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Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I represent a large rural constituency with 26 inhabited islands. The geography of the constituency clearly means extra costs and difficulties when it comes to the delivery of public services, so I want to raise some issues about that today.
I will start with Royal Mailclearly an important public service in a vast rural area. It is inevitable that, when the delivery services are opened up to full competition next year, private mail companies will enter the market, but they will obviously concentrate on urban areas. I cannot envisage any private mail company wanting to deliver mail to houses up a long track on a distant island. The future of the Royal Mail's universal service obligation is therefore vital.
The Select Committee on Trade and Industry has just published an excellent report, which points out how vaguely the universal service obligation is defined. It is important to define the USO clearly. We must have a proper definition of the services included, and it should
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embrace first and second-class letter mail, a standard parcel service up to about 20 kg, a registered mail service, redirection, international mail and a bulk mail product.
It is important that as postal services evolve over time the USO is frequently reviewed. I hope that we have learned some of the lessons from the privatisation of the telecoms industry. The universal service obligation imposed then related solely to voice mail services, but as telecoms services have rapidly evolved, certain developments such as broadband are no longer part of the USO. We must not make the same mistake with mail services, so we should leave it open for the USO to evolve.
Another important issue raised in the Select Committee report is the need for a universal service compensation schemea fund though which private mail operators contribute towards the costs of providing a universal service. It is no good waiting until Royal Mail gets into financial difficulties before setting up such a fund. It is important for it to be set up soon. It must be set up in order to compensate Royal Mail for the extra costs that it incurs in delivering to the remote rural areas that private mail operators would not consider serving.
I am also concerned about the future of rural post offices. Often, the post office is part of the only shop in a village, and without the post office income and extra footfall generated, many of those village shops would not survive. Rural post offices benefit from social network payments of £150 million a year, but they are guaranteed only until 2008. It is important for the Government to commit soon to funding the rural post office network beyond 2008. Unless they do so, it is inevitable that some rural post offices will be forced to close. I am already aware of circumstances in which some postmasters or mistresses wish to retire, but when Royal Mail explains to applicants wanting to take over that the social network payments will continue only to 2008, many of them understandably pull out. Without any long-term business plan, they are unwilling to take the risk. It is important that the Government give a commitment soon.
The Government have already caused a great deal of damage to rural post offices by transferring many pension and benefit payments to the banks. They should try to give rural post offices more business, and they could help smaller post offices by, for example, allowing more of them to issue vehicle licences.
Another area of concern in my constituency is the recent announcement by the Department for Work and Pensions of job cuts in the Jobcentre Plus offices in Oban and Campbeltown, which will have an impact on the local economy because in small towns alternative employment is often hard to find. The work is being transferred to large call centres, and we already know that benefits call centres are failing miserably to carry out their work. Recent figures have shown that as many as one in three calls to them go unanswered. That is simply unacceptable, as is the fact that people have to wait several weeks to receive their benefits when they become unemployed.
Transferring yet more work to failing call centres is not the answer. Many people want face-to-face contact, and many benefit applications could be processed much
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more efficiently in face-to-face interviews with local staff who understand the local circumstances than by conducting the interviews down a telephone line to a distant call centre. I ask the DWP to rethink its job cuts plans and to keep those jobs in Oban and Campbeltown.
A large proportion of my postbag, like that of many other hon. Members, consists of complaints about the Child Support Agency. It is obvious that the CSA is in a state of chaos. I could cite a long list of statistics to show that it is failing, but I shall restrict myself to a few. More than £3 billion owed to children remains uncollected, more than 35,000 compensation payments have been made for maladministration over the last few years, and there are hundreds of thousands of cases in the queue waiting to be assessed. The average wait for those unassessed cases is 448 days, and many parents are in a state of despair over their dealings with the CSA.
I think that the solution is for the Government to scrap the CSA and transfer its functions to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. The Revenue already holds information about family incomes and children, so is well placed to take over the assessment of child maintenance. Because of the information that it already has about incomes and where people work, it would be more effective than the CSA has been at chasing people and collecting money.
Another area of unfairness that I want to raise is the Government's decision to exclude women between 60 and 64 from the one-off council tax refund of £200. Those women are of pension age, and they should receive their £200 discount, like any other pensioner. Ideally, council tax should be scrapped and replaced by a local income tax, but if the Government want to stick with council tax, we should at least be able to expect equal treatment for all pensioners, regardless of their sex.
It should not be assumed that the different pension age for men and women always works in favour of women. One constituent who wrote to me had been on incapacity benefit, but when she became 60 that was replaced with the state pension, which was lower than the incapacity benefit. Then, to add insult to injury, she heard that she would not receive the £200 council tax discount. She wrote to me pointing out, correctly, that had she been a man she would have continued to receive incapacity benefit until she reached 65, so she would have been better off. Until retirement ages are equalised for men and women, all benefits that accrue to pensioners should accrue to all pensioners, including women between 60 and 64.
Another important issue in my constituency, particularly on the islands, is the high price of petrol. When I visited the isle of Coll in October, it was staggering to find that the price of a litre of unleaded petrol was £1.26, far higher than anywhere on the mainland. When the Office of Fair Trading investigated the high costs, it found that there was no profiteering either by oil companies or by local garages; the high price was simply a result of low turnover. A local non-profit-making company runs the petrol station. Without such non-profit-making community involvement, there would be no petrol for sale on the island.
The Government could help by charging a lower rate of fuel duty on islands. This issue has been raised before with the Government, who have always argued that if
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they did introduce a lower rate, it would be difficult to know where to draw the line. That argument may apply to remote mainland areas but it does not apply to islands, where such a line is obviously easy to draw. The high cost of fuel impacts on all freight and, therefore, on all goods sold on islands. The Government could help greatly by introducing a lower rate of fuel duty on islands. The loss to the Exchequer would be minimal.
Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): Is my hon. Friend aware that in other European countries such as France and Portugal the derogation has already been taken advantage of? There is a precedent for applying EU law in exactly the way that he describes, and derogation could be extended not just to islands but to remote parts of the mainland highlands of Scotland, such as those in my own constituency.
Mr. Reid: My hon. Friend is right: other European countries adopt such a policy to help their islands' economies, so there is absolutely no reason in European law why our Government could not do the same here.
I turn to the problems associated with identity cards. I am opposed to the Identity Cards Bill in principle but I want to draw the House's attention to those parts of it that could cause many problems for islanders. One clause gives the Home Secretary the draconian power to order any citizen to attend a specified place at a time of his choosing, in order to be photographed and to have fingerprints taken, and to provide any other biometric information that the Home Secretary chooses.
The Government want to have 70 ID card registration centres throughout the UK. Pro rata per head of population, that would give Scotland about six centres, but it should be noted that it can take those who live on an island a considerable time to get to any part of the mainland. For example, according to the winter timetable there are only three sailings a week from the island of Colonsay, so it would take at least three days for a Colonsay islander to visit the mainland to have their details taken and then return home. That is clearly unacceptable in terms of both time and expense. If the Government insist on going ahead with the Identity Cards Bill, they must provide mobile registration centres and take them to the islands and to remote parts of the mainland to allow people to register.
The final issue that I want to raise is tax credits. We all know that many of our constituents get into severe financial difficulties because they have been overpaid, through no fault of their own, and are then told by the Inland Revenue that they must pay the money back. On 22 June, the Prime Minister told the House that
The Prime Minister did not mention that subtle addendum, which adds another test: that the recipient has to understand how this complicated system works, and to be able to judge for themselves whether the award was reasonable. It is clearly ridiculous to expect people to work that out. The code of practice should be the
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same as the Prime Minister's statement: overpayments as a result of mistakes made by the Revenue should not be reclaimed.
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