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Richard Younger-Ross: I wonder whether the Minister feels any frustration towards the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, in so far as the pensioners who are here protesting and lobbying today are concerned about the rise in council tax, which is a consequence of decisions made by the ODPM. The increase in Devon was 28 per cent. this year, and is likely to be 11 per cent. next year. Does that not undermine what the Minister is trying to do? Is it not time for him to say to the Deputy Prime Minister that one of the best ways to help pensioners is to axe the tax?
Malcolm Wicks: It is, rightly, not the job of central Government to set the level of local council taxes. We all want to see more localism. It is, however, the task of central Government to fund local government adequately. In real terms, we have put in an extra £9 billion since 1997, and this year's expenditure settlement was above the level of inflation. These are issues that citizens have to talk to their local councillors about. That is why we have local government. Our job is to fund local government as best we canI believe that we are doing thatand, in terms of old people's incomes, to pursue the programmes that I outlined earlier.
When I ask the many elderly people I know about the issues that count, they talk about safety, antisocial behaviour and the fear of crime. I talked to many people in my constituency over the summer about what was on their mind. It is always salutary to talk to people in the real world, as opposed to the world that some of us inhabit for too many months of the year here in Westminster. The issues out there are not always the same as those we discuss here; indeed, they are often
We are doing many things to address the problem. Eighty-five neighbourhood warden schemes have been developed or extended, working in communities to tackle the fear of crime. There are more police officers across the country. Schemes such as "locks for pensioners" have provided security upgrades for pensioners on low incomes who live in areas where the burglary rate is above average. We are investing £170 million in 683 closed-circuit television schemes across England and Wales to make our towns safer. These things are important. Transport is important, too. Access to public transport is absolutely vital, as are the half-fare discounts that we have introduced since June 2001, which have helped some 7 million older and disabled people in England.
In regard to adopting a positive approach to ageing, I would place an emphasis on education and lifelong learning opportunities. I once had the honour of being the Minister for Lifelong Learning, and I always recognised, as many elderly people do, that retirement is the new learning zone. Education is not just about younger people.
To illustrate the point that education is not just for the young, we once held a competition to find England's oldest learner. We found Mr. Fred Moore, who was then aged 107. Those of us who have been to online computer centres, to Learn Direct and to adult education institutions often find that the people sitting in front of the computers are our senior citizens. Why are they doing it? They are doing it to help them run their businesses, to pursue their hobbies as secretaries of various associations or community bodies, or simply to find out how to get into e-mail contact with their grandchildren or great-grandchildren who might live in the Antipodes or in Canada.
Education is vital if we are to take a positive approach to ageing, and an important component is to recognise that all age groups contain people who do not have basic literacy and numeracy skills. One of my happiest moments as a Minister was visiting an elderly lady of about 73, who, through community opportunities, had learned to read and write for the first time. She had become literatean opportunity denied her at school and in her working life. Her delight that she could writeshe was writing essays and so onwas a wonder to behold. Retirement as the new learning zone is an important theme.
So far, three post office closures have affected my constituency: two in the constituency itself, in Fir road in Bramhall and in Grove lane in Cheadle Hulme, and one just outside the constituency in Grosvenor road in Cheadle. We have just passed the so-called consultation period for the closure of Cheadle road post office. My colleagues, local councillors and I invited local people to tell us about their circumstances and to say how the closures would affect them. There was only a short month in which to conduct the investigation, but we did so. Some of the messages we received were poignant. As we suspected, we found that we were dealing with real people living in real, linked, identifiable communities, based around local shopping parades at the heart of which is often the post officenot urban sprawl, as the Post Office terms it.
In other cases of possible closure, I have had occasion to speak with representatives of the Post Office about their so-called visits to the areas involved to get to know their characteristics. On close questioning and as a result of frequent letter writing, I found that their visits to local areas are based on geographic information systems. Those visits were conducted via computers; they were two-dimensional visits looking at streets and roads, with communities marked as grey shading around roads. Those representatives did not actually visit the area. That is not good enough; it certainly does not allow them to know what truly forms a community.
The present public consultation is a sham, as the postmaster has already made it clear that he has decided to close one post office, and in the other cases we have heard that he intends to do so. We are not quite holding our breath but we are waiting to see whether we will receive the same standard letter about the closure of Cheadle road post office as was sent about all the other closures.
We have received more than 100 individual replies about the matter, and many more have written to the Post Office team, and Stockport metropolitan borough council has also responded. The key point people made was that the distances quoted by the Post Office when they engage in consultation are as the crow flies, post office to post office; they do not take into account the additional distances that people often have to travel. The distance to alternative offices from more distant areas of my constituency, such as the lower parts of Buckingham road in Cheadle Hulme, Grange avenue and Warwick close, are much greater than the 0.7 miles quoted by the Post Office in the consultation.
The distances quoted do not take into account the particular circumstances when the alternatives are examined. The alternative Mellor road post office in Cheadle Hulme may be accessible once people get there, but people in wheelchairs and elderly, infirm people cannot cope with the steep climb up the road to get to it in the first place. It is therefore impractical, and there are no alternatives to get to that post office by bus.
Older and younger people recognised the valuable contribution that sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses make to the community, and the impossible position that the Government and the Post Office have created for them. My constituents, like
Elderly people told us what a difference it will make to their lives if they cannot access the post office. For example, Mrs. Menges of 2 Rosthernmere road can walk to the post office now; she would have to drive to Turves road and Mellor road post offices, where the parking is inadequate; Mrs. Wright, who also lives in Rosthernmere road, has a walking disability, so although she walks to the Cheadle road post office she could not walk to the others; Mr. Ford, of 35 Farley court is an 80-year-old who can walk to Cheadle road post office but would not be able to get to the alternatives; Mrs. H. Scott, aged 92, and Mrs. M. Jones, who is 89, both walk to Cheadle road post office in spite of disabilities, but they cannot be expected to get on the bus to go to the other post offices.
Dr. Al-Hassani can walk to Cheadle road post office in spite of having a disability but he, too, could not walk to the alternatives; Miss Holloway, who is 86, finds it hard to walk even to Cheadle road post office and certainly could not do so to the alternatives. Mrs. McDonagh of 105 Buckingham road suffers from chronic asthma, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis and is being treated for breast cancer. She could not reach the alternatives except by taxi, which she cannot afford. Mrs. Wellings is 86 years old and suffers from Parkinson's disease. Mr. Bean of flat 10, Regency Court is a younger person who is wheelchair bound and is looked after by his parents, who are in their 80s. They could not wheel him to alternative post offices, nor cope with getting him in and out of a car.