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18 Dec 2007 : Column 744

The Secretary of State has taken the decision not on political grounds—certainly not on party political grounds—and not on economic grounds, because all that information was supplied to her and to Treasury Ministers in considerable detail from the beginning of the discussion in July. It was pointed out to her that the two new authorities would rapidly run out of reserves—indeed, that they would do so within the first year of their creation. It was pointed out to her in great detail—the figures have been emphasised time and time again by independent audit—that the effect on the population of Cheshire, and particularly on my constituency, would be directly felt in the development of its schools, hospitals and general services, be they waste, roads or any of the other services that local government controls.

Therefore, there has to be a particular reason for today’s statement. Of course, that statement is in the form of a written answer, because it would be unfortunate to have to come here and answer questions from the Members concerned. Presumably it is because the Secretary of State is alleged to have said—although I am sure it cannot be true—that Cheshire is too big. May I point out that of the five unitary counties that have been given permission to go ahead by the Secretary of State, Cheshire is the smallest area? But, of course, throughout the debate facts have not really carried any great emphasis.

Why are we continuing to press ahead with a change that will not just destroy the old county boroughs and the cohesion of our education services, but will make the situation impossible, for example, for large assets that are jointly owned, such as Tatton Hall, which will need vireing from one authority to another before it can remain in the control of the population of Cheshire? But none of those things is of concern. We must move on; progress is all.

We should give full credit to the Secretary of State. She alone appears to have taken the decision. Treasury Ministers know very well that the facts and figures with which they were presented were absolutely watertight and that discussions have been held both at county level and at local government level in Chester and elsewhere with a number of auditors who have made it plain that they have accepted the case for one unitary county because those figures are viable and the alternative is not. It is known that the taxpayers in my area will not only have to pay many thousands of pounds, but will face the loss of many of the advantages that they have at present.

I have been in the House long enough to see the coming and going of many inadequate personalities. I have seen those on both sides of the House who have been promoted for various reasons. I have seen the crawlers. I have seen those who have used sex— [ Interruption. ] Oh, there are so many it would take too long to name them. I have seen those whose sexual preferences were of interest to others. I have seen those who demonstrated a great commitment to their own interests, irrespective of the political parties that they were supposed to represent.

But I have rarely seen a decision such as this, taken with such cynicism and with so little respect for the interests of the average voter. When the Secretary of State was seeking office as the deputy leader of the Labour party, she said that people frequently become disaffected with their own Government because they
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feel that no one is listening to them. Wherever could they have got that idea from? She also made it clear—she told us constantly—that she would listen.

Let me make it very plain: this decision will affect everything in my constituency—every practical purpose that I am pursuing at the moment. Three new health centres, a new school, which is desperately needed in one of the most deprived areas, and a new railway station: all those things will be scuppered by this decision, which will make my local government fundamentally uncertain not only in economic terms, but in its political control.

If I may say so, the decision has been taken with a degree of cynicism that I have not seen for some time. I do not believe that it is in the interests of the Labour party, but then it has never been pretended that the decision is in the interests of the Labour party or of individual voters. It is not in the interests of those who work in the health service, the education service, or social services, or of those who want decent, high-quality local government services. I believe that it is a decision that has been taken for the most venal and personal reasons, and I find it wholly and deeply objectionable.

1.45 pm

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government may regret not having made a formal statement, in which she could have addressed directly some of the questions raised by the hon. Lady. Today’s debate is a timely opportunity for us to get things on the record.

I want to concentrate on the fact that there are several matters before the House and in the hands of Government that are affecting access to services for constituents in rural areas. There is a need to maintain the life of rural communities and to maintain their engagement. We are in the middle of the consultation on the closure of 2,500 post offices. It is depressing that the Government seem to have come at the issue with a top-down attitude, looking at how many post offices they can afford to close, rather than at what kind of network is needed to deliver the criteria that they have set for the Post Office. The approach should have been much more bottom-up, based on the community’s needs. The Government should have worked out those needs and then built up to the kind of network that was needed to fulfil them, rather than coming up with a figure of 2,500 at the start of the process. The feedback from the Post Office is that if any individual campaign makes during the consultation an effective case for the non-closure of a post office, the Post Office will have to find another post office to close to make up the numbers. That means that the feedback from communities will not be as effective as it would be if a community-up approach were adopted.

In the north-east, there will be a month’s delay before the community will know what will happen. It was meant to be April, but it is now going to be May before we know the Post Office’s decision. Between now and then, we must continue to convey that there is a danger
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in building the model on to the urban reinvention model. The idea was that if one post office was closed, people would go to neighbouring post offices. In rural areas, where communication links are much more radial, there is a danger of falsely assuming that the closure of one post office will mean that the nearest post office benefits. The modelling will have to be far more effective in understanding how people in communities travel, where their nearest post offices are, and how many people are going to be excluded from access to those post offices.

The recent loss of child benefit data is a reminder of the value many people attach to using the post office as a safe and reliable means of handling their finances. The card account is a simple system. One cannot go overdrawn or put one’s finances at risk. In a situation where people cannot trust the Government with their data, the Post Office card account is a safer choice, because there is no risk of any fraud being perpetrated.

The Government keep talking about how natural forces and a change in the market are driving the situation with the Post Office. One of the biggest customers, the Department for Work and Pensions, forcibly drove through far too fast the change in how payments are made. The Government have to accept that they pushed people faster than they were naturally willing to go when it came to changing the system and that they put pressure on the Post Office to adapt far too quickly. Now they are having to pick up the pieces through the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which is trying to sort out the Post Office.

The roll-out of broadband can engage rural communities and avoid a drift into cities. Many constituents finally have access to broadband, but parts of those communities do not get broadband at even the most basic speeds. However, many service providers produce sale pitches that offer broadband at much higher speeds than can be achieved on the ground. We need clearer marketing of broadband so that people get the speed of broadband for which they are paying, rather than an aspiration.

We also need to learn lessons from the first phase of getting broadband out. There is already talk of the next generation of much faster broadband. When Ofcom takes decisions on technology and the way in which it wants to operate the market, it needs to be mindful of how the service will be connected to rural areas. If it comes up with a model that can be rolled out really quickly in the cities, but that makes it even more difficult for social schemes to ensure that the technology reaches deep into rural areas, we will lose out again. Such technology should reinvigorate rural communities by enabling people to work from home, which would reduce the impact on the climate caused by commuting to work. However, if the progress in urban areas is much faster than that elsewhere, the drive towards people having to leave rural areas will increase. People who are involved in the oil and gas industry in the north-east of Scotland deal with large amounts of data. If such people are able to work from home, it will be a real bonus. However, that will require fast-speed broadband to reach their homes at the same time that it reaches urban areas.

Another change in technology affecting rural areas will be the switch-off of analogue television—that will happen in my area in 2010—which will lead to a total
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reliance on digital TV. We are beginning to hear assurances that when the power on the digital signal is turned up, it should be able to reach most homes, and that side of the technology is becoming more understood. However, it is important that rural communities have the chance to be part of the shared culture of digital television and to access information.

Some people are at risk of being excluded from the transition. People are already buying new equipment—if they are changing their television, they should be aware of their needs and how best to access digital TV—yet the help scheme kicks in only six months before the switchover. There should be a longer lead-in time during which vulnerable people can be assisted with the transition.

A particular group of vulnerable people who are missing out is those who are registered blind, those with poor eyesight, and those with dyslexia. The bonus of digital television for them will be audio description, which will mean that if they are watching a complex programme and cannot quite work out what is happening, they will be able to switch on the audio description to get the added benefit of finding out how many characters are on screen and what is involved in the development of the plot. Such technology will engage people with sight problems in TV in a way that cannot be achieved through the existing analogue system. However, there is concern that the aspiration for audio description is very low. Only 10 per cent. of public service broadcasting has to have audio description, so we need to drive that forward more quickly and effectively.

With regard to access, I am worried about the speed with which the Government are pressing ahead. Anyone who has switched to digital TV will know that the multitude of available channels are accessed by reading an on-screen guide. Clearly, such a guide is of no use to someone with sight problems or dyslexia, yet with multi-channel provision, there is no other way of working out the channels. On many handsets, the correct buttons to press are unclear, especially if one has difficulty with contrast; for example, many of the numbers might be very small. The Government need to press ahead quickly on ensuring that the talking programme guide is developed and running. If someone’s TV were to break down now, it would be madness for them to buy an old-fashioned TV—they should adapt their technology in the run-up to the switch-off. There should not be reliance on the six months before switch-off.

Although the Met Office says that this winter will be warmer than normal, it will be colder than the past couple of winters that we have experienced. It certainly feels colder at the moment than it has been for some time. That will remind all hon. Members of those who are struggling to heat their homes and the fact that the winter fuel payment has not kept up with the rise in fuel prices. Three factors affect a person’s ability to heat their home: their income; the price of the fuel that they use to heat the home; and the quality of the home’s insulation. The Government tackled fuel poverty, in the early stages of the market, by relying on bringing down the price of fuel. Of course, prices have now gone back up, and although they have eased off a little this year, they are on an upward trend. If people are to be able to heat their homes effectively and to make sure that the money that they spend on heating is not wasted, we will need to drive forward much more effectively an improvement in the quality of homes and their insulation.

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There is an added disconnect in rural areas. While the price of gas, and thus the price of electricity, have remained relatively stable this winter, the price of oil, which is the main option for heating homes that are not on the gas network, has shot up dramatically. If we are to tackle fuel poverty throughout the country, we will need to recognise that those who are not on the gas main are missing out yet again on something that is available to the vast majority of society.

The plans involving the regulator to try to extend the gas network to fuel-poor areas will have a marginal benefit. However, when the Government consider support for the fuel-poor, they need to address those who are not, and are never likely to be, on the gas main and who thus face more volatile fuel prices and unstable markets. To that end, I urge the Government to examine alternative ways of heating homes, such as heat pumps and microgeneration technologies, that are more fuel-efficient and thus not as affected as oil by fluctuations in fuel prices.

At this point I should declare my interest in the oil and gas industry. I am a shareholder in Shell and vice-chair of the all-party group on the offshore oil and gas industry, which is supported by Oil and Gas UK. On the other side of the energy equation, a lot of my constituents’ jobs depend on the health of the North sea oil and gas industry, which is going through a period of transition. On the face of it, given that world oil prices are booming, it is a dynamic industry, but there are a lot of concerns underneath the surface. The Health and Safety Executive recently highlighted concern about structural maintenance and, if that is not addressed, the risk of a major incident. A lot of the equipment is reaching the end of its original design life, so a culture of adequate investment is needed to ensure the continuity of that equipment.

While the effective improvement to the human side of safety has been a success, there is a worry that if the investment culture is not right, another major incident could occur. That is a reminder of one of the challenges for the North sea, even with the high oil price. The situation surrounding the supply of skills and equipment throughout the world is becoming much more difficult, and competition for investment is becoming more challenging as larger, less mature fields in other parts of the world start to suck away investment. Costs are thus rising in the North sea.

Both the Government and the industry welcome the constructive engagement on changing the relationship between the Treasury and the industry. Historically, the Treasury, under both the Conservative and Labour parties, has viewed the industry as a short-term means of dealing with a cash-flow crisis in the Government’s coffers, without thinking of the long-term structural investment needs. Although the Treasury has taken a more constructive approach to some of the issues affecting the industry, it still needs to look at maximising the return from the North sea by reducing its take from the North sea so that we can see long-term benefits. Such benefits would include not only the retention of more jobs in the north-east of Scotland and places throughout the country that depend on the investment, but increased security of supply through the establishment of new sources of gas, given that there is much gas that can be found there, although only with the right investment
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climate. If we were to get that right, we could ensure that the Government’s future tax revenues were far greater.

Those are the issues that I wanted to raise on behalf of my constituency in the Christmas recess Adjournment debate. On the business of the House, I hope that in the new year the Leader of the House will be able to give us business at least two weeks ahead. When we began to programme legislation and began reforms to the House, part of the trade-off offered by previous Leaders of the House was that there would be more predictability and more information on what was coming before Parliament, to enable people to plan ahead. That was for the benefit of Members of Parliament and, more importantly, outsiders. We must remember them. If Parliament is to engage with the outside world, we need to give those outside time to realise what is happening here, so that they can influence us before we make our decisions. I hope that in the new year there will be the resolve to get back to the cycle of two weeks’ business being announced in business questions, so that the House can do a bit more planning. Obviously, as we progress, there can be a more clear-cut, longer-term view of how legislation will pan out.

Finally, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish a merry Christmas to you and all the staff of the House who make it possible for us to function. I wish all Members of the House a happy new year and a prosperous 2008.

2 pm

Joan Ryan (Enfield, North) (Lab): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise a matter of huge importance to my constituents. It is probably the most important issue in my constituency, and has been for a considerable time. It is the future of Chase Farm hospital, which is in my constituency but which also serves surrounding constituencies. It has been an issue for between 15 and 20 years, so it is of long standing. It has not been helpful for the hospital; it has created huge instability. It is no exaggeration to say that there has been a significant loss of confidence in the NHS, and certainly in acute services, among local people.

My commitment in 1997—the future of the hospital was an issue even back then—was that I would do everything that I could to ensure that Chase Farm hospital had a future as a fully functioning hospital. By that, I meant that the hospital would have in-patient and out-patient provision, and surgeons and physicians. Babies could be born there, and there would be accident and emergency provision. I will not look back over the whole period, because undoubtedly the 12 minutes available to me in no way allows that, but I want to go back to July 2003, when Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals NHS Trust announced a “healthy hospitals” public engagement. “Public engagement” was never really defined, although we have had a number of them. They have varied considerably, but did not seem to involve much effort by local NHS bureaucrats, either in the hospital trust or in the primary care trust, to engage with the maximum number of constituents across my borough and the two neighbouring boroughs affected, Haringey and Barnet. A little part of Cheshunt is also affected.

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Any public engagement that has taken place has been organised mainly by local Members of Parliament. At various times, members of the hospital trust or the PCT boards have attended. They have made some contribution at such meetings, but I am sorry to say that it has generally been a very unhelpful, ill-informed contribution. After the 2003 public engagement, a formal consultation document was to be produced. It was not produced—fortunately so, as the public engagement had been remarkably unsuccessful—because the sector-wide “healthy start, healthy futures” initiative did not proceed.

There were then two failed attempts to restart the consultation process, and in October 2005 there was another public engagement. That happened and provided any engagement with the public only because the three Enfield Members of Parliament organised a series of public meetings. Otherwise, I am not sure that there would have been any event that one could have pointed to and said, “This is a public engagement.”

We were then confronted with five options for consultation, two of which were highlighted as preferred options. Three of them were declared not viable by the medical director of the trust, who had put the options before us. That beggars belief: why put three options before us that the medical director considered not viable? That was followed by the chief executive being quoted in the local newspaper as expressing her opinion on her preferred options, and reiterating that other options were not viable. That came across to local people as a fiasco. They felt that situation was a stitch-up, that one of the options would definitely become the way forward, and that what took place was not a public engagement, and certainly not a consultation, but was just lip service. At no point have we been told exactly what a public engagement or consultation should involve, but it is everybody’s understanding that the views of the local community are supposed to be taken into account. I think that it is becoming clear why there is a significant loss of confidence.

At the end of the public engagement, it was clear that what the hospital trust wanted was a hot-cold solution. Barnet and North Middlesex University hospitals would be “hot” hospitals, becoming major trauma centres, with all accident and emergency work going there. Chase Farm would be a “cold” hospital, with all elective surgery. We want elective surgery at Chase Farm hospital, but we also want some accident and emergency provision, and we want it to be possible for Enfield babies to be born there.

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