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House of Commons

Wednesday 19 March 2008

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Duchy of Lancaster

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Social Exclusion (Rural Areas)

1. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on reducing social exclusion in rural areas. [195045]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Phil Hope): Delivery of the socially excluded adults public service agreement and the families at risk review will reduce social exclusion in rural areas. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is fully engaged in working to reduce social exclusion in rural areas, as is reflected in his strategy for strong rural communities.

Miss McIntosh: Does the Minister not realise that the programme of rural post office closures that his Government are completing will at one swift move destroy any prospect of reducing social exclusion in rural areas, particularly as they are removing any possibility of profitable post offices remaining in shops, and even disallowing shops that have operated a post office from offering any services that might compete with the Post Office? Will his Government reduce this programme of closures?

Phil Hope: We recognise that post offices play an important social and economic role in rural areas, but, as the hon. Lady knows, the post office network is costing the taxpayer about £3.5 million a week, which amounts to half a million pounds a day, and the cost per transaction in some of the 800 smaller post offices in rural areas is £17. That is simply unaffordable. We will, however, maintain a subsidy of £150 million a year to maintain a national network of post offices in rural areas, and we will apply minimum access criteria so that 95 per cent. of the population in rural areas will have access to a post office within three miles. I would be interested to hear whether the hon. Lady or any other Conservative Members, including those on the Front Bench, will match our commitment to spend £150 million—

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Mr. Speaker: Order.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that it can be particularly bad to be poor in a rural area, as housing can be more expensive, transport links can be a problem—public transport is almost non-existent in some areas—and people can feel very isolated? We must recognise that, because if people are poor, they are poor, regardless of whether they live in a rural area or in the middle of a council estate.

Phil Hope: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we have a programme to tackle social exclusion in rural areas precisely because poor people in such areas require that. That is also why we give a massive subsidy of £55 million to local authorities for rural transport, in order to provide bus services for people in rural areas. That is why we have pledged to build more affordable homes—some 10,500 more homes in rural areas by 2011. That is why we fund third sector organisations—not least community transport schemes—to provide help and support to people in most need in rural areas. I am pleased to be able to say that two of our family nurse partnership programmes—which are programmes to help poorer families—will be piloted in rural areas, to ensure that those from rural families will, like everybody else, have the successful start to life that they deserve.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): The Minister will be aware that according to Save the Children 1.3 million children in our country live in severe poverty, and yet the take-up of benefits by families entitled to them is poor. One of the most effective ways of getting across the message of take-up campaigns is to use post offices; indeed, in rural areas they are the only institution of that kind. Why is the Minister closing post offices?

Phil Hope: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about access and take-up of benefits, which is why I am very pleased that since 1997 we have lifted some 600,000 children out of poverty, and in the Budget—which we have debated and which the Opposition voted against last night—we made pledges to lift another 250,000 children and young people out of poverty. If the hon. Gentleman were to vote in accordance with the questions he asks—in other words, if he were to support lifting children out of poverty—we might have a little more respect for some of his opinions.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Earlier comments have rightly focused on families and children, but we should address older people as well, especially in England. Older people are disproportionately represented in the rural population—the average age in rural areas is 50, and in urban and city areas it is 42—and they are particularly prone to poverty, deprivation and exclusion, and are less likely to take up the benefits to which they are entitled. Will the Minister use his cross-cutting powers with the Department for Work and Pensions and other Departments to raise awareness of benefits among older people in rural areas, who might not have access to relevant information, so that he and his Government tackle the poverty that many such older people are having to endure?

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Phil Hope: We will happily take forward the challenge that my hon. Friend has given to me. He will be pleased to learn that only last week I spoke at a conference in Leicester that examined the valuable role that older people play in communities. He will know that we have published a public service agreement called “Later Life”, which spells out a range of new targets and new actions, be they about older people playing their part in communities, dealing with social exclusion and poverty, or providing better health services, safer neighbourhoods and independent living. Many older people want the ability to make a positive contribution to their community. The new free local bus travel anywhere in the country will certainly benefit many older people, as will the increased winter fuel payment of £50 and of more than £100 for older people. Such measures will directly address some of my hon. Friend’s key questions about tackling pensioner poverty.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): I do not doubt the Minister’s good intentions about tackling social exclusion in rural areas, but the common thread running through all this, whether we are talking about crime, schools, the delivery of medical services, sport, entertainment or leisure, is transport, which is not working in rural areas. Will he please get a cross-government initiative going to tackle the issue? It is no good giving free bus passes to pensioners if there are no buses, and it is no good providing free school transport if children cannot get back to enjoy the rest of the benefits of the community in which they live.

Phil Hope: The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that we must do more to ensure that proper services are provided in villages and rural areas. I represent some 60 villages in my constituency and I work closely with them on integrating services, supporting village halls and providing rural transport. He is right to say that we must provide access to services, not only for older people through the use of free bus passes, but for children and young people. That is why we have a presumption against school closures in rural areas and why we are building more affordable homes. I know that some Conservative Members are opposed to home building, but such homes are vital for young people who want to have a house in their own village rather than leave it. That is why we support organisations such as Action with Communities in Rural England—ACRE—which is a strategic partner of the Cabinet Office in developing new policies and strategies to ensure that we address the specific issues of social exclusion and creating strong rural communities.

Third Sector Organisations

2. Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the potential role of third sector organisations in providing public services. [195046]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): Third sector organisations have the potential to play an important role in the design, development and delivery of public services. That is reflected in our recent reforms in offender management, employment policy and health and social care. However, the third sector should never be an excuse for cutting Government funding to public services.

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Mr. Reed: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply and am reassured by his belief that the third sector should not be used as an excuse for cutting services. What further help can the Government give third sector organisations operating in my constituency, such as the West Cumbria Society for the Blind, the Hospice at Home West Cumbria, NCH and others, to ensure that local authorities and bodies such as primary care trusts give them the help and resources that they need to undertake their work?

Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the relationship between local authorities and third sector organisations on the ground, because it often defines whether or not those organisations succeed. I pay tribute to the organisations in his constituency that he mentions. We have made progress, in the sense that one of our targets for local government will measure the relationship between the local authorities and local third sector organisations, which will help to address a relevant issue in many areas—how local authorities treat the third sector and whether they help such organisations to grow and thrive.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster aware that a number of local charities throughout England and Wales have recently become involved in the running of local post offices? They have found that where post office staff are not available to do that job, they can provide a service for perhaps two or three days a week. What steps is he taking to intervene with the Department for Work and Pensions, which created this crisis in the first place by reducing local post offices’ footfall?

Edward Miliband: As my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), said, we are providing a subsidy of £150 million a year to local post offices. I have heard no proposals from the Conservative party as to how it would provide more money; all we hear, as we hear about every issue, is that we should have a moratorium on closures, but the Conservatives offer no real solutions. We are ensuring that we have not only a thriving post office network, but a sustainable one.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): Surely the Minister recognises—in fact, I know that he does—the third sector’s value to many of our constituencies, in particular my own, which contains the Mary Ann Evans hospice and other valuable charities. Does he understand that in the current world climate of financial slow-down, all those charities will be severely challenged in raising the money that they need to keep those good services going? Will the Government give a commitment to examine carefully the core funding they provide? Perhaps the Government will be able to increase it at this difficult time.

Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend makes an important point: at a time of financial pressures, third sector organisations in particular can feel the pinch. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made announcements in his Budget statement last week that will help charities to the tune of £300 million—that is money that they thought they were going to lose as a result of changes to income tax, but which they will get through gift aid. That will make a difference to them.

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My hon. Friend also emphasises the need to fund small local organisations properly. That is why the new grassroots grants programme, which has been pioneered by my hon. Friend the Member for Corby, will help local organisations with those small sums that can make a big difference to the kind of services that they can provide to the community.

Post Office Closures

3. Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): What assessment the Social Exclusion Task Force has made of the likely effect of post office closures on social inclusion. [195047]

4. Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): What assessment the Social Exclusion Task Force has made of the effect of post office closures on social inclusion. [195048]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Phil Hope): The Government recognise the social and economic role of post offices in local communities. Our subsidy to the Post Office of £150 million per year until 2011 will help to maintain a national network with national coverage, ensuring that all areas, including rural and deprived urban areas, will continue to have reasonable access to post office services.

Mr. Lancaster: I am pleased that the Minister recognises the contribution that post offices make in both rural and urban communities—I have both in my constituency. But does he understand the anger felt by residents of Little Brickhill when they discovered, through an inadvertent leak on the Post Office website, that their post office was to close some nine months before the consultation was due to start? Does that not expose what a complete sham the consultation is?

Phil Hope: It is not appropriate for me to comment on any individual post office. However, the hon. Gentleman must recognise that the present subsidy of £3.5 million a week is unaffordable. He is making representations on behalf of his constituents, but I would like to know why, between 1979 and 1997 when his party was in power, 3,500 post offices closed and not one penny of subsidy was given to post offices.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: In the Government White Paper, “Rural Affairs”, the then Deputy Prime Minister said that

Is it not the job of the Minister’s Department to make the Government keep the promises in their White Paper and develop and sustain those post offices, instead of shutting them down?

Phil Hope: That is precisely the reason why we are giving a subsidy to the network of £150 million a year until 2011. I notice that the Opposition have significantly failed to make a commitment to match that subsidy. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to make a serious point about this, I would like to hear from his Front Benchers whether his party supports that level of subsidy.

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Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): Could the Minister find out what is happening in my constituency? The post office in Blyth has to move out of the Co-op, because it is closing, and no one seems to know what will happen to the post office. We wonder whether it is part of the closure programme that we do not know about.

Phil Hope: I cannot comment on individual cases, but the national criteria mean that 99 per cent. of the population in the top 15 per cent. most deprived areas will be within one mile of a post office. On a case by case basis, the Post Office has to take into account local geography, the availability of local transport and other socio-economic factors when making a decision about a particular post office. Perhaps my hon. Friend would like to take back those criteria to his local post office for the negotiations.

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): I had a rural post office close in Rodmersham, so I wonder whether I could persuade my hon. Friend to speak to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform about merging the rural library service with a rural post office service, so the rural hamlets and villages in my constituency could have such a service at least once a week.

Phil Hope: Innovative proposals of that kind can be discussed and negotiated locally. I would encourage the Post Office to engage with local authorities and other third sector organisations that may wish to step in and fund or support particular branches or introduce innovative approaches to delivering services. However, in doing so, the Post Office will need to consider all the costs, not only at branch level, but the support it gives to post offices. I would encourage every local partner to get involved in such innovative proposals and see whether they can find a way forward.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): When the Post Office and the Government announced the most recent round of closures, there was also a commitment to reopen a limited number of post offices, especially in areas of social exclusion that were underserved because of prior closures. I now understand from conversations with the Post Office that that will not apply in any urban areas, including areas such as Ham ward in my constituency, which is most deprived and does not have a single post office. Will the Minister please take up that issue with his colleagues?

Phil Hope: I am sure that the hon. Lady can champion her own constituency perfectly well. The criterion being used nationally for urban areas is that 99 per cent. of the population should be within one mile of a post office in the top 15 per cent. most deprived urban areas. That is an important commitment. At the beginning, that commitment applied to only the bottom 10 per cent. of deprived urban areas, but we have increased it to 15 per cent. My difficulty in responding to the hon. Lady stems from the fact that the Liberal Democrats appear to be saying that they will fund every post office no matter what the cost. Frankly, that is fairyland economics.

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