to adapt their premises and mode of business to the relevant regulations and changes.

Of course, on top of that we have had the crisis that has emanated from the concern over BSE, the complete collapse of the rendering trade and the collapse of the economies in the far east and Russia, which has deprived

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producers of an outlet for the sale of hides. The burdens placed on the proprietor of the small slaughterhouse have become greater and greater and his margins have narrowed.

That has a great effect on the rural economy, particularly on farmers. If the local slaughterhouse closes, farmers must transport their beasts much further afield. That has a consequence for them because their costs rise, particularly when fuel prices are high, but it also causes concern about the welfare of the animals being transported. On the one hand, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said, we are making improvements through modernisation and by being concerned about welfare, but, on the other, we are increasing welfare risks by lengthening the journey time for animals.

That issue is more vividly in my mind because of the actions of the Intervention Board, which recently reduced from 29 to 21 the number of approved slaughterhouses that can operate in contract with the board on the over-30-months scheme. It said in its press handout that the remaining slaughterhouses will be geographically appropriate and the change should not greatly increase the journey time. In East Anglia, there is no contracted, approved slaughterhouse. From 22 December, the slaughterhouse in Brentwood will cease to have a contract, and the venue nearest to East Anglia will be in Derbyshire or Kent. Whatever the ambitions of our Saxon forebears, I never thought that Derbyshire was part of the eastern counties or East Anglia.

That change has exactly the same consequences as the closure of small slaughterhouses: the journey time and distances over which the animals are being transported are enormously lengthened. Indeed, there will be trips of up to 150 miles, some of which will be on country roads, with aged, and in some cases, frail or unwell animals that are subject to the over-30-months scheme. Such journeys can hardly be beneficial to their welfare.

The consequence of the change is, allegedly, that the Intervention Board will save some £5 million. It may well do, but the world is a strange place and, as with all savings, when money is saved in one area, costs seem to cropup somewhere else. As the Intervention Board saves £5 million, the farmers who produce the beasts are laden with the cost of making that saving as they transport their animals further and further to slaughterhouses.

My final point about slaughterhouses relates to the system of double inspection, which I am sure all hon. Members who represent rural areas will have been told about by local producers. Slaughterhouses or, as they are now normally known, abattoirs, are inspected not only by somebody from the Meat Hygiene Service, but by an approved official veterinary surgeon.

Slaughterhouse inspection is not the most attractive occupation for veterinary surgeons, and there is concern that because this country has a shortage of vets who want to undertake what is, in essence, a monotonous and low-level occupation, vets are being brought in from abroad. Their English is often, initially at least, poor, but an agency charges the slaughterhouse a high fee for those vets, which is passed on to the producer.

Many people say to me that they believe that it is unnecessary to have two inspectors present at the same time. I submit that it would be helpful if the Government's red tape working group, which I know is greatly

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welcomed, could attend to that matter. It could find out where savings could be made and consider how to switch the burden to high-risk areas, where increased supervision might be needed. Where there is a low risk, other approaches could be taken. Tomorrow, we shall hear the first results of the working group's deliberations, and I hope that it will take those matters into account thereafter.

The second matter that I wish to discuss is one that I raised the very first time that I spoke in an Adjournment debate, in the autumn of 1997--the Hatfield Peverel to Witham link road, which is in my constituency. Some hon. Members may have heard of the town of Witham; fewer, perhaps, will have heard of Hatfield Peverel. I suspect that its main claim to fame is that it is the home address of the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), but, in our locality, we do not broadcast that fact more often than necessary.

The Hatfield Peverel to Witham link road is an essential feature of transportation safety in that part of Essex. The A12, which runs between Witham and Hatfield Peverel, is notoriously congested and dangerous, and the accident statistics are way above what would be anticipated on that section of road.

I raised this matter in the House in one of my early speeches in the Chamber in autumn 1997. I then went to see the Minister responsible, and I thought that things happened easily and quickly thereafter because I soon had a letter saying that the road, which is only about a mile long, had been approved as one requiring a safety measure, and, that summer, it was incorporated into the roads programme as a minor scheme. In spring 1998, it was referred to the Highways Agency for progress to be made.

The scheme has been in the intended budget of Essex county council for many years, and I am sure that it was pushed in this House by my predecessor and, indeed, by other Members who are greatly concerned. The scheme was announced on safety grounds in January 1998, yet nothing further of any substance has occurred and it is now December 1999.

I have been to see representatives of the Highways Agency, who told me in the spring that substantial progress would be made by July. July has come and gone and we are now in December. Colleagues from the county and district councils have approached the Highways Agency and been told that progress will be made by spring 2000--a vaguer date than July--but still nothing further has occurred.

I raise the matter because I know that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will have the ear of those concerned. I hope that they will grab by the ear those in the Highways Agency who are responsible for the development of the road. What a dreadful thing it would be if there were further deaths on the road because of the apparent inertia since the safety scheme was announced.

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