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22 July 2008 : Column 724

Distance is another criterion that can be used. The Post Office, having encouraged the owner of the post office in Catherine de Barnes to grow his business, is now suggesting that it should be closed. I cannot match some of the ridiculous examples given by other hon. Members about people being unable to get a bus back home from the post office the same day, but Catherine de Barnes is a small village, and the bus to Solihull only comes about every 70 minutes, if we are lucky. The idea of going anywhere other than Solihull by bus is really not feasible. The post office is the only shop in the village, but it has a unique advantage in that it has a combi-counter which offers post office services seven days a week, up to 9 o’clock at night. People come from miles around to use it.

Deprivation is the third criterion. In Olton Hollow, there is more sheltered housing and, arguably, more elderly people than anywhere else in the borough. Olton Hollow, as the name suggests, is in a hollow, so anyone wanting to reach another post office would have a physical and metaphorical steep hill to climb.

Citizens Advice carried out an online survey, and it might help the House if I were to quote some of its findings. Citizens Advice feels that six weeks is too short a time for the proper consultation of vulnerable people. More than 90 per cent. of those who completed its online survey said that they would be personally affected if their local post office were to close, while 75 per cent. said that they would be significantly affected. In addition, 75 per cent. of respondents to the survey said that they could get to a local post office on foot, but only 14 per cent. would still be able to do so if the local office closed. For people on benefits, of course, there would be an additional cost if they could no longer reach their office on foot. The survey found that half of the over-65s and nearly half of those on means-tested benefits visited post offices several times a week. Despite what the Government may say, more than 60 per cent. of the over-75s still use the post office to pay many household bills.

In Solihull, just as elsewhere, other criteria apply that are not being given proper consideration. For example, what happens if the nearest alternative is already too busy, with elderly people waiting in queues for long periods of time? We were not allowed to run a petition inside the post office in Shirley as the shop is owned by the Co-op, so the owners of 35 local shops agreed to take it instead. Many of them said, “For goodness sake, please don’t let them close the post office at Haslucks Green, because we don’t want to have to wait 45 minutes at the one here.” They said that even though the post office in Shirley was physically nearer for them.

What about parking? If it is a nightmare to park near the nearest post office, what will that mean for people forced to use transport to reach their post office? What about the effect of a post office closure on the surrounding local economy? In Olton Hollow, for example, the closure of the post office will affect the footfall in the local parade of shops.

When I raised these questions with the relevant Minister this morning, he blamed the decrease in post office business on changes in technology such as the internet. Of course, some patterns of business do change, but many services, such as the provision of TV licences, have been withdrawn from post offices. Moreover, different criteria now apply for online payments such as for car
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tax. Following the withdrawal of Post Office books, there has been the reluctant introduction of the Post Office card account. Although that account is difficult to apply for, it remains phenomenally successful, but the Post Office now faces the indignity of having to tender for its own post office card accounts services.

When services are withdrawn, and when people find it more difficult to get to their post offices and queues are longer, that means that the Government are making the post office network unsustainable. In the midlands, there are 160 proposed closures, and only four decisions have been reversed. I am concerned that there is some sort of conspiracy. Our communities are putting themselves through the pain of fighting to save their precious post offices, but it seems to be a done deal already. I have tabled an early-day motion stating that the word “consultation” must mean just that, and that the result must not be a foregone conclusion.

4.23 pm

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): I always love taking part in these debates, as they are one of the few opportunities that Back Benchers have to raise their constituents’ concerns. In the last such debate that I took part in, I raised the matter of free travel for pensioners in my constituency. One of my local councils was restricting free travel for pensioners, but I am pleased to report to the House that pensioners in my constituency had their free travel restored on 2 June. That shows how powerful these debates are.

I also raised some fears and worries about the closure of Waltham fire station and the loss of a pump at Immingham fire station. I appealed for more time, as any closures that were to happen would have been announced in the middle of the recess. The announcement was put off but—sadly—we shall find out about the future of those fire stations on Friday. I want the fire authority to think again about the impact of the fire station closures on our communities.

One reason why I make that point is that last Christmas—I do not know whether hon. Members recall this—there was an explosion at Fred’s Taxis in Immingham. Sadly, two women who worked there, Ann Mawer and Sue Barker, lost their lives. The inquest was held this week, and it recorded verdicts of accidental death as a result of the explosion, which was caused by the storage of petrol on the premises. We do not yet know what caused the petrol to ignite. I have been working with Ann’s sisters to ensure that the law is better enforced, or indeed changed so that there are stricter controls on how much petrol can be stored on domestic premises and very small commercial premises of the type used by most taxi firms. We could lose a fire appliance at Immingham, where the accident took place. In light of those two tragic deaths, I am sure that Humberside fire and rescue authority will understand why people are so concerned.

Last year, Immingham was subject to flooding, and some constituents were out of their homes for more than a year. A lot of that had to do with loss adjustors and insurance firms delaying giving people the money and the go-ahead for building works. Again, the fire and rescue service was crucial in assisting many of the people who were affected by the floods, so I call on the fire and rescue authority to think again. I hope that that campaign will meet with success.

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I praise the Government for announcing that there will be a water and flood management Bill. I have received a wealth of information from constituents who were affected by the floods last June, and I will forward it to Ministers so that they can see some of the suggestions that my constituents have made. Last year, there was a focus on places such as Hull, but a lot of the floods in my area were in the more rural parts of the constituency. We have to address those concerns, particularly with internal drainage boards.

I have already raised in the House the issue of the A180, and the need to get that damned noisy road resurfaced. One section has been resurfaced, and it has been announced that another section will be resurfaced. However, there is a catch: only half of it—the westbound, but not the eastbound, carriageway—will be resurfaced. Who at the Highways Agency came up with the idea of resurfacing just one side of the dual carriageway to reduce the noise? If the equipment is on site, let us do all the work. I will not stop campaigning until every section of concrete on that road is finally stripped off, and until the road is re-tarmacked.

Also on the subject of roads, I am sorry to say that in Barton-upon-Humber yesterday there was a fatal accident in which a pensioner was knocked down and killed on the crossing in the marketplace. I send my condolences to her family. Town residents have long complained about the safety aspects of the crossing. There is a lot of industry in the Humber area, and there are many heavy goods vehicles. They continue to go through small towns, market towns and villages in the area, although there is a perfectly good dual carriageway, albeit a noisy one with a concrete surface. They choose to go through the villages. Some people have told me that that is because their satnavs sometimes direct them by the shortest route, rather than by the main roads. I want something done about the number of HGVs that use towns such as Barton-upon-Humber—people say that the situation there was an accident waiting to happen—and Immingham, which I mentioned earlier. HGVs continue to thunder through the centre of that town, past schools and shops. We need to address that issue.

Another transport issue that I should like to bring to the House’s attention is that of free school transport. There has been a bit of a fuss in my local area recently, as North Lincolnshire council intended to withdraw some of its free school transport, and to start means-testing those who used it. I am pleased to say that the council has changed its mind following a revolt by parents worried about the safety of their children if the free transport were not applied. North East Lincolnshire, the same council that withdrew free travel for pensioners last year, is also going to go down the road of means-testing children’s transport to school. Clearly the council has seen the fuss caused in the neighbouring authority and I hope that North East Lincolnshire council, as it did with bus passes, changes its mind about removing something that is free and starting to charge for it.

Last week it was announced that North East Lincolnshire council was to receive more than £3 million from the Government to refurbish kitchens in schools. Several years ago, many of the kitchens in primary schools were removed. I am pleased that the campaign has paid off and that money will be invested in school kitchens.

While I am on my feet, like the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), I will extol the virtues of British seaside resorts. If people wish to
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come to Cleethorpes, we are more than happy to welcome them to our wonderful sandy beach with probably the shortest pier in the world and definitely the very best fish and chips in the world. I wish all hon. Members a good, relaxing and peaceful recess.

4.31 pm

Mr. Dai Davies (Blaenau Gwent) (Ind): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on behalf of my constituents on a number of issues and I shall try to use as little time as possible.

First, I pay tribute to one of my predecessors in representing Blaenau Gwent, Aneurin Bevan. In this, the 60th anniversary of the health service, it is a great pleasure to represent the area and to be linked alongside such a great man. I pay tribute to Tredegar Medical Aid, one of the organisations that influenced Bevan in pushing forward the national health service, and to the people of the south Wales valleys, who showed that co-operation coming together with funds could benefit more than just the individual.

The NHS principle of treatment free at the point of need is as important now as it was 60 years ago. Bevan would be proud that the NHS is still in existence, but I believe that he would be disappointed in the fact that ill health remains and that the divide between rich and poor is as wide now as it was then. Health inequality between industrial heartlands such as my constituency and the wealthier areas of the country is nothing to be proud of. The differences between those areas are far too great.

Bevan said that the NHS should be for the rich and the poor, who should be treated alike, and that poverty should not be a disability and wealth not an advantage, but the statistics show that where we live is as important in assessing our life expectancy now as it was after the second world war. Life expectancy for those in the well-off areas is some 10 years more than in the poor areas. Infant mortality rates are much higher in the poorer areas. A lot of that has to do with poor housing and education, in which we need to invest. Those areas in poverty are remaining in poverty and we have done very little to lift them out of it. Infant mortality rates show a health inequality gap: one in five children in poverty, but one in 20 in the more affluent areas.

Bevan said that the reason to gain power was to give it away, but we should not give it away to management consultants within the health service. We should give it to the people who need to make the decisions—the doctors, nurses, cleaners, cooks and patients. Bevan’s co-operative commonwealth for health is as relevant today as it ever was.

I wish to refer to two other issues, the first of which is the Post Office, as raised by many Members. I want to concentrate particularly on the Post Office card account. The average card lobby that I receive on any particular issue is a dozen, perhaps 20 cards. I have brought a sample of the 500 I have received about the card account, and I guess that the number will be higher in the bigger constituencies. That shows what the general public think about supporting our post offices. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government recently launched “Communities in Control”. She spoke at length
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at the Dispatch Box about petitions, but there is no point in encouraging individuals to take part in petitions and the political debate if the Government ignore the outcome. Petitions show the need for the Post Office card account to remain with the Post Office. The Government want to spend taxpayers’ money to the best of their ability, but surely the card account protest shows that taxpayers want their money spent on retaining the card account where it belongs. The Government must listen to that referendum.

Finally, youth inactivity and youth crime have been mentioned by a number of hon. Members. When I was a young man, which was a long time ago, youth crime and crime in general took place in the big city. Now, even gun crime and knife crime have shifted across the country, and they have probably touched all constituencies. If one were to sit down in a room with elected representatives, the police, teachers and people in the community who work in such areas, problem families who are always in trouble could be identified. The process begins with a mum and dad who are perhaps disfranchised for whatever reason. When that mum and dad have two or three children, the problem gets that much bigger. We need to deal with such problems at the core, because it is no good being reactive—we must be proactive. Some of those families need 24-hour support and the help and encouragement of others to put their lives right. Changing a social worker without allowing representation, which breaks continuity, is unacceptable. We cannot play with youth worker involvement, which should be there as a matter of course. Education has a huge role to play.

Wonderful community groups work in my constituency, and they put on shows for young people. However, they have to raise some £10,000 for a week’s show, which is a lot of money for a small group to raise. All we seem to see is community centres closing for lack of funding, which is not continuity and which disrupts the community. Short-term project funding instead of long-term solutions is not the way forward. The community knows what it needs, and we must consult the community at large to find out what it wants.

I thank you for this opportunity to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I wish everyone, including House staff, a restful summer recess.

4.37 pm

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): The expansion of Milton Keynes remains one of my constituents’ main concerns. I will begin with a partial review of the “South East Plan”, which was published recently. Although we have known for some time that Milton Keynes is expected to absorb some 50,000 dwellings by 2026, it has come as a shock to discover that we are now expected to provide some 5,600 dwellings to the east of the M1.

For those hon. Members who do not know my constituency, the M1 forms the boundary of the city of Milton Keynes. Rural north Buckinghamshire lies to the east of the M1, and I fear that housing to the east of the M1 will be the thin end of the wedge. Interestingly, the Government always claim that they are keen to consult the local population, but when they did so—albeit briefly—last year, of the six options that were put forward, the one option that included housing to the
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east of the M1 was the least preferred among local residents. Yet again, the consultation was a sham, and the Government have decided not to follow the wishes of local people.

A connected issue, which I have raised in this House on many occasions, is my campaign for “i before e”, or infrastructure before expansion. If Milton Keynes is to expand, it is vital that the infrastructure is in place. In recent weeks, I have raised my concern in the House that we are some £24 million short of our basic needs allocation for schools. Furthermore, the Government have told us that all our problems will be answered by the innovative Milton Keynes tariff, a system whereby £18,500 will be given towards the Milton Keynes infrastructure for every new house that is built. However, such schemes rely almost entirely on a strong housing industry. During this economic downturn, fewer houses are selling in Milton Keynes, so we are not getting the income from the tariff. In turn, it appears that many of the schemes that we hope to deliver in the next two years—such as the new multi-storey car parks in the city centre—will have to be delayed. The Government put all their eggs in one basket when it came to the delivery of the Milton Keynes infrastructure. Will the Minister consider again how we are to deliver that infrastructure, which is much needed?

Connected to that issue is the future of the grid roads in the city. Those who have come to Milton Keynes will be aware that it is one of the few cities in the country that can be crossed in 10 minutes. That is because of our marvellous grid road system. Yes, it is very much designed for the car—that may not be particularly green in the modern age—but it is effective. Yet it appears that the new east and west expansion areas will not have the grid roads and that there will be some sort of hybrid system—a “worse for all” system.

Today, the Leader of the House said that she wanted an e-petition system for Parliament similar to the one for No. 10 Downing street. I tell the Deputy Leader of the House that some of my constituents petitioned No. 10 about saving the grid road system, and were concerned that the reply was so ill informed as to state that Milton Keynes council was the planning authority for the east and west expansion areas. As the hon. Lady may be aware, it is not Milton Keynes council, but Milton Keynes Partnership—the unelected, unaccountable quango—that is the planning authority. Given the lack of research evident in the replies to the petitions to No. 10, what hope is there for the system when it is extended to Parliament?

I want to raise three brief issues about trains. As a result of the severe overruns on Network Rail engineering works in early July, the Office of Rail Regulation agreed a set of 25 milestones for Network Rail so that progress towards the December delivery could be monitored. That, of course, will affect hon. Members, many of whose constituencies are on the west coast main line. Each of the milestones is vital if we are to meet the December timetable, so if one goes, the whole project will disappear. Yet there will be only two reports on the milestones in the next two months. I would be grateful if the Minister came back to me to explain why there cannot be a monthly progress report to ensure that the services are met.

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