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11 July 2006 : Column 372WH—continued

10.20 am

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Humble. I also want to congratulate the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) on securing the debate, which is important. The fact that we have had a series of debates, on both the Post Office card account and the Post Office, shows how concerned hon. Members from all parties are about the future of the post office network.

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The Post Office has suffered three blows this year: the announcement that the Post Office card account will be withdrawn in 2010, the encouragement to motorists to renew their car tax over the internet, and now the removal of TV licensing. What strikes me is that we have in the Chamber the Minister from the Department of Trade and Industry who is responsible for the Post Office, but those decisions have all been made by other Departments, which seem to be under pressure to cut their budgets and appear to be acting independently of the DTI.

We have heard that the Deputy Prime Minister is the Chairman of the Cabinet Committee that is supposed to be co-ordinating Government policy on the Post Office. I was extremely shocked to find out that the Committee has not even met yet. It is easy to make jokes about the Deputy Prime Minister, but as this is a serious debate I will avoid doing so. I simply point out that the Deputy Prime Minister seems to have nothing to do other than chair Committees, so if the Minister takes one thing away from the debate it should be to go to the Deputy Prime Minister and say that the message from all parties is that we want him to get on with the job of getting the Committee up and running and to come up with a solution.

The Post Office card account is clearly an important part of the business. I shall not go into detail on that subject today, because we have had plenty of debates on it already. However, I stress its importance and the need for a Post Office account to follow on from POCA and allow people to collect their benefits and pensions from the Post Office and from their Post Office account. Again, it is important that we have an early announcement on that subject. To emphasise a point that has already been made, as sub-postmasters and mistresses retire they will not be able to find anyone to take on the business unless it is seen to have a secure future. The most important thing that the Government can do is to make an early announcement that there will be a Post Office successor to POCA.

The other issue that I wanted to mention was that the Government have taken away TV licence renewals from the Post Office, which is taking away a service from rural communities. The contract has been given to PayPoint, and PayPoint tends to be based in Co-ops and Spar supermarkets and nearly all the outlets are in towns. It rarely has outlets in villages, so the service is being removed from rural communities.

PayPoint also seems to have an incompetent computer system that tells people the location of their nearest PayPoint outlet. Most worryingly, TV Licensing, too, is using that computer system to tell people where their nearest outlet is. I have a licence renewal letter that was sent to a constituent of mine in the village of Cardross, on the north bank of the river Clyde with a population of more than 2,000 people. It has a post office where people have been able to renew their TV licences for many years, but it does not have a PayPoint outlet. The letter to my constituent lists the local PayPoint outlets, and gives two, both in Port Glasgow. The PayPoint website says that Port Glasgow is only 2 miles away from Cardross. That is all very well, but the only problem is that the river Clyde is in between. The Minister knows the geography well, and
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if someone wants to get from Cardross to Port Glasgow they have to drive 10 miles up the north bank of the Clyde to the Erskine bridge, cross the bridge and drive 10 miles back. Clearly, the computer system is totally incompetent. There is a PayPoint outlet 3 miles away in Dumbarton, but the letter does not point that out. How can the Government possibly have given such an important contract to such an incompetent company, which does not have outlets in rural areas?

Another disadvantage of PayPoint is that because it does not have outlets in rural areas it causes great difficulties in many of the islands in my constituency. Seven of those islands—Lismore, Iona, Coll, Colonsay, Luing, Jura and Gigha—have post offices where people can renew their TV licences. There are no PayPoint outlets on any of the islands, so how are people there supposed to renew their TV licences? Clearly they can do so over the phone or through the post with a postal order, which, if they do not have a bank account, they will have to pay a lot of money to get, but they cannot take advantage of the new card that is the successor to the TV stamp scheme. People in those islands are being excluded from that important Government service.

If people on the islands are not able to buy their TV licences, I have a solution: we should simply make using a TV on the islands free from the requirement to obtain a TV licence. If the Government are not prepared to set up outlets for people to buy their TV licences, the quid pro quo should be that a licence is not needed to operate a TV on any of the islands. Those are my messages for the Government today.

10.26 am

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) for leaving me time to speak. I feel very sorry for the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), and the Minister ought to listen to him. Week after week he turns up to Westminster Hall, because he has a majority of only 350, and tells the Chamber about how the Government are cutting services in his constituency. The Minister, who has the benefit of a majority that is nearly 20 per cent. of the vote in his constituency of Poplar and Canning Town, ought to listen to the hon. Gentleman because it is the seats such as his that are keeping Ministers in red boxes and croquet sets. I hope the Minister will listen. It is also important that the hon. Gentleman is the only Labour Member who has bothered to turn up to the debate at all, which highlights a cause for concern.

I hope that the Minister will take time during the summer recess to visit a constituency such as mine—he would be welcome in Banbury—to see how rural or semi-rural England works. The Minister represents Poplar and Canning Town; most Ministers seem to represent inner-city constituencies and they have little understanding about how rural and semi-rural England works. Indeed, the Minister’s responsibilities include London. I hope that someone in the Department of Trade and Industry is responsible for the English countryside, rural areas and how they function. I do not think that anyone is.

The Government make much about social exclusion, which, for them, seems almost entirely synonymous with inner-city deprivation. There seems to be no
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understanding in the Government that we can have rural social exclusion, and that we can have social exclusion in housing estates on the edge of towns such as Banbury and Bicester. They ought to see the Post Office as an opportunity.

Where does government interact with the people? We hear a lot from the Prime Minister about enhanced delivery of public services, but we are seeing a continuing alienation and remoteness of government as more is done online. That is fine for younger generations, who might be competent and au fait with being online and using the internet, but for older generations that is not always the case. We see the removal of services that gave people face-to-face contact with government such as Jobcentre Plus, which has disappeared entirely in a big town such as Bicester, one of the fastest-growing towns in England. If one cannot get online, the only other way to connect with the machinery of government is through call centres and the infuriating process of having to press serial buttons, which drives constituents and all of us completely crazy. We are privileged with most of those systems, because the Government have realised that they do not work, in having MPs’ hotlines so that we do not all go mad with Ministers in the Division Lobby.

The Government ought to see Post Offices as a real opportunity where the state and the machinery of government can interface with people and tackle some of the issues of social exclusion that the Government talk about.

The withdrawal of the Post Office card account from 2010 is absolutely crazy. At a stroke, it will undermine the viability of practically every village and urban sub-post office. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) said, it was also disingenuous, because when the scheme was introduced everyone thought that it would go on for ever—that there would be a degree of continuity and substance. The Government’s withdrawal of the card account will undermine the post office network, and once that has happened it cannot be replaced. Once the post offices have been sold and the premises disposed of, they will never be available again.

I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman, desperate to hold on to his majority of 350, should implore the Minister to throw him a lifeline by maintaining rural post offices, but if Ministers do not start to listen to the voice of England they will lose many more constituencies than Stroud. People are fed up with a Government who have become increasingly distant and remote—a Government who simply do not listen to those who want to see protection for the elderly, the isolated and the disadvantaged.

10.31 am

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I thank the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) for initiating the debate. I also thank all hon. Members who have spoken. I have a word of consolation for those of my hon. Friends who were unable to speak because of time constraints. The Liberal Democrats, like all parties, believe that this is an important issue, but I shall be brief in my response to this wide-ranging discussion, as we all look forward to many of our questions being answered by the Minister.

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It seems to me that two forces are pulling against each other—the Government and the community. Communities want control over their lives and their surroundings. The Government have a tendency for centralisation, which they use in the name of efficiency and standardisation.

In Solihull, neighbourhood policing has worked most effectively, as has community support. The idea of localisation, of familiarity with one’s immediate area, has been extremely successful for Silhillians and, I am sure, for all in the United Kingdom who have been able to enjoy its benefits. I understand that an announcement will be made later today on the merger of police forces into super-forces; I hope that the plan will be shelved.

Similar things are happening to ambulance trusts, with 29 forces being reduced to 12. Again, that is a removal from the local area and local knowledge.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): On the merger of ambulance services, I can tell my hon. Friend that in my constituency recently, first responders—they provide a remarkable service, particularly in rural areas, by getting to critically ill people before the ambulance arrives—have not been called out because the system has been changed. It is now more centralised and more automated, and because the service covers a larger area peoples’ lives are being put at risk. Does my hon. Friend share my concern about that development?

Lorely Burt: I do indeed. My hon. Friend gives an important illustration of what can go wrong when over-centralisation takes place.

About 80 community hospitals are under threat. We have lost 1,400 beds since 1999. The idea of a market-driven concept does not sit well with community hospitals. It seems to be their fault if they cannot make ends meet, and they have to close as a result. There is much concern among local people; community hospitals is a hot topic in many areas.

Hon. Members have already spoken about small shops, pubs, pharmacies and many other organisations. I remind the House that 30,000 independent retailers have closed during the past 10 years. We have often debated the encroaching role of the supermarkets, whose non-food sales have doubled in the last five years, and we have spoken of their predatory pricing and their squeezing of suppliers, and particularly in rural areas, those selling at the farm gate. That all gives rise to great concern.

As many as 20 per cent. of post offices have been lost in the past five years. The Government’s contribution to that, I am sorry to say, comes in the withdrawal of tax disc renewals, pension book payments and the Post Office card account. That all illustrates how much more difficult it is for post offices to make a living. However, I am pleased that the social network payments have been retained until 2008.

I am pleased also that other innovations are being explored that one hopes will be implemented in many areas. One idea is the hub and spoke system in which a major village has a post office with satellites in the surrounding villages in pubs, village halls, mobile post offices and in partnership with libraries, the police and
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so on. Those are all innovative ways that could help support the vital community link.

It has been alleged that members of my party and others who are extremely worried about the sustainability of communities are clinging on to a romantic concept of the village and the community as they used to be 50 years ago. We certainly cannot go back, but we can use what works. I have already mentioned neighbourhood policing. Solihull is also spearheading a care trust, a partnership between health and social services working as one, which I am excited to see and which I hope will have a good result.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) has introduced the Sustainable Communities Bill, and I understand that an early-day motion supporting it now has the support of more than 50 per cent. of Members. I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to the issues dealt with in that Bill. While speaking of private Members’ Bills, my Local Government and Planning (Parkland and Windfall Development) Bill seeks to ensure that local communities have some say in the planning decisions that affect their lives.

In control is where people want to be. People want to be in control of their lives, their destinies and their communities. When that control is taken away, the sense of community breaks down and we see alienation in the countryside and the town, where the need, particularly of the young, to assert identity manifests itself in a plague of graffiti and other forms of antisocial behaviour. We see elderly people alone, afraid to go out, with nowhere to go, and with their shops and post offices shutting down; and we see communities disintegrating as their character is changed beyond control and beyond recognition.

The psychological health of our nation and our communities is at stake. It is worth more than a few figures on the balance sheet. We want community services to be just that—services run by and for the community. We say no to ghost town Britain. We say yes to sustainable villages and towns, which are defined by thriving local economies, environmental protection, community involvement and democratic participation.

10.39 am

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) on securing this important debate. There is an element of “Groundhog Day” about it; we regularly pop into the Chamber to discuss the future of the Post Office network. We last did so on 14 June, when I welcomed the Minister and said that we were prepared to give him a small exemption because he was new to his post, but that he had to come up with some answers soon. I went on to say:

That was an interesting mixed metaphor; I hope that the Minister has now finished washing his hands and that today he will break out of the Groundhog day tradition to give us clear answers about the future of the Post Office network.

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The debate has been extremely wide-ranging and has covered a tremendous number of issues of enormous importance to our rural communities and others. My hon. Friend set those out with great clarity and understanding. He made a particularly important point in saying that we were not seeking to preserve communities in aspic, but trying to find a realistic way forward to bring new life, vitality and business into them. We are not trying to preserve something for the sake of tradition.

My hon. Friend outlined some of the other issues that we are considering in this debate: the village shop, the pub, the churches, the school bus services and village halls. We have also heard about pharmacies and ambulance services. One of the most startling points made to me by the excellent head of the Sussex ambulance service, Paul Sutton, was that only 5 per cent. of people in this country who have a cardiac arrest outside hospital will be alive two years later. In Finland, a much more rural country, 10 times as many—nearly 50 per cent.—will be alive two years later because there are defibrillators in the local communities. The issue is not only about relying on the local ambulance service, but how to put new services into the communities that will help people, and improve and save their lives.

Safety is a further aspect that should be mentioned. If we had had this debate 10 years ago, none of us would have said that there was a problem of antisocial behaviour in the communities that we are talking about. However, such behaviour has now spread out of the cities and into the big towns—into large villages as well. One of the things about which people are most concerned is the lack of a police presence in those communities and the lack of a sense that crime is being brought under control in them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) was absolutely right to highlight the extent to which Government services have been systematically removed from our communities. Such services are becoming more and more remote. My hon. Friend highlighted how, ultimately, they are moved to call centres with no connection whatever with the people whom they are supposed to serve. That process, of course, is part of the Government’s regional agenda, so beloved of the Deputy Prime Minister.

It was intriguing to hear the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) criticise those changes; the Liberal Democrats are also committed to the Government’s regional agenda. If the hon. Lady wishes for such an agenda, she should know that the consequence is that increased remoteness of services. The only way to break away from that is to scrap that agenda and move decision making and power back to the communities that are most affected.

This debate is not just about whether Stroud, or a range of other marginals, will continue to be a Labour seat after the next election; we take it for granted that they will not. The issues are much more important. They are about the whole range of facilities that people enjoy in their communities and the survival of those communities. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some good answers today.

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