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My constituent Mrs. Gower was so incensed by the issue that in a relatively short period she started a petition that got more than 600 aggrieved—and mostly, but not exclusively, elderly—people to complain and try to pressure the Post Office into doing something about the situation. The best solution would be to go back to the status quo of a year ago. I fear, however, that that is not a viable option; the Post Office has made the move and is saving money. It does not seem that concerned about the quality of the service that it provides its customers, because people have to buy stamps and take their parcels, so they are, up to a point, a captive audience. That is particularly true because in previous waves in the past five years—although not this wave—the company closed many of the sub-post offices in the
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surrounding area, saying that the Crown post office could become people’s sub-post office. Despite the lip service that it pays to the interests of its customers, the Post Office is not desperately concerned; otherwise it would not have moved the Crown post office to that unsuitable site and it would certainly have done something about access to it.

Something has to be done; the situation cannot carry on in this way. I have presented the petition to the head of the Post Office and I have been told that the regional manager of WH Smith will visit shortly to have a look at the situation. That is good of him; I am grateful, and I hope that he does visit. However, I also hope that he realises the problems and comes up with concrete ideas to overcome them. One such idea would be to put a proper access way at the London road entrance so that wheelchair users, the frail and those with mobility problems would be able to use the entrance. Many of them use buses to come into town and the buses stop immediately outside the entrance.

The second issue is that when people finally get upstairs, there are queues before they can get served. It would be sensible if there was a counter on the ground floor for the elderly and those with disabilities or mobility problems. That would save them having to go upstairs in the first place. I suspect that that is pie in the sky, because WH Smith does not want to restrict on its ability to make profits. However, if it is going to use its premises as a short-changed way of providing a Crown post office, perhaps it could sacrifice a little bit of space to help its customers.

I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will not only pass on my comments to the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform but ask him or one of his junior Ministers to have a word with the Post Office to see whether something positive can be done in the near future to alleviate the problem.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful and impassioned case on behalf of his constituents. As regards lip service, does he share my disquiet and the cynicism of many voters on learning of the behaviour of some Labour Members of Parliament who, two weeks ago, rushed hot-foot from voting against the Conservative amendment against post office closures to public meetings and to publicise on their websites and in local media the fact that they are saving their local post offices? Is he as unsurprised as I am that people are cynical about politics?

Mr. Burns: My hon. Friend is absolutely right—that does contribute to the cynicism. Of course, some extremely honourable Members on the Labour Benches actually stuck to their principles by putting their vote where their mouth was and joining Conservative Members in supporting that amendment. It is incomprehensible to me, as someone who is as honest as the day is long, that someone can say one thing to their constituents outside this place, then come here and, at the behest of Government Whips, do something else in the Division Lobby. I find that slightly uncharacteristic of Labour MPs. It is the hallmark of Liberal Democrats every day of the week. We are used to it from them, because they, unlike us and Labour Members, also have the knack of being able to walk down a street, knock on 30 doors and, if they think they are going to win a vote, give 30 different
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answers to the same question that is asked of them. But c’est la vie—that is what old warhorses in the Conservative and Labour parties have come to expect from the Liberal Democrats. That is why I am surprised that in the vote on post offices only about 30 Labour Members of Parliament abided by what they were telling their constituents and joined us in the Division Lobby. However, that is on their consciences, and I am sure that the truth will out.

It was interesting listening to the earlier part of the speech by the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright), who regaled the House with his problems with a sub-post office facing closure. He, of course, did not join my hon. Friends in the Division Lobby in the post office vote. Perhaps he was convinced by the arguments of the junior Minister who wound up for his party at the end of the debate, although having listened to that speech I would be slightly surprised if that were the case. I think that the hon. Gentleman might have been more convinced by the fact that he is Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Greater love hath no man for his job on the way up the greasy pole, in the hope that perhaps by the time the election comes in two years this will all be long since forgotten and he will survive. I suspect that people not only in his constituency but in Liberal Democrat constituencies have longer memories and get perplexed when they are told one thing in their local papers and then see their Members of Parliament doing another thing here.

However, I must not be diverted, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I wish to raise another important issue—the A12 road that runs through the spine of Chelmsford and Essex up into Suffolk and beyond, just into Norfolk. It is one of the main feeder roads into the east of England and East Anglia. It serves not only the county of Essex, but the ports at Harwich and Felixstowe. The serious problem is that this road is old and constantly having to be repaired and, sadly, because of the increase in traffic—some of it domestic vehicles and a lot of it business generated by the ports—it is becoming too congested to be viable as a through road and a main road into one of the most important regions of this country.

I am pleased to see that Essex county council has spent the last six months making significant changes to the entrance and exit from the M25 on to the A12, which, although it has been open only for a few weeks, has made a significant improvement. If one goes from that point to my constituency of West Chelmsford, which means travelling 13 miles of road, one will see that about half of it is made up of three lanes, and the other half, two lanes. Beyond that, on the way to Colchester and Ipswich, the road constantly changes from two lanes to three lanes, which enhances the congestion problems.

Another problem is that investment is needed to improve the road to make it one worthy for the demands made of it, and to enhance it for domestic and business travellers in the region, and to and from the region and its ports. There was a crackpot idea some years ago, in the early 1990s, when the then Government suddenly unveiled in one of their White Papers on road building that they proposed to build a brand new motorway known as the M12 from a point off the M25 right up to Chelmsford, going west of the existing A12. That came as a considerable surprise to most people because no
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one had been calling for a new motorway. I thought that it was particularly noble of the then Secretary of State for Transport to come up with the idea, because the road passed within about 200 yd of the garden of his house, which seemed rather extreme to me. Fortunately, though, cooler and saner heads prevailed and the then Government abandoned that cockeyed scheme. It has not been resurrected, even though when the current Government were carrying out inquiries and investigations on how to improve the road situation around Ipswich and the knock-on effect down the A12, it was looked at. Rightfully and thankfully, however, it was dismissed as a non-starter.

We do not need a brand-new road. There is a simple solution to the existing problem, which is to invest in the infrastructure by upgrading the existing A12 in order that all the stretches of only two lanes have three lanes. That will cater for traffic and reduce congestion problems, costs for industry and the road safety problems that result from the bottlenecks. I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), about the matter on 4 March, and I was pleased to find that he shares my view that the road is of national importance and that it needs a major upgrade.

That view is shared, interestingly enough, by the Minister for the East of England; it is nice to know that she has a view on the issue. It would be quite nice if she popped into Essex at some point as she is the Minister for the East of England, and no doubt, at some point, she will. She has had that job since the beginning of July, and she has not yet stepped into the county council area of Essex, which is the county with the largest population in the region for which she is the Minister. We look forward to welcoming her to Essex at some point when, in the course of her busy duties in the east of England, she can find time to visit us. She, too, believes that the road is important and needs improving and enhancing.

When comments are made quickly at Question Time, the full horror of what is being said does not always sink in. However, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport said that

When one reads between the lines and finds the other side of the story, it is clear that the regional funding allocation for the east of England is not sufficient to meet the needs of the region. That surprises no Conservative Members, because we have been complaining for many years about the way in which the Government spread their allocation of funding around the country. There are not that many Labour councils or Members of Parliament in the east of England, so as with other distributions of moneys, we do not do as well as the Labour heartlands.

A letter from Essex county council states that

What is badly needed now will become a pipe dream and we will have to wait many years for its realisation.

Given that Ministers recognise the importance of the road and of improvements to it to solve the current problems, which will only get worse as time goes on, it is time the Government were prepared to reconsider and either make realistic allocations of money to the region for its road funding programmes, or make the road a project in its own right, and provide substantial funding so that we can get the work done and improve and enhance one of the main feeder roads into one of the most important regions in the country.

3.12 pm

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): I am especially delighted to speak today because it is my birthday, and I can think of no better way in which to spend it than in addressing my constituents’ concerns in the House of Commons. Today’s birthday is not special—there is no zero in it and I am a few years away from my bus pass.

I want to consider bus passes today. A couple of days ago, on 1 April, free travel for the over-60s and people with disabilities was extended to cover off-peak travel anywhere in England, including outside people’s local authority area. I praise North Lincolnshire council and its leader, Mark Kirk, for the scheme that it has introduced for residents.

North Lincolnshire council’s literature says:

North Lincolnshire is doing a wee bit more, so its scheme is especially good. Under that scheme, people can also use the pass on local trains. They have to pay half fare, but allowing the pass to be used on local trains helps many community routes in my area. The scheme also provides for companions to travel, some free and some for half fare. If a person with disabilities has a bus pass that displays a specific symbol, they can take a companion with them free.

That is a fantastic scheme. However, I am sorry to say that North Lincolnshire council does not cover the whole of my constituency. Part of my constituency is covered by North East Lincolnshire council. Those who do not come from the area might think that having one authority called North Lincolnshire council and another called North East Lincolnshire council could cause a little confusion, but they are in fact different councils. In North East Lincolnshire, free travel is being restricted. Although pensioners and people with disabilities everywhere else in the area are getting an extension to free travel, travel for those who happen to live in Grimsby or Cleethorpes is being cut back.

Today’s Grimsby Telegraph, the local paper covering the area, gives the game away by talking about the “controversial” Government scheme—I do not know whether other hon. Members have, like me, been inundated with masses of letters about this so-called controversial scheme. The newspaper states—this is the spin being put out by North East Lincolnshire council—that the
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extension replaces what was there before. In effect, the paper is trying to have us believe that the extension is not an extension, but a completely new scheme replacing the existing scheme.

I have looked into the issue in detail, given the number of people who have contacted me asking, “What’s going on here? This was meant to be a great extension to the scheme, but I’m now being told, ‘You can’t get on this bus,’ ‘You can’t get on that train,’ or ‘You can’t bring so-and-so with you.’” Some people with disabilities have told me, “I have no choice when I travel. I only do 16 hours a week, but this helps me get to work. Now I’m going to have to pay £9 a week.” There has been absolute outrage.

I have raised the issue with the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Transport, and on several occasions with my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), both as Minister for Transport and as Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber. And every time they have told me that the decision is not a Government decision, but one made locally.

I want to look back at how the council got where it is now. In 2000 a mandatory half fare scheme was introduced for the over-60s and disabled people. In 2006 that was extended to free travel on local buses, although people complained that it extended only as far as their local authority boundary, unless groups of local authorities in their area decided to club together. This year’s scheme is an extension of that scheme.

I checked on the funding for the scheme. In 2006-07 the Government provided English local authorities with an additional £350 million through the rate support grant to implement free local bus travel. That money will increase in subsequent years. In 2008-09, it will increase to £377 million and by 2010 it will be £396 million. Then I looked further, into the funding to tie that in with the extension. In 2008-09, the Government are providing an additional £212 million for the extended travel, on top of the rate support grant moneys, which will also increase year on year. That equates to an average funding increase of about 30 per cent. throughout the UK. I have checked with Ministers, who have told me that councils had their free scheme, but with the national scheme they can choose to add extra bits here and there, which is what North Lincolnshire council is doing—through, for example, companion travel and half fares on local trains.

The average increase in the region in which my constituency lies is 25 per cent., but let us examine the two neighbouring local authorities covering my constituency in more detail. Until now, North East Lincolnshire council has invested about £1.6 million in the concessionary fares scheme, while neighbouring North Lincolnshire council has invested £1.1 million. Both councils have had additional funding for the extension to the travel scheme. North East Lincolnshire has received £603,000, and North Lincolnshire has received £409,000. My maths might be a wee bit ropey, but that increase, at around 35 to 37 per cent., seems to be above the average. That is a pretty good increase in funding. Within the former Humberside area, the East Riding of Yorkshire has had a 24 per cent. increase, and Hull city has received 33 per cent., so the two authorities in my
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constituency have done pretty well. However, we still have a cut in travel funding, which has outraged thousands of people.

A stone’s throw away from the town of Immingham is the village of East Halton, but the local authority boundary lies between the two. Family members live on either side of the boundary, and while one lot can travel free at peak times, the others will now have to pay, having enjoyed free travel for the past two years. There is only one way to describe this: it is a cut, pure and simple. I think that it is one of the meanest cuts I have ever seen. At one end of the two local authority areas is the town of Scunthorpe, with Grimsby and Cleethorpes at the other. Pensioners can get on a bus at either end and travel across the area. Some will have to pay full fare, but others will enjoy free travel. That is absolutely ludicrous.

When I checked with the ruling group on North East Lincolnshire council, it said that it was getting only £613,000; in fact, it is £603,000. I tried to argue, saying, “Hold on! You’ve had £1.6 million from the rate support grant. Where has that gone? What have you done with it?” There was no answer to that. That was the council’s explanation for having restricted the travel arrangements. I really want to know where that money is going.

The council is blaming the Government, saying that they have cut the funding for the travel scheme in North East Lincolnshire, but nowhere can I find evidence of that happening. If this were a problem of Government funding, the neighbouring authorities would be in a similar position, but they are not. As I have said, North Lincolnshire council is providing free travel within its own area without restriction, and the East Riding of Yorkshire, which is Conservative controlled, is operating a broadly similar scheme. I think that people there pay an administration fee of about £15, but they then enjoy free local travel.

Dr. Gibson: Has my hon. Friend thought about setting up a cross-party group—a sort of mini-Select Committee—that could call the council in? We have done that several times in Norfolk, and what we have found out has been very interesting. It often involves one person misappropriating the money into some other coffer. My hon. Friend is in a strong position to set up such a group. Has she considered doing so?

Shona McIsaac: I have been asking the council to rethink over recent weeks and months. Now that the new scheme is in place, I am going to crank this up a bit. Holding some sort of inquiry is a good idea, although North East Lincolnshire council tends to be the one calling me in all the time, rather than the other way round. I really do not know whether what is happening is deliberate or whether it simply involves someone who has totally misunderstood the situation.

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