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25 Jun 2008 : Column 467

Furthermore, I question how the proposal to close the tax office fits in with the Government’s overall strategy. It certainly cannot be justified on financial grounds, as it has become clear from parliamentary answers that the savings from closing the office would be very small indeed. I have already mentioned that the office has low operational costs, and its work would be absorbed by other offices, where costs would consequently rise. The decision certainly cannot be squared with the Government’s policies on rural communities—or at least not with their assertions that they have positive policies for rural areas—because it would have a severe effect on what is a rural town in a rural part of one of the most rural counties in Britain.

The decision cannot really be squared with the Lyons review, either. The Minister is a man of good faith who takes such matters seriously. I trust that he will listen to the argument that I am making and consider most carefully whether the closure of the Spalding tax office meets any of the criteria that I have described and whether it stands up. When he stands up, perhaps he will tell us how much money would be saved; whether he has drawn any conclusions about the impact on the users of the office; and where they would go to seek the advice that they need. Has he made any assessment of the effect on the staff at that office, whose expertise is greatly valued and whose service is greatly appreciated by many of my constituents? The expertise that has, if I may put it this way, been collected at that office is substantial, but it would be dispersed should the closure plan go ahead.

Bang next door to the tax office is the Spalding driving test centre; indeed, it is in the same building. I was pleased to visit recently and meet not only representatives of the tax office, but driving instructors and members of the local community who are concerned about the centre’s potential closure. Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, shocking though it is, not only is the tax office threatened, but so is the driving test centre. When the heart is ripped from a rural community through reductions in the number of services that can be accessed within them, the lives of the people who live there are affected disproportionately. A rural community is not like a city or a large town, where people can easily find those services elsewhere.

I shall also say a word or two about post offices in a moment, but I want first to explore the issues of the test centre a little more fully. There has been no consultation with those adversely affected by proposals of the Driving Standards Agency and the Government proposals to close the Spalding driving test centre. In July 2005, the Department for Transport introduced a code of practice on written consultations on matters relating to driving test centres. Consultation does not have to take place if the relocation is for legislative requirements such as the new motorcycle tests. Why is that? Perhaps the Minister will tell us. Surely the loss of a driving test centre has the same impact on people who rely on the service it provides, irrespective of the reason for its closure. Do not local representatives such as councillors and—dare I say it?—the Member of Parliament, and members of the community, people whose employment depends on the test centre and people such as our excellent South Holland youth council, all deserve to be consulted on such a change?

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I mention the youth council, of course, because many of the people who learn to drive in my constituency are, as I guess they are elsewhere, young people who will now have to travel much further to take their test. You will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that people usually like to be taught where they are going to be tested or tested where they have been taught, so what is proposed will have a big effect on learners and instructors. The staff, the unions and the students themselves have not been consulted; in my judgment, they deserve to have their voices heard.

The chief executive of the DSA, Rosemary Thew, says that the agency has to comply with European Community directive 2000/56/EC, which demands significant changes to the practical tests of motorcyclists with more demanding special manoeuvres. This requires the creation of a safe off-road area for testing—hardly a sound excuse for closing the test centre in Spalding when such a facility could be provided quite easily in the locality by extending the existing test centre. Why has little or no consideration been given to that option?

I mentioned the cost savings of the closure of the tax office. A similar picture emerges in respect of the test centre. On 29 April, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), released data in response to a written parliamentary question showing that the closure of the test centre in Spalding will save only £4,660 a year. Yet the Government are presumably arguing their case around a rationalisation that they claim will save money. This is the lowest figure for any of the 26 test centres earmarked for closure across the country. Such small savings are hard to justify when the impact on the environment, increased travel times and increased costs for instructors and students, as well as easy accessibility, are taken into consideration. My constituents are being penalised by the DSA in order to recover costs—albeit, in the case of Spalding, an almost unimaginably small sum in terms of total savings—as a result of yet another costly EU directive. I must not go down that road, Mr. Deputy Speaker, else I would test your patience and probably begin to tire the Minister, too.

There is no additional capacity in the new Peterborough test centre as there are no plans to increase the number of existing examiners from the 10 already located at the centre. If Spalding test centre is forced to close, it will overstretch the centre at Peterborough and potentially double the current eight-week wait for a test. So we are talking about longer travel times, a longer wait for a test, environmental damage and minimal cost savings; I think it is time for a good Minister, regardless of party, to think again.

The Government’s plans to close the test centre in Spalding will, as I said, drive up costs. That could hit young people in particular very hard. Spalding was originally earmarked to have its own new multi-purpose driving test centre, and there continues to be a strong case to support that type of provision in the town. The current centre is profitable; demands for tests locally are high and growing; and retaining test services in Spalding would reduce travelling distance, as I said. Why, then, has the DSA withdrawn its plans to provide Spalding with a new multi-purpose centre? Again, the Minister will perhaps have a chance either today or subsequently to make that clear.

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As I said at the beginning of my short speech, the Spalding tax office provides a very important service for businesses and individuals in my constituency. Similarly, the test centre is an important part of life in a town that lies at the heart of South Holland.

There are a number of other facilities in constituents like mine that are threatened with closure. Members will know of concern about the loss of the rural post office network. This morning I met representatives of Postwatch, here in the House, to discuss the possible loss of further post offices in villages in my constituency. Small schools also need to be protected, because they give life to small rural communities. Village shops and pubs, too, have their part to play in making life more agreeable for people who live in remote places such as my constituency.

I do not expect the Minister to be able to deal with all the points that I have raised in the short time available to him tonight, but I do expect him to say something about the Government’s policy on rural proofing. Rural proofing, we have been told by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is

The Department states:

That is the Government’s policy. It is not something that I have invented, although I agree with all those statements and approve of all aspects of what constitutes a truly effective policy for rural proofing.

We are told by the Government that rural proofing

How does the forced closure and centralisation of front-line public services in rural areas, including the tax office and driving test centre in Spalding, comply with those stated Government policies on rural proofing?

Spalding is as rural as you can get. I have mentioned my constituency’s dependence on agriculture and horticulture. The test of rurality is interesting. It might be defined as a combination of employment of that kind with a measurement of sparsity. By that measure, South Holland and The Deepings is one of the most rural constituencies in Great Britain. If rural proofing does not apply there, where on earth does it apply? The Government seem to have forgotten the existence of their rural White Paper and its stated objectives. Certainly rural-proofing seems to have played little or no part in their decision-making process in the case of the tax office and driving test centre in Spalding.

It is clear to me that the concerns I have raised about the closure of those two important facilities have yet to be properly considered. I do not blame this Minister for that, but I am anxious to draw these matters to his attention in the confident expectation that he will give them diligent consideration and, if he and colleagues think it necessary, reconsider. I urge him to do so.

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Spalding is a growing town. Its population has already grown significantly over the last decade or more, and there is potential for further growth over the next decade and beyond. The demands on the tax office are not shrinking, but growing. The demands on the test centre are growing too. The expertise that has been developed, particularly at the tax office, will not be easily replaced, and it will be very difficult for a future Government of any political persuasion to reinvent what has been lost.

I simply ask the Government not to act in haste and repent at leisure. It would do no favours to Government, and it would certainly do no favours to the people of South Holland and The Deepings, who deserve much better. While I am their Member of Parliament I will, at the very least, miss no opportunity and expend all my energy in championing their case in the House of Commons, and I am delighted to have had the opportunity to do so this evening.

8.35 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): I congratulate the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) on securing this debate, and on representing a constituency with one of the finest names—second only, perhaps, to that of the city of Gloucester. May I also respond to his remarks on rural proofing? Wearing my other hat as Minister for the fire and rescue service, I was in Lincolnshire just a few days ago, and I wish to put it on record that I saw that Lincolnshire fire and rescue service does very good work, particularly the retained firefighters. About three quarters of firefighters in Lincolnshire are retained firefighters. They work in the rural communities that the hon. Gentleman described and not only do a good job in firefighting, but good work in co-responding—in ambulance and fire services working together in harness and supporting each other. That is a great example, from which we can learn. As I told the chief fire officer, I am keen to follow up on that, and to see more of that kind of work being done and to learn from some of that best practice. That is a good example of rural services leading the way.

The hon. Gentleman talked about his local tax office, which I will address, and his driving school, and he also spoke more generally about issues in Spalding, such as those to do with post offices. In my experience as a constituency MP, the big issues concern schools and hospitals, and perhaps driving centres to an extent, as my father was a driving inspector, although I attended driving school only twice, first when I failed my driving test at the age of 17, and then a few months later when I passed it. I do not spend a great deal of time in tax offices either, but I accept that every constituency is different, and perhaps these two institutions are particularly relevant in Spalding and play a big role in his local community.

I do not want to wish closure on the hon. Gentleman’s tax office. From what he said, and from what I understand, no such decision has yet been made, but his community is gearing itself up, in preparation for possible future decisions, to defend an institution that it values so much. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has undergone a systematic process of review, consultation and
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announcements on tax offices across the whole UK. The review process is virtually complete for office buildings in the east Midlands region and I understand that an announcement is expected to be made to staff and trade unions before our summer recess, and Members with a constituency interest in the area will be notified by HMRC at the same time.

HMRC is making significant changes to the way it carries out its business so that it can meet the demands of its customers and meet the requirement we, as Ministers, are making of it to optimise efficiency. Many customers now choose to telephone HMRC offices, and they also use the internet far more than they did in the past to file returns or make claims; indeed, I file my tax returns on the internet. Therefore, it is right for senior management to look at all their operations to ensure that they are run as efficiently as possible. In some work areas, they see that need as best being served by concentrating work in larger units where the processes can be streamlined and improved. In other areas, a more mobile work force is seen as the best solution to meet customer needs.

I am happy to confirm that, whatever the outcome of the review for the offices in Spalding—I genuinely do not know what that outcome will be—as well as those in the east midlands as a whole, we can say that inquiry centres will be maintained in their current locations or nearby and the same level of customer service provided. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will ask more questions both here and locally to obtain such assurances. Staff will not be required to move to an office beyond a reasonable daily travel distance, and there is an established process for managers and staff to discuss options for their future employment, dependent on the outcome of the review, which is open, transparent, accessible and involves the trade unions.

Mr. Hayes: I am grateful to the Minister, who is dealing with these matters with his usual courtesy and diligence. Perhaps I did not explain with sufficient force that the travel distances have to be considered alongside the difficulty of using the roads and rail network in my constituency. Train services to Spalding are relatively poor and elsewhere are non-existent. Nor is the road network in Lincolnshire as sophisticated as it might be, so the travel issues are especially profound in a place such as Spalding and a district such as South Holland.

Mr. Dhanda: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. The criteria that will be used include the distance that staff will have to travel and the trade unions will make the point as forcefully as he has just done.

Proposals to rationalise work and office space across the east midlands were put forward for consultation in March this year. Staff, the trade unions, hon. Members and local authorities have contributed to that consultation, providing information on travel routes, economic interests in the locations, the position of other employers and Departments, as well as individual circumstances that should be taken into account. Reports summarising those responses were published earlier today.

Let me emphasise that all the information that was provided during the consultation is being considered by HMRC in arriving at its recommendations. I welcome
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this debate as part of the Government’s commitment to the process of consultation and openness in moving forwards. HMRC has embarked on a long-term programme that will deliver a more responsive and efficient service for taxpayers and claimants. The point that the hon. Gentleman made about rural proofing is relevant and I am glad that he has put it on the record.

I turn now to driving test centres. I am not a Transport Minster, but I have it on good authority that Ministers have agreed that the development of a new national network of driving test centres is required not only to facilitate the new European requirements for practical driving and riding tests, but to provide driving tests that are more relevant to modern driving conditions and to help to ensure safety on the roads.

The Department for Transport published its “Safe driving for life” consultation document in May and it raises a number of questions on failure rates for first-time driving test candidates—I confess that I was one of them many years ago—and the fact that so many people are being killed on the roads. Unfortunately, I have seen that happen in my county and, as the hon. Gentleman’s county is not dissimilar, he may also have seen that happen. Many of the victims are young people and motorcyclists. We believe that the new European standards support our domestic strategy for reducing road casualties, which are running at more than 3,000 people killed and 30,000 people seriously injured each year. The new multi-purpose test centres—known as MPTCs—will be suitable for the delivery of practical driving tests for learner car drivers and motorcyclists. Where possible, some centres will also be used for the delivery of lorry and bus driving tests. They will also provide modern facilities that are fully compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and which support the Government’s wider sustainability agenda.

The Driving Standards Agency is seeking to develop around 60 MPTCs across the country, which is up to 20 more than it concluded would be required to meet existing service standard criteria. I understand that, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, an MPTC is to be located at Peterborough. That is within the 30-mile limit needed to meet current service levels. As he said, the Spalding driving test centre is therefore being co-located at Peterborough MPTC to maximise utilisation.

In addition to Peterborough, which is approximately 19 miles from the Spalding area, there are alternative local test centres within the 30-mile limit: Boston is about 14 miles from the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, Grantham about 29, Wisbech about 19, and King’s Lynn about 27.

Peterborough MPTC will be resourced so that waiting time targets for car driving and motorcycle tests are not compromised by the changes. However, I understand that the hon. Gentleman is due to meet the DSA chief executive in a few weeks to discuss that as well.

On post office closures, I should say at the outset that Ministers do not play a direct role in decisions to close or retain individual Post Offices. I know that, as in the past, I have been through the process of trying to save post offices in my own constituency. More recently, two post offices in my area were proposed for closure. I tried to save both and succeeded in saving one. I understand
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how the closure of post offices unsettles local communities, but we must accept that they must be viable. The Government are putting in some £1.7 billion in subsidy—

The motion having been made after Seven o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at thirteen minutes to Nine o clock.

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