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26 July 2007 : Column 1137

Well, that is what I thought until a few weeks ago, when the leader of Derwentside district council, Mr. Alex Watson, and its chief executive, Mr. Mike Clark, had a meeting with the chief executive and the leader of Durham county council to ask the county council to procure 20 beds over a five-year contract for Mistal homes at the autism centre, even though the district council has no responsibility for the procurement of adult services. Quite rightly, the leader of Durham county council, Mr. Albert Nugent, and the chief executive, Mr. Mark Lloyd, were not going to be strong-armed by this approach. They wrote back to stress that the commissioning of services by the county council was done on an individual basis and that they could give no block contracts to the company.

This worries me. What on earth are the leader and the chief executive of a district council that has no responsibility in this area doing trying to procure business for a private company, Mistal Homes, which has no track record of delivering this type of service? I shall write to the Audit Commission again to ask about this matter, as there are some very serious concerns surrounding the entire deal. Who approached whom in the first place? What is the relationship between certain individuals on Derwentside district council and Mistal Homes? Mr. Heppell’s letter goes on to say:

If the council is now going round touting for business for this company, what is that relationship?

Mr. Heppell is clearly not doing his homework. Part of the so-called deal relating to the sale of this land involved the reinvesting of a proportion of the capital sale of the park into improving the remaining park area. People ask whether that is really a concern. Well, yes it is. I raised this matter in an Adjournment debate recently. Derwentside district council has made no attempt to apply for lottery funding for improving the rest of the park, so it is relying on the success of this development for the improvement of this vital remaining piece of green space in Stanley.

There are some disturbing unanswered questions here. If the leader and chief executive of a council are touting for business for a private company, I want a full investigation into the matter. If that is not carried out by the Audit Commission—to which I shall write again, because I do not accept that it has carried out a full investigation—I shall refer the matter to the police.

This week, I was pleased to hear that Derwentside district council is to be abolished. That will be welcomed by many of my constituents. I am concerned, however, that the dying days of the council will lead to more shoddy deals like this, to fire sales of land, or to commitments with private companies, which will hamper the new unitary council’s ability to make certain commitments. The Audit Commission and the Minister need urgently to ensure that no further dodgy deals like that are entered into in the next few months during the dying days of Derwentside district council.

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I have welcomed the formation of a unitary council for Durham. Indeed, I think that it is long overdue and it will certainly abolish Derwentside district council and others that are, frankly, pathetic for having delivered such a poor service to my constituents for so many years. As I have suggested, that council has done things that are highly questionable, if not verging on illegal.

Durham now has an opportunity to have a dynamic and strategic new county council—not the existing one, but a new one. I understand that it will be painful for the 249 councillors to be abolished in the process, but it will lead to better governance in county Durham. In looking forward to the new county council, we should reflect on how best to promote the county and ensure that developments in former mining communities—across my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House—are pressed forward.

I would urge the Liberal Democrat council in the City of Durham, which is threatening judicial review, not to waste a single penny more of taxpayers’ money on attempting to challenge the decision. My understanding is that there is no legal case whatever, so going ahead would be a scandal. I suspect that Durham taxpayers would never forgive the Liberal Democrats; they would quite rightly be very angry about it.

The decision to move towards a unitary council is part of a broader agenda, which includes the abolition of the regional assembly. Once again, I believe that that is long overdue. Regional issues about transport are important; and the new Select Committees announced by the Government—and designed to scrutinise what happens in the regions—are quite exciting. I believe that those new Select Committees will need to have teeth. They will need to hold to account not just the regional development agency, but organisations such as the Environment Agency and the strategic health authority. They should help to ensure that local people have a clearer understanding of how those organisations work, while also providing a key role for parliamentarians in this place to scrutinise the quango state of the north-east.

To conclude, I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and right hon. and hon. Members a successful and enjoyable recess. Speaking as a member of the north-east tourism board, it would be remiss of me not to say that if people wish to visit the north-east, there are great attractions in Northumberland, Durham, Teesside and Newcastle. No one coming to North Durham should miss the Beamish open air museum, in which the constituency takes such pride, and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) has the fantastic attraction of the Durham cathedral.

4.52 pm

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): I was not intending to touch on the issue of the local government review, but following the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), I shall do so. My part of the world is also going to see a new council. I greatly share the hon. Gentlemen’s concern that in the transition period, the assets of previous councils will need to be monitored very carefully so that they are not
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disposed of in a way that undermines the set-up of the new council. There will need to be greater devolution and a drawing down of powers from central Government to the new authority—an issue that Members in the Cornwall area will closely monitor.

It has been a very interesting debate. I shall touch on a couple of issues raised by other hon. Members. I believe that both the hon. Members for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) referred to access to banking.

It struck me that one of the key ways for people to gain access to free banking is through their local post office. A number of banks allow their account holders to withdraw cash free of charge from the local post office. It is important to put on record how important that service can be, particularly in rural areas. When the House returns after the recess, perhaps we should look into encouraging all banks to provide that service and support the post office in that way.

The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) raised the issue of Remploy—its factory in my constituency is being proposed for closure. It is important that services for people with disabilities reflect the 21st century. I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern that a number of people who have been employed by Remploy for a very long period have almost become institutionalised. It will be difficult for them to adjust to a new setting. In addition, Cornwall is very isolated, and people who may end up being based at another Remploy factory may have to travel greater distances. The needs of those vulnerable people must not be forgotten in the consultation process.

I wish to raise a constituency issue that is causing considerable concern: the proposed changes to fire cover across Cornwall, and particularly the proposal to downgrade two fire stations in my constituency, Falmouth fire station and Camborne fire station, which are the only two fire stations in Cornwall that provide 24-hour whole-time cover. Downgrading those stations to whole-time day cover only would mean that, across Cornwall, there would only be a retained service on offer at night.

To provide some background for those who are not familiar with Cornwall’s geography, the fire authority is within the county council, but that covers an area of 3,500 sq km, and has only one neighbouring authority—the rest of it is surrounded by sea. In the vast majority of cases, it cannot rely on help and assistance from other authorities, so it must be self-contained. The authority has a total of 31 stations, 20 of which are entirely retained, five of which are day-crewed—precisely because of difficulties recruiting retained staff, as many people are self-employed and must travel all over the county, and hence cannot respond in time—and two of which are the 24-hour whole-time cover stations in Falmouth and Camborne.

Those two stations cover the most densely populated part of Cornwall. Camborne has a population of about 50,000 people and will grow further, and that was not taken into account when the proposals were put forward. Falmouth fire station not only has responsibilities to the town and surrounding area but to the docks and further out to sea, if there are problems there. In addition, both stations have specialist equipment that has been used to provide assistance all over Cornwall, for instance in the
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flooding at Boscastle. When there were blizzards on Goss moor, and people were stranded, that equipment was used to help. The stations are therefore not just an asset to their immediate community but provide an invaluable service to the rest of Cornwall, yet they are under threat of being downgraded under proposals currently being considered.

I want the Deputy Leader of the House to take back for consideration by the relevant Ministers the issue of how this situation transpired and what the Government can do to assist. Ultimately, it has transpired because Cornwall’s local government has one of the lowest levels of funding in the country. As with other areas, Government grants have not kept pace with the cost of service delivery. As a result, there is an overall deficit of £15 million to be overcome. There is also the capping on council tax—the regressive council tax would not address the problem even if the Government tried.

Consequently, we are seeing cuts to a whole range of services. Adult social care has had no choice but to withdraw support for those with the lowest levels of need. The fire service is facing cuts of £1 million in costs—the equivalent of a cut of one sixth of the whole-time work force. Although that will be achieved without compulsory redundancies, it has significant implications for the cover across Cornwall.

The Government’s nationally set targets conflict with what the fire authority is trying to achieve. According to the first public service agreement, the authority is required to reduce accidental fire-related deaths in the home by 10 per cent. and deliberate fires by 20 per cent. by 2010. The fire authority has already done a lot to reduce such occurrences, by providing a greater retained service, which it was asked to do, and by doing more school visits and so on. Therefore, it is already delivering. At the same time, however, there is a requirement to find efficiency savings totalling £105 million by 2007-08.

The problem is that, because the authority delivered efficiency savings and because things were so tight ahead of that requirement, the only way that it is going to make those further efficiency savings is to make front-line cuts. I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to take that back to the relevant Department. When setting that efficiency target to pay for the pay deal for firefighters, what account did the Government take of authorities such as Cornwall that have already delivered efficiencies and whose only alternative therefore is to make front-line cuts? Are they happy that, in areas such as Cornwall where efficiencies have already been delivered, there will be virtually impossible challenges in delivering both those targets?

We are already seeing the results in Cornwall, particularly in the area that I represent, of the freeze in recruitment in previous years. The local newspaper called Camborne

where there were

At the very time when arson appears to be increasing across the area, we are having to look at proposals to make cuts.

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Serious questions have to be asked about the integrated risk management plan process, which had the task of trying to deliver those cuts to make the books balance. The response to a parliamentary question that I tabled stated:

But that bears little relationship to the correspondence that I have had with the chief fire officer, who is clear that the reason behind looking at cuts and looking again at the IRMP was the financial situation, not the risks. Undoubtedly cuts to the number of staff and the level of cover will have an impact on the risk to people living in that community.

The council and the chief fire officer are trying to do the right thing in coming forward with the proposals. They have openly acknowledged that those proposals are the least worst option, not the best option, and the chief fire officer himself said:

Therefore, the people of Falmouth and Camborne are being asked to meet the brunt of the so-called cost-effectiveness drive, knowing that it will result in longer call-out times and that there will be knock-on effects across the county. The county council has agreed to look at that again and to undertake a risk assessment. I cannot believe that it was not required to do one in the first place. Will the Minister go back to the Department and say that there are serious pressures?

As a constituent wrote to me recently, people in Cornwall are not asking for fire services that are better than anywhere else in the country. We just think that we deserve the same level of fire service as the rest of the country. We do not want lives to be threatened because we have become the only county in the whole of England that has no whole-time fire cover at night.

5.2 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I will try not to detain you too long, Mr. Deputy Speaker, from the warm embrace of your constituents, because I know that they await you, but I want to raise three things before—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that the two hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Benches share that hope more fervently than I do.

Andrew Mackinlay: Anyway, as I was saying, I want to raise three things with the House before we go. I have raised the first before on occasions such as this: it relates to the inadequate capacity of people such as me to remedy a wrong for my constituents in relation to access to railway stations. I refer particularly but not exclusively to Tilbury Town station in my constituency, where there is an inordinately high pedestrian bridge. There are no real facilities for people who are
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handicapped, semi-ambulant, or parents with pushchairs and prams. It is wholly inadequate. The upside goes to London. Most of the residential area of Tilbury is on the other side.

I have raised the matter over the years with the rail operator, successive organisations, including Railtrack and Network Rail, and with the former Disability Rights Commission, which did not seem adequately interested in my view. It was very disappointing. I hope that the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights will address that problem in Tilbury. I suspect that other hon. Members face similar situations. I acknowledge that it can be very costly to provide adequate access to and in railway stations, but it is a price that the community should pay. We cannot go on like this, and I hope that the Government and the new equality commission will take an interest so that the issue can be pursued and—I use the word deliberately—prosecuted with vigour. We need some remedy.

The second issue will also strike a chord with other hon. Members. Those who have been able to access their post today will have received a letter from Postwatch that draws attention to the fact that the Post Office is about to embark on the closure of 2,500 post offices. I was in a Committee the other day that agreed the funds to facilitate the reorganisation, but many of us are deeply concerned about the course on which the Post Office is embarked. Members of Parliament are realists about progress and we accept that some rationalisation is necessary, but we do not trust the Post Office to deal from the top of pack with us or our constituents.

There is to be a consultation period, but—surprise, surprise—it is at a time when Parliament will not be sitting. I know that many hon. Members will actively champion the cause of the post offices in their constituency, but in the same way that Governments go to war and coups d’état occur during recesses, the Post Office closes post offices during a recess.

I am especially concerned by the letter that we have all received from Postwatch. It draws our attention to the fact that the Post Office will bring forward 46 area plans, covering all parts of the UK and following parliamentary constituency boundaries—so far, so good. However, it continues:

Why on God’s earth will it be done on a confidential basis? It goes on to say that Postwatch will check whether the proposed closures meet its criteria, but those criteria—such as access, reasonable distance and adequate alternative premises—are precisely what the consultation should be on. I would prefer 12 weeks public consultation rather than six weeks of a confidential, cosy arrangement between Postwatch and the Post Office. We need 12 weeks to argue our corner and demonstrate the flaws in the decisions. I hope that those who read about our deliberations today will take note of that. When the Deputy Leader of the House replies to the debate, I hope that, as a Member of Parliament and as a Minister, she will undertake to seek out this letter and persuade ministerial colleagues that that is not a satisfactory situation. Hon. Members are universally concerned about the situation and, because we all bear the scars of how the Post Office operates, there is a lack of trust.

Mr. Hancock: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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