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22 July 2008 : Column 718

Other people say that we can always use the trains. Some of us have been fighting the train route from Norwich to London for years. It is unreliable and today’s report about Network Rail fits perfectly with our experience of the trains. The train is no substitute—it is so unreliable. Dualling the road is therefore important.

Norwich is a large and vibrant European city, with a route to Yarmouth, which now has an outer harbour. People will want to get from London through Norwich to the outer harbour. We want that fast route to be developed.

This issue was first talked about as long ago as 1971, in Edward Heath’s Government. Progress has always stuttered along since then. The proposals for the Attleborough bypass were made in ’89, and in ’95 they were put on the long-term programme. In 1999, Lord Larry Whitty, then a Transport Minister, said it was a necessity to get the A11 dualled. In November 2001, the Department for Transport—bless it—announced that the A11 was to be made completely into a dual-carriageway. I supported that, and was quite enthusiastic at the time—and I was the butt of many cartoon jokes saying it would never happen. That was the level of argument at the time.

In fact, however, most of it has been dualled. The distance from London to Norwich is 100-odd miles. The stretch between Roudham heath and Attleborough was dualled in 2003, and the Attleborough bypass was also dualled that year. That venture has led to increased road safety and greater journey time reliability. However, the section between Thetford and Barton Mills/Fiveways is still not dualled, and the pressure is mounting to do that. As this remaining stretch is only 9 miles in length this might seem a trivial issue, but I think that that is an argument for getting the job done sooner rather than later. That would excite people—as I have said, it certainly does so at dinner parties. It would excite those in business and in the travel industry, because there are many traffic jams along that stretch of the A11 as the lorries pile up as they move out into eastern England.

There are also environmental debates and difficulties, for instance to do with sites of special scientific interest. There are environmental pressures to bypass Elveden, where Guinness magnate Lord Iveagh has his place. That has been agreed by the Highways Agency, which has bought a piece of land to allow for migrating birds and certain habitats, and thereby to compensate for the upgrade.

The cost of the upgrade of this 9-mile stretch will be £135 million. It astonishes me that it will be that much, but the experts tell me that that will be the cost. I do not want to compare that with the cost of identity cards and wars, as that would be far too political for end-of-term discussions, but I think I have got my point across. I am sure that £135 million could be quietly absorbed, and that would result in a happier business community in the east of England. The East of England Development Agency has come out in support. It says it would boost the local economy by £600 million and it is vital for the region’s economy. It would also generate wider economic benefits for the region and bring firms into Norwich and Thetford.

Dualling would not only benefit the region’s economy, but, as I have mentioned, it would help tackle the congestion between Thetford and Barton Mills. I and many other MPs representing the region, and many
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residents of the area, think that investment in the scheme would be a building-block in the continued economic success of our region. The East of England regional assembly—in an amazing burst of enthusiasm that astonished me—recently gave the green light for the 9-mile stretch on the A11 to be dualled and made it a priority. The Highways Agency is giving support, too. It is beginning to be recognised that that area of the country needs to develop. I do not want to go into all the sad stories about jobs and wages in the area, but that is a real issue.

Bringing the project forward will be the important battle. The east of England regional planning panel has voted to recommend prioritisation of the A11 upgrade, and the Department for Transport recently said that,

It does not really recognise how essential it is to bring that programme forward, and to sanction it and make it happen. If we are to open up this vibrant, creative region of the country to the rest of the world, and make it more than just a place where people have their second homes, dealing with the A11 is a priority.

4 pm

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I am sorry not to be able to follow on from the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on a light note, but today we have formally been given the final list of Devon post offices that have been subject to consultation, and we now know exactly which ones will close. I particularly want to raise the matter today because of my ongoing concern about the impact on village communities, which has been touched on by colleagues. A crude criterion has been applied: whether a post office is more than 3 miles from another one.

One of the post offices in my constituency that is due to close is located in Tipton St. John, a small village in east Devon. We made a very strong case, saying that although its post office is located within 3 miles of two other village post offices, the geography of the constituency consists of narrow lanes that are very difficult and dangerous for elderly people or people with small children to walk along, but we were given the answer that the Post Office had satisfied itself that people could catch a bus to a town.

That fundamental criterion might have been overlooked, but, even more worryingly, the village shop aspect—some post offices are also the local village shop, which is a very important facility in rural communities—does not seem to have been taken into account at all. The post office in Tipton St. John is also the village shop. Our difficulty is that despite the fact that I met the Post Office’s representatives twice while the consultation was going on, it has still not recognised that any form of outreach service should be provided in place of the closure. That will be very damaging to the local community. In the other six villages where the intention is to close the post office and replace it with some form of outreach service, several of those post offices are also sited in the only village shop for miles.

I particularly worry about the role of the consumer bodies that are in place to make representations on behalf of consumers. Postwatch wrote to me, putting in
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a detailed application, to say that it was very concerned about some of the issues that I and many others have raised, However, Postwatch seems to have no teeth, and I think it almost a foregone conclusion that these Post Office consultations are a mockery. The most one can do for one’s constituents is try to negotiate the best deal possible on outreach services, because, as we have heard, if one saves one post office, the chances are that the post office in the next village may close in order to meet the requirements.

Members of Parliament have been placed in a very difficult position, but so too has Postwatch. Given its role in the process—it says that it has focused very much on the 3-mile limit between post offices that has been set—it seems to me that many of these consumer bodies, which, at one time, would have been championing the rights of consumers and would have been at the forefront of campaigns, have lost all their teeth. I put it to the Government that they have deliberately manipulated many of these representative consumer bodies and watchdogs, which look after things such as postal services and monitoring health service complaints. The Government keep changing these organisations every few years until they have reduced them to being the most ineffective bodies. I intend no disrespect to the people involved in them today.

The post office closure exercise has shown us that if Members of Parliament, the consumer bodies and large campaigns—even though people engage in them in the best hope and faith that they will change minds—cannot make these changes happen, this exercise has been on paper only; it has not been a proper consultation. There will be long-term consequences for the viability of rural communities, such as the villages of Kennerleigh, Newton St. Cyres and Plymtree in my constituency.

The other issue that I wish to raise is that of charity shops. I have several small market towns in my constituency, with populations of between 8,000 and 10,000. Shopkeepers in those towns are increasingly concerned about the number of charity shops. No one is saying that there should not be any charity shops —I have opened some—but I have received correspondence, which I have forwarded to the appropriate Minister, from the chamber of trade in Honiton about the balance that needs to be struck when planning applications are made. The question is how many charity shops can a small town accommodate before the regular traders start to feel disadvantaged? I know that there are trading standards rules on what charity shops can sell, but the traders have a point. I ask the Minister to consider the appropriate number of permissions granted for charity shops to trade in small towns before they start to undermine core businesses.

It would not be the end of term debate, as the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) said, if I did not invite all colleagues to visit my beautiful constituency during the long summer recess. Hon. Members have heard me talk about the beauty of my constituency before. It has two wonderful national parks nearby—Dartmoor and Exmoor—, and Devon has wonderful beaches both north and south—

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): How’s the weather?

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Angela Browning: I am coming to that. Colleagues who dined in the Members’ Dining Room three weeks ago will have experienced the regional menu of Devon produce, including Devon crab cakes and ruby red Devon beef from the Coombe estate in Gittisham in my constituency. So this year, I encourage colleagues to come to the beautiful county of Devon and, especially, to my constituency to take advantage of the wonderful home-produced food. It is not just cream teas: even vegetarians would love the ruby red Devon beef. It is to die for. It is delicious. I hope that everyone has a very happy holiday, and welcome to Devon.

4.7 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I cannot match the exotic invitations to Devon, Mongolia or the A11, but I wish to raise a couple of matters of concern to my constituents. I start, inevitably, with Heathrow.

Last night, Members may have seen the “Panorama” exposé of the Government’s decision-making process on the development of Heathrow airport and the information about it obtained by various freedom of information requests. It confirmed that the decision to allow the expansion of Heathrow was made on the basis of information that was “doctored”—it is the only way to describe it—by BAA. That doctoring included the invention of an aeroplane that does not exist yet and is not likely to exist because no manufacturer is willing to create it. That was included in the modelling for the air pollution and noise estimates.

Allegations were also made in the programme about collusion between Government officials and BAA. It is now time, as I have said in an early-day motion that I have tabled today, for a full public inquiry into the decision-making about Heathrow by this Government. It is clear that the Government must now reject all further expansion at Heathrow, because the undoctored evidence demonstrates that if the Government allow it, they will not be able to meet European directive restrictions on air and noise pollution.

I hope that hon. Members will find time today and when we return to sign that early-day motion and that the Government will reject further expansion at Heathrow. I hope that at the same time we can have that inquiry into how a Government can make a policy decision that is based on information doctored by a private company.

The next matter that I want to raise is the BBC resources section. I have constituents who work there, including Mr. Mark Cody, to whom I pay tribute. He has soldiered on, exposing what is happening in that section of the BBC. Some hon. Members will remember that we had a debate earlier in the year in which we drew out some of the information about what is happening with the BBC and its licence. We were then told that the BBC resources section, which includes studio production, post-production and outside broadcasting, was to be sold off. The target was £150 million of income. We now know that £3.4 million has been spent on consultants and advisers to sell off BBC resources, yet only one division—the outside broadcasting division—has been sold, for £19.3 million. The rest of the negotiations have collapsed.

All that money has been spent, and the worst thing for my constituents—in particular for Mr. Mark Cody, who has explained this to me and to others through his
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union, the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union, is that members of staff have been left virtually in the dark. They have been offered various commitments about protection through TUPE—the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006—if their division is sold off, yet that protection amounts to very little, particularly when it comes to the threat to their pensions, their future wages and their working conditions.

I urge the BBC to start to consult the union properly, to ensure that there is openness and transparency and to ensure that people like Mark Cody are kept fully informed. At the moment, if he is transferred at some future stage, there will be a pension shortfall and he will lose part of his pension, his conditions of service will be undermined and his employment will be threatened. That problem affects loyal staff in a profitable area of the BBC.

Events in another section of the BBC will affect my constituents, too. The BBC is not only outsourcing but offshoring. The latest scheme is to offshore the World Service—the BBC proposes to move major parts of the World Service abroad. The service is directly funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, so there must have been some consultation with the Government. For example, the south Asian broadcasting service in Urdu, Hindi and Nepali will be transferred offshore to India, Pakistan and Nepal. That section represents a third of the World Service’s audience, attracted, of course, by a superb and excellent independent service.

The problem of offshoring the services to those states is that they come within the ambit of local laws. Already, the BBC has been threatened with censorship by the Pakistani authorities as a result of some of the stories that it wanted to produce and broadcast. In addition, staff are being told that they can transfer abroad on lower pay and short-term contracts and to often unstable and unsafe locations, or they can face redundancy. That is a take-it-or-leave-it offer for those staff, many of whom built up the service over the years. It has a standing and credibility across the world that is second to none. None of the issues with the BBC’s performance is acceptable. I urge the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to review those matters and to report back to the House.

The final area of concern that has been raised by my constituents is what has been happening at Shelter, the housing charity. Some Members might know, because they have been written to by Shelter’s staff, that Shelter’s senior management team has been forcing through changes in staff conditions and contracts against the wishes of the majority of staff, 60 per cent. of whom are unionised and represented by the Transport and General Workers Union, now called Unite the Union. That situation has led to industrial action for the first time in the 41 year history of Shelter. Shelter staff report to me that there is demoralisation and key expert staff are leaving as a result of the imposition by management of cuts in wages and working conditions.

That must be a concern to us all. Many Members on both sides of the House have worked with Shelter over the years; it has provided us with an excellent service in briefings and other materials, as well as campaigning on issues such as homelessness. At a time when we have a housing crisis, especially in terms of affordability, and
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when repossessions are rising, to undermine Shelter is to undermine an organisation that provides us and the homeless with a service.

Interestingly, before the management sought to impose pay and condition cuts on their staff, they gave themselves a significant wage rise. In fact, the chief executive, whom I met, gave himself an 18 per cent. wage rise just before he started sacking his own staff. The staff themselves have had an average pay cut of £2,300. There have been cuts in wages of £800 per annum, and increased hours. We are told that some staff are now having to work three weeks extra for no additional pay, yet the headquarters has been cosmetically refurbished for £750,000, and £500,000 has been spent on consultants to advise the management on how to cut the wages and conditions of the staff.

I urge the Shelter board to intervene. I have met the chief executive of Shelter, who says that this is actually to do with the way in which contracts are awarded by the Government. If that is the case, I urge the Government to meet the Shelter board to resolve the problem before this essential organisation is undermined. We must not undermine Shelter’s status and the services that it provides to Members of this House and to homeless people as a result of its campaigning. It would be a tragedy, in this year when we need the organisation so much, if it were undermined by the way in which its brutal management are dealing with its dedicated staff.

4.15 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I should like to speak for a few minutes on a subject that I know is close to the hearts of many hon. Members. We are all suffering, or have suffered, or will suffer, from post office closures in our constituencies. We in Solihull are lucky—if that is the right word—because only three post offices are earmarked for closure. However, having lost several important post offices in the cull that we experienced a few years ago, each one that we have left plays a vital role.

Our story in Solihull is also being played out across the country, and the questions that it raises are pertinent to every Member’s constituency. The hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) mentioned the criteria that can be used to try to obtain a reversal of a decision to close a post office. Three criteria of which I am aware are: unforeseen planning proposals that might increase unpredicted footfall; the difficulty of reaching other, more distant, post offices; and the deprivation that would be suffered as a result of the closure.

By extraordinary coincidence, one of those three criteria pertains to each proposed closure in Solihull. In Haslucks Green road, in Shirley, a superstore and shopping development is planned, despite the fact that we already have six supermarkets in Shirley high street. I have fought bitterly against the Asda superstore, but our failure to prevent this unwanted development has turned out to have a silver lining. Haslucks Green post office is just a few hundred yards away from it, and it will be besieged, not least by people who cannot even get to the superstore because of the traffic congestion that will be created.

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